Chapter 3: The Old Friend

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 177
Comments: 1

“What? Morgan? No. This is Margaret. Wait…You guys know each other?” She’d forgotten about Henry. Her eyes flickered to him for an instant—but were drawn immediately back to Ashton. “Wait. She’s Morgan?” Henry asked incredulously, “She’s that Morgan?” She wondered distantly what that meant; his voice hardly penetrated the cloud of confusion that had enveloped her. She wished he would shut up. Ashton was all there was. He gaped at her, and she returned the incredulous scrutiny. Her arms felt heavy; her bare toes squirmed against the wood—maybe if she got a splinter, she could wake herself from this dream. “You’re kidding me!” Henry’s abrupt laughter was not yet enough to pull Morgan out of her daze.

“No…. way.” Ashton approached slowly, bringing with him the familiar scent of spices, cinnamon, and cigarette that wafted into her nostrils as he stopped in front of her. She inhaled deeply, soothed, as she always had been, by his smell. 

“See? I told you we’d find something, Machi.” He ruffled the blonde’s hair. “I know it’s been a long time, but you’re gonna have your own room, your own bed; we’re even gonna get you into school.” They’d been scrambling on the streets, staying in shelters, beneath bridges, in playgrounds, and alleyways. Morgan had become skinnier but less haunted. 

When he first took her to parks, she would hold onto his hand desperately—refusing to leave his side. Now, she held onto him for a few minutes—but would let go and scramble towards the playground. She still wasn’t playing much with the other kids, and constantly looked back to make sure he hadn’t moved from his spot on the bench where he always sat smoking—but she would play.

“I mean, it’s a fuckin’ shithole…but it’s ours.” There were holes in the walls, strong smells—someone had been doing drugs here, but the woman who was renting it to them hadn’t asked questions and would take rent weekly. They had made do with less and would make this place better. He was eighteen now, things would get easier. They had to. 

She wrapped her arms around his leg, “What if I don’t want to sleep alone?” they’d slept side by side on the street for over a year. She always knew where he was, knew if something was going wrong or they needed to move when he was right there. What if something went wrong? What if they got separated? He crouched down to her level, a gentle smile and warm eyes meeting her anxious ones, one hand on each shoulder. He kissed her forehead. 

“Well, we don’t got beds yet. So, you don’t have to worry, but when we get you one it’ll be good for you to sleep on your own. You turn 9 this year, it’ll prove you’re a big girl. You can always come climb in bed with me if you have a bad dream. I’ll keep the assholes away.” She threw her arms around his neck; he swept her into his arms, propping her on his hip. She tucked her head into his shoulder breathing in his smoky scent as he showed her the rest of the small apartment.

“I…you…Shit.” Morgan breathed. There was no mistaking it, that voice, that smell, those eyes—this was Ashton. 

“Henry, you damn asshole!” Ashton snapped suddenly, turning angry black eyes onto the laughing man, shoving him off balance. 

“But of all the people! Really!” A grin still danced across his cheeks as he hopped on one foot, narrowly avoiding falling into the water. 

“Shut up. I’m having a moment over here.” Ashton spat. Morgan couldn’t help but smile briefly. That was the Ashton she knew. Slightly violent, a little bit angry, accidentally sentimental. Her eyes burned from repressed tears, and she still fought the conflicting urges to run away, to run him, to hug him, and to hit him. 

She heard the distinct resounding SLAP of a palm connecting with a cheek and saw Ashton’s head jerk to the side. She blinked owlishly at her smarting palm and Ashton’s red cheek. She supposed that she’d decided to hit him. How had that happened? Ashton rubbed his jaw, turning back towards her, eyes still fixated on her. Her whole body flushed hot with fear; she took a half step back terror seeping into every cell of her body, as she teetered on the edge of the dock.

Morgan put down her pencil closing her book, her homework finished. She started high school this year, 9th grade; Ashton had made sure she always went to school—he wanted her to graduate. Said she’d be able to take better care of herself that way, have a better life. Maybe even go to college. He told her she was smart, which always made her beam with pride. She tried hard; she didn’t want to disappoint him. It was fun, actually. She liked to read, she liked to learn, got good grades. She tried to teach Ashton some of the things that she’d learned sometimes—and he’d listen patiently, or at least pretend to. He liked some of the science stuff. He always sat with her, when she didn’t understand something—helping where he could, insisting she stick it out where he couldn’t—and very occasionally telling her to fuck it and dragging her off to do something fun. 

She glanced at the clock; he was later than usual. This had been happening more often. She knew it was hard for him, to work enough to support them both. She worried about it, having enough food, paying the electric bill, the gas bill. He didn’t like her pickpocketing anymore or stealing much of anything. She’d gotten good at it, but he said they should try and do things the right way. She hopped off her stool and moved into the kitchen. He usually made dinner, but she pulled noodles and vegetables and tossed them all into a pot of water. There was a jar of alfredo sauce around somewhere. There were a few dishes in the sink from breakfast, but she could do those later. 

He stumbled in, nearly three hours after he normally got home. Her body relaxed. “Hey.” He slumped into a chair at the table. “Oh, you made dinner. Thanks.” She frowned; something was wrong. And he smelled…

“Did you go out after work.” She kept her voice carefully disinterested. 

“Yeah, yeah. Just had a couple of drinks with some friends. Got a little late.” She put a reheated bowl of her noodle concoction in front of him and sat down at the table. It smelled like more than a couple of drinks. She didn’t see the ‘yuck’ face he made at the bowl, there was a reason he usually cooked. Unevenly cooked broccoli and potatoes in pasta. “Dinner, I guess.” Something seemed off, she wasn’t quite sure what it was. He did go out sometimes, but he almost always told her ahead of time. And it was the middle of the week; it seemed like he was almost darker, somehow, that something about him flickered. But it was probably just the booze. He always came home; he would always come home. That’s what mattered; she shrugged off the oddness and chattered to him about her day. 

“Woah, woah, woah!” Henry stepped between them, putting a hand behind her back, keeping her from falling off the dock, and the other up between them. “No need for that… Maggie—Morgan—Ashton!”

Ashton turned slightly, shifting his attention momentarily to Henry. “Can you go away?” Morgan’s stomach clenched; she wasn’t sure she wanted Henry to leave. She didn’t want to be left alone with Ashton. Something about Henry’s loud friendliness made her feel at ease. Things were always calmer when there was a third-party present, and she’d just slapped Ashton. There would be repercussions. How would he punish her? 

“Wait, wait.” Henry protested, “She just—” she steadied herself enough to step away from Henry’s touch, afraid that he’d feel her tremble, afraid that he’d be angry at her fear, afraid that his hands would wander. 

“Later, God!” Ashton waved a hand dismissively. 

 “So, this is where you’ve been for the past thirty years.” Ashton nodded slowly, thoughtfully at her query. Morgan risked looking up at him through her eyelashes and felt a small jolt of shock. He didn’t seem angry. She shifted from foot to foot. Ashton had never looked at her like that before. His mouth was parted slightly, the edges lifted in a half-smile, his eyes almost seemed to be shining, tears? That was good, she hoped. That at least meant he wasn’t angry that she was here. He wouldn’t punish her for slapping him…probably. 

“Henry?” Morgan licked her lips and raised her eyes to meet Henry’s. He saw something in there besides the listless hopelessness that had previously looked back at him. A spark of life. Morgan didn’t want to offend him or make him angry; he had tried hard to be kind to her. The prospect of having this conversation with Ashton felt terrifyingly intimate, but having the inevitable conversation with another present felt intolerably invasive. “Can we…catch up alone? It’s been thirty years since I’ve seen or heard from him, after all.” The wry foreign words fell unbidden from her tongue, Thirty years. Ashton. Catching up with Ashton. This was completely impossible. A week ago, she’d been living in guarded luxury. Trapped. A week? Two weeks? A month? She really wasn’t sure how long it had been. 

“I suppose so.” He smiled gently at Morgan, turned to Ashton and blew a kiss. “Later, babe.” The man’s bizarre behavior gave her something to focus on. Morgan turned this over in her mind; Henry was something more real, more substantial than Ashton’s presence. She stared at Henry as he walked away. “Have fun kids!” He raised his hand in a friendly wave as he walked away from them, Morgan gaze followed him until he’d disappeared behind the door to the Mansion. 

“He’s…odd,” Morgan noted, commenting on the only thing she could wrap her mind around—Ashton being here was too impossible to be real. Henry’s peculiarity was understandable, easier to deal with than Ashton. Her eyes unwillingly turned back to him once Henry was out of sight. She didn’t know what to say. Now that she was alone with him, the desire to run came back full force. She might be able to get past him, now that Henry was gone. She froze. Her heart raced, pounding painfully against her chest. She swallowed, trying to moisten her dry mouth enough to speak—her muscles trembling, poised to take off at a dime. 

“You look good.” Her frazzled brain couldn’t decipher in what way he meant that. The tension in her muscles evaporated. She didn’t think she looked good; she felt like she had been ripped into a thousand pieces and scattered across the ground, then lit on fire. Perhaps he was talking physically. She self-consciously touched her hair. Maybe he meant physically? Her body felt hot, her head swollen. Sweat broke out across her forehead, and her armpits felt sticky and uncomfortable. She rubbed her earlobe incessantly. Her jaw clenched, grinding against itself. Her eyes burned. Henry wasn’t there anymore. She evaluated her escape options again. Water. Dock. Mansion. Shoreline. Dock. Ashton. Him. No. Ashton wasn’t Him. 

Morgan groaned as she opened the door. She didn’t even know they had that many blankets in the house, and there were clothes everywhere. Ashton was at work, and it looked like he’d had a long night. Hopefully, he’d gotten in to work on time.

Even if they’d both gradually became different. Ashton wasn’t him. 

She didn’t know where he was. He wasn’t home. He’d lost his job. Shown up high. She never knew where he was anymore. He disappeared 3 or 4 times a week, sometimes for an evening, sometimes for a day or two. When he was around, things were weird. He was grouchy, angry—and his eyes were looking a little funny. Darker than normal. A few times, she thought she’d seen his shadow grow, dark tendrils sneaking out from his body, and wrapping around him, his arms, his legs. Once, she’d been sitting by him on the couch and those tendrils had touched her. Her heart had gone cold; her body frozen. Everything seemed dim, black, bleak. Horrible. What was the point of any of it? Of living? 

“Morgan.” When her eyes opened again, Ashton was across the room. “Morgan. Machi.” His voice was higher than she could remember it ever being. “Machi. Machi! Wake up. Are you okay?” 

“I’m…” she blinked heavily, what was his fucking deal? He was being so loud. So annoying. Couldn’t he just shut up? She just wanted to be left alone and he was—what was she thinking? “I think… What… what was that? I feel… horrible.”

The shadows were gone now. He examined himself, nodded, and swiftly moved over to her wrapping her up in his arms. “I’m just having some trouble with… with controlling my powers. I didn’t mean for it to hurt you. I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Her arms wrapped around him and she cried, trying to forget the awful emptiness, the fear, the hatred. Was that how he felt every time there were shadows? Is that how he felt all the time? Is that how he felt about her? His hushed voice and comforting embrace soothed her; he still loved her, even if the shadows made it harder. 

Everything was changing so quickly. She could still feel the detached nothingness she had held onto so dearly, but it was slipping from her clutching grip. Her breath was quickening, coming in shorter pants in her chest—she focused on breathing from her stomach. She couldn’t panic. Not now. If she panicked, she couldn’t get away. Even if she tried, she thought she’d fall over before she got three steps. 

“Woah, woah! Be careful!” His laughter was warm, friendly as Morgan fell again—unable to get more than a few steps without losing her balance. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” His hands lingered longer on her hips as he helped her up this time. “Here, keep hold of my hands.” He moved smoothly to place his whole body in front of her, ready to skate backward. 

“Luke, I dunno if I can do this. This was a bad idea.” Her hands gripped his tightly, legs wobbling in her ice-skates as they inched forward. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into this.” His grin didn’t comfort her but did help stave off the cold. 

“No, no! You can. You just... you can’t look at your feet. Look at me instead.” His eyes sparkled at her, and she reluctantly raised her head to keep his gaze. He was right, and they made some slow progress. 

“Not sure if it makes me feel better than you can do this backwards while I can’t keep from faAAAALL!” she pulled him down with her, and both ended up laughing, limbs entangled on the ice. 

She shook her head, trying to free herself of unwanted memories. She didn’t want any of them, good or bad. Closer up, she could see that Ashton looked different. His eyes were calm, surprised, but free of the desperate hungry glint they had so often held during their last years together and had been omnipresent in the last months. Their natural dark brown, not black—and seemed solidly contained by his iris. She sought his shadow and was relieved to see it steady—exactly reflecting the man standing before her. He was still thin but had filled out. He didn’t have the emaciated look of a man who had been scrambling on the streets to feed his addiction. His olive skin practically glowed with health—but of course, Ashton wouldn’t be Ashton if he weren’t smoking something. 

Submitted: September 18, 2019

© Copyright 2022 Cody Ryan. All rights reserved.


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