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Chapter Six: Coming Around Again
The early traffic was only beginning to take hold. Every now and then a car zoomed really fast down the streets, and that frequent, horrid train whistle would sound outside. The letters, the white and the yellower one, sat on the edge of the little round table next to his couch.
Wrapped like a mummy in his blankets, he stared at the black screen of the TV, suffused in thoughts of the past. What couldn't be reversed. What now is, and would forever be. And how sad it was that time was the only thing that was truly eternal, passing and passing and never looking back. James had always been haunted by many ghosts, and so far none of them had let up. He truly doubted any of them ever would.
It's been a while since I last wrote you. I'm so sorry for the delay, but I've been recently caught up in a lot of things.
My sincere condolences. I just want you to know that I am here for you if you ever need to talk about anything.
I will pray for you and James. I pray that your pain will be cut short in this sad time. Please don't hesitate to call on me if you need anything!
I know she had been sick for a while, but despite the way things have gone, I know she is in a better place..  He had crumpled up the letter in his angry fist and swallowed his emotions. That woman. She couldn't even understand the half of it.
How are you doing?
Thank you for the flowers, but please don't bring anymore. I tell Rachel to water them all the time, but she always forgets.
I made a new friend. James hasn't met her yet. She comes to my room everyday and we talk for a long time. I never tire of it, unlike most other things. Rachel has a nasty habit of shooing her away when she sees us together. She always tells her I'm “sensitive” and not to be bothered. I'm starting to feel like I'm contagious.
Good news is, I have been feeling a little better. The nausea doesn't come on as strong now because of the medication, but the bad side is that it knocks me out of my right mind. But maybe that's better than being awake. All I really do is stare at the ceiling and think about a succession of meaningless things.
Please don't scold James for not coming. I'm the one who told him to stay away in the first place. It's so painful for him to see me like this, you just have no idea..
James felt something heavy and shivering in his stomach, something that he couldn't quite name. The three long years that he dealt with Mary's illness had ate him away until there was nothing left but a hard, unfeeling core. A bitter denial. In time, that grew into a devastating, violent wish.
“What are those?” Laura sleepily murmured, rubbing her eyes and yawning. She had stepped out of his room without his notice and was now standing a little way away, the rim of her crumbled shorts falling down her left hip and exposing a slither of alluring skin.
He had allowed her to sleep over again, because yet again she didn't want to leave. He couldn't quite put his finger on the real reason she never wanted to go home—perhaps she was in love with him or she just wanted him to feel less alone—but whatever it was, she could easily override all his urges to go home with her bright eyes and her small, pouting lips. It was hard enough to leave her there on the platform, much less when she was in his own home, begging to stay.
“Letters.” James knew what to expect from her after such a word. They could only mean her.
“Is one of them from Mary?”
He handed them both to her. “Here.”
Laura glimpsed at the letters and back to him again. “Are you sure?”
“I gave them to you.” he stood and turned away, making a bee-line for the kitchenette. He didn't want to be standing around while those letters were read. It just made him uncomfortable.
Laura seated herself on the couch and pushed the hair out of her face. After long minutes of reading, she set them both down her lap. “Neither of them were written to you. Who's Frank?”
“Oh. Is he still alive?”
Laura put a hand to her heart. “I'm sorry.”
“No, I didn't mean it like that. He's just really old, is all.” he chuckled, setting himself down on the couch.
“I remember Rachel, but... what was this letter about? Did she know..”
“No. That was before Mary.”
She skimmed the letter again, sensing that James was being intentionally evasive.
He sighed. “She was talking about my mom. It kinda happened around the same time.”
James closed his eyes and breathed through his nose. There was a slow, passing silence in the room. She couldn't quite express just how much she felt like a inconsiderate idiot for ever wanting to ask.
“Victoria got on me a lot because I didn't talk to him for a long time.”
“Victoria? Oh, your probation officer.”
“I haven't talked to her in days, either. And I have to apologize again for being a prick.” James rubbed the back of his neck. “She was angry because of what happened with me and you.”
“You brush everyone off, don't you?” she candidly remarked. “When they get too close.”
James could only look at her. No amount of physical expression would really convince her otherwise.
“I told you I won't push you away anymore.”
“And I believe you.” she stood, smiling. “I have to get ready for school soon. Can I come back later?”
James swallowed all the avoidant answers he could have given—ones that were given so often it was almost instinctive. He had to remind himself that she wasn't like them. She wasn't there to judge or to ridicule. She was just here, and she wanted to be.
“Sure. I'll send you a text if something comes up.”
Laura didn't reply. She knew pretty well that James had absolutely no life aside from work. Yet, though his fondness for Laura had him pine for her company at times, the misanthrope in him wanted time to think alone, and in the best case scenario, a way out of it altogether. Having company was always emotionally draining to him, something that often gave him nothing but anxiety and irritation.
Given how young she was, she could be restless sometimes and probe into things that weren't really her business. At the very least, they hadn't known each other long enough to be discussing certain things.
Laura went back into his room to get her things. In a few minutes time she was dressed again in yesterday's clothes and had her bag slung over her shoulder. She gave him a quick, last smile before she closed the door behind her. He didn't reciprocate it.
His thoughts switched back to the letters. They had been plaguing his mind ever since Frank had bestowed them. They had since become little sneering gremlins, reminding him of his misfortunes, making him itch with regret. One person he had managed to keep in relative darkness, a certain Thelma Sunderland, had begun dancing around in his nightmares again. Suddenly he was hearing her cherished Beatles records and the quick thwp sound her dress made when she tied the bow at the back. She was always precise with her bow; it had to stick out and be plush and full, like a puppy's ears. Her lips were always cherry red, like her blood, and her skin always pallid and spotty. Yet none of these things saved her. Not her beauty or her promise. It all came up short.
She had a habit of taking unusually long baths. The bathroom became her room. Frank would knock, and yet there would be no answer. His only responses were the rush of running water and the occasional, careful sloshing. Then an hour or two later she would reappear, her usual self, but a little more hushed and secretive.
He never knew why. His child mind envisioned a secret meeting, a dreamland, a visit to a sacred possession they could never see. But who else was in there but her? If it was a dreamland, then why would she leave so tight-lipped and agonized? And nothing was in there but a bathroom. No treasure chest.
It was a bright, sultry day. Nearly everyone was outside. The sun hit every inch of everything, making the cars look white and having orbs play in his eyes. A girl in a summer frock straddled a bicycle; a pug ate a hot dog buried in the grass; a plump man flipped burgers, throwing sparkles and smoke in the air. Summer, wonderful summer, when there was no school and no teachers to be heard of. Just a bunch of playing, staying up late, immature pranks and making out in the night. Of course, that's what everyone else saw. Caught up in their own happy dream.
That was not for him. That day, he was given a starkly different picture.
The walls were white-washed and blinding, and the murmur of the people set his stomach ablaze with discomfort. Mom was being wheeled around on the gurney and they followed like fast paced dogs, eager to see where they would be going next. He never did like it here.
She said nothing and made no sounds of any kind, only held on to her husband's hand like she did when she was pregnant. He didn't remember this, though. It was a play he hadn't had a part in, but he could have imagined easily enough. Same place, same primal anxieties.
Amid eerie silence and the constant beeping, the twiddling of fingers, the fearful expressions, and the doctor taking too long with that medication he promised, Mom reached her spidery fingers over the rail and reached out for him. Her knobby wrist clanked against her handcuffs and her hand was stopped from going any further. There she lay, tired and worn, her hands trapped on either side of the bed like Jesus imprisoned in a different position. She offered her pale, bloodless hand. Not for Frank, but for him. He stood and squeezed it, almost tempted to turn her hand over to see where she had made the cut.
A crowd of nurses gossiped outside. Their voices were rushed, restless and bored.
“God, this is America,” he recalled. Some more incoherent talk, and then, “..Land of the free, home of the brave. Have some common decency.” …
“Hey. Just wanted to know if you were coming over again soon,” he threaded his fingers through a rip in his jeans.
“Well, do you want me to?”
“..Yes, but I don't want you to unless you want to.”
“Of course I want to, James.”
“Give me that package, I have to check it again..”
He moved farther away from the voices until he was in his quiet backroom. The boxes acted as barriers, making it look claustrophobic and cramped. He didn't mind much. He had been in places far worse, of course.
“Where's James?” he heard Bettie's muffled voice say in the hallway outside.
James made for the file cabinet and started avidly sorting out files to make it seem like he was doing something.
Just then, Bettie sauntered in, her hips swinging and her shiny, perfect weave bouncing. “Hey, James!”
“We've got someone new starting today. And, ooh, she is so pretty!”
“Yeah. She'll be helping you out in the back room from time to time.” she smiled in that overly enthusiastic way of hers, clicking her tongue as a gesture of recommendation. Bettie did this more to get James to talk to other people. It would be ideal for Bettie if James had a girlfriend, though.
As it was, Bettie had known that James had been in jail before and for a long number of years, and had even understood that he had been married at a point in time. But she knew not to dig up the bones.
“Honey, that is your business, and it's not my concern or my place to be bugging you about that,” she had said.
But surely if Bettie knew what he had done, she would try to keep this new girl away from him. She probably wouldn't even talk to him herself anymore, which sounded vaguely depressing.
“Want me to call her in here?”
James couldn't get a word in edgewise before Bettie opened the door and called her over to meet him. His heart started beating, and he grew frustrated with himself for reacting this way. Ever since he could remember, he was always this nervous around others, and even the prospect of meeting others made his hands sweat.
The newcomer slipped in, her hands folded in front of her. She smiled sweetly back at him, her curly, auburn hair like a halo around her head. She was dressed conservatively, like his mother. She brushed down on her bright orange flannel skirt and hid her colored nails from his view. Her shirt was a collared, buttoned-up blouse of a dull yellow. From this he could imagine the scene of her house—filled with vivid paintings of blotchy nothings, grotesque pottery, green walls, some pet lizards, maybe. She could be the artsy, intellectual type.
“Hi. I'm James.” he stood and held out his hand. They shook. Her hands were smooth and controlled.
“That's a real pretty name.” Bettie remarked. James thought she had probably said it to her before.
“I hope you like it here,” he remarked coolly, and went back to the file cabinet, as he always did.
James could sense Bettie's disappointment with his curt greeting, but what did she expect? It took him a long time to get used to Bettie, too. It was just the way he was. And he wasn't sure it was all that healthy for him to be making all these friends when they were blissfully unaware of the true, darker self that he tried so hard to keep from scaring others. If he kept away, there would be nothing to discuss. Nothing to tell.
The Ashfield Centre was a hive, and one of the commercial highlights of the town. Now that it was spring, the annual festival was in full swing. In the lighter years of their marriage, Mary tried to drag James here every weekend at least. He didn't much like the shopping, but being close to her, hearing her gentle voice asking if he liked that red or that pink, was more than he needed to keep him from complaining. Mary knew he was a home body and never made him stay longer than he wanted to. He wished that he somehow knew beforehand how much time he had left with her so he would really cherish every moment, eliminate every argument, and give her everything she ever wanted.
It was peculiar, though, that while he could remember Mary so fluidly, he couldn't remember anything they had ever argued about.
“Are you thinking about her?” Laura smiled. “I can tell. You're always spaced out when you do.”
James smiled. “I'm always thinking of her, so I'm always spaced out.”
He walked around from corner to corner in this maze, unable to reach the end, and at the time unwilling to consult his map. All he met were low-perched, white benches and lonely gazebos where the leaves of bushes and vein-like stems were beginning to penetrate and slither around the intricate lattice-work. Gates continually kept him from progressing in a certain direction. More brick walls. Some graves of brave soldiers, or a long-deceased, founding father of the strange religion that seemed to inhabit this town.
He pulled out his map, frustrated with himself for getting this lost, and found that he was near one of the sets of steps that let out into the walkway, where the rows of telescopes looked out on the lake. He followed its precious guidance until he saw the peering, ET eyes of the telescope, congratulating him for finding his way. He ran down the brick path until he saw, to his excitement, a figure in the fog, leaning pensively on the railing and staring ahead at Toluca Lake.
“Mary!” he cried out, breathless.
She slowly turned around, resting her elbows on the railing.
“James, snap out of it!” she nudged him. “You know, you do this more in public places than anywhere else. You know that?”
“Oh, sorry..” he pinched the bridge of his nose, heaving a sigh and blinking his eyes. “Yeah, I know, I have a lot of weird habits. Not that you haven't realized that by now.”
Laura approached a kiosk adorned with giant, useless stuffed animals tapered onto each other like grapes at every corner. In the middle stood a pyramid of bottles of various sizes. She slapped down her money and the man replaced it with 10 plastic rings of differing colors. He stuffed the bills in his bulging fanny pack and stepped back, with a face that James could argue was sure of her failure.
The first three were near misses, but the fourth she managed to wrap around a small bottle. She turned around and smiled excitedly, and James gestured her to continue. The rest, sadly, didn't make the cut. The man, with a goofy grin of his own, presented her with a small pile of trinkets and toys she could choose from, all too ugly for even a small child in James' taste. Laura took a yellow, stuffed crab with black-bead eyes and had it prance playfully around his shoulders.
“Crab,” she unnecessarily chirped.
“Yes, I see that.”
Tired of walking, James sat down on the bench while Laura went to get them sodas. During the day his mind kept drifting to yesterday, namely the moment when Laura threw herself into his arms. Did she act that way when she would break up with her boyfriend or something? She said she kept thinking about him all throughout her childhood. Did she tell any of her friends about him? What would her roommate say if she found out Laura was hanging around him?
“You wanted a large, right?”
“Yep,” he grabbed it from her hands and took a grateful sip.
“Kay, just making sure.” she sipped on hers too, keeping her eyes on James.
He swallowed. “Why are you staring at me?”
“Did you call your friend and tell her you slept over?”
“Why are you always so concerned about what my friend thinks?”
“I don't care what she thinks,” he snapped, “I asked you if you told her. Sometimes I wonder if anyone worries about you, Laura. I know you're more outgoing than I am, yet you're hanging out with me. I mean, what's the big deal?”
“First of all, Katelyn's not my mom. Why should she constantly worry about where I am? We're not even that close.”
James' eyes creased. “I thought you were best friends.”
“I mean, we are, but..”
She lowered the soda to her stomach, looking down. Her hair started falling over her profile like a unfolding fan. He reached out to her, his fingers sliding through her hair and placing it behind her ear.
“Are you upset?”
She wasn't crying. Her eyes weren't teary, but her mouth was taut. “I kinda got into an argument with her yesterday. I didn't want to go home because of that.”
“Then what about all the other times you stayed? Even the first time. Why didn't you want to go home? And tell me the truth.”
She shifted uncomfortably and shook her head, biting her lip, then standing up suddenly, “It's nothing. Look, if you don't want me to stay over—”
“That's not it. I just wanted to know why. I'm not one of your girlfriends, you know. You guys can have sleepovers and it won't be a big deal, but don't you realize that staying over my house, especially with my past record, is a little unusual?”
Her smile was coy and deviant. “One could argue you're unstable, I suppose.”
“And they could “suppose” the same thing about you.”
“You really need to lighten up.”
James shook his head in response and stood up himself. “Whatever. It doesn't matter.”
They both started to walk around again. James' feet were still tired, and a dull ache throbbed through his spinal column, but he managed to ignore it for the sake of Laura's contentment. She went to great lengths to get him to laugh and smile, but her attempts were only scarcely awarded.
James couldn't act happy when he wasn't. That would only delude her into thinking that she could help it.
What had Laura and her friend fought about? Laura was unwilling to tell, but he couldn't help but think it must have had something to do with him. Otherwise, she was running away from something, just like she had done when they first met.
“You'll keep me, won't you?”
As it was now getting darker, people began lighting the lanterns and setting them on the water, in commemoration of a long-held Japanese tradition that somehow found its way to this little town. Of course, you had to buy a lantern, which James did with some initial reluctance at the behest of Laura, who bought one for herself as well. On the little note card attached, it explained that this tradition celebrated the eventual changing of the seasons, and therefore, the continuance of life. He remembered how Mary thought this was so beautiful and poetic. He never saw it the same way. To him, those worthless wastes of paper would all end up rotting in some gutter, only serving to worsen the trashy appearance of the streets.
“Look! They're all floating away.” Laura grabbed his hand and he felt a little squeeze. Everyone stepped back to watch. The river glittered with lanterns both far and near.
Mary had loved setting her lantern away, but what exactly was it that made her so teary? Was it the freedom of gliding on nothing? Or was the heart of the matter much simpler than that: the mere fact that they would never return?
I will be doing more SH2 fics in the future, and I have a one-shot featuring James, which will be exploring one of the other endings, in the works. If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to drop a PM and let me know.