We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

You Deserve Each Other: Chapter 17


On Friday, Nicholas is the only one scheduled to work at Rise and Smile, having done the most Nicholas thing ever: he offered to absorb his coworkers’ workloads so that they could go visit their families for the holiday weekend. ( How’s that for an extra mile! I can hear him thinking very loudly in the direction of Stacy’s empty chair.) I torture him by sending gloating texts about all the treasures I’m discovering in Nightjar through sheer luck, which I can see from his account he’s never found before in spite of the one billion hours he’s played. He sends me GIFs of people with exploding heads and by five o’clock, he can’t take it anymore and leaves early. When he gets home, I jump out at him from behind a massive pile of leaves I’ve raked, scaring him so bad that he topples into a different leaf pile. He chases me and I scream as loud as I want since we have no neighbors, zipping up and down the hillside until darkness falls.

We’re covered in dirt and leaves. Nicholas’s Toothless tie is ruined. He appraises it sadly, but I give the tie a light tug and say, “We’ll get you a new one. How to Train Your Dragon 2: the sequel tie.”

He smiles down at me. My heart does a somersault, and he begins to lean in, but we’re startled away from each other by a spatter of cold white light, high beams fishtailing up the driveway.

It’s Deborah’s car.

Happy fun time disintegrates. “What’s she doing here?” I hiss, backing up into the shadow of the house. I stare at Nicholas, panic rising. “Did you invite her? I haven’t had time to clean anything. The sink is full of dishes and your mom is going to … eugh.”

“No, I didn’t invite her.” His voice is hard.

The engine shuts off and both car doors fan open like the wings of a vulture. It must really be About To Go Down if Harold was brought along as backup. Deborah oozes out of the driver’s side, slim silhouette appraising the house. Even in the dark, I can tell she’s wearing a horrible frown. She’s going to tell Nicholas he has to move. Unacceptable home for my son. Unacceptable for my grandchildren.

“Let’s go,” Nicholas says urgently, grabbing my hand and darting around to the back door. “We can’t let them inside.”

“We can’t?”

“Never.” I’m taken aback by how vicious he sounds. But I get it. Maybe the logic is nonsensical, but if we let Deborah and Harold darken our doorway, all the peace we’ve established here is going to go up in smoke.

They’ll taint it with their pessimism and judgment. When they leave, they’ll take the magic with them, and it won’t feel like our enchanted sanctuary in the wilderness anymore.

We run inside just as Deborah starts rapping on the front door. “Nicky!”

She tries to turn the knob and knocks again, much louder this time. It’s the most irritated sound in the universe; she can’t believe we have the audacity to keep her out.

“Nicky, are you in there? Answer the door!” I’m reminded of vampires requiring permission to cross your threshold, and after you’ve let them in one time they’re free to come and go as they please. Deborah sees our warm-blooded shapes through the door in infrared and bares her razor-sharp teeth, pupils expanding to fill the whites of her eyes.

Nicholas and I watch the door warily, neither of us moving. “Your mom needs to learn how to call ahead,” I whisper.

“She called me three times while we were out back,” he admits. “I didn’t answer.”

“Ooooh, someone’s gonna be in trouble.”

He nudges me with his shoulder. I nudge him back.

“Nicholas!” Deborah’s using her I Mean Business voice. “Your father and I are here! Unlock the door.” Harold distantly grumbles. Deborah’s made him get out of his seat for nothing, and he hasn’t had to remain standing for this long in five years.

“What do you think she wants?” I murmur in Nicholas’s ear.

“She needs me to tell Dad he’s not allowed to eat foods that begin with the letter B.”

I cackle, then cover my mouth to quiet the noise. “It’s the dessert you didn’t finish last night. She’s here to spoon-feed you the rest of your cake.”

I notice the tension in his posture, how he tries to make himself invisible as he waits, almost audibly thinking Please go away. Just leave me alone. Stress lines his features and I want to reach out, smooth his problems away with my hands. Deborah is overwhelming even in tiny doses. Nicholas is exposed to her nagging and emotionally draining diatribes nonstop. He gets no downtime to recover.

“They’re not home,” Harold complains. “Let’s go.”

“Nicky’s car is here and all the lights are on. I’m not going anywhere till he opens up. If you want to leave, drive yourself home. Nicky will give me a ride.”

“Why on earth does he live all the way out here in the sticks?” We’re inconsiderate for making him travel a whole ten minutes.

For once, Harold’s made a point he and his wife can agree on. “This property is unacceptable,” she says briskly. (Called it!) “It’s too far from home. The yard’s a mess—we’ll need to get a landscaper out here to cut down all these trees. Nicky mentioned a pond. What does he need a pond for? It’s dangerous for small children. First thing tomorrow, you’re making calls to get a fence built around it. You see those crooked shutters? They’ll need to go, too. Honestly, what was he thinking? He must’ve let Naomi make the decision on this one. No wonder he hasn’t invited us over—he’s ashamed of it.”

When it’s beginning to look like Deborah will never leave, Nicholas sighs and takes one step toward the door. I can’t let him give in. He’s successfully ignored his mother for over fifteen minutes now and I want to keep the momentum going.

“Come on.” I take his hand and hurry toward the stairs, dragging him along after me.

“What are we doing?”

I lead him into the empty middle bedroom upstairs and open the window, which overlooks the front yard. Deborah and Harold hear the groan of the ancient pane and tip their heads back to gape at us. “What’s up?” I call down.

Beside me, Nicholas drops to the floor like a sack of potatoes. It’s all I can do not to laugh. “What are you doing?” he cries again in a loud whisper.

“I’m your attack dog,” I tell him. “I’m going to bark at these intruders until they go away.”

Harold’s gaze is fuzzy and perplexed. He squints, pointing at me.

“Who’s that?”

“That’s Naomi, you idiot,” his wife snaps, and he just scratches his head. His confusion is understandable. Harold likes to speak directly to my chest when addressing me, and thanks to this lovely window that conceals everything but my head and neck, my identification has been rendered a mystery.

Deborah cups her hands around her mouth. “Where is Nicky?”

I cup my hands around my mouth, too. “Nicholas isn’t available to talk right now, but you can leave him a message!” Being an attack dog is more secretarial than one would think.

“But where is he?” she demands to know.

“Busy!” Jesus, lady. Take a hint.

She props her hands on her hips. “Aren’t you going to let me inside?”

I think of vampires again and shiver. “Afraid not!”

Nicholas makes a strange keening sound. I glance down at him in alarm and wonder of wonders, he’s laughing. It emboldens me to take this a step further. “I can’t tell you what Nicholas is doing because it’s a secret, by the way. A sinister secret. You should go now while you still can.”

“I am not leaving until I see my son!” She pauses, voice dropping to a suspicious tone. “What have you done with him?”

“Nicholas?” I reply questioningly. “I haven’t seen him in days. And that’s the story I’m giving the police.”

I check Nicholas’s reaction and think he might be dead. He is keeled over, forehead on the floor, body shaking with quiet laughter. I can’t believe he’s letting me get away with talking to his mother like this, but after what she said to me yesterday I’ve got no qualms. I’m off my leash and I’ll go as far as he’ll let me. “He’s not here. A spaceship took off a few minutes ago, so if you run you might be able to catch him.”

I’m pretty sure I hear Harold say, “I’m not running even if a spaceship did take him.” He stalks back to the car, but Deborah stays put.

“This isn’t funny. I’ll only tell you one more time to go get my son.”

Nicholas sits up, deliberates for a moment, and then hollers, “I’m not home!”

“Nicky!” Deborah cries, pressing her hands together. He’s alive! “Nicky, is that you?”

He pops up next to me at the window. “No! You have the wrong address.”

“Nicky, I’m serious. Let me in.”

“Nicky is gone forever. A dinosaur ate him.”

“Excuse me?”

“He’s a changeling.”

“Nicholas Benjamin Rose. I’m losing my patience and do not find this humorous. It’s freezing and I came here to speak to you like adults. I will give you until the count of three—”

“He’s been Raptured.”

“You do not talk to me this way! I am your MOTHER—

” Nicholas has never interrupted his mom before, and he’s making up for it now. “This whole time, he was never real. All along, it was … Shia LaBeouf! Method acting!”

Deborah’s figure is shadowy, but I can see her balled hands and jutting chin. When her voice emerges, it’s so guttural that it would make Lucifer lock his doors. “Nick—”

“I drop-kicked him out of a moving train and he’s at the bottom of a ravine somewhere, busy being extremely dead. There is nothing for you here, then, so go on and be banished.” He spreads his fingers wide and thrusts them outward like he’s casting a spell. “I banish thee!”

I think he might be losing his mind a bit, because his giddy laughter drowns out whatever Deborah’s down there squawking. She’s spitting mad, Nicholas has thrown all his fucks to the wind, and it’s glorious. The most beautiful display of childish behavior I’ve ever witnessed.

“Yeah, you tell her,” I say goadingly. I love seeing him brave enough to give that woman a fraction of the hell she’s owed. “You cast D-Money right out of here.”

“I cast you right out of here, D-Money!” he yells at the top of his lungs, and I. Completely. Lose it. I can’t breathe. Neither can Nicholas, who breaks down in the middle of his banishment chant and is laughing so hysterically that no sound escapes save for little gasping sobs. Tears stream down our faces.

“Look what you’ve done!” Deborah screams, shaking a finger at me.

“You’ve corrupted my sweet boy! I know this is your fault, Naomi!”

I take a bow.

The spell is a success. Deborah gives up and stomps back to her car. Her tires squeal ominously when she tears off into the night, which is probably pretty close to the same sound she’s making twelve inches from Harold’s face right now.

I wipe the tears from my eyes and give him a high five. “Holy shit, dude!”

“I know!” He’s got a crazed grin, chest heaving deeply. “Unhinged” is my new favorite look on him. I think back to the conversation we had in the car after my stop-and-run fiasco at the traffic light in Beaufort, and how he said that messing with his parents could be fun as long as he was in on the joke, too. He really meant it.

I slide my palm over his cheek, matching his grin. “I’m proud of you. I wish I could see your mom’s face right now.”

“She’s going to kill me.” His smile freezes as he realizes what just happened. “Oh my god, she’s going to literally kill me.” He leans over, hands on his knees, breathing in through his nose and out his mouth like a woman in labor. I pat his back and a few anxious honking noises thump right out of him. “Did I seriously say all that? To my mom? Can we run off to an uninhabited island?”

“I like islands. Let’s go. We’ll have coconut pie every day.”

“I can’t believe I did that.” More honking. “I got a little carried away, didn’t I?”

“I want to see you get carried away all the time.” I get a zap of inspiration and tap the windowsill. “Hey, can you go down there and stand where your mom was standing? Just for a sec? I want to check something.”

He arches a brow at me but obliges. While he heads downstairs, I dash into my bedroom and fish a package of balloons out from under my bed, which I’d purchased when he and I were still sabotaging each other. I race into the bathroom, fill one up with water, and return to the window.

“Okay, I’m down here,” he says, voice drifting up with a coil of white breath. “What did you need to check?”

“This,” I say, letting the bomb drop. It doesn’t land on his head as planned, but splatters all over his shoes.

Nicholas jumps back, arms out, staring at the dark spots on his pants. A thrill chases up my spine. Slowly, slowly, he lifts his head and growls, “I’d run if I were you.”

With a gleeful scream, off I go. I spend the weekend getting entirely too used to being on friendly terms with Nicholas. He teaches me how to drive Frankencar, which I’m initially resistant to out of nerves. But I get the hang of it pretty quickly and drive us to Beaufort to buy a canoe, which we strap to the roof of my car. We buy three oars and paddle out to rescue his wayward canoe. We spend Saturday on the pond, stabbing our oars at chunks of ice and playing bumper cars. Then we sit on the sofa in the drawing room, side by side, and watch the snow fall while we drink hot chocolate. He plays Nightjar (on my account, so that he can play God with my trident and exclaim, “Hey, you have to come look at this! I’m a unicorn! Look, Naomi, I have a horn!”) while I read Riverdale fan fiction on Tumblr, and it’s mellow and ordinary and achingly perfect. It makes me so sad that all the good parts in the story of us are rolling in right at the end.

An evil twist of fate: I don’t think I want it to be the end. Not anymore.

But while we seem to be learning how to treat each other’s feelings with more care and making better choices, we’re not what an engaged couple ought to be.

When he comes home on Monday all I want to do is gather up all my failures into a pile and sweep them under the rug, but instead I make myself share the parts of myself I’m not so proud of. I make myself say,

“Today sucked. I spent half an hour on an online application before it got to the last page and they said a minimum of five years’ experience in the food industry was required.”

“What sort of position?”

“Assistant manager. It was the only opening they were hiring for.”

He looks down at the rug as he toes off his shoes, and I wonder if he’s thinking about Eaten Alive. Mr. and Mrs. Howard wouldn’t even make me sit for an interview; if I said I could move to Tenmouth, they’d give me a job without hesitating.

“I’m sorry. Demanding a minimum of five years’ experience is stupid.

They miss out on so much talent by limiting themselves that way. It really is their loss.” I can’t help tearing up a bit at hearing such strong support from him. “If it cheers you up any, I stopped at the supermarket and saw a couple help wanted ads on the bulletin board.” He hands me two flyers.

They’re for small, local businesses I’ve driven past but never patronized.

Their parking spaces are always empty. They’re the sort of workplaces I know Nicholas thinks are set up to fail because they can’t compete against today’s big retailers, but he still took the time to bring them home to me.

I start to drift off toward the couch, wanting nothing more than to escape into a television show until my eyelids are so heavy I can’t keep them open, but he takes my hand.

“What are you doing?”

“Going to go make dinner. Come with me?”

I raise a mystified eyebrow at him. “Sure?”

He sends me a little smile that I return and doesn’t drop my hand, lacing his fingers through mine. What world am I living in, that now I’m holding hands with Nicholas to walk from one room into another? His grasp is confident and sure, the sort you’d want leading you through a crowd.

“You’re a pretty good hand-holder, you know,” I tell him.

“Just reminding you of all the things your Dr. Claw could never do.”

Ahh, Dr. Claw. Evil villain of my dreams. With a limo, red suspenders, and a face like that (in the movie, at least), he could still get it even if he had two pirate hooks. “He’s still got his other hand.”

“Shh. I win.”

“Yes, Nicholas, you are much better than an Inspector Gadget character.”

Nicholas lifts his chin, mollified. In the kitchen, he tugs a chain that activates a strand of globe lights that run the perimeter of our ceiling, which casts a cheery ambiance. Then he taps a radio app on his phone and music infuses the room while he sifts through pans in the cabinet.

“Where’s the—oh, here it is.” He twirls a frying pan and winks at me.

“What are we making?”

“Pecan pancakes.”

It’s barely dinnertime and the sky’s already black. If it weren’t for the glowing bulbs overhead that throw our reflections back at us in the windowpane, we’d be able to see the star-sprinkled forest. Familiar music wafts from his phone. Generationals. Our band. The song playing now is

“Turning the Screw,” which I haven’t cued up lately because it reminds me of everything lovely that’s disappeared from our relationship. It’s been a while since we’ve listened to their music together. I wonder if he’s favorited this song before, or if he’s got it on a playlist. The thought of him listening to our band all by himself in recent times hurts my heart.

“Naomi.”

His voice is velvet. I don’t have to wonder if the choice of music is a coincidence, because I hear it in his deepened timbre. I see it in the feathering muscle in his cheek. I feel his atoms vibrating.

He looks sideways at me and my stomach drops. “Come here,” he says, extending a hand.

I walk over so slowly that he laughs. I marvel at the impossible softness of the sound, coming from him, directed at me; the quirk of his lips, the warm fire in his eyes. When my hand slides into his, I’ve never been so aware of another person’s physicality. All of my senses spike, picking out his details, the way he feels, smells, his body heat. He takes up the entire room.

Breathing becomes an effort.

The hand he doesn’t have laced through my fingers lightly grips my waist. The top of my head rests perfectly beneath his jaw, which makes leaning against his chest irresistible. I didn’t think we were the kind of couple that danced in a kitchen in the middle of the woods, but it turns out that’s exactly the kind of couple we are. Two months ago, we would have done something like this only if other people were watching. Putting on a show.

I never want this dance to end. He won’t let me press myself against him so that I can hide my face, gently tugging back every time I try to disappear. He tilts my head up and gazes right on through me to what lies inside. His eyes are bluer than a lake and they’re gleaming with happiness.

It dawns on me that I haven’t seen him genuinely happy in forever. I’ve been so concentrated on my own unhappiness that I haven’t noticed his.

I’ve been fooling myself by thinking he’s been content all along. How arrogant, to assume he was content with me when I so obviously wasn’t content with him.

Our past is a string of disconnected memories I can teleport across. All of the golden, feel-good, light-as-air memories have been going dark, which has allowed the bitter poison ones to dominate the spotlight. But when Nicholas stares into my eyes like this, a few of those positive memories twinkle back to life and take the stage. When his palm slides over my cheek, fingers disappearing into my hair, it cauterizes a wound on my heart that’s been festering untended.

Nicholas absorbs my attention so fully that I know I’ll never forget how this feels. It’s a peace and a comfort I haven’t been able to find anywhere.

It’s how my heart pounds so loud I’m certain he can hear it. It’s how his closeness makes my knees weak, and his skin brushing mine jolts me like a spray of hot sparks. It’s how he knows me better than anyone else, and I never meant for him to.

I tried to keep him at a safe distance where he could only see the decent parts of me and it made us both miserable. I inadvertently let him in to see the ugly parts but instead of running away like I’d counted on him to do, he wrapped his arms around all of that ugliness and didn’t let go.

We’re on the floor, and Nicholas is asleep.

We had a picnic in the living room, the palm-leaf comforter from his bed serving as our picnic blanket. I can’t stop running my hands over the fabric, remembering what it was like to sleep beneath it, next to him.

Remembering him holding me close, breath stirring my hair. The memories make me ache so bad that my chest hurts and I want to cry, but I can’t stop remembering. The floodgates are wide open.

It’s warm and comfortable here in front of the fireplace, so I’ll let him sleep for just a bit longer before I wake him up. And it’s nice, this sense of normality, lying next to each other. It’s what most couples do, especially the engaged ones. But it hasn’t been our normal.

Nicholas and I aren’t touching. He’s lying on his back, one arm bent behind his head, and there’s a slight frown in his brow that makes me want to smooth it, so that’s what I do. I think that’s the place we’re in now: I’m allowed to briefly touch him in innocent spots. For the purposes of caring.

Soothing. Giving. We’re not in a place where we can take. Greediness wouldn’t survive. Moving too quickly might kill us stone-dead.

I hold my ring finger above me and watch the diamond sparkle. It’s too forward for me to lay my head on my fiancé’s chest. How absurd is that?

I don’t touch him, but I think about it. I think his shirt would feel soft, fragrant with subtle notes of cologne you only catch when he moves. He’d feel like reassurance. Quiet strength. Security. The bright coals of a fire.

He’d feel like warm arms on a cold starry night, breaths puffing up white.

He would feel like a sturdy old house in the woods and a plaid winter cap.

Nicholas Benjamin Rose is a good man right down to his bones, and that is true even if he and I have been impossible.

I think touching him now would feel like plucking a flower from the barn and dropping it inside a blue-green drinking glass next to your breakfast plate. He would feel like blue spruce and wood smoke.

Moonlight and glittering clouds. Pine, my new favorite scent. He’s chinks of sunlight falling over a woven rug, warm to the touch, lazy as an afternoon kiss. Bare, tangled legs, napping together on the couch.

He’s the cold, crisp air in fall and the sharp ice of a shovel’s blade you run the pad of your finger over as you pass it, propped upside-down next to a dilapidated barn. He’s in the trees. The pond.

I imagine him swimming in the pond this summer: bare, glistening skin.

Jumping off the weathered dock. The lean muscles in his back bunching, every ligament springing to life.

Someday, for some woman, he’ll feel like parting the curtains in an upper window, dust motes swirling in a sunny room, peering down on the curving back of a man building your children a swing set. He’ll be a thick wedding band of solid silver, the only place on his hand that doesn’t tan in the summer. He’ll feel like two old trees growing together, branches plaiting into an embrace.

I wish I could see inside his head to know how he feels about me. I don’t want to ask, because what if he says the past few weeks haven’t been enough? What if he thinks we’re unsalvageable? That’s what I’d thought, but I’m not so sure anymore. I want to think that he’s here with me because he wants to be, not because he’s measuring all the inconveniences of splitting up and decided making it work is the easier option. He could be anywhere, with anyone, but he’s here with me. That’s got to mean something.

I’m staring at this man and thinking about the straw wrapper bracelet he keeps in a drawer.

There are hurts. I feel them all over, like stab wounds: the distance that we both allowed to settle in, ruining what should have been the happiest year of our lives. The ring that makes me feel like a fraud because it’s so huge. As ridiculous as it might sound, in my mind he gave me such a big diamond as a way of saying I love you THIS much! ; but how could he have loved me THAT much when we still didn’t completely know each other?

When we’d never argued before and didn’t live together and it was such smooth sailing. Way too good to be true.

He’s seen me take it off a couple times. I told him the diamond is too gaudy, but in truth it didn’t occur to me he’d care, because I didn’t care myself. I bet he cared, though. I bet he hated that I took off his ring.

I hold it over my face again, flashing it from left to right to catch the blaze of the fire, and I see what he saw when he picked it out. I see my hand from his point of view, not mine. How it would glow with promise. I wonder what I feel like to him. What memories and possibilities run across his mind when he wants to touch me but feels that’s not his privilege anymore.

For the first time since he presented it to me, I study my ring and think it’s stunning. It’s exactly the ring he should have picked. I’ll never forgive myself for the moments I took it off.

He’s radiant, lying here. Scintillating and golden. Nicholas is a rare, wonderful man, and I’m going to be so sorry if I have to give his ring back.


Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset