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Forgive me for the long overdue update. I was juggling quite a few things for this chapter, and I didn't want to rush because I felt this deserved a little more thought and investment than the other chapters. I thank all of you who take the time to voice your encouraging thoughts! Please continue to R&R! :)
Chapter Five: Afraid
The next morning, he had that all too familiar feeling in his gut. He felt the endless need to throw up, but there was nothing to purge. Throughout all his insane thinking, he feared that he would have to suffer the memory of it for as long as he lived.
In the long run... Did it even make sense?
“So what did you tell her, James?”
His fringe obscured his eyes. “I told her I didn't want to see her anymore.”
Suddenly, he felt the powerful force of her hand across his face. “Dammit, James!”
He was in his actual bedroom, a place that had not been crossed until only two days ago. Laura was once sound asleep here, her beautiful frame shrouded in darkness and her slow, soundless breathing tantalizing James' tortured imagination.
Mary had looked just like that after she had died. Her eyes were closed peacefully, now settled on death like a lily pad floating on the water. There was even a despairing and beautiful mysticism about it; she had passed on into wherever people went at the moment of death, leaving their unfit shell behind. Maybe she finally found out just exactly what this life is—if it's really the end, or just one stage of being in a convoluted cycle.
Beds now carried a painfully heavy connotation. In truth, he didn't even like the word. He supposed it might not make sense to someone that he had a psychological aversion to beds, even if they knew how he killed Mary. But anything close to the memory, which even now could turn him from a calm demeanor to a bereaved, uncontrollably sobbing sap, was enough to make him do strange things..
He would never turn on the light in this room. The door was always locked up, like the memory, and layers upon layers of dust from a year before were still there. Laura didn't say anything about it, perhaps knowing that he wouldn't be able to explain it in any way that would make sense, and furthermore, it would end up upsetting him.
Did she really pity this old man, a sorry hermit who shut himself up in this hole and forced himself to care about nothing?
Maybe she was just chasing after a dream that had died long ago, and one day, she would finally realize his worth and clear him from her mind. She would bury him in the ground like a time capsule and never revisit any memory of him ever again, leaving him in the darkness, where he most clearly belonged.
Idle chatter resounded from every isle. It was Walmart, so of course everyone and their mother were here, but it must have been quite a special day, because he managed to catch the back of a man who was built similar to him, whose gray hairs were slicked back like James always had his. He was walking in a unguided direction, taking his time, picking up this, looking at that.
James knew he should take the opportunity and disappear.
He redirected his cart the way he came, only to find that three others were slowly converging on his location to get in the isle. James muttered, “Good God,” and turned around with a compliant look on his face. As a quiet, out-of-the-way person, he was very careful to watch his physical expressions in public, lest he draw attention to himself with just a roll of the eyes or an exasperated sigh of displeasure.
He was swiftly passing down the isle and was nearly on the home stretch when the man, disturbed from his musings by the sound of the approaching cart, gasped and gestured him to stop by waving his hands out in front of him.
He turned around, hoping that he could fool him into believing that he hadn't seen him. “Dad..?”
“James. I can't believe it's you. I haven't seen you in so long..” Frank approached him a little unsteadily, reaching his hands out in front of him, almost like a zombie. He was like James (or James was like him) in that, when they finally caught sight of something they had been yearning for, and it was finally within reach, they slowly closed in on it, like the first taste of an unfamiliar food. They wanted to know if it was real or not.
James, more than his father probably knew, chased mirages more than was healthy.
“Yeah, I'm here, Dad.” From force of habit, he looked away. Why was it that he could never really look someone in the face? Would he always be this perpetually ashamed?
Frank's rough, veined hand settled on his shoulder. “Son. God. I haven't seen you in so long.”
“I know. It's been a while..”
“It's been more than a year and a half!” he suddenly burst. “Why don't you ever call me, James? Are you mad at me or something? If you are, just tell me.”
“No, no, Dad.” He suddenly had a horrible crick in his neck. Frank's eyes were on him like a gold trophy, and he didn't know what to say. “I think.. I mean, I..”
“Spit it out.” Frank laughed, just glad to hear his voice.
“Uh.. I just.. We just kinda lost touch.”
Frank went sly-eyed. “No, more like, you didn't feel like talking to me anymore. Aunt Hild said you don't talk to anyone in the family anymore, and you used to be really close to your Aunt Hild.”
“Oh, uh..” Vague memories of their closeness flashed in his mind. They were such under-visited, Charlie-Chaplin images, and by now so faded and useless he couldn't remember exactly why he even liked her so much. “So how is Aunt Hilda?”
“Dead.” Frank candidly remarked. He was never really one to beat around the bush. “But otherwise good.”
James fought a smile and a laugh, despite the joke.
“Oh, about a few months ago. She asked about you a few days before she kicked it. She actually thought you went back to jail or something.”
“Hah,” James half-smiled, “No.”
I think 9 years is enough, is what he really wanted to say.
James knew he was capable of avoiding more social interactions, friendly gatherings, parties and get togethers than most people, while paving a new record for antisocial behavior by way of acting like he wouldn't see or hear a person who had called out his name or waved to him, but this was different. Perhaps it was because Frank had been a parent, and therefore, was used to being ignored. Or maybe it was just that he was trying to get away from the wrong person. They were alike in quite a lot of ways, and quite possibly, his father knew the game James was playing. Whatever the reason, Frank wouldn't be shrugged off.
James casually said that he would meet him in the electronics section after he got his milk and eggs, but Frank just said that he needed the same things and would follow him there. After following him all around the store, creating a plethora of small talk to keep them entertained along the way, he asked a hated question.
“What are you doing after this?”
James wanted, more than anything, to somehow squirm past this inquiry. But he was stuck with it, and Frank was waiting for an answer. As usual, James uttered the most overused sentence in the English language without thinking.
“I don't know.”
Frank paused. “Well, I'd really like it if you swung by the apartments for a little bit. Not long. Just for a little chat. I think I might have some things for you, too.”
James wasn't interested in finding out what these things were—knowing Frank, it was probably some useless trinket that he wanted to get rid of or some kind of passed-down heirloom from an obscure ancestor.
“You still live in that complex, right? You're only a few blocks away from here. That's good when you need to go shopping, ain't it?”
“Well, I'm not too far out of the way either, so you can just get in the car with me and I'll take you back..” Frank trailed off as he absently observed a row of dish detergent, then added, “When you're ready.”
Before James even really knew what he walked into, they were in the parking lot, searching for Frank's now forgotten parking spot. James suspected, as did many, many others before him, that more than 90 percent of people who walked in a store forgot where they parked their car by the time they walked out. Mary even pointed that out once—playfully scolding him for forgetting their spot when it was his turn to remember.
“You always were so forgetful..”
It was alien, being back inside of this car again. The old felt seats were hard now, having been sat on for more than 30 years. This car, a blue 1965 Plymouth Barracuda, was Frank's pride and joy, and he never even let anyone touch the steering wheel. Both the car and James also shared the same birth year, adding to his father's sentimentality.
All the while the sour anxiety from this morning had not gone away, and only intensified as they drove on, because if this meant anything, it meant that they had to discuss something.
James turned to his father in fearful anticipation, studying his features, the movements of his eyes, the grip of his hands on the steering wheel. How did he feel right now?
Just as he was about to force the painful question from his throat, they came to an easy stop at the front of South Ashfield Heights apartment complex. The depressing, bricked palace was somehow smaller than he remembered it.
Frank turned off the ignition and shoved the keys into his pocket. “James.. It's alright if you don't wanna come in, but.. Will you wait out here? I have to show you something.”
James paused, thinking it over. “I can come in,” he said carefully.
Frank had opened the car door and was going to step out, but at that statement, he made a double take. “Really? Are you really alright with it, James?”
They both made their way up the steps. Of course, Frank was a little slower, given his advanced age of 74. Strangely, only now was James starting to realize that his father was breaking down. He had a slow, cautious gait, and at one point, he needed James' hand to help him up the stairs because of a sudden cramp.
“Oh, would you look at me, son? I'm falling apart here.”
“Come on, don't say that, Dad. You're more active than I am.” He smiled, but Frank didn't appear to be all that pleased to hear that.
After fumbling with a fat ring of keys, Frank opened the door to his own room and James stepped in.
It was pretty much what the apartment of an old man ought to look like, except he actually had a X-Box set up under his long outdated VCR player, probably a gift from one of their crazier relatives like Aunt Verna, who always got anyone an expensive, age-inappropriate gift. James laughed.
“What's that under there? You play video games, Dad?”
Frank took a moment to analyze the question, and his eyes slowly trailed to the neglected toy under his TV. “What? Oh, that? Goodness, I don't know what the hell that thing is. I guess you play games on it, only I don't know how the damn thing works. I think I should just give it to my neighbor Eileen. She's pregnant.”
At the expense of slighting the intelligence of his father, whom he hadn't said a proper word to in years, he stayed quiet. He supposed it at least deserved a chuckle.
It would be quite a while before the kid would be old enough to play it, but it wasn't all that pressing to point out.
Frank disappeared into his bedroom for a minute and came back with two envelopes, one a little yellower and more dog-eared at the edges than the other, and placed them both in James' petrified hand.
“Do you remember Rachel?”
Nothing in his memory stirred, and James shook his head.
“Mary's nurse. She wrote me after.. Well, a little after Mary came home with you, and she wanted to know how I was doing. We wrote back and forth for a while. I lost most of them, but I did manage to save these two.”
“Are they both from her?”
“No. One of them is from Mary.”
The frozen look on James' face, coupled with his tense stature, tipped Frank of his indiscretion.
“If you don't want to read—”
“No, it's fine. I'll read them when I get home, though. Is that ok?”
“Yes, yes.” Frank replied hurriedly. “You want something to drink?”
James sat down on the plastic covered couch. He always felt like he was going to slip off of it, which was faintly funny.
There was an age-old picture of one of Frank's classic cars on the wall, along with a gloriously young version of his mother, Thelma, resting seductively on the hood, the wind blowing her dark, curled hair about and her polka dot top doing little to leave the thought of her nakedness to one's imagination.
“Thelm, you really should watch that kid,” Frank would say in the days of James' troublesome teenage years, “He'll get in trouble with the law if you let him stay out late!”
He remembered his mother sitting in that car. Her poise straight, her beauty humble and contained. Her auburn hair was always up, like Mary's, and she was never like the cooler Moms who wore slacks and let their shirts a tad undone to show their cleavage and flaunt their horrible, pointed bras. She was submissive in word and deed, a true old-world, anti-American woman. She left every decision and punishment to Frank. She never drove this car or any one before it.
James shook his head. Those days were gone now. The days where the neighborhood was decent and the economy was good. The American dream was in full swing for everyone, and they all celebrated by getting drunk and high and protesting and practicing free love. Those were the crazy, whacked out days.
Thelm, watch out for that kid..
Frank came back with some ice tea in another aged glass cup with a minimum of two ice cubes, and a bit of sugar. Inwardly, James shook his head. His father added extra sugar to every drink that clearly didn't need it—soda, lemonade, ginger ale, and whatever else. Force of habit.
“Were you looking at that?” he pointed to Thelma and the car. “Thelm loved that car. You wouldn't remember, you were too little.”
“Hell, I'm surprised you remember, Dad.”
“How could I ever forget? I have so many photos of your Ma, you haven't even seen them all. I guess I'm one of the lucky old men. I have more pieces of my past than a lot of people my age.”
“You know, you could have gone to us if you needed anything.” Frank said quietly.
James turned to him, unable to voice his desire to fix things that couldn't be undone. “I'm sorry.”
He thought maybe it was because of her realizing that she lacked any real personality, any real worth or consequence in this life, that she finally decided to die.
There wasn't much else to be said. Anything thereafter dissolved into nothing.
Thelma looked on at both of them from her car, endlessly smiling. Her happiness, and theirs, similarly, all lost in time.
People shoved past everyone else. The cries of children and babies, the groans of old men, and the laughter of young girls erupted from the crowd of rushing bodies. The screeching of the rails abetted after a time, allowing her thoughts some coherency.
She walked around with a watchful air, trying not to appear like she was intentionally following anyone, but at the same time, she wondered why she cared what a bunch of strangers thought of her. It wasn't them she needed to see, anyway.
If he continued on like this, trapped in his fear, who knew what he might end up doing.
Which lent her some disturbing thoughts. What exactly did she interrupt that fateful day, when she found James walking toward his car, the door carelessly left open and the vehicle itself parked with silly haste?
“James, are you leaving?” she ran up to him, soon out of breath and grasping her bent knees with her small hands.
As an eight year old, she probably couldn't identify a kind of desperate intent on a person's face, but at the very least, James looked terribly worried. He looked like he wanted her gone. He looked like he might even have been asking himself what she was doing here in the first place, and why she just couldn't be somewhere else at this moment.
Always a pitiful liar, James said, “Oh, it's you, Laura.. I thought you left.”
“Can I come with you? I don't have a ride home.”
She didn't have a home either, but he didn't need to know that.
James massaged his hands in uneasy thought, looking here and there, biting his lip, heaving a sigh, wanting to say something but keeping it in. Foiled in whatever he wanted to do in her absence, he said, “I think I am.. All out of gas.”
Laura stretched. “K. So we walk.”
James looked down. “Yeah, I guess we do.”
She tried not to give away her anguish by sighing and hopelessly looking around the platform, but she was failing miserably. The wretched man wasn't here.
She walked back the way she came, walked up the steps, and stopped on the sidewalk. What direction was it?
Laura kicked her memory into gear. The porch, cell-phone number exchange, didn't want to go home..
She decided to follow her hunch and start from her own house, turning left. It would be a long walk even if she were going the right direction, as he lived near the outskirts.
As she walked on, the neighborhood became progressively poorer. Cats skittered across the street like foxes on the prowl, dogs sat on the porches of their owners and panted from the late night heat. The homeless perched on benches, wearing tattered shorts and sandals that were too small for them. A fat woman walked her plump hotdog down the block while a cute pudgy kid wearing a soiled striped shirt followed close behind.
Ashfield had many different faces depending on who you asked, and most people broke it into two parts—the “high” and the “low” quarters. James definitely resided in the low or poor quarter, deep in the ghetto. Most of the people in this area were minorities: African American or Hispanic, and Asian at some parts, as people tended to segregate into their own ethnic groups for a tighter sense of community and culture. He had said he was pretty much out of the way of everything, but he must have meant that he was situated far from better living.
She passed myriads of little shops and corner-stores, often referred to as tiendas by the Latinos.
Lala's Nails, El Supermercado..
Where was she?
Faintly, she remembered the small, gray streaked building behind a row of bushes, near the train tracks. James said the train often startled him awake in the middle of the night.
This was the place.
Laura hesitantly approached the steps, desperately wishing for anything that could absolve the tension in her stomach. The doors didn't give way without a fight, and the creak resounded throughout the lobby. She looked from the left to the right and back again, as if she were about to cross the street or make a turn at a busy intersection. It was dark, like that place from her childhood, and it would have almost appeared abandoned if it weren't for the fidgety, dirty, middle-aged man depositing his trash in a nearby chute. He turned around to stare at her shamelessly as she quickly walked past. All kinds of unsettling notions crossed her mind.
What would anyone think when they caught her here? Would they break into depraved smiles and think, What's this pretty girl doing here?
A burly African-American man shuffled past her and gruffly stated, “Girl, you must be lost,” as he hurried off.
She let out a little gasp and looked back, now wrapping her arms around her waist. Creeps everywhere.
She definitely remembered climbing some stairs to get to his place, but the fact that all the doors looked the same no matter where she went only impeded her progress.
“Are you lost?” a skinny limbed, younger woman approached her warily. She scratched at her neck every now and then, peering at her with buggy, tired eyes.
“Um.. A little. I can't remember where my friend lives. His name is James.”
“Mm..” she looked back, “I don't know any James. He must not talk to anyone then. Just go back downstairs and look at the list on the wall.. The one that says the names and room numbers.”
“Oh.. I didn't see it the first time around.”
“Well, it's there.” she responded rather impatiently, turning around to walk back.
Laura fought a roll of the eyes at her rudeness and went back down the stairs.
After a little bit of searching, she did find the elusive list, tacked haphazardly to the outdated bulletin board with other meaningless papers announcing apartment rules concerning pets, the consequences of disruptive behavior, and what to do in case of the occasional noncompliance of the overused phone booth just outside.
She skimmed over to “J”.
Jacklyn Ackerman – rm 206
Jack Norringway – rm 210
Jake Townsend – rm 402
Jamal Williams – rm 401
James Holstead – rm 106
James Sunderland – rm 308
She swallowed and took a few breaths before she headed up.
There his door stood, cold and uninviting. She approached it and put her ear to the door. She heard faint footsteps inside, along with the rustle of a bag and the low drone of the TV. He was there. But how would he react? Would he just not answer the door? Would he scream at her to go away?
Laura put a hand to her chest to still her beating heart and knocked with as much composure as she could muster.
“Who is it?” his muffled voice asked, at a safe distance from the door.
Laura stifled the impulse to answer and turned to the hallway to see if anyone happened to be watching her. Her growing paranoia about this place was beginning to fray her nerves and she wasn't all that sure she was safe from being taken advantage of or being mugged. It just didn't seem scary the first time because she had been with James.
“Please let me in.” she let her forehead press against the door and held her eyes closed, her hand over her heart closing into a fist. “Please, James.”
No reply. She managed to make out a few sounds, but the noise was very minimal. Some minor shuffling here, a box fell, a voice raised a few octaves from the TV, and then a little explosion.
The latch slid out and the door opened just a crack. “Who are you?”
“James. You don't recognize my voice anymore?”
It took a few seconds, but after that, she finally caught his eyes peeping at her through the small space he allowed his door to open. “Laura.. Listen, I—”
“Let me in, James.” her throat was dry. “I'm not leaving until you let me in.”
With trembling fingers, he assented, finally revealing to her his whole body. He couldn't face her.
James didn't have the chance to say another word before Laura flung herself into his arms and held him tight.
He stumbled back a little and caught her, with a cross of confusion and tenderness coloring his face. “Laura? Are you ok?”
“No I'm not!” she cried, pulling away. “What's the matter with you!”
James fixed his bangs as a pitiful way of distracting himself from his own embarrassment. If anything, it made him look even more embarrassed.
“Laura.. You don't get it.” he brought her into his embrace again, settling his head gently on her shoulder. “You don't understand.”
“You hate me, don't you?” she whispered.
Her skin was so soft and warm, probably flushed from her emotions. Her hair had begun to fall over his face, and he breathed in her faint, sweet strawberry scent.
And in that moment he no longer understood why he would ever, ever give this up.
“I'm so sorry, Laura.”
Her grip around him tightened. “I never meant to hurt you. I don't understand what I did—”
“You didn't do anything wrong.. It was my fault. I was just...afraid.”
Laura's hand traveled up his back to slowly sift through his hair.
“I promise I won't be afraid anymore. I'm sorry I left you behind. If things were different.. I would have taken you with me. I would have given you everything. I know I never got to take care of you.. But I want you here.”
She closed her eyes and smiled.
“I promise I won't ever leave you behind either.”
“Why?” he ran his fingers down her hair, his eyes on her now.
“Because you're a part of me I can't let go. Even while I was growing up, I couldn't stop thinking about you. I wanted to see you again. But this time, I wanted to see you finally happy.”
James didn't force it; right now, he honestly couldn't help it. He smiled, brushing her bangs back and planting a small kiss on her forehead.
“You are a part of me, too,” he murmured into her warmth.