It's hard to describe the exact feeling when you know. I'm not talking about the moment when it actually ends. Not the moment when you hear the words. I'm talking about when you can just tell. When you can feel the water start dripping through the dam and there's nothing you can do to stop the impending flood. For a while you try to convince yourself that you're happy with what's about to occur. You try to convince yourself that you don't care if the dam gives way. Yet before you can even realize it, you've thrust your finger into the dam. Without even realizing it you've gone from total indifference to willing to risk life and limb to stop the leak. Willing to stand there for as long as it takes for the water to recede. It had to become real first, maybe, before you truly realized you didn't want it to end. And this 'finger in the dam' plan seems to work in the beginning. You can tell some water is still getting through but you don't care because it's working. So what if you have to stand here for eternity plugging the hole…at least the dam hasn't given way. You can do this. You can stop the flood. At least the dam hasn't given way.
But eventually there comes a time when you're standing in front of the dam and you realize there's nothing you can do to stop the tide. And you think back to when you first felt those drops of water on the dry side of the dam. Saw those first signs that the dam wasn't structurally sound. And you realize something about the whole experience. You realize the worst part about all of this won't be when the dam gives way. Not when the waters rise and wipe out roads. Not when people flee their hopes with photo albums held tightly. The worst part was when you first noticed those small, significant drops on your side of the dam. When you knew the flood was coming no matter what you did. That feeling is partially freeing. Knowing now with the dam breaking apart all around you that you've passed the hardest part. You're sure you've passed the hardest part.
You think that up until the very moment the dam bursts and icy water hits you like a freight train. And in that moment you realize you were wrong. You yearn for the leaky helpless feeling because it meant you weren't drowning. At least the dam was intact then. You long for those times you lied to yourself about not seeing the initial drops. When you lied to yourself saying you were convinced you could stop Mother Nature herself with one of your fingers. You long for that as the water swallows you up. This is the worst part. Drowning.
Well, she certainly wasn't a fan of drowning.
Meredith looked closer at the book in her hands. The paper was a bit frayed with well-worn fondness, but that made it softer to her fingers, though it did obscure the words a bit. The words themselves were well-written, and she was left with a minorly cathartic feeling. She wondered what this foreshadowed in the book; obviously some huge occurrence and how they deal with it - but it had the ring of truth to it, and though a very realistic metaphor, she felt it to be honest. She liked that in reading material; an honest feel about it, no matter what genre, was always a good thing. It tended to intrigue the reader, draw them in further.
Not even two pages in and she loved it already. She'd have to thank Brian later for lending it to her.
Brian wondered how far Meredith was in the book. He looked at the empty slot it left in his bookshelf, and began to consider what part she was at. He knew it by heart, the book, down to every last punctuation mark. It really depended on when she started, but he knew her normal speed of reading. Let's see… knowing Meredith, she'd have gone home after rehearsal, taken a long, hot shower, and that would've been maybe forty-five minutes total. She' get into her favorite pajamas, which were always slung carelessly over the side of her bed. That's be another three minutes or so, and she'd keep her hair wrapped up in a towel. Then she'd make herself some hot chocolate, and that would be another six minutes or so, so… she'd probably have started about half an hour ago, he reasoned, glancing at the clock. And knowing her speed of reading, she'd be right at…
"You know, not everybody is a decent person," said Adela seriously. "There are monsters out there who pretend to be people and put on such a convincing act that when they come 'clean', they're dirtier than before."
Wesley had no idea what she was talking about. He knew not everyone was a decent person. But what monsters was she talking about?
Adela saw the confusion in his eyes. She sighed. "Never mind," she said, exasperated and waving him off; "But for when you do understand, know that I'll be right here."
Meredith understood perfectly.
Monsters out there… who pretended to be people and were all the worse for it. Pretended they weren't what they were and then what they were was twisted into some abomination while they were pretending it didn't exist. If you pretended to be something you're not for long enough, you turn into something worse than what you're pretending to be… and the most terrible part was, that new beast you'd unleashed by keeping it closeted is now you, and you can't get away from it.
This was a really good book. She definitely had to thank Brian for it… but not now. She wanted to read more.
He took a sip of his tea and made a face. He'd made it wrong again. When would he get the hang of that?
His average nightly routine was being carried out without a second thought. Because his first and only thought was how Meredith was liking the book or how far into it she was, etc., etc. His body moved without him telling it to; first through a shower (that was ice-cold, not that he noticed), then into his pajamas (for tonight, an old t-shirt and sweatpants, he'd forgotten to wash his real pajamas), and now he was standing in his kitchen, drinking tea. Tea that he'd made incorrectly and was being torn from his thoughts because of.
He grimaced and looked at the clock on the stove. She'd be right about…
"No!" Felicity screamed at him. "You left us! Me, Tom, Mother! You left us without a word or a thought! And now you have a new family that I'm hearing about after thirteen years‽"
"NO!" she screeched, her hand flying to the picture on the wall beside her and her fingers curling around the frame so tightly the shaking from her hand made the glass over the picture rattle. Her father's eyes widened. "Did you think we weren't loving enough to forgive you? Or did you just not want us in your life? Would we contaminate your new family? Is that it‽"
"No, I -"
"STOP IT!" she bellowed now, her hand almost plowing through the wall as she dragged the picture down, hearing the satisfying shatter of it on the floor as it broke as she had all those years ago. "I was the one who had to watch Mother become a psycho! I was the one who screwed up raising Tom because you never raised me right and made Mother unable to! I was the one who had to watch her deteriorate until she couldn't feed herself! I was the one who read his suicide note! I was the one who had to check her into the institution! I was the one who found his body! And where were you? Starting a new family!"
"Janet," he said, using her middle name warningly.
Not just her blood, but her skin boiled with the fury he'd sparked.
"YOU DO NOT CALL ME THAT!"
He flinched back from the venom in her voice and she felt an odd sense of pride in herself.
"I don't know who this new family is. I don't know what kind of people they are. But I know they deserve better than you. You ruined my home, my family, my happiness, my life, and now you're coming back hoping it's going to be hugs and kisses and forgiveness? What if you ruin them the same way you ruined me? Nobody deserves that!"
Felicity took a menacing step forward, not caring about the glass shard that dug painfully into her foot. He took a step back, his face alight with terror in the side of her she'd kept bottled up since he'd left.
"You broke ME!" she hurled the words at him like the sharp edges of glass she'd stepped on. "You killed me! Do you know what it's like to cry yourself to sleep for thirteen years? No, you don't! You are a monster! A criminal! You're sick! SICK! SICK!" He flinched as she took another step, this one miraculously glass-free.
And suddenly, she was more tired than angry; but the left-overs from her livid rant churned her blood still and made it run warm, empowering, through her veins. She raised a steady finger, and in a voice that was eerily calm, said, "I want you out of my house, and out of my life, and if you ever dare to come back into either, I will kill you like you killed me. Not with words, not with violence. I will kill you inside and watch the mask you make yourself put on rot until you die crying the same tears that usually welcome the nightmares."
And she only collapsed when she saw his car back out of her driveway and the headlights disappear into the dark of the windless night.
Meredith shivered, her blood having run cold. Poor Felicity, she thought. She completely understood the character. The Dad was malicious, and Felicity… well, she'd had thirteen years of failure and disappointment and tears to deal with because of him. She raised her own shaky hand and laughed a shaky laugh as she wiped away the loose tear on her cheek with jerky movements, the hot wetness of the tear contrasting with the cold, papery feel of her skin.
She needed a break from this book. It was giving her all sorts of emotions. But she just couldn't put it down. She was internally cursing and praising Brian for being willing to part with this gift of the Gods, and turned the next page.
He raised her own shaky hand and laughed a shaky laugh as he wiped away the loose tear on his cheek with jerky movements, the hot wetness of the tear contrasting with the cold, papery feel of his skin. He remembered reading that for the first time. He had goosebumps all over his body. The author really was a miracle worker when it came to emotions. One minute, she'd make you furious. And the next, weepy; and the next, thoughtful, and so on and so forth until you thought you'd felt everything you could just reading that book.
He glanced at the clock on his bedside table. His head was cushioned by the pillow under it, his weight held down by the blankets that were on top of the rest of him. The pitter-pat, pitter-pat of the rain on the roof was distantly above him, up another ten or so stories, but he could hear it pounding on his bedroom wall and window. It made a very nice, soothing, beating sound, like a thousand little, baby hearts, all beating at different times, but all of them in one huge group - one huge family. He could just imagine the smell of it on the grass tomorrow… opening day, he thought to himself slightly, but then his thoughts were stolen by the idea of Meredith again. She'd be reading…
"Aren't you going to say it?" demanded Wesley, his tone accusatory. He felt brave saying it, and feeling brave was a lot better than feeling like your heart dropped to the floor, shattered into a million pieces, and then raked up and down your body likes knives.
Adela shook her head. "I'll do it later," she said, smelling the still air of the night, hating it - still air always meant something bad coming. "Right now, you need me to say something else."
"You're right," said Wesley, and then bitterly followed it with, "as always."
"Hey," said Adela sternly, but her voice still gentle - "I was right, and I was right again just now. But that does not entitle be to bragging rights - this isn't something you brag about. This is a cruelty, and cruelty is something you cry about."
He looked at her then, really looked at her - her deep, rich brown hair, all wavy and messy in the bun she had it in and it was falling out of. Her eyes, though he thought them gray before, were thousands of different colors, all fading and then reappearing in the most brilliant ballet, but behind a cloud of dense fog. Her freckles, darting across her nose and cheeks like water spiders on a pond's surface. And she was the most glorious thing he'd ever seen.
And so, when her words hit him, he was understandably frustrated when his vision was clouded with tears. But his frustration let up a bit when she took him into her arms. "Hey," she crooned softly. "I'm not gonna tell you it's going to be okay, because I can't possibly know that. But I can tell you that you are a great person, worthy of someone as great as you are. You're not perfect, nobody is, but until you love your unexplainable flaws - the ones that can't be fixed - as part of you, nobody else will, either." And she pulled back, and though her shoulder was now stained with his tears, she smiled at him kindly. "Your perfections and imperfections make up what you are, Wes. The combination is what makes you you. And believe me," she said softly, "If you change in any respect other than self-confidence, you won't be the same old Wes, that I know, love and comfort." And she tossed her arms around his shoulder casually. "Come on inside, we'll watch a movie or something. Your choice."
Meredith smiled benignly, and then wondered why the words were so hard to make out - and she realized it was because the lights had gone out and she hadn't noticed. She looked up in panic, and, sure enough, all the electricity was out, not just the lights. Coupled with the downpour from outside and the complete empty darkness of the time of night it was, she was in total darkness and hadn't even known because she'd been so involved in the book.
She grew slightly frantic inside her head, but at the same time sat as still as a statue. How was she going to be able to finish the book? She had a whole chapter left! And she'd never be able to sleep afterwards if she didn't have some sort of drink to calm her down. This book was an emotional roller coaster.
Brian! she thought. That was it! He'd lent her the book, he'd understand her need for electricity still - and with the different apartment building he lived in, it was entirely plausible that he had power. He'd loan her the couch and a lamp, no problem. She could finish reading!
Brian rolled over in irritation, hoping to be able to sleep. The rain was soothing his mind into a stupor, but his body, for some reason, couldn't sleep. He sighed. He knew the reason, but… he yawned… it wasn't his fault he was going over the whole book in his head. Meredith was reading it!
Was a pleasant thought. A pleasant girl, after all. Very pleasant. Funny, pretty, talented… and he was sure she was appreciating the amazing quality of the book right n-
Knock knock knock knock!
He wondered who was at his door, especially at this time of night. Did the power go out, or something? He wondered. It wasn't as if he'd have cared, but he could see his digital clock figures still alight on the dashboard clock next to him. Well, he was now fully curious (in a sleepy way), and he threw the covers off of him, and stepped onto the cold carpet flooring, wincing with each winterized step he took, feeling as if his feet were falling off from frostbite. He made his way slowly to the door, opened it, and…
"M-Meredith?" asked Brian, his voice groggy and his eyes still adjusting to the lights on in the hallway. "What are you doing here?"
She tapped the book urgently. "The power went out in my building," she said told him, "and I have one chapter left. Could you -"
"Oh, I understand," he said, rubbing his temple in small circles and awakening himself slowly from the haze of almost-sleep. "Yeah, come on in." He reached over and flicked the light switch on, blinking a couple times with the flooded warmth that nearly blinded him after the action. He stepped aside, and she came in. He stood there for a moment after she passed, and then closed the door, and shook his head to wake himself up.
Drowning is the worst part. But what is the best? And who gives a damn? Sputtering the water from your lungs, you feel the air scrape mercilessly against your throat and hate it, but at the same time, you're thinking, "Air! AIR! Oh, you're wonderful, come on, AIR!" You go your whole life, breathing this air easily, saying "It's always there and will always be." And then, after you're done drowning and the air reaches you again, you realize just how marvelous it is, how astounding it is, and you either thank your deity for it or thank the star dust that made it as you take in gulps of it despite it burning your nose and chest. This is the best part - just breathing afterwards. That's the best part. Breathing.
Meredith took one long, long breath.
"Enjoyed it, did you?" asked Brian, and she managed not to jump as she realized he was right beside her. And then she nodded vigorously, smiling like a fool.
"It was…" she searched for a word. "Magnificent."
He nodded. "That begins to describe it."
"Yeah… nothing really does it justice," she said quietly, closing the book cover with care and setting it aside. "It's one of a kind."
"It is," agreed Brian, and she saw that he was in an old t-shirt and sweatpants. "Are you ready to sleep, or do you need something to drink or eat?"
She avoided his eyes, but couldn't for the life or her think why. If anything, she ought to thank him, and then hug him, and maybe say she needed a drink. But she shook her head, like the idiot she was, and said, "I'm good, I'll just sleep here."
Brian nodded once more, emphasizing his agreeing with her. "Alright then. Good night."
He was such an idiot!
That's what it was! That's what it was always going to be! He had tried to stop his feelings for her, he had thought it worked, and then it hit him like ice water. And then he was drowning in his idea of not loving her, trying to make himself see sense, all the bad ideas of the relationship he wanted - needed - and then, just now, walking into his room, he knew that he still wasn't breathing. Because she hadn't looked him in the eyes, hadn't even thanked him, not that he wanted thanking… he'd subconsciously given her that book because it described his feelings for her perfectly.
They teased and loved each other like Wesley and Adela, and yet, only he felt the absolute truth of the first and last metaphors!
And he didn't even know it until he was alone in his room!
He wanted to scream and yell at himself, and he might have if he were alone, but Meredith was just in the other room.
Or so he thought.
It was a half-question, half-calling, and he turned on the spot, his chest screaming at him in four different languages when he saw her grinning. "Yes?" he made himself ask.
"I can't breathe."
His heart stopped, and suddenly he couldn't breath in not only a metaphorical sense, but a literal one as well. Surely she didn't mean, as if she was drowning? That was ridiculous… but then, what could she possibly mean?
And suddenly, she was flying to him, her frizzed hair flying behind her, her movements graceful, and he met her three steps ahead of where he'd been standing, and their lips crashed together.
These were words that she used to describe kissing him later, but for that every moment, time stood still and they were the exceptions. Her heart was pounding the blood so quickly throughout her body that it felt as though she was on fire; she could feel that he was flushed, too. Her limbs felt like jelly, but clung to him with the permanence of stone. Her blood, already racing, was filled with electrons that sparked into her wherever their skin met. Her lips, his lips, her thighs, his hand, his back, her hands, wherever they touched.
And she could finally breathe.
There was no need to say it, they could both feel it. No need to say anything at all. Both of them were tasting air; both of them were breathing. Finally, after months of drowning, they could breath.