Lain hid out in her bedroom until Zina left for work the next morning. Once the apartment was clear, she emerged with a deep sigh and headed out to shower. She had just finished dressing for the day and was starting to make breakfast when she heard a knock at the door. She briefly worried that Zina had forgotten her keys and debated whether or not to answer. Ultimately, charitability won over contempt, and she slowly made her way to the door and asked who was there.
“It’s me,” a deep voice answered.
Lain instantly felt her anxiety melt away and she exhaled in relief.
“Karl!” she exclaimed, throwing the door open.
“Hello, Miss,” Karl said formally with a small nod. He had greeted her with the same formality since he had chauffeured her as a child. However, the smile on his face was soft and loving, just as it had always been, and she threw her arms around him in excitement.
“I’ve been wondering when you were going to stop by. You just missed Zina, she’s been working in the studio with Gwen. Remember her?”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Karl said, wrinkling his nose. Lain laughed. Neither of them had been big fans of Gwen. She was a year older than Lain and their parents had insisted on putting them on many play-dates, most of which resulted with Lain in tears. Karl had to talk her through many childhood dramas, particularly when he would drive her home from Gwen’s family estate, where the girl felt particularly comfortable antagonizing Lain. She had mixed feelings about letting Zina work with her, but thought love and Zina’s business should outrank the past.
“How is Zina doing?”
“She’s okay. Come on in, Karl. I was just making breakfast. Would you like to have some tea with me?”
“Of course. It will be nice to have you serve me for a change,” he teased.
Lain laughed and they headed into the kitchen together.
“And how are you doing?” he asked her, sitting down on a stool at the small island counter.
She opened her mouth to reply, “Fine,” but her voice caught in her throat. She could never lie to Karl. He saw right through her.
Karl noticed her hesitation and perked up.
“What’s the matter?”
She suddenly felt self-conscious. She didn’t know what Karl would think of her feelings for Zina. She was sure that he had viewed the two like sisters, and himself as a father figure to both of them. She was reluctant to disillusion him about the dynamic of their funny little family. He accepted her, as gay as she was, but still, it was hard to talk about her personal feelings to anybody.
“Did something happen?” he guessed. “Are you pregnant?”
This caused her to burst out laughing, and Karl’s worried expression relaxed into a small smile.
“No,” she gasped. “I’m just having a rough time in my personal life.”
“Ah,” Karl nodded. “Tell me more.”
She looked into his steady brown eyes and sighed. Before she knew it, the whole story was spilling out and Karl listened quietly. When she was done, she was in tears again, and worried that Karl might never see the two in the same paternal way.
“I know you’ve gone above and beyond,” Karl said softly.
Lain sniffled and nodded, bracing herself for the possibility of his disapproval.
“I’m not sure you could ever understand how life has affected her,” he said quietly. “You know, my father would beat me up a lot, and I still can’t form relationships with people very easily. Deep down, I’m a very lonely man who is very scared of showing my heart to people. I think Zina might be the same way.”
“Yeah, but do you think she loves me?”
Karl inhaled deeply.
“I think you’re the most important person in the world to her.”
“Yeah, but, like a girlfriend?”
“You’re more than that, Lain. Don’t be selfish.”
Lain prickled and furrowed her eyebrows. Selfish was the last thing she had always been with Zina.
“Why can’t she just say it then?”
“Do you know what I see in Zina, versus what I see in you?” Karl asked. Lain shook her head, clearly still miffed.
“You’re not afraid of anything. It’s admirable. But in Zina, I see a terrified little girl who doesn’t trust so much as the ground she walks on. Who feels like every choice she makes is the wrong one and every step she takes will cause the earth to open up at her feet and swallow her whole. She doesn’t want to take you down with her. And I think you should respect that. Understand that. And don’t give up on her.”
“But I can’t do this anymore, Karl. It’s not fair. It’s not my burden.”
“No, that is absolutely true. But there’s one last thing you can do, and as the closest person to her, I think you should try. Do you know what helped me?”
Lain shook her head.
“I started getting counseling. My father died and my mother insisted it would be good for us both. So I went to humor her. But you know what? I’ve learned more about myself in six months than I had figured out in sixty-eight years. I’m actually happy.” He looked at her slyly. “I even have a girlfriend.”
“You do not!” Lain gasped, slapping his shoulder with a dish towel. “What is she like?”
“Amazing,” he said. “And you know what? For the first time in my life, I feel like I deserve that.”
“So Zina needs therapy?” Lain asked, frowning.
“She needs more than you could ever give her is what I’m saying. The only chance she has is to help herself.”
They sat in silence as Karl’s words sunk into Lain. They chatted a while longer, and Karl gave her updates about her parents and their whereabouts. Apparently they were in Greece for some reason. Neither of them cared enough to ask why. Eventually, he glanced down at his watch.
“Well, I’d best be going. I’ve got some errands to run. When will Zina be done with her project with Gwen?”
He said Gwen’s name with a wrinkled nose and Lain giggled.
“In another week or two.”
“I’m going to swing by to see her, I’ve missed you both so much,” he informed her. “Thank you for the tea.”
They stood, and she embraced him. He hugged her, tightening his grip when he felt her sniffle sadly against him. She peered up at him with a bright smile.
“Thank you for listening to me,” she said.
“Thank you for trusting me,” he replied. “The longer you keep things buried, the more toxic they become. You should always let out your feelings, Lain. It’s the only way to get anywhere.”
She nodded and walked Karl to the door, her mind reeling with thoughts of Zina and her abuse. The two said good bye and Lain headed back toward the kitchen to clean up. She paused thoughtfully in front of a clunky yellow phonebook. Zina had brought it home months ago for a collage. She began flipping through, hoping against hope that there was a chance for the one she loved to truly be happy. She would do whatever it took.