Back in the comfort of my room, I lay down, typing away on my laptop as I listened to music. My goal was to try to push the events of dinner far from my mind.
I didn’t think I’d ever win with my mother, but voicing my opinion has never made me feel better. My years of being steamrolled over were coming to an end.
“May 18th, 2019
-Because even after the worst, she still stands. She smiles. Walks with her head held high. She pushes through. She now puts herself at the top of her priority list because if the last few weeks have taught her anything, it’s that she deserves to be there.”
After closing my laptop, I set it aside for the night and slid under my blanket. Still wearing my headphones, I let my eyes drift close and lost myself in the soft instrumental filling my ears.
I slept peacefully for a few hours until a persistent vibrating woke me up. I hated being a light sleeper. But tonight it may have been a good thing.
When I grabbed my phone, I tapped the screen and discovered I had not one but ten missed calls from Joseph. It was 2 a.m. He was absolutely insane if he thought I was going to be up for an adventure right now. But I couldn’t lie and say I wasn’t relieved to hear from him. Sitting up, I hit redial.
“Sienna, thank God. Listen, I know it’s late, but —”
“Wait, are you okay?” There was a tremor in his voice and through the phone I could hear his labored breaths.
“Can you come outside right now? I- I need you...”
“Yeah, let me slip on some shoes.”
“I’ll be out front.”
My heart thrashed violently against my ribcage. Was he in some kind of trouble? Was he hurt? I needed to know. I threw on my hoodie and nimbly made my way down the stairs.
My hand rested on the doorknob as I was ready to leave, but upon hearing my parents’ voice, I froze. Not moving a muscle, I listened closely. It sounded like they were in the kitchen talking. I quietly stepped into my shoes and carefully slipped out into the darkness.
“Joey?” I called out, peering around as my eyes adjusted to the night.
“I’m over here.”
I looked to my right and found him sitting on the curb, a lone street light illuminating his figure. Taking a seat next to him, I fidgeted with my hands.
A few minutes passed before any words were spoken; before he even looked at me. But when he did, I warily took in his appearance. His eyes were rimmed with red and heavy bags sat below them. His hair was a disheveled mess, likely from his hands being run through it so often.
When he spoke, the words that left his mouth hit me like a freight train.
“W-what do you mean your dad is in a coma?!”
“When I left your house earlier, my mom told me he’d been shot,” Joseph said, somberly. “He was investigating a domestic disturbance. Some lowlife was fighting with his girlfriend, drunk out of his senses. The neighbors eventually called the cops.”
His head hung low as he continued.
“He had a gun and wouldn’t back down. There was a shootout between the guy and Marshall, my father’s partner. My father got caught in the crossfire attempting to get their kid out of the house. The little boy is okay, but...” he trailed off, his voice breaking.
“It’s okay, take your time.”
“T-the doctors said my father lost a lot of blood and had two cracked ribs. I was only able to see him for a second before he was rushed into surgery. They had to get the bullets out a-and do a transfusion... t-they- he- fuck! I can’t lose him.”
“Hey, take a couple deep breaths for me,” I spoke softly, as I took his trembling hand in mine and led him through a breathing exercise. His head fell as he took a deep breath through his nose. I counted to four before I told him to release it. We did this a few times until he felt okay and I was sure of it.
“... you don’t understand. My dad has to come out of surgery. I- I can’t lose another person,” he said, wiping his eyes on the long sleeves of his black shirt.
“What are you talking about? Who have you lost?” I asked.
He sighed. “Remember the day you asked me if I met anyone in Paris?”
“Well to answer your question, her name was Charlotte.” He took an immensely long breath before continuing. “We met on my third day there. She was the type of girl you’d notice a mile away... had sandy brown hair that was never out of place,” he said, giving me a sad smile.
Was. Had. I felt the contents of my dinner churning in my stomach. What happened to her?
“The thing that really caught my attention, though, was her interest in photography. I was searching the area for some good food, and that’s when I saw her. She was sitting outside a little cafe with her camera, trying to get the perfect shot of a latte.”
He lifted his eyes to the sky searching here and there as if to summon an otherworldly energy to be able to continue on.
“Being so caught up in her camera, she didn’t see me approach her table. Once she saw my own camera, that was it from there. We spent that afternoon together snapping around this park. I may have snapped a photo of her, too.” Joseph laughed, recalling the memory.
I held onto his hand tighter, giving it a squeeze.
He looked at me in response.
“Why do you talk about Char —,” I cleared my throat, “her in the past tense?”
This time he was the one squeezing my hand and I quickly braced myself for what was to come.
“She was murdered, Sienna.”
Before I had the chance to ask how it happened, let alone react, he went on.
“It was my last week in Paris and we had just come back from seeing the Eiffel Tower.”
That must have been the same day in the photo I saw on his bedroom wall. The last photo he and Charlotte took together.
“I told her I’d be leaving for the States soon, so she wanted to spend as much time with me as possible. At the tower I was probably the happiest I’d ever been in my life,” he said.
“And you never wanted to forget that moment, did you?” I asked in a whisper.
“Never,” he said, shaking his head. “She gave her camera to a lady who was kind enough to take a photo of us. Out of nowhere the wind blew by us and made her hair catch flight in the most elegant way. The camera caught her giggling about it.”
“I, on the other hand, looked like a twelve-year-old boy who’d been caught with his Nintendo after dark,” he said, tugging on the ends of his hair with his free hand.
“When Charlotte got her camera back, the cap was missing. We asked the lady who took the photo, but she said there wasn’t one to take off in the first place. I told her I’d check on the ground and she went to the bakery we visited earlier in the day.”
Joseph stopped abruptly, trying to catch his breath.
“You don’t have to go on if it’s too much,” I reassured him.
“No, it’s fine. I just haven’t talked about her in so long, but I know I should,” he said.
I didn’t say anything and continued rubbing the back of his hand with my thumb, though I can’t remember when I started.
“I found the lens cap about 15 feet away, but when I turned around to walk to the bakery... I- I saw it happen right in front of me, Sienna. She was on the crosswalk on her way back to me when some bastard came speeding through the intersection.”
I gasped silently.
“My screams were louder than any of the sirens that flooded the area. It felt like my soul left my body when I saw her fly over the hood of the car... I ran so fast wanting to catch her head before it hit the ground, but I was too late.”
At this point I was Joseph’s lifeline. He was holding onto me like I was the only thing keeping him from being swept away by the tidal wave of emotions that were threatening to drown him.
“The EMTs couldn’t leave the ambulance fast enough. Charlotte was spitting up blood and I kept screaming and screaming that someone come and fucking help her. She was quivering in my arms, and held her until her chest raised and fell one last time.”
I didn’t see the tears, but I felt them as they left Joseph’s eyes. One by one, they splattered down on our clasped hands.
“I refused to let her go then... God, I never cried so hard. I was delirious. The next thing I knew, I was being pried from her body and a needle was being jabbed into my shoulder. I don’t remember much after that,” he finished, his grip on my hand beginning to loosen.
“I’m s-so sorry...” I hiccuped, covering my mouth to stifle my cries. It didn’t help much. Joseph wrapped his arms around me and began stroking my hair. Part of me didn’t like that. I was the one who was supposed to be comforting him, yet he was consoling me.
“I am so sorry, Joey,” I said again, in between my heavy sobs.
“Shhh. It’s okay,” he whispered, soothingly rubbing my back. “It’s been two years. It doesn’t hurt so bad anymore, but I do still miss her sometimes.”
After a few deep breaths, I collected myself and faced him. He brought a gentle hand to my face and wiped under my eyes with his thumbs. Without much thinking, I lifted my hand to reciprocate and he let me.
We wiped away each other’s tears.
He allowed himself to be vulnerable with me on a new level and I adored him so much more for it. He gave me a watery smile.
“If I’m being honest, part of the reason why I was so harsh to you when you asked is because I didn’t want us to be that close. But even the walls I’d spent so long building couldn’t withstand your power.”
Joseph spoke with his eyes trained on mine and every word that left his mouth was like an individual weight being lifted from my heavy heart.
“Charlotte- she was an amazing girl. I’d only known her for a couple of weeks and just as quickly as she stepped into my life, she was ripped out of it. We met, what, four months ago? I’ve already gotten so attached to you. I don’t know what I’d do if you were taken from me too... The thought alone makes me sick. Now with my father being in the condition he is- it’s just insane.”
“I am so sorry about your father, and even more so about you losing Charlotte the way you did- I can’t imagine the pain you felt.” Taking his hand that rested on my cheek, I placed it in my lap and entwined our fingers together again.
“But I want you to know that you don’t have to worry about losing me. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. I know you’re scared, but I am too. We’ll get through this together, all of it. David will wake up before you know it, and soon, he’ll be back home with you and Marlene.”
Joseph took our clasped hands and placed them over his heart. I felt the rapid beating which made my own heart pick up.
The stars were bright in the night sky and he looked at me as if I were one of them. His eyes that glimmered with adoration penetrated my soul.
He leaned in slowly and stole my breath in a deep kiss. A kiss in which I felt his fears, his doubts, and worries. But also his trust, his mutual need for me, and something much stronger. Dare I say I could feel love.
He smiled at me for the first time tonight as we pulled apart. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Joey. Do you feel any better now that you’ve gotten everything out?”
“I do. I feel a lot better. Thank you for listening to me... and for letting me use your hand like a stress ball.”
We both chuckled.
“Come here,” I said, pulling him into a tight hug. “You’ll never, and I mean never, have to face anything alone.”
We separated once more and I took this chance to quickly check my phone. It was now 3:30. I didn’t realize how long we’d been out here talking, but I wanted Joseph to rest. He coincidentally yawned as I sat my phone back in my lap.
“You should go home and get some sleep, big guy.”
“I should, shouldn’t I?” he asked, lazily smiling at me.
“Yes. You deserve a few hours of peace. To say you’ve had a long day would be an understatement.”
“You’re right, and I don’t wanna keep you up any longer.”
“I don’t mind at all, really. Initially, I thought you called because you wanted to go on a late night adventure. I was ready to bite your head off.”
“Hmm. Not tonight, Mariposa. I’ll admit the idea seems interesting, but we’ll have to keep it on the back burner for now.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
We both stood up from the curb and I placed one last kiss on his cheek that was salty from the tears that stained it.
“Goodnight, Joseph. Sleep well.”