Ian. Axel. Artisan.

Ian

My phone rings at half past two. Her name flashes on my screen and my heart nearly bursts right out of my chest. “Hello?” I say, trying act like I didn’t just drop everything I was doing to talk to her.

“Well, it’s storming,” she announces by way of greeting.

She’s not wrong. Right on schedule, Hurricane Josefina is here. Rain is coming down in buckets outside my window. The lights flicker, bringing me back to the present — to the girl on the phone. The girl I can’t say no to.

“Yeah,” I tell her. “I think we might lose power.”

She sighs. “Yeah.” She pauses for a beat. “So, I know our therapist—”

Your therapist,” I say. “I’m not paying that woman two grand a week to shrink my brain.”

I can almost see her roll her eyes when she groans. “Dr. Foster,” she amends, her voice raising slightly. “She says we shouldn’t see each other.”

“But…” I say, trying to drag it out of her — whatever it is this request is.

“But…” She blows out a breath. In my mind’s eye I can see her running a hand through her hair. I’m astonished at how much I know about this girl in spite of her unwillingness to open up to me. “I don’t really want to be alone right now,” she finally says, as if it causes her physical pain to admit to wanting to see me. My heart lurches as it always does when it comes to this girl and her feelings — or lack thereof — for me.

That doesn’t stop me from leaping into action instinctively, though. She needs me, and for whatever reason, I can’t say no to her. I grab my keys from my dresser and make my way out of the apartment and up the stairs to her place, taking them two at a time until I reach the top floor. She lets me in before I even knock, almost as if she, too, can sense me before I arrive. The thought warms my heart as she flashes me a grateful smile.

“Quick trip?” She asks, raising an eyebrow at me.

I smirk. “It should be abundantly clear by now that I can’t say no to you.”

And that’s all it takes. Her happy grin is gone, replaced by some melancholy emotion I can’t place coupled with a smile that doesn’t meet her eyes. She sinks down to the floor, her gaze already averted there the second the words leave my mouth. I follow her lead, taking a seat on the floor next to her, resting my back against her couch. She keeps a safe distance between us, making sure not to be close enough to touch me or for me to touch her.

“I don’t want to be awful to you,” she tells me. “Please just… remember that.”

“Then don’t be,” I respond. “Don’t be awful to me if you don’t want to be.”

The solution seems simple. But this is Artisan Miller, the girl with a closet full of skeletons and a heart that’s still in pieces from the last guy she let in.

Her breaths steal me away from my thoughts. They come heavily, and I look to see she has a tear slipping down her cheek. “Every time you say shit like that, though, it just kills me,” she manages to say. She takes another deep breath and a deep gulp, trying to suppress her emotions. “I hate that you can’t say no to me, that you want me so much. I hate that I can’t do the same for you.”

I wonder for about the thousandth time what it is that he did to her, this man she only refers to as Axel — this person who seems to have stolen all of her light. She’s never told me, and I’ve never pushed, but I wonder if perhaps I should.

“Why can’t you? What did he do to you?” I finally ask. It’s not a push — more of a gentle nudge — but it’s a start, I hope. It’s something to hopefully make her want to open up to me.

The emotions that cross her face let me know that this question is one she’s heard often. That my exasperation has been mirrored in others — perhaps even other men — an endless loop of questions and frustration and sadness.

She’s silent. It’s an unexpected response. She stares out the window at the rain, at the dark sky, at our silent city. She draws her knees to her chest and bites her lip — it’s a coping mechanism of hers, I’ve come to realize. She shuts herself off from the world, doesn’t allow the world to see her pain or her tears or the devastation that’s ever-present in her soul. I watch her with sadness and aching. I long to comfort her, but I haven’t the slightest idea how to go about doing that. Rather than push her, I avert my gaze to the window as well.

“What’s your favorite song?” She asks me, breaking the silence that has descended upon us. I can’t tell how long we were silent for, but it seems as though the storm has worsened. The rain continues to pour, and is now coupled with thunder and lightning. I wonder why she stayed put, why she opted to ride out the storm. It’s not like I hadn’t done the same thing, but I’d been in New York long enough to know which storms required my evacuation, and which ones were safe enough to stay for. She was new to the city, though, had never faced nature’s wrath like this.

A small part of me wonders if she stayed because I did, too.

Her eyes are still on me, awaiting my answer. I take a second to think before answering. “Fields of Gold by Sting.”

She giggles and, though I know she’s laughing at me, the sound nonetheless warms my heart. “Sting?” She asks me. “Seriously?”

I roll my eyes, turning toward her. She’s inching ever so slowly to me, too, and I think she might be finally letting her walls down, if only marginally. “Well, okay, music snob, what’s your favorite song?”

She hesitates, and I fear for a second that I may have ruined the moment, but quickly recovers, moving closer to me. Our hands touch, and I hear her take an audible breath in, bracing herself for whatever it is she feels when her skin meets mine. I can see she’s thinking, weighing her options. Will it be fight or flight? Run? Hide? I can’t say for certain, and her eyes, as usual, hold no answers for me.

She stands, and I fear for a second she has chosen to run, but she leans over to her coffee table to grab her phone instead, and sits back down next to me. She opens up the music app and presses the screen a few times before turning up the volume as familiar chords being to play. “This one,” she says, before leaning back on her hands and closing her eyes. She lets the music envelop her, lets me absorb it, lets the words fill up this nearly empty apartment — her choosing, she says, but I think it’s got everything to do with him.

It’s an older song, one I’d heard a few years ago at a club when the band invited me to hear it. It’s not bad at all — I quite like it — but it’s not something I pegged as her taste. “This?” I ask her, a sly grin creeping up on my face. “And you judge me for Sting?”

She smiles sadly, and I know that this, too, has everything to do with him — Axel. He is everywhere when it comes to her. All the things I hate — and even the things I love — about this girl have been shaped by him. It’s honestly not surprising to me at all that this song is tied to him. Everything else about her is.

We grow silent again, and the song starts to play again. I move to pause it, but her hand stops mine, and I see her brace herself yet again, fighting against her feelings as she touches my hand. I look to her, and see she’s finally studying me for once, gauging my mood based on this confession. I try to put on a brave face, but I know I’m failing miserably. I offer her a sad smile, which seems to pacify her, and we fall back into a companionable silence as the song plays for a third, fourth, and fifth time. We are silent even when the power finally, predictably goes out, lighting candles throughout her apartment as the song plays for a sixth and seventh time, the beat of the song now lost behind the words.

“Do you want to dance?” She finally asks me when we sit back down on the floor, her apartment only illuminated by candles now that the sun has set. I look up, a question in my eyes now. Dancing at a time like this? I should be surprised, really, but nothing about this girl has surprised me since the moment I met her, really. She shrugs in response to my silent question. “I’m told it’s good for your soul.”

I stare at her for only half a second more before pulling myself up and offering my hand out to her. I see her hesitate to accept it, but she takes my hand and braces herself yet again, fighting her feelings again. She’s going to have a lot more overload to deal with, I realize, as I pull her close to me and slide my hand around her waist. She blows out a loud breath, steadying herself, then places her hand on my shoulder and her other in my free hand. Her eyes are lighter now, perhaps free of whatever guilt she initially felt about touching me, but I still see a hint of hesitation.

Rather than address the Axel-sized elephant in the room, I glide us across the floor in time to the rhythm of the song. She follows, a giggle escaping past her lips. She seems surprised by this reaction, but quickly recovers. I smirk, giving her a twirl. She giggles again, and this time it seems more natural — like she’s replacing those pieces of herself that were broken with new ones to make her whole again.

I twirl her once more before she disentangles herself from me, then throws both hands into the air and tosses her head back, her long hair fanning over her shoulders. She shakes her hips, bumping mine with one of hers. I chuckle, letting her take the lead now. When I shake my hips in time with hers, a hearty laugh escapes from her and she doesn’t hesitate, allowing happiness to sink into her bones and her skin and her soul. I smile in spite of myself as I watch this scarred, damaged, beautiful girl lose herself in the moment with me, finally letting the weight of Axel lift from off her chest.

She places both hands on my hips as the song winds down, and I see her begin to sober and fear that I’m losing her again. She shakes her head, as if reading my mind and the silent  question I was asking yet again, and laces my fingers with hers.

“I have to tell you a story.”

*******

Axl

“What song is this?”

I’m sprawled across her bed, pillow under my chin as I stare out the window as the rain falls. Just another stormy day in Emerton, another night chockfull of nightmares, and another afternoon in Artisan’s tiny house right along the river, trying to convince myself that there’s something in this world worth living for.

I wish I were brave enough to live.

“It’s something by OneRepublic,” she tells me. “My stepsister sent it to me.”

I nod absentmindedly. I’ve met Simone on only a handful of occasions, but if there’s someone who knows music, it’s her. I know that much. I close my eyes, listening to the words, letting them wash over me. I needed to hear these words. Artisan knew that.

She knows everything. She makes it all better.

I peek out from under my eyelid and see her sitting in her desk chair watching me. She never hovers, never smothers me. She just waits, ready if I need her. I always do.

I always will.

“Care to join me?” I ask, rolling over and stretching an arm out to her.

She hesitates for only a second before standing to make her way over to me. She snuggles in close to me, her hand landing on my chest, tapping out the beat of the song beneath her tiny, fragile fingers. This girl has seen so much hell, and I’ve gone and dragged her into mine, but she never questions it, never leaves. She’s much stronger than me. I should let her go, but the thought of doing that sickens me.

“I like it,” I tell her. “The song. Can we play it again?”

She nods, turning over to put it on repeat, then placing her music player on her windowsill. The loss of contact with her makes my throat constrict, but she’s back in an instant, and I recover so quickly I wonder why I was anxious in the first place.

“It’s kind of like us,” I murmur, and she shoots me a questioning gaze. “Like what we have.”

She offers me a small, tentative smile. “You think so?” I nod in response. “Well, maybe this can be our song,” she suggests.

I chuckle. “I think that’s a great idea. There’s just one problem.” I frown, and her eyes are on me quickly, her body reacting to what she thinks may be a panic attack or a flashback. God, do I love this girl and how attuned she is to me, how ready she is to fight my battles and face my demons.

“What’s the problem?” She asks me as she sits up.

I move off of her bed and kneel in front of her, lacing our fingers together. “We have to actually dance together for it to be our song.” I see relief wash over her and she smiles gratefully at me. “Them’s the rules, Miller. Besides, it’s good for your soul.” I smirk. “So, may I have this dance?”

I hold my hand out to her, and she takes it readily. “I thought you’d never ask, Mr. Fletcher.”

I wrap an arm around her waist and her hands come up to my shoulders before lacing at the base of my neck. She drags her fingernails against the nape of my neck and sways along to the song with me, neither of us caring that we aren’t moving along with the rhythm of the song. It’s a perfect moment — made even more perfect by the girl in my arms, this strong and courageous woman who loves me so much that she wakes up at midnight to check on me; who has tried every type of therapy to try and calm my anxiety; who finds music to soothe me; who slow dances with me in the middle of her bedroom and holds on tight to me because she needs me as much as I need her.

The girl who makes me want to live.

I am shocked to my core by the words, and my fingers flex against her waist. She hugs me tighter, either because she thinks I need it (I do) or because she wants to hold to me as tightly as I hold on to her. Like a life raft.

Like my own personal life raft.

“Artisan,” I finally choke out as the song plays again. She looks up at me, her eyes never judging me or pitying me, but offering me hope, and a safe haven in my own personal storms.

“Yeah?” Her voice is fire and ice all at once. It makes me want to keep going, but also makes me want to stop — right here and right now — and just lie with her.

I grab her hand and drag her outside, in the middle of the rain storm, and twirl her once, twice, and a third time. She giggles, and the sound warms my heart. This girl who has given so much for me, who has faced my battles head-on, still laughs because of me. I’ve caused her pain, but I’ve also given her happiness.

“What is it, Axel?” She asks me, the rain washing over us, washing away all of my old fears and replacing them with hope, chasing away my darkness and replacing it with light.

I hesitate for a second. My throat constricts for a half-second, the demons trying to overtake me, to make me second-guess this. But I won’t let them. Not with this girl and her light. Not today.

Not ever again.

“You…” I blow out a breath. She waits. She always waits, lets me set the pace. God, I hope she knows how much I love her; how thankful I am that she found me, that she saved me. “You make me want to live,” I finally say, and I swear I can hear her gasp over the rain.

She wraps her arms around me and holds me tight, a form of therapy we’d learned together. It’s just a hug, but it holds so much promise, so much relief. I can feel the relief pulsing through her veins. This wall we’ve breached did not come easily. This battle was hard-won. But this girl, and that song, and the moments with her have all been worth it.

She makes me want to live again.

“You saved me,” I tell her, breathing against her hair, taking in the open air and the scent of the rain and this girl — lavender and honey and rain, my new favorite scent. “I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “I love you, Arty. I do. I promise. I’m not going anywhere.”

The words pour out of me like a prayer, and she just accepts them, letting me talk, letting me tell her what she’s done — what flip she’s switched. I never want to live a day without her. I never want her to live a day without me. I don’t want to hurt her. I can’t hurt her. Not after what she’s done for me.

She silences me with a kiss as the rain starts to lighten up. I can hear the song still playing from the windowsill, and I smile against her lips. This girl has brought me so much, has taken on so much for me. I’ll never be able to repay her, to thank her enough. So I’ll do the one thing I know I’m capable of doing.

I’ll live for her.

*******

Artisan

“And then what happened?”

Ian is seated across from me on the floor again, his back against the couch. The glass door to my patio is against my back, cool against the heat I feel from revealing this part of my story to another human — to a man who just wants to love me and be loved in return. It’s a small request, really, but in light of what has happened to me it seems so grand a gesture. How do I explain to him what happened? How do I reveal this darkest part of me — this part of me that will forever and always be shaped by Axel Fletcher?

I purse my lips, looking down at the floor. The song is playing again for perhaps the thousandth time, ripping my heart to shreds again, reminding me of how broken and defeated I am, how Axel’s demons are still haunting me even in his absence.

Ian’s kind eyes are still on me, perhaps waiting for me to tell him some sordid story of how Axel broke my heart and left me. In a way, it’s true. He did leave me. He did break my heart. But it’s also so much more than that.

I couldn’t save him.

“Artisan?” Ian asks.

I look up at him and shrug, bracing myself to say the words I’d only said to three other people — one of whom was my therapist, who swore that none of it was my fault. That never took the guilt away, though — it didn’t take away the pain of having to remember what happened to Axel.

What happened to me.

“Axel killed himself four days later,” I finally say, and I can feel a weight simultaneously being lifted off my chest and also landing hard on my heart, reminding me again of how I failed him, how he broke me, and how in turn I was now failing and breaking Ian.

He doesn’t say anything, but his eyes tell me to go on. I’m not sure what else to say, how to explain this to him any further, but I recall once upon a time a story I told Simone when she asked me why I couldn’t love, why I couldn’t be in a relationship again, why I couldn’t open my heart to someone else.

“You know how when you’re little and your mom says if you just try this one thing she’ll never make you eat it again?” I ask. His eyes are unsure of where I’m going with this, but he stays silent, allowing me to continue. “I mean… broccoli, spinach, lima beans. It could be anything. She says if you try it, you never have to try it again.” He nods in understanding. I shrug and release a shaky breath, willing myself not to cry, and internally cursing myself as the tears fall to spite me. “I tried a relationship once. I loved someone so much it hurt.”

“And?” Ian asks, though I think he already knows the answer.

“And…” I sigh, closing my eyes and opening them, steadying myself even though I’m seated. This is what Axel still does to me, the hold that the memories of our time together still have. “And I don’t want to do it again,” I finally say.

Ian studies me for a few minutes more as the song plays yet again, gutting me, taunting me with the memories from my favorite and last memory with Axel. What did he feel in his final moments? Relief? Sadness? I couldn’t say. I would never know. I failed him, and he broke me. It was an even trade, really — except to the man sitting across from me.

The man who stands to his feet as the song plays again.

The man who kneels in front of me and places a kiss on my cheek where a batch of fresh tears have fallen.

The man who stands again, casting one longing, lonely glance in my direction, before walking out the door to my apartment and six floors down to his own.

The man who understands that Josefina isn’t the only hurricane in New York right now.

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