CHAPTER 2: Solitude of a Birdcage

THEN

Maxie was high. As high as a kite, as a comet, as high as something even higher than a comet. It was Christmas evening and she plodded down a snow covered sidewalk of New York City, her hands lodged in her pockets, her wool hat pulled low over her face, nearly covering her eyes. The freezing wind blew fiercely, whipping her hair across her cheeks and sending icy chills up her spine that made her whole body shudder. Yet, somehow, it didn’t bother her.

No, she was walking on cloud nine. Above cloud nine, actually. Floating there. The fact that it was Christmas and she should have been somewhere warm, surrounded by family and loved ones was irrelevant. In fact, she preferred to trudge through the arctic winter while her thoughts moved about her mind in disarray, like the snow as the breeze carried it in every direction. Every few moments she’d lose herself in contemplation and forget she was even outside, walking, cold and headed nowhere. And then moments after that, a new notion would swoop in and take her thoughts elsewhere.

At one point, she considered that her family might starve that evening; she’d left the apartment earlier that afternoon and never returned to prepare Christmas dinner. And then she wondered what restaurants were open, because they’d surely order takeout. Or maybe they were still waiting for her to come home and cook. Probably not. Considering no one had even called her to see where she was in almost two hours, they’d probably forgotten she wasn’t there. Maybe she would grab takeout—

And that was her last thought before she stepped off of the curb and a loud horn sounded, violently jerking her back into reality just in time for her to get a good look at the shiny black car that slammed into her as it screeched to a halt.

 

Her eyes fluttered open—or, at least, she thought they were open. Everything was black. For a moment, she felt as if she were floating again, floating in nothingness. But then the sensation of the pavement on her back became palpable, and the sharp pain in her skull followed suit. She blinked and raised her hand to her head, struggling to subdue the throbbing pain in her temples. Slowly, the darkness that plagued her vision began to fade, and the world took shape around her. She could see figures hovering over her, lights were nothing but bright blurs in the background, voices and cars and horns sounded distant, though the ringing in her ears was loud and clear.

“Are you okay?” a voice asked. It wasn’t until she felt his hand on her shoulder that she realized he was kneeling down beside her. “Can you hear me?” His voice was deep and calm, even a bit soothing. She tried to get a better look at him, but it was no use. Her vision remained limited to blurred shapes. “Hey,” he repeated. She felt the tips of his fingers on her face as he pushed her hair back. “Can you hear me? Miss?”

Hadn’t she answered him already? She blinked again but it didn’t help. “Yes,” she finally managed. “I can hear you.” I just can’t see you.

“Are you okay?” he repeated.

“I’m fine.” Was that true? She felt fine. Except for her vision, but she was pretty sure that would be fine after a while, too.

“Can you move?” She didn’t know. She hadn’t tried. “Wait, no, you probably shouldn’t. The paramedics are on the way.”

Suddenly, her heart pace quickened. Ambulances, paramedics? Hospitals? They all made her anxious. As if on cue, the scream of sirens echoed in the distance. “No, I’m fine,” she said quickly, reaching for the man and grabbing a handful of air instead. So her coordination was a little off, as well. She settled on the pavement for support. “No paramedics. I’m okay.”

He attempted to object, but she ignored him. She pushed herself into a sitting position, and a sharp pain shot through her side so suddenly, so ruthlessly, that her mouth went dry and her teeth clicked and nausea rose in the pit of her stomach. She opened her mouth to cry out, but a breathless gasp emerged instead. She shut her eyes tightly and reached for the man again as she started to spin. She felt as if the ground was whirling under her, fast and unsteady, jerking her back and forth so violently her stomach turned. She moaned as the pain in her ribs ricocheted off her insides, vibrating all the way up to her shoulder and down to her leg. Where did the clouds go? she wondered. The moon and the stars and steady flow of her thoughts? They were all gone, replaced by painful reality and a throbbing head and agonizing jolts shooting up and down her right side.

She inhaled deeply, and everything went black.

 

Before she opened her eyes, Maxie gripped a handful of the soft blanket draped over her. She inhaled the scent of her surroundings; she listened for the ominous silence. Before she opened her eyes, Maxie knew that she was in a hospital. Exhaling heavily, she finally opened her eyes and peered around. She was lying in a narrow bed with white sheets and grey rails, wearing a pale blue nighty. She could see again, her head wasn’t throbbing, and the burn along her right side had subsided to almost nothing. She slowly sat up and her body shuddered as an unnerving chill ran through her.

When was the last time she’d seen the inside of a hospital room? She remembered the day as if it had just passed, though it had been years ago. A hospital room, much like the one she was in, had been the last place she’d seen her mother alive. Pretty much alive, anyway.

“Oh, you’re awake,” came a voice from across the room. Her neck snapped in the direction of the dim corner, where a man occupied an armchair. She recoiled and sank down further into the mattress, jerking the thin sheet up to her chin. “Sorry,” he said quickly, raising his palms to her. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He looked tired and unkempt. His large body fit awkwardly into the small chair. Had he been sleeping like that? she wondered. It appeared so. “Who are you?” she asked, her eyes sweeping over him.

The man stood, and as he came toward her, she sank into herself. He was across the room, at her side, in just three smooth, confident strides. His massive frame towered over her.

He outstretched his hand and she took it, losing her own in his long fingers. “My name is Isaac,” he said.

He was looking her straight in the eye, and she felt unsettled under his gaze. He was beautiful. Even in his wrinkled, slept-in clothes and with bags under his eyes and his six o’clock shadow growing darker, the man was absolutely stunning. His sun-kissed skin tone glowed beneath the dim lighting of the room; his eyes, low and calm and liquid brown, remained captivatingly intense. His lips—Maxie couldn’t help but stare at his lips—were full and shapely, and when he moistened them with his tongue, gently biting down on the bottom one, she nearly lost her breath.

“I’m Maxie,” she finally choked out, willing herself to tear her eyes off of his perfect, symmetrical face.

“Maxie,” he said, still holding onto her hand. “Maxie… As in Maxine?”

“As in Maximilienne.”

His eyes widened. “You’re French?”

She nodded. “My mother was.”

The corners of his lips turned up into a small grin, his eyes sparkled. Still, they hadn’t strayed away from her face. Did she look as flushed as she felt? “Parlez-vous français?”

Un peu,” she replied. “Just the basics.” He nodded, still grinning lightly. “Isaac,” she said. “How long have I been here?”

His grin faded. “A few hours. Listen, I’m sorry about hitting you. How are you feeling? How are your ribs?”

Her ribs? Oh, yes. Her ribs. She’d forgotten about those. “They’re fine.”

“They don’t hurt? Three of them are bruised.”

“They feel fine.”

He nodded. “How about your head? You got a concussion.”

“My head is fine, too. Did you sleep in that chair for hours?”

He glanced back at the small chair in the corner. “The nurses wanted to contact your family, but we couldn’t find your wallet and your cell phone is locked. I didn’t want to leave you alone, so…” His voice trailed off. “I’m sorry again. It’s Christmas, your family’s probably worried.” He pulled out his cell phone. “Is there someone you want to call?”

“No,” she said, pushing the blanket to the side. “I should probably just get home.” He stepped back as she lowered her feet off of the side of the bed. His eyes fell on the nighty, which was hiked up, practically to her hips, revealing her bare thighs. He looked away as she quickly lowered it.

“I think the doctors wanted to keep you overnight. For observation. You hit your head pretty hard.”

“It’s fine,” she repeated. “Anyway, my roommate is a nurse. She’ll look after me.” She went to the small table beside her bed and grabbed her clothes, which sat folded neatly on the surface. Still wearing the nighty, she slipped on her jeans before reaching for her bra, then paused and looked at Isaac.

Understanding, he turned to face the wall so she could finish dressing. With some soreness, she got out of the nighty and managed to get one arm through her bra strap, but when she lifted the other, sharp pain shot up her side. She cried out, and Isaac nearly spun around before stopping himself.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She, too, turned toward the wall, the wall opposite his, arms tightly over her breasts with her naked back to him. She gripped her side with her free hand, slouching slightly to the side as she waited for the stinging to subside.

“Maxie? Are you alright?” Isaac pressed.

“Umm, yeah,” she said, though she looked down at her bra, only halfway on her body and not even snapped, and wondered how she would managed to get it all the way on by herself. Holding her breath and bracing herself for the pain, she slowly tried lifting her arm again, but her aching ribs wouldn’t allow it. Finally, she decided against the bra all together. “I’m almost done,” she said, breathlessly. How could a task as small as putting on a bra, something she did every single day, be so tiring? she wondered. However, putting on a shirt quickly proved to be even more difficult, and incredibly painful.

After what seemed like hours, Maxie finally threw down her shirt in frustration and leaned on the bed to gather her bearings. Isaac still faced the opposite wall, and she stood behind him, still bare from the waste up, holding her breasts with one arm and her ribs with the other. “How are you doing back there?” he asked.

She sighed. “I can’t do it.”

With furrowed eyebrows, he slightly turned his head, cutting his eyes in her direction. “Do what?”

“Put on my shirt.”

For a moment, he didn’t reply, and then he asked, “Can I… I mean, do you want me to help?”

She turned her back to him again. “No, I’m fine. I can do it.” She reached for her shirt, but only held it in her hand. She didn’t actually believe that she could do it. But was she supposed to let a stranger—one who hit her with his car, at that—help dress her? Taking a deep breath, she got one arm into the shirt. She groaned and winced as she put her head through the appropriate hole next. And then, when it was time to lift her other arm, her ribs objected and she cried out and doubled over in pain.

“Okay, wait,” she heard Isaac say. And then she felt his warm hands on the cool skin of her bare back.

“No!” she cried. “Don’t look at me!”

“I won’t,” he said, gently. “I promise, I won’t look. Just let me help you. You’re only going to hurt yourself more.” Maxie remained bent over, her arm still tightly over her chest. “Please,” he said. “I just want to help. It’s the least I can do.” She nodded but didn’t move. “Can you stand straight?” he asked.

She breathed. “In a minute.”

He waited. After a minute, she slowly rose and turned to him. She kept her eyes straight ahead on his chest as he carefully lifted her arm while the other shielded her nakedness. She grimaced in pain as he got it into her sleeve, and then shuddered as he pulled it down over her belly, lightly grazing her skin with his fingertips. “There,” he said, without stepping back. He stood so close to her that their chests nearly touched, so close that the masculine scent of him filled her nostrils.

“Thank you,” she replied, her voice just above a whisper. Still avoiding his eyes, she moved to put on her shoes, and he followed.

“Just sit,” he said, taking the rain boot from her hands and kneeling before her. Her eyes widened as he slipped it onto her foot, and then put the other on her, too. Then he stood and carefully pulled her up to help her into her coat.

“Thank you,” she repeated.

“It’s the least I can do,” he said again. “Listen, are you sure you won’t consider just staying? It’s only one night.”

“My roommate will take care of me,” she assured him.

He nodded. “Well, I’ll drive you home, then.”

“You don’t have to.”

He shook his head. “It’s the least I can do.”

 

When Maxie stepped into her apartment, her roommate, who’d been lounging on the couch, jumped to her feet.

“Maxie!” Van cried, rushing toward her. “Where have you been? We were waiting for you! We thought—” She stopped when Isaac stepped inside behind her friend. Her eyes widened a bit, her mouth fell agape.

“Van, this is Isaac,” Maxie introduced. “Isaac, this is my roommate—”

“Savannah,” Van said, stepping forward and extending her hand. Isaac took it.

“Nice to meet you.”

Maxie winced as she pulled off her coat. Isaac quickly moved to her side to help lower it off of her shoulders, and hung it beside the door. Peering around at the apartment, she asked, “Where is everyone?”

“They left,” Van replied, still gazing at Isaac.

Left?”

Finally, she turned her attention to Maxie. “Well, Max, what do you expect? It’s almost one in the morning now; they had a long ride home. Mom says to call her when you get in, though.”

“I thought you said they were worried,” she grumbled.

“They were! We all were. We thought something might’ve happened.”

“Right, but they didn’t want to stick around to find out. Got it.”

Van rolled her eyes. “What happened to you, anyway?”

“I got hit by a car,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Some jerk forgot how to use his breaks or something.”

“Oh, my God!” Van cried, rushing to her. Maxie glanced at Isaac. He was grinning lightly. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? What happened? What did the guy do?”

“He—”

“He was the perfect gentleman,” Isaac piped up. “He carried her to the sidewalk after she passed out from the pain in the middle of the street.” Van’s eyes bulged. Maxie lowered hers as heat rose to her cheeks. “And he followed the ambulance to the hospital, and waited around while she slept, to make sure that when she woke up, she’d be okay.”

You went to the hospital?” Van asked squeezing Maxie’s hand.

“I was unconscious. I had no choice.”

“As soon as she woke up, she checked herself out,” Isaac said. “The doctor’s wanted her to stay overnight, for observation, but she said her roommate is a nurse—”

“A genius nurse,” Maxie added.

“—who would take care of her.”

Van frowned. “Max.”

“What’s wrong?” Isaac asked.

“I’m not a nurse.”

“You’re not?”

“She practically is,” Maxie said.

“I studied nursing for a semester and a half. That hardly counts.”

Isaac turned to Maxie. “You lied.” He sounded appalled. She couldn’t help but smile.

“Sit down,” Van said, carefully helping Maxie down onto the sofa. “What did the doctors say?”

“They said I’m fine—”

“She has a concussion,” Isaac said. This time, it was Maxie who glared at him. “And bruised ribs.”

Van’s frown deepened. She moved Maxie’s arm and pushed her shirt up to reveal her black and blue skin. “Christ! Look at you!” Maxie stole a glimpse of Isaac. He was staring at her with a tight jaw. Looking away, she pushed Van’s hands off of her shirt so she could lower it. “No, no. It looks worse than it is.”

“Are you a nurse now? You should’ve just stayed in the hospital.”

“Why?”

“Well, they’ll give you pain meds—”

Maxie held up the Tylenol Isaac had purchased for her while she’d slept. “Check!”

“—and wrap them for you, too—”

“Don’t you have gauze?”

“Ugh,” Isaac said, shaking his head. “Is she always this stubborn?”

With a roll of her eyes, Van replied, “She’s never this stubborn.” She lifted up Maxie’s shirt again to examine her side. “I can’t believe you were hit by a car. How hard did that guy hit you? Jesus, did he even apologize? Who was that jerk?”

Isaac cleared his throat. “That jerk would be me.”

Van’s eyes widened and Maxie burst into laughter, then moaned in pain. “You hit her?” Van cried, jumping to her feet.

“Yes. And to answer your questions, I don’t think I hit her that hard, and yes, I did apologize.”

Van raised her hand to her forehead. “Well, I guess it could have been worse.”

“Umm, excuse me. Head trauma and bruised ribs here,” said Maxie.

“Thank you for bringing her home,” Van said, tilting her head to the side as she gazed up at Isaac. “I hope it didn’t ruin your Christmas.”

Maxie raised an eyebrow. “He hit me.

“Actually, this is probably the most eventful Christmas I’ve had in years,” said Isaac.

Van’s eyes lit up. She ran her fingers through her thick hair. Maxie frowned. “Really? You weren’t spending the holiday with anyone special?”

“Ah, no. I was actually coming back from the movies when I…” He paused and grinned. “Ran into Maxie.”

Van threw her head back and laughed. Hard. Too hard. Maxie glared at her friend. Was she flirting? Van took a strand of hair between her fingers and playfully swatted his arm. Oh, yes, she was flirting indeed. Flirting with the man who hit Maxie with his car. Weren’t there rules against that?

“You know, you look familiar,” Van said.

Maxie rolled her eyes and leaned back. She winced in pain. This time, Isaac didn’t notice.

“I was thinking the same thing about you,” Isaac replied. Oh no, he is not falling for it. “Have we met?”

“Well, I don’t know. Do you live around here?”

“No, I live in Brooklyn. I’m in the area sometimes, though.”

“Hey, wait,” Van said with a snap. “You’ve come into Bottoms Up before! The bar on 47th and—”

“Eighth?”

“Yes!”

Isaac smiled. “Sure, I’ve been. Once or twice.”

“Yeah, yeah! I remember now! You came in with a split eyebrow last month! I bartend there, on the side.” On the side of what? Maxie was waiting for him to ask, so Van could reply, with her infamous faux-modesty, I model. To her surprise, however, he didn’t ask.

Recognition flickered in his eyes. “Oh, right. That is where I know you from.”

“Wow, what a small world! Is your eye okay?”

“Oh, yeah, good as new.”

“What happened to it, anyway?”

Maxie sighed and slowly rose from her seat. She plodded to the kitchen and opened the freezer to gather ice. The place was a mess. She hadn’t been there to cook, so her family had takeout, of course, just as she’d guessed. Plates and cups and food and empty containers still littered the table, for her to clean, no doubt.

“Long story,” she heard Isaac reply.

“Oh! I’m sorry, I’m being so rude. Why don’t you have a seat? Let me get you something to drink.” Again, she touched his arm, this time as she motioned for him to sit. “We have juice and soda. Or bottled water, if you like.”

He hesitated for a moment, as if to decline, and then he raised his eyes to Maxie, who quickly lowered hers. “Sure,” he said, setting down on the sofa. “Bottled water is fine.”

Van rushed to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “Max, where’s all the water?” Maxie nodded toward the counter where the bottles sat, still packed up and warm. Van huffed in frustration. “They’re not cold, Isaac. I’ll just pour it in a cup with ice for you.”

“Thank you,” he replied.

Van went for a cup. She sat it down beside Maxie and leaned in close to her friend. “Oh, my God, he is gorgeous!” she whispered. Maxie glanced back at him. He was looking right at her. Yes, he was gorgeous. Perfect, even. She looked away.

“Yeah.”

“I think I’m going to go for it, Max.” Haven’t you been going for it for the last ten minutes? “I mean, you always tell me to be proactive about these things. Well, this time, I’m going take your advice. I think he’s into me. I remember when he came into the bar in November. I think he was into me, then, too, but it was so busy that night, I didn’t get a chance to really talk to him. This is like destiny.” Was that what it was?

“Sure, Van,” Maxie replied, sealing the bundle of ice she had into a plastic bag.

“Hey, you don’t mind, do you? I mean you weren’t—?”

“Huh?” Maxie said. “Me? Well, not really, but—”

“I mean, you have Alex already.” Right. Alex. The man Maxie had been dating for nearly six months already. Funny, she hadn’t thought of him all night.

“Yeah,” she said. “Of course.”

Van beamed. “Great! Wish me luck!”

Had Maxie wished her luck? She wasn’t sure. Either way, Van was sashaying back to the living room to give Isaac his water. “So,” she said, sitting down beside him. “You should really let me make you dinner sometime, just to thank you for taking care of Maxie.” Ha! That was a joke. Van making dinner? That wasn’t appreciation, it was vengeance. What was she trying to pull, anyway? “And maybe you can tell me that story about how you split your eye open like that. Over some wine.”

“Okay, well, I’m going to head to bed,” Maxie said. “Pop some more pills, ice my ribs.”

Isaac stood. “Are you feeling okay?”

Van stood. “Oh, Maxie’s a trooper. She’ll be fine.”

Isaac briefly cut his eyes in Van’s direction before looking back at Maxie. “Maxie?” he said.

“She’s right. I’m okay.”

“You’ll call me if you need anything?”

“Actually, I didn’t get your number.”

“I’ll take it and give it to her,” Van offered.

Isaac opened his mouth to object but Maxie smiled. “Yeah, sure. Do that.” Slightly deflated, he nodded. “Thanks again, Isaac.”

“I hit you with my car.”

She chuckled. “Yeah, well. Thanks for not killing me, then.”

He chuckled. “Good night, Maximilienne.”

“Good night, Isaac.”

She turned away, went to her room, and shut the door behind her. For a while, she lay awake in bed and listened to the hum of Van and Isaac’s chatter. Often, Van’s laughter would carry into the room. Once, Isaac’s did, too. And Maxie wished that the ice against her ribs could numb the ache in her heart, as well.

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