The Alphabet Stories: Progress
Story by Liane Carter
Illustration by E.J. Klepinger
Ben lapsed, panic creeping up around his throat, yet it passed rather than paralyze him. Jon had given him so much homework post session, it felt like he was right beside Ben, making sure he put his new knowledge into practice. He remembered to do all the things Jon had said, and in the last few days had started to feel like the being he was born to be.
Edward checked on Ben more than once a day and reassured him that he could do the work, that if Edward had done it, so could Ben. Oh how he loved Edward. He hoped one day he would be able to help someone as much as Edward had helped him. Edward didn’t judge him, loved him and gave his friendship freely without condition. Ben didn’t know such people existed in this world.
He worried that Jennifer would come back in his head, yet she hadn’t. She’d left during the last session and his mind had been free of her for days. Jon assured him that doing the homework would help, which made Ben even more eager to apply it. It was like a whole new way of being and his brain and heart were eating it up, excited for this new stage of his life.
Kate, Edward’s ghost wife, would sometimes appear in the warehouse next to Ben and smile before dissolving or floating back to Edward’s office. And because Edward could never see her, Ben made a point of telling Edward each time. Edward would soak Ben’s words in, expand his chest, breathe deeper and his shoulders would relax. A smile would spread on his lips and Kate would mouth a thank you to Ben. Ben owed them the thank yous. It was the least he could do.
Panic had surfaced twice this morning because of Charlotte. Ben had pre-booked a bed and breakfast for a week because he only had two days to get out of his apartment. He didn’t want to commit to more than a week because he didn’t want to let Charlotte down again. He’d already not shown up when they were supposed to first meet to go and look at her place. He still hoped she’d want him to rent one of the vacated rooms. Ben got a rush of joy when he thought of going home each night to the same house and maybe spending time together there on their days off. Did Charlotte read? He hoped she did. It would give them something to talk about, well, when they weren’t reading. He wanted to be able to read with her, to talk with her for hours, to sit with her in silence, and just be with her.
He walked around to the next aisle of the warehouse and there she was standing in front of him. He froze, his chest started thumping and then he remembered his homework. Not brave enough to raise his gaze, he studied her black Doctor Martin boots, the daisy painted on the left one, slowed his breath, connected with his body. He fought the boulder in his throat.
“How are you?” he said.
“Better,” she said. “Weak, yet way better. It’s good to see you, Ben.”
It was? He dared to look up and realized he’d eyed her all the way up to her face.
“It’s good to see you too,” he said.
She smiled and flushed.
“So I see.”
Ben felt his own cheeks heat.
He wanted to apologize, but Jon said to be authentic and he had enjoyed looking at her, and wanted to do it again, so would it be a real apology? He wanted to look at her all day.
“So, I’m not sure about you renting a room where I am,” she said.
What? He should have apologized for eyeing her up. He’d messed up. He needed a direct line to Jon. Help.
“Oh.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say that would be safe. He knew not to be reactive.
“It’s not you,” Charlotte said. “Or rather it is you.”
“What I mean is, because I care about you, I think it wouldn’t be kind to ask you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m not surprised,” Charlotte said. “I’m not explaining because I’m panicking that if I tell you, you’ll think I’m crazy. I think I may need to move out myself. I don’t know how much longer I can stand it there. I don’t know if I can stay there much less ask someone else to rent there too. It’s … oh, God, how do I say this? It’s ….”
“Complicated?” Ben winced at the spite in his tone. It had leaked out. He felt rejected. Reframe. Reframe.
Charlotte didn’t seem to notice. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but my brother sort of agrees too. Not that you know my brother. I’m rambling again. I do that when I’m embarrassed about what I’m not saying. Okay, I am just going to say it.”
Ben suppressed a smile. He wanted to hug her. He melted when she talked. If she was going to say it was too much to see him outside of work though, he’d rather not know. Hadn’t Edward said Ben and Charlotte would be good together? Hadn’t she just said it was good to see him?
“Maybe don’t tell me,” he said. He tried to keep his breathing slow and deep, and imagined a big bat swiping his thoughts away.
She shook her head.
“No, I want to. I trust you, Ben.”
If symphonies played in people’s cells, ten were playing simultaneously in Ben’s body. Someone trusted him. Him. Hadn’t Jon said he would start to see the truth manifested in the outside world? Wasn’t this proof of who he really was? He wanted to pick Charlotte up and spin her around. Ben was on a journey to trusting himself and here was Charlotte already trusting him. He fought back the tears.
“Tell me then,” he said.
“Promise me you won’t think less of me.”
He wanted to laugh right there with joy that she trusted him.
“If I thought less of you, it would still be more than I’ve thought of anyone.”
Ben stepped back from his own words, surprised they’d spilled out.
His vulnerability though rewarded him with a huge smile from Charlotte.
“That’s beautiful. Really?”
Ben gulped and nodded.
“Okay. Here goes,” she said. “The house I rent, I think … I think it’s haunted.”
“And you’re in there alone?”
“You believe me?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
She smiled at him and shook her head.
“I guess I’ve just had experience in the past with the wrong sort of guys.”
“I think you should move out.”
“Yes. Isn’t that what you want to do?”
“Yes. I guess, I guess I just thought it might be nice for us to be house mates.”
Ben covered his face in his hands.
“Are you okay?” Charlotte said.
Ben lowered his hands, looked into her eyes.
“Yes, I’m getting ready to be brave. I’ve just realized something. Charlotte, I don’t want to be house mates.”
Her face dropped.
“No. I … I want to date you.”
“I’d love that, Ben.”
He wanted to jump in the air and run and tell Edward all at the same time. Instead he just stood there and beamed at her. Life could feel good.