Authors: Silla Webb
Cradling Ryleigh in my arms, I pat her bottom softly in rhythm to the sway of the rocking chair. She’s sleeping peacefully, soft sighs falling from her lips in her dreamy state. It’s hard to hold true love in my hands, knowing I’m so undeserving of it.
When Carly placed her daughter in my arms the day she was born, fear shook my core. I wanted nothing more than to play it off as if I’d never held a baby and was concerned I’d drop her, but Carly knew better. She could see the grief that washed over my eyes as I held Ryleigh, but Carly has always been persistent in pushing me in the right direction.
“Luke, ya alright in here, man?” Colton whispers, pushin’ the nursery door open.
Keepin’ my eyes locked on the tiny bundle of joy in my hands, I nod my head and whisper quietly, “I’m alright.”
For the time bein’.
“Listen, Savannah got upset and took off outside. Carly wants you to go talk to her.”
Sighing, I press a gentle kiss to the top of Ryleigh’s brown curly locks and place her in Colton’s arms. “Alright, man. I’ll go check on her.”
Stepping around Colton, I clear the threshold when he says, “What’s goin’ on with the two of y’all anyways, Ashton?” He asks suspiciously.
Steeling my spine, I keep my back to him and my head hung low. “Just friends, Weston.”
He grunts his disapproval, increasing the pace of his sways. “Ashton, you know she’s broken. I know you mean well, but she’s vulnerable right now and I don’t think she’s thinkin’ with a clear head. Just…”
“Just what, Colton?” I didn’t realize my voice was laced with such anger, but I don’t like the assumption he’s makin’. But then again this is Colton Weston we’re talkin’ about. He may be by best friend, but he’s also a notorious ass.
He stands up and lays Ryleigh in the crib before steppin’ into the hallway. Squarin’ my shoulders I peer down at him and he brushes past me taking heavy steps through the hallway. I follow behind him, curious why he’s bringin’ this shit up. I’ve only tried to protect Savannah since I realized what was goin’ on, and now he wants to make ridiculous assumptions about us.
Savannah has just come inside and is gatherin’ the twins to go home. She looks up at me sadly, not hiding the shame and affliction that’s drownin’ her green eyes. I want to comfort her, but for the sake of argument I keep my distance. She quickly swipes at the stray tears tricklin’ down her face before turnin’ on her heels and leaving without a word.
The moment the flash of her headlights dim into the distance, Colton’s stowed anger reappears with a vengeance. “I don’t know what the hell you’re thinkin’, but I’ll tell ya what I see, Ashton.” His chest rattles as he yells, not caring who can hear or see his rage. “You couldn’t sink your claws into Carly Jo, so you’re attemptin’ the next best thing.” Carly’s jaw falls slack and she starts to yell at Colton but her words fall on deaf ears. “Do you friggin’ realize that she’s fallin’ apart, Luke? Savannah ain’t in the right mind to make any sort of decisions where a relationship is concerned. Hell, she’s still married, and although she’s fightin’ to close that chapter of her life, don’t you think her bed should at least get cold before you try climbin’ your nasty ass in it?” Carly interjects again, this time steppin’ between us. The change in the air is palpable, almost suffocating.
Anger rolls off me in violent waves, and I grit my teeth hard as I fist my hands at my sides. I know Colton’s only tryin’ to protect Savannah, but the accusations he’s makin’ only further rips at my skin. I could react like a dick, but I don’t think there’s enough space in the room for two dicks as ridiculous as he’s actin’.
Steppin’ back to put some space between us I look at Colton pointedly as I speak, my voice steady and calm. “You’re out of line. I’m not gonna stand here and justify my actions to you because guess what, Weston, we’re all,” I cut off momentarily, choosin’ my words carefully, “well,
of us are adults here.” His eyes narrow at my low jab, but I don’t give him the chance to argue. “I understand that you’re concerned for Savannah. But until you’ve listened to her cry herself to sleep at night, or you’ve witnessed the anxiety attacks that she’s experiencin’, then I don’t wanna hear your damn opinion.” Colton’s body remains tense, rigid in his stature. I relax into myself, shakin’ my head to clear it. My voice softens when I say, “Fact of the matter is, Colton, just like when she was havin’ the shit beat outta her – nobody noticed her but me. I’ll never compromise her marriage, I’ll never compromise our friendship. But until you’ve laid so shattered and ripped apart at the seams, then you can’t even begin to understand how she feels.”
Steppin’ around him, I take long strides towards the front door.
understand how she feels?” He asks curiously, tiltin’ his head to the side to study me.
Colton doesn’t know about the demons I battle. Only Carly does. Glancin’ at her, her eyes are filled with tears and her face is weak, but apologetic. “This Carly bullshit you keep wantin’ to stir up – let it die already. I thought we put that shit behind us. I don’t give it a second thought, but apparently it’s still gnawin’ at you.” I direct at Colton. “Thanks for dinner, beauts. I’ll holler at y’all later.”
The entry bell chimes alertin’ the staff of a customer. I hear muffled voices exchangin’ conversation, then heavy boots pounding against the floor towards me. Looking up over the thin newspaper, I make eye contact with Colton. Without invitation he slides into the booth, clearin’ his throat as he relaxes against the cool vinyl.
“Mornin’, sunshine. You look awfully cheerful today.” I mock.
“Smartass.” He snaps back at me. “Carly Jo told me I’d find you here.”
Folding the newspaper up, I place it on the side of the table then give Colton a curt nod. “So are you here to get back on her good graces?”
“Man, she’s pissed in the wind at me.”
“Well you didn’t only hit me with a low blow last night. What do ya expect?”
Shruggin’ his shoulders he says, “She said not only was I insensitive towards Savannah’s situation, but I also sliced at healin’ wounds that you needed no reminder of.” He cracks his knuckles, starin’ down at his coal stained hands. “At first I thought she meant y’alls little fling. But when I asked her to explain it to me, she said it wasn’t her story to tell. I realized then she meant somethin’ entirely different.” He looks up searchin’ my face with questionin’ eyes, but I’m not ready to bare my soul to anyone just yet. I was drunk when I told Carly Jo about my family, and although it felt good to release some of the pain I’ve been carryin’, I wish I could take back every word I’d spoke. The look of pity only adds to the guilt I feel. “You know I’m a hot headed son of a bitch, but I shouldn’t have talked down to you the way I did.”
“Damn straight you shouldn’t have.” I cut him off, snappin’ at him angrily. I didn’t expect my tone to be so raw and harsh but my mind is wrecked with emotions right now. Can’t exactly turn it all off.
“I’m sorry. Carly Jo worries herself sick about Savannah. I know you try to do what you can to help, even when it ain’t your place. She’s vulnerable right now and I don’t want to see her get hurt worse.”
“Do you think I don’t understand that, Colton?” He cocks his brow up at me and I can’t tell if he’s gettin’ more pissed at the situation or interested in what I have to say. Don’t matter much, because he’s had his chance to say his peace. Now he needs to zip the lips, open his damn ears and hear me out. “Other than the nights we have supper together, how much time do you and Carly Jo spend with Savannah? How often does Carly call her just to check in on her?”
“Luke, she don’t wanna smother Savannah.” He defends.
“I get that, but even when we’re all together y’all don’t give her any comfort other than tryin’ to lead her in the direction that y’all feel is best. I ain’t heard Carly ask her one time how she really feels. Have you?”
He closes his eyes in defeat and he shakes his head from side to side shamefully.
“I ain’t layin’ blame, Colton. I understand y’all got a lot goin’ on. But don’t you dare scrutinize my relationship with Savannah when you don’t even have the faintest damn clue as to what’s happenin’.”
“Then tell me, Luke. What’s goin’ on?”
Pinchin’ the bridge of my nose, I draw in a shaky breath and I know I have to choose my words carefully. “I’m over-protective of women, Weston. I can’t stand to see one feel any sort of angst, heart ache or physical pain. I tried to protect my momma as a boy, and I tried to take care of and protect Al…” I bite down on my tongue shakin’ that thought from my mind. “Point is, Savannah feels safe with me near. Ain’t no harm in bein’ her friend.”
“I saw the way you looked at her yesterday, Ashton. Are ya sure you ain’t feelin’ a little more than friendly ‘bout her?”
“That’s complicated.” Hell if it ain’t complicated. I’m getting too close…I can feel the attachment to Savannah growin’ stronger with each day and it’s beginnin’ to terrify me. This overwhelmin’ need to protect her, I don’t know what to do with it. I can’t continue to stalk out her porch swing night after night just because I’m worried she can’t sleep or may be frightened.
After Colton’s outburst last night I realize I can’t continue to just hang around. I’m worried I’ll get caught up in a moment and react. She’s a married woman legally and I’ll never compromise something as sacred as marriage even if her husband is a first class bastard.
“So what do you plan to do about it?” Colton asks curiously as he cocks up his brow, and the suspicious glare he shot at me last night returns full force.
“Right now I plan to put a little space between us so I can get my head on right. I gotta head outta town for a few days, so I need you to stay close to Savannah for me.”
Colton stifles back a laugh and looks at me pointedly. “You gotta be frickin’ kiddin’ me right? Where the hell you goin’?”
“I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t have to.” I dip my head into my chest shamefully.
“You can’t be her anchor only when it’s convenient for you, Luke. You’re not makin’ any damn sense. You said it yourself she’s fallin’ apart at the seams. Make me understand your logic.” Colton spits the words out of his mouth in a hushed tone, tryin’ his best to keep a grasp on his composure.
Son of a bitch, he’s one hard headed bastard! “I can’t be her damn anchor when I’m sinkin’ myself, Weston.” I bite out and my chest rattles in a dark rage. Slidin’ out of the booth, I stomp out of the dining area and down the hallway towards the office. I fall back into leather chair, extinguishing every breath of air from my body. My head falls to my hands and I fight to suppress the tears that well up in my eyes.
This is why I need to get away. Before Savannah, I could manage the frequent relapse of grief that would present itself anytime a faint memory would flash into mind. But since Savannah, the grief, guilt and anguish seem to follow me everywhere. While my family is nothing more than a memory, I can see Savannah as my future, and guilt grips me because I know I don’t deserve any of this life.
The office door creaks open then latches closed. I can sense Colton’s presence, but I don’t wanna look at the jackass anymore today. He doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. He stands in one spot, looking around the small office observing his surroundings. When I hear metal sliding across the desk, I finally look up to watch him lift the picture frame into his hands. He studies it cautiously. Suddenly, he sits down in the chair adjacent to me as if his legs have defied his weight. He stares at the picture a minute longer before returning the frame to its home.
“I’m sorry, Luke. I-I had no idea. How long’s it been?” Colton stutters over his own words in disbelief.
My eyes drift closed on their own accord as I try to hide the rush of tears that surface, but it’s a useless attempt as they break free when I speak. “Two miserable years next week. Sawyer would have been five on his birthday.”
Pain in the rawest form ain’t easy for anyone to witness.
“So this is what Carly Jo meant when she said I sliced at healin’ wounds?” He questions and I can hear the guilt in his voice. It’s almost unnatural coming from Colton. I nod my head in response. “Luke, I’m truly sorry. I’ve lost before, but never a child. I can’t imagine where you find the strength to carry on.”
“I move on, sufferin’ in silence because that’s the debt I owe for not savin’ my family. It was my place to protect them, but I couldn’t even do that.” I mutter the words without realizin’ it and they don’t stop until I finish tellin’ Colton all about Alyson and Sawyer and the house fire that took their lives. I explain to him how it was my job, not only as husband and father to watch over my family. But as a firefighter I should have recognized the safety issue and fixed it immediately. That could have spared my family their sufferin’ and my own hell and torment.
I don’t shut up until I’ve explained the road I’ve been on for the last two years. Comin’ home to take care of my old man, buyin’ the diner just so I’d feel as if I served a purpose in this wretched life; I tell him everything. Lookin’ up at Colton I’m shocked when I search his face, expectin’ to find stark pity in his eyes only to be met with compassion. The last person I ever expected to understand my hell and not cast stones at me was Colton frickin’ Weston. But I guess we’ll both have to laugh over the shock value we’ve caused the other later on.
I scrub my face frantically, scratchin’ at the thick stubble that’s taken place on my once smooth face as I release a ragged breath. It don’t feel good – so to speak – openin’ up, but for some reason I feel calm. As if simple words released were washed away with the very same water that I’ve been drownin’ in.
“There are no words that will ever console you for losin’ a child, Luke. But I’m glad you confided in me. It tears at my heart that any man has lost such as you have, but I admire your courage to carry on. I don’t think I’d be strong enough to live another day.”
Colton doesn’t even try to argue that the fire wasn’t my fault, and I believe that’s because as a dad himself he can relate to the guilt that I feel. He understands the need to shield your family and the devastation I feel for failin’ them.
“It’s pure hell and the darkness that blankets me is too much to handle at times. I’ll never forgive myself for not savin’ them.” I rake my hand through my hair, tuggin’ at the short strands furiously.
This is why I need to clear my head. Condemnation plagues me for all the wrongs in my life can never be forgotten or forgiven. Each blink of the eye I’m filled with worry for Savannah and the twins, then guilt that I don’t deserve another family in my life when I couldn’t even protect my own wife and son. The realization hits me that I could have possibly prevented all of this had I listened to her requests. “She’s asked me once already to give her breathin’ room, but when I have that gut intuition that she needs me, I have to be there. But I’m only causin’ us both more grief by guardin’ her closely.”
“How long ya gonna be gone?” Colton questions.
“I don’t know. The hardest part will be fightin’ with myself not to leave, and rushin’ back when I worry ‘bout her. But right now, I know I’m not what she needs.”
“So what do I tell Carly and Savannah when they ask where you are?”
“You don’t tell ‘em a damn thing.”
The nightmare has been coming much more often, but then again it always does this time of year. Two years…my God, it’s been two years since I stood on the ash covered side walk and listened to their blood curdling cries fade into deafening silence. A deafening silence so strong and powerful that I reached my breaking point because it made their sorrowful deaths final in that moment. If only they’d let me crawl inside to save them, I’d never left their sides. I’d died right there with them in my arms. Time never heals a broken soul. Broken heart – possibly. But losin’ Alyson and Sawyer caused my heart to shatter so deep I was left empty.
I haven’t been to Alyson and Sawyer’s gravesite since their burials. As their bodies were lowered into the cold, hard earth I said my final goodbyes and walked away disgracefully. The affliction I’ve carried since their deaths has left a searing hole through my heart. I’ve never recovered from my loss and I’ll never forgive myself for not bein’ the hero my family so desperately needed me to be. But I realize the time has come to put the past behind me, and try to grasp onto the future I hope to have before it slips away.
I know when I fall back against the porch swing that it won’t take long for the deadbolt to unlock and the front door to slide open. Savannah yawns as she slides down on the swing beside of me, keepin’ a good foot of distance like she can sense the change of air between us.
“Hey. Was wonderin’ when you’d come around again. Just figured you’d found some other Damsel in distress to save.” She jokes bashfully.