Love in Darkness


Below is the first chapter of Love in Darkness, without copyedits, so there will be some errors!


ONE

My name is Alex Katsumoto and I’m on a subway platform in Tokyo, Japan. This city is where I’m serving my mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church. I’m twenty-one years old, have brown hair, brown eyes with a slight Asian tilt to them (I’m half Japanese), and am six feet, two inches tall. I state these facts because they seem important. Like I must repeat them or I’ll forget.

The station is packed so that it’s hard to stand without touching anyone and the air is thick with the scent of exhaled moisture and bad breath. The man right next to me wears a surgical mask, ostensibly to protect against airborne disease, but also to afford a little extra privacy, to not have his face read by thousands of strangers on the course of his commute.

In my hand is an unopened letter from one Hermana (Spanish for “Sister”) Lukas, a female missionary for our church serving in Lima, Peru. I know her as Madison Lukas and haven’t seen her for almost two years, but we write to each other every week. She’s got ice blue eyes and platinum blond hair and I sense this letter is dangerous. I don’t dare open it.

Except, where is it? My hands are empty, and it’s not on the floor. A quick patdown of my pockets reveals only lint and my appointment notebook. I paw through the contents of my bag and a couple of copies of The Book of Mormon fall out and land with splayed pages. People shift around me as I jab them with my elbows.

“You all right?” asks my companion. Elder Ito is his name, and like me, he’s an American. Both of his parents emigrated from Japan, but his posture and mannerisms are so unabashedly Western that people here startle when he speaks Japanese. They expect him to yell in English like they’re all deaf. “What are you looking for?” He shoulders people aside so he can lean down to pick up the books.

And I still can’t find Madison’s letter. It’s not anywhere in my bag. I pat my pockets again, then claw at them, scrunching the fabric and willing it to be paper.

“Elder Katsumoto,” says my companion. He draws my name out in a way that lets me know I’m acting weird and hands me my books. “Seriously, what’s with you? You give a two hour lecture during scripture study, say nothing for the rest of the day, and you need to take a shower tonight. I’m serious. You reek, man.”

A cold fear pools at the base of my spine and I know, in my bones, that something very bad is going to happen. An earthquake. We’re in danger down here, walled in by the crowd.

I force myself to stand as still as I can and reach out my awareness. Voices chatter on a higher plane and I eavesdrop, a trick I’ve taught myself painstakingly over the last few months. It used to be I could only hear the voices as whispers, but now, I hear them clearly. They’re breathy and genderless, but if I concentrate, it’s as if they speak softly right into my ear.

“-doesn’t know what’ll happen to him.”

“They’re standing there, sitting ducks. Standing ducks.”

“The train is the way out.”

“Unless you’re wrong.”

The voices always speak in a kind of code and I do my best to piece together what’s going on. They’re plotting something, that’s clear. I bet they cause the earthquake, and the train might be the way out if I get on it, or they might be warning me to step in front of it. This might be their way of saying I’ll soon wish I were dead.

“Never let him hear you.”

“He’s Chosen. We may have no power to stop him.”

I hate it when they say things like this. Any day, any minute, they’ll figure out I can hear them and then what? Will they stop talking altogether? Adopt another code? Kill me on the spot?

“Take over the other one,” one of the louder voices says with a snarl.

Oh no. That is not good. Not good at all.

Elder Ito’s eyes change from brown to a swirling blue as a foreign consciousness jams itself into his brain. “Elder Katsumoto, calm down,” he orders me, his voice flat and off.

The train is the only way out? No. There isn’t enough time to wait for it. I break away from him and shove my way through the crowd, on my way to the exit.

“Hey,” he shouts. Only it isn’t him. I know it isn’t.

The train arrives with a clatter and a screech and I change course to get aboard, shoving more people aside.

“He’s getting on the train,” says one of the voices.

“Then he goes with them.”

“He’d better hang on.”

I dive through the door of the carriage, grab the overhead rail, and hang on for dear life. The train shoots out of the station and I sense it picking up more and more speed. Only now it occurs to me to wonder, if I gave away that I could hear them.

“Excuse me,” says a diminutive lady next to me. “Are you all right?”

Now the voices are taking over the people around me to try to get me to talk, to admit that I know they exist and can overhear their conversations.

“Sir,” says someone else.

And then, I feel it coming like a shockwave. “Earthquake!” I shout. “It’s coming. We’re going to be crushed!”

The crowd around me explodes with a cacophony of voices. I feel someone grab my wrist and I flail to get away. Someone’s dimmed the lights in the train and it’s hard to see. I fight my way towards the door, but a hundred unseen hands pull me down. I sense the train shoot through the next station, and the next. I sense that it’s building up enough speed to launch from the end of its tracks into space. At least I’ve managed to leave Elder Ito behind.

A hand closes on the back of my neck, and the world goes dark.

*

I come to on a narrow cot in a plain, white hospital room that smells like hand soap and detergent. There are voices out in the hallway, but I don’t bother to try to eavesdrop. I’m too wrung out for that. I’m not sure how I got here or which hospital this is, but for now I feel safe.

The door opens inward like an explosion and a woman wearing scrubs strides in. At the sight of me alert, she pauses. "Can you tell me your name?" she asks.

"Alexander Katsumoto."

"Do you know where you are?"

"Yeah, this is a hospital."

"You've had some psychosis. Do you understand? What you see and hear isn’t all real. We’re keeping you here for your own safety. You won’t be hurt.”

“Lies,” says one of the voices. “You see how they lie?”

"Try to relax," the nurse says. "You’ve been medicated.”

*

Within hours, I can’t eavesdrop on the voices anymore. I’ve lost my special power.

*

By the middle of the next day, I understand that there is something seriously wrong with me, and I need to stay in this facility. I am given pills which I take. It’s important to take pills. I know this.

*

Lying alone in bed, without the company of those voices, my mind wanders back to two years ago, to the moment that tortures me to this day.

“We have to break up,” I hear myself tell her. I’m standing on the rocky beach, my back to the crashing surf. In front of me is Madison, gazing up at me with pure pain in those ice blue eyes. Behind her is the rugged rock wall of the cliff face.

Her hair is pulled back in a simple ponytail and the breeze stirs the wisps that frame her face. The air is cool, but not cold. “I know myself, all right?” I explain. “The moment you move on, I won’t be able to take it. So I’ve got to let you go.”

“Don’t do this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Take it back. Please. Alex, I don’t want to break up.” Her eyes are wide, like clear, crystal pools.

“And I need you not to write to me,” I say.

“Why?” Now she claps both her hands over her nose and mouth as if to hold back pain or tears, or whatever it is shining from her gaze.

It takes every ounce of my control not to back down. I have to stop kidding myself and finish this. “Because, I don’t want to know the moment you move on. I just… I need you to give me space.”

“You’re going to Japan. That’s not enough space for you?”

“I’m sorry, all right.” I back away, stepping carefully on the rocky beach. “But it’s not like we were ever going to last.”

“Why not?”

That, I should think, is obvious. Because the two of us together makes no sense. She’s beautiful and popular and has guys lining up around the block for a chance to be with her. I’m a high school dropout with a criminal record and no future. She should be embarrassed to be with me. Eventually we’ll both have to grow up. At least I’ll have the memories.

As I turn away, I hear her scrabble behind me, then the rapid beat of her boots against the stony ground. “Alex, wait.” Her tone is anguished.

I set my jaw against the pain, like I’ve stitched my own heart with a silk thread and am now yanking it hard enough to tear the organ. I keep walking.

She grabs my hand, her supple fingers wrapping around my palm. “Stop.”

I stop, but I don’t turn.

It doesn’t matter because she darts around in front of me and puts one arm around my waist. The other hand she slides up my back to grasp my shoulder. Her soft curves fit against my body. It’s how she always holds me, and I can’t endure it this time. I bow my head and just let the tears fall.

“Alex,” she whispers, touching her forehead to mine, that soft breath against my lips. “Don’t, okay? You promised you’d never hurt me.”

At that I let out a sob. Forget saving face. She knows me for who I am anyway and now she’s wiping away my tears. “Listen,” she says, “you need me not to distract you from your mission, fine. But I’ll always be here for you, and when you come back, I’ll be waiting.” She strokes my cheek with the backs of her fingers and leans up to press her lips against mine.

I don’t want to kiss back, but at the same time, I can’t resist. She runs her fingers through my hair and the kiss goes on and on until I’ve got both arms wrapped tight around her and I’m drinking in her essence, liquid fire that pools in my core. I have to stop this.

But when I do, she doesn’t let me pull back. She leans in and looks me straight in the eye. “I’ll wait for you. I don’t care if you don’t believe me. Let’s not end things with a fight, okay? Let’s end it on a good note for now.”

“Goodbye, Madison.”

“Bye, Alex. For now.”

“I love you.” I don’t mean to say it, but it slips out, my whisper barely loud enough for me to hear it myself.

Madison’s chin snaps up. “What?”

I shake my head, willing her not to press me.

“Alex-”

I start to pull away but she reels me back in, not by force, but with her gaze. Her eyes beg me not to leave. She puts one arm around my waist again and slides her other hand up my back. “It’ll be all right. Everything will be all right,” she says.

*

It broke my heart to leave her on that beach. I was sure she’d be a stranger to me by the time I got home from my mission. She’d date someone else and move on, but five months later I got a letter from her with the Missionary Training Center in Provo as the return address. “So by the way, I got baptized after you left,” she wrote. “Once you were out of the picture, I could think more clearly about everything, and I decided I do believe in the Gospel, even if it means I have to be part of the same community as you and watch you move on. The Church also changed the age we sisters can serve missions,” she reminded me. “I’m able to go now that I’m nineteen and I’ve started my training. I’ll be going to Peru and have to become fluent in Spanish, which will take a miracle.”

She didn’t talk about her love life or whether she’d dated anyone else. All she asked was, could we write to each other? “I miss you,” she said. “I’d love to hear from you again.” As a missionary, she wouldn’t date anyone for eighteen months.

I sat down at once and wrote her a long letter to say that I missed her too, and then the following Monday, when I had access to a computer, I wrote her an email. She replied to both, and in the end we formed the habit of writing letters. I chose this mode of communication because I liked holding something that she’d held just weeks before. She followed my lead. There were emails too, to ask how each other were doing and to update each other on our transfers to different areas, but where we really talked to each other was in those letters. We wrote them throughout the week and mailed the latest installment every Friday.

Through our writing, we’d achieved something that had eluded us back when we’d spent most of our time making out: friendship. Madison wasn’t just a beautiful blond with a fetching smile. She knew me now, better than anyone. We talked about our faith, our memories of growing up together in Pelican Bluffs, our mission experiences, and we kept things on strictly friendly terms this entire time, but I felt closer to her than ever. I dreamed of greeting her with a kiss rather than a handshake, and wondered if that was where we were headed. Right now, she’ll be reaching the end of her mission, and I wonder if there is any other guy she’s going home to. I don’t think she’d write so much or so often to me if there were, but I’ve never had the courage to ask.

*

A week after I’m admitted to the hospital, Elder Ito and the mission president pay me a visit. We’re ushered into a little room with a utilitarian cloth couch and some chairs. It’s got the same sterile smell as the rest of this facility. I feel like a complete idiot now that I realize how insane my behavior was.

“What do we do if he tries to strangle us?” Elder Ito asks, looking the place over. He doesn’t want to sit down, he’s so nervous.

The mission president at least acts like he’s at ease. He sits down on one of the chairs and gestures for me to sit in the other. Elder Ito waits a moment, before sitting down on the couch.

“Elder Katsumoto,” says the mission president. “How much do you understand about what’s happened to you?” He speaks English, as he’s originally from Utah. He’s got skin the color of cappuccino and jet black hair - I’d guess his family’s from the South Pacific - and he talks as if this is the kind of thing he’s done before. Perhaps he has.

“I had a psychotic break,” I say. “My mother’s a schizophrenic, and I inherited it.”

“Yes, well, Elder Ito filled me in on some of your unusual behaviors and…” He glances at my companion. “We should have known what to look for and spotted it sooner. I’m sorry. Given your family health history, we should have sent you home once the symptoms started to show.”

“So are you going to send me home now?”

He shakes his head. “You need to be stable, and for that they recommend at least two weeks on your medications and some tests, because they don’t know if this is schizophrenia or something else yet. They’ve already ruled out a brain tumor but they’ll want to check for other psychiatric disorders. We’ll send you home once we’re sure you’ll be all right on the journey. You’re so close to the end of your mission, odds are you’ll go home the same time as planned, or maybe even a little after.”

“Provided they don’t think I’ll get up and scream the plane is going to crash,” I say.

“Right.”

“Or,” says Elder Ito, “talk about overhearing angels talking.”

I look down at my hands, which are still scabbed over around the nails. I’d been picking at the skin, making it bleed. “I know I can’t overhear spirits talking,” I say. “I know that I can’t predict earthquakes. I know that I should shower once a day. I know that I’m here on my mission and I screwed that up.”

“You’re ill,” says the mission president. “This happens to people.”

I look over at Elder Ito. “I’m sorry, all right? I’m sure it wasn’t fun to watch.”

His smile is very clearly forced, and I can’t blame him. “Listen, right before you lost it, you were looking for something. Someone in the mission office said you’d dropped this.” He holds out a letter.

I snatch it from his hands and sure enough, it’s Madison’s letter, the last letter she would have written before she finished her mission. It isn’t one of the usual, multi-page tomes we send each other. This one is short, as if she had very little left to say. I dread opening it, but I have to.

The mission president asks if there’s anything else I need, and then he and Elder Ito give me a blessing. I only half pay attention because of the envelope burning with significance in my hand. Once they’re gone, I tear it open to read.

TWO

Dear Alex,

I’m finding it hard to concentrate on my work, which I know is a bad thing. I’m excited to go home, though, and so excited to see you again.

Okay, I’m going to just say this, and then I’m going to send this letter before I lose my nerve.

I love you, Alex Katsumoto, and I want to be with you forever. I want to marry you and spend the rest of eternity with you. I really hope that doesn’t freak you out. I can never tell how you feel, but I hope this huge stack of letters means that you still care about me as more than a friend.

Write back before I give myself an ulcer, okay?
Love,

Madison
P.S. Remember our first kiss? When you kissed me down the side of my neck until I went crazy and kissed you back? Feel free to do that again in a couple of months.

I stare at her handwritten words until they blur in my vision. Aside from my slip the day we broke up, neither of us has ever used the l-word with each other. That might seem odd, given how long we’ve been together, but for the first part of our relationship, I went from day to day, assuming the end was just around the corner. Now that I think about it, I’ve felt the same way throughout our time writing to each other. I was only just getting used to the idea that we’d endure, that we’d become something more than the town loser and a girl going through a bad boy phase.

She has our first kiss all wrong, though. It was nothing like that. Our first kiss went something like this: One day when I was a senior and she was a junior at Pelican Bluffs High School, back in California, I grabbed her and kissed her as a joke that is so un-funny, I’m lucky not to be in jail. She was the cutest, most popular girl in school, and I was… well, me. For the record, this is not the kiss she is talking about in her letter. I’ll get to that one. To make the whole assault stunt worse, I did it where no one saw or could come to her aid. She called me a creep – which definitely counts as being nice – and then gave me back my deceased dad’s U.S. Army jacket, which I’d lost the day before when I got arrested for smashing a police car with a rock, because I’m cool like that. I’ve made great life decisions, lemme tell ya. The officer made me take the jacket off and leave it there in the road.

Madison had picked it up, laundered it, put everything back in the pockets, and now gave it to me. I’d never thought I was a great guy, but in that moment, I realized I was something much worse than “not a great guy”, and Madison was something better than “an angel of pure kindness.” I fled, certain she’d never so much as look at me again. Except, while she told me off, she also called me hot. Specifically, “hot, but not hot enough to get away with assaulting people.” Usually compliments about my looks were the kind of thing I only heard from women tourists who’d make catcalls at me from their convertibles on their way through town.

A few days later, Madison came to a church activity – and I’m not going to tell the long story of how a delinquent like me ended up at a church activity because it involves me threatening Madison with a pair of scissors and then later offering to chase her down the street with a switchblade. But… anyway, I was at this activity, looking like the worst possible fit for the LDS Church in its 175 year history. She was at this activity as another guy’s date and we all went to a movie, and I noticed that I could get her to pay attention to me if I cracked jokes. I even made her laugh and got her to pay more attention to me than to her date, who was a great guy who deserved her. Yes I am a jerk.

A few days after that, she stopped to talk to me in the street, because I totally deserved to have the most gorgeous girl on the planet stop to pay attention to me in public where any guy could see that she was talking to me and not them. She asked me about my mother, who was institutionalized at the time. When she found out that I hadn’t been to see my mother for over a week, she asked if I wanted her to come with me for moral support on a visit to her. Madison Lukas wanted to get in my car and spend an afternoon with me? I said yes. And the totally messed up thing about this is, she did it.

She came to the mental hospital, got to know my mom, had dinner with us, and was sweetness incarnate even though the meal was sushi and Madison had never even held a pair of chopsticks before. My mother having conversations with people who weren’t there didn’t make her bat an eye. The only awkward moment was when Madison admitted that she didn’t want to have us pay for her meal, and even my not-all-there mother told her that she was our guest and would be treated like a guest. See? I did one nice thing. I bought her dinner. Go me.

A few days after that Madison’s best “friend”, the extremely bipolar Kailie Beale, attempted suicide and I found Madison in the social worker’s office of the ER. She was scared spitless, having been the person to discover Kailie unconscious and bleeding profusely. When Madison saw me, she hugged me, which was a clear sign that she was out of her mind with shock, but wow did it feel good. For a few minutes I had her in my arms and those were literally the best few minutes of my life. Her skin was so soft, and the contours of her body so perfect in every way. She let go of me, collected her wits, and handled the rest of the situation with grace and competence because… she’s Madison. She can do anything.

When she broke up a fight I was in at school the next day, so that I “wouldn’t go to jail,” and dragged me back to her house to wash and treat my split knuckles, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take having a real live angel act like I was worth talking to. I wanted her and I had one strategy that might work, assuming Madison lost her senses completely. I’d try for a kiss, and if I could get her to cave in for one kiss, maybe some other day I could get another, and maybe I’d get her to cave in enough times that the kissing thing became a habit. Like that would ever happen.

So I backed her up against the closed door of her bathroom (because that’s not a creepy, aggressive thing to do) and she held still while I kissed her forehead. The feel of her velvet skin, the herbal conditioner scent of her hair, it was all too much. I couldn’t stop kissing her, only, I’d never kissed anyone before (other than that stupid assault) so I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t kiss her on the lips, because I knew she’d laugh. Instead, I kissed her cheek and her closed eyelid and before I knew it I had my arm around her waist, her jaw cupped in my palm, and was kissing her down the side of her neck. I finally forced myself to quit it because even someone as socially inept as myself knew that this wasn’t typically how one treated a friend, but her arms were around me by then. She lifted her chin, danced the tips of her fingernails across the back of my neck, and in the blink of an eye, we were kissing on the lips. It was a short kiss and she opened her eyes and I knew then that she’d take one look at me, push me away, and probably never speak to me again.

I was maybe one word into planning my escape when she shut her eyes and resumed the kiss, like she meant it, and I was a complete and total goner. Even thinking about it now, I’m a goner. I was with Madison. When I ran out of oxygen and broke off the kiss, I begged her to be my girlfriend. Begged. I would have cried if I’d had to let her go, just bawled like a big overgrown baby. Nothing had ever felt so good and never had I wanted anything more than I wanted to be hers. She patiently explained to me that the kiss meant yes. She’d kissed me because she wanted to be with me, as my girlfriend.

What was even crazier was that she stayed my girlfriend, month after month while guys fell all over themselves to get her attention. She had the class valedictorian and the quarterback of the football team and half a dozen guys from multi-millionaire families asking her out and her answer was always that she had a boyfriend. Me. During her senior year of high school, I worked as a respite care provider around town, which basically means babysitter for the disabled. Because I’m a big guy and I know how to be patient, I can handle fifty-year-old men with the mental ages of toddlers who still throw tantrums. When you’ve spent your whole life loitering, getting into fights, and being arrested for underage drinking, you haven’t got much of a reputation to defend. The fact that I got seen wrestling mentally handicapped people into submission in public actually improved people’s perception of me.

Madison, though, treated me like I was a movie star. She always walked towards me with her eyes aglow and a grin on her face. Dating her was like having some stranger give me the keys to a Ferrari. I had no idea why an idiot like me was entrusted with something so precious, but I knew I’d wreck it sooner or later.

When I got my mission call, I decided to hang up the keys and stop tempting fate. That’s when I broke up with her and figured that was that. It was a shame to leave something so beautiful behind, but really, it could have been a whole lot worse.

And that was the ending I’d chosen, but Madison turned it around and gave me an alternative, like the amazing, generous person she is. She opened the door to something I’d never dreamed of, a happy ending for us. I should have known it was too good to be true.

*

My first memory of my mom’s schizophrenia is of her, locked in the bathroom of our home back in California, shrieking that “they” were coming in the windows. I was maybe four years old, and the only one able to talk to her because she always lapses into Japanese when she gets scared. I didn’t know how to call the police. I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet. I just sat outside the bathroom door and begged her to let me in. Maternal instinct won out and she opened the door, then told me to call for help. She showed me how to use the phone.

After that, I became Mom’s protector. I was the one who made sure she took her medication by begging her to open the childproof bottles and dumping the pills into a pill sorter that put a dose in each compartment. I was the one who warded off the social workers who wanted to take her away or me away or both, by playing games and refusing to speak if they separated us. I was the one who became her legal guardian when I turned eighteen. I’ll be the one to look after her for the rest of her colorful and tortured life. Assuming I can hold it together.

My life isn’t one I’d wish on my worst enemy. I love my mother, but her condition destroyed my childhood. Whoever ends up responsible for me is in for a similar catastrophe. There’s not much I can control about losing my mind, but I can control this: The person responsible for me will never be Madison Lukas. She deserves better than that. Even if I have to break my own heart a thousand times over to give her freedom, I’ll do it, because I love her more than she could ever imagine. She’s everything to me.

*

At the end of my hospital stay, I get the tentative diagnosis of schizophreniform disorder, because schizophrenia requires the symptoms to persist for six months, and all of my symptoms disappear for me with medication. The doctors are very happy about this. It’s rare for this to happen so quickly, they say. My prognosis is good, but the condition often starts out mild. I don’t for a minute think I’m out of the woods. The psychosis will be back, worse and worse each time.

After my stay at the hospital, I go to live with my uncle and aunt outside of Tokyo, which could have been awkward, but I stay sane the whole time. And I plan ahead. I write out detailed lists of what to do and when. In the morning, for example, I have this checklist:
1. Brush teeth. One squirt of toothpaste. Rinse once. Put toothbrush away.

2. Shower for no more than 7 minutes. Wash hair, rinse, wash body, rinse, then dry off before getting dressed.

3. Shave whole lower half of face. Leave two inch sideburns.

4. Read scriptures. Make sure to share thoughts with the Bishop on Sundays. If he says they sound crazy, call the doctor.

5. Breakfast. One bowl of cereal with enough milk to be seen in between the pieces of cereal, but not overflowing the cereal.
If this seems over the top and OCD, well, here’s the thing. I know all too well what a person with mental illness is like. They have no idea how strange they are, and it’s the little things that creep people out, the constant signs that you are Not Okay and Probably Need Help. The behaviors that make people twirl their fingers by their heads behind your back.

And yes, I realize making detailed checklists about how to get ready in the morning is one of those behaviors, but I figure if that one habit blots out a handful of others, like not showering for weeks at a time and talking constantly about what the voices say when I read my scriptures, I’ll cut my losses.

I also have a moment of frank conversation with God and explain that we have a new deal now. No visions, visitations, or theophanies. These things aren’t common anyway, and I was unlikely to ever have one, but now I have to lump them in with symptoms. If I think I’ve seen or spoken to God, I’ll want the people responsible for me to get me to the doctor, not help me do whatever the Heavenly Being asked of me. That’s just how it’s gotta be, and I expect the Lord to understand that.

I can’t bring myself to answer Madison’s letter. I tell myself that my condition is too weighty a topic for a mere letter, but deep down I know it’s avoidance behavior, because that’s how I deal with stuff. I avoid. Foresight was never my strong suit.

*

Six weeks later, I’m home again in my house on the bluffs overlooking the sea. I step in the back door, dragging my suitcase, which I leave in my room, and head downstairs to the den. The whole place smells like sandalwood, my mom’s favorite scent. My body doesn’t know what time it is, but the clocks say it’s early afternoon.

I’m so jet-lagged that reality feels like a dream. I could fall asleep right now, but I won’t. I’m only a fifteen minute walk away from Madison (my driver’s license has expired and I can’t get a new one right now with my medical history).

“Alex?” Hiroko calls out. She’s my mom’s caregiver, and likely heard the back door open and close.

“Yeah, hi.”

“Grace, Alex is home.”

I stop in the doorway of the den with its buff colored carpet and clean lines to the furniture, to find Hiroko seated on the floor, assembling Happy Meal toys. She greets me with a grin that wrinkles her turned up nose. She’s the best caregiver we’ve ever had, hands down, and it’s a bonus that she’s from Tokyo.

Mom is seated on the couch, and she glances at me and says a distracted, “Hello,” that indicates she didn’t know I was gone, or doesn’t understand that I’m back. She seems to be in a good mood, but her gaze slides past me as if I’m nothing new or notable. I might as well be a floor lamp.

I want to go hug her, but Hiroko returns my gaze with a gentle shake of her head.

“She’s had a rough morning,” she explains. At times, it’s best to leave my mother alone. “How are you feeling?” Hiroko asks. She knows all about my condition and hospitalization, as she’s the one I spoke to.

“I’m okay for now.”

“You look good.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“Madison was by the other day. She left you a note. I put it on your bed.”

“Oh, okay.” I do my best to withdraw politely, and then race up the stairs.

The note is a simple, folded sheet of paper with Madison’s name and new cellphone number on it and the words, “Call me?” written underneath.

I could call, but really, I should see her in person. Only, if I see her in person, what are the odds that I can tell her what’s going on without just sweeping her into my arms and kissing her?

While I dither, the doorbell rings. My heart in my mouth, I go downstairs to answer it and find a guy a little shorter than me, with green eyes, blond hair, and skin so pale that it goes red at the slightest hint of sun. John. Madison’s older brother. “Come with me,” he says. “You and I are going to have a little chat.”

THREE


Great, a lecture. Just what I need right now. Still, I follow John out the front door and up the steps to the driveway. My house is built in the lee of a rocky outcropping, so the driveway is on the same level as the second floor, and the front door opens onto a little sheltered porch with stairs cut into the rock that lead up to the driveway.

John’s van looks oddly familiar. It’s ancient and scratched up with a big dull spot on the side where a corporate logo was removed. The door opens with a creak, the upholstery is dried out vinyl, and the seatbelt comes through the feed with a puff of dust, but a glance over my shoulder reveals why I know this van. It’s got a wheelchair lift in it and used to belong to the local group home, an assisted living facility for the disabled.

“You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you?” says John as he climbs into the driver’s seat. Once settled, he throws his shoulder forward to start the van with a laborious chug of the engine.

“Stay away from Madison?”

“All right. I’m glad we had this talk.”

I roll my eyes and look out the window. John never liked me. I was the one hitch in his grand plan to save his sister from her previous situation here in town, and I have a ton of respect for the guy. He and Madison had been apart for fifteen years when he found out she wasn’t being treated well by their mother, and when Madison made it clear she wanted to stay in town for the last year of high school, he moved out and gave her a good home, away from all the drama.

“So, I don’t know what your game is, not answering her last letter. The way you’ve treated her should make her want to give up on you, only this is my sister we’re talking about. You’re giving me flashbacks of the Kailie situation. You remember that whole thing?”

Kailie, as in Kailie Beale. Do I ever remember.

The first memory that pops into my head is of Madison being dragged off to the high school nurse’s office, both hands clasped over her face and blood dripping off her chin and onto her shirt. For weeks she had two black eyes, and while Kailie wasn’t the one to kick her, she’d incited another girl to do it.

What made the situation worse was that a day or so after this happened, I saw Madison hug Kailie in the hallway, best friends as if nothing had happened.

Then there was the time Kailie texted everyone at school to say that Madison had performed a lewd act on me. That was before Madison and I were even dating.

A few days after that, Kailie attempted suicide and Madison saved her life. She broke into the Beales’ home and called an ambulance. How did Kailie repay Madison that kindness?

Like this: A few weeks later, after Madison and I got together, I was sound asleep in my bed when I woke up to find someone straddling me. I suppose Kailie thought this would be alluring, that I’d wake up to her body pressed to mine and her lips parted, ready for a deep kiss, and that I’d want to make passionate love to her, but my reflexes don’t work that way. I’d never been straddled by a girl before, it was always by other guys trying to beat the crap out of me. And the four point pin, where your opponent is down on all fours on top of you? That’s a nasty pin. It’s hard to break, so I didn’t just shove her off. I pulled my knees up to my chest and kicked as hard as I could. I think Kailie took to the air.

“What is your problem?” she demanded as she picked herself up off my floor. I have a big room, and that’s the only reason why she didn’t hit a wall. She stood there wearing a lingerie something or other, her deep blue eyes indignant, her stance firm, hands planted on her hips. She wasn’t an ugly girl, but she was the kind of skinny that is only attractive because it makes women confident.

“Put your clothes on,” I said.

“You don’t even know what to do, do you?”

“Yeah, I do. I’m going to give you three seconds to leave, or I throw you out the window.”

“Madison’s not putting out. You can’t convince me that she is.”

Kailie had this backwards. I was the one not “putting out” because I was a baptized member of the Church at this point. “You,” I said to Kailie, “are not even remotely attractive. Put your clothes on.”

“Oh please. You don’t have to do the whole loyal boyfriend act.”

“It’s not an act.”

“You don’t ever want to take the edge off?”

“Of what? My sanity. Seriously, get out before I call the police.” Kailie was the one person in town that Officer Li, our local cop, disliked as much as he disliked me. Both she and I had long rap sheets from all of our underage drinking and other stupid antics.

“A-alex,” she sing-songed, pulling at the straps of her lingerie.

I picked up my cellphone. “Do anything else like that and I’m texting pictures to the entire senior class, who will laugh at you. Laugh, Kailie. You’re pathetic.”

Her eyes widened and she gave me a baleful look before she picked up her jeans and shirt from where they lay crumpled on the floor, and pulled them back on. “You could do better.”

“There is no one better. Get out.”

She huffed her way out my open window, which I shut behind her. Pelican Bluffs is a quiet town. People sleep with their windows open all the time, even on the first floor. It’s a little tricky to get to my bedroom window on the second floor, but it is possible. I would know, I sneaked out all the time.

I sat down on my bed and called Madison.

“Mmmph?” she answered.

“Hey, sorry to wake you up.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Kailie was just here, in my room, in lingerie. She thought maybe she’d try to sleep with me tonight. You know, typical best friend stuff.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What do you have to be sorry about?”

“Well, she wouldn’t have tried it if you weren’t with me.”

I paused to savor those words. I was “with” Madison. We were a unit, a couple.

“Listen,” said Madison, “don’t tell anyone else, but Kailie’s bipolar. She just got diagnosed.”

“I’m shocked.” You may have noticed, I have a sarcasm problem.

“Don’t say that.”

“Bipolar disorder doesn’t make you climb into your best friend’s boyfriend’s window in lingerie.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“No, I’m mad at her. Why aren’t you mad at her?”

“Because everyone’s always mad at her. She hasn’t got anyone on her side.”

“Because she’s an awful person, okay?”

For a moment, Madison was silent. Then I heard a sniffle.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t know what it’s like for her. Mental illness has a stigma, and even her own parents don’t know how to deal.”

“Come on. Think about this. I do know about mental illness, the stigma, and families not dealing well with-”

“I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t tell her to climb in through your window.” She began to cry in earnest.

And I felt awful. I’d made her cry when all I’d tried to do was look out for her. The simple truth was, she was so loyal to Kailie that nothing that girl did could turn Madison against her. It’d taken me the better part of an hour to cheer Madison up again and convince her I wasn’t angry with her.

I come back to myself, still in John’s van as it rattles its way along the top of the bluffs with the deep blue ocean far below, beating itself to froth against the rocky beach. He’s driven us on a loop out of town that will pass through Sequoia Ridge, and then back to Pelican Bluffs.

I look over at him “Madison even annoyed with me?”

“Nope,” says John. “She’s just wondering what she did wrong. You broke her heart and then ground the pieces into dust and then dumped the dust off the end of the world and then laughed it all off.”

“I didn’t laugh.”

“Oh gee, that makes you so decent. Here’s another thing. Someone ended up getting sent home from his mission early. Got real bad malaria. You might have heard of him. Carson Montrose?”

He was the guy I stole Madison from on our movie date, and is your stereotypical, clean cut Mormon guy. Before I was baptized, he was the only male member of the Church in our age group. Every other girl vied for his attention, but he’s always had his heart set on Madison. He’s been infatuated since kindergarten.

Even worse? He was never a jerk to me after I took her from him on that date. He wasn’t just polite to me, he was nice and decent. He didn’t even gloat when I got my mission call and ended things with her. Really, there isn’t a bad thing I can say about the guy. He’s exactly what Madison deserves.

I shut my eyes and remember going from that ruined date of theirs to our my first kiss with Madison, when I backed her up against the door, those blue eyes looking up at me with just the slightest touch of fear. I remember the smooth skin of her cheek, the cherry lip gloss taste of her lips, the sound of her soft moan as I kissed her neck.

“Alex,” John snaps.

“Yeah...”

“I’m a guy, okay? The strong, silent act doesn’t do much for me. I asked you a question. Will you promise to leave my sister alone?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wrong answer.”

It’s hard to talk in this van. I have to shout to be heard. “I need to talk to her.”

“About?”

“Everything.”

“Forget it.”

I pick at a piece of lint on my jeans.

“She’s also gotten into two good schools,” says John. “UVU and CalPoly, and she will be going to one in the fall and you will not interfere with that.”

No point answering him.

“And Carson is going to BYU, so he’d be a good influence on her. If things work out with them, she can go to UVU and be near him.”

“You’ve got this all planned out, don’t you?” I say.

“You got a better one for her?”

No point being anything but honest. I shake my head.

“Good. Um… so… why is there a cop in your driveway?”

I peer out the windshield; we’re back on the road that leads to my house now and even though we aren’t close yet, from here we can see what does indeed look like a police cruiser in my driveway..

John glances at me again and I feel the van surge forward as he steps a little harder on the gas.

As we get closer, I see that a guy in plain clothes with black hair buzzed short sits on the hood of the cruiser. He turns, and I note with shock that it’s Officer Li, the same cop we had when I left on my mission. Only I’ve never seen him like this, out of uniform, no mirror shades, and with cheeks chapped red from crying. Surely this is a delusion.

But John shoots me a baffled look that tells me he sees this too.

As his name would suggest, Officer Li is Asian American, full blood, and he fits the stereotype of a short macho guy, always strutting around like he’s got something to prove and treating the people he busts with callous indifference. Which isn’t to say I didn’t deserve it every time he busted me, I did. I just didn’t like it.

John pulls the van into my driveway, next to the cruiser and I look over at him again to make sure he’s reacting as if he sees what I do. His baffled stare across the dashboard tells me what I need to know. If this is a delusion, it’s a really elaborate one. Either I’m in John’s van, in my driveway, with Officer Li parked next to us, or I’m so far gone that my body could be wandering just about anywhere while my mind has cut loose completely. I’m not sure, at the moment, which I would prefer.

FOUR



I open my door and step out into the strong, biting wind off the sea. There are no trees between my house and the edge of the bluffs to create a windbreak, just barren rock.

“Hey, Alex,” is all the cop says.

I raise an eyebrow and slam the van door shut behind me.

He purses his lips in a regretful smile and nods at something on the far side of his car. I step around, and see that the something is actually a someone. A little guy, maybe two years old, squats down at the edge of the driveway, making a long line of rocks from the corner of the garage along a groove in the concrete. He’s very slow and meticulous about which rocks he selects from the rock garden and nothing seems to distract him, not the wind, not John and me pulling up, not me staring at him, nothing.

“Hello, John.” Officer Li’s voice is flat, as if he’s used up his allotment of emotions for the day.

“Hi. I should go. Alex…” He sighs in exasperation. “Welcome home, all right?”

I look back to see him get into the van and drive away, shaking his head with disgust over me, then I look at my old nemesis. The cop who arrested me enough times to have my mom’s number on speed dial. I haven’t changed my clothes in twenty hours, and I’m wearing a suit that’s seen better days. At least I don’t still have my name tag on, but I still feel plenty ridiculous.

Officer Li slides down off the hood of his car and jams his hands in his pockets. “I shouldn’t bother you, but I’m at the end of my rope.”

I look in the windows of his car. There’s no carseat for this little guy, and there’s likely a story there. Officer Li doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who ignores any laws, ever.

“You… you do work with people with… issues, right?” he says.

The guy’s gotta know I’ve been gone for two years. Didn’t he miss slapping cuffs on me?

“And your mom is the only other person I’ve ever known who’s like Mikey. Always off in her own world. Freaking out at weird stuff – no offense.”

He thinks this toddler has schizophrenia? How stupid is this guy? Schizophrenia nearly always shows up in the late teens or early twenties, just like it did for me.

“My wife stormed out on me. Because I was an idiot and said I might leave her.”

That is way more information than I want.

“I don’t know how to cope with this. I’m bad enough with kids. I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing. Carla always handles him, but she won’t even pick up her phone. If she leaves me, I’m screwed.” He’s on a roll now, pouring out his heart to me.

And I really don’t want to hear it.

“I know she’s had it rough. She’s young. Not much older than you, and she doesn’t know people here. I never had a ton of friends in this town, being the cop and trying to do my job, and-”

“Dude,” I say. “Stop.”

He looks at me, squares his shoulders, and I expect him to say something condescending. Instead what he says is, “Sorry. Listen, I need help. I’ll beg if you want, I’ll grovel. Please help me.”

Not words I ever thought I’d hear out of this guy’s mouth. He returns my gaze a moment, the wind strong enough to ruffle even his close cropped hair, and then looks away. “I know. You think I’m an idiot too.”

What I think is that this guy has shown up with a whole bunch of emotional garbage that I don’t need, and he’s interfering with my plans to go talk to Madison. The only thing that prevents me from going into the house and locking the door behind me is this toddler lining up rocks. He didn’t ask for any of this.

I squat down next to him. Mikey, his dad called him. Now that I can see the little guy’s face, I notice he’s hapa like me; he’s got a white parent. I pick up a rock and hold it out. He takes it without acknowledging me and adds it to the line. I hand him another and this one I hang onto when he tries to take it.

For a moment his mouth puckers like he’s about to scream and he shoots a desperate look at my chest. I let go of the rock and he calms again.

“What did you just do?” Officer Li asks.

I look up. “Handed him two rocks.”

His eyes widen a little as if he doesn’t know whether I’m joking or just insulting him. After a conflicted moment, he shakes his head and chuckles. “Look, you got any idea what’s going on with him? Our pediatrician says he’ll just grow out of it but-”

“He’s wrong,” I say. “Get a different doctor.”

“Okay.” The cop accepts this without skepticism or argument. “So what do you think is wrong with him?” His expression is all query, which means he hasn’t got a clue.

How can any parent in the twenty-first century not pick up on these symptoms? I reach down and block Mikey’s rock-line and say. “Mikey, inside.” I speak clearly and slowly enough for him to hear each word. Then I point at my house, my hand at chest level so that he can see it without looking me in the face.

He pauses, a rock in his hand, and doesn’t react for a moment. Then he puts the rock back down, pulls his knees to his chest, and hugs himself tight.

I get to my feet, sidle past Officer Li and his car, and jog down the stairs to my front door.

The lock slides open easily as I turn the key and push the door in with a whoosh of the insulation strip sliding across the floor. Our sunken living room is immaculate as always. It’s the one room we don’t really use; it’s just for show. Two leather couches face each other across a dark wood coffee table, which has a row of round river stones down its middle. Some feng shui thing my mother is into, I think. I step inside and turn to see if Officer Li is following, and he is, with Mikey in his arms. The boy begins to squirm the moment his father carries him over the threshold and as soon as he’s put down, he makes a beeline for the coffee table and those stones. I shut the door against that blasted wind and my ears ring in the resulting silence. Officer Li stands like a student hauled into the principal’s office. When I gesture for him to sit down, he goes over and perches on the edge of the couch as if he expects me to launch into a lecture.

This is weird. It’s beyond weird. I head upstairs and change into jeans and an old t-shirt, then grab my laptop off the bedside table. On my way back I make a quick detour to the den where I see my mom has moved to her favorite chair, the blue one with a kind of velvety upholstery, her arms folded, her jaw set. Something’s upset her, but Hiroko is there, singing softly in Japanese and pouring tea. Odds are, she’ll have my mother unbent and relaxed in record time – though, granted, record time could still be hours from now.

I open the laptop and boot it up as I go down the hall to the office, so that once I’m there I can pull up the contact info for the autism specialist in Crescent City and hit “print”, then I do a quick search for other web resources on autism and print out page after page. The sooner I get Officer Li out of here, the sooner I can get to Madison. I grab the stack of papers from the printer and tap them against the table to line them up.

Once back in the living room, I hold them out to Officer Li, who takes them and scans the first page. “This a better doctor?”

“He specializes in diagnosing autism.”

Officer Li looks up, startled. “Autism? Mikey has autism?”

I shrug. “You should have him checked.”

“I thought autism just made people a little socially awkward. Mikey he’s… just in his own world all the time. Doesn’t care what we say. He ignores us. We make him food and he doesn’t eat it. We do anything he doesn’t like, and he throws a tantrum that will go on for hours. I’m not exaggerating. Hours.”

“You haven’t ever read anything on autism?” I say. “At all? Over one percent of the population has it.”

“Really?”

Yeah, I never liked this guy. I sit on the couch across from him while he leafs through the rest of the papers.

At one, he pauses to read. “Autism can prevent someone from learning to speak?”

“If it’s severe enough.”

“Over one percent of the population has this?”

“In one form or another.”

“Who else in town has it?”

I have to think a moment. Because I’ve worked as a respite care provider, I do know a lot of people’s disabilities, but it’s not appropriate for me to blab about them. Families deserve privacy and have the right to decide for themselves who should know about their medical issues. However, there is one family that has always been very open about their son’s disability and told me, time and again, to send any parents with questions about the disorder to them. “Kevin Rawls,” I say.

“He had autism?”

“Still has it.”

“That was autism…” Now Officer Li goes tense, and he looks at me with an expression that could be dread. “You don’t know what happened?”

I’m not sure how to answer that.

“Oh, man… Yeah. You would’ve known Kevin. Of course you would. You used to take care of him sometimes, didn’t you? Nobody told you? They didn’t call you up or send you a letter?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Kevin… ah… he’s gone. He was killed.”

With those three words comes a rush of sickening certainty about what happened. While it’s possible that he got hit by a car or had a heart attack, Officer Li’s expression is all wrong for that. See, the thing about Kevin Rawls was that his autism was so severe that he didn’t talk and couldn’t endure the least variation in his routine. He threw tantrums at the drop of a hat which, given he was a forty year old man who stood six foot four, meant he was dangerous. It’s one thing for a toddler to lose it and thrash around. It’s something else entirely when it’s an adult. That guy put more bruises on me than anyone and nearly broke my arm on a couple of occasions. One advantage of working with him, though, was that I got very good at safety holds. I had to, or else I’d’ve been beaten to a pulp.

So I can guess what ended Kevin’s life. He tried the patience of everyone who knew him, including his saintly, longsuffering parents. When I looked after him, I never got mad because I understood that he was the one who truly suffered. He spent his whole life trapped in a world that was too loud, too bright, and made no sense. He understood very little that was said to him, which meant that he lived a terrifying, disjointed existence. If it were me, I’d throw constant tantrums too. His parents called me “a godsend” and “the only person we can trust.” Before I started to look after him, they’d gone almost thirty years without an evening out, just the two of them. I knew with icy cold certainty that once I’d left, they’d have tried to find a replacement for me.

“Who killed him?” I ask.

“His parents put him in that special home in Sequoia Ridge. He was there for a trial period. Just a couple of days.”

Many group homes are spectacular facilities run by staff who are patient and well trained. Having said that, the wages usually aren’t high, and being screamed at, punched in the face, and having to clean up fecal matter out of carpets is not exactly a dream job. A lot of care workers handle it about as well as anyone would, and quite a few handle it worse.

I get to my feet and rub my face with my hands. Mikey remains oblivious and lines the river rocks up along the edge of the coffee table. “The workers beat him up?” I say.

Officer Li nods.

“How bad?” An image of Kevin surfaces up in my mind. He had graying blond hair, hazel eyes, and a round face that was usually smushed up in a grimace. He’d howl so loud that people would have to cover their ears and his mood would change without warning. One minute he’d be watching gulls flying overhead, and the next he’d lunge at you and shriek with wordless fury. Still, there were moments when he was calm, when he’d relax, and you could see that he wasn’t a bad looking guy. If his mind were different, he’d probably be happily married, dandling a kid or two on his knee. He was human, just like the rest of us.

“Ahm… yeah,” whispers Officer Li. “I got called in for backup because the cop on the scene just couldn’t deal.”

“What happened?” I press.

“I guess he threw a fit of some kind and one of the workers snapped, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and beat him with it. He wasn’t dead when I got there, Kevin wasn’t.” The cop pauses and shuts his eyes. “When I found out later that he did die, I was relieved for him. It was bad. I still get nightmares about it.”

I feel like someone’s wrapped a leather strap around my chest and cinched it up too tight for me to breathe.

“Alex, look,” says Officer Li. “I know what you’re thinking, that this is your fault somehow and don’t do that to yourself. I get it now, okay?” He gestures at his son. “You did a lot of work with people who have special needs and you must’ve been real good at it. You practically grew up on the job, but Kevin wasn’t your responsibility. The person at fault is the guy who grabbed the fire extinguisher and beat an unarmed man with it, and I did put that guy away. He’s in jail for second degree murder. The defense went for manslaughter but I told the jury in detail everything I saw that night. His parents talked about how sweet Kevin could be. Justice was done, okay? I know it doesn’t bring Kevin back but…” He shakes his head. “At the time I pitied his parents and thought I could never do what they did. I’m still not sure I can.”

At that I glare at him. How dare he say that in front of his own kid?

He raises his hands as if warding off a blow and gets to his feet. “Yeah, well. Listen. It’s been a rough couple of years and I’ve figured a few things out. For example…” He drops his gaze to the floor for a moment, then looks me in the eye. “You’re a better man than I. Better than most. I deserve to be out of a job after how I treated you and your mom, but today I come by and what do you do? You help me.” He flicks something away from his eye that I realize is another tear. “So, thanks, all right? And if there’s anything I can ever do for you, just let me know.”

Even if I weren’t socially awkward and on the brink of mentally ill, I think I’d find this conversation difficult to navigate. Fortunately Officer Li doesn’t drag it out. He puts a business card down on the coffee table, gathers his son in his arms, and heads for the front door. I go to let him out and, with a curt nod, he’s gone.

I wonder if the Rawls are still around. Will I run into them in the street? What do I say to them? Do they hate me for leaving?

“Alex?” Hiroko’s voice cuts across my fretful thoughts much the same way her diminutive figure cuts through the living room. “Did you eat lunch?”

“Yes,” I lie.

“Come. Eat.” Hiroko’s smile always wrinkles her nose, which is turned up, what we would have called a “pug nose” in elementary school. Her hair is cropped short and she always wears yoga pants and shirts that allow her to move. My guess is she used to work with someone who required a lot of physical intervention. I know she’s got a black belt in aikido. She’s the one who taught me how to lock Kevin’s joints so that I could subdue him with one hand without hurting him.

“So did you know about Kevin Rawls?” I ask.

That smile dissipates. “Yes.” She goes into the kitchen, rests her elbows on the counter, and looks me in the eye. “Who told you?”

“Officer Li was here.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t do anything.”

She laughs, as if to say she knows this is true. I’m nowhere near as interesting as I was as a teenager. “Why was he here?”

So I tell her about his visit and Mikey.

“I didn’t hear their voices,” she says.

“Yeah, well Mikey was a normal autistic kid and Officer Li was all shy… They were here. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a delusion.”

“Didn’t mean to imply it was. He told you about Kevin, which a delusion wouldn’t do.”

“So was anyone ever going to tell me?”

“I wasn’t hiding it on purpose. It happened quite a while ago and I didn’t think to fill you in, so I’m sorry. The group home got shut down and the whole company went under. Now if people want services, they have to contract for them privately. Which your aunt already arranged with me.”

“Are the Rawls still in town?”

“They moved. I don’t know where. I think the whole situation was just too much and they had to turn over a new leaf. Are you going to eat?”

“No, I’ve got something I’ve gotta go do.”

“Just eat something, all right? Please.”

I don’t want to, but I oblige her long enough to eat some rice and steamed veggies, and then I’m out the front door and on my way to Madison’s house. It’s a fifteen minute walk, but I use the time to rehearse what I’m going to say, or in other words, to draw a blank. I have no idea what to say. I just know that I owe her a visit and need to show that I’m trying.

The town of Pelican Bluffs is bisected by Main Street, which is actually called Wilkstone Road, but I don’t call it that. Wilkstone is my middle name. My dad was a Wilkstone until he married my mother and chose to become a Katsumoto. No one in town knows my relationship to the town’s founder, my grandfather.

On my side of Main Street are the bluffside properties, the big mansions with the views and such. On the far side are things like the high school, the cemetery, and a little subdivision of four streets of low income housing, owned and rented out by the Wilkstone Foundation. This is where Madison grew up and continues to live because in the randomness of life, she got born to a poor woman and I to a wealthy family.

The contrast in lifestyles is apparent the moment I cross Main Street. The houses along these side streets are rundown and ramshackle with patches in their stucco, cracks in their walls, broken television antennas, cars up on blocks, and junked out appliances in the yards. If our life situations went by what we deserved, I’d live here. I match these houses with my patched together life.

I make it to the corner of Madison’s street and the first thing I notice is that their door is painted deep purple and there are big flower urns lining the walkway up to the house, which is neatly maintained and even cute. A windchime dangles from the eaves by the front door and the address is displayed on brightly painted tiles hung on the side of the house. Even the beat up van and another, even more beat up sports car, look economical and not cheap and junky next to this house.

As I walk up the flagstones, I smooth my hair back and brace for a fight with John, who’ll no doubt tell me off the moment he sees me coming. Before I reach the front door, though, it jerks open to reveal Madison, wearing jeans and an oversized shirt decorated with tie-dye.

For a moment, I can’t even breathe. Stunning doesn’t even begin to describe her. Her long blond hair is now fuller and frames her face with soft waves. She’s a little curvier than she was when I saw her last, and her face fuller, with a soft pink flush to the cheeks. Those blue eyes are the color of a mountain lake.

“Alex?” There’s a note of surprise in her voice. I’m home two weeks later than I should be. John clearly didn’t deign to tell her I’m around. I wonder how he even knew, whether he was in contact with the bishop who released me from my mission, or if he just spotted me being driven home.

I step up to the welcome mat and put my hands in my pockets. There are so many things I owe it to her to say, but what comes out is, “I had a psychotic… episode.”

Her mouth drops open and I watch the full effect of the words sink in. Her expression shifts first to surprise, and then compassion. “When?”

“Coincidentally, the day I got your last letter. Which still isn’t an excuse for not writing back, but-”

“No, it is. It’s a pretty good one. So how are you?”

“Right now I’m fine. You’re the only one who knows about this besides people on my mission, my family in Japan, Hiroko, and my aunt.”

“Alex, oh my gosh.”

I take a good, long look at the girl I love, except she’s all woman now. The very idea of building a life with her is so ridiculous, it might as well have been a dream. I try to convince myself that it would never have worked out. “Look,” I say, “what you said in your last letter, I wish I could say it back. I wish we could be together, but we can’t, and I’m sorry.”

Tears glisten in her eyes. “Why not?”

“Because I care about you too much to put you through all this. I’m going to lose my mind. A year from now, I’ll probably be sorting Happy Meal toys and arguing with invisible people who run the universe. You deserve better.”

“But-”

“Okay, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that you don’t mind and you want to be there for me and that means everything, but the answer is no.” It hurts, physically, to say the word. “The thing is, I know you already feel bad for me and the worse I get, the more you’ll try to take care of me and I know how that goes, okay? It would destroy your life. Ten years from now, you’d be visiting me in an institution while I don’t even recognize you anymore, and that’s just not right. You deserve someone who can love you and be there for you, not a headcase to look after. I really am sorry.”

A tear escapes the corner of her eye, and I want more than anything to catch it with my thumb. She looks at me like she wants that too. This is, hands down, the most painful experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve been stabbed twice and had my own mother scream in terror at the sight of me.

Footsteps sound against the tiles behind her and John steps into view. “Alex, hey. I didn’t know.”

Madison looks confused for a moment, then turns to face him. “You’ve already talked to him?”

“Look, I-”

“Did you tell him to get lost? To leave me alone?”

“You know that-”

“Seriously? You’ve got problems.” She shoves past him and disappears back into the house. I know she’s crying and I want to go after her, put my arms around her, and tell her that no matter what, I’ll always love her.

John looks at me and shrugs. “I’m sorry. I had no idea.”

“Just… make sure she’s all right, okay?”

“Might be a while before she’ll even speak to me.”

“Tell her that I called you to try to discuss how to break this to her, and that’s how it is we ended up talking. You started to chew me out before I could explain or… whatever.” I shrug.

“You make a habit of lying to her?”

“No. You’re welcome.” I turn my back on him.

“Alex,” he calls after me.

I stop, turn, and raise an eyebrow.

“Thank you. For doing the right thing.” I don’t respond to that. I just leave.

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