A huge thanks goes to a love of escapism for doing her magic on this chapter.

CHAPTER 03

Between the darkness and light

She couldn't stay away… of course she couldn't. His words that whispered into the darkness wouldn't let her be. She kept thinking of his story during her work as she typed another boring manuscript into the computer. His words followed her to the lunch and by the time the last hour of her workday rolled around, she couldn't get out of the building quick enough.

She found herself taking long strides as she practically ran to the church. She was breathing hard when she finally entered the building and made her way to her usual spot. As she turned to the confessional cabin, a kind voice stopped her.

"Can I help you?"

She whipped around only to meet the warm smile of the priest.

"I-" she stammered, "I was just looking for someone…"

"Jesus is always here, waiting for you." The priest gestured around unctuously. "The mass starts in five minutes."

"I'm not catholic…" She tipped her head down.

"It doesn't matter. What truly matters is in your heart," he said encouragingly,making the tears she never knew she had sting her eyes.

"Maybe there's nothing left in there…" She fought the urge to clutch the shirt over her chest where she felt so empty and broken.

"Let the Lord decide whether there's something left worth saving in your heart or not." He checked his wrist watch as people started to file in. "Come, take a seat there on the left if you don't want to be noticed. Not that anyone would watch you… everyone comes here with a question, with a doubt or with a deep pain in their heart; some of them want to be unnoticed, just as you."

His words filled her with a hint of hope for a second that was enough for her to follow him to the third pew on the left. She listened to the words of the priest, expecting the ancient words about love and grace to bring some peace, but her mind kept wandering aimlessly, picking up memories. Memories that hurt… or those that made her smile which was sometimes even worse. When the mass came to an end, she thanked the priest for his kindness before leaving the church.

The night started to fall and she saw people walking their dogs at the park nearby. The soft breeze and the momentarily peace filled her with joy, though she didn't have a chance to talk to him. The thought of returning to the empty apartment filled her with dread, so she decided to take a walk in the park instead, where the blooming flowers and the freshly mowed lawn looked so inviting and peaceful. There were some couples sitting on plaids, chatting happily while watching the sunset.

Walking along the patio, she found several benches made of wrought iron and decided to take a seat there and just enjoy the afternoon.

"I'm sorry we couldn't talk at the church." The voice was coming from behind her and she straightened her spine, startled. She didn't make an attempt to turn around, but she couldn't contain the shiver flashing across her body hearing him, having him so close.

"I thought you weren't there," she murmured in surprise.

"I was standing in the shadow, watching you."

"How…?"

"Don't be afraid, I'm not a stalker. I just wanted to see you for a second…" His voice was filled with something that made her heart skip a beat.

"Maybe I should take a look at you as well…"

"Don't." His voice was suddenly raw and harsh, leaving her shocked. "I'm sorry. It just makes it easier to talk to you when you don't see me."

She didn't know how to answer to that, so she remained silent, waiting for what was coming next. She heard him take a seat behind her and none of them broke the silence for several minutes. Maybe he was enjoying the scenery as she did. Or maybe he wanted for her to become initiative this time.

"You still want to tell me your story?" She asked in a timid voice.

"You still want to hear the rest of it? It's not a fairy tale, I can assure you. There are no knights in shining armor coming to save the princess in this one," he sighed. "In fact, I was expected to be the knight that saved the day… except I couldn't."

"You told me she died in a fire…"

"Yes, she did." He was once again deep in his thoughts as he tried to form the right words to say to her. "After I'd dropped out of Harvard, my father cut me off and we were left with no money. And, for the first time in my life, I had to actually work. I took every job I could find, from lawn mowing to working hard for a construction company. But, it wasn't enough. No money was ever enough. Once she needed a new pair of heels, other times April was sick and bills of the medical care swallowed up the little savings we had… So, she found a waitressing job at a bar. There was a pastor living close to our apartment and they watched April while we were at work."

"Tell me about her job." Elena leaned her head back against the headrest of the bench feeling the warmth of his body radiating into her from the other side.

"It was a disaster. She couldn't stand the long work hours and the customers. She dreamed about becoming more. To her credit, she really tried. But also, we both were constantly exhausted and we fought a lot."

"I hope your love was able to survive, at least."

He let out a loud snort.

"Believe me, nothing could kill the love more efficiently than the reality of living from paycheck to paycheck and having burned leftovers for a dinner. She didn't live in a castle as a kid, but neither did she have to do the laundry, to take care of a crying baby and her sore feet before. Soon I found myself cleaning the apartment and doing the dishes on a daily basis. We were both exhausted from our work and we became irritated with each others' presence."

"I'm so sorry to hear that."

"Yeah, I'm sorry too. I would change the past if I could. I would…" he let out a loud sigh. "I don't even know what I would have done to save her."

"You loved her that much?" She didn't know why she felt a pang of uneasiness at her heart.

"I guess I loved her like she was the air I breathed. But, that was before. Before we started to blame each other for our stupid mistakes and decision, before we couldn't even stand the sight of each other anymore. It was hard to admit that we were just two kids playing house in the real world and having a baby on top of everything was just too much to handle."

"Do you think it was a mistake to have your daughter?"

She could practically feel the smile tugging at his lips.

"No. April was the only good thing coming out of our relationship." He paused to contain his thoughts about his daughter. "You know, I think it's true what people say about fathers and daughters. She was my princess and I was her everything, simple as. There was a girl at the pastor's house who babysat April from time to time. She said that April always knew when I was coming to take her home. As soon as she could walk, she kept standing at the entrance, listening to every noise coming from outside and started to squeal with delight when she heard my footsteps on the porch."

The memory he brought to life made her feel warm inside.

"I found more and more excuses to leave my daughter there because of this girl with ridiculous amounts of chocolate hair. Admiring the peace of the place of the pastor's house, I longed to have everything they had, the relaxed ambience of their social welfare, the carefree smiles they exchanged," he cleared his throat. "I'm ashamed to admit that I was so childish that these details symbolized a better life for me back then."

"I'm glad you found a little happiness there." She felt a lump in her throat.

"Yeah, it was nice. I thought it was because of the house until once I went there only to find the pastor's wife babysitting my daughter and suddenly, the house looked to me like any other house on the street. That was the first sign I overlooked."

"The first sign of what?" She was confused.

"That I should have backed off." His voice was filled with self-deprecation, "I found silly excuses to spend time there, only to see that girl with my daughter. I kept telling myself that I did it for April, giving her the illusion of a proper home and what her mother should have done for her. Instead, it was this fifteen years old girl who knew how to act around a toddler so much better than the one who brought April into this world. I remember sitting at the kitchen table in the pastor's house, watching that girl and April as they played and talked like they were best friends. April adored her, and I kept telling myself that I liked her too, only for the sake of my daughter."

"Do you think she knew you liked her?" She whispered.

" I think my presence was insignificant to her. She came from a good family and it was clear she was allowed to have her own opinion and decisions. But for me, it went beyond something that simple as liking. She made me feel… different."

"Different? How?"

"I think she didn't see me as an utter failure like everyone else did. When we talked, I knew she was listening… like, really listening with interest. It didn't matter how hard my days had been at work, how exhausted and angry I was, somehow, she always knew what to say to calm me down. And, I must admit, I needed to be calmed down more and more frequently. This girl became my friend, despite the age difference between us. She was just starting to live her life while I felt like I've lived countless lives already, being exhausted of what I became, unable to fight for myself anymore. The only thing that kept me going, was my daughter. And, as much as it hurt to admit, I couldn't care about my girlfriend anymore. We just… didn't work."

"I'm so sorry." She said with compassion.

"There's no need to feel sorry for me. It was my choice. No one forced me to love her," he murmured. "Considering that I wanted to chase her forever when I first saw her… well, our love didn't last more than two years and then we stayed together out of habit and because we had nowhere else to go."

"How did she die?" She asked and he exhaled audibly surprised that se was brave enough to ask.

For a second, she thought he'd stand up and leave.

"It was a stupid, unnecessary accident. We were growing apart quickly after I found a piece of calm at the pastor's house. She sensed that something became irreparably wrong between us and after two years of not giving a shit about me, she started to make an effort to fix us. She tried to seduce me several times, but failed."

"How…?" Elena hated herself for asking the details, but she needed to know.

"I was incapable to…" he cleared his throat in embarrassment. "As much as she tried, I couldn't get hard for her. It was pitiful and awkward between us after those failed occasions. She kept asking me what could she do to fix us and I just couldn't bring myself to tell her that the only thing I wanted was to never see her again."

"Why didn't you break up then?"

"There are many things we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up," he replied bitterly.

"Oscar Wilde would be proud of you," she chuckled.

"I like quoting him. He didn't have illusions when it came to the drama called life."

She knew he was relieved that he could talk about something else than his sad past for a moment. But tonight, she wanted… she needed to hear the truth about him. So as much as it hurt her to do it, straightening her shoulders, she became determined to hear the rest of his story.

"Are you going to hide behind other people's thoughts, or will you tell me what happened in real life?" She asked.

"Well, I guess my life is full of cliches and maybe that's why I feel safe with my snark." He bit out before calming down enough to resume his story. "Anyway, I promised to tell you the truth and I will. Even if you are going to loathe me for it, I'll tell you. I'm sure we'd have stayed in that frozen state of our dead relationship forever with the mother of my child when one day, everything changed faster than I could comprehend. It was my father who unintentionally, changed my life. He appeared at my door, with an undeniable offer. He told me he was going to pull some strings for me and that he could get me back to Harvard. His only condition was to give up on my girlfriend. I would be lying if I said that I wasn't tempted."

"And the baby?"

"He said his lawyer started to work on my case to gain full custody over our daughter."

"How was he going to succeed?"

"Well, that's the beauty of the whole thing; as it turned out me who unintendedly pushed the evidence against her right under his nose. It was so stupid that if it wasn't my life we are talking about, I'd actually laugh. My father somehow managed to track April's health reports and he found those blood test results. The ones that proved my girlfriend gave her those damned sleeping pills."

"Oh my God…" she whispered.

"Yeah. He cornered me and tried to force me to sign the report against my girlfriend. I slammed the door into his face and when I was sure he left, I hurried to work. And it was the biggest mistake I've made." He paused for a second, obviously struggling to contain his thoughts and to interpret his memories as they became more painful with every word he said. "She called me at work a few hours later and she was hysterical. After asking her what was going on, suddenly, it occurred to me, that my father left those papers on the kitchen table."

"She found them, I guess."

"Right. And her reaction wasn't nice, to say at least. She threatened to leave me, taking April with her; but first, she told me she was going to burn the papers. Those were the last words I heard from her." He took a deep breath. "The next thing I knew the cops called me, only to let me know that my apartment was burnt down… apparently, there was some problem with the gas pipes. According to the investigation report, the gas pipe was cracked and the escaping gas filled the place… and when she flipped on the lighter to burn the papers, the place simply exploded and was burnt down within minutes," his voice was monotone, emotionless. "One minute I had a fucked up life with an amazing baby for a daughter and the next minute everything was gone."

"And your girlfriend?"

"She died instantly. I remember standing at the ruins of the house just hours before I called my home, unable to get what they were saying to me. I've heard the words, I saw the stretcher the paramedics carried out, with a figure covered with a simple white sheet and I just couldn't put together two coherent words. They brought me to the ambulance, talking to me… asking me questions I didn't understand. I couldn't tear my eyes away from her under the sheet next to me. They took me to the hospital with her and I didn't understand why were they taking her to the morgue. Then, after hours of staring at the door that separated us forever, a cop came to me, asking about the baby stuff they found in the remnants of our apartment."

Leaning against the headrest, Elena's eyes welled up at the raw emotion he was projecting.

"I stared at the cop unable to get what he needed from me. And then, there was something that broke through the barriere of my shock. The baby. My daughter. They were asking me about my daughter and it took me a while to realize that most likely, she was still at the pastor's house. They called the number I gave them, to make sure they didn't need to search for…" he swallowed audibly, "For the corpse of the baby. Hearing them confirm that April was indeed well and alive, it finally tore me out of my numbness and I collapsed."

His voice suddenly died down. Elena could feel the tears tighthening his throat at the impact of his memories. Elena couldn't stop the flow of her own tears, feeling his grief, his pain as if it was her own.

"What happened next?" She whispered in a shaky voice.

"I died." His words sounded empty. "Something died inside me that night. After I was allowed to go home from the police station, I found myself wandering in the night aimlessly, feeling beyond exhausted, yet still restless. I never returned to our apartment. There was nothing for me to return to anymore. I stopped at the pastor's house. They let me in trying to say something encouraging, but all I saw was April. Grabbing her, I clutched my daughter so tightly, unable to form a word, until she cried and squirmed out of my hold. I know I squeezed her too hard, but at that moment I was unable to even think straight. The pastor's wife took April from me and I turned around to leave. I was standing on the porch, trying to figure out what to do next, when I felt that girl standing behind me. She simply stood there, waiting patiently until I pivoted and then she just… hugged me."

"How did it feel?"

"Warm," he replied with a hint of smile in his voice. "I can't explain it in any other way. I was cold, still smelling from sanitizers of the morgue, but she just held me, warming me up. I knew I couldn't stay and cry. I had to get out, to leave everything behind and to take my revenge on the person whom I blamed for my misery."

"Your father."

"Right. I knew he was hell bent to put his paws on the only heir he had at that moment, even if it was only a girl. So I did the stupidest and the most selfish thing…" he swallowed audibly. "I gave my daughter up for adoption. The pastor and his wife couldn't have children so they were more than willing to take her under their wings. When my father found out, he called his lawyer and disinherited me."

"It had to be a hard decision, considering how much you had lost." She tried to express her compassion and again, felt the urge to turn around and wrap her arms around him, to take away at least a little bit of his pain.

"At that moment, it wasn't. I was twenty-one, grieving and betrayed and there was nothing… literally nothing to make me want to live. The images of our last pitiful moments together were burned deep inside my mind and trivial things like where I went or what I did… it didn't matter anymore. There were days I can't remember. I ate at the homeless centers and then I just… vegetated." He took a deep, shuddering breath.

"The worst day of loving someone is the day when you lose them," she murmured and his breath hitched in response.

"No, the worst day comes when you wake up in the morning only to discover everything you thought was real is just a stupid mistake… that everything you had your faith in, was just a delusional pretense. I barely ate for days, I slept under the bridge… I just wanted to make the pain gone. To wake up one day and to realize it all was just a bad dream. But it wasn't."

"But you survived." She stated the obvious.

"Yes, I did. When I was at the verge of dehydration and smelled like an animal, my brother who I was fucked over by in the first place, yet he came to save me. He said he was mourning her as well… but we had to carry on with our lives."

"I'm so sorry… you both lost her."

She waited for his response but there was nothing but silence surrounding her.

The night had fallen and suddenly, she became very aware of the fact that she was alone in a park and there weren't any pedestrians in the sight. Shivering, she stood up, trying to contain her panic.

"I'll walk you home," his voice came from behind her, startling and calming her nerves at the same time.

"Thanks, but I'm good." She hoped she sounded braver than she felt.

"Let's just not argue over this, okay?"

She just nodded and started to walk, hearing his quiet footsteps behind her. It was a strange feeling to show him where she lived, but she instinctively knew she didn't have to fear. Once they approached the road where her apartment was, she halted.

"This is it. You don't have to follow me further."

His steps halted behind her.

"Okay," he said finally. "I'll watch you from here then. And before you protest, I'm not doing this to know your address… I just want to protect you."

She fought the urge to turn around and face him.

"Thank you for sharing this with me," she said hesitantly.

"You want to hear the rest?" He was surprised.

"Of course. I mean… if you want to."

"In the park, after work?" He asked casually with just a hint of desperation.

She was glad he didn't press which day they were going to meet.

"I'll see you there," she replied without thinking and her lips pulled into a smile at the irony of her own words. She didn't see him yet it felt like she saw right into his soul. And she was going to delve deeper to see all that mattered.