Continued from chapter 21 of the Devastation Series.
My head spun to the side like the Rock-em-Sock-em set I had when I was a kid. My brain rattled and I grabbed my jaw to readjust my face. I was stunned and taken back and unsure of my next moves. I stepped back and out the doorway as the bed came back in. Everyone was silent and unsure of how to respond. The nurse wheeled the bed back into the room and Bert looked at in the hall and then to Valerie. “You must be Valerie,” he politely said with a sneer.
I walked back to the bathroom and ran water over my face. My skin was blushed, but the smack did not leave any lasting marks. Her handprint was faintly outlined on my cheek but was fading as the moments passed. The hurt, however, was much deeper. It was rooted in shock and pride. I realized that I had that coming, I supposed, but it was just another reality that I didn’t want to acknowledge. I leaned onto the sink, and the cold water came on and filled the bowl. I splashed the cold water onto my face and pulled my cheeks down to stretch my face. “You’ve got this, Jake,” I affirmed myself and then air-dried my hands. I stood tall and studied myself in the mirror. My hair was greasy and curled on the sides and top from a life on the streets. The skin on my face was darker than my last mirror glimpse. The sun had added tone and the grime accented my features making artificial shadows appear. It had been some time since I properly bathed. Fresh sink water and towels were much easier to access. I was proud to have survived, but I had lost confidence in myself and my image. I grabbed a paper towel and wiped my cheeks and forehead. After a deep breath, I shook it off and tossed the grayed towel in the wastebasket then headed back to the room.
I heard talking while I walked down the hall. The voices became more distinct as I approached. “He has been through a lot…” Bert said.
“I know that…” Valerie replied.
“He has not stopped thinking about you… about his choices…” He continued. As he finished, I walked around the corner and cleared my throat as I cautiously walked in. I avoided direct contact with both of them. “Welcome back…” Bert said to me. I nodded as I moved to the reclining chair. I finished folding a blanket and sat it on the end of the bed.
“I am glad to see you, Valerie.” I blurted out into the awkward silence. Her face was stern but had a natural glow about it. She looked to me and her stern look faded while being replaced with a smile.
“I am glad to see you as well.” She confidently stated. She brushed her hair with a flick of her wrist. “So, Bert… Tell me about you and how you came to meet this young man?” She asked. A parental undertone was in her voice. I could not tell if that was from frustration or if she was laying it on thick intentionally. I didn’t understand until later.
Bert proceeded to tell her about himself. He did not confide in her, like our campfire talks, but explained his personality and how we arrived to now. She was polite and engaging and got the old man talking, that was for sure. Listening to them reminded me why I liked both of them though. I reflected on conversations by the fireside as well as the apartment nights when I was in pieces. Shortly after she finished talking, lunch came in. I was amazed at how much time had passed – but there is something to be said when we feel safe and comfortable. I looked to Valerie when the food was brought in, “Want a bite?” I asked.
“No thanks, I had a late breakfast.” She replied.
“Care if I eat?” I asked. She gestured ‘go-ahead’ to me and like hitting the gas on a mower – my appetite set in.
We had finished up and Bert looked over to me and winked slightly. I thought that he may have had a twitch until he spoke. “Why don’t you two go catch up? I am not an expert but I think it may be a good idea.” Then, just like he said nothing at all, he looked back down at his empty plate and finished his juice.
“Good idea,” Valerie said, and before I could reply, “I think he has a couple more smacks coming and I won’t put you through that.” She giggled obnoxiously and stood up to exit the room. “Coming?” She looked back at me. I felt sheepishly ostracised but reluctantly followed. I nodded to Bert and heard the classic death march song in my mind. It would not have been appropriate to say although, I laughed to myself. We walked outside to the back of the hospital.
The lawn was huge. It was perfectly cut and the landscaping made it feel like a resort. It was a postcard summoning a photographer to be sure. The sun was heading behind a cloud and the shadows cascaded over the lawn. Birds were calling overhead to the ones in the small pond. People of all shapes, colors, and sizes were walking the trails made to encourage active health. Other than my hygiene – I was in heaven in my mind. Freedom came over me and I stretched my arms out like I was flying in the breeze. Valerie stepped to the side giving me room to soar and a laugh subconsciously escaped from my mouth and then hers too. I felt at home, the life I had never felt before. Walking the track and Valerie beside me, it was a feeling that I had not had. It was safety and it was freedom.
“What happened?” She asked point-blank as we rounded the corner towards the pond. I got defensive, then anxious, saddened, and settled with a form of humble honesty. I explained things from my point of view. I admitted to being emotional and illogical. I felt comfortable and found myself opening up like I had never done before. Bert and I talked, but it was different. He knew me from my story and she had insight into my journey; my history to my recent actions. It poured out effortlessly and I imagined, at one point, she was going to start a lecture. Instead, she patiently listened and affirmed me with empathy, gestures, and nods. I walked through Maggie, the times before I met Valerie, my stumbling, and detailed my fascination of the recent weeks. I apologized to Valerie. I was comforted when I shared my story she placed her hand on my far shoulder and pulled me to her. In the middle of the field, next to the pond, I halted and turned to her. The words formed and slowly came out. “I am… sorry… I need you…” As I realized what I had done, I looked away from a lack of confidence. I turned my body away and she pulled me straight to her, firmly and intentionally.
“Thank you. I am here for you, now… if you will let me.” She whispered. Tears started to rapidly well and fall from my eyes. They leaped from my eyes and I collapsed to my knees. I had not wept, since I cuddled with Valerie on the couch and she let me share my inner thoughts and feelings. She squatted down beside me and touched my shoulder again. When I began to regain control of emotions, she guided me back to my feet. I was at a loss for words – but she kept in between the buoys and into the harbor.
“I.. I.. ” I stammered.
“Jake… I told you once before. This is not my first rodeo. Do you think your Dad always had it together?” She looked at me with a curious questioning gesture. I did not know what to say or how to engage her at the moment. “When we make this… ” she motioned between us, “okay… then I have a couple of things to talk to you about. But… not right now. I can help you put the puzzle of you together… if you let me. If we build trust.” Stunned, I was silent for the next part of our walk. We pointed to birds flying or diving in the pond. Flowers were planted all around and signs scientifically identified them.
While walking, the same piercing flood of emotion that I experienced in the night, erupted inside of me. I needed to face my criminal charges. I needed to walk ahead of this mess and I was going to start with Valerie. “The cops are probably looking for me by now Valerie. When I bailed, I snuck out the window. They were at my door that night and I didn’t answer. I had a ticket, that I am sure that it has moved beyond that now. Combine that with my squatting – which I am sure will come back as embezzlement or some other white-collar crime. I appreciate your willingness to help but I have to face that music alone.” I quickly and boldly stated, with a deep breath. Valerie stopped walking and her face stretched long with her chin hanging low and mouth wide. It was the look that someone gives a person when they cannot believe what the other is saying. “Sorry, Valerie – ruined that help right away…” I sighed. I stopped walking and turned back towards her.
The sun tucked behind a cloud blowing over. I thought the ominous graying of day seeming ironic. I assessed God liked some humor and added little things for my effect. “What do you mean – they were coming to get you? I think that is the way you intended it?” She asked.
“I saw them at the apartment. Work must have called in breaking an entering or a squatter. Then with my warrant – they were coming to arrest me! Why else do comes come and known on your door?” I was puzzled. My interactions weren’t substantial with law enforcement, but even in my limited experience, it did not usually turn out good when a person runs… She turned away from me, and if I didn’t know better, I was sure that I heard a giggle. “Did you just giggle at me?” I was appalled and did not filter my reaction. She turned back around and confirmed that she was giggling. By that point, it was full-on laughter. She approached me arms out drawing me in for a hug. I was reluctant and backed away from her since I could not believe what was happening. The scared and anxiety turned to flight mode and frustration. She leaned in and pulled me closer. I could not escape the safe feeling – even in my astonished anger.
“I am sorry that I am laughing. I think you will too… eventually. The cops…were there… for a well-check. I called them – since I could not get ahold of you! OH-MY-GOD! I am so sorry that you’ve been living with this!” And just like that, I nearly collapsed. I had built this world of paranoia and doom on a fictional reality. I thought back through the last several weeks; the thoughts that I had and realized how much more sense this version of reality made. In a single moment, the safety that I believed was confirmed. I fell into her embrace. Her arms wrapped around me like a sloth to a tree. Her warm face pressed against mine and her breasts were soft pillows pressing into my lower chest. I realized an attraction was present that I had not before.
Everything was different now. Our talks wandered in life and I felt like I had shared a guilty shame. The weights were lifted and my head started to focus again. We trapesed across the lawn and covered ground in nearly every section of the property. We appreciated the natural forest that boarded the far side of the property. The birds and squirrels cackled and chattered in the trees as we approached then they would scatter and peer at us from ahead and behind. The trees waved at us gently with the small gusts that whiffed around us. I felt like I had my head on straight as we began our journey back to Bert. I had almost forgotten about him. “One more thing – we should discuss when we head back,” Valerie said, in our lockstep path.
“Sure… what is it?” I inquired. We had covered so many things and varying levels of emotion had me ready for just about anything.
“Your dad…” she paused as she tried to get the words out, “wanted you to have the property.” She looked into my face, trying to read me. “He only asked that you let me help you – show you how to do it.”
“I…uh…I…” Again, I stammered, “I don’t know that I am ready…” I confessed.
“You are Jake. We can be a team…” She added.
A joy that I had not had in a long time ran through my veins. I had a home. I had a friend. And I had a part of life that I felt was missing. We walked back into the hospital.
Read more of the Devastation Series.