Having Royce around seemed to be a good decision. I had a soft spot for him. He reminded me a lot of Vilkas, and he needed someone. Dad kept telling me he should stay at the Rag but Royce really liked staying with me and it didn’t bother me. In a way it helped me some. I realized, when he told me his story, that bad stuff would continue to happen. I didn’t really forget it but I had done my best to ignore it, to hide away from the world as much as possible. Max and Noah had been doing their best to keep me anchored but until Royce’s story I had just been drifting further into nothing. I remembered Pa told me once about his father. About how when my grandmother died my grandfather–a ghost–couldn’t hold onto the real world anymore and faded into the Nether.
I had been fading and just didn’t realize it.
Royce’s eagerness lifted my spirits. He helped around the house, taking some of the burden off Max. I had left too much to Max. It wasn’t fair. I began to do a bit more, cleaning and taking Reeny out more often. “I’m sorry, baby,” I told her one day, snuggling close. I felt horribly guilty for checking out so much when I should have been caring for her. She just told me it’d be ‘otay’ and patted my head.
I tried to get Royce to go to school but he refused. He didn’t want to see his old friends, didn’t know how they’d react. I didn’t blame him too much for that. Midnight Hollow didn’t hate supernaturals to the point of running them out of town but it wouldn’t surprise me if his friends didn’t stick by him. If he couldn’t trust any of them enough to go to one of them in the first place…
Max wasn’t pleased at the new addition but I knew he wouldn’t argue. It was, after all, my house. He went along with what I wanted. Sometimes–as that autumn progressed–I wondered about how he felt about me, if he still had those feelings for me. I assumed he did but I did not ask or even act like I wanted to know. Though I wanted to know, I also didn’t which didn’t make much sense but hardly anything made sense to me anymore.
“Shhh Reen-Reen, c’mere!” I heard Royce whispering. “Let your dad sleep, I’ll change your diaper–oh, Mr. Danevbie I’m sorry, she ran in there and I tried not to…”
“It’s fine,” I said, sliding out of bed and picking Reeny up. “You don’t need to change her or anything, by the way.”
Royce trotted after me into Reeny’s room. “I know but I want to help. You saved my life, Mr. Danevbie. I’m debted to you like, forever.”
A smile formed on my face. “Indebted,” I gently corrected, “and you’re no such thing. Reeny sit still,” I said as she kicked her legs, grumbling about having to be changed. “Stop grumbling, you sound like your grandfather.”
“Grandada,” she giggled then made a scowling face that looked very reminiscent my dad. I couldn’t help but laugh. She giggled in return, pleased with herself. “Unca Max,” she added when Max came into the room.
“I thought I heard a party going on,” he said, stretching sleepily.
“A diaper changing party?” I asked and he froze, looking a bit anxious at the idea of having to deal with a smelly diaper. “It’s almost taken care of. Go fix breakfast or something?”
Max disappeared and Royce followed to bother him. I hoped he wouldn’t continue to feel ‘indebted’ to me, I didn’t want him to feel like he had to repay me. I wasn’t doing this to get something out of it except to help a kid that needed help. Royce had always been a great student in the two years I taught him when he was fourteen and fifteen. Which meant he should be seventeen now. I wondered when his eighteenth birthday would happen, and whether he’d continue staying with us except… I knew bitten werewolves aged a bit different, aged weirdly.
After a breakfast of slightly burnt pancakes I relented to going for a walk. I got Reeny in her stroller and off we headed off in no particular direction. Reeny babbled occasionally in her stroller, I quietly pushed her, Royce bounced along behind me, and Max trailed at the end complaining about something or other. It felt nice to hear him complaining again. Those weeks when I barely did anything at all, he had gotten so different. Sometimes when I saw him during those weeks he looked weary. The weariness would disappear if he saw me looking at him, he’d crack jokes or start rubbing against my legs in cat form but I knew.
I glanced back now, looking at Max. Royce was beside him and they were arguing about food. Royce a big grin on his face, Max looking more annoyed. Royce was trying to convince Max to try a vegetarian diet and Max protested, pointing to his fangs and saying how cats needed meat.
“You want me to be a healthy cat doncha?” Max demanded and Royce pouted. He had let on a while ago that he just adored cats, a fact that Max took advantage of often by turning into a cat whenever he annoyed Royce too much or else did things like that, turning to his cat-ness to get the upperhand. One other thing I was grateful towards Royce for… it seemed to bring some of the old Max back.
Maybe we just needed someone else there or maybe… some of it had to do with the fact I no longer wallowed in absolute misery and ignored everything I could. Maybe Max felt that he could be a bit more like his old self now that he knew I wasn’t… well, fading. Part of me still felt fading though and I knew it’d never stop. Especially on days like this. An innocent autumn walk made me miss him with all my heart. I wanted him there, enjoying Reeny’s chatter and laughing at Max and Royce arguing like little kids. I wanted to hold his hand, to feel his warmth as he leaned against me. I wanted him. I needed him.
I missed him so much. I still woke up expecting him to be there. I went to his grave at least once a week to tidy up the flowers and talk to him. I told him about Reeny getting older and working on being potty-trained, and how that went as the days went by. “She makes these weird faces when she sits on the potty,” I told him in early November with the leaves almost gone and chilly winds picking up. “She says no and tries to get off. Pa helps. He’s good with it. Remember how we used to play rock-paper-scissors when she needed changing in the night? I bet you used magic to win as often as you did.” I laughed a rather bitter laugh. “She’s not asking for you as much. She’s getting used to it. But I’m not. Will I ever be?”
I told him about Royce, about Max’s weird, reluctant friendship with Royce, about Lumie’s upcoming wedding, about Presea’s recent breakup, of Vilkas and his wife expecting another kid. Winter came and I still went to his grave even when the snow came up to my calves and Max pleaded with me not to drive. I went, I took flowers, and I talked to him.
“Max says he thinks there might be a threat out there still but ever since… ever since that night, there’s been nothing. I think they’re all gone,” I told him on Christmas morning. The sun hadn’t risen yet and Reeny wouldn’t be waking up for another hour at the least. I brought a special bouquet to put by Goose’s grave and I talked to him for a while, rocking back and forth until I broke down in tears.
“I can’t do this without you!” I cried. “Last Christmas you were here. We stayed up late making love and nearly forgot to put out some of the gifts for Reeny. I r-remembered this year though. I put the gifts out and filled her stocking. I hate doing this without you. Today is going to be hard. How am I going to do this, Goose?”
Somehow I did do it though, I made it through my first Christmas without Goose. Even though I ended it completely drunk–waking up in the morning with a wicked hangover–I made it through.
I turned 27 at the end of January and thankfully my family didn’t make any big deal about it. Just a small party more for Lumie really. The next day I had another small party with my friends–as in, Max and Noah. And Royce, of course, though I wasn’t sure if he’d consider us friends or just weird adults he hung around with. Reeny stayed with my dads because of the alcohol Max bought for me. I didn’t want Noah to bring any since he usually did.
“No, not till you’re eighteen,” I said and Royce whined. “No.”
“Can’t stop him begging, he’s a dog and all,” Max snickered and Royce glared at him. Max grinned. “What? You are.”
“Better a dog than a–ugh, no, I can’t bring myself to say that even now!” Royce groaned. “Fine, you win, you win! Just stop looking so victorious, yeah?”
Noah clinked his bottle against mine as the two squabbled. “Happy birthday bro. Glad you let us hang out to celebrate it.”
“If I didn’t you’d just bug me,” I pointed out and Noah just gave me a smirky look; I smiled back, a real smile that I usually only reserved for Reeny anymore. Noah had the grace not to say anything about it. He just put an arm around me and dragged me to play the video game he had given me.
I woke up on the last morning of January feeling happy. For no particular reason. I got out of bed, got ready, made breakfast. I greeted Max, greeted Royce, and went to wake Reeny up. I got her changed and into her clothes for the day, zooming her through the house like an airplane till she landed in her highchair. We all ate and I laughed when Royce told a joke. I put my things together in the duffel bag though I didn’t need to go to work till later and then I replied to an e-mail Noah sent.
Then I sat back realizing how nice the morning went. Despite not having a ton of energy I hadn’t dragged on, it hadn’t felt as heavy as it usually did. I wrote a quick second e-mail to Noah asking him his thoughts on it though after I sent it I realized the difference. I hadn’t expected Goose to be there when I got up and I hadn’t focused on him during the morning.
Immediately I felt bad. It had only been just slightly under eight months. I couldn’t be feeling… better could I? I had lost the man I loved. Eight months… I thought I’d be in a pit of depression my entire life. I felt like I betrayed him.
I also e-mailed Uncle Kay. Since his return to the real world–no longer imprisoned–we e-mailed constantly. No longer needing to watch our words. He had told me everything in one huge e-mail. About how they had been imprisoned, how his sister had been forced to work on the thing that Akua and Emilian had sensed, the thing they suspected would be used against me. We bonded again during these months, him telling me about his imprisonment and me telling him about how things went on the outside. I told him about Goose, so much about him. He read everything I wrote and always gave nice responses that gave me comfort.
By the time I finished e-mailing Uncle Kay I got a response from Noah.
Zaid, you didn’t wake up perfectly fine with it. You woke up accepting it–there’s a MAJOR difference there. It doesn’t mean you love him any less, dude. It just means you’re really beginning to heal and that’s a good thing. Healing doesn’t mean saying goodbye. If your positions had been reversed and you were watching him, you’d want him to move on and be okay wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t he want the same thing? It’s okay to be okay, bro.
A few tears went down my cheeks at those words and I texted him instead of e-mailing, thanking him. Healing. I was healing. And Noah hit the mark with his comment… I would definitely want Goose to move on, to live his life to the fullest. I knew he’d want me to. And that included being all right with waking up some mornings and going through my routine without unbearable depression trying to drown me.
“I love you. I’ll always love you. But I suspect if you could come to me right now you’d give me that glaring pout of yours that I miss, fold your arms, and call me an idiot.” I sat at Goose’s grave on the first morning of February, a few flakes of snow drifting around us. “Noah told me that it’s okay to be okay. I feel like it shouldn’t be, but he’s right. Isn’t he?” A light breeze blew across my face. “I’d want you to be okay. I’d want you to continue with your life. Become a famous musician.” I choked back tears. “Be the best father you could be to Eirene. I’m not being a very good father, but I’m trying. It’s–I have everyone here helping me. Max especially.”
I trailed my finger along the cold, frosted grass. Six feet below Goose’s remains lay in a coffin. But he wasn’t there, he was… well, wherever people went after. The Nether. How come Goose couldn’t come back as a ghost?
“It’s been eight months almost, sometimes it feels like yesterday and sometimes it feels like a million years.” I rocked back and forth a bit, trying to find the words I meant. “I never want to let you go. But moving on doesn’t mean letting go, does it?” More rocking, more confusion. “It’s okay to be okay, isn’t it?” I chewed at my chapped and ragged lip. “Part of me doesn’t want this pain to stop cause I feel like if this pain stops it means I’ve stopped loving you but–but that’s not true. I’ll always have some pain but I shouldn’t hold on to this extreme pain and depression, should I?”
I knew the answer. I also knew how bad doing such a thing was for both me and Reeny. Sighing I got up, wiping the snow off my pants. “I’ll do my best, my princess… I promise.”
Some mornings I kept my promise. I woke up and felt all right and didn’t dwell on the fact I felt all right. I could smile, laugh, and do things without the burden. Some mornings though I did give in to that burden, that depression. Not as often as I had been though. On Valentine’s Day I certainly did. I remembered a year ago, of staying with Goose at the hotel and that gorgeous lingerie he had worn. How breathtaking he had been.
Glados showed up early in the morning which didn’t help the memories. “Hey,” she said, giving me a kiss on the cheek. “I’m gonna take Reeny for the day.”
Glados just met my glare with a gentle look. “Noah’s coming over later today to help you through, all right? He asked if I could babysit Reeny and I agreed.”
“I have no choice, of course.”
“Your choice is to what? Wallow? So yeah, no, not getting one. Hey baby girl!”
“Auntie Gaddy!” Reeny said when Glados swept into the dining room. “You pay wif me?”
“Yep, you’ll be at my house tonight,” Glados said, picking her niece up. “Will you like that? Do you wanna spend the night with me?”
Reeny nodded, looking rather serious. “Yes. I wan spen night wif you, Auntie Gaddy. Daddy gon come?”
“Yes! Pwease, daddy?” Reeny looked at me with huge, pleading eyes. Glados just cocked her head, knowing damn well she had won. I hated saying no to Reeny and having such a nice day with her aunt would be good for her.
I went over and kissed her forehead. “Course, darling. You and Auntie Gladdy have a great day and tomorrow you can tell me all about it, okay?”
“Yayyy!” She bounced in Gladdy’s arms. “Spa spa spa spa! Roy I go spa! Get nails!” She said as they passed by Roy on the way to her room to get her things. “Spa spa spa,” my daughter sang happily.
Since I had nothing to do that day now I just went back to bed, curling up with a picture of Goose until my phone rang the tune to a song about bromance, which only one person had that playing as their ringtone. Noah. I considered not answering it just to show him to stop making plans without asking my permission but then got up, crossing the room to pick it up. “Hey sorry I can’t talk long I was about to head out,” I said, keeping my voice casual.
“Wh–what?” Noah asked, sounding a bit disbelieving. I tried not to laugh. “Oh. Uh. How long will you, uh, be out?”
I couldn’t stop and began snickering. “Gladdy already came by,” I said, smiling a bit. “She told me you had plans. Serve you right for not asking me before.”
“Zaid!” Noah complained. “Okay, but did you make plans?”
“No, I just wanted to make you sweat.”
“I was thinking a marathon of Mario Kart?”
“Mmhm. Just be ready to become waahhh-Luigi when me and Bowser beat your ass.”
Noah, Max, Royce, and I played Mario Kart for the entire afternoon dining on Chinese food and cookies, interrupted only with about a hundred phone calls. First Pa called to check up on me then Dad called about fifteen minutes later to check up on me. Then Presea. Then Vilkas. Then Grams. Maybe not a hundred, but it felt like it. Plus Lumie kept dropping into my mind without warning to make sure I wasn’t hiding. >I’m fine,< I promised her after the third time. >As fine as I can be under the circumstances. I miss him and am sad and angry but I’m doing stuff.<
>Sorry, I just worry about you…<
>I know and I appreciate it. But Noah is being a big help right now and Max and Royce are too.< I hesitated, debating whether or not to say something else–naturally, I didn’t need to since she could read my mind.
>I don’t know where you’d be without them either,< she thought. >I’m grateful for all of them for helping you, especially Max.<
>Me too… DAMN IT NOW LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE!< I thought angrily as I got red shelled into sixth place while Noah cackled evilly. “I would have gotten bananas out if I hadn’t been distracted,” I protested.
“Yeah right, sure. Distracted by what, my awesome gaming skills?” he asked, elbowing me.
I elbowed right back. “I admit, you have awesome gaming skills but we’re playing Mario Kart, dude, not Candyland.”
In the evening we stopped our marathon to watch a movie, a really scary one that had Royce squeaking and burying his face in a pillow. None of it seemed really scary to me though, just infuriating. After the fourth time I made a comment about something, Noah groaned. “Not anyone has nerves of steel like you, bro.”
“I don’t have nerves of steel. I’ve just been through stuff and this is…” I watched as the alien ripped into one of the innocent girls. “Silly.” I remembered the blood on my hands from murdering people which brought worse memories to surface. “I’m gonna grab a beer.” I got up and went to the kitchen, breathing heavily.
A sound. I turned and saw Max standing in the door looking upset. “You all right, Zaidy-boy? Wait, don’t answer. You’ll just lie.” He came over and gave me a hug without saying anything else. I accepted his warmth, grateful for it. “Is the movie too much for you? We can watch something else or go back to Mario Kart even though there’s no cats in it, how come there’s no cats in it? There needs to be a cat.”
“I think you can download something to have Peach be a cat-girl,” I mumbled.
“Noooooooooo! No. Peach is annoying. I want Yoshi to be a cat… uhh… dinosaur,” he said and I had to laugh. “What? He’d be great. Little green ears and a cat tail instead of a–okay no that’d look weird never mind. Well there should be a cat character, a full cat. Just a cat. A real cat.”
“You’re so weird,” I said, pulling away, feeling much better.
“Yeah, you did.” I wiped my eyes and then turned back around to breathe the fresh air. “I’ll be all right. It’s just a difficult day. Once I get past the first of everything it’ll… it might not be so bad.” How on earth would I fare on the anniversary of his death? “I wonder how Reeny enjoyed her spa day. I bet Gladdy is spoiling her rotten.”
“Like you never did,” Max snorted and I rolled my eyes.
“Nobody beat out the grandpas for spoiling her,” I said with a laugh. “Do you think I’m doing all right as a… single father?” The words felt heavy and wrong on my lips.
“You’re doing great,” Max promised, giving me another quick hug. “Come on, Zaidy-boy. Let’s go back to the movie.” He guided me into the living room and once I sat down he turned into a cat, jumping onto my lap and curling up. I pet him absentmindedly as the movie wore on and in the back of my mind I rather wished he didn’t have romantic feelings for me because I knew that one day things would come to a head again. I didn’t want to be so dense as to say I could never love again even though right now I felt as though I could never love again, but I knew that one day I would be able to again and I suspected Goose would want me to. I’d want him to.
I sighed, fingers sliding through the soft fur on his body as I hoped that the inevitable just wouldn’t happen and we could go on like this indefinitely. Friends, companions, and not me breaking his heart because I knew that I just did not and could not love Max like that.