|MJ's a little (flirty) wrote in doorslogs,|
@ 2013-08-29 23:34:00
Everything was fraying, wildly, uncontrollably, and Lin couldn’t catch stray ends fast enough, though he tried. He would close two or three in his fist, straw and sweat, and six more would unspool from his sanity. Jittery, angry, and with definite dark stains running down sand-pale cheeks, he shifted Adama into park in the driveway of Ella’s place. (He’d forced the Secret Service (as he called them) to let him drive himself, with them following him. Just for today.) He fought with his face as it rotated every attempted smile into an expression of boyish misery, eyebrows drawn, lips pouting, shoulders slumped. But he couldn’t walk to the door like that. He couldn’t face a woman whose baby had just been fucking kidnapped by a psychopath and whose hope was dwindling faster than a fucking apparent superliminal motion blazar looking like he did. He didn’t want to worry Ella more or detract from her pain. Rationally, he knew both could co-exist. His own psychic trauma didn’t impede hers, it wasn’t a zero-sum game, but... it felt that way, and right now, Lin rather wanted the attention on someone else. After all, he’d come to make her feel better, not himself. Right?
The house itself was a nice enough, a townhouse, two-storied, in a clean-sidewalk, taking-babies-for-walks-in-strollers-in-p
His entire day had been draining enough that the most paltry contact, even from himself, made him feel a little bit better. The boy tried to relax his shoulders so he didn’t look so balled up, unfolded in crumpled cotton and denim. He didn’t want to yell at anyone anymore. His blood still boiled and sloshed red in his ears and throat, but he ignored it. He didn’t smile, but he did manage to erase the frown from between his eyebrows enough to feel comfortable ringing the doorbell. That was something. Taking a deep breath, he could only hope this wouldn’t go to shit too.
She hadn’t thought about the niceness of the neighborhood in a number of days. Ella left the house before the cars pulled away from driveways, before mothers walked strollers down the wide concrete sidewalks and she returned without wanting to look for the nudged-in cars and lit windows that said family was reunited. Ella wasn’t thinking about psychic trauma, or the possibility of parallel coexisting pain. She heard the car engine cut out and idle away to nothing with the dull-eyed disinterest of knowing what it was, who it was already. The knee-jerk quickening of adrenaline beneath her breastbone, pooling into her bloodstream was a liar; had there been news, had there been anything, it would be police radios crackling or a phone call. This was Lin. This was Lin who she remembered from bad dreams, nightmares a world away from the present ones. Ella uncurled, the couch abandoned with the loose shape of a body kept in the blanket’s folds.
The door rattled, hardware and chains and the beep of an armed alarm system being disabled took up enough time for a pause between the boy arriving on the driveway and the door itself opening. The woman in the frame, clinging to the wood like someone lost on a piece of flotsam, did not look as if yelling would be on the agenda. Ella was dull, straw-colored blond hair and the grayed hollows below blue eyes in a face that had become sharper, narrower in the time between. She wore a too-large sloppy cotton navy sweater that looked as if it had been someone else’s, over jeans that puddled at her ankles and the warmth of Vegas didn’t appear to register.
It took a minute, for her eyes to focus on Lin’s face, for the denotation of who he was and why he was here to match up with the boy himself. Her eyes darted, flutter-quick between the unmarked car across the road and the man sitting in it, the boy, the door and the room beyond. Mistrust, like a paper mask and something of fear. Lin didn’t look the way his writing made him out to be (she imagined smiles, she imagined forever laughter) but he looked solid, real. “Hi.”
When Lin was small(er), he’d loved Halloween. He’d loved to go house to house in snug felt and to get motherfuckin’ chocolate all up in that bitch (the language came later), and would spend the first ten months of the year fantasizing about how awesome his costume would be—how he’d make a wonderful godzilla, Sailor Mercury, Beaker (the muppet, not the scientific instrument, though he was one of those too), how he’d fill up his faded pillowcase with all the good shit, and how he’d get to walk the long, rural roads holding his dad’s hand, feeling safe and ready for all the Twix. But there was one house—one down one of those long, dirt driveways—where the curtains were drawn, but the dim, zapping porch light was on. It was his favorite to go to. Not because the old man who lived there gave good candy (he did not; he gave apples. Green. Apples), but because the man, who lived alone, always looked so sad until he saw Lin. He was the old kind of thin, paper over bone, brown spots littering the backs of hands and transparent skin that laid loose on skull. He had no teeth, his clothes were as old as he was, pants buckled high, everything worn, and he was so, so sad. There was nothing behind him but dust and floral prints, old gold frames on faux-wood walls from the ‘70s. And he would be dazed and sad and alone, a lumpy apple in his hand, and he would see Lin and, though the gummy smile was a little scary, the smile he shined on the little boy was the highlight of said boy’s night. He did like to make people smile.
As the door swung open, Lin was brought back to those close-starred nights in Oregon between blue evergreens in a flash, weak cotton in sweaty palms. Ella appeared to him as the man did, before the smile, without it. There was a hollowness to her. Her fullness—her green apple, the roundness of cheeks and glint of a smile were gone. Lin’s surprise showed on features smoothed from the day’s tears. His lips pricked at the corners as he tried to coax something out, gummy smile, toothy smile, it didn’t matter.
“Hey, girl,” he said softly, coming inside when the woman stepped aside. Her shirt was loose and hung about her like her spirit did. It was sad. Lin didn’t look at anything but her, his worry overriding whatever curiosity still held tight to his gut. He noted the flicker of fear as Ella took in the car across the street and the boy on her steps. He held his arms out to her. “You want a hug? You look like you could maybe use one.”
The room within the townhouse was pretty, most days. There was the standard-rental-magnolia on the walls, clean and bland and inoffensive and the remnants of what had been Max, clean lines and very few faded spots on the walls where things had been hung. It was pretty now but beneath a layer of neglect and mess and dust and the blinds had been slanted as if bad news could be kept out along with the sunlight, as if artificial dark could keep one day bleeding into the next and a hole cut in hope. Behind her, other than the gentle flash of the alarm system, it was possible to make out the couch, a comfortable wreck beneath a cotton slipcover, a blanket thrown off, the coffee table in front littered with forms and paperwork, abandoned mugs of cooling tea and a faint scatter of baby paraphernalia that hadn’t quite been cleaned up.
Ella’s eyes winced down to slits against the light over his shoulder and she shut the door behind him as soon as he was clear; the locks on the door were not standard issue hardware store, they were strong. They were assumed danger and protection against it before it had thought of harm yet. That was Max, that wasn’t her at all, Max with an alarm system that would trigger the minute someone breathed. She turned from the combination and she looked at him, sober there in gray and black and if Lin always sounded like a walking thesaurus and professor in a sideshow carnival, the carnival had packed up and gone right now, the only one home was the professor. He looked young and he looked, coloring and cheekbones, like Max just then and there was a hiccuping sound in the back of her throat and then Ella’s face was pressed against his shoulder, her arms wrapped around his back until her hands were cool over his shoulder-blades. She had been warm health, before, she had been the soft curves of baby weight not entirely shed and the fullness of her face had been innocence. Now, with a week of nothing but the jitter of fear a constant, when adrenaline had teeth greater than she did for appetite, the sweater was looser than usual. It was Coop’s, the comforting camomile and lemon blend that had sat over his skin, only fragments of scent.
Several locks clicked home in an almost musical manner, the differing alloys resonating against steel bolts toothed in wood at varying pitches and creating a brusque, metallic song. It didn’t ring as safety to Lin’s ears, though it surely was that. To him, it was more like a tin cup rattling on bars—but sadder, bent, a robotic motion, rather than a true attempt for attention. Something to do to pass the time. He nearly grimaced as it set against the flat back of his teeth tasting of zinc, but he didn’t. Ella peered at him from eyes big and blue and hopeless as the fucking Arctic Ocean, and came forward.
As her arms, less maternal now, less comforting and more seeking, a child’s, pulled around his back, Lin returned the gesture, holding tight, leaning in, and tipping his cheek against dull blonde hair. It frizzed against his skin and tickled. Her sweater was soft on his bare arms and her body felt oddly frail, like the old man again, bones weightless without calcium. The woman was small in his arms, inches shorter, and still with the silky looseness of loss about her, fuzzed out from threadbare disbelief stretched too thin over days. She was neither soft nor hard, just a collection of desperate, disparate events molded over small wire frame and bone. She was remnants of bright scent that died under the unintentional wash of alcohol that Lin had been curing in for weeks now, plated hard over his own warmth, mint and cinnamon. He didn’t even notice it anymore, to be honest.
He knew Ella was crying, the telltale hiccup more than enough to indicate what kind of encounter this would be. And Lin said nothing. He didn’t shush or reassure. One hand smoothed down the woman’s hair, the other hugged her. His own weariness, exhaustion mingling with self-doubt, was likely soon to manifest. He felt it at the backs of his eyes, wet along black-rimming eyelashes, and ruddying the tip of his nose. But for now, it was kept back to make way for Ella’s own fucking despair, to cleave a path for her to feel something if she needed too, even if that feeling was just emptiness. Maybe the hug could help, anyway.
He smelled like a distillery, the juniper-berries and woody-thick smoke of whiskey and it wasn’t cotton caught up in a brief stint stood in a bar somewhere, it had wound itself into his pores, smoothed over olive-warm skin. She thought perhaps she was dreaming it, Ella thought she was dreaming most of this, an achingly bad dream to wake up from dry-mouthed and gasping, heart thundering like acid-fear and terror - why couldn’t Lin smelling like he’d rolled in a drunk-tank be part of the dream too? She pulled a little, the dislocation of an ill-fit jigsaw puzzle piece (Lin’s shoulder was bony beneath the tee-shirt, his head fit above hers without the lanky length and height she was used to being comfort in standard issue) and tore free. Her eyes were sore-rimmed, dulled down to nothing-blue and bloodshot, salt-cured cheeks, “You been drinking?” Ella hadn’t spoken a great deal beyond ‘do you have news?’ in ten days. Her voice was roughened, thick with the almost-sleep and cracked from crying. The artificial stimulated cool of the townhouse was stifling, it fought against the breath of alcohol and lost.
The tears were drying already on her cheeks, bright in eyes filmed-over with tiredness. Ella wanted to sleep, she wanted to sink into the bewildering fog until it grayed out to nothing, until the looks and the pitying glances stopped, until she was as close to dead as she could be, temporal suspension until reversal could be possible. But she looked at Lin now, at the glint in his eyes, at the cant of his shoulders. “Why have you been drinking, what’s happened?” Fear cured the words from monotone; the South flattened down to artificial sweetener, nothing lilting but her pulse quickened, she licked dry lips, wide eyes fixed on him now. “Something else happened?” If Lin was drinking, “Did something happen to Sam?”
The hug was not helping. The cogs of Lin’s mind had worn down to the teeth, edges rounded, with no succinct, decisive click to indicate everything meshed, bit, and pulled. It took him a moment longer than was usual to put together why Ella was taking herself back and why she was fumbling between sounding (to his ears) simultaneously accusatory and white with fear. The boy sniffed and blinked and frowned. He had days where he did go drinking—some bad, some not—but they mostly included dancing, lots of fishnet stockings, and the low-burning glow of argon gas in chemical colors. But, normally—when it came to stress or helplessness? Normally then, Lin resorted to... uh, healthier outlets—like overthinking, overanalyzing, binging on Netflix, tapping out ridiculous messages to himself on countertops, painting his nails about 3,000 times, and eating through twenty different recent studies regarding shit like ocean salinity (not something he fully understood by way of change, but still interesting), calcium homeostasis, and something about Fritz Zwicky’s explanation of gravitational lensing, devoured mostly for the hot-ass HD pics of bending light and Einstein’s Crosses that just blow your fucking mind. So it was no surprise the initial question was lost on him. It was only after Ella stared at him with big goo-goo eyes and plowed on in white-edged panic that anything clicked in Lin’s mind, a slow engagement of gears.
He held up his hands, palms open and bare. His face reorganized itself into a not-unusual quandry of good humor and concern with a dip of eyebrows and quirk of lip.
“No, girl. Sam’s fine,” he reassured Ella as her eyes grew wider. Desire for sleep, the bruise blue kind of sleep that came after crying, was gritty in the boy’s own eyes, sticking like sand. He scrunched his nose. “Well, she’s not fine, but nothing more has happened to her. I haven’t been drinking. I’ve... been working on my, you know, ...”
The stun-flash of a smile died. Once the bell of attention was rung and Lin’s mind homed in on it, he was off. The joke was squashed. He spoke as he picked his way across the room and the debris of devastation. He sat himself on the sofa, to the side of the discarded blanket. He kicked off his shoes uninvited.
“The dude I’m staying with? He’s an alcoholic of the highest order,” he said more seriously, knowing light-hearted responses were unwanted and would be stonewalled. His knees were reeled to chest. The boy looked at Ella. He offered her a gentle sort of expression as he repeated, “Nothing more has happened.”
The rigidity of her abruptly loosened, like a sack of sawdust slit open. She sagged, as though the adrenaline-taut strings of her had spindled down to nothing, to sharp high notes or nothing at all. Nothing more had happened. Sam (Ella had nothing but the newspaper-fuzzy photographs to go by, nothing but an outline of a woman Neil had spoken of with the quiet warmth of something to be cradled in cupped hands and kept) was knife-edge harm but its balance tipped away from the sheer fall, the drop. The subsiding made her smaller, dropped the shoulders, the fingers went loose in the overlong cuffs of the sleeves. There was nothing, no one, there was no news. This was light that filtered down to shadow, certainty of no change. He had not been drinking.
“Why are you staying with an alcoholic?” Her own voice sounded like it was from far away, slurred-soft, through water. Ella didn’t drift so much as she sank back onto the couch with no interest in the physical proximity of a boy all warmth and the sharp, bitter scent layered over his own, and the blanket was wrapped around shoulders, sweltered close like it was cold enough for New York winters outside. There was a cooling cup of tea to her right, untouched; Ella curled in on herself, the arch of her spine collapsed, her rib-cage compressed over her knees into a tight ball of something that was nothing but lacking, knowledge of a loss.
“They can’t find him,” she said slowly and that reddened blue gaze found him, compass drawing north however slowly, “If they can’t find him, can he find you? Is an alcoholic safe to stay with?”
Why are you staying with an alcoholic? Before answering, Lin watched the girl unravel, thread loose from the needle’s eye and unsure of what to do with itself now that the its crewel crutch was gone, no structure, just fiber trailing over forms established long before. White fingers clutched the navy mouths of sleeves and she came to the couch and folded upon it. He settled his head on his own shoulder as Ella accordioned on the cushion next to his, enveloping herself in the safety of a blanket, but without the breath for music. His dark eyes settled upon her solemnly, charting the quadratic form of her spine away from the stiff back of the couch, the exact degree to which she canted her gaze at the floor. He made no move toward her and didn’t so much as breathe until she spoke again, and her gaze met his in a kiss of ground to sky.
“His name’s Daniel, he’s my friend,” replied Lin with the cool quality that accompanied lack of dramatic inflection. He wiggled his toes and tipped himself sideways enough to deposit the majority of his weight on the arm of the sofa. He released his knees, and turned inward. He considered the woman’s profile. Socked feet snuck beneath the blanket and pressed to Ella’s thigh without thought. “His place is safe. He’s safe. He’s a hermit.”
One finger itched Lin’s chin, he smiled in a pins-and-string ellipse.
“Your sister put a detail on me too,” he admitted. The urge to cry was suppressed, after much mental strong-arming. The creamy whiteness of bone replaced the blood of youth that tinged the usual bronze of Lin’s skin. “And they will fucking find him.”
Lin wrung every ounce of doubt out of his words and snuggled closer to the cushions on the back of the couch.
She was warm. Beneath the blanket and the layered sweater, the enveloped cotton-knit that smelled like fall in Central Park and smiles around scrubby beard and beneath the lopsided glasses, her hand swallowed up in long, generous fingers, that felt like home, she was warm. Ella knew this in the distant, beneath-water way she knew that Beth was not yet a body in the ground and that Max’s fury with her would be incandescent whenever Max returned from the murky shadow of wherever Max was, the way she knew that Anna’s messages were threading themselves between the standard precinct receptionist messages, the ‘no change’ in professional-tones-with-edge-of-sympathy,
“Oh,” Ella said without comprehension, with the beautiful blankness of fresh paper, “Okay.” Safe was comforting in its sibilance. Safe meant shuffling through the cards of what mattered, sliding Lin out of the way, a grand game of Patience played entirely by herself. Lin was safe. The hermit who drank enough that the smell clung to Lin like expensive perfume, was safe. She wondered - at arm’s length, distraction - if Lin would be there without the compulsion of threats, of Halloween boogeymen, of promises of worst fears and nightmares lashed to life.
Possibly. How would he know? She forgot to nod, the sluggish slide of information into the vortex of a mind wide-open and shuttered, the slow-blooded sluggishness of cold creatures curled around ice, alive-but-just. She forgot to nod, the passage of time between knowing Max had set a detail and acknowledging that this was now something she knew, too great. Too weighty.
“Oh,” she said again. Yes, she’d asked Max to look after him. That would be why; Ella unquestioning why details made themselves available to Max to bestow. Max was President and head of Secret Service in her mind’s eye, a blend of all things shadowy and powerful. Her head tilted only at the venomous certainty, the power punched through words. Her eyes went glassy, the pinprick burn of tears. Before or after? They’d find him. She didn’t care about him, not anymore, not without the white flame of fury lit-hot and fearful ribboning through blood. She didn’t care about Ian, they could do what they liked. Before or after? Ella sat, too still for breathing.
This was… hard. As fuck. As several fucking fucks. Lin’s patience and sympathy were thin, close-lying emotions with little slack, having been hemmed in after far too much abuse. He wanted to help Ella, if he could, but… that was beginning to look impossible. The situation was beyond him and beyond his fucking capacity. His earlier freakout on any and everyone he came in contact with had done nothing to help. It had only served to geronimo a motherfucking lead balloon on an already-deflated sense of self, and Lin found himself at a loss for once. Maybe having someone around would be good, maybe it wouldn’t. He couldn’t quite tell. She acted almost as if he wasn’t there, sitting on the sofa with eyes like the bowl of a spoon, reflecting the room around concavity, angles of incidence and reflection separated, light bending. If Lin appeared to her, it wasn’t because she saw him. It was because he was there and light transferred his image. Nothing fucking more. The boy shifted uncomfortably on the couch, placing hands, back to back, between hitched knees and staring without shame.
She was a three-layered shell, conchiolin, calcite, and smooth calcium carbonate, all protection, an exoskeleton necessary for simple survival. Lin blinked sadly and continued to lean against the back of the couch with the whole of his side. He imagined the thoughts and air that filled her head with a desperate haze and he closed his eyes.
“Yeah,” was all he said.
Ella knew no world beyond the dimmed living-room presently. She knew the shape of the couch and she knew where exactly (without fumbling) the phone was when they would call. She knew the sound of Laura’s footsteps overhead and how exactly hesitation sounded, tasted, felt like when Laura hung in the doorway, pregnant with sensitivity, with a burgeoning need for soft handling and generosity of space. She wished she wouldn’t, it was easier when they did not. It was easier too, when the police down at the precinct spoke in cold fact, eyes barren of sympathy. Sympathy made her want to scream. It made her want to die. It made her want to claw out the part of her that hurt with each breath in and each gasp out, as if dragging in air was to tear it past the fracturing teeth of something squeezing ever tighter with the tick-past of each hour, each day. She did not know Lin had fought with each and every person he loved with the dogged determination of someone whose world was blistering in Ian’s acidic wake. She knew that he was there, a shape underneath her eyelid, peripheral vision and she knew he had curled in upon himself, like self-examination made real.
She had no thoughts. She had no thoughts because she had only naked fear pulsing beneath cotton-thick dread. It was gray, inside her head. It was the damp lack of thought that was sleep deprivation and hunger shoved aside because the live, snaking terror that lived inside her throat, roamed her gut, was an oroboros that could consume only itself. He was there. This registered, in a place far beyond thought. He was there and slowly - without thought required, with the gravitational pull of something feather-light being inexorably dragged down but with the push-pull resistance of active participation, Ella’s knee leaned outward, her thigh pushed against his foot. That was contact. That was what contact felt like.
She did not think but she dreamed perhaps that if someone put their arms around her, she would be nothing within that circle. She was ash, the shape of something that had existed before but did not now. She could remember - somewhere - being touched. By hands. By other people. Touch was pressure, now. It was the nudging-in of someone else’s existence. The world had narrowed: her existence. Beth-and-Ian’s. They were the existences that could be held onto, thready-thin but there. If they cut one, she knew, the other would be cut. They were a loop.
He did not touch her. He did not send her shivering to collapse. This was - blankly, her spine curled away from comfort - as it was needed to be. If she was gone, did that kill Beth? She didn’t know. Logic had ceased.
Her thigh against the flat of his foot made Lin open his eyes again, vision partially obscured in an outward bow of soft sofa, fuzz peeking into view. His selfish thoughts careened into the wall. He saw again the face of the old man, the eerie deadness and simple lack that existed (or did not exist, depending on your point of view) in the vacuum of body when everything it loved and everything it needed had been taken from it, a starvation of an emotional kind, and he frowned. Misery was evident in every line on Ella’s face—or its fossils were. She no longer seemed to actively do. She was. Even breathing and blinking were involuntary, a capitulation to brain and body, a stupid will to survive in a world that tried really fucking hard to kill you in whatever way it could.
She was withdrawn. She was the paleness that came from lack of sustenance, translucent vellum, the wax skin of cadavers on display, glutaraldehyde, phenol peeled back on ugly bone—no food, sleep, or security, and Lin sighed. He pushed off of the couch wordlessly and wandered toward the back of the townhouse. There had to be a kitchen (obviously. It’d be fucked up if there wasn’t). Finding and preparing food would give him something to do, something for his hands to do and his mind to do, that was outside the spiral flush of self.
His mind collected the remnants from moments prior and attempted assemblage. Greased knuckles slipped. It reminded him he’d yelled at an unstable man he’d been supposed to be looking after, making fun of him for wanting to find a fucking gun when dissuasion didn’t work. He’d lost his shit on a girl who’d been kidnapped and sexually assaulted in a manner he couldn’t fathom, who was also a recovering fucking drug addict in a mental institution. He’d bristled and snapped on the man who was fucking housing him from a psychopath, a man—a reclusive, angry alcoholic with so little emotional resilience, who did absolutely nothing just about 300% of the time, and the rest of the time was busy hating everyone and everything but his cat and the aforementioned recovering drug addict. Lin was a fucking terrible person. Jesus Christ. Fucking split his veins and watch hatefulness spill out.
Lin walked into a wall, busy as he was hating himself, eyes dragging on feet, and not looking where he was going. His life was one big, not-even-fucking-elaborate joke, and there was no punchline. Of course, of all the jokes, his was a shit one. ‘Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup and I hate everyone I love, and I’m going to crack while I’m supposed to be helping—want to be helping, but they don’t want it and I’m terrible at it. God, help me.’ ‘Looks like he’s doing the backstroke, sir.’ Ha-fucking-ha.
He moved. Ella barely blinked. The fulcrum of her understanding was the faint indentation left behind, the sagging gasp of a cushion beat beneath her head and now amorphous shape of a boy who had curled there, geode-tight. He moved. He left behind warmth, an indent, the sudden pressureless sense of nothing pushed up against the flat of her thigh. Ella shivered; involuntary. The heat was oppressive outside the windows, it was silty-thick, enough to bead sweat and bleed through fresh cotton clothes. The sweater was not fresh, it smelled like tears, it smelled like lying curled on the couch in the blue light of the silent television, listening to the nothing of Vegas, listening to the absence of reassurance, of the crackle of police radios, listening for instead of to. Ella did not think she could listen. Her ears were filled with static, the hiss of white noise smudged dark.
He moved. Into the maw of the kitchen, neat-stacked plastic bottles in the drying rack beside the sink and a vase of flowers slowly crumbling to dust, the sweet stink of rotting on the kitchen table. There was food there, Ella knew in the vague knowing that was words, movement, the way Laura slid through rooms as though both apologizing for being there and sharp like a blade. There was food. She had stacked the fridge with it, neat labels in someone else’s handwriting. There was food, and there was tea. Everyone drank something in a crisis; Ella associated the bitter of tannin and the squeak of sugar on her teeth now with how it felt to have something warm or cool pushed into her hands, to leave it there as she thought of empty, weightlessness, of the static that filled her head.
He moved. A heavy noise; Ella dredged herself up from beneath the heavy buzzing cotton with effort, like wading from beneath the sea, through tar. “Are you all right?” Dull. It was dull.
“Fucking 100%,” was Lin’s snapped back retort, quick on the cut of teeth, automatic, pneumotaxic and apneustic antagonizing. She wasn’t actually asking, and he wasn’t going to fucking actually answer. Holding a hand to his head, he took the fucking Oregon Trail to the end and made it, after a rough winter and several lost people with hilarious names (“Butts died of a snakebite,” “Rebecca died of dysentery,”), to the end. His head ached and his mouth was dry and his eyes brimming and lost, brimming and lost, over and over, but he ignored it all. There came a cursory glance, rote and memorized, cast around the kitchen, around the decay of flowers on an unused table, and a sigh.
Lin opened the refrigerator, eyed the imperfectly labeled food, and closed it once more, the breath of cold air irritating him. He found a plastic cup in the cupboard and filled it at the sink, leaning against the counter with the entirety of his weight as he drank. It was lukewarm and tasted as water always does in someone else’s house: weird, missing the seasoning of rust and calcium and magnesium build-up unique to one’s own plumbing. The grit of minerals was foreign, but the boy didn’t mind. In fact, he had no fucks to give about the shit.
He considered what to do. There was food already. Ella obviously didn’t want to eat. She’d gotten a hug, but was otherwise content to sit in premature death on the sofa, saying nothing and feeling nothing, with Lin in a perpetual fight against the gravitational insistence of his own reflexive guilt on the cushion over. He didn’t expect recognition, and he understood her loss was more than anything he could understand, and everyone reacted to grief differently, but… still Sam’s words roiled in the evaporating sea of his mind. He was worried he would make Ella feel worse, that she would feel he was invalidating her grieving if he told her to continue to be hopeful. He wanted to promise her that they would find the baby, that her giving up on that was self-protection, but hardly true… but… He didn’t think he was always right, did he?. He didn’t know everything, and it made his head pound and his heart hurt and his stomach twist to think someone thought he thought he did, and that that someone was fucking Sam. Ella knew how she felt, as Sam did. She could deal with it too, right? As a friend, Lin was simply supposed to be there? Was that how it went? To exist as a pillar of support, but to offer nothing more than what was asked for, if anything was asked for at all?
He didn’t fucking know. And it was in that moment than Lin recognized how terrible he was at being a friend to people.—And in the next, in a snap of shutter-fire, he realized he was thinking about himself again, worrying about himself, and not Ella, which really, reiterated the lesson from the moment prior. He swore. Loudly. The sound caught every hard corner in the room.
That was pretty much the point that Lin just set the cup behind him, water half-drank, into the sink and sunk to the floor to sit for a few minutes alone, his knees close and forehead resting on them.
Everyone said they were ‘fine’. They asked her, with the yielding anxiety in their eyes, the soft certainty that her answer spanned vocabulary she’d never had to know before, they asked her how she felt and she had begun by telling them. She had told Laura (as she’d shivered, ice climbing her spine and clenching the muscles in the back of her neck, clamping her jaw together in a rictus-tight terror) and she had told the policeman at the precinct, the one with a thick Italian accent that was warm beneath the sand-dry platitudes of the job, that reminded her of New York, of home. And then she had ceased to tell them, because when she asked, they did not tell her. She wasn’t part of the world, she was apart from it, a straw doll, a prediction, a statistical inevitability. Lin, who had been weight sagged down on the couch beside her and was now the gush of the faucet and abrupt silence thereafter - Lin, she had expected, dimly, to be different. He was never ‘fine’. He was loud.
Her bare feet were a slither of dry skin over tiled floor, the jeans (Laura’s, borrowed - Ella did not own jeans, but they felt, in their cardboard thickness, their stiff inflexibility, like more solid protection than anything in her own wardrobe, the flimsy femininity of cotton dresses like dead flowers) folded at the knees in thick creases. She was wraith in the doorway, the tangled knots of blond hair and the slip-slide of worn cotton over collarbone and her hands worrying at the sleeves, the cuticles picked blood-red. And she looked at him, with the hazy lack of clarity of the opium addict, lost deep within the haze.
“You can sit on a chair,” she said, her voice rasping over words, thick with salt and overuse, “You don’t have to sit on the floor.” A shuffle, quiet - she didn’t make sound, she ignored the serried ranks of the baby paraphernalia; someone could use it someday. Someone who did as she had done, combed through thrift stores for the usable, the sturdy. Ella decided, dreamily, then and there, someone else could use it. When they brought the body home, she’d pack things up. She’d put them away and the last piece of Cooper would be gone as well.
Her hand was dry-cool on his back, through his t-shirt. “You want tea?”
Lin felt a dull anger in latent circulation of his veins, a pass-around of emotion he wasn’t sure was his own. It did not course, it just went, and his jaw clenched in response, in a four-cusped grind of recognition. It was egocentric, a self-interested thing he didn’t want, but clung to him, so close he could hardly breathe. He tried to brush it off with pressure from palms on the orbs of eyes, but it continued its journey in the lazy river and neither ebbed nor flowed. Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, right, Dr. Harvey? Venous valves refused re-entry, but they allowed a closed-system. So it went. (Haha. Because… system.)
The boy let his hands fall to the caps of knees as denim whispered on denim and feet on tiles. Zombie Ella had joined him. He exhaled through his nose. The back of his head met the cupboard door, but he didn’t seem to feel it. He frowned at Ella and at her hand on his back. He didn’t want her hand.
He wanted to go back to Daniel’s and to sleep in the man’s bed. He’d taken over the shit after the drunk’s disappearance from the hospital visit. The vast bed was consumed by a nest of blankets and tickling kitten fur, there was a laptop and there were books, a rainbow of nail polish bottles to tie it all together—paraphernalia of distraction and comfort. And right now, he would have given just about any-fucking-thing to have a pillow and be sleeping on the shit.
“No,” answered Lin, pressing his spine to the cabinet behind him to leverage himself to his feet without assistance. The single word was all soft-cotton. It wasn’t a hard response. It was tired. He moved away from the woman, orbiting to the opposite side of the blank kitchen table and its graveyard flowers. His eyes fell to dead petals, ray florets forlorn. There was another forced breath and eyes so very dark lifted once again to meet Ella’s. Lin held his bottom lip between teeth a moment, before shrugging to himself. What the fuck ever. “What’s the best way for me to be a friend here, dude? Because fuck if I know.”
There had been people who put their hand on her elbow, steered her through the dissonance of the precinct with good intentions and a hasty step. There had been Laura, stacking food in the kitchen and hesitant footfalls across the floor, there had been ‘you will’ and ‘she will’ and ‘have hope’ and a lot of ‘Ms Dean’ said by unfamiliar people. There wasn’t a single one who said right up front ‘I don’t know’, like hope had unravelled itself to an empty bobbin, like they had run out of the way things should be and spilled to overtime, the clock ticking past nothing. She stared at him, the parting of the cotton sea and her head breaking free above it, dizzyingly clear for one sparse second and wide, blue eyes. There wasn’t enough of her (dust held together before a breath, a shiver-sigh as her throat stiffened) before there was nothing, she stood on bare feet on the kitchen tile and the now-familiar acid burn in the back of her nose, the clutch of diaphragm jerking and the slow-salt slide of tears as she looked at him through the fogged-thin haze and fell, like stone through water, completely apart.
Her shoulders jerked, the spastic twitching of electric currents and the heaving, tearing-apart sobs of terrified-misery that yanked spine taut and bowed it once again. She was blind hands and her chin pressed sharply against his shoulder and reaching the way of ships tossing against the sole anchor-chain. He didn’t know. She didn’t know, she didn’t know there were words to say why.
Her eyes held on his for a moment that grew longer and longer, a singularity slipping past event horizon, time dilation, everything bending infinitely. Limits grew distant, blurry gray in the myopic eyes of humanity. The table separated them and Lin took a half-step sideways to round the thing. He didn’t know what he was going to do, what the intention behind the electrical impulse of muscle was, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t make it. The black hole evaporated to Planck length and Ella was upon him before he knew what was happening. His arms found her and held her, thin as she was. Her chin bit into trapezius muscle and she cried.
Tears were the antidote to zombification, apparently. She sobbed, her entire fucking being sobbed, it surpassed the physical act of crying, saline on skin, parasympathetic system in action, lacrimation—mammalian, and went deep. She leaned on the boy, her weight borne by him and the sure structure of secure house. He tipped his chin towards her, tip of his nose tucked to the slope of neck to shoulder, and he felt completely lost.
“Yeah, girl,” he said, voice fracturing on the last word, split down the middle, an unhappy laugh acting as punctuation as his own tears, so light in comparison, finally answered the call of biology and gravity and flowed over lids and down cheeks. They were quiet, an odd stoicism from the expressive boy. Lin continued, the sentiment obviously important. “Shit’s fucked, man.”
She laughed. It was a wet, thick, hiccup of a sound, and her fingers had closed over the tissue-thin cotton of his t-shirt sleeve, dry whilst the soft gray had darkened to the color of rain clouds beneath her cheek. Shit’s fucked. Yes, she supposed this was true, the blunt fricatives had no room for baby-powder sweetness, the sugar of iced tea. She’d put Cooper in the ground when the sun had warmed a clear, blue sky, had buried him where the grass was the rich green of imaginings, of Central Park picnics and now she would bury his baby in the bone-dry desert heat, dust and parched earth and the bright tinsel-neon of Vegas strip lights instead of that generosity of sunshine on the back of her neck. She’d gone to Summerlin with the appetite for serene beauty, for the trickle of music through a house that had seemed like a dream, Beth cooing to herself in the corner of a kitchen that had sometimes seemed like hers and it had split apart ugly as a storm tearing apart an August sky. Ian had become the boogeyman, fairytales did not come true. She had lost Beth whilst working a room filled with dead eyes and cigarette ends and the overpriced booze that was sideline along watching the girls that rotated center-stage.
The laugh fractured into pieces, nausea and tears roiling together into the piecemeal parts of woman-who-was-not-a-mother, who had given over her child’s safety for a handful of tips and one envelope printed in red torn into pieces. Ella shook in the strawman certainty of Lin’s arms; her knees were saline, an ocean’s salt cried out all at once. His heart thrummed beneath her ear, the hitched-breath heave of his own tears and Ella thought that was right, that was true. Ian had undone lives as easily as slipping a knot. Lin was dust and shrapnel, battle lost and war raging still.
For most of his life, Lin had been quite easy to bring to tears. He was prone to over-emoting (surprise!) and tended to let whatever the fuck he was feeling shine through because it was, to his mind, authentic, whether it meant jumping up and down in excitement or sobbing in public because his heart felt like it was broken. He was a heart-on-the-sleeve, shit-not-deep-beneath-the-surface kind of guy, generally speaking (there were exceptions, as he was, in fact, a human being). But through the organic processes of life and erosion, eoilian movement, that was slowly vanishing under dust devils, operating under the Bagnold formula because even his fucking emotional state was biological. His tears, as soon as they lit upon cheeks, evaporated, and in a matter of seconds, he was done.
He was done.
Lin shook his head, only just, as punctuation to that face, and let a hand move on its own to curl open and rub on the woman’s back, a grain of sand in the desert, but sand all the same. Exhaustion shifted in its hibernation in joints and he sighed against the blonde of Ella’s hair.
If the ends were fraying, his hand let them go. There was no frantic tying, no catching and losing. A smooth, rounded stone of certainty, absolutely foreign to the situation, settled in the silt of Lin’s stomach.
He said nothing. He hugged Ella and thought about nothing.