“Marketing!” Jenna storms without warning into my office. Today she is wearing a hideous yellow sweater and a pink flower in her hair. The colleague sitting at the desk across from me rolls her eyes and demonstratively puts her headphones on.
Jenna waves a bunch of papers in my face. I catch the logo of the start-up company for which we have applied. “I got a job offer! As part of the marketing department here in the city.”
I frown at her. “Marketing? Did you ask for that?”
“Well, I applied for programming but… during the interview I told them that I would be really interested in marketing, too.”
“Wow. Well… congratulations, I think?”
Jenna points to the pile of unopened letters on my desk, her eyebrows raised. Lately I really am not in the condition to work, or even open my mail. It has been more than a week since we searched Jacob’s house and called hospitals for half of the night and there is still no sign of him. I cannot stop thinking about him. I return to his prison-like house regularly, clinging to that tiny, miserable shred of hope that one day he will just be there again. Every time I step on the terrace to water the plants in Jacob's garden I imagine he would sit in the wicker chair, turn around and greet me with his small smile. It never happens.
There is also the other side, the one where I imagine him not alone, but in the company of that beautiful woman with auburn hair from the photo and with his child, maybe a boy with a snotty nose and a hole ripped in his pants at the knee or a girl with a pink sunhat and curly hair, around one year old probably. What if all he is doing is spending a nice vacation with his family at some lake or in the mountains? Real mountains, not the laughable hills we have here, that he showed to me.
“You must have gotten a letter, too,” Jenna cheers and brutally rips me from my thoughts.
“I don’t think-“
“Oh my god, oh my god!” Jenna fishes a letter from the middle of the heap with dead precision and dangles it in front of my eyes. “You got one, too! I told you, Cait!”
I stare at it unbelieving.
“Open it, open it! Oh my god, this is so exciting!” Jenna jumps up and down, eliciting an agonized groan from my co-worker.
I feel my heart rate increase as I open the letter. Can it be that they actually want to hire me? There must be a misunderstanding. I do not have high expectations, probably it is just an unusually early letter telling me that unfortunately I do not fit into their corporate image or bullshit like that.
Jenna reads aloud from over my shoulder. “Dear Miss Guo… blabla…thus we are pleased to inform you that we would like to welcome you as program manager, computer software. What. The. Fuck… Cait… Cait???”
I stare at the piece of paper in front of me, the black letters barely registering in my mind. I hear Jenna’s voice from far away.
“Oh. My. Goodness. This is the absolute jackpot of all lotteries, Cait. I can’t believe it.”
I turn the letter around, ready to see a hint that this is all a joke. Program manager? Surely there must be a mistake.
“Did you apply for that?”
I blink at Jenna. “No… I applied for back-end, of course.”
I have finished reading the letter and my heart sinks. “It’s in the capital,” I say hollowly, staring at the words.
Jenna sighs and squeezes my shoulder. “I know it’s not my place but… Don’t you think it would be good for you to get away from here? From all of this?” she says lowly.
I turn the letter around in my hand, unsure of what to do. Finally I take a pen and paper and write my response.
I immerse myself in work so I do not have to think of Jacob anymore and with every passing day it is getting better. I start looking for an apartment in the capital and as the days gradually grow hotter I stop passing by Jacob's house to water the garden. Every day that I hear nothing about neither Jacob nor Marcus I sleep a little deeper, eat a little better, feel a little more like myself again until things seem to be almost like they had before. I know of these stories, real stories of people vanishing without explanation to never turn up again, and I start to believe that I am part of one. When it happens, out of the blue, one ordinary day in the cafeteria.
Jenna is watching a point over my left shoulder, her lips a thin line. “It’s him.”
For a second the world tilts, sound tuning in and out while I stare at Jenna’s face, frozen with my fork halfway to my mouth and the words not correctly registering in my brain.
“Who?” I ask unnecessarily because I know exactly who, my voice a small squeak.
“Your second prince,” she adds, her face darkening. “Jacob.”
I force myself not to turn around and look while my pulse hammers in my throat. It is him, he is alive, he is okay… He came back! I swallow, trying not to burst into tears right away and place the fork down on the plate with suddenly trembling hands. I am not hungry anymore. Deep within myself something had given up, had tried to come to terms with the fact that I will never see him again and now that he is here I am so relieved, I feel sick from it. On the other hand, there is a strong urge within me to jump up and show the idiot what I am made of, give him a healthy slap across the cheek for scaring me to death. At the same time I want to grab Jacob’s beautiful face and kiss him until I am drowning. My head is swimming with the possibilities and instead of doing anything I stay seated and try to breathe. The photograph of that woman comes back to my mind, his arms around her, her hand on her belly.
Jenna’s face suddenly falls. “Oh my god! What happened to him?”
Before I can restrict myself I have swiveled around, my heart beating wildly in fear. Images pop up in front of my eyes of Jacob gravely injured, propped up in a wheelchair, looking like an inch from death and I have to fight against the sudden nausea to keep my food down that is sizzling as if it were alive in my stomach.
Relief pulses through my veins with sudden numbness spreading over my body as my eyes indeed find Jacob. He is limping along the glass wall separating the cafeteria from the hallway, his gaze sweeping across the hall. From afar he looks like I remember him, slowly swinging his left leg from his hip and leaning on his cane, a thin T-shirt barely covering his arms, the left one bent, fist tucked to his chest. I turn away again quickly, exhaling a shuddering breath. He seems okay.
Jenna blinks at me. “Did he get hurt? You never told me-“
Oh… that! I nearly laugh out loud because the situation is so ridiculous. I actually never told her. “No, he didn’t,” I mumble.
“Then what’s wrong with him?” Jenna demands to know, her eyes still wide.
I clench my teeth. “Nothing is wrong with him,” I grate.
Jenna’s eyes turn to me again. “Sorry…” she says, sounding confused. “I just thought… never mind… Um… I think he has seen you and he is coming here.”
I jump up from my seat. “I don’t want to talk to him.” My eyes fly around the cafeteria, over people milling, chatting and eating. I feel panic at the prospect of hearing the truth. I do not want to learn it, never. Not now, at least.
Jenna nods, gripping her water glass firmly. “Take the exit through the terrace. I got this.”
Sometimes I could kiss her. I turn and flee, squeezing past people sitting at the tables over their lunch, calling angrily after me when I bump into their backs or the edge of a table in my haste, without taking a glance back.
The thought of staying the night in my small and lonely apartment makes me panic. I have passed many a night at Jenna’s since the breakup from Marcus and also today I stand on her doorstep and ring after a few seconds of hesitation. I sometimes wonder how long she is going to keep up with me. She must grow bored with my wild stories and pathetic problems, eventually, mustn't she? I stare down at the mat on the floor. She has one of those silly ones with a joke on it. When the door opens I try to shake off the depressing thoughts. I look up and freeze when I perceive who has opened the door.
I stare into the blue eyes. They have lost their brightness, appearing dim and gray in deep sockets with dark rings under them, the skin is waxen up close, pale and unhealthy. Jacob looks like shit. Where in all hells has he been? “Traitor,” I murmur. I hope Jenna feels really bad for that move.
I raise a hand and Jacob falls silent at once. The words however will not come to me. I feel like I am suffocating.
There is a small white plaster visible at the edge of his palm which is currently placed atop the handle of his cane. At least that wound I caused seems to be healing as it is supposed to.
“Cait, I’m sorry-“
I have already turned to go, feeling the tears starting to burn behind my eyes. I am not going to cry in front of him.
“Please, Cait, please, let me explain.” His voice is hoarse and desperate.
I whirl around, already a few steps down the corridor. Jacob has followed me.
“Explain? What can you possibly explain, Jacob? Why you vanished for weeks without telling anyone? Or maybe why you are cheating on your wife?”
He blinks, a line between his eyes growing as he gets closer. I might be imagining it but I think he is even slower than usual, his movements exceptionally stiff. “I am not married, anymore,” he grounds and stops at some distance. He shifts a little, leaning against the wall to relieve his right hand. “How do you-”
I inhale a shuddering breath, not listening to him anymore. “Where have you been?” I ask sharply.
Jacob sighs. “That’s a very long story. Why don’t we-”
“You lied to me.” My voice is low but poisonous.
He nods, slowly. “I left things out… and I know this is as good as lying.” He adds as I scoff. “I have no words to say how sorry I am, Cait. Please believe me, I… I had my reasons. I can explain-”
I snort. “Well, you know what? I don’t want to hear it. Your ex-wife did not seem to want to put up with your bullshit excuses and neither do I. Keep thinking about a story that you are going to tell your child when it is old enough to ask!”
I do not know how but I act out of reflex when Jacob slips, with his weight on the wrong side and nothing on the naked wall to stop his fall. I catch him before he crashes down and as I try to keep him upright with my arms around his waist, the impossible weight of his body nearly tearing me down with him, I feel him trembling against me.
“Jacob?!” I do not want to sound worried, but he is frightening me a little.
He manages to get his legs sorted out and rams his cane into the floor with a dull sound. He frees himself and shuffles away from me, his eyes hard and turned towards the ground. “I have no child,” he whispers.
I feel the blood draining from my face. “But…”
He surges back with lurching steps and barely manages to stop before he crashes into me, shaking all over, the sides of his nose flaring. “How do you even know?” he bellows. His eyes are ablaze, cutting through me like knives.
“I—I saw the picture,” I explain, subconsciously walking backwards. He follows, faster than I thought him capable, his face a mask of rage, his uneven shoulders looming over me. I am suddenly terrified of him, I do not know what he will do and somehow everything seems possible. I stare at the hand that is gripping the cane with the knuckles standing out white, my thoughts racing to find the point where this went all wrong.
Then Jenna’s voice sounds and calls us both back to reality. “That’s enough now. Inside with you both. I have a good relationship with my neighbors and I would like to keep it that way. You are not helping with that.”
Jacob deflates and snorts but when Jenna offers her arm to help him he maneuvers past her inside again, not without sending her a poisonous look. She lifts her eyebrows at me and rolls her eyes a little. “Men,” she mouths.
I exhale a shuddering breath and slump back against the wall behind me.
Jenna makes tea. I suspect she thinks everything can be solved if it is discussed over a cup of tea. Might be her British heritage, I don’t know. I am highly suspicious of the powers of tea. As she busies herself with the kettle and the cups in the kitchen and I hang around, trying to ignore the fact that Jacob is currently sitting in her living room, she tells me in a low voice that Jacob begged her to let him see me. “He told me a few things… By the way, did I tell you? I stopped him following you by splashing the contents of my glass over his pants and blocked his way, loudly insisting on paying the drycleaner, until you were gone. You should have seen that, Cait, I was amazing! Well… we managed to dry his clothes a bit… it was only water, so never mind. Where was I? Oh yes. What he said did not really make sense to me yet, but I think we should hear him out.”
I sigh. I guess I owe Jacob that much.
I curl up in one of Jenna’s flannel blankets on her couch, next to Jenna. I am endlessly grateful that she is here, I do not think I could go through this without her. Jacob is sitting across from us on the edge of the seat of her armchair. He ignores the tea, his gaze going into nothing and tugs at his left arm. It does not seem to budge and the wince as he tries to extend the stiff fingers does not escape my attention.
Jenna clears her throat. “Jacob?”
Jacob startles, rubs his eyes, sighs and finally looks up. His ashen face seems to me like he might pass out any moment. I am starting to think it would be better if we postponed all this, when he takes a sip of his cup of tea that is sitting in front of him on the table and starts to speak.
“Jenna told me that you have both figured out that I worked at Recom before I went to TalcTech.”
Anger flares up inside of me at the mention of yet another one of his secrets but I manage to control myself. I nod stiffly.
“So… I was quite successful, you know that, too. And yes, I was married. To a woman who still works at Recom.”
I draw the blanket closer around myself and look at the dark sky outside.
“Higher management. Maren… Kissinger.”
I frown but the name does not ring a bell. I suppose this is no wonder, I know barely anyone at that level.
“We got divorced,” Jacob goes on. “Yesterday.”
I flinch. I clearly must have heard wrong. He got divorced yesterday?
Jacob lifts his arm in surrender. “Hear me out! Please…”
Jenna tugs at my blouse and I realize I have shot up from the couch. I let myself fall down again and huff impatiently.
“We’ve been separated for a year now. The whole divorce process took that long. It was nasty… We have both good lawyers.”
I look at him, not following.
“It wasn’t particularly easy. We had a marriage contract but not a very good one apparently and with all that had happened…” He rubs his left knee. “Obviously I cannot work nearly as much as I did before and my income has dramatically changed as well... There was a lot to figure out, financially.”
I blink. “When you went silent on me during the last months… or to ‘visit relatives’ or when you vanished the last weeks you actually were…”
“At an appointment with my lawyer… or... at court, yes.” Jacob says lowly. “There were multiple hearings. The final trial took one week. I stayed at a friend’s house in the capital during the last weeks leading up to it and I... I don't know. I didn't know what to do, I was in a very bad place. I’m sorry, I know I should have informed you that I was... I just… the trial... it was all too much.”
I think back to Vito suggesting that Jacob could have harmed himself and the horror must have been written in my face.
“I am back, Cait. I am here now,” Jacob says, his voice suddenly deep and calming. “I'm okay.”
I breathe out through my nose, lean back into the warmth and softness of the couch and mull over what he has said. I guess it makes sense.
“You could have told me that before. It would have made things a little easier,” I murmur.
Jacob grimaces and averts his gaze. “There is... there is more that I haven’t told you… haven’t told anyone. I didn’t want to… didn’t want it to become real again.”
“The picture…” I cannot make myself say it again. The kid. What about the kid?
Jacob grips his knee so hard, the veins in his hand are standing out blue under the papery skin.
“You don’t have to tell us,” Jenna says.
Jacob shakes his head slowly. “No. It’s okay. I want you to know,” he says lowly and lifts his eyes to mine. I stare into the blue, frozen. “That’s why I came here.” His face is contorted with pain and his voice is so quiet I have to strain my ears to understand the words. “Because I want you to know what they did.”
And then he tells us the story of how he discovered, by chance, a wide-ranging scandal at Recom, involving some of the highest managers and a big amount of money. In a flat voice he continues with how he did not report his discovery as would have been his duty but instead used it as leverage to reach his own goals, pressured the managers involved into helping him climb the career ladder.
“For a time it worked well, maybe too well. I got greedy, and reckless. I felt invincible and better than these assholes. I should have known that I was steering right into hell, but I would not listen to the voice in my head telling me to be careful.”
He tells us how he went home one night, late again, expecting to find his pregnant wife who had been stuck in traffic on her way back from a friend though. Instead, he surprised a gang of burglars who were just about to rob his house clean.
I gasp involuntarily at this point. The dark interior of the prison-like house appears in my mind, the alarm system that Jacob still always turns on, Jacob opening the door, Jacob attacking me. I only register that I am squeezing Jenna’s hand hard when she hisses in pain and I release my hold.
“Only… they were no regular burglars. They were send by someone to make it look like I had accidentally run into burglars at my home who then attacked me and got away. They weren’t burglars, primarily. They were criminals hired to silence me.”
Jacob shrugs. “I don’t know. I did not recognize them. They were masked. And… I don’t think anyone at Recom would have participated in the dirty work themselves. No…” He laughs drily, the sound ripping from his throat and I shiver. “No… they hired professionals to do that. They took my laptop and all records I had about Recom to make sure I could not retaliate afterwards. I… gosh, I had made it so easy for them, I did not even have a backup in a safe. That’s how invincible I felt!” Jacob rocks his upper body back and forth, his right hand tangled in his hair. “Recom kicked out some minor manager, someone to explain a few crooked numbers and to distract the media and everyone else involved got out without a scratch.”
“The people who hurt you… they were never caught?” Jenna asks.
Jacob shakes his head. “No… The police ran most investigation on the matter while I was still between life and death. There had been a range of burglary events in the neighborhood at that time, and they assigned the assault to the same group of criminals. By the time I could have taken up actions, Recom had already nicely covered up everything so that I could not even show that they had had a reason to put me out of the way. I have no proof that there really is a link between the events and the company.”
“So…” Jenna says slowly, throwing a gaze towards me before she turns back to Jacob. “Your arm… and your leg… that’s because of the assault?”
“You… you told me you had a stroke…” I whisper.
Jacob locks eyes with me, tired, blank ones. “That was the truth. I had a stroke, later. They beat me to the brink of death and left me lying in the hallway. My wife… ex-wife found me…” he swallows convulsively.
“I had lost consciousness somewhere through it. She called an ambulance and I got transported away to the hospital. I spent weeks in an artificially induced coma. There were complications. They operated on me several times, I never knew how often in the end. A blood clot that caused the stroke nearly killed me. I should have died. In the end… I didn’t. But I paid the price for my hubris. Brain injury, due to the attack, due to the coma, due to the clot… No one could say for certain what had led to what in the end... But... but that was not the worst, not by far...”
Jacob’s gaze is fixed on his right hand in his lap and I know with sudden dread that we are nearing the heart of the matter. “The worst of all… the worst of all was that my wife lost our child.”
He is silently crying now, not attempting to wipe the tears away. “The doctors told me it was probably due to the stress. Finding me… not knowing if I would survive…”
Jacob gasps and goes silent for a while, takes ragged breaths, his cheeks glistening. “I was told she visited a few times when I was still in a coma but not much after that. We did not really speak again until I was already several weeks into second rehab, learning how to remember the steps to brush my teeth and things like that. She… had changed. Well, she said I had changed.” He chuckles bitterly. “I mean, I probably had, yes, how should I know? Everything was fuzzy… not real to me… I wondered if she knew something, if somehow she was involved... It was like this fix idea, and once it had planted itself in my brain it would not go away. How did they know the exact time I would return home? How did they know that Maren would not be there? Was there another reason why she had not been home?”
I shake my head, numb. “She was your wife... she had carried your child...”
Jacob inhales slowly, nodding his head. “I know... I know... I was out of my mind, I could not think clearly. There were days when I thought the nurse had come to finish the job the burglars had not managed and they had to restrain me and pump me full of drugs to keep me still. I wanted to talk to my ex-wife about what had happened, I wanted to hear from her that she had nothing to do with it; but she only said that I was imagining things, that the people in our house had just been regular burglars, that there had never been anything more going on at Recom than what had been discovered already. Now... now I think that she was probably in fact clueless about everything and that she just could not take it anymore... losing our child, nearly losing me and then the prospect of me never fully recovering, the uncertainty of the extent of the lasting damage to my brain... She could barely look at me. I think it was all too much for her and I cannot blame her because I felt the same, only I am stuck with this.”
His right hand has formed into a fist, mirroring his left one. “I wanted to talk about our child but…” He stares at the table for a few moments, collecting himself, “A few months later she sent the divorce papers to the rehab facility.”
“I am sorry,” Jenna says. She is crying, too, but she looks at me. Then she gets up and leaves on surprisingly quiet feet.
I am left alone on the couch, feeling sick and too empty to cry. The room is silent for some time, Jacob’s tears drying on his cheeks while he stares at the ground.
When he speaks again his voice is hollow. “I haven’t told anyone who did not already know. It's... it's surprisingly easy to forget something if the people around you don't know. And all I want is to forget, Cait, can you understand that?”
I nod. Yes, I do.
“And I… I… I feared that… I know that this… me…” he spits out the last words, “is enough burden already as it is and I cannot even come up with a single reason why you want to put up with me in the first place. I simply didn’t want to add to that, that's why I never told you. I’m sorry.”
I do not answer him. How can he think that I would leave him if I had known that he had suffered terrible, unspeakable things in his past? Is his faith in me really so small that he thinks I could run away at that? It leaves me with some hope though that he confided into me just now and I can only guess how hard it must have been.
Jacob tries to get up and fails, his jaw tense as he punches the armrest in frustration. “I don't deserve you. I am useless, this... If only I had not been so stupid as to think I was the clever one. If only I had cared less for my own fucking success and more for my wife, my child… If only I could have been there for my wife when- This is all my fault, all of it… I should have died that night-”
“No!” I jump up. My heart is racing and there is a sudden conviction in my voice, within myself, that I have not felt before. As monstrous and unbelievable as the things he told me sound to me and although I cannot relate to it a tiny bit, all I can see in this moment is a man who has conquered so much pain in the recent past, it does not make him weaker in my eyes, but stronger. I know one thing for sure like I have never known anything in my life: I do not want to lose Jacob. Not again, never. And I know that I am ready to do everything to make him believe me, even if I am taking a huge risk, one I never wanted to take ever again.
He flinches when I sit down on the armrest next to him. My hand rubs soothing circles into his upper arm. “You are not useless. Far from that.”
He chuckles drily. “I don’t even feel that, you know?”
My hand shrinks back when I suddenly realize what I have been doing. “I’m sorry.”
He manually turns the wrist of his left hand a little, grimacing as he does, not looking at me.
“I didn’t know,” I say and then I put my hand back, let it carefully settle on his left arm. My fingers glide over the tight muscles in his shoulders, follow the bent elbow to his hand. I do not know so much about him. How can one person contain all of this without exploding? How can one person endure all this pain without breaking? I close my hand around his fist. “What about here?”
Jacob’s eyelids flatter and he nods, the lines of his lips hard. “Um… maybe a little. I guess it’s patchy in general.”
He watches me, his expression stunned as I work a finger under his, feeling his dry palm and then start kissing his knuckles. I lift my eyes to his wide ones and carefully slide one leg over his lap, straddling him slowly in the armchair. He does not move but also does not try to push me away. I scowl as I work my way up his arm in reversed order, kissing along physical evidence of his past that has always been there clearly for me to see although I never fully understood what it meant, might not fully understand it even now. My lips taste every inch of the warm skin but when I have reached the side of his throat, Jacob turns his head away from me.
“Cait… please….” His face is a mask of emotional pain.
“You shouldn’t… we shouldn’t… please don’t…”
I sink against his chest, our heartbeats fast and arrhythmic in my ear. “I’ve got something to tell you, too.”
I detach myself from his warm body and take place on the couch next to him. He angles himself towards me. “Guess this is the night of truth,” he says, sounding very, very tired. “Go on then.”
--> Chapter 17
--> Chapter 17