"Aidan, honey, are you still there?"
Aidan suppressed a groan and clenched the receiver in his hand, wishing he'd just let the answering machine kick in as usual. For the first time in ages, he'd made a conscious effort to let the outside world in, accept a little human contact, and look what had happened!
"Yes, Helen," he murmured, drumming his fingers on the desk, then realized he was doing it and forced himself to stop. "I'm still here. But can't you--"
"No, honey, I can't." Helen's tone made it perfectly clear that she would brook no argument, not this time. "I'm up to my eyeballs with the preparations for my birthday party, and I really can't spare the time. Just find the things I asked you to, and bring them with you when you come. You are coming, aren't you?"
"The invitation says, 'and friend.' I don't have any friends, Helen, you know that."
"Then either go out and make one, pronto, or just come on your own -- either way, I expect you to be there." She paused, waiting for him to speak. Aidan stubbornly held his tongue. "Aidan, I know it's hard, but you have to move on," she went on gently. "It's been over two years, and--"
"I know how long it's been!" He winced and bit his lip; he had no right to snap at her. After all, her loss was as great as his. "I'm sorry, Helen. I'll sort out the stuff for you. But I can't promise I'll come to the party."
"Just do your best, honey. And please, please take care of yourself. I already lost Richie -- I couldn't bear to lose you, too."
Yeah, right. Aidan was already lost, lost to Helen, lost to the world; had been for over two years now, from the moment Richie had ceased to exist. "I know. I'll try. Look, I gotta go."
"Okay. Love you."
"Love you, too." Although he was well aware that she was using her preparations for the party as an excuse to force him to face reality, he knew he couldn't deny her -- he owed her that much, at least.
He replaced the handset in its cradle and reached for the bottle in his desk drawer. Sorting through Richie's things to find the stuff Helen wanted back, childhood stuff that her only son had brought with him when he and Aidan had moved in together around ten years ago, was going to require at least one shot of Dutch courage. Not bothering with a glass, he twisted off the cap and took a small sip directly from the bottle. First one of the day, and it was already mid-afternoon -- not bad going. He swilled the whisky around his mouth, savoring the sting of it before allowing the liquor to slide down his throat, then resealed the bottle and returned it to its rightful place.
Okay, so he had to do it. But did he have to do it right now? The party was next Saturday evening, ten whole days away. There was no rush. He sighed and shook his head. Yeah, and if he didn't do it now, with Helen's sympathy still ringing in his ears, he'd still be trying to get up the nerve the day of the party, whisky or no. And God knew how long it would take to locate all the items Helen wanted. Damn!
Resisting the urge to take another nip, he swiveled the chair and got to his feet. All right, he decided, his stomach knotting at the prospect. He'd make a start, at least. Couldn't say fairer than that.
Standing at the door to the spare room, he took a deep breath and turned the handle. He hadn't set foot in this room since he'd moved all of Richie's things in here, the day after Aidan had finally been released from the hospital. The door swung open soundlessly on its hinges, and he slowly exhaled, feeling a little foolish -- what had he expected, eerie creaking, ghostly moans? The dim light coming in through the doorway silhouetted the cardboard boxes that covered the floor and the bed, stacked any old how, mute testimony to Aidan's state of mind that day -- and every day since, if truth be told. Time, the great healer? Not from his experience, it wasn't.
Clenching his fists to still the trembling, he picked his way through the boxes to the window and drew the curtains, the movement raising little clouds of dust, then cracked the window open slightly to clear the musty air.
He gazed around him at the chaotic piles, wondering where to start. The boxes weren't labeled, he remembered that much. When he'd started packing them, though, he had followed an orderly plan, filling each one with a single type of item: books here, videocassettes and DVDs there, boots and shoes, clothes -- and it was the clothes that had gotten through his fragile composure and reduced him to a quivering wreck; the shirt Richie had been wearing the day before the accident and that Aidan hadn't had time to wash, the sweaters with the faint, natural scent of Richie's body etched into their very fibers. When he'd finally managed to pick himself up off the floor, the plan had gone out the window. Everything else had been tossed into the nearest available box, willy-nilly, the boxes shoved into the room and shut away forever.
Only it wasn't forever; he was here now, face to face with the pain, pain that was still as raw as on the day Richie died.