Outside the penthouse windows, the blizzard still rages. Nine hours it's been, and the weather reports all say it'll be going for another three days at least. From this high up, Lake Shore Drive is invisible, but the orange glow of the streetlamps far below echoes up through the storm, turning it into a gently flickering, flashing blanket of gold that renders Lake Michigan invisible, just a barely sensed expanse of emptiness beyond the chaos. Zeke sits against the headboard of his bed, watching the wild movements of wind and snow, and for the first time in ten years, he wishes he had a cigarette.
A melody, languid and soft, starts to thread through his mind, and he listens to the song playing in his memory as the storm whirls. It had been his mother's favorite, though she would never sing more than the first couple of lines in his hearing, always humming the rest. He laughs to himself, remembering when he finally heard the lyrics and could fit them to the tune, and how much it freaked him out. He supposes all kids feel like that when they think of their parents and sex in the same breath. He was almost a man before he even began to glimpse what the song was really about, and it's taken all these years to understand it, deep down in his flesh and his bones where it counts. To know the inextricable connections between the heights and the depths, and how they can stretch over a lifetime and define it.
His thoughts darken as they turn to his mother. Guilt still cramps him when he thinks about the last time he saw her. He was so childish and stupid, so selfish, with his rage and his accusations: how could you leave me? you never loved me! you only loved him! The refrain of the eternal brat - I hate you I hate you I hate you. He'd thought he knew what it was to love without control, to feel terror at the very thought of loss. And maybe he did, but it was still new and ragged and shrieking inside him, distorting everything around it. He'd had no inkling of what it was to live with it, and with its aftermath. To be trapped by that love, by the past, by your own heart. Even then, when he'd already had a taste of it, of how love could tear your very soul to shreds, still he didn't see. He didn't want to. He just wanted to lash out, to blame someone, anyone for the wound he'd inflicted on himself, for the blood dripping from his heart.
And she didn't fight back. She just bowed her head and took it, letting him blame her. He didn't know or care what he was doing to her, with his petulant arrogance and bullshit whining. How much worse he was making it for her. He feels something rising in himself at the thought - maybe it's tears, but he doesn't think so. It's been too many years, and all he feels is a weary self-loathing at the memory of his mother looking up at him when he finally wound down, and wiping her eyes.
"You don't understand," she said quietly, "but that's alright. I hope you never have to." She was such a good woman, and he'd never realized it, not until it was too late. Like the asshole he was, he took off after she left, filled his duffel bag and just got in his car, lit out for parts unknown, and it was a year before the family lawyer finally tracked him down in a Tennessee jail and gave him the news. Lung cancer. He hasn't had a cigarette since that day.
Zeke covers his eyes at the memory and rubs his forehead. He'd never even noticed her pallor, or the weight she'd lost. That's how tied up in himself he'd been. His teeth clench when he remembers the circles under her eyes. He'd loved her so much. Had he driven her into her grave?
If only you'd believe like I believe, baby, we'd get by...
That was it, wasn't it? That was what kept her going, kept her trying. Trying to balance her life, make it work, despite being caught in a maelstrom she'd created herself through one luckless moment of weakness and desire. Wanting love to be the glue that would hold it together, faith that everything would be all right if only they could hold to it. All of them. No wonder that song meant so much to her.
But she was the only one who believed enough. He sure hadn't. He only cared about himself, and isn't that the fucking way of things when you're young and no one else exists but you? No one else has ever loved, no one else has ever had their hearts broken, and no one else can tell you about anything. He's amazed now that his mother put up with his shit for so long, worried about him, loved him. And all of that meant nothing, just disappeared in the face of his own pain, and it's only now after so many years that he's come to realize how much she could have helped him through it, if only he'd let her in. She'd known what he felt, all of it. She'd felt it herself, lived with it, survived it. She'd known.
He feels something rising. Maybe it's tears, but he doesn't think so. How could he cry now, knowing what he knows? Maybe everything that came after was just payback for what he did to her. He'd slammed the lid on any sense that he deserved to be loved when he berated her for trying to love them all the only way she could. He'd swallowed that feeling of worthlessness, living with his sullen resentment as it ate away at him from underneath, unable to let go. Even after she had... gone, he was still the self-centered brat - how dare she die and leave him again like that? After all, he'd had so much more screaming to do. God.
He watches the wild flurrying snow, listens to it spattering against the thick glass when the wind changes direction. If it weren't for the storm, Lake Michigan would stretch out glimmering under the moonlight before him. The stars would be shining.
But if it weren't for the storm, tonight wouldn't have happened. Whatever might have been, whatever sins he's committed, the past has led him here, and here he finds himself. Done is done, and there's no way for him to go back, to undo any of it. What point is there in beating himself up, especially now? This isn't a time for hating himself, for blame. She wouldn't want that, he tells himself. Would she be happy for him now? Proud? He can't imagine what she'd have to be proud of, but happy? Perhaps.
He feels something rising. Maybe it's tears, and maybe that's alright. Maybe now, that's finally all right.
He slides down to lie full length on the bed, next to the lover breathing soft and slow beside him, and his fingers stroke sleep-warmed skin. It's not the body he's dreamed of, that's haunted his nights for the past year, but it's beautiful nonetheless. Touching, fucking, love - still the best things in life, as far as he's concerned. He breathes in the scent of flesh, heat, the must of sex ground into the sheets, and thinks that all his life, with its pain and its uncertainty and its loneliness, has been worth it if it's led him to this unexpected place. He thinks of Wanda, of her bright eyes and quick smile - I'm sorry, Mom, I wish I could tell you how much - and places the barest kiss on rosebud lips, still luscious after so many years.
"I love you," Zeke whispers as Casey opens his eyes.
Chapter 39 of High Contrast