Chapter 11

Bleary-eyed, half asleep, Don looked through the peephole and saw Charlie.

He rested his head on the door for a moment, then tried to shake himself awake a little before he opened it.

"Can I just say that I made a horrible mistake? Is trying to fix it just stupid, making another horrible mistake? How did this happen?"

"Come out of the hall, Charlie. It's almost 2 in the morning."

Charlie took one step inside the door, just far enough for Don to close it. Don waited for him to come inside the apartment further, but Charlie just stood there, hands in the pockets of his jeans.

"Did…something else happen?"

"How could I have not seen it, before? Did the shooting change me that much? Are my perceptions forever skewed?"

"See what?"

"How controlling she is. How she has to make all the rules, but then she breaks her own rules, and there doesn't seem to be any reason for it, except to inflict pain."

Don frowned. "What did she do this time?"

Charlie shook his head. "I won't tell you. I can't. And she didn't do it alone, I let her. I invited her. I showed her how to hurt me, and then I made sure she did. This isn't right. Being with her isn't right. I'm weak when I'm with her. She's…she's an unsolvable problem, a human P vs NP, and I can't, I can't…did one of us change? Did both of us? Was I an idiot five months ago, or am I an idiot now?"

Charlie finally wound down and still Don stood silently. There just didn't seem to be anything to say.

"It doesn't matter, I guess. Either way, I'm an idiot. I should have stuck to math." Charlie turned and put his hand on the doorknob, and that activated Don.

"You can't go, it's the middle of the night. I'm sorry, I don't know how to help. Just stay here."

Charlie abruptly walked into the living room and sat on the couch. "Go back to bed. It's okay."

Don hesitated. "I'll stay up with you. We can talk, or…or just sit here…"

Charlie shook his head. "Tomorrow. It'll still be a mess tomorrow. Go back to bed."

Exhausted, even though it was against his better judgment, Don headed for the bedroom. He stopped at the bathroom first, and when he came out, he called to his brother. "Charlie? Let me get you some sweats to sleep in." There was no answer, so he went back to the living room.

Charlie was gone.

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FROM: Charlie

SUBJECT: No Subject Specified

DATE: July 1, 2006 04:44:32 PDT

TO: Archie

Why do you hate me so much?

FROM: Archie

SUBJECT: No Subject Specified

DATE: July 1, 2006 08:17:10 PDT

TO: Charlie

Because it is easier than loving you, and if I make you hate me back, I can stop seeing that look of pain on your face. I would rather cause anger to rise up in you. You have had enough pain.

FROM: Charlie

SUBJECT: No Subject Specified

DATE: July 1, 2006 2:15:58 PDT

TO: Archie

There is hardly any difference, is there?

And why do you want to cause me either one?

After I was shot, I know I was not the husband I should have been — could have been. I could not be physically strong for you. The combination of the physical and what felt physical to me — being cut off from my work, my students — I know I was sullen, short, impatient. I admit that.

But I can't remember ever wanting to hurt you. Or wanting to make you angry. If I did those things, it was not intentional, and I apologize.

FROM: Archie

SUBJECT: No Subject Specified

DATE: July 2, 2006 09:00:07 PDT

TO: Charlie

When we were on the flight to Vegas, you told me that you didn't have a lot of successful relationships, because you had always concentrated on work so much. I told you that was ok, because I wasn't all that great at relationships either.

So why did we still get married?

It was frustrating, when you were so ill so soon after our marriage. I knew you weren't shot on purpose, but it still felt like you were breaking a promise to me, somehow. So yes, that hurt me, and made me angry.

I never thought you did that on purpose, either.

FROM: Charlie

SUBJECT: No Subject Specified

DATE: July 2, 2006 01:33:22 PDT

TO: Archie

I don't understand. What can I do?

I hope I'm never shot again.

But I can't promise to always be healthy. I don't expect that kind of promise. I know we can't make them.

FROM: Archie

SUBJECT: No Subject Specified

DATE: July 3, 2006 06:15:12 PDT

TO: Charlie

No, we can't.

I'm sorry.

I don't want to reduce you to something pathetic no woman could love. And I will. Just because I can. And in the process I will reduce myself.

I am so sorry. For hurting you — the doctor, the garage, the slap, the sex, all of it.

Sometimes, I am sorry we ever met. That's the worst part of all.

FROM: Charlie

SUBJECT: No Subject Specified

DATE: July 4, 2006 05:10:16 PDT

TO: Archie

Independence Day. As good a time as any.

Good-bye.

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Don stopped at Larry's sublet to pick Charlie up for the annual Alan Eppes 4th of July barbecue. Megan, Larry and David were coming. Alan had worried over inviting Archie.

"They're only separated," he had said. "It doesn't seem…polite, not to invite her."

"They're separated, Dad. That means they don't want to see each other. Sometimes you have to take sides, and this is Charlie's house. He should feel comfortable here."

He remembered Alan's reluctant acquiescence as he waited for Charlie to come to the apartment door. When he did, Don stepped back in surprise.

The first thing he noticed was that Charlie's green plaster cast had been replaced with a soft one half its size. Several inches of pasty white arm were showing that hadn't been the last time Don had seen Charlie. He was about to ask about that when Charlie shoved a backpack at him.

"Can you help me with some of this stuff? I don't know how I got so much over here in less than a month."

Don grabbed the pack and a duffle bag at Charlie's feet, still leaving Charlie with his lap top and several grocery bags full of clothes.

"Let's get this in the SUV and come back for the rest." On the way to the vehicle he glanced sideways at Charlie. "Moving back home?"

Charlie lifted his head a little, as if Don had dared him not to do it, or something.

"Cuz that's great. Dad's missed you."

They piled things in the back seat from opposite sides of the SUV. "Yeah," Charlie said. "This whole getting back to campus thing. It's gone so well, I want some more normal in my life. You know, just me and the old man. And you. When there's a game on, or something."

Don smiled a little. "So you won't be coming back here, tonight."

"No. I'll hire some students to empty out the kitchen and clean the place before Larry's renters get back."

They walked back to the apartment and each took a bag. Charlie closed the door and looked at Don. "Maybe I'll hire some students to do some work at the house, too. Re-hang all my boards in the garage, do some painting inside the house. I think I may just toss everything and buy a new bedroom set. I've been sleeping in that bed since I was 14. It's time for a change."

They returned to the SUV and placed the last two bags inside, then climbed into their respective seats. Don waited until they were up to speed and part of holiday traffic. "So. Are things settled, or are you still working on it?"

Charlie looked a little lost for a second but quickly pulled himself out it it. "She won't be back," he said simply, "and I'm fine. I told you. I'm stronger than you think I am."

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FINIS

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A/N: Well, folks, I almost feel like I should apologize for that. This story did not go according to my plan…so I won't plan the next one. Still, you have had very strong reactions along the way, so I hope it was a somewhat enjoyable ride!