"This is complete bullshit," Marty muttered on a sigh, letting his head thud back against the wall and barely resisting the urge to repeat the motion over and over again until all the messed up thoughts in his screaming brain were silenced. He lifted a fist to his eyes, rubbed at the grit of too many hours' lost sleep, and counted the cobwebs lacing the attic's high beams (even his father's tallest ladder hadn't been able to reach them). His skin felt too tight, ill-fitting on his body, his muscles underneath alive and squirming for freedom, and he shifted his legs beneath his bunched blankets again, groaning when the action only seemed to intensify his agitation. Finally, he kicked the restrictive covers away, knocking the slim volume of poetry at his feet to the floor in the process.
The seconds ticked by, raindrop by steady, pounding raindrop. The house's aging pipes rumbled and moaned tiredly all around him. The naked fingers of a high branch scratched restlessly, insistently against the weathered wood at his back, and a glance outside the nearby window showed the rest of the gnarled tree's skeletal bones shivering in the fall shower's onslaught.
It was all one big, endless, maddening loop, the latest soundtrack for Marty's current bout of insomnia. But at least Bella didn't wake downstairs, didn't cry those sharp, frightened tears that tore at his cynical heart, that frequented his restless, tormented dreams. Releasing a deep, relieved breath, Marty bent to snag the open book from the floor and frowned at the words that seemed to jump off of the page at him ("One need not be a chamber to be haunted…"), promptly snapped the book closed. Dust plumed in front of him, made his nose wrinkle, caused tears to prick obnoxiously at the corners of his eyes.
Five days. Going on six now.
More than anything, Marty wished to be somewhere else, anywhere else but Harmony. He missed his old house (the one he used to live in, with his mom and Antonio, before Fancy died, before his father ruined their lives with his misplaced guilt and his warped code of honor). He missed his friends, if you could even call them that. Marty even missed the school he used to attend. His father's decision to stand in for Chief Bennett during his recovery made absolutely no sense to him. They didn't need to be uprooted for the second time in nearly as many months for something so…temporary. They could have stayed behind, just him, his mom, Bella. It wasn't like his father wanted them around; Gilly was the only one he really cared about anyway. Marty wasn't naive enough to think otherwise.
That snot-nosed little brat was the one that needed the timeout. Not him. Her little stunt with the key still rubbed.
His father grounding him indefinitely was taking it too far as far as Marty was concerned. Chief Bennett's boat was okay. It wasn't like there'd been any serious damage, not anything a little sweat and paint couldn't fix anyway. His father was overreacting by confiscating his cell phone. Add in declaring his laptop expressly off-limits until further notice, and Marty felt like a prisoner in his so-called new home.
His mom was no better off. Why she'd let his father drag them back here to this stupid, judgmental little town, Marty would never understand. Didn't she know he could see it? Playing happy family was slowly killing her inside. Pretending the whispers and looks didn't bother her was exacting a steep price. Marty saw it every time he looked into her glassy eyes. He angrily tunneled his fingers through his hair at the very recollection, tugged viciously at the ends before rooting around for the small flashlight stowed underneath his pillow.
The meager blue glow was little match for the shadows that permeated the room; it barely penetrated the blackness that lingered beyond the low mattress.
Nevertheless, Marty followed the dim path it carved on socked feet that soaked up the floor's chill.
The tall bookshelves that lined the attic's perimeter were literally spilling over with books, paperback and leather-bound alike. Most were warped and yellowed with time. Some merely held a lingering musty smell within their pages.
A few titles by Stephen King piqued Marty's interest, and he knew he'd come back to them some other time, but he had no use of them tonight (he craveddreadedneeded sleep). He moved on to a cavernous wardrobe nearby that yielded stack after stack (after stack) of cardboard boxes. Most of the boxes were filled with junk, some with toys. Others were piled full of old clothes that reeked of mothballs. Marty frowned when a raggedy-looking doll toppled to the floor in an avalanche of noise that echoed around him. His flashlight followed soon after when he lifted his hands to steady the precariously balanced cardboard tower as it wobbled in front of him. "Shit," he swore, quickly and quietly gathering the junk to place it back into its box. He recoiled when a slow, gravelly Mama ground past the doll's mouth as his hand closed over it. An involuntary shudder rippled through his body when he turned the doll over. "What the…"
Two empty black holes stared through him in place of eyes. Painted on red lips smiled soullessly back.
Unnerved, Marty quickly stuffed the creepy doll deep into the dark recesses of the wardrobe and grabbed the box closest to him. Fumbling blindly for his flashlight, he held his breath as he carefully picked his way back across the still unfamiliar room and deposited his loot on the edge of his rumpled mattress for further inspection.
The cardboard was peeling in several places, stained with time and water and who knew what else. It smelled damp and the black lace of mildew dotted three of its four sides.
Throwing a blanket back over his lap, Marty propped his flashlight against his pillow and pulled the box closer to him with a mixture of dread and anticipation churning inside his belly. Running his fingertips underneath one of the box's curled flaps, he silently counted to three (here goes nothing…), took a deep breath, and opened it.
Marty's eyes snapped open and he yanked the thick, bulky headphones from his ears, strained to hear over the rapid rush of panicked breaths spilling from his dry lips. With every muscle of his body tensed, he listened, waited for the sound that had rudely jolted him awake, but it did not come.
A woman's voice warbled faintly from the headphones loosely draped around his neck ("Sweet dreams are made of this…"), and his blood roared in his ears. His stomach growled lowly, pointedly reminded him that maybe he shouldn't have been so quick to skip dessert the night before. There was no loud thud, no crash worthy of an accelerated heartbeat.
Marty pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly. Rubbing the last vestiges of sleep away with determined fingers, he sat up beneath the tangled nest of blankets that had ensnared him in his unguarded sleep and took a couple of deep, even breaths. Willing himself to relax, he did a slow inspection of his surroundings.
The rain had stopped while he dozed, and gray moonlight pressed against the attic's foggy window panes, creating an almost otherworldly glow over Marty's chosen refuge. The bookshelves and dusty old furniture that had seemed fairly harmless earlier cast eerie, looming, fingerlike shadows as Marty watched, shadows that crept across the floor to his low mattress.
It was the fractured glass of the mirror that had given Gilly such a fright the day before glinting menacingly in the darkness that finally compelled Marty to reach for his forgotten flashlight. Seconds seemed to stretch into an eternity before the faint blue glow of its beam chased the shadows back to their far-off corners.
Marty choked back an embarrassed laugh (had he seen…no, no, he hadn't, he couldn't have), pressed the heel of his hand roughly against his brow, and threw his legs over the side of his mattress. Sliding his feet into his untied sneakers, he picked his hoodie up off the floor and pulled it over his head. At the last second, he decided to leave his shoes behind (he didn't want to risk waking Bella, his mom, forget his father…). Still, the attic steps creaked softly underfoot, and the door seemed to groan loudly in indignation when he heaved it shut behind him, his father's harsh reminder playing in a continuous loop in his head ("Never leave the door open, Marty. Never. You know how your sister is."). A quick glance down the hallway to check that he hadn't wakened anybody else, and Marty headed downstairs, sliding the headphones back in place over his ears and turning his flashlight off as a precaution. A new song started halfway down ("…the kid is not my son…"), and by the time he'd fumbled his way into the kitchen through the darkened hallway, Marty was newly frustrated. He glowered at Pedro and stalked across the kitchen to the fridge, only to immediately freeze in place.
Tucked beneath the magnetic letters of Gilly's name was a photo, worn and faded from handling. His stepmother's mouth curled back at him in an echo of his half-sister's troublemaking smile.
It was a gut punch waiting to happen, one he dearly wanted to shield his mother from, and Marty snatched the picture off of the fridge, seething as he shoved it into the nearest drawer. "Selfish brat," he muttered, hiding the snapshot underneath a stack of dish towels. He was tired of the photographs, sick of the but Mommy's, over the tantrums and the obnoxious tattling. He wasn't going to let a four year old have a part in destroying his parents' marriage, farce though it may be. Not that he thought his intervention would do much good. His father was already doing such a bang up job in that department. Marty opened the fridge and grabbed the milk, searched the cupboards for a bowl and (Gilly's) Fruit Loops, and padded toward the sink.
The fog outside had grown so thick, it was almost opaque. It wrapped around the house and squeezed in tight in a claustrophobic vise, barely letting the moon's pale light shine through.
The flashlight fared no better, flickering weakly on the counter where Marty had placed it, and he wasted no time pouring his cereal and drowning it with milk before the batteries failed.
The black cat from a couple nights ago materialized suddenly in the window like a mirage, its midnight fur bristling, its back arched high.
Marty swore underneath his breath as cereal crunched underfoot in his startled state, groaned as milk bled across the counter. "Look what you made me do." He grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser and started to mop up the mess. "One creepy cat is enough," he grumbled as he cleaned, referencing Pedro and his prying, watchful gaze. "Go. Get. Scram," he growled, raising the middle finger of one hand to the cat, who merely bared its teeth in response and lunged against the window with a thud that could be heard even over the voice that sang its raspy warning into Marty's ears ("Every breath you take, every move you make…"). Icy fingers of dread skimmed his spine then, and the hair on the back of his neck started to prickle with awareness seconds before a shadow passed behind him, distorting the flashlight's floundering beam. Slowly pulling the headphones off, Marty took his time turning around, weary of another altercation with his father before it had even started. "Look, I know you said no music, but I found this really old tape player in this box of junk-it really should be in a museum-and I couldn't sleep. And…you're not…who I thought you were. Dammit, Gilly," Marty abruptly abandoned his half-hearted apology when he encountered not his father, but the small, still figure of his half-sister a couple of feet away. "You're supposed to be in bed." Cutting his eyes across the kitchen to the microwave, he shook his head in disbelief. "It's 3 in the morning."
Dark eyes glittered back at him beneath a peekaboo veil of tangled brown hair, but Gilly didn't respond. She didn't blink, much less call him out on his language, the first clue that something was out of the ordinary.
"Great," Marty mumbled as realization fully dawned on his fatigued brain. "Why does this always happen to me?" Those long months, after Fancy died, after his mom discovered she was pregnant with Bella and his father moved them into the dump, Gilly used to sleepwalk all the time. Her pediatrician claimed it was all the upheaval in her life (his mother wasn't her mother, after all, and apparently, it was the root of all her problems), alleged she'd probably grow out of it. Marty didn't really care. He was just tired of always being the one to find her and having to deal with the consequences of his father's whacked-out choices. He glanced longingly at his cereal then back to Gilly in resignation. She was a regular pain in his ass, but he couldn't let her break something, or worse, get herself killed; he knew his father would find a way to make it all his or his mom's fault. "All right, Gilly," he consciously lowered his voice to a soothing whisper. "Stay right there," he instructed her as he turned to retrieve his flashlight. "Just let me get my…where did you go?" he groaned when he realized she'd disappeared from his sight, just like that. Hurrying out of the kitchen, Marty barely caught a glimpse of the billowing yellow skirt of her nightgown as she mounted the stairs. "Gilly."
Giving no indication that she'd heard him, Gilly continued up the stairs.
Bounding after her, his hand on the curving wooden banister, Marty felt a growing chill seep into his bones and each panting breath he took escaped his lungs in a gauzy, smoky cloud. He looked down when he reached the landing, surprised to discover the sensation of wetness, and fumbled to turn the flashlight on. It took a couple of hard slaps against his palm, but weak blue light finally danced in front of him like drunken fireflies.
Footprints, faint and tiny, formed and faded quickly in Gilly's wake, damp pools that evaporated within a breath.
Marty shook his head to clear it, closed and opened wide blue eyes. The flashlight flickered as he followed her, blinked in and out until the whole scene was like something out of a dream. The hallway seemed to stretch and grow as Marty stumbled forward, quietly calling her name. "Gilly. Gilly, what the hell is going on? You know you're not supposed to get in the tub by yourself." Her hair slithered across his fingertips like the silk of a spider's lure when he struck out a desperate hand, and Marty swore his lungs froze deep within his chest cavity as all the oxygen rushed from them. "Gilly?"
The fog cleared, no longer than the blink of an eye, and muted moonlight slashed across the hallway, painted the whole world silver. Shadows moved beyond the door to Marty's left, and the rhythmic, creaking motion of the rocking chair restarted his stalled heart, his faltering lungs, urged him into renewed motion. He pushed the door to Bella's nursery open, only to find it empty, eerily silent except for the soft whisper of Bella's steady breathing. Bewildered, he whirled around when he heard his name fill the void in a sharp, staccato hiss.
Dark eyes flashed at him, and the door to Gilly's room slammed shut.
Marty swept a hand over his face, frowned as he felt something small and round hit and bounce off of the side of his nose. Another one came, then another, until his eyes snapped open and a growl built deep in his chest. His eyes immediately stung, and an uncomfortable ache made itself known at the base of his neck. "Throw one more and Petal pays," he warned, brushing the colorful cereal from his hair and launching it back at his half-sister.
Gilly's brown eyes briefly widened in alarm as she ducked his attack, and her rosebud mouth worked while she grasped for a taunt of her own. Nervously fingering the frayed tail of the fishtail braid resting on one of her bony shoulders, she finally smiled triumphantly at him. "Papa says you're in big trouble. I heard him tell Sheridan."
Marty rolled his eyes at her in response and unfolded his cramped limbs. "I'm not the only one. Wait until I tell them about last night, and don't even pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."
"You're just mean," Gilly pouted, climbing to her feet and flouncing down the hall with Petal trailing forlornly behind her. "I'm going to tell Papa."
"Whatever," Marty shrugged then winced at the pain that simple action created. "Ungrateful brat," he muttered as her stomping footsteps faded away. To think, he'd actually been worried about her the night before. Big waste of his time. He raked a hand through his messy hair, breathed into his cupped hands, and grimaced (Ugh!). Right on cue, his father yelled his name, and his grimace deepened.
"Marty! Get down here. Now."
Again, his father was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, and the wave of déjà vu nearly bowled Marty over. The only difference this time was his mom wasn't waiting to bail him out. He braced himself to withstand the full force of his father's white hot anger and stretched to his full height on the last step, positioning himself as close to eye level as possible with his father. He flinched when his father crowded close, effortlessly obliterating any advantage or confidence gained by the equal footing, and started to quietly rail at him.
"What did I tell you about the attic door?"
Genuine confusion furrowed Marty's brow, and he frowned. "Always close it. What kind of idiot do you think I am?"
"An irresponsible one," his father snapped, short and sharp and seething, tugged at the collar of his unbuttoned shirt in an obvious (to Marty) effort to keep his hands from demonstrating just how pissed off he truly was. "What you did last night was nothing short of…"
Movement caught Marty's eye over his father's shoulder, and Petal's petulant face peeked at him from the kitchen doorway. A closer look afforded Marty a glimpse of a single socked foot and the pink leg of the bane of his existence's pajamas. "Wait a minute," he interrupted in an effort to defend himself. "What did Gilly tell you? Because she's lying."
They both heard the stuttered intake of breath, and his father spared a brief glance in the kitchen's general direction (missing his little spy scurrying away by seconds) before leveling his hard gaze back on Marty. "Your sister didn't have to tell me anything. I saw the door with my own eyes."
Incredulous, Marty tried to interject. "I didn't…" He stumbled backward when his father lifted his hand and brought his finger within inches of his nose.
"Don't. Lie. To. Me."
"I know you refuse to accept the fact that I loved a woman that wasn't your mother, that you resent that we had our own family together, but that's exactly what I did, Marty, and nothing's going to change that."
Marty's vision blurred with the beginnings of angry, hot tears, and he clenched his jaw and did his best to glare at his father for the low blow.
"But know this. If you continue to disrespect me and your sister by putting her in danger like you did last night, you won't leave me much choice. Do you understand?"
Humiliated and furious beyond belief, Marty tried to brush past his father, but his father's hand stopped him, clamped on tight and iron clad to his bicep.
"I said…do you understand?" His father gave Marty's arm another firm tug.
"Yeah, I understand," Marty squirmed to free himself. "Perfectly," he said snidely, his blue eyes flashing. "Now let me go."
Reluctantly, his father released him, took a distancing step back, gave him that disappointed look that made Marty want to hurl or scream or hurt somebody. "Get cleaned up and don't bother your mother. You're going with Gilly and me to Mass. And leave that old Walkman on the kitchen table when you get back down here. You won't be needing it anymore."
His father's voice stopped him halfway up the stairs, and Marty tensed, waiting.
"Don't you have anything else to say for yourself?"
"Yeah," Marty nodded, firing one last parting shot. "F*ck you."
"How come your mom wasn't at Mass?"
Marty sneered at the chunky black boots and shook his head as the legs attached to those boots, snagged silver leggings and all, lowered and dangled beside his own over the tree house's edge. He lifted his gaze to his cousin's blue, guileless eyes and softened his hard facade when he realized her question was merely that, a simple expression of curiosity. He shrugged, turned the collar of his jacket up against the sting of the cool, damp air, and cast his gaze back on the tidy little yard below. "Where was your mom?"
"Living a life of sin and debauchery."
Marty cracked a tiny smile when Maria smirked at his look of shock, reiterated his question. "Where was she really?"
"Mom says she doesn't have the best relationship with God or Grandma Pilar right now," Maria confessed. "They don't exactly see eye to eye. Plus, she's sick of all the staring, you know?"
Without thought, Marty found himself nodding in understanding. "It sucks."
"Family sucks," Maria sighed, twirling a lock of fuscia hair around her painted fingertips and lifting it for further inspection.
"Yeah," Marty agreed, thinking of his aunt Theresa and Ivy inside, making a fuss over Gilly like she was the second coming when nobody but his aunt Paloma had had the decency to even ask about his mom or Bella (his uncle Ethan chiming in like an afterthought didn't count). "They still talking about the election?"
"It's all they ever talk about anymore. Well, Aunt Theresa was complaining about Ms. Hotchkiss coming back with you guys, but Uncle Noah finally changed the subject. I think she's kinda cool. She's helping out at my mom's shop now."
"Gwen's okay," Marty remarked. He missed her around the house, always busting his father's chops, never letting him off easy. His mom needed somebody else besides him having her back. "She really, really wants to see her kid."
"Aunt Theresa's never going to let that happen," Maria told him.
Marty frowned. "It shouldn't even be her decision. It should be Jonathan's. Just like it should have been my decision if I wanted to come back here or not."
Maria peered at him with narrowed eyes. "You're right." She took Marty's statement one step further. "Just like I should be the one who decides who my friends are."
Marty looked at her oddly.
"You mean you haven't heard?" Maria grinned at him when he stared at her blankly. "I'm a hedonistic pagan. Or maybe those two words mean the same thing. I'm not sure. Point is, Grandma Pilar picks me up every Sunday and makes me go to Mass with her. I think she fears for my everlasting soul or something because I'm friends with Endora Lenox. You haven't met Endora, have you?"
"You're confusing me with Mr. Popular."
Maria snickered at the veiled jab to their do-gooder cousin and considered Marty with new, appreciative eyes. "Endora's pretty cool. She's just misunderstood. Kinda like you and me."
Marty tucked his chin close to his chest, sneaking glances at her from the corner of his eye. "And you can tell all this just from a five minute conversation?"
Maria shrugged. "You're you, and I'm me. Both of our dads left us for brighter, shinier families. The only difference is yours came back. In my book, that counts for something."
"Well, in my book, it counts for jack shit," Marty muttered. "But thanks for trying." He frowned when she started to gather her legs up close and stand. "You don't have to leave."
Maria offered him her hand. "C'mon. I'll show you my secret escape route. You aren't wearing an ankle bracelet or anything, are you?" she quipped.
Marty rolled his eyes at her, dryly told her, "You're hilarious."
"How fast does the Amazing Grace go anyway?" Maria's voice was muffled as she carefully backed down the way she'd come, her nails clinging to the wooden planks that served as a rudimentary ladder to the twins' tree house fort and her eyes locked on Marty's face.
"Not fast enough."
His mom didn't act one bit surprised when Marty walked through the front door alone nearly an hour later. She just swallowed down her words and looked at him with her sad red eyes.
"Your father called ten minutes ago. He wasn't happy, Marty."
Marty shrugged his coat off, tossed it over the nearest piece of furniture (the stuffy throne of an armchair), and walked past his mom into the kitchen. "What's he going to do? Ground me for all eternity?"
"It's not a joke, Marty."
"I'm not laughing," Marty replied, feeling his stomach make a rapid descent to his knees when he caught his first glimpse of the kitchen table, set for a family dinner minus the family. "Mom," he breathed, all the hard edges gone from his tone, and he wanted to hug her so hard in that moment, so tight she'd feel how close his heart was to bursting (but he didn't, because he feared she might break under the slightest pressure of his embrace).
His mom dropped her eyes, shied away from his sympathy. "It's okay. I was just about to clean up when your father called."
Marty struggled to gulp back his traitorous emotions, and it felt like he was swallowing nails. "I hate him."
His mother sighed and started stacking the plates, one by one. "Marty, don't say that. He's your father."
"He's Gilly's father," Marty spat. "He's nothing more to me than the jerk who got you pregnant. A sperm donor." He wrenched the plates from her trembling hands and carried them to the sink. "I got this," he growled when she weakly attempted to take them away. "Mom, I got this," he repeated, even as a plate tumbled to the linoleum below, shattering upon impact.
Bella's scream came immediately, thin and high through the speakers of the baby monitor, and his mom quietly dismissed herself. Her tears blended with Bella's until Marty finally turned the monitor off.
By the time she reappeared in the kitchen, all evidence of the altercation had been discarded and the table had been cleared, everything else stored safely in the fridge. Marty held out a peace offering. "I'm not so sure mac and cheese makes everything better, but it does taste good." When she pulled him into her arms in response, he closed his eyes and just breathed her in, her tears, her sweet perfume, her kindness, her forgiveness. "I'm sorry, Mom." He hid his face in the curve of her neck like the rediscovered little boy he'd once been and just held on. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," his mother crooned.
"No, it's not."
His mother smiled, tearful but bright. "Everything's okay as long as I still have you."
Later, when Marty took the garbage out to the curb, the black cat tracked his progress from its porch-side perch.
"What are you looking at?" He kept a close eye on the feline as he lifted the lid of the can and heaved the trash bag over his shoulder. His gaze drifted downward when an object fell from the bag and landed at his feet (the tape player?). He lowered the bag and tore at its drawstrings, unearthing the cumbersome headphones beneath a flyer from his uncle's political opponent.
"My grandson used to have one of those. Way back in the 1980s."
The words were out of his mouth before Marty could stop them. "As opposed to the 1880s?" Luckily, it appeared their neighbor across the street possessed a sense of humor, if the twinkle in his eyes were any indication.
The old man lowered the lid on his own trashcan with a clang that jolted Marty into a stammering apology. "Relax. I used to be smartass in my prime too." He lifted his rheumy hand in salute and cast his gray eyes around their shared neighborhood and the dreary drizzle that misted seemingly from the ground up. "Weather's right miserable. Forecast says we got a couple more days of this nonsense. Don't be giving your pretty mama nothing else to worry over, Boy. Get back inside. Go," he shooed him away. "You best be minding what that ole cat tells you too. When he's upset, he's likely got good reason to be. Go along now."
"What do you mean, good reason?"
"I reckon you'll find out soon enough," the old man said with a peculiar expression twisting his thin lips. "Watch out for that baby sister of yours."
"Bella?" Alarm bells starting going off in Marty's brain, and he lurched forward, but his crusty old neighbor was surprisingly spry, and apparently, quite hard of hearing. He'd traveled up his own walkway and disappeared inside before Marty could formulate another sensible word.
"Marty? Everything all right?"
Marty glanced back at his mom, back at the house that loomed tall and dark against the colorless day, and felt his heart skip a beat at the question.
"Everything's ok, Mom. Be right there!" Marty shot one last look at the house across the street and turned around.
His mom searched his face with curious blue eyes when he stepped inside the house, softly shut the door behind him. "You look upset. What were you two talking about?"
Marty bit the inside of his cheek, just hard enough to keep the truth from spilling out, at least the peculiar parts of the truth (maybe he had lost a little too much sleep lately), and gave her a deliberately vague answer. "His grandson, the weather, this old thing." He held up the Walkman and waited for an explanation. "What was it doing in the garbage?"
His mom took the tape player from him, gave it a closer look, and handed it back. "I don't know. Your father must have thrown it out." She sighed and sought out his free hand, pulled him deeper into the house. "Marty, we need to talk. About last night," she clarified.
Marty threw his head back and groaned. "Do we really have to do this again? Gilly's telling the truth. I'm lying. It's the same old story. You wouldn't believe me if I said anything different anyway." He resisted as she backed them toward the couch but ultimately followed her to the cushions below.
"Try me, Marty," his mom murmured. "You might be surprised." She tucked her legs underneath her and turned to face him, her expression open and nonjudgmental.
Marty floundered for words. "I don't even know where to start."
"You father found you slumped against Gilly's bedroom door this morning like a human guard dog," his mom smiled slightly as she made the comparison. "Why don't we work our way backward from there?"
Marty's knee bounced, up and down, up and down, before he decided to just trust her with the truth. The words just worked their way out of his mouth. "Gilly was sleepwalking again." He glanced over at his mom, relieved to have someone willing to hear his side for once, and felt his heart plummet at the disbelieving look in her blue, blue eyes. "Mom?"
"Marty. That's impossible."
Marty sprang up from the sofa, disappointment poisoning the marrow of his bones, and cursed himself for even daring to hope. "Forget it. I should have known better. I know what I saw. Next time I won't even try to help."
"Marty, please. Wait."
"No. You're just like him. That's something he would say. I don't want to listen to anymore of this bullshit. I'm going back to my jail cell now." He didn't get far before his mom stopped him dead in his tracks. He read worry and concern in her voice and genuine confusion; the combination was enough to make him turn around and stare searchingly into her eyes.
"Dammit, Marty. Would you just listen to me?"
Marty gave a slight nod of his head, nothing more, and waited for her to change his mind.
"It's impossible because Gilly spent the entire night in bed with me and your father. She had a nightmare, a terrible, terrible nightmare, and your father couldn't bear it." Tears started to streak down her cheeks, and she gripped the smooth wooden banister in her trembling hand. "I want to believe you, Marty. You have no idea how much. But we've been down this road before. Too many times."
Marty felt himself crumbling beneath the weight of her sadness, the albatross of her worry for him. "Mom. Please," he pleaded, his voice cracking. "Don't."
"Maybe your father's right, Marty. Maybe it's time we call Eve, see if she'll adjust the dose of your medicine."
His parents were arguing again. One floor up, and their angry words were still clear as crystal. It seemed to Marty, that was all they had ever done. He hated it. He hated them (his heart clenched at the lie…he could never hate his mom, never). Sometimes, he hated his whole wrecked life.
The boy reflected in the bathroom mirror stared at him with his mother's eyes, blue and wide and full of untold secrets. His father's chin wavered with the strain of staying strong, defiant. His hair hid a diseased brain, warped and shaped by the long ago whispers of a madwoman. None of the pieces quite fit together. They never had. Maybe they never would.
Bella blinked up at Marty, her tiny mouth puckered in a pout. She was a small, warm bundle that made his heart throb in the most painful way, but she was worth it. She was worth every damn bad thing that had ever happened to him.
Gilly sniffled behind the shower curtain, her tears soaking the side of Petal's face. "Marty. I'm scared."
Marty surprised her and himself both by pulling back the curtain, climbing into the clawfoot tub beside her, hesitantly lifting his arm. She huddled close, tucked her bony chin against his ribs, and he winced but tightened his protective embrace, breathed in the strawberry scent of her soft hair.
"If I tell Papa and Sheridan I'm sorry, do you think they'll stop fighting? I don't really like it when Papa and Sheridan fight. I don't."
Marty looked down into Gilly's wet brown eyes and felt guilt erode his vocal cords. Wordlessly, he shook his head and smiled a sad smile at her.
"I think Bella's scared too. Do you think it'd help if I sing her a song?"
"Maybe," Marty hoarsely replied.
"Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop…"
So...I'm back from the dead.
Sorry. I couldn't resist.
I know it's been ages. It seems like years ago that I first started this chapter.
Wait a minute...I did.
This thing's been wasting away on my hard drive forever. I finally decided to post it, warts and all. I figure I'm never completely happy with my chapters, and this one is no exception. There are parts of it I hate, parts of it I kinda like.
Hopefully, you guys will have a better opinion of it than me.
I don't know if you noticed, but I threw a whole new wrinkle in there.
Does it change your perception of happenings at the house?
More importantly...should it?
Feedback is absolute love, no lie.
I think it was the Favorite PM's in my email mailbox that finally spurred me into tackling this chapter again.
Now, if I could only grab hold of some inspiration to finish the next chapter of Anna. It's been languishing for far longer than this chapter.
Thanks for reading!
I look forward to reading your thoughts.
P.S. All those pieces of lyrics and that tiny teaser of a poem? Do not belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for my own selfish purposes. No infringement intended whatsoever.