His brows gathered as he swallowed hard, set the sandwich on the plate, and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “Gotta tell you, it’s kinda creepy you just staring at me.”
I flushed, uncomfortable with the awkward tension between us. It felt so foreign. “Indulge your mother,” I said jovially, and reached out to set my hand on his shoulder. As much to reassure myself as him that all was well. I felt his muscles flinch at my touch. I pulled back my hand as if I’d been burned, then hurriedly retreated across the kitchen to fetch a glass. My hands shook as I stood at the sink and filled the glass with cold water, then brought it to my lips. I was so upset I could hardly swallow. That he would flinch at my touch cut me to the core. I sneaked a furtive glance at Taylor from over the rim of the glass, trying not to be caught staring. He’d returned to his sandwich. Who is this man? I asked myself again.
I set the glass on the counter and tried again, saying nonchalantly, “I didn’t see Ashley at the party.”
Taylor shook his head, his eyes on his plate. “She went home.”
Talking to him was like pulling teeth. I leaned against the counter and looked again at him from behind.
“But why? She helped me plan it. Corralled all your old friends. She was so excited. Poor thing, was she sick?”
“No. We talked and she wanted to go home.”
“Oh, no, did you have a fight?”
Taylor swallowed hard. “No, we didn’t have a fight,” he answered, piqued.
“She’s such a nice girl. I’ve always liked her. I always hoped that, well, you know, that you and she would tie the knot one day. You’ve been together forever.”
He put the sandwich on his plate and turning leveled his gaze at me. “We broke up, okay?”
I fell silent. I’m sure my face showed my disappointment because he turned back to the table. During the party preparations I’d secretly dreamed of Ashley and Taylor’s getting back together now that he was home, maybe even getting married and having children. Weren’t those all the things a mother hoped for her children?
Mercifully, the telephone rang. I hurried to answer it.
“Hey, Mrs. McClellan. It’s Jack.”
“Jack!” I turned to face Taylor. Jack had been the closest of Taylor’s group of friends, a kind of brother. Surely Jack would be able to break through the ice barrier that Taylor had created around himself. “It was so good to see you the other night. Long time. Too long! Thanks for coming.”
“Sure. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Great to see Taylor again. Hey, is the old boy around?”
I met Taylor’s gaze, eyebrows raised in question.
Taylor scowled and shook his head.
I couldn’t keep my opinion from my face. “Oh, uh,” I stammered, uncomprehending why Taylor wouldn’t want to talk to his best friend, “I’m sorry, Jack. He’s sleeping now. He’s not feeling well. . . . What? Oh, it’s probably just the flu. You know how it is with air flights.” I rolled my eyes. I was a terrible liar. I didn’t think Jack believed me. “Sure, I’ll tell him you called. Love to your mother. Bye.”
I lowered the phone and looked pointedly at my son. “Jack wants you to call him back.”
Taylor looked at his plate.
“Oh, and he mentioned something about a party.”
Taylor answered fast, like a knee-jerk reaction. “I’m not going to any party.”
“Oh, honey, you need to get out of this house. See your friends.”
“I don’t want to go out.”
“But why not?” I replied, in almost a whine. Then with encouragement: “It would do you good.”
Taylor didn’t respond, but he shifted in his chair.
“If you’re not ready for going out with your friends, maybe we could do some Christmas shopping together. Maybe even go to Charleston. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
He lowered his head and put his fingertips to his forehead. “I don’t want to go anywhere,” he said with a flare of anger.
“Oh.” I took a breath. “You don’t have to get snippy.”
“Mama . . .” There was a tone of apology. Taylor paused, then dropped his hand. His eyes squinted against the light. “I have a blinding migraine.”
My anger fled, replaced with concern. “I have some Tylenol.”
“I eat fistfuls of stuff like that and it doesn’t do anything.”
“It might be the flu. There’s so much of that going around now. And you’ve been traveling. Have you seen a doctor?”
Taylor burst out a short laugh. “Yeah, I’ve seen a doctor. I saw one right before I came here. He wouldn’t give me any more pain pills. He’s afraid I’ll get addicted.” Taylor snorted as if that were preposterous. “So now I’m left to suffer and begin all over again with a new set of doctors in Charleston.” His hand slammed the table. “What’s the point? They don’t fix anything anyway.”
“Here, let me check your forehead.” I walked closer to put my hand on his forehead. He waved it away brusquely. “I’m just checking to see if you have a fever.”
“I don’t have the flu. Or a fever. Look.” He held my gaze. “My bandages are off, but the injuries are still there. In my head.” He tapped the side of his head for effect. “In my brain. That’s why I have migraines.” Taylor pushed the chair back and climbed to his feet.
“Wait,” I cried, shooting my arms out in an arresting motion to stop him from leaving. He pushed past me. “Taylor,” I cried, a knot forming in my throat. “Don’t push me away. Don’t push your friends away!”
Taylor spun on his heel, his face coloring. “They’re not my friends!” he shouted back, hands in fists at his thighs. “My friends are dead. And it was my fault. Mine! I was the officer in charge. I was responsible for them. And they died. You tell me why I’m alive and all my friends are dead!”
I stared into his eyes, so tortured with guilt and unspeakable sorrow. My heart was breaking to see him in such pain. “Oh, Son, it’s not your fault.”
He swore under his breath and headed out of the room.
“Let me help you!” I cried.
“You can’t!” he shouted back.
I watched him retreat down the hall, heard his heavy footfalls on the stairs, and flinched at the slamming of his bedroom door. My breath released in a shuddering sigh as my arms dropped to my sides.