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Monday, January 14, 2013

Better Than You: part 37


37.

 

She went home: to her parents’ house, to her old room, to the life she’d left behind years before. People said – so many mindless people repeating overused phrases they didn’t understand – that you couldn’t go home. That wasn’t true. Her home was unchanged, and sleeping between the fluffy covers of her childhood bed, she was no different than she’d been back then; walking across the threshold had catapulted her back in time, to a place where she was uncertain and grasping, lonely and crushed, grieving over something so precious that going on without it felt insurmountable.

 

Delta had never before taken vacation time for anything personal, but she’d already secured the days she’d need for her honeymoon. Going into work would have been such an obvious sign, her coworkers would have been whispering behind her back. So she took her honeymoon in the sultry, humid escape of the garden, reading, avoiding her parents and their hateful glares, steeling herself for the inevitability of retrieving her furniture, and most of all, analyzing every moment that had passed between her and Mike. Not just in Ireland, but before, from the moment she’d laid eyes on him in her store to the moment she’d watched his wide shoulders disappearing through the crowds at Hartsfield-Jackson when they’d landed. She recalled every smile, every touch, every lingering moment of eye contact, every kiss, every word, sweet or otherwise.

 

She spent a week drowning herself in literature and torturing herself with the realization that had come to her.

 

She didn’t understand love, not the golden, shimmering, romance-novel stuff that existed between mates. She was skeptical of it, and had never been one to pretend that it existed just for the sake of excitement. She didn’t know what it looked like, what it felt like…at least, she hadn’t. But she realized, amid the dancing tendrils of ivy that climbed the gazebo, that love – that good, golden kind she’d always discounted – didn’t arrive with a blast of trumpets and an earth-shattering epiphany. It was earned, formed, created, day by day, a little at a time. And it looked like Mike eating toast over her kitchen sink, felt like his hand smoothing her hair back off her face, sounded like his sudden shout of laughter when she spilled a whole sack of flour out of the top cabinet down onto her head in his kitchen, tasted like the kiss he used to make up for it.

 

He loved her, and Ireland had been a freak accident caused by so many things. But she still wanted those tow-headed children, and his kiss on the back of her neck before she went to sleep every night, still wanted him.

 

But she’d ruined it.

 

She was reading Emma under the gazebo – trying to, anyway; she’d read the same line fifteen times – when she heard light, sure footsteps on the flagstone path and glanced up to see Mrs. Miller coming toward her.

 

The housekeeper greeted her with a quick smile. “There’s someone here to see you.”

 

Her heart rallied behind her breastbone. “Mike?”

 

“No, his sister. The little one: Jo.”

 

As quickly as it had spiked, her adrenaline faded. She could think of no reason on earth why Jo Walker would want to see her, but morbid curiosity got the best of her. “Show her back, please.”

 

**

 

In his townhouse that looked and smelled and felt like Delta thanks to all her furniture cluttering every room, Mike had been unable to retreat into his lair and sulk properly. She was too fresh in his mind, her ghost too vivid and tangible, for him to even think of going about the business of forgetting her. So he was caught in limbo, waiting, and picked up the phone on the first ring when his mom called to tell him that Melinda Wales was gone and Tam was missing.

 

Not missing, as it turned out, but en route. Mike heard the doorbell an hour later and knew it was Tam. A hot flush of indignant big brother anger swept through him and he didn’t try to tamp it down as he went down the stairs to answer the door. That anger wasn’t a private thing; Tam knew it existed and, in a way, he must have respected it, because that was why he didn’t use his key and let himself in. He was asking. And Mike knew, under his layers of simmering hurt and aggression, that he wouldn’t turn his friend away, even if he deserved it.

 

All good and prepared for a confrontation, Mike threw the door open and found Tam sitting on his front stoop, his back curled and shoulders hunched, elbows braced on his knees, nursing a cigarette that sent thin flickers of smoke curling into the afternoon heat. His head swiveled around at the sound of the door opening and his complexion was too-pale, his expression vacant. If he’d apologized, if he’d said anything but what he did, Mike’s forgiveness would have been immediate and complete. But Tam had learned to tuck his grief in deep and go to an inhuman headspace long ago, and he asked, “How’s it going?”

 

Mike wanted to slug him. He wanted to pound the shit out of him. And he wanted to find the trigger that snapped him out of his pretend calm, because he couldn’t forgive the robot sitting on his front step.

 

“How’s it going?” he repeated. “Delta left me,” he said on a snarl, and grabbed Tam by the back of his shirt collar, hauled him scrambling up to his feet. The cigarette got lost as Mike spun him around so they were nose-to-nose, but the composure – Tam’s – didn’t. “I’ve got no wedding, and no wife, and a houseful of furniture thanks to you, jackass!”

 

Tam’s eyes were glassy and up close like this, his breath was heavy with the smell of whiskey. He was drunk out of his mind. He swallowed, throat working. “Sorry,” and even if it sounded sincere, he was still too detached.

 

It was on the tip of Mike’s tongue to accuse him of ruining the wedding, but that wouldn’t be fair because he and Delta had wrecked everything themselves. Instead, he snorted. “Sorry. Yeah. What about molesting my sister? You ‘sorry’ about that too?”

 

Jo was the trigger. Tam blinked and fury flooded through his glassy eyes, alive and fiery and akin to something animal – it had fangs and claws and not a shred of reason. It was what Ryan Atkins must have seen in the pub before Tam had launched at him. It was more than a little bit spooky.

 

Tam shoved him, hard, but Mike had been ready and he compensated, retreating into the foyer. Tam followed, but he’d had too much to drink and he wasn’t steady. “I didn’t,” he said through his teeth. “I didn’t.”

 

Mike dodged the lopsided punch that was thrown at him and took the only advantage he had – Tam’s inebriation. He caught him by the wrist, wrenched his arm around, and slammed him face-first up against the wall, snatching his other wrist and cranking it back to join the first. “You didn’t?” he asked, voice hard, and nearly lost hold of Tam as he fought the accusation not verbally, but physically.

 

No,” Tam said against the wall. He turned his head far enough for Mike to see his snarl, to see the skittering shame and hurt and anger pull at his face.

 

Mike tightened his grip. “How old was she?” he demanded, needing to know as much as he hated the thought of knowing.

 

Tam was a tense bundle of juiced nerves, every muscle of his too-thin body clenched. “Seventeen.”

 

“Jesus.” Mike shook his head, but the picture was too clear. Jo at seventeen had been all eyes and wild hair and smart mouth. Spunky and tomboyish and still just a baby. Tam would have been about to turn twenty-one, and Mike was all too aware of all the things that almost-twenty-one-year-old had known.

 

Disgusted, Mike pulled back and turned him loose with a shove. Tam took two staggering steps to the foot of the staircase and then sat. Mike watched the fight drain out of him in a sudden rush, watched his head slump over against the wall. The front door was still open, birdsong sweeping in to them, and in the shameless summer light, Tam was stark white, his eyes vivid and haunted.

 

“She was just a kid,” Mike said. “And she’s my little sister.”

 

“She’s not just my little sister,” Tam said, and his gaze lifted and locked with Mike’s.  “She’s everything.”

 

The only way to make this thing even more screwed-up was to learn that Tam maybe had some sibling vibes for Jo in addition to whatever else he felt. That was so far past normal…but Tam wasn’t normal. Never had been. Mike had known that all along, and he’d never, in all their years as friends, seen the guy so dead serious before. Women in general had never held any great fascination for him; emotions and sex hadn’t crossed paths in the remarks he’d offered over beers and cigars. But the eerie, intense light in his eyes now, the reverent way he said everything…Mike couldn’t pretend he was lying. Somehow, with his weak-willed, sickly mother fueling his resentment of the opposite sex, Jo – with dirt beneath her nails and a sailor’s vocabulary – had become this sister/friend/lover who was everything for Tam.

 

Mike wiped a hand down his face and groaned. “Are you serious?”

 

Unblinking, Tam stared up at him, his expression becoming desperate in a drunk, emotional way. “I should have said…should have asked…but Walt said…and my dad…” he took a deep breath and his eyes fluttered shut. “I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry.”

 

Walt, Mike had learned the night of the rehearsal dinner, had known about the relationship, and when Tam’s father had come skulking around looking for his son, Walt had used the danger in that to twist Tam’s arm. To force him into breaking things off with Jo.

 

And now Tam was this pathetic thing sitting on his steps, tanked-up and lovesick and forcing Mike to think about his sister in ways he’d never wanted to.

 

But if his disastrous week in Ireland had taught him anything, it was that getting pissed didn’t pay off when it came to the people he loved. So he shoved his mental knots into a back corner for later, and sat down next to Tam on the stairs. He clapped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Yeah. I’m sorry, too.”

 

**

 

“You’re not like my friends,” Delta had told Jo beneath the dappled light of the vines climbing the gazebo, and she hadn't meant it as an insult. As she glanced at Mike’s sister through the dark interior of her Mustang, Jo’s pixie face touched with blue from the dash lights, Delta couldn’t believe it was Jo who’d come to fetch her. She had decided that she wouldn’t press her cause, that it was Mike’s place to decide if he could forgive – she’d said as much to Jo as they’d climbed into the car. “Well that’s just stupid,” Jo had said with an unladylike snort. “You want someone, you tell them.”

 

Jo was nothing like Delta’s friends – she was very much like her. It had been hard to spot under the tomboy façade, but Jo was ferocious in her own little way, and it was that ferocity that had prompted Delta to spill her secret, that had propelled her into this car and toward Mike’s townhouse.

 

“Life’s too short to mope around by ourselves when we love them,” Jo had said, and Delta couldn’t have agreed more.

 

Butterflies took flight in her stomach, though, as Jo swung up into the drive of the townhouse and killed the engine. In front of them, Tam’s old Chevrolet whatever-it-was proved that Mother Walker had been right and the boys were drowning their sorrows together. Delta curled her hand around the door handle and tried to quell the nervous shivers that rippled through her. She loved Mike, yes, but she didn’t know if she trusted this night to be a revelation of that.

 

Jo was watching her; she could feel her eyes through the dark. “Mike won’t hear what I have to say if you’re up there with me,” she said, tone careful, but assured. “And I need him to make eye contact and hear it.” Translation: Jo needed Mike’s blessing before she went to Tam.

 

Delta wet her dry lips. “I’ll wait here.” She took a deep breath. “Send him out. If he can’t bear to see me, then…” then she wouldn’t have laid eyes on him and demolished the last clinging shreds of her heart.

 

Jo nodded and popped her door. “Wish me luck.”

 

Delta watched her slip out into the night. “Good luck,” she whispered beneath the slamming of the door.

 

It was a warm night and the windows were down, the humid brush of the darkness creeping in across the sills and touching her face. The crickets and cicadas were answering one another; a stereo thumped down the block somewhere. Delta waited, poised on the knife-edge of dreadful anticipation, shivering in her own skin, eyes straining through the darkness. As she watched, warm rectangles of light popped across the lawn; Mike had turned a light on inside, the foyer overhead, most likely. She could see it, could envision the harsh, lined look of his face as he greeted his sister.

 

Please…she prayed.

 

When he appeared on the sidewalk, just a hulking shadow moving toward the driveway, she leapt back against the door, her heart stalling. How did she play this? Did she beg him? No – that wasn’t her style. How did she…what could she…?

 

She didn’t have time, because his long legs brought him right up to the car and he leaned down, his face filling the open driver’s side window. She could just make out the glimmer of his eyes in the dark, the shape of his face.

 

“Did Jo really bring you? Or is she lying?” he asked. She thought there was a tense note in his voice that could have been hope.

 

“I came,” she said, and his face pulled back, the latch lifting with a click as he opened the door and slid down into the driver’s seat…tried to anyway.

 

“Holy shit,” he cursed as he whacked his head and sank awkwardly behind the wheel, his knees jacked up to his chin. “Damn midget,” he grumbled, and Delta heard the whine of the tiny motor as he found the seat-back button and moved the seat all the way back. She bit down on a sudden, giddy smile as he finally managed to gain enough room for his long legs and stretched them out, closing the door and sealing them in.

 

“You okay?” she asked.

 

“She’s too damn short.” He braced his hands on the wheel and blew out a loud breath. She could see the nervous tension in his arms, even in the shadows. His head turned toward her, his eyes shiny spots in the dark of his face, and Delta held her breath.

 

He regarded her a long moment while her pulse thrummed in her ears, rapid as a hummingbird’s. Her palms tingled and her chest ached and suddenly, there was too much to say, and not enough words to express it properly.

 

Finally, Mike cleared his throat and his gaze swung out through the dash. “I’m going to tell you something,” he said, “that you can’t repeat to anyone.”

 

She nodded, then realized he probably couldn’t see her. “Okay.”

 

“It’s his story to tell, not mine, but I need you to understand, so…”

 

A shiver went up her spine and left gooseflesh across her body.

 

“Tam’s mom died this morning,” he said, and she made a sympathetic sound. “And that’s the best part of this story…”

 

In his typical, inelegant fashion, he painted her a picture with bold strokes, not bothering to leave certain points to suggestion. He’d met Tam in middle school, Walker and Wales sitting one behind the other in homeroom. Tam had been, in Mike’s thirteen-year-old mind, “cool”, and a little shy, and a little too hungry at lunch. Raised as a whole litter of children, Mike had been used to sharing, and the more he’d gone out of his way to include Tam, to grant him even the smallest of kindnesses, the more loyal, the more steadfast Tam had become. Beth had, after the first few of Tam’s visits, pulled Mike aside, tears in her eyes, and explained to her son what it meant to have a home that wasn’t a home at all, and she’d hugged Mike and cried over what she’d called his “sweetness”.

 

Delta had a lump in her throat as the tale progressed, as Mike told her about Tam’s big father, and his big hands, and the unspeakable things he’d done with them. Told her about Melinda Wales and all her many, many weaknesses, about the ways in which Tam was solid steel, and the ways in which that steel cut so unforgivingly into other parts of his psyche.

 

Delta was batting lashes heavy with tears when he reached Ireland, and he tried, with difficulty, to keep his big brother side at bay as he admitted that his mother was right, that Tam couldn’t be left to fend for himself anymore, and that more than any of them, he needed Jo.

 

“I didn’t know,” she said in a choked voice. “I had no idea, I…”

 

His profile limned by the softest touch of the streetlamp, his smile seemed sad. “No one ever does. And he’s not exactly easy to get close to these days. I should have told you, I guess.”

 

But he hadn’t, because he was loyal to his friend. Because he was that kind of guy. Because the traits that the scumbags of the world had long since forgone were so deeply ingrained in him. Because he was more than a little bit extraordinary.

 

His gaze came to her face, searching through the shadows. “You wanna go inside?”

 

“Yes.”

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