Coming Home – Part Two
"She's not there, son." A voice called out as Dino stepped back from the front door of the little house.
He turned and looked down the steps that led up to where he was currently standing; next to the front door, the steps that after hanging around for about ten minutes he had finally managed to gather the courage to climb. And found an old man standing on the walkway below leaning over the railings at the bottom.
Dino had managed to charm and cajole the check-in staff at the airport to get a seat on the next available flight from Heathrow to New York, where he'd grabbed a cab and given the driver an all-too-familiar address, one that would be eternally engraved on his mind. As the cab had pulled up on the other side of the street from the ground floor residence in one of the old red-brick buildings in Brooklyn Heights, Dino had felt a shiver run down his spine. He'd paid the fare and climbed out of the cab, feeling the sharp wind whipping at his face. It had taken him a few minutes to even build up the courage to cross the road, ten minutes or so of lingering at the bottom of the stairs until he managed to climb up to the front door and another five to actually knock on the door. And he'd only managed it in that time scale because he was starting to get a few dodgy glances as if people thought he was casing the place. It was stupid really, he still had a key to the building on his keychain, he could have let himself in, but somehow it didn't seem the right thing to do. This wasn't his home any more and he felt as though he'd be trespassing on someone else's life; Abi's life.
"I daresay she's still over at Greenwood cemetery; didn't come home last night either." The old man at the bottom of the steps had continued when his initial statement hadn't elicited a response from the young man at the top of the steps. Dino paused and thought about the stranger's turn of phrase, trying to place his dialogue. When he did he found it almost ridiculous that in the past hours he'd travelled all this way from Britain to the States and yet one of the first people he met had an English accent.
"Thank-you." Dino felt like he should introduce himself, "I'm…" but he never got the chance to finish as the old man cut off his introduction.
"I know who you are kid. You think I'd be telling you she wasn't in if you were some stranger?" There was distaste and a hint of venom in his gruff voice that told Dino the old man really did recognise him. He dropped his head in shame.
"What're you waiting here for? I'd wager she'll not be back here for a good long time, not unless someone goes and fetches her back."
"Greenwood you said?"
"Aye. No doubt the woman at the main office'll tell you which plot you're looking for."
As Dino jumped down the steps, starting on his way down the street on a mission to hail another cab to take him across to the cemetery, the old man waylaid his progress by grabbing his arm in a vice-like grip that belied the man's senior years.
"And son? I'm truly sorry for your loss, he was a good lad."
Dino nodded, unable to find the words he wanted to say, although he doubted that he's be able to say them even if he did have the right words.
"Don't let one unhappy ending stop you from trying for a happily ever after, kid." There was a twinkle in the old man's eye as he released his grip on Dino's arm.
"Arthur, you stop pestering that young man and get your hide in here, your dinner's going cold." Dino looked up and found a woman's face at the window of the house next to Abi's.
"Yes Dear." The old man called up in response, sending a small salute in her direction and Dino saw her smile as she walked away from the window shaking her head in amusement. The man turned his attention back towards Dino briefly. "Happily ever afters kid, sometimes you have to work hard at making them happen, but when you get there I promise you it's worth every minute."
The wind swept through the cemetery, cutting through him like a knife, but Dino shrugged off the cold, he'd experienced sub-zero temperatures before, as an army Delta operative his unit was on constant war footing and even the months when they weren't on active duty on the front lines in warzones all over the world they would conduct readiness drills, sometimes in the desert, sometimes out on the deserted ice plains of the Arctic. A little wind wasn't going to get to him now.
But what the wind had failed to do, the sight that met his eyes as he rounded a corner in the cemetery accomplished easily; Abi. Seeing her there chilled him to the very core. She was standing alone at a freshly dug graveside, her arms were wrapped tightly around her body, her long blonde hair was being whipped around her face and up into the air by the fierce gale-force wind that howled around her.
Had the weather been less vicious the spot would have been picturesque. The grave was located near one of the cemetery's lakes, a group of trees overhanging the small group of headstones that littered the grass in this section; but today offered no fine photo opportunity. The sky was a dull slate grey, the lake's surface whipped into waves topped with white peaks as the wind blew its course across the water but Dino didn't really notice any of this, his surroundings were peripheral, all that he could see was her.
He walked up behind her until she was barely a few metres away. Dino wanted to step right up and fold her into his arms, to take all her pain away, but as with using the key to enter the house he had once shared with this woman, he felt as though he had lost the right to feel her in his grip a long time ago. She didn't notice his presence until he stood directly behind her and spoke her name.
She jumped a little, surprised to find anyone near her and as she turned around at the sound of his voice and now he could see the stream of tears that stained her face. Her eyes were red; doubtless the result of crying for days on end. He wondered if she would even recognise him after all this time, he knew he'd aged; gained a few wrinkles, he'd allowed his hair to grow a little longer than he used to and a couple of grey hairs had appeared here and there. He was dressed in his usual casual attire of jeans, t-shirt and his old army jacket that had seen him through a fair few years of active service even before he'd gone into the K&R business. The duffel that was slung over one shoulder contained the few items of clothing that he'd managed to grab from his London flat before he caught his flight out to New York.
In the moments before she acknowledged him he took the chance to just look at her, drinking in the sight of the only woman he'd ever truly loved. Her skin was pale and the clothes that she wore seemed to hang from her frame as though she'd lost a substantial amount of weight recently, but the biggest change he noticed was in her eyes. She used to have the most startling eyes, a mixture of hazel with green and yellow streaks that sparkled when she smiled. Her eyes alone could light up an entire room and make him feel warm inside, even on the coldest days. Now though, the sparkle was gone, replaced with a dull hue, the streaks of green and yellow seemed to have all but vanished. It was as if someone had replaced her eyes with glass ones, the kind that were used in dolls.
She stared at him for a few seconds, apparently trying to work out if he was real or was simply a hallucination, before giving a heart-wrenching sob and crossing the distance between them, throwing her arms around his neck and holding him tightly as if she were never going to let him go, allowing the façade of strength that she had put up for everyone else to crumble and fall. He dropped his duffel onto the ground as she approached and wrapped his own arms around her waist. He was shocked to find her shaking, not just from her crying, but from the cold. Her clothes and hair were wet and Dino thought back to what the old man had said about her not having been home last night. He wondered just how long she'd been standing out here in the rain and freezing cold.
"Abi, you're freezing. You'll catch your death out here."
"Hopefully," she whispered.
That one word from her mouth struck fear into his heart. The woman that he had known had been so full of vim and vigour; had always been so positive. Perhaps this one last blow to her soul had finally made her give up on life.
Dino slipped off his army jacket, leaving him clad in the simple white t-shirt that he wore underneath. He peeled her arms from around his neck briefly and put the jacket on her, wrapping the durable material of the too big garment around her. He rubbed his hands up and down her arms, trying to persuade her circulation to start working harder, before once again placing his arms around her and pulling her close to him.
It was almost as if she had been waiting for someone to come that she could rely on as within seconds he felt her body sag as finally exhaustion took over and unconsciousness claimed her. He didn't like to think what might have happened if he hadn't got here in time, she could have lain out here unconscious for hours, maybe days before she was found. And by that time…well, he didn't want to think of what might have happened, he shuddered at the very possibility.
As he held her upright, Dino's eyes moved across to the headstone where the name 'Connor Paldino' was inscribed in bright gold lettering that shone in contrast to the dark marble stone.
"I'm sorry son, you deserved so much more than me." He felt the tears starting to escape and roll down his cheek. "I'll come back as soon as I can, but I have to look after your mom right now."
Still supporting Abi with his left arm, Dino picked up his duffel and hooked it over his shoulder before leaning down and bringing his right arm behind the back of Abi's knees, scooping her up into his arms.
This time he used his key to let himself into the red brick house, balancing the form of the unconscious woman in his arms as he reached out to unlock the door. As he entered the modest abode he was struck by how little the place had changed. Oh there was new furniture and the walls had been painted a slightly different colour, but the rooms were arranged in the same way. The same photographs were displayed on the wall, now with a few notable additions of Connor as he grew up. The one photograph that took pride of place was a picture of the three of them taken just a few days after Connor had been born; it showed Dino with the baby huddled in the crook of his arm while his other arm was wrapped around Abi, who sat next to him. It was a memory of happier times. Suddenly he pulled himself out of his reverie, realising that he still held Abi in his arms and that even though unconscious she was still shaking with cold. He walked through into what had once been their bedroom, but was now only hers and laid her gently on the bed, quickly setting about pulling open drawers to find her some dry clothes. That done, he sat down on the bed and propped Abi up against him and paused, wondering what to do. He really needed to get her out of the dripping wet clothes and get her warm and dry, but that action involved a level of intimacy that he no longer qualified for. This would be much easier if she were conscious, then at least he could merely help her. Dino nudged the unconscious woman, but there was no response. Damn, he was going to have to do this on his own then. Eventually he steeled himself to face the consequences and removed his jacket from her followed by her jeans and top and firmly rubbed her skin with a towel he had found draped over a heater to one side of the bedroom. This had a duel effect, firstly it dried off her skin from the rainwater that had soaked through the fabric of her clothing and secondly it helped to get her circulation working a bit better again and soon he saw the pink hue return to her skin as blood rose to the surface capillaries. Finally he replaced her clothes with the dry set of garments he'd found on his hunt. He hoped that she wouldn't be too embarrassed or pissed off with him when she woke up. He was certain that she'd see his point that a little embarrassment or irritation was infinitely preferable to hypothermia.
She was still unconscious as he carried her back into the lounge area, which seemed to be the warmest room in the house. He sat on the couch with her on his knee, her head leaning on his chest and his arms wrapped around her for what seemed like hours but in reality was probably only about ten minutes. Dino had pulled her close, holding her tight; sharing the warmth from his body and relishing the fact that she felt so good in his grip. Looking down at her, it was then that he realised she still wore her wedding ring, the thin band of white gold encircling her finger. It was plain, no stones, just a thin strip of precious metal. He hadn't been able to afford anything grandiose, although he had wanted to give her the world. His mind drifted to the day they'd been and chosen it, she had said it was perfect, just like their relationship; no pretence, nothing to interfere with the pure love that they had for each other. He ran his thumb lightly over the metal band before squeezing her tighter.
It was in those few moments that Dino realised that since he had separated from Abi he'd never really had a proper relationship. He'd slept around and had more than his fair share of one-night stands, but he'd never let any woman get close to him. He'd always bade them farewell when the morning sun began to shine. He wondered whether there was something at work in his subconscious that still held on to the memory of the woman now in his arms, as if something inside him had wrapped armour around his heart and refused to let anything penetrate his emotions. They were, after all still married; neither of them ever having started divorce proceedings, so perhaps something hidden deep inside his mind told him not to allow himself to become embroiled in another relationship for fear that he would have to officially end any lasting link with this beautiful woman.
Finally Abigail began to rouse and Dino felt all the muscles in her body tense as she found herself in someone's arms; found herself in clothes that she was certain she had not put on herself. Disoriented and not knowing where she was for a second she started to push him away. He held onto her a little tighter, forcing her to remain in his arms, worried that if she tried to stand so soon after regaining consciousness then she might further hurt herself. Her struggle continued for a few seconds and then she glanced around and found the familiar surroundings of her home. As her eyes met Dino's she relaxed; realising she was safe.
"Hey, Abi. How're you feeling?" He whispered.
"Honestly? You don't want to know."
"Yes I do."
"Well that would make a change." Her response held a hint of bitterness.
Dino drew breath to retort and then fell silent, knowing that he deserved every bitter thought and sharp snipe that she could possibly throw at him. He dropped his eyes so he was looking at his own chest, ready to take whatever she could dish out.
She paused. "I'm sorry Dino, you didn't deserve that, I'm just…just…" Her voice petered out without her sentence coming to a firm conclusion. "Honestly? I don't really know what I am right now; tired, confused…"
"Just being honest?" Dino whispered. "No, don't deny it," he stopped her before she could say anything in response, "I'm sorry Abi, I've been a completely selfish..."
"You're here now though, that's what matters."
Dino didn't mention that if it hadn't been for Terry then he'd probably still be in a pub on the other side of the world. He blushed. "I'm only a few decades late."
"You always were a bit rubbish at time-keeping, Dino." She smiled weakly, a smile which grew as his head raised again and he dared to look her in the eye once more.
Suddenly a thought poked at his brain. "Hey, you called me Dino. You've never called me that before." He smiled at her.
"No I guess I haven't." Her answering smile was somehow tinged with sadness now.
"Abi, can I ask you something?"
"Why wouldn't you ever call me Dino before?"
She thought for a moment before she answered. "Because I wasn't in love with the tough-guy image you wanted everyone else to see. Dino was this tough street-wise, smart-ass kid that everyone knew. I loved Tony; the man that was hidden underneath that image. I loved the man who used to sing along to the music as we danced, the man that wanted to just sit for hours and hours talking or just holding me in his arms. The man who promised me that he'd never hurt me. I guess I don't know if that man still exists." She maintained eye contact all the time she was speaking, and although in his shame Dino desperately wanted to look away, he found himself completely unable to.
Her honest words cut him to the core and once again he found his eyes filling with tears. Seeing his pain caused by her honest words she bought a hand up and ran her fingers along his jaw-line, Holding his head steady as she gazed deep into his watery eyes which were as startling as the day she'd first met him.
"Ah, there he is. Hello Tony."
"I'm so sorry Abi." He whispered, his voice breaking.
Her finger moved from his jaw to his lips, silencing him as she leaned forward again, resting her head back on his chest, listening to the steady rhythm of his heart.
"No, I'm sorry." He heard her whisper.
"Sorry for what?" He was confused. He'd basically walked out on her and left her to deal with all the crap and yet she had something to apologise for?
"For Connor, for everything. It's my fault."
"No it's not."
"I should have believed him that first day he said he felt sick, I should have noticed, shouldn't have sent him to school. I should have looked after him better."
Dino put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her back so he could look at her. Now it was Abigail who found it impossible to make eye contact.
"Look at me Ab." Eventually and a little hesitantly she complied.
"It's not your fault. No matter what we do, or how hard we try, some people are just taken too early. I should have been here…for both of you."
She shook her head. "All those years ago…I should have told you I loved you more often, should have held you tighter. I should have tried to be the woman you wanted."
Oh God, Dino thought, she blamed herself for his stupidity. She thought she was the reason that he left. He needed to let her know that it wasn't her fault, that it was entirely his stupid, self-destructive personality that ripped apart everything that they had made together, but when he came to speak his lips flapped open and closed and yet no sound was forthcoming.
Abi saw his struggle to speak and saved him finding the words. "I missed you Tony."
"I missed you too Ab."
She lay her head back down on his chest, just underneath his chin and sighed. He felt her relax totally as once again the exhaustion of the past few days claimed her and she drifted gently into sleep. Dino lay his cheek on the top of her head and began to hum a melody that trickled back into his mind. A song that he had first heard many years ago, a lullaby that his mother had once sung to him to soothe him in his restless nights when monsters stalked his dreams. The vibrations of his deep voice rumbled through his chest and further soothed her in her slumber. In turn, Dino felt himself relaxing, and despite the storm of thoughts assaulting his mind he found himself following Abi into sleep.
It was Dino's growling stomach that woke him. It was a loud percussion calling for food. Dino opened his eyes and for a moment couldn't work out where he was. The place was familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. Then he blinked and realised that there was a woman in his arms and he remembered what had happened in the past twenty-four hours. He listened to the silence that was only broken by Abi's soft breathing. He could tell by the pitch of her breathing that she was already awake and he shifted in his seat, arching his head so that he could look down at her.
"When was the last time you ate?" She asked him with a concerned look on her face.
Damn, so she'd heard his stomach growling, well that was suave. "Um, sometime around about Tuesday I think," he answered after thinking about the question for a few seconds.
She sat back and looked at him in disbelief. "So you haven't eaten for well over 24 hours?"
"I forgot." He admitted sheepishly. "I had more important things on my mind." He reached up and moved a lock of hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear.
She disentangled herself from Dino's grasp and he reluctantly let her go as she wandered a little unsteadily at first towards the kitchen. Dino stood and followed her, ready to catch her if she fell again.
"I haven't got that much food in; I've been a little…um…preoccupied. I think I can manage some pasta though."
"Sounds great, what can I do to help?"
This was what they used to do; he would stand at the kitchen door while she prepared their meals and talk to her as she chopped, boiled, roasted and poached the food. He had attempted to help once or twice, but his efforts had never been particularly successful to the point that Abi had actually banned him from the food preparation area entirely until after the meal when he was allowed to help with the dishes. It was impressive that they simply fell back into the old routines so easily; it had been a long time since they'd shared the same home after all.
He twisted his neck in an attempt to get rid of the crick that had appeared after having slept in an awkward position. In the kitchen he heard Abi going through cupboards for various utensils and started to take a look around the cosy living room. His eyes found a familiar insignia printed on a piece of paper and he picked it up.
"What's what?" Abigail stuck her head out of the kitchen to see what he was talking about. "Oh, that."
The piece of paper that Dino had picked up was an application form; a similar form to one that he himself had filled in many, many years ago. The emblem of the United States Army shone out from the corner of the paper, declaring it to be an application to join basic training and selection courses. The first page was covered in boxes requesting the applicant's personal details, name, age, address, date of birth; the usual stuff. Dino read down the page, finding his son's details carefully printed in the boxes.
Abi walked out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a clean towel and took the form from his hands, glancing lovingly over the half-completed form
"Connor was applying to join the army, it was all he'd ever wanted to do. Ever since I can remember whenever anyone asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up he said he wanted to be a soldier and serve his country. Most kids go through phases of what they want to do when they grow up, most want to join the police or be a fireman, the more adventurous plan to grow up to be like Superman, but not Connor. From the moment he could talk he knew what he wanted to do, and his wish never faltered, not once. I promised him that if he still wanted the same thing, with the same amount of conviction when he was old enough to sign up and if he did well at school then I'd let him apply."
"But why the army? He was a clever lad, he could have done anything. He didn't need to be crawling through the muck out in some Godforsaken part of the world."
"C'mon Tony, you're not stupid, can't you guess why?" She gave him a quick smile. "He was so proud of his dad. He wanted to be just like you." Dino's glance followed hers over to a framed photograph of the two of them on the wall. Dino was in full military uniform with Abi clinging to his side.
Dino sighed deeply. "You never told him the truth did you?"
She was puzzled and it showed clearly in her face. "What do you mean, the truth?"
"That I was a selfish son of a…"
"You weren't selfish Tony…you were just following a dream." She cut off his sentence.
"No I wasn't. I was following a stupid illusion and I was running away. I just couldn't see it until it was too late and I couldn't turn back. My real dream was to be here with you and Connor; to have a life, a family, to love and be loved in return. But something in my screwed up head wouldn't let me be happy, it told me to go after something else, that a bigger adventure lay just around the corner. I didn't realise until it was too late that the biggest adventure I could ever have had lay right here with you."
Her eyes widened momentarily at the honesty of his words. "It's never too late to turn back."
"But it is too late, isn't it. I've seen and done some horrible things in my life Abi. I've killed so many men, some out of self-defence, some in cold blood. You deserve someone better than me." He turned away slightly, unwilling to let her see the guilt on his face. "You've always deserved someone better."
She refused to let him move away, instead touching her hand to his cheek and turning him back to face her; forcing him to look at her as she spoke. "But I don't want anyone better Tony, I never did. I wanted you, flaws and all. I only ever wanted you."
She held his gaze for a few seconds before doing something that he didn't expect; she carefully placed the application form back down onto the table and stepped forward, closing the gap between them. She hooked her hand around the back of his neck and pulled him down so that her lips could capture his in a warm embrace.
Dino didn't pull away, it felt so good to be kissing this woman again, to hold her close and know that she was his, that despite the fact that he had been a complete moron for the past several decades that she too had refused to move on and that she was now willing to give him a second chance.
"So what now?" She asked as she finally broke the kiss.
"Well, right now, I could use some food.
She laughed. "You are so predictable Tony. It's either food or…"
He interrupted her, "Yeah well we'll get to the 'or' bit later." He smirked and whether it was his presumptuousness or the cheeky look on his face she couldn't help but laugh at him.
"And then I want you to sit and tell me everything about Connor that I've missed, every moment, every joke, every fall, scrape, knock or smile. I want you to tell me everything."
"And after that?"
"Ah, you're looking at the big picture right?"
"Mmm." She looked nervous now.
"Well," Dino shifted his arm around her waist and pulled her close, "someone told me recently that it's hard work sometimes, but no matter how many unhappy endings have gone by, there is such a thing as happily ever after. I figured we could give it a go, what do you think?"
She paused and then a smile took over her face. "I think it's worth a shot."