It was my birthday. I wanted to be giddy. Excited. But I just felt sort of numb. It had been a long time since birthdays really meant anything to me. But today, I did feel happy. Because today I turned eighteen.
I was finally my own man. Free to make my own choices. My own mistakes.
Free to live my own life.
That was something I never allowed myself to even dream of. Because dreams have a way of crashing down around you and leave you broken. So I had always tried to stay away from dreams.
But there was a time not so many months ago, I had started to dream again. And that led to something one hundred times more beautiful. And a thousand times more dangerous.
Because my hope had been wrenched away. Died a tragic death at the hands of my own selfishness and fear. And even as I tried to reconcile my guilt about ruining the one good thing I had, I still felt it like a sharp jab to the gut.
It never left me. The pain of regret. It was like a phantom limb. A shadow that refused to let go.
But today, I felt it again.
And it was a glorious thing.
I woke up to Tyler dumping cut up pieces of colored construction paper all over my head. I spit them out of my mouth and pulled bits out of my hair.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked incredulously, sitting up, sending paper swirling to the ground. My skinny as hell roommate, brought on by years of heroin addiction, grinned at me like a loon.
“Happy Birthday, man! Get up! The staff go all out on your birthday! They'll cook you whatever you want for breakfast and I sure as shit wouldn't be missing out on that. Not when otherwise you'll be choking down oatmeal and cold bagels with the rest of us.” I couldn't help but laugh. And damn that felt good.
Because today could be a beginning for me. The beginning of a whole new chapter. And there it was again...
By around 2:00 in the afternoon, I had caved to the Birthday Gods and had finally gotten into the spirit of things. A few of the behavioral aides had brought out a cake during lunch. The entire room had launched into a really bad version of Happy Birthday. I had even gotten a few presents from my counselor and other staff.
Maria and I had snuck away after group and watched a movie in the common room. Something we never would have gotten away with otherwise. Mail had come and gone and I received the obligatory greeting card from my parents. I was sure it was something my dad's secretary had picked up at Walmart. It looked cheap and cheesy and was only signed “mom and dad.” And I swear it wasn't even their handwriting.
It wasn't as though I was surprised by their lack of sentiment. But I had to seriously tamp down the flash of hurt I had felt nonetheless.
I had met with Dr. Todd briefly to discuss my treatment. I was due to be released from the center in two weeks. Though, Dr. Todd informed me that since I was now a legal adult, I could discharge myself if I chose to do so.
That had given me pause. Wow. I really did have full control over my future. My parents didn't dictate anything about my life anymore. And the giddiness I had denied myself earlier, let loose inside of me without abandon.
But I had to be careful. I couldn't let my newfound freedom ruin the progress I had made. It would be so easy to check myself out, go about living my life and forget about the sordid ugliness I had been living for so long.
But that was ridiculous. Because if I didn't' finish what I had started and continue to commit to my on going treatment the darkness would find me again. I couldn't run from it.
So I had assured Dr. Todd I would be staying the remaining two weeks and he didn't' hide the relief at my statement. He had clasped my shoulder in a way I wished my father would and had smiled kindly, letting me know that he thought I was making responsible and sound judgments.
And again...I felt really good.
Right before dinner, I was called to Jacqui, the night administrator's office. I couldn't help but wrack my brain, thinking of some infraction I may have committed. But I had been good as gold for some time now, so I couldn't' figure out what I was needed for.
I walked into the office and was greeted by a warm set of arms that wrapped around me. I brought my arms up and held my Aunt Ruby, who was gripping me like her life depended on it. I should have realized when I hadn't heard from her today that she was up to something.
But I had never thought she'd come down to Florida to see me. But that was Ruby. She had always loved me more than I sometimes deserved.
“Ruby.” I said, smiling at my much shorter Aunt. She beamed up at me. She was dressed in her typical gypsy getup, complete with flowing skirts and some crazy scarf thing around her neck. She even had tiny shells sticking out of her hair. Where the hell she got the ideas for her crazy outfits, I had no idea.
Ruby reached up and patted my cheek, the way she had done since I was a little kid. “My Clay. It's so good to see you.” Her grin was infectious. Ruby radiated a positive energy that was impossible to ignore. She had helped to pull me from many a bad place just by being her. I would do anything and everything for the woman who stood in front of me. She was the mother I wished I had. She had been down at least four times in the last three months. Lisa had come with her whenever she could, but work kept her pretty busy.
Four times, my aunt had been to see me and my parents hadn't come once.
“What are you doing here?” I asked her as she hugged me tightly again. Ruby pulled back and gave me a mock scowl.
“As if I would miss your eighteenth birthday! Don't' be silly.” She swatted my arm and pulled me over to the small couch that sat in the corner of the office. Jacqui had left, giving us some time to visit. Ruby hefted the heavy bag she had brought with her.
“Are you carting around a ton of bricks in there?” I joked, watching as my aunt pulled out a squished cardboard box.
“Oh, darn. It's all smooshed.” Ruby complained, peering down into the box. She closed the lid and handed it to me. “Well, it should still taste good.” She had brought me a freaking birthday cake. Complete with my name and tiny little paintbrushes made in colored icing for decoration. I felt my chest seize up. Christ, I was seriously turning into a complete douche bag. Crying over every tiny thing. What happened to my man card? You'd think I had turned it in a long time ago with the way I was getting all choked up over cheap, grocery store birthday cake.
But fuck me, I couldn't remember the last time I had a birthday cake. And today I had had two. Even I wasn't immune to the warm fuzzies that brought on. Ruby then pulled out two plates.
I grinned as she cut me a large slab and I hate it like a starving man. I was always a sucker for sweets. Ruby ate delicately around the icing, complaining that she should have gotten carob instead of chocolate because it's healthier. I let her grumble about how white sugar was worse than rat poison and ingesting refined flour was like personally asking for your pancreas to shut down. Yep, I just silently listened and ate the hell out of some chocolate birthday cake.
“I still can't believe you came down here. It really means a lot to me.” I said finally, washing down the cake with a bottle of water. Ruby's eyes started to water and I braced myself for the tear fest. Ruby was extremely emotional and once upon a time I would have run for the hills at the slightest hint of the touchy feely stuff.
I had spent a long time creating a very thick, impenetrable wall around myself. A wall that made it easier for me to live each day inside my own, very messed up head. If I didn't let people get too close, than I didn't have to feel the guilt of screwing up later.
But that had been blown all to hell by a pair of beautiful brown eyes and a snarky attitude.
Can't go there. Not now. Not when I was actually feeling okay. Shit, I'd end up a blubbering mess along side my already blubbering aunt.
Ruby wrapped her small hand around my wrist and squeezed. I reached up to cover her hand with my larger one. I was okay with showing her that I loved her. I was learning that it was good to share your feelings. That I didn't have to protect people from the person that I was. That damn it, I was worth loving. This was drilled into my head during every therapy session. I was told over and over again that gosh darn it, people like me. But it still stuck in the back of my throat. This crazy notion that I was a decent human being.
“Clayton Reed, I'd have moved into your room if I was able to. But something tells me they might frown on that here.” I snorted. Even though she was joking, I wouldn't have put it passed Ruby to try. “Lisa and I love you as if you were our own. We will always be here for you. No matter what.” Ruby finished seriously. My throat felt uncomfortably tight, but in a good way. A really good way.
“I love you guys too. I can't thank you enough for everything you've done for me.” I said in quietly, proud of myself for being able to express my feelings in an appropriate way (thank you coping skills 101). Ruby furiously wiped at the tears that leaked out of the corners of her eyes. She pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and blew her nose noisily. Nothing like a cotton wad full of snot to kill the heaviness.
“Enough with all of this crying. It's time for gifts!” Ruby enthused, giving me another watery smile before pulling three packages out of her bag.
“Ruby. You didn't have to get me anything. Just you being here is enough.” I said, though I couldn't help but feel an anticipatory excitement that I hadn't felt in a long time. The kind of bubbling in your stomach that you only feel on Christmas morning. Or before you get behind the wheel of the car after getting your license.
Or before you kiss your girl for the first time.
Ruby watched as I unwrapped the gifts. She and Lisa had gotten me a new charcoal kit, a ridiculously expensive set of paint brushes and a bunch of new sketch books. I couldn't stop the goofy grin that spread across my face. There was nothing in this world she could have given me that would have meant more.
Drawing and painting were everything to me. I had become almost obsessive about it. But it was that indelible part of me that I refused to ever give up. I had lost so much already, but I always had my art.
“I wasn't sure exactly what you used, but the girl at the art store assured me these were the best.” Ruby said a little nervously. I ran my hand through my hair, a little overwhelmed by those prickly emotions again. But now I could appreciate them for what they were and not worry about potential explosions. Medication was a fantastic thing.
“They're awesome Ruby. Thank you so much! I'll call Lisa later to thank her as well. This is just...” My voice trailed off and I grinned like an idiot at my aunt, who was smiling like a loon. Hah. Like a loon. Yep, we looked like a couple of...well, mental patients. I couldn't help but crack up as I thought that.
Then suddenly Ruby's mood sobered. The change in her demeanor threw me and I was instantly on edge. She reached into her bag and pulled out another gift. This one wasn't' wrapped in the traditional birthday paper the others had been.
Looking closely, I could see that this one was bundled up meticulously in the Davidson Digest, the local paper of Davidson, Virginia. I looked at Ruby questioningly. She was staring down at the mysterious gift and I could tell she was uncomfortable. What the hell was hiding in that paper? A fucking bomb?
“More gifts Ruby? You shouldn't have.” I joked, already hating the seriousness that had overtaken my usually jovial aunt. Ruby clutched the object in her hands and held it out for me to take. Slowly I took it. It was heavier than it looked. I couldn't get a read on its contents through the thick paper.
I started to pull at the tape when Ruby covered my hand, stopping me. She looked at me with concern and I dropped it on the table. “What is it Ruby? Just spit it out.” I said, feeling more than a little annoyed by the smoke and mirrors bullshit going on. What the hell was so scary about a damn present?
Ruby sighed. “It's from Maggie.” She said quietly.
Oh. Well there was that.
I swear the air left my lungs and I felt like I was suffocating. My heart started beating in overtime and I thought I might pass out. It was nuts how just the mention of her name caused such an instant physical response. It was like my body reacted on a primal level to it.
Ruby and I never talked about Maggie. Hell, I very rarely talked about Maggie. The few times she had been brought up with my friends at the center, I shut it down as quick as possible. Not because I didn't want to talk about her. But because talking about Maggie was hard. It was painful. It was like taking a kick to the kidneys. But it also made me remember what I was missing on the outside. What I had given up because I was a fucking coward who couldn't deal with life.
My memories of Maggie Young were complicated. And the only safe place I had really been able to let loose about it was with Dr. Todd. Therapy was my safe place. I let things rip there that I never would anywhere else. There I could indulge in the fucked up darkness that I still felt inside when I remembered how badly I hurt the girl I loved the most. How I ached for her every single day. How I wanted nothing more than to run back to her and beg her to take me back.
Dr. Todd and I were working through my feelings of guilt and shame where Maggie was concerned. Because I had hurt her more than I had hurt anybody else. Because she was the person who had been prepared to walk off the cliff with me.
And I had almost let her.
“Maggie?” I choked out, trying not to strangle on the effort it took to say her name.
Ruby nodded, her mouth tight with worry. I knew she was scared that mentioning the girl I had loved and lost would make me lose it. And part of me wanted to lose it. But then what would that accomplish? Maggie would still be a thousand miles away, living her life, just as I had wanted her to.
But here I was, holding a gift from her, ready to cry like a little baby at the mere mention of her name. She had me by the balls. Now more than ever. That was painfully clear.
“She came into the shop last week.” Ruby began, watching me closely. I worked hard at keeping my face perfectly neutral, when inside I was screaming. Inside I was cursing the fucking cosmos, fate, whatever, for this god damn tragedy that I called a life.
“Oh yeah?” I asked with the fakest attempt at casual that I had ever heard. It was laughable. I would have laughed if I hadn't wanted to cut my fucking skin until I bled.
Damn it! I hadn't felt like that in a while. It was not a good thing.
But I took a deep breath and counted to ten. I found my super bubbly happy place in my head and got my shit under control. Because I was desperate to know about Maggie. To hear about her. To know what she had wrapped so carefully under the newspaper in front of me. And nothing could have kept me from that.
Ruby took another deep breath and continued. “I hadn't seen her since after you had come to Florida. She looked good, Clay. Really good. She seems to be in a really good place.” Ruby said, smiling slightly. I responded with my own smile. Because that did feel good. Knowing she was okay and not miserable because of what I had done to her.
“That's great.” I said with sincerity. Ruby's face relaxed marginally when I had yet to freak out on her. Little did she know there was still time...okay my sense of humor sucked, even as an internal monologue.
“Yes, it is.” Ruby agreed. She cleared her throat. “She came in to look over the new books. I told her it was good to see her but I left her alone. Let her do her own thing.” I smiled at the thought of Maggie getting all giddy over a bunch of used books. She was such a dork for that kind of thing. A beautiful dork of course.
“That's cool. She always did love your shop.” Ruby nodded.
“That she did.” She agreed.
There was a moment of silence and I thought that was it. Great story, Ruby, I thought dryly, trying not roll my eyes. But I should have known better. Ruby was known for dragging things out. It took her forever to spit out the point of what she was trying to tell you.
“Before she left, she came up to the counter and handed me that. She said it was for you. For your birthday. She asked me to make sure you got it because she didn't know where you were. I took it Clay, but I wasn't entirely sure I was going to give it to you.” Ruby told me, looking me straight in the eye.
I grimaced, understanding her hesitance. “Yeah, I get it. But it's okay. Really.” I assured her, my fingers itching to rip off the paper and see what Maggie had given me. I needed to see it. More than I needed anything at that moment.
Not waiting any longer, I pulled the wrapping and tossed it on the floor. At the first glimpse of the dark, charcoal butterfly on the cover, I had to sit back and take a minute. Because this girl was going to undo me from a thousand miles away. She was getting ready to rip my fucking heart out.
Because I recognized that butterfly. Because I had drawn it myself. For her.
“What the hell?” I said more to myself, pulling the leather bound book into my lap. Opening it up, I realized it was a scrap book. Page after page, Maggie had carefully placed my drawings on plain mattes. They were the ones from my bedroom wall in Virginia. And the ones I had given her.
Every single one was there. Every. Single. One.
Ruby was looking at the pictures over my shoulder as I flipped through. I turned to my aunt. “When did she do this? When did she get my pictures?” I asked in absolute disbelief. I was stunned by what was in my hands. Like a piece of me had been returned. As though once again, Maggie May Young and galloped in to the rescue.
Ruby touched one of her fingers to a picture of Maggie's face that I had drawn in pencil. I loved that picture. I remembered the day she had come over to my house to study and had ended up falling asleep. Watching her sleep (and not in a creepy, stalker way. It was totally romantic, alright) was one of the most peaceful moments for me back then. She was so beautiful and unguarded and I loved her so damn much I hurt with it.
So I drew her. I had to. I needed to capture that moment when everything was perfect.
My heart thudded in my chest at the weight of what this album meant. For Maggie. And for me. Because I knew she still loved me. And damned if that didn't make me feel like doing a tap dance in the middle of the room. And I would have to if I didn't think it might make me end up with a Thorazine drip.
“She came over to the house, not long after you were sent here. She asked to go up to your room, that there were things she needed to get from up there. Lisa and I didn't see the harm. Not after everything...” She stopped abruptly. There was no sense in her continuing that particular thought. We both knew how much Maggie had been through.
I continued to thumb through the pages. Ruby and I remained quiet as I took it all in. These pictures that reminded me so much of the one bright spot I had during the darkest time of my life. Of the girl who had tried to save me even as I destroyed her.
Shit, I was going to fucking cry. I felt the tears prick in my eyes and I rubbed them away with the heel of my hand. I squeezed my eyes shut.
One. Two. Three.
I opened my eyes, lingering on Maggie's face in front of me before flipping back to the front. And then I saw something I hadn't noticed before. On the bottom corner of the inside cover, a piece of paper was tapped to the leather.
It was from Maggie. Christ, she had written me a note. I wasn't sure I could read it. Not when I was already feeling like I had been run over by an eighteen wheeler.
But I did anyway. As if I could ever resist her.
And I was glad I did.
There is more beauty inside you than anyone I have ever met. These pictures don't lie. I won't ever forget you. Or stop loving you. You can ask me to. You can tell me to move on. But I won't. And I never will. Just don't forget how beautiful we were. How beautiful we can still be. Please.