Chapter 14 - Alex
I know, I know. I shouldn’t have left.
I knew it then, too. It’s not like I had an epiphany two days later when the sun hit the pavement just right. I knew as it was happening. I stood there, watching through the doorway as he crossed the office and disappeared into the garage, and knew I should follow him.
It was a choice to let him go, and not one that I made lightly. I stood in that office for a good three minutes, mulling over my options. When I finally left, it wasn’t because I’d given up on convincing him he was wrong. It was because I knew if I was going to succeed, I had to go about it the right way.
The problem, see, is that I’m not that great with words. I can get my point across, and I’m fairly articulate given time and space to formulate my thoughts, but I’m not a wordsmith. I can’t just conjure the perfect thing to say. I don’t just naturally know what a person needs to hear. That’s more Nate’s specialty, and if I was going to out-maneuver him in the realm of wisdom and consolation, I needed the advantage of prep time.
So I left him alone. Again. But, as I was leaving, I asked the portly older man behind the counter, Red, if he could give me Nate’s address. He shook his head.
“That would be a massive violation of his privacy, miss,” he told me, frowning. “Not to mention illegal.”
“I know,” I sighed.
“But if you really had a mind to talk with him again, it’s no secret that he leaves work every day at 4 pm sharp.”
My head snapped up, and I caught his eye as he grinned. The irony is not lost on me that, a few months before, I stood in that same small room and accused Nate of acting like a stalker. Yet there I was, hatching a plan to stake out his workplace and follow him home.
The next night, I followed Nate from work to the Boys & Girls Club to pick up Matt. From there, I stalked him to the grocery store, and then trailed him home. I parked across the street and watched while he unloaded his son and two bags of groceries, and disappeared into the stairwell. I couldn’t see the breezeway from my vantage point, but a few moments after he disappeared a light had flipped on in the corner apartment on the second floor.
Mental note: I could be a PI if physics doesn’t work out for me.
I didn’t confront him that night. Instead, I returned the next day, just after 9:30, when Matt would be asleep, so we could speak freely. Everything about my little operation was planned out to the ‘T’. Nonetheless, my heart was pounding in my ears and my hands were shaking as I climbed out of my car and retrieved my cardboard box of excuses from the back seat. The street and sidewalk were patchy with ice and I had to walk slowly, craning my head to the side to see where I was walking. What I was about to do was going to be hard enough without a busted tailbone and wounded pride.
I willed my heart to slow as I climbed the stairs and strode down the breezeway to Nate’s apartment. Hitching the box awkwardly on one hip, I reached out and rapped three times on the door.
Nothing ever goes quite right in life. No matter how close you get to that movie-worthy moment, something always pulls the rug out from under you. For example, that night would have been a great time to show me getting the drop on Nate. Oh, how symbolic it would have been if I’d caught him off guard. And, oh, how picturesque, if he’d opened the door shirtless and bewildered. Maybe a little sleep-mussed after falling asleep on the couch.
“Alex?” He would have asked in the movie version of my life, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “What are you doing here?”
Instead of answering, I’d have dropped my cardboard box and flown into his arms. He’d have stumbled back, half-carrying me to his bedroom while we drank each other in...
I digress. Let’s rewind, and go over what actually happened.
Nate did not answer the door bewildered and shirtless. He answered it fully clothed, accessorizing with the dryest, most emotionless expression of boredom I had ever seen. He held the door in one hand, the doorjamb in the other, and his eyes scanned me from head to toe, pausing only briefly on the box I was carrying.
“Figured you’d chickened out,” he drawled, pushing the door open a little further and hitching a shoulder against the door jamb.
“What?” Maybe someday I’ll learn to construct my plans around Nate’s infuriating ability to rewrite the script. Parker had followed along with my choose-your-adventure very nicely. Nate chose option (d): none of the above.
“You know if you’re going to stalk someone you really should borrow a friend’s car,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Especially if your stalkee is also your mechanic.”
Okay. Duly noted. Mental note: strike Private Investigator from “plan b” career list. Apparently I lack finesse.
“I needed your address,” I said, struggling to recover the scrambled pages of my mental script as I hefted the box. “I wanted to bring some stuff by.”
“You know where I work. And I don’t think we left anything at your place.”
“You didn’t leave it. It’s not yours. I mean it is now. I mean...” Fucking hell. See that’s why I needed to take a couple days to organize my thoughts. I don’t do well under pressure. “It’s toys for Matt. Just some old stuff Tom doesn’t use anymore,” I said, finally pulling myself together. “I know Matt likes to read, and he seemed to like the cars. Tom picked out some Hotwheels and tracks so you guys can race them.”
Nate frowned at the box. “Is this going to be like the Christmas gifts, or are you going to let me pay you back?”
“It’s old stuff,” I argued. “It was just gathering dust. You’d be doing us a favor, getting it out of the house.”
“Sure,” he said dryly, but he didn’t move from his spot in the doorway.
I stared at him. He stared at me. With no more secrets left between us, we were standing back on even ground. The same ground we used to stand on. For all that I was groveling in contrition, I felt more confident than I had since he’d first plowed back into my life. My Nate, so long dead in my imagination, was finally back. I’d been at a loss for how to interact with the stranger, but this one was mine. I knew him better than I knew myself.
“So the box is kind of heavy...” I said, hiding a smile when Nate rolled his eyes and pushed off the doorjamb. I wasn’t lying. It was pretty heavy, but he plucked it from my arms like it was chock full of feathers and fucking butterfly kisses.
“Thank you,” he ground out, reaching for the door and swinging it shut. “Drive safe.”
Driven by a flash of alarm, I kicked a foot out, blocking the door before it could close. I am well aware of the double standard. If I’d been a man, that behavior would’ve been grounds for a visit from the cops. Hell, gender aside, I was well out of line. Fortunately for me and my spotless criminal record, Nate didn’t seem all that threatened.
“Heat isn’t cheap,” he said, fixing me with a dull glare. “I’d like to shut the door.”
“It’s pretty cold out here,” I shot back. “I’d like to come inside.”
He stared. I stared. With a tired sigh, he backed up and let me in.
The warm air in the apartment made my eyes water as I shut the door behind me and looked around. His place wasn’t big, but it was clean. The door opened up to a wide living space, with a combined kitchen/dining room on the left and a living room on the right. Straight ahead was a narrow hallway, with two doors on each side and one at the very end.
The laminated dining area was empty but for a small card table with two folding plastic chairs. The table was covered in papers, and I assumed Nate and Matt ate their meals at the counter, seated on the two cheap metal stools that stood beneath the overhang. The living room was equally sparse, with two beanbag chairs and a haphazard pile of books against one wall.
The only sign of life were the kids’ toys, scattered throughout the space. The bike and sled my father had picked out leaned against the wall in the dining area. Legos made a scattered pile of loose blocks and half-constructed masterpieces in the corner of the living room.
“I’m gonna get more furniture,” Nate said, unable to mask the note of defensiveness in his tone. He turned his back on me and strode across the room to set the box on the kitchen counter.
“I know,” I said. Something told me every dollar he’d spent on this place had gone into Matt’s room.
Obviously, Nate didn’t ask if I wanted anything to drink, or offer to take my coat. He just stood by the counter with his arms crossed over his chest while I hovered near the door like the intruder that I was.
“Is this a shoes off household?” I asked, glancing down at the pile of shoes by the door.
“Why are you here, Alex?” Nate asked, neglecting my question.
“I wanted to talk to you,” I said honestly.
“We talked on Monday.”
“You walked out before I was finished.”
“And you couldn’t find me?”
“I didn’t know quite what to say.”
“If it took you two days to come up with, I’m not really interested in hearing it, Alex.”
“It didn’t take me two days to come up with,” I argued. “It took me two days to figure out how to say it so your stubborn ass would actually listen.”
A wisp of a smile passed over his face-- just a slight narrowing of the eyes and a twitch of his lips. Then it was gone and the gray skies once again prevailed. I’d have given anything for rolling, angry storm clouds. Or the still constance of the stars. Or even a little sunshine. Instead, he was featureless, slate-gray monotony.
“I don’t have time to argue with you,” he said, unfolding his arms and brushing past me to the door. When he went to pull it open, I put my hand against it, holding it closed. I took it as a sign of promise that he let me.
“I won’t take that much time.”
“Matt is sleeping,” he protested.
“I won’t be loud.”
He looked down at me and our eyes met. Something flickered behind the clouds, and I felt more than saw his hand drop away from the doorknob. I knew he wanted to reach for me, because I felt the pull myself. My cheek yearned for the gentle roughness of his palm, my hair strained to tangle itself in his fingers, my lips begged for a kiss, and my heart pounded out of my chest in its desperation to beat in sync with his.
I was sweating with anticipation as he towered over me, silently pleading with him to close the gap between us. Instead, he broke the spell by turning away.
“You can say what you want to say,” he said, stalking into the kitchen and flipping on the faucet. “But you have to say it quietly, you have to accept that I’m going to work while you’re talking, and you have to leave the second you finish.”
“Deal,” I said, trying to hide my giddy relief as I shrugged out of my jacket, toed off my boots, and took up a seat at one of the counter stools. Nate was scrubbing at a pan in the sink, but he glanced up at me as I took my seat.
“I thought you said it wouldn’t take that much time,” he said.
“Everything’s relative,” I said, shifting slightly as I tugged my notes out of my back pocket and set them on the counter in front of me. Nate just stared, sponge hovering inches above the pan, faucet still pouring water over his hands. I reached forward and pushed the handle down, shutting off the flow.
“Are those flashcards?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow at me.
“They’re my notes,” I said defensively, picking them up and tapping them on the counter to organize the stack. “I don’t want to forget anything.”
Again, just a ghost of a smile passed over his face. Then he rolled his eyes. Instead of speaking, he dried his hands on his jeans, retrieved a glass from a cabinet by the refrigerator, and filled it with water from the sink. I almost burst into tears when he set it on the counter by my hand.
“Thank you,” I choked, and he rolled his eyes again and flipped the faucet on, going back to the dishes.
“Just make it quick,” he bit out, scrubbing a bit too hard at a nonexistent spot in the already-clean-by-any-metric pan.
“Right.” I peered down at my first notecard.
I’m sorry, it said. 1) ... for the letters.
“I’m sorry I didn’t read your letters,” I said, glancing up just in time to see him wince and bow his head, hiding his face from further scrutiny. “I was so angry, at the time, and so... hurt, I guess. I thought you were just writing to apologize, and I didn’t want to hear it because I was afraid I would forgive you. I know that sounds like a sorry excuse, but... it wasn’t because I didn’t want to hear what you had to say, and it wasn’t because I didn’t care. So you can hate me if you need to, but please don’t think that I ever hated you. I tried to. I told myself I did. But I really didn’t.”
Nate didn’t say a word. He’d rinsed the pan and moved on to the plates and cups that were stacked beside the sink. The plates were covered in smears of red sauce. He’d made spaghetti for dinner, I noted inanely before looking back down to my notes.
2) ... for my letter.
“I’m also sorry about the letter I wrote you.” I watched him as I said it, but he didn’t give any indication that my words affected him, or even that he heard them at all. I closed my eyes, trying to concentrate on what I had to say. “At the time, I thought it was the best thing for both of us, but I realize now that it was cruel and selfish. I was scared I wasn’t strong enough to keep ignoring you, so I cut you off, and... looking back and reading what you wrote I realize how much that must have hurt. To be... to be alone in there, and in pain, and scared for your life, and it being the holidays and everything... you probably needed someone to talk to. I know you probably saw my name on the envelope and thought I’d finally caved, and that I was finally going to be there for you, and instead--”
“Alex, stop.” It wasn’t his words that stopped me so much as the tone of his voice. This wasn’t gray skies and granite. Nor was it sunshine, nor crackling storm clouds. This was heavy, drenching rain. Sheer, pleading agony.
I opened my eyes and found him shaking his head at me, eyes desperate. “Don’t do this,” he said, his voice deliberately monotone, and laced with steel.
“It’s part of my apology,” I said weakly, tapping my notecards against my hand.
“Skip it,” he bit out, dropping his gaze back to the sink as he resumed his chores. “Or leave.”
I sighed, making a mental note to come back to that particular apology when he was in a more receptive mood. It was one of the more important ones I had to offer.
3) ...for the car.
“I was a jackass to you about the car. I’m sorry. I should have just said thank you.”
At that, his mouth crooked up in weak grin, and he glanced up at me. “Apology accepted. Sorry for acting like a stalker.”
4) ... for what happened at the bar.
“I’m sorry I hit you--”
5) ... for the fire.
“I’m sorry for not being a better friend after the fire. I--”
“You sat with us all night, Alex,” Nate argued without breaking stride as he wiped down the counters. “You drove us around for a week.”
I took it as an encouraging sign that he was interacting, but I also kind of needed him to shut up. His interjections were throwing of my flow. I’d rehearsed this damned speech in the mirror thirty times, but my reflection never talked back.
“I mean emotionally,” I corrected. “You needed an actual friend, but I was... to be honest, I was starting to fall... I was already realizing I cared about you a little more than I thought was safe, or healthy, or appropriate, especially considering that I was engaged. So instead of being there for you, I avoided you. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not accepting that one,” he said, shaking his head as he rinsed the sponge off in the sink. “You were a better friend than anyone deserves.”
“Agree to disagree,” I said on a sigh, glancing down at my notes.
6) ... for Parker.
“I’m sorry Parker threatened you. He’s not a bad guy, but I guess he had a possessive streak. I’m glad I found out about it before I married him, but I wish I hadn’t found out at your expense.”
Nate snorted and left the kitchen to kneel by the pile of legos in the living room. I followed him, sinking into one of the beanbag chairs while he set about gathering the toys into a plastic bin. Card one was complete. I flipped it to the back and glanced at card two.
Thank you. 1) ...for writing.
“Thank you for writing,” I read off the card. “I know it wasn’t easy to tell me the truth, but I’m glad you did. And I know it wasn’t easy to keep writing to me when I wasn’t responding, but... I’m so happy that you did.”
He didn’t respond, so I went on. 2) ... for calling.
“Thank you for calling...” I trailed off, swallowing the stubborn lump in my throat. “Thank you for calling in August. I wasn’t at home, and I wouldn’t have answered if I was. My dad told me you called, though, and... I know I didn’t deserve to take comfort from you at that point, but I did. It’s so selfish, but it made me feel better to know you were thinking about me.”
I glanced up from my cards, but Nate was scraping legos and tossing them into the bucket with seemingly single-minded focus.
3) ... for the car.
“Thank you for fixing my car.”
4) ... for listening to me.
“Thank you for listening to me, even when I wouldn’t listen to you. Thank you for leaving me alone when I asked you to.”
The legos were all safely stored, half-constructed buildings placed carefully on top of the pile. I rose and followed Nate to the kitchen, where he sat down at the card table and started sifting through the papers that covered it. I took the seat opposite him, studying my notes.
5) ... for forgiving me.
“I know this one is a little presumptuous, but thank you for forgiving me. You’ve already been kinder to me about this than I deserve. If I was you I’d have cursed me out the first time we saw each other. But you listened and you tried to understand, even when it probably would’ve been easier to hate me. So... thank you.”
When I glanced up, Nate had a pen in one hand, a bill in the other, and was scratching out notes in a composition book with a pair of black-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose.
A bark of incredulous laughter escaped my mouth, and he looked up, glaring at me over the top of the frames.
“Are those reading glasses?” I asked, suddenly distracted. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to roar with laughter or reach across the table, grab him by the collar of the shirt, and kiss him.
Nate just glared. “If you’re going to be an ass, I’ll take them off,” he snapped, but there was an undercurrent of amusement in his voice. “I’d rather deal with the headache than listen to you carry on about it.”
“Please don’t,” I insisted, unable to stifle my grin. “It’s...” Cute. Unexpected. Wildly, inexplicably sexy. “...fine. It’s fine. I’m sorry.”
One more card down, I flipped the thank yous to the back and gulped at the notes on the next one. So begins the hard part.
I still love you.
“I still love you,” I blurted, graceless and awkward. Nate froze, pen still pressed to the paper, creating a growing ink splotch. He didn’t look up, though. It was as if he was truly frozen. Suspended in time. I had a terrible feeling he was going to tell me to skip it once he regained his faculties so I rushed on.
“I still love you,” I said again. “Six years have passed, but every time I see you it’s like they never happened. I know we’re both different people. I know I’ve hurt you. I know you probably don’t trust me. But... I also think you feel the same way. I think you still love me. I can feel it when you look at me.
“I’m not saying we should jump into bed and get married. I just need you to know that I love you. So much it hurts. We’re not the same people that we were six years ago, and maybe we can never be what we were when we were kids. But I love you, Nate. I want to try. We can take it slow, in practice. All I’m asking for is time. I can come here, and we can make dinner and watch a kids’ movie with Matt. We can meet for lunch. I’ll even bring you food at work, if you can’t get away. I just want you back in my life. Even if it’s just as friends.”
Nate had finally lifted the pen from the paper, and was watching me once more over the top of his glasses. Nervous, I glanced down at my cards for direction, but I’d left myself no further notes. Just the one.
I still love you.
“I still love you,” I read, before looking up and meeting his eye. “We’ve existed on my terms and on my timeline for the past six years. I love you enough to live on yours for a little while. We can move however fast or slow you need to. We can go about it in whatever manner you want. We can even... I’ll even walk away. If that’s what you really want, I’ll walk away.”
I set the cards down without looking away, and Nate raised an eyebrow. “Finished?” he asked. It was a glib comment, but his voice was rough, dripping with unspent emotion.
“Just pausing,” I said, folding my hands to hide their trembling. “I want to hear what you have to say.”
Closing his eyes, he tugged the glasses off his face, and pinched the bridge of his nose as his shoulders rose and fell with three long, deep breaths. When he opened his eyes, the steel was back.
“I said everything I needed to say back at the shop,” he said, jamming the glasses back onto his face and picking up his pen.
“Do you still love me?” I asked, closing my eyes and steeling myself against the answer I knew was coming--
How could I?
“I never stopped.”
My eyes jerked open, but he was looking down, scribbling in that notebook like we were talking about nothing more important than the weather.
“You love me?”
“Of course I do.”
"I love you.”
“So let’s see what we are, Nate. Just give it a couple weeks. We can do a trial period or something.”
“A trial period,” he repeated dryly.
“Yeah! We could--”
“Alex. Stop.” The words came out firm and forceful, and he dropped the pen onto the table and jerked the glasses off, tossing them aside. Then he reached across the card table and enveloped my hands in his.
“Just stop, Al,” he said, his firm tone belied by the gentle warmth of his hands. “This is pointless, and we both know it. You know we won’t work together.”
“Because you’re a killer,” I said, answering his unspoken question. It was the answer he knew-- the answer he was looking for-- but his eyes still shuttered at my words. He sat back, the departure of his hands leaving me strangely cold.
“Exactly,” he said, nodding, his voice scarcely more than a whisper.
“Right,” I said, sitting up straighter and struggling to gather myself together. I pulled out my last card and scanned the header, underlined three times at the top of the card.
Maybe you are a killer. Here’s why I don’t give a shit.