Garry ended the call and, careful not to make noise, put his phone down onto the nightstand with a dispirited sigh, his tongue smacking an irritated click. He drew his leg up from under the thick blanket to rest his arm on and ran a hand through his mussed head.
The bright ray of sunlight slicing through the crack between the curtains told him it was already late into the day.
Next to him, Ib was sound asleep, her breaths fanning against his hand in a warm, even rhythm. She had a hand tucked underneath her pillow, her hair soft and splaying down her cheek, her neck. He could see a little bit of crust in the corners of her eyes and felt a smile tugging at his face. As he slipped into a daze watching her, Garry wanted to give her a kiss. Just a chaste, innocuous peck on those defenseless lips. Just for a little bit.
But that was crossing the line, so he withdrew the hand that was creeping towards her cheek.
“Here you go, hon,” he placed a cup of warm milk down in front of her. “You don’t have to finish that if you don’t want to.”
Ib shook her head and continued to nibble on the sandwich with little zeal. Garry stifled a groan. As mature as she acted, his little girl was still just that: little. Refusing to meet his eyes and the silent treatment – classic sulking.
He went to finish cleaning the stove and threw away the last of the eggshells before seating himself on the other side of the dining table. Garry was about to start his late breakfast when he realized something.
“You know, Ib, I really doubt your parents will care whether you’ve finished your food or not.”
The girl glanced up at him for a moment, and then her gaze returned to the table. She remained silent, but her dispassionate chewing had halted. Looking at her trying to keep a blank face, Garry could hear the little cogwheels in her head scrambling to creak out another stall tactic and hid a smirk as he picked up his sandwich to take a large bite out of it.
The Lowell couple weren’t happy to learn that their preteen daughter had been short of running away from home at the break of dawn – no thanks to the exaggerated testimony of their housekeeper. Ib was now grounded and banned from Garry for an indefinite amount of time. Depends on how well she behaves, Alysha’d said.
Swallowing, Garry put the sandwich down and resisted the urge to sigh loudly. It sounded severe, but he was sure the parent would let up soon. Ib didn’t though, and was mad at him for not doing anything about it. She seemed to think he was some sort of expert smooth talker, when in fact she was the con artist where her parents were involved.
He didn’t blame her for being on edge though. These few years he’d been with her, Garry had never seen Ib being disciplined. She probably had never even gotten into trouble before, spoiled little thing. By her age, Garry had already been grounded and spanked enough to file for child abuse.
Ib kept her eyes down as she ate. Rather than being concerned about her lack of appetite, Garry found the dark rings above her cheekbones more deserving of his attention. She’d told him she was having nightmares again, though she didn’t tell him what they were about. He didn’t pry. He figured it was the gallery stuff resurfacing.
No…she wouldn’t have come running to him.
“I’m not enjoying this anymore than you do, Ib.” Garry propped his chin up in his palm, leaning forward on the table and trying to catch her gaze.
She wasn’t the only one disgruntled by this. During the past month, being able to see her was his only saving grace. The time he spent with her blurred the guilt gnawing at his heart. Every glimpse of her smile put his ill soul at ease, and every touch she allowed him was a momentary reprieve from his crime. On the days they couldn’t meet, he’d munch on the few minutes of phone calls from her to stave off the longing and anxiety.
Garry was scared.
A part of him was convinced something in Ib would change if he wasn’t constantly reinforcing his existence in her life. She might find solace with that blond brat and decide that he was no longer worth the heartache. Or she might start resenting him for not being there to sooth her evil dreams. Or she might realize she didn’t even need him to cope with the haunting. And what if she breaks down and tells her parents what he’d done.
Call him a coward, but he was so scared. He wasn’t ready.
“Ib, honey,” he tried again, leaning in closer. She was still ignoring him, staring at something off to her left, but he knew she was listening. The girl hadn’t taken another bite even though she was at the runny yolk that she loved. “Your Ma sounded serious, you know. I just don’t know when she’s going to let you off. It might be a while before you can see me again, hmm?” Garry thought a little teasing to lighten up the mood couldn’t hurt. “Do you really want to leave here hating me?”
“I don’t hate you.” Her red gaze darted up at him, looking almost desperate to clarify. The conviction in her voice stunned him.
As if startled by her own outburst, Ib immediately fluttered her eyes downward and bit into her sandwich with a little more force than needed.
“H-hey, the yolk!” Garry got to his feet and reached over to stop a string of yellow from making its descend onto her white and expensive turtleneck.
Ib blinked a few times, perplexed. “I’m sorry,” she said, her mouth full, and titled the sandwich horizontal so that he could take his hand back.
“No, it’s okay.” He licked his palm and grinned. “I used to always make a mess eating these, too.”
As Garry sat back down, Ib dropped her food, got to her feet and pattered towards the cupboard. Before he could wonder what she was doing, the girl returned to his side with a dampened paper towel and presented it to him.
“Why, thank you.” He was wiping his hand when he noticed her lower lip. “You got some—” Garry reached up, but stopped when she flinched.
He wasn’t going to deny the pinch he felt inside his chest that moment. It was nothing new though. He kept forgetting that things between them had changed, and she kept making that guilty face even though he was at fault.
“Sorry. May I?” Garry maintained a gentle smile so as not to pressure her and waited for a nod before rubbing the smudge of yolk from her lip. Ib stood very still, and he could tell she was holding her breath.
He was becoming self-conscious. The flesh beneath his thumb was soft, and he didn’t want to move from it. His suddenly dry mouth swallowed. Garry yanked his line of sight up and away from those inviting lips. His eyes met hers – she’d been staring; she was watching him with eyes he couldn’t read.
You’re doing everything wrong…
What was she thinking? What did this blank expression mean? She was a mystery that kept on drawing him in. Was he hated or was he loved? His careless teasing had been taken the wrong way, and he couldn’t feel more flattered by her response. But how much of those words could he trust? How much of them had she meant as his confusion mirrored on her face?
The ringing of the doorbell shattered the silence like walls of glass.
“All clean!” Garry retracted his hand in one swift motion and tilted his head in a smile. Pushing his chair back, he got to his feet. “That must be your parents.”
Ib opened her mouth to say something, but stopped herself. He patted her head. “I’m sure they’re not too mad. Go finish your sandwich. I’ll try and abate them, ‘kay?”
The little girl gave a slight nod and went back to her seat.
And as he left in haste for the door trying not to think about how she’d cringed under his hand, Garry sucked on the crumbs of dry yolk on his thumb.
“So you’re still here…”
Garry’s brows drew together at the disdain in her tone as the silver-haired girl brushed past him and into his apartment as though it was her own.
“What do you want?” he asked with little patience. It had been a week since he’d last had any contact with Ib, and Garry felt mentally and physically drained by the daily life he was forced to continue. No afternoon meeting, no weekend visit, no phone call before bed. Whatever Ib was doing at home, she was doing it wrong. And he couldn’t even be there to advise her otherwise. His tolerance was hitting rock bottom and he had none to spare for snide remarks, especially coming from someone who could jab where it hurt.
He hadn’t expected to see Scarlet ever again. She’d made it very clear how disgusted she was, and he hadn’t resented her for it until…
Garry closed the door and hurried after the girl, who kept on heading inside, his question unanswered. “Hey, don’t just go in as you please.”
“I want to talk.” She gave him a fleeting glance over her shoulder before attempting to sit down on the armchair. However, the seat was crowded by a toppled column of books, as was the coffee table and the complimentary couch, so she settled for the rug.
“Really, you came here to talk while expecting me to be behind bars,” he scoffed and returned to his pile of unfinished assignments scattered on the couch.
“I knew you’d be here. Uncle wouldn’t have left it alone if you were arrested.” Her words got him looking up from his work. There was something lethargic in her expression. “It’s only a little unbelievable to actually see you. The little girl protected you in the end.”
Garry tightened his jaw and tried to distract a rising anger by concentrating on the sketches. “You told him? Is that why you came? If he sent you then go home.”
“No.” She gave a curt shake of her head, face like she’d just bitten into lime.
Scarlet didn’t say anything more, and Garry resumed working, satisfied knowing his benefactor was still in the dark.
He’d heard the girl, but decided to ignore it. She wasn’t going to tell Mr. Garland, and that was as far as his interest for her went. Now he’d love for her to leave, preferably on her own.
“I liked you, Garry. I really did.” He paused in his strokes, glancing up again. She was staring straight at him, her teeth gnawing on her bottom lip, her eyes forlorn. “Did you like me?”
The lost look on her face almost made him feel guilty. Scarlet was a beautiful and confident girl, and he’d enjoyed her company, both as a friend and in bed. What he liked the most was… Garry worked his jaw and averted his gaze. “Yeah, I liked you.” But it stopped at that. If only there was more, this entire mess could have been avoided.
He heard her emit a sigh. “It’s these eyes, isn’t it? Gosh, you sick bastard…”
Garry pressed his mouth into a thin line to keep himself from lashing out at her. He made a show of working on his project, though Garry was only retracing what was already on the paper, the strokes he made threatening to tear through the fraying surface.
“You’re not even going to try and deny it?”
The walls of his nostrils flared.
“Hey, I’m talking to y—” He threw his pencil at her. It barely missed her face, smacking loudly against the side of the armchair she was leaning against.
“You have no right to judge me, hypocrite,” he growled low and grim. “You were just as sick.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Scarlet tried to gather herself even as her flight response clattered wildly against the bars of her ribcage. She had had ample time to reconsider the events and concluded that there was no way Garry knew anything. The boy played a good bluff, but she wasn’t going to be fooled this time around.
“Oh, please, sweetheart. It’s a little too late to play dumb now. You were obedient as a puppy at the mere mention of your father.”
She snapped up to her feet, her cheeks flushed with anger and her hands in fists. “Let me make this very clear. Why I helped the little girl had nothing to do with what you claim to know about my family.”
Garry felt his frown deepen. Now the girl was just lying through her teeth. If he hadn’t played dirty that morning, she would have left Ib to freeze. “All right.” He shoved his work aside and got to his full height, towering over her.
For a brief moment, she shrank away, afraid, making him wonder what the point of this argument was. But then she held her defiant gaze up at him, and he wanted to make her miserable.
“Guess what, Scarl. I met your father the other day.” The hundred and eighty degree change in her expression told him he’d hit the nail on the head. If Garry had any humor left in him, he would have burst out laughing from the satisfaction of watching her squirm. It flavored his poignant tongue and made his voice sickeningly sweet even for his own ears. “My, it was such a huge coincidence how much we had in common. And then it all started to make sense.” Every drunken words she’d blubbered on his doorstep had clicked together like pieces of a puzzle.
“Th-that’s not…” She took a step back, but he seized her by the arm and pulled her up to him, dipping his head low until their noses were inches apart.
“Come on, just admit it. I’m as much of a replacement to you as you are to me. You came because, just like me, you still don’t have what you want.”
“You forced yourself on a child,” she hissed. “We’re nothing alike.”
So she liked to be on the moral high ground. The muscles on his face hardened before he willed them into a smile. “And? What did you use on daddy, hmm? K? Roofy? You had everything planned out, didn’t you?”
Her skin lost its colors all over again. She tried to flee, but he kept his hold on her tight. “Let. Go.” She mumbled, her voice already cracking, her hands flailing to push him away.
Garry brought his free hand to her chin and lifted her face to him. The precious red of her eyes were glazed with unshed tears, so much like those that haunted his sleep. No matter how fearful, no matter how hate-filled, he loved them.
“If I’m scum then you’re no better,” he whispered and placed a kiss upon defenseless lips.
Just a chaste, innocuous peck.
A pile of books comprising of her Monday subjects, that was what Ib was resting her head on at the moment. With her ear pressed against the cover of a book she vaguely remembered was for Chemistry, she grimaced at the energetic thumping of her classmates’ indoor version of tag, but was too lazy to remedy the problem. The rain was going on strong outside the closed windows, ensuring that there was no hope of them having what was left of the recess outside.
Ib was tired from lack of sleep, and the fact that she hadn’t been able to catch a single whiff of Garry made the entire situation all the more unbearable. Pa had been furious with Ib, but only after they’d left Garry’s place, most likely knowing that Garry would have tried to mitigate his wrath. The man was normally so agreeable and mild in temper that it’d silenced Ib from attempting even a squeak of excuse in the face of the uncharacteristic discipline.
She had no idea what to do. Ma was the one to get mad and Ib knew how to plead to the woman to get her way. Pa, on the other hand, was uncharted territory.
Mary was being very mean in her sleep, whispering things she was afraid to hear the most. While Ib understood her friend was long gone and could never come back again, in the throes of her nightmares, logic was as abundant as sunlight during full eclipses.
“Hey Ib!” Ray’s voice called her as a hand landed on her desk.
“Yes, Ray?” she glanced up and took in his smiling face that was smeared with sweat and something she hoped wasn’t the cream from the celebratory chocolate cakes in the cafeteria.
“Here’s yours,” he presented a small paper dish with aforementioned cake before her.
“I said I didn’t want any.” Ib lifted her head and flopped it back down on the books, facing the other way. She wanted to sleep, and sugar would make that goal even further away than it already was.
“But it’s soo good, Ib,” he defended from out of her sight, and he wasn’t lying. The cake offered by the school on the founder’s birthday was of great quality, but the magic had already faded by her third year studying here. She could live without it this year.
The boy walked around the desk and sat on the empty seat next to her. “What got you so grumpy?”
Was her face showing it? “I’m not.” She kept her voice neutral.
“Oh, come on. I might just be able to help.”
Ib closed her eyes, the burn of tears spreading behind her lids. “I can’t meet Garry.”
“What? Is he avoiding you again? Seriously—”
“My parents won’t let me. I’m grounded.”
“Oh, not such a goody-two shoes now, are ya?” Her eyes snapped open and she sat up straight. Lorrance, who stood in front of her desk stuffing himself with a slice of chocolate cake, smiled his ugly smirk at her. “Peh, a teeny tiny punishment and already whining about it.”
“Go away, dude. This is a private conversation.” Ray shot to is feet and tried to take the cake from the other boy. “And that’s Ib’s.”
“Bla, bla, she doesn’t want it,” Lorrance shouted through a mouthful of cake and ran back to his circle.
“Really, why am I friends with him?” The blond grumbled with crossed arms. He turned back to her. “Sorry Ib, you were saying?”
Ib only shook her head and dropped her head back down on the pile of books. ‘A teeny tiny punishment’?Was she being whiny, complaining about not being able to see Garry after only one week? Pa said the same thing. That she shouldn’t be bothering Garry so much. That she was a big girl now and should learn not to depend on Garry. But wasn’t she entitled to depend on him? She heard shuffling next to her, indicating that Ray had settled back down by her side.
“Um, y’know, I think your parents had a good reason to ground you. So just wait a little bit more. When they’re not mad anymore, you’ll be able to see Garry.”
She turned her head to look at Ray, the boy smiling nervously as he tried to be helpful. “I guess I deserved it.” She lowered her gaze, deep in thoughts. Ma and Pa must have been worried to learn she’d left the house without their knowledge.
“I wouldn’t say that… Say, can’t you just go see the guy for fifteen minutes after school?”
Ib shook her head. “Mr. Ivankov picks me up.”
Ray fell silent for the rest of the recess. She could tell the boy was looking at her the whole time she had her eyes closed. He must be feeling bad for not being able to help her. Ib liked that he didn’t easily abandon her like others who attempted to befriend her. She wanted to tell him not to worry about it, but felt little motivation to do so as the sleep laid its grip on her.
The little girl woke up a short few minutes later to the bell signaling the start of the next class. Next to her, Ray was getting to his feet to return to his seat. He gave her a soft nudge to gain her attention.
“Leave it to me, ‘kay?” He had on one of those confident smirk that she’d learned precede some sort of plan.