Chapter 15 - Nate
Life’s got a funny way of working out.
If Alex had come by one day earlier than she did, I’d have thrown her out on her ass. I’d have remembered my resolve to protect her, said something hurtful to drive her away, and punctuated our relationship by slamming the door behind her.
If she had come one day later, I’d have thrown her out on her ass. I’d have remembered my resolve to protect her, said something hurtful to drive her away, and punctuated our relationship by slamming the door behind her.
The problem was that she did not come by one day earlier or one day later. She came precisely when the universe knew I wouldn’t quite have it in me to turn her away. She came by on a disastrous Wednesday that started with Matty refusing to get up, followed by inexplicably terrible traffic on my drive to work, followed by an exceptionally loud workplace and exceptionally disagreeable customers. She came on a day when I’d had to leave work early to go pick my son up from the afterschool program because he started crying for no immediately discernible reason.
She came on a day when I had arrived home and sat with Matt on his bedroom floor while he finally talked to me about all the things that had been building up in his head while he wasn’t speaking.
We talked about how much he missed his mom.
We talked about how scared he was in the fire.
We talked about how much he hated bedtime, because he was scared it would happen again if he went to sleep.
We talked about heaven and god and death.
We talked about Deb. For so long, we talked about Deb. The way she hugged him, the way she smelled, the way she smiled, the way she laughed. The way she did voices when she read to him, and the special way she tucked him in that I still hadn’t mastered.
Matt didn’t cry. He talked to me like a miniature version of a world-weary old man, with tired eyes and a serious expression. I wished he’d cry. All I had to do when he cried was hold him and rub his back and wait for it to stop. Intellect and wisdom required reciprocation, so I did my best to tell him what he needed to hear without completely lying out my ass.
Eventually, the conversation had ended, and we had made dinner together-- spaghetti, because that was Deb’s favorite-- and played with legos for a while. I’d picked up The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe from the library two days prior, so we started reading that at bedtime. He had fallen asleep two chapters in. I had stayed there, slumped against the headboard for a long ten minutes-- trying to convince myself to get up and do the dishes, update my makeshift ledger, and clean up the living room-- before sleep snuck up and pounced. When I woke up half an hour later, I decided fuck the dishes and moved carefully off Matty’s bed. I needed some fucking sleep.
Long story short, it was a migraine day. Not a headache day. Not a vaguely stressful day. It was a day that started with a twinge behind my eyes, progressed into an ever-tightening band around my head, and ended with relentless, stabbing pain and a tightening fist around my brain stem that I wished would just close all the way and put me out of my misery.
Then Alex showed up.
It was like she’d walked out of a dream, with an aura of light hovering above her head and that box of flimsy excuses in her arms. Everything about her looked so fucking soft, from her baggy, baby blue sweater to her wind-tousled hair to the sweet, sorrowful expression on her cold-nipped face.
How the hell was I supposed to turn her away? I’m sure as hell not that strong. I needed her there, just as much if not more than I’d needed her every day for the last six and a half years. How could I conjure up the will to drive her off and the words to do so when it was all I could do to keep my feet under me?
I guess, in retrospect, I could have tried a little harder.
But I didn’t. I let her in, I listened to her speak, and I didn’t pass out at her feet which... sometimes little victories are all you can ask.
The problem was, I was nearing the end of my endurance and Alex didn’t show any signs of stopping. She plowed on like a runaway train, flipping notecards over and chipping away at the dam I’d erected for her own fucking safety until, one by one, the leaks began to appear. Hope sprang forth from one spot, need from another, lust from another, and the dam strained ominously against the flood of selfish emotion that remained trapped behind it.
Alex cleared her throat, staring down at the cards in her hands. “Maybe you are a killer,” she said weakly, and the quiet words sent twin blades of agony into my head and my heart. Then she looked up, glaring at me over the paper-strewn table. “But I really don’t give a shit, Nate.”
“You should,” I managed, but my throat tightened around the words and they came out less assertive than they should’ve. It was selfish to let her continue, but I couldn’t help but let her try to make a case. My tattered, fucked up soul had booked a one-way ticket to hell a long time ago. I knew that, but I didn’t have to be thrilled about it. Would you judge a drowning man for grasping at an outstretched hand? No. So give me a fucking break.
“I don’t,” she said, shaking her hand. “I know... technically, yes. Technically, you’re a killer, but...”
She trailed off, looking uncertain. There was no “but”. Not really. I could see it in the indecision in her eyes. My gut sank, my head throbbed, and the ground tilted ominously beneath my feet as I stood.
“It’s fine, Alex,” I said, and the words came easily now that I knew there was no use in hearing her out. “Thanks for coming by, and thanks for bringing the things for Matt, but you don’t have to stay. It’s getting late.”
I wasn’t looking at her, but I could feel Alex’s glare burning into my back as I forced leaden feet to carry me to the door, retrieving her coat from where she’d draped it over Matt’s bike.
“Please, Alex,” I said through gritted teeth. “Get the fuck out of my apartment.”
The sound of chair legs scraping across linoleum made me wince, and I leaned a shoulder against the wall, trying to look casual while I willed my knees not to buckle and my stomach not to rebel. Then Alex was in front of me, chain raised, eyes narrow, mouth pressed into a thin line as she snatched her coat from my hand.
“I have two notecards left,” she said, turning and throwing the coat on one of the bean bag chairs. “They’re the most important ones, and I’m not leaving until I finish.”
Swallowing a sigh-- and maybe a little bile-- I followed as she spun on her heel and marched to the kitchen with her stupid flashcards in her hand and took a seat on one of the island stools. I circled around the counter and stood across from her, leaning back against the opposite counter and gripping the edge, willing the world to stabilize.
“I am a scientist,” Alex pronounced, after glancing down at her cards.
“I’m a scientist, so evidence matters to me.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, clearly not appreciating my attitude.
“I’m a scientist,” she said, her eyes locked on mine, her voice firm. “Evidence matters to me, and all the evidence I have tells me that you’re not as dangerous as you seem to think you are.”
I let out a derisive snort before I could stop myself, which ratcheted the pressure behind my eyes up from agonizing to unbearable. Clinging to the edge of the counter, I lowered my head and squeezed my eyes closed to keep them from popping right out of my face.
“Nate?” There was a hint of concern in her voice and I forced myself to look up.
“You know there’s actual evidence,” I teased, smiling in spite of myself. “Pictures. Death records. Physical evidence. Police reports. I hope you’re a better scientist than you are an investigator.”
Alex scowled, and I felt the smile drop off my face as twin hammers pounded into my temples.
“You’re such a fucking asshole,” she sighed, hanging her head, and for a second I thought maybe my words were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Then she looked back up, and her eyes were full of tears. “I really missed arguing with you,” she whispered.
“Me, too.” Oh shit. Fucking word vomit.
The fluorescent light above our heads flickered, making my stomach roll, but I couldn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t look away from her. For just that moment, we were no more complicated than two people who enjoyed each other’s company. I couldn’t miss a second of it.
“So... my evidence,” Alex said weakly, breaking the spell as she gestured with her flashcards.
“Your evidence,” I echoed, releasing the counter with one hand to wave her on, trying to look exasperated. Trying to look like I didn’t desperately want to hear what she had to say.
“Remember the first night we met?”
“Of course.” I’m taking that night with me to the grave, no matter how this plays out.
“You remember what we talked about?”
“And before that?”
“The first day of school.”
“Because you were nervous about it.”
This was the weirdest, least relevant cross-examination I’d ever endured.
“You remember what we didn’t talk about?”
“That’s... that’s like asking me to divide by zero, Alex. Are you looking for something specific, or would you like me to just start listing the infinite number of things we weren’t talking about?”
Alex rolled her eyes and set her cards down, folding her hands on top of the counter. “Why were you at the spot that night, Nate?” she asked, cocking her head at me.
I considered lying, but she cut me off before I could formulate something believable.
“And don’t bother lying. You already told me the truth in one of your letters.”
Those fucking letters.
“That was the day they took Jake,” I answered through gritted teeth.
Al’s shoulders slumped, and she shook her head sadly. “You’d just been ripped away from the only family you had left, and you spent the night talking me through first-day-of-school jitters.”
When I didn’t answer, Alex sighed and slipped off her stool, coming around the counter and standing in front of me. She leaned back against the sink, mirroring my posture, one hand still clenched around her notecards.
“And it wasn’t just that night,” she said, her voice suddenly thick as she rolled her eyes to the ceiling as if fighting tears. “Every fucking night, Nate. Every night we sat there and I vented about school and my dad being an asshole, and my mom being... and about Tommy, about my friends. I bitched to you about everything under the sun, and all that time you were going through hell and you never said a word.”
“And then those fucking letters,” she went on, shaking her head, her voice strained. “I left you alone. You went through everything alone. The arrest, the trial, the verdict, prison... everything. And instead of being pissed off, you just kept fucking writing. You called me in August because you knew I’d be sad about my mom. You got special fucking paper and used your best fucking handwriting to tell me how much you love me because you worried I’d feel guilty--”
“Alex, stop,” I barked, trying not to flinch as my own words sent slivers of pain spearing through my brain. “This is fucking pointless.”
“No, it’s not,” she sobbed, the tension bleeding out of her in a rush as she stepped forward and pressed her body against mine, her arms slipping around me and squeezing. This time I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t stop myself from returning her embrace. I slid one arm around her back and cautiously brushed the other over her hair. Her shoulders were quaking, and I tightened my grip and bowed my head, letting my chin rest on the crown of her head.
“It’s fine, Al,” I muttered into her hair. “Just stop.”
She shook her head against my chest. “It’s evidence,” she murmured, her arms tightening.
I sighed. “Evidence of what?”
Sniffling, she pulled back, but not so far that I had to let her go. Just enough that I could move my free hand from the back of her head to her cheek, swiping away tears with the pad of my thumb. Seeing her cry had always bothered me in a special way. It didn’t just make me sad on her behalf, or angry at whatever hurt her. It grated on my nerves with its wrongness. Tears on Al’s face were like a off-key note or a crooked picture. It was compulsive to wipe them away.
“It’s evidence that you’re a good man,” she said, sniffing back more tears as she peered up at me.
“It’s evidence that I love you,” I admitted. “But that’s all it is. I can love you and still be bad for you, Alex.”
“It’s evidence that you’re a good man,” she repeated, more sternly.
“No it’s not, sweetheart,” I breathed, but I couldn’t make my body listen to reason. I let my forehead rest against hers and her skin felt cool, like fresh rain on the fire raging in my skull. She smelled like crisp air with a flowery undercurrent and I wanted to fill my lungs with that smell and let it wash away the lingering stench of smoke that had hovered in my sinuses since the night of the fire.
But that thought sent me spiraling back to earth. Back to the fire. To Deb. To Tim. To all the fucked up shit bouncing around in my brain, building up pressure until it was a miracle my skull didn’t crack and shatter.
Mustering every drop of willpower I had left, I pushed her back. She looked at me questioningly, and I brushed the last of the tears from her cheeks and slipped out from between her and the counter.
“I’m not done,” I heard her say, her voice trembling and weak.
“Yeah, you are.” I needed to get her the hell out. The floor was dipping and swaying beneath me like the deck of a ship, and she needed to be gone before it flipped upside down entirely and dumped me into space.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you--” fuck. Oh, fucking shit. “I’ll be right back,” I managed, abandoning her in the kitchen and dragging myself as fast as humanly possible to the bathroom, pushing the door shut behind me.
I didn’t turn on the light. That would’ve meant death. Instead, I dropped to my knees and felt my way to the toilet, slamming the lid up and leaning over it just in time to revisit every morsel of food I’d choked down throughout the day. Maybe even the day before.
My head screamed at me as my muscles locked up, and the fresh pain just made the nausea worse. I don’t know how much time I spent hunched over the bowl in the pitch black bathroom. That was the worst migraine I’d had since I was in prison. It was usually stints in solitary that brought them on, oddly enough. I guess the silence was a little too loud.
Now, I’d have killed for some of that silence. Some of that solitude.
“Nate?” The voice was accompanied by a gentle knock on the door, which echoed through my head and made my bones throb. “Are you okay?”
Good. I’m good. Except I didn’t actually say it, did I? Shakily, I pushed myself away from the toilet and flushed it, dragging my forearm across my face to wipe away cold sweat.
“I’m good,” I managed, wincing at the sound of my own voice. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
It was a long shot, and I should’ve known better than to try.
“I’ll wait till you’re done,” she said. “Do you need anything?”
You. I need you. “I’m good. Just give me a sec.”
“Okay,” she said, but I didn’t hear retreating footsteps. Then again, I didn’t really care. Alex and the world seemed distant and irrelevant as I forced my limbs to move and carefully shifted so that I sat against the wall opposite the toilet. I bent one knee and braced my elbow against it, covering my eyes with a shaking hand. Thinking hurt. Breathing hurt. Even the fucking air hurt, assaulting my skin with pins and needles that I couldn’t escape.
“Nate, seriously. It’s been ten minutes. Are you okay?”
Ten minutes? I could swear only seconds had passed.
The doorknob jiggled, and before I could force my heavy tongue to obey my commands, the door was sliding open and light spilled into the room. Even with my hand over my eyes, it was too fucking bright, and I hunched my shoulders and sucked in air, trying not to scream.
“Shit,” I heard her say, followed by hurried footsteps, and distant clicking. The light vanished, and suddenly she was back, her presence warming the air, making it somehow gentler. One cool hand came to rest on the back of my neck, and that felt so good it brought tears to my eyes.
“Tom gets migraines, too,” she said lowly. “You should’ve told me.”
I couldn’t answer her without setting off an artillery battery in my head, but she didn’t seem to need a response. The hand squeezed gently.
“Do you have medication to take?”
I shook my head slightly, and even that set off fireworks that made my stomach buck and roll. I lurched forward, pushing past Alex as I dragged myself over the toilet bowl and dry heaved until I couldn’t breathe.
If my brain wasn’t completely fried, I would have been embarrassed. Instead of leaving me alone with my humiliation, Alex hovered beside me, her hand making slow circles between my shoulder blades. When I finally finished, she helped me sit back against the wall and rested a cool palm against my forehead.
“I’ve got some Excedrin in my car,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Excedrin wouldn’t do jack shit. I might as well go shoot a grizzly bear with a bb gun. That was a lot of words to string together, though. Before I could try to tell her, I heard the distant sound of the door opening and shutting behind her and thought I ought to get up. It was only 20 or so feet to the front door. I could make it there and flip the deadbolt before she got back. Force her out of the fucking disaster I called my life.
I tugged one leg in and tried to stand, but my muscles were watery and useless. Before I could find it in me to try again, I heard the front door open and shut once more. Then, in a snap, there she was again. Something cool nudged my hand.
“Water,” Alex murmured. I flexed shaky fingers and wrapped them around the glass. Then her hand nudged my other and I turned it over, letting her drop two pills into it. Over the counter painkillers were an exercise in futility, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Trying not to move my head too much, I tossed the pills into my mouth and lifted the glass. Cautiously, I took three swallows, washing away the pills and the acrid taste of bile. Then the water hit my stomach and brought the nausea right back.
Better to stop while I was ahead.
Alex took the glass without me asking, and I flinched at the sound of it hitting the countertop.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “Let’s get you to bed, okay?” A hand tugged at my arm but I pulled it free, pressing my hand to my eyes once more. I had a strange feeling that if I didn’t keep up the pressure my brains would start leaking out.
“Nate, come on.” Her fingers gripped my shoulder. “You need to lay down.”
I could lay down perfectly well right here on the bathroom floor. It wouldn’t make a difference. I dug my fingers into my eyes and my brain throbbed with indecision. I wanted her to leave, but I wanted her near me. I wanted her safe, but I wanted her in my life and my life was everything but safe.
“Go,” I hissed out through clenched teeth.
“No,” she said, and her fingers bunched in my shirt. She tugged gently. “Lay down.”
If you ask Alex she’ll say I listened to the commandeering tone of her voice or something like that. If you ask me, I’ll tell you I just didn’t want to be vertical anymore. Whatever the real reason (mine), I let her pull me down until my head rested on the curve of her thigh. Gritting my teeth, I twisted around until I was facing her, because her still, quiet warmth seemed somehow gentler than the rest of the room. And I needed gentle, quiet, and warm.
“I’m still not done with my speech,” Alex said, her voice pitched low and so quiet it was little more than a whisper. “Don’t think you’re getting out of it.”
I’d have laughed if I didn’t think it would split my head open and spill my brain out on her pants. Gentle fingers kneaded at the back of my neck, and her other hand rested gently against the side of my face. Her touch didn’t necessarily chase the pain away, but it was a nice distraction. Something cool and sweet to focus on.
We stayed like that on the bathroom floor for hours. Months. Decades. Minutes. I couldn’t tell. All I knew was that I dozed in and out, and eventually the stabbing agony receded to a groggy, pulsing pain. Cautiously, I tuned back in to my surroundings. My head was still in Alex’s lap, and her hands were still on me-- one curved around the back of my neck, the other tangled in my hair. I blinked one eye up at her in the darkness and saw that she’d fallen asleep, her head tilted crookedly against the wall.
Love exploded on my chest, shooting warmth through my body. She was wrong about me. I didn’t deserve her, and I was far from a “good man”. But I did love her. More than life. And that would be enough. I would make it enough. I could never earn her, but she would never have to know I hadn’t. I didn’t have to be a good man to make her happy, just like I didn’t have to be a good man to take care of Matt. I could give the two of them every last scrap of good I had, and they’d never have to know what was left inside me when it was all said and done.
Darkness and violence.
Alex stirred groggily as I sat up, closing one eye against the lingering pain.
“You okay?” she mumbled, rubbing her eyes with the heel of a hand and yawning deeply.
“I’m good, now. Sorry for passing out on you.” I knelt by her side and brushed back her hair as her eyes blinked open, glistening in the darkness. That would have been a perfect moment to kiss her, but my mouth still tasted like bile and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to share.
“It’s okay,” she breathed. “Can we go to bed, now?”
A pang of regret shot through me at her words, and I pushed myself to my feet. I didn’t dare turn the light on, but I felt my way around in the dark and found the water glass. After downing that, I reached for the mouthwash and rinsed the nasty residue from my mouth. By the time I finished, Alex had found her way to her feet and was standing behind me, sagging tiredly with her cheek pressed against my back and one hand draped lazily over my shoulder.
“Alex...” how could I explain?
I couldn’t. Not with words. So I turned and took her hand and led her out of the bathroom and into the room where I slept.
We stood there, hand in hand, while she stared at the sleeping bag and rumpled blankets in the corner of the room. The extent of my furniture was a used duffel back sitting by the closet, half-buried in a pile of clothes. Humiliation coursed through me, but her hand tightened in mine and she pulled us both toward my “bed”.
“You need a mattress,” she said nonchalantly as she unbuttoned her jeans and slipped them off, kneeling beside my makeshift bed and straightening it. She unzipped the sleeping bag and spread it out, then layered the blankets over the top so that there was room and warmth for two. Barely. We’d have to stay close. What a burden.
Taking her lead, I kicked my own pants into a corner and followed her. She’d stretched out beneath the blankets, turning onto her side and smiling sleepily at me.
“It’s cozy,” she said, and the coy playfulness in her voice had me dropping to my knees and slipping beneath the covers with her. I went to stretch out on my back, and she shoved the pillow beneath my head. Before I could protest and tell her to use it, her lips were on mine.
Unceremonious, I know. Our first kiss in years, and she wasted it on stealing an argument before I could make it. That’s pretty typical of Alex, if I’m being honest. She doesn’t have much flair for poetry.
Beyond the humble beginnings, though, it was an amazing kiss. Her lips parted and the taste of her filled my mouth, bringing me home, stealing every last morsel of fight and denial I had left to offer. I had always been hers. From the moment I saw her to the day I died and after, I was hers. But with that kiss, I made her mine, and I made her a promise.
Alex hadn’t pulled me into the light. She had walked willingly in the darkness. By chasing me down and forcing her way back into my life, she’d abandoned everything stable and good and dove headfirst into the chaos and turmoil of my existence. It was too late to turn her away, so I did the next best thing. I claimed her. I pulled her close and captured her body against mine and promised her with that kiss that she would always be mine. Maybe I couldn’t protect her from myself, but I would do everything in my power to protect her from the shit that dogged my steps.
I wanted more than a kiss, and so did she, but reason prevailed. We both panted for air when we broke apart, and, as badly as I wanted to see her face, I shut my eyes against the fresh pain, stabbing at the back of my eyes. Unless I wanted to curtail our long-awaited reunion by having an aneurysm, it would probably be best to leave sex for a later date.
Alex seemed to agree.
“Let’s go to sleep,” she said quietly, pressing her lips to mine one more time before shifting down and curling up against my side. She rested her head on my chest and banded one arm around my waist, and I pulled her close, wishing the sun would never rise.
“I love you,” she whispered into the darkness.
“I love you, too.”
It was just that simple. And for a long, blissful while, it stayed that way.