The Melody of Silence

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Chapter 8 - Alex

July 26th started out like every other day. I guess that’s how a lot of great tragedies get started, isn’t it? With an otherwise ordinary day?

I woke with my alarm at 7 o’clock. I stretched and smiled at the sunlight slanting across the ceiling and clutched my hands over my heart like the lovestruck teenager that I was.

He loves me. And I loved him. So much it hurt. Being around him made my heart feel like it was going to beat right out of my chest and parting from him made my stomach turn over in my gut.

I carried his love with me like a pendant as I climbed out of bed and trudged to the bathroom I shared with Tommy. My brother was away for the whole month of July. Daddy sent him to some camp every summer, ostensibly to expand his horizons and make friends, but I knew the real reason. Parting with that money was easier for my parents than facing him every day. I think they hated what he was. They saw it as some kind of punishment. I never understood that, though. I just saw my brother.

After I showered I pulled on my work clothes-- conservative khaki pants and a black polo shirt with the ice-cream shop’s logo on the breast pocket-- I pulled my hair up into a bun and put my earrings in. I had a whole jewelry-box full of diamonds and pearls and studs, but those cheapo star earrings were the only thing I ever wore, anymore. The first time I wore them I was worried my parents would ask where I got them, but they didn’t seem to notice.

Momma wasn’t up yet when I made my way into the kitchen, but Daddy was sitting at the table, sipping coffee and reading some book on theology that had little sticky notes and tabs hanging off the pages. He had a pencil behind his ear, and I thought for the thousandth time how crazy it was that his god had to make things so complicated for him.

“Morning, Daddy!” I said brightly, kissing his cheek and helping myself to a cup of coffee.

“Morning, sugar,” he said absently, without looking up.

“Where’s Momma?”

“Still asleep, last I checked,” he said, taking a sip of coffee and peering at me over the rim. “Why?”

“Just wondering.”

In truth, I was worried. I hadn’t seen much of my mother all summer. She seemed to sleep until after I left for work and go to bed just after dinner. When she was around she was listless and pale, thin and gaunt. She got up every day and did her hair and dressed in pearls and a crisp white shirt. Then she mopped spotless floors, dusted dust-less shelves, and sat in front of her TV. It sounds so ordinary when I say it, but in reality it struck me as sinister

“Hey, Daddy?”

My father sighed and set his book down, folding his hands in front of him and giving me his grudging attention. “What, Alexandra?”

I hesitated, grasping my coffee cup in my hands and staring at the oily surface of the liquid. “Is Momma okay?”

I looked up to see my father frown, grip tightening on the handle of his own mug.

“Of course she is. Why do you ask?”

I shrugged. “She just seems… do you think she’s depressed?”

My father shook his head. “If she was depressed she would tell me. Your mother’s just a quiet woman, Aly.”

I didn’t remember it that way. Back before we moved, she seemed to have all kinds of life. She told us stories and chased us around the yard. She was still fastidious back then, but not obsessive. She didn’t turn pale at shoes inside or a glass without a coaster. And she smiled. I remembered her smiling where it actually reached her eyes.

“Can you talk to her?” I asked, unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong and I wasn’t doing enough to fix it.

My father sighed again, picking up his book. “You know I have people with real problems to take care of, sugar.”

“I know. Please, though? For me?”

“Fine. I’ll talk to her this evening.”

It was grudging and he clearly just wanted to end the conversation, but I still felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. My father was an adult-- trained in helping people through their troubles. I’d passed responsibility off to him and I was happy to see it go.

* * *

“Dish, Aly,” Gemma said, bracing her hands on her hips and fixing me with a piercing stare.

“Dish what?” I asked innocently, plucking my bright-green work apron off its hook and slipping the loop over my head.

“You know what. You realize you haven’t stopped smiling for weeks, right? It’s starting to creep me out.”

Gemma was the one person on earth who knew about Nate. I didn’t want to tell anybody, but after that first kiss I’d gone home and laid in bed and I had to tell someone before all the gooey happiness built up inside me and burst out my chest like the eponymous creature in the Alien franchise.

She still didn’t know who he was, though. All she knew was that I had a secret boyfriend who I ran off with every night. She hassled me endlessly for his identity, but I think she enjoyed the game more than she’d enjoy actually knowing.

“We said ‘I love you,’” I blurted, tying my apron behind my back and heading to the front door to unlock it, flipping on the neon OPEN sign in the window. When I turned around, Gemma was gaping at me from behind the register, frozen with one hand on the till and the other in the air as if to halt the conversation.

“You what?!” she exclaimed, eyes wide.

“It’s not a big deal,” I said, slipping back behind the counter and taking up my place behind the second register.

“The hell it isn’t!” my friend yelled, reaching out and shoving me in the shoulder. “Aly that’s crazy. You’ve only known this guy like a month.”

“Well…” I trailed off, wondering how much information I should offer.

“Well what?”

“I’ve actually known him for a long time.”

“Like three months?”

“Like… five years.”

Gemma made a dramatic noise of frustration and grasped her register between her hands, gently thumping her forehead against it. “Aly you’re going to kill me. Who the hell is this guy? Do I know him?”

“You know I’m not gonna tell you,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“Will you at least tell me what he looks like?”

“No!” [1]

“You’re the worst! You gotta give me something. Is he hot at least?”

I was about to tell her to shut up when that stupid smile split my face again and my heart decided to talk instead of my brain. “Yeah, he’s hot,” I mumbled, staring pointedly at the window-front of the store as heat crept up my neck.

“Good,” Gemma said. “Since you won’t tell me who he is I’ll just guess every time I see a guy and if I guess right you gotta tell me.”

“Fine,” I agreed.

“Scout’s honor,” Gemma said.

“We’re not scouts.”

“Pinky swear?”

I reached out with my pinky extended and Gemma linked her finger with mine. I wasn’t worried about the sanctity of the swear. Gemma wouldn’t guess Nate if he walked in right then and kissed me full on the lips. That’s how little sense he and I made.

Our conversation petered out as the morning turned to afternoon and the sun heated up the streets outside, driving more folks into the crisp air of the ice cream parlor. I spent the day filling cups and cones, my customer service smile wide and genuine.

All day, Gemma guessed, and she stayed true to her promise to guess every time she saw a guy. Every time.

She guessed if it was the frat bro with the salmon-colored shirt and the shades on the back of his head.

She guessed if it was the 90-year-old grandfather with the walker and the pants up around his armpits.

She guessed if it was the middle-aged balding guy with four rambunctious kids and a frazzled-looking wife.

She guessed if it was any of the four football players who went to our school and who were all, we both knew, dating cheerleaders.

Then, just at the end of the lunch rush, the bell above the door dinged and in walked Nate. My stomach plunged, my heart leapt, and my brain short-circuited.

He looked like he was coming straight from work. Although his hands were scrubbed clean, his arms and shirt were covered in smears of engine oil and his hair where it peaked out beneath a backwards baseball cap was damp with sweat.

He wasn’t alone, either. To his right stood a kid who looked to be in his early teens, wearing an overly large basketball jersey, a cheap crew cut, and a scowl. His demeanor was offset slightly by the smattering of freckles across his nose and the suspicious look in his eye as he glanced around the crowded ice cream shop.

Clinging to Nate’s left hand was a little girl who couldn’t have been older than ten. She was as cute as she was dirty, with brown ringlets pulled back in a disastrous ponytail, wide brown eyes, and smears of dirt and some blueish mystery substance on her face and hands.

The last kid looked like he was about five. Nate had him hoisted up on a hip and the little boy clung to his shirtsleeve as he looked around the shop with the same wariness as the other boy.

A restrained smile tugged at the corner of Nate’s mouth as he and his entourage made their way to my register.

“Good afternoon and welcome to Cream of the Crop!” I said brightly, clinging to the counter so my hands wouldn’t shake. “What can I get for you?”

“Just one flavor, guys,” Nate said, setting the little boy on the ground, and all three kids scrambled to the display case, faces and palms pressed to the glass as they stared with wide eyes at the array of flavors.

While they browsed, Nate and I just stood and stared at each other. We had so little experience interacting with each other during the day. Even at school, we never had to speak. I was overwhelmed. How do you look at a guy who’s had his hands on every part of your body-- who carries your heart with him everywhere he goes-- and pretend you don’t know him?

“Anything for you?” I asked, trying to inject some customer-service cheer back into my voice.

“You have coffee, right?” he asked, and I nodded. “Just a small. And one-scoop cones for the kids.”

“I want chocolate,” the older boy said, sidling up next to Nate and glaring at me.

“Ronny,” Nate growled. “C’mon, buddy. Try again.”

Ronny grimaced and clenched his fists. “I’d like chocolate, please,” he said snottily before slinking off and slouching into a booth.

“How ’bout you, Paul?” Nate asked, glancing down at the youngest boy, who had returned and was clinging to his pant leg. When the boy spoke, it was so quiet I couldn’t make it out.

“Cookie dough for this one,” Nate said to me. “Trish?”

“I want strawberry, please!” the little girl said brightly, clinging to the edge of the counter and pulling herself up onto her tiptoes. She grinned at me, displaying a gap in her teeth. “We’re celebrating!”

God, she was cute.

“Oh yeah?” I asked, bending closer. “Is it your birthday?”

“No,” the girl said, frowning and shaking her head like I was an idiot for suggesting it. “That’s silly, my birthday’s in December. My mommy said it’s like Jesus.”

“Oh, then what are you celebrating?” I asked, pulling away to scoop their ice cream but watching the girl so she’d know I was still listening.

“I dunno!” she said cheerily, following me and pressing her face to the glass, watching me serve up the largest one-scoop cones I could manage. “Nate makes the rules and he says we’re celebrating, so we’re celebrating.”

“That makes sense,” I said, trying not to smile too wide as I handed the cones over. I had a feeling I knew exactly what they were celebrating.

Nate crouched and placed the ice cream in the younger kids’ hands, nodding his head toward the table where the other boy already sat. “How much?” he asked, digging his wallet out as he rose to his feet.

I tallied it up on the register. “$6.15,” I said, trying not to grimace in sympathy as his jaw clenched and he pulled the bills out, handing them over.

I counted out his change and poured a small coffee from the carafe behind the counter, handing it over. Every time our fingers brushed I felt like I’d been electrocuted.

I was worried my reaction had been apparent, but Gemma didn’t even look at me as Nate walked away. She did stare at his table, though, with a mournful look in her eye.

“It’s so sad, isn’t it?” she asked as soon as Nate had slid into the booth, safely out of earshot.

“What’s sad?” I asked, trying not to fidget with my apron or show any sign of investment in the conversation.

“Those kids,” Gemma said, turning and leaning her hip against the counter. “You know they’re in the system.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. Nate never talked about home, but it wasn’t a secret he was in foster care. Our school’s gossip machine wasn’t that inefficient. “They seem okay, though. They look like they’re being taken care of, at least.”

Gemma made a noise in her throat, and when she spoke again it was in a conspiratorial whisper. “My mom says the foster parents are hardcore druggies,” she whispered.

Her words hit me like cold water. “What?” I asked, unable to keep the interest from my voice.

Gemma nodded, raising her eyebrows. “Apparently they’ve got the same dealer. My mom just uses him for pot and shrooms, obviously, but her guy deals harder stuff, too. Apparently they’re into heroin and crack and stuff, too. That’s why they foster kids. For the money.”

I just stared at the table. I have to admit it didn’t feel good having to learn my soulmate’s tragic backstory through the grapevine.[2] I resolved to press him about it that evening at the spot.

“Still,” Gemma said, popping off the counter and raising her voice back to a normal level. “You’re right, they do look like they’re okay. Especially Nate. Mean streak aside, that boy turned out just fine. I don’t suppose he’s your secret lover, is he?”

She laughed as she said it and I forced a laugh of my own. Unfortunately, my friend isn’t that easy to fool. She immediately clapped her mouth shut, staring at me with wide eyes.

“Aly,” she said, before slapping her hand over her mouth to hide an incredulous smile.

“What?” I asked, feigning confusion. I’m a terrible liar, though. I blush bright red, my hands shake, and I can’t for the life of me make eye contact with the person I’m lying to.

“Aly, look at me,” Gemma demanded. I glanced over at her before turning back to my till. My friend barked out a shocked laugh. “Aly Winger, are you fucking kidding me?” she hissed, but was interrupted when a fresh crop of customers flooded through the door.

I suppose it was naive to hope she’d forget. As soon as the customers cleared away, cones in hand, Gemma took my shoulders in her hands, grinning into my face.

“Aly, tell me the truth,” she said, eyes locked on mine. “Is Nathan Reynolds your secret lover?”

“Stop calling it that,” I said, wrinkling my nose in disgust.

“Answer the question!” Gemma said, even though we both knew there was no point in denying it.

I pinched my lips shut and glared at her in answer.

“Holy shit,” she breathed, letting me go and turning so that we stood shoulder to shoulder. She crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her head, studying Nate’s table. “He told you he loves you?” she asked quizzically.

“He does love me,” I snapped, offended by her tone.

“Sure, sure,” she flapped a hand. “Who wouldn’t? I’m just saying, I’ve seen him around school. He doesn’t seem like a lovey-dovey type to me.”

“Do I seem like a secret tryst type to you?” I asked.

“That’s fair.” For a second she was silent, head cocked as she observed the guy I loved and his dirt-smeared charges. Then she jerked around, eyes wide, a wide grin on her face. “You have to tell me everything,” she exclaimed.

* * *

Despite Gemma’s revelation, the day continued to proceed as normal. After work we walked to the coffee shop down the street. We sat on the patio like we always did, sipping iced lattes and talking. I dominated the conversation that day, catching Gemma up on the sprawling tale of my relationship with Nate.

After coffee I walked to the library and picked up two new books about string theory. At the time I was fascinated with a scientific explanation for the origin of the universe. If my dad had found those books he’d have lost his mind, so I only checked out two at a time and kept them hidden between my mattress and box spring.

My house was a mile from the library, and I walked home by the same route as always. I greeted neighbors and smiled at kids running through sprinklers in verdant green lawns. It wasn’t yet evening and the sun beat down on my head, but I didn’t mind the heat. Sweat trickled down my back and my pants clung uncomfortably to my legs, but I felt impervious.

Nothing could bring me down. Nate loved me. I didn’t have to lie to Gemma anymore. I’d talked to my father about Momma. I was smart and happy and carefree and everything was fine. I was immune to the universe’s cruelty.

The house was silent when I pushed the front door open, but that wasn’t all that odd. Momma had taken to watching the TV on mute.

“I’m home!” I yelled, kicking off my work sneakers and lining them up by the door. I dropped my bag as well, breathing a sigh of relief as the cold, conditioned air hit the sweat on the back of my neck, cooling me instantly. “Momma?”

She didn’t respond, so I padded to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, staring at the contents. I pulled an apple out of the drawer, polishing it on my shirt before taking a large bite. It was crisp and perfect, and to this day the taste of apples makes my stomach heave.

Momma wasn’t in the living room, so I slouched into her chair and flipped the TV on. She was probably out getting groceries or something, and between my parents and Tom I never got to pick the channel.

I lazed away the afternoon, half-dozing to a documentary about the space race. When five o’clock rolled around and Momma still hadn’t returned from the grocery store, I decided to give her a call.

I used the kitchen phone to dial her cell. Just as it rang through the headset, I heard a chime from upstairs.

“Momma?” I called, hanging up the phone and jogging up the stairs. “Are you home?”

She didn’t answer. Nor did she respond when I rapped three times on her bedroom door. Cautiously, I jiggled the handle and found it unlocked.

“Momma?” I pushed the door open, bracing myself for a lecture on privacy as I stepped into my parents’ bedroom.

The master suite of our home had a west-facing window, with the door set into the southern wall. The walk-in closet and bathroom were set against the northern wall. On July 26th, evening sunlight pierced through the gauzy curtains on the window, casting a bright red glow over beige carpet and my parents’ perfectly-made king-size bed.

The closet door was shut, but the bathroom door was open. In retrospect, I think part of her actually wanted us to find her before it was done. Otherwise I suppose she’d have shut both doors and locked them behind her.

My feet pulled me toward the bathroom, even while my heart clung to the doorframe, screaming at my body to stop. At first all I could see was her head, tipped back against the rim of the tub. She’d done up her hair. That’s crazy, right? She had it piled on top of her head just so, hair sprayed into perfection. She was even wearing make-up and jewelry.

All dressed up with nowhere left to go.

As my feet carried me into the bathroom, my mind clung to little details, frantically distracting itself from the horrifying truth of the big picture. I noticed that she was wearing a dress-- not her usual white button up and slacks. I’d never seen the dress before. It was black and sleeveless, the skirt floating peacefully in the pink-tinged water around her legs. I noticed that she’d removed her wedding ring, and it sat on the edge of the tub, next to a bloodied razor and an empty glass of wine. I noticed that she was wearing the necklace Tom and I got her for Christmas when I was just 10. It was a heart-shaped locket that had both our pictures sloppily glued to the inside.

I stood there, staring down at her motionless form, and noticed little details. Then, all at once, those details came together and my world fell apart.

“Momma,” I said, staring at her pale face. Beneath the painted-on blush of her cheeks, her face was worse than pale. It was gray, the skin waxen, lips and eyelids tinged blue. Her eyes were half-closed, rolled back in her head so what sliver I could see was just blank white and lifeless. “Momma!” I yelled uselessly, fists clenched at my sides.

Of course she didn’t respond, and instinct took over for me. I didn’t even think as I bent, plunging my hands into bloody water and grabbing the front of my mother’s dress. I just screamed for her, over and over again. Her body was completely stiff, which made it easier to leverage her up over the edge of the tub. I looked it up later and learned that rigor mortis doesn’t set in until at least four hours after a person dies. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know my efforts were more than four hours too late.

“Momma, wake up,” I cried, heaving with all my might and dragging her waterlogged form onto the bathroom floor. Her skull cracked against the tile as I set her down, and bloodstained water poured over the edge of the tub and dripped off my mother’s body, staining the grout between the tiles.

I’d taken a CPR class in my freshman year, but for some reason the details wouldn’t come to me. All I could remember was chest compressions and rescue breaths. I couldn’t remember the ratio. I rose up over my mother’s body and clasped my fists over the center of her chest, dropping my body weight into compressions and holding my own breath. When my lungs began to burn for air I sucked in a huge breath and bent, covering her cold mouth with mine. Her jaw was completely rigid, but her mouth was parted just slightly, allowing me to push air into her lungs.

That’s when I started crying. She tasted like death. Don’t ask me how I know what death tastes like. It’s one of those things you can’t describe or explain but the second it touches your lips you just know.

It didn’t stop me, though. All totaled up, I performed shoddy, pointless CPR on my mother’s long-dead corpse for an hour and a half. To me, it felt like years. A lifetime.

To this day, I don’t know what my father’s reaction was when he found his daughter bent over his wife’s body on his bathroom floor. I don’t know if he screamed or gasped or cried. I don’t know if he called 911 before or after pulling me off her.

I do know that, when he grabbed my shoulders and pulled me back, I lashed out with an elbow and socked him in the stomach before going back to my task. I know black spots danced in my vision and sweat rolled off my face and down my neck as I went back to chest compressions. I’d settled on ten. Ten compressions and three breaths. In case you’re wondering, that’s the wrong ratio. It’s supposed to be thirty to two. Fortunately, I guess, it didn’t really matter.

I didn’t stop until the first responders arrived. Someone big-- a cop-- wrapped his arms around me and dragged me off her, letting the paramedics swoop in. I collapsed against the stranger, sobbing breathlessly. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even look up. I just clung to my anonymous captor and sobbed.

He wasn’t very nice to hug. His uniform shirt was stiff and scratchy and he had a pen in his pocket that dug into my cheek. He patted my back, but it was awkward and mechanical, and all he said was “it’s okay, calm down, it’s okay,” over and over, which didn’t make a lot of sense to me because nothing was okay.

I didn’t see the paramedics load my mother’s body onto a gurney and take it away, but I wish I’d watched it happen. Maybe if I’d seen her go I’d still have the piece of me I left on the bathroom floor that night. That little fraction of me will always be there, sobbing through CPR and begging my mother to live.

At some point, my father tried to hug me, but I shoved him away and clung to the cop. Then a female officer came and I let her lead me out of my parents’ bedroom to my own. She dried me off and helped me into clean clothes and then walked with me to the bathroom and stood by while I rinsed the taste of death from my mouth.

“We need to ask you some questions, Alexandra,” she said gently, when I finally finished. “Do you feel comfortable talking to the other officers, or would you like to just talk to me?”

“You,” I mumbled, and let her follow me to my bedroom.

I sat on my bed and answered her questions, hands clasped in my lap, eyes fixed on the carpet by her feet. I never looked her in the eye. I don’t even know what she looked like. The questions were brief and fact-based.

“What time did you get home?”

“What time did you find your mother?”

“When was the last time you saw your mother alive?”

“Has your mother exhibited signs of depression?”

“Do your parents get along?”

On and on, and never once did she ask the questions I wanted to answer.

When did you realize your mother was dead?

Why do you think she wanted to die in that dress?

How could your mother leave you all alone?

How did it feel, breathing air into dead lungs?

When you close your eyes, do you see her floating in the water?

It was dark outside when the police officer left. My father tried to talk to me again after that. He knocked on my door and took my silence as invitation. Then he sat next to me on my bed and put his arm around me and I took no comfort in it whatsoever.

“I asked you to talk to her,” I whispered around the tears that hadn’t stopped falling.

“I know, Aly,” my father said, tightening his arm around me. “I’m so sorry.”

“She killed herself.”

“I know, sugar.” He tried to hug me against his chest, but I held my body stiff as a board, unyielding.

“You didn’t even notice. Did you even ask if she was okay? Even once?”

“You’re right to be angry.”

“You’re goddamn right I’m angry!” I yelled, shooting off the bed and rounding on him, red-faced and furious. My father’s face blanched. I never got angry at home, and I damn sure never cursed. “Get out of my room.”

“Alexandra, please,” he said. “Watch your language. And don’t shut me out.”

“Get the fuck out of my goddamned room!” I screamed, heedless of the police who were no doubt lingering in the crime scene that was now my home.

“Aly--”

“Out!” I planted two hands in the center of his chest and shoved him backwards. His face twisted in a strange combination of frustration and despair. I suppose a better daughter would have noticed that his own eyes were red and puffy from tears, and that he was likely blaming himself plenty without my help. I wasn’t fit to be a good daughter that night, though. I had my own problems.

“Get some sleep,” my father said, shoulders slumping in defeat. “I’ll be downstairs with the officers if you need me. We’ll talk tomorrow morning.”

Then he left, pulling the door shut behind him, and I was alone.

Alone.

I collapsed sideways on my bed, praying for sleep to drag me under, but every time I closed my eyes all I could see was my mother’s waxy gray skin and the whites of her rolled-back eyes. I’d brushed my teeth five times and gargled for two minutes with Listerine, but the metallic tinge of death still lingered on my tongue.

Stifling a cry of despair, I scrambled off my bed, snatched my iPod[3] [4] off my desk, and ran to the door. I flipped on the overheads, flooding the room with yellow-white, and slid down the wall by the door, sticking earbuds into my ears and cranking up the volume on the music. Drowning my senses, I wrapped my arms around my knees and stared with wide eyes at my room. My eyes burned from exhaustion and tears, but I couldn’t blink. I was afraid to.

I stayed that way for hours. I couldn’t have told you what songs I listened to. They were just noise, screaming in my ear and drowning out the echoes of my own gasping breath and pleas for my mother to please, please wake up. My tired eyes darted around the room, absorbing every detail, jerking open every time they drifted closed into another iteration of my nightmare.

I didn’t hear the knock at my window, but I saw the silhouette through my curtains. Since the light was on and reflecting off the glassy surface of the window, all I could make out was the shape of a man, hovering outside. I ripped the headphones from my ears and shot to my feet.

Nate clung perilously to the branch outside my window, hand outstretched and braced on my windowsill. His face, already twisted in concern, seemed to drain of blood when I pulled back the curtains and slid the window open.

“Alex what the hell?” he hissed, leaning forward and poking his head into my room as I stepped back. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”

“You shouldn’t be here,” I said numbly, looking at my feet. “My dad will--”

“Fuck your dad!” He grumbled dismissively, clambering through the window with considerably less grace than I usually managed. “I damn near had a heart attack when I saw the police cars parked outside, Al. Please just tell me you’re okay.”

“I’m okay,” I said obediently. It was a lie, but if he needed to hear it I’d say it.

“No you’re not. What happened? What’s going on?”

He stepped forward, reaching for me, and I stepped back. I don’t know why. I think part of me knew that saying the words out loud and letting him hold me would be the final nail in the proverbial coffin. As long as Nate didn’t know, I had somewhere I could go that wasn’t stained by reality. Once I brought him into it, it’d be real. My mother would be dead. Everywhere and forever.

“Al, if you really don’t want me here I’ll leave,” Nate said evenly, letting his hands drop to his sides. “But I’m not gonna go until I know you’re okay, so just tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t want you to leave,” I blurted, stepping forward and wrapping my arms tight around his waist. His wound around my shoulders, holding me against him as a fresh crop of tears broke loose and rolled down my face. It took me three tries to get the words out, and when I finally said them they were muffled in the fabric of his shirt. “My mom killed herself.”

Every muscle in his body locked up and I swear I heard his heart skip a beat. “Shit,” he murmured into my hair. “Al…”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said, pulling my head away from his chest and looking up into his eyes so he could see I was telling the truth. He frowned but nodded.

“Okay. You’re not hurt though?”

“No.” Not physically, anyway.

“Okay. Do you wanna stay here or do you wanna go outside?”

I wanted to go outside, but I didn’t think I could handle the climb. My knees were weak and wobbly and my eyes were so sore I could barely see.

“Stay here,” I mumbled, tightening my grip and burying my face in his shoulder.

“You got it.”

Before I realized what was happening, Nate stooped and hefted me into his arms, walking to the bed and settling against the headboard. He didn’t say another word for the rest of the night.

I know I ought to say he took the nightmare away. That’s how love is supposed to work, right? You find your soulmate and that person’s mere presence eases every trouble you face and soothes every pain?

That wasn’t how it worked that night, though. Nate didn’t take any of it away. I still saw my mother’s body every time I closed my eyes, and I still heard my own desperate pleas in the silence. My stomach still churned and my chest still felt like someone had driven a spike through it. I shattered to pieces that night, and even Nate couldn’t hold me together. I cracked and crumbled into a thousand jagged shards, and all he could do was gather them up in his arms and wait by my side for the storm to blow through.

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