I ground my teeth together as Alyssa kept persistently and deliberately to the edges of my perception for the whole journey home. On the way out she had asked me if I’d wanted to take her arm, but this time when the electronic voice overhead announced our station she just stood up, stepped away, and left me in the dark, and boy is there some irony in that phrase for me now. “L-L-Lyss, hold up,” I sputtered, hearing a nervous breathlessness in my lungs. Steady on, Starling, I chided myself, don’t be too proud; ask her for help as well. “C-come back?”
“Sure,” she said, her voice weirdly dead, like an attempt at ‘neutral’ was just too much effort.
"Thank you," I said quietly as I caught her arm and ran my fingers up the material of her sleeve while she led me to the train door. Where have you gone, Lyss? I wondered silently. What happened?
My fingers would cool off in the damp air, naked, but they were sighted without gloves to cover them, and I let them play absently over the crackly plastic of her jacket as we teetered on the edge after the train doors had opened. She stepped down and paused for me while I cautiously lowered my crappy right leg down and then unfolded my cane. I didn’t want her to have to lead me everywhere, especially if she was getting uncomfortable for whatever reason. I was very aware of other people pacing around us, speeding past, buzzing around like flies, keen to get out of the cold and wherever they were going.
"I'm sorry I've been quiet..." she said with a bit more feeling, and suddenly I felt her turn, her hair tickling my hand as it swished deliciously.
It made me realise that I may have been an ass as well. How could I expect her to know when and what to do all the time? She was so new to dating disability… “I’m sorry too. I’ve been… It’s nothing to do with y-you…”
Her lips were suddenly on my cheek, burning hot, but brief as a butterfly's touch. "You don't need to explain yourself, Caleb. I'm self-conscious but I'm not that insecure." The brief flare of feeling suddenly drained from her voice, and her usual warmth and uninhibited happiness was gone.
I didn't quite buy her words and I so desperately wanted to see her face, to read her emotions, to see what she looked like, whether her eyes were as dead as her voice. Irritation flared and I bit it down, focusing instead on making sure my cane was all aligned properly. There was constantly this one-sided barrier between us, though I don’t know how much she felt it, and the basic bricks and mortar of that barrier were my blindness and my fucked up leg. She could read every expression that flashed across my face, while I was always struggling to catch up, metaphorically and literally.
I didn't mean for that sigh to escape my lungs, but it did, and I wondered what she was thinking. "C-Come on, l-l-lets get home and out of this w-w-weather."
"I could murder a cup of tea," she said as we made our way to the barriers, walking separately, that soft voice nothing more than a dying echo in the murk beyond my vision, and beyond the sweeping arc of my cane as I moved it back and forth.
A heavy footstep to my right was suddenly too close. I flinched, shying like a startled horse as someone stepped too close to me. My ears strained to locate them, to find them a context. "Can I take your ticket, sir?" an official sounding voice asked beside me, snaring me and cutting between Alyssa and me.
Distrust, deep and instinctive, flared in my gut, but I figured Alyssa wouldn't let me make a fool of myself, if she was even still there. The barriers hissed and clunked up ahead.
"Are you alright?" the voice added, daring to touch my arm.
Trying to restrain my instinct to snatch my arm violently out of his clammy grasp and do one of the many nice take-downs that had been drilled into me, I held back and behaved like a grown up, and dug my ticket from my pocket with my cane hand. I was facing the direction I'd been walking in, but I held the little rectangle of shiny card out slightly off to one side so that it was spearing almost into the railway attendant. I hoped my gesture screamed 'I know where you are and I'm not helpless' at him. My next move would have been to do some literal screaming.
"Thank you sir," he said. "Do ask, if there’s I can do anything to help."
I nodded curtly. Alyssa appeared to have gone through the gate before she’d realised I’d been waylaid by the overly-helpful attendant. Now, separated from her, I had to rely on myself to get through the barriers.
You're a big boy, Starling, you’re getting lazy with all this help, I said sternly to myself, listening for the clunk of the barriers to make sure I was still on course. I loathe fumbling around in public places, and perhaps the attendant spotted this, because the bugger was back at my side before I had swung my cane tip more than twice over the glacially smooth tiles of the station. It knocked on something that felt like the thin metal of the ticket barrier and then slowed on the thick, ridged rubber of the tiny ramp between the gates. I was on course. Piss off, attendant, I thought as he grabbed my arm for a second time. "Do you need any help? Here, let me put your ticket in for you..."
My response was to wrench my arm out of his hand, swallowing obscenities and replacing them with a curt, “No, thank you”. Maybe he didn’t know after all. Following a short, vague search for the slot on my right to stick the ticket into the machine, I found it, pushed the ticket in, heard it pop up at the top of the barrier, grabbed it, swung my cane to and fro through the open gates, and emerged on the other side unscathed. Take that, I thought triumphantly. Everyday victories still make me feel like a champion, like finding the right crate of fruit in the supermarket through my of a field of vision and that kind of thing.
With a gentle hand against mine, Lyss picked me up on the other side without a word, which surprised me pleasantly, and we piled unceremoniously into a taxi and headed for home. There had definitely been a change in her that day, but I was clueless. It was like she was a different person. I found all my old fears about Millie and discovering she wasn’t all she’d shown me suddenly surfacing in that taxi ride, and the motion sickness I always get from moving vehicles these days didn't help my queasy stomach at all. Perhaps all the helping me, the guiding, the talk of disability was too much for her? No one else before her has been up to it, I thought glumly, feeling a cramp brewing in my calf. Maybe she's deciding I'm just not worth it either. Maybe she was just tired though.
Just as my bitch of a nervous system lit up with pain - a tide of searing, stabbing cramp sweeping up my body from my pulsing ankle, creating little flashes of white hot pain - I became aware of a very slight weight on my right thigh. My hand moved carefully from where it rested to keep my balance on the close weave of the taxi's upholstery, and I found Alyssa's lovely hand unfurling like a shy spring flower as I neared it.
I discovered a band of cool, smooth, soft-edged metal on one of her fingers and I played with it absently while I fought down the motion sickness from the car. Busses were worse but this taxi was pretty bad. Breathing is the key to my pain management and as I began my meditative ins and outs, I found Alyssa's thumb moving mechanically, rhythmic as a metronome, over the back of my hand. It disturbed my breathing and a spark of irritation flared. Just as I was about to pull away, I scolded myself for being such a pompous ass. Use it instead. I matched my breaths to her movement and soon the pain was melting.
I turned my hand over and nestled my fingers around hers, feeling awful for my behaviour; I'd been ready to shrug off her gentle gesture of concern. What kind of cold hearted bastard was I? My phone beeped and buzzed in my pocket and I thought I felt Alyssa's fingers twitch, but I couldn't be sure. Shortly her hand flipped over and I heard her hair scrape on her shoulder, the sound of her breathing vanishing. She'd turned her head away from me. I imagined her looking out the window, long red hair falling down her back. I hadn’t got a picture for her face, but I did remember what red hair looked like.
The taxi drew up at the house and I levered myself out and walked round the car, running the back of my fingers lightly along the body, hoping it wasn't as filthy as it felt. I smeared it on my jeans just in case, and promptly tripped up the curb which was closer than I'd thought it was. Cane first, always cane first, I chided myself as I steadied myself with my walking cane and began to hiss my breath in and out to get rid of the pain I’d so recently banished.
Alyssa was at my side and I instantly took her arm, with great relief. My breathing had become quick and shallow and I was beginning to get overwhelmed. "You're ok," she said, no room for doubt in her voice now.
The click of a latch and the squeal of a familiar tiny voice distracted me from the depth of feelings in Alyssa's tone, and it wasn't until later, when we were all in the sitting room with cups of tea and the smell of the Christmas tree which still stood in the corner filling our lungs that I recalled it.
"Did you give Alyssa her other present yet?" Amy asked, the little bells of a Lindt chocolate bunny jingling in her hair as she sat on the carpet near the tree.
"No, I haven't," I said. "W-w-w-would you g-g-g-get it for me?" The familiar heat rose in my face and chest as the sound repeated hideously.
"Sure! Where is it?" she asked, scrambling to her feet.
"In my w-w-w-w..." WARDROBE you moron, I screamed at myself. "Err... my c-c-cupboard upstairs..."
"'Kay," she chirped and skittered from the room like a mouse in a barn.
"Be careful!" Nan warned her.
"L-let me show y-you -what made for me," I said to Nan while I fished in my bag for the cufflink box. I knew she couldn't read Braille, so she wasn't in danger, and the sadistic part of me liked the idea that Alyssa would be fretting on the sofa. I felt her breath change and her head whip round to look at me. As I held out the box to Nan, I laid my other hand on Alyssa's thigh and gave it a squeeze to reassure her.
The rasping whisper of the cardboard lid sliding off the base, followed by the intake of breath as she saw the cufflinks inside made me smile. I could imagine her face lighting up, and 'see' her turning them over in her hand. "You made these?" she asked, amazed.
I could have kissed Alyssa for the shy "," she gave in reply.
"Oh you're very talented. And it looks like Braille too!"
"I wanted to make something tactile," she said bashfully, her blush filling her words so deliciously that I squeezed her again.
Amy came back into the room with the box in her hands her fingers drumming on the sides of the cardboard box inside like a heartbeat. Alyssa gasped.
"Oh my gosh, Caleb..." her hand landed on mine and it was her turn to squeeze me. "It's so big!"
That's what she said. I smirked, amused by my own schoolboy humour, and Alyssa's subsequent snort told me she knew what I was thinking.
Amy gave a tiny grunt of effort as she put the box onto Alyssa's lap, but I knew it was light, so I wasn't worried she'd hurt herself.
"Do I get any clues?" Alyssa asked softly, and I heard the whisper of her palms running over the silky wrapping paper.
"Y-y-you said a -while ago y-you w-wished y-you had a better w-way of doing something..." Please like it, please let it be ok...
"Caleb," Alyssa said, "I could do with a better way of doing almost anything. That doesn't narrow it down much!"
We all laughed as she began to tear the paper off, shredding it like a small child would, and it made me smile all the more. Then she gasped. "Caleb! Wow!"
"Is it ok?" I asked, nervous as a boy in prom-season...
"What is it?" Amy asked, leaning on my arm, pressing her body-weight into my shoulder and shoving my hip off at a painful angle.
I shuffled and said, “It’s a l-l-lightbox for photographing her j-j-jewellery in…"
And then Alyssa kissed me so beautifully my spine disappeared from under me and I almost collapsed into her.
Though she loved that second present, there was a constant, chilly undercurrent to her happiness that evening that made my heart beat cold. She'd taken a step away from me, and I couldn't make her step back. We'd begun some kind of dance, but I was always a step behind. Heck, I didn't even know what kind of dance it was. I spend half my life not knowing what's going on, so when the other half, the half that doesn't need eyes to figure it out, starts to go to shit, I get panicky.
Of course, it wasn't a steady downward trajectory for us after we got back. There were some evenings where we'd sit on the sofa with a glass of wine each and a good old black and white film, and snuggle close as two doves on a line. And then of course, there was the trip to the Royal Opera House to see La Bohème.
She crackled with vibrant energy all the way up to London, her knee bobbing against mine as we sat side by side on the train. I put my hand on it and grinned as her laugh poured over me. “I’m like a kid on my first trip to London!” she chuckled, leaning over and surprising me with a kiss on my earlobe which sent shivers down my whole left side.
I grabbed her leg, driving my fingers into the muscle of a thigh that was feeling a little smaller than it had when we’d first started out. I frowned, but kept it to myself. Maybe it was just that she was wearing a beautiful dress – the same one with the lace patterns on that she’d worn at New Year – and some dead sexy tights, thick, but nylon-smooth, like living, breathing carbon fibre beneath my hands. Her perfume was stronger than normal, but the way it mixed with the scent of her skin was making it very difficult to concentrate on anything. It’s hard to think straight when your cock starts thinking for you. And my cock isn’t very good at navigating London. Too bad I had to rely on Alyssa on the underground, with people jostling and shoving, the contact constantly breaking and being picked up again, because the more I touched her, the harder it got. In both senses.
It was a relief to get above ground again, but the thirty steps out of the Tube station were excruciating. No matter how much I do at the gym, I never seem to get any better at going up stairs. I’m always dizzy and out of breath at the top, and as we paused to one side, one hand on my cane, the other around her upper arm, I felt that sickening feeling of panic in my lungs, the cold burning. “I was ok on the Tube,” I said as my breath came faster. “I don’t understand…”
“Caleb,” she said firmly. “You’re ok now,” she said, but when I was clearly beginning to barrel into full PTSD mode, she said, “Come on, tell me the story of La Bohème again…”
“You know it,” I gasped, frustrated.
“Yes, but if I get you talking, you’ll stop panicking. Now, how does it start?”
“In the g-garret room,” I mumbled. Someone bashed my elbow and I gave a little frightened cry that I immediately regretted.
“Go on,” she said kindly, tugging me gently away from the Tube exit where everyone in the entire universe seemed to be pouring out onto street level. “Who’s in the garret room?”
“The gr-group of bohemian friends,” I stammered. “They’re all l-l-lamenting how poor they are, and one burns a m-manuscript he’s been working on to k-k-keep warm, and we’re gr-gradually introduced to all of them until the l-l-l-landlord arrives to collect their r-rent. One -brings out a bottle of w-wine and g-gets him -drunk, and he’s talking about his n-nefarious love l-l-life which makes them chuck him out in mock horror… Eventually they all l-leave until it’s j-j-j-j…” I broke off, defeated by my own voice.
“Just who?” she supplied, moving the conversation on as well as me, leading me towards the Royal Opera House and away from the panic at the same time. Fuck, that girl was good.
“R-R-Rodolfo. Then Mimi arrives, asking for a l-light, but suddenly feels faint, so he asks her in, and she sits d-down. She g-gets up to l-leave after a while, but r-realises she’s l-lost her key before she g-g-g-gets to the door. R-Rodolfo’s c-c-candle goes out and they fumble around in the dark l-l-looking for the key, which R-Rodolfo finds early on, and pockets -quietly so she has to stay l-longer. They talk for a bit, she is bathed in moonlight, he sings an aria about how -pretty she is, and then they fall in l-love but she dies at the end… I’m ok now,” I added, squeezing her hand. “Thank you.”
She stepped in like a dancer and kissed my lips gently. “You were always ok, weren’t you listening to me?” she grinned.
“Sassy,” I complained good-humouredly, holding her hand briefly before taking her arm and going with her along the last stretch before heading into the Opera House.
It’s obvious, but the acoustics of a theatre really are something different. I’d been to the theatre before getting myself blown up, but the buzz of the slowly filling auditorium, the smell of the carpets, the cold brass of the bannisters, the distinctive hard curves of the seats in front, and the expectant murmur before the curtain rises were never so key to my enjoyment of the whole thing back then. I was drugged up to my useless eyeballs to avoid my inadvertent yelps joining in with the singers, but as I lowered myself into the seat I did feel the quiet twang of a cramp in my hip after the exertion of the stairs from the Underground.
Alyssa was different when we were doing something different I realised. For literally the entire performance, she sat motionless in her seat, her hand clutching mine where we rested them on my left leg, right up until the end. It came as a sudden surprise when she broke the contact, like the shroud of my parachute had been slashed and I’d begun to freefall. And when I heard her shallow, rasping intake of breath, as Mimi’s character lay on the couch, coughing her last delirious refrains, I realised Alyssa was in tears. I had to smile.
Reaching across for her, I lay my hand open in her lap and asked, begged, her to put that tiny, strong, beautiful, expressive hand back into my grasp, and when she did, I held it tighter than I ever had before.
When Rodolfo broke at Mimi’s death, his final, heart-breaking “Mimi!” ringing out through the whole theatre, I heard her give a little sob. She leaned across to me and whispered in my ear, “Thank you, Caleb,” while the audience thundered their applause. “I loved it.”
“I love you,” I whispered back, trying to ignore the loosening of her grip, or the fact that she said nothing in response.
One night, in late February, after a day riddled with pain, I had been forced to text her and cancel our planned dinner date in town. I could barely make it from one end of the house to the other without tears springing to my eyes and foul language boiling beneath my breath. "I'll come over," she'd said instantly. "Anything you want me to bring?"
"J-just y-you," I'd managed to stutter.
The warm, blushing smile in her voice filled me with joy, and she said, "Alright, softie. I'll see you soon."
I opened the door to her and instantly detected the concerned gasp and sigh before she stepped inside and kissed me, her soft lips not so distant that night. I pulled her hourglass body into mine in the hallway and held her closer, as though I could bring her back to where we had been before.
When I realised I was hanging off her, treating her more like scaffolding than a girlfriend, I released her.
"How are you feeling?" she asked as I let her go, and I wondered if that was trepidation in her voice as we moved towards the living room and the big squashy sofa.
I shook my head. I really couldn't speak. I reached for her hand, but it was too far away and I needed to concentrate on putting one foot before the other, else I'd fall. She had clearly seen me flailing for her, and snatched my hand up in hers, leading me gently into the living room. It was a gesture I appreciated and resented in equal measures.
Our evening was nice. She seemed to take a long time to relax after work, but she even let me give her iron shoulders a rub. There was a dark cloud for me though, because every time I gasped as cramp seized my body in its grip, or I tried to talk and ended up in a tangle of stammered sounds, I realised the stinging blush in my cheeks was embarrassment again: I was ashamed of my body around her once more, like the very first time on that freezing December night when she'd stumbled across me.
"It's getting late," she yawned, head resting against my shoulder as the film credits rolled. "I think I'm going to head home."
My heart lurched. "St---stay here?" I stuttered horribly.
Why such trepidation in these silences, Lyss?
"Alright," she said. "I didn't want to intrude..."
"Intrude?" I whispered, falling back on old speech therapy tactics. "L-L-Lyssa, you're not intruding, you're never intruding. Why... why w-would you think that?"
She paused again, playing with the ends of her hair between her fingers. I heard it whisper even more softly than I had. "I just... I don't know, I thought you might want a decent night's sleep. I was just trying to give you some room. I'll stay if you like though."
I don’t need room! "Stay if y-you l-like," I insisted, fumbling in my murky blindness for her body. My fingers discovered her thigh first, and I gripped her beautiful figure with more than a hint of desperation. "Please..." I found myself hissing before I could stop, and I wasn't entirely sure what I was begging for: her to stay that night, or to stay full-stop. The pain was mounting again and my senses were thrumming. I needed a painkiller. Or six.
The sofa cushions rustled and her hair tickled my hands as she leaned toward me, a smile changing the entire way she sounded, filling her breath with light, as she gripped the back of my head and kissed me. If it hadn't been for the cramp that was creeping up my leg at that moment, I'd have pinned her to the couch and had her right there. As it was, pain tempered my growing erection so I was only half hard, but still, it was reassuring to know she still wanted me at least a little bit as she nibbled my lip and moved away down my neck towards my collar bones where she knew I loved her lips.
I gasped. Steel talons pierced my leg at the thigh just as she reached my collar bones with her lips and her teeth, and electricity – the bad kind – shot down my entire nervous system. And when I grimaced a curse, my hand flying to my sciatic nerve, all her passion died instantly; she pulled back and slid into the darkness beyond my perception. Fuck. This. I cursed, damning my fucking leg to hell. Just give me a normal night with my girl, please, I prayed silently. Only her hand remained, resting on my knee until I had nursed the pain away, but she didn't come back to me after that.
I hobbled upstairs behind her, sullen, awkward, embarrassed, and went through the motions of my routine, taking the appropriate mix of drugs to dull the sharpness of the pain while Lyss was in the bathroom. I'd been lying in bed for maybe ten minutes, half dazed by chemicals and only half in reality, when I heard the door whisper open on the carpet and her soft feet tread quietly towards me.
The mattress dipped. The covers were lifted and a light was clicked off. It was only as my background wash of murky colours changed that I realised I'd been lying on my back with my creepy eyes wide open. I rammed them shut. More duvet crinkling announced her approach, and I heard her soft, even breathing. She was too near my face to be lying down. I frowned. Her kiss landed on my brow and chased the frown away. "Can I do anything?" she asked.
"No, it's ok," I slurred, on the border between wakeful, pain-induced insanity and the drug-induced sleep of the dead.
"Tell me if there is, won't you?" she murmured as she nuzzled in beside me, her body chilly from the bathroom.
I nodded, wrapped an arm around her cold body, and prayed for sleep. She'd come back to me for a bit, and I relished the closeness of her skin on mine. I don't know how long I lay like that with her head on the hollow of my shoulder, her arm draped over my torso, but I must have drifted off because I woke with a start hours later, lying on my side this time, facing away from her, as immeasurable voltage burned up and down my right leg. Searing agonising pain, bone deep, played in my ankle. Rarely was it so bad I couldn't sleep or lie down, but in those early hours of the morning, it gripped me so tightly I thought I'd broken bone. I bit down another howl as it surged to the mere, dull pain of a solid rocket booster…
My indistinct shout of surprise woke her with a start, and as I moaned and clutched at my poor, pulsing, cramping, shaking leg, I could feel Lyssa's desperate desire to help me, to take the pain from me, to make my body stop twitching and to make the tears stop squeezing from the corner of my long-blind eyes, but I was helpless. My pain overwhelmed me and all I could do was lie there, entire body contorted, controlled, by that bone-deep, searing pain, hand clutching fruitlessly at the joint, brain locked in until it gradually, imperceptibly began to ease. I think the way I was breathing frightened her, but, bless her, she never retreated too far.
My breath began to come back to my lungs and the joint cooled, untold grams of pain dissolving into my bloodstream with each passing minute until I was left with the heat of my daily dose of radiation at the levels I had grown accustomed to. I fumbled in the drawer of the bedside cabinet for some different painkillers, my 'emergency use only' ones, swallowed them dry, and flopped back, drained and defeated. Only then, as I lay on my side, sweating slightly and with salt tracks staining my cheeks in the dark, did I realise that Alyssa's small strong hand was actually resting on my hip, stroking it softly. It must have been there a while, and I think it said 'I'm here. I can't do anything, but I'm awake too; and I'll be here until you fall asleep.'
"I love you," I whispered, my voice coming reluctantly from my lungs to my tongue.
She didn't reply.
Those newest painkillers took a while to kick in, so I lay there, curled on my side, not wanting to move, with her lovely little hand on my broken hip. The only sound in the room now was the quiet duet of our breathing, gradually evening out until we inhaled together, exhaling in unison, like one entity.
I'd been lying there, frozen in silent aftershock, for so long that as I began to drift off, I wasn't sure if she was awake or asleep. Her breathing was even and soft, and in that instant, as the pressure of her hand seemed to ward off any fresh pain, I knew she was the most important thing in my life. "I love you," I repeated as the last of the stabbing pain circled my ankle. I shuffled and held her close to my chest, smiling as she sleepily snuggled closer to me. "Love you," I hissed into her hair, my last waking breath joining my dipping consciousness as I fell into the arms of exhaustion and blacked out at last.
Work took over for her over the following weeks, what with Mothering Sunday happening – I don't think she ate or sleep much in the week preceding that day so she could complete all the last-minute orders from desperate daughters. I heard from and saw her less and less frequently. I had plenty of my own work to do, obviously, but I felt a there was an unnatural frenzy to her dedication that unnerved me as Spring began to creep into the air. I grew nervous of this near-mania and more worried as she felt a little thinner each time I did get to lay my hands on her tense body. And finally my heart began to break a little as I knew my Lyssa was pulling away from me bit by bit. I was powerless to stop it and, at that point, I was totally unaware of its cause.
The thought did cross my mind that she was pulling away because I was imagining a divide between us, but a coffee spent with her and Kay confirmed that I wasn't just being paranoid. There was something. She was fading in and out like a bad radio signal.
As I sipped my cappuccino, I heard a high note of distress in Kay's voice, like I was a dog tuning into a harmonic in the company of its half-deaf human companions. Kay knew something was grinding in the gears of our relationship. I wondered what she guessed was the reason. She was too polite to ask, but I detected concern for her friend when we parted and she said, "Call me, ok? It's been too long and I need to talk..."
"Yeah," Lyssa said vaguely, her hand limp in mine. "I will."
"Promise, sweetie," Kay pressed.
"Yeah," was all she got back in response.
"And stop working so fucking hard," she added. "You'll have to start paying excess baggage charges for the ones under your eyes..."
"Don't tell Caleb I look so shit," she shot sourly.
My chest contracted at the half-joke that was really mostly just truth. Did she think it was ok to keep pretending it was all going swimmingly just because I can't see her? Did she think I couldn't tell she was running herself ragged for some unknown reason just because I couldn't see?
Smiley told me to man the fuck up and stop over-thinking it when I mentioned that she was being weird, just, very helpfully, informing me that, “Some women are flighty like that, you know, high maintenance. She's probably just wanting more attention or something. Buy her some flowers and see if she chills out.” I may not have been a relationship expert, but something told me that this was more than a flower-fixer. Being back in contact with Millie made me tempted to ask her for a girl’s perspective, but I didn't much want to splash my private problems all over her. Something told me that she'd be gleeful or something. Women… I thought sourly. This is all so fucking complicated.
As I sat at my desk at work one day, fingers resting lightly on the Braille interface of my keyboard, waiting for an email to come through, I tried to pinpoint just when she'd gone cold on me. Dinner at New Year had been beautiful – I wore her cuff links to work every day, getting a chuckle out of them every time I ran my hands over the raised Braille – and the walk the day after had been pretty good. I thought she'd enjoyed my showing her the way I have to 'see' the world now, but maybe my stubborn refusal to admit that the walk had too far had annoyed her, which led me into the choppy waters of disability. The nervous cloud still fizzed around her when I confronted her with my disabilities right in the face, like, "I can't do that, I'm too disabled and I need your help..." but she had only been apprehensive then. Now there was a coldness that freaked me the fuck out.
Don't leave me, Lyss, I thought as I tried to work it all out. And then, finally, after mulling it over a thousand times, it came to me. It slammed into me with the force of a fucking tank. The fear in her voice, the tension in her body - it had ignited when we had had the ex talk. Millie.
That girl was my first real love. I owed my life to her. Literally, owed my life to her. But Lyss had my heart. "I can't be jealous of your past. I have no right to it," Lyss had said, but she was. She was jealous. Was that it? Plain old jealousy? Or did the insecurity run deeper than that? I had received a few more texts from Millie since New Year; I didn't think Alyssa knew about them, not that I was really trying to hide it from her though. Maybe I was a bit…
One half of my ego loved that she was jealous. The other half told me I was a huge fucking idiot to have hurt her with knowledge of how much I had loved Millie. But there was still something about her, and maybe Alyssa had picked up on that something: that something which kept drawing me back to the dust and the heat and the primal fear of war. Her tiny, taught body, her toned arms, her apparent helplessness that belied a wiry toughness, her fearless laugh... I ran my hands down my thighs, felt my cock straining against the crotch of my jeans at the mere memory of her body. Fuck.
My brain didn't want to come back to thinking about writing reviews of software updates for Android. It behaved for a while then lurched back to the forward operating base near .
My phone rang on my desk and I answered it before I remembered that my speech was fucking awful that day, but it turned out only to be Nan reminding me to meet Amy from school. The spring term was barrelling towards the Easter holidays already, and I swelled with pride as I thought about how well little Amy had been doing in school.
I couldn't believe how quickly she'd grown as she prattled on about how easy her maths test had been and how stupid the boys in her class were as we walked to the bus stop. She changed topics like a summer butterfly moving from flower to flower, but she didn't seem to mind that I was barely speaking. My mind was elsewhere, not able to keep track with her, getting lost in the babble.
Amy's hand broke away from mine as we passed through the front gate and I heard the syncopated rhythm of her tiny feet skipping up the flagstone path. It was just like the end of any other school day but as I stepped through the door and instantly smelled perfume, it became extraordinary.
I knew it so well but couldn’t place it before Amy had even ground to a dead halt in front of me, causing me to crash into her, clutching her tiny shoulders to hold myself upright.
"," a woman’s voice said softly, her familiar voice husky and shy. "I hope it's ok to have called by uninvited."
. Everything was out of place. I wasn't where I really was, and she wasn't where I should have been. I was in the dusty FOB. And Millie was walking towards me after my return from a reconnaissance mission with a select number of our unit.
I didn't know if it was her voice then or now that I was hearing. I experienced that hideous shifting that I get at the start of a panic attack. Layers of reality and memory sliding over one another, universes slipping, except this time, the adrenaline and mind-blanking fear was absent. All I felt was total incomprehension.
She giggled, and I still wasn't sure what was going on. "Yup," she laughed, husky, dry as the Afghan desert.
"-What are you doing here?"
Feet shuffled on the hardwood. Nan's crackly voice sounded, and Amy darted away, leaving me unsupported again. "Why don't you come in and have a drink?" Nan asked me sweetly. "Then you and Millie can catch up in the living room."
It was torture. She was right there, her subtle perfume billowing out, wafting past me, refreshing and clear as salt spray beside the sea and sweet as a summer peach, but she was still like an ethereal memory, beyond my perception. I couldn't see much further than my own hobbling feet, but I could recall the sight of her in the baking desert heat. I sighed, and began to limp into the sitting room, in search of my chair. I was not about to seek out a sofa. I didn't trust myself with her suddenly, and that thought sparked a billowing cloud of terror in me. I wanted her. I loved Alyssa, but I wanted Millie right then. Never before had I experienced that kind of tear down the middle of my conscience, and it scared me not knowing how I was going to behave. Soldiers like a plan, and this one didn't have a plan right then.
Nan shuffled back shortly after I'd managed to locate the old, squashy, comfortable chair, and she left us each with a cool beer before retreating. I thanked her awkwardly, and picked up the beer, the glass with its beads of condensation shockingly cold against my skin, ripping me away from my thoughts of Millie. The chair, with its even pressure on the side of my thighs, seemed to be keeping me contained, reminding me who I was, and, equally importantly, with whom.
Millie collapsed with a huge sigh onto the sofa at right angles to my chair, and I heard her hair swish against her shoulders. "How've you been?" she quizzed before sipping her beer and exhaling with deep satisfaction.
I tried not to picture those lips and their full contours as I remembered them, the way she used to bite them unconsciously. "Ok..." I said with audible caution, not daring to say too much in case I began to stick horribly on my 'favourite' consonants. "Y-you?"
The gentle grating of a throat being cleared preceded her words. "Yeah, good mostly. Just been doing my usual shifts and stuff, you know..."
I frowned. There was definitely something else.
A nervous laugh escaped her lips. "I can see you read me as well as ever. Well, I... Um... I kind of wanted to come and talk to you, Caleb..." she faltered.
"About?" I took a swig of my beer, unable to bear the tension.
Another cough. "I... I suppose there's no beating about the bush."
The soft rustle of her clothes betrayed a shuffle in her seat. I wondered what she was wearing. And then rapidly into what she'd looked like not wearing anything. She'd had some devastatingly seductive tattoos somewhere extremely private, if I remembered correctly... Focus, Starling, for fuck's sake, I chided myself, taking a second swig to distract myself.
Millie continued, apparently oblivious to my discomfort. Her words were a rush of barely-contained emotion. "I've been asked to go back to Afghan to help train Afghan medics, and assist with a related programme designed to get local children involved in basic first aid... Kind of co-op project..."
My mind reeled for a moment, and then I sputtered, "D-did y-y-you say y-yes?"
"Mmm. I did."
"Fuck, Millie... Y-you mean y-you w-w-want to ship back out there? And after so much t-time off?" I pictured the war zone we'd left, and while things had improved, it wasn't exactly a trip to Benidorm.
There was a pause. "Yeah," she sighed. "They think I'll be a good combination and addition to the team."
"Y-Y-You told the others about this?"
"You're the first."
"Shit, Millie," I hissed, reining back my language, unsure if Amy was still around. "It's not l-like basic training, y-you know? You sure it's -what you w-want to do?"
"Yes. I need this, Caleb. My life is on hold - everything has stagnated. I need to get back there... It's... It's like it's calling me, or pulling me, or something..."
"-when are you g-g-going to tell the r-rest of the unit?"
"The fuck you aren't!" I spat savagely, forgetting about my sister for a moment, sitting upright and ignoring the instant stabbing in my hip. "They deserve to know!"
She heaved yet another sigh, short, sharp, and full of fear and sadness. "I just can't face the looks on their mugs when I tell them, Caleb. Yours is bad enough..."
"So why tell me?"
"Because, Darling, you're the boss man. I have to tell you." Her laugh was flirtatious, but it had an undercurrent to it. She was nervous at least.
"Oh, w-w-what, and I have to tell the others for you? C-come on," I said with a snarl in my tone. "That's not how it w-w-works now we're out, and y-y-you know that. You've got to tell them you're going back."
"I can't, Caleb. I can't." Her voice was suddenly small and weak, like a child's.
And then I wasn't Caleb Starling any more, but her superior officer. "You c-can't make me do y-your dirty work for you," I said sternly. "Y-you c-can't ask me to do what y-you don't have the balls for..."
"You don't get to pull rank on me now... And anyway, I don't have balls, Darling," I flinched as she called me that again. That was my Afghan name, my army days name, "Don't you remember what you boys ended up calling me?"
I remained stubbornly silent, fuming my quiet discontent in my chair.
"Do you?" she pressed. Her glass bottle was getting empty, the sound growing ever more resonant as she set it down each time on the table beside her. "Well, Darling?"
"It's C-C-C-Caleb, now," I mumbled, hating how I always got stuck on my own name. "I left that name behind in the blood and dust, ok?"
"Stop dodging my question."
"Yes," I sighed, softening, defeated, my head rolling back and resting on the back cushion of my chair. "Our little princess, we used to c-call you." I waited a heartbeat and added, "Because you were such a fucking madam all the time..."
Clear and quick as a melt-water river, her laugh filled the room, knocking my mental balance right off, yet again. I had to join in.
"Princess. No balls,” she grinned. “Micky came up with it," she snorted. "Fuck me, did I hate him for it to begin with, but when you all started using it affectionately I actually grew to like it... Of course, Banjo never stopped using it sarcastically..."
"That was because he's never stopped fancying the pants off you," I said without thinking.
Her laugh changed, a sharp, metallic ring cutting through it, cold and ruthless for a moment. "Someone else beat him to it though," she said darkly. The jollity in her voice deflated as she flumped back into the sofa, and she added, "What ever happened to us, Caleb? We were so close back then... and then it all changed, but I don't know when... Or why..."
You turned out not to be the entirely sweet princess I'd taken you for, and played us all off each other to get what you wanted, I contemplated saying, but instead ventured, "People change, I g-g-guess..."
"Come on... I'm not settling for that..."
"I'm not sure," I said, draining the contents of my bottle and setting it down on the table with an uncertain fumble. Buying time. "It w-was -probably g-getting too much for me out there r-r-right before w-we spent that time back home... Then I went and g-g-got the unit -blown up... Being a -blind -cripple k-kind of takes the fun out of things. At l-least for a while... I figured y-you'd have moved on by the time I w-was better anyway."
"A handsome cripple though," she said, and when she said the 'c' word, my insides twisted. I didn't know, and couldn't tell, if it was horror or attraction that did it, but that word on her lips sent a thrill through me. She sighed and added, "But yeah, I guess when you've seen what we've seen, it does change you."
I stifled a yawn. It's wasn't late, but I'd had a lot playing on my mind that day, and it was all beginning to catch up with me. We talked over another beer, filling in the blanks and rehashing old stories from the dustier days, until she finally said, "Darling, look, I've kept you awake for far too long. I'll head home - you look beat - and I'll let you get some sleep. Thanks for letting me talk through all that shit with you. Means a lot. Didn't know how much I needed it, you know, decompression and all..."
I smiled. "Yeah, the tour to Cyprus is never long enough," I said, thinking back to the official period of decompression offered by the army once tours are finished. As Millie stood, I made to follow suit, but the sharp pain that stabbed down my sciatic nerve drove through me like a stake, pinning me to the chair, and drawing the air from my lungs with the speed of a blasted valve on a space ship.
"Here," she said, and suddenly her delicate fingers were entwined around my hands. "Let me give you a hand up." I’d had no idea she was so close to me.
There was a deliciousness to that forbidden touch and while my brain screamed at me to get my own arse out of that chair like a big grown up boy, my cock made me stay and let her draw me to my feet instead.
She released me after maybe a second or two too long, and turned without a word for the front door.
The air was chilly outside, but a hint of Spring clung to the scents as I opened the door and let the night rush in. Millie stepped out lightly, her shoes making little sound on the paving of the path, and I hobbled over the threshold and stood on the single step, leaning on my cane.
"You know," Millie said, her alto voice intoxicatingly husky as she stood below me on the path. "You really need to relax more, Darling." She reached up and put her hands on my shoulders and dug her fingers into the muscles she could reach. "You never used to be this tight."
"I didn't have such a great-looking body back then," I quipped. "I work hard to keep my body this tense, you know?"
She giggled, a hint of sadness in her tone. "I can see," she said. "Promise me you'll take care of yourself?"
Her touch became tender and she pulled her body even closer to mine. It was wrong, but the old flame still flickered between us and I couldn't help the way my own body leaned in. My cane suddenly had to work a lot harder to keep me on my feet. "And you," I replied. "Y-You take care of yourself too, and make sure y-you tell the boys yourself. Don't make me do it for you, will you?"
She laughed. She was close to my face now, I could feel her breath on my skin. "But you were always so good at doing things for me," she murmured.
"Millie," I growled in warning.
One little playful bark of laughter escaped her. "Yes, Darling," she chuckled. Then her hand had wrapped around the back of my head and she had pulled me into a firm kiss before I could react. One hand slid down my arm from my shoulder, and landed at my waist, her thumb hooking into the band of my jeans, jammed between my shattered pelvis and the soft denim.
And with the rush of blood that filled my cock I didn't comprehend the sound of the front gate swinging open, or the clacking footsteps halt. Too late did I realise what I'd heard. Those footsteps. Her footsteps. Too late did I hear the gasp as Millie dropped back from her toes and turned to look over her shoulder with a hissed curse. Too late did I hear the voice of Alyssa, small, disbelieving, vulnerable, as she spoke a single word. My name.
I thought I heard her say “I knew it,” but I wasn’t thinking straight.
Then those heels, whose sound I had come to love so much, were clacking away down the pavement faster than I could hope to move to catch up with her. Millie dropped from my mind, instantly forgotten as I began to scramble down the path towards the gate, completely blind in the dark without my white cane. "L-L-Lyss!" I gulped, unable to speak.
The gate was half open still, the cold iron swinging free, lying diagonally across the path, and I crashed into it with a curse, tangling in it as it snared me and kept me from getting to her. "Fuck!" I bellowed as the pain from the impact fused with the rage in my head. I stepped back and swung furiously into space at the gate with my black cane, hearing it ricochet off the masonry as it whiplashed back from the force of the blow. I must have dented my stick then too. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" I shouted again and again. I'd blown it. She was gone, and there was no way she would come back to me now. And it wasn't even my fault! On second thoughts it was mostly Millie's fault and partly mine, but I didn't see it like that then.
A soft hand touched my arm. "I'm sorry -" she began, but I rounded on her with a savage growl, stabbing my cane viciously into the path and lunging at her.
"Y-You think you c-can just w-waltz back into my life and pick up -where we left off?” I bellowed. “Y-You don't have that r-right, Millie! Go back to Afghan, do g-good there, be happy, but please, don't y-you ever try and c-c-come back into my life!"
And so the second pair of feet hurried away from my front gate that night, and I was left alone with a turmoil of desperate anguish, and a bleeding shin. I don't know how long I stayed with my bare forearms resting on the iron gate, but Nan eventually came out and put a hand on my back. "I think I can guess what happened, Caleb," she said softly as she put gentle pressure on my arm, trying to lead me back inside. "Come on. Your leg is shaking, and you need to come in."
"I fucked up, Nan," I croaked. "And I don't know how to fix it."
"Fixes come with time," she said sagely. "Now let go of that old gate before you crack it, and come with me."
I knew how Alyssa would react, and that thought flooded my chest with icy dread. "Alright," I whispered, noticing for the first time how my leg was indeed shuddering and shivering. I couldn't feel any pain though. Everything had just crumbled to ruins, like a teetering building waiting to fall, brought to the ground by one final stormy gust.
The main riff from the Rolling Stones' Paint it Black twanged quietly across my mind, and as I blindly slammed our front door behind us I thought it ironic that for me, it was already painted black.
To be continued........ (promise!)