Chapter 7:

Sanctum

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            It was as if all time had frozen. Lost was the awareness of motion. If it had been snowing, the flakes would have held suspended in air. All that moved was the fog.

      On a small isolated pier that jutted outwards into the Allegheny, two long lost souls sat reunited, shoulder-to-shoulder, their feet dangling towards the water. On the far side of the river stood the Heinz Factory. The smoke billowing from its stacks ascended skyward, only to become one with the fog…

     It seemed like an eternity had passed before either decided to speak. It wasn’t for the lack of conversation but for the lack of knowing where to begin. Each was overcome by a tidal wave of distant memory as its waters crashed heavily upon them. The wind from the river was crisp yet neither paid it mind. Both sets of eyes remained fixed upon the fading downtown skyline, unwavering.

      Grace turned to face her brother as he stared outwards towards the water. It was clear that his eyes were focused on nothing, his mind dominated by thoughts. Grace decided that she could no longer take the silence.

      “You look like shit,” she grinned, giving him a playful elbow to the side.

      A second passed before Kevin returned the smile, although his didn’t come as easily.

      “Yeah, it’s been a rough week,” he replied softly, his voice flooded with emotion.

      The sight of Grace was impossible for Kevin to bear, as she had become more beautiful than he could have ever imagined. Even after the trauma his sister had experienced she still remained the stronger, and Kevin couldn’t have been prouder. To him, she was truly the walking image of her first name.

      Kevin was unable to find words to say, as he feared they would only be heard as noise with no substance. His head felt ready to explode. His childhood flashed before his mind like a flipbook. Then the flipbook stopped, and landed on the dream that had plagued him for the past decade. Guilt rapidly filled his pores; sadness filled his heart.

      Kevin burst into a fit of tears, much to Grace’s surprise. She looked on in silence as ten years of suppressed grief reached its breaking point. The sight almost brought about tears of her own, yet she managed to maintain her composure.

      “I’m so sorry for what happened to you,” Kevin cried, tears dripping freely. “I should have done more... I should have done more to stop it. I could have ended that bastard before it even happened. But I didn’t.”

      Kevin continued to sob. His head drooped downward, his chin resting a hair from his chest. Grace put her arm around her brother and rested her head on his shoulder, and then gently rubbed his back. Considering that Kevin’s tears were a long time coming, Grace realized that she was not alone in her suffering. Suddenly she felt terrible, even a bit guilty. Witnessing Kevin in his current state was difficult. It must have been troubling for him to move forward with his life after her departure, especially with zero knowledge of her whereabouts or fate. If that truly were the case, then maybe a cure for his grief could take shape from her own words. Thinking hard, Grace lifted her head from Kevin’s shoulder.

      “None of this was your fault,” she said in a gentle, broken voice. “Please don’t beat yourself up over things beyond your control. Please don’t.”

      She grabbed his hand and held it tightly.

      “I should have done more,” Kevin repeated, straightening up.

      He wiped the tears from his face.

      “I knew where he kept his gun. I should have just shot the fucker in his sleep. I even took the gun from his drawer and aimed it at him on the night you left. But I couldn’t do it, because I’m a coward.”

      Again Kevin lowered his head.

      “I don’t think he liked that too much. He went on to give me this.”

      He pointed to his silver capped incisor tooth. Grace shuddered upon seeing the silver denture, but then gave Kevin a weak smile.

      “Well, it looks good on you,” she said reassuringly, still firmly rubbing his back.

      Kevin managed a grin of his own and his expression loosened up.  

      “Yeah, I thought the same thing,” he said lightheartedly.

      A moment of silence went by before Kevin found the strength to make his own inquiries.  

      “So, where did you go? You know, after you left.”

      Grace’s smile faded at once, and her head spun back towards the water. She grabbed her cigarettes and attempted to light one but the wind from the river prevented her from succeeding. Using his hands as a shield, Kevin protected the cigarette from the wind as Grace tried for a steady flame. After successfully lighting the square, Grace offered one to her brother who accepted. He used her embers to set fire to his own. Normally one to avoid cigarettes, Kevin decided that the current moment warranted an exceptional circumstance. One could argue it qualified as THE exceptional circumstance.                                

     “I started in Philadelphia,” Grace eventually muttered. “Did a lot of travelling up and down the east coast. Spent most of my time living in Brooklyn.”

      She paused only to drag from her cigarette.  

      “New York was alright, I guess. It’s a great place for art; it’s very easy to stay busy there. Jobs were never difficult for me find.”

      Then she stopped, and Kevin could see her pain manifest.

      “Trustworthy people and safe places to sleep on the other hand… Well, lets just say that some years were ok. A lot of them not so much.”

      Now it was Grace’s turn to hang her head, her sad expression fixed upon the shivering water. Seeing his sister in disarray, Kevin wrapped his arm tightly around her just as she had done for him. He had nothing but admiration for her toughness. If placed in her shoes, he probably would have been dead long before. Then Grace weakly raised her head and attempted a smile.

      “I did go to Ireland for two years,” her voice perked. “I needed that. I somehow managed to find love there too. I guess that counts for something. It’s a lot nicer across the sea than it is here.”

      A tear began to form near Grace’s tattoo as she stared woefully at her brother, who in turn looked surprised.

      “Ireland!” chirped Kevin, simultaneously letting out a drag. “What brought you over there?”

      “Grandma,” Grace replied, taking in a drag of her own. “She was always so nice and spoke so highly of Ireland. I’ve never been able to forget her stories, and I always felt lost in Brooklyn. One day I just knew it was time to leave. I remember thinking that Ireland was the only place left for me to go. In a way, a similar feeling is what brought me back home…”

The fog had completely blanketed the city. Only the faint outlines of the skyscrapers stood visible. The wind had amplified in velocity, causing the mist from the river to increase its spray. Grace flicked her cigarette and began to rub her hands for warmth. She let out a tear-filled moan and stared bleakly into the mist.

      “Honestly, I can’t even count how many beds I’ve slept in, or roofs I’ve stayed under over the years,” she wept. “I’ve sacrificed my body and soul. I can’t do this anymore, I just can’t.”

      Her head returned to Kevin’s shoulder. His arm was still wrapped around his sister. Now it was Kevin’s turn to speak with a broken voice.

      “You know, I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had never come home,” he mumbled, unable to stop his body from shaking. “I never thought I was going to see you again.”

      Grace smiled and returned her arm to Kevin’s side. Neither attempted to fight their tears. The two wept in silence for the minutes that followed; and with each tear that fell, a chapter of the past was in turn washed away. That was the power of a good cry. Then Grace wiped the tears from her face and shuffled in her sweatshirt, eventually giving Kevin a grin.

      “So, have you spent any time living outside of Pittsburgh?” she jested.

      Kevin snorted, and in turn raised an eyebrow.

      “Me? Leave the city?”

      He burst into laughter, to which she joined him merrily.

      The liveliness of the siblings rapidly increased as the two sat calmly on the foggy pier. They reminisced of their lost years and talked of their childhood, recounting on the minute glimmers in a vast sea of dark memories. They talked of their past relationships and how they all ended up failing, conversing until the pale beam from the hidden sun began to wane. Then, with the arrival of evening, the pair arose to their feet and walked from the pier in the direction of Kevin’s car…

     

      Kevin and Grace returned to the hilly neighborhood a few minutes later. He parked his car near the diner where the two had crossed paths. Grace smiled happily at her brother from the passenger’s seat, glowing with that charisma so unique to her.

      “I’m so happy we ran into each other,” she said fondly. “I think today was good for both of us. We should try to hang out regularly. Talking and bonding will allow our wounds to heal naturally.”

      Much as Kevin wanted to match her smile, he lacked the will to do so. He knew the words that Grace had spoken were looming. Yet upon hearing them, his heart nonetheless found the pit of his stomach. A remembrance had been brewing in his mind since leaving the pier. Although there was nothing Kevin would rather do than habitually spend time with Grace, it would be foolish for him to overlook his debacle with Syd.

      “Listen,” he muttered. “I’ve gotten myself into some trouble. Made a few decisions that I’m pretty sure can’t be undone.”

      He paused, for he could no longer meet his sister’s gaze.

      “I think I have to leave town, and I don’t think I’m coming back…”  

      Grace responded without words. She instead gave Kevin a wounded look; and so he was forced to tell her everything. From Syd’s house to the set up to the drug burial he left out no details. Then Kevin finished his story and the two sat again in silence. It was clear from Grace’s manner that much of her delight had vanished. The awkwardness had returned. Only this time she shared it with her brother, who sat once again with his head facing downward.

     But the moment was short lived.

     Grace, after thinking on it, chose to accept their situation for what it was. With that her joy sidled back. The events in Kevin’s life were well beyond her control, and little good would come from thinking otherwise. All that mattered now was that they were both alive, healthy, and at this moment, together.    

      “You know, I could always come with you,” she said kindly.

      Kevin grinned at his sister, and then firmly shook his head.

      “No,” he replied modestly. “This is my mess, I don’t want you anywhere near this. I’d feel terrible if I were to drag you in somehow. Don’t you worry about me, I’m good at keeping safe.”

      Then a thought crossed his mind.

      “In fact, you should probably avoid our neighborhood for the time being. Do you have a place to stay? Do you need any money?”

      “I’m good on money, but thanks!” she replied. “And I do have a place to stay. Its actually not too far from here.”

      Grace’s heart sank as she finished speaking, for she had just remembered Matthew and her promise of lunch. She was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to find him.

      “Fuck!” she muttered.

       The dreaded time had come for Kevin and Grace to say their goodbyes. So before exiting the car, Grace looked to her brother one last time.

      “I have to leave,” she sighed, softly taking his hand. “But I want you to remember what I said about not beating yourself up. I mean it. Throughout everything that’s happened, it seems like you’ve forgotten that you were a victim in this as well. You protected me from him our entire childhood, and I can never repay you for that. You took the knocks until I grew tits. After that, well, it was inevitable I guess. Sometimes you just have to accept defeat...”

      Grace lowered her head, and the two shared another moment of pathos. Then she continued to speak, gripping his hand even tighter as she did.

      “Basically, what I’m saying is, I’m sorry you had to shoulder this weight for so many years. On my behalf no less…”

       “No!” Kevin interrupted, the lines on his forehead dipping into a deep furrow.

       “You apologize to no one, you hear me. No one. You have nothing to apologize for. You can do no wrong in my eyes. You never have, and you never will.”

      Grace smiled and blushed, resembling an angel that had fallen into shadows. She leaned into the driver seat and hugged her brother tightly. Kevin returned the embrace with equal passion. Grace then kissed him on the cheek.  

      “Be careful!” she instructed in a motherly way. “Remember, don’t beat yourself up. And don’t forget to call me!”

      The last bit was spoken in her usual quirky manner.  

      “Don’t worry,” replied an exhilarated Kevin as Grace stepped from the vehicle. “Don’t worry about that at all.”

            She waved farewell and then swiftly disappeared into the hilly neighborhood. The nighttime had arrived, for the last fragments of light had vanished into fog and darkness…  

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