I was in a red rage. Shock and surprise, and hurt and betrayal, all boiled down into real, festering anger boiling around the top of my stomach and the base of my lungs. I don’t remember the journey back from his house at all. No idea what I saw, or which way I went. All I remember is the ringing of my heels on the pavement and the shallow, rasping pant of air in my chest. After months of trying to talk myself out of thinking he was cheating on me, or slipping away from me, finding out that he was sneaking around behind my back with some arse-wipe medic from an FOB in the armpit of nowhere was just the fucking end. The. End.
“Darling!” I spat, pulling a face at the memory of that sound escaping her lips before she’d yanked him in for a kiss. No way I was ever kissing Caleb's lips again. Not after she’d been all over them. Fuck that. He could keep her, and may they be happy together, I raged as I flew up the garden path.
My phone was vibrating in my pocket as I slammed the front door shut behind me, red hair swirling about my shoulders. I caught my reflection in the mirror as it swung round, and smirked at the flaming banshee I saw glaring back at me. Too bad I can't rain fiery destruction down on that trashy little spitfire Millie, I thought sourly as I kicked off my boots, watching with huge satisfaction as they spun off and smacked into the skirting board with a final clunk.
"You only just left!" Kit's voice rang curiously from the kitchen. "You just missed Luke on the phone," he added, my heart lurching and plummeting.
"You serious?" I blasted.
"Yeah," he said, still in the kitchen. "Not much to report, just a quick update."
I fought off tears, but on reflection it was probably a good thing that I hadn't spoken to him. I didn't want to have to tell my super successful twin about my hopeless failings.
Perhaps Kit read more in my silence than I thought I'd put in, because he quickly said, "Alyssa, is everything ok?"
"Ha!" I retorted, adding flatly, "No, Kit, everything is not fucking ok. I just missed the chance to talk to Luke, and right after I find that Caleb -" I spat his name with acid venom, "- was just locking lips with the medic from his old unit. On the fucking doorstep of his house and everything!"
"What?" He wasn’t used to my language being quite so foul, and I think I must have shocked him a bit. The harsh scrape of the chair on the bare kitchen floor told me he was on his way to see me.
But I didn't want to be seen.
I wanted to go to my room and be completely alone, feeling like a girl on prom night, betrayed by her best friend or something. It was all weird, and petty, and a huge shock that was somehow simultaneously not entirely unexpected, but excruciatingly hurtful all the same. What had he been doing? How long had it been going on? Questions tore through my mind.
"Yeah," I said disconsolately, setting my socked foot to the first step, hand choking the banister on my right. "I'm not in the mood to talk about it though. It was just the catalyst for the end, I think." I began to trudge up the stairs, my insides storming. But the echo of the words 'the end' made the frayed ends of my barely-tethered emotions split, and I stopped, crouching down, clinging to the banisters, hanging down off my arms onto my heels like a caged chimp at the zoo, feeling tears welling up inside me. "I thought it was all going to be so great when we first started," I sobbed, hair masking my face, plastering strands to my blotchy pale skin with the salt tears that ran down my face. “I thought he was… you know… a nice guy…”
Kit, standing below me in the hallway, looking up at me with large, clear eyes, said, "I know. It's not your fault though.”
“Why does it feel like I didn't do enough then?” I whined. “Why does it feel like I’ve failed him so that he had to look elsewhere for whatever I wasn’t giving him? Why does it feel like I’m not enough?” I was sobbing, losing it.
“Because it's shitty, and that's how breakups work,” he said patiently. “Go and take a bath or something, head to bed - you'll feel a bit better in the morning."
"Ugh, don't treat me like a child, Kit!" I snapped, standing suddenly, forgetting that he himself had been through something considerably worse with his fiancée not all that many months before. I caught him shrug a smile as I twisted and raced up the stairs.
Alone in my room, lonely as a monolith, I paused in the centre of the space and surveyed the scene. To me it looked like those museums where they dress rooms up to represent a moment in time: an Edwardian lady's dressing room, a WWII bunker, Alyssa bedroom pre-betrayal...
My phone was going again.
Once I'd picked up the clothes from the floor and tidied away some pliers that I'd brought upstairs to fix a necklace clasp, and straightened the rug in front of the dressing table, and wiped the makeup smears off the mirror, and kicked some errant shoes back into my wardrobe, I gave a soft hiccup and stood still for a moment. With a sigh, I dragged my clothes off my body and flung them like contaminated objects into the laundry basket, and went numbly to have a shower.
The water was too hot, but I let it sting my poor pale skin and felt the weight of my long, wet, red hair hang down my back. I missed Caleb's soft, exploratory, respectful hands already. My body ached for them, but the thought of them on her disgusted me. I hated her for what she represented: before the accident, Caleb probably wouldn't have looked twice at plain, red-haired me. I had no talent for saving lives, or strategy, or lap-dancing, or whatever the fuck it was that she could do, but in a way, his injuries had given me a chance to get to know him. And yet still he had wanted her, deadly and beautiful as a Beretta, with her killer body and her life-saving hands. And she had to come muscling back in and take him from me. "Fucking little shit," I spat, regretting it instantly as the bitter taste of shampoo filled my mouth in a stream of innocent white bubbles. I spat like a farm hand into the shower tray, and started to rinse the shampoo out.
The frequent messages from her that he tried to hide from me, or deliberately avoided telling me about, had been like drops of acid into limestone, forming a huge, empty void in our relationship, eaten away by his silence and my jealousy. I scrubbed the last bubbles from my hair and leaned back into the jet of water again to let it cover me, enveloping and cocooning me in its flow. Maybe I could just dissolve away, I thought. Maybe I never have to leave here and it’ll all just disappear. . Get a grip.
Towel wrapped around my head in a turban, wet hair ends dripping out down my back, I returned to my room and climbed into my baggiest, ugliest, pyjamas and curled into bed.
I had an answerphone message and six texts, four of which were missed call notifications.
Deciding I'd only wake up at 2am wondering what he'd said, I took a deep breath and read the messages first. I didn't want to hear his voice just yet, and that delicious, beautiful stammering of his.
I'm sorry, the first message began, which instantly made that red anger well up. "Are you really?" I snarled at the iridescent screen in front of me. "Because you didn't look very sorry when you had that woman wrapping herself around your waistband!"
I'm sorry. It should never have got to the point where that happened at all. I'm sorry for not talking to you about being in touch with her again, and for not seeing what was going on. Being blind is no excuse there. I'm also sorry you saw it – it wasn't exactly what it looked like, but again I'm not an expert... Can we talk? Please come round and let me talk it through with you. Caleb.
I read it through a couple more times, analysing it more closely than any exam text I'd ever been given at school. As hurt as I absolutely was by what I'd seen, something both impressed and galled me in his tone: he neither denied, nor apologised for, kissing her. Did he think that by being all grovelling that I'd just forgive him? And all that 'yes I'm blind but that's no excuse' guff came off like a pity parade. A couple of times in our relationship I'd seen him pull the disability card to get his way, never from me, but I knew he wasn't above doing it. Was he doing it now? I couldn't tell, and anger knotted in my stomach.
I opened the next message.
Alyssa, please, tell me you'll come over tomorrow and talk it through with me.
His answerphone message was mostly stutter and not much content, but it mirrored his texts in its tone. He took a good fifteen seconds to get past the 'L' in my name, and another two minutes to say essentially the same as he'd said in his second text. Ignoring the sudden heat between my legs at the sound of his voice, which only made me more upset, I blasted back a very simple message.
No, Caleb. I'm not coming over. I don't want to talk. You and Millie kissed, but that's not the only thing that's been going wrong lately. Maybe it's for the best that we just end it here and be done with it. Don't message me again.
Please don't say that, came an instant reply. Please, please don't say that. I don't want 'us' to end at all, but if we are, please don't let us part on these terms.
Before I had a chance to think about whether I was going to respond to his text, my phone lit up in my hand and practically screamed ‘Caleb calling!’ at me in its white, clean, clinical font. I didn't even let it ring, shutting it off and lying staring up at the ceiling.
After a while, my heart rate fell again, and the shadows in the corners of the room seemed to get darker, my little side lamp casting less and less light the longer I stared at a small crack in the plasterwork on the ceiling. With the decreasing light levels, I felt a darkness in my own mind, and, unusually for a girl who likes to bottle everything up and never talk to anyone, I found I wanted to hear a friendly voice. Kit was probably in bed by now, and besides, I didn't want to talk to him. After entertaining the idea of going to Emily, and rejecting it almost instantly because I knew I couldn't face the idea of hearing her natter about how the wedding plans were going, which would inevitably happen as she tried to distract me, I fired my phone up again, punched Kay’s contact details on my phone, ignoring the two answerphone messages, and waited.
“Alyssa, it's late. You ok?” came her husky voice.
“No… Not ok…” I mumbled.
“What happened?” concern flooded her voice. “You sound dreadful. You need me to come over?”
I'd barely said a word, but my friend knew me too well. “No. Maybe tomorrow,” I said.
“Sweetie, what's wrong?” she pressed gently. “Is it Luke?”
“No,” I said quietly. I suddenly didn't want to say it out loud to anyone else.
“Come on, sweetie, talk to me,” she said kindly.
"Ugh," I complained, “It’s Caleb.”
“Go on,” her voice was softly insistent.
“You know that girl Millie I was telling you about? The spectacular one from his old unit?” She said nothing, but made a noise of encouragement. “I told you how they've been texting quite a lot, which I'm not sure he knows that I know, but anyway… And I went over tonight to surprise him, and to try and make things work better between us, to talk about the fact that we’re not really talking much… and I find her on his doorstep, wrapping her arms around him and one hand down his jeans, calling him ‘darling’ and kissing him.” There. I'd said it out loud. And no, it didn't feel any better. In fact, it felt worse.
Vulnerable and wobbly, I began to relive the whole thing all over again, in vivid detail, and the tears that I had locked away in shame suddenly sprang to my eyes and I sank back into my pillow and began to howl.
“Oh, sweetie,” she sighed. “That’s rough. You sure you don't want me to come over? I actually made some of those brownies today that you love so much… Or I could come over tomorrow and we could go to the lake?”
“No,” I said, laughing suddenly despite my tears. I was way overreacting. “No it's ok. I just wanted to hear a friendly voice. I'm ok. Or at least, I think I will be.” A message beep in the background told me he was either calling me again or that he'd left me another answerphone, but I didn't even bother to check. “I’m just going to chill out and resume service as normal..."
"Hun, that's an awfully boring way of getting through this, are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I just... I just wanted to hear a friendly voice." I was rapidly regretting not sticking to my normal behaviour and bottling everything up. "I'm ok, I'll be ok, honest, I'm fine," I said. "And thank you."
"Look," she said, clearly knowing her audience. "Just ring me tomorrow ok, so I know you're not hanging from your curtain rail.."
"It's not that bad," I said, the words sounding strange, unnervingly like the way a lie sounds when you say it to someone who trusts you.
When I'd hung up, I lay on my bed and began to drift idly back through my relationship with Caleb. Strange, halting, nervous, fun, silly, awkward, snappy... It had had everything you'd expect from a budding relationship, but I still couldn't read the words 'guide dog' without cringing at the way he'd growled at me at Amy's match, and my heart beat colder when I thought about his tendency to behave like an old man in a care home if he was having a bad day with any or all of his disabilities... Maybe he just wasn't the right man for me. Some people are saints, made for saving their partners before settling down and having the white picket fence, two kids and a dog, but I wasn't. I just wanted my equal, which I had thought he was, but I'd clearly overlooked the challenges of dating disability because I was in awe of this handsome sweetheart: a rifleman, a chosen man; my Sharpe, my hero...
The more I lay there as the darkness pressed in against the feeble light of my bedside lamp, the more I thought what a stupid choice I'd made in him. We'd had some good times, but it did feel like the glue that held our relationship together was largely animal attraction. I mean, the man was absolutely gorgeous, so how could I not be drawn to him, with his chiseled cheekbones and his unusual, searching hands. But he was sweet too. Or not. What did I know? I was deeply attracted to him, and he seemed to be to me, but how much did we really have in common? He was active, only inactive by necessity when his leg forced him to be, while I was a massive slob; he had been in the army and had had some truly awful things happen right in front of his eyes while the most drama I'd had to date was probably actually finding Caleb on the floor back in December. Most of our meetings had been after work drinks, or weekends around work - all early dates material - which had been heart-flutteringly lovely, but we'd oscillated between my taking care of him, and his taking care of me, especially with my episode with Emily on Christmas Eve. Maybe I could get into opera, I thought with a countering wave of optimism. "," I moaned, rolling over. "Go to sleep, and stop obsessing." I was getting my noodle in a tangle and it was getting me nowhere.
I didn't want to know what his latest messages said, and so I ignored them and shut the light off.
smile on the following morning instantly irritated me. " up, doll?" he asked as he took a polishing cloth to a silver brooch.
"Doll?" I sneered, shrugging my bag strap further up my shoulder while the brass bell above the door clanged with enervating optimism. I fought the urge to turn tail and run for the sofa at home.
"Ach," he smirked, his Irish accent carefree and light, letting him off the hook by its sheer cheeriness, "Come on, it's Friday, last day of the week, the weekend is almost upon us. It's my birthday tomorrow by the way, and here you are with a face like a horse on the way to the knacker's yard."
"I broke up with Caleb last night, so excuse me for not being a little ray of sunshine today..."
"Ah fuck," he swore softly. "I'm sorry. That's rough. I thought you guys were doing well - didn't you go to the opera and everything?"
"Yeah, we were doing well," I said, shrugging my coat off as the weather was on the turn from chilly spring to summery spring, and I was beginning to acquire a sheen of sweat. "Until I surprised him last night to find him snogging some girl from his old unit... That kind of put the brakes on things..."
"Fuck, that's not fun," he said, putting the brooch back into its box and leaning casually on the counter.
I ran my hand through my hair and discovered as I reached about half way down that I'd not even brushed it that morning. Gross. "I'm just going to focus on my work this morning and see how it goes..."
I dropped a sapphire and spent half an hour looking for the bugger, melted a couple of settings, and broke an ungodly number of piercing saw blades before I got into my rhythm just before lunchtime. Fishing my phone out of my bag to see the time, I saw Caleb's name next to the message icon, and the number five, but ignored them, scrolling through to Emily's name. Stop trying so hard, Caleb, I thought, but I had to hand it to him for his determination.
Pre-wedding photo shoot this weekend! It's at the lake if you and Caleb want to come and laugh at us for a bit! E xxx
The first message I typed in response I had to rework because it was too bitter. The second lacked emotion entirely, I realised too late as I hit send. Broke up with Caleb last night, so probably not the most fun thing I could imagine doing this weekend...
Sweetie I'm sorry! typed back. How are you doing? You want to go out and get hideously drunk on Saturday night?
I didn't reply, not knowing what I wanted, and headed out into the main shop just as was heading out on lunch break. "You fancy grabbing a bite?" he asked, pausing on the threshold, door open, light pouring in from the sunny .
"Sure," I said, voice dead as I felt.
"Come on, lass," he said. "Let's cheer you up..."
Suddenly my boss' voice barked from behind the counter, "Cheer you up? What's the matter?"
She wasn't the most maternally-minded of women, and the concern surprised me. "Breakup issues," I said quietly, warily.
Her expression softened. Maybe Miss Chapman understood better than I'd have thought she would about affairs of the heart. "I'm sorry to hear that." Her eyes shot to the back room where 'the elves', as and I had come to joke, did all the work, and she asked, "Did you get that resizing job done?"
Mercifully I had, and I also hadn't melted the entire thing. Bonus. I nodded. "It's in its box on the edge of my workbench..."
"Perfect. That was the most pressing. Why don't you start the weekend early?"
My eyebrows sky-rocketed. "You don't mind?"
She shook her head. "I've got things I want to do anyway. I'll close up early, if that is alright with you too, ?"
He nodded. "Sure is," he chirped. "Come on lass, let's go to the pub and have a lunchtime pint to celebrate an early weekend?"
I had to hand it to him: the man was the true Irish optimist. Who'd have thought that the terrified schoolgirl and the one-time bully would be bonding over my breakup issues? I had to laugh. "Why not?"
It was an added plus that he didn't chose the same pub that Caleb and I liked to go to, and we headed up the street into the very centre of town to where a creaking sign gave its name to the Red Bull.
Halfway through my pint, and through one of stories about business school antics with his friends from Dublin, I commented on how they sounded like a laugh, and he suddenly said, "Hey, listen, why don't you come along to ? We're all going to be here in town tomorrow for a good piss up... Bring Emily too if she's around. It'd be good to see her again. And you say she's engaged?" I nodded, still undecided as to whether I really wanted a boozy night with a bunch of Irish lads, "Well," he laughed, sitting back in his seat, "Who'd have thought she'd have a man! She was always such a common little at school, but don't tell her I said that. I'm sure she's grown up now..."
"I'll ask her if she wants to come," I said, rooting in the depths of my bag for my phone and ignoring his dialect comment about Emily's schooldays promiscuity.
He leaned forward and finished off his pint before asking, "So that means you'll come?"
"I guess so," I said. "If comes..."
"Typical," he chuckled.
"Girls always hunt in packs..."
"You want to be wary of girls who hunt alone," I said darkly.
He laughed again, and nodded. "True, they're the dangerous ones! But there's fun to be had in a bit of danger..."
I ignored him and hit send, getting a message back from her shortly in the affirmative. I couldn't tell if she was going just to get me out of the house or because she thought it'd be fun, though I suspected the former. "She's coming."
"Excellent," he said, slamming his hand jovially down on the table before rising and getting us both another pint.
voice rang up the stairs as Kit let her in the next evening. "Alyssa , you'd better not still be in your pyjamas!"
"Kit, you're a bloody traitor," I yelled back, getting a burst of laughter from the pair of them. A minute later, I was tottering down the stairs in some heels with a short skirt and a tight vest, long red hair curled loosely and hanging down my back in softly springy coils.
"Damn," Kit breathed, surprised at the transformation from slob to slut.
Emily smacked him in the chest and said, "And what he really means is 'breakups look good on you'. Let's go." I was pleased to note that she was wearing an equally skimpy outfit, heels about as high as mine, as we made our way to Kit's car.
He dropped us off and we met inside the slightly tired interior of in town. It felt like a mixture between a crappy casino and a bar, but the music was good, and the drink was cheap, so we headed to the bar and ordered the strongest things we could think of. Great start.
An hour later, sitting with Emily, and a couple of his friends, I licked my lips and slammed the shot glass down onto the slick wood of the table. “You’re drunk,” Em giggled, hardly the picture of sobriety herself.
“I am not,” I said with a defiantly cheeky grin. “I am coping in an adult and responsible manner. It’s entirely different.”
roared with laughter and howled like a wolf. "That's it, girl!" he called. "Let's get you another!"
"Make that two!" Emily called after him as he wound through the crush to the bar, receiving a wave of a hand in response from . She turned to me and giggled. "He was a total dick at school," she said conspiratorially, "But he's actually kind of cool now!"
"He's still a dick," grinned his friend, sitting beside Emily said, "But yeah, birthday boy's not all bad!"
Music thumped in my ears as midnight blurred past, and the memories of the past four months or so faded behind a solid base and some horribly flashing blue and green lights, while moments of remembered brightness in my mind surfaced with horrible clarity and annoying frequency. One of friends, a dark-haired, dark-eyed Irishman with a jaw like an anvil tapped me on the shoulder, and, dazed and drunk in the half light of the whirling colours above, I thought for a heartbeat that it was Caleb. I wanted to feel him next to me, to feel the warmth of his weight pressing into mine, holding each other up.
I wanted him to stand behind me, to rest those broken hips against me and I ached to look back over my shoulder and trace his jawline, watch his eyes flutter closed. Lines blurred, realities shifted for me, and I wasn't sure whether it was Caleb or this new guy I was seeing, wanting, touching. Turning, I felt solid pecs beneath my palms, sculpted arms, the warmth of a growing sweat, smelled tequila and wondered if it was his breath or mine. His hands were on my body, rough, clumsy, rude, but the contact felt good. Vindictively wrong, but good. With a tug on my arse to shove me into his sweaty body, friend pulled me into him and we moved together to the beat of the track. My hips swayed, and I felt him growing hard against me. I still had it.
There was a sourness behind the sweetness of his cologne, but I kept shoving it to the back of my mind as I danced with him, body on autopilot, beat taking over, moving me, stamping my feet softly side to side to match the music, feeling him on me. I lifted my chin and saw his lips part. He leaned a little lower, though we matched heights pretty well thanks to my heels. He moved towards me, and I nibbled my lower lip. It'd been a while since I'd snogged a stranger in a club. A thrill of dirty horror that went through me right before a sharp dig in my ribcage broke my rhythm and I watched his eyes flick from my face to the woman beside me. It was Emily.
Irritation flared in my chest, I ground my teeth together, and I turned on her. "What?" I snarled.
Her steady gaze surprised me. She'd had as much to drink as I had, but somehow she was the grown-up. Did an engagement rock on her finger entitle her to pull morality-rank on me? I had been about to add something else when she said, "Kit's outside," and turned on her sparkling heel and walked away.
I pouted at my nameless dance partner, shrugged a rapid farewell, and caught eye. Heading over to him on the way out, I said, "Listen, it was good tonight. Thanks... I'm heading back now though."
"You quitting on me already?" he grinned, brandishing his drink in one hand. "The night is still young!"
"My ride's here," I said, and as reality sank in behind the alcohol in my blood, I realised what a first class tit I had nearly been. "And I'm done..."
"Corey not good enough for you?" he said with a wink.
I looked back over my shoulder just in time to catch him turn away and hook a new dance parter out of the group on the dance floor. "I don't think he'll miss me," I said sharply. "Thanks again, ," I said, turning to head out after Emily, but he grabbed me softly by the wrist, promptly and politely letting go while he spoke.
"Listen, don't be too harsh on yourself, ok?" he said, his continuing concern disconcerting to my mistrusting ears. "Don't beat yourself up..."
His blue eyes were hugely round, and in the haze of the room around me, surprisingly clear. I smiled and stepped a little closer, looping my arm up around his shoulder and hugging him in what I had hoped would be a short but sincere embrace, but I lost my balance a bit and had to use him to buttress myself up for a moment.
"Steady lass," he chuckled, setting me upright again with a chaste hand on my upper arm. "See on Monday."
A blush stung my cheeks as I walked carefully towards the big plate glass doors and out onto the street beyond. His behaviour was so different from what I remembered from school, and from what I'd have imagined of him in a social context, that it made me ashamed. He'd changed, but I was still a petty little schoolgirl, drinking to get over it instead of growing the fuck up and going to talk it through with Caleb. Deciding not to worry about keeping Kit and waiting, I drew out my phone and texted Caleb. His previous messages, some ten in total, though I was too bleary to count them, were all various stages of pleading and reason, and all I'd done is childishly ignore them. "Can I come talk tomorrow?" I sent, locking the phone with a clanging heart, and heading to the car waiting just a few yards along the road. I hoped it'd be too late for him to pick it up that night.
was already in the back seat when I climbed in, and Kit leaned over from the driver's seat and chuckled, "I'm not diseased you know! You don't have to sit in the back..."
"Continues the chauffeur fantasy," Emily grinned, looking sideways at me with a quick glance to gauge my emotions.
"Fine," Kit sighed. "Christopher , engineer, chauffeur and housemate extraordinaire. Please put your seat backs and tray tables in the upright position as we prepare for take-off..."
"Air steward too?" I smiled, fighting a surge of nausea as he pulled out and did a U-turn in the empty street. He didn't respond and I looked at Emily and blinked silently a couple of times before sighing. "Thanks, for that..."
She shook her head and looked kindly at me. "Don't worry about it. I just didn't want you to do anything you'd regret."
"I texted him," I admitted after a pause.
I nodded. "Asked to talk tomorrow."
"Good," she said. "At least it'll give you some closure."
I sighed. "You think?"
She added a nod of her own and flicked her hair back off her face, silver earrings tinkling. "Yeah, just..."
"Just what?" I didn't like the trepidation in her voice.
"Just... Ok, don't hate me for saying this, but just be patient with him, ok?" I frowned but she ploughed on. "Hear him out... When I met you guys a while back, I was struck by how completely in love with you he was. I just think there has to be more to it than you've had the chance to see, ok?"
I bit my tongue and nodded, car-sickness mixing with my nerves about tomorrow to form a curdling, acidic emulsion in my chest. It wasn't going to be easy.
To my surprise, it was Nan who opened the door to me the next day when I knocked. Her expression was neutral, and I knew he'd told her I was coming. She stepped back from the door and held it open for me without a word. Good start, I thought sarcastically. I levered my plain shoes off and took off my little jacket, shining runs of rain water tracking down the fabric from the inclement weather outside. "Here," she said, reaching out a hand for my coat. "Let me put that in the kitchen. Come with me, will you?" she added, in an 'interrogative imperative' voice: a command (barely) disguised as a polite question. I obeyed.
"I'm glad I got to catch you before you see him," she said. Her tone was not accusatory, or belittling, as I'd maybe expected, but instead she was quietly gentle with me. "I... I know Caleb wants to talk to you about that night, and it's not really my place to get involved in any of this, of course, but I just wanted to tell you something. Will you sit?" she asked, gesturing to an old wooden stool and drawing up a chair from the kitchen table. "I won't keep you long. He'll get suspicious, but it won't take long anyway."
My heart rate skyrocketed but I was compliant as a lamb.
She looked at me with watery green eyes, and her lips puckered thoughtfully before she began. "You should know that you've been the best thing that happened to our little boy since he came back after he was hurt." My heart lurched. "He... he suffered more than he let us know... with depression as well as the pain. I don't think he wanted it to affect Amy any more than it had to, but he'd often go days without speaking to us, hardly eating, and others he'd seem fine. He evened out when he met you. No real lows... you know?" She rubbed the back of her hand with the other, gold bracelet clinking musically. "The girl he was being stupid with that night -"
"-Millie," I supplied darkly.
"Yes," she said, her voice calm still. "Yes, Millie, she represents a time in his life when he was everything he could have been, everything he worked so hard to achieve. The contrast for him between before that moment, and afterwards, is so stark - lights on, lights off if you like – that, well, a reminder from before, of how he was..." There was a voice from the stairwell, footfalls on the steps. "I think it wasn't just temptation." I must have looked puzzled, because she added. "It's not about Millie for him, at all. It's about being who he was before. I just think you should bear that in mind, alright?" she said as she began to stand. She added in a whisper, "I'm not saying he didn't act like an imbecile," she smiled, "Because he did. But just remember his reasons when you make your decision..."
I didn't have time to digest what she said, and left the room having said just one word the whole time. I did have time to realise that that one word was probably ninety percent of the problem. I was so focused on that one moment with Millie that I was forgetting about Caleb, and all the events that led up to it. But that series of events and decisions included him shutting down and not talking to me, lying to me about contact with her, not telling me what was going on... All the leaves stirred up inside me and I couldn’t see the path for the swirling debris.
And there he was, descending the last stair in his socks, jeans hiding the brace, pale grey t-shirt clinging to his body in a way that was nothing short of an attempt at sabotage, shoulders hunched, hair mussed, glasses off. He reached the bottom and stood, one hand on his cane, the other holding the wall of the stairwell, listening.
I sighed. "Caleb?" I said, watching his knuckles blanche and his chest heave just once.
"Y-you want to c-come through?" he asked softly, jerking his head at the living room.
He went ahead, and walked straight for his comfy armchair, leaving the gaping sofa empty for me, with just the ghost of our previous encounters for company on the cushions. He lowered his body down into that chair and puffed out a long sigh when the brace's knee had released, palms resting flat on the armrests. I wasn't sure whether I should speak or not, so I didn't, and waited.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
"You want to tell me a bit more about it than that?" I fired.
He winced. He didn’t look quite as good as I'd thought he did, with dark, sleepless smudges beneath his eyes and a knot in his brow. "-what m-more do you w-want me to say, L-?" he asked dejectedly. "I t-told y-you who she is, and -what she meant to me, m-months ago..."
"I know you did, but you didn't tell me that you were back in contact with her, texting her, and you never brought it up, not once since New Year's..."
He nibbled his lower lip. "No."
"Why not?" I quizzed.
"-c-cause..." he said, an added vulnerability creeping into his expression, "I didn't -know how to. I didn't -know -what w-was g-g-going on r-really..."
Not good enough. "You were in touch, so what were you talking about?" I asked.
He sighed again. "This and that, nothing much really. Stuff in her life... She seemed to w-want to use me as a sounding board mostly... Every n-now and ag-again we'd t-talk about Afghan... Or army stuff..."
"Stuff I don't have clearance for, right?" I said sourly.
", don't be l-like that," he said. "Pl-please, it isn't l-like that..."
"If feels like that," I said, shuffling forward to the front of the sofa cushion and resting my chin on my hands, leaning on my knees. "It feels like I'm just filling in the gaps for you while you decide whether you want her or not."
So much for my promise to Emily, and to Nan, I thought as I watched his chest rise and fall rapidly for a second. "I'm sorry," he hissed, looking like he was on the verge of a PTSD panic attack. He bit it down and said, "I'm sorry I didn't t-talk to you..."
"What makes you feel you can't talk to me?" I pressed. This was horrible. I never should have come.
"I'm so -scared, L-..."
"Scared? Scared of what?"
"I'm a bomb w-waiting to g-go off, ," he said. "I w-was – am – terrified that if I tell y-you too much or -show you too much that y-you'll disappear forever..."
"You're afraid I'll freak out if I see the real Caleb?" I asked, heartbroken and angry at once. "So you'd rather live some cautious lie for four months or whatever? Is that it?" I could feel my temper rising, and it was gently pushing him further into the upholstered back of his chair with each blow I delivered. "Has anything been real then?"
"Fuck, ," he whispered. "It's all been real! That's -what's so g-god damned -scary..."
Be reasonable, Alyssa, I scolded myself. "Why couldn't you have told me that?" I said, softening just a fraction. "All this time, I..." I couldn't finish. I was too angry still.
"Damnit," he hissed, hands gripping the armrests, levering himself to his feet and limping towards the huge window at the end of the room where I'd watched him listening to the branch on the window after our first disagreement. "I w-wish I c-could see you," he said without turning away from the window.
"You think it'd make any difference?" I spat. "You'd just want her even more if you knew what I looked like in comparison."
"Don't say that," he growled, turning over his shoulder to face me, his own dark anger spreading across his features.
"Oh come on," I said, finding myself on my feet as well. "Banjo said it, and I saw it – the girl is fucking spectacular. She saved your life, Caleb, she's been with you through the deepest kind of shit that I could never even begin to imagine, she's more like you than I'll ever be!"
"But you saved me too," he said quietly, without stammering. "Y-you saved me."
My mind reeled, and I entirely rejected the idea. I'm not that kind of person. "I didn't do anything," I snorted. "I don't know how to do anything. I never know what I'm doing with you, whether it's right or not..."
"And there's the r-reason I didn't w-want to open up to you," he said. "I'm pretty fucking disabled, L-, though I don't always l-look it, and I've been terrified since the start that I'm too m-much for y-you to handle."
"But if you'd given me the chance to past that, let me work through it, it would have been just you and me, not you me and your disabilities..." I sounded horrendously naïve, even to my own ears, and he just snorted. "It doesn't have to be as big a deal for me as you make out," I said, taking half a step towards him, back foot rooted to the spot. "By not telling me what's going on, you keep me guessing, keep me nervous, so I keep fucking up around you and making you uncomfortable. That's why we aren't going to work, Caleb."
"I w-wish I c-could have seen that," he said, half a sob and half a sigh, full of self pity. "I n-never -should have k-kept it all back from you..."
"Lied about it, more like," I muttered darkly.
"I just c-couldn’t see how y-you r-reacted to things," he insisted, leaving the window and turning fully to face me.
I knew I wasn't listening and still I couldn't stop myself. "Then you have to ask! You're always playing the 'blind cripple' card, but you know, I'd stopped seeing that when I saw at you, except when you waved it my face when you ever felt awkward... But heck, I didn't really even see it the very first time I met you!" I raked a clawed hand through my red hair, feeling my face, hot and clammy, reddening as the rage set in.
"L-," he began, but I had to end it. It had to be over. I wasn't good for him, clearly I wasn't, and he just wasn't right for me. I couldn’t let him keep talking.
"Maybe I'm the blind one! And you know what? You... you deserve to be with her! You said she was lying and manipulating and pretending to be someone she wasn't, well maybe you're not so different!" I bulldozed over his hurt expression, afraid to go on and afraid to stop. "Maybe you'll be happy with her. You kissed her and then tried to manipulate me by pulling that card! You're not so different. I hope you're happy with her, Caleb. I was just too naïve for you, I see that now. But no matter what you feel, you don't mess around with someone else Caleb. You talk to me, you don't dick around behind my back." He began to speak again, but all my hurt and anger bubbled right up and I spat, "No, Caleb. Fuck you. Go be a happy DARLING to your army brat. I'm done. I'm done with you, you manipulating son of a bitch."
He was crushed. I remember that, looking back, but I was so angry, so worked up, so hurt, that I hadn't been able to control myself and contain my frightened, insecure rage, and I just let it all wash over him in a tsunami of blind rage. And it crushed him. His chest caved in, he staggered backwards wordlessly and collided with the wall behind him and I turned on the spot and marched down the corridor, forgetting to grab my coat, rammed my feet into my shoes and stormed down the path towards the front gate.
I heard his black cane clatter to the floor, abandoned by an involuntary jerk of his right hand. His act with her had made something snap in me, and my words had utterly crushed Caleb.
And that was how I left him, never imagining I'd ever go back. Funny how fate steps in, her footsteps silent on that intricate, Persian rug of life, pushing and directing its visitors down their appropriate corridors.
I arrived home soaked to the bone. No one was in, Kit had left me a note on the kitchen table, but I didn't read it. I sat in a seat by the back door, watching rain make little paths down the big pane of glass, shivering violently as my hair hung around me, sticking to my face. I don’t know how long I sat there.
I didn't hear Kit come back in, but the sound of shopping bags being set down on the kitchen floor made me jump and I looked around to see Kit's face, white, eyes wide. "Alyssa," he said, crossing to me in three large strides. "Alyssa, what happened?" I was still shaking, and I was frozen. "How long have you been like that?" He said, taking my shoulders in his hands. "Come on, let's get you upstairs. Let's get you some warm clothes..."
I was wordless, drained by what I'd said to Caleb, what he'd said to me, but one thing was certain in my mind. I was not right for him. I couldn’t bear the crosses he'd assigned himself to carry, and he probably wouldn't let me try anyway. Millie could though. She understood. I didn't. I wasn't her.
Kit's hands guided me up the stairs, and as we passed the bathroom, he grabbed a small towel and told me to dry my hair. I took it from him, my fingers stiff and clumsy, and I dropped it.
"Come on, ," he said sternly as I tried again.
My limbs were heavy, and I'd stopped shaking. I was tired. "Let me sleep," I said.
"Not until you've warmed up," he said. "Get undressed." He began to order me around as I took my clothes off. He fished a t-shirt from my drawer and rammed it over my head while I crossed my arms awkwardly in front of chest. "Come on, Alyssa," he said. "I'm not looking. Put your arms in." He shoved a hoody and then a fluffy dressing gown over me, and waited while I peeled my jeans off, struggling against the hypothermia as it threatened to take over. Once they were off my waist, he pulled them down my blueish legs, and said, "Put these on," holding some clean underwear at me. "And put your pyjama bottoms on too while I go make you a hot chocolate. Stay in bed under that duvet."
He came back in just as I was drifting off, and shook me awake. I groaned and grumbled, but he made me sit up and drink what he'd made me. Then, with a warm drink in me and my limbs returning to normal temperatures, I curled up in the duvet and slept.
Kit let me sleep for seventeen hours, waking me gently at ten o'clock on Monday morning. "Hey," he said quietly as I came round. "How you doing?"
My body was lead, and I was amazed I wasn't sinking into the mattress. Like, I was completely preoccupied by the fact that I had not disappeared into it.
He put his hand on my forehead and said, "You're burning up."
That was the last thing I remembered for about a week. I vaguely recalled a doctor visiting, and being given some medication and told to rest up and that I'd get better in a while, but mostly I just slept. I don't know if it was getting soaked that made me sick, or the emotional exhaustion of shouting awful things at Caleb.
Finally I got back to work, cracking jokes about me not being able to hold my liquor and bragging jokily about what a great night it must have been for me to have needed an entire week off, and mostly I just ignored him and focussed on my work, just sharing the odd lunchbreak with him.
It was towards the end of that otherwise uneventful week, however, when I was coming home late after the bus got stuck in a traffic jam that I knew something was wrong.
There were two people in uniform on my doorstep.
"Oh god," I said, dropping my bag to the wet pavement at my feet. "Oh god no."
The older of the two men turned walked slowly towards me, a soft expression on his face. "Ms ?" he asked.
"It's Luke, isn't it?" I said.
"May we come in and talk?" he said.
"Oh god," I said again. "Luke."