‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

twenty-three

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Natalie and Amber exchange a glance over my head, and frustration flares up in me. I know they’re confused - I’d rang them both this morning in tears, and I still have yet to explain what the Hell is going on. So their puzzlement is completely understandable. I certainly wouldn’t mind it if I wasn’t in the middle of my breakdown.

But how dare they act like I’m not going to see them having silent conversations with their eyes about me? I push my way out of their arms, my skin crawling with whatever it is that consumes me from the inside out, only to cry harder when I realise I can’t stand properly. No matter how hard I wiggle and struggle, I can’t get to my feet without gravity making me its prisoner.

Amber reaches out; her hand is gentle on my back, but I smack it away. I don’t want or need her help. She sighs and rolls her eyes but still holds her hands up in surrender. Her capitulation does nothing to ease my irritation. In fact, it makes it worse. She wouldn’t give up so easily if it weren’t for the fact that I’m almost thirty-weeks pregnant. We both know it, and that information only makes me angrier.

Amber reaches for me again, and this time, I let her card her fingers through my hair. “Erin, honey, talk to us. What’s going on?”

“I… I don’t even know. I just, I hate her.”

“Who are you talking about?” Nat asks quietly. I groan and cover my face with my hands.

“That girl! The one from the other day.”

Silence reigns deafeningly in the room, interrupted only by my sniffling. Then one of them clears her throat.

“Do you mean the woman who did the interview with Niall the other day, about his upcoming album? The one that he’s been in and out of the studio for?” Amber questions hesitantly yet pointedly.

“Yes! Her!”

“Okay. Can I ask why you hate her?”

“She made him smile a lot. He doesn’t smile like that with me any more.”

The memory of the video flashes in my mind, and my tears start up again. I know - I know - that it sounds ridiculous to them, but I also know that I’m telling the truth. Niall smiled way more with that woman than he has since I got pregnant, and I can only conclude that it’s because I’m pregnant. Our entire relationship changed the second those two pink lines showed up. It was only a matter of time before it became too much.

“No. Don’t you dare.”

I jerk at Natalie’s voice, loud and hard in my ear. “What the -”

“You’re allowing yourself to think things that aren’t true. Niall loves you, okay? He does. If you actually looked at the smile on his face during that interview, you’d see it was his polite, ‘I’m only happy because I’m talking about music’ smile.”

“But she was prettier than me,” I whisper, hiccuping as I wipe my palms across my cheeks.

Amber snorts and pulls me into her side. “Dude, she was pretty, sure, but not in that whole pregnancy-induced glowing way. Besides, she’s at least ten years older than us.”

“And Niall is married to and in love with you,” Natalie adds, poking my cheek until I slap tiredly at her finger. “He loves you, and he loves that baby you’re growing. No other woman will ever compare.”

My best friends let me flop backwards between them, but neither of them says anything more. They don’t need to, not really. I already know this is all blown completely out of proportion. Sighing, I scrub at my face and stare blankly at the ceiling.

“I’m being an idiot. Sorry.”

Natalie strokes her hand over my hair, smiling down at me. “Not an idiot. Just hormonal and not thinking properly.”

“How the Hell did you deal with this?” I whine petulantly, and she laughs. “No, seriously, how did you deal with the whole ‘one perceived slight, and I’m going to fall apart’ thing?”

“Trust me, it wasn’t easy. But Louis and Goose, Garrett… everyone, really. They made it easier to handle.”

Amber’s phone trills next to her thigh, and I attempt to sit up while she reads the text message. Nat ends up having to help push me upwards; I bite back the irritation at feeling so helpless. This sucks. I can’t wait until I’m no longer pregnant. It’s been fun - at times, but it’s quickly lost its novelty.

“Niall wants to know if you still want gummi bears and pickles.”

“Tell him to grab sour gummi worms and those lemon Warhead candies. And Hot Tamales. And puffed Cheetos.”

“Done.” Amber sets her phone aside. “Feeling snacky lately?”

“Chocolate milk!”

She blinks owlishly at me for a long moment, my outburst surprising even myself, then she gives a succinct nod. “I’ll have him add it to the list.”

__________________


“Hazza left you a message,” I call out toward the bathroom where Niall is readying for a shower; he pokes his head through the door, frowning slightly.

“Can you listen to it for me?”

“Absotootlyootly.”

Harry’s voicemail is nothing more than a couple of sentences amidst a sea of disjointed humming. The message makes no sense, not in its entirety, but I understand it for what it is. He’s done this a few times to both Niall and myself, calling us and leaving cryptic messages. Song lyrics that he has come up with but won’t use. The voicemails serve as permission for either my husband me to use them if we want to.

I save the message and go to exit out of the application, but the name and date at the bottom of the list catches my eye. 01:23 25 April 2015. I make sure my husband is in the shower before tapping on the message, switching it to speakerphone. There is a slight crackle, then my voice comes through the speakers - slurred and far too loud.

“Guys, shhh, it’s ringing - oh, wait. Voicemail. Boo. C’mon, Niall, why don’t you answer? It’s me! Oh, well, anyway. I have something really, really, really, really, really important to tell you. If I don’t tell you now, I-I-I, I might explode! Yeah, that’s what will happen! I’ll explode, and it’ll be gross, and then you’ll be sad be-because I’m all exploded.”

Drunk-Me was out of her mind when she left the message; I giggle at the theatrics and put-upon whining, hazy memories of that night floating to the forefront of my mind. The night before I married the most amazing man I could ever have been lucky enough to find. My heart races as I listen to my over-dramatic threats of exploding before the voice coming through the speakers grows more serious, something less nameable.

“Niall. I am, I am so fucking in love with you, I am! You’ve made me so increbidly happy the past three years, and I... i can’t live without you. I can’t.”

Drunk-Me sniffles, and sober-and-very-pregnant me does the same. The longer the voicemail plays, the more I’m overwhelmed with emotions - pride that even drunk, I was able to be so honest; ecstasy that we’ve made it for so long, even with everything life has thrown at us; and drowning in the love and home we’ve created in each other. Drunk-Me got at least one thing right, I suppose. I need Niall as much as I need air. If I didn’t have him, I’d be nothing.

My inebriated marriage proposal and subsequent rambling about my “brothers” is cut off by Natalie’s voice in the background. Her voice fades abruptly, and giggling fills the air. Right. That’s when Delia covered Nat’s mouth so she couldn’t say any more inappropriate things. A thud, cackling, then the message ends.

I stare down at the screen, even though the words have blurred into a mess of black, white, and blue through my tears. I can’t believe that Niall has kept the stupid message for so long. My hands tremble, breath coming out in shaky gusts.

The sound of the shower slows, stops, but I don’t look away from the phone in my hand. Wincing as the baby kicks rather painfully against the bottom of my ribs, I run a hand over my belly and breathe out as steadily as possible. Footsteps slap across the floor toward the door.

Somehow, I manage to press the play button again, and Niall stops in the doorway at the sound of my alcohol-drenched voice.

“You kept it for almost an entire year,” I mumble once the message ends and our room is doused in silence again. “I’m… that voicemail is so damn embarrassing, but you kept it. Why?”

Niall sits on the end of the bed next to me, arm coming up to wrap around my shoulders. I let him pull me into his shower-warm side and breathe in the scent of him that has always comforted me. Even when we weren’t speaking to each other, the memory of his smell alone was enough to keep my fears at bay.

“It makes me smile,” he whispers after a long minute, during which I can almost hear him trying to sort out his thoughts. “It made me smile when I first heard it, and I listen to it whenever I’m in a bad mood or missing you or-or just need the reminder that you’re just as much devoted to me as I am to you.”

“It’s such a dumb message.”

He shakes his head at my weak protest, kisses the top of my head. “Listening to you spilling your guts about how much you love me, asking me to marry you only hours before we got married? Easily the best message you have ever left me. So it may be silly, but I think I’m going to keep that message as long as I can.”

I sigh heavily then pull away. “Well, who am I to stop you, I suppose. I’m gonna go take a shower now. You owe me so much if you took all the hot water.”

He laughs and helps me to my feet. “There’s plenty of hot water left, darling. What’d Harry want, by the way?”

“Listen to your own damn voicemails, Horan.”

Kissing him gently, I move toward the bathroom, shutting the door on his indignant spluttering. I can’t deny, as I strip to just my underwear, that knowing he still has that voicemail, that he listens to it regularly… It makes my worries disappear. It may be embarrassing - no, utterly mortifying - to know that he’s keeping such a vulnerable, drunken voicemail. But it’s also reassuring.

“Ow!”

“Love?”

“I’m okay,” I gasp out, gritting my teeth against the sharp pain. “Just hyperactive baby who’s decided my ribcage is the perfect place for his foot.”

“Come lie down.”

“Niall -”

“Please, Erin, humour me. Our daughter needs you to take care of yourself.”

I roll my eyes but allow him to lead me to the bed. His worry would be adorable if it wasn’t so constant. Nevertheless, I don’t argue as he helps me to stretch out on the bed, and he frowns as I settle in.

“That was too easy.” His brows furrow, eyes narrowing, and I grin up at him. “Erin.”

“You’re concerned. Why should I annoy you on top of that? Our son shouldn’t hear us arguing about you being stubborn.”

I’m being stubborn? Have you met yourself recently?”

“Well, now, that’s just rude. I think you should sleep with me to make up for it.”

He stares at me, no trace of amusement on his face, then he cracks. Chuckling, he crawls onto the bed and curls around me; his palm presses gently to my belly, and I turn my head to kiss him. My breathing slows the longer I lie there, my eyelids grow heavier. I’m too far gone into the daze between sleep and awake to register Niall tugging the comforter up over me, tucking me in before resuming his post at my side.