Monthly Archives: December 2011

1.10 – The Truth

A/N: Hey, guys! :) I hope you all had a great Christmas and have a great new year. :D I’m terribly tired, but I hope this chapter will come out okay nonetheless. :)

Just a warning: There is nakedness and sexual situations ahead.

This chapter is a little different from usual, seeing as it’s mostly a flashback. I hope you enjoy it all the same. :D

P.S. Sorry for the text heavy beginning. :c

Yesterday evening, the evening I had asked Susie to live with me again, was one of the best moments of my life. It was on par with our wedding day. We spent the hours after we had returned home (to our home, I can barely believe it) exploring each other’s bodies, becoming one for the first time. I’d been terrified of doing something wrong, of hurting her or frightening her away, but it was, for lack of a better word, perfect.

And then we fell asleep.

I know, I know. That sounds terribly anti-climatic. Not really the start of an exciting story, right?

Well, it is.

It is perhaps not an exciting story, but an important one. I realised something last night, something that changes everything I believed about myself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It started when Susie awoke, gasping, from a dream.

“Gabe! Gabe, wake up!”

At the sound of her voice, I started awake and sat up. My head felt as though it was filled with cotton wool and I rubbed at my eyes in an attempt to feel more alive.

“Whass hap’nin’?”

Behind me, Susie choked on a sob.

“J-James Frank.”

I froze and took my hand away from my face. The name, spoken out loud, had the same effect as a bucket of icy water. I was definitely awake now.

“What?”

“I – I dreamt of him. His face.”

My heart rattled in my chest as though it was trying to escape. I could barely breathe.

“Did he say anything?”

“N-no.” Susie’s voice was quieter now, with an air of forced calm. “He just – he just smiled.”

The words should have soothed me, but, if anything, my chest felt tighter. For a moment, I recalled Arthur’s face and the strange interlude in limbo. Not for the first time, I wondered how much of it had been a dream and how much of it had been real.

“It’s silly, isn’t it?” Susie said, but her voice trembled. “It’s just a dream.”

I looked around at her. Her face was pale in the darkness. She seemed as shaken as I felt.

“Yes,” I agreed, through hope rather than knowledge. “Just a dream.”

When Susie said nothing else, I shuffled over to her side of the bed and awkwardly tugged her onto my lap. As I wrapped my arms around her, I wished I was one of those men who are all big and safe and muscular, but I was scrawny and weak and my stupid scar still tugged uncomfortably when I moved. I couldn’t sweep her off her feet and keep her safe; I can barely lift a full watering can. Maybe, when I’m fully recovered, I can work out or something. Would Susie like if I was more muscled?

She shifted to get comfortable, and I suddenly found myself worrying that she would accidentally crush something sensitive. Thankfully, she didn’t. See, in a romantic film, the male lead would have just pulled the girl onto his lap and that would have been that. Me, I worry about being scrawny and important parts of my anatomy getting crushed. Why is real life so much more awkward than films?

Sorry, I got distracted. Ignore that last part.

As I was saying, I moved onto Susie’s side of the bed and tugged her onto my lap. She shifted to get comfortable, her hands sliding up to tangle in my hair. Her breathing was soft and shaky, each rise and fall of her chest threatening tears.

“Tell me the full story,” she whispered suddenly, gently playing with a couple of strands of my hair. “About what happened with James Frank.”

“It’s a long story,” I whispered back. My chest had tightened violently again, like I was suffocating on my own panic.

“Please,” she said softly. “I dreamt of him for a reason, Gabe. You still have nightmares every night – Jamie told me. I just – I want to know what’s wrong with you.” The words spilled out of her now, as though she had been practicing for this moment. “You want us to be as we were, Gabe. But we can never be as we were, with the secrets and the lies. I don’t want that. I want to be here for you. I want you to let me in.” She paused and took a deep, steadying breath. “I’m your wife, Gabriel. Let me share your pain.”

I said nothing for a long moment, but turned my head, pressing my face against the soft skin of her neck. Breathing in her scent, the scent that reminded me of sunshine and safety, I thought back to the hours that had come before, when she had overcome her fears and we had lost ourselves in each other.

And I knew she was right.

I drew in a long, shaky breath.

“I haven’t been entirely honest, Susie. With myself, I mean.” My heart throbbed painfully, and I took another breath. “There’s things I’ve tried to deny all this time, even in my own private journal. Things I couldn’t bear to write down, or… to even think. But this… this is the truth. The whole truth.”

* * *

I was sixteen when I decided I’d had enough.

I left the children’s home and started walking. I didn’t know where I was going. I’d intended to go to one of my friends’ houses, to see if they could put me up for a few days or weeks until I could find my own feet, but I chickened out. None of them would take me in. They had parents, siblings. Lives of their own. Mike – that’s Kami’s ex – his dad had already kicked me out once before, saying he didn’t want any thieving ‘orphan scum’ in his home. And if Mike wouldn’t take me in, no one would. He was our leader. His word was law.

So I was alone.

That is, until James Frank strolled into my life.

We met on my very first night on the streets, when I was curled up freezing in a shop doorway. He offered me a hand, a place to stay.

Terrified, I bolted. He shouted after me, but I could barely hear him over the sound of my numb feet pounding the pavement. We had all been warned about strangers, about how you shouldn’t trust them even if they seemed nice. And, for someone like me, who wouldn’t be missed… well, I had to be extra careful.

Someone like me could disappear and no one would even notice.

Fearing he would come after me, I slept in a large industrial bin behind a restaurant, buried safely in the warmth of rotting food. After a while, you kind of got used to the smell.

Lying there, in the dark, surrounded by old bits of pizza, I regretted running from him. What was the worst thing that could have happened? What could possibly be so bad that cowering in a bin for the night was a better option? I didn’t think I’d get a chance like that again.

But James Frank caught up with me the very next day.

He was charming. Suave. When he talked to me, I found myself caring about what he was going to say next, if only to continue hearing the sound of his voice.

I don’t even remember what he said, just that he made me feel as though I mattered.

As though I was worth something.

It didn’t take me long to fall under his spell.

Completely and utterly.

I followed him back to his apartment. The building was in the really posh area of town, the area my friends and I had visited only to stare. I remember pressing close to James’s side as we passed the doorman, worried I’d be stopped from entering because of my scruffy appearance. James wrapped a protective – almost possessive – arm around my waist, and I felt safe.

I remember the look he gave me as we entered the lift. The thrill of heat that rushed up my spine.

I remember the way he touched me as the lift doors begun to slide close. The force of his gaze. The feel of the cold tiles against my knees. The sounds he made. The pain as his fingers tugged harder and more insistently on my hair. The taste of him on my tongue.

I don’t remember much else of the first few nights.

Nothing, except him. The feel of him. The warmth of him.

One of the best things about living with James Frank was the shower. It was like a mixture of a shower and a bath. Initially, I had a lot of reservations about using it. What if I broke it and flooded James’s expensive apartment? What if it exploded? What if I couldn’t figure out how to work it and the water suddenly got hot and boiled me alive? What then?

For once, I got over my anxieties pretty quickly.

Of course, I rarely showered alone.

During that time, my depression was at its worst.

I must have been a nightmare to live with sometimes, truly. A couple of times a month, James would come home from his work to find me sprawled on the floor, passed out from the raiding of his liquor cabinet.

Once, like my father, I swallowed a bottle of pills with the intention of killing myself. James came home earlier than expected and rushed me to the hospital to have my stomach pumped.

He never said a word.

He never chastised me, or shouted at me, or punished me in any way for stealing his expensive alcohol and vomiting over his expensive carpets. In his own way, he looked after me, cleaned up after me and, above all, that one time… he saved my life, though I didn’t want it to be saved.

* * *

Perhaps it was inevitable that I fell in love with James Frank.

And I did love him, as much as it is possible for anyone to love a man. I would have done anything for him.

I believed that he loved me in return.

But there was one thing that I wanted more than anything else in the world. I wanted him to have sex with me, to make me his once and for all. Yet, for all his warm touches and honeyed words, James seemed reluctant to take that step.

“Please, James,” I whispered to him one day. “I want you to take me. I want to be yours, and only yours.”

James sighed, and I felt my smile falter and fail.

“Lucas, we’ve talked about this.”

“But -“

He cut me off with a gentle touch to the cheek. Heat pooled where his skin touched mine, and I felt my eyes flutter closed.

“Your virginity is your most precious commodity. You can’t just give it away.”

“But I want to. To you.”

“That’s not going to happen, I told you.”

His fingers trailed teasingly down my jugular vein; I felt it throb beneath his touch. My breath shuddered.

“There’s a party coming up. An important one. There, I will – we will – sell your first time to the highest bidder. And then -“

His hand, which had been making its steady way down my chest, suddenly slipped into the front of my underwear and I could barely stifle a moan.

“J-James…”

“Then, I’ll fuck you all you want. I promise.”

His other arm encircled my waist and he pulled me close against his body. I could barely think, barely breathe with the way his hand was moving against me. Shamelessly, I rocked myself against his palm with soft whimpers and moans.

Then, after a long, torturous moment, James withdrew his hand.

“If you’re a good boy and stop arguing,” he murmured, as I tried to press myself into his touch, “I’ll let you suck my cock.”

“Whatever you say,” I whispered breathlessly.

James pulled me closer into a deep, devastating kiss, sliding his hand back into my underwear to resume his firm ministrations.

I could never say no to him.

And I still believed that he loved me.

* * *

But that belief couldn’t last forever.

One morning, a couple of days before the dreaded party, I came downstairs to find James with another man. He had him bent over the kitchen table, one arm twisted behind his back as he pounded hard and fast into him. They were so into it, so loud with their gasps and moans, that they didn’t notice me although I stood only a few feet behind them.

After a couple of long, painful seconds, I fled.

I ran upstairs, barely making it to the bathroom and the toilet before my stomach emptied itself with revulsion. I felt like someone had punched me hard in the chest. The after-image was still burnt onto the back of my eyelids.

The man I loved with someone else.

For a few moments, I stayed where I was, face pressed into the toilet bowl. Downstairs, I could still grunts of pleasure and the faint slap of flesh on flesh. My stomach turned over again, even as my face burned with shame.

How could I be so stupid?

I was shaking violently and there was vomit dripping down my front, but I managed to peel off my clothes and run a bath. The sound of running water managed to drown out the sounds from downstairs and slowly my hands stopped trembling.

I slid into the bath. The warm water washing over my skin reminded me of his caress, and it was all I could do not to throw up again.

I felt so stupid. Why would someone like him, world-famous and devastatingly good-looking, love someone like me?

* * *

“I don’t think he was devastatingly good-looking,” Susie said, breaking into the sound of my voice.

I had almost forgotten she was there, apart from her warm, comforting weight against my chest.

“I think it was the beard,” she added, tracing her fingers through my hair. “It was horrible.”

I have a beard…”

“Yes, but yours is attractive.”

There was a long silence, whilst I tried to regain the thread of my narrative. Susie’s fingers tugged on one of my ears.

“I know how you felt,” she said quietly, slowly, as though nervous. “That’s… after you got put in hospital, every time I closed my eyes I could see you with her.”

Now, I felt sick in the present. I pressed my face into the skin of her neck again.

“I know, Susie. I’m so… sorry. Sorry doesn’t even begin -“

She put her fingers to my lips, stopping the words before I could speak them.

“I know.” Her fingers resumed their stroking of my hair. “The worst part was we all thought you were going to die. I felt guilty for being mad with you. There were so many tubes, Gabe. And you looked like… you looked so fragile.”

“I… you came to visit me?”

“Of course I did. Just not… when you would see me.”

“I… I understand.”

At that knowledge, I felt a little lighter. Susie gave me a weak smile and tugged on my fringe.

“I’m sorry, I interrupted you. Please continue.”

* * *

By the time I got out of the bath, James and his new friend had moved to the bedroom. I was trapped. I sank down beside the toilet, unable to bring myself to get dry or even to wrap myself in a towel. I could hear them and couldn’t block them out, their moans and the creaking of bedsprings. Hot tears tumbled down my already wet cheeks.

After what seemed like an age, the noises stopped. I shrank back more into my corner, hoping that the other boy wouldn’t come into the bathroom. I didn’t know what I would do – what I would say – if he did.

The door slowly swung open.

After a pause, James walked in, just wearing his underwear. I didn’t know if this was a better or worse turn of events. Unable to look at him, I tried to rub the tears away before he could see.

He stood in front of me, arms folded, a strange smile on his face.

“You seriously didn’t think you were the only one, did you, Lucas? Just because I don’t want to fuck you doesn’t mean I don’t want to fuck at all.”

“But – but you said-“

“You really think someone will pay a lot of money for a piece of you, even if it’s the first piece? You’re not going to be the prettiest little thing at the party tomorrow, let me tell you that.”

“James, I -“

“Shut up.” He paused, watching as I sniffled pathetically on the floor in front of him. “If you screw up and no one makes an offer, your life won’t be worth living. So clean up, smile, and act like you fucking want it. You got me?”

I slowly got to my feet, shaking my head.

“I c-can’t. I don’t want to go to a party. I just – I just want to be yours.”

James moved closer to me, murder in his eyes. I instinctively flung my hands up to protect myself.

“You are mine. That’s why you’re going to this party and that’s why you’re going to fucking enjoy it.”

“No! I’m not going. I won’t!”

Pain exploded under my eye as James’s hand collided with my face.

“You will do as you’re told,” James snarled as I brought a trembling hand up to cradle my cheek. “Or perhaps you’d like to try your luck back on the streets.”

For a moment, our eyes met and a surge of hot, reckless anger blazed through me.

“Maybe I’d prefer that to being with you!”

James was quick with his retort, jabbing my chest with his fingers.

“Go on, then. Leave! Get out of my apartment!”

I should have left then, but I didn’t. My anger was sapped away almost as quickly as it had reared up and, suddenly, all I wanted to do was cry and cling to him.

“I – I don’t want to leave. Not really.”

“Maybe I want you to leave.”

My chest tightened horribly.

“Please, James. I’m sorry. Don’t make me leave, I love you.”

After a long moment, James’s mouth twisted in a smile.

He stepped close to me, gripping my hips and pulling me close against his body. Of their own accord, my arms wound themselves around him.

Still smiling, James Frank kissed me deeply and I responded, as he knew I would.

He had totally ensnared me, a moth in a spider’s web.

And he knew it.

“Now, get this place cleaned up. I still have a guest.”

* * *

For the party, James hired me a suit and made me comb my hair until I was basically unrecognisable. I had never felt more uncomfortable in my own skin in my life.

Weirdly, the party was being held at my stepfather’s house. Matthew Hamming, it seemed, was a closet pervert. Not that he had any idea who I was or anything. I wondered briefly if my mother knew that her husband held these kinds of parties, but was soon distracted from my musing as we crossed the threshold into the main room.

There were several older men, dressed in their finest, surrounded by a small group of teenage boys clad only in their underwear. I suddenly felt rather grateful for the uncomfortable suit. There were other pairs milling in the hallway, and, from the sound of it, there were others in the kitchen.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a struggling boy get dragged into what looked like a broom closet. Another boy ran past me, giggling in a slurred sort of way, pursued by a black-clad, muscled man. There was a shriek of delight behind us and I knew the boy had been caught.

My stomach turned over and I swallowed hard.

I was only aware that I had come to a complete halt when James Frank placed his hand on my lower back and steered me firmly into the room.

Some of the boys looked more comfortable in this setting than others. I recognised the boy James had been with a couple of days previously, and he didn’t look at all happy.

It shames me to admit this, but I felt a kind of guilty, savage pleasure at his discomfort. In spite of this, I knew, deep down, he had as much choice about this situation as I did.

Others looked totally bewildered at what was happening around them. I wondered if they had been warned what kind of party this was. I wondered how many of them were being paid to be here.

I wondered how many of them had nowhere else to go.

Even Matthew Hamming had his own boy, though (to his relief, I’m sure) he had been allowed to keep his clothes.

For the first hour or so, I wasn’t required to do anything. I kept my head down and my eyes closed, trying to block out what was happening around me. James and Matthew Hamming talked business, seemingly oblivious to the half-naked boys prancing around the room. They didn’t even bat an eyelid when one of the men grabbed the boy beside him, pinned him down and fucked him right there on the sofa. Though the boy returned the affections readily enough, I couldn’t keep my eyes off them, transfixed by some sort of shocked horror.

Would that happen to me?

All too soon, James made me get to my feet and, suddenly, every eye in the place was on me.

I honestly don’t remember what he said. I was too busy trying not to break down and cry right in front of everyone. I tuned out the words, just trying to listen to the sound of his voice in an attempt to calm myself down.

It worked until the other men started yelling out prices, each vying to outbid the others.

I had to get out of there.

I pulled out of James Frank’s arms and turned to face him. Beside me, Matthew Hamming continued to conduct the auction. The figures being called out now made me feel dizzy.

“James,” I whispered. “I really need the loo. Let me go, please.”

It was a lie, but I didn’t know how I else I could slip out of there.

“Okay, go,” he said softly. “But you had better come straight back.”

I thanked him and quickly fled.

Away from the main party, I stopped on the stairs to catch my breath. My heart was racing as though I had just run a marathon.

I wasn’t sure how I would go back down to face everyone again.

I didn’t want to know who had won me.

In the bathroom, I stood in front of the mirror, trying to compose myself. No matter what I did, this was going to happen. The least I could do was face it with some semblance of dignity.

I was terrified.

But I had to do this.

Perhaps, after I had done this, James would love me.

I think the futile hope of James’s love was the only thing that kept me going right then. If I had believed anything else, I would have broken down.

Steeling myself, I left the bathroom.

My mother was standing in the hallway.

I recognised her from the photograph my father had kept always on his bedside table. She looked older now, more severe, and her blonde hair was streaked with grey. With one hand, she cradled a toddler close to her side.

I was so shocked I stopped dead.

“What are you doing up here?” she asked me. “The party is downstairs.”

“Oh… I was just using the toilet.”

“There’s a toilet downstairs for guests. Please remember that next time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She didn’t know who I was. Why should she?

It shouldn’t have hurt. I mean, I barely knew the woman, but…

Watching her, with her youngest son… my youngest half-brother (I knew from newspapers that I had at least three more half-siblings)…

My heart felt like it was breaking in two.

“What are you staring at? Get out of here before I call security.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

And I turned and walked down the stairs.

* * *

I didn’t go back to the party, but headed outside to clear my head (again). I had been entirely unprepared for seeing my mother, although the possibility had existed in my mind since I had learnt we were at Matthew Hamming’s house.

I didn’t know what to feel.

All that I could think was that I shouldn’t be there. That trusting James had been a mistake.

I don’t know why seeing my mother had made me realise that, but it had.

As I was staring out over the bay, someone came up beside me.

“Mr Frank is starting to get really pissed off, you know.”

“I don’t care,” I said, before I could stop myself. “I can’t go back in there.”

“Things will just be worse for you if you don’t. Trust me.”

I turned to look at the boy beside me. Clad only in his underwear, he was shivering delicately in the cold night air.

“I’m sorry, I don’t even know who you are.”

“Dace. The name is Dace. Though… everyone around here calls me Ice.”

I made a face.

“Well, even if you’re called Ice you’ll freeze to death out here, you know.” I looked away from him. “I’m Lucas.”

“Mr Frank mentioned it. It’s, well, nice to meet you.”

I sighed and looked up at the sky, wrapping my arms around myself.

“Don’t you ever think about running away?” I asked. “I saw what they were making you do tonight.”

I looked around as Dace offered a faint smile.

“All the time. But I have nowhere else to go.”

I turned to face him, adrenaline flooding my veins.

“Run away with me,” I blurted without thinking. “Together, we could make it. Alone… I’m not so sure.”

Dace frowned.

“It’s not so simple as that, Lucas. I have a younger brother. He’s seven. This way… this way he get fed, and he’s kept warm and safe. He wouldn’t survive on the streets. And then, there’s all the others… Could you really leave them here?”

My reckless impulse, voiced in the heat of the moment, felt stupid already. I shook my head.

“I couldn’t leave anyway,” I admitted in a whisper. “I love him too much.”

“You’re walking a dangerous path,” he said softly.

The adrenaline rush had passed, and I felt cold, weak and shaky.

“I know,” I whispered. “But I can’t stop it.”

“Lucas, I told you to come straight back.”

I turned to see James Frank, striding towards me across the patio. He didn’t look pleased. The blood froze in my veins.

He turned his head to look at Dace, sneering as though he was something he’d found under his shoe.

“They want you back inside.”

Dace nodded and gave him a shallow bow.

“Of course, sir.”

When Dace had disappeared, James turned on me. I shrivelled under his gaze.

“Are you trying to show me up in front of all those people, Lucas?”

“No, I -“

“Well, you’re doing a bloody good job of it.”

“Please, James… I’m sorry.” I felt sick at how easily he had made me feel bad. “I’ll be better, I promise.”

“Just shut up and get inside. We’ll see if we can repair the damage you’ve done, if anyone still wants you.”

With that, he wrapped an arm around my waist and steered me irresistibly back into the party.

I did my best not to care.

* * *

The day after the party, I was still waiting to find out if anyone had bought my virginity. I was on edge, and James had barely said two words to me since we had arrived home the night before.

So, when he came out onto the balcony, looking rather pleased with himself, my heart sank.

“Did you… did you find a buyer?” I asked, twisting my hands together.

“Yes. Thankfully, a couple of people thought your antics last night were merely amusing.”

To my surprise, he stepped close to me then, and wrapped his arms around me in a hug. I pressed my face into his waistcoat, breathing in the scent of him.

“So… after that… that’s it, right?” I ventured, closing my eyes and imagining that he would hold me like this forever. “I don’t have to do this again?”

At that, he let go of me and looked at me like I was being extremely moronic.

“Are you an idiot, Lucas? This is only the beginning.”

“You – you mean, you’re going to sell me again?”

“I am.”

“But – you promised that we could be together.”

I had backed myself up against the guard rail now, curling into myself. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, though it should have hardly come as a surprise.

“Lucas, baby… after this, you’re free game.”

Without thinking, I pushed past him and ran inside, blood screaming in my ears. I felt as though I was going to be sick, as though I was going to pass out.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I had realised the truth, and I was shocked and overwhelmed.

At that moment, I wished James Frank had let me die that night I tried to kill myself.

He followed me inside and, panicking, I ran up the stairs, trapping myself.

“Lucas, you’re being stupid now. You didn’t think I was going to let you live here for free, did you?”

“I didn’t think you were going to whore me out!” I shouted, taking a couple of steps back from the edge of the stairs.

Before I knew it, he was at the top of the stairs, shouting right in my face.

“You’re an ungrateful little brat, Lucas. After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me!”

“James, I -“

I tried to calm him down, but something within him had snapped.

“If you weren’t making me a load of money, I’d fucking kill you right now! No one would fucking miss you, would they? Would they?!”

“N-no…”

It was with visible effort that James Frank said these next words calmly.

“Get in the shower. Right now, Lucas. He’ll be here soon.”

I took a deep breath, trying to tell myself to stop shaking. Trying to psyche myself up to carry out my only other option.

“You’re not going to sell me,” I said, my voice surprisingly firm.

And then, I took a step forward and shoved him down the stairs with all of my strength.

It wasn’t an accident.

I wanted to kill him. I loved James Frank with all my heart, with all my soul… and I murdered him.

Forgive me.

* * *

After I had finished my story, there was a long, strained silence. Susie’s hand had frozen on my cheek. Her breath had stopped. Even her tears seemed frozen, suspended like diamonds on her pale cheeks.

After a moment, she let out a soft breath of air.

“I forgive you,” she whispered, wiping away a tear from my own cheek with her thumb. “You did what you thought you had to do to survive.”

“He wouldn’t have killed me,” I said softly, pressing my face into her shoulder. “I was going to make him money.”

She stroked my hair calmly; she was taking this a hell of a lot better than the first time I’d told her of James Frank’s death.

“Eventually, he would have killed you, when he found some younger, prettier thing. You survived, Gabriel.”

As I hugged Susannah closer to me, I whispered, “But at what cost?”

To that, she had no answer.

But, right then, I had her, and she knew the whole truth.

And I’d finally been able to face that truth.

That was all that mattered.

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1.09 – Second Chances

A/N: Sorry this has taken so long to come out! It’s been over two months since I posted last. ;A; I’m really sorry, guys!! I don’t really have an excuse other than a pile of university work and the fact I haven’t really been myself the past couple of months. I’m working through it, though I’m still not 100%. But enough about me. :)

Hope you guys enjoy this chapter. I had to split what I was planning into two, though, otherwise this would have been a lot more exciting.You guys shouldn’t have to wait too long for the next chapter, though! :)

Cameos are from The Seabrooke Legacy and Let It Be! See if you can spot who!

Six long months have passed since the wedding, and Susie still hasn’t come back.

I can walk again and eat again, but it seems meaningless. Jamie floats around the house like a ghost, and I know I am not much better. Perhaps we have both given up.

If I can wash these plates five hundred times, Susie will come back.

No matter how much I scrub, these plates refuse to stay clean. I can see the germs, dividing, multiplying, seeping like blood into the cracks on the counter.

If I can’t get them clean, Susie will never come back.

The plates continue to bleed.

My hands burn. Sear. Ache.

The knuckles are cracked and bleeding, the skin rubbed raw. The hot water has blistered my fingers and it hurts to write.

But I must write.

The words on the page, stark and black in a void of white, prove that I’m alive.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that I’m not alone.

*

The plates won’t stay clean, no matter how much I wash them. Perhaps they are trying to tell me to give up on Susie, trying to tell me that she’s not coming back. But I can’t give up on the only hope I have.

If I wash these plates a thousand times, Susie will come back.

Clean. Please, get clean. Not dirty. Clean.

Why won’t they get clean? Why won’t the dirt come off? Why – ?

“Gabriel, if you scrub those plates any more there won’t be anything left.”

The quiet voice of Mr Moss made me start so violently that I sloshed a large amount of soapy water down my front. I wanted to reply to him, to explain that they were still dirty – couldn’t he see the dirt? – but I’d forgotten how to use my voice.

I grabbed a new plate from the side, ignoring the pain in my hands, ignoring how badly my arms were trembling.

If I wash these plates ten thousand times, Susie will come back.

“Gabriel, I swear to God, if you don’t snap out of this, I’m taking Jamie away with me. You owe him better than this.”

The threat shook me.

I withdrew my hands slowly from the sink, but I still couldn’t speak. The words had stuck in my throat, suspended in the hollowness that had drained all feeling away.

“Jamie asked me to come,” Mr Moss added softly. “More accurately, he asked Susannah to come and I came in her place. He’s worried about you and, seeing you like this, I can see why.”

At last, I found my voice.

“I’m sorry.” The words were weak, hoarse, but they were all I had. “I’m just… I thought…” My voice cracked and broke. “I want Susie back.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Mr Moss was beside me in three strides, jabbing his finger angrily at my chest.

“You should have thought about that before you fucked around, shouldn’t you?”

“It wasn’t like that, it -”

“I don’t need to hear your excuses!”

Anger – white hot, violent anger – rose up in my chest, swelling until it was hard for me to breathe.

“Well, maybe if someone actually listened to me for once, I wouldn’t be in this mess!” My voice was strong now, railing against the injustice I felt. “If Susie -”

“Don’t you dare blame my daughter for your mistakes!” Mr Moss roared.

His hands curled into fists and, for a moment, I thought he was going to punch me. For a moment, perhaps he was.

“I… I didn’t mean it like that,” I said, rather feebly.

This was only partly true. A part of me – a small part, mind you – insists that if Susie had just listened to me that night, if she had just let me explain, I wouldn’t have run away. If I hadn’t run away, I wouldn’t have met Kami.

But the rest of me knows that it was my fault for keeping the truth from her in the first place. It was little wonder that she had been so angry with me. And I also know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Susie had not forced me to have sex with Kami. That was entirely my doing. I can’t even bring myself to blame Kami for her part in it.

On the other hand, I know that if I hadn’t run away that night, Claude would have killed us whilst we slept. If I hadn’t slept with Kami and slunk back in self-disgust, Susie would be dead. I know that. It doesn’t make me feel any better, however, and it definitely doesn’t vindicate me.

But fate works in mysterious ways.

Mr Moss seemed to deflate in front of me. Now that I was no longer angry myself, perhaps, I looked even more dishevelled and pathetic than I had done when he had walked in the door.

“I don’t know why Susie insists on coming to talk to you,” he said quietly. “I don’t know why she’s even thinking of giving you a second chance.”

Hope fluttered in my chest for a brief moment before I crushed it under blunt reality. I had heard those words before, but she had never turned up. I didn’t think I could survive more disappointment.

Especially if Mr Moss took Jamie away.

My heart constricted painfully.

“I don’t deserve a second chance,” I muttered, looking away from him and staring at the floor. “I don’t deserve – perhaps you should just – just take Jamie.”

I could barely force the words out. Each one seemed wrenched from some dark place deep inside of me, some blackness I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge existed.

Now that I was no longer cleaning plates, I noticed how sick I felt. My head ached savagely and my chest was uncomfortably tight. As I moved, a wave of dizziness crashed over me and I pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to keep myself upright. Awake. How long had it been since I’d last eaten? I couldn’t even remember.

I’d let Arthur down. I’d let Jamie down. How had I let myself become such a wreck?

I hate myself.

“You’re right,” Mr Moss said quietly; he looked faintly anxious. “You don’t deserve it.” He was silent for a long moment, and then added, “I’ll talk to Jamie. Perhaps he -”

At his words, panic swelled. My chest tightened further and, for a moment, blackness threatened to overwhelm me.

And then, suddenly, I was in Mr Moss’s arms.

“Don’t take him away! Please, I’ll do anything!”

I clung to him, burying my face in his shoulder and starting to cry, even though he stiffened in my grip. After a moment, he offered one or two awkward pats on my back, evidently wanting me to let go. I just clung tighter.

“Please,” I whispered, trying to keep my voice steady though I could feel myself trembling. “Please don’t leave me here all alone.”

Mr Moss pulled away at that, but he no longer looked as angry. If I looked hard enough, I could almost convince myself that there was concern in his eyes. Strong hands gripped my arms, and I was reminded that this man could snap me like a twig if he wanted to.

Thankfully, I was not quite a twig to him yet.

“You need to look after yourself, Gabriel. If Susannah comes back to find you looking like this, what is she going to think?”

“I – I don’t know, sir.” My voice was weak again. Hoarse.

“I don’t agree with her giving you a second chance, but, if that’s what she wants, I can’t stop her. Let me tell you this, though. One more mistake from you, and I don’t care what Molly says. You don’t want a Moss as an enemy.”

“No, sir,” I whispered. “I know. I won’t hurt her, I promise.”

“Your promises don’t mean much to me, Gabriel. Prove it.”

With those final, firm words, Seeley Moss let go of me, turned on his heel and left.

*

Though Mr Moss had seemed certain that Susie would come back to me, I couldn’t make myself believe it to be true. That day passed without any sign of her, and the day after that.

Jamie seemed relieved that I was no longer washing dishes like my life depended on it. I hadn’t realised that he had been so worried about me, but then, I hadn’t really noticed much of anything. I knew from the little I saw of him that he was still hurting over Jenna and still struggling at school, but he had stopped talking much about either. The past month or so had really taken a toll on our relationship, and I hoped that it was not too late to repair the damage.

Susie had left her guitar behind. I wondered if it was deliberate. Surely she would not have left it behind if she wasn’t coming back one day? But… perhaps someone – perhaps Isaac – had bought her a new guitar, one that was much better than this one. Perhaps the guitar was like me, left behind.

At least the guitar hadn’t made a mistake. Poor guitar.

I don’t know why I did it, but I took Susie’s guitar outside and began to play. My bleeding and blistered fingers stumbled on the strings, and what I played didn’t sound remotely like a tune, but I didn’t care.

Perhaps there was a part of me that thought she might come around the corner and hear me playing, and then all of our troubles would melt away. Isn’t that how it always works in romantic films?

But, of course, she didn’t appear.

She isn’t coming back, is she?

*

A few days passed.

Jamie helped me with the gardening as much as he could, as I was still fragile and too much hard work (like bending and stretching and lifting) could reopen my wound. I had taken Mr Moss’s words to heart and had resolved to always (from now on) make Jamie my first priority.

“How’s school?” I asked him quietly. “People still giving you trouble?”

“Not really,” he mumbled, though there was some hesitation before he replied. “I mean… I think they’ve decided that avoiding me is the best thing to do.”

I was silent for a moment, straightening gingerly and picking up the other watering can, before I brought up the subject we had both been avoiding.

“Have you heard from Jenna?”

“No,” Jamie said flatly.

He was saved from any further conversation by the horn of the school bus, shattering the stillness of the morning. Jamie tossed his watering can to the ground and had taken off running before I could get out another word.

*

Some days were better than others.

Some days, left alone in the silent, empty house, all I could do was scream Susie’s name at the sky. All I could do was shout at my father, my mother, James Frank – anyone – and pretend that the silent sun was screaming back.

Other times, I could only stare in silence at my reflection in the mirror, loathing everything I saw there.

I hate myself.

*

One morning, about a week after Seeley Moss had graced me with his presence, found me in a state of panic.

Some time the previous day, a note had been shoved under my front door.

Gabe,

We need to talk. I’ll see you tomorrow.

Susie.

And now it was tomorrow and I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I had been dreaming about this day for months now – hell, it was the only thing that kept me going most days – but now it was here…

Jamie had read the note (I had flapped it at him in a state of terror the night before) and had got up earlier than he needed to. He was now bustling around the kitchen, a determined look on his face.

I flopped into a chair with a sigh.

“G’morning.”

“Morning,” Jamie said brightly, and I noticed a flicker of his old self in the way he spoke. “I’m making pancakes.”

“Pancakes?” I asked apprehensively, something cold settling in my stomach. “You’re using… the oven?”

Jamie had never really understood my (growing) fear of ovens. He, like everyone else, treated them like innocent appliances, but I knew better.

“Yes,” he said, smiling as he mixed the batter rather vigorously. “I felt you could do with a hot breakfast to prepare you for the day.”

He turned on the oven and I couldn’t help but flinch.

“I think you and Susie just need to talk, and then we can be a family again.”

Jamie didn’t look at me as he spoke, but down at the batter sizzling in the frying pan. His jaw was set mulishly and his hand was gripping the frying pan so tightly his knuckles were white.

Suddenly, I understood his earlier cheerfulness.

“You really want this to all work out, don’t you?”

“I like it when you’re happy, Gabe. I like having a family. And you and Susie were so happy…”

He trailed off, but I knew what he meant.

We were happy, before I fucked it up.

I wasn’t really sure what to reply to that, so I kept quiet as Jamie flipped the pancake out of the frying pan and managed to catch it again. I had to admit, I was rather impressed.

“Make sure you don’t burn it,” I said anxiously, my eyes darting from the on switch to the blue flame flickering beneath the pan.

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”

“Aw, crap.”

The way his shoulders slumped in disappointment made all the brightness flee from the room.

“Jamie? Are you all right?”

He was silent as he tipped the burnt pancakes onto a plate. His hands trembled slightly. I could see from his anguish that getting this right had been important to him, that everything had come crashing down now he had failed.

“Jamie?” I ventured again.

He put the serving plate down on the side with a clatter and wiped his hand angrily over his eyes.

“Jenna’s never going to want me if I can’t even make pancakes right!” he burst out.

Ringing silence followed his words. It was the closest he had come to talking about Jenna in the past few weeks, but, at that moment, I didn’t know what to say to him. Instead, I said the only think I could think of.

“They look great, Jamie. Let’s eat them up before they get cold, all right?”

Jamie sniffed and nodded wetly.

“Okay.”

I’ll say this for Jamie. The pancakes may have looked like soggy, limp black socks (sorry, Jamie), but they didn’t taste half bad.

“Have you thought of what you’re going to wear today?” Jamie asked me, shoving his pancakes morosely around his plate.

“Wear?” I blinked, surprised. “What do you mean?”

Jamie looked at me as though I was insane. Perhaps I was.

“Well, you can’t just wear that. You look awful. Plus, I have no idea when you washed that stuff.”

I had no idea either.

“I don’t know,” I said, suddenly anxious. “I don’t know if I have anything to wear… I don’t know what she’s expecting.”

Jamie shook his head with a slight smile.

“Leave it to me, all right?”

After we had finished breakfast and put our plates in the sink (Jamie forbade me from washing up), he led me into the bedroom. I was more than a little apprehensive, remembering the last time Jamie had dressed me up for a date.

“You’re not going to put me in a dress again, are you?” I asked him.

Jamie shook his head as he pulled open a drawer.

“Of course not. This is serious.”

I have to admit, he didn’t do a bad job, considering what he had to work with. I had really let myself go in the past few months.

Jamie gave me a shy little smile, and it was almost like being back before the wedding. Almost.

“I think you look great, Gabe.”

“Thanks, Jamie.”

We spent the hour before the school bus arrived talking, just like old times. It was a mark of how much Jamie loved Susannah that he stayed and talked to me about everything and nothing, evidently not wanting anything to upset my somewhat fragile balance before my big meeting with her.

I would try my best to make things work with Susie, for Jamie. Not myself. I had blown my chances long ago.

“So…” I said hesitantly when there was a lull in the conversation. “What’s happening with you and Jenna? I know you’ve been worried about me, Jamie… but I’m worried about you.”

Jamie looked stricken.

“I… I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find out where she is. I mean…” He paused and took a deep breath. “There was an article that came out about her a couple of months ago. She’s apparently the daughter of some famous rock star I’ve never heard of and she’s living with him in Bridgeport now. But Bridgeport is huge…”

“What famous rock star is going to let their daughter date someone like me?” he continued tearfully. “What if she doesn’t come back from Bridgeport because she likes it too much there? What if she never wants to see me again?”

“Jamie,” I said softly. “Knowing Jenna, she won’t give half a damn what her father thinks of you. If she wants to be with you, she’ll be with you because she wants to, not because anyone gave her permission.”

“She thinks I’m a murderer. She doesn’t know what really happened!”

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence where I reflected on how eerily similar this was to my own situation six months ago.

“You need to talk to her, Jamie. Tell her the truth.”

“I know,” he said, his voice strangled. “But it’s finding her that’s the problem.”

“Can’t you go to her mum and ask for contact details?”

“I can’t do that!” Jamie sounded horrified. “Her mum probably won’t want me anywhere near her!”

“I suppose not,” I mumbled, thinking of Mr Moss.

As though he knew what I was thinking, Jamie knelt up at my side, resting his hand on my leg and looking into my eyes. His gaze was intense.

“Gabriel, whatever you do, don’t screw today up. Please.”

“Trust me. I don’t intend to.”

At that moment, the school bus tooted its horn from outside. Both Jamie and I jumped out of our skin. I sat upright, feeling sick, as Jamie got slowly to his feet.

“Gabe… good luck,” Jamie said quietly.

I nodded silently, feeling as though I would throw up if I even opened my mouth. Today would change the whole direction of my future, I knew it.

After the bus had pulled away, I went through to the bedroom and stared into the mirror. A different man lurked there than in the past few months, but I could still see the man I had been just under the surface.

Did I really deserve this second chance?

I was inclined to think that I didn’t. But… if Susie was willing to give it to me, I owed it to both her and Jamie to make the best effort I could.

When she came through the door, we stared at each other. I had almost forgotten how beautiful she was. Sure, I had some of the photographs from the wedding, but… they could not compare to seeing Susannah in person.

She looked tired. More tired than I had ever seen her. Older somehow. I doubted that I looked much better.

But she was still the same Susannah and I knew that when she smiled – if she smiled – it would still remind me of that splintered sun. Looking at her, I felt as though my heart would break if she walked away from me again.

“Gabriel…”

She walked up to me and reached out a hand as though to touch my arm, but, catching herself, she drew it back at the last moment. I swallowed, trying to recall moisture back into my suddenly dry mouth.

“Su- Susannah.”

That one word seemed to be too much for her and she broke down in front of me, though I could see that every part of her was fighting not to.

“How could you do it? How could you – how could you do that on our wedding night?!”

At a loss as to what else to do, I reached out to touch her, to comfort her, but she grabbed my wrist.

“Don’t,” she whispered. “I can’t stand it…”

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “I’m so, so sorry. I was an idiot. The biggest idiot. I wasn’t thinking, and she didn’t want to take no for an answer and I just… I just didn’t want to hurt any more.”

Susannah shoved me away.

“You didn’t want to feel hurt any more? So you hurt me?!”

“It wasn’t like that!” I protested. “I wasn’t thinking and -“

That’s obvious,” she snapped.

My heart clenched painfully. This wasn’t going how I had wanted. I wasn’t making this better – if anything, I was making the whole situation worse.

If I could just make her understand.

Somehow, I didn’t think confessing that I would have probably jumped off the bridge if I hadn’t met Kami that night would help in the slightest.

I went for my last resort – begging.

“Please, Susie… give me another chance. I was a stupid man caught up in a stupid moment. I would never willingly hurt you, Susie. I love you. Just… please. I need you. Jamie needs you.”

Susie’s face was painful to watch. She seemed to be struggling between what she knew was the right thing to do and what her heart wanted.

“I miss you, Gabe,” she said eventually. “I really do.”

“Then please,” I whispered. “Please, let me be the husband you deserve.”

“Gabe…”

I forced a smile, trying to lighten the mood.

“Besides… your dad will kill me if I ever hurt you again, so you don’t even have to worry about leaving me…”

“You’re an idiot,” Susie said softly. “A goddamn idiot.”

“Is… is that a yes?” I asked tentatively. I hoped she wasn’t going to shout at me.

Susie took a deep breath.

“This isn’t a yes, Gabriel. It’s a… we should start again. I’m not moving back in. I’m not going to live with you as your wife. We’re going to build our relationship again from the ground up. That’s the only way this is going to work. That’s the only way I can begin to trust you again.”

The words sounded rehearsed. I knew then that she had made her decision before she had even walked through the door.

Somehow, my heart did not feel any lighter.

“I understand,” I said.

It was more than I deserved.

“I’m sorry it has to be this way, Gabriel,” Susie said, and for the first time she looked anxious. I wondered what the expression on my face was. “It’s just… I don’t want this to be a mistake.”

“No, don’t be sorry. I’m sorry it’s come to this, Susie. I wanted to make you the happiest girl in the world, but… I’ve just screwed things up.”

Susie didn’t have a reply for that. She didn’t need one.

*

We went back to the early stages of our relationship, but now there were no lies between us. It felt different to before.

Right somehow.

For the first few weeks, I was horribly worried I’d make a wrong move, that I’d destroy our relationship in its new infancy, but as the days went by, I relaxed more and more in Susie’s presence.

When Susie wasn’t working with the band, we went out on dates. We went to the library, to the diner, to the art gallery.

We went to many more places and did more things together than we ever had done before.

Jamie was happy that Susie and I were beginning to mend our relationship. On weekends, when he didn’t have a mountain of homework to do, he came with us on outings. Fishing, feeding the ducks in the park, even to the military base for a (truly horrifying) tour.

With each passing day, the old Jamie began to shine through more. He still had nightmares, he still climbed into bed with me on frequent occasions and he still cried into his pillow over Jenna, but… during the day he smiled.

Of course, not all of our dates were exactly to my taste. I agreed to do a lot of things to keep Susie happy that I would never have dreamed of doing before.

One of these things was riding a horse.

I didn’t exactly have a natural talent for it.

It didn’t help, of course, that horses are rather terrifying creatures. Why would anyone want to sit up on a creature that probably is thinking about how best to throw you off? The swaying of its back and the lurching as it moved forward was enough to send me into a nervous sweat.

Susie, of course, had no such qualms.

Things were going well between the two of us. So well, in fact, that I begun to believe that maybe, just maybe, we would be a proper family again.

I wanted nothing in the world more than that.

*

We had been dating again for a couple of months when I decided the time was right to take the plunge.

I told Susie to dress up and took her to a fancy new restaurant that had just opened up across town. My first harvest of vegetables had actually brought in a rather tidy sum, and what better way to celebrate than with a romantic dinner? I wished Jamie could have come with us, but, if I was to ask Susie to move back in with us, I knew that we needed to be alone.

I hoped I wouldn’t ruin things once more.

Thanks to Isaac Dream, who had made some phone calls on my behalf, we got a great table with a riverside view. Susie looked amazing, wearing a bright blue dress with a low back, and Isaac had lent me his spare tuxedo so I looked my best.

I ordered the salad, since this was a strange new restaurant and I didn’t want to be poisoned by undercooked meat. For some reason, Susie found this hilarious.

“I don’t believe you,” she laughed, as she tucked into her grilled salmon. “You come all the way to this restaurant for a glitzy meal and all you have is the same you always have at home.”

I stuck my tongue out at her between mouthfuls of food.

We ate most of our meal in silence, listening to the low hum of conversation all around us. For my part, I was nervously thinking about how exactly I would phrase my question later in the evening.

If possible, I felt even more scared than the day I proposed.

As for Susie, well… I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Maybe she was thinking about if she had made the right decision or not by taking me back. Or maybe… maybe she was just thinking about how awesome her grilled salmon tasted.

I looked around at the other couples in the restaurant, trying to phrase my question perfectly.

What would that man over there with the redheaded woman say? He looked like the suave, eloquent type. I didn’t think he would have any problem getting the question out.

Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.

My stomach bubbling uncomfortably, I looked over at another couple just as the man choked on whatever he was eating.

Oh, God, that was the sort of dumb thing I would do. Please don’t let me choke on my salad.

Don’t think about it, Gabe. Just do it. Just ask her.

I turned my gaze back to Susannah, who was watching me with a mildly curious expression on her face.

I gathered my courage.

“Susie, I love you. Please… come back home and be my wife?”

*

Susannah Nesaren… you complete me.

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