Part 2 of 2 for this story; can be read along with "Sympathy From the Devil" but stands well enough on it's own.
First off, thank you all: I was completely blown away by the positive feedback and kind reviews this story has gotten so far. Each response made me smile, and I certainly appreciate the welcome
Still no ownership, but I have a birthday in a couple of months, so perhaps one day.
The ramp was gone.
Artie was sitting in front of Tina's front porch, eyeing the three steps leading up to the front door. When Tina's parents were in town, the two of them mostly hung out at his house. Whenever they were gone, however, Tina would set up the collapsible ramp on the front steps that made it easier for him to get in and out of her not-particularly-handicap-accessible house. Artie had no idea where it had come from; it had just appeared one day. Tina hadn't said anything about it as they approached the house, just kept talking about how her dad was gonna k-k-kill her if he sssaw the stain on the carp-p-pet, and did he thhhink bleach would w-work on the green f-fabric, and if she had noticed that his smile that day was warmer and brighter and more beautiful than she had ever seen it, well, she hadn't mentioned that either.
But the ramp was gone, and the clouds in the darkening sky were a deep pearl grey and heavy with the threat of rain. Artie had been sitting there, watching the front door for over half an hour as the sun sunk lower toward the horizon. Adrenaline and momentum had gotten him this far, but the sight of the unwelcoming porch had knocked the wind out of his lungs. And so he sat there.
A stray raindrop hit his shoulder, the first of what promised to be several if he didn't do something. Artie wavered. He could go home, pretend he was never here. Talk to her tomorrow at school, or at Glee. Or maybe not at all. Go on with his life without her.
Because that had been working out so well so far.
He had to stay. He had to stay, had to talk to her. Even if the thought of talking to her made him feel vaguely ill with apprehension. The only problem—well okay, the first of a distinctly worrying number of problems, was that he couldn't reach the doorbell from the base of the steps. He could call her cell, but he didn't know if he could take it if she refused to answer. He could call the house phone, so that even if she ignored his call, she'd be forced to listen as the answering machine automatically projected his message through the house. But what if she heard his voice, knew he was there, and didn't answer? That would be even worse than her refusing his call. He was sure he could convince her to at least talk to him if she answered the door and saw him in person, but he couldn't get up the stupid steps to ring the stupid doorbell. Sighing in frustration, he rubbed a hand through his hair. Another raindrop landed on his wrist.
Desperate measures. Artie wheeled his chair back several feet and tightened the straps on his gloves. Before the ramp had appeared, Artie would get up to the front door of Tina's house by using a running start and a well-timed pull on the wheels of his chair. He'd been practicing his jumps for years, and could get some serious height under the right conditions. His accuracy still left something to be desired, though, and it usually took him a few tries and a couple of scrapes before he made it to the welcome mat. It was not his favorite way to get anywhere, and he was definitely a little out of practice, but he'd been sitting, doing nothing, for far too long. Time to man up.
Steeling himself, Artie rolled as quickly as he could toward the porch. 3…2…1—Artie yanked as hard as he could, and the chair sailed through the air, landing precariously on the top step. Frantically, Artie threw his weight forward before the chair could roll back down the steps.
Well, it had sort of worked. The chair had stayed on the porch, but Artie had not stayed in the chair—the force he had used to keep from falling backwards had propelled him headfirst into the front door. Wincing, Artie pulled himself back into his seat, right as the door was opening.
Tina had clearly heard the sound of his crash and come running. "Oh my God, are you okay?" She leaned in and pushed his hair back, startling Artie so much that he nearly lost his balance and toppled over. "I'm fine," he said, a little more harshly than he had intended. He cringed as she jerked her hand away at the sound of his tone. Crap. He didn't mean to sound mean, it was just her sudden proximity, the smell of her hair and touch of her skin, all after two weeks of avoiding her, well…crap. This was not going well.
"Um, come in," Tina said softly, staring at her feet. "I'll get you a bandaid. Your—your head is…" she looked up and gestured halfheartedly to Artie's forehead. Artie stripped off his gloves and touched his hairline; his fingers came away damp with blood. "Oh," he said, genuinely surprised. "Oh, right. Um, ok." Tina disappeared inside the house. Um, ok? Did that blow to the head knock out his articulatory skills, or did he always sound this stupid? Deciding he didn't want to know either way, Artie pushed himself over the entrance to the house and wheeled himself down the front hall.
When he reached the kitchen, Artie stopped in shock. The room was a complete disaster—like, mob of football players hell-bent on destruction level disaster. Half of the cupboards were open, the items they held either knocked over or strewn about on the counters. The table and nearby floor were littered with crumpled sheets of paper and notebooks with pages haphazardly torn out. Some sort of purple liquid--paint? juice?—was dripping onto the floor from an overturned bottle on the counter. The trashcan was overflowing, and upon closer inspection, Artie could see that it was filled with plates—actual, reusable dinner plates—complete with meals still on them.
"Sorry it's such a mess." Tina's voice made him jump in his seat; he hadn't realized she was behind him. She handed him a bandaid. "I wasn't…I mean—I'll have to clean it before my parents get back." Artie pressed the bandaid to his cut and threw out the wrapper, trying not to look at the trash can as he did it. "When are they coming back?" he asked. Small talk. Small talk was good. Awkward, but good. "Thursday," she said. "They've been in Hong Kong since the 7th."
Artie looked around the kitchen again. It was Tuesday. Privately, he doubted her ability to put it all back together in just two days—it looked like a before photo in one of those home makeover shows that his mom pretended to hate but secretly TiVo-ed. And then the other part of what she had said sunk in.
"Wait. The 7th? You've been here by yourself for over three weeks?" Tina wrapped her arms around her torso. "They're busy," she told him, a hint of defensiveness creeping into her tone. "I mean, yeah, it's longer than usual, but it's a busy time of year for them, and they work really hard, and…" Her voice died out, as she determinedly looked anywhere but where Artie sat, parked on top of the crumpled papers on the floor.
Artie wanted to cry looking at her. He could see what Kurt had been trying to tell him. Tina was visibly diminished, somehow: smaller, paler, less confident. More than that, though, was the way her hands twitched nervously, uselessly by her sides as she stood there; the way her posture was more uneasy and less, well, less Tina, than usual. The Tina he knew had presence, filled the space she was in with her warmth and attitude. This Tina looked like a scared, tired little girl, slightly out of place even in her own house.
"Why didn't--" the question died on his lips. "Why didn't I call you?" Tina supplied, reading his mind as well as she had ever done. Her small, ironic smile didn't reach her eyes. "I figured you didn't want me to." Artie couldn't look away from those eyes. They were so unfamiliar. Or was it the expression in them that he didn't recognize, a lifelessness he had never seen there before? It broke his heart. "Tee," he insisted, voice strained with emotion, "you had to know it would have been okay to call if you needed me. You shouldn't have had to stay here all alone. I would have come."
"How?" The sudden harshness of her tone, the sudden terrifying blaze to her eyes, jolted him more than anything else that the long, emotional day had thrown at him. "How was I supposed to know that?" she pressed. "You left, Artie. You wouldn't let me explain, you wouldn't let me apologize, you just left. Like whatever I thought or felt didn't matter." She took a deep breath before continuing, pacing the floor in front of him.
"Do you know what the last two weeks have been like without you? They've been horrible. They've been awful, and not only because I've felt so guilty for hurting you, but because I've been so alone. You wouldn't talk to me or smile at me; you wouldn't even look at me. And everyone's been trying to just snap me out of it. Kurt and Mercedes have been going crazy trying to get me to do anything. Brittany keeps giving me cookies and patting my head like I'm five. Even Puck was sort of nice to me one time. Puck, Artie!" As abruptly as she had started, Tina stopped pacing.
"And none of it even mattered. Because they're not you. I could have the whole world against me and it wouldn't matter, as long as you were on my side. But you left."
Tina's eyes dropped from his, and all of the fire that she'd had while yelling at him drained out of her. She sat down at the kitchen table, idly tracing a finger across the wood grain. "I'm sorry I yelled, and I'm sorry I lied. I'm so, so sorry, Artie. I get that you're mad, and I understand that. I screwed up. But," she finished, the tears she had yet to shed creeping into her voice, "so did you. And I think I get to be angry too."
Artie had never really understood the phrase 'deafening silence' before, but he was really starting to get it now. Tina's speech hung between them, and in its wake everything else seemed horribly, unbearable loud—the dripping faucet in the sink, the rain splattering the windows. The sound of Tina's finger on the table as she traced the same pattern over and over and over.
He had no idea what to say. She was right. He knew she was right. And she was wrong, but so was he. So was everything. Tina was sitting three feet in front of him, but she had never seemed so completely unapproachable. For the first time in their entire friendship, Artie had no idea how to reach her in any way that mattered. So he said the first thing that came to his mind.
"Puck was nice to you?"
Tina let out a strangled, mirthless laugh. "I think the crying freaked him out a little. Don't tell him I told you, though. I hate onion dip, and I'm pretty sure he'd go through with his threat." Artie had no idea what she was talking about, so he brushed it aside, wheeling closer to where she sat. "Tee, I…" He stopped. He needed to say something. How many times over the past couple of weeks had he imagined talking to her, telling her exactly what he felt? How was it that the words had come so easy when she wasn't really there, but now nothing he could think of was the right thing to say?
Maybe because every time he had talked to her in his imagination, it was in anger. And Artie didn't feel anger anymore, not really. Just sadness, and loneliness, and…
"I'm sorry," he said softly, realizing with surprise that the words felt exactly right in that moment. "I'm sorry I made you feel like you couldn't call me. I'm…I was so hurt, and I couldn't get past it. But you're right. I screwed up too. And I'm sorry. You mean more to me than anyone, and I should have known that when it mattered. So I'm sorry."
He turned away from her as tears began silently pouring down her cheeks. He rolled himself away from her while he still could, fighting the overwhelming urge to take her in his arms and dry her face. He needed to touch her, hold her, so badly. But she was right. He had failed her when she needed him. And now, he was the one who had to wait for forgiveness.
Artie opened the front door. The raindrops that were few and far between earlier were now pounding down in heavy sheets. His house was three blocks away; he'd be a drowned rat before he reached the end of the driveway.
"You shouldn't go out in that."
Tina was standing in the doorway.
Artie swallowed thickly. "I'll call my dad for a ride, if that's okay." Slowly, Tina approached him, wiping her tears on her sleeve and sitting on the staircase so that she was at his level. "You could stay here if you want." Their eyes met. They still weren't the eyes he knew so well, but they were less haunted, frightening than before. Mesmerizing. "Are you sure?" he asked. Her eyes remained fixed on his as slowly, gently, she took his hand in hers. "Stay," she repeated.
Artie changed his mind. That was the most amazing, beautiful sound in the world.
Don't try the wheelchair stunt at home, kids. It's about as dangerous and painful as it sounds.