A/N: For those who rooted for James ❤
I didn’t get far.
My hand had been on the cold metal of the car handle, ready to wrench it open, when I realized that I had left my keys inside the house. I cursed viciously, turning around to retrieve them, but felt my heart sink as I came face to face with Candice.
She had the keys clutched tightly in her fist and was looking directly at me, her jaw set and her eyes blazing. Rain dripped from her hair. I, however, could not even muster up the desire to fight her.
“Just let me go, please,” I implored her, my voice low.
“No,” she said firmly, her voice loud and confident. “I’m not fucking stupid, James. I know exactly where you’re going once you get a hold of these keys and I’m not letting you go there!” she shouted.
I looked at Candice in surprise, but couldn’t bring myself to say anything. She didn’t understand. Not at all.
“Come back inside, please,” she finally said when it became clear that I wasn’t going to respond.
“Let me go,” I repeated instead, looking up now at her face.
“I said no, James!” Candice shot back, her hands balling up into fists. “You’ve come so far. You’ve been sober for a full month now and I can’t just let you screw that up! You said you’d give it up and I’m going to hold you to that!”
I laughed bitterly, shaking my head. “Come so far?” I asked with a scoff, feeling my irritation rise once again. “Candice, NOTHING is better. I can’t write, I can’t paint, I can’t even fucking THINK without feeling like I need to—need to….” I trailed off, grabbing at my hair in frustration and then kicking the car tire. I hated my dependency on a substance that wanted to tear my body to pieces, but at this point, I was already shattered, so how much more harm could it possibly do?
“We can deal with that,” Candice cut in. “We ARE dealing with that. It’s all temporary.”
I felt hopeless, my breathing coming out in short little gasps. She had no idea how difficult this was—no idea that this went beyond shaky hands and “wanting” to drink. This was about a body that needed to drink, and a brain that was lashing out at the people it was supposed to love because it wasn’t getting what it needed to survive.
“Maybe I can deal with that particular shit,” I said quietly, looking away from her, “but I CAN’T deal with the fact that I’ve also been hurting you…hurting Jo.”
“You haven’t been—”
“I HAVE, Candice!” I cried out, pained. I looked at her hard again, my gaze desperate and imploring. I needed to make her understand just how bad I was for them.
“Look,” I began impatiently, “I see how stressed you’ve been! I’ve heard you crying late at night when you think that I’m sleeping. I’ve seen how you barely touch your meals and I KNOW how much it’s killing you to see me like this. And I see Jo hurting too! I see the lengths that she goes to in trying to cheer me up or get my attention and even so all I want to do is be alone!”
I took a breath, covering my mouth with my hand for a moment and shutting my eyes before I finally removed it and spoke again. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t handle hurting you two anymore.”
Candice wiped her eyes, shaking her head and toeing a puddle on the ground. I held my hand out for the keys.
Her eyes gazed blankly at my hand for a moment and then her head shot back up to look at me, her eyes red, but determined. “I told you, James, I am NOT letting you go!” she snapped. “Yes, this has been difficult, and yes, Joanne and I don’t exactly love seeing you like this, but we all knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. I’m not letting you give up!”
“You don’t understand what this is like,” I said softly, unable to look at her any longer. Forget the car. I would walk away if I had to.
“No, I don’t, but I DO know that you can’t just keep avoiding every fucking problem in your life! You left when Maddie died instead of facing your pain, you then numbed yourself out to the world to continue not dealing with it, and now you’re trying to leave AGAIN instead of dealing with your pain. Well, I’m not letting you anymore, James. You have a daughter. You can’t leave her…she’s already lost one parent. I doubt she could handle losing the other too—and neither should she have to!”
I covered my face, squeezing my eyes shut as hot tears escaped them. She was right, of course. She was right about everything, but I just didn’t know how to deal any other way. I was hurting my family, and I couldn’t stand hurting them any longer.
“I don’t know what to do,” I whispered, my arms going limp as I felt myself break down all over again. I had tried so hard. I had stopped drinking. I had refused every urge and stopped, and yet the substance was still killing me. It would never loosen its hold on me.
“Come home,” Candice said softly, closing the gap between us and placing her hand on my arm. “We can get you extra help. We can figure this out.”
I let out a short laugh of doubt. “Joanne…” I started softly, and then shook my head, feeling as awful as ever. “She’ll never forgive me.”
Candice sighed, rolling her eyes. “Yes, she will! You’re her dad, James. She loves you more than anything. And she knows that you’re sick. All she wants is for you to get better. …and it’s all I want too,” she added quietly.
I could feel her eyes on me even as I continued to avoid them. I didn’t know what to say anymore. I was losing the battle against my constant anxiety; I was losing the battle against this fucking addiction; and now I was losing this battle too.
“We’ll get you extra help,” she repeated, taking my hands in hers and tugging gently on them. “Please, come back home.”
The rain was letting up. It dripped from my hair, from my face, from my clothes. I didn’t have the energy to fight back anymore. What more could I even say?
I nodded numbly, allowing Candice to take me back into the house. I didn’t see Joanne anywhere, but I could hear her singing softly in her room. I wanted to apologize to her, but I couldn’t even muster up the will to do so.
Instead, I crawled directly into my bed, stuffed my face into a pillow, and prayed that I would fall asleep.
Asleep, I wasn’t able to hurt my family anymore.
I gladly would have spent the rest of my life shut up in my room, but Candice, as stubborn as ever, refused to let me, dragging me out of bed in the morning to eat breakfast and then, sometimes literally, happily and determinedly pulling me off the couch to go to my new sessions with a psychiatrist, and a therapist, every other day. At dinner she’d pull me out of my room again, and then at night she’d hold me tightly—whether it was to keep me from slipping off in the middle of the night, or to comfort me though, I honestly didn’t know.
Truth be told the new sessions did help a bit. My psychiatrist prescribed me medication to help me with my anxiety and my therapist helped me sort out all the bullshit that constantly ran through my head. The combination left me feeling a lot calmer, but still, I kept to myself, too afraid to interact with the people I loved more than anything.
All I kept thinking was that I was going to hurt them all again, and so far, no amount of medication or therapy had stopped me from feeling that way.
Although I could usually keep this fear contained, sometimes it paralyzed me, leaving me sitting on the couch for hours, motionless, because Candice wouldn’t let me seclude myself in my room anymore. Today had been exactly one of those days when Joanne approached me.
My first reaction upon seeing her come so close to me was wincing, immediately afraid that I would snap at her again, but then I realized that shrinking away from her would probably hurt her more, so I tried to force myself to relax.
Jo must have noticed my reaction though, because she suddenly looked disappointed. Despite this, she took a breath and then glanced back anxiously. I looked behind her as well and felt my heart jump as I saw Candice there. I hadn’t even heard her walk over.
“Go on,” Candice said with an encouraging smile, gesturing for Jo to continue.
She bit her lip, giving Candice a final, doubtful look before turning toward me again. “Hi Daddy,” she said shyly, her arms behind her back.
“Hi Jo,” I said quietly, feeling suddenly awkward. I hated that my daughter felt so uneasy around me now.
“I…I have a surprise for you!” she blurted out, and then flushed, her cheeks reddening as she realized she’d raised her voice. “To…to make you feel better,” she finished softly.
I looked at her questioningly, wondering what on earth she had for me, while Jo looked back once again at Candice, who just nodded and smiled some more.
“Okay,” Joanne said, shifting so she was right in front of me. She took a deep breath and then stood up a little straighter. “I’m ready.”
Ready? Ready for what? I looked over at Candice, trying to figure out what was going on, and watched as she smiled at me and winked. She leaned over then and pressed the play button on a small, portable stereo that I’d just noticed sitting beside her. Immediately, the sound of soft drums and then a keyboard began to play. Jo closed her eyes, mouthing the count of the song.
I opened my mouth to say something, but just as I was going to, Joanne began to softly sing.
“You with the sad eyes
Don’t be discouraged
Oh I realize
It’s hard to take courage
In a world full of people
You can lose sight of it all
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small…”
I listened as the music suddenly picked up, and with that change, Joanne seemed to have forgotten her worries, her voice coming out as strong and as clear as a goddamn angel, the notes suddenly sending chills down my spine and the words making my heart ache.
“But I see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful,
Like a rainbow
Show me a smile then,
Don’t be unhappy, can’t remember
When I last saw you laughing
If this world makes you crazy
And you’ve taken all you can bear
You call me up
Because you know I’ll be there
And I’ll see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful,
Like a rainbow”
Joanne continued to belt out that song until the end, a seemingly impossible feat for someone so small. By the time she did reach the end, my face was covered in tears that I hadn’t even felt falling. She looked at me anxiously in the silence, seeing the tears on my face and then wringing her hands.
Before she could say anything I stood up and pulled my daughter into a tight hug. “Thank you,” I murmured, and then held her tighter as she burst out into tears, holding onto me as if her life depended on it.
Of course, that was when I remembered—Jo was my daughter, and her life did depend on me.
“You’re not a bad person, Daddy,” she whispered, pulling away from me slightly and reaching up to wipe away my tears with her small hands. “Please don’t stop fighting.”
“I won’t,” I murmured, and then pulled her into a hug once more.
As promised, I did continue to fight. I tried to be as honest as possible with my therapist, I took my medicine at exactly the right times, and I even began to trust myself with Candice and Joanne again, beginning to believe that maybe I was more than this darkness inside me.
It began with baby steps. When Joanne was doing her homework, I’d come over and sit beside her, offering my assistance. I had the feeling that she didn’t actually need any, but whenever I came over she made sure she had a question, just thankful that I was spending time with her.
Of course, it made me feel awful that she should be so thankful for even a minute of time with me, but I realized that if I continued to let those feelings get a hold of me, I would never develop a relationship with the people I loved ever again.
With Candice it was more difficult. She had sacrificed so much for me, even taking an extended leave of absence from her dream job, just to take care of me every minute of every day, and it made me feel even more awful.
When I mentioned it to my therapist, my skin broken out in a cold sweat, he mentioned that maybe it would make me feel better if I helped her, so that was exactly what I did.
I started out by helping her with dinner. She had taken to making meals for the family, and had gotten pretty good at it, so while she was preparing food, I’d step into the kitchen too, gently taking a stack of carrots she might have been skinning or chopping up some onions for her.
“I never thought I’d see you so emotional over helping me make dinner,” she’d said with a smile as she saw me tearing up over the onions.
“You idiot,” I’d responded with a roll of my eyes, and then she had laughed. That was when I was actually glad that I was chopping up onions, because she never would have let me live it down if she had known that something as simple as hearing her laugh for the first time in months, could also make me tear up.
I suppose we would have been even though for stupid things to cry over, as one day, when I was feeling especially okay, I grabbed my old paints and started working on a new canvas. My hands weren’t shaking at all and I’d actually been pretty deeply focused when all of a sudden I’d heard a sob from behind me.
“You’re painting again! Like, truly painting!” Candice wailed, taking short little gasps as she cried.
“….I’m sorry?” I’d said, raising an eyebrow, and then she had laughed again, filling me with a warmth that I hadn’t experienced in far, far too long.
One of the biggest steps I took was when Candice and I finally got intimate again. We’d been laying down to go to bed, just as we usually did, and Candice had leaned over to kiss me goodnight, just as she usually did…and then I had rolled us over and pinned her onto her back, kissing her hard in return, which was something I did not usually do. Not for a long time.
The simple gesture had been enough that simple kissing was not enough and soon we’d both been naked underneath the covers, making love on and off until the sun’s rays began to creep through the crack of our bedroom curtain.
We’d been half asleep the rest of that day, spilling coffee on ourselves and tripping over nothing, but every time one of us slipped up, we’d just start laughing until our eyes filled with tears.
I think the day that I finally, finally felt perfectly myself again was when we’d all gone to beach: Candice, Joanne, and I.
We’d spent the day swimming, building sandcastles, searching for seashells, picnicking on a blanket we laid out in the sand, and even roasting marshmallows in the evening.
I had splashed Candice while she lay out in the sun, and she had tackled me in a vengeance, leading me to get a face full of sand. Of course, that was when we both teamed up against Jo, chasing her on the shore as she screamed in delight. When we caught her, we attacked her with tickles, her shouts of laughter carrying on the wind.
That night, when we’d finally returned home, was when I had the realization—it had been the first day since I’d started that I never once thought about having a drink.
***********The Following Winter***********
“LAST ONE ON THE ICE IS A LLAMA LICKER!” Joanne shouted, running toward the ice skating rink.
“Wait, we were supposed to build a snowman first!” Candice shouted, running quickly after Joanne lest she be called a ‘llama licker’ for the rest of the day.
I laughed, chasing after the two of them and nearly falling over in the snow. Today officially marked 1.5 years that I had been completely sober, having not even touched so much as a glass of eggnog since I’d walked out of that hospital with my life.
“There you guys are!” my mom suddenly cried out, waving over to us. “We’ve been waiting forever!”
“It’s not my fault!” I said. “Joanne insisted on having her blue gloves because apparently the white ones weren’t good enough!” I said, reaching over to tickle Joanne in the side. She shrieked with laughter and hopped away, trying to hide behind Candice.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked, suddenly afraid that he might not have wanted to come.
“Bring that smile back, James, he’s right here,” my mom assured me, stepping aside so I could see him walking up.
“Hello, son,” he said with a smile, striding up to me with his cane in hand. “My legs work a little slower these days,” he admitted, gesturing toward them.
“I’m glad you could make it,” I said sincerely, then turning toward my mom as well. “Both of you.”
“Of course we made it!” my mom said. “There’s only so long you can go only talking on the phone!”
“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, as I first hugged her, and then my dad. I had finally mustered up the courage to call them about five months ago and this was the first time during that time that I’d openly invited them to visit for a week. Of course, I didn’t just invite them out of the blue. I was honestly kind of hoping that they’d fall in love with Starlight Shores and decide to move here too—but that was a topic I’d bring up with them later.
For now, there was actually one other reason I wanted everyone here today.
“You idiot, what are you doing?” Candice asked with a laugh as I came up behind her and tackled her. She stumbled and laughed before turning around to push me, but I grabbed her instead, kissing her hard. When I pulled away, I was grinning so hard I could feel my cheeks begin to ache.
“Well, you’re surely happy,” she remarked.
“You bet I am,” I said with a big smile. “After all,” I continued casually, giving Candice a wink, “today is the day that you’re going to agree to become my wife.”
“That I’m going to—wait what?” Candice asked, looking at me in surprise.
I smiled once more, and then slowly got down one knee, removing a small velvet box from my coat.
“Wait, what are you…” Candice started to say, concerned that I was on the ground…until she suddenly made the connection, and then her eyes opened wide. “Oh my god…oh my god!” she squeaked, her eyes already filling up with tears.
I laughed and then took a breath before opening the box and holding it out toward Candice, the gleaming diamond reflecting off the crystalline ground.
“When I first met you, you asked me what the fuck I was doing, screamed at me to leave, and then bodily hurled a small makeup bag directly at my forehead, where it definitely struck true,” I began. Candice laughed tearfully, rolling her eyes. I smiled and then opened my mouth to speak once more.
“After that, you somehow, completely inexplicably, became one of the best friends that I have ever had—and ever will have. We both then experienced loss and pain that went beyond what any typical relationship ever encounters, and I thought that our friendship had ended….until you showed up again like a sudden bolt of lightning when you’re trapped hundreds of miles beneath the earth’s surface. You pulled me out and I fell in love with you. I fell in love with you harder than I ever thought it possible to fall in love with someone, and then I almost lost you again.”
I took a breath, and then moved to finish what I was saying. “I should have lost you, to be honest, but you never gave up on me, and for that, I love you even more. Of course, that means that I love you SO MUCH that I can’t even bear the thought of ever losing you again, so Candice Price…”
“…will you make me the happiest damn man in the world and marry me?”
“Longest proposal EVER!” my mom shouted, and everyone around us began to laugh.
I flushed, but my attention was only on Candice, my heart beating hard as I watched her face.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, James, I’ll marry you.”
“I love you, James.”
“And I love you.”
A/N: I hope you’re squee-ing because I sure as heck am! 😛 The song that Joanne sang is called “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper, because neither Candice nor Jo believed that James was ever truly lost. ❤