Hi readers! Following your cheerful and encouraging comments, I keep on posting TOF, the story of Matthew. Every week I will sum up in a few words the previous chapter. This second one is a bit long but I couldn't decide where to cut it !
Here is Chapter 2
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Hi friends, here is Chapter 13 of TAC. In this chapter Trish and Shawn are trying to deal with the situation at the lake, both in their own way but not helping the way they feel about each other. We also get a little glimpse into how Trish found out about her attraction and putting a name to it. I like to get more out of the characters and I don't want to have them jump right into a sexually driven romance and I hope that is O.K. for my readers. My characters tend to be a bit complicated but I hope you want to stick around for more of Trish and Shawn and follow along how they will hopefully manage to let their guards down in the way of how they feel for each other. Thanks for reading and always appreciative of your comments. Yours truly, Dani
The men sat on the sofa and calmly explained that Luke's unit had been hit during a training exercise. Insurgents had opened fire on their small convoy and four of them had been killed. He had been hit by bullets in the lungs, the ribs, and had one through his shin. However, he was alive. Luke was alive.
My knees were shaking as I rested trembling fingers on them, not knowing what to do with my hands, where to put them. My heart clanged in my ears, my chest full of acid fear.
It was like watching a documentary in some kind of virtual reality. I was there, but it wasn't to do with me. It couldn’t be. Luke couldn't possibly be fighting for his life in Bastion's trauma hospital. He was the one who saved other people. Luke wouldn’t need saving. I sat with the cold lining of shock sitting heavy in my stomach while they spoke to me about grief councillors and support groups, but the one question on my lips was: "When can I see him?" It seemed to be my response to everything they said, and for some reason, I just couldn’t seem to 'get' that they'd already told me it was too soon and he was too fragile to be moved, but that they'd keep me up to date with any developments, and let me know when he was coming home, and when I could see him.
There was a ringing in my ears. Shock made me faint, blurry round the edges, but everything in the centre of my vision was horribly detailed. I felt like Superman waking up to his powers after being Clark Kent for half a lifetime. The men were still talking but I’d stopped listening.
They made sure I wasn't about to have a heart attack, and I think I kept it together pretty well, but when, over an hour later, they had gone, and the house was empty, and all I had was the phone number of that grief councillor and that army support group, I began to panic. This was supposed to have been my big test: my first weekend alone after my post-Caleb meltdown. Kit was away visiting his parents for their wedding anniversary, and the house was empty. Now it was even emptier. Like a tornado had ripped through and sucked all the air out and left everything else in place. Luke was in transit between the trauma centre at Bastion and the trauma hospital here in the UK, and there was nothing I could do. I was utterly powerless. I had nothing. I noticed that itching panic in my lungs that I’d heard Caleb and Luke both talk about, and felt the buzzing breath leaving my chest in faster and faster gasps, and I was powerless as the panic began to sweep me down river like a kayaker on a white water rapid. Without a paddle. I was definitely up shit creek without a paddle. I thought about Caleb’s attacks, about how vulnerable he’d been, and before I got lost somewhere in my own terror and shock, I made myself stand up off the sofa and walk around. Metabolise some of that adrenaline, I thought, sticking on a brave smile.
I made myself a cup of tea but didn’t drink it.
I walked around the shell of the house, not taking anything in, fiddling the warm, soft metal of my little pendant between my fingers, praying to a god I didn't believe in that he'd pull through. He had to pull through. I couldn't imagine a life without him. There was no life without Luke. He had been my other half throughout my entire existence. "Oh god," I hissed, shuddering, covering my face in my hands as I made my way upstairs. I shied into the smooth, pale wall in the hallway and hung there a moment in suspended terror like an animal about to be caught, before exhaling and sliding down to slump in a pile at the skirting board. "Please, Luke... don't die."
I didn't know what to do. There was no one who I could talk to. No one I could turn to.
Well, maybe there was one place.
I moved quietly into the sitting room and tried to turn on the television, but it felt so disrespectfully mundane that I couldn’t bare the insult to Luke, and turned it off. I couldn’t read either, because my eyes were too tired from crying. Surfing through some designs on Pinterest gave me little inspiration. I wanted to talk to someone, but Emily would fuss and Kay would be unbearably kind. I didn’t want to call Kit and ruin his weekend with news that he could do nothing about. Maybe I could talk to… “No. You burned that bridge already, Alyssa,” I said aloud in the darkening sitting room. But the idea had kindled and it wasn’t going away.
I dithered, even put my shoes on, but hurriedly took them off, went upstairs for a while, came back down again, cried some more, and then finally, in a fit of madness, I rammed my shoes back onto my feet – somehow miraculously getting the right one on the right foot. I grabbed my house-keys and slammed the door shut behind me before I had given myself any time to think about what the hell I was doing.
It was a mild evening outside. My mind latched onto various details as I skittered through the night: the shape of the loose gravel on the pavement, like grains of sand under a microscope; a daisy growing with dogged optimism between the cracks in a brick wall; the harsh crackle of a foil crisp packet, cartwheeling in a light breath of wind for a moment before falling still, its borrowed life failing, only to leave it hollow and empty. All details, no big picture.
When I got there, I stumbled down the path, half blinded by tears, and rapped on the door, still acting before I had taken stock of what I was really doing. No answer. I rapped again, forgetting about doorbells entirely. Lights were all off. Were they asleep? Oh god, the thought sank like a stone to my stomach, I'll probably wake them all up, or at least disturb them. What the hell am I doing? I'm knocking on his door at half past nine at night, like some demented banshee. Fuck, this was a stupid idea.
I turned and fled, stumbling footsteps as uneven as my ragged breath. The iron gate swung open with a high pitched squeak just as the front door rattled and hinged open to leave a silent dark hole.
He was standing there, half shrouded in shadows, half bathed in harsh orange light from the street lamp nearby, cheekbones flashing. He said nothing, looking quietly calm, like a black-belt before a fight. Could he know it was me?
"Caleb?" I sobbed, turning back towards him.
He frowned, face hardening, expression going sour, sharp, harsh. No. He hadn't known who it was. The hand at his side twitched convulsively, the other on the door tightening its grip on the edge.
Reeling with equal parts relief, fear and horror, I found myself making a step back towards the house, his name on my lips again, this time a harsh, jerking hiss. "Caleb..."
"L-L-Lyssa," he stammered coldly.
I crumbled. "I didn't know where else to come," I said before I burst into tears again.
I couldn't breathe. I shouldn't have been there at all. It was all wrong, and I was making it worse. He had started to say something but my hearing was fading behind my own gulping, panicked breath. "I didn't know where to go," I cried softly.
His face softened, his whole body changing, and he took a step towards me as he realised something was horribly wrong, coming over the threshold and out onto the front step. "L-Lyss, wh-what's happened?" he asked, one hand reaching away from his side, up a little towards me. All his revulsion had dissolved and he showed only concern, which I found suddenly unbearable.
"I'm sorry," I gasped, feeling faint. "I shouldn't have come, I shouldn't be here, not after what I said, the way I behaved. I'll go. I'm going. I'm sorry."
"Stop, don't!" he shot suddenly, that worry, exquisitely painful to behold, pushing him forwards again, off the step and onto the path with a stiff hobble, just a pace away from me. "Don't go. Wh-What's happened? Please..." And in the murk of his blindness, his grabbing hand had found my wrist and locked its softly fumbling fingers around me with surprising strength and kindness. It was like a lifeline to a falling climber.
My eyes were rimmed with stinging salt tears as I turned back to him. Seeing him without his canes, without his glasses, looking spectacularly good in a simple white t-shirt and dark indigo jeans, with just one worry in the world - me - I felt my knees dissolving. "Caleb..." I whimpered.
With gentle pressure he drew me to him. “Y-You’re shaking.”
I clung to him, I clutched at him. I hung from him. And, as if by osmosis, all the tears I had left began to soak from my eyes into his white shirt.
"Shh," he crooned, putting a hand behind my head and his other arm around my shivering shoulders as we stood together on the front path. "Shh."
"It's Luke," I said, feeling his muscles twitch reflexively. "It's Luke."
He didn't ask what happened. Maybe he assumed the worst, or maybe he knew it wasn't the place to start talking about any of it, but he planted a soft kiss on the top of my head and then, chest shuddering like mine as the consonant lodged and repeated, he said, "C-C-C-Come inside." I loved it. I wanted to hear it again. Familiar as the ticking of an old clock, I loved the sound.
He peeled himself off me, just slightly, and drew me quietly into the house, leading me up the step and into the dark hallway, fingers dancing lightly over the wall as he looked for a light switch for me.
"Don't," I croaked. "Leave it off." I didn't want the light. Dark was good. And Caleb was in the dark.
"Alright," he breathed patiently, clearly not understanding me. He was tense, nervous, I could feel it, but there was something in the way he touched me that told me he hadn't let go of 'us', and in that maelstrom of ragged emotion, it was a huge comfort to me. It centred me.
He led me through the house in the dark by the hand, and set me down on the sofa. "I'll be r-right back," he said softly, holding my hand long after I'd sat down, as though to make sure I was still really there, wasn’t going to dissolve in my own panic. "St-Stay there."
And he limped from the room, his beautiful rocking gait like music for my eyes, an old song, unheard for a long time, instantly familiar again. I watched him go and tucked my knees up under my chin as I sat on that sofa, hugging my legs to my chest. "Luke," I murmured into the shadows of the empty room.
I heard the whooshing rumble of a kettle being boiled, and the ceramic clink of a mug being set down, the electronic beep of his level detector. Shortly, he returned, hand running along the wall to keep him true as he carried the cup through to me, and when he found the table beside the sofa, he reached over the surface for a coaster and set it down. "Here," he said. "Tr-Tr-Try and dr-dr-drink some wh-when it's c-c-cooled down enough."
"I'm sorry, Caleb," I sniffed. "I'm so sorry."
"Shh, not now," he said, coming round and sitting down beside me on my right, the sofa receiving him with cushioned arms as he lowered himself down with a heavy grunt and put his left arm around me. "Tell me wh-what's happened."
His voice was low, and gravelly with some barely-contained emotion, but he didn't let me know what it was. I leaned over and rested my head on his warm shoulder and breathed in. How could anyone smell so good? I wondered to myself.
His thumb played idly over the top of my arm and I shivered with pleasure at the recovered, if borrowed, closeness. I nearly told him I'd missed him, but it wasn't the right time.
I sighed. "His unit came under fire. He..." I choked. I hadn’t realised I’d be that hard to speak the words that had so recently been said to me. Caleb's silent hand squeezed me gently. I took courage from the gesture, and sighed. Start with the story, then get to the events, I thought. "They were out on patrol. Training some new army medics. Going to a pop-up clinic to treat locals. They didn’t get there though. He was hit in his left lung, went through his ribs, and he took another in his leg. Apparently it’s horribly broken. He can't breathe on his own yet. He's in the trauma unit at Bastion. They don't know when he'll be stable enough to be moved back to the UK, but they hope in a week. I don't really know when I can go and see him though."
Again, Caleb's quiet hand spoke for him, softly caressing the contour of my shoulder until he added, "He's in the best pl-place. Tr-Trust me. I know."
I looked up at his face, used to the way he turned away, his attention apparently off in the distance, knowing that when his ear was on me he was actually staring straight at me. His ear was turned towards me now like a satellite listening to the void of space. I had his full attention though his eyes were on the back wall. Or would have been if they’d been open. His features as I turned to him were blurry as a watercolour sketch in the half light of the dark room, street lamps outside casting a strange eerie light onto the surfaces and shapes. "I know you do. That's why I came here."
I wriggled my body so that my right arm was free, and I set my feet down onto the carpet. It was pale like cherry blossoms. Turning back to his face, I raised my right hand and ran my thumb along his left eyebrow, watching the eyelid clench tightly, protectively, full of fear and shame for an instant as he flinched away from my touch. I had broken the spell, but as my thumb moved to his temple, and to where the little flecked scars danced like fireflies around his eye, the lid relaxed and he breathed a sigh, rolling his head back into the sofa.
Through those parted lips, he said, "I've missed you."
I used his strong shoulder and the steel of his back, rigid as a construction girder, to draw my body close to his and kiss him on the temple where my thumb had been tracing ovals on his skin. My lips left a salty kiss, tears leaving silver stains on him. Suddenly his hands were on my waist and he tugged me up so hard that the only thing I was able to do was move with him and sit astride him on his lap. "Come here," he hissed, pulling me tight into his chest, one hand on the back of my head, the other around my back. His shoulder locked me in place like a vice, his lean bicep straining against me. "Come right here and let me hold you properly," he whispered into my hair. "My beautiful girl," he said as I began to cry again, a great flood of emotion washing out of my chest, rushing out of me in a series of violent, gulping, ugly sobs. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry for everything."
"I want to talk about everything," I gulped, throat raw like I'd swallowed a gallon of sea water. "But I can't face it now. Please, not now."
"I know," he said, quietly holding me for what seemed like a lifetime. "St-Stay here tonight. Stay here." It wasn't a question; neither was it a command. Just a gentle, friendly statement of truth. I was staying with Caleb that night, and it felt like the only thing to do. I nodded mutely and he continued to cup the back of my head with his amazingly expressive hand, cheek against my ear, the scratch of day-old stubble counterpointing the softness of the touch of his fingers through my red hair. "We'll t-talk tomorrow."
Eventually I stopped crying, slumping exhausted into him while he stayed stroking my shoulders and back, fingers occasionally tangling in my ridiculously long hair. Seriously, I thought, I have to get that cut; it's getting dangerous in the workshop. I almost sniggered aloud at the irony of a red-head quite literally having 'fiery' hair.
"Shall we g-go upstairs?" he suggested eventually, stuttering softly in my ear.
Caleb chuckled softly after another minute and said, "You'll need to g-get up then in order for that to w-w-w-work..."
Moving was so difficult. Levering myself up away from his body, I felt like there was chewing gum cementing me to him, fibres stretching stiffly, reluctantly, as I pulled away. Finally I was on my feet, my knees weak as water, my hands in his where he still sat on the sofa below me. The were so quiet. I looked at them, their wonderful strength and infinite delicacy, unable to tear my eyes from them until he twitched his fingers to get my attention. He knew I was staring.
"Help me up?" he asked with an eyebrow cocked cheekily skyward.
I nodded and squeezed my fingers. "On three?"
He grunted. "One, two, three." And as he and I balanced his weight between us, his right hand clutching my forearm as he fought for a moment to stay upright, I felt the connection between us like a lightening bolt. I was made for this, I knew suddenly. It was as obvious as day against night. Fire and shadow, the two of us may have been opposites in many respects, but we met in the middle and made the perfect connection.
"L-Lyss?" he asked, "Y-You've fr-frozen on me..."
"I..." I began, "I just realised something. That's all. It doesn't matter," I said. At least I had the sense now to shut up and not sound like a raving lunatic.
Leaving me with a half-smile for an answer, he squeezed my fingers and said, "Alright. L-Let's get upstairs. Y-you want a bath or something?"
I just wanted to curl up in bed, but I had come straight from work, barrelling into the bad news and out the other end into a world that felt bleak as a Fallout landscape. I felt dirty and exhausted, the way a I might after a long hike in the dust, or a week of camping, but I longed to curl up and try and sleep. Though the adrenaline that surged through my veins every time I thought about Luke threatened to keep me from any kind of rest. "I don't know," I said in a small voice.
"I'll r-run you a bath," he said gently as he put his foot to the first step and let go of my hand to haul himself up the stairs. He turned right at the top, heading for the bathroom, adding breathlessly, "My dr-dressing g-g-g-gown is... on the back of the door... If you w-want to... borrow it..."
"Thank you," I breathed. "Are Nan and Amy here?" I suddenly asked, not seeing a light in Amy's room.
He paused in the doorway to the bathroom, holding the architrave with a pale hand, breath coming back to his chest. His whispered deliciously, voice a low hiss. "Amy's at her friend Molly's for a sl-sleepover. Nan is here, but she's in bed already."
I nodded. "Ok," I said, "I'll go and get undressed."
He smiled sadly, and turned without a word to begin to run the water for a bath.
His room was the same as it had always been: an arctic wasteland of immaculate neatness, soullessly without photographs or decoration, like a monk's cell. It seemed particularly pathetic in the light of recent events between us. His huge bed looked like an iced cake, the duvet without wrinkle or crease, the pillows plumped and shunted like train cars against the headboard. I assumed that Nan did it, but I didn't know for sure. In fact, on reflection, there was probably a military neatness of habit there in the corners of those pillow cases.
I didn't realise I'd been standing there in the middle of the room without moving until the door opened behind me and Caleb came to a halt in the doorway. "L-Lyss?" he whispered, listening intently, unable to pinpoint me.
I jumped and turned with a small gasp.
"Hey," he said, reaching for me. He knew I was close, standing in the middle of the room, but he wasn't exactly sure where I was. I watched his uncertain, approaching gesture with a smile.
I reached for his hand and let him draw me into his chest again. "How do I do it, Caleb?" I asked in a very small voice, breathing evenly against the fabric of his t-shirt, feeling his taut muscles beneath.
He didn't answer for a moment, and then he sighed. "I've only been on the other end of this, on L-Luke's side," he said quietly. "I don't know. Nan and Amy said they took it one day at a time. N-no n-news is good n-news, but y-you c-c-c-c-c..." He broke off, the consonant carving a deep groove on his tongue as his chest contracted violently, shaking me where I clung to him. "Excuse me, y-you mustn't sit around w-waiting for a phone c-call..." He kissed the top of my head again and I knew he wanted to work through our personal issues. I could feel it. We weren't done. That spark of hope was going to carry me through this awful period of waiting. I wanted it too now, despite my anger before. "And you have to c-carry on with y-your l-l-life. Do the l-little things..."
"Like having a bath," I smiled weakly, looking up at him.
"I smell that bad?"
"There we go," he chuckled. "Making jokes already."
He moved away from me and sat on the far side of his bed, fixing an earbud to his ear as he picked up his iPhone, back to me, a strongly silent gesture which had infinite distance to it. I wobbled for a moment, but bit my lip and started on my first ‘little thing’. I pulled my clothes off, dirty and stained from the workshop where I'd been making waxes and moulds for casting all day, and slid into his bath robe. It was too big and the extra fabric wrapped around me in a warm embrace as I headed for the bathroom and sank into the warm water.
I tied my hair up in a bun, and had just sunk my hands back below the water line when the door opened. I'd forgotten to lock it, and in a rush of horror I thought Nan would be coming in and would see me in all my naked not-so-glorious glory... But the hand that snuck around the door was Caleb's, and he came in wearing some slouchy-looking grey tracksuit bottoms, and the top half of him was bare. Deliciously bare.
"Y-You don't mind if I gr-grab a qu-qu-quick shower do you?" he asked, nodding at the shower cubicle that stood opposite the bath.
"Mind?" I asked mutely, eyes lost on the landscape of his scarred torso.
"Well... after the, erm, fireworks, last w-w-week, I thought, y-you know, you might not..."
I sighed and slipped further into the heat of the water. His ear moved at the whisper of little waves sloshing over my shoulders. "No Caleb," I said quietly. "I don't mind at all. I was wrong in the way I acted… what I said to you. The more I replayed what I saw afterwards, the more I realised you were telling the truth, and that Nan was right. It was her, not you."
"Nan?" he asked, coming over to the bath, face full of curiosity as he leaned on the heated towel rail, fingers holding a warm, white, fluffy towel while he listened to me.
I sighed and watched again as he caught the sparkling of the water again as it fell in heavy droplets off my arm as I raised my hand to flick a wayward strand of hair back. It was going curly in the steam from the bath. "She and I spoke briefly when I came round on Sunday to 'talk' to you," I snorted bitterly at the memory of how that had gone. "She shed a bit of light on things."
"Oh?" he asked again. "Wh-what did she say?" He was wary, his knuckles pale as he choked the rail in his hand. The rest of him was tense as an early Greek bronze statue. The Kritios Boy perhaps, I thought as my art history rushed back unexpectedly to me for a moment.
I focused and said, "She just said that you suffered more than you let on when you came back from Afghanistan for good... But..." I sighed. "But she said she'd noticed a real difference in you since we'd been together. You seemed happier, she said. But... but she wanted me to appreciate how much of a difference your injuries made in your life, I think. I've only known you after you were hurt. I don't know what it was like for you before. You do, and..." I choked a bit, realising how selfish I'd been, "And Millie represents a time before, when you didn't have all the frustrations you do now..."
I thought he looked a little faint as he stood there, not saying anything.
He let go of the rail and came over to the bath, his left hand searching for the white enamel. When he found it, he leaned down and lowered himself onto the precarious edge of the bath. He had his back to me, but twisted his torso towards me and let his left hand trail down into the water. He found my shoulder and slid the back of his fingers up my neck to my cheek. Still he said nothing.
"What did I say?" I asked, shuddering as his fingers traced the outlines of my features. I closed my eyes.
"Y-you have no idea," he whispered, "The good you do me."
"Oh Caleb," I whimpered. "I'm so sorry I hurt you. I'm sorry I wasn't listening to you."
He opened his eyes as he turned his face more towards me, and my heart lurched. He was so beautiful. He smiled sadly and said, "I'm sorry I stopped t-talking to you," he said. "And..." his fingers left my body and clenched angrily, "And I'm sorry about her. I should have known wh-what was happening. I... I felt it c-coming, but I didn't think she'd actually do it. She was always a 'see it, w-want it, have it' k-kind of girl. She never r-really thought things through. I should have done the thinking. That w-was always my job..."
"You're not in the army any more, Caleb," I said gently, reaching for his arm where it now hovered above the bath water. I closed my fingers around that canon ball of a fist. The muscles in his arm melted as he sighed. "You're not responsible for her any more."
"But I am re-responsible for myself," he spat. "I should have k-kept my distance. I should have – "
I interrupted him. "Stop. It happened, but let's not make more of it than we should. I've already done a first class job of that."
His back softened and he reached back down for my body, finding my collarbones and making me gasp. He let his fingers play there a while, before running them gently up my neck to my chin and pressing the pad of his thumb gently against me with soft, sweet affection. "Alright," he sighed.
"Go and have your shower," I said. "I'll soak here a little longer til you finish."
He didn't have his brace on and he wasn't using a cane I realised as he pulled himself up using the towel rail. With pinpoint familiarity he crossed the small, boxy bathroom and undressed before sliding the glass door of the shower open and stepping cautiously in. His body was as strangely, intoxicatingly beautiful as I had always thought it was, with his Rodin arms and torso, strongly muscled left leg, and its weak, slightly withered brother beside it, with its unusual angles and slants, his broken hip and misshapen quad melting into a slender calf and stiff ankle. I breathed heavily for a moment, and I think he caught me, casting me a twitch of his jaw but nothing more.
With calculated movements, he located the dials on the shower and I was as fascinated as ever by the way he moved through space. I was drawn to him, the anger and hurt melting as I realised he'd made bad decisions because of the bad that had happened to him. It wasn't an excuse, and I wasn't forgiving him just because he had had a shit time of things; I was forgiving him because I now understood why he'd not stopped her. I was angry as a demon with Millie, and God-only knows what I'd do if I ever met her in the future, but I wasn't angry with Caleb any more. And yes, I did want to kiss those lips again.
The rush of water as I pulled my body from the warm bath made Caleb, now also out of the shower and heading for the towel rail, stop and turn to me. "Pass me a towel?" I asked him as I stood in the bath.
"No," he smiled, limping painfully towards me.
"Come on," I said, shivering audibly.
He stopped later than I'd expected him to, standing extremely close to me, nose testing the space until he found my face, the height of the bath giving me the extra few inches I needed to stand level with him as he continued to nuzzle against me while his hands found my shoulders and he ran his palms over my wet skin. He drew me from the bath, holding me by the hips as I stepped over the sides and stood on the deeply fluffy bath mat, bare toes sinking between the threads.
His pelvis pressed against me, just above the place where I felt a growing heat. His cock rose, growing a little hard, and pressed into me as well. Caleb's hand moved to my head and he gripped me just below the knot of red hair that I'd tied up earlier. The savage want in his touch sent a thrill through me, and as his lips crushed into mine and his teeth began to work along my lips, nipping, biting, tongue tasting, I grabbed his wet back and raked my fingernails over his muscles. He broke off with a gasp and a grunt, throwing his head back as I reached the end of his spine. My hands softened as they moved to his lopsided hips, and I felt him twitch backwards as I began to run circles over the sides of his pelvis. I put the flat of my palm down and drew him close to me again with a wordless gesture of acceptance before kissing him one more time.
I shivered, and not from his touch this time. "How about that towel?" I whispered when I pulled back.
He grinned roguishly and kissed me again, reaching out to his left without breaking away from me to pull a huge bath towel from the rail. He didn’t need to look to find it. Then with another smile he moved back and wrapped it around my shoulders, cocooning me up in it. He shuffled backwards and a flash of pain passed over his features as he moved awkwardly, looking for another towel on the rail below. He couldn't bend easily from where he was, and I stepped over and tugged one free to put its corner in his hand. His smile was shy as he pulled the rest of it off and began to dry himself. "I'll go and curl up," I said softly, leaning a moment on his tense shoulders and leaving a rapid kiss on his scratchy cheek.
He rubbed his chin. "I'll j-just g-g-g-get r-rid of that," he stammered, head nodding uncontrollably as the sounds stuck.
I smiled and left him to shave, padding quietly up the familiar corridor in his dressing gown and sliding into a t-shirt I found in his drawer. It was an old one with a hole in the shoulder, but it was the one I had always worn when I'd stayed over. It was Caleb's, but it was mine.
Sliding between the duvet and the soft sheet, I landed my head on the pillow and lay quiet and still for a few minutes, head spinning. Luke was fighting for his life, and I was reconnecting with Caleb, and I didn't know how to feel about any of it, but I wasn't alone, and that was a comfort.
I rolled over as Caleb came back in, limping awkwardly, using the wall as much to prop himself up as to guide the way. He paused at the chest of drawers to dig out a pair of black boxers and rested his weight on the top of the unit for a moment, arms buttressing him up before putting them on. He puffed a quick pant of effort as he closed the drawer and sat down on the bed and swung his leg up, right hand hooked under the thigh, left supporting the calf. His left leg followed suit and he tugged the duvet up to cover his lower half.
There was a moment, a suspension of time, while he sat leaning back on his hands, spine straight, shoulders high, naked except for his boxers, dark hair damp from the shower, sharp jawline freshly shaven, eyelids fluttering but closed. I could have stared endlessly, searching for details. It lasted for three of his slow inhales before he lay back and rested his head on the pillow. He breathed silently in and out for a moment, face gazing blankly at the ceiling, eyes closed, and then he said to me, “Are we g-going to do this L-Lyss?”
“Tr-try it all again?”
I knew he wondered if I thought it was worth all the effort of darning it all up, patching the hole and moving forward, and I rolled quietly over to face him. His ear moved a little towards me, cheekbones catching the dim light from outside. Staying in his room was the only time I liked the curtains open at night. I liked the privilege of seeing him in the dark. “Yes, Caleb. I think we should.”
The soft smile that grew on his lips almost made me cry again. Crinkles grew from the corners of his eyes and a tiny dimple pinched at the end of his smile. He breathed out the apprehension in his chest and rolled carefully over so that we faced each other like pair of porcelain figures, stiff in our uncertain expectance for an instant, until he reached out with measured caution and found my body. His fingers ran down my waist and he anchored on my hip, drawing me into him. “Good,” he whispered as he buried his face in my hair.
“I love you,” I whispered back. He pushed a gasp from his lungs and clenched his hand in my hair. “I love you, Caleb,” I repeated firmly, and he kissed my forehead.
To be continued...
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Every morning for Sebastian Miller started exactly the same way. He would awaken at the shrill beep of his alarm clock, hours before the sun peeked through his window. He was an early riser, had to be ever since the accident. Three years of getting up at the crack of dawn could really do a number on a person, especially when that man had always been a night owl…before. He closed his eyes against the memory of his old life.
This morning, the Saturday that he’d been waiting for all week, would be no different. He reached for the TV remote on his night stand and flicked on the 5:00am news. He never actually watched, but he liked the noise in the background while he went about his routine. It helped remind him of how he had always taken seemingly inane things for granted.
He did well to hide his limitations, or at least to help people temporarily forget that he was no longer the strong and athletic man that he used to be. Sure, he was still successful, still well-off, but now he just felt useless and so alone. Bravado seemed the best way to take people’s minds off of his wheelchair, and although he knew he came off as arrogant or too bold sometimes, he couldn’t bear to appear weak. Anything to make the other person comfortable…
Ugh, I’m so pathetic, he thought, as he levered himself up in bed. Gotta get out of this funk.
On the bright side, he had something else to keep his thoughts occupied lately. Last week, after he’d agreed to visit the symphony mostly to get out of his sterile new apartment and to feel even a tiny sliver of normality, something surprising had happened. He’d met someone that had made him feel suddenly alive again.
He couldn’t stop thinking about her. In fact, Brenna Hamilton was all he’d had on his mind since that night. He saw her in everything he did. If he was brushing his teeth, he found himself wondering how it would feel to meet her eyes in the bathroom mirror as she stood beside him. If he was rolling down the street, he imagined her walking next to him. When he prepared his dinner, he thought how nice it would be to make those meals with her. As he transferred into bed every night, he fantasized about Brenna laying in the same king-sized bed, her naked body ready for his touch.
Watching her playing the piano that night up there on the stage had been an epiphany for him. Brad had told him that his little sister’s best friend was pretty, but Sebastian hadn’t been prepared for the piercing feeling that hit his chest when he saw her for the first time. She was absolutely stunning in a black dress that hugged all the curves of her body. He had grimaced a bit as she stumbled on the short walk to the piano, but that little movement only endeared her to him more, and once her fingers lilted over the keys, she looked like a dream so delicate and elegant that he was afraid she’d disappear if he touched her.
Afterwards, when they’d been introduced, he couldn’t control himself, taking her hand, flirting shamelessly, and asking her out. It’s not a date though, he convinced himself now, moving smoothly into the wheelchair beside his bed. It will be purely professional, just to learn about the downtown historical buildings.
Pushing the thought away, he gathered himself together and busied himself with the laborious chore of getting ready for the day. Transfer from bed to chair. Transfer from chair to shower. Transfer back to chair from shower. Transfer from chair to car, and then back again. His day seemed like nothing more than transfers from one cold place to another.
He chose a charcoal gray t-shirt, one that would show off the muscles in his arms and chest. If nothing else, at least he had an upper body that hadn’t failed him. His legs, on the other hand, were so skinny and weak that he covered them in jeans in the hopes that no one would notice. He wondered if Brenna would take one look at him, in the daylight, out of the suit and tie, and turn on her heels to run in the opposite direction.
It was much too early to make his way to their meeting place (The Sugar Factory, she had said), but since he had nothing else planned for the next few hours, he did what always calmed his nerves. He grabbed his sketch pad, pulled up to his kitchen table, and began drawing.
As afternoon grew nearer, he sat back and flipped through the pages of his book. Brenna’s smiling face stared back at him, her features drawn carefully in pencil. Well, I’m officially pathetic. Sketching a woman I’ve only met once, as I sit all alone in a huge apartment, he thought to himself. No time to dwell on that now, he realized, as he programmed The Sugar Factory’s address into his GPS before heading out.
The Sugar Factory seemed like quite the sweet spot. The name was painted on the store front in bright glittery letters, and the window display showed several pastel-colored tiers adorned with scrumptious-looking cupcakes. STOP IN TODAY TO TRY OUR FEATURED ICE CREAM FLAVOR: BLUEBERRY MINT CRUNCH was written playfully on a small chalkboard outside. Sebastian pulled up into a handicap parking spot and transferred out into his chair.
He chuckled to himself, as he rolled up the ramp and through the automatic sliding doors. He spotted Brenna immediately, waiting by the ice cream case. She was wearing a lavender sun dress that fell just above her knees, and her dark hair was pulled up into a casual ponytail that left a few beautiful tendrils curled around her face.
He rolled closer, and as Brenna turned to him, she seemed genuinely happy to see him. “Lots of good flavors today,” she said, pointing to the chilly buckets of ice cream.
“Any recommendations?” he asked, mostly just wanting to hear her lovely voice.
She scrunched up her nose in thought. “Well, I love the Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl, but for you…,” she looked him up and down pointedly, “I suggest the Rocky Road.”
Had the tables turned from the other night? Was she teasing him now? He couldn’t tell. He could sense that she was shy, had heard from Brad that she was a bit of a wallflower, but there was something so alive about her, even in her quiet way of speaking.
“Rocky Road it is, then.”
After they ordered, he wondered if he should offer to pay for her ice cream too. It’s not a date, he reminded himself, but before he could make a move, Brenna had already given the cashier some money and headed to a table.
Without hesitation, she pulled out one of the chairs and moved it over to the side so he could roll his chair right up to the table. Another first, he thought bemusedly. No other woman since the accident had ever taken such a small step that actually meant so much, unless he asked. He paid for his ice cream and came over to sit next to her in the spot she had so graciously made for him.
He started in on his ice cream right away, hoping that she would be brave enough to start the conversation. For all his outward swagger, he still didn't like attention focused on him.
She spread the black and white photos out on the table. “There is so much history here. I love looking at these pictures and imagining what it might have been like to be here when these buildings were in their heyday.”
Sebastian watched her eyes light up and her lips curve into a smile as she spoke. As he listened to her babble excitedly about the stories behind the buildings - the architects that drew the designs, the builders that placed every brick, the people that lived and died there - he knew that he was going to fall hard for her. He had no choice.
Lost in her words, Brenna barely noticed Sebastian’s gaze watching her intently, and she fell silent. Her cheeks flushed. “What?”
“You do realize that you haven’t even taken a single bite of your ice cream yet, right? It’ll melt.”
She laughed nervously. “Oh geez, I can really get carried away sometimes. Sorry about that.”
Before he could think better of it, he lifted a hand to her cheek to smooth a stray strand of hair from her face. “It’s OK. I like to listen to you. You definitely have a passion for this.” She let out a trembling breath as he cupped her cheek. “I imagine it’s the same way you feel about your music too.”
She nodded, and her hazel eyes twinkled. She inched just a bit closer to him across the table, her lips parted deliciously, begging to be kissed by him.
This is ridiculous, he thought. What were they starting here? If they went any further, Brenna would eventually come to his apartment, maybe spend the night, and start to see how difficult it was to live life with a man in a wheelchair.
Brenna took a deep breath before pulling away to dip her spoon in her ice cream, and Sebastian knew he was right. He was giving himself too much credit. This beautiful woman would never have any interest in him beyond the relationship of a professional colleague.
He squared up his shoulders and went back to his own bowl. “I’m surprised that you haven’t asked,” he replied, somewhat matter-of-factly. The magic of the moment before was broken.
She looked genuinely surprised. “Ask what?”
“Why I have to use a wheelchair.” It was the one question that everyone always wanted to know, and once the words were out of this mouth, he had to keep going. “It was a wakeboarding accident.”
She frowned. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Sebastian. We don’t even really know each other. I understand if you don’t want to share.”
“No, I’d rather get it out in the open, especially since we’ll be working together at the firm.”
Brenna remained quiet, and Sebastian took that as encouragement to tell his story. “I was on vacation in Florida…” he paused, thinking. “Wow, it was three years ago next Thursday that it happened. Time flies, I guess.” He moved his spoon around his bowl. “Anyway, some buddies and I were spending a week at a beachside resort for a college reunion of sorts. We hadn’t all been together in awhile, so we went crazy, not really caring what we did or what kind of trouble we could get into. We decided to go wakeboarding, one of the things that we all liked to do. Admittedly, I drank a bit before we went out, and looking back now, I hate myself every day for that decision.”
He sighed and sat back in his chair, his eyes going blurry as he recalled that day. “I thought it would be cool to try a backflip, which I’d never attempted before…but you have to understand, I was a daredevil at that time. I liked to show off, and well…” he trailed off.
Brenna placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Can you feel anything in your legs at all?”
Sebastian shook his head. “I have a T-7 spinal cord injury, so my lower body is pretty much dead.” It actually hurt to admit that out loud, even after all these years. Leaning back in his chair, he looked at her, trying to gauge what she might be thinking. Amazingly, she didn’t seem fazed by his words. “Whoa, heavy stuff for a first date, huh?” he asked, trying desperately to bring levity to the situation.
She raised an eyebrow. “Date?”
He admonished himself inwardly for a moment. Stupid! You just had to use the “D” word. Outwardly, he shrugged. “Why not? We both learned something about each other today. And I’d like to learn more about you.”
“Me too...about you,” she whispered, moving closer to him again. Why did she have to be so difficult to read?
Before he could think better of it, he let his lips press ever so lightly against hers. She didn’t fight it. Instead, she leaned into him, opening her mouth to moan softly. That tiny sound broke through his hazy judgment, and he pulled away. He didn’t think he could handle being destroyed if he really was reading too deeply into this. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We do still have to work together.”
Brenna sighed and nodded in agreement. “You’re right.” She stood and grabbed their empty bowls, turning to toss them in the trash can…but not before shooting Sebastian a mischievous glance and replying with a smile, “But a little kiss now and then never hurts.”
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."