AN: This is a very random sequel to a piece I wrote literally two years ago called After All. I got a fairly recent review of that piece in my inbox, so I decided to re-read it. I had an idea similar to this floating around in my head anyway, so decided to apply it to the After All universe. I feel like this one can be read on it's own, which is why it isn't attached—but reading the other piece wouldn't hurt.
It goes without saying that I do not own them. But I said it anyway.
&And Miles To Go Before I Sleep
I watch, through hooded eyes, the way the sky changes shape as the minutes go by.
Last night's storm is passing, and the dark clouds that blanketed the city are floating west.
A silent sigh escapes my lips, and I find myself looking down at my hands—they're trembling again, and once more, I cannot explain why.
I rub the back of my neck—it's an old nervous habit, and I use it often to conceal the tremors.
"Are you hungry?"
I start violently, but try to cover my alarm. I turn to see Joey, standing several feet behind me, guilt etched into his face.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to…didn't mean to scare you."
"You didn't," I say, and shove my hands in my pockets, "I was just…you didn't."
An uncomfortable silence forms, the same silence that has been weighing us down for weeks. I look at the carpet, because I can't stand to look into Joey's eyes anymore. Those eyes that used to carry so much sparkle and hope. Those eyes that have been dimmed by horrors he sees only in his mind. Those eyes that carry more guilt and sorrow than they ever should.
"I was gonna go…go get some sandwiches. But, um, maybe I should see what Monica has…" Joey trails off, and I force myself to look up at him. He looks so tired, and I can see that his brain is working overtime to simultaneously protect me and comfort me. I shake my head, and pound down my own guilt and devastation. My chest hurts from all of this repression.
"Maybe we should all go out somewhere," I venture, "We haven't…been anywhere together…for a while."
Joey looks up at me, and I can see that he is surprised by my idea. I've hardly ventured out of the apartment since the attack, and Joey too is reluctant to leave me here alone. A visit across the hall requires the undoing of all ten deadbolts Joey installed in our door, not to mention the ten or so he put on the girls' door. A process that used to take mere seconds seems to take several minutes now, so we rarely see our across-the-hall neighbors and friends these days.
I honestly do not believe that our friendship with Monica and Rachel (and Phoebe and Ross) is so flimsy that a few deadbolts and door chains would keep us from one another. I know that there is more to their distance.
They don't want me to know that Rachel has been suffering horrible nightmares. Rachel was apparently the one that found me, and…well, I guess I was in pretty bad shape. Ross has been spending a good deal of time in that apartment, and no doubt in Rachel's bed. I don't know that his presence of late has helped curb her dreams—neither of them look well. I suppose that looking at me only reminds her of that night—my scars are far from healed, I know, and I am certain that she would rather forget everything—including me—just to make the nightmares go away.
Those first few days in the hospital are hazy. I don't remember the attack itself—all I can recall is emerging from deep darkness, into a room full of light and a body wracked with pain. The doctor's told me I wasn't supposed to be alive—they said I was essentially dead when they brought me in. I don't remember any of that, and even though the doctor's (and police) say I should try—I don't want to remember. I see the look my friends wear on their faces, and I know that I don't want to know.
I vaguely remember three men, entering the apartment unannounced. I don't remember what they look like, but I know I'd never seen them before. That's all I know.
I look back over at Joey, and I can see that he is seriously considering my idea. I think he longs for normalcy, but he is reluctant to let it happen so soon. I decide to take action, because I know that I need to find my life again, so that my friends can find theirs.
I walk to the door, and begin to undo the countless locks that have imprisoned us in our own home for far too long. I swing the door open, and can feel Joey rushing across the room—perhaps to stop me; or perhaps he is afraid of what may lie on the other side.
I walk across the darkened hall, and knock loudly on Monica and Rachel's door. I know they are home, because they always are these days.
We've all become prisoners of our own memories.
I hear a faint call for identification; it's Phoebe. I tell her it's Joey, and me and I detect a slight pause before the locks begin to turn.
Joey says nothing, but I can feel his apprehension.
The final lock clicks, and the door swings open slowly. Phoebe appears on the other side, holding onto the door, protecting the threshold like a guard dog.
"Hey Pheebs," I say, with as much exuberance as I can muster. She looks at me strangely, and then looks to Joey for an explanation. Joey shrugs and laughs nervously, as Phoebe reluctantly steps back to let us into the apartment.
The first thing I notice, upon entering the apartment is the smell. Monica is almost always either cooking or cleaning, so her apartment always smells like…home. I could never put my finger on what, exactly it smelled like, but it was comforting, nonetheless.
Now however, the apartment smells…musty, is the best way to describe it. It's like that smell you expect when you go to someone's grandparent's house. I never knew my grandparents, but I assume that if I had ever visited them, this is what their home would smell like. I briefly wonder if our apartment smells the same.
Monica, Rachel and Ross are all seated on the large, plush sofa, and they each turn their heads when Joey and I walk in. It's strange, I've been here a million times—this place is like a second home—but I feel oddly uneasy now. I realize that none of my friends are looking directly at me; they are either looking at Joey, or at some spot on the wall just over my shoulder.
My hands are shaking again. I clench them into fists, and shove them into my pants pockets.
A thick silence looms. I briefly wonder what I was thinking, trying to force everyone out of their individual cocoons at once. But it's too late for regrets, so I step forward, and clear my suddenly bone-dry throat.
"Hey," I rasp, and I am vaguely aware that someone—Rachel, I think—flinched. I look at the floor, and continue.
"I was thinking…we should all go…go out somewhere. To get food or…or coffee. We haven't done anything as a group in a while, and—" I cut myself off before redundancy sets in, and look up at the group seated on the couch hopefully.
They look confused, and hesitant. I'm certain that if I were to turn and look at Phoebe and Joey, they would be wearing similar expressions. I bite my lip, and wonder if perhaps I should try a different tactic.
"Look, I know that…that this sucks. I don't want to go outside—I'm scared to death. But I can't…I can't live like this anymore."
The silence weighs heavily on my heart. I'm beginning to think that this entire thing—whatever it is—is unfixable, and the grief is overwhelming. My vision blurs, and it's only then that I feel the sting of tears.
I look up, and am startled to see Monica directly in front of me. The tears that had pooled in my eyes are sliding down my face, and my vision is clearing. She says nothing, simply pulls me into an embrace, and I feel the weight on my heart lift slightly. Before long, I feel more arms and hands around me, and I smile slightly.
They don't hate me; they don't blame me. But their fear of what-could-have-been has sent them reeling, and they have clung to each other, to preserve their sanity.
We must face this; no matter how painful. I can't do this alone anymore. I can't hide behind deadbolts and doors.
Time will heal these wounds. Love will heal my soul.