Page 25

 Penelope Ward

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Before dinner, Callie and I were hanging out in the basement where Bettina had set up a sensory area for her daughter to let off steam.
There was a small trampoline, an indoor hammock, and one of those vibrating massage chairs from Brookstone that now made me uneasy, because Bettina had once mentioned that Cedric bought it for his sister. At the time, that warmed my heart. Now, it just made me sad.
As Callie jumped on the trampoline, I held her hands to help her balance. She was laughing hysterically and saying, “Higher…higher!”
After ten minutes, she finally wore herself out, looked at me and said, “I want chair, please.”
“Okay, honey,” I said as I walked over to the Brookstone chair, adjusting the settings as Bettina had showed me how and then she hopped in it. Callie relaxed in the seat, closing her eyes and letting the vibrations shake her.
As she continued to enjoy the chair, I looked around the basement.
Half of the large space was Callie’s sensory area and the other side of the room contained dozens of labeled boxes. I remember Bettina saying something about her kids storing all of their junk in her house and she joked that one day she was going to have a yard sale, hawk it all and use the money to gamble at the Mohegan Sun casino.
Callie seemed to be happily nodding off in the chair, so I walked over to all of the boxes to take a closer look at the writing in marker on the sides.
Some of them were open and I could see what was inside. Others were taped shut and some were actually large clear covered Rubbermaid containers.
One of the boxes was labeled ‘Caleb’s Wedding Stuff’ and that one happened to be open, so I peeked inside. The first thing I noticed was a small white ring bearer’s pillow with two fake gold bands attached to the top. There was also a guest book and a few favors: ceramic swans, wrapped in white tulle with Jordan almonds. A royal blue ribbon was tied around the swan’s neck and on the ribbon it said in gold writing: Caleb and Denise August 13, 2005. There was a mini wedding album with the same caption and curiosity got the best of me, so I opened it. The first picture was a formal portrait of Caleb and Denise. The bride looked beautiful in a satin gown with lace cap sleeves, holding red roses. Her blond hair was down, covered with a rhinestone tiara and puffy veil. Caleb looked a bit more like Cedric back then, since he was a little thinner. Caleb and Cedric had identical eyes and I could really see the resemblance in this picture. The next photo was of Caleb and his father, a candid where it looked like his Dad was giving him advice. His hand was on his son’s shoulder and Caleb was smiling back at him. This made me sad, knowing that their father passed away just a few years later.
When I turned the page, my heart began thumping hard as I came across the picture of Caleb and his groomsman. Standing in the middle right next to his brother was Cedric, smiling ear to ear, his eyes gleaming. He was dressed in a tux with a royal blue vest and a red rose pinned to his chest. Ignoring everyone else in the shot, my eyes focused only on him. I stared long enough for it to seem like his face was going to pop out of the page. He was clearly younger, his hair was gelled back and parted differently, but it was the same beautiful face and smile that had captivated me. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and continued through the rest of the album. Denise was a lucky woman, I thought. She nabbed the normal Callahan brother, not the f**ked up one.
I walked back over to Callie who was now fast asleep in the massage chair and brushed a piece of hair off of her eyes. It was rare for Callie to fall asleep during the day, but her mother did say she was up a lot the night before. I decided to let her sleep for ten more minutes until it was time to go upstairs for dinner.
In the meantime, I walked back across the room to the boxes, making sure everything in the Caleb wedding box was arranged as it had been before I looked in it.
I noticed another box that said ‘Dad’s Coin Collection’ and another that was labeled ‘Callie’s Childhood Drawings.’ I was going to peek inside that one, but noticed it was taped up.
There were dozens of containers, but I had to give Bettina credit for labeling everything.
Then, I noticed the first box that had Cedric’s name on it and my heart started to pound. That very large box was labeled ‘Cedric Miscellaneous’ and it was not fully closed at the top. It was also not fully open and I might have yanked on the tape a bit.
I considered walking away right then and there, waking Callie and heading upstairs, but morbid curiosity got the best of me. I looked over at Callie to make sure she was still asleep, looked at my watch and opened the flaps of the box. The first thing I pulled out was a Northwestern University banner that was folded. There was also a graduation hat and tassel. Beneath that, were several shot glasses wrapped in bubble wrap. Also in the box: a yearbook, incense, candles, c.d.’s, a couple of notebooks and a huge stack of photos wrapped in an elastic band. If I had to guess, these items looked like they were the contents of his dorm room, like Bettina helped him pack everything up on graduation day and took it all or had it shipped back to her house. I held the photos in my hand, staring at them, suddenly feeling like I was violating Cedric’s privacy. Then, I unwound the elastic band anyway.
Holy shit…this was overwhelming. The first photo was of a very young looking Cedric with two attractive blonde girls flanking him on each side. Cedric was giving bunny ears to one of them unbeknownst to her. He had a silly grin on his face and was likely drunk, from the look in his eyes and the amount of shot glasses in that box. The next picture was of Cedric and some guys playing beer pong. In another photo, some college kid was pissing on the ground of what looked like the dorm hallway…assumably piss-ass drunk. I rolled my eyes. These photos were totally up on some bulletin board in Cedric’s dorm room. Some of them even had tape or sticky stuff on the back. Picture after picture showed more of the same: Cedric with some random girls (in one photo, he was tongue kissing a redhead), college guys goofing around, Cedric giving the middle finger.
I had seen enough, so I rolled the elastic back around the stack and returned them to the box.
There was one last item that caught my eye. It was a small black binder and on it were the letters A.R.T. I immediately remembered Cedric’s tattoo which also had those same letters spelled out on top of the cross on his torso. My heart pounded as I slowly unlocked and opened the binder, a decision that would prove fateful.
Three pictures and a dried up pink rose were inside.
As my eyes caught sight of the first image, a sudden wave of nausea and panic overcame me. The room started to spin and my breathing became erratic. I closed my eyes and knelt down, fearing I was about to pass out. With the picture still firmly in my shaking hand, I knelt down on the floor, knowing that if I stood back up, I would surely faint.
On the ground, I dared myself to look at the picture again and squinted my eyes deeply to be sure I was seeing correctly, to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.
And I was: it was a picture of me.
“Dude…what the fuck?” Caleb said as he entered my condo.
I ran my fingers through my dirty mop of overgrown hair. “Nice to see you, too.”
“What’s with the beard…and when did you start smoking again? This place reeks.” Caleb reached for my face and suddenly smacked my cheek.
I scratched my head and ignored him, groggily walking into the kitchen, as Caleb followed me.
“Do you mind telling me what the f**k is going on with you? Caleb asked as he poured a cup of cold coffee. “Mom says you have dropped off the face of the Earth and that it has something to do with Allison or some other woman or both, but she couldn’t tell me shit.”
“Bro, that coffee is from yesterday,” I said as I took the cup from him and looked around for some filters to make a new pot.
Where the f**k did I put the filters?
“Cedric…seriously, what is going on?” Caleb crossed his arms leaning up against the kitchen counter.
“Cedric…put the f**king filters down.”
I looked down at the ground.
“Caleb…I…I’m just f**ked up. My life is a f**king mess, so I took my three weeks vacation.”
Caleb walked toward me as he spoke. “You call this a vacation…sitting in your apartment, looking like a f**king Chia pet that smells like an ashtray?”
I laughed…for the first time in weeks.
“Fuckhead…it’s my house…what do you want me to do?”
“Cedric…seriously…I had no idea. No news is usually good news with you. Why didn’t you call me? When was the last time you even spoke to anyone?”
“Mom called me yesterday. She, uh, told me about Denise. I am really sorry, man. I don’t want to bother you with my problems.”
During that call, my mother told me that Denise had been pregnant, but had a miscarriage a few days ago at seven weeks. It was the one thing that made me feel sad for anyone but myself in nearly three months. I felt like an as**ole for being so out of touch with my family.
Caleb paused and stared at me. I knew he must be devastated. They had tried to have a baby for so long.
He shook his head. “It’s okay, man. We’ll try again. We won’t give up. She’s taking it hard, but we’ll be okay.”
I sat down. “Caleb…fuck…I’ve been so wrapped up in this shit…I should have called you. God, I am sorry.”
“It’s okay…you clearly aren’t in your right mind.” Caleb looked at the ceiling, and then changed the subject. “So, are there any new developments? To what do we owe this shit show?”
Caleb knew about my last encounter with Allison, the night we broke up at Mom’s house, because I called him after it happened.
That was nearly three months ago.
I had chickened out about telling my mother anything at all because I wasn’t ready, not to mention Allison was still in the house when I left.
I became more and more depressed as the weeks passed. I had disappeared from my own life and chose not to face anything or anyone at all. After a couple of months of attempting to throw myself into work, I was nearing a nervous breakdown and took the time off—all three weeks of my vacation. The agency wasn’t happy, but they couldn’t stop me because I had the vacation time.
Each day has been spent in my condo, listening to music, smoking, drinking and watching suck-ass television.
I had one picture of Allison and me on my phone that we took at her apartment the day we spent together after the first night we made love and I stare at it a lot.
Lack of sleep has been a constant. Thoughts of her keep me up most nights. I wonder about whether anyone has contacted her, what she knows, whether she hates me, whether she is with someone else. I have no interest in meeting other women, because my heart still belongs to her.
Each day, I tell myself that today will be the day that I go to her and tell her my story…her story…the truth…and can never muster up the courage to face her.
“Nothing has changed, Caleb,” I said.
“Why don’t you just go to her and tell her the goddamn truth? What is stopping you now? You have nothing to lose anymore,” he said.
I put my feet up on the kitchen table and threw my head back.
“I…just…can’t bear to tell her I lied to her. She’ll hate me for that. She’ll think that I was a selfish prick who wanted in her pants. And then, the truth will devastate her. I just don’t want to hurt her anymore than I already have. At this point, I’d rather it be someone else that tells her everything.”
“You don’t think it would be better coming from you, someone she knows? She’s got to at least know you cared about her. That’s why you lied, to protect her and because you wanted to be with her without judgment. Can’t you explain it to her that way?”
“Man, I run through this everyday in my head. I know that would be the right thing to do…but you’re not understanding…it will kill me to see her…kill me to see her cry again. I’ve hurt her enough.”
Caleb put his hand on my shoulder. “Maybe…but you owe it to her.”
I threw my head into my hands and whispered, “I know…I know.”
I knew what I needed to do…but more days passed and I never did any of it.
My “vacation” was almost over and the thought of returning to work and the daily grind was torture. My hair was now three inches longer and my beard was caveman-style. I had become accustomed to this recluse life over the past weeks.
One evening after deciding to take a shower after three days without, as I was wiping myself down, I heard a frantic knock on the door.
My hair…both on my head and my face was still dripping and I grabbed a robe and rushed to see who was knocking.
When I opened the door, Allison was standing there with tears in her eyes, shaking.
My heart raced at the shock of seeing her and my throat seemed to close preventing me from speaking. All I was able to muster was a faint whisper.
“Cedric?” she whispered through her tears.
I said nothing as I stood in the doorway, then after a few seconds, tried to touch her arm.
My stomach turned as she violently pushed me away and made her way past me into the living room, visibly shaken.
She knew. Fuck me…she knew. But what did she know?
“Allison?” I asked, still not being able to form a coherent sentence.
She looked down at the floor and put her hand in her purse. Her hand was shaking and she pulled out a photo.
Breathing erratically, she said nothing as she stuck her trembling hand out prompting me to take it. Her eyes were bloodshot red, as she stared at me with an expression I had never seen from her.