And of course, part of what you read is due to Eliza's talented beta, help and support.
I see him walk down the stairs, and I know he's leaving for work, so I grab his car keys and hide them under my palm, wait as he looks around, his eyes eventually resting on me. It's useless. He looks down and my hand becomes alien and somewhat repulsive under his hard gaze. He wins in the end, as always. I push the car keys towards him and he grabs them before leaving without a word. I stay there, sitting at the breakfast table, disheartened.
"You know? Both of you?" Holly gets up, shrugs. "You get on my nerves. I think you should try and grow up."
Then she slams the door behind her and disappears inside the garage. I'm alone now. I drink my coffee slowly, push away my untouched plate and sigh. It has become difficult to get up an appetite lately. Breakfast's never been my favorite meal, except when Chris prepared it for me just after early morning sex. Seems that this, like so many other things I never thought to notice, is gone forever.
It's been 24 days and 6 hours exactly. 3 weeks of "Keller special treatment", meaning not a single world, not even "Hi", not a look and above all, 24 restless nights tossing and turning in a lonely bed while Chris sleeps in the guest room, showers in the guest shower, lives among us like a ghost, his mere presence a constant blame, each look a punishment. Silent meals, silent evenings, and Holly spending as much time out as she can, waiting for a lull. Harry works a lot at the garage, taking more and more responsibility, forgetting more and more often to come home, but Chris keeps an eye on him, like he does for everyone here, and thanks to him my son's been on the straight and narrow for two years now. No alcohol, no drugs. But he doesn't care much about me, these days. More about his bike and his friends... Sometimes it seems Harry's more Chris' son than mine.
"You should find a way to make it up to him." Holly told me yesterday. "This can't last indefinitely."
I've tried. 10 days ago, I managed to trap Chris in his bathroom as he was shaving and tried to explain. I really did. He listened to me, put down the razor, grasped the sink, his face cold, and just snapped: "Get out!" I did what I was told. Life is strange: I'm very good at apologizing when I'm not sincere. It's easy. It's part of my job, after all. But here, the way I feel about myself now, ashamed, disgusted, afraid of losing him, makes it impossible to say anything smart and heartfelt.
24 days of hell since the moment I parked the car down the alley, walked up to the main door and saw him standing there, arms crossed, just two feet ahead of me. Shit. Chris wasn't supposed to be home that night. I felt something cold creep inside me. Fear.
"Having a sweet night, Beecher?" he asked in a deceptively soft voice.
I didn't move, my fingers clenched around the car keys.
"How long have you been cheating on me?" The tone was harder now.
I sighed. Ok, the man's hurt, the man's angry, the man's dangerous. When you know Chris like I know him, when you know every single way he moves, talks, smiles, just stands there watching you, you can tell. He spoke so low that I could barely hear him, smiling a very friendly, understanding and frightening smile. I couldn't see his eyes. I didn't need to. Run away! I thought, but my feet didn't move and you don't run away so easily from someone you've been living with for 10 years.
"Why do you do it?"
I sat down on the stairs.
"I feel trapped. You're too much to handle."
And that sounded lame and stupid. But it was true. He laughed but it didn't sound like a real laugh. "Fucking liar. The truth is you're the most selfish faithless bitch I ever knew. And too weak to turn down a good fuck."
His voice was a low growl, the kind that usually turns me on. But not then. I suddenly felt cornered and tired.
"Right! That's pretty funny, coming from you." He knows how to make me angry, too. "Who are you to lecture me? A model of virtue?"
I see his body stiffen and he glares at me. "I never cheated on you, Beecher."
Silence fell between us.
The night was wet and cloudy, the sky starless, it was very late, around 2am; silent streets, silent house, silent lovers, enemies facing each other, polishing fatal weapons. I stood up, brushed against him as I passed the door, then walked inside, and began to climb the stairs, heading for my office.
The last thing I wanted that night was to sleep near Chri, but he caught me half way with a cry of rage, threw me down on the floor, and we rolled down the stairs, entangled, fighting, panting, each of us eager to hurt, wound, harm.
I'm not a great fighter but I felt cornered, physically, emotionally and I fought him with everything I had, even though I knew he was too strong, too determined. I knew he'd win in the end and when he did, he dragged me upstairs into our bedroom and beat me black and blue with the fascinating concentration he shows when we make love.
I didn't yell, didn't struggle. I didn't know if Holly or Harry were home so I muffled my cries the best I could, giving in to the blows raining down on me, not even trying to escape his fists, his knees, his feet and when he stopped, breathless, and stepped back, I kept completely still. That's what animals do to let their aggressor think they're dead.
Let him know you're defeated, Beecher.
The blood was rushing in my ears, its metallic taste in my mouth; my whole body was throbbing with excruciating pain, I felt numb, and I barely registered the key turning in the lock when he left. After a while, I crawled to the door and stayed there, curled up. I knew he was still there, sitting, his back against the door. I could hear him breathe hard.
Was he crying? I ran my hand against the wooden door where I supposed his back to be, my face damp with tears, and waited. I must have dozed off and when I woke up, the bedroom was bathed in the light of a bright spring day. My body hurt so much I could hardly move, so I just lay there on my back, a hand on my eyes to protect them against the sun.
After that he stopped talking to me. I was set free the following afternoon, managed to shower, dress, hiding my wounds as best as I could, and called in sick until Monday. Four days wouldn't be enough to heal, I was sure of that, but my face didn't look so bad: Chris is not that thoughtless, he knew I'd have to face people, face the kids.
I remember one of Gen's friend whose husband, a doctor, used to beat her repeatedly. One day she drove to our place bruised and crying, begging us to hide her for some days, and we tried to convince her to leave him, press charges again him, but even when she seemed to agree, she never did. Gen explained me that her friend was convinced she deserved it. Low self-esteem. At the time, I thought she was stupid. But now... Chris and I, we'd fought before, but that, a cold-blooded beating, it had never happened before and maybe I should follow my own wise advice and leave. But press charges against Chris? Get real, Beecher! The FBI had been waiting for that to happen for years and I hadn't given them this satisfaction. Plus I'd lose Chris. I didn't want to lose Chris. Even now, I need him more than anything.
And most of all, I deserved it. I'd been cheating on him for weeks. How many times? How many girls? Too many. He knew from the beginning, probably, but to some extent, he considers that I'm free, that he owes me and has no right to bother me with that. Maybe he still feels I'm the better one in our twisted couple. Bullshit. He stopped me from drinking, got Gen out of our way, made me love him no matter what and loved me in return, made me feel good, happy and safe. And now, I'd fucked that girl in my office, on my own desk, I'd taken her to a fancy restaurant and what had I expected?
"This is Keller you're living with, you moron, not a nice uptown guy who will cry his pain out, his face in the pillow while you're trying to explain."
That's what I'm thinking about, still sitting at the table in our empty house.
"You could be his next victim, Mr Beecher," a man from the FBI had warned me, showing me horrible pictures of Chris' presumed victims as I was questioned in my own office uptown, in the fading light of a cold winter afternoon. But maybe he could be mine, Mr Special Agent. There are so many smart ways to kill someone, and I seem to be quite good at a few of them.
I have to stop that. I have to before it makes me crazy. I clear the table away and go out, sit on the stairs where it all began, let my eyes roam over the garden, first flowers blowing under a shy sun. But there's no beauty in the world that can take my mind away from him. What do I miss most? His look? His smile? His body against mine, inside mine, over mine? The barrier his mere presence raises between the world and I, the fear and I? I don't know. I've been cut off from a part of myself and I spend nights and days trying to get it back but it's like trying to catch the wind; he slips between my fingers. So I just stay still, as still as I can, hoping that he won't go away, won't leave me. And just making sure every morning he's not gone is a relief.
In the beginning, I thought he was punishing me, trying to drive me crazy; I felt angry, I wanted to yell at him, force him to react. I shoved him against the wall, shook him, slapped him, hit him to get something from him, anything. But he kept watching me with his dark blue pained eyes and pushed me away like I was some annoying stranger. I felt invisible and transparent, I felt negated and cast away. Now, I'm not sure of anything anymore. I think maybe he's not planning anything, not trying to go anywhere. He's probably just as hurt as I am. This idea makes me frown; I stretch my legs, lean against the wall to catch a warm sunray before it's hidden behind a cloud. Frozen by pain, unable to react, avoiding me because he's afraid of what he could do. Wondering about the how and the why, wondering if keeping me is worth such pain, is worth tearing out his own heart, letting disappointment and bitterness wash over him. If he would only ask "Why do you cheat on me?" I know what I'd say. But Chris doesn't care much about the reasons. He cares about the facts. Fuck the reasons why you did it, you just did it. He would be a terrible judge, and I guess he wouldn't give a damn about mitigating circumstances.
Until now, I think, standing up and beginning to pace the terrace in the soft breeze, I believed that he knew what he was doing, that things would go back to normal when he wanted them to. But that's probably not the way he works. He probably expects me to make a move, any move, to prove to him that my love is still worth fighting for.
I've thought about almost anything I can imagine. Stupid things, like getting blind drunk, or throwing myself out the window and getting badly hurt to show how much I ache for him, force him to care. Of course I won't. People do that, challenge death to prove others what lengths they're ready to go to have them back but... Not me. And I can't imagine how Chris would react.
I remember running into Ronnie, the other day. I'd gone to the garage to bring Harry back home, and Chris had already left, so he didn't have to see me, but Ronnie, as any good old friend would do, had stayed with my son to give him a hand. He works for Chris from time to time, when he's not too stoned, when he's not too lazy, when he needs money too badly. When I came in, he rested his eyes on me and whistled. And while Harry was putting on clean clothes, he whispered, "You look like shit, Beecher. You should eat more." I just nodded, my throat tight with pain. "Chris is giving you a hard time, isn't he?" I nodded again "Been fooling around a lot?" "Too much, I suppose."
He sighed, combed his fingers through his hair. "Too bad," he said "but you know Chris, he's not the sharing type." "I know."
He laughed. "Yeah? So that's why you do it? Fooling around like that?" He shook me softly. "Hey, he's waiting. Make it up to him, Beecher. That's what he needs. Believe me, I've been his friend for a very long time now."
Maybe not the friend I'd wish for Chris, but Ronnie's better than none, after all. I didn't find a word to answer, and Harry was back, anyway, giving me a stern look. I gave Ronnie a tentative smile and left.
Now clouds have swallowed the sun, night has swallowed the day, it's a bit chilly outside but I'm still sitting there when he comes back. He takes his time to close the car door, put on his jacket and walk towards me. He walks too lazily, he's too cool to be quite comfortable. I catch his ankle as he passes by, and he shakes himself free.
"I had a talk with Holly, the other day." I call out. He stops. He's concerned with my children, always. He's been like that since the day Gen died. He failed with Gary, fought for Harry, but Holly's his favourite. "She told me how lucky I was. That if you weren't with me, she'd take a chance on you."
He's on the threshold, wondering if this is worth breaking the thick layer of ice between us, his expression wary.
"Yeah? She's a kid."
"She's 19. She's not a kid. She told me she didn't understand what it was about me that makes you so crazy."
He shrugs. He mumbles.
"She said you're so beautiful, and I'm not so hot, that I'm getting old and do I think you'll still want to fuck me when I'm 55?"
This time he turns to me. "Holly said that? I don't believe you." "Yeah? Ask her, then!"
He watches me intently. "You're shameless, you know that? Using your own daughter to get at me..." "I'm not using my daughter, Chris. You're a beautiful man and I don't know why you're with me. I'm 46 and whatever you say, I'm not so hot. You are."
The darkness surrounds us; it's getting really cold and he pulls me inside, closes the door. "Is that kind of an excuse for you fucking every girl you meet?"
I won't start a fight over that. I don't fuck every girl I meet, but I know he knows that.
"I've no excuse for that," I say. "I'm just trying to explain."
"Then go on. Explain." He's challenging me, his face close to mine.
"I'm sorry," I begin.
"Oh? So you know the magic word!" His voice hurts like a whip and I stiffen. "It's a stupid word. I'd like another one. A better one to tell you how bad I feel. I have a lot of regrets about the way I've behaved lately because I didn't consider the pain I was inflicting on you." I hate that. God, how I hate that. I'm so good at it, when I have to, but I hate saying it when it's true. It makes me feel vulnerable and guilty. As long as I don't confess, I don't feel that bad. As long as I don't confess, there's nothing real.
"You always look so tough, I didn't want to acknowledge that you could suffer. I know you did. The girl? She meant nothing to me. I just needed to know..." I hesitate, trying to choose the best words. "If I was still the man I was before. Before you. Before you made me someone else. Sometimes, it's frightening. Don't you ever doubt? I mean... Us?"
He watches me for a whole endless minute. "Right now, I do. I don't doubt me. I doubt you." "Yeah. I had that coming, I guess." It's so hard, fuck, it's so hard and he doesn't try to make it any easier, just watching me like that, waiting. "I love you, Chris. Don't doubt that, at least. I fucking love you more than anyone on this fucking planet."
He breaths deeply, shakes his head. "That's not enough."
"Tell me what's enough, then."
He tilts his head on the side, considering me and sighs. "I don't know. You've gone too far, Beecher. You'd promised already... And you went and did it again... Why should I trust you?" It can't end that way. I don't want it to. That won't happen.
"Give me a second chance. I deserve it," I say, giving boldness a try. "What?" he snarls angrily "A second chance? You deserve it? Fuck! What for? Being faithless and cheating on me? Is that why?"
I didn't turn you down into the FBI, you fucker. I live with you knowing what you've done and who you once were. I let you come near my kids... And I fucking trust you. I do.
"I trust you." I say. "You may not trust me, but I trust you. I know you're good to me. I know you're strong. I know you're the one that keeps this thing between us going. Just for that, I deserve it."
"I beat you up."
"Yeah, I remember. It still hurts."
He looks stunned. He watches me thoroughly. "I'm not sure I can. I'm not sure I can stand you by my side remembering what you've done to me. What I've done to you."
There's a long silence. He watches something far above my shoulder, and I keep watching him, searching on his face some sign that could give me hope. Time seems to stretch endlessly between us, I'm cold and I begin to shiver. Please let him take me back. Just for this time. I'll do anything for that. He misses me as much as I miss him, I'm sure about that.
"Did you like fucking her?" He finally asks, his eyes coming back to me, roaming over my face the way they usually do. "Yes." I don't know what I'm supposed to say.
"Good. Because Beecher, I tell you, you're not topping anyone anytime soon."
I breathe deeply. I can't believe what I'm hearing and I sag against him, but he holds me at arm's length. "I think you should show me how deeply sorry you are." His voice is rough, but I hear something new in it... Need. I know all about that. I can make the need go away.
His eyes shine like precious stones, sapphires mercilessly fixed on mine as I fall on my knees on the cold tile floor. And while I work my mouth and my tongue on his cock thoroughly, relearning every feeling, every taste, every noise and the painful grasp of his fingers in my hair, I hear his softly menacing voice. "Last time, Toby. Last time. Don't ever do that to me again."
I'm not forgiven. The pain will not go away so easily. He won't forget so easily. I know he'll keep an eye on me, watch me, maybe stalk me and make sure I behave before he decides to really take me back inside his wary heart. That what's happening now... It's only a truce. It's up to me to turn it into peace or war. And when he comes deep in my throat, I know my choice is made. He helps me stand up. I want to kiss him but he turns his face away. He's shivering, he's hot, his hand is on my dick and he sighs.
"Harry will be back soon. Let's go upstairs. I don't want to fuck you on the carpet. C'mon. Let's go." Can happiness be just that? Just his hand so warm on me, his fingers tightly holding the nape of my neck, and his voice urging me on? Yes, it can be just that. Soon, we're in the room, I strip as he watches me.
"No more girls. No more cheating. Nothing."
"Nothing. I swear."
"And you're hot enough for me, OK? Doesn't matter what anyone else thinks, even your daughter, don't listen to them." "I won't."
"You'd better, Beecher, trust me on that." I nod, and he pulls me on the bed. By the way he fucks me, I know he's still mad at me, but I'll manage. I'm good at that. I'll manage.