As CC walked into her apartment, bones propping her up and feet dragging, she heard the shrill phone ringing off the hook. Some dumbass hire, most likely, calling to berate and give her something else to fix. The set wasn’t the precise, pretentious vision of the set designer. The actors weren’t off-book yet. The script submissions were piling up and she was the only one who could slash them to bits.
Fix this, fix that. Get that. Talk to them. On and on. At the end of the day, faced and charged with everyone else’s problems, all she was good for was trudding home, curling up in bed, and doing it all over the next day
How had this become her life? When did waking up early, feeding a dog that despised her, going across town to work with people her mocked, taunted, and underappreciated her, then returning to an empty apartment to eat leftover takeout and pour over paperwork until the booze and meds dragged her to sleep become her day to day?
CC dumped her purse on her couch, dropped a scoopful of food into Chester’s dog bowl, grabbed a half empty bottle of scotch from her liquor cabinet, and crawled into her bed, not even bothering to change out of her suit or kick off her heels.
Each day was a struggle but she thought she’d been the one in control, the one choosing her actions, guiding her life.
After she had gotten out of the place, she thought she knew how to tell what was real and what wasn’t. She’d thought she’d be able to tell if she was getting bad again, if her delusions were driving her again, but it was like nothing had changed. The work she’d done, the hours she talked and processed, the list of signs and symptoms she had made with her counselor were just as useless as she was. CC was as powerless as she ever was.
Maxwell was happy, married, and in love. Nanny Fine was having his children. They were inseparable, getting more sickly sweet as the days went on.
But no matter how many times she reminded herself that the twisted fantasy that her mind had warped around him still clouded her judgement and swayed her actions.
The children, her best friend’s children that couldn’t care less about her. But she’d given them no reason to care, to look to her with anything but disdain and ambivalence. After she died, they’d reminded her so much of Sarah. Their eyes, their hair, the way that even through sorrow and loss they brought light into everything they did. It hurt to look at them too long, knowing that their mother would never see them grow up like she would. After years of closing herself off from them, she’d missed so much time. There was no way to get to know them or be a part of their lives without suspicion or feeling like a fool.
Niles, a man that seemed to find joy in twisting her mind, pulling on her loose ends, and making her doubt herself. CC gave as good as she got, sure, but the more she thought about his taunts, what he’d said that afternoon, the more she began to doubt. Were they taunts or merely truths that he was bashing her over the head with, trying to get her to see herself clearly.
She’d thought she was a successful business woman, beautiful, intelligent, and loved by many but the more she thought about it, the less rang true. What was the last time that a play she’d worked on had been a success, that lasted more than a season and had reviews that were more than neutral?
She was no spring chicken, either. Each year, she looked more and more like her mother would have if she hadn’t invested her thousands in cosmetic surgery. Everytime she stood on her scale, it creaked and groaned. There certainly wasn’t a line of suitors down the block for the man-hating, ballbusting bitch of broadway.
If she was so smart, then why was she the way she was, stupidly chasing after the tricks her mind played on her.
The people who were supposed to love her, that she thought loved her, probably couldn’t stand her. She’d seen her family a handful of times in the last decade. Her father had even liked Nanny Fine more than her, his own flesh and blood. The Sheffields dealt with her out of obligation, when was the last time she’d been with them outside of a business endeavor, or a day at work?
When Niles was lecturing her from the staircase, the merry couple standing feet away listening all the while, had they disagreed? Had they defended her or denied any of the things he’d said against her?
For the last twenty-so years, CC had spent each day parrying and battling with a man that when he thought of her saw a future where she hit rock bottom and spent her lonely days drawing her misery until the day no one would miss her. It hurt to admit but he was probably right.
She looked at her life and she saw nothing for her. No job, no friends, not family. Nothing but a dog that hated her. Nothing.
C.C. pulled her duvet over her head and let herself feel miserable. The tears that had been burning her eyes since she’d left the Sheffield’s spilled over. Her breath came sharper and harsh. Once she let herself feel what was bubbling up, she couldn’t stop. Her emotions were boiling over consuming her.
Going back to the place wasn't an option. There was no more room for failure in her life. She’d failed at dieting, at work, at being a friend, a daughter. She’d failed to look out for the children, breaking the promise she’d made to Sarah. She couldn’t fail at recovery too.
The one person in her life that she thought she couldn’t fail, the person that expected nothing from her, Niles, wanted nothing to do with her after she’d failed to realize his supposed feelings.
The bottle against her lips was warm from the heat of her hand, the bitter liquid spilled down her face as she took another swig, beading on her silken sheets. She didn’t have the strength to wipe the dregs off her cheek.
Would Nile’s resignation letter be short and sweet, penned and left in a haste like hers? The caring and overly sentimental sap he was, it would be pages long, flowery and full of how much he loved them and how much of a bitch she was for making it a place he couldn’t stand the thought of being anymore.
A thought struck her out of nowhere. Would there even be a resignation letter after all? Was this all an elaborate prank, a scheme to get her out of their lives once and for all?
It had all the trademark tells. It was cruel, it made her question her sanity, and it was completely incomprehensible.
They could be laughing at her at this very moment, basking in the fact that they were finally free of her, taking turns reading her resignation out loud and laughing at how pathetic she was, how miserable they’d made her.
Hot tears ran down her face, her side started to hurt from the speed of her breaths. It sounded far fetched but she didn’t trust herself anymore. The more she thought about it, the more true it seemed.
Nanny Fine had never liked her. Maxwell had been itching to be free of her since their latest project had gotten optioned for a TV show.
Niles’ supposed love had never made sense. From the beginning, when he’d blurted out his proposal, it was after he’d put on an ill conceived production that cost the company thousands of dollars. She hadn’t felt on stable ground since.
Maybe this all had started as a prank and had gotten out of hand, an inside joke or a dare that had gone bad. She needed to know the truth.
Clawing her way to the edge of the bed, fighting against the sea of pillows and sheets that had swallowed her up, she reached for her phone on the bestide table. Like second nature, she dialed the numbers to the Sheffield residence.
It rang and rang. No one wanted to hear from her. They were glad she was gone. She hung up before she left a message, letting the bed consume her again.
No one cared. There was no one who would notice if she never got out of her beg again. There was no one to miss her, no job to go to, no friends to speak of. Bodegas forgot faces. Drivers went from point A to point B, ambivalent to her in the backseat. Chester would be glad to be rid of her.
Pills weren’t an option. She didn’t have enough and she knew they wouldn’t be kind to an alcohol filled stomach. She refused to keep a gun in the house. There was nothing sturdy enough to hold her and no exposed beams…
She had a knife.
Quick, easy, over. A nice bath with the salts that she’d gotten on her last trip to Italy and the rest of this bottle to keep her company.
She couldn’t see the ceiling anymore, blurred and far away. Her tears slide down her face and into the bowls of her ears. Her chest rose and fell, faster and faster, rising and falling with no control.
She wouldn’t be able to hold it without dropping. She doubted she’d be able to walk to the kitchen in the state she was in.
No control. She couldn’t even control her body, couldn’t even get out of her bed.
No job, no friends, no family, nothing but an empty apartment, a bottle of scotch, and a knife in the kitchen.
She had Chester. She couldn’t leave him to be found by neighbors or start to death with no hand to feed him. The kennel was a phone call away. They could pick him up in the morning. She could lock the bedroom door so they wouldn’t come in and find her.
But he would be miserable. Chester and Nanny Fine had a bond that the two of them never had. Chester would want to be with her.
Over the sound of her heart racing in her ears, she heard the phone ringing from the mountain of blankets that had formed around her.
“Hello,” She croaked into the phone once she’d found it.
“This is Niles returning for the Sheffield Residence.”
“Yes, who is this?” Niles sounded impatient and tired. CC just listened, for a moment, knowing her was there, on the other end of the phone.
“It’s me… It’s Ms., uh, CC. I-”
“What do you want, Babcock?” Niles cut her off at the knees.
“Why are you calling me?” She whispered.
“You called first.”
“No, uh, I called the house… I need someone to come pick up Chester tomorrow afternoon.” She tried to think coherently, stringing her thoughts together intelligibly.
“Is there something wrong with him?”
She almost laughed. Chester, a little bundle of fur that wanted for nothing, and wanted nothing to do with her. He was perfect.
“No, just me.” She said under her breath, which still sounded harsh to her own ears.
“Ms. Babcock, is everything alright?”
How was she supposed to answer that?
“Was this a prank?”
“Was this, this whole thing a prank that I don’t understand?” He paused on the other end. She waited on baited breath.
“It wasn’t a prank.” He said, softly.
The air left her lungs in harsh huff.
“Fuck, of course it wasn’t.” She whined, the words barely leaving her mouth.
“Why would you think it’s a prank?”
Because her mind loved to mess with her and make her look like an idiot. “If it was a prank, it would make sense. It’d be weird and awkward and sick but it would make sense. I just… I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I don’t know.” She rambled, her sides burning and her eyes hot.
Her breath was the only thing she could hear, his voice sounding farther and farther away. Her chest was a block of cement.
“But it’s not, and that’s fine. It’s not fine but what is. Or it will be… I don’t know. I have to go. Someone needs to pick up Chester. Okay? Pass that along.”
“Ms. Babcock, don’t hang up.”
“I left my resignation note on the desk, so you don’t have to quit, okay?”
“Tell Nanny Fine and Maxwell that I hope they have a happy life together. They deserve it. Tell the kids… Well, they wouldn’t care so don’t tell them anything...”
“Don’t you dare hang up this phone.”
The phone sank into her bed. The words pounded in her head, repeating and swirling into a mess, twisting and turning.
She couldn’t feel her hands or her feet. She wanted to look down to make sure they were there but she couldn’t see beyond the tears flooding her eyes.
The comforter swallowed her whole, the light from her bedside table, leaking in through the doorway, was consumed by the darkness creeping along the edge of her vision.
The world faded away as she sank deeper and deeper, dragging her down, down…
Pounding, ringing, somewhere. Then hands.
Hands pressed to her cheeks, her wrist, her forehead.
The words, swirling, seemed louder, one standing out more.
A voice said into her ear, “Babcock.”
The sheets and the blankets fell away. Warmth pulled her up, helping her surface about the mountains and the oceans trying to pull her back down.
“Come on, CC. You’re okay. You’re okay.”
“I can’t breathe.” She pushed out.
“You have to.” A voice told her. The warmth held her close, rubbing her back.
Air started to reach her lungs. She gripped the hand in hers, grounding her.
Her chest, her legs came back to her, piecing back together. She felt her toes in her stockings, her fingers laced and held, her legs, her arms, her chest coming back to her.
Minty breath brushed her face.
She tried to open her eyes, and there in front of her, looking pale and rumpled, was Niles. His arms held her together, holding her to him, breathing for both of them.
“You’re okay.” He said, looking into her eyes. “You’re going to be okay.”
His life, the life he led for years, within the walls, with this family, was being boxed up and packed away, memory by memory.
His clothes he almost didn’t want to take with them piled on top of his bed. They were servant’s clothes, worn to serve a man he’d known his whole life, clothes that reeked of toilet cleaner and vegetable oil.
Pictures, framed and hung around the room came down, one by one. His parents smiled back at him. His younger self, in a graduation gown, holding a degree he would do nothing with. The Sheffields, dressed in horrible tropical shirts, sunburned and smiling out at him from the cruise they took a few years ago.
Niles had lived and existed within these walls for longer than he thought he would. He’d been planning to go out in the world, to make his mark years and years ago.
He’d packed just like he was now and then the world got a little bit smaller.
Mrs. Sheffield was gone and Mr. Sheffield, most of him, went with her.
The kids needed someone to look out for them, to care for them, to be there for them when, in the middle of the night, the fears and the nightmares came calling, something that no one should have to live through haunted them in their rest. Especially, the youngest Sheffiled, Ms. Grace who struggled to understand what had happened, why her mother was suddenly gone and her father could barely look at her.
He’d stepped up and stepped away from the idea of what his life was supposed to be. Niles made a home within these walls, helping hold a family together. But they didn’t need him anymore. They had Nanny Fine, someone who brought light and love back into the house, who brought fun and joy and family to fill the big, empty house.
No matter how he regarded them, this wasn’t his family. These were his employers, the people who wrote his check and gave him a rome to keep his world in, who gave him a list of chores and tasks so they could do what they needed to do.
Now, he was leaving with a broken heart and had no idea where he was going to go or what he was going to do once he walked out those doors. All he knew was he needed to leave.
Every turn there was an unwelcome memory. Mrs. Sheffield, smiling and joking with him about the latest production over baked goods in the kitchen. The children laughing and fighting over the remote in the living room. Ms. Babcock smirking at him from the sofa in the office, a quip on her breath, ready to rip him to shreds.
Niles folded a sweater, and placed it in one of his suitcases, as he heard the phone ring.
He didn’t work here anymore. He didn’t have to answer the phone, where no one called for him. Who would be calling this late anyway? The Sheffields could feal with in the morning, when they called around for a new butler.
But, the more he thought about it, the more he wondered who coil dbe calling. His mind thought back to the call he’d received years and years ago, a nurse on the other side whose news changed the Sheffields’ forever.
His mind jumped to Ms. Babcock.
She was a cold hearted witch that he’d read the riot act to hours ago, that he was leaving behind along with the rest of them, who laughed in his face at his declarations and feelings. But his heart still picked up at the idea of her in the hospital bed somewhere. He knew that the Sheffields’ were her emergency contact.
He needed a glass of water.
It was a rationalization but it didn’t stop him from walking to the kitchen. If he happened to check the machine while he was down there, so what. Who would know?
Sure enough, it was Ms. Babcock.
He tried not to think too hard about it, how quickly he pressed redial, as the phone rang. He was taking a sip of water when the line connected.
“Hello? A harsh and broken voice said on the other end.
He wavered but continued. Play dumb.
“This is Niles returning for the Sheffield Residence.”
“Niles?” The graveled voice replied.
“Yes, and who is this?” He said, in an unwavering voice, with effort.
“It’s… It’s Ms., uh… I’m CC.”
Just hearing her voice sent a jolt of pain through him. Who knew how this woman could affect him so? Why was she calling after the way he’d last spoken to her. He didn’t pull his punches, and then he was proud of that but the regret had bittered him over the past few hours.
“What do you want, Babcock?”
“Why are you calling me?”
“You called first.”
“No, I called the house…” Of course, when did this phone ever ring for him? “I need someone to pick up Chester tomorrow afternoon.
“Is there something wrong with him?” Was there something wrong with her? There was something about her voice that was putting him off.
“No, just me.” He thought he heard. All he could hear was panting.
“Ms. Babcock, is everything alright?”
“Was this a prank?”
“What?” He said absently.
“Was this, this whole thing a prank that I don’t understand?”
She thought his love, his proposals, his declarations that took a little bit from his self esteem everytime he said it, knowing that he would be rejected, were a prank. Over the years some had gotten out of hand, over the line, but did she really think so little of him to assume that this was a prank?
“It wasn’t a prank.”
“Fuck, of course it wasn’t.” The panting got louder.
“Why would you think it’s a prank?”
As she spoke, flashes of the afternoon which felt so long ago, when she’d gone off the rails flashed before his eyes. He could see her, a broken and dazed look in her eyes as she called out to her grandmother. That same desperation was there but a darkness coloring it. He listened as she winded down, panic in his bones.
“Ms. Babcock, don’t hang up.”
“I left my resignation note on the desk, so you don’t have to quit, okay?”
“CC-” He tried to say, but she didn’t seem to hear him. His job was the furthest thing from his mind.
“Tell Nanny Fine and Maxwell that I hope they have a happy life together. They deserve it. Tell the kids… Well, they wouldn’t care so don’t tell them anything…”
“Don’t you dare hang up this phone.” He pleaded.
“Bye,” and then the line disconnected.
His head was spinning. Guilt and adrenaline coursed through him. The keys were in his hand. He didn’t bother grabbing a coat as he rushed out the door. The Sheffield’s wouldn’t be looking for him. He was just glad he hadn’t taken off his shoes.
The mercedes was pointed towards the street and was pulling out into the street in moments. The streets were empty and he saw no police. The only thing that kept him from running red lights was the idea of the Sheffields getting a call like Sarah’s.
He pulled up outside her building, parking and grabbing the keys, not caring if the car got towed. Mr. Sheffield had enough, he could deal with it if need be.
False confidence held his head high and his gait even as he walked through the lobby, hoping not to catch the attention of the night watchperson. Only after the elevator doors closed, did panic return to his body.
Pressing the button again did nothing to speed his ascent. Niles pushed through as soon as the doors opened, rushing to her door, walking on instinct rather than thought.
He weighed it in his mind, pounding on the door and risking her neighbors coming out or knocking and her not hearing him. No one came out and he heard nothing inside. He checked under the mat, considered knocking on the neighbor closest to see if she’d given them a key in case of emergency, when he remembered she’d given the Sheffield’s one. Most likely trying to give Mr. Sheffield the means if he ever wanted to show up and sweep her off her feet.
He thanked the stars that the keys were on that ring. His hand shook as he unlocked the door. Chester, who was lying under the couch raced up to him, nipping at his heels.
Her purse was on the couch. Her keys were on the counter.
Walking deeper into the apartment, looking and all the while bracing for the worst, he searched room by room. As he walked into the bedroom he heard breathing.
He was never as grateful to hear breathing as he was that moment.
Niles pushed aside the blankets and the sheets, finally laying eyes on CC, who was staring up at the ceiling, unaware and hyperventilating. She didn’t notice his presence, didn’t answer him when he tried to get her attention. Her eyes were open, empty and full of tears.
The empty bottle was put on the side table. No pills in sight, no signs of blood. He knew that if she was aware, she’d never have let him into her apartment, let alone her bed, but he’d take whatever he got after she pulled through this.
Dropping his keys and rolling up his sleeves, he climbed onto the bed, lifting her and brought her to him. He wrapped his arms around her.
When Ms. Grace was younger, before he got her into therapy, she’d had many panic attacks. He knew how to do this. He’d done this before, even if it’d felt completely different.
Grace was a precious girl, a daughter to him. He’d felt the worry that parents feel. But this was different, the pain he felt now, seeing CC like this, was nothing he’d felt before.
He remembered when Grace had trouble breathing he would get her a paper bag, to measure her breaths, but as she settled into hold, her arms coming to grip him, he would move.
It took him a moment to realize that he was talking, saying sweet nothings, to comfort both of them. Her eyes were closed now, scrunched up in pain. Her head fell to his shoulder. With his free arm, he rubbed up and down her back, letting her know that she wasn’t alone.
“Come on, CC. You’re okay.” He said into her ear. “You’re going to be okay.”
“I can’t breathe,” She said with difficulty.
“You have to,” Snark, lacking his usual humor, leaked into his voice. “Breathe with me, okay? Come on, CC. You can do this.”
It felt like hours before her breathing began to slow, the tension holding her rigid started to subside. She sunk into his hold, his arms came around her, holding her up, and close.
“You’re okay,” He said, when she looked at him, seeing her behind them again. “You’re going to be okay.”
Fran walked down the hallway, feeling Max at her heels. She knew how hard this was hitting him, the two people that he’d spent his past however many years with, fighting and losing them both in the same day. Her own pain at loosing her best friend was there but she held it back, not wanting to overwhelm her husband with both of their pain.
She was jewish. She lived with her mother for the first 16 years of her life. She could handle pain.
Fran reached back and took his hand in hers. “Niles is a heavy sleeper. Sometimes I’ll ring him up in the middle of the night for a diet soda and I get no answer.” She tried to reassure him but didn’t think it came out that way.
She knocked on the door and after a moment opened it. The light was on. His suitcases were open and half filled. The walls were bare and his closet was empty. No Niles. He hadn’t been in the kitchen when she’d checked a few minutes ago when she went to search for a crunchy mid evening snack.
She looked over at Max but he looked as confused as her. Where was he?
She was in his arms. CC didn’t know how it happened but he was here, holding her together, her splintering pieces held together in his arms. Wiping her hand across her cheeks and her eyes, the came back smudged with foundation and mascara.
But he was still looking at her softly, not joking about her appearance or commenting on her wrinkled clothes. He was just looking at her, holding her.
“Why are you here?” She whispered, not trusting her voice.
“You needed someone, and you called me, which felt like a good sign.” He said, tucking a piece of her hair behind her ear. “If you want me to leave, I will, I just needed to make sure you were okay.”
“No, you’re not okay? Or no…”
“Stay.” She said, putting her hand on his arm.
He was here. She didn’t know what it meant, or even if it was truly him, but she didn’t want him to leave. Even as her eyes started to close, exhaustion taking over, she kept him close to her.
“You should lie down.” She heard him say. The pillows and blankets surrounded her again, but she felt solid, felt safe from the pull with him next to her.
“Stay with me.” She said again, pulling him down with her without looking.
“Are you sure?”
“Please.” She was pathetic, pleading like she was, begging him to stay with her. But she still felt him lying down beside her. His arms, hesitantly, came around her again.
Shifting, she could feel him, solid and warm, listening to the heartbeat beneath her cheek. He felt real. His breath on her hair, his arms around her, his suit from earlier that day felt real against her, but she didn’t trust herself.
She could wake up in the morning, drunk and alone.
“How do I know this is real?” He said nothing as she drifted to sleep. CC was almost glad, happy to live in this delusion for a bit longer.
Sleep evaded him. With her, wrapped up and fragile in his arms, he sat guard, keeping her safe. But from what? From him? From herself? How twisted this was.
He loved her and she thought it was a prank, a joke at her expense. Even in sleep she was tense and guarded, a wrinkle between her brows.
This was outside his element. He had no idea what to do with this. But he was here. He was here for her. He’d helped her, pulled her back and out of her head, held her as she slept and made sure that she was safe. That was enough for now.
It felt like moments later when he woke to the dawn streaming in through the window. She was awake, he could feel it in the way she held herself, and held him.
“Good morning,” He said quietly.
“Morning,” She whispered into his chest.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“Do you want to leave?” She came back at him, hesitantly withdrawing from him.
“I will if you want, but I’d rather talk.” Pulling her back to him, he wasn’t sure he could say this with her looking at him. She settled back against him. He took a moment collecting his thoughts, what he’d planned to say last night, feeling her close, holding him. “I don’t know how to prove that this is real. I don’t think any words I said would be believable because I’ve said a lot of things I didn’t mean over the years, and I don’t expect you to believe anything I say. But I’m real. My proposals, however misguided, were real. My love for you is real, even if I have a terrible way of showing it.”
“You seem more real than you did last night.” Her hand brushed against his chest, fussing with a button half way down his chest. “Thank you and I’m sorry for dragging you out and away from your packing.”
“You don’t need to thank me, or apologize. I’m the one who needs to apologize. I’m sorry for what I said yesterday, it was over the line and I didn’t mean it.” His guilt was eating a whole through his stomach after he’d realized he was one of the reasons last night had been the way it was.
“But you did, and I needed to hear it. I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten.” She said quietly.
“How bad what had gotten?”
“My… the thoughts, the delusions. I thought I’d be able to tell if they happened again but I guess I can’t. But you did.” He thought back to what he’d said about the Sheffields, about everything he said. He was lashing out, biased and hurt. Even if it helped her take stock, he didn’t mean it that way. Should he be grateful that he’d gotten through to her or ashamed?
“So, thank you.” She mumbled, but she didn’t move away and that was enough to keep him there, to keep his guilt at bay. “Are you still quitting? I don’t want you to have to leave because of me. I left my resignation. I know how much you love them.”
“I love you though too. I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want to leave either but I know we can’t go back to the way we were. But I don’t want to. I was cruel, and assumed you understood what I failed to express. I don’t want you to leave. I know you don’t feel the same way as I do, and I accept that, but I think that there is, has been something between us. I don’t want to lose you.”
He laid himself bare, putting everything that he hadn’t been saying out in the open. But she didn’t move away. No matter what it took for him to say that, he wasn't going to take it back. He was doing what he should have done all along.
“This is real, right?”
“I promise.” He took her hand in his, resting them both over his heart. Her fingers laced with his, holding tight.
“You’re asking me to stay? How the tables have turned.” She said dryly.
“I am.” He said into her hair, tucking her under his chin. “Please stay.”
“Are you sure you want me to?”
“More than anything.”
“Okay,” She sighed. “But you’re cooking me breakfast.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Niles held her close, feeling everything he’d felt over the past day, the guilt, the anxiety, the misery, the anger, the love but mostly an overshadowing calmness. Contentment filled the cracks and soothed the aches. He could do this, be there for her, make sure she knew he was real, that this was real. He didn’t know what was coming or what would happen after they got out of her bed, tomorrow, beyond, but he could get them through. Knowing that there was a tomorrow to get through was enough for now.