“When did you come back?” I asked him as I followed him into the living room after getting his icepack.
“Just a moment ago,” he replied, pressing the icepack onto the shoulder blade he could not quite reach. “You a night owl?”
“I am but, I fell asleep too early today. I woke up just a minute ago and came out to drink water. Here. Lemme help with that,” I offered when I noticed that he was really having trouble reaching the icepack to the exact position he wanted.
“That’s alright. I’m good.”
“Yeah, I can totally see that.”
A soft laugh escaped from him and I snatched the icepack from his hand. “Come on.”
We sat down on a couch, his broad, bare, marvelous back facing me and I chewed on my bottom lip as I stared at it for a moment, ogling at the tanned, wet skin, glistening in the most mouth-watering manner, those dense pack of muscles. . .
I cleared my throat, knotted my legs together, and asked as I lifted my hand and faltered the pack over his skin. “Where do you want it?”
“On my shoulder blade. The right shoulder.”
I placed the pack on his right shoulder blade and gently applied pressure to it. A soft grunt escaped from his throat as he put one hand under his arm and pressed his fingers into the tense muscle.
I asked again. “What happened, August? Where did you go?”
“Down the metro.”
“I go there almost every Saturday. To fight. Earn money. . . God.” He grunted again.
“How bad did it get? Like. . . Do you think you need to go to the hospital?”
“No. I’m good. It’s just some cramps.”
I changed places and pressed the icepack on different spots around his shoulder blade while he sat there as still as a lake and without a word. The whole neighborhood was silent and in this room, I could hear the sound of my heart beating like it was echoing throughout the room, hitting against the walls and his soft breathing breezing in rhythm with mine.
“How long have you been fighting?”
He shifted his face slightly toward me and replied, “About two years now.”
“Two years?! Every Saturday?” I gasped in a contained voice, aware of the rest of the people sleeping in this house.
“Not every Saturday. I skip some but, I go as often as I can. It’s good money. And I need it all for Ari’s health, the house, their education.”
My lips curled up to a faint, sorry smile behind him. It was both sad and sweet at the same time. Bittersweet. To think that he was put through all this to support the family as a sole parent was beyond heart-warming and stirring. It was heartbreaking too.
“Did you take college loan?”
“No. Lucky for me I got a full scholarship.”
“Wow. I got half.”
“Better than no scholarship at all.” I heard him smile and I smiled too.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your parents?”
“My dad died in a traffic accident when I was thirteen. Four years later, mom had a stroke.”
“And you’ve been taking care of your siblings since?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Sort of. We went into the system for a year. Our neighbors Sonya and her husband took us in as foster kids but, it wasn’t easy for her too. They had their own kids and. . . Plus the three of us, it was one hell of a year for them. And by the time I turned eighteen, we moved out. They wanted us with them but, I had too. It wasn’t easy at all for them.”
“How do you manage?” I asked in astonishment. “I mean. . . I can’t imagine being in your place. I’d go crazy.”
He gave a soft laugh. “You’ll manage. If you really come face to face with situations like this, you’ll find a way. No matter what it takes, somehow. . . Love, anger, hatred, these are some great sources of motivation so, when we come face to face with situations like fighting for the people we love, we never know. . . strength and courage come from from everywhere. At least, that’s how I felt. Like, writing exam for a subject were so bad at and we had to invent our own theories just so we can get through.” He laughed again and I cracked up too.
“Yeah. We’re always stronger and more capable than we think we are. I bet you are too.”
“I hope I am.”
“I bet you are.” He glanced back and offered a smile. “I also worked online during the time we were with Sonya. I saved some. Mom also had savings for us so, I managed. And Sonya and her husband still look after us. Not legally but, as friends.”
Barely above a whisper, my low, cautious voice managed to ask. “Weren’t you scared?”
His movements paused for a short moment before he began to faintly nod again. “You can say I was scared of literally everything.” He laughed. “I was scared of not being able to provide for them, of not being able to be their support the way my parents would’ve been. I wasn’t the best brother, you know. I was rarely home. I went out and fooled around most of the times and suddenly, boom! I was a parent. Scared the shit out of me.” He laughed again at the thought. “But so what? You can’t help what’s happening. The best I could do was try my best.”
“Yeah.” I agreed. That was exactly what my mom did. When dad left us, she didn’t have a job or anything but, she never let that break her. For the sake of us, she pulled herself together, smiled and went ahead, gave her everything and provided the best she could for us.
He turned back to face me and took the icepack from my hand. Pressing it over the side of his face, he peered into my eyes at ease and said, “Now that I’ve spilled a lot, tell me about yourself?”
I looked down at the space between us and smiled. “What do I say. . . Um. . . I have a smartass younger sister, Poppy. She quite a tomboy. Very bold and beautiful. I also have my mom that I call my Superwoman, Frieda. Dad left us when I was thirteen. . . He ran away with another woman. Let’s just say he found the love of his life.” I scoffed bitterly. “Poppy was ten then. . .” I chewed on my lower lip and turned my eyes up to his.
He was just watching me without a word, eyes calm and intent. “So, how are you now?”
“I’m okay.” I shrugged and smiled. “My mom has done her best. I’ve been trying my best ever since. Poppy is strong enough to care and stand up for herself. We’ll always have each other’s back so, we’re okay. I mean, he left us on his own choice so, it doesn’t matter if he’s with us or not. It wouldn’t make a difference. He wouldn’t really be with us even if he was around. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah.” He replied and only then did I realized, I was now seething with anger, my breathing getting harsh.
He told us he loved us and yet, he left us. This life is one big fat lie.
“You’ve never seen him since?”
“No.” I shook my head, looking down at my fingers. “I don’t think I wanna see him either. It doesn’t matter. If he truly loved us, he would’ve found some way to come see us, right? He never even tried. He just left us and I’m not. . . The kind of person who would cling on to someone. We never changed our house. He never showed up. So, why bother? Fine if you wanna disappear. He’s dead to me now.”
“You sound very tough.” He smiled at me.
I rolled my eyes up to meet his and smiled back. “Am I now?”
“Yeah. Close enough.” He shrugged and we laughed.
“Well, don’t try me. If you get on my bad side, you’re crossed out forever.” I cocked my eyebrows at him gamely and the corner of his lips tilted to a smile.
“So, I should be careful around you then.”
“Uh huh. Danger is my last name.”
“Nah. That’s a bit much.” He shook his head as he pressed the ice pack to the other side of his face and through the silence of the night, my shrieky laughter cut through the house and I immediately clamped a hand over my mouth.
He just looked at me with a soft, simmering smile.
“When did you find out about Ari’s heart?”
“She was born with it.”
“Oh right. Congenital. But wait, if your dad died when you were thirteen, then how come. . . Did your mom remarry?”
“No. Um. . . Ari’s adopted. She was abandoned by her mother at the hospital. My mom grew up as an orphan so, she has a big spot in her heart for those children. My mom was a social worker for orphaned children and when she first saw Ari with the most beautiful green eyes ever, she completely stole her heart.” He said with a moving smile laced on his lips, eyes trained somewhere ahead at the floor. “And when she learned that she had a heart condition, mom took her in right away.”
“That’s very kind of your mom.”
“If you had seen Ari when mom brought her home, you would literally feel the reason why mom took her in. Wrapped up in pink cloth and her eyes wide open, staring up at me without a sound – when I held her – like she was ready and determined to seize the world, this life. She looked so ready. . . and it completely broke me inside. To think that her mother abandoned her. . . A girl so beautiful. You could say that was the first time I ever loved a baby. I used to hate them like plagues.” He laughed at his own silliness, turning his face even lower.
I laughed along, eyes blurry with tears that had pooled over my eyes. With each and every word he spoke about her, my heart shook in pain and love. His love for her felt so real and alive and inspite of the fact that her mother abandoned her, I was sure that Ari was fortunate at the same time. She had found a family who wouldn’t love her any less for all the world.
I turned my eyes up to the ceiling and quickly blinked them back as I chuckled. “That’s not fair. You’ve also been a baby once.”
“Yeah. But still.” He shrugged and we laughed again.
He lifted his face and met my eyes, the light amusement slowly fading as he saw the tears in my eyes.
“I’m sorry I’m an emotional button.” I chuckled as I bashfully wiped the corner of my eyes with the side of my palms.
“That’s alright.” He responded gently and kindly without looking away and I smiled back somewhat bashfully as he held me captive in his own gaze.
For a moment, he just looked at me that way without a word while the throbbing inside my chest continued to speed up and I seemed to not know where to look. With the silence that we were wrapped in, even his intent gazes seemed to scream words that unnerved me. For some reason, the look in his eyes felt like he was unraveling every bit of emotions I had kept hidden at the deepest part of my soul. And I didn’t want him doing that. I wanted no one to see me again.
I felt way safer staying hidden and guarded. No one would have a chance at me that way. No one would break me that way. Once was quite enough.
“Umm. . .” I faltered for a word to say.
“Don’t you wanna sleep yet?”
“Oh yeah. Maybe I should. Umm. . . You. . . feel okay now?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. We should get to bed then.”
“Yeah.” I pulled my legs down from the couch and stood up with him, for a split second getting distracted by his physique and I tried to look away when he glanced back at me.
We quietly walked toward our room, bade goodnight to one another at our doors which were just a meter apart and I got into my bed.