Authors: Noelle Adams
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
“My team at work is having a cookout tomorrow,” he said, when the next commercial came on.
He paused, as if I was supposed to respond, so I just said, “Really?”
“Yeah. In the afternoon. Do you want to come with me?”
The invitation startled me, and I stared at him for a minute. He obviously wasn’t asking me out. There was nothing like that in our relationship and, if I’d sensed even a hint of it, I would have shut him out of my life completely. I was mostly surprised he would ask me to do something he must know I didn’t want to do.
I’d made it very clear since I’d left the Center that I didn’t want to be around a lot of other people.
“It will be really low-key. We can leave any time you want.”
I frowned and took a sip of water, mostly for a reason to stall. “I don’t think so,” I said at last, as I lowered the bottle.
Now he was frowning. “Why not? You might have a good time.”
“How do you know?”
Now I was getting annoyed with him. As always, I tried to force down the feeling, since it made me feel like an ungrateful ass. “Because I know. I’m not up to hanging around with a bunch of strangers.”
“It won’t be like that. They’ll be grilling and playing volleyball and there will be kids around to distract everyone. You won’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want. It might be good for you to get out a little.”
“I’ll decide what’s good for me.” My arm was hurting from my wrist all the way up to my shoulder, so I assumed I’d pulled something the night before when I was working out. I rubbed at the pain unconsciously and tried not to scream at Gideon. “You don’t get to make choices for me.”
“I’m not trying to make choices for you.” His voice was rough with impatience. “I just think you’re not letting yourself get back into life, and I don’t see how it can possibly be good for you.”
“I’ll decide what’s good for me,” I gritted out, using the same words I’d used before because I couldn’t think of another reply. “I don’t want to go.”
“Okay. Fine.” He leaned back against the couch, taking another gulp of his beer, and I could tell he wasn’t happy with me.
I didn’t care. I wasn’t happy with him either.
I felt frustrated and jittery and upset, and I really needed him to leave soon so I could get back on the elliptical trainer.
“Did you hurt your arm?” Gideon asked.
I blinked in surprise, and he nodded down at my arm, which I was still rubbing compulsively.
I dropped my hand immediately. “Not really. It’s just a little tendonitis or something.”
He reached over and took my wrist in his hand, and I jerked away from him immediately.
“What the hell?” he asked, his eyes searching my face in that intrusive way again. “I was just going to rub it for you.”
I didn’t want him to. I didn’t want him to touch me. I wanted him to just go away so I could push myself into battered oblivion again. But, if I objected, it would just give him more ammunition for his concerns, so I relented and stretched my arm out.
He took it again and very gently started to rub the inside of my wrist.
I tried to relax back against the couch so he wouldn’t see that it bothered me. His eyes were focused on the television, as if his massage was simply an afterthought, hardly on his radar at all. But his touch seemed strangely careful, starting softly and growing more firm as he moved slowly from my wrist up to my elbow.
He had to touch me over my sleeve as he moved up my arm, since I was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt. It was a warm night, but I felt safer without any skin showing, so I never wore tanks and shorts anymore.
He didn’t say anything. He seemed to be thinking only about sports. But he kept up the massage for a long time.
It actually felt good. Really good. Easing the sore muscles, soothing them with pressure, causing pleasant sensations to ripple up through my shoulder. His fingers were strong and gentle at the same time, and I didn’t really understand how they could be both.
I took a shuddering breath and tried to pretend I wasn’t reacting. But I was. I was.
I didn’t want it to feel good. My body couldn’t feel good. It didn’t match how the rest of me felt, and so it was a jarring incongruity. Upsetting in a way I couldn’t articulate.
Something inside me was shaking, but I used all the will I could muster to force it down, to keep the shaking from moving into my body.
He was just rubbing my forearm. He hadn’t even moved past my elbow.
He’d massaged back down to my wrist, and I thought he was nearly finished. But then he started up my arm again, and this time his fingers were under the fabric, pushing up my sleeve as he went.
It felt even better and even worse. He was touching my skin, and the resulting sensations were pleasant, soothing, really good. And I simply couldn’t feel good.
For the first time, I looked over at him, trying to figure out a way to tell him to stop without worrying or offending him. But, as I looked over, I saw he wasn’t watching TV anymore. He was looking down at my inner forearm and the inside of my elbow.
And I knew—I
—what he was doing. He was checking it. Because I always wore long sleeves. He was checking to see if I was cutting myself or doing drugs or something. He was using the excuse of the massage to pry even more.
I jerked my arm out of his grip and glared at him coldly, pushing my sleeve back down.
He saw the look and understood it. He knew I knew what he’d been doing and how I felt about it, so I didn’t have to say anything.
He wasn’t actually wrong. It just wasn’t taking the form he suspected.
We sat in silence for a couple of minutes, the only sounds in the room from the television. He was looking at me, but I wasn’t looking at him. I was staring down at the bottle of water I’d picked up.
“Diana,” he said at last.
“What?” I snapped out the one word, more harshly than I’d intended.
“I’m not trying to crowd you.”
“Well, you’re managing to do it anyway.”
“You might not believe me, but I’m trying really hard not to. I just worry about you.”
“Well, I don’t want you to worry about me. I don’t like it. So just stop.”
He made a brief, guttural noise that might have been an ironic laugh or might have been an exclamation of disbelief. “You think I can just stop thinking about you?”
“Well, that’s how I feel too. I can’t make myself get better and be normal again. And you’re expecting me to. Everyone is expecting me to. But I can’t do it.” My voice broke a few times, and I didn’t like the emotion I heard in it, so I cleared my throat and tried to stop the shaking that was still rising inside me.
I wasn’t about to cry, though. Dr. Jones had asked at our last session when was the last time I’d cried, and I didn’t have an answer for her. I couldn’t even remember.
“I am not expecting you to just make yourself better overnight.” Gideon sounded almost offended, which was unusual enough to get my attention. “Do not attribute that motive to me.”
“Well, that’s what it feels like, with all your watching and scrutinizing and analyzing every move I make.”
He leaned over to put his beer on the coffee table. The bottle was empty anyway. “That is not what’s happening here.”
happening? What exactly do you expect of me?”
“I don’t expect anything except for you to be honest with me. Or with anyone, really. And I don’t really think you are.”
He’d gotten closer to me in his urgency, and I scooted away slightly, since his intense presence and big body was too close, too troubling. “I’m being as honest as I can right now.”
It was a lie, but it was one I thought would pass, since it was close to the truth.
“No, you’re not. You’re hiding everything you really feel. You’re playing this part you think other people want to see. You’re acting like you’re getting better when I know that something important isn’t right. I
it, Diana. And I’m going to keep looking for it until you tell me what it is.”
I jumped to my feet, feeling assaulted and cornered by his words. “What right do you have to expect anything from me? I didn’t even know you a few months ago. We might as well still be strangers. Going through one horrible night together doesn’t suddenly make us best friends. What gives you the right to pry into my privacy this way?”
I was breathing too heavily and felt naked and exposed, even as the harsh words came pouring out. To escape, I carried my nearly empty water bottle into the kitchen. I dumped the remainder into the sink and put the plastic bottle in the recycling. Then I stood in front of the counter for a minute and took a few ragged breaths.
Gideon was still sitting on my couch. He hadn’t moved. I couldn’t seem to get rid of him the way I wanted.
Finally, I went back, carrying a new bottle of water.
He was watching me silently as I walked over and sat back down on the couch beside him.
“You’re not going to push me away by saying things like that,” he said after a moment. “So you might as well not even try.”
I knew he was telling me the truth, so I thought for a minute and took a different approach. “Despite what everyone says, pouring out all your innermost feelings doesn’t really fix things. I did all that at the Center. It didn’t help.”
“See, I don’t think you were really talking through your feelings even then. You were just giving people what they expected.”
I had absolutely no idea how he knew that. But it was true. It was entirely true. And I resented it. “You have no right to assume something like that about me.”
“Maybe not. But I do.” He pushed a hand through his thick hair. It was getting longer now, and his fingers mussed it so that it stuck out in various directions. “Diana, I’m really not trying to make you mad. I just want you to be honest. No matter what the truth is.”
“What good will that do? What possible good will spilling out all kinds of horrible things do, except make you feel horrible too?”
He gave another rough burst of sound—either bitter amusement or disbelief. “Do you think I don’t feel horrible right now? I know it’s not going to fix things, but—if nothing else—maybe you won’t feel so alone with it.”
All the anger dropped out of me like the air from a popped balloon. I was shaking inside and out as I stared down at my twisted hands in my lap. “I am alone with it.”
“No, you’re not.” His voice was so loud and so impassioned that I almost jumped. And then I almost jumped again when he reached over and placed one hand over both of mine. “No, you’re not, Diana. Don’t you dare think so. I was there.”
I couldn’t possibly shape a word or else something unspeakable would shatter to pieces inside me. I just kept staring down at his big hand on both of mine and shook my head.
He used his other hand to tilt my head up so I had to look at him. “I was there, Diana. I was there with you. I couldn’t stop it, but I was in that room with you.”
But they’d pulled me out of the room. They’d taken me away from him. He’d been beaten and bloody on the floor, when they’d dragged me away. And then I’d been alone.
I still was.
“I’m still right here,” he murmured, softer now. Almost broken.
But I was broken too. More broken than him.
I pulled my hands away from his, and he had no choice but to draw back.
I stuffed all of the shuddering pain back into a little ball where I could contain it and was hit with a way to deal with this conversation, to take away its power. “Okay,” I said, finding my voice. “Fine. We’re supposed to be friends? We’re supposed to share things? Then that goes both ways. How much honest sharing have you done about
He blinked, obviously not following the shift. “What?”
“You were undercover with monsters for eight months. How many of your innermost feelings about all of that have you poured out—to me or anyone else? Have you found that it makes you feel better to talk about all the things you saw, all the things you experienced, all the things you had to do during that time?”
I was on a roll now, the words coming to me like a rushing stream. Gideon just stared as I went on.
“You can’t tell me it didn’t make you sick, to be one of them for so long. You can’t tell me that you didn’t sometimes wonder if you were turning into them. That’s why you feel so guilty about me—because you’re afraid you were like them in some way. So, until you open up to me about how you really feel about all of that, then you can’t expect me to open up to
. If you think that’s the way it’s supposed to work between us, then it has to work both ways.”
I was breathing heavily when I finished, and I was consumed with a dark satisfaction. I’d silenced him. I knew it. I could see it in his face. Because I knew as far down as my bones that he would never open up to me about that. This friendship or relationship or whatever it was had always been one-sided. I was his little project—one he was obviously committed to, but a project nonetheless. He was in it to fix me, and he’d never let it go the other way.
He left not long afterwards, and I tried to feel vindicated about that.
As soon as I saw his SUV disappear down the drive, I turned on the opera, ran into the bedroom, hurriedly put on my shoes, and scrambled up onto the elliptical trainer.
I rode it until my body felt as bad as my heart.
espite the way we’d left it that evening, Gideon called following day, and our conversation was mostly normal.
He stopped by unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon and caught me in the middle of a session on the elliptical. I’d just been going about an hour though, so he thought it was simply a hard workout and didn’t seem suspicious.
I told him, as nicely as I could, to call before he came by from now on.
That week, I skipped my appointment with Dr. Jones, since the sessions were starting to upset me too much, and I was already upset enough by the argument with Gideon.
He came over for dinner the next Friday evening, the way he did every Friday night. I felt bad about the fight we’d had the week before, so I bought good steaks, which I knew were his favorite, and grilled them up with salad and French fries.