FANFIC: House of Light – This Is A Recording

“I’m sorry but the number you are trying to reach has been disconnected. This is a recording.”

– Automated Answering Service

House of Light

1. Prologue
2. Morning Madness
3. Give Me Something (To Hold Onto)
4. Hunches in Bunches
5. [ Ocean Waves ]
6. This Is A Recording

The first time Bug kissed her, the two of them were at the park in the late afternoon. It was hot that day, a rarity in Portland; she remembered the sunlight burning on her face like a heated blanket, before it suddenly lifted away from her, disappearing as he leaned in and stepped between them.  The next thing she knew, his lips were on hers.  At first she’d been afraid she wouldn’t want it the way she knew she was supposed to.  She’d been afraid that the moment she felt Bug’s hands on her she would only be able to feel him, taste him—the vise-like grip, the smoky breath, the stubble scratching against her cheek—all these things she had come to know all too well in the dark corners of night.

But no, it wasn’t like that at all.  In fact, it was just the opposite: it made her feel normal, like a regular girl sneaking a kiss with her boyfriend on the walk home after school.  It made her forget, even for just a little while.

She may have lied.  She may have told him afterwards that he was her first kiss.  But really, as far as she was concerned, it was almost the truth.  Those other times didn’t count.  “So, are you like, my boyfriend now?” she had asked him, standing outside Sunnyvale.  She laughed a little, trying to play it off like the answer didn’t matter to her, but somehow, someway, it did.  It scared her that it mattered.

“That depends,” he replied, and she could tell by the waver in his voice that he was nervous too, and that he didn’t want to admit it either, “are you my girlfriend?” Relief spread through her as he smiled against her lips, knowing that they were on the same page.

Before long, he became her way of slipping away from reality, especially on those days when all she wanted was to make-believe that she had another life.  Walking down the street hand-in-hand felt normal.  Eating take-out and listening to the radio at his apartment felt normal.  Making out on his bed felt normal too, except that neither of them had parents who might come home early or accidentally walk in on them—but part of feeling normal was not even thinking about that part.  Their minds didn’t even go there.

Recently though, she was finding that not even that could distract her.  There were too many thoughts and emotions swirling through her head.  It was like her life had been turned upside down again in the past week: Tasha was moving out and leaving her behind, Mr. Daniels was a total liar, and all the while she held Bug’s ring close to her body where it stayed like a ticking bomb, an offer with an expiration date.

Bug hovered above her, his hips weighing against hers, but she felt like she wasn’t even there.  Finally, he rolled to the side, and the mattress rose for a second before dipping again.  There he lay beside her, breathing heavily, his fingers skimming lightly up and down her arm.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

Lux shook her head, not wanting to get into it right now.  “Nothing, I’m just not in the mood today.”  She bit her lip.  “Okay?”

His hand stopped as it loosely held hers; he circled her palm softly with his thumb.  They were silent for a moment.  Then she heard him say, “You’re not wearing your ring.”

She stiffened slightly.  He said it like he was describing the weather, like it was just some offhand comment that did matter one way or the other; it didn’t sound like an accusation.  He didn’t seem angry or hurt.  But he didn’t say anything more after that.  She lifted her hands to readjust her shirt.  “Bug…”

“Do you not want to be with me anymore, is that it?”  Still, his voice remained stoic and hard to read.

“No, that’s not it.”  Lux sighed, reaching into the small zippered pocket of her old jeans until her fingers closed around the ring.  And she withdrew it, wondering how to explain so he would understand.  “It’s just…I mean, I don’t think I’m ready…”  She tried to press the ring back into his palm.

“What does that even mean?”  And then she could hear it in his voice.  He was on edge, he was trying not to get angry but inevitably he would snap if they kept traveling down this line.  That was the thing about Bug.  He could be the sweetest, gentlest guy to her, but he had a short fuse like his father’s.  Some cycles were hard to break.  Most cycles were, if she were basing her conclusions on personal experience.  “If you want to date other people, just say so.”  He spit out the words like a mouthful of needles, all aimed in her direction.

“What?”  She turned sharply left, angling her body so it was facing his.  “No, all I mean is I’m not ready to even think about marriage.  I’m sixteen years old!”

“You said yes to me just last month,” he reminded her.  “Didn’t you?”

“You put me on the spot, you know that.  I told you I needed time…do you even listen to me anymore?”

“Okay, you know what, don’t you dare make me out to be the bad guy, because you know I care about you, you know I was only doing it for you…”

“No you weren’t!”  She rolled away from him again.  “You and Tasha had this idea in your head of what was best for me, and you didn’t bother to think that I might feel differently…”

“Do you think…” he began, running his bare leg against hers until the hairs made her skin crawl, “…do you think that anyone else is going to want you, or love you like I do?”  He whispered it softly, lips right next to her ear: “You and me, we’re the same, right?  We belong together.  I thought we agreed.”

There was a time when she had believed that.  They’d grown up with similar childhoods: abandoned by their mothers at an early age, used and abused by father figures who didn’t care what damage they left behind.  Neither had shared the details of their past with the other—they didn’t have to.  She used to think that made them two of a kind, “the same” as Bug put it.  But things were different now.  “We’re not the same,” she said, sitting up in bed and putting her feet on the floor.  “And even if we were, that doesn’t give you the right to claim me like I’m some piece of property—”

“Lux,” he paused, “hey, I didn’t mean it like that, can you just calm down?”  He reached out to touch her shoulder from behind but she pushed his hand away.

“You asked me an impossible question that no normal sixteen-year-old should have to answer.”  She was on the verge of tears but swallowed them and went on.  “And it wasn’t fair to put me on the spot like that—”

“Normal?” Bug interrupted, incredulous.  “When are you finally going to understand that we’re never going to be normal?!”  The frustration was evident in his voice. He spoke as if she were a child who couldn’t grasp a simple concept.  “What did you think, that you would live on Nob Hill someday, and go to some fancy school with a bunch of spoiled little shits who shop at Abercrombie & Fitch and get fancy cars from Mom and Dad on their sixteenth birthday?  Is that what you thought?  Give it up already, Lux!  Things are never going to be like that for us!”

There was a silence as the timbre of his voice sunk into the hollow room.  “I think you should take me back to Sunnyvale,” Lux said, her voice shaky.  She stood up, still facing away from the bed, and bent over as she tried to gather her things.

“Fine.”  He tossed some clothes across the bed, obviously trying to make as much noise as humanly possible to let her know that he was pissed as he struggled back into his pants: she heard the zipper as it closed, a button snapping shut.

As he led her out the door of his room, Gavin’s voice called to them over the sound of the TV in the connecting room.  “Bug, Lux!  I was starting to wonder when the two of you were going to show up.”  He laughed, a deep throaty chuckle that only made Lux’s blood boil.  “Where’s Tasha today, anyway?”

“She’s at school,” Lux shot back.  “Which you would know, if you paid any attention to anything!”  She punctuated that with a swift kick to the doorframe before the door slammed behind them on their way out.  At the end of the hallway, they could still hear Gavin’s laughter echoing through the thin walls.

[ ]

She’d been right of course.  She wasn’t the type of girl who liked—no, needed—to be right all of the damn time.  In fact, most of the time she wished she were wrong, because being right usually meant that the proverbial, precarious house of cards was about to topple.  Case in point: deep down she’d known that if she called off the engagement he would leave again.  And this time, he would not look back.  Which is exactly what happened.

When they were together, Bug sometimes mentioned how his mom had left the family when he was just a toddler, walking out the door one morning without telling them where she was headed.  The only baggage she left was the kind that weighed on him every day growing up, the kind you couldn’t see unless you knew where to look. And he always resented his mother for that; he always hated it when people left.  But when it came down to it, he was a master of the sport, just like the rest of them.  He was a hypocrite in that way.  There were times when she wanted to call him on it, but she didn’t because as much as it bothered her, she still understood it.

But none of that mattered now.  He’d left, and maybe he would come back—in the past, he had disappeared and reappeared quite a few times.  This time was different though.  Lux was pretty sure that he had finally cut his ties from the city that reminded him of a childhood he could never completely open up about.  Maybe it was what he needed: to begin again somewhere new.  And Gavin?  Well, he left too.  The two guys cleaned out their apartment and sold all their furniture and electronics, taking off with only the clothing on their backs and a knapsack of cash and the barest minimum of possessions.  That was another upside of growing up in foster care.  You learned early on not to get attached, you didn’t think twice about selling your prized belongings.

She tried to apologize to Tasha multiple times, even if she had started to think of Gavin as dead weight—Tasha deserved better than him, but her best friend didn’t seem too heartbroken: “It’s probably for the best.  You know, he was cheating on me with some slut with a pink Mustang.   Yeah, she dropped out of OU to become a tattoo model.”  Her voice remained unaffected: bored, or maybe just tired.  Like she was half-asleep, dreaming.  But then she seemed to wake up from whatever trance had consumed her; she shook Lux by the shoulders as if to wake her too.  As if to say: we have to move on.  “But I’m more concerned about you,” she said, over and over.  “I’m more concerned about you, how are you holding up?”

Lux thought she was doing pretty well—if you could call standing at the pay phone every morning hitting redial on Bug and Gavin’s old number and listening to the same recording over and over—if you could call that doing well.

“I’m sorry. But the number you are trying to reach has been disconnected.”  The emotionless and robotic voice came through the receiver for what must’ve been the fifteenth time.  “This is a recording,” it continued in that same pleasant tone.

“As if I couldn’t tell,” Lux muttered under her breath, holding down the shiny silver lever to end the call, and immediately redialing.

“Hey,” a less-than-pleasant voice mocked from behind her, “some of us have actual calls we need to make, you know.”

Lux ignored her and continued to hold the receiver to her ear.

“What’s the matter, Lux?  You finally gone deaf too?” the voice taunted.  Lux didn’t recognize who it belonged to, but that was hardly surprising, as everyone coming into Sunnyvale came to recognize ‘the blind girl’ pretty quickly.  “No wonder your boyfriend dumped you.”

Lux could feel the anger rising again, but she held her tongue as the recording played again.

“Well, if you’re deaf now then you definitely won’t be needing this anymore.”  The girl, whoever she was, tried to grab the phone from Lux’s hand.

“Go to hell,” Lux whispered loudly, keeping a firm grip on the receiver.  She tried to swat the girl’s arm away.

“We are in hell, sister, or have you forgotten?”  There was a time when Lux and Tasha would jokingly refer to Sunnyvale as Sunnyhell, like a lot of the younger girls at the group home did.  At some point, the regulars grew older and realized that there were worse places in the world, because they had managed to escape and somehow always ended up back here.  No matter what, they could always count on it.  “Though I can see how it might be easy when you’re blind…” the girl continued.

“Seriously, how rude can you get?  Let go of the phone!”  Lux twisted around and pulled on the phone cord.  “And don’t call me your sister, I don’t even know you.”

“Oh, keep dreaming!  You think you scare me?”  The other girl refused to relinquish her grip on the receiver.  “You’ve been standing here for ten minutes hitting redial and not saying a word.  I have an actual call I need to make, bitch.”

After a few solid minutes of tug-o-war, the phone ripped from the wall and fell to the floor with a crash.  A woman came running down the hall and immediately began to reprimand them.  Needless to say, they were both banned from using the telephone for the next month.  “If there is an emergency, you may use the phone in the office, but this phone is off limits.”

“Duh, it’s broken anyway,” the other girl pointed out petulantly.  “Thanks to her,” she couldn’t help adding, shoving Lux in the shoulder.

“Thanks to me?” Lux couldn’t believe that the girl was still trying to pick a fight.

“Now, now, girls,” the woman said, breaking them apart.  “You said it yourselves.  The phone’s broken, nothing to fight over now.”

[ * ]

Lux went back to listening to the morning show on the radio.  Admittedly, what used to bring her comfort now depressed her.  There were annoyingly upbeat ads for the ever-nearing “Home for the Holidays” concert every half-hour, and all she could think about were the two tickets burning a hole in her wallet.

Tasha assured her that the two of them could go together, now that they were both single.  “We need some quality time together now that I won’t be living here anymore,” she groaned remembering.  “And Glass Candy must be amazing live.  I would love to hear them.”

Lux was silent.

“But if it’s too hard for you, we don’t have to,” Tasha quickly amended.  “I know those were supposed to be your engagement present.”

“I don’t want them to go to waste.”  Lux tried to smile.  He was still in her thoughts constantly, with or without the concert.  “Can’t you just act like a brat during your meeting?  Maybe they won’t want you after all.”

“I tried.  They still said yes.  I have no choice, Lux.”

One morning in mid-October, Lux heard Cate Cassidy’s announcement on Morning Madness: “Okay folks, as of today, we’re exactly a month away from our annual ‘Home for the Holidays’ concert!  That’s right.  You only have one more month to purchase tickets and they’re going fast, so what’re you waiting for?”

“Of course, we’ll still be giving away tickets every day, and we’re getting ready to do that right now,” Ryan put in.  “Hello, who’s this? You’re caller one hundred!”

“Are…are you serious?  The lucky caller seemed unsure, his words reverberating in the background.

“Yes, I’m serious.”  Ryan chuckled.  “You’re on the air,” he added, “can you please turn down your radio?”

“Uh, sure.”  The background noise died down.

“What’s your name?”

There was a hesitation on the other line.  “Um, Matthew…Math.”

“Math, that’s an interesting nickname!” Cate commented.  “Is that what you do for a living?”

“No, I’m uh…I’m actually a high school English teacher,” the Math said.  “At Westmonte High?”  Lux had heard of it.  It the kind of school she and Tasha and Bug had always hated.  The kids that went there were what Bug insisted they’d never be: normal.

“I used to go to Westmonte!” Cate exclaimed, then went silent without saying more.  She seemed to regret speaking up.

“I know,” Math said.  “I mean, I went there, too.  Class of ’94.”

“This morning is finally getting interesting!” Ryan crowed.  “Someone who went to high school with Cate Cassidy!  You know, she is very tight-lipped about those years.  Maybe you could help shed some light—”

Cate cleared her throat loudly, interrupting her co-anchor.  “I really don’t think that’ll be necessary Ryan.  Math, why don’t you hang on the line so we can get your info, but we have to take a commercial break now.”

The show suddenly cut off as an old commercial for a tanning salon came on instead.  Lux wondered what that had been about.  Admittedly, she had also been curious to hear more about Cate’s past.  It was strange sometimes, listening to someone on the radio every morning for years, imagining that you knew her when you really did not.  At the same time, knowing too much could ruin the mystery.

[ ]

“Well, I guess this is it,” Tasha whispered.  They were lying in bed after midnight, side by side, almost like old times.  “Our last night.  I leave first thing tomorrow morning.”

Neither of them said anything for a while.  There was really nothing to say at this point, and the two of them had been ripped apart so many times since they’d become best friends.  These days they were almost used to it.  Of course, that didn’t make it any less difficult.

“Hey, at least I’m less than thirty minutes away this time.”  Lux knew that Tasha was making a feeble attempt to cheer both of them up. “I mean, we’ve had worse.”  Truth be told, it wasn’t really working.

“I know,” was all Lux could manage.  The truth was, she was still trying not to think about it.  Tasha had met with her new foster parents the day before, but Lux hadn’t wanted to talk about it afterwards.  Talking about it made it too real.  She was trying to listen with only half her brain, letting her friend’s words trickle into her ear haphazardly, then trickle back out.  But what Tasha said next was hard to escape.

“And Valerie—that’s the woman’s name—she actually seems really nice.”

Lux froze at the name.  It was a common name, but to this day, just hearing it made her legs go numb.

“Although we both know they always start out nice,” Tasha allowed.  “But I have a good feeling about this one.”  She paused.  “The husband didn’t say much, but I got the feeling he isn’t home much anyway.  I think he’s a construction worker; he came in with a hard hat and a tool belt.”

Lux was glad that no one could see the expression on her face in the darkness.  “He’s a construction worker?” she asked, aware that her voice was wavering.  She cleared her throat.  The lump that had lodged there only seemed to grow bigger.

“I guess.”  Tasha didn’t seem too sure.  She sounded tired, and therefore completely unaware of Lux’s discomfort.  “He had one of those overly macho names, like Trent or Troy or…”

Lux swallowed.  “…Trey?”  She was afraid to say it, she wanted to bury it and pretend it wasn’t happening because really, what were the chances?  In over three years, she rarely even said his name in her head.  He didn’t deserve a name.  But a part of her had to know.  In her head, she silently pleaded for it not to be true.

“Trey…that’s sounds like it might be right.”  Tasha still wasn’t sure.  “Anyway, they seemed alright.  Hey, maybe they’ll even let you come visit!  They mentioned not having any other kids right now.”

“That would be nice,” Lux said, faking a yawn.  “Anyway, I’m beat.  We can talk about it in the morning.”

She had a feeling she wouldn’t be sleeping before then.

7. Speak

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