I turn off the water, putting the last dish in the washer as a knock sounds at the door. I grab a dishtowel, drying my hands as I make my way through the living room to answer it. I peek out of one of the small windows to see Dylan, and smile as I open the door. “Hey, Dylan. Come in.”
She steps inside and I shut the door. She seems nervous but doesn’t say a word, so I gesture for her to follow me to the kitchen. “Can I offer you something to drink?”
She follows along. “Yeah, a water would be great. Thanks.”
I pull a bottle of water out of the fridge, holding it up. “Glass or bottle?”
She grins and takes the bottle, staring at it while she tugs at the label. “Bottle’s fine. Thank you.”
I eye her for another long minute of silence before saying, “Tina’s on the patio. Did you want to join us?”
She looks up from the bottle, her face inscrutable as she replies, “Yeah, if you don’t mind.”
I shake my head. “No, not at all.” She follows me out onto the patio. Tina has Chance lying on her raised knees and Rory draped over a shoulder. Angie is lying at her feet, curled up and zonked out. She was insanely busy and utterly ornery today. She must have finally exhausted herself; she certainly exhausted us. I can’t help but smile at this little scene of fulfillment. My wife is covered in our children and it warms me to my very core. The only issue I see with this scenario is that there’s no room for me on the lounge.
Tina greets Dylan, who takes a seat on a neighboring lounge. She finally opens her water and takes a large gulp, and I pick up Angie, careful not to wake her. “Let me put her down, and I’ll be right back.” Tina smiles at me, Dylan doesn’t say a word, and I roll my eyes at my wife who chuckles as I make my way to Angie’s room that’s now on the ground floor.
She’s already dressed for bed, so I just slip her under the covers, placing Hammy in her arms and kissing her head before turning on the nightlight and switching off the lamp. I leave the door ajar as I make my way back to the patio, the warm sound of Tina’s voice reaching my ears as I approach the door. “Dylan, there’s nothing I can tell you that’s going to be the answer you’re looking for. Helena has made it clear she’s not ready for marriage. I don’t know why that is, but pushing her for something she’s not ready for is only going to push her away. You either have to be patient, or–”
Dylan’s voice is disbelieving. “Or what? You don’t expect me to leave her…”
I step out as Tina sighs and says, “No, I don’t expect anything of you, but you’re putting unrealistic expectations on Helena. She’s not ready. It’s up to you whether you can wait or not.”
Dylan blows out a frustrated breath. “We’ve been together for more than three years. I know that she loves me. What is she waiting for?”
I steal Chance from Tina’s legs and settle down next to her as I answer Dylan’s question. “The other shoe to drop… maybe.”
Dylan eyes me confused. “What do you mean?”
I stroke my son’s unruly hair as I continue. “She’s a disgustingly wealthy and generous woman who’s accustomed to being taken advantage of. She doesn’t trust easily, Dylan. It’s going to take more than three years for her to trust you completely. You are either patient with her, or you’ll lose her altogether.”
She seems insulted. “You think I want to be with her for her money? Seriously…?”
I shake my head. “No, I don’t think that, but this isn’t about what I think.”
She calms down as a thought occurs to her. “What if I signed a prenup?”
Tina sighs. “Dylan, you’re missing the point. If she doesn’t trust you, why would you want to marry her? I married Bette when I didn’t fully trust her yet, and trust me, it doesn’t work. Help Helena come to trust you and then ask her to marry you. A prenuptial agreement is just a band-aid for a much larger issue. You’ll be dooming yourself to failure before you even start, and it’s a lot harder to work out after the fact than before, trust me.”
Dylan seems completely dejected as she says, “I love her; I want to be with her and build a life together. I’m tired of spending the night between beds and some nights waking up without her altogether. What am I supposed to do, spend my whole life like that because she’s insecure for no reason whatsoever?”
I look into her eyes and see the turmoil there, the utter desperation. I feel for her, truly, but she’s going to lose everything if she doesn’t back off. “No one’s telling you to do anything you don’t want to–”
She snorts. “Yes, you are.”
I start to get very frustrated. “No, I’m not. We are telling you what your options are and which, in our experience, are the best. It’s the truth, but you just don’t like it.”
I can tell my words are reaching her, but she’s just so determined to have her way. That doesn’t work in a relationship, let alone a marriage. You can’t always have what you want, the way you want it. “You once told me not to give up, that if I was determined, no obstacle would stop me. What happened to that?”
Fuck me. Was I this dense with Tina? Yes. Deep breath. “It’s still true, but you were determined to show her how much you loved her then. Now, you’re determined to force her into something she’s obviously not amenable to.” She puts her head in her hands, pulling at the sides of her short hair. “Listen, Dylan, if you want Helena, if you love her, then you’ll respect her and put her needs before your own. I understand where you’re coming from, and I’d have been devastated if I’d proposed to Tina and she’d turned me down. However, I wouldn’t give up. I’d be determined to prove myself to her, and patient enough to wait for her to realize it, not try to force her. It took me a long time to fully regain Tina’s trust, to be worthy of her.” Tina leans forward and kisses my shoulder. “It’s just not something you can force. Be consistent and be patient. If you can’t, you need to re-evaluate why you want to get married so badly, because like Tina said, you’re setting yourself up for failure.” I chuckle softly. “If nothing else, Helena’s a proud and stubborn woman. She may decline you on principle alone just because she doesn’t want to give in if you keep it up.”
Dylan releases her hair and I wince. Her scalp must be gasping in relief to be released from her tight grip. She leans back in the lounge, considering me speculatively for long minutes. She closes her eyes. “You’re right. I just see the two of you…” She gestures at us generally. “…and I want this with Helena so badly it hurts. It hurts not to have it but it hurts more to know that she doesn’t want it, at least not with me.”
Tina shakes her head. “I don’t believe that’s true for a moment. She’s just slow to trust, Dylan, even when she wants to. I think she’s desperate to trust you, she just doesn’t know how. You need to show her she can, not force her, that’s all.”
She nods. “You’re right. I-I’m sorry. I’m just so…”
I fill in for her. “Worried, stressed, hurt, and confused.”
She quirks a small smile and agrees. “Yeah.”
I grin back at her. “Add consistent, patient, and irresistible to that list and you’ll do just fine.”
We all laugh softly and her dark eyes are warm as they meet my own. “Thank you…” She looks to Tina. “…both of you. I’m going to try. I’d do anything for her.”
Tina strokes down my arm, taking and holding my free hand. “That’s an excellent place to start.”
Dylan stands, wiping her hands on the thighs of her jeans. “I appreciate you guys taking the time to talk to me, especially when you have so much on your plates already. You’ve been there for me no matter what, and it means the world to me.”
I smile warmly at her. “It’s no problem, Dylan. We’re family.”
She nods. “We certainly are. If you need anything… anything at all… especially week after next, you’ll call? This case is a joke. You don’t deserve this and we’ll find a way to clear you.”
Tears well in my eyes and I close them for a moment, releasing a breath. “Thank you, Dylan.”
She walks over and chucks me on the shoulder. “What goes around, comes around. I should get back to my condo. I’m in charge of dinner tonight.”
Tina and I both get up to walk her out. We stand in the doorway and watch as she gets into her jeep. I meet Tina’s eyes and she raises a questioning eyebrow. I don’t know if it’ll work out between them either, but I have hope… I just have hope…
I open my eyes and stretch as I look over at the bedside clock. It’s 3am and I haven’t had the nightmare yet. My bladder is screaming for relief but I can’t help but smile. Maybe, just maybe, Candace has gotten her point across. I pull away from behind Tina, throwing back the covers. For the past week, I’ve been letting Candace have her way in the dreams. Not fighting it, just accepting her punishment with as much grace as I can after the initial panic reveals I’m dreaming. At least I know what I’ll find. The dream has been consistently the same, never once changing except for my own words and thoughts.
I throw my legs over the edge of the bed, resting my feet on the warm hardwood surface below as I scrub my face. The hardwood starts to burn hotter and hotter against the soles of my feet and I gaze down at it with a sigh. Nope, she’s not done yet. Within the blink of an eye, slimy, gnarled hands appear around my ankles, the nails and jagged bones of them biting into my skin as they tug me hard to the hot floor and violently drag me beneath the bed. My heart pounds in my chest as I try to relinquish control and let what’s going to happen just happen.
The bottom of the bed obscures my vision as I’m pulled harshly under and down into the black, swirling maelstrom that Candace’s contorted form has crawled out of. It almost seems fitting that she’s here, in a pitch black pit under the bed I share with Tina. The world goes completely black, and I can feel the terribly harsh grip tear harder into me as we free fall, only to land hard at the bottom. It’s utterly black and unbearably hot at the bottom of this hell, Candace’s hell, my hell. The smell of putrefying flesh is overwhelming and I swallow the urge to heave. I can hear the sounds of small creatures writhing around me like thousands of beetles slopping through something wet.
I feel a hot breath at my ear and Candace’s twistedly low voice breathes out, “You’ve been such a good little bitch this week, letting me have my way without complaint. You think you’ve figured me out, but you haven’t.”
I close my eyes, forcibly relaxing into the scorching, wet surface beneath me. “Then why don’t you tell me? I want to hear what you have to say.”
Her laugh is harsh as she says, “No you don’t. You want me to feel like I’ve had my say, hoping that I’ll just shut up. You aren’t here to learn and you sure as fuck don’t care about me; you’re here for yourself, just like usual. Only you matter…”
I search my heart to find any sign that her words aren’t true and the answer is discouraging. It’s true; I’m not here to end this for her, but for myself and my family. She laughs, knowing all too well what my thoughts are. After all, she’s one of them as well. I search my heart, trying to find my compassion for her and bringing it to the forefront, not realizing that doing so would cause an impossible ache in my chest so violent I can’t catch my breath.
Tears roll down the sides of my face, mingling with the heavy beads of sweat that have settled there, as I start to panic. I feel like I’m being eviscerated, my gut torn open and exposed from the inside out. It hurts so badly that I want to stop it but my rational mind won’t let me. The grief of it consumes me and I start to weep piteously, shuddering with heaving sobs that cause vomit to bubble up in my mouth and nose, further choking me and spilling out onto my face and falling into the putrid mire that contains me. I start to cough, trying to get air, but I’m unable to catch my breath as Candace’s rough and slippery hands clamp down around my mouth and nose, holding it all in, drowning me in it.
At first I start to let it happen, relaxing into the fact that I’m about to die but her words give me pause, clarity even. “No! I won’t let you release it!” She doesn’t want me to get this out. Why? It’s not like I’m enjoying myself and she definitely likes to torture me. “I can’t die, Bette. Just give it up. When you sleep, when you dream, you’re mine.”
I’ve known it all along but I’ve been so focused on other things that I never really took the time to examine my feelings for her. I start to struggle with her, pulling more and more of my compassion for her up from the bottom reaches of my heart so that she can feel the depth of my anguish for her and all that happened. It’s so soul-rending that I didn’t even know I felt this way. My soul weeps as I cry out to her in my mind, ‘I am so sorry, Candace, so sorry. Please, forgive me…’
The hands get stronger as she bellows out and I get weaker, the torment of what I’ve done to this person causing me to convulse as more of it spews up from my mouth, the force of it so strong that not even her tight grip can contain it. It explodes forth, a torrent of syrupy regret, pain, and penance. I crawl up onto my hands and knees, retching violently.
It just keeps coming. I can feel it flushing out of my blood, out of my soul, out of my mind, out of my heart, like poison that’s being sucked out of my system from some random point of entry. But there’s just too much and my body can’t handle it. I need air, but there’s no way, it just keeps springing forward, like a fountainhead of tar-like sludge that clogs my lungs and throat. My mind starts to shut down and I fall to the floor, my muscles clenched with extreme tension as the last of my air is gone, unable to be replenished, and gasp awake.
Tina stirs and tucks herself closer against my chest, quickly falling back asleep as my labored breathing evens out. I smooth her hair down and kiss the crown of her head, holding her tightly as I gaze out the balcony doors at the moon and stars, trying to find some peace in yet another violent night.
I come up behind Tina as she finishes loading the dishwasher and wrap my arms around her waist from behind. I smile as she leans back into my embrace, holding my arms to her and turning her head to offer her lips. I take them without thought. She has the most incredible lips, like rose petals. And her taste, no matter which lucky part I’m delighting in, fills me with more joy and passion than I had thought I could possess or contain within a single, fragile human shell.
She moans as she turns in my embrace and for a moment I consider skipping my run but then, of course, reality starts to sink in. Angie comes barreling out of the hallway and stops when she sees us. We both turn to her and she rolls her eyes, using her hands to emphasize her disgust. “Why do you always… do that?”
Tina covers her mouth as she chuckles, and I swoop Angie up, settle her on my hip, and look straight into her eyes. “Because… it’s… fun!”
I attack her neck and cheeks, kissing her in fast succession until she’s squirming and giggling. It goes on a long moment before she pushes on me, her voice serious as she says, “Stop, stop!” I lean back and gaze her incredulously as she wipes her face and neck, looking her hand annoyed as she says, “That’s gross…”
I look over at Tina who won’t meet my eyes, her body shuddering with quiet laughter. I set Angie down and watch Tina for a moment. She finally meets my eyes, clearing her throat and composing herself. My voice is serious as I say, “Right now, she’s your daughter.” She starts to chuckle again and picks Angie up. I glare at them both before smiling and tickling Angie’s neck. “Well, I guess I’ll go for my run now that I’ve been shamed by my daughter.”
Tina chuckles again as I grab a bottle of water from the fridge. She comes up to me as I shut the door and gives me a full but chaste kiss. Angie lets out a groan of disapproval and we both laugh as we pull back. I ruffle her curly coif and grin at her. “Someday, you won’t think it’s so gross, babycakes.”
She makes a disgusted face and I laugh as I turn to make my way towards the door, a sharp swat to my ass giving me a moment’s pause as I leave what little was left of my dignity in the kitchen. I step outside the door and start to stretch. It feels incredible to bend and move freely again. I drink about half the water and grab the earbuds around my neck. “Hey, Bette.”
I turn to see Tom standing at the bottom of the steps, smiling up at me. I sigh heavily. He still comes around and he’s trying to make amends, but it’s stilted and a little uncomfortable. I realize that he was confused and having a… moment, tantrum, what have you, but he’s a grown man and I have no intention of adopting him as another child. I put a slightly warm smile on my face, but it doesn’t reach my eyes. “Hey, Tom. Tina’s inside.”
I step down to walk past him and he stops me. “Actually, Bette, I came to talk to you if you have a moment.”
I sigh. I’m really not in the mood for this, but that’s fucking life, right? I exhale heavily and resign myself to this ‘talk’. “Yeah, sure. I’m about to go on a run, so if we can make it quick, that would be great.” He nods but doesn’t say anything. I gaze at him for a long moment and still nothing. Did he not just hear me? “Tom, come on. What’s going on?”
He sighs and meets my eyes, looking determined. It’s a little disconcerting. He’s never really asserted himself, not that I’ve seen. “I know you’re still upset with me…”
I interrupt him. “Tom, I told you it would just take time.”
He adopts a placating manner and I remind myself to try not to be so defensive or hostile. He’s just been so irritating since his random disappearance. “Oh, I know, Bette. That’s not why I’m here. I understand you need time, but I’m wondering…” I gaze at him waiting, getting more and more annoyed by the moment. As I look into his hazel eyes, so much like my wife’s, I can’t help but have some compassion. He’s her brother. I know he cares about her. I just have to keep reminding myself of that. My demeanor softens and he breathes easier as he continues. “…I was wondering what that entails exactly? I’ve been trying to give you space, but before I had my… momentary lapse in sanity, things were different. I wasn’t sure if you would be okay if I stopped by more like I used to, so I wanted to ask. I’ll understand if it’s too soon and respect your wishes.”
I exhale a heavy breath. He did come by often and it was nice to have him around. Malcolm used to as well, but since Ming, it’s not as often. I realize I miss how it used to be as well. There’s something to be said for having a close family and I know what Tina would want. I smile a little more genuinely as I say, “Tom, of course you’re welcome. I know I can be… hard, when someone hurts me. I know you mean well, but you have to understand, I’m protecting my family, and since the shooting…”
I wince as I say the word and it cuts off my sentence. I start to feel a little dizzy so I sit on the top step behind me and take a few sips of water followed by some deep breathes. The weight of the emotions that were escaping during the dream last night flood back and I start to hyperventilate. Tom sits next to me, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Bette, you look like you’re going to be sick.”
I close my eyes, swallowing hard as tears start to well up in my eyes and leak out the sides. I can’t help it when the tears turn into sobs. Tom takes me in his arms hesitantly and I heave with the weight of my guilt. Fuck… will this never end? I hate what happened here that day. I hate what I did, but I protected my wife, my children. I just can’t reconcile these two emotions at all. I cry for several long minutes, Tom stroking me soothingly and comforting me. And honestly, I’m glad I’m with him.
His countenance indicates that he doesn’t judge me, that he understands, but I don’t get the worry or guilt of knowing that I’m hurting him with my pain. Tina has been unfailing in her comfort, but it’s so hard to fully unburden myself without fear of hurting her worse. I don’t want to hurt her; I didn’t want to hurt Candace.
I cling to him, the anguish of it coming harder, his grip even tighter as I wash out the darkest parts of my soul, the parts that hold my past, my regrets, my guilt. We probably sit this way for close to an hour before I start to calm. His voice is calm and gentle as he says, “Come with me.” I lean back and furrow my brows as I look into his warm face. He stands and holds a hand out to me. “Trust me, just this once.”
I hesitantly take his hand and he pulls me to my feet, leading me to his car. I stare at him as he walks to the driver’s side. He unlocks the car and opens his door, meeting my gaze over the top of the car. He grins reassuringly before settling himself in his seat. I blow out a breath and get in. He straps in and I do the same, the engine coming to life before we pull away for places unknown.
We pull onto a small dirt road that’s more like a path in East LA, and I start to get a little worried. “Tom, we’ve been driving for forty-five minutes. Are you taking me to the middle of nowhere to just get rid of me?”
He chuckles as he looks down at his phone, a map on the screen, and meets my gaze for a moment before turning back to the unkempt road that’s rocking the car. “No. We’re going to a cemetery.”
Okay, that’s cryptic. Why would he…? I feel anger well up in my veins. “Tom, what the fuck are you thinking? I don’t want to come here. Please, just take me home… now.”
He glances over at me and I realize I’m too late as he pulls over next to a small, run-down patch of land and brings the car to a stop. He puts it in park, unbuckles his belt, and turns in his seat to face me, and I start to panic as I look over at the unkempt tombstones obscured by the too tall grass. “Bette, I may be overstepping my bounds, but when I asked you to trust me–”
I interrupt him with no small amount of venom. “It was a mistake on my part. One I’m not likely to make again.”
He sighs and continues as if he’s unaffected and I turn to look at him curiously. What, no whiny, pathetic, and placating apologies? “When I asked you to trust me, I was asking you to trust that I wanted to help you. She’s here, and you need to talk to her, put her to rest and let her go. Her death was so senseless, Bette, unbelievably senseless, but you didn’t kill her. Her inability to let go of the past killed her, just like it’s going to kill you. You trusted me, and I’m asking you to trust me one more time. I am convinced that if you can find the strength to go in there and face her, you can let it go.”
He is really starting to piss me off. “Who are you to tell me what I need to get through this? You don’t know the first thing about what I’m going through. How could you possibly know what I need?”
He smiles sadly. “If there’s one thing I know, it’s that your past can affect your future, cause you to do things that you don’t want to do, terrible things that not only stick with you, but eat at you with guilt and regret, fill you with so much self-loathing that you begin to think that every bad thing that happens is some sort of cosmic penance. But I’m learning that it’s just not true, not if you don’t want it to be.”
I quietly consider his words as I again gaze at this dilapidated cemetery through my window. I used her and cast her off. What did she call it? What did Tina call it? Trash, I treated them like trash, and as I gaze around this sad and depressing place that is little more than a landfill for the forgotten and unwanted, I realize that they were right. Life means so little anymore in the face of progress, power, possessions, and even passions.
Nobody should wind up like this, in a place like this, forgotten and unwanted. If nothing else, I should at least let her know that I see what she’s trying to say, that I understand, that she’s not unwanted or forgotten. As much as I didn’t want a life with her, she was still a person, and all people deserve compassion, even… no especially those who lack it.
I take a deep breath as I release my belt and step out of the car. I feel anxious and shaky as I shut the door, hop across the small roadside ditch, and step over the short austere fence that’s been downed by time and neglect. This small wooded area only has a few visible markers, but the one plot with a small, less weathered stone and recently upturned earth is easy to find in this forgotten spot in the world. I make my way closer and gaze at the tiny stone that reads, ‘Candace Marie Jewel, Beloved daughter.’ This is it. This is all that’s left of her legacy, of her life.
I kneel down and remove the little bit of unruly grass that’s grown in around the stone marker, tears welling in my eyes as I see the small bouquet of decaying flowers. I can still smell them from my nightmares and I fall back on my haunches as the tears come harder. “I’m… I’m so sorry, Candace. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I know…” I wipe at my face and nose, sniffling. “…I know that it doesn’t mean much at this point, but I really hope that you can find some peace now. And I’ll be honest; I’m going to find peace too. I-I’ll remember you, but I choose to remember that smart, capable woman who was warm, and kind, and talented, and had a full life ahead of her. I just, I just don’t owe you anything anymore. And I hope you can forgive me, because I choose to forgive you. I hope that you find peace, that we both do.”
I gaze at her name for a few more moments before an inappropriate smile lights my face. I feel lighter, freer than I have in nearly eight weeks. I take a moment to close my eyes and let that feeling sink in, to revel in it. I stand and brush off my knees, looking back to the car. Tom is standing in his open door, forearms resting on the top of the car as he watches over me from a distance.
As I approach the car my smile starts to grow wider, a matching grin settling on his own face. I walk up to my side of the car and consider him specutively, looking deeply into his hazel eyes, so very much like my Tina; and for the first time I really see her there. He has a good heart, a heart like hers, he’s just so misguided. But I think, no, I know that Tina and this family we’re building can guide him. “Don’t let it go to your head, but thank you, Tom.”
He chuckles through the tears gathering in his eyes. “I won’t, Bette.”
His face is sad and I feel bad, even though it’s entirely his fault things are so awkward now. “I’m trying to get there Tom, but I have to make sure that you won’t do that to Tina or to Angie ever again.”
He doesn’t falter or hesitate and I can see the honesty in his eyes as he says, “I know you are and I understand. I promise you I won’t disappear like that again, no matter what. If there’s a problem, I’ll talk to you. But, only time will prove that to you.” He smiles boyishly. “And I’ve got nothing but time.”
I sigh. “If you break your promise…”
He chuckles. “You can break my legs…” I eye him seriously and he smirks. “…for starters.”
I smile and blow out a breath as I nod. We get into the car, and I collapse in my seat feeling utterly exhausted. I didn’t get to run this morning, but I feel like I’ve just finished a marathon as I settle into the passenger seat. I buckle my belt and Tom does the same, a thought occurring to me. “How did you know where she was and how to get here?”
He glances over at me. “I saw the obit in the paper.” He holds up his smartphone. “And Google maps. I also texted Tina while you were in there; she said take your time.”
I grin at him and shake my head. He returns my smile and turns over the ignition. The sound of the car breaks the quiet of this place as I lean my head back and stare out the window, feeling delightfully empty as I settle in for the ride home to my family. A sense of intense determination settles low in my guts as I think about them. I still have a very long way to go before I’m in the clear, but the future is in sight if I can get past one last hurdle: Merle Rothman.