Author’s Note: Since this contains quoted text from the first story in the series, “The Letter,” please consider any notes on that story to apply to this one too.
There’s a tree outside my window, a tree that every night seems to catch the stars and bring them within my reach. I’m watching it now, watching the branches sway and seem to shake the points of light tangled in them. There is a waxing moon out tonight; it casts a lacy shadow through the tree onto my windowsill and across the room, so that I suppose it even lays over me.
I can’t sleep.
I haven’t slept in days, maybe even weeks or months. I’m not sure how long it’s been, I just know it feels much too long. My bed feels too empty to sleep, empty like it did after Tom died, after Coop…even though I haven’t had anyone in it since Coop. In spite of the many nights since then that I did find sleep, it won’t come to me now.
Every light in the house is on, glowing with an artificial cheer that my sleeplessness betrays. At the other end of the hall, Chloe’s sleep is peaceful and silent. I would know if anything disturbed her. Where my daughter is concerned, every sense is heightened. The slightest sound of trouble would have me at her side in a second. But she is asleep, thank God, with both arms wrapped around that gigantic plush panda she loves so much.
I still can’t sleep.
I wonder how you would react if you knew you were the one keeping me awake. If you knew that I can’t sleep because I can’t put your face, or my regrets, out of my mind. Would it surprise you to know that I am almost sick with a disappointment that feels like acid in my veins, and that this is what’s kept me from sleeping?
You know, as well as I know you, Bailey, you’re one of the only people I can’t profile. Maybe it’s because I know you too well–I can’t detach myself from what I know. Sometimes I just can’t crawl inside your head and understand why you do things. If I could…maybe this thing with Janet wouldn’t bother me so much.
No, that’s not true. Even if I knew exactly why you gave her another chance she didn’t even want, after years of antagonism…it would still hurt. Because whatever your reasons, it has to mean that you don’t want me.
I feel like Julia Roberts in “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Maybe I should ask George to dance and complete the analogy.
I won’t do that to you, though. As little as I understand, as much as I might wish otherwise, I won’t try to spoil your happiness. I realized how I felt too late, now I’ll just have to learn to live with it. Maybe someday the ache will go away.
“You should listen to yourself sometime.”
I tried to convince myself I was just concerned for you, but I know I was being selfish.
“Never trust a man who takes his own advice.”
I guess I must be trustworthy, then, even though I’m not a man. Because I can’t take my own advice either. I can’t let go. But I won’t ever let you know that.
Don’t walk away, Bailey. Please. Just stay with me. I want you to stay.
You’re getting further away than the stars.
My hand strays to the empty mattress beside me, fingers brushing against the sharp, glassy fragments of dreams whose memory still lingers in the sheets.
I miss you. More deeply than Tom or Coop, because you are so much less far away, and yet still so far out of my reach. Even though I never had you, never knew I wanted to, I miss the hope I never acknowledged even to myself.
I want you to stay so badly that it hurts too much to cry.
I am distracted from my thoughts for a moment by a car’s headlights that pass by outside the window. Rolling over again, I watch them die along with the sound of the engine, and wonder what could bring someone here so late. The doorbell rings. Slipping out of bed, I pull on a sweater and pad to the top of the stairs, glancing into Chloe’s room as I pass. She stirs, but doesn’t wake, so I continue quietly past, hoping to let her find her way back into her dreams.
By the time I reach the bottom of the stairs, my instincts have already alerted me that you are the person I will find on the other side of the door. Apprehension grips me. I’m afraid to see you, afraid to find out that my subconscious wish for Janet to leave you again has come true. I don’t want that, but I want even less to have to comfort you through it. Even with all my resolve and self-promises, I can’t blow out that little flame of selfishness.
I open the door and you just stare at me, looking both lost and found at the same time. Oh, please don’t let the cause be what I think it is. How can I ever forgive myself for wishing if it is?
“Bailey? What are you doing here?” I concentrate on showing concern. I can’t let you see my fear, or the secret thrill that the sight of you gives me.
When you don’t answer, I step back and you follow me into the house, your whole form shaking. Whatever is wrong is deeply wrong, because I know how much it takes to strip away the image of rock-like stability you put up for all of us. I think I’m the only one who’s ever seen it broken down. Needing to regather my thoughts, I turn away from you to close the door. When I turn back you are watching me and your soul is in your eyes.
Oh, God, Bailey, what has she done to you?
“I just had to see you,” you answer my earlier question, your voice unusually soft and raw and almost desperate. “I had to know you were all right.”
The razor edge of panic in your words confuses me. It seems so foreign to our lives of the past year.
“I don’t understand, Bailey. You haven’t done that since–”
My words catch in my teeth when I see you flinch. Anyone else would have barely noticed the movement; I know you put all your strength into fighting the urge to recoil from what I was about to say.
Jack. Donald Lucas.
My whole body is suddenly cold with understanding and terror.
“Has Lucas escaped?” I ask. My voice sounds so rough, even to my own ears, that I can almost see the scratches it leaves on your tired eyes.
You only manage to form one word in response. “No.”
For a second, I relax, but that peace fades quickly. There is no relief in your voice, only numbness edged with self-recrimination.
I still don’t understand. “Then, what–?”
“I got a letter tonight,” you interrupt, your voice still coarse. For a moment, you hesitate, dropping your eyes in some silent struggle, then lifting them again to mine. When you speak again, I can barely hear you. “From Jack.”
You don’t have to tell me what this means. The name “Jack” gives it all away, because we have not once used that name for Donald Lucas since we caught him. There is power in names, and once we had a name to use, “Jack” could no longer haunt us from the unknown. Now, the illusion of my life shatters around me to reveal that he is still free, and I am still in his prison.
I can’t handle this. Not now. I can’t lose you and lose my freedom at the same time. I’d lose myself, and Chloe still needs me.
God help me–I can’t lose you, but I don’t dare hold on.
Friendship and habit draw you to me, and your arms are around me before these thoughts can even finish traveling through my mind. I react according to the raw need swelling up in me and reach for you as well, finding the same place of safety and comfort as I always have in your embrace.
Your voice rumbles in my ear. “Let me stay, tonight. I need to know you’re safe, that he can’t get to you.”
Even though I know it is wildly inappropriate, I let out a short laugh to keep myself from crying. Irony has a way of making wishes come true with a cruel twist. Even so, I tighten my grip on you in reaction before forcing myself to pull away.
“I want to see it.” The thought is spoken before it even enters my consciousness, but I know it to be true.
“Sam, no,” you protest, wanting to shield me for a little longer.
“Please, Bailey?” I am too drained to fight you for this, both by this knowledge and lack of sleep, but I think you will understand as you always do. “I need to know…I need to know what he said.”
I blink and realize my eyes are wet. My own emotions seem to be sneaking up on me more and more, as if I’ve lost contact with my own heart. Maybe I have.
You drop your eyes as if ashamed and reach inside your coat to pull out the pale blue envelope I demanded to see, passing it to me with a hand whose strength still can’t stop its shaking. My hands shake too as I draw out this piece of paper that part of me doesn’t even want to touch. I curb my revulsion, though, by reminding myself that your hands have handled it since his. My eyes find the first words, and I feel your eyes settle on me with a familiar, comforting intensity.
“My Dear Agent Malone,”
“It was so good to see you again, and my dear Samantha! It’s been such a long time, and it’s been such a challenge for me to allow her to believe we are together while I still watch from afar.”
To see us again? I frown, shivering. When did we see him, and how could I not have known it was him? I force myself to continue, even though I want to close my eyes against the horrific familiarity of his manic handwriting.
“…ah, but Samantha…soon she will realize how empty her life is without me in it, and then she will begin to see through the living mask I have chosen to disguise myself. Poor Mr. Lucas. I hate to deprive him of her affections, but the natural balance must be restored.”
“You used to always call me Samantha.”)
Oh, God, why didn’t I see it sooner? Why didn’t I see at once, instead of letting us all become complacent? My blindness may have set us all back in catching him to where we were two years ago.
The next paragraphs are chilling, as he begins to describe you, calling you his kindred spirit. Must he try to bend everything in my life to the will of his psychosis? You are my light, the candle in the dark of his obsession that kept me from going insane. Your protection I crave; his twisted definition of it, I abhor.
“I still enjoy our games, and have amused myself for hours picturing your reaction to discovering that it was I whom you so condescendingly scolded on police procedure and etiquette, disbelief at my ‘stupidity’ etched on your features. Amazing that even after I tore you away from her with the false report on my radio, you still did not suspect.”
Oh, God. The sheriff in Otis. That bumbling, hick, nondescript idiot sheriff that we all treated with such disdain. I thought so little of him I can’t even recall his face. The man who has made my life hellish for years and I can’t remember his face from the one chance I may have had to see it!
I must have given some indication, either in my eyes or my voice, of the revelation I have reached, because your voice breaks into my thoughts: “I called the branch office to dispatch a team the moment I got the letter. By the time they reached Otis, he was long gone. Incredibly, no one in the town even remembered him.”
Of course. He probably left before he put the letter in the mail. He would never have revealed himself and waited there to be caught. But I can’t speak to remind you of that, instead letting your unfounded guilt simmer as I read on numbly to the end.
How does the man so accurately interpret and twist my dreams to fit his own distorted picture of the world? How can he know how badly I want you to love me like that…only with a purity that Jack could never understand? And why did he have to remind me about Janet?
Ironically, I had begun to forget.
But I can’t forget Jack’s half-spoken vow to take you from me too, just as he did Tom and Coop. If he knows me as well as he thinks he does, doesn’t he know that would kill me too? Or does he think he is the one I couldn’t live without?
I let go of the hateful page, not wanting one more second of contact with it. It falls to the ground and I force myself to laugh. “I guess Jack doesn’t know us as well as he thought he did.”
“No…it frightened me because he knows me too well.”
I blink, not quite sure whether or not to believe that you actually spoke the words I just heard. What?
“Everything he said about me in there…is all true.” You shudder. “His own skewed but clear perception of the truth.”
A confusion of disbelief and hope swirls through my mind and I can’t decide which to latch onto. I have always known your need to protect me, the responsibility you feel for me and Chloe and even Angel. But the other things…loving me…willing to kill or die for me if need be…if they are true, how could I not have seen them after all this time, when I so desperately wanted to?
Unless…unless I convinced myself that what I was seeing was in my mind, not yours. My imagination, not your heart.
My unresponsiveness seems to make you uncomfortable, so you speak again. “Except for one thing–my reasons for pursuing Janet.”
So much for hope.
I can’t stop looking at you, even though I know I am no longer succeeding in hiding my disappointment. I wonder.
“I was trying to convince myself that I could live with you choosing someone else…again. That I could move on with my life instead of always hanging onto the hope that you’d turn around and see me instead someday…”
See you? Oh, Bailey, I’ve seen nothing but you for weeks. And even in my deepest denial, I always saw you. I just didn’t see you seeing me.
Then your eyes meet mine and I am swimming in a sea of chocolate, drowning in an unchecked flood of emotion even as the love I never expected to feel from you keeps me afloat.
“I knew I’d been lying to myself when I realized I was halfway here and didn’t even remember leaving my house.”
“Oh, God, Bailey, I didn’t know.” If I had known what I was setting aside for that brief flirtation with Paul, I would have been blind and deaf to his charm. I swear, Bailey. I would never have seen him at all, except for the papers in his hands and the questions I once thought would bring an end to this chapter of Jack in my life…
What a waste of time.
“I love you, Sam,” you whisper, and my heart soars with the words. “I’ve loved you as long as I’ve known you. And I never forgave myself for it after you lost Tom.”
I reach for you and clasp your hand, unable to keep from smiling. “I’m glad. Because it’s not a sin that needs to be forgiven.”
Why should you forgive yourself for saving me? Don’t you know you’re the only reason I didn’t spend the rest of my life hiding? You did what no one else could do, Bailey. You rescued me from the shadow of Tom’s death, taught me to move forward in spite of Jack.
You gave me my life back.
I look into your eyes again, hoping you can read my own love and gratitude in that connection. “And if it is,” I whisper, “then I’m guilty too.”
We lost the ability to go back to where we were the minute you handed me Jack’s letter, and after your confession, all that remained for me was to confirm which direction we would take forward. I see in your eyes that you still aren’t quite sure if it’s real, even as you close the little space between us and reach out to touch my face.
“Are you sure?”
Sure. Such a simple word to express an emotion of such incredible depth and complexity. I am more than sure, more than certain. I am secure.
Unfortunately, the brush of your fingers against my jaw has made my mind forget how to communicate this to my voice. I am amazed that your eyes are so focused on mine that you don’t even seem to realize you are touching me with anything but them. So, I nod, the only action I can perform that requires little enough thought to be successful.
Your hand slips along my jaw and into my hair, as your other hand comes up to complete the capture of my face. We are standing so close that I am sure you must be able to feel the anticipatory flurry of my heart. Every nerve in my body is pulsing with an adrenaline rush I had almost forgotten. Then your mouth comes down to meet mine and everything disappears but that sensation.
I won’t try to describe, even to myself, what it feels like to finally kiss you. It goes beyond the words I know, beyond everything I tried to imagine, because I’m not dreaming anymore. This is more than a fantasy. It’s a reality I never thought I’d experience.
I don’t realize how light-headed I am until you release me to let us both breathe, and I find myself having to place my hands against your chest to keep my balance. I feel you tremble slightly beneath my fingertips and an electric excitement surges through me, knowing that you are responding this way to my touch.
“I want you to stay,” I finally whisper, voicing weeks’ worth of silent wishes.
A smile blossoms across your face and you look at me with a promise in your eyes. “I will.”
I step into your arms again, trusting in that silent promise that nothing and no one, not even Jack, will ever take this away from us. And that place where you are, that safe place he can never penetrate, is where I always want to stay.
We are home
We are where we shall be forever
Trust in me
For you know I won’t run away
This is all that I need
And all that I need to say
Don’t you know how you’ve changed me?
Strange how I finally see
I found home
You’re my home
Stay with me
–Beauty and the Beast: The Musical