(The crunching noises are the broken records underfoot.)
The quieter drone this morning surprised me. Muffled by cold air, muted with soaking fallen leaves, it was more peaceful and yet far more frightening this morning as I walked quickly down the concrete path, using muscle memory to stay upright over the places where I remember that there are large cracks and the plates have lifted just enough to make you crack an elbow or twist an ankle rather badly. I'm glad I had so much time to learn this route by heart, because it's dark now and it's so much harder to get here. I squeeze Ben's hand, pulling a little. He stumbles slightly and my heart lurches because if he trips or falls I can't catch him, there's no way I could hold him up or rescue him from a falter the way he has done for me countless times. It makes me feel helpless. It makes me feel responsible.
He isn't feeling well this morning, running a fever, strung out on exhaustion and the weight of the world that presses down, leaving us blind with headaches and clenched teeth. Change has come, and we are testing how it feels, dipping our feet into it, bravely venturing in for a quick dip and then hurrying back to the edge where we sit and regard how it feels without truly surrendering to the newness. Not quite yet. Soon.
He is trusting me this morning. There is fear but also curiosity and concern. There is the protective nature that once made the decision that led me to latch onto Ben like a barnacle on the side of an old sailboat because his focus is singular but loving. He doesn't want to control, or change, or fix, he simply wants to be here. In his own way with the fireworks of emotions he sets off randomly and without warning, he is a simple creature at heart. He rules by his heart and nothing more. Only his heart is missing because I have it. He has mine in return.
We haven't quite figured out how that works but it will come. It is still new. It seems like forever but it's not.
He looks at me and I point to the door. He opens it and then stands back as I enter without hesitating.
Jacob is standing right in front of me. Wings outstretched. I think we woke him. He is so beautiful I want to cry. He looks right past me to Ben and cocks his head, smiling slightly, thoroughly confused as to why I would bring Ben here. To see this.
Cole makes a soft noise from somewhere up above in recognition. It's been years since they have seen Ben and I didn't warn them. I didn't warn him. I didn't know what to do.
Every time I walk through this door I feel bitterness mixed with relief. It's a safe place. Getting here is so dangerous but the room in itself is inviolable, sheltered. I turn and look for Ben and bump into him. I can feel the tension roiling in him and also that same relief.
What are you thinking, princess?
Jake's focus on me is intense and singular once more, recovered from the surprise of seeing Benjamin in this place because Benjamin knows death and does not like it and thinks I am completely insane sometimes for having made this room. But I didn't make it. I found it! I just surrender to their arguments because there is no point in doing anything else.
He wants to know where I go. I am showing him.
Do you think that's wise?
It really doesn't matter if it's smart. He's not ashamed of me. I can be myself.
Because he has worse problems.
Because he doesn't have an agenda.
A noise from somewhere near the ceiling registers Cole's protest. Jacob frowns, but it's the fake frown he used when he was disappointed and wanted to appear to be troubled. I've had time to study all of his expressions since I kept him.
There is no pretending here, guys.
I see that.
Cole lands behind Jacob and I gasp. Rarely do they stand together and I turn slightly to put Ben in my peripheral vision and it's really amazing to see the three of them at one time and oddly I want to know what color Ben's wings will be someday but then I eat that awful thought, chewing without swallowing because that is precisely why I'm here.
I need something.
A real smile from Jacob, and curiosity from Cole, who always had so much trouble showing any emotion, other than anger and regret. I mistook regret for love. I will never do that again.
I need you to hide him.
He frowns, for real this time.
Fear incapacitates you, Bridget.
No. It doesn't. It creates resolve.
Wow, Jacob. As much as I would love to stand here and shake and freeze to death I didn't come to trade big words with you. Will you help me or not?
Help you. Keep him alive?
What makes you think I can do that?
The same gift that lets you lie to my face about why you taught yourself to fly. The same gift that enabled to you fool Cole into thinking you were friends so that you could watch over me. The same one that made me think you were human. You never were. You were a dream. I'm asking you to take that focus now and watch over Ben. I can't lose him.
What will kill him is the-
Just don't say it. Keep him fixable. I can't do more than that. I have to keep this at the beginning of the fear or I will stop moving and it will win and I can't allow that.
He needs to do this himself.
He can't! That's why I'm here. I can do this. I'm stronger.
And you'll pay the price.
I should have paid it a long time ago. I didn't ask for this. I asked to take the place of anyone, everyone, I wanted to be the one.
Bridget, don't you talk like that.
This is not a life, Jake. This is breathing through a whole different kind of fear.
Cole stepped forward and stared at me. Hard. An intense, uncomfortable scrutiny that I never appreciated but understood. He nodded at me and smiled and my heart broke with relief.
Thank you. I mouthed it because I knew I would never be heard.
Cole shook his head and spoke, finally.
We're not doing this, baby girl. You are.
Everything went dark and I knew my time was up. We felt our way to the wall and back the way we had come when I heard something. Or I thought I heard something, anyway.
I turned around because we had just stepped through the doorway and I was too late. The door slammed shut in my face. Ben looked alarmed, pulling me toward him, for a split-second wondering if I had left some fingers or toes behind. The noise from the abruptness echoed down the hallway, deafening both of us.
I stared at Ben in the dark. He stared back, maybe finally understanding a little bit of my faith and what my God can do and why I need to keep that room but why he's never allowed to ever come here alone and how I can rectify loving and hating both of the men I keep in that room without going outwardly insane in the process. Why I will protect him until the day I die, and why I was able to extend that day that much further away from me, when before I would have welcomed it with open arms.
Instead, I will use my arms to hold onto him. And I will keep him safe. I have all kinds of resources at my disposal to ensure that this time, there will be no broken promises.