A/N: Well, that was a MUCH longer wait than I’d anticipated *face palm* I’m not sure why I’m surprised considering my track record, but I do have some good news and that’s the fact that this chapter was SO long it became two parts, which means the next update will not be far off ^_^; I’m also working on the conclusion to Joanne’s story, so that’s exciting as well!
ANYWAY, this part includes references to So, What Are We Now (Pt. 1) and (Pt. 2), so I would recommend that you’ve read those before continuing. It also picks up the morning after the last scene in Part III, so it might be helpful to at least take a scroll through it to remind yourself of what happened (I KNOW I NEEDED TO). Lastly, to be safe, I should note that this part includes content that may be uncomfortable for some readers, including depression and mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation. If you feel you need to skim over certain parts, please don’t hesitate to do so.
I sincerely hope this continuation lives up to the ones that preceded it and, as always, I look forward to hearing what you all think. Happy reading! ^_^
A large classroom filled with desks; pale walls adorned with the colorful flags of dozens of countries and university banners. Students shuffling about in a half-hearted daze, each with a halved note card tucked between their fingers. Augustus turned, confused, and then halted in his steps as he nearly collided with someone.
Augustus startled, looking up at the card held before his eyes. The number ‘7’ was boldly printed on its surface. It matched his own card perfectly.
“Uh yeah, I—” Heat spread throughout his body as he looked at the speaker. It was a boy with eyes like liquid gold, rich brown skin, and supple lips quirked in a smirk.
An endless expanse of ecru sand; an ocean breeze tugging at clothes and the sweet taste of strawberry ice cream coating the surface of his tongue.
He turned. There again, the golden boy with amber splashed waves stretched far behind him.
“I’m not going anywhere. Not unless you want me to.”
“No,” Augustus heard himself whisper. “Never.”
Crowded hallways; the squeaking of sneakers; the cacophony of slamming lockers and ebullient shrieks of laughter. There, amidst it all, the boy was kissing someone else.
“That wasn’t what it looked like. She—”
“I don’t care! It doesn’t matter! You’re free to do whatever you like.”
“Please just…hear me out for a second.”
Words suffused with pain; the world righted with truth that he wished were not true. The boy was crying.
“You’re not alone because you…you have me. I don’t know how much that means, but for whatever it is worth, you’ll always have me.”
“Do I? Even after the way I’ve treated you?”
“Yes, of course you do.”
An explosion of crimson, richly hued orange, and brightest gold; warm light, shining eyes, copper hair, and a boy more precious than any of it. Augustus leaned toward him, eyes falling shut. He could feel Isaac’s shallow breaths mingling with his—
A sound like the striking of gargantuan bells.
It was cold. Darkness rose to steal them. Augustus reached out for him, shouted for him, but he was gone—gone just as suddenly as they’d been cast together.
In the middle of the night, at the end of a dream, at the beginning of an inner tumult that he was as of yet unaware of, Augustus Winters jerked awake, breathing heavily and covered in a sheen of sweat that made his long, obsidian hair cling to his face. He impatiently pushed it away, leaning his head back and sighing as he tried to calm himself.
They were only memories—memories he’d kept entombed within the deepest confines of his mind, but which had apparently been unearthed by the revelation of a single buried truth: You’re wrong, Gus. I did like you.
Augustus got up. The cool, wintry draft coming in through the cracks of the window felt soothing on his skin. He drew nearer, pressing his arm against the icy glass and closing his eyes.
Of course Isaac had liked him. It was what Augustus had always sworn to be true, but after what had happened he’d felt he had no choice but to admit he’d been wrong. That despite everything he’d felt and everything they’d shared he’d been horribly mistaken. But now? Now it was all reversing, returning to Gus’ original beliefs with a dizzying speed that left him feeling as though the ground beneath his feet was tilting.
None of it should have mattered anymore and yet here he was, jolted awake and undeniably shaken by a wholly unchangeable past.
Augustus sighed, pushing off the window and going to his bedside table to retrieve his phone. He squinted as the bright blue light pierced the hazy darkness of the room. There were no new messages—only the very brief exchange he’d had with the brunet before falling asleep:
Was he though? Was Augustus glad he’d heard Isaac out? Before he’d fallen asleep he’d thought so. He’d thought so because it had been a relief to know that he hadn’t been so utterly jaded; that Isaac had cared for him and that everything Augustus had originally thought to be true was. Part of him still felt this sense of relief, but the rest of him, having been battered by this onslaught of memories, wondered whether it wouldn’t have been better to live on without ever having learned the truth of what happened all those years ago.
Augustus put his phone down and flumped onto his bed. There were more pressing matters to be concerned about: his sister’s fluctuating moods; his inability to keep Patrick from worrying about him; the fact that Tobias was in danger of failing a required class; the news that Thomas had been suspended from school for cursing out a teacher; his upcoming finals and the major projects he had due. Far and above enough to be concerned about without the past trying to drag him into that shit too.
A minute longer Augustus allowed himself to brood before he forced himself to his feet and into the shower, where he tried to let the warm water relax his muscles and quiet his mind. Far and above enough to be concerned about, but ruminating wouldn’t solve anything. All he could do was steel himself and keep moving forward.
Keeping this reminder firmly in mind, Augustus finished his shower, brushed his teeth, and got dressed for the day, pulling on a sweater and his favorite pair of pants.
It was only as he was checking his phone that he realized that the house was unnaturally still. By this point he would usually hear Gemma heading downstairs to make coffee, or if she was running late at least hear the sound of her shower, but he heard none of this, nor any other indication that his sister had come home last night. If she’d stayed someplace else though, she would have texted him. It was an agreement that she had never not fulfilled.
Concerned, Augustus left his room, but he relaxed when he saw that the door to Gemma’s bedroom was closed. If she hadn’t come home, it would have still been opened. Had she slept through all her alarms then?
Augustus walked up to her door and knocked lightly upon it with his knuckles. “Hey, Gemma. You awake?”
There was no response; no sign at all that she was in there aside from the firmly closed door before him. He knocked a little louder. “Gemma?”
Again, silence. Augustus debated turning away, but remembering how pissed she’d gotten the last time he’d neglected to wake her after she’d slept through her alarms he sighed and cracked opened the door, slipping inside.
“…Gemma?” he tentatively called.
“It’s almost time for your firs—”
* * * * *
Gemma was suspended in a drowsy fog, her limbs as heavy as if they’d been injected with lead. Movement felt impossible, but she had the vague sense that she was being shaken. The nauseating sway made her retreat farther into the murky reaches of her mind. She was exhausted. A hundred years she could have slept and still she felt she wouldn’t dispel this fatigue. It sunk deep within her bones, leaving her desperate to remain in this hazy otherworld.
It was an all too familiar voice, but she slipped away from it too. Why couldn’t he let her be? Why did he feel the need to drag her to the surface when she was so content to be lost within this soothing obscurity?
“Wake up, Gemma. You have to wake up. Please, Gemma, wake up!”
“Tired,” she mumbled sleepily, turning over.
She sat up, snapping on the lights and rounding on her brother in a sudden burst of rage. “What?!” she shouted. “What do you possibly want? I’m tired, Gus. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Gemma’s blazing amethyst eyes came to rest upon her brother’s face, concern slowly knitting her brow as she took in the sight of his ashen skin and widened eyes. “What…what happened?” she asked, fearing the worst. “Why are you—”
“I couldn’t wake you.”
The words sounded odd, not quite fitting the fear that exuded from him now. Gemma stared, an uneasiness settling over her even as her brain seemed to click into gear.
“I was dreaming,” she warily began to explain, “so more than likely I was in REM sleep. It’s the deepest stage of sleep, so it’s not all that unusual that it might have been difficult to wake me.”
Augustus’ expression shifted into one of disgusted incredulity. His eyes, normally reminding Gemma of freshly brewed coffee, became cold and hollowed; more like dark caves than anything resembling warmth.
“Difficult?” he repeated, his shoulders stiff with sudden tension. “I knocked on your door. Called your name several times. I even shook you and you didn’t so much as flinch! Difficult? Gemma, you were barely fucking breathing! I was about to call 911!”
“911? Well, that sounds drastic. I’m not sure why you’d—Hey!” Gemma exclaimed in protest, for Augustus had clenched his teeth, snatched something off the bedside table and flung it at her. She tried to catch it, but there was too much speed behind the toss and the object soared through her hands instead, clattering as it landed in her lap. Gemma picked it up. It was her bottle of sleeping pills.
“How many of those did you take?” Augustus asked evenly.
“How many?” Gemma echoed in puzzlement, and then lifted her gaze to her brother’s in surprise, suddenly realizing what had him so upset. “Augustus,” she started with a slight laugh, “this isn’t what you think. I only took a few. I’d had a shitty night and wanted to fall asleep quickly, so yes I did take a couple extra, but only with the intention of falling asleep faster. Of course, upon reflection I’m realizing that was a completely ineffectual move because taking more pills wouldn’t have sped up my body’s rate of metabolizing them, so naturally the result was that it took just as much time as usual for me to fall asleep, followed by a marked—”
“I’m not interested in a fucking science lesson, Gemma. You could have—”
“I’m sorry!” she blurted out, her pulse beginning to race. “It was stupid. I know it was, but so is you jumping to the absurd conclusion that I tried to kill myself!”
Augustus froze halfway through running a hand down his face. “Absurd?” he repeated, as if he had once known the meaning of the word and now found that he’d forgotten it.
“Yes, fucking absurd,” Gemma coldly confirmed, and then groaned in frustration upon being met with nothing but a steely wall of silence. She stood up, pushing the bottle into his hand. “Here then, take them. Throw them out or hide them, I don’t care. I only wanted to sleep, alright? That’s it! I don’t understand why you’re acting like this. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Augustus gave a barely perceptible shake of his head, pocketing the pills with a patience Gemma didn’t feel she deserved. He exhaled slowly, momentarily closing his eyes. When he looked up at her again, some of his usual warmth and concern had returned to his expression. “What happened to your face?”
Gemma reached up self-consciously. “What do you mean what happened to my face?” she asked, trying to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror over his shoulder.
“You have a scratch beneath your eye. Here,” he observed, and then reached up to lightly swipe his thumb along the apple of her cheek.
“Oh.” Gemma flushed, dropping her hand. “Last night some idiot from my lab slapped me and she was wearing a bunch of rings. I suppose it must have been from that.”
Loudly, “Someone slapped you?”
Gemma’s face grew even warmer, her gaze now firmly trained on the cheap carpeting beneath their feet. “I slept with a guy she apparently had a crush on and she decided I deserved to pay for that. I wouldn’t trouble yourself about it. I got a hit of my own in and she ran off crying, so I doubt she’ll be of further concern.”
Augustus waited. He seemed to be expecting her to say something more, but she had nothing else to share on the matter.
“What do you want to hear?” Gemma demanded, lifting her chin. “I didn’t know she liked him. If I had, I wouldn’t have slept with him, but she’s under the false impression that I did know and fucked him anyway because I have no heart or some equally as ridiculous claim.”
You’re cold and uncaring and I fucking hate you!
Gemma flinched as the memory of those words rose to her awareness. They resonated, like the continual ringing of a gong long after it’d been struck. It hardly mattered how Kelsey felt about her, but the rest scratched at the insides of her skull like claws: cold and uncaring.
It hadn’t been the first instance she’d heard those words attributed to her. Even Augustus had called her a robot when he was angry with her until he realized how much it hurt her. Why the words bothered her so profoundly, she didn’t know. Was it because she could genuinely argue that she wasn’t, or was it because she couldn’t face the ugly truth about herself? Maybe she was callous. She didn’t think so, but who was she to argue against the tumult of literally everyone else?
“It doesn’t matter,” Gemma whispered, vision blurred with tears that now threatened to spill over. “She’s an idiot and has no right to be angry with me. I didn’t know. I genuinely didn’t know. If I had, I wouldn’t have slept with him.”
“I believe you,” Augustus reassured her. “I’m on your side. She had no right to attack you and apparently she’s under the impression that this guy doesn’t have any free will of his own. It’s stupid. There were a million better ways to approach you.”
Gemma nodded absently, her hand trembling a little as she toyed with a loose string at the hem of her shirt. “I’m sorry for scaring you,” she said quietly. “I didn’t want to hurt myself. I only wanted to sleep. It was rash. I should have talked to you, or Mom, or Dad. I don’t—I don’t want you to be angry with me.” Her voice broke, and she drew in a shuddering breath, shaking her head. “Please don’t give up on me. I don’t—I don’t want you to hate me too. You’re all I have! I don’t—”
Augustus interrupted, undoubtedly to affirm that he could never hate her, but Gemma didn’t hear it as a strangled sob escaped her. She covered her face with both of her hands and groaned, “I know! I know, but sometimes I think if we weren’t family…. Or that—maybe you….? Maybe you only talk to me because you feel sorry for me?”
“That’s not true, Gemma. That’s never been—”
“I know!” she interjected with a hysterical shout, her heel bumping into the bedside table as she took a step back. “I know none of that’s true. I remind myself of this every day, but it keeps coming back, Gus. The thought. And I can’t always chase it away. It b-breaks me and I can’t—I can’t—” It was too much. She couldn’t speak anymore; couldn’t fight; couldn’t anything.
Augustus must have sensed this too because the next she knew she was enfolded in his arms, crying into his chest as he hastily uttered reassurances. She rarely heard what he said exactly—only the softened, sincere way that he spoke. It was a way that reminded her for the millionth time that despite how much her mind attempted to twist the truth, Augustus loved her and Gemma had scared him. She’d scared him and then yelled at him for being concerned!
Cold. Uncaring. You’re going to break him too, you know. Even he can only stand so much. Such a heavy weight you are; such a goddamn burden. He’d be better off without you; so much happier.
She took in a choked breath, eyes stinging as she mumbled, “I don’t want to kill myself, but sometimes I do wish that I’d never existed.”
Augustus froze, clearly stunned by the confession, but seconds later hastened to reply, “Then I wouldn’t either. I wouldn’t because I’m not me without you in my life.”
The words struck the chords of her heart, her sobs redoubling and her entire being shaking. She began to fear that she would never stop. That she would cry endlessly like the broken being that she was, but eventually the tears did cease, and all she was left with was this numbing emptiness, as if she’d cried her very soul out.
Augustus stepped back, surreptitiously swiping his cheeks with the palms of his hands.
Gemma felt her stomach drop. “I’m sorry, Gus. I’m—”
“Don’t be,” he interjected, his voice surprisingly steady as he watched her dry her tears. “Listen to me. As much as it…as much as it hurts hearing that, I’m not surprised the thought has crossed your mind considering how down you seem to be feeling lately. I don’t think you’re sleeping very well and I hardly ever see you eat. It’s rare to see a smile from you and I’ve never seen you need to work so hard to get through a day. That’s why—when I couldn’t wake you, when I saw the pills…. It wasn’t such an absurd thought to me. It wasn’t and I’ve been so worried about you.”
More tears fell down Gemma’s cheeks. They glistened brightly in the sunlight shining through the window. “I see,” she whispered hoarsely. “Um, well, I think…I think winter break will do me good. Being home again and…and away from all this.”
Augustus shook his head. “I’m not sure that’ll be enough,” he stated seriously. “This isn’t new, only worse than it’s been before.”
Gemma scoffed. “So, what then? You’re thinking therapy or something?”
“If it could help, why not?”
She shook her head too, eyes anywhere but upon his. “It’s not that bad. I’ve got it under control. It’s just sometimes extra shit come up that makes it more difficult. Overall, it isn’t bad at all.”
“Does it need to be?” Augustus quietly asked. “In fact, wouldn’t it be more logical to go before it gets to that point? To prevent it from getting that bad?”
“I suppose, but—”
“I’m not forcing you. I’m not saying you have to, and I’m definitely not trying to push you away or imply that I don’t want you to go to me because that couldn’t be further from the truth. All I’m saying is that I think it could be helpful. That it’s worth considering. Does that make sense?”
Gemma nodded, feeling oddly subdued. She had not expected any of these words to come from Gus’ mouth, let alone the suggestion that she might need extra help. It wasn’t something she was against. She knew their father found it invaluable and that even their stoic mother had been, but somehow it never crossed her mind that it was something she should consider. She had this under control, didn’t she? Already knew how to push away unhelpful thoughts? Had people she could go to when it was all too much? What more could it offer her?
The suggestion, however, had come from the single most valued presence in her life—a presence she had literally never known existence without, so she couldn’t bring herself to not take him seriously.
She dried her face once more and then murmured, “I’ll think about it.”
Gemma glanced up at Augustus, suddenly worried about his well-being. He still looked paler than usual, but otherwise appeared relatively unshaken. She wasn’t sure if it was confidence that everything would be okay that held him steady, or a massive effort to suppress every thought that attempted to convince him she wouldn’t be. Her inability to read him rattled her.
“Are you alright?”
“Guess I could be better,” Augustus joked with a small smile, “but yeah. I’m fine. I’ll let you get ready now, okay? You missed your first class, but if you still want to make your second you should be able to. Otherwise it’s okay if you want to sleep some more.”
“Oh no, definitely not! I want to go to class,” Gemma affirmed, already dismayed that she had missed even one.
Augustus nodded and walked past her to go, but just as he reached the door she called out, “Are you certain you’re alright? I know I scared you and dumped a lot on your shoulders. And I appreciate that you’re always there for me, more than I’m able to accurately express, but—”
“I’m sure. I’m just glad you’re safe. I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“Okay,” she said uncertainly, and then watched him leave the room, carefully shutting the door behind him. He seemed to be okay, but somehow she couldn’t quite shake the feeling this had gotten to him more than he’d let on.
You already know it has, Gemma. You truly are going to break him too.
* * * * *
Augustus fell to his hands and knees on the cold, bathroom tile, his head disappearing into the toilet as he retched what little contents there’d been in his stomach. He was shaking, his skin clammy and his heart beating overly hard. He had never felt less “fine” and less “alright” in his life. Was he coming down with a bug now on top of everything else, or was this some extreme manifestation of stress? He’d never known the latter to happen to him before, but then again he’d also never been frightened half to death by the image of his sister’s seemingly lifeless form. It was an image that’d been seared into his memory, its impact not softened at all by the discovery that she was still alive. After all, for those very real nightmarish seconds, he’d believed that she was not.
His stomach lurched again, but he had nothing left to throw up. Forcing himself to his feet, Augustus flushed the toilet and shakily went to the sink, rinsing his mouth out half a dozen times and then vigorously brushing his teeth. His thoughts were racing as badly as his heart; his chest even beginning to constrict. He spat out the foamy toothpaste, rinsing his mouth again and returning to his room where he once more sought relief from the icy window pane.
Augustus rested his forearm on the wooden surface of the frame, trying to focus on the pressure of it against his arm as he did so; on the feeling of the ground beneath his shoes; on the frigid misty air rising off the glass; on his lungs slowly expanding and deflating as he took practiced, steadying breaths.
Slow down, he gently reminded himself. He knew he could be of no use to anyone if he couldn’t pull himself back together, but it was proving to be a challenging task. He still felt shaky and Gemma’s words were throbbing in his ears: Sometimes I do wish that I’d never existed.
Even with his knowledge of what Gemma was feeling nowadays, they were words he never expected to hear. They scared him, but more than that it hurt him to know this was how she felt. He couldn’t stand it. So, what could he do? What should he do? If he had to physically drag her to therapy he would do so in heartbeat, but if she genuinely didn’t want to…if even that didn’t help….
If he’d felt helpless before he wasn’t sure what to call the feeling that wracked him now. Deficient? Inadequate? Fucking useless.
Augustus jumped as his phone abruptly vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out, glancing down at the illuminated screen and then sighing in exasperation. A text from Isaac—literally the last concern he needed to focus on right now, but he opened the message anyway:
“What are you on about?” Augustus muttered. He stared nonplussed at the text, but just as he was about to turn his phone off he received a photo to go with it. Upon enlarging it, Augustus could see that it was picture of a fairly cute spider stuffed animal sitting on a bed which was presumably Isaac’s. He looked at it for another second and then laughed as it dawned on him the reaction Isaac must have had upon entering his bedroom and seeing THAT on his bed. Sure, it was only a child’s Halloween toy, but he knew that wouldn’t have made a shred of difference to the highly arachnophobic brunet.
He shook his head, feeling somewhat out of place for laughing, but at the same time admittedly grateful for it, so he took a moment to exchange a few more texts:
Augustus paused, thumbs hovering over the surface of his phone as he debated what to say. Nothing? Don’t worry about it? Figuring it couldn’t hurt, he opted for a generalized version of the truth:
There were many responses Augustus anticipated he might receive, ranging from silence to a simple “That sucks.” What he had not expected was for his phone to suddenly start ringing. Augustus very nearly dropped it, his heart leaping into his throat. Why would Isaac call? He hadn’t said anything that concerning, had he?
For a second he considered not answering, but as he’d literally just been texting the guy it was obvious that he was there. Wincing, he tapped the answer button and brought the phone up to his ear.
“Jeez, you didn’t have to call,” Augustus immediately complained.
There was a brief, perhaps surprised hesitation, and then Isaac dryly commented, “A sad face emoji didn’t exactly seem like a fitting response.”
Gus’ chest tightened. It took a few seconds before he realized that it wasn’t the words he was reacting to, but the sound of Isaac’s voice over the phone. It was a sound he hadn’t heard in years; a sound that, at one point, he would have given anything to hear again. Now though, it only left him dizzy, his already unsettled stomach turning anew.
Isaac must have mistaken his lack of response for anger though because it was then that he asked, “Are you that mad that I called you?”
“No,” Augustus mumbled resignedly, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s just kind of…awkward? No one calls anyone these days.”
“I must have missed that memo,” Isaac pointed out, which made Augustus smile a little, but he wasn’t sure what else to say.
He turned, casting his gaze out the window but seeing nothing. “I…didn’t mean to worry you,” Augustus finally said, uncertain.
“You didn’t. Not really. It just…sounded serious.”
“Oh. Uh…well, what I thought was serious, but the reality—I mean it’s not good either, but—” He sighed, beginning to pace the length of his bedroom. All this hedging wasn’t making any sense and he knew it. “This…this morning I went to check on my sister because she hadn’t gotten up for school. I figured she was still sleeping, so I knocked on her door, but she didn’t respond. I thought maybe she hadn’t heard my knocking and she hates missing class, so I went in there and she wasn’t…she wasn’t moving and there was this…this bottle of pills toppled over and—”
Isaac drew in a sharp breath, which made Augustus inwardly cringe because it only reemphasized how terrifying that moment had been.
“Yeah,” Gus continued before he could lose his nerve. “Um…turns out she hadn’t—well she’d taken a few extra sleeping pills, but not to—She’d had a bad night and wanted to sleep. I don’t know, but the whole thing keeps replaying in my head. And it doesn’t help that she’s been having a rough time lately. I’ve never seen her this down on herself. She’s been…really hurting lately and I…I don’t know what to do,” Augustus concluded, immensely grateful that Isaac couldn’t see him as he hastily swiped his cheek with the palm of his hand.
“Sorry,” he added hastily then, sniffling. “I don’t why I told you all that. I shouldn’t—”
“It’s oka—” Isaac began, but Augustus cut in again, vehemently shaking his head.
“No, it’s not. It’s not okay because we haven’t talked like this in over five years and now I’m falling apart on you like a fucking idiot and—” Augustus stopped, looking heavenward with burning eyes and feeling wholly fed up with himself. “And if you’re having second thoughts now about trying to be friends again, I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest if you backed out now and left.”
“Augustus…. Why would I do that when I never wanted to leave you in the first place?”
Silence swallowed them. The words hung suspended within it. He hadn’t meant for that to happen, but it did anyway because Augustus had no response other than warm cheeks and a muted, “Oh.”
Oh. Oh, what? Oh, right? He wasn’t sure what he meant. All he knew was that Isaac’s words made him feel a dull pang within his rib cage and that was making him wish he hadn’t answered the phone; that he hadn’t replied to any of the texts; that he’d never even heard him out in the first place. Augustus had moved on. He had made his peace, and yet everything he was experiencing now was shouting at him otherwise. And to what end? None of this felt okay, but he also felt helpless to stop it. It made Augustus wonder when the fuck everything had been so cruelly yanked from his control.
“I’m sorry to hear about your sister,” Isaac said then, rupturing the silence. “I’d be just as scared if I was in your shoes. I remember you two being close. You talked all the time.”
“Oh,” Augustus said again, trying to force his attention back to the conversation at hand. “I…yeah. We uh, we still do. And I try to help, but I don’t think I do much. I try, but it never feels like enough.”
“You sit her down to talk, or she goes to you?”
Augustus frowned at the oddly specific question. “I guess she usually comes to me?”
“Then you must be helping more than you think.”
“What do you mean?”
There was a brief scuffling noise, during which Augustus surmised that Isaac must have changed his position, and then he explained, “I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t keep going to a person if they always made me feel worse. I’d find someone else, or I’d keep it to myself because at that point, staying silent would feel a helluva lot better than talking. Gemma seeks you out though, so that tells me you must help.”
There was another extended pause, but this one didn’t feel as awkward since Augustus was merely deep in thought. Isaac made a good point, but even if he was right and even if Augustus did help, the fact remained that it wasn’t enough. The days were still so difficult for her, no matter what he said or did.
“I guess I wish it were more,” he admitted, taking a few more steps. “I wished I helped her more; could do more for her.”
“Could make it all go away? Magically fix everything?” Isaac innocently inquired.
Augustus almost laughed. He almost laughed because that was exactly what he wanted, but hearing it back like that…he realized how silly it sounded. No one could fix everything, so why did he expect this of himself? It only set him up to fail.
Suddenly, it wasn’t surprising to Gus that he’d felt so ineffective lately. The bar he had set for himself had been placed at an impossible height. Naturally it would lead him to feel as if he were never enough. He wasn’t sure how to go about lowering said bar, but to at least see it now…. Everything was beginning to make a little more sense.
“Since when did you get to be so wise?” Augustus asked with an arch of his brow.
Isaac laughed, a fleeting, but nevertheless uplifting sound. “I’m not, trust me,” he corrected, and then paused before carefully adding, “I think maybe it’s easier to see things in perspective when you’re on the outside. From the inside of hell, everything just looks like hell.”
The words fell heavily upon Gus’ ears, not only because they resonated with him, but also because he couldn’t help but get the feeling that Isaac was speaking from experience, and that made his heart sink low in his chest.
“I don’t regret calling you, but I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable because I did. I wasn’t thinking. I just read the text and reacted.”
“It’s okay….” Augustus said, somewhat thrown off by the unexpected apology. “I mean, I was…annoyed at first, but now…I’m grateful that you did.”
“Grateful, huh?” Isaac echoed in surprise. “Well…I’m glad to hear that.”
A softer silence floated between them. Augustus glanced out the window again, where the sky was slowly shifting from pale gray to periwinkle blue.
“I should get going now,” Isaac said, “but if you need anything I don’t mind listening again. I can be that maybe helpful outside perspective since I’m not even there.”
Augustus smiled a little at the offer. “Or I could talk to a stranger on a bench,” he playfully quipped.
There was a chuckle, and Augustus smiled still more as he could almost see the smirk that was likely rising to Isaac’s lips as he joked back, “You know, as much as I’ve royally fucked things up between us, I like to think that on your list of ‘People I’d Turn to for Support’ I’m at least one step above ‘Stranger on a Bench.’”
“Eh, it’s close,” Augustus teased. “You’re above ‘Stranger on a Bench,’ but slightly below ‘That One Pigeon in the Courtyard with the Wonky Eye.’”
“Fuckin’ bird. My new nemesis,” Isaac darkly declared, which made Augustus dissolve into a fit of laughter as he couldn’t help but vividly imagine the brunet going to battle against said pigeon in a full set of armor.
“Still an idiot,” Augustus observed once he’d calmed down a bit.
Augustus began to smile again, but faltered a little for reasons unknown to him. “Guess so,” he managed to say. “I’ll uh…I’ll let you go then. Thank you. For listening when…when you didn’t have to.”
“You make it sound like you bothered me,” Isaac observed with a light chuckle. “You didn’t, okay?”
“Take care, Gus.”
“You too. Take care.”
“Bye,” he echoed, and then hung up the phone, his spirits slowly sinking in the silence that followed. He supposed it was because his mind hadn’t fully let go of the events from this morning, but even with this dip he had to admit that he felt significantly better than he had before talking to Isaac.
Maybe, Augustus tentatively thought as he pocketed his phone and made to head downstairs, the past isn’t always better left in the past.
* * * * *
“Today is going to be better,” Gemma determinedly announced to her mirror. “I’m going to impress in all my classes; get my work quickly finished in lab; and then go to the library to catch up on the material I missed this morning. It’s going to be a good, productive day.”
Her reflection stared doubtfully back at her, cheeks tinged with pink and soft wisps of curls framing her tear-swollen face. Gemma bit her lip uncertainly, hoping that no one else would notice this or the faint scrape beneath her cheek, which she’d covered up with makeup the best she could. The temptation to crawl back into bed pulled at her, but it was ultimately her resolve to ensure that these morning affirmations would be realized that had her stepping into a pair of shoes and hurrying down the stairs instead.
Gemma made to grab her backpack, but hesitated when her stomach gave a rumble of protest that she’d be leaving without breakfast. Remembering Gus’ concern that he hardly ever saw her eat and suddenly self-consciously aware that her trousers were sitting lower on her hips than usual, she left her backpack where it was and doubled-back into the kitchen for some food.
Nothing looked particularly appetizing to her, but finally she settled on preparing omelets, toast, and strawberries with an extra serving for her brother who she could faintly hear talking on the phone upstairs. It was the least she could do after what she’d put him through—even if he never complained or pushed her away. Honestly she’d give him the world if she could, for right now he was her primary reason for remaining within it.
Startled by this disconcerting realization, Gemma shook the thought from her mind and busied herself with preparing coffee and setting the table for them both. Still, even with the distractions it was a welcomed relief when she heard Gus’ unhurried footsteps on the stairs, and even more so when he came into the kitchen to greet her.
“You look nice,” Augustus observed, his head tilted slightly in question.
“Thank you, I…figured an extra boost of confidence couldn’t hurt,” she explained with a slight, sheepish smile. “Um…help me with the coffee?”
Augustus went to the coffeemaker in answer while Gemma served the food, her thoughts feeling jumbled and rushed. She wasn’t sure what to say. Part of her wanted to apologize again, but the other wanted to forget this morning had ever happened. So, the two sat, Augustus thanking her for making breakfast and Gemma saying, “You’re welcome” in turn before they went to eating in silence.
At first this was okay because as soon as she focused her attention to her meal she felt ravenous and quite focused on simply eating, but after a while the silence grew in volume, until Gemma asked the first question that popped into her mind, “Who was it that you were talking to on the phone?”
She figured it was a trivial question, so it took her aback when Augustus tensed, his head bowed to avoid her searching eyes. Curiosity inundated Gemma, as well as a spike of fear that Augustus may have been talking to their parents, and if that was the case, maybe he’d told them everything that was happening too.
“I—I would have rather talked to Mom and Dad myself, Gus. I—”
“I wasn’t talking to them.”
Augustus drew in a breath, speaking directly to his omelet as he asked, “Do you promise not to get mad?”
“Mad?” Gemma asked, nonplussed. “Why on earth would I get mad?”
“Because I was talking to Isaac,” he answered with a grimace.
Augustus looked up at her and somehow the instant he did Gemma felt as if she’d been hit with a speeding truck as she remembered exactly who her brother meant.
“Isaac!?” she loudly exclaimed. “Isaac Taveras? That absolute fucking bastard Isaac who led you on and dashed your heart into a million pieces, Isaac?!?”
“That’s…kind of an exagger—”
“It is NOT an exaggeration!” Gemma fiercely interrupted. “He hurt you! I’ve never seen you as lost as you were when he left. You were like a zombie for months and to be frank I’m not certain that you ever completely recovered from that. He meant the world to you and Isaac threw it back in your face like it was nothing,” she finished with a violent jab of her fork.
Augustus shifted one of the tomato slices on his plate, his brow furrowed in what almost seemed to be puzzlement—as if it were his first-time hearing any of this. “I don’t know what you mean that I never recovered, but could you just…listen to me for a second?”
Gemma fell into a reluctant silence and speared a strawberry with much more force than was necessary. The bright red juices seeped into her toast. Augustus sighed and, keeping his gaze downcast, recounted how he’d bumped into Isaac by chance a few weeks ago and again yesterday, when he evidently discovered the truth of why Isaac had left all those years ago.
She listened as he explained how Isaac had told his parents, about their abhorrent reaction and their threat to kick their own son out of their house if he ever contacted Augustus again. She listened, and her throat tightened, but also she found herself increasingly agitated, to the point where as soon as he stopped talking she was leaping in to speak her mind.
“Okay, fine. I hear you. That’s horrible and I’m so sorry that happened to him, but—” She hesitated, forcing herself to pause to sort out her thoughts. “It’s just…. Leaving you was out of his control then, right? The severely limited opportunities for communication may have even been out of his control, but shutting you out completely?” Gemma shook her head. “That was his choice, Augustus.”
“Why would you—”
“Wasn’t he a computer programmer?” she interrupted with a raise of a brow. “You’re telling me he didn’t know how to send you an untraceable email? How to get messages to you without his parents discovering? Further, you’re telling me he didn’t know how to drop a letter in a fucking mailbox without a return address? I mean think—it’s awful what he went through, it is, but he had options. Not wonderful ones, but they were there all the same and he deliberately chose not to take them. That’s the sort of person he evidently is.”
“There was too much risk involved,” Augustus carefully countered. “If he’d been caught he would have been thrown out on the streets.”
Gemma tsked her tongue, the sound short and disapproving. “Our family would have taken him in without question,” she said. “No way Mom and Dad would have left him without a home and he knew that—I’m sure of it.”
“Well, yeah, but…Isaac is pretty damn loyal to his family, even after everything. He loves them and if he hadn’t done what he had he might have lost them for good. His parents…his younger siblings…. Would you be able to give that up so easily?”
Gemma looked down at her plate, struggling to think of a compelling response and finding herself incapable of doing so. All that kept popping into her mind was that she still didn’t trust Isaac, but she had little with which to back up this ill feeling.
“He lets you get close and then he walks away. That’s what he does,” Gemma said worriedly. “I’m afraid of seeing you hurt again.”
“I can tell, but…I don’t even see how that’s a possibility,” Augustus said, looking genuinely confused again. “We’re just talking a little—trying to be friends again.” He paused, reaching to take a sip from his coffee and then surprising Gemma by quietly adding, “I’ve always found it kind of…difficult to talk to people on anything more than a superficial level, but with him…it was easy. It still kind of is, if I’m being honest, so…that’s why I want to try.”
“And, fuck,” he continued with a slight, humorless laugh, “Maybe it does backfire. Maybe it won’t work out like you said and we’ll return to our separate ways or whatever, but at least we’ll have tried. A friendship like that…like what we had—I think it’s worth the extra effort.”
“You two were never just friends.”
“I know,” Augustus admitted, “but maybe now we can be.”
Gemma bit back the next words she wanted to say. Not because she was feeling supportive of this endeavor, but because she recognized that one, it’d been a while since Augustus had confided in her and she didn’t want to risk making him regret doing so now; and two, she could hear all too clearly how much this meant to him. Holding her tongue was difficult though because there seemed to lie a deeper implication to Gus’ words.
Then again, what did she know of friendship really? Perhaps there was no deeper implication. Perhaps these were normal feelings to have toward a friend, and her own ignorance and inexperience were biasing her opinions. Gemma chewed on her bottom lip, mulling over her response before she helplessly confessed, “I hate him, Gus. I hate him for what he did to you.”
Augustus placed his coffee mug back on the table, slowly tracing the rim with the tip of his finger. “He apologized,” he stated somewhat hopefully.
“Is that enough?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like it is; sometimes not. Sometimes I want to punch him in the face,” he admitted with another small laugh. “But also,” and here he grew more somber, “I think I’ve really missed him.”
“I’m keenly aware,” Gemma grumbled, “which only makes me hate him more, you know.”
Augustus glanced up at her and after a brief, but silent exchange of words, they both laughed a little. “I don’t blame you. I guess I should too, but…I can’t—especially after learning what happened. It’s not his fault and he did the best he could. He was 15, remember? …scared. I don’t know. I don’t like it, but…I think I get it.”
The two ate in silence for a time until Gemma sighed and rubbed her temples. “Look, I’m not so sure that I do get it, but I can tell this means a lot to you, so—”
“I wouldn’t say it means a lot,” Augustus interjected with slightly reddened cheeks, “I just—”
“It does, Gus, and I think it’s important for you to reflect on exactly why that is.” She glanced down at her watch and then stood up, realizing she had to get going if she didn’t want to be late. “I have to get to class.”
Augustus stood up too, pushing in his chair and then somewhat blocking Gemma’s way as he asked with renewed concern, “Are you sure? It’s okay if—”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Gemma interrupted with slightly reddened cheeks of her own. “I’m feeling a lot better and—and if that changes, I’ll call you or Mom or Dad or maybe even Tobias.”
“Do you pinky swear?” Augustus asked.
Gemma hesitated, feeling confused before she caught the rare, playful smile that rose to his lips. It surprised her, but nevertheless made her smile too. “Yes, I pinky swear. Here, let’s make it official.”
She held up her hand, pinky finger lifted in wait and soon grasped by Gus’ own.
“Pinky swear,” they stated in unison, and then dropped their hands with light, scattered laughter.
“Maybe he is good for you,” Gemma tentatively mused.
“Nothing,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “I’ll see you tonight, okay?” she added, and then turned to go, leaving Augustus with both the dishes and his thoughts.
* * * * *
Augustus attended the classes he had that day with fair spirits, but left them feeling as though his brain had been wrung like a rag and then made to sprint a half-mile track. So many projects he had due in these last couple weeks of the semester and he’d barely made a dent in any of them. Of course, he only had himself to blame, but this understanding was about as comforting as having a thorn lodged in your foot. He sighed, running a hand roughly through his hair and then slipping his hands into his pockets to shield them from the chilly air.
Autumn was rapidly giving way, a fact he suspected Gemma would be pleased to see. She had always enjoyed the cold. How many mornings of the first snowfall would Gemma excitedly wake Augustus up and drag him out into the front yard? During how many frigid evenings would Gemma insist on sitting out back by the pond, enthusiastically chatting as the icy night air nipped at their faces? And when would he get the chance to see her so carefree again? He frowned, decidedly unsure, but also finding his mind returning not for the first time to the conversation they’d had over breakfast.
“He lets you get close and then he walks away. That’s what he does.”
Why would she say that? Since when did doing something once become indicative of some sort of troubling pattern? And then there were Isaac’s words, sincere and steadying: “Why would I do that when I never wanted to leave you in the first place?”
Gus’ heart clenched, which brought about another disconcerting statement his sister had made: “And to be frank I’m not certain that you ever completely recovered from that.”
He kicked a small pebble out of his path, finding the words as irksome as they’d been when he’d first heard them. Never completely recovered? It was true that he hadn’t dated all that much; true that his first kiss had been a mindless nothing in a dark corner of his junior prom with a guy who’d caught him by surprise and who he’d awkwardly had to turn down; true even that he felt a certain reluctance and hesitance to pursue relationships, but to conclude he had never recovered felt like an exaggeration. After all, he was with Patrick now, wasn’t he? Although admittedly, in the beginning, Augustus had shrugged off his advances too.
How many times had the purple-haired young man run up to him to say, “Hi, Augustus!” with a hopeful smile? How many times had he attempted to engage Augustus in conversation, even as he stammered and tripped over his words (and sometimes even his own feet)? How many times had Patrick, quite frankly, made an utter fool of himself and yet still come back, pink-cheeked and saying, “Hi, Augustus!” again, only to be continuously held at arm’s length?
Always the same greeting, the same sweet smile, the same awkwardness…until somehow Patrick had managed to find a way into his heart.
Augustus smiled now thinking about it—about Patrick’s persistence and the bumbling start to their relationship, but also how it had flourished over the past year, and how he was now fairly sure that Patrick was all that he could ever want or need. All because of those simple, repeated words—
He turned his body in the direction of the voice, his smile broadening even before he caught sight of his boyfriend standing before him. Patrick was beaming, granite eyes sparkling as they gazed into his and a brushstroke of pink coloring his pale, ivory cheeks.
Augustus did a cursory scan of their surroundings and then, upon seeing everyone around them otherwise engaged, pulled Patrick forward and greeted him with a kiss. One, however, wasn’t enough. Augustus kissed him and kissed him, lips lingering for as long as he dared and soft, surprised noises sounding in Patrick’s throat. His mouth tasted like apples again—apples and chamomile tea.
“Hi,” he finally replied with a smile.
Patrick laughed breathlessly, hands gripping Gus’ shoulders and his face as rosy as ever. “Y-y-you’re in a g-good mood,” he observed.
“Of course I am. I’m with you.”
A second laugh escaped Patrick; softer this time, shyer. “Y-you’re so cheesy,” he mumbled.
“And you like it.”
The two grinned at one another and then took a step back, Augustus taking Patrick’s hand as they began to make their way from the bustling art building to the café they typically went to for lunch. Conversation shifted to their respective classes, until Patrick abruptly stopped and turned to face Augustus with sudden excitement. “Oh, right! I m-m-made something while bored in K-Kettleton’s class. Want to see?”
“Oh, um, sure.”
“C-close your eyes.”
Augustus hesitated, but upon seeing Patrick’s hopeful smile, obliged. He wondered vaguely if he was about to be pranked, but that didn’t sound like something his boyfriend was likely to do.
“Okay, open them!”
He did, only to see Patrick beaming at him from behind a small, origami boat which he proudly held before his face in carefully cupped hands.
“Ta da!” he cheerfully announced. “Took me a s-stupid long time to get it right.”
Augustus’ heart swelled with affection for him, another smile twitching up the corners of his mouth. “Oh my god.”
“It is p-p-pretty cute, isn’t it?” Patrick mused.
“You’re pretty cute,” Augustus corrected without missing a beat, and then delighted in the fact that Patrick blushed anew.
“How did I n-n-not see that one coming?”
“Because you made the mistake of thinking I’d only be cheesy once today.”
Patrick laughed and then reached for Gus’ hand, turning it so that it was palm up and gingerly placing the boat upon it. “F-f-for you,” he explained a little shyly. “To…to cheer you up. N-n-not that you r-really n-n-need it today, but l-lately…. I mean I d-didn’t know you were d-doing b-b-better, I just…. Well, it’s d-dumb, but—”
“Thank you,” Augustus murmured.
Patrick flushed, holding Gus’ hand for a second longer and then letting go to stuff his own into the pockets of his jeans. “You can f-fold it to store it and k-keep it from wrinkling.”
This Augustus did, folding the boat along its creases and then swinging his backpack around to his front so that he could slip it inside for safekeeping. There was a bird merrily chirping in the tree nearby. He wondered whether it could have been the parakeet Tobias was tracking. The last he’d heard it was still cleverly eluding his grasps.
“S-s-sorry,” Patrick said, glancing at him uneasily. “I sh-shouldn’t have b-brought it up. I—”
“What? No, it’s—it’s okay,” Augustus said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Patrick opened his mouth to say something else, but Gus’ phone emitted a particularly loud tri-tone, causing them both to startle. He’d forgotten that he’d turned his volume up in case Gemma called.
“Sorry,” he said with a grimace, “hang on….”
Augustus took out his phone, glancing down at the illuminated screen to see if his sister was okay, but the message was not from her, but from Isaac. Frowning slightly, he opened the text:
Hey. Just following up from this morning—you doing okay?
A twinge of guilt twisted Gus’ stomach, his skin growing rather warm. For Isaac to feel the need to follow up with him…he must have sounded pretty bad. Embarrassing. Biting back another grimace, Augustus typed back, “Yeah. Thanks. I’ll ttyl.”
He pocketed his phone and turned to apologize to Patrick again, but the words skidded to a halt on his tongue when he noticed the stricken expression upon his face. “What is it?” he asked in concern.
Patrick blinked in surprise, as if not having registered that he’d finished with his phone. “Oh um, n-n-nothing,” he stammered, wringing his hands. “Is e-everything okay?”
“Yeah. Everything’s fine.”
“Then w-why’s Isaac checking up on you?” Patrick blurted out, and then instantly flushed crimson, averting his gaze. “S-s-sorry. I…I d-d-didn’t mean to l-look at your text. It was just there and I—”
“It’s fine,” Augustus hastened to say, though he was admittedly caught off-guard. “You can look through my whole phone, if you want. I honestly don’t mind.” He took another few seconds to decide on his next words and then cautiously explained, “There was a misunderstanding earlier with my sister. Isaac happened to catch me right after and ended up getting an earful, but it’s fine now. That’s why I didn’t mention it.”
“You talked to him?” Patrick asked wonderingly.
“I…yes? Briefly. On the phone.”
“W-what happened anyway?”
A deluge of images slammed into Augustus—scattered pills; Gemma slumped across her bed, unmoving; her barely perceptible breaths; his desperation to wake her.
I don’t want to kill myself, but sometimes I do wish that I’d never existed.
His stomach pitched.
“N-never mind,” Patrick said in a rush, misinterpreting Gus’ silence. “Shit. Y-y-you know what? I…I f-f-forgot that I n-needed to go to work early today. I’m s-s-sorry. I really have to g-get going.”
Augustus wrenched himself from his thoughts, giving his head a brief shake and then feeling an unexpected annoyance catch fire within him. “I was thinking, don’t—” He caught himself, struggled, and then felt his irritation burn hotter. “Look, if you have a problem with me talking to an old friend then fucking come out and say so. I don’t need this stupid—”
“W-wait! N-n-no,” Patrick stammered, holding his hands up. “It’s n-n-not that. It’s just….” He licked his lips and then lifted his gaze to Gus’ as he asked, “W-w-will you c-come by my place after my shift tonight? P-please?”
“Come by?” Augustus asked, quieter; guiltily.
“Yeah. At t-t-ten, if that’s okay? I n-need to talk to you, but not here…n-not like this.”
Augustus paled, his mouth growing dry and an eerie cold dripping into his bloodstream. He forgot to breathe. From a distance, the clock tower chimed. On the hour; every hour. “Talk?” he faintly echoed, feeling lightheaded.
“Yes,” Patrick whispered, his gray eyes still firmly holding Gus’. “It’s nothing bad, really.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. Okay. Ten, you said?”
Augustus was spared from having to give another response because Patrick stole that instance to lean up and kiss him. It was a nice kiss…soft, sweet. It made his heart flutter, but it felt painful, like one moving despite being injured.
He looked up again. Patrick was smiling a little. “It’s r-really nothing bad,” he reassured, “but I d-do have to go, okay? I’ll see you later.”
Augustus nodded, and then averted his gaze as his boyfriend turned and hurried off. His thoughts were a crowd of people leaving a spectacle, jostling into one another as they all made for the exit at once. Occasionally one managed to squeeze through the doorway, but it was always followed by a jumble of others; lost to the stream.
Unthinkingly, he slipped his hand into his pocket, running his thumb over his phone.
Patrick had insisted that what he wanted to talk about had nothing to do with Isaac, but Augustus couldn’t shake the feeling that it must have been. After all, hadn’t they been perfectly content before he’d received that text?
Gus’ heart felt heavy. He had liked talking to Isaac, but everywhere he stepped he seemed to be running into negative feelings about their renewed attempt at friendship. Augustus even suspected his parents would be disapproving. They had not been at all happy with how they felt their son had been treated. It was something they had made known on numerous occasions.
Should he be feeling this way too? Disapproving? Rejecting? He had at first, but…. Was he forgiving too easily? Was an apology enough? It wasn’t as if he was entrusting Isaac with his life. They were just talking and it felt good to talk to him. Or at least…it had.
Augustus flumped onto a nearby bench. The sense that he was treading across thin ice came back in full force. Even his relationship with Patrick, which he had always considered to be a reliable source of happiness, was apparently also treading on thin ice.
“It’s nothing bad, really.”
Nothing bad, huh? Well, it didn’t sound like anything good either.
* * * * *
To be continued in Pt. 2