This took quite a while, I know. I was so indecisive about what I truly wanted for this last chapter, but I figured it out and pulled through! :) Thank you all so much for every precious thought you've guys have given. Automateddetour's comment especially made me smile! Happy reading.
Chapter Ten: Promise
Sometimes James had dreams of legs hanging from the ceiling.
No arms, no heads or faces to speak of. Only legs. He accepted that they spoke of his unsatisfied urges, his desire for sexual gratification. That was simple enough to understand. But he had thought that, once he left Silent Hill, these images would go away. It was a little depressing to face the fact that Silent Hill had changed his intended course from death to life with no real plan of action and still hadn't given him the mental peace he so desperately desired. Maybe that wasn't what it was even meant for anyway. In his letter to Cybil, he had said so.
He hadn't meant to live. All he wanted to do was to die in a place where he had once been happy, and by doing so, he hoped Mary would be satisfied. It now seemed Silent Hill's challenge had not been to die, but to dare to live.
There was no real law there, no explicit right or wrong. It wasn't a place you could count on for a straight answer, or any answer at all. It could be a dreamland or it could be your hell. Maria wasn't exactly what you'd call 'the bad guy', even given what he made her for—a beautiful creature to shroud him from the truth, something to preoccupy him with anything but what he had done. Even Silent Hill, the haven of illusion, had not made it so easy to forget—she'd had Mary's face. And maybe Red Pyramid had a slither of good intention in mind when he fought him in the Bluecreek Apartments—perhaps by way of testing him.
Do you really want to die? Is this what you really want?
In his letter, from Maine to faraway California, he asked her all the questions he himself could formulate no answer to. Along with the ones that he knew already. If it still popped up now and then like the annoying apparition it was, if she still cried sometimes. Maybe it haunted her even more so than it did him. Somewhere inside, that was a small consolation.
He'd thrown around the idea of writing to Harry Mason's daughter. The last he heard of her, she was a student at a university and living with an older man—much like the situation between Laura and himself. But he decided there was no particular reason why she should care how he was holding up. She was out there living her own life. The last thing she needed was a reminder. As he and Cybil were both disillusioned adults seeking anything worth holding on to, he thought a message of common ground would be good for her.
James' languid figure slumped against the couch, his arms folded, and the blue-white light of the TV cast shadows on him.
"So what do you want for dinner?" he asked Laura.
She shrugged. James expected that answer of her, and surfed through the channels until he paused at the Food Network. Barefoot Contessa was on. She was making Eggplant Lasagna. James had dim memories of having eaten eggplant, most likely at a dinner held by one of Mary's relatives. Her crazy uncle, maybe. He supposed, as a way of branching out of the everyday routine, he might just try his hand at cooking. This was especially appropriate because the dinner Bettie wanted to have had been given a date, and it would be this Friday. He would practice this eggplant thing today, and recreate it on Friday before the dinner. Then he'd be able to brag to Victoria about how he brought a home-made dish to his friend's dinner. He just hoped they wouldn't get food poisoning.
They both headed for the kitchenette and murmured something about eating out again, but neither of them agreed with the idea, having eaten Pizza Hut and Papa John's and Awesome Wok nearly every night in the name of sheer laziness. Laura looked around with saintly blue eyes and commented about various things in the cabinets, shoving cans this way and that, shaking her head and considering James' input.
"What should we make?" he scrutinized a can of tomato sauce in his hand. Old Newman's. He thought about the eggplant again. "Or we could just make what that lady's making..." He snatched out the cookbook from an old, underused drawer. Laura peered over at it.
"Well, what is it?"
James raised his brows, "Eggplant lasagna."
Feeling decidedly picky, Laura murmured, "Yuck."
"Eggplants are good for you."
"How can you have eggplant lasagna?" Laura wrinkled her nose in distaste. "I've never heard of that before in my life, to be honest."
"'Lasagna just means layers, so it can apply to anything. This is just replacing it with eggplant instead of meat. Save a cow."
"You're funny," she smiled.
"So I've been told," he answered, his eyes scanning the ingredients.
"Alright, let's start then." Now that Laura was in a playful mood, she opened the cabinets. "What do we need?"
He read off, "It says '2 large eggplants, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 garlic cloves, minced..."
"We don't have any of those things."
"I guess it's time to go grocery shopping, then."
After a trip to Wal-Mart that took longer than expected despite the short list of things they needed, James and Laura returned with a bag in each of their hands. While they were out, they ended up getting some more things for the house, such as a new fan to replace the recently broken one that usually sat on James' table in front of him while he slept, and some Chips Ahoy and Oreos with a gallon of milk.
He set the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, took out the skillet and sliced the eggplants lengthwise with as much precision as he could muster, being unaccustomed to dealing with food. He spread oil on the slices with a paintbrush and seasoned them with pepper and salt. He then placed them on the skillet. Laura had learned by now that eggplant didn't taste that bad, and was actually similar to a banana, except sweeter.
She filtered through the thoroughly disorganized cans while the sizzling slices filled the kitchenette with the sweet aroma of oil.
Finally, she found the mushroom can, which had been buried deep in there.
James absently handed her the can opener and closed the drawer, absorbed in the book. "Now it says to add the garlic and thyme and sauté for seven minutes."
She snatched out a large bowl in response.
"After that you have to—"
"One thing at a time!" she reminded him.
Laura proposed that cooking warranted music, so James found the old CD player from when he was still married (that Frank had preserved for some reason) and plugged it in the outlet above the counter top. Then he remembered that he had no CD's. "That's alright," Laura said, "CD's are on their way out, anyway. I'll just plug in my MP3 player."
James sheepishly admitted to Laura, despite her shock, that he didn't even have a clear idea of what an MP3 player was. "In my day, it was record players and then stereo systems."
"Record players?" she huffed. "Didn't they use those in the 1920's or something?"
"People used record players up until the 80's. I remember."
"I didn't see anyone use a record player."
"You were probably too young to remember. You were born in '87, right?"
"Eighty-six," she corrected. "You're a dinosaur compared to me."
He stuck out his tongue, which only earned him a playful snicker. Laura said she would flip the slices when the time came, so he had an opportunity to find something before she could put on her loud, obnoxious pop music. After five minutes of searching, he only found a caseless, scratched-up copy of Nirvana's Nevermind under a dog-eared phone book and Dizzy Up the Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls, a band he'd been mildly obsessed with ever since seeing scattered scenes of "Iris" playing on the small TV in the prison ward's office. He could still see Johnny Rzeznik sliding over from the telescope to the window, or spinning around wildly in his wheeled reclining chair, high in the lighthouse.
And I don't want the world to see me
'Cause I don't think that they'd understand..
"So what did you find?"
"Nirvana and this." he showed her the other album with a little pride, "This one actually has a case."
"It has a big crack in it, though." she teased.
He opened the case and took out the CD, to which Laura protested, "But aren't they a little dark?"
"The Goo Goo Dolls? I wouldn't call them dark. Depeche Mode and The Cure are dark."
"I don't feel like being depressed."
"They're not depressing. There's lots of happy songs on here, like 'Slide'." He decided not to remind her that 'Iris' and 'Acoustic #3' were on the same album.
"And how does that go?"
He groaned, summoning his coarse singing voice. "Yeeaah, I'm gonna let it slide.." he fought his inept memory for the words, deciding on the chorus, "Put your arms around me; what you feel is what you are and what you are is beautiful.."
"You wanna get married, or run away.." she sang in recognition.
He closed the case and rubbed his shirt on the Nirvana CD. He popped it in and found that all the others skipped or just wouldn't play except "Lithium", and he turned to look at her. "Are you checking the..?"
"Oh!" Laura exclaimed, grabbing the handle of the pan. "Ah, they're a little burnt."
"I think it's time to flip them now."
She turned them gingerly. "Sorry 'bout that."
"..I like it, I'm not gonna crack; I miss you, I'm not gonna crack; I love you, I'm not gonna crack; I killed you, I'm not gonna crack.."
James grew uncomfortable and turned it off, even though Laura was getting into Cobain's agonized vocals. "Hey, what'd you do that for?"
"It's messed up. Only plays one song."
James took the mantle while Laura tried to find something happy and upbeat, only to realize that she actually had a lot of songs that complained about infidelity and teenage drama. Deciding he wouldn't like Green Day, Kelly Clarkson or Natalie Imbruglia, she skipped to the first uplifting thing she could find, which happened to be "Get Your Freak On" by Missy Elliot. A tad embarrassed, Laura decided to occupy herself with cooking rather than look at James' amused face.
Finally, she gave up. "This is stupid, isn't it?"
"No, I like her." he stifled a laugh. "She's very animated."
They threw suggestions back and forth, and James felt older and older the more he suggested. From The Doors to Jimi Hendrix to The Cranberries, a group that even she should have been familiar with, it was no longer a contest. He could now say that he'd fallen far behind popular culture. Though one couldn't blame him, seeing as he had been locked in a cold cell for the whole of the 90's. He hadn't even cared about what was going on in the outside world until Laura showed up with her excited talk of one day having a cell phone that could actually access the internet, a pink colored iPod (James only thought of black figures dancing to multi-colored backdrops), and all of America's Top Model on DVD (whatever the hell that was).
The heat hit his face as he popped the newly layered meal into the oven, looking like a wife with his green oven mitts. "My friend Bettie from work invited me to dinner with her husband and some other people, so I'm going to cook this again on that day."
"I didn't think you talked to anyone at work."
He glimpsed at her.
"No offense." she shrugged. "I just never hear you bring anyone up."
"I guess they're more acquaintances, then. But getting to know people better is something Victoria would endorse, and it would help me with my already rusty social skills. I guess you can just entertain yourself here while I'm gone."
Laura wasn't keen on the idea of being alone but didn't voice this. She only gave a submissive nod.
It unnerved her to think that she honestly didn't want James to go to the dinner. If he did, he would be focusing on other people and not her. He would be away while she sat here, alone with her own thoughts. He might even like someone at work, and might only be going because they were. She shoved the thought into the back of her mind and breathed through her nose. She hadn't realized she was boring a hole into the floor with her concentrated stare until James pointed it out.
His eyes trailed from the oven to the dirty dishes, and slowly, a memory began to appear, like an old rerun.
She coughed again. "God.." she struggled to utter, reaching for her husband. "James."
He stood up, his hands still wrapped around hers. "James. Get me some—" Another burdensome cough tore through her and forced her back against the headstand again. "Dammit.."
He didn't ask any questions. Her main needs were water, blankets, and massages. As of now, it was harder to get her to digest solidified foods, so James switched to soup. Most days it was just tomato soup—it was easier that way. No cubes of chicken, rice, or celery to get lodged in her throat and make her choke. "I'll get you some more soup, hon," he said.
That familiar look of discontent spread across her features, but he ignored it and left to the kitchen. The act of making soup afforded him a rare interlude of mental peace. It made him feel like his father, making him soup while his child self rested in bed with the welcome feeling of his mother's warm hand on his forehead.
The pot was dirty from yesterday's serving. The water splashed on the pan and washed away the red residue from the steel. The noise of dishes clanking often made the days easier to bear, whereas the silence made time stagnant, and Mary's life even more unpredictable. Would she still be awake when he prepared her supper? Or would he have to wipe the blood off her mouth and read her to fitful sleep with passages from Corinthians again?
That Friday, with intense fear and insecurity scouring his insides, James knocked on the door and was let in by an exuberant Bettie with widespread arms.
It was strange that she called him honey, considering that she probably called both her husband and her children that too. Her shiny, meticulous weave was plastered against her smooth, dark head, the curls perfect and hardened. Everything in her bounced when she moved. She led him around with the sway of her hips, her outstretched fingers as she pointed this way and that, showing him what the others had brought as if she were directing traffic. She hadn't even noticed his own dish, so James just placed it where all the other food was. It reminded him of a table of birthday presents, where his was the least noticeable and barely a contribution.
James spotted her husband across the living room, dealing with the food.
Her husband had been a hard hitter, dealing drugs and consuming them, and he beat her and her children into the ground in the years before her job at the post office. She hadn't been ashamed to relate that to James on the first day they met. And still here she stood, happily ignoring his awkwardness and laughing at every mild comment that came her way. Her grey-faced husband, sobered by age and many stints in jail, said low, humble things like, "Gimme a hand here, baby," as he heaved a heavy bowl of mash potatoes to the kitchen counter. James almost pitied him, but then again, it had been a long while since he pitied anyone but himself.
Two dark children ran around him like spinning planets. One of them had the small, egg shaped head of his mother, his head spotted with sparse black hair. He made exaggerated airplane noises and rode his hard plastic plane up James' arm and was up to his shoulder when Bettie shouted at him to leave James alone. James followed the kid with a smile. The girl stared at him as any black child who was very seldom in the company of white adults. Not with condescension, but blank faced curiosity. She was probably expecting only her boisterous relatives.
"What's your name?" she queried, twisting her upper body shyly from side to side.
She nodded and averted her eyes to the ground. "Keisha."
He nodded too.
"James!" Elise shook his shoulder. She had a bright orange cardigan that did not quite reach her waist, like his shameless, imaginary Maria, and a thin black pencil skirt. No one had the frankness to tell her that she looked like a kindergarten teacher dressed up for Halloween, but he suspected it wouldn't have mattered anyway. She didn't seem like a person who considered what others thought about her, and for some reason, he found that attractive.
"How are you?" he asked.
"Good. I'm glad you made it to the dinner. Bettie was afraid you wouldn't come."
James smiled, often times the only thing he could manage by way of friendliness.
Both the dining room table and the picnic table, which was dragged in by Bettie's husband from the airy veranda, were placed together. Elise set the table with a great smile and joy in her duty.
Seeing Elise in this state of careless mirth set his stomach awash with doubt. James now knew he could never date her—she was far too happy for his outlook, and she was too pretty for an old bag like him. He could see a long-term relationship with her breed contempt. He could see himself belittling her for her choice in attire, or her belittling him for his grumpiness. Hell, Laura did that every day.
He'd like to believe that you never know until you try, but his own vision of it convinced him of the futility of anything he could ever have with Elise.
He had difficulty understanding happy people even in his days with Mary. Sometimes he hated them, giving them sneers and roll of the eyes, and other times he just sat by and watched them enjoy their own lives with a calm numbness. Mary had been one of these people. They were exact opposites, but her smile was a spectacle that he loved to watch even though he often didn't follow suit.
James walked down the metal steps and onto the platform of South Ashfield Station. The hoboes rested in desolate corners, wearing all their clothes though the heat was next to unbearable. Between the columns, he could see the plain faces of men and women of all ages, hopping on and hopping off. The weight of the food he'd eaten making him sleepy, he nevertheless resolved to find something for Laura to eat tonight.
On the way, he was sidetracked by a few finds. The first being St. Jerome's, where Mary had wasted away her days staring out at the window and wishing her husband would visit her, knowing full well that she'd always say something to make him regret it. Mary had the kind of personality that appreciated the pain of others when she was in pain herself. James wished he could have summoned the gall to be a bastard for once and call her out on that—or at least stop her in the middle of one of her many "dying" rants.
He wondered if Rachel, the nurse in the letter, still worked here. He wouldn't remember what she looked like—it had been years since he interacted with her, and they had only spoken a few words to each other at best. Mary had been infamous for kicking Rachel out of her room as much as James, Frank, and even her own relatives.
Then there was the bar. It stared at him down the street like the distant call from an old friend. He never made any friends there—only sat at the stool and stared at the bottles of various sizes on the shelf, taking large swigs and watching the bartender meander with the common folk. They all knew him there in those days. Since he did nothing but sit there at the stool and refuse to socialize, they called him "Lame James". He was nothing but a minor spectacle—or specter, more like. Maybe they wondered where he was every now and then. "Where's Lame James? He used to come here every night."
Located conveniently down the same street was an old haunt—the gaunt and vampiric Blue Joy, a place that had him shivering in his seat as an aching beauty lifted her thigh onto his lap and let her hair cascade down his face and neck. He'd actually had many conversations with the girl outside of work; she was a good girl, really—she was just living on her own and needed to pay tuition. She had an unusual name he couldn't bring to mind now. It swam in the back of his head, along with words like it—he kept thinking Autumn, yeah, she was named after a season or a month.
He would watch her come in at night, parked on the opposite end of the street like a shameful ghost. In the wintertime, the flaps of her designer trench coat (the only one she had to his knowledge) would blow back and forth like the tail of a goldfish, and her little toes, exposed to the cold by her spider web stilettos, were squished together, pink at the ends and white as you trailed your eyes up her legs. He remembered she spoke of things like a disillusioned old man, a thought that made him smile. And he'd say, with his usual degree of awkwardness, "But you're so beautiful, you shouldn't have to go through this.."
But you're so pretty. But you're so beautiful. He had said this to her many times, and they all just went through her. Ah, what do you know? She probably thought. You're just an old pervert.
What was so beautiful about something normally innocent being sensuous and dark spirited? He wondered.
It was then that the stripper's visage dissolved into Laura's, and he again remembered why he was here. On a whim, he walked into Tara's Treats. The lighted display case housed those sugared croissants that Mary used to like. Next to them were large cookies, looking more like plastic than actual cookies, and a panorama of other things that probably should have been sold a few days ago.
"Can I help you?" a girl with an apron and high pony tail asked.
"Yeah, can I have those croissants there and that pie?"
"Oh, just to let you know, those have peach filling in them."
Thinking that Laura might have an aversion to peach filling, he asked, "What other flavors are there?"
"We have cherry and apple."
"I'd like apple, then."
"What kind of pie, sir? We have cherry, blueberry, raspberry, lemon, apple, peach, pumpkin and apricot." She said this as if she'd rehearsed it many times.
The woman disappeared behind the door and came back with the pumpkin pie wrapped in white paper. "It comes with whip cream already on it. That okay?"
"Saves me money."
She laughed and set the pie on the table, then grabbed the tongs and fished out the croissants, putting them in a plastic container and snapping the lid closed. "Alright, that'll be 8.79. Credit or debit?"
"Debit," handing her his card, he thought that he really ought to be less surly. It obviously wasn't doing its job if people just thought he was funny.
"Okay, thank you very much," she handed the bag to him and saw him go with a smile on her face, her elbows resting on the counter top as he left.
James came home half an hour later than he said he would due to his little rendezvous around Ashfield. Rather painful sightseeing, he would say. The keys clinked on the marble tabletop and he stretched, letting out a yawn. "I got us some dessert from...Tara's Treats, was it? Have you ever been there?"
"Yeah, I know that place. Katelyn used to work there."
James now felt bad for ever bringing it up, but then again, how would he have known? He hoped the girl he saw wasn't a friend of Katelyn's or anything. A few moments passed before he realized that Laura hadn't turned around to acknowledge him.
"Are you ok?" James forgot what he meant to do and approached her instead, stopping at the back of the couch. She nodded, but still didn't turn around.
"You're kind of scaring me." he poked at her shoulder and she recoiled. He could see the bone peeking through the skin, looking like a knob. Encircling the couch, he finally saw that she looked uncomfortable.
"I've got to tell you something." she said, bringing her gaze to his chest. She could have looked him in the eyes, but chose not to. James' worrying only increased.
"Well, what the hell is it?" he stepped forward, "Say something."
He sat down next to her, their knees nearly bumping into each other. Somehow he got the feeling that she wouldn't act normal unless he shook her out of it. Obviously that would be too rude, so he just stared at her until she decided to respond. She looked unsure of what she intended to say, almost as if she were making a difficult decision.
"Promise not to be angry with me."
"I won't be."
He regretted it almost as soon as he said it.
"I think I.. I love you."
He was hardly aware that he had his mouth open, and that he had gone very still, stuck on her eyes like he hit a fork in the road.
Laura had trouble letting it escape again. "I think I.."
"What do you mean? You love me?"
Laura's mind drew a blank and her throat went stale.
"What does that mean, Laura?"
Between being disgusted with himself for ever letting this happen, and being disgusted with her for her poor taste, all the things that he wanted to scream at her lodged into his throat and became harder to discern.
"It means.. Just that."
Despite this, his heart didn't physically react. It remained cold, unaffected. Or at least pretending not to be bothered. It was the same with Maria. He had tried to pretend not be fazed by her backhanded comments or her unsettling volatility. This was different, though. She wasn't Maria.
"No you don't, Laura." he said quietly. "You don't love me."
The rims of her eyes appeared to redden in an instant, and before he knew it, a tear fell down her cheek. She knew what he was thinking. He was thinking it was the silliest thing he'd ever heard. "I do."
James chuckled warily, teetering toward mild annoyance and trying to be calm about this, as if he were trying to reason with a stubborn child. "You don't have any idea what love is. You've never felt it."
"I know it's crazy.. But I can't help it. I know what I'm feeling."
Laura reached over to him, only for James to shove her away. She fell back onto the couch as he stood up and clenched his fists. "Love is not a fluttery feeling. It's not all blushes and smiles. Love is what you feel when life without someone is only days and hours that go on forever!"
Still splayed back against the armrest, she stared up at him with stifled desperation, her teary lashes slick and her cheeks blotted with red, muted for the moment by the air that strangled any of her responses.
"Laura.. You don't need me or my baggage. You're only saying this because you think you can fix me."
He closed his eyes and turned his head as if he could hardly bear to say what he was saying. "Laura. I am thirty-nine years old. You're 18. You're still a kid, and I'm old enough to be your father."
"It doesn't matter," she pleaded.
"Don't give me that! Need I remind you that I killed my wife? That I've wanted to die myself for years? If you love me, as you say you do, you have to accept that this is who I am, and I'm never changing. I'm not going to stop smoking for you, and as soon as my probation ends I'm gonna get plastered and walk around in my boxer shorts while watching porn. I'm gonna start hitting the strip clubs again too. Trust me, you'll fall out of love fast."
Laura scoffed timorously. "You can be such a bastard when you're trying to lie."
"What're you trying to say?"
"Don't kid yourself. You haven't been with anyone in a long time, and this is what I'm trying to give you. I know about what you did to Mary. And I forgive you. I know everything about you, James. All the things you keep hidden from everyone else. You'll never have to explain anything to me, or feel…like a freak."
I am, if you want me to be.
He struggled not to tremble. She was no Mary. Nor would she ever be.
"It'll never work with anyone else—"
"Damn it, do you even know what the hell you're saying!" he burst, unable to hold it in any longer. Laura stopped mid-sentence. Anything she wanted to say dissolved on her tongue. The apex of his anger having been reached, he resigned into defeat. Yelling would only hurt Laura more.
"Laura, this can't happen. Victoria tried to warn me about this, but I didn't want to listen to her. I thought you needed help. Look—it's only natural that you would grow feelings toward someone who knows pain like I do, who listens to you, and tries to help you, but that's as far as it should go."
Laura's head bowed shamefully.
James paused, sighing. "I'd be a lousy lover, anyway."
His attempt at humor missed utterly. Laura couldn't look at him anymore.
James now felt the scathing claws of indecision. He couldn't just sit next to her, turn on the TV and pretend this hadn't happened. And walking out would just be immature. He felt like his heart was being pushed through a small space. He wanted to say something, anything to blot out this shame, but no word he could think of could be put to any good use. Laura wouldn't humor him by replying, anyhow. She only sat there, biting back more horrible tears and desperately wanting to scream something obscene at him. But how would it help?
She was such a fool. She felt like just caving in on herself and disappearing into a dark crevice. The very feeling of James staring at her back was enough to make her ache with embarrassment.
He went to the kitchen and tried to start up some coffee, albeit quietly. What he would do after that, he wasn't sure, but that fact that he was making coffee was preferable to watching Laura's helplessly frozen stature.
What were they both to do? He thought. We pitiful people.
For whatever reason—perhaps the uncanny sadism of life that loved to lie in wait for times like these—his phone rang, like slapping the hard surface of the water to break the tension. 'Hello Motto' was the last thing either of them wanted to hear, so he opened his phone and tried to be snappish. "What?"
Victoria was breathing fast. "James. You've got to get dressed. Get ready now."
"What happened?" James was already feeling irritated at the sound of rushing into presentable clothes and having to even speak to Laura again after an encounter like this, even if it was to say that he had to go and he'd be back later. Being back later would only imply that this discussion had to continue, which already had his stomach in knots.
She paused. "It's Frank. He's in the hospital."
The whiteness of this place was blinding. The linoleum floors, the lines of florescent tubes, the sterilized smell. A hallway stretched out in front of him. He hated hallways too. You never knew what was waiting for you at the other side of the door. He passed one solitary bench, then two, and tried to remind himself that that town was at least a good 35 miles off. But after Silent Hill, public places and simple objects were a matter of phobia. From the occasional foggy morning, a shadow along the wall to the sight of a flashbulb going out, the memories would flood back as if he'd only just got back a few days ago.
To this day he still couldn't walk in the open street past a row of parked cars, for fear that something might come skittering out from underneath and knock him over. He itched for a feel of a steel pipe in hand. He'd learned that even the most rudimentary weapon could inflict a good amount of damage if it were blunt. Of course the desire for such a thing was utterly silly. It was all his imagination. The sounds of rustling papers and fast paced feet were putting him on edge.
Laura could feel the aura of anxiety James was giving off. His eyes were traveling everywhere without really moving. The actions of every person were accounted for in some way. He was paying special attention to the nurses. Though they didn't have caps and weren't as scantily dressed as his shapely, convulsing dream-women, they were nurses still, even in their pale green, unflattering scrubs. She began to wonder if he were really seeing them in the same way she was.
Tired of pretending to watch Spongebob and thinking about James' mental condition, Laura went to the reception desk and asked about Frank.
"You're gonna have to wait," she said, not looking up from her papers. Laura huffed and returned to her seat.
Dreadfully hoping he wouldn't fall off the edge of reality, or have a sudden headache and find that he was in a new one, he turned to Laura to make sure they were both really here.
"..What did she say?"
"She said we have to wait." she fitfully rested her chin in the cup of her hand. "I doubt she even knows who we're here for."
Laura was acting like her normal self. She wasn't playing the hush-up game or putting on the shameful, quiet act. It made this affair seem just a bit more manageable. Unknown to her, the whole confession was still explicitly on his mind as much as this hospital or Frank was; he didn't care so much for what Victoria would think anymore so much as what it meant for the both of them.
Victoria, who had been forgotten until this moment, was on the phone with someone, hushing the conversation as if the sound of her voice would compromise James' ability to deal.
An hour passed, maybe two. Laura was growing sleepy. James' shoulder was looking very attractive right now, but he was hunched over with his hands interlocked together, as if they were trying to comfort each other, and the same intense fixation remained. He wasn't looking at the wall but through the wall, trying to imagine where Frank was. Thinking of him connected to a respirator, the image of the banana bag near his bed, his hands handcuffed to the rails. A broken vase. Wait—Thelma had been handcuffed, not his father. The vase—that was Mary's vase. She'd hated it so much she broke it, right in front of James' horrified eyes. These images of his loved ones' hospitalization often blurred into each other, so intimate with him and so hated. Perhaps he hated hospitals more than any other public building he could think of.
The nurse finally called them to the desk and to their surprise revealed that Frank was stable and coherent, allowing him to have visitors. James' thoughts were running wild with what possible ailment had snuck up on his father as they searched the ward. Laura and Victoria focused on keeping up.
When they reached Frank's room, the curtain shrouded everything except the floor. He pulled it back, fearful of what he might see.
Frank wasn't attached to a respirator, making James sigh in relief. The portion from the top of his forehead and over his left ear was wrapped in bandages. He looked like a vegetable with still, open eyes until he spoke. "James."
Frank drew in some air. "I fell."
"And? Where?" his son pressed.
"And I cracked my head open. It happened on one of the staircases. I don't remember what I was doing at the time."
"In the apartments?"
Frank looked to Victoria and smirked. "Your girlfriend?"
"Please," James answered before Victoria could even get a syllable in. She playfully scoffed.
"My name's Victoria," she shook Frank's hand, "I'm his parole officer."
"That must be fun," Frank teased. James was still looking worried and sullen, so Frank smiled at him. "Don't worry. I can count backwards from ten and I know that 2 plus 2 equals 4."
He noticed Laura at the end of the room, her arms around herself.
"What's your name, sweetheart?"
"Laura," she murmured. "My name's Laura. I'm James' roommate."
If James or Victoria had any objections to the term 'roommate', they didn't disclose it.
James intended to stay for as long as the visiting hours would allow, painfully paranoid that this could actually be the first of many hospital visits to go. His father's mortality, a subject he'd managed to force into the back of his head up until this point, was pricking his skin and already torturing his heart with the thought of a loss he did not yet experience. It felt nearly the same as when, all those years ago, he had sat at Mary's bedside, acutely aware that she could go any day, any hour, any minute, and there was always a chance that he would not be there when it happened. Strangely enough, that ended up being one of the reasons, in the tangled yarn-ball of motives he had, for killing her. It had all made sense to his slushy, erratic mind at the time. He didn't want to contemplate the sense it made, if any, right now.
So the hours passed in relative silence, slow for Victoria and even slower for Laura, but the length of time went unnoticed by James. Time always passed quickly when he thought of these things, and he didn't stop to consider that maybe Victoria and Laura might be bored.
Though she could hardly keep herself from falling asleep on the chair by Frank's bedside, Laura knew it was better she was here than at home. After all, it would be pretty callous to watch Seinfeld while Frank was here, wearing a papery hospital gown that didn't care to cover his backside and stuck to a heart monitor. Besides, she wasn't only here for Frank; she was here for James too. In her mind glimmered a faint hope that this would make him see that she really was serious about loving him, that she really did know what it was to feel it. Even if her feelings would never be reciprocated, she wanted James to know that she would be there for him regardless.
It would be an awkward few days after this.
Laura glanced furtively at Victoria, who was caught looking at her phone. With Frank asleep and James on another planet, she had no choice but to close her eyes and try to drift off somewhere where she didn't have to think.
Just then, the curtain was pulled cautiously back and the head of a young man peeked through. "I'm sorry," he whispered, "We… We heard that he fell. Is he okay?"
"Who are you?" Victoria asked.
The man stepped into the room to reveal himself fully, along with a pregnant woman they only could assume was his wife or girlfriend.
"Oh, uh, sorry," he managed awkwardly, "My name's Henry, and this is my fiancé, Eileen. We're friends with Frank."
The man had a tousled head of sandy brown hair that shadowed his eyes, wearing a formal collared shirt and jeans. The woman, on the other hand, had on a loose fitting maternity dress with bell bottom jeans—it seemed at this point she was so preoccupied with lugging her unborn cargo that it hardly mattered to her what she threw on. He'd never seen the guy before. But why was this woman so familiar?
Eileen kept glancing at James, smiling, expecting his recognition, but the flashbulb wasn't going off—just flickering stupidly.
"I know I've seen you before.." James leaned over in his chair, gripping the sides and staring into Eileen's face. "Though it isn't registering right now."
Eileen broke into a small laugh. "I'm the woman from the subway train. You know, the one you wanted to walk home because it was dangerous?"
Henry quirked a brow. So Eileen met Frank's son before?
"Oh! I'm so sorry! I'm terrible with faces—you can ask her, here," he pointed to Laura, who waved to them nervously with a stiff smile, "She's an old friend of mine.. One I hadn't seen in years until just recently, and her face didn't click right away either."
"You're forgiven," Eileen said warmly.
Victoria stood to gently prod Frank back into wakefulness. "You have visitors. Henry and Eileen."
"How are you, Frank? Sorry to wake you," Henry approached the edge of the gurney.
"I'm good, actually. I feel better." His tired head rolled over in James' direction. "I don't think you've met Henry before. Do you know him?"
"No, but I know his fiancé."
"How 'bout that. Small world." Frank smiled.
Victoria gave up her seat so Eileen could sit. They went from discussing Frank's accident, and then gradually fell into normal conversation. It intrigued James that Henry wasn't much of a talker at all—he rarely contributed to anything other a whisper in Eileen's ear, and would only answer questions that were directed at him specifically. He kept one hand wrapped around Eileen's shoulder and the other perched on her bulbous stomach, rubbing it every now and again with his thumb. Just like James, he preferred listening to speaking.
Eight o' clock rolled around, announcing the end of visiting hours. As much as James loved his father and wanted to be there for him, he had to admit that his hatred of hospitals could no longer be ignored and that he was happy, for the most part, to be heading home. Laura kept her distance behind him as they exited the ward, her insides squirming like centipedes.
Outside the hospital, James scanned the parking lot and wondered where he'd parked. Henry came up behind him and said, "Glad to be out of there, huh?"
James kind of gaped at him, unsure what to say, and Henry corrected himself. "I mean.. You don't like that place either, do you?"
He nodded. Eileen didn't respond, staring somewhere into space. Perhaps she was trying to remember where they parked as well.
"It's hard not to associate it with.. Where you've been before." Henry looked down, cautious to reveal more—the name of that eerie town that could make David Lynch's dreams look like Sesame Street. He was well aware that James had been to Silent Hill, and the fact that he never discussed it with Frank was more than enough evidence as to the nature of the experience.
"Do you still have nightmares?" James suddenly asked.
He nodded. "Glad I'm not the only one. I mean, not saying that I'm glad that you have nightmares or anything.." James shoulders slumped in embarrassment and he gave a goofy, apologetic grin. Henry, cursed with the same gracelessness in social situations, instantly forgave it.
"So how do you manage?"
James had to think about this. "I think.. It's important not to forget what you have. It's so easy to focus on the memories. They knock at the back of my head all the time. But if you have someone to lean on, it's easier. Took me a while to figure that out."
Laura looked up, her heart thumping temporarily out of tune. James smiled at her and placed his hand on her shoulder. It's okay, he seemed to be saying.
She smiled, too. Just because.. It would be okay.
He watched the life outside his window, meditative.
Dear Mr. Sunderland
I'm doing well. Even though I have the police up my ass, I'm not being indicted for anything, so you don't need to worry about that. You can imagine how much they listened to what I told them. They were throwing around words like 'dementia' and 'psychotic break'. At this point, I'm done arguing with them. After all the time that's passed, I doubt it matters if anyone believes.
It's funny that you wrote me because I recently got a call from Harry's daughter. She hoped I was doing okay, too. Can't say the same for myself, but she's doing really good. Going to a university and living with her friend. So you've got a daughter, huh? It's good that she keeps you company. Being alone can be a terrible thing. I'm sure we know that better than most.
As to the other question, the one about the nightmares.. I wish I could tell you differently, Mr. Sunderland, but it's a part of us. But despite everything that's happened, I think there's still a place to get to. Somewhere we don't have to be in shackles because of all we can't forget. Finding this place is only half the battle. We have to capture it.
I spent only one night of my life running around in fog, wondering if I were really awake, or if it were just a terrible dream, like the dreams I had when I was young. I could never do anything when my Mama and my Papa died in those dreams. The man got away every time. It all hasn't left me. And I'm sure you've got things you can't fix, either. But there's still somewhere to get to. I'm sure of it.
You asked me if I think there's such a thing as happiness. 'The thing you find and seize' and don't let go of. It's not a silly question, so don't feel bad. Let me tell you, I'm halfway through this life and I'm still waiting on a lot of answers.
Frank squeezed his shoulder, peering at the letter from behind James. His son smirked and folded the letter, stuffing it in his pants. Laura, who had been fixated on the picture of Thelma, turned to consider him. So, Cybil had written back.
Laura placed little Cynthia on a zebra spring rider and placed the child's hands on the handles. "Hold on," she said. She pushed the edge back and let her sway back and forth gently. Cynthia made her adorable, toothy smile. Eileen, who stood behind her, laughed and clapped her hands together.
From the bench, Henry and James watched Laura and Cynthia at play. Eileen, since giving birth, had involved James, Laura, and Frank heavily in Cynthia's life. Frank had declined the offer of being the godfather due to his age, and so the honorable title had been passed on to James. He wouldn't know the first thing about raising a child, having been declined from keeping Laura all those years ago, but Eileen resolved to teach him. It was agreed that the godfather would have to babysit when the parents were out. Henry had laughed at this, being such an inclusive person he couldn't think of where he'd ever want to go, but apparently they'd be going to Jamaica next year whether he liked it or not.
James had fond memories of his own honeymoon and its subsequent anniversary, despite the fact that they were spent in Silent Hill. Regardless of what it could force you to face, Mary had loved that town and it held a special place in her heart. James had obvious reasons to doubt its sacredness, but a happy memory didn't lose its meaning no matter where it was spent.
So, happiness. Is it real? I don't know. Maybe.
Whether or not it exists in the way we hope it does, when all's said and done..
Barely hanging on all his life, he stumbled onto the platform one day and his eyes fell on her, out of every single person there. And she found him amid a bustling crowd, jam packed into a subway train, staring back with those eyes, wondering if it were true. Little did she know, he had wondered the same thing.
Happiness is all we can really hope for.
And James listened to the laughter of them, thinking that even if he didn't understand it, happiness left little to be understood and more to be felt. All he knew was that he could never think about giving this up for anything. What he had found, he would never let go of.
I want you to live for yourself now, James.
He would see his promise through. This he knew.