Disclaimer: All the normal rules apply. Do not read if you'd
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from reading this, read no further. Do not copy or reproduce, in
whole or in part, without permission of the author, Nicholas Nurse. All
material is copyright Nicholas Nurse 2003. All individuals depicted
are imaginary, and any resemblance to real persons or events, express
or implied, is purely coincidental.
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Thanks to everyone who has emailed me or sent me instant messages
since Chapter Seven was posted. I appreciate all your kind words! And
now, the moment you've all been waiting for . . . (insert drum roll here):
By Nicholas Nurse
Chapter Eight: What Follows After
Garrett stared at me for a very long time. His mouth was open. There was no sound but the crashing of the surf. Another second longer and I was sure to throw up. "Well?" I asked, a trifle impatiently. I needed an answer—any answer—because the waiting was making it hard to breathe.
"If . . . if you weren't so serious . . . I'd say you were joking," Garrett stammered. I held my breath. "But you're not," he added, quite unnecessarily. He looked down at the sand around his feet. "You're not."
In that moment, I could see his answer. I reminded myself that I came here knowing full well that this would most likely happen. It didn't help. I wouldn't cry. I mustn't cry. "I'm sorry, Garrett," I whispered. I wasn't sure if he could hear me over the sound of the waves.
"I'm sorry too," he said back, still unable to meet my eyes. "I'm sorry, Tristan, but I just . . . I can't . . . I'm sorry," he finished lamely, his voice trailing off. There was more silence, then, and in it I thought I could hear something small within me break. I wanted to say something, anything to break that awful yawning silence, but I couldn't speak past the agony that choked me. I thought the waiting had been bad. This was far, far worse. "I—I have to go," Garrett said, his voice faltering on the words. He stepped backward then, still facing me. "I'm sorry." He turned and walked back up the beach. His walk became a run.
"We—we're still friends, right?" I managed to call out as he receded into the distance. He didn't turn around. I don't know if it was because he couldn't hear me or because he couldn't answer. "Garrett?" I called. But he was already gone. I sat down heavily on the sand. Water immediately soaked through my jeans. I didn't care. I watched as Garrett's car turned out of the parking stall and up the street. After he was gone I sat there and let the water rush through me, and wondered how long it would take before the tides could bear me away.
* * *
I had no idea where I was going. All I saw was an endless succession of lampposts, like clockwork, and the passing of pavement underneath my wheels. I glanced at my dashboard clock. Almost one in the morning. My parents had probably called to see where I was; they, at least, still cared. I had turned off my cell phone. I would speak to no one. I found myself turning right and heading up a hill in darkness, the only illumination the focused white of my headlights. Just drive, I told myself. Just drive. I pulled off the main road and into a parking lot. I turned off my car. Getting out, I walked through the rows of shadows up the hill and stood there before the sad gray marker. "You knew what this is like," I whispered. I knew Mark couldn't hear me, just as I knew Julian knew the same, but it helped, somehow. I didn't know why I was here, but something had died inside of me tonight.
I turned and looked at the ocean. Moonlight brought with it cold and stabbing starkness, a silver knife through the dark velvet of the night. Suddenly I saw myself floating alone and empty in the water. Face upturned, eyes closed, I could feel a final sinking, and then I opened my eyes underwater and my hair floated like seaweed in front of my face. The moonlight sent faint and dying shafts through the darkness. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears, a roar as loud as the crashing of waves on distant shores.
Oh, I should have let the waves carry me into oblivion. I should have
let go and allowed the arms of the water to reach up and take me to its dark
heart. It would be so warm there beneath the superficial chill.
Why did he run away?
I shouldn't have even said anything. I should've carried my love in silence, like a hidden shame that remains better a secret.
Why did he leave me?
I should have loved him quietly until it was time for me to walk off of this
I should have let the surf carry me away.
I never should have opened that door. And yet . . .
And life passes so quickly, a blink of God's green eye, and I will not—
I stared at Mark's grave, the small stone that stood at the head of what
had once been a living and vibrant human being. Julian's words echoed
in my mind. This is what happens when you wait, when you're afraid.
This is the end of all things.
—will not turn and turn in circles until I dizzily stumble into death—
Julian had been right. I had made the right decision. I only needed to look at the words across stone to see that truth. But just as Julian had been denied his love, so too had I been cast aside. Over and over in my mind I saw the turning, saw Garrett at first walk away, and then run. I heard the echo of my voice, thin and wavering, as I called out to him. The red of the car lights as he drove away.
And then the vast and screaming emptiness there on the beach, where things eternal and uncaring stood unmoved. In that moment, I wanted the world to fall away, to turn to dust and become as nothing. I wanted to turn and watch the moon and sun flicker and die; I wanted the universe to give one last shuddering sigh and give over into a neverending night. I wanted to be swept away to await the end of all things. All of life is filled with pain, and any fleeting moments of pleasure are merely the universe's way of teasing us before the darkness descends over our eyes again. I was tired and more than tired. I had given up in that moment, leaned back and closed my eyes as the waves washed up and over my mouth and nose and eyes and down again. It would be so easy to let go. It would be so easy to let the water wash away the pain. I hadn't moved, but the tide was ebbing, and soon the water only rushed and sucked at my feet. Deprived of even a gentle slipping away, I rose and stumbled back to my car. Now I was here, carried from one death to another death, and I ran idle hands across the stone. There were answers here.
Why was I like this? It would be so easy if things were different. If I were straight. If I didn't have this horrible numbing weight on my shoulders, a weight that screamed of otherness, of secrets. The kiss I'd shared with Sarah burned bitterly on my lips now. There are things in this life that we cannot change. I put my arms on Mark's tombstone and rested my head on my elbows. I remembered something else Julian had said: everything in this life ends in separation and death. Beneath my fingers, I could feel the tracings of three words on Mark's epitaph. We Miss You. My eyes burned and my lips trembled. I took deep and shuddering breaths and, shaking, fell asleep.
* * *
The morning sun and a tapping on my shoulder roused me to wakefulness. I tried to open my eyes, but they were puffy and swollen. The rising sun blinded me. Groggily, I turned. A man in a blue shirt and pants was standing over me. "You can't sleep here, son," he said gruffly, putting a hand on my shoulder.
The memory of last night flooded into my head once more. "Fuck you," I muttered, tossing his hand off. I tottered to my feet. It was cold and I was still damp in places. I felt horrible.
"Hey, look, it's just my job," the man said, folding his arms across his chest. "You have to leave."
I glanced down at Mark's grave, and then over at the sea. The sun had not yet touched the waters, and they were as gray as the stones in the cemetery. I started to stumble back toward my car. "Fine. I'm fucking leaving." I unlocked my doors and slid behind the wheel, starting the engine. I ran the heater and waited for the interior to warm; I held my hands in front of the vents for a moment. They shook wildly and I did not yet trust myself to drive. I flipped open my cell phone and, sure enough, there were several messages from my parents. I did not want to hear the sounds of human voices. After listening to two of their messages, I clicked the delete button and text-messaged my dad's phone: I'm okay—fell asleep at Taylor's. I'm on my way to school now. Sorry I didn't call. There. That would get through; my dad checked his messages religiously and would report immediately back to my mom. Sure enough, within a minute, I had a reply text: We'll talk about this when we get home tonight. Have a good day. The white lie didn't really even register; there were much larger things on my mind right now. I flipped my phone closed and backed out of the lot.
I found myself in front of St. Cyril's Catholic Church. The doors to the chapel were always open; in the violet of the dawn I found the handle and let myself in. The chapel was dark inside, lit only by the votive candles of the devout. I looked at the stained-glass wall and wondered. Although my parents had raised us all Catholic, I couldn't call myself deeply religious; I had too many questions, too many doubts, to blindly follow where others led. As I watched, the dark glass began to catch and glow in the light of the rising sun. I found a match, lit a candle and knelt there on the stone floor of the chapel. For a moment, as the fingers of dawn felt at my face and the visage of the Virgin was suddenly cast into sharp relief, I could feel the vast and awesome power of the numinous. Then the light shifted and the moment passed; I was left with a pale shadow of what I had briefly known. I stared into a candle and prayed: God, if you're there, if you're real . . . please try to help me. Try not to let this hurt so much. Because right now it hurts more than anything I have ever felt before. I was still for a minute more before I rose and made my way back to my car. The sun was above the horizon now. As I sat in my car, my whole body shook.
Trembling still, I drove home.
In the shower, the water rushed over me and for a moment I felt like opening my mouth and letting it all in. If the sea would not drown me, perhaps the shower will. Then I paused and realized that death by drowning in the shower might not be the best way to go after all. I got out and toweled off and padded into my bedroom, throwing on the first clothes I found. It was eight in the morning. I wasn't at school. I didn't care. I didn't want to have to see Garrett or talk to Sarah or Taylor or Julian and tell them how everything had fallen apart. I wanted to hide away from the world and never see anyone again. I loaded my computer, but when my instant messenger service came on, I put up an away message. I was one for original away messages, so this time I wrote:
Eventually, drenched in sweat and shaking from exertion, I dropped the sword and fell heavily to the ground. I sprawled out across the floor, my breathing rapid and uneven. I had pushed harder than I ever had before in an effort to forget. I turned my face to one side and I could see my reflection in the blade. Gray on gray made endless mirrors spiraling deeply inward. I closed my eyes. I did not want to look into those eyes; I did not want to look into myself.
I think I slept there, or passed out. The next thing I remember was glancing at the clock and noting that it was three in the afternoon. What had woken me up? I rose, body aching, and sheathed the katana once again. Stumbling down the hallway, I heard again what must have roused me. A knocking at the front door. Irritation flared as I tottered down the stairs and looked through the peephole.
Oh, God damn. It was Jared. Was it Wednesday already? I was supposed to tutor him and help him with his strokes today. I'd forgotten all about that. With a sigh, I rested my head against the door. My shoulders shook. I stayed like that for a moment and, the next time I glanced at the peephole, Jared was turning, shrugging and walking back toward his mom's car.
I couldn't be a disappointment like that. Not after the promises I'd made to Mrs. Luceri and not after everything I'd told Jared the day we'd had lunch together. I opened the door. "Jared," I called softly.
He turned around. "Tris!" he said. "I didn't see you in school today. Are you alright? You look terrible."
"I'm fine," I lied. I waved and tried to smile at Mrs. Luceri. I'm sure it looked horrible. Nonetheless, she smiled back and drove off; she would be back to pick up Jared within an hour and a half. I figured I could stand human contact for that long. "Listen, I was working out upstairs; I need to shower quickly. So head on up to the study and just get started on some of your homework and then we'll hit the pool after that."
Jared nodded. "Alright, that's fine. I have a page of math to do and then a few questions to ask you about this essay we're doing on the Renaissance. Anyway, uh . . . are you sure you're okay?" He glanced down at the katana in my hands. "Why're you holding a sword?"
"Oh, this? This is a katana." I pulled it out of the sheath and held it out in front of me. "I was . . . clearing my mind and practicing forms with it."
Jared's eyes were wide. He took a step backwards. "Ah . . . can you put that away? It's making me nervous."
"Don't worry, I know what I'm doing," I said as I put the katana back in its scabbard. I turned and walked up the stairs. "I'll meet you in the study in ten minutes." I walked into the bathroom and shut the door; Jared stopped at the study, which was a bit further down the hall, between the bathroom and my room. Quickly this time, I showered and hopped out. I realized that it was good that Jared was here. He knew nothing of what had passed between Garrett and myself, and talking to him was a distraction from the darker things that weighed on my mind. I walked down the hallway in my towel and poked my wet head into the study. Jared was seated at the desk in front of the window. He was bent over his books, blond hair in his face, writing on a piece of lined paper. He was tapping one bare foot on the wood floor as he worked. He must've left his sandals by the door, then. "How's it going?" I asked.
"Almost done," he said without looking up. "Seven more left to go." I leaned against the doorframe, idly watching him work. He glanced up. "Tris!" he said, shocked. "You're—practically naked!"
I almost smiled. Almost. "I'm wearing a towel," I said, gesturing downward. "You've seen me in my boardshorts plenty of times." I turned and went into my room to change.
When I emerged, Jared was on the last problem in the set. When he was done, he set down his pencil and looked at me. "Tris, something's bothering you," he said. "I can see it in your face." He closed his book and slipped it into the bag at his feet. "I'm not going to pry. But like I said, I'm your friend and if something's wrong . . . you know I'd want to help."
I stared out the window. It was easier than looking at Jared. "I had a bad day yesterday, Jared," I said. "Let's just leave it at that."
Jared hid his disappointment well, but I could read it in the set of his mouth. I knew he wished I'd trust him more, but it just wasn't possible for me to do so. I do not ration out trust easily. "Listen, Jared," I started. "It's not that I don't trust you, okay? It's that I don't want to talk about something that's so painful and at the same time so fresh in my mind. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, I do," Jared said. Then he did something that thoroughly surprised me. He wrapped his arms around me in a tight hug and then just as quickly let go. He stepped back and looked a little embarrassed. "Sorry, Tris . . . I just—"
"Shh, don't apologize," I said, reaching forward to put my arm across his shoulders. "You're probably the most honest person I know, Jared. Don't change. Don't ever change." So many people allowed their candor to be burned out of them over time. I did not want to see that happen to Jared. "Now," I said, pulling back for a moment, "I think we ought to hit the pool before we look at any other homework. What do you say?"
Jared grinned. I wished with everything in me that I had the strength to smile back. I think I tried. "Sounds good to me," he said. "Should I leave my stuff in your room?" I nodded; I'd already put on my boardshorts. Jared threw his bag in the corner of my room and stripped off his shirt and shorts. Underneath, he was already wearing his boardshorts. If he made the swim team, he'd have to get used to wearing a Speedo, but for the time being, boardshorts would suffice. Swim team tryouts were in a week, and Jared was in excellent shape for them; I was privately sure he was a shoo-in for the team. He had a natural talent for swimming and diving and was born with the thin, wiry body of a swimmer. His genetic lack of body hair certainly helped, too; here was one swimmer who wouldn't need to reach for a razor the day before a big meet.
I grabbed two towels and headed in the direction of the pool. "Today we're going to work on the breaststroke," I said. "Your left arm is a bit weaker than your right. You don't get the full range of motion out of that side."
Jared grinned and raised both hands to his chest, pantomiming rubbing his own nipples. "I seem to do just fine out of water," he said.
I rolled my eyes. "Don't flatter yourself," I said. Jared laughed and ran in front of me, turning a cartwheel as he went. Normally, I'd run alongside him, but not today. Today I had not the energy nor desire to run.
"Lighten up, Tris!" Jared called as he turned another cartwheel. He ran to the side of the pool and dived in. He popped to the surface. "I'm just playing, you know," he said seriously. "I don't like to see you look so down."
"Get to the edge of the pool and warm up," I said, ignoring his comments. As he swam, an image of Garrett flashed inside my head and was gone again. I sat down heavily. I wondered what he was doing right now. Probably laughing somewhere. Had he told everyone at school that I'd—I'd—no, no use thinking about that. No use thinking about him at all. Thoughts of Garrett were filled with nothing but pain. I couldn't believe he'd walked away. At the very least, I thought he'd be understanding, even if he turned me down. I hadn't imagined he'd turn away from me entirely.
"Hey, Tris?" Jared called from the edge of the pool. He'd finished his warm-ups, I figured; I'd been too distracted to notice. He leaned over the side of the pool, arms crossed on the concrete lip, chin resting on his forearms. "Are you gonna come in or not?" Without waiting for an answer, he flipped backward, executed a rather deft racer's turn and swam toward the other end of the pool.
I set my towel aside and dived in after him. "Alright, to the far end of the pool," I called when I surfaced. I looked around. Jared was nowhere to be seen.
A slight splash and a giggle were the only warnings I had before I was suddenly pushed under the water. Jared had put all his weight on top of my shoulders; underwater, he waved, grinned and pushed off of my legs, swimming away before I could grab him. I swam toward him underwater; I was still the faster swimmer between the two of us. Snagging his leg, I dragged him backward and pulled at his boardshorts. When they started to slip dangerously low, I let Jared free. We bobbed to the surface at the same time. Jared was in hysterics and could barely catch his breath. "I wish I'd seen your face!" he said between laughs.
"I'm certain it wasn't pleasant," I said. "Next time I'll pull them right off."
"See what I care," Jared said. With a grin, he waved his boardshorts around in the air.
My jaw dropped. "Jared!" I said, scandalized. He grinned, ducked underwater, put them back on, and came up again. "You're lucky I didn't snatch them out of your hand and run in the house," I said, a smile finally making its way across my face. It faded quickly, but it was a smile nonetheless.
"I just would've chased you," he said nonchalantly, shrugging his shoulders. "And maybe gone and ran out into the street to embarrass you." With that, he lunged at me and pushed us both underwater again.
Not a whole lot of instruction got done that day, but I think, in retrospect, that Jared planned it that way. He was a bright boy, and more and more perceptive each time we talked. By the end of the day, we hadn't gone over any strokes or looked at any of his homework, but when he left I ruffled his hair and had a genuine smile on my face. I think that, more than anything, was what he'd been after all along.
* * *
I finally flipped on my cell phone sometime in the late evening. A long discussion had taken place at the dinner table, but it was primarily my parents chastising me for not being home the previous night—something I'd never done before—and asking me if everything was alright. I had told them that Garrett and I had fought, and that's why I had been so upset, and that I'd gone and fallen asleep at Taylor's house after we'd talked about it. They accepted that and let me off the hook. When my mom saw me moping around, she gave me some dishes to dry and then told me to run along before I made the milk go sour.
I had seven unheard messages, so I scanned through them quickly. Two were from Taylor, one from Julian, two from Sarah, one from Jared and another from Liza, who obviously were unaware of the other's call. Liza's was the most interesting; she seemed to know nothing of what had transpired, which indicated that Garrett hadn't told her, or perhaps anyone else, what had happened. That was interesting. She also said that Garrett hadn't been in school that day either. I would've pondered that comment a little longer, but even thinking about Garrett was painful. Instead I listened to Jared's message, which had no mention of Garrett. Hanging out with Jared that afternoon had been a blessed relief; because he was totally oblivious to anything dealing with Garrett's and my friendship, he didn't even ask awkward questions or mention Garrett's name.
Listening to Julian's, Taylor's and Sarah's messages brought me back to reality, however; each of them had called for the predictable reason, to see how it had gone, and then both Taylor and Sarah had called again, worriedly wondering why I wasn't in school that day. I knew that at some point I'd have to face the music and acknowledge what had happened.
Just then, my phone rang in my hands. With a sigh, I hit the "Talk" button.
"This is Tristan."
"Hey Tris, it's Taylor. I've been waiting to hear from you. From the looks of things, it didn't go well."
I sighed and rubbed a hand across my face. "I don't really want to talk about it."
"I'm sure you don't, but that won't make it go away," Taylor said. He waited.
Taylor made a frustrated noise. "Look, Tris, you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. But it won't get any better. The more you stew inside, the worse it'll get."
I knew he was right, but the words could not pass through my throat. It was a raw place inside of me and I didn't want to let anyone in to see the wound. Something had been ripped out of me and I wasn't ready to probe that tear. "Tomorrow, Taylor. Tomorrow is Thursday. We'll talk about it after school."
"So you're actually going to show up tomorrow?"
"Even if Garrett is there?"
"Yes. I'll talk to you then." I was irritated now. "Goodbye." I clicked my phone shut before Taylor could respond. Maybe he'd get me to talk about what had happened, but I didn't have to pretend that I liked it. I set my phone aside and rolled into bed. I closed my eyes and fell almost immediately asleep.
My dreams were troubled and filled with water.