While Blake was in the middle of consoling Rayner with a hug, Maddie opened up the front door from inside the house and saw the pair in what she saw as a gentle embrace. "I'm so sorry," said Maddie, nervously. "I didn't mean to interrupt." She then went back inside and closed the door behind her.
"Mom!" Rayner cried out. "Don't get the wrong idea!" Rayner frantically went over to the door and opened it back up. He turned around to face Blake and quickly said, "Blake, we need to clear up any misunderstandings."
Blake burst out in laughter and said, "I don't know. It's kind of amusing to have someone think that we're an item." She laughed so intensely that she felt moisture fall from her eyes.
"Please don't mess with my mom, Blake."
"Okay, I won't," she assured, wiping away joyful tears. "But she might suspect something if you sound so nervous while explaining that we're just friends."
"D-do I sound nervous right now?"
Blake nodded and grinned in response.
"Okay, then I need to calm down." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He then proceeded into the house and called out to his mother. "Mom, we're back."
"Welcome home, Raynie," Maddie greeted.
Rayner could tell that she felt awkward as she avoided direct eye contact with him. Blake deliberately wandered into Maddie's peripheral, causing Maddie to frantically dart her eyes in random directions.
"Mom," Rayner said somewhat stern. It was to grab his mother's attention while also indirectly asking Blake to behave properly.
Blake smirked and rested her arms behind her back. She subtly nodded back at Rayner to gesture for him to continue speaking.
Rayner sighed and then looked his mother in the eyes. As he noticed that Maddie was looking back at him, he continued. "I think you might have misunderstood something. Blake is honestly just a regular friend of mine."
Maddie read the sincerity in her son's voice and let out a sigh. She rested one hand over her chest and her other hand against her face. "I'm sorry, Sweetie. I guess I just assumed otherwise after seeing you two hugging right outside. You two looked so cute together that I felt like I was disturbing you two and nervously shut the door."
Rayner's voice cracked as he heard his mother call them cute. "I-I can explain that." He cleared up his throat with a cough. "Blake was holding onto me because I could barely stand while explaining everything about Dad and Olivia to her.
Maddie looked back at Rayner with a somber look as she realized how painful that must have been for him. "I uh... I see." Maddie took a step back as she felt an unsettling feeling within her chest. Trying to change the subject, she then said, "I um... have dinner prepared. Are you and Blake ready to eat yet?" She was barely able to compose herself as she asked that.
Rayner turned to Blake and asked, "Are you hungry right now?"
"Not particularly," replied Blake, "but since Maddie worked so hard to cook for us, I can eat."
"Alright then. Follow me." Rayner led Blake into the dining room where they saw the food that Maddie prepared. They saw various different meats, fruits, and veggies assorted on the table.
Maddie, who had grabbed plates and utensils for the pair, turned to Blake and said, "I don't know your preference yet so I just kind of prepared different stuff for you."
"Anything is fine," Blake stated. "I'm not a picky eater."
Maddie smiled, happily. "Well then that means there's plenty of food to go around."
"Thank you very much, Maddie."
"My pleasure." Maddie turned to Rayner. "Are you two going to be eating in the living room?"
Rayner paused before responding to his mother. "We can eat in here."
Maddie's eyes widened in surprise. "Of course, Dear." She smiled because of how long it's been since Rayner had eaten in the dining room. He hadn't had a meal there ever since the family split up.
All three of them sat down at the dining room table and began eating dinner together. During this time, Maddie asked Blake a few questions.
"So, how did you two get to know each other?" Maddie asked.
Rayner looked at Blake with a hint of seriousness to ensure that she wouldn't mess with his mother. Blake smiled back at him to try and put him at ease. In actuality, it just made him even more nervous.
"I met Rayner in homeroom," Blake answered. "I helped my parents unpack a bit before they told me I could go to school on the first day. Then fate decided that Rayner and I should meet when it turned out that I was seat neighbors with him. We've kept in touch ever since then. Although, at first I had to put some effort into finding him at times."
"That sounds like Raynie," commented Maddie. "If he thinks you don't want to see him, he tries to avoid you as much as possible."
"Right. It took weeks for him to realize that I genuinely like to spend time with him. To be honest, I was really happy when he called me to hangout today." Blake blushed happily, in which Rayner noted this as the first time he'd ever seen her make that kind of expression.
Rayner remained silent as he took in Blake's cuteness and thought of ways to bring it out in the future.
"I'm so proud of you, Raynie," Maddie declared, gleefully.
Blake's blush turned into a playful expression as she then said, "You know, I'm quite fond of that nickname. Would it be alright if I called him Raynie as well?"
"Of course. After all, that proves how much you care for my son."
"Yay!" Blake cheered. She then turned to Rayner and said, "Thanks for inviting me over today, Raynie."
As Rayner began to grow more and more embarrassed throughout the conversation, he hoped that the topic would change soon. Delivering a brief moment of relief, Maddie's phone started ringing.
"One moment," said Maddie, abruptly. She shifted in her chair as she saw who was calling her. "Oh, it's that time already? I wasn't aware." She then turned to Blake. "Forgive me, Blake. I have to take this call."
"Go ahead, Maddie," Blake said, supportively.
"What's the matter, Mom?" Rayner asked, concerned. "Who's calling you?"
Maddie hesitated before answering. "It's... your father," she said, while walking into another room.
"Oh, so your dad is comfortable enough to call you guys?" Blake asked.
"I guess so..." Rayner answered, unsure. "This is the second time... as far as I know. Who knows how long he and my mom have been talking?"
"You were unaware of the situation?"
Rayner nodded. "My mom probably thought it was best not to mention anything about my dad around me because of the trauma I feel whenever I think about him..." Rayner’s body began to shake again. "It's probably good for my parents to catch up after all the time they've lost because of me."
At that moment, an idea hit Blake. "Rayner," she called out to him. Rayner turned to her as she grabbed his attention. "A big part of your self torment is due to not knowing how your father's been all this time, right?"
"Yeah. Why do you ask?"
"Well now is the perfect time for you to have a conversation with him. And if he's changed at all these past few years, then maybe the two of you can reconcile."
Rayner regarded Blake's suggestion as wishful thinking. He thought that there was no way his father would ever speak with him again. "That would be impossible," he uttered, unknowingly aloud.
Blake looked back at Rayner, concerned for his well-being. Before she could try to convince Rayner otherwise, Maddie had returned and walked over to Rayner with her phone in hand.
"Raynie," Maddie said, solemnly. "Your father wishes to speak with you."
"Seriously?" Rayner said, stunned. He couldn't believe what he had just heard was real. "Did I hear that right?"
Blake then approached Rayner and said, "See? Now's your chance."
Rayner looked back at Blake for a moment but then down to the ground as self-doubt crept into his mind once more. "I... I can't..." he said, hesitant.
"Nonsense," said Maddie. "I think it's time for the both of us to stop running away from our problems and face our fears. I know it's hard, Sweetie, but I believe that your strong enough to overcome your trauma now." She turned to Blake, knowing that Blake somehow inspired confidence in her son.
Rayner turned to Blake, hoping for some form of guidance. She returned his gaze and spoke to him softly. "This is a step in the right direction," Blake said. "Go for it and try your best."
Rayner nodded and put his hand out for his mother's phone. Maddie smiled and handed it over to him. She said that she would give Rayner privacy and wait in the living room. Blake thought of doing the same but just as she turned around, Rayner quickly grabbed her by the arm.
"Can... you please stay by my side for this?" Rayner asked, timidly. "I don't know if I have enough mental strength on my own..."
Blake nodded. "I'll stay the whole time." She adjusted her position and held onto Rayner’s hand with a gentle grip. "And remember that if you start to feel guilty, don't. You're not at fault for what happened, Rayner. You acted accordingly to do what you thought was best for your family at the time."
"Right." Rayner swallowed his fears and put the phone up to his ear. "...Hello?"
From the other side, a voice greeted Rayner. Rayner felt a rush of nostalgia as he heard the familiar voice of his father over the phone. He remembered a lot of the times he shared with his father. Good memories as well as bad ones. As his mind drifted into a negative spiral, he unintentionally tightened his grip onto Blake's hand.
"Rayner," said a powerful yet compassionate voice through the phone. "It's been years." Rayner listened intently, to gage his father's intonation for any sign of hatred.
"Yeah..." Rayner responded, awkwardly. "It has been..."
"Are you doing well?"
"Yeah," Rayner replied, unsure of what else to say.
"You sound... uncertain to say the least. I figured you would be doing better after getting rid of a hindrance in the family."
There it was. Rayner was waiting for the moment that their conversation would shift onto that topic. Instinctively, Rayner could only utter the phrase, "I'm sorry."
Blake grimaced as she could only assume why he was apologizing. She was correct in her guess, as she assumed that Rayner apologized because he still felt at fault for the incident.
"That's my line," stated Rayner’s father, Charles. "I think you might have mixed something up in your recollection. What do you have to apologize for?"
Rayner paused. "For forcing you out of the house," he eventually stated.
"That was the best thing you could have done at the time, Rayner. I was not a good man at that time. You know that well. I would've done the same thing in your shoes."
"You're... not mad?" Rayner slowly asked, afraid of what his father would say.
"No," Charles stated, adamantly.
Rayner felt a weight lift off of his shoulders as he heard Charles' answer.
"In fact, I'm incredibly proud of you for everything. Especially for the things you did to help your mother afterwards. When I first called her, we talked all about how you aided her as much as you could around the house. You mastered the household chores and began working as soon as you could. Thank you so much for everything, Rayner. Please continue to do your best and live happily. I wish the absolute best for you all."
Rayner felt himself get emotional as all he could say back was, "Thank you." Rayner handed the phone back to Blake and asked her to give it back to his mother for him. He didn't want to move because he felt his body fall numb during his conversation with his father.
Blake agreed and delivered Maddie her cell phone back. As Blake returned, she saw Rayner in the midst of tears. "Are those happy tears or sad tears?" Blake asked, in a somewhat playful tone.
Rayner tried his best to respond while still crying. "I... I'm just so glad that.. my dad isn't m-mad at me..."
Blake went over to him and stood by his side. While he was sitting on a chair, Blake gently put her arms around him and held his head against her chest.
There was a long pause with Rayner’s subtle sobbing as background noise for a while. As his sobbing diminished enough for Rayner to speak clearly, he did so. "I spent four years beating myself up over this... When everyone at school started calling me insane and a monster, I believed them because I just couldn't accept my actions for that night..."
"You were too conflicted," Blake claimed, now in an earnest tone. "You were already hurt enough that your sister deserted the house. It's really sad that both of those tragedies happened on the same day. I take it that your conversation with your dad went well."
"Yeah. It did. He said that he's proud of me and that he wants the rest of the family to lead happy lives."
"That's good. Your father sounds so supportive. I'm surprised that he's the same man that you talked about."
"My father's always been supportive. But he just lost it every night when he drank too much."
"He probably bottled up his grievances until they came out naturally when he was intoxicated. That reminds me of you, Rayner. You never talk about your problems, but then when you can't deal with them anymore, you freak out in a panic."
"I'm sorry for... being that way," he apologized, embarrassed of himself. "I don't know why I'm like that."
"I think you just lack certain social skills."
"Social skills? But I don't think that I'm shy. Do you think I'm shy?"
"No, not shy," Blake answered. "If anything, I'd say that your too bashful. You know how to carry on conversations well, but you tend to avoid topics that are about yourself. You might comment about yourself if you think it's relevant, but other than that you never talk about yourself or your affairs."
"Is that a bad thing?" Rayner sounded curious, as he wanted to learn if he could find a way to communicate better.
"Not really. But it makes it difficult for others to sympathize with you when they don't know what your dealing with."
"I'd feel bad for making other people worry about me over my family break-up."
"Well, you've explained the situation to me. And I full heartedly sympathize with you."
"I don't want you to feel bad for my sake, Blake."
"Don't think that it burdens me. I'm happy to be here for you, Rayner."
Rayner fell silent, as he was truly happy that no matter what he said, Blake would be there for him and argue for his sake. He understood how true friends stick up for one another at that moment. He realized that it was alright to let people that cared for him alleviate his pain so that he didn't have to suffer and deal with his problems alone.
"It's the least anyone could do," Blake declared. "Last year, nobody was there for me-I mean... my friend."
Her slip-up confused Rayner, but he wrote it off as a simple slip of the tongue. "Nobody was there for your friend at the time? Not even you?"
"No..." Blake paused, unsure of how to explain herself.
Maddie then walked back into the dining room at that moment, seeing Blake standing before her sorrowful looking son. Her sudden appearance seemed to interrupt and let the previous topic about Blake drop entirely.
Maddie then worriedly asked, "Raynie, what's the matter? You look like you had just finished crying or something. Your father told me that you two had a delightful chat."
"We did," Rayner confirmed. "It was better than I could've imagined if I'm being honest."
"Then what's the matter, Honey?"
Rayner sighed. "If Dad was never mad at me for what I did, then what was the point of hating myself for being a monster all these years?"
"Why did you think you were a monster, Raynie?" Maddie sounded concerned and crouched down to look up at her son while he sat in his chair.
Rayner steered his head to the side to avoid eye contact with Maddie as he answered her question. "M-my classmates have been calling me a monster throughout high school ever since the incident..."
Maddie's eyes widened as she heard that revelation. She gasped and then asked, "How come you never talked to me about this, Sweetie?"
"Because..." Rayner began to cry again. "I thought that you hated me too."
Maddie felt moisture begin to well up in her eyes. She instantly declared, "I never once that that, Raynie. I have always loved you!" Her voice sounded shaky, as she could barely enunciate properly now.
"Even though you got that scar by protecting me?" He pointed to the back of his neck to emphasize his point.
"I wouldn't hate you for that." She wiped her eyes of any tears to make herself look confident again. "When I look at my scar in the mirror, it's a reminder that my lovable son is perfectly fine and avoided getting hurt that night."
Rayner began to cry harder now.
Maddie too couldn't help but cry again. "But I know that's wrong... Even though you weren't hurt physically, you were left with a deep emotional scar that hasn't healed at all. I wouldn't be surprised if you told me that you hate me. I haven't done a single thing to console you after all this time."
"I don't hate you..." Rayner said slowly. "I wouldn't have tried to be as resilient as you are if that were the case."
"Huh? What do you mean by that?"
"For months, you took Dad's verbal assaults without fighting back and kept a brave face to keep me from worrying. It only made me worry even more though when I saw you like that."
Blake then jumped into the conversation. "Yeah, you two are definitely mother and son," she commented. "Rayner is just like you, Maddie. You both try to take on every burden by yourselves and insist that you're fine. And both of you tend to think that you're worse than you actually are. If you ask me, I'd say that you two are probably some of the most caring people I've ever met. I just wanted to put that out there real quick while I had the time. Its getting pretty late so I should head out."
Rayner and his mother looked at Blake after she said that and then back at each other. They both laughed as they realized that Blake was right.
"Want me to walk you home?" Rayner asked, as he slowly stood up from his chair.
"How kind of you, Rayner." Blake smiled. "Perhaps I'll take you up on that offer. But only if you feel strong enough to walk with me."
"This is the time to be strong," Rayner declared. "I'm ashamed that you've seen me in such a weak state time and time again."
Blake shook her head. "I never once thought that you were weak. I only thought that you were crippled by your own doubts."
"Well perhaps it's time to throw away the crutches."
Blake smiled. "Instead of relying on crutches, you should lean on me instead." She went up to Rayner and grabbed onto his arm. "Will you please walk me home, my good friend?"
Rayner blushed and said, "It would be rude of me to have a lady walk home all by herself as the sun sets."
"Smooth," Blake commented, playfully.
As the pair walked down the streets together, Rayner started up a conversation with her. "Hey Blake," he said.
"Yes?" Blake questioned, happily.
"Thanks for cheering me up today. This is the first time I explained the incident aloud in full. I had nightmares in remembrance of that night several times in the past. They always made me feel like I was the worst..."
"And how do you feel now?" Blake turned her gaze towards Rayner as they walked.
Rayner had half a smile on his face as he pondered the question. "Content, if I had to pick a word to describe how I feel right now. And I'm starting to think that I can accept myself for who I am now."
"You didn't before? That's an awful feeling." Her expression darkened for a moment.
"It is." Rayner noted that it sounded like Blake was speaking with experience. He felt that it would be rude to pry into her personal affairs and chose not to ask her about it.
When they got halfway down the street, Blake said, "I can walk the rest of the way by myself."
"Are you sure?" Rayner asked.
Blake nodded. "If it's not too much trouble, could I ask a favor from you?"
"Of course. You helped me a lot today. More than you might realize. A favor is the least I could do for you. What do you need?"
Blake noticed that Rayner sounded a lot more confident than he did a few hours ago. Blake smiled back at him and asked her request. "Can I come over again tomorrow and catch up on my studies with your aid?"
"Yeah, I'll help you study anytime. Are you sure you want to come over to my place for that?"
"Yep. You're house is rather accommodating. Plus wouldn't you and your mother like the company?"
"I suppose my mother would. And I like spending time with you a lot, Blake." He blushed slightly after voicing his thoughts.
"Awesome. To pay you back, I'll bring over some of my psychology books to borrow. I'll give you some of the ones I've read through already, so don't feel like you need to hurry and return them to me."
"I would like that a lot," Rayner said, taken aback and incredibly grateful. "So um... I'll see you tomorrow I guess." He felt a little embarrassed saying that to Blake for some reason.
Blake nodded gleefully. "See you tomorrow, Rayner. Good night." She turned around and continued on her way back home.
Rayner watched her for a while before turning back himself. He was unknowingly smiling as he returned home that evening. Maddie was happy as she saw Rayner’s expression upon returning home.
"Welcome back," Maddie greeted.
"Hey, Mom," Rayner responded. "I made sure Blake was alright on her way home."
"I know, Raynie. You wouldn't have offered to walk her home otherwise."
"Hey Mom, would it be alright if Blake comes over again tomorrow to study with me?"
"Of course," she replied, unable to hide her excitement. "Blake is welcome anytime, Dear."
"Thank you, Mom."
"So how are you feeling, Raynie?"
"Honestly, I'm feeling great compared to how I felt a year ago. Confident I think. A feeling I haven't felt in a while."
"That's good. I love you, Raynie."
Rayner paused. Neither he or his mother had told one another that they loved each other. Rayner felt ashamed that he had been pushing her away throughout his time in high school. He decided to respond back to her more resolute than ever. "I love you too, Mom," he proclaimed.
Maddie fought back tears of happiness after hearing her son's declaration. "I'm going to turn in early, Raynie. Today was a long day with work and everything else that happened."
"Right. Good night, Mom. Rest up and enjoy your day off tomorrow."
"I will. Especially since I know that your cute friend will be coming over again tomorrow."
Before going to sleep, Rayner laid back on his bed and looked up at the ceiling. He thought about what he had wanted to do from here. Blake is my closest friend, he concluded. But I want to work harder to befriend others too. Like Ken and Ari. They've put in so much effort in befriending me, it'd be wrong of me to distance myself from them. He then thought of Rebecca and the truth that she revealed to him. Rebecca turned put to be an extremely shy person. So shy to the point that she instinctively acts in a way that pushed people away just so that she doesn't have to talk to much. She really wants to Make friends though, and in all honesty, I would like to befriend her. Then there's Vinnie from work who said that he's already considered me his friend. I don't know much about him other than that he went to high school out in the city and then moved to Sproutling Town after graduation. I should open up to him and talk with him more often. Eventually, as his mind pondered these thoughts, he drifted off into the most comfortable slumber he had felt in a long time.