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Reposting after an accidental deletion.
Chapter Eight: All Eyes On Me
“Mr. Sunderland, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand?”
James looked at Laura's small, frightened face—a ghostly circle inside the darkness of the car.
He pressed his hands on the cold white surface of the police car, overcome with such shame he felt like shirking into a dot. “What's going to happen to her?” he asked, his voice shamefully broken.
“Do you understand?” the officer repeated, sterner this time.
James' head sunk in defeat. “Yes.”
The police station was even more cold than he could take. The lights were bright, like the hospital, and the eyes of the middle-aged, curdled mass of a man at the kiosk were staring at him with such intensity he suddenly couldn't breathe. He'd never run in with the law before for something this serious. Petty vandalism when he was 16, sure. But something like this? The experience was already proving too much to take. Especially since Laura kept trying to fight back to him, smart-mouthing the officer, using words she hadn't even used on James, and he had done something far worse to her than that man ever did.
“Let go of me!” she cried, wrestling her arms free of the man's hairy, burly hand. “Don't touch me! I won't let you take me back there! James!”
“Sit down, young lady, and stop squirming,” he compressed her small frame and forcibly sat her down on the bench. “Now if you keep acting this way, I'm going to have to get someone to keep you still. Understand? Now where are your parents?”
“They're dead.” she spat.
He looked to James. “Where are her parents, Mr. Sunderland?”
James shook his head. “I don't know. I don't think she has any.”
“I assume that's why you were driving at a whopping 80 miles an hour, going God knows where.”
James stiffened. “I was trying to get her away from that place. It—there's terrible things there.”
“What in God's name are you talking about?”
“Somebody shot him,” Laura remarked, “He needs to go to the hospital. See?” she pointed to his shoulder. “You can't keep him here.”
“Who shot you, Mr. Sunderland?”
“A-a guy,” James heart started thumping. They were thinking he was crazier by the minute. “Eddie. He.. He tried to kill me.”
“Who is this Eddie person? And where is he now?” the officer demanded.
“Eddie? That tub of lard wouldn't hurt a fly. He couldn't. He's too scared.” Laura blurted.
The policeman had had enough of their nonsensical gibberish. The man was obviously in shock, and the girl was too petulant to get any kind of cooperation from her.
“We're gonna take you to the back, Mr. Sunderland. You can tell us what happened there.”
“James.” Laura called as he was being escorted away, hands clenched behind his back and shaking down to his very bones. He turned. The man pressed an outstretched palm over his back to keep him moving.
“When are you coming back?”
After a long bout of painful consideration, James had to swallow his frustration and let her stay. What else could he really do? He couldn't just boot her out on the street. Where else would she go?
Laura didn't mention anybody else who would be willing to take her in.
They had both went to the store and he made a copy of his key for her use. She clenched it with a wide smile and gave him a hug, as if they had just been married and bought a new house together.
Katelyn was never there when James helped Laura lug her stuff out to his car, so that made it a tad less awkward. He thought they must have arranged something, which meant, at the very least, they were being civil.
He could remember fights with Mary so bad that she would hurl his clothes and his CD's down the stairs. She even broke his stereo by bludgeoning it with a baseball bat. Most people didn't know she had in it her to be that spiteful, put perhaps that was a good thing.
And anyway, when they made up, they chose out a stereo together so that the next time they clashed, they could battle it out in court like normal people instead of destroying it outright.
All throughout the moving process, James tried to take his father's example and just let her tell her story when she felt it was the right time. Not to force it. It had took James more than a year to talk to Frank, but by God, at least it happened. He was sure Laura would open up sooner than that.
He only hoped the situation wasn't as dire as he was thinking.
Frank had been sleeping with the same bedsheets since the eighties. James couldn't believe it, but there they were, staring back at him, the same sheets that he had gotten from Aunt Something-Or-Other one dreary Christmas. The same faded red and green diamonds stitched into the fabric, and the permanent, red nail polish stain from a careless Thelma from long ago. The ends were beginning to thin from loss of stuffing and were tattered at the edges.
“I can't believe you still have this,” he remarked, holding it up to his nose. It smelled like she was missing, and with only one of their smells and no trace of the absent other, he felt his stomach sink.
“Of course I would have it.” Frank murmured, placing the returned letters back in his dresser drawer. “Doesn't smell like your Ma anymore, James. Just my old, tired backside.”
James dropped the covers and wiped his hands on his jeans. Frank laughed. His son could be funny when he wanted to.
“I've been meaning to ask you something,” he paused, closed the drawer, and looked at himself in the mirror. His liver-spotted skin and sparse hair didn't disturb him, but he solemnly accepted that one day he wouldn't be able to look through this mirror anymore. “I was wondering if you'd like to take up the apartments for me one day. If, God forbid, something happens.”
James went still. He shook his head. “Dad, you're fine.”
“That's not the point, son. You know as well as I do that I'm not gonna be here forever. But if that's a no, then just say that.”
Frank's son approached him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Alright, Dad. I'll take care of the apartments if anything happens.”
He grabbed the younger man's hands and squeezed them tight, their agreement secured.
“Oh, Dad.. Don't all teary over it. I just said I'd take care of it. I didn't say that we're going to Vegas or anything.”
Frank let out a hearty laugh and patted James on the back.
It could safely be said that their relationship was improving. Day by day, it got a little easier to interact with his father. There were no hard feelings on Frank's part—he was never one to hold a grudge, and James was grateful for it. Victoria commended him on his progress, and had even said that he was one step closer to getting his real life back. James wasn't all that sure that he would ever have his real life back again, but the thought of attaining something close to it filled him with a cautious faith.
Now that he thought about it, no one said that he couldn't have a life with Laura. Sure, she was an adult, and he hadn't had the chance to raise her as his own daughter as he had thought he would all those years ago, but he could make up for it now, couldn't he? He imagined Laura would drive him crazy, but a good kind of crazy. The kind that they would make up for in the next minute with a laugh about something totally unrelated. Just like with Mary, who was never angry at him too long. That is, before she got sick.
Victoria called him shortly thereafter as she promised, to discuss his new living situation. She wasn't as accepting as he hoped she would be. It took a long while to get her to stop ranting about how weird that sounded, an 18-year-old girl living with a 39 going on 40-year-old (he would be turning 40 on November 11th of that year).
Her contentions rested on the fact that James hadn't lived with another woman since his wife, and Laura, as a teenage girl, could overstep her boundaries and make a pass at him. Or worse—he could overstep his boundaries and make a pass at her.
James had to listen to this in silence, as he couldn't shout at her in front of Frank. But what Victoria was worrying about was entirely preposterous. As much as it turned his stomach to rot, he'd have to grind his teeth until they met at his apartment. This was classic Victoria. Assuming the absolute worst and using his past instances of mental instability as a kind of head brace to keep him from doing anything she didn't approve of.
“She'll only be staying for a little while,” he protested, a little too high pitched, but hell, he could swear that he could barely hear himself think when Victoria was scolding him, “She's going to start looking for a new place as soon as possible.”
“Ask her what her money situation is.” Victoria asserted, “I'm sure that has something to do with it.”
“I'll ask her when I get home. She usually comes back around 3 or 4 until her next class, which is at 6:30, I think.” James sighed.
“Alright, I'll see you later.”
James snapped his phone shut and almost bit his tongue. Victoria and her stupid worrying.
As it was his code of honor, Frank said nothing and pretended to be paying attention to something else.
Victoria closed the door behind her, her expression pensive. James was in the bathroom. The sink was running and she heard a little sigh. She walked past the door almost absently, pressing a curious finger against his bedroom door and watching with intense interest as the door slowly gave way. The light was still on, though it was dim because the bulb had a film of dust over it.
And there they still were. Her personal effects scattered like a bed of leaves on the ground. Laura had grown more comfortable in James' company than she initially thought. She had thought at first that Laura had merely been in a rush to get out the door because she'd overslept—but her books were still here. Her lip gloss and hair products were on the bed, near the mouth of her open book bag. The few boxes she had were already unpacked. Victoria opened the immediate drawer and saw her folded clothes neatly placed inside. It was official. Laura had moved in.
A year ago, James would have slammed the door in anyone's face if they ever proposed living with him.
James emerged, running his hands through his dark blond hair, which had begun to take on a dusty, brownish hue. His face, puffed up from constant stressing and an unhealthy deprivation of sleep, was now sallower than it usually was. Victoria could have guessed at the true heart of the issue, but really, he had too many demons to even begin to contend with. He looked so worn she was surprised he was standing.
As he caught sight of her, he blew a little air out of his mouth. “You really like to sneak up on me, huh?”
Victoria held up her shirt by its sleeve.
“Why do you have Laura's shirt?”
“I'm hoping that this isn't as bad as I'm feeling.”
James stood there for a moment in a kind of arrested stupor, wanting to make an excuse, but being unable to until he found out what exactly Victoria was insinuating. Then, seeing the state of what should have been his own bedroom and seeing Victoria rub her disapproving thumb over the lace of Laura's shirt, realization dawned on him with a rousing anger and a wave of repulsion.
“You can't be serious. Just because her clothes are everywhere doesn't mean I've done anything. Why would you ever think I'm capable of that?”
“I don't know,” she said.
“Is it because I'm not dating anyone? I'm not going out.. Meeting with other women.. So you think I've stooped low enough to start preying on a young girl?”
Victoria stood silent.
“I can't believe this.” He turned around and headed in the opposite direction. He remembered, only a few years ago, he would punch the wall, even if it was the stone wall of a cell. He had broken his hand more than once in jail, so much so that his hand suffered a slight tremor, likely due to nerve damage. Despite all this abuse, his hand still itched to punch something—and if he hadn't learned to walk away, there was no telling what he might have done.
“You can't avoid this, James. She's living with you now, so you're going to see a lot more of me.”
“I hardly ever go into that room!”
James reminded Victoria of a child sometimes. Whenever he had his back turned to her, or whenever he obstinately pleaded his innocence in any situation, she knew she had to choose her words carefully. There were times that he forced her out because she had said something he really didn't want to hear.
“Is this what you really meant when you said that you were afraid of hurting her? Were you afraid that you would develop feelings for her?”
“You sound like an idiot,” James countered acidly. “You know that's not what I meant.”
Victoria went rigid. A minute passed of her standing there, an incredulous look on her face, until she snatched her purse and stormed to the door. But there she stopped, her hand resting thoughtfully on the doorknob. “This wouldn't solve anything, would it? It would just simmer and boil over if I left you like this.”
James crossed his arms, pressing his tongue to his cheek. He looked off to the side. “I don't even know what to say to you anymore. You're convinced that I see Laura as a replacement for Mary, aren't you?”
“I want to talk to Laura and get everything straight.”
The thought of Victoria and Laura meeting for the first time set him on edge. Was she going to accuse Laura of what she just accused James of? Of having an inappropriate relationship?
“Look, Mom, I don't want you trying to intimidate her. I don't know what you think we're up to, but she's not like that at all.”
“I'm not going to try to intimidate her. I just want to know what this is all about. Isn't it strange to you that this girl, who you haven't seen in more than 10 years, suddenly tracks you down at the station one day, becomes your friend, and insists on staying the night almost all of the time?”
“She's having trouble with the friend she lives with, and she doesn't want to spend too much time at home because she wants to avoid getting into any more arguments. I've told you this. I don't want to force her to answer anything else until she's ready.”
“Because that's what my father would do.”
Victoria sighed and her shoulders slumped. “Listen, James.. I'm sorry we started off on the wrong foot here. You're doing good. You really are. You're opening up. But this is an 18 year old girl we're talking about. No matter where you met her and how you guys know each other, she's not your responsibility. And whatever she's running from.. Well, it's not your responsibility to save her from it.”
James palmed the back of his neck.
“You've got enough to deal with as it is. Living with someone isn't easy, and I don't think you're ready for that just yet. Make as many friends as you like, hang out with them, have a ball—but don't give every single one of the them the shirt off your back.”
“Don't you think I have the same reservations? But she still needs someone. How can I just tell her to bug off?”
Victoria couldn't say anything that would console him.
He sat down on the edge of the table near the TV, and folded his hands in his lap.
“I think I should explain something to you.”
“You remember Angela? The girl that never came back from Silent Hill?”
“Well.. She was the same as Laura is now in a lot of ways. She never asked me for help, never told me to save her—because she knew it'd be too much to ask for. But she was crying out for help on the inside. And you know what I did? I walked away from her. I was too engrossed in my own misery to even begin to care about hers, and the last time I ever saw her, she had already made her decision. And I let her.”
“James..” Victoria shook her head. “That's not your fault.”
“I know I'm not the one who gave up. I'm not the one who pulled the trigger. But don't you see? I was the final person who proved to her that no help was coming. And I don't want to do that to anyone ever again. Haven't I done it enough?”
Later that night, Laura returned home from classes. She closed the door behind her, the strap of her book bag hanging from her shoulder and lazily chewing a piece of gum. She had circles under her eyes that James hadn't noticed until now.
“How was your day?” he murmured.
Laura smiled, “Oh, it was okay.” Her eyes trailed to the couch, where she saw a head of shiny black hair. “Hello.”
Victoria turned around and placed her arm on the top of the couch. “Hello. I'm Victoria. I'm sure James told you about me and how I check up on him and stuff.”
She set her bag on the floor. “I didn't mean to interrupt anything.”
“You didn't. Actually, I wanted to talk to you.”
Laura felt the urge to play with her fingers to quell her nerves, and Victoria wanted to scratch her face, only she didn't want it to look like she was nervous herself.
James prepared for a heated discussion.
“So I heard that you're having some problems with your friend, who you lived with until now. I'm sorry to hear that.”
Laura said nothing. James was expecting a scolding later on from Laura, as the last thing he thought she wanted was for someone else to know her business.
“Do you work, Laura?”
“Um, yeah.” she nodded quickly.
“Did you guys split the bills, then?”
“Yeah. We all had jobs.”
“James said that you have no family members currently alive.. Or, if you do, they don't know that you're alive or they might live too far away. But this is the issue: James just got out of prison a year ago, as I'm sure you know, and he is still..” Victoria made a crystal ball in her hands, rubbing it as if asking it for the right way to put this, “Trying to get everything off the ground, you know?”
Laura gave her a sidelong look, knowing exactly where this was going.
“So you're saying I can't stay here.”
James pressed his fingers into his temples. He had to say something.
“It's just that—”
“Laura, what she really means to say,” James glanced at Victoria, “Is that she doesn't recommend you stay here. Luckily for you, though, we're two different people with two different opinions, and Victoria can only control so much of what goes on in my life.
“If this is what you need, then you can stay. That's the end of it. Victoria doesn't trust me, so she'll be checking up on us periodically. She just wanted to let you know that she isn't a fan of the idea.”
Laura wanted to ask exactly what about the arrangement Victoria disagreed with, but remained silent. James, to his surprise, managed to leave his normally authoritative probation officer with no words in rebuttal. All that came out of her was a sigh of resignation.
“Laura's the daughter I never got to raise.” he said softly. “And she needs my help now. Just trust me on this.”
Victoria left soon after. Laura was still heated from the conversation, but she managed to keep most of her feelings to herself, save a comment here and there about how bossy Victoria was, or how she should mind her own business. Indeed, James agreed, but in the end, Victoria was only trying to steer James in the right direction. And though she drove him crazy a lot of the time, she helped him through a lot (or rather, forced him through a lot, but at least he got through it at all).
He had secretly thanked her for not bringing up the other thing.
“Laura, I know you're going through a rough patch. And I know things about you that she doesn't, so she doesn't understand as much as I do.”
“It's all because of that stupid evaluation.”
“My evaluation doesn't rest on you. It's how I deal with everything else.”
The mood in the house was pressing and dismal. James didn't want to admit it, but he was pretty sure it was all because of him. He infected a place with his very presence. His anger and his anxiety, or whatever he happened to be feeling at the time, would hang in the air like very still hooks, waiting to catch on something.
He hadn't spoken of Laura's parents before, and indeed, she never brought them up, which led him to believe that she either didn't remember them very well or hated them. Though she was a talkative person and loved to laugh, she revealed very little about herself. When he first asked her how her life had been these past 10 years they'd been apart, all she said was “Same, old, same old.” Only James didn't know what 'same old' entailed. Unremarkable? Filled to the brim with teenage drama and teenage hormones? It couldn't be any of those things. Not if you tried that hard to avoid it, it wasn't.
James tried to give himself something else to think about. He really did. He tidied up, he smoked a cigarette, he tried to get involved in the program he was fading in and out of, though he hadn't the slightest idea what was going on and who was who. Finally, it came up like a bubble in his esophagus. He couldn't be like his father just yet.
“Laura, I need to talk to you about something serious.”
Laura paused, and immediately her heart started beating.
“I know you don't have parents, but what about other family members?”
“Did you change your mind all of a sudden?”
James made an exasperated sigh. “I just wanted to know what other family you had. Any grandparents? Cousins, uncles?”
“No, I don't.” she said simply. “And even if I did, it's not like they'd care about me anyway.”
“Laura. I have the feeling that I'm not the first person you've had to live with because of problems at home.”
Then Laura did that thing again—when she bowed her head and her hair fell over her face. It was a graceful, sorrowful gesture, one that James was reluctant to admit he was fascinated with. Normally a bubbly girl, she could turn to a surly, troubled youth in a second. As if he had unlocked memories she had tried very hard to bury beneath a deceiving smile.
“I've never had problems at home. Because.. I've never really had a home.”
James nodded. “You.. were never adopted, were you?”
Laura swallowed, keeping her face hidden from view. He imagined she was tearing up right about now, but being prideful as she was, she'd never let him see it.
“I remember one night, I had a terrible nightmare. I can't remember the nightmare itself, but I was so shaken I couldn't sleep. My parents took me for a drive. Then there was a storm. The lightning struck a tree and it fell right on the windshield. My mother died instantly. My Dad was still alive, but the car crushed him from the waist down.” She tilted her head curiously, as if confused by her own memory. “He didn't scream when it happened. I heard him breathe very calmly, doing his best not to fidget and to stay very still. He was holding on to his last breaths as delicately as he could. He was gargling his own blood. He said to be a good girl and get out. So I went out and stood in the road. No one came until the next day.”
The clock on the wall ticked loudly, bringing it to their attention just how strangled and tense it had suddenly become. It was the only sound that reminded them that they weren't actually experiencing it. She spoke again.
“They took me to the hospital because I had caught pneumonia from the storm. I was there for weeks. I don't think they even knew what to do with me. Then I met Mary. She was everything I needed at that time. Kind, attentive, sympathetic. And she never grew tired of me. But then the doctors sent her home, and I had to go to the orphanage.
“That place was terrible. The adults were mean. The kids were unhappy. It was always cold at night. And I had trouble making friends. I didn't really belong anywhere. So I left.”
“I found a glass cutter in one of the toolboxes that belonged to the maintenance man. I escaped through the window.
“I didn't know where Mary lived, but I kept thinking of the pictures she showed me. All I had to go by were her letters and the conversations we'd had in the hospital. I managed to get to Silent Hill, of course. I was feeling hopeful after we left together, but then you were arrested, and I was left with nowhere to turn again. I waited at the station for a little while, thinking you'd come back, but then the man said you were going to jail because they had found Mary in your car. I waited until the man turned his back on me, and I ran out.
I found the road a little while after, and I caught a man who was driving to Brahms. I begged him to take me with him, and we left.
“We lived together for a while, and I thought he could be my new dad, since they had taken you away. But whenever I asked him for anything, he wanted a kiss on the cheek and sweet words. When I grew older, he wanted kisses on the lips. Then one night, he went into my bedroom and he told me take off my nightgown. I said no, and he slapped me.”
The room was deadly still until she drew a breath and continued.
“I grabbed the lamp from my bedside drawer and threw it at him. He fell back and and I ran out of the house. I couldn't call the police because they would just send me back to the orphanage, so I had to sleep in the park for a few days. But then the cops found me, and I went back into state custody.
That was a little before the trial. You remember that I wouldn't testify at first? Then Stanley had a talk with me, and he scared me into thinking I'd lose you forever, so I told them everything. I showed them Mary's letter, which I thought I could use to show you weren't a bad person. But they convicted you anyway, and I went right back to that place.
I met Benny when I was 16. Katelyn had been living with him since she was 8. She said he was nice. So I went with them.”
“..Did he try to do the same thing to you?”
“No.” Laura smiled sadly. “He was a good guy. But when his long-time girlfriend left him a year later, he started drinking. He would yell at us and ground us for the stupidest reasons. Then one morning we found him face down on the floor, dead. He had spend almost all of his money on alcohol and drugs, and he was so behind on the mortgage that the house had to be foreclosed.
We spent our last days there in agony, because neither of us knew what to do. Then one night, I just decided to get in touch with Joseph. And what do you know? He said that you've been out for a year now. I managed to convince Katelyn to move to Ashfield with me, and we got by for a while. We got jobs, we saved up money to go to college. It was going okay. I would look for you everyday, but I never saw you anywhere. In the meantime, Katelyn got a boyfriend and he moved in. He was supposed to help us pay the bills. But then my hours were shortened, and Katelyn wasn't getting paid enough, and her boyfriend spent all his money on stupid things. The three of us started arguing all the time.”
She smiled at him. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her clear tears descended very slowly down her cheek. “Finally, I found you. You seemed like a nice guy. A bit worn out, but still a good guy. I didn't feel like pretending to be okay around Katelyn or her boyfriend, so I lied and said I forgot my key.
That day before we went to the fair, I really got into it with Katelyn and her stupid boyfriend. Katelyn took his side, of course, for whatever dumb reason, and they both forced me out.”
His eyebrows lifted. “Some step-sister you got there.”
While James had his back turned to her, she licked her dry lips, rubbing up her arms to quell the shaking that had overcome her while she laid out her troubled life for him to examine. Suddenly she found the deep seated shame she had always felt was melting away, blowing into nothing like the heads of a dandelion. What she had just told James were things anyone else would have to pay years to learn. But inside, he was the same as her. Shattered, with no illusions. Maybe that was why it came out in a rush like it did?
She felt like she had made a mess. But a necessary one.
James hardly noticed he was picking at his teeth with his fingernails, and his gums were just beginning to redden and bleed. He closed his eyes and sighed.
“What really made you want to come and find me?”
Neither of them were facing each other. Laura wiped her tears, James' hands fell silently on his lap. The clock's ticking faded into its normal, barely audible rhythm. The TV could be heard again.
“I thought you would understand. More than most.”