Poughkeepsie, p.12
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       Poughkeepsie, p.12
 

           Debra Anastasia

  Of course Livia already knew this. She knew it from classes and tests and papers. But now the name of the game had changed. Blake.

  As the hours passed, Livia found a few things she could hold onto. One, delusions arrived for a variety of reasons and in varying intensities. They ranged from realistic nightmares to extreme forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some delusional patients believed doing one task repeatedly would affect the future. But beyond that, not much was clear.

  Livia slammed a book shut in frustration. The librarian hissed. She was missing lectures and classes today just to waste time learning things that the peers of the author then tore apart. The pile of photocopied papers and books in front of her had accumulated like a silent snowstorm.

  Livia shoveled the blizzard into her messenger bag. Theory was getting her nowhere. She needed specifics—a person, a professor to talk to about Blake’s case. As she trudged to the psychology department, Livia knew she was risking rejection. More than one professor had warned students about getting ahead of themselves. But this is an emergency. I may be the only person who can get to him.

  As she stepped off the elevator, Livia tried to hold onto her urgency, but her hands started to shake. Office door after office door was closed. Nothing the least bit welcoming or inviting. Livia put her hand to her forehead and took some steadying breaths. She was scared that there’d be no good answer for Blake, no way to fix him.

  “Why, hello there, young lady. Are you feeling okay?” The woman speaking carried a huge mug of coffee and wore an obscene amount of both jewelry and perfume.

  “Hi. I’m fine, thanks. I was just leaving.” Livia waved away her own disruption and turned to go.

  The lady persisted. “Were you looking for a certain professor? I have paper in my office. You could leave a note.” The woman produced a large set of jangly keys.

  “Actually, I’m not here to see anyone specific. I just wanted to talk to a professional.” Something stopped Livia from returning to the elevator.

  The woman opened one of the doors and raised her eyebrow. “I’m not sure what you’re looking for, but my office hours are now. Would you like to come in? Maybe I can steer you in the right direction. Some of our faculty are screwballs, and I wouldn’t want you to get a dud.”

  Livia’s mouth dropped open.

  She looked in as the woman entered her office. It was far from what she expected. Actually, it made Livia a little nervous. This woman was not as motherly as she’d seemed. The office furniture looked cozy and soft, but everything else was macabre. Skulls, skeletons, and autopsy photos were the décor of choice. Livia hovered in the doorway as the woman lit a few candles. She finally glanced up to find Livia still standing there.

  “Oh, forgive me. I’m Valerie Lavender. I teach the death and dying course. Does that make my office any less of a horrifying sepulcher?”

  Of course. Valerie Lavender was a legend. Death and Dying was the toughest class to get in to at registration. Getting a seat was a sign of seniority.

  “I’m Livia McHugh, and I’m searching for some advice on a delusional friend of mine. He needs help, and I want to be there for him.” Whoa. Just lay it the hell out there, Livia.

  “That’s admirable. Please have a seat. I may not be the person you need, but I’m willing to listen.”

  Dr. Lavender sat down and looked as if she had all the time in the world. So Livia collapsed in a chair and unloaded her whole story. As she tried to include all the little bits of Blake that floated in pieces around her mind, she found herself going into alarming detail about her time with him in the woods. But she didn’t stop talking.

  This woman inspired confidence. Dr. Lavender listened with her whole body. Her eyes followed Livia’s lips and movements. Every nod and smile urged Livia to continue. Almost an hour ticked by, and finally, Livia’s story reached the present. Dr. Lavender asked for a moment and made a phone call from her desk.

  “Hey, Lara. Can you do me a favor and tell my class to read chapters fourteen to twenty-five in the text and do the questions after each one?…No, they don’t have to stay…Thanks. I’m fine. I have a student who needs a little extra help.” She hung up the phone and motioned for Livia to join her on the deep-pillowed couch.

  “Dr. Lavender, I feel awful for having you skip your class.” Livia couldn’t believe the precious time being lavished on her.

  “Do you think this is an emergency, Livia? I mean, you might see Blake tonight, right?”

  “I think it’s an emergency, yes,” Livia said. “It feels very urgent.”

  “Well, I’m going to be honest. Delusions aren’t my specialty. I deal in death, and I can only give you advice from my experience. But no one else is here, and you seem to need help right now.”

  Dr. Lavender smiled kindly. “I teach this course here, but one of my other jobs is to go the site of tragedies or soon-to-be tragedies. Companies hire me to provide support for bereaved, shocked families.” Dr. Lavender glanced at an exquisite replica of a death pyre on her bookcase. “So I’ll take a shot.”

  Livia nodded.

  “I’ve learned that in the center of someone’s mourning, the best you can do for them is listen. That’s really what I do. When I arrive at a disaster, I go into a tent full of families who are waiting for, or have just received, the worst news of their lives. I can’t make it better, but I can let them talk. It’s a gift to hear someone talk—even about a loss—from the depths of their love.

  “Your Blake is mourning something. I think that pain is manifesting as his glass-skin delusions. You’re going to have to approach him as if he’s in one of those tents I walk into. My advice is this: Listen, Livia. Listen to him. Saying words out loud can heal.”

  Livia was desperate to intervene, to fix Blake. But perhaps his past was a plane crash she couldn’t change the outcome of.

  “And one more thing, Livia. No matter how you treat a corpse, throughout the centuries dead is dead. Death should not be feared; it’s the catalyst for some of the greatest living. Make your day count, Livia, because you never know when it’s your last one.”

  Instead of sounding like a Beckett-style threat, Dr. Lavender’s observation solidified something. Livia would live for love. Today will count.

  “Thank you so very much. I’m glad the other doors were closed.” Livia stood as Dr. Lavender did the same.

  Dr. Lavender took Livia in a perfume-flavored hug. “Thank you for sharing the story of this amazing man. Your soul is very beautiful, and I’m glad to have a peek at it.”

  As Livia grabbed her overstuffed messenger bag, Dr. Lavender added one more observation. “Livia, just a gut feeling, but let him come to you.”

  With the information she needed, Livia ditched the rest of her day and took the train back to Poughkeepsie to prepare. After assembling supplies and telling her dad she was off to a study group, Livia drove to Cole’s church. She parked in the retirement center parking lot and at the rear of the building. She was dressed in black with her hair in a ponytail. When the night finally rested firmly on the ground, Livia used it as cover and left the car to sneak over to the side of the church.

  Blake. He would wait for night, she hoped.

  Livia had a backpack full of provisions, and she knew that made her a candy-ass. Blake had waited for her all those times without any luxuries like Tasty Cakes, an iPod, or crackable hand warmers. Still, backpack in tow, Livia worked her way to the spot she knew would be perfect for waiting: just below the window in the organ alcove. By the time she got there, she knew Blake had been right. She sounded like a herd of buffalo in the wild.

  Livia slid down and sat with her back against the church’s brick wall. It was cold and uncomfortable. She’d been there about three minutes before she opened a cake. The ground was deceiving with its fluffy green grass. It wasn’t fluffy at all. It was hard. And she felt a thousand creepy crawly itches. She slapped at any little tickle.

  This is going to be a long night. But Livia wasn’t leaving.
Tonight he’ll be here.

  Blake would play the organ. Livia knew this as surely as she’d ever known anything. So she waited.

  Cole waited in the church. The organ was ready. It was bizarre to see it there—settled into the alcove that had been empty and abandoned since before his seven years here. He knelt in a front pew, trying his best to slide his piety back on like a coat. But he kept missing the armholes and turning it upside down as he tried—and failed—to find his entry point. It was no use. She was still here.

  In the sanctity of this place, the center of his purpose, Kyle was everywhere he looked. He almost laughed when he remembered how he’d questioned Livia’s devotion to Blake after knowing him such a short time, but he didn’t make a sound. Even a week with Kyle would feel like forever. Cole looked over at the two pews where they’d stood when he first saw her.

  When their eyes locked it had been like a head-on collision—jarring, shocking, and something he wasn’t fast enough to stop. When their hands touched, their souls had stepped out of their bodies and joined. But Kyle and Cole could only stand in shocked stillness. Cole knew at some point he’d sent Livia on her way, his eyes never leaving Kyle.

  His sole focus had been on keeping her. That was all he knew for sure. He had to keep her there until his soul was done seducing hers. Eventually they’d moved to sit next to each other. His soul had begun an intimate exploration of hers, without asking his permission, and Cole had to talk as if he wasn’t affected at all. As he gazed at Kyle, her wide eyes made him believe she felt exactly the same.

  They’d sat with their legs barely touching, catching up like long-parted best friends. At times their words overlapped in their hurry to be shared. He told her of his horror, his reason for being alone. She had taken the information like a muse—knowing and comforting, giving every assurance that what he was missing would be his someday.

  Then she told him of her mother. Kyle believed her arrival had scared away the woman she desired most in the world. At this Cole had gathered her in his arms, kissing her soft, red hair. Physical touch caused his soul, endlessly intertwined with hers, to sigh with pleasure, and his body began to demand the same connection.

  Again he realized Kyle must be feeling exactly the same. Cole remained rooted to the spot as she began a dance as old as time. Woman for man.

  Kyle was exceptional. She must have practiced this seduction many times, both alone and with an audience. She shed her clothes patiently and with a playful knowledge of the tease. But her eyes became foggy as the production went on. Something else took over, and she wasn’t there with Cole anymore. She was with every man who’d ever touched her, every man destined to touch her—if Cole didn’t stop her.

  Her soul seemed to push Cole’s away, just as his connection to her evaporated as well. The separation was as painful as a burn, and Cole felt his soul assume the fetal position.

  But sweet Kyle continued on. Soon she was naked. As she pranced around him, Cole stopped searching her lifeless eyes for the real Kyle. She reminded him of a tiger, trapped for years in a very small cage. He believed she knew there was more out there than this, but she was unable to free herself to find it.

  Cole’s breathing had quickened again at the memory. He looked down at his hands, fingers now woven into a guilty basket. He couldn’t even find solace in the altar. She’d been there too.

  He’d stood, knowing he should stop her, as Kyle crawled up on the altar. She grabbed a lit candle and lay on her back. She tilted it just enough that the wax dripped over her right breast. She locked eyes with him then because it was what the performance demanded.

  Cole raised a shaking hand to his bottom lip and rubbed it. He took the steps quickly before she could do it again. Up close her skin was fiery red where the wax had hardened on it. She was in pain, and yet still she writhed and gyrated for him. She simply could not stop.

  “Stop. Please stop.” Cole took the candle carefully out of her hand.

  Suddenly Kyle was painfully present again, her eyes confused. A moment later embarrassment touched every inch of her beautiful body. The look on her face was so vivid he could almost hear her thoughts: I repulse him. Cole blew out the altar candle and set it on the floor. He gathered the white altar cloth around Kyle to cover her. She had so much shame.

  As he tucked the cloth around her shoulders, Kyle tried again to please. She licked his neck.

  “Kyle, please. Stop. This isn’t you. You aren’t even here anymore,” Cole said softly with his arms around her.

  Kyle blinked and shook her head. Shame. Again.

  Then she fought him desperately—eyeing her scattered clothes and the door.

  “You don’t have to do this for me. I don’t want a show.” Cole put his hands on her face and kissed her lips gently. For the first time.

  Their separated souls rejoiced and found each other again. He lifted her off the altar and set her on her feet.

  “Be you for me, Kyle. Be the Kyle you’re so very afraid of being. I’ll keep her safe.” Cole skimmed his lips along her cheek and looked at her hopefully.

  Kyle gazed into his eyes and nodded solemnly. The moment seemed bigger than the two of them.

  Cole asked permission. “Kyle McHugh, may I worship you?”

  A tear fell from her eye as she whispered, “Yes.”

  Cole took a step back and whipped the cloth off her shoulders. She was no vixen now. Kyle looked terrified. She clenched her fists, as if willing herself not to run. Cole turned and gathered her scattered clothes. He found her panties and took them to her, kneeling at her feet. Kyle looked puzzled, but as he worked the panties up her legs, she got it. Unlike all the other men, he was dressing her.

  As Cole continued to adorn her, she made it easier. She moved her arms intuitively to help him as he gently put her bra back on and fumbled with the complicated front closure. He motioned for her to stop when she reached for her pants. He cradled the back of her head as he kissed her.

  “I’m doing this,” he said.

  They tackled her jeans next. They were rather tight, and the two laughed as he bounced her up and down to get her feet to the right places. He buttoned up her shirt, being careful not to touch her breasts. By the time he got to her feet, her toes were cold. Cole rubbed them and slid her socks on. Instead of adding her sneakers, Cole picked Kyle up and brought her to the first pew. He sat her there and lifted her feet to his lap. He rubbed them until they were warm.

  That pew became a confessional. There, with a fully clothed, fully present Kyle, he left his plans for lifelong commitment to only the Church in a smoldering pile. This woman, this broken, brave, perfect woman was what he needed. They talked again—about funny parishioners and childhood stories. Anything they thought, they said.

  He kissed Kyle, checking to see that her eyes stayed sure and real. They did. Instead of saint and sinner, they were man and woman now. When Cole finally tasted her skin, the flavor was honeysuckle. Heaven was not something he had to die to enjoy. Kyle was here now. She offered him more of her skin to taste as she unbuttoned his shirt, sliding it from his shoulders.

  Right after that thought, his cell phone had rung. It was the tone Cole had set for Beckett.

  Beckett. As the rising sun began lighting the stained glass, sending shafts of color to dance with specks of dust in the air, the vow Cole had made came back to him. He felt like he was choking. With Kyle still in his arms, Cole was surrounded by the day he’d followed Beckett into the woods seven years ago.

  Cole had lived in Beckett’s little branch of hell for a few months right after he’d aged out. He hated it, hated all the drugs and stupid, angry people, but he’d had no place to go. No one but Beckett to turn to. Maybe that was why he’d followed.

  Hidden in the familiar woods, Cole watched as Beckett swaggered to the oak tree. He could only pray silently because his feet refused to move. He knew what was about to happen. His mind begged and gagged its way through the Our Father.

  Our Father, Who art in he
aven

  Hallowed be Thy Name;

  Thy kingdom come,

  Thy will be done,

  on earth as it is in heaven.

  “…You’re going to die like the gasping pussy you are because…”

  Cole heard Beckett’s voice, and his bleary eyes opened for a moment to find Rick kneeling. He squeezed them shut and continued his silent prayer.

  Give us this day our daily bread,

  and forgive us our trespasses,

  “you”

  as we forgive those who trespass against us;

  “touched”

  and lead us not into temptation,

  “my”

  but deliver us from evil…

  “brothers.”

  Amen.

  With his amen came a single gunshot. Cole hadn’t stayed to see what happened after that.

  As he’d fled the scene that day, in a car that smelled like incense and Taco Bell, Cole took his own vow of priesthood. He begged God for a chance to redeem Beckett and himself for Rick’s death.

  When he’d hit the stoplight in front of the retirement community, Cole’s eyes fell on Our Lady of the River. The sun glistened on the stained glass, and he had his answer. He pulled in, went inside, and found Father Callahan. In confession he admitted what he’d just witnessed and asked for guidance. The elderly priest—perhaps because he was afraid to let Cole out of his sight—offered him a volunteer position as a live-in handyman.

  Cole accepted on the spot, thrilled to have a new place to live and convinced the church walls were meant to be his home. Over time his handyman’s job turned into so much more. Father Callahan saw endless promise in his new apprentice, and after a lifetime in the church he liked to say he consulted the bishop on a “need to know” basis.

  Cole had made this commitment to save Beckett from hell. So he had to keep it, no matter how endlessly his soul cried in the corner of the church, begging and reaching for Kyle. At that moment he’d built a wall between her soul and his. Confusion turned to anger, which turned to panic as Kyle tried desperately to bring him back, to reconnect.

 
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