Chapter 3: Solitude of a Birdcage

NOW

Maxie sat on the couch, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. She felt outside of herself, as if she were floating above the room, watching the herd of detectives, policemen, paramedics, medical examiners, and even lawyers swarming around her apartment. She just sat on the couch, finally clothed, but still covered in dried blood.

Isaac’s blood.

Cops shot questions at her like bullets; she answered them robotically. Did you know your attacker? I don’t know. I never saw his face. Do you know of anyone who may have wanted to hurt you? No. Do you know of anyone who may have wanted to hurt Isaac? No.

A different officer: Isaac shot him? Yes. With who’s gun? Mine. Where did you get the gun? Isaac gave it to me. Why? For protection. How far away was he when he shot the man? A few feet. And then what happened? Isaac went to call the police. And then what happened? I heard gunshots. And then what happened? When Isaac didn’t come back to the kitchen, I went to go find him… And..? And I found him.

She couldn’t get the image out of her mind. Isaac lying on the floor, not moving, not breathing, bleeding to death. But he didn’t die. He was alive, barely, but alive nonetheless. And so Maxie finally asked a question. “Is he going to be alright?”

Detective Lake, a petite woman with a short haircut and oversized slacks on, looked at her with pity. “The paramedics are doing everything they can for him.”

Maxie shut her eyes. A hot tear found its way out from behind her lids, trailed down her face, collecting blood along the way, and fell onto her thigh, leaving a bright red mark on her pants. “Miss Shannen,” Lake said, placing a gentle hand on her arm. “I just need to ask you a few more questions, okay? And then you can get cleaned up, and we can get you to the hospital to be with him.”

Maxie nodded.

“Now, once again, who exactly are you to him?”

“I’m… I’m his… his…” She couldn’t get the words out. She was everything to him, and nothing to him. She was his best friend, his confidant, his lover, his other half, but to everyone, to Van, she was only his friend. “I’m—”

“Oh, my God! What’s going on?” she heard Van cry out. “No, let go of me, I live here!” For the first time all morning, Maxie felt a hint of relief. She stood to greet her friend, whose eyes widened when they fell on her. “Maxie!” Van shrieked. “What’s going on here? What happened to you? Are you hurt? Are you alright?”

Maxie stepped forward and fell into her friend’s embrace. Van held her tight, with no regard to her bloodied clothes or stained skin. When they pulled apart, they were both crying. “Tell me what happened to you,” Van insisted, frantically. She looked, horrified, at the body that still lay on the kitchen floor. “Who—who’s that, Maxie? What happened?”

“He broke in, about an hour ago,” Maxie explained. Van’s eyes, if possible, grew even wider. Her mouth fell agape. “He tried to…” She couldn’t say the words. The sensation of the dead man’s hands was still on her skin. She closed her eyes and felt the tears roll down her face.

Stepping forward, Lake continued for her. “There were two intruders, Miss Trimmel. The man, there,” she said, motioning toward the kitchen, “attempted to sexually assault Miss Shannen—”

“Oh, my God, Maxie!” Van gasped, starting to cry again.

“Thanks to Mr. Cole, he didn’t succeed,” Lake finished.

If she didn’t have Van’s attention before, Lake certainly had it at the mention of Isaac. “Isaac was here?” she said with raised eyebrows. “What was he doing here? Where is he?” Lake looked at Maxie, who looked away.

“He was here when the intruders arrived,” Lake said slowly. Her eyes darted back and forth from Van to Maxie. Van, who was growing more hysterical by the second, and Maxie, who couldn’t even look her friend in the eye. “Miss Trimmel, may I ask where you’re coming from?”

“Work. I work at a bar in midtown,” Van said. “Where is Isaac now? Is he okay? Where is he, Maxie?”

“Wait,” Lake said. “Who are you to Mr. Cole?”

“His girlfriend! Tell me if he’s okay!”

“I’m sorry. He was shot in the head.” Van paled. She stared at the detective, blinking. “He survived the gunshot. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital. They’re going to do everything they can for him.”

“How?” Van mouthed. Her hands were at her chest, she was shaking her head. “Maxie,” she said, turning to her friend. “How?”

“I’m sorry,” Maxie choked out. “He was only protecting me, I’m sorry.”

“Why was he here?” she cried, collapsing on the couch. Lake looked at Maxie, obviously wondering the same thing.

“He came here for some of his things,” Maxie lied, avoiding Lake’s stare.

“In the middle of the night? He knows I work at night, why wouldn’t he wait until morning?”

Eyes still averted, Maxie said, “I don’t know, Van…”

“Miss Trimmel, if you don’t mind, I just have a few more questions for Maxie.” Van nodded and Lake pulled Maxie to the hallway, away from listening ears. “Maxie, I need you to tell me the truth, okay? What was Isaac doing here last night? We found him in his underwear. Why was he only wearing underwear if he just stopped by to pick up a few things?”

Maxie wrapped her arms around herself so she wouldn’t split in two. Her legs felt as if they’d give out on her at any moment. She lowered her chin, practically to her chest, and shook her head. “We were going to tell her today,” Maxie whispered, her voice breaking. “We planned on telling her first thing when she got home.”

“So you and Isaac are—”

“Yes,” Maxie breathed.

“Does Savannah have any idea?”

“No.”

“Maxie, are you sure?”

Maxie paused, narrowed her eyes. “You think… No, Van had nothing to do with this. She… she’s my best friend in the world, she would never hurt me. And she loves Isaac—” She stopped short and squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh, God, I’m such a horrible person. This is all my fault…”

Lake said nothing, she just stared at Maxie, who saw nothing but eyes shadowed with judgment.

 

Nearly half the day passed before Maxie was alone in the apartment again. She desperately needed to bathe, but instead she sat on the floor against the living room wall, knees pulled to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs. Van had gone to be with Isaac at the hospital. Maxie should’ve been there, too, but she couldn’t face her friend. And she wasn’t sure if she could face Isaac, either.

Was it just a coincidence that it had all happened the night he came over to discuss breaking Van’s heart?

After nearly an hour, she finally rose and made her way to the bathroom. She let the water run on its maximum heat and stepped under the faucet, only slightly recoiling from the sensation of it hitting her bare skin. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at the water streaming bright red at her feet. She scrubbed herself until she was sore, washed her hair until she was nearly out of shampoo, and then stood under the water until it ran lukewarm.

When she emerged from the bathroom, she lingered in the hallway for a while, dripping wet and contemplating what she would do next. Go to her room, which was covered in Isaac’s blood? Or the living room, where she could still see the mess in the kitchen? There was Van’s room, which was free of blood and brains and skull and death, but decorated with pictures of Van and Isaac smiling and laughing, and hugging and kissing. Maxie couldn’t decide which one was worse.

She’d thought being in the apartment for the past year was hard, with the lies and betrayal and pain hanging in the air that they breathed, contaminating their minds and their souls and their spirits, but now there was remorse and death on top of it all, and Maxie knew that if she didn’t get out soon, she wouldn’t be any better off than Isaac was.

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Maxie knew she liked Bea when she’d met her just a year prior. She’d been captivated by her exotic looks, impressed by her exceptional style, awed by her artistic talents. However, what Maxie appreciated most about Bea, was her gift of gab. Bea knew when to speak, she knew what to say, she knew how to say it.

And Bea also knew when to shut up.

That day, Bea said nothing. She and Maxie simply sat in her living room, staring at a movie that played on the television, but not really watching it. And then Maxie started to cry, and Bea said nothing, just set a fresh box of tissues besides her and let her sob. There was no comfort to be had, and Maxie was glad Bea didn’t try to offer it.

It was around three in the morning when Maxie began to feel sleepy, nearly twenty-four hours since Isaac had been shot. She retreated to Bea’s room to rest, but every time she closed her eyes, the sound of gunshots echoed through her thoughts; gunshots, her assailant’s voice, her own cries of horror at the sight of Isaac bleeding and dying. She tossed and turned sleeplessly until the sun came up and, finally giving up on any chance of slumber, made her way back to the living room where Bea laid on the couch, snoring lightly.

Maxie felt lightheaded, her feet felt heavy, as if she were dragging boulders around on her ankles. And her heart hurt. And her thoughts remained on Isaac. She put on a pot of coffee, propped herself up on the counter, and leaned her head back against the cabinet.

Time passed.

The coffee stopped brewing.

More time.

Bea stirred.

Even more time.

The doorbell rang.

Maxie jumped, blinked, realized she’d been daydreaming. Bea groaned from the couch and the bell sounded again. “Who’s that?” she asked, sitting up. She peered at the door and then back at Maxie. “Fuck, Max, did you sleep at all?”

“Mm hmm,” Maxie replied, looking away.

“Maxie—” The doorbell rang again, followed by a loud knock. “Coming!” Bea called, climbing to her feet. She went to the door and pulled it open. Alex stood there.

“Maxie!” he cried, pushing past Bea and into the apartment. “Jesus, Maxie, I just spoke to Van.”

For the first time all morning, Maxie felt something. “You did? What did she say?”

He embraced her, nearly carried her off the counter, kissed the skin of her cheek, neck, shoulder, until she wriggled free of his embrace. “What did she say?” she repeated, more urgently.

“She told me what happened,” he said. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there. Are you okay?” He took her face between his hands, pushed her curls back off of her forehead, out of her eyes.

“Did she mention…” she paused, unable to summon the words. Did she want to know? No, but she needed to. “How’s Isaac?”

Alex dropped his eyes. “He’s only been out of surgery for a few hours. They have him in a medically induced coma until the swelling in his brain goes down. They don’t know how severe the damage is yet. Only time will tell.”

She’d heard those words once before, when her own mother swallowed dozens of pills. Time only told the worst then. Noelle had been pronounced dead just days later.

Anguish hit her in the chest like a solid blow. For a moment she was breathless. “Oh, Max,” Alex said, pulling her against him as a sob erupted from her. He wrapped his arms around her and slowly rocked back and forth, gently shushing as he stroked her hair. “No, no, it’s not your fault,” he said.

Had she said it was? Yes, over and over, it’s all my fault. What if he dies? What if? What if she’d never fallen in love with him? What if she hadn’t betrayed the one person in the world who would never do the same to her? Then Isaac wouldn’t have been trying to protect her. He would never have been there in the first place. Now it was too late. She was being punished for it. Isaac was being punished for it.

Alex pulled back to look at her, but she couldn’t look at him. Not at him, not at Van, not even at herself. “Alex,” she said, averting her eyes.

“Yeah, babe? What’s wrong? Tell me what I can do for you.”

How many times had he made it far too easy for her to break up with him? For her to tell him to get out of her life? Countless times. And now, when she finally wanted to say it and mean it, he was standing before her with his mouth and his hands and his heart open to her. He was trying.

And yet, she couldn’t. For so long, she’d kept up the façade of caring, sometimes to keep Van from getting suspicious, sometimes to convince herself that she wasn’t as completely pathetic as she seemed, wanting to shun all other men for the man who was dating her best friend. But now there was no more pretending. She just couldn’t.

“I want you to leave,” she finally said. He recoiled, opened his mouth and then shut it again. “I’m sorry,” she went on. “I just… I can’t.”

He took a step back, nodded slowly. “Okay, then. I understand, you need space right now.”

“No,” she said, finally looking him in the eye. For the first time in a while, she was doing what needed to be done. “I mean I can’t, period.”

He narrowed his eyes, glanced at Bea who stood watching, and then turned back to Maxie. “Wh-why?” Because I’m in love with someone else, she wanted to say, and I can’t pretend to love you while he’s dying. “Listen, can we just talk for a minute? I know you’re going through a lot but—”

“No, Alex, no,” she said, lowering herself from the counter. “Please, I can’t do this right now, I can’t focus—”

“Maxie, please. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to go.”

“That’s it? You’re just going leave things like this? At least let me know what I did—”

“It’s me,” she said, more to herself than to anyone else. “It’s what did. I was so stupid.”

Bewildered, he turned to Bea. “What the fuck?” he demanded. “Is it because I wasn’t there? How the hell was I supposed to know something like that was going to happen? I’m here now, doesn’t that count for anything? Shit, Max, I’ve been trying so hard with you—”

But she was no longer listening. With her arms wrapping around herself, she moved past him and out of the kitchen.

Maxie,” he insisted.

“Let her go,” Bea said, stepping forward. “Haven’t you done enough?”

“What are you talking about?” he snapped. “I haven’t done anything.”

Bea snorted. “You haven’t done anything today maybe, but you’ve done plenty.”

That was the last thing Maxie heard before she shut herself in Bea’s room. For a moment or so, she simply stood in the middle of the floor, peering around. And then she spotted the familiar wooden box sitting on Bea’s nightstand. She exhaled and went to it.

When was the last time she’d smoked? She tried to remember as she pulled a brand new, freshly rolled joint from the box, along with the lighter that sat beside it.

Bea came into the room. “He’s gone,” she said, sitting down on the bed. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Maxie replied, showing her the joint.

“I thought you quit,” said Bea.

She had quit. Because of Isaac. Because he’d been all the escape she needed.

Without replying, she climbed out of the window and onto the fire escape, bringing the flame of the lighter to the end of the joint as she did so.

 

Maxie closed her eyes and exhaled. A thick cloud of smoke billowed out from her nose and mouth, and the light wind carried it away as quickly as it appeared. The breeze felt refreshing against her face. She imagined it sweeping her away, too, to disappear into the night like the smoke from her lungs.

‘Close your eyes, baby,’ Noelle says. She’s high, Maxie can tell. Her eyes are bloodshot, her voice is low, her spirit is calm. Lately, Maxie likes her mother best this way.

‘Close your eyes,’ she repeats, ‘and imagine a path leading to where you want to go most.’

Maxie obliges. She sees a stage at the end of her path. A dark stage with a spotlight and an endless audience, waiting to see her dance.

‘Now go there, Maximilienne,’ Noelle says. ‘Take that path.’

Maxie opened her eyes as her mother’s voice faded from her mind, and imagined that very path. There was no longer a stage at the end of it. There wasn’t a huge kitchen to be cooked in, nor was there a house where Maxie’s family, her real family, sat eating dinner together. Everything that had ever been at the end of that path the dozens of times Maxie imagined it were gone.

The only thing left there was Isaac.

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Maxie found Van in the waiting room of the hospital. She was sitting up straight, hands folded in her lap, staring straight ahead. She looked tired and weak. A bit dazed. She still wore the same clothes she had two nights before. “Van,” Maxie called.

Van blinked and turned toward the sound of her name. When she spotted Maxie, her eyes flickered to life. She rose to her feet and opened her arms to Maxie’s embrace. Maxie hugged her, held her, cried into her hair. They stood there for several long minutes, embracing and weeping and rocking slowly back and forth. Finally, Maxie pulled away. “How is he?” she asked.

Van bowed her head. “Still critical, but he stabilized.”

“Why are you sitting out here? Are they not letting anyone in his room?”

“They are,” she replied.

“Then let’s go,” Maxie said, turning toward the row of doors. “Which one is his?”

“Maxie, wait—”

“Is he alone? What if he wakes up?”

Maxie,” Van insisted, taking her by the arm. “I can’t go in there right now. I can’t look at him.”

Maxie understood. She could barely look at Van. Still, Isaac deserved to have someone by his side at all times. “I know this is hard, but…” She paused. Who was she to send anyone on a guilt trip? “I’ll just go, okay?”

“I’ve been with him this whole time,” Van said, matter-of-factly. “Holding his hand. But all the while, all I can feel is relief, Max. Relief that he was there. Relief that it’s not you lying in that hospital bed.” She covered her mouth with her fingers. Maxie noticed her nails were painted blood red. Maxie’s nail polish, again. But she wasn’t upset about it this time. “If it had been you that got hurt,” Van continued, “I don’t think I would be standing right now.” Her voice broke. “Does that make me a horrible person? That I’m glad it was him and not you?”

Maxie couldn’t say anything. Her breath, her voice, her words were all tangled in a thick knot, lodged in her throat. She was in no position to judge, especially not Van. She wanted to cry, but she was sure she’d cried out all the water that she had left in her head already. So instead, she hugged Van again, and then turned to join Isaac in his room.

He looked bad. There were tubes hanging from his mouth, his chest, his arms, under his sheets. He had dark, almost black shadows under his eyes. His skin was dry, his head was swollen and obnoxiously bandaged. Beeping machines surrounded him, breathed for him, lived for him. But Maxie had never been happier to see him.

She made her way to his side and sat down, taking his hand. Could he feel her? Not physically feel her, but feel her in the way that he usually felt her? Like when she would wake up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, and moments later he’d come creeping into her room?

‘How did you know I woke up?’ she asks. It bewilders her every time.

He slides in under the blankets and pulls her close to him. ‘I don’t know,’ he replies. ‘I just knew. I could feel you.’

‘Where does Van think you are?’

He shrugs. ‘Bathroom, maybe.’

‘What if she gets up to check?’

He nestles his face in the curve of her neck, inhales deeply, and says, ‘It’s a risk I’m willing to take.’

He never cared about getting caught. He cared very little about Van getting hurt. He cared senselessly about Maxie. Maxie cared senselessly about Van. Yet, together, she and Isaac were going to shatter her. She was going to try to explain to her best friend that she’d fallen irrationally in love with her boyfriend. She hadn’t meant to. In fact, she’d tried not to. But she’d been powerless against her own emotions. Isaac had come into her life like a tsunami and washed her away. Every time he’d looked at her, smiled at her, said her full name in that way she liked, he’d been pulling her deeper and deeper into his abyss. Before long, she’d been happily drowning in it. In him.

Sitting down in the chair beside the bed, she closed her eyes and rested her forehead against his limp hand. A part of her waited for it to respond, touch her, stroke her cheek. “Isaac,” she whispered. “I’m here now. Please be okay.”

The door opened and Van stepped into the room. Maxie almost let go of Isaac’s hand, almost backed away from him; it had become something of a second nature to do so. She didn’t, though. She fell asleep, his hand against her face, her fist clutching the blankets at his chest, and didn’t wake until visiting hours were over.

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