“I thought for sure it was just a faulty wire or something,” she said.
“I really think that the laptop Rhys got you is a great one. I can install some programs and show you how to use it.”
“That would be great, honey!”
I got her laptop and sat on the couch, going to work. Showing her the ins and outs. She paid half attention, then started throwing in her own questions.
“So you and Rhys, things going well?”
“Um, yeah. Just hanging out. Heading back to Chicago next week.” The parole hearing was only a few days away and I was getting anxious.
“Is he okay?” Gwen asked.
“From what I can tell. Should he not be?”
“I just worry about him. The anniversary of his father’s death is tomorrow and he always takes it kind of hard.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know. He hadn’t told me.” It did explain why he was distant and not so chatty lately. “It can be hard with his death still being so fresh.”
“What are you talking about?” Gwen asked with a perplexed look on her face.
“Rhys said his dad died a few years ago.”
“Rhys and his time references.” Gwen shook her head. “Should have known he didn’t say anything. My son tends to keep things in. Of course, I guess I’m not surprised,” Gwen mumbled to herself. “His father died fifteen years ago in the woods. They were out hiking and he had a heart attack. Rhys was sixteen at the time and did CPR but, you know, these things just happen.”
My mind and body instantly surged with some kind of sick shock and realization. Threads of Rhys were weaving together right in front of my face.
“He still blames himself,” Gwen said. “Thinks it was his fault he couldn’t save him. But there was nothing to be done.”
“I had no idea,” I whispered.
Rhys had done an amazing job keeping me distracted and conversation light and casual over the last two weeks. This whole time I had felt like I was making progress in getting to know him, but in reality, the big parts of his life were still in the dark. Held back.
“He’s a good boy. He just thinks he can take on everything. Then, of course, the incident in Afghanistan didn’t help.”
I scooted a little closer. “Forgive me, Gwen, but Rhys never talks about that.”
I had tried a couple times to gently push the conversation in that direction, but Rhys always shot me down and didn’t give me anything.
“I’ve seen his shrapnel scars,” I said, then my face heated because I realized where they were located and knew that I had just inadvertently confessed to Rhys’s mother that I’d seen him undressed. “I haven’t wanted to force him to talk, but if you can give me some perspective, that would be great.”
She nodded and patted my knee. “He’s never spoken much about it with me either, dear. I only know a few facts based on what he told me at the hospital right after he was hurt. He was on a lot of pain medicine, but what I gathered was that his unit worked with some locals who delivered information and I guess one of the people got found out and was forced to walk into camp with some kind of hidden bomb strapped to them and that . . .” She covered her mouth. “That was the explosion that Rhys was injured by. A couple men died, but Rhys, thank heavens, wasn’t as close.”
“Oh God . . .” My lungs felt like they just shriveled in my chest and my whole face turned to ice. What an awful thing to see. To experience. I couldn’t begin to imagine.
“Rhys took it hard, obviously,” Gwen said. “It wasn’t until his security company took off a couple years ago that he started coming back around. He’s at his best when he is doing something to help others. It’s just the kind of man he is.”
“I know,” I whispered.
I could barely process this fast enough, feeling more like the outdated computer in the other room than anything else. Pieces were coming together. Reasons why Rhys was the way he was. To his core, he was a good man. Honest and caring. Probably too much. And I didn’t know how to balance that, much less live up to it. How did I help him? Not that he needed my help in the first place, but . . .
“What do I do, Gwen?” I palmed my brow, hating that my thoughts couldn’t form words.
“I want to do something, Gwen. I want to . . .” I balled my hands into fists that hovered over the keyboard.
Gwen’s soft hands enclosed mine. “You want to take it from him, dear.”
I looked at her and the truth of her words sank in. She was totally right.
“Yeah. I do,” I whispered.
“I know.” She rubbed my back with one hand. “I want to take it from him too. I wish so much he didn’t have to live with that pain and the scars it came with.”
Reality hit me. That was how Rhys felt about my past. This whole time I was thinking it was pity. But what I felt for him right now, was rage. I was angry. Hated that he went through what he did. No man, especially one like him, should ever have to experience such loss. Such fear. Such devastation.
“I have a favor to ask you, dear.”
I looked at Gwen.
“Is there a way you can talk Rhys into not selling that hunting lodge?”
I frowned. “Why?”
“He loves it. Deep down I know he does, and his father left it to him. But he’s selling it for the wrong reasons.”
“I don’t know if it’s my place to push him in one direction or another.”
She shook her head. “He’s happy with you. He hasn’t stayed at that lodge in a long time and when I see him, how he treats you and how you look at him . . .” She smiled and nodded. “You’re helping him, Emma. I know you are.”
I was helping him? If only I could laugh and tell her what was really going on. That Rhys was the one saving my ass. Hiding me. Taking care of me.
“I really think if he can get through tomorrow, find some peace, he will keep the lodge and it will be a good thing for him. Anything you can do I’d appreciate.”
Seeing her gray eyes, the same ones that Rhys had, go glossy with tears was unbearable. I couldn’t turn down her request. “Okay, Gwen. I’ll talk to him, but I have to be honest, talking isn’t my strong suit.”
She smiled and wrapped her arm around my shoulder. “I know, dear. That’s why I like you. You don’t waste time with the formalities, just go in cussing and swinging.” She patted my shoulder. “And that’s just the kind of woman my son needs.”