Plus-One With A Vengeance : 4 / 29

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Plus-One With A Vengeance : 4 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 



Kris Kringle: You know what the imagination is?

Susan Walker: Oh, sure. That's when you see things, but they're not really there.

Kris Kringle: Well, that can be caused by other things, too.

— Miracle On 34th Street


 

When I woke up, Christmas morning, Max was already up and moving. I could hear him in the kitchen, making breakfast. There was the wonderful pots-and-pans sound of someone cooking, along with the homey smells of coffee, bacon, and toast.

Under the Christmas tree, all the presents were gone; the five boxes wrapped in golden paper with red ribbons had disappeared. Still groggy with sleep, I wondered for a moment whether Amber had come in the night like the Grinch and collected them. It was silly of me, but as I've said, with her you never know.

I made my way into the kitchen. Max was at the stove, flipping pancakes. The table was set with plates, cutlery, glasses, butter, jelly, honey, sugar and cream...

"There he is!" Max exclaimed. "Merry Christmas! How's the head this morning?"

"Not bad," I replied. "I switched to tequila when you started drinking water. Wait — I mean the other way around." He laughed. "How come you're so chipper? I expected you to have a massive hangover."

"I've got a high tolerance, I guess," Max said with a grin. He lifted the last pancake onto a plate, completing a pile. Then he pushed a mass of scrambled eggs into a bowl. "Help me get this food on the table."

As we filled the table with plates of food, he explained, "I was going to do all this for Amber, but you end up being the beneficiary."

"This is great!" I said. "The bacon is perfectly crispy, and everything is good and hot! And these pancakes are so light and airy! I had no idea you could cook, Max!"

"I can't, really. Breakfast is just about my limit. I had to learn because Amber doesn't cook at all." He stopped to suppress a chuckle. "Speaking of which — I saw your burglar alarms. My wine glasses perched precariously at every door? Were you afraid of burglars? Or did you think that Amber would come and cut our throats in the night?"

"Uhhh—" I wasn't sure how to answer. One thing was certain: there was no way I was going to mention seeing that particular face in the window... although I could tell part of the truth. "Uh, keep in mind that I had been drinking... but I thought I saw a face looking in the window." *A* face — I didn't say Amber's face. Just a face.

Max burst out laughing. "It was probably Santa Claus, you goof!" He threw a piece of toast at my head.

"Oh, yes, of course," I replied drily. "Why didn't *I* think of that?"

"You should have piled the wine glasses in the fireplace. When he came down, the shattering crystal would have woken you up."

I sighed. "Very funny."

"Seriously, though, Elliot, seeing what you did made me realize something — I do want to change the locks. All the locks. And the code to the garage. Can you do that? I mean, can you change the locks? The code I can do myself."

"Sure," I said. "I have some locks left over from my Dad's house. They ought to fit. If not, I can get some other ones on Monday, but if mine work, I can change them all right after breakfast."

Max smiled, amused by my haste. "You're not worried, are you, Elliot?"

"Worried? No, of course not. Worried about what?"

"I don't know. That Amber — or someone — might break in?"

"No, no — of course not!"

"That's good, because you're going to have the house all to yourself this week. I'm going to make the rounds of my relatives — I wasn't going to, because Amber hates that stuff—"

"You mean family stuff?"

"Yeah. So, now that she's definitely gone, I'm free to see my cousins, aunts, and uncles. I'll be back on New Years, in time for Diane's party."

"Okay," I acknowledged, with a tone of uncertainty.

Max chuckled. "Don't worry! Get those locks in, and Amber won't bother you!"

 


 

Max's house seemed like a mansion after my months in the garage. While he was away I watched a lot of TV and ate and drank a lot. There were still some small projects I could have worked on in the garage, but I couldn't motivate myself to go out there. Much like a prisoner recently set free — I had no desire to go back to my cell. Not even if I was "just visiting."

The days, I could handle just fine. I didn't mind being alone while the sun was out. I managed to keep busy. I washed all my clothes to get the garage smell out. I did some cleaning, I did some poking around. But the nights... Well, I didn't sleep well at all, the entire time that Max was away. It's not that I was afraid — I'm not a fearful person. I was just... uneasy in that big house, alone. It seemed like the ghost of Amber was everywhere: in the walls, in the windows, in the closets and floorboards. I can't explain it... as if she left an afterimage I could almost smell. I'd tell myself it was only my imagination, but that assertion didn't help. I tried sleeping in almost every room in the house — I even tried sleeping on the floor, hidden behind the couch — but I'd wake at every sound, not knowing whether the sound was real or part of a bad dream.

Diane's New Years party was Friday night, and I expected Max back on Friday morning. Thursday night (my last night alone) I had the idea of sleeping in the tub in the upstairs bathroom. I know it's stupid; you don't need to tell me. In part I got the idea thinking about panic rooms, and also in part from the Beatles' song Norwegian Wood. ("She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh / I told her I didn't, and crawled off to sleep in the bath.") Just as an idea, it had a lot of appeal, like sleeping behind an armored wall.

Again, it's not that I honestly believed Amber would break in and try to hurt me. I mean, I know how to defend myself. It's just that with her, you never know.

The tub was an old one — cast iron with an enamel coat. Consequently, it was uncomfortable and VERY cold. I put a blanket under me and a second over me. I shoved a stopper in the drain in case there were spiders (or worse!) down there. I tossed and turned, unable to find an unpainful position. Then, just went I'd decided to give it pass and sleep in a real bed, I fell sound asleep and slept until morning. I wasn't rested at all. There was a terrible crick in my neck and dark circles under my eyes.

Max got home just before lunch. As soon as he came in, I went downstairs to the mother-in-law suite and slept like a dead man (which is a good thing!) for six hours and woke up feeling perfectly refreshed and ready for the New Years party.

About that party: I should explain that in our town everybody knows everybody, more or less. More specifically, I'm trying to say that — although Amber herself was little more than an acquaintance to me — I knew most of Amber's friends pretty well. Kitty was a good example. It would have been next to impossible for Max (or me) to have any social life whatsoever and NOT run into Amber or one of her friends.

So, everyone we knew, including Amber, was invited to the same New Years party. This year, the parents of our friend Diane were hosting, and the party had a secondary theme: Diane's boyfriend proposed to her two weeks before Christmas, so we'd be celebrating her engagement as well as the New Year. It was a great party. We all had to admire Diane's ring, and pretend to commiserate with her boyfriend (as men do). Amber was there, but in such a crowd of people, it was easy to avoid each other.

Still, Amber didn't show any hostility — no staring daggers, no muttered insults, no veiled threats — so I got the feeling that she'd already moved on, in her own crazy way.

Max clearly enjoyed himself, and he seemed buoyed up by his family visits, so after seeing Amber acting neutral and Max looking happy I naively thought that their break-up was a non-event. Maybe he was even relieved to be free of her? That was my take.

Until the next morning, January 1. On New Years Day he started processing what had happened.

And he crashed. He crashed hard. I found him sitting at the dining room table holding an empty, unused coffee cup. His face was empty and expressionless. If he wasn't wearing pajamas, I could have easily believed he had just crawled from the sea, the only survivor of a shipwreck. He seemed in a state of shock and nervous exhaustion.

I asked him how he was feeling, and his response was, "Like I'm filled up inside with dead wood: and it's all thin, spiky branches. Spiky like daggers, but dead."

"It sounds like you're describing a honey locust tree," I said.

He shrugged and shook his head in response. "It's just an image, man. I don't care if there's really a tree like this anywhere. If there is, it ought to be burned down and buried."

Whatever pain these imaginary daggers caused him, he kept it hidden for the most part. He continued to go to work every day. He kept up with his personal hygiene: He showered each day. He shaved. He wore clean clothes. The thing was, his life dwindled down to a minimal, functional routine. He didn't talk — much. He didn't smile at all, or laugh. At least... well, we'll come to that.

Tired of living like a hermit, and afraid of being dragged down into Max's dark mood, I found a job for myself, a part-time gig as handyman for a property management company in Town Center. There was simple stuff, like cleaning and painting, and a lot of DIY. Most of my experience with my Dad was applicable, and the things I wasn't familiar with, I learned from online videos. Every day I learned something new. I hung two chandeliers and felt like an expert. I hauled a lot of trash to the dump, and made some home repairs that I never thought I'd be capable of.

I was working, out among the people. The pay was nominal, but I didn't need money. I could have paid rent if Max would let me, but he wouldn't let me.

Max lived a sad repetion. He'd come home from work, pour himself a generous glass of wine, pile two sandwiches on a plate, and trudge upstairs to his bedroom. Sometimes we'd get home around the same time, and I'd sit there in the kitchen, to be with him. At first I tried to make conversation, to reach out to him, but most nights he'd put his finger to his lips. He'd say, "I'm glad you're here, but I don't want to talk." Or, "Can you keep me company but not talk? I like knowing you're there, but I don't have the energy for—" and then he'd sigh.

So that's what I did. I sat there. Sometimes I *did* speak. Sometimes he didn't react at all, as if he hadn't heard. Usually he answered verbally in monosyllables. At other times, he'd just put his finger to his lips or shake his head.

Three times during that month, he lifted his head and fixed his eyes on me. I don't know what he read in my face, but he said, "Don't worry, I'm not going to kill myself."

Well, I never thought he would, until he said it. Happily, it never came to that.

It was awful, really. Have you ever been close to a person who's depressed? I don't mean sad; I mean depressed. It's like they collapse into themselves, and become a black hole. No energy comes out of them, and whatever energy you give gets sucked away into some negative zone. It's never reflected back to you, not even minimally.

It was like he'd fallen into a pit, or was sitting at the bottom of a well, looking down. I could see him... see the back of his head so to speak. I could say things to him, but mainly I was scared that he was never going to come out of that hole.

I tried, but I couldn't understand or relate. His state seemed out of all proportion to what happened. Okay, Amber left. But Amber was a horrible person. How could he be so wounded, so down, so hurt? I've felt bad, I've had my heart broken, but I've never fallen into myself like that. I never suspected that Max carried this abyss inside himself — this unmeasurable, uncrossable distance that separated him from himself, and him from me.

I started reading a lot, to pass the time. I'd sit in the living room, so I could hear him if he made a sound. I could tell that he was watching movies, and so one night as he assembled his sandwiches, I asked him what he was watching.

"Truffault," he replied laconically.

"Francois Truffault?" I asked, a little uncertainly. I was surprised I knew the name.

"Yeah."

"Why?"

He stared at me for a while before answering. He wasn't angry or irritated or... or anything. He just stared for a while, his face impassive. Then he answered me. "The only thing that's keeping me together right now is my routine. Getting ready for work, working, coming home, sandwiches, wine, movie. Don't ask me for more or ask me for less. Don't ask me to change anything."

"Sorry. I won't."

He shrugged.

"I'll get over it eventually," he said. "I realized that I've never been dumped before. I was always the one who... ended things, the one who did the dumping, and now I see that it's hard when you're the one who got left. The dumpee." He set a slice of bread atop his sandwich pile, then he cut the two sandwiches in half along the diagonal. "Also, I've never had a rejection that was so... total... so... surgical... so... absolute. And without any explanation or warning. It's like a nuclear weapon was deployed in my... in my... world." He gave me a half-smile and a shrug. "Okay," he concluded. "I've got a date with Monsieur Truffault." He raised his glass in salute and walked heavily up the stairs.

The depth of his feeling astounded me. I'd never seen him so dark and depressed. Even though Amber was a very taxing and difficult person, Max must have been heavily invested emotionally in their relationship. "It's not that I miss her," he said on another evening. "I don't. I don't miss her at all. In fact, I'm glad she's gone. A huge weight has been lifted. But I feel as though something died in the world, and something died inside of me."

As I sat by the front window reading, I'd listen for the sounds from his room. Sometimes I'd hear him laugh. Sometimes I'd hear him cry. But most of the time all there was to hear was the low murmur of the characters in the film.

It would have been horribly depressing for me as well, if I wasn't busy at work and spending my days with other people.

His funk ended abruptly toward the end of the month. I was sitting as usual in the living room, with The Three Musketeers open on my lap. Max was upstairs, communing with "Monsieur Truffault." He was up there about an hour and a half when I heard him swear, and he burst out of his room. "I'm done!" he shouted. "I am DONE!" He came downstairs, looking more alive and alert than he had in weeks, although he was still pale, needed sleep, and was a little too thin. He bristled with indignation or anger.

"Have you seen The Green Room?" he demanded.

"No, I don't think so," I said. "It doesn't sound familiar. Is it that classic porn movie? I don't think I've watched any porn."

"No! What the hell! No! It isn't porn! It's another damn French film. Francois Truffault? Oh, my God, it's horrible. Now I've had enough! It's given me cinematic indigestion. No more French films for me. God! In fact, no more movies for a while."

He made himself a pot of coffee and sat with me, talking nonstop for two hours. "I feel like I've come back to life," he said. "Back from the dead."

After that, Max gradually returned to his old self. It was as if he'd recovered from a serious illness. It took about two weeks, but each day he was a little better, a little more hopeful, a little more smiling.

 


 

And that was January! I remember telling myself, Now it's over! Meaning, Amber was gone, Max had finally moved on, and my living situation had stabilized for the present.

Unfortunately, it (whatever it was) had only just begun. Out in the general community, Amber's plan had unfolded, completely. Her spider's web was everywhere, covering everything, and we were already living in the aftermath. Blissfully unaware, but living in the aftermath.



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