“You don’t apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.”
“I thought it took strength to apologize.”
She was rather calm on her way to his place, following a route that after six long years she could still remember like instinct. But when she arrived at his doorstep, standing there, takeout and bourbon in hand, the nostalgia almost shocked her. Inhaling the crisp air, Hollis realized that she was more nervous than she anticipated.
There’s no reason to be anxious. She futilely reassured herself.
Working up her military resolve she let herself into his house (still, unlocked, she let out a silent chuckle), and headed downstairs without hesitation.
As she descended into the cozy basement, messy emotions she buried alive washed into her heart. The velvet trap felt like a thorny one now.
He knew it. He knew it was her when he heard the light stumping of boots—the sound was firm but not rushed, confident yet not too oblivious. Hell, he knew she would come to him at some point when he laid eyes on her that morning. He knew, also, that this long-overdue conversation would catch up on them eventually even before she left for Lanai.
He raised his head lightly and let his peripheral glance act as his greetings and focused back on his woodwork. What a jerk, she must be thinking.
“I brought dinner.” She put down her coat like she had just left this morning.
“I already ate.”
“In that case, dissert.” She put it on the table, the bottle she knew he liked, “small batch, very smooth.” She leaned in, forcing him to look at her.
His dry smirk didn’t go unnoticed, and she silently filed it away in her head. Something hasn’t changed.
But so many have. Like how she felt being in his basement again. Six years ago, he would trap her against his boat with kisses and touches, and she would happily comply. She would indulge herself in his blue eyes, and let her own defense concede in the same soft ambience which now was only too dim.
“Hollis, what are you doing?” The familiar defensiveness made her realize she had never melted his wall, not even a little bit.
“I’m trying to make peace.” She stated in a pleading way.
“Good? Because it… kind of feels like the exact opposite.” She circled the air a bit trying to regain some upper hand with the accusatory tone, but he heard the underlying hurt. Why on earth was she the more honest one at this moment?
She turned around half-annoyed, crossing her arms in defense, and turned back, deciding not to give up. “I liked you, okay? I really liked you.” She stepped closer and when she paused, they both realized what an understatement her words were. “And what happened between us, it was good. It was great, even. But there was a wall that wasn’t coming down. Your past. And I could see what was gonna happen, how bad it was gonna get. Me…trying to pull things from you and you, not ready to let go.”
He wasn’t sure if she said all these as an explanation, or rather, a narration of what happened between them. Because he understood all these clearly from the very start. What he didn’t foresee was what happened afterwards—her sudden departure.
“I left. So we can remember the good.” Her simple words could barely conceal the tears and heartbreaks he knew she had. She couldn’t bear to tarnish the loving memories they have shared, even if it meant cutting it off and letting it be buried forever.
He glanced upwards to examine her face. She was still fierce, yet there was exhaustion she couldn’t hide. She looked visibly older; it took only six years, but the light-heartedness and vulnerability were replaced by something pale and silent. She no longer gave out the laughter and intimacy he missed; it was like the nonchalant part of her never existed. That part of her was gone without a trace. His eyes caught that wedding band on her finger (again), and he wondered if someone else could bring that kind of reaction out of her.
“Jethro, I am sorry. I truly am.”
He stared right into her wide green eyes and shook his head, “you were protecting yourself. Not exactly a crime.”
You left out the part that I never give you a commitment, not even an explanation.
She sighed at his words and was silently surprised by the care behind it. Moving a bench closer she sat down, eyes on the same level as his. “I should have called. I thought about calling when I first got back.” She repeated what she said earlier in the car, only sounding more apologetic this time.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Jethro, I…” She turned away lightly, self-consciously brushing away her hair. “I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I would be intruding your life, like I did before. I didn’t think you would ever want to hear from me again.”
Without breaking off eye contact he bluntly stated, “truest thing you said tonight.” He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t enjoying seeing her flustered, even at this moment.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Cause you were hurt. And you weren’t the one who owe an explanation.” He stood up and grab the bourbon, letting his anger out on the bottle cap, away from her. She silently watched his movement, clean twist, cap rolling on the surface letting out a sound too sharp, nails being dumped out from two mason jars, and the amber liquid finally flowing into the bottom.
“No, no. That’s not it. Tell me, please.”
He turned around. “You got out, Hollis. Leave, go somewhere! Live a happy life.”
“So that’s why? You thought I’d be happier if our paths never cross again—”
“I didn’t say—”
“—Guess what,” she stared at him with that piercing glare again, “life has other plans, Jethro. So deal with it.”
“I don’t want you to be next.” He sighed softly and took a slow sip.
“What are you afraid of? I have a life now.”
“Shannon, Kelly, Kate…and Jen…”
“And I’d happily trade places with Shepard if I could.”
“See? That’s what I’m afraid of.” He gulped down a good amount and pointed to the other jar. “Hollis, drink this and go home. It’s late.”
“You gave me bourbon and told me to leave.” She raised her eyebrows, but he returned to his work, eyes and hands smoothly handling the material and tools. Tsk, tsk. The sound of the metal carving into the wood.
“Jethro, I need to see that you are okay.” Six years ago she would put her hands over his to demand attention, but now she watched from half a room away, her face darkened and blurred by the shadow.
“The real question, Hollis, are you?”
He stood up and walked up to her, letting his tools dropping on the floor. He stared into her green eyes again and sensed her sharp intake of breath. “Shouldn’t have done that to you.” He paused and grabbed her upper arms, as if he was reassuring something, “you deserve better.”
And slowly, his gaze turned soft, “Hollis, I’m—”
Her left hand covered his mouth before he could finish. Her touch was firm but cold. As if his skin burned her, she retrieved her hand swiftly, but not before he could catch her wrist and brought her hand up for a kiss on the back. His thumb brushed over her wedding band and he saw the lines between her brows and the tears in her eyes.
Pulling her into his arms, he sighed next to her ear, “you don’t have to.” She rested her head on his shoulder gently. “Rules are rules, gunny.”
When they let go, she took a moment to collect herself, followed by her coat. “Take care, Jethro.” She looked into his eyes again, thinking of everything she wanted to say, and headed for the staircase.
He kept working on his boat. Two bourbons and way too much sanding later he was fed up and he could still feel Hollis’ lingering, ghostly presence. Taking a deep breath, he went up, contemplating on getting a cold beer. When he passed by the front door he stopped.
There, he saw her, through the glass on his door and her car. Hollis was sitting still, her hands covering her mouth. Her eyes were hidden by her hair and he couldn’t see her expression too well. Then her hands fell to her side, her chin up and her neck throwing back, leaning against the headrest. This time he saw her face—her eyes were shut tight and lines were forming between her eyebrows. Slowly, her eyes opened, and he was sure that tears were leaving shining strikes on her cheeks. For a moment he stared at her across from the street —it felt like watching an old silent movie. Her movements were stiff and machinic, almost ridiculous, but at the same time, painfully poetic.
A moment later, she started her car and disappeared from his view, into the darkness.
“Take care, Holly.” He murmured.