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This installment is shorter than the others before it, since I am preparing the contents for the following chapter, in which we will reach a conclusion to the story. All my love and digital baked goods go out to everyone!
Chapter Nine: Linger (Interlude)
“Thank you for saving me, but.. I wish you hadn't. Even Mama said it. I deserved what happened.”
James hadn't been through what she had, hadn't known what she had seen, but in that moment, he could tell that she hadn't passed the test. He knew that if he were in her situation, he probably would have given up a long time ago himself, but he had Mary. She was calling out to him, and she was here somewhere. But Angela? What had she to live for? She was damned, just like him, or probably even more damned than he was, and with nowhere to turn.
He couldn't think of one intelligent thing to say to her.
“No, Angela, that's wrong.”
Angela turned away and closed her eyes. She lifted her hands in front of her. “No.. Don't pity me.” she pleaded. “I'm not worth it.”
The fire was slowly climbing up the walls, yet strangely it consumed nothing. For the oddest reason, he didn't smell smoke, nor was he having any trouble breathing. It just got progressively hotter. James briefly considered taking off his jacket, but then that would be a stupid thing to do because his skin would probably burn. Or would it?
Angela gave him a sidelong look, then faced him again fully. Her scorned eyebrows pressed low on her darkening eyes, and the shadows cast on her face made her lips browner than they usually were.
“Or maybe.. you think you can save me.”
Save you? He thought. How could he ever save her—when he barely had any intention of saving himself?
“Will you love me?” she pressed a hand to her cotton turtleneck sweater and glared at him from atop the stairs, as if issuing a challenge she was sure would result in his failure. “Take care of me? Heal all my pain?”
James looked down, his hands at his side. No.. he couldn't.
“James?” Laura put her hand on his shoulder and gently shook him. He woke with a start, sweat beading his forehead. His heart leaped as Angela's agonized face slowly faded into Laura's beautiful, even complexion and bright, blue eyes. He was suddenly so glad she was here, that she really existed. He sighed and stifled his emotions.
“I'm sorry. You looked distressed.”
James found that he had fallen asleep sitting up on the couch while a movie was on.
He rubbed his eyes and cracked his back, setting himself straight and digging into an itch that begun to antagonize his thigh. He groaned. “Thanks.”
“So you really were having a nightmare?” Laura queried. “I hardly ever see you sleep, and I guess that's why.”
James didn't answer, only stared off into the distance to get his eyes accustomed to being awake and to kick start his numb brain into thinking coherently.
She turned away and changed the channel, pushing her hair back behind her ears.
“I'll be going to the campus soon, so I've been meaning to tell you that my phone's been shut off. I didn't have enough money to pay it, so.. That's why I haven't been answering.”
James looked at her, muttered something, and yawned.
“I..” he sighed, running his fingers through his hair, “I didn't really say anything. Do you just want me to pay it for you then? Pay it back whenever?”
“Oh, no. You don't have to do that!”
“Well, you don't have the money and I need to communicate with you in case something comes up. I mean, you never know.” He gave a great yawn.
“But..” Laura shrugged her shoulders, wanting to decline in an attempt not to appear too eager to have phone service back again.
“Don't worry about it.” he made a dismissive hand gesture. “I hardly spend any of my money anyway. You see me go shopping?”
Laura shook her head.
“I think I can afford your cell phone bill.”
“So what do you do with your money, then?”
“I pay my bills, and let the rest sit if I can. Some goes to court fees for the investigation and everything. I'm still paying Joseph off, too.” His eyes narrowed, stating plainly, “Though, I wanna save up for a house or something.”
“So you really don't like to be cooped up in this apartment all the time, huh?” Laura had a triumphant smile on her face.
He must want a universe that was really his own. A place where he could really escape from it all. Could she come with too, she wondered?
The question remained in her mind as she watched the television. She couldn't say how many times she had stared at the TV without really paying attention to it. At times like these, James would often fall asleep and she wouldn't notice until she asked him a question, only for it to go unanswered.
James was never a person who looked serene when he slept. He simply drifted into another painful world, the only difference from this one being he could actually cancel it all out when he woke up.
Laura glimpsed at him every now and then, watching his eyelids flutter, or lean slightly to the left, only to correct his posture when he found he was falling asleep. He fought rest like this every night, only he wouldn't admit it. Laura was a night owl herself. She wouldn't mind staying awake with him until it was time for him to go to work and for her to go to classes, and that's probably what he would prefer, too. Someone by his side to keep him from the nightmares. But she knew he would just lose the battle and fall asleep in an unnatural position, so to make it easier on him, she would just retreat to his room and try to lull herself to sleep with her dying iPod.
Although seeing that James had fallen asleep, and it was only 3 in the afternoon, she couldn't bring herself to wake him again. Instead she studied him with a fixation she could hardly explain.
His hair had a dirty, greasy sheen to it despite the fact that his hygiene was as regular as hers. His face was rustic and pale, and the circles under his eyes were more noticeable now that he was resting. She remembered a picture he had shown of him when he was younger—about 20 or 21. He had a tan, his hair was bright blond, and his bangs fell whimsically to the side because it was still the 80's. He was never the muscly type, but he looked robust none the less, full of life and good fortune. He had only just met Mary then, and they were still trying to figure out their feelings for each other. It was a time of anxious optimism—a time that they could seize the day, if they could just tell each other how they felt.
Those days were dead. Now, he looked like he had gone on long enough. He was what authors and TV dramas called 'a shadow of their former self'. That certainly was true of him. It looked like something was slowly being drained from his veins, and there was nothing she could do about it. Though physically being past all that had made his life a living hell, he was still in some sort of limbo where he had a boat and a lake to row across, but no oars and no idea of where to go.
Laura suddenly felt her heart swell with pity, so much so that she grew teary. She didn't want to cry in front of James, even if he was sleeping. She wasn't exactly a quiet crier. He would probably hear her small sobs and sniffles. And besides, he just didn't know how to react when she did. His misplaced attempts at consoling her consisted of getting her a glass of water to clear out her throat so she wouldn't hiccup between syllables, and staring at her stupidly because he was as good at making people feel better as a dog was walking on two legs.
At least he tried, which was more than she could say for a lot of people in her life.
The thought almost made her laugh. Outwardly, he was cynical and surly, but beneath that exterior, as Mary had said, he really was a sweet person. It's just been so long he probably forgot how to love someone again.
Laura slid out of her sandals and brought her legs up to her chest. Carefully, she crawled across the couch to where he sat, breathing steadily and with his arms loosely wrapped around himself. Testing out the waters, she grazed his hairs with her fingertips.
He didn't stir.
“You don't understand,” he said, as he held her close.
That memory, so vivid now it felt like it was only a few days ago, made her shiver. She wanted to be held like that again. But if he ever knew.. he wouldn't touch her ever again.
She inched closer, one of her hands keeping her balance next to him while the other trailed a ghostly caress down his cheek. His hand lay open, palm up, the wounded one. The mark was slowly beginning to fade.
She placed her hand on top of his, rubbing her thumb on his wrist, feeling the blood pump through. It brought to mind the time he had said his mother slipped into a warm bath and opened her veins. Luckily enough, he wasn't the one who found her.
“You don't get it.”
Her head bowed, she squinted her eyes closed and tried to banish her painful thoughts. She had dreamed of someone like him coming along and blotting out her miseries—or at least someone who would be there if anything happened instead of just vanishing, like so many others.
She drew away and rested back on the other side of the couch, fearful that he had felt her touch.
No matter how it would appear to anyone else, this was how she felt. This... was this so wrong? Was that why it was doomed to remain hidden to anything but the watchful eye of Victoria, who apparently hadn't got her concerns across to James?
Or maybe he did know, and just didn't want to acknowledge it. If he felt the same way, would it be any less taboo?
“I want you here.”
Her heart started beating and she cleared her throat.
“You're a part of me, too.”
How can it feel this wrong?
She looked at him longingly and thought, Never.