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Eight Times Tonight
Eight Times Tonight
A light snow has begun to fall and the Earth uncomplainingly settles itself under the blanket of winter. Christmas lights cheerily light my path as I leave my office. The night is mature, and my watch reads thirty minutes until 11. It has been another night spent working overtime. My body is weary and every muscle and bone aches for the comforts of food and sleep. Yet I find that despite my drained physical body, it does not compare to the exhaustion of my mental state.
“Working overtime again?”
I spin at the voice, tripping slightly in my surprise. I squint into the darkness, seeing the figure of a man leaning against the bark of an oak tree. Despite the winter chill, he wears no more than jeans and a black hoodie. His eyes are hidden under the hood, yet I see strands of golden hair peak out underneath, framing a strong jawline.
“Sylas…?” I call quietly, hesitantly. Through the shadows I can see his body stiffen, refusing to take any steps forward.
I walk to him, footsteps covering the frosted ground. When I am close, he releases a breath before grasping my shoulders and roughly pulling me into him. I am caught off guard, and in my moment of hesitation, I let him hold me.
His arms are strong and body warm. I am swept away, lost in another time. “Stop it.” I murmur, attempting to push him away. The effort is weak, and I am trapped; locked in this young man’s grasp and entirely at his mercy.
“I missed you…” He sighs, pulling me tighter. I feel him nuzzle my neck, resting his head on my shoulders before breathing in deeply. Time has slowed and I find myself pressing into him, craving the warmth of his touch.
We stay locked together for a long time. I am beginning to think we will stay that way all night when a car alarm suddenly goes off in the distance. My senses return, and with renewed, sober energy I push myself away from him. I hear him groan in protest, and he fights me for a moment before reluctantly releasing me.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, indignant now at the sight of him. After all, this is the same young man who walked out of my life eight months ago without so much as a warning. The same young man I defended to the very bone to prove his innocence in court. The same young man nearly ten years my junior. The same young man I had (against every underlying will), allowed myself to fall in love with. The same young man I had sworn to forget, and yet had failed to do so.
“I’m not sure really.” He says, averting his eyes. “I guess I just felt like it.”
“Of course you did.” My voice cracks. “Living in the streets isn’t very luxurious in the winter, is it?”
My words are harsh, and he recoils from me as if he’d been slapped. I immediately regret what I said. I put my hand on his shoulder but he stiffens and withdraws. I can see the blue in his eyes now. They watch me warily and with a distrust that wasn’t there before.
“Look, Sylas…” I sigh. “Take a moment and understand this from my perspective. You disappear from my life leaving no warning, not even a letter, and then you show up here eight months later with your arms around me. Given our history together, how am I supposed to respond?”
He looks up for a moment, towards the snow which has begun to fall again. He is using the momentary distraction as an excuse to delay having to answer my question. I remember him using this same avoidance many times before, and a sense of déjà vu momentarily passes through me.
“You responded exactly as you should have. I shouldn’t have expected anything else. I’m sorry Helen.” He looks at me, and I can see the sincerity reflected in his face. He appears much older then I remember him, his features have matured and he appears to be more of a man now than what he was before. Yet there is something else. Something almost tired and drawn in the way he speaks and holds himself. Time and hardship are beginning to catch up.
“Why are you here?” I ask again, giving him a chance to redo his first answer.
“Honestly Helen…” He pauses and turns his head to look at me. “I miss you. I miss you a lot. You don’t know how many times I hated myself for leaving the way I did. I guess… I guess… I just wanted to see you one more time, one more time to say that I am sorry.”
I am a person very good at controlling my emotions. My job as a defense attorney requires it. Yet I find my will breaking (yet again) at the words of this young man. Just his presence is enough to bring up a roller coaster of emotion.
He is cold. I can see him shiver underneath his hoodie even in our distance. He has lost considerable muscle tone, and while he is still strong, I can see that he is underweight. His back is hunched in defeat and he stands awkwardly on one leg as if suffering from a sprain.
“Come home with me.” I hear my voice say. “You are cold and need food. I do not want you to spend a night in the snow wearing only jeans.”
He shakes his head. “That’s not what I’m here for. I can take care of myself.”
“Not tonight you can’t. You’ll freeze.”
“I’ll go to the library. It will be warm there.”
“The library is closed.”
Silence follows as I see him process my last words. He is having an internal battle between will and basic needs. Finally, as the snow begins to fall harder, he nods his head.
“Just this one night Helen, I don’t want to stay any longer.”
“That’s fine. Between you and me, you know that whatever it is, it’s always fine.”
We drive to my apartment is silence. His eyes remained stubbornly trained towards the window. I turn on the radio and we listen to Christmas songs during the drive to my apartment. It takes only fifteen minutes. There is one benefit of working late, and that is not having much traffic to impede travel time.
When I park the car and step out, he makes no motion to follow. Frustrated, I march to the passenger’s side and pull the door open. I glare at him. Eyebrows raised until he finally unbuckles the seat belt that I made him wear.
“You really don’t have to do this. I’m not asking you to.”
“I know you’re not Sylas. But trust me. You can make this easier by being cooperative. I am inviting over a guest not a hostage.”
I turn and march towards the apartment door. To my relief, he follows. When we are inside I immediately turn up the heater. Sylas wanders aimlessly for a moment before hesitantly sitting himself on my couch. He is soaking wet, and I am immediately concerned for my couch as I see it begin to grow damp.
“Take your clothes off.” I command.
“What?” He looks at me in surprised confusion.
“You’re soaking wet and damaging my furniture. Not to mention you’ll never get warm unless you change. You weren’t expecting to spend the night like that were you?”
He doesn’t answer, just takes off his hoodie at sets it to the side. He is wearing a white t-shirt underneath, also soaked.
“The shirt too, all of it needs to come off. You should shower while I get you a change of clothes.”
“Alright,” to my surprise he doesn’t argue as he stands and heads to my bathroom. I hear the water begin to run and approach the duffel bag he brought with him and unzip it, looking for a change of clothes. He doesn’t have much, and all his clothes are dirty. I take everything out and begin a wash. A few minutes later I find some of my deceased husband’s clothes, a shirt and jeans, for him to wear for tonight.
I begin to cook a quick meal for the both of us when I hear his approach to the kitchen. He appears a moment later, wearing only the same loose fitting jeans he had on earlier. His gold hair brushes his shoulders in a seductive, uneven manner.
“You’ve lost weight.” I comment.
“Haven’t really been eating,”
“Apparently not,” I set the bowl of chicken noodle soup in front of him with two slices of bread. “I put your clothes in the wash. You can wear my husband’s old clothes for tonight.”
“I am fine in what I’m wearing.” He grunts, clearly not impressed with the idea.
“You are half naked…”
“And it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.”
I don’t like to admit it, but he is right. I have seen him clothed and I have seen him bare. Between us there really isn’t anything to hide. Not anymore at least.
I sit next to him and begin to eat myself. As expected, Sylas is ravenous and finishes his before I am even a spoonful in. He beckons his head towards the pot, silently asking for seconds. I nod, and he fills his bowl to the brim before sitting back down.
“So do mind sharing what you have been up to the last eight months?” I inquire, trying to keep my voice sounding casual.
“Not much to say, I’ve just been traveling on the greyhound state-to-state; been picking up odd jobs here and there. Not easy in a recession. Guess these days anyone is willing to mow lawns and spread gravel for 5 bucks an hour.”
“Staying out of trouble I hope?”
“More or less,”
“That’s not a good answer.”
“Yet it is one.” He stops his spoon halfway to mouth, setting it back down slowly. “Like I said before Helen, s*** ain’t easy out there. I try to stay away from trouble but when s*** gets desperate sometimes you just have to follow the highest bidder. You’ll be happy though. My cousin down in LA might have a job lined up. Landscaping, of all things; least I can say I have the experience.”
This surprises me. “When do you plan on leaving?”
“Tomorrow morning, got a ticket for 8 am.”
“Why do you think I only wanted to stay for tonight? Trust me woman, if things were different, I’d be living here.”
If things were different… that always seemed to be the answer to our lives. In a way it’s one thing we share, one thing that draws us together. I remember him saying those same words two years ago when we sat across from each other in a detention cell.
“Look woman, if things were different, she wouldn’t be dead.” I remember him saying, his voice sounding distant and haunted.
I replied later, “Look kid; if things were different can be speculated upon forever. What’s important is the here and now. Focus on that instead.”
Yet it’s not easy to focus on the
here and now. I realize this as much as Sylas does. He lost his beloved girlfriend to a sadistic murderer. I lost my husband and daughter to a drunk driver. We both knew the pain of having to continue life when every bone in your body screams for you to go back in time. You are only human in the end. And only until you lose someone beloved do you realize just how easy it is to lose yourself as well.
I feel Sylas put his hand over mine. I am surprised for a moment, but willing to accept his comfort. He must have noticed my distance as I silently recalled old memories. I offer a small smile and he returns it in a gesture of understanding.
“My mind goes back to it all the time Elle… I can never leave it alone. It haunts me every moment of every day. I don’t know about you, but I sleep a lot. Sleep provides escape.”
There is the next surprise of the night. Sylas used my nickname and provided insight into his pain.
“I’m surprised you can sleep.” I say slowly, “I still get nightmares weekly.”
“Never did have the nightmares, or I don’t remember them. Guess I’m lucky in that sense.”
“Neither of us are lucky Sylas. Nightmares or not, I know your pain. Remember, I had to share it with you.”
He snorts, “And only because some people are just too stupid to understand truth when it’s in front of them. Months wasted trying to find nonexistent evidence to prove me guilty while the real killer was allowed to run loose.”
“They wanted to convict you Sylas. How many times do I have to tell you this? You can’t change the mindset of people who are already convinced. Society sees what’s in front of them. And your track record with drug trafficking and petty crime wasn’t exactly clean. But you are a free man now. What they thought and tried to do isn’t a concern anymore.”
It’s obvious that Sylas isn’t listening to me anymore. He is clutching my hand hard, staring intensely out the window with an almost predatory expression.
“You realize Emma’s killer was found dead three months ago, right?”
“I read the news,” Sylas seethes. “That monster didn’t deserve to die. I wanted to see him locked up for life, taking it from behind as some black guy’s b****.”
“Sylas…” I warn, yet console at the same time. He shrugs, and we continue to finish our soup in silence. When we are done, Sylas offers to do the dishes and I gladly let him. I return to the living room and pick up my book. Tentatively I flip to the pages as I wait for Sylas to finish.
“You ready for bed?” I ask when he is done.
“Do you have work tomorrow?”
“I can take the day off.”
“Then not yet,” he invites himself to sit next to me on the couch. I resist the urge to roll my eyes.
“I did really miss you Elle. More than you probably understand.”
“I understand that you missed me. I just don’t like how you left without warning. I honestly considered the fact that you might have died.” I close my book to look at him. “Why did you leave, anyways?”
“I didn’t want to be a burden on you any longer. You’re a respected woman and I didn’t want to hurt your reputation by staying with you any longer.”
“That’s honorable Sylas. But why not leave a letter?”
“I might have left to save your reputation. But I ran away too. I meant to call you at first available opportunity but stuff came up and I forgot. After that, I felt too guilty to call. I never wanted to hurt you, especially after everything you have done for me. I’m sorry Elle.”
Instinctively, I pick up his hand and hold it. I accept his answer, and I forgive him for it. As Sylas reaches forward to caress my cheek, it crosses my mind that his departure wasn’t even personal. It’s just how Sylas is as a person. He runs and runs and runs. There is no home for the restless.
“I have only ever been with two women in my life, and your one of them.” He whispers, closing the distance between us. His hands are on my shoulders, inviting me into his arms. For the second time tonight, I am allowed to share the warmth of another.
“I’m not sure I exactly believe you.”
My head is on his chest and I feel his body rumble as he chuckles ever so slightly at my sarcastic comment.
“It’s the truth though. I honestly thought I would never be with anyone else other than Emma. When she died… I never wanted to look at another woman again, let alone sleep with them. Then I met you, and you were different. You shared my pain… but most of all you believed in me when no one else would. You gave me a chance.”
“I did only what I believed in.”
“And yet,” Sylas murmurs his chin resting on my head, “you saved my life.”
I never considered my role as a defense attorney as “savoir.” And as far as many prosecution attorneys were concerned, I was the exact opposite. To me, I simply defended the American justice system by allowing accused persons the right to a defense. In the case of Sylas, I remember simply looking upon the broken face of a young man; a face surprisingly angelic masked underneath golden hair. He looked at me and pleaded in all earnestly – not guilty – and I believed him.
Yet I grew so attached to him. It awed me how much he loved and longed for his departed girlfriend, Emma. I grew to love his spirit and his desire. He was everything I was and everything I wasn’t. We became bound together; sharing our pain and our passion.
“Come to bed with me.” I say, not quite hearing my words but speaking my emotion.
He doesn’t dare move. He is processing my words and when they slowly begin to form, he leans down and kisses me firmly.
“One last night...?” He murmurs softly.
“Yes,” I confirm, almost near tears, “One last night.”
I drive him to the bus station the next morning. It Christmas Eve and the fresh snow is a promise to the city for a white holiday. Sylas is silent the whole way, yet I can see in his eyes that he is not happy to be leaving. I too feel an ache begin to develop at the thought of his imminent departure.
“California will be good for you.” I chirp, trying to remain positive. “Perhaps you could even consider enrolling in a community school once your landscaping job becomes established.”
“Yeah,” Sylas says. “I wouldn’t mind doing that actually. I know what I’d major in already.”
“What would that be?”
I can’t help but smile slightly at his answer.
We pull into the bus station and I escort him in. I want to make sure there are no problems with his tickets. The station is crowded for people are leaving to visit family for the holiday. Sylas confirms his tickets and while we wait for his bus to arrive, we sit down together on the picnic bench outside.
“I’m going to miss the snow.” He comments. “Never been a big fan of the beach.”
“You could get a nice tan if you wanted.”
“As if I’m the kind of guy to do that,” he picks up a handful of snow and crushes into a ball which he throws at the traffic. I watch as it lands a puddle, dissolving in the muddy water.
“If things were different…” I begin, “I would let you stay at here with me.”
Sylas doesn’t respond but I feel his body press into mine slightly. Neither one of us wants to admit it, but we will miss each other a lot.
“I am sorry again for leaving you like I did Helen. It was wrong, and I wish I could take it back.”
“I know you do. But it’s not important anymore.”
A bus pulls into the lineup and I hear Sylas groan beside me.
“I think that’s my ride. Kind of was hoping it would break down on the way here or something.”
“Leaving will be good for you. You have nothing left here except bad memories.”
He turns to me. “You are forgetting that I still have you here.”
“Yes…” I say, “But I’m not important. You have a whole life in front of you and still time to make the most of it. I’ve found my place. Now it’s time you find yours.”
People are beginning to board the bus. Sylas and I stand up in unison. It is odd then that I realize just how tall he is. My head barely reaches to his shoulders.
“Come with me Elle. Come to LA with me.”
“No Sylas… you know I can’t… my life is here.”
He frowns, and closes his eyes. Similar to when I saw him standing in the snow last night, he takes me into his arms and pulls me into his embrace. I feel tears begin to fall down my cheeks and when Sylas notices them, he brushes them away.
“I love you Helen.”
“I love you too Sylas.”
He presses something into the palm of my hand before kissing me for the last time. We stay locked together only a moment before he pulls away. I resist the urge to pull him back and instead watch him go as he walks away towards the bus.
Right before he boards he turns and waves. I wave back and in a moment he is gone; hidden between the rows of people crowded within the bus. Tears run down my cheek as I watch the bus rumble to life as it leaves the station. In turns the corner and then disappears from my sight.
I am walking back to my car when I realize I still am holding something in my hand. I look, and see a small cross connected to a beaded chain. I recognize it immediately as belonging to Sylas’s mother who passed away when he was nine. The gift is devastating because I know it’s the only item he had left of her. I clutch to the crucifix as my body begins to shake with silent tears. I collapse into my car and feel the urge to scream as the feeling of loss tumbles over me.
My parents are gone, my husband is gone, my daughter is gone, and now Sylas is gone. Every person I have ever loved is gone and lost. I am not alone, I tell myself. But even now as tears roll down my cheek. I know that I am lying.