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Beta: The incomparable Hadley Hemingway. I couldn't have done it without you.
Chapter 47: Happy Middle
It had taken minutes to get here, but years for us to arrive.
"Punky's Wonder Boy managed to figure his ass from his elbow. We reopen The Nest tomorrow. It's sort of an unofficial after-party for the end of the semester. Drunk college kids dumping their cash in my lap."
I closed my notebook and set it aside. This was my last session with Reid. In the several weeks she'd spent picking me apart, I'd done most of the talking. And while a confluence of events transpired to insist that I face some of my deepest troubles, I could offer her the benefit of the doubt and say she helped a little. When she wasn't being argumentative and calling me names.
"How did it make you feel?" she asked.
"What are we talking about?"
Ried really hated it when I did that, but my head was a cluttered place. "Learning that your abuser had died. How did it make you feel?"
I stared at the ceiling and flicked my tongue piercing between my teeth. "I figured it out."
"Is that an answer or a segue?"
"The song," I said as I ignored her interruption.
It wasn't that I was avoiding the topic. There were very few secrets I had left to hide from Reid. I couldn't respond to her question because I didn't have an answer. Truthfully, I didn't know what I felt.
"Right about the time the headaches started, there was this song I couldn't pin down. I couldn't get rid of it, no matter how long I spent trying to parse it out of the noise in my mind."
"I remember." She leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs, tilting her chin to rest on her folded fingers. Her 'I'm listening' face.
"I mean I spent hours at a time scribbling clips and phrases on paper. Every time I picked up my guitar to work it out, the tune got further away. Like trying to pick a speck of dirt out of a full bathtub. The closer you get, the more your hand displaces the water, and the harder it is to catch. The speck eludes you, twisting away in the current."
"What did you figure out?" she asked.
Reid had come to realize some time ago that asking leading questions, interrupting my tangents, tended to keep me on topic. My thought trains had a habit of skipping the tracks. I guess that's why we meshed well. She knew how to handle me. And I was the sort that needed a bit of handling or I'd steam halfway to Georgia before I realized I'd run out of rails.
"Help me out?" I had too much on my mind. Not the least of which was tomorrow's performance at the showcase and the plan to surprise a particularly cranky girl with a ring.
"You figured it out," Reid prompted. "How?"
"Right." Back on track. "I drained the tub. See, you don't know what you've forgotten until you remember. The images in my memory were always so vibrant, so present, that I didn't realize there were holes. So Charlie shows me a death certificate dated three years ago, and I get to wondering how my life might have been different if I'd known then. Maybe not, you know? What does it matter? The man is dead, but that doesn't change anything. A heart attack seems too eloquent an end for such a disgusting monster."
I couldn't stop from fidgeting. My knee bounced as I pictured his body cold and stiff on the floor of a prison cell. But my throat was clear and my pulse was steady.
"I took those thoughts to bed. Bella fell asleep quickly, but I stared out the window with a song playing in my head. For a while there, I thought maybe it had been excised during surgery along with my headaches. Carlisle said Esme sometimes heard music near the end. I could have bought into the same explanation. Only the melody came back."
Without any idea what I was looking for, I took my headphones to the piano room that night and went hunting for the E minor in the haystack. My iPod held hundreds of tracks, most of which I'd never listened to. I tended to fixate on an artist or album for brief periods, downloading the entire catalogue on a whim, never to return. One after the other, I sampled tracks in quick succession, searching for the right sequence of notes.
"He had this old record player. The needle was so dull that everything beneath it came out among pops and crackles. Noise. He used to play the song to cover the sounds behind his bedroom door. To mask my cries. The same song. Every time. I don't know, it must have meant something to him. Or maybe it didn't. Maybe he was just a creature of habit or he was too fucking lazy to put on a new record. It doesn't matter, right? Because he's dead now, so why should I obsess over a fucking song I haven't heard in eighteen years?"
But I did. I did obsess, because I'd forgotten, and that was a goddamn revelation. Little details had slipped my recollection. Like I couldn't actually picture the tattoo on his thigh, only that I knew it was there. I didn't remember the color of his eyes, though I could still feel the texture of his hands. I smelled his foul breath, but I didn't remember the precise tone of his voice.
In a fit of rage I had branded the memory to my chest. There was no ignoring the obvious. Truth be told, I didn't want to. If I let myself bury the memory, then it was like it never happened. Erased. That boy deserved better than to be swept under the rug.
"I sat at the piano and played for I don't know how long. Over and over, repeating chorus and verse. I recited the melody until it lost all meaning, until the notes were only sounds and the sounds were indecipherable from the hum of the air conditioner or the leaves rustling on the trees beyond the windows. White noise. Benign."
I had let the memory overtake me that night, overwhelm my senses and squeeze. I trembled at the piano. In a cold sweat, my pulse raced as my chest constricted. I had no idea how long I was at it until Punky walked in with a blanket and draped it over my shoulders. The first colors of the sunrise found their way inside the room as she sat beside me with her head on my shoulder.
"Are you still having panic attacks?" Reid asked.
I looked in her eyes and saw sympathy, but also maybe a bit of pride. Her patient was perhaps not completely beyond repair.
"They're less frequent. A little less intense. I'm never going to get over it," I admitted. "I'm never moving past what he did, and I've accepted that fact. I'm not angry anymore. Really, what good does it do me to curse the dead? Maybe, in time, the memories will cease to rule me." I had a goal, something to work toward. Reid had once made it a point to mention that I was lacking in that area.
"Should we get you fit for a mouth guard?" I asked as Punky gnawed on her bottom lip in agitation. She locked the back door and gave it a tug, but released the handle without repeating the process. "Or just have your mouth wired shut?"
"Fuck off," she snapped, huffing her way through the living room to the alarm keypad in the foyer. "You wouldn't last a week without a blowjob."
I wouldn't last three days. Fucking sue me. After I'd made it past the pain and exhaustion post-surgery, I was a right cranky prick until Punky declared me well enough for a good lay.
Bella had kept to her word and started seeing a therapist about her OCD. She wasn't two weeks in before she bit my head off after I made the terrible mistake of praising her for her progress. She hated the adulation. Little gold stars for achievement were not the way to motivate Punky, as I discovered.
Rather than being encouraging, she found 'attagirl' condescending, as if we were placating her. If there was one thing she hated, it was being treated like a child. So, she got no pats on the back from me, just a swift kick in the ass to tell her she'd done good. It seemed to work out and kept heavy objects from flying at my head.
As she locked the front door, her hand lingered with the key in the lock. I waited a moment to see if she'd let go on her own. Bella appeared frozen in place, warring with her instincts.
"Go ahead, Punky. By all means, take your time. We've got all day."
She growled under her breath and kicked the front door. But she did withdraw her key from the lock as she turned to flip me off. "Shithead."
"I know." I kissed her temple as she slid into my car. "Love you too, sweetheart."
We were cutting it close. I had only two hours to pull this off before curtains up at the showcase and my first performance at the piano in five years. We could make it, if Punky didn't put up much of a fight.
"You look nervous," she said.
My speed was excessive as we cruised toward the highway. The barbell in my tongue flicked between my teeth and I gripped the stick shift too tightly.
"I'm not nervous." So I was half a liar.
Truthfully, it wasn't the performance with my jazz ensemble that had me white-knuckling the steering wheel. Music was second nature. Getting the notes on paper had been the difficult part. Playing, I could do that in my sleep.
"The bulging vein in your head says otherwise."
"That's my Pestering Punky vein. It responds to to how irritating you are."
"Whatever. You can't live without me."
"You got me there."
The highway disappeared behind the car as I bypassed the on-ramp and headed into town. Bella glanced behind us and back to me.
"Uh, smart guy, you missed the turn."
"Don't question my methods, sweetheart." I reached over to tuck her hair behind her ear. "Just enjoy the ride."
"I think you are nervous." Punky turned in her seat to look me over. A mischievous smirk overtook her lips. "You're stalling."
"I don't stall." Not today, anyway. "I'm a man with a purpose. Driven."
"Are we running away?" Her voice hit an excited pitch.
"Would you like that?"
"Hmm. Maybe. Screw our way across the country. Make love to me in every Springfield," she said in an affected voice. "Kick up trouble from one coast to the other. You could play guitar on street corners for tips and I would draw caricatures in the park. Happily ever after."
"There's no such thing." I pulled up to the curb and shut off the engine. Bella looked around, eyeing me with suspicion.
It had taken minutes to get here, but years for us to arrive.
Shel Silverstein was my favorite poet. He was a master of his craft. Not just because he had a wicked way with words. The man had the uncanny ability to transcend genres. From childhood to old age, his words carried us through every phase of human experience. Nursery rhymes to experimenting with drugs. The saddest, most soul-flaying lyrics to raunchy limericks. But there was one phrase that stuck with me, struck me in a particular way.
He wrote, "There are no happy endings. Endings are the saddest part." I fully believed that to be true. Death was the inevitable end to all things, and I'd yet to find a reason to be happy about that.
"Here." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper that she placed in my hand.
"Not to be a dick, but I'm kind of in the middle of something." Nothing important, just the rest of my life. Unfolding the page, I realized it was the missing leaf torn from my notebook.
"I've been saving this," she said. "Read it."
The note, addressed to me, was dated on the morning I went into surgery. What followed broke my heart.
I hate this. It really sucks. And I can't help but blame you for leaving me all alone. I mean, you've got it easy. Sure, there's some guy wiggling a knife around in your head, but at least you get to sleep through it. I can't seem to close my eyes. Every time I blink, it's like someone is going to be standing at the door to tell me you aren't coming back. So I won't blink.
There was a routine in our house. After dinner, I helped my mom clear the table while my dad caught the evening news. I was allowed to watch one episode of TV, and then dad would draw me a bath. He made sure I brushed my teeth, using a little sand timer to teach me how long to keep at it. Mom brushed and dried my hair before tucking me in with a bedtime story.
"Sweet dreams," she would say as she kissed my forehead.
There was no dinner time in that house. No routine. If we ate at all, it was a rare occasion that he cared or remembered to leave us something on the kitchen counter. That, or we just got hungry enough to go looking for anything we could reach. There was no bath time. The tiles around the tub were rimmed with black mold and everything had a yellow layer of filth.
We slept because it was dark outside. We slept because there was nothing better to do or we just wanted the day to end sooner. My bed was a small, thin mattress on the stained carpet. It smelled like mold and sweat. I closed my eyes, my blanket pulled over my head to block out the headlights of passing cars outside the window and constant noise of dogs barking and sirens wailing.
I itched all over. It started on my arm, then my ankle, and spread until I was clawing at my skin so hard it left bruises and red splotches everywhere.
You cast a shadow through the doorway. A small, skinny shard of black that ran right over me. In only a pair of underwear, you stood shivering with your arms hugging your chest. So I pulled my blanket from around my shoulders and held it out, waiting. What went through your mind?
You didn't talk, do you remember that? It must have been days before I heard you say a word, and then you only spoke when we were alone and the others were asleep. The first sound I ever heard you make was the saddest, loneliest sob as you finally took the blanket and curled up on the floor next to my bed.
I think I loved you then.
You taught me how to survive in that house. You kept me alive. All this time, Edward, you've had it backwards. You saved my life, and I've been trying to make up for it ever since.
I stared at the last line while my vision blurred. "Sweetheart." I tugged her closer, straining against my seatbelt to press my lips to hers and feel her in my arms. "You're too fucking good for me," I whispered.
"No. You're exactly perfect for me."
"Marry me." Everything I planned to say, the speech I'd worked out and revised a dozen times in the last twenty-four hours was forgotten. What more could I say that she didn't already understand?
"Right now." I had a ring in my pocket and a courthouse sitting fifty feet away. Not a second left to waste.
"All you had to do was ask."