He looked at me again, so much agony in his expression. I could see in his eyes that he carried the weight of every "what if" scenario imaginable on his back. And no one's back was strong enough to withstand that type of weight. Xander had broken just a little bit. But Acadia had broken all of us in ways both big and small.
I had left him there. I couldn't even let myself go there in my mind. At least not right then.
"How?" I took a deep breath, "How did he survive?" I asked quietly, the last word coming out on a squeak and causing Xander to glance over at me worriedly before looking back at the road.
"The cell he was in. I know you'd never been in there, and I hadn't either, but Calder described it to me as a little cement box, solid. Some water flooded in, but there was a drain in the floor and that kept it low—thankfully—because he was mostly passed out. He doesn't remember much. And of course, he hates himself for that. There's not a lot Calder doesn't hate himself for."
Xander was quiet for a minute and another tear slipped down my cheek.
"The whole thing collapsed, Eden, you know that. Flattened. When I got there, the water had receded, but there were body parts sticking up from the rubble and just . . ." He grimaced. "It looked like the depths of hell," he finished quietly. I recalled the lifeless, bloated bodies floating in the cellar. The images had haunted me for three long years. I wasn't sure they'd ever go away.
"It was," I said. "That's exactly what it was."
He squeezed my hand again, but kept looking straight ahead. "It looked hopeless. But then I heard this very small banging and I followed the sound. I pulled as much debris away as I could and there he was, half dead, shot, bloody, swollen, beaten, air-deprived, in shock, but alive, sitting in the corner where the drain was, a space barely big enough for his body. It was like a f**king miracle. He was banging a small piece of concrete against the floor, over and over again. He was mostly out of it, mumbling about springs and Elysium and you, and Mother Willa."
He lapsed into silence as we turned on to my street.
"We got him out of there and back to Kristi's friend's house. Kristi even delayed her move to help us and make sure we were okay." He paused, staring off behind me. "I was so scared of the police. After Clive . . . but now, if I had called them . . . if you had seen Calder on TV, this would have been different." He shook his head. "Kristi tried to convince me, but I wouldn't listen and Calder begged us not to, too, once he was coherent. There was so much we didn't understand then, so much that terrified us."
"Xander, I didn't call the police either. I still haven't called the police even though my mom . . . well that's another story, but, I know. I know."
He nodded and pulled behind Molly into my mom's driveway.
"He's still out there," he said.
I bit my lip. "I know." I opened my mouth to go on, but my mom swung my door open and offered me her hand, putting an umbrella over us and practically pulling me out of there. It seemed she'd been watching for us to return home. Molly must have called her from the car.
We ran through the rain into the house and after we'd dried off with a towel, Xander and I sat in the living room drinking hot tea instead of the shots we had talked about. Suddenly, I was chilled to the bone. I felt like I'd never get warm. But somewhere underneath the shock and the sadness that both our lives were so different now, there was a current of wild joy that ran through my bloodstream.
He was alive.
My mom introduced herself to Xander, but then Molly, thankfully, pulled her away so that Xander and I could talk.
I told Xander everything I'd been through since we got in Clive's police cruiser that fateful day. Xander got up and hugged me several times and my mom fluttered in and out of the room worriedly. Molly pulled her out again a few times, but I shook my head to let her know it was okay. I could see how much she needed to feel useful to me, in even the smallest of ways, and perhaps she needed to hear this as well.
Xander told me that he and Calder had been doing construction work, mostly—anything where they could get paid under the table. They'd both gotten good at it and so far hadn't been between jobs for long. It paid their bills. And I had to admit that a fierce pride flowed through me as I listened to how they'd survived.
"I worked and supported us for the first year," Xander said, his eyes darting to mine and then away. "Calder, he . . . he didn't do much other than lie around with this blank expression on his face." He ran his hand through his hair. It was a little longer now, too, and it suited him. He was quiet for a minute, seeming to be lost in the recent past. "I thought he was in shock, you know, and obviously grieving profoundly. I was, too," he said quietly, letting out a harsh exhale. "After his wounds were healed, I did what I could for him, which at the time wasn't much more than keeping him fed and hydrated." He paused again, so long I thought he wouldn't continue. Pain pulsed through me, and a lump formed in my throat, but I held the tears at bay. I felt like I'd already cried a river.
"One day, I came home from work and he wasn't there." He shook his head slightly. "I looked everywhere and all I found was a receipt for a bottle of whiskey that he'd gone to the store and bought, trying to self-medicate, I guessed. I finally found him up on the roof, at the very edge, swaying and crying." Grief flooded Xander's expression. "I talked him down, dragged him back inside, got him settled down. A few more minutes though, Eden, and . . ." He trailed off and I reached out and put my hand on his knee, gripping it. "If he hadn't jumped, he would have fallen."
"I know that pain," I said. "I know. Thank God you were there."
Xander studied me for a minute and then nodded. "He should be the one here right now," he said.
I shook my head. "No. I hated leaving him, but after everything, I'd never forgive myself if he didn't have this opportunity again. His art. His destiny," I finished on a whisper.
Xander pressed his lips together. "It saved him once, you know." He looked off over my shoulder again. "After that day on the roof, I didn't know what else to do. I went to an art supply store and spent money we didn't really have to buy every supply I could think of. I brought them home and he didn't seem interested, but the next day I came home and he'd painted something. I recognized it as part of that spring where you two always met."
Tears filled my eyes this time. I couldn't help it.
Xander sighed. "Each day I came home, he'd painted a little bit more. After a while, it was all he did. You. Over and over and over. It was like it was the one thing that brought you back to him, at least in some way."
But he never painted my face, I thought, wondering why. Had he been unable to?
Xander took in a deep breath. "I'm the one who encouraged him to take an art class at the community college. The teacher there saw his talent and called her friend, Madison, who owns the gallery he's at tonight." Xander looked at me guiltily. "She was very obviously interested in him, right from the beginning. I mean, more than just his art. I encouraged it, Eden. I encouraged him to try to find some happiness with her. I encouraged him to give Madison a chance. Truth be told, I practically pushed him to it." He grimaced and looked down.
"You couldn't have known," I said softly, my heart hurting. "You're his friend. You love him. You were only trying to help him move forward." Tonight had been his opening night at Madison's gallery. If I was doing the math correctly, did that mean they'd been together a few months? Half a year? I didn't ask Xander. I didn't think I wanted to know.
Xander scrubbed a hand down his face. "Yeah. And now? God, this is all so incredibly unbelievable."
I laughed softly and raised my teacup in the air, furrowing my brow at the ridiculousness and tragedy of it all. If I didn't laugh, I was going to cry more tears I didn't think I had.
"Calder, he's . . . the same, but he's different. It's like he's been so damned destructive recently. He bought himself this beat-up motorcycle and he drives it without a helmet, too fast. He volunteers to do the roofing on our job sites, not because he enjoys it, but because it's the most dangerous part." He brought his eyes to mine. "It's almost like he doesn't actually want to take his own life, but he doesn't fear death either. He tempts fate at every turn by taking these crazy risks." He let out a deep breath and I could see how much it affected him. I couldn't blame him. Calder was all he had.
"Xander," I said and sighed sadly not knowing what else to say.
His phone suddenly dinged, indicating a text. Xander shook his head as if to bring himself to the here and now and glanced down at it. "He's home," he said.
"Already?" I asked, looking at the clock on my mom's mantle. It'd only been two hours since we'd left the gallery.
"I'm surprised he lasted that long," Xander said, standing. "Come on, I'll drive you." He took me in a hug and said softly, "I'm so damn glad to have you back, Eden." His voice was choked with emotion. I hugged him back tightly.
Despite my mother's hand wringing, I got back into Xander's truck and hugged him again when he dropped me off in front of Calder's building, waiting until he saw me enter the main doors. I waited for the elevator for a minute, my mind reeling. I didn't know if Calder was off limits because of Madison, but I desperately needed to be in his arms. I needed him. But had he found a way to do as Xander encouraged? Had he moved on? When the elevator didn't immediately come, I ran up all fifteen flights of stairs.
The apartment was dark. I sat in the only chair I had in the place, a small wooden one that had been left in a closet by the previous tenant. There was a wild hum in my blood and my fists clenched and unclenched on my thighs. I'd gotten a hold of my emotions just enough to make it through two hours of the gallery event, every minute an exercise in pure mind over matter. My body was tensed to run across the city to Eden. She was alive. My beautiful morning glory was alive. My thoughts spun around me. I breathed out a harsh exhale as a mixture of astonishment and euphoria slammed into me for the hundredth time in the last couple hours. My skin felt clammy and I couldn't seem to catch my breath. I thought I might be in a little bit of shock.
A light knock came at my door and I bolted out of the chair and flung it open. I gasped out a sound of desperation as I pulled Eden into my arms and we stood there together in my doorway holding each other again and just breathing, hers harsh and rapid as if she'd just run here. I didn't even know how long we stood there, but after a while, Eden pulled away and smiled a small, sad smile up at me, her breathing normal again.
"Your show. Were you okay?"
I nodded and led her inside, closing the door behind us. She dropped her purse on the floor next to the door. "Actually, no, not really." I scratched the back of my neck. "Watching you walk away from me . . . that was ridiculous, Eden. I should have cancelled it. Really," I let out a small, humorless laugh, "it was ridiculous."
She breathed out and shook her head. "The timing was just . . ." She shook her head again.
"Yeah, I know." My words came out in a rush.
We stood there in the dim glow of the city lights coming in through the large windows, just looking at each other. She was so unbelievably beautiful.
"Do you have lights?" she asked after a minute tilting her head and looking around the barely lit room.
I shook my head. "No, not yet. I got a rental deal on this place from a guy I work with. I've been fixing it up in exchange for low rent and no application process . . . the whole ID thing." I massaged the back of my neck. "I don't have the wiring done yet."
She nodded, her eyes moving around the large, open floor plan.
"I didn’t ask Xander where he lives."
"He lives about ten minutes from here in his own apartment. I asked him to share this place, but he thought it was time for us to get some space."
She nodded again. We were both quiet for a minute.
"Eden . . ."
She licked her lips and opened them as if she was going to say something, but then closed them, furrowing her brow. Then her face crumpled and she heaved in a big, shaky breath. "This is . . ." she let out a small sob, "strange, and it hurts. It's like we . . . and you have a . . . you have a . . ." Her shoulders shook in silent sobs.
At the sight of her tears, pain hit me in the gut, so intense it was actually physical and I jolted slightly, taking a step toward her and pulling her body into mine. "I'm so sorry. So sorry," I kept repeating.
I felt her shaking her head at my chest. "No, no, you thought I was dead, I know. You were trying to move on with your life, I know."
"No," I said loudly and then closed my eyes briefly. "No," I repeated. "I hadn't moved on, Eden. I'd have never moved on. Not ever. I just . . . I don't even know. I wasn't trying to move on, I was just trying to survive. I'm so damn sorry."
We stood there in the darkness, holding each other, moving our hands down each other's bodies as if trying to convince ourselves the other was real, not just a ghost or a dreamy apparition, a figment of our grief-filled imaginations.
I listened to her quiet breathing and clenched my eyes closed. "You still smell like apple blossoms," I whispered, inhaling her beloved scent, the one I never, ever thought I'd smell again—not in this lifetime.
She let out a small breath and I felt her lips smile against my T-shirt. Her hand clenched the fabric next to where her cheek rested.