nine

December 14th
9:34 AM
New York
– – – – – – – – – –

Audrey’s body ached.

Though her eyes opened, she didn’t know why. She had awoken with the hope that this was all just a bad dream and that if she left this bedroom, she’d be greeted by her parents and brother downstairs. But embracing her instead was the cold air blowing in through the open window and the morning light illuminating her surroundings.

She didn’t stand up right away. She let herself adjust to the reality of things. The previous night had been one of the worst in her life; the same feeling of abandonment she experienced the day she told her parents of her pregnancy was what the morning had welcomed her with. That had been six years ago, and the wound was still fresh.

Draping an arm over her eyes, Audrey filled her lungs with air. In and out. Until she was well enough to get up on her own and push back the emotion rising like a high tide. The bed was a mess and the room needed to be cleaned, but as of late a few pieces of clothing on the floor weren’t her main concern. It was scrubbing herself clean of Michael and attending to her daughter.

Audrey shuffled through the mess and stumbled out. Her next stop was Leah’s room, ready to wake her up for school despite how terribly late she was. But as she twisted the knob and creaked the door open, she was stopped in her tracks. It was a sight she wasn’t prepared for and a sight she maybe wished she witnessed more often.

Gunner and his daughter were fast asleep, and she was sheltered in his arms. Obviously, the bed wasn’t big enough for the both of them–his legs dangled off the edge and his right arm was awkwardly folded around Leah’s torso. Yet they both appeared content with the lack of space. Leah’s small hands clutched the fabric of his shirt like he might have disappeared at any moment as the gentle rise and fall of her chest matched his own. Her boyfriend’s messy hair covered the small pillow, soft breaths being emitted from his parted lips, and the worrisome guise he typically donned was replaced by peace.

Her heart warmed. Something about this was real. Perhaps they weren’t a family yet but this came close.

She smiled at Gunner; he was beautiful when he slept, and there was no denying that he and his daughter looked alike, not to the extent that Leah and Audrey did, but they did share a few things in common on both their sleeping faces. His face was relaxed and she could see the real beauty in his finely carved features. Everything about him was pale, but not in an unpleasant way. His skin was white and smooth, his hair was long and blonde, and beneath his eyelids, his green eyes looked like someone had stolen their colour, just not entirely. She always called him pretty and not handsome because that was what he was. His appearance was innately soft, though his habits had given him a rugged edge.

Then she remembered Michael and the sliver of hope she salvaged that told her this family could be saved dissipated faster than wisps of smoke on a cold day. She left her daughter and boyfriend alone and slinked to the bathroom. As she stepped inside the small space, her ears picked up on the sound of footsteps. They abruptly stopped, soon to be replaced by gentle knocking on the bathroom door.

“Audrey, baby, is that you?”

She considered ignoring Gunner’s question, though a part of her wanted so terribly to see him again. Audrey opened it, gravely taking in his worn appearance.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

He wasted no time to apologize, “I’m sorry about what I said at Ace’s place. I was just really worried when I saw you.”

She rubbed her arm and lifted her shoulder in a lacklustre shrug. “It’s dangerous there, I get it.”

Gunner threaded his fingers through his overgrown, blonde hair. It was pale and hung at his jaw, desperately in need of some washing. “You wanna get that cut?” Audrey closed the gap between them and laid her hands on his chest.

“I haven’t seen it this long in a while. It looks cute on you.”

“You think so?” He tugged on a few strands. “I never liked it this long. It keeps getting in the way.”

“Reminds me of you a couple years ago. Leave it.”

His green eyes brightened at her words, but as he remembered the real reason he was here, the light faded. “Can we talk, Audrey?”

“We’re talking right now,” she said.

“I mean talk,” Gunner grasped her wrists and brushed the pad of his thumbs over her pulse. “About everything. Us right now. It’s been a mess lately and we’ve just been avoiding each other.”

She remained stoic, but her gaze flickered to sink, counting the drops of water as they dripped out of the faucet and into the basin. Gunner’s touch was warm, and she was unsure of what he had to say to her. Anxious whether this might be the end of them.

“I gotta get Leah ready for school—”

Gunner gripped her shoulders. “Please don’t walk away again, Rey. I mean it. We need to get things back on track.”

“I know…” her voice trailed off. His eyes frantically searched her face. “Maybe we can do this later, Gunner. It’s just not a good time for me right now. I’m still unhappy about what happened the other day.”

“You have every right to be, baby. I know I fucked up. But I’m trying to make sure everything works out for all of us.”

He gathered her in his arms and pressed his cold cheek against her temple. “I love you, Audrey. It’s fucked up but I love you.”

She fluttered her eyes closed and leaned into his familiar touch. Those words had never sounded so intimate to her ears.

“We can talk but I still need to take Leah to school.”

“She’s already late though.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Audrey muttered lowly. “She already missed it yesterday. I don’t want it to become a habit.”

“You’re such a good mom, you know that.” She felt his silent laughter in the reverberations coming from his body and the tightening of his hold. “Leah’s lucky.”

“She’s got a nice daddy too,” she quipped, their soft sounds creating a gentle cacophony of merriment. “And I know he’s trying to change for her.”

“Really hard, baby.”

They let silence take over as they stood in the bathroom and held each other. Audrey kept her eyes sealed shut and listened to his uneven heartbeat, and Gunner stroked her hair, breathing her in.

“You smell different.”

She pulled out of his arms, purposely putting some distance between them, scared to get too close in case he would pick up on the purple patches that decorated her collarbone. He didn’t deserve to have his heart broken so harshly. “I do? What do you mean, Gun?”

Gunner gazed at her diligently, admiring the timidness of her ever-smiling features.
“You don’t smell like you,” he explained innocently, enclosing his hand around hers. “You usually smell like flowers or something like that. It’s not there no more.”

Her heart leapt with guilt. Should I tell him about Michael?

“I didn’t notice a difference,” Audrey replied. “Don’t think too hard about it.”

The corner of Gunner’s lips curved themselves upwards and the pleasure in his smile reflected itself in his eyes. “I’ll walk with you to the school.”

Audrey smiled back. “Think you can get Leah to wake up?”

“I’ll do that.”

They were hesitant to let each other go, concerned that things would take a different turn today. Possibly end. Which neither of them was ready for.

“I love you too, Gunner. I never said it back.”

He watched her with longing and stepped back toward the door. “I’ll see you, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

She stared at him as he left the bathroom. Alone, she turned the shower on, ready to wash the hurt away.

* * *

December 14th
9:55 AM
New York

“Leah, finish eating quickly. You’re already late as it is,” Audrey said as she walked past her daughter, who sat cross-legged in front of the TV with a plate of toast and eggs. “And your hair’s still wet. I told you to dry it off properly.”

“I did, mommy!” Leah argued and angrily munched on her toast. “It’s hard to do it all by myself. But can you put it in a ponytail for me and tie my ribbon in it?”

She was tempted to turn off the TV since her daughter was more concerned with the cartoon characters on the screen than her breakfast, but she let it be because it wasn’t often that they had simple ‘family’ moments like these. “Hm, maybe you should ask daddy to help you.”

“Help with what?” his voice rang out in the living room, and Audrey’s gaze darted to his lazy form stifling a yawn.

“Leah needs help with her hair.”

“And what am I supposed to do about it?” He scrunched up his nose like he was solving an impossible equation and pushed his damp hair out of his face. “I have no idea how to do any of that hair stuff.”

“You should learn,” Audrey laughed. “Today would be a good time to start honing your skills.”

“Please, daddy,” Leah begged, her hazel eyes open wide, roiling with anticipation.

He sent a glare Audrey’s way. “Fine, I’ll help you out. But don’t blame me if you’re unhappy with the end product.”

“Works for me,” Audrey smirked.

“Alrighty, princess,” Gunner sighed, crouching down to place a kiss on Leah’s cheek. “Where’s your hair stuff or whatever?”

She removed her eyes from the TV and met her father’s soft gaze. “In my room. I’ll go get them.”

“Yeah, yeah, get ’em quickly so we can go.”

Somehow, she heeded his request when she blatantly ignored Audrey’s. She couldn’t help but laugh at how strange her boyfriend and their daughter’s dynamic was. They loved each other dearly, that much was clear. But it was a kind of love she couldn’t describe. He loved Audrey in his own way too, though it was always different when it came to Leah. She smiled to herself and treaded toward the kitchen, leaving them to their usual ways.

She opened the fridge, making a note to restock on groceries, and grabbed the carton of orange juice. While she grabbed a glass and poured it inside, she hadn’t noticed Gunner’s presence lingering in the doorway. And it wasn’t until she felt a pair of arms slither around her waist that she flinched, almost dropping her glass, and turned around to face him.

“That was really fast. How did doing her hair go?”

“Terribly, so I convinced her to just let me brush it and she was fine.”

His expression was sheepish in that boyish way that brought back old memories. Audrey put the glass and carton down on the counter, giving him her full attention. “Do you feel okay?” she asked like always.

“I’m okay,” Gunner answered. But he didn’t sound very sure of himself. “I have to be okay for the both of you.”

“I can see right through you, Gun. Don’t push yourself too hard.”

His eyes dimmed slightly, hardly noticeable. “Can I be honest with you?”

Audrey settled her hands on his chest and felt his heartbeat, how irregular and rapid it was. “What’s on your mind?”

“It’s just that…” He didn’t finish his sentence. Instead, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and hugged her closer. “Nothing, Rey. Let’s focus on other things, alright? Like Leah and how we’re gonna celebrate Christmas together. I want us to do it right as a family. A real family. It’s been a while since we’ve been together like one.”

Although she knew he was just trying to avoid the real substance of the matter, she would let it go for now simply to have some semblance of normal. “I really want that. For us to be a family,” she confessed.

“I think I say I love you a bit too often. It might start losing its meaning to you, but not to me. I love you, Audrey. I’m gonna keep saying it. Ten, twenty times a day. Because I want you to know that I do despite everything else. And I say I love you because I have no idea how else to tell you the way I feel about you.” He pressed her even closer, tighter as if she could melt into his body and become a part of him. “That was really cheesy.”

She laughed quietly and tilted her head back to glimpse his light green eyes. “I’m not complaining. You might be the cheesiest guy in the world, but I wouldn’t want you to change that.”

“I can keep going, you know. Just tell me what you wanna hear.”

“I think I’ve heard enough for now.” Audrey dissolved into giggles as his lips roamed her neck. “Quit it, Gun. Once you start, you don’t stop.”

“Why would I stop when I have someone like you?” he retorted, pulling away with a smiling face. “If Leah wasn’t here, I wouldn’t let you leave this kitchen. I’d have you right here, right now.”

“Gunner,” she said in a warning tone.

“I think we have time for a quick one. What do you say?”

She put on her most serious display, but it cracked as soon as his eyes landed upon her own. “We can’t right now. Maybe after we drop Leah off at school.”

“You sure?” His hands started their journey on her hips and disappeared up her sweater, fingers meticulously tracing her skin. “Is this such a bad thing?” He pinched her stomach, causing her to hiss. “Are you losing weight?” he asked. “Rey, you need to eat more. You’re getting skinnier.”

“I’m eating.” She swatted his hands away and leaned against the counter, but his arms caged her in. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Serious question, baby,” his face flickered with conflict as he tried to read her, biting down on his lower lip as his mind raged with thoughts she couldn’t begin to decipher. “Are you actually taking care of yourself? I know you’ve been fretting over me and Leah, but you need to stay healthy. Don’t stress yourself out so much. You need to get some food in you.”

“Gunner, you’re worrying about nothing.”

“No, I’m not. You need to eat and let the food stay in your system. You don’t think I know you’ve been throwing it up most of the time.”

Blood gathered beneath her cheeks and guilt spread through her. There was nothing worse than being caught red-handed reverting back to her old habits. They weren’t easily dismissable as habits, but they still set back years of progress she made in overcoming her bulimia. The episodes were on and off, sometimes she threw up after a meal and sometimes she didn’t. When the stress got to her, she did the former, albeit with regret. Now that Gunner had come to know, she was embarrassed and ashamed of herself for lack of better terms.

“It was only once,” she said in defence. “And it wasn’t my fault. It just happened.”

“For someone who tells me not to lie to her, you tend to do it a lot to me.” He emanated disappointment. “I’m not angry about it, Rey. I just want you to be honest.”

“I am being honest.” Her face transformed into a frown as she managed to break free of his arms. “If you don’t believe me, that’s on you.”

Gunner snatched her wrist. “There’s no need to get defensive. All I meant was that I don’t want you falling back into old habits.”

“You’re the one to talk about falling back into old habits.” She hadn’t meant to say it, but it had spilled out before she could restrain herself, coming from a place of anger and resentment toward him for making her feel ways she couldn’t describe. The disbelief that flashed on his face was more than enough to water her regret until it grew so large that she could hardly shoulder it.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”

“Yes, you did,” her boyfriend grimaced. “But it’s whatever. You said what was on your mind.”

“Gunner—”

“Leah’s late for school.”

“Gunner, I’m sorry.” She grabbed his arm, looking at him with pleading eyes. “It just slipped out.”

“I don’t care, Rey. I was just looking out for you and you decided to turn it against me. But I’m not holding it against you because unlike you, I know how to let things go.” He tugged his arm out of her grip and sauntered away from her. “Let’s go. We gotta drop her off,” he announced from the doorway, then left the kitchen.

How had she messed up so badly? Moments ago he had told her how much he loved her and now, it was like they were enemies. She wasn’t intentionally holding a grudge against him as he said. It was somehow always her fault that things went bad. Always. First, it was getting fired and losing their income, then it was sleeping with Michael to keep their home, and now it was using Gunner’s weakness against him.

She wanted to change things without screwing up for once in her life.

But life had shown her that that was all she was. A screwup.

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