Author: Chelle Storey-Daniel
Pairing: Mark/Callie Callie/Hahn Mark/Addison
Summary: What happens when a man steps up and offers you everything you've ever wanted at the same time that a woman does? What happens when you're feeling things that you've never felt before and you question everything you thought you knew about yourself. Callie takes a journey that is rocky, wonderful, terrifying, and breathtaking as she realizes that there is one heart too many in her life and that's the one that she will have to break.
Disclaimer: I do not own Grey's or the characters. If I did, this would happen on ABC. :)
Dedicated: To the readers. Thank you.
All my love, Ange, you rock. :)
As lush and green as Italy was, Nebraska is the exact opposite. I don't know if it's lack of rain or general disinterest, but there are barren, brown fields and plenty of thriving weeds as we drive toward the small town that Erica called home. Mobile homes seem to be popular. I see plenty of single wide dwellings and not a lot of doublewides. What I also don't see a lot of ... is people. Erica wasn't kidding about how rural the area is. In Miami the population makes it hard to go about your business, but here we can drive for miles and see nothing. I get the sinking suspicion that we're getting close when she turns off the main road and begins to execute a maze of streets that are almost as narrow as the ones in Tuscany.
Pointing to her left, she says, "That was my high school."
I lean forward to get a better look at the dilapidated building. It's so small it could be a doctor's office. One side of the roof has collected enough debris from the towering trees that it has caved in. I can't imagine, even before it became so run down, that it was a very happy place to be. Sometimes, a place will give up its laughter one last time so that you can hear it in your mind. I don't hear anything as she eases past. This town ... it seems to be as silent as she has been since we left the airport.
To lighten the mood, I say, "How many kids were in your graduating class?"
She smiles, glancing at me. "Nineteen, which made it pretty easy to graduate top of the class with every honor available. I just failed to mention the numbers on college applications."
"Wow," I reply, looking across the street at the middle school. The building that is supposed to be the gym is hidden behind ivy and vines, but what strikes me the most is the absence of a playground or track of any kind. "What happened to the town? There's nothing here."
"It's like a lot of small farm towns. There's more space than people and our generation had no interest in farming. Most of us got out and big corporations started buying off the land after a while. Apartment buildings went up on the good side of the tracks and the people on this side moved there or moved on." She turns beside the middle school and then again on a tree lined road with mill houses that are all built in the same manner and are all boarded up. She eases to a stop in front of one that might have been yellow, but has turned a dirty shade of lime. "This is where my biological mother grew up. My grandmother died in the bedroom after suffering a stroke." She points to the side yard, where a rusted tractor sits with broken down pride. "And two years later, my grandfather passed away after he worked in his yard all day. Heart attack."
I look away from the tractor and watch her. She's gazing out at the house like she's remembering something, but whatever it is doesn't bring a smile to her face. If anything, it gives her a hollow, almost bitter look. "How old were you then?"
"I was eight when he died. I walked home from the school and found him sitting there on the plow with his head down. I thought he was praying for rain. Everybody was always praying for rain." She meets my eyes and gives me a smile that doesn't quite look genuine. "So, I moved to the rainiest place in the States. Rain is the last thing *I* want to pray for."
"You want to see if we can get in?"
I look back at the house. The tiny porch is filthy, the stone steps are crumbling, and the iron stair rail is actually in the yard with a tangle of weeds holding it down, but I feel myself nod. I asked for this. I asked to see all the secrets that she kept for herself. I asked to see her laid bare and this is the heaviest layer we'll have to lift. I climb out of the car and take a deep breath. The smell of rotting vegetables is cloying and I look around for the source, but see none. She walks ahead of me, her sneakers automatically moving over the leaf covered sidewalk while I take tentative steps behind her. Several smaller rocks crumble off the steps when she climbs to the top and she turns, extending her hand to help me.
When we're on the porch, I can feel the wood sagging under my feet and stand completely still while she tugs a horizontal piece of wood off the front door. She rests it against the side of the house and tries the knob, which is locked. Undaunted, she reaches over the window and pulls down a dirt covered key, which she unlocks the door with. It creaks open and I watch dust stir on the faded, ripped linoleum as she steps inside. I move in behind her, feeling like a trespasser ... like I'm walking on bones.
There's no electricity so she doesn't bother with any switches. Two things go through my mind at once, though. I'm glad that I don't have to see the place any better than I do and there's an obvious rat problem. There are droppings everywhere and it smells like several may have died. In order to focus on something else, I watch Erica move to the fireplace and look at the photographs on the mantle.
"My grandparents," she says, "left everything to my uncle. He was greedy ... not that there was much to share or anything. I was already gone by the time he finally agreed to let my parents park their trailer out back."
My eyes widen. "Is this - did they die out there?"
She nods, still eyeing the mantle. I join her and gasp when I see a photo of a little blond haired girl with crystal blue eyes. "Is this you?!"
"Yeah." She points at another photo, where she's sitting on an old man's knee. They both look solemn, almost like they didn't know how to smile. Or simply had no reason. "That was my grandfather. He never forgave me for not being a boy."
Her long finger points to another photo, this one waterlogged behind the frame. "That's my biological mother and my aunt ... the one who adopted me."
I could have picked out Erica's mother in a lineup. They have the same curly, unruly hair and smile. I lean forward for a better look and notice that Erica's aunt doesn't look very pleased. Her arms are crossed and her gaunt face is lined and sharply angled. The difference between the two sisters is night and day. But there's nothing I can say because I don't want to hurt Erica’s feelings or overstep any of the invisible boundaries I've been feeling since the plane landed. So, I move down the mantle with her, listening to her tell me about this aunt or that cousin and when we reach the end, I finally say, "Why don't you take a few pictures?"
She looks at me like I've grown two heads. "Why would I do that?"
"They're yours. And I'd like our kids to see your family."
The stagnant, haunted look flees her face and she gives me the first genuine smile of the day. "I didn't think of that."
"Well, I am a notorious thinker." I hook my finger in the belt loop of her pants and pull her forward. When I give her a kiss, she holds onto me a little longer than usual, then takes my hand as she leads me into the kitchen.
There are only two cabinets and one of those is barely hanging on the wall. The stove is a strange green color, narrower than anything I've ever seen and the refrigerator is so small that I feel ten feet tall as I tower over it. The round table is tiny and the two chairs are mismatched. There's no dishwasher, no microwave. I feel like I'm touring through a museum of poverty that most people would walk out of and immediately deny that it could possibly be this bad. It is this bad. The living room furniture was horrible, but this ... is hard to look at. The sink is held up with two by fours and the only work surface is a rough looking laminated table beside the stove. Someone tacked curtains to the side of it to hide the contents underneath, but they're open now. I can see a popcorn tin and a big container of flour.
People lived here.
People cooked here.
There's no pantry that I can see, though, so I'm left wondering how often the table creaked under a good dinner. To the left is a bedroom that has a mattress and box springs on the floor. That's all. No dresser. No mirror. No pictures or anything that could make it a home. Directly through the bedroom is a bathroom with a tub, but no shower. Once again, the bathroom sink has been crudely held up with pieces of wood that look like they would crumble under the weight of a sink full of water. The toilet is cracked, the seat gone.
Erica notices that I'm looking at it and says, "It never had a seat. At least as long as I can remember."
She doesn't give me a chance to reply. We move back through the bedroom, toward the front of the house again. There's another bedroom there and this one has a full sized bed with no cover. The mattress is full of stains and is easily the most colorful thing I've seen, despite the fading and filth. There is a dresser in this room and Erica sits down on a rickety looking bench, staring at the perfume bottles and jewelry box there. I'm sure that anything of value has long since been picked over, but she still opens it and listens to the first few strands of music that plays.
Her eyes drift shut and I watch her, trying to imagine the pretty little girl in the photograph doing the same thing. I'm sure that she lost herself in something so simple as the tinkering of a music box the same way Jasper loses himself in the dolphins on his ceiling. Or ... the way he did before Buddha gave him comfort and he no longer needed them.
I hope that I give Erica that same kind of freedom and when I put my hand on her shoulder and her eyes meet mine in the cracked mirror ... I know that I do. Kneeling down beside her, I say, "I know this hard on you."
"I always said I'd never come back."
"Not coming back has hurt you," I tell her. "You have to make peace with this place ... and with what happened to your parents before you can ask them to stop haunting you every year. Because that fight we had ... when I stayed at Mark's place ... that wasn't about us. It was about them and the fact that you never said goodbye."
She closes the music box and turns, looking down at me. "A therapist once told me I should come back and speak my piece, but I have no clue what to say."
"I can't help you with that."
I rest my hand on her knee so that she can feel me, but really ... so that I can feel her. The Erica Hahn that I've gotten to know and love is perfectly comfortable in first class. She's perfectly fine in five star restaurants and doesn't bat an eyelash when it comes to expensive security cameras on her property. I can't imagine that the same Erica who grew up with so little could fit seamlessly into a world of so much. She makes it look easy. I'm ashamed that I have so much trouble when I was groomed for the best of everything. She teaches me something new everyday.
"There's only one more thing to see," she says, focusing on the back wall of the room. "Their trailer."
I nod at her and take her hand. She squeezes it tight and I'm shocked at how clammy and moist her palm is. She's not sweating ... I'm not even sweating, but her nerves are evident. I begin to rethink stinking to my guns about coming here when she opens the back door and the sound she makes in the back of her throat is like nothing I've ever heard before. She draws up short and I walk into her like a total idiot ... then I see the burned up wreckage in the distance. She wasn't lying about it being little more than a pull behind camper and one whole end is open, burned wide.
That's where her parents slept and died.
And Erica slept somewhere inside it, too, growing up. Off and on and in between apartments that were barely afforded and eviction notices that pulled the fragments of home from her, paper cutting her address and leaving her with none, this small, metal can ... was Erica's shelter. When I think of our house now ... I get it. I get why she busts her ass and spends hours making the yard so beautiful that you don't need the television as a distraction. You can be entertained just gazing at the colors and watching what she planted come to life. She makes our place so god damn pretty ... because she grew up with god damn ugly.
And she hasn't been back.
She hasn't seen the damage.
Maybe what's she's seeing right now ... is how pretty life COULD have been if someone had thought to take care of her. It's not even my place to do it, but I start to cry. Even before she does. Hot tears course down my cheeks as I try to imagine what a little girl would play with here. There are no tire swings, no doll houses or rusted bicycles to prove that she was ever here at all. I don't see toys, there's no place she could have hidden away to let her imagination take her anywhere else, and the truth of how desperate is must have been falls over me like a million chains. I feel the way she must have felt.
And I want nothing more than to leave with her and make sure she never has to look back.
She looks at me when she hears me sniffle and puts her arm around me. She's not crying and I don't know how that can possibly be. So I ask her.
"I can't," she replies softly. "If I start now ... I may never stop."
"I'm okay." She takes a step forward, ready to go take a look at the trailer, but I stop her. "What?"
"I'm proud of you," I tell her and my words are the choking kind that come out on a semi sob. "You're strong, but you don't have to be. I mean, your family died here. All of them. Your grandparents, your parents ... it's okay to hurt. It's okay to be mad that this house and that trailer was as good as it got for you. Erica ... it's *okay* to not be okay."
She turns to face me. "If I was here alone ... I'd fall apart ... but I don't need to do that when you're around. Come on now."
I let her lead me across the yard and even though it has been years since the trailer burned ... I can still smell it. One time ... I burned the hair off my arms when I added too much lighter fluid to the grill and that's what it smells like now. Like hair and skin and dreams that died in an inferno.
I don't follow when Erica makes a circle around the trailer. I don't need to peer into the window or see the inside. Apparently she does, however, and I object when she opens the door and the entire structure creaks and groans, a metallic grinding that sets my teeth on edge. "It's not safe," I tell her.
She disappears inside anyway and I follow because if the roof collapses ... or if she collapses ... I want to be with her. As much as it pains me to admit this ... I've never been in a mobile home. Unless you count the RV that my dad bought on a whim and then sold after four hundred miles into a cross country endeavor. We flew home after his nerves and my mother's running list of how ridiculous it was finally took its toll. I can remember being so claustrophobic that I was miserable and that feeling comes back when I see the tiny kitchen and windows that are like those in a school bus. Erica moves down the hall, away from the charred end and I blindly follow, hoping with all my heart that our combined weight doesn't do more than make the trailer moan in protest. Which it does beautifully.
I get sidetracked by photos in the hallway and when I finally enter a narrow doorway, I find Erica sitting on a small bed that has been pushed against the wall. There's no headboard and the comforter has been eaten up by moths. Looking at her makes me miserable so I look at the walls instead. She has hung every award, every recognition ... from the Science Club to the Math Club to Chorus (which never should have happened because she can't sing) ... on every conceivable space. There are certifications from Home Economics, Literature, and P.E. as well as blue ribbons that could be for anything. It's obvious to me that for Erica ... they were everything.
What the room doesn't have ... is pieces of *her*. There's no hairbrush, no favorite teddy bear that you hang onto when you transition from little girl to young woman. There are no posters of celebrities or photographs of friends.
Whatever made Erica awkward and anti-social happened in this room, in this place, in this life that she clawed through school to leave behind.
I will never, ever think that my life was horrible again. Compared to this ... it was a fairy tale.
"I used to close the door so I wouldn't have to hear them yelling." Her voice echoes a little in the room, reminding me that it's hollow here. "The walls are paper thin though and I'd hear all about what a burden I was, how they never should have taken me, how I didn't pull my own weight.
"What that meant," Her eyes find mine. "Is that I wasn't willing to steal something for them to pawn so that they could buy more liquor. I wasn't willing to drop out of school and work full time so that they could stay here and party on my dime. I wasn't willing to let their supplier come in here and ... do the things to me that he did to my mother ... so I was the burden in the back room who they couldn't wait to get rid of and I couldn't wait to go. The day I left for college ... I sat down in this spot and I listened to them celebrating that they were rid of me ... and I promised myself that I would never be here again. No matter what ... I'd forget that this room and those people existed."
"We should go." I hold out my hand, but she doesn't take it. "There's nothing -"
"You wanted to see it, Callie. Here it is. This? This is why I don't make friends because when they inevitably ask about where I'm from ... I can't tell them. I have to lie and you don't lie to friends so I don't bother. This? This is why I fought so fucking hard to have a life with Rachel that was so suburban, so mundane and ordinary and this is why I begged you to move in with me." She stops talking for a second. "This silence? It creeps into you and the loneliness that you feel, that disparity that I can see on your face ... it looks back at you in the mirror when you live like this. I don't get close to people because people never got close to me ... even my own people."
"You're close to me. You're close to Jasper and my Dad and Addison loves you." I shrug my shoulders. "You aren't sitting in this spot alone this time, you know? You invited me in and I'm here to stay. And you don't have to lie to anyone about where you're from. You should be proud to tell anyone that you grew up in Godforsaken, Nebraska, population 0, and worked your ass off to get the hell out of dodge."
"You're the only person left. It's up to you to decide whether these skeletons stay in the closet ... or you bury them once and for all. And I'm all for nothing being in the closet except our clothes."
"You are the most ... AHHHHH!"
She points at the doorway, where a snake has spread itself across the threshold like a barrier. She leaps onto the bed, still screaming, then yanks me forward trying to pull me with her. I let her and we stand hunched over so that our heads don’t hit the ceiling. The situation is not a good one. The brownish gray snake has diamond markings and I don't need to see the head to know that it will be triangular. I also don't need to see the tail to know that there will be rattles and judging by the snake's girth ... quite a few rattles. It's a fully grown, fully mature, and apparently pregnant female.
And the school bus like window in the room was not built for a woman with hips like mine to fit through.
Erica is cutting off the circulation in my arm and I shake her off, looking around the room. The last thing I want to do is poke a rattler because let's face it ... common sense is our friend ... but I can't very well let the thing nap in the doorway either. Once we vibrate the floor by walking around ... the snake is going to slither away in fear ... or hang around to investigate potential food and I'm sure that our ankles will look pretty appetizing. My eyes land on the curtain rod hanging over the window and I reach for it.
"What are you doing?" Erica demands, grabbing my arm again.
"I'm going to move it out of the way so we can leave."
"No! You're not!"
"Would you prefer to spend the night here?"
Her eyes move to the curtain rod. "I'll do it."
I roll my eyes at her and remove the rod, making quick work of the spider infested curtains. I let the material fall to the floor and check the strength of my 'weapon'. She reaches for it, but I move it out of her range. "How many snakes have you messed with?" I ask.
"Well ... none."
"Okay, do you remember that snakes were my childhood thing?"
"I know what I'm doing." I assure her, giving her a confident smile. I actually feel less than confident because the only rattle snake I ever got close to was behind glass, but that's not really the point. Erica will freak out the second the rattler moves and I won't.
Oh, how I hope.
I take a deep breath, ready to save the day. I inch toward the edge of the bed and -
"God dammit!" I nearly fall face first into the floor. Lucky for me, she reaches out and steadies me before I topple. "Do not DO that, Erica."
"Would you like it if someone yelled at you during surgery?"
"Callie, this is not a surgery! And I'd be less inclined to yell if you had a scalpel. Or a gun. Maybe an Uzi."
"It's fine! Just ... stay on the bed."
"If you get bit by that thing ... so help me GOD ... the ass kicking I give you will be harder for the hospital to treat!"
"Yeah, okay. I'll keep that in mind."
She's clutching my arm in both hands now and tightens her grip when I try to pull away. "Let's wait it out."
"What are we waiting FOR?" I demand. "The sun to set so we can't see it?"
"It's an anaconda!" she cries. "How can we NOT see it?"
"It's a rattle snake and they don't glow in the dark."
"A rattle snake!? Oh my god. Don't move!"
"I'm not moving. I CAN'T move unless you let go of me."
She doesn't. She looks back at the door, where the fat snake is lying there like it KNOWS that it’s tormenting us without really trying. I’m sure our shtick is making the damn serpent’s day. "I can throw my shoe at it," she finally states, matter of factly.
"Good thinking. Because your heavy duty, fang retardant cotton sock will protect your foot better than rubber and leather."
"I don't really think sarcasm is helping."
"Neither is talking!" I hold up the curtain rod. "I'm going to move it out of the way."
"And after it swallows your arm ... you're going to die because I will be unconscious on the floor and unable to call 911."
"I'm not getting bit!"
"UNTIL YOU SAY THINGS LIKE THAT!"
"You are clawing my arm off! Quit it!" I finally shake her loose and point at the half moon marks that she left with her nails. "Look! I'm maimed!"
"Not yet, but you will be if you keep on." She narrows her eyes at me to prove that she means it.
I step off the bed to prove that I do, too. "Be quiet."
"Oh my god."
"Be quieter than that."
"Do not say another word."
Bending down, I pull my socks up as far as they will go and tug my jeans down over my sneakers, keeping my eyes dead ahead. I move like a shadow, barely making a sound. It's enough. I see the diamond patterns ripple and hear the shake of rattles. It feels like the whisper of a ghost against my flesh as I hold the rod like a sword and take a few baby steps. Just as I feared it would, at the first gentle prodding the snake's rattler goes haywire and it slithers out of sight. I peer around the corner and see that it has coiled itself up, ready to bite anything that moves. I watch it's forked tongue dart in and out and it strikes the air when it sees me.
Of all the things I could be thinking ... what I do think about ... is the Crocodile Hunter. No, I'm not thinking the snake is a ‘beauty’ or a ‘ripper’ or ‘cute’. I'm thinking ‘danger, danger, danger’ in a thick Aussie accent. Not taking my eyes off the venomous *beauty*, I say, "Erica, is there anything in this place that you want?"
"Why? Should we burn this side down?"
"No." The snake strikes again, coming far too close to the opening of the door for my liking. "Because when you hand me your comforter and I throw it over the snake ... you better be carrying anything you want when you run like hell."
"There's nothing I want here."
The bedclothes rustle behind me and I hear her step into the floor. I take a handful of the cover. "On three."
"Oh shit. Fuck. Shit. SHIT! Callie, the nearest hospital is-"
"- about an hour away and-"
"- if we survive this ... I'm going to -"
I throw the curtain rod, making the snake strike furiously. Then I throw the comforter and my aim is true. It lands on the snake and the hissing is louder than the rattling when I yell, "RUN!"
"- beat the shit out of you! THE ABSOLUTE SHIT! RUN FASTER! FOR GOD’S SAKE! DON’T LOOK BACK!!"
We somehow make it down the hallway nearly shoulder to shoulder and leap from the doorway. We don't stop running at all until we skid to a halt on her grandparent’s back porch and the only reason we stop then is because barreling through the screen door could be painful. Out of breath, she rushes through the kitchen and begins gathering the photos off the mantle. I help her, stacking a few like books in my arms. She makes one last stop, grabbing the music box from the dresser in the front bedroom ... and the we run out like thieves in the night.
Which ... I guess in some ways ... we are.
Except that it’s dusk.
Even though the rental car is a nondescript sedan ... it looks ritzy after what I've seen and we practically throw our bounty into the trunk before racing to climb into our seats. When the engine is running and the air is blasting in our face ... we finally look at each other.
She starts laughing first. "Snattle rake!"
We keep laughing until something smacks against the top of the car.
We become as silent and still as statues.
Then she yanks the car into gear and guns it. I turn in time to see a pine cone roll off the roof and onto the trunk, but it's not funny anymore.
My plan for spending the night in Nebraska failed to include hotel reservations and we have to drive fifty miles before we see a place. It's only slightly better than the Seattle Skyline Inn, but I'm so grateful to have a place to stretch out after our adventure that I don't care. I flop onto the bed, arms flung over my head, and breathe deep. Erica hasn't joined me after ten minutes and I sit up, watching her flip through the ancient album she rescued from the snake den. She seems to be lost in thought so I don't say anything for a while.
I leave her to revisit her past while I attempt to figure out where we are and what we can have delivered for dinner. Snake charming has made me excessively hungry and even though our room smells like glue ... my appetite is as strong as ever. I finally resort to the phone book instead of my Blackberry and find a pizza place that agrees to bring it to us. My mother calls the second I hang up with Paul’s Pizzeria. I've spoken to her once since I was in Italy and that's only because she wanted to know what size pants Erica wears. She's sending her a birthday package that I hope doesn't include a male fireman calendar.
"Hello, Calliope! Are you back on this continent?"
"We're in Nebraska."
"Is everything okay?" she asks, concern evident.
"Yeah." I glance at Erica. She has shut the photo album and is gazing at the curtain covered windows with a pensive look on her face. I keep waiting for her to fall ... so that I can catch her. "I think we're going to live in Italy when we retire. It was so beautiful, Mom."
"How are you and Erica?"
Most mothers inquire about their child's relationship without the hope for destruction. Not mine. She makes it sound like she's hoping for me to tell her that I abandoned my girlfriend at the airport and left with the pilot. The MALE pilot. "Never better. Did I mention that Italy is the most *romantic* place ever?"
Mom doesn't make a sound. Then she sighs, just barely. "Derek was approved for the clinical trial. Jasper's pre-op screening is in two weeks. We want to do this thing as soon as possible ... so that he can recover in time for Christmas."
I think maybe I didn't expect that my fight for the surgery would feel so ... much like I lost. Jasper's day of reckoning is coming and it could go either way. I could have pushed this hard for him to be healed or ... I could be strapping him into the electric chair ... and asking my co-worker to flip the switch. My heart feels like it may have forgotten how to beat and I rub a hand over the back of my neck, shocked at how much I'm sweating. Everything is real now.
"Callie?" Mom asks.
"What? I'm here."
Maybe there's something in my voice that indicates how tenuous my grasp on control is because Erica turns and looks at me at the same time my mother launches into a sermon about everything being in God's hands. I barely listen because I *can't* hear her over the thunder of my own thoughts. I'm vaguely aware that Erica has joined me and that she's rubbing my back, but the comfort it should give me doesn't come.
I ask to speak to Jazz, but he's already sleeping. He spent all day at the carnival with Joel, riding the Ferris wheel ten million times. Mom tells me that he came home with cotton candy in his hair (which she has let him grow out) and a stuffed animal so big that Buddha pounced on it and ripped the stuffing out.
Erica didn't have carnivals in her childhood.
And I'm taking the childhood out of Jasper's carnival.
I don't know which is worse.
We talk for a few more minutes, then my dad is on the line and I try to sound upbeat because he keeps joking with me. I avoid mentioning Jasper and happily hand over the phone when he asks to speak to Erica. I don't hang around to listen to her side of the conversation. I go into the tiny, dingy bathroom and splash my face with cold water. Even though the mirror is clean ... I look distorted and ... dirty ... in it.
Did I do the right thing?
Mom said that Jasper is in God's hand ... but I wonder if God actually has his hand's full with orchestrating my fear.
Is this apprehension really God's way of telling me to stop the surgery?
I hear the doorknob wiggle behind me and shut the water off, drying my face. I still feel too hot, too flushed and dried out. I put the towel on the sink and open the door, pasting a smile on my face. This is Erica's time ... she needs to work on her own family issues instead of mine. "The pizza should be here soon," I tell her, kissing her cheek.
She lets me walk past her without a word, but she doesn't miss a beat. "Are you okay?"
"Mmm hmmm." I pick up the remote and turn on the television. It's not the flat panel that I'm used to, but it still has sound and I need background noise. I need something with a laugh track to remind me that I still can. I stretch out on my stomach and mindlessly flip through channel after channel.
Erica takes the remote from my hand and turns it off just as I find 'I Love Lucy'. She sets it on top of the television and squats down at the foot of the bed, not far from my head. "Santos said that they're flying in for Jasper's pre-op."
I nod at her.
She rests her chin on her hands the same way I am. "And you're not happy about that."
I shake my head.
She tilts hers just a little. "I know that I was against this surgery, but I really believe that he will be okay."
"And if he's not?"
She traces one finger over my cheek. "Then you'll know you tried."
"And that I killed him."
"He won't die."
"We all COULD. In an instant. But he's not leaving you."
"You don't know that."
"I know that he loves you as much as I do. And if I didn't leave you today ... after having the shit scared out of me while I suffered a massive coronary over that snake ... then he's not going to either."
I have to grin at her. "I should get a job as a snake handler."
"Yeah. Because I need to go to prison for kidnapping, false imprisonment, and bombing your place of employment."
"You're the one with a snake fetish."
We pass the remainder of our one night in Nebraska watching 'Thelma and Louise', gorging ourselves on pizza, and taking turns keeping an eye out for anything in the rodent family.
You know what real love is?
Forgetting your own problems to help your partner through their own.
Erica does it for me.
I do it right back for her.
Whoever names graveyards has to have a sense or humor. Or maybe a sense of irony. Rolling Hills in Seattle doesn't have a hill at all. Shady Acres in Miami doesn't have a tree on the premises. And Travesty Memorial Gardens in Nebraska doesn't grow anything like a garden should ... even weeds. It is a travesty though so I think it's the best name for a place where the reminder of how unfair death is rises up from the ground in monuments of concrete squares and angels. Whoever maintains the property has cut the grass so close to the ground that it withered just like the bodies that it blankets and I listen to it crunch under my feet as Erica pulls a piece of paper from her purse. She pauses beside a large pillar that has been erected to honor the Smythwick family and I take a second to really look at her. She didn't bother with any makeup and that's fine with me, but the circles under her eyes look like she's bleeding the indigo of the ocean. She looks bruised ... like she went a few rounds with something stronger than her all night.
As much as she tossed, turned, and thrashed ... she should have been declared the winner.
"I think it's this way," she says, pointing to the left.
I'm carrying two oversized wreathes while she carries a third. The flowers are as fake as the illusion of calm I'm trying to pull off, but we decided on the silk because they would last longer than real ones. The winding path through the headstones is not paved, but a few white pebbles have been thrown down ... enough to keep grass from daring to shoot through. If I really tried ... maybe I could convince myself we are on a yellow brick road and not mired in no man’s land.
I trail after her mutely. There really isn't much you can say when you're following someone towards inevitable pain. As much as I'd like to bear the brunt of it for her, I can't. My hands are tied. This is the last place either of us want to be, but it's someplace she needs to be. I see that some of her spirit is broken a little at a time when she dredges up the remnants of her past and the only way she can heal is to see for herself that it is really, truly over. Her parents can't hurt her anymore. They're long gone and all she has to do is bury her pain and those shattered memories with them. They can't rise to greet her ... and she can't sink to confront them.
It ends now. Today.
She will walk away.
They will stay behind and hopefully never trespass on our lives again.
I haven't experienced much death. All of my grandparents passed away, but I was only ever close to my dad's parents. They died two years apart and I didn't cry for them, I cried because my father became a little boy both times, sobbing for a mother, then a father, who would never comfort him again. Really ... death doesn't hurt the people who go ... it hurts the ones who are left behind to question if they were good enough. My father did a lot of soul searching when he lost his parents and I think he finally saw that his children were a reflection of them ... he had taught us the lessons that they taught him ... and through the looking glass of our eyes he could see his own success as a son, a father, a man.
The only life lesson Erica took from her parents ... is what NOT to do. But she has still come bearing gifts, offering them a token of remembrance when she'd really rather forget.
I guess they did teach her generosity, which she freely gives, because they withheld it from her so greedily.
Because watching her sends a shard of glass through my heart, I look anywhere but at her. Instead, I marvel at the headstones around us. What the people in this poor, desolate place lacked in life is more than made up for in death. Intricately carved testimonies to love dot the landscape and I realize that grief can make a person dig a little deeper into their bank accounts. It's almost vulgar ... such extravagant and obscene gestures. My eyes are inexplicably drawn to a kneeling angel, whose concrete hair has spilled over a bassinet, shielding her precious cargo from view. The baby that earned such an outpouring was four days old when he died ... but his mother probably felt like he had been with her for life when he took his last breath. My father’s grief over his own almost sent him toppling into Grandpa’s grave as they lowered his casket. Dad didn't follow, but if it had been any of us kids ... I don't doubt for a second that he would have laid down on our coffin and waited for the dirt to come in after him.
Cemeteries whisper their tales of woe to you. Those stories are indelibly stamped, chiseled, etched, and carved onto slabs of rock. You know that there are 'beloved mothers', 'devoted husbands', 'doting fathers' and if you listen carefully ... you can hear the quiet sobs that came before you, like epitaphs aren't the only things clinging to the stones. I hear a wrenching cry, a garbled word caught up on the gentle breeze, and I look around for the source, but the source is standing just a few feet away from me.
The wreath that Erica had carried is now at her feet and one hand is against her lips.
This is watching the tallest, strongest, mightiest oak tree in the forest crack down the middle and split into.
And I don't know what to say.
I don't know what to DO.
I brought her here to stare down the devil, but now that the time has come ... I can't fight him off for her.
"It's not right! It's not RIGHT!" she garbles the words, strangled on her own emotion.
"I know." That's what I say, but it's a brazen lie. I *don't* know. Seeing where she lived, walking through her memories, breathing the stinking air she breathed ... I still don't KNOW what she went through. "Death is never ri-"
"It was supposed to be bigger!"
I follow her gaze and comprehension dawns. She's looking at a black granite headstone and I can see two names, one on top of the other. She's right ... it's not big enough for two people. It's the size of one life, not nearly enough to encompass two. It's not the side by side, fancy man and wife tribute that it should have been. It's one solitary, lonely, smashed together display of ... nothing.
I say, "We'll fix it. We can get a new one and-"
"YOU CAN'T FIX IT!" she yells. "IT CAN NEVER BE FIXED! IT'S BROKEN!"
She stalks forward, kicking the headstone and I realize that there was a fissure that deepens and cracks under the pressure. One corner falls away and when it hits the ground ... so does she. She falls to her knees and I swear to GOD I feel it under my feet, a rippling like something so heavy and BIG has tumbled to the ground that it shakes my foundation. Her hands go over her face, part of her hair falls out of the elastic band, and she sobs in a way that doctors hear frequently, but never grow immune to.
I don't drop my flowers. I carry them with me and spread them out like they're priceless before I join her, feeling the hard, unyielding earth biting into my knees as I hug her. She clutches at my forearm, digging her fingers in and I kiss her temple, holding on. I'm caught up in her tornado of pain and even though the wind isn't cutting us ... the debris is hitting us hard. The pieces of a broken childhood can feel like a bullet when it finally whistles through the Kevlar vest you wear to protect your insides.
Erica's insides are now OUTSIDE and I can see every scar she was left with.
Her words come out in a nonsensical way, mostly a murmur that I can only pick fragments out of. I listen in earnest though and finally hear one question. It's only one, but she repeats it clearly.
"Why didn't they love me?"
How do you answer that? Is she talking to me? Is she talking to God? I don't know.
"I was a good kid. I never got in the way. I never asked for anything. I just ... I wanted them to hang onto me like you are, Callie, but they ... they wouldn't even touch me. Why? Why didn't they LOVE me?"
"You can't love somebody if you don't love yourself. And they didn't. They loved their alcohol and their drugs, but not themselves." I tighten my grip. "That's THEIR fault, not yours."
"I was a *good* kid. I was not a burden."
"Burdens are just reminders. And you reminded them that they were accountable. You reminded them that the world didn't revolve around them and THEIR needs." I rest my head against hers, praying for the right words. "Some people just can't be what you want them to be so instead of punishing themselves for it ... they punish you. You didn't burden them ... you reminded them that life is for the living and they were killing themselves."
She's not crying quite so hard now and her grip isn't so constraining. She accepts the tissue that is wedged in the pocket of my jeans (which I brought for myself, but don't need) and blows her nose. When her eyes meet mine, they're red and bloodshot. "How do you do that, Cal?"
"Talk to my soul."
"Because mine won't shut up." I rub the wetness on her cheek, then kiss the tip of her nose. "You were a good kid who grew into an amazing woman. Your parents may have given you that hard outer shell you carry around, but they also gave you a broken heart enough times to know better than to pay it forward. You take care of people because you were never taken care of and you do a damn good job of it, Yellow."
She gives me a half smile and then a kiss. Her gaze moves back to the headstone and she picks up her purse, rummaging through it. I expect her to bring out more tissue but she doesn't. She pulls out her wallet and rifles through the back pocket until she finds a piece of paper. It's brittle, worn and in danger of falling apart when she opens it and hands it to me. It's an ad for headstones and she has circled one that is nothing like the one that we are kneeling in front of. "It was supposed to look like that," she tells me. "I found this picture right before I graduated medical school and spent my first check as an intern on it. I should have come back ... I should have made sure it was right."
Whatever motivates a neglected child to give so much is the same thing that makes an abused child protect their parents. I don't understand that particular trait unless it's because a child's love is so genuine and unwavering ... even when it's undeserved. I hold the paper back out to her and say, "It's beautiful."
"I can get a new one." She makes the statement as if to say that she has accomplished enough in life to easily afford a better monument ... not to convince herself that she should. I watch her lift her hand and trace her father's name, then her mother’s. "But maybe they would have liked this ... being together, so close. Maybe it's better."
I reach around her and pick up the corner that broke off the stone when she kicked it. It's heavy and I have to steady it with both hands as I ease it back into place. I brush the dust off and nod at my handiwork. "Now it's better."
She watches me until I squirm. "Yeah. It is."
We put one spray of flowers over the marker and recline the other against it. She hovers for a while, her hands in her pockets, and I move away to give her the space she needs for goodbye. I don't give her a wide enough berth to feel alone, however, and when she finally nods ... I know that this chapter of her life has been written ... the final words are in place ... and she's ready to turn the page of the next adventure.
She picks up the third wreath and we walk four rows over. She doesn't need a map to find her biological mother. People rarely do ... family has a way of coming back to you. The headstone for Mary Elizabeth Anderson is white with pink flecks and the roses carved in the top beg to be touched. I do just that, brushing over the curved petals as she spreads the wreath out like a warm blanket. "Did you buy this one, too?" I ask, indicating the stone.
"No," she replies, discretely wiping her eyes again. "It showed up my sophomore year of high school. I came out here one day and there it was."
"Who put it here?"
I point out the wilting daisies in the concrete vase. "Someone visits her."
Erica looks around at the other memorials. I know what she's doing. She's looking to see if they also have semi-fresh flowers, but they don't. "Hmm."
"Hmm? Is that the best you can do? You could have family after all." I pull a notepad out of my purse and jot down a quick note. Rifling around in my bag again, I find a small zip lock bag that a broken necklace was returned to me in. I put the note inside, then safety pin the bag to a large silk carnation. "Maybe someone will call."
"Don't hold your breath."
She took my breath a long time ago and hasn't returned it yet.
There are so many clichés about home. It's where you hang your hat. It's where the heart is. It's 'home sweet home' being advertised on hand painted plaques that you hang over the door.
Before Erica, I had only ever had one home. My parent's home. Most people my age are a few years into a loan, but I never could be bothered to put down roots. Seattle felt like a short stay for me, but as the pilot announces that we are heading into Seattle, I look out over *home* with a sense of reverence. And relief. And calm. There's a big white house, two cats, and a comfortable bed waiting for me and I can't wait. I can't wait to curl up and sleep like Erica has done for the past two hours.
I don't nudge her awake until we've landed and most of the plane has emptied. She staggers along beside me, looking worn and threadbare, as we collect our luggage and I slide into the driver's seat after we've loaded the car. This? This is how we should have arrived from Miami. Tired, but together. Emotionally exhausted, but strong.
She seems to read my mind because she puts her hand over mine on the gear shifter and says, "Despite our disastrous first trip ... I'd fly anywhere with you."
"Likewise." I navigate toward our house, grateful that traffic is bearable. She massages the back of my hand and I capture her thumb with mine. "I had a great time."
"Me too," she says. "Callie?"
"Thank you ... for ... Nebraska."
I glance her way. "Did you just thank me for *that*? After everything else?"
"I'm glad I waited for you ... to take me. And ... bring me back. I'm glad that no one else ... I wouldn't have wanted to share that part ... of me ... with anybody but you. You saved me, you know?"
That's deep. To lighten the mood, I smile her way. "I'm your savior now?"
"Didn't you know that?"
There's no trace of humor in her voice. I glance at her, then back at the road. "There seems to be a lot of salvation going on then."
"Do I make you as happy as you make me?" she asks, calm and genuinely curious. "Do you feel better when I walk into the room? Do you hear my voice and feel it against your skin? Can you spend half the night watching me sleep and still feel rested the next day? Do I do that to you?"
"All the time," I reply honestly. "Every second of the day."
"Thank *you* for loving me enough."
"Enough to what?" she asks.
"Enough to make me content for the first time in my life."
"The pleasure's all mine."
Addison and Mark are not at our place when we arrive. We leave the luggage and go through the garage like eager kids on the first day of school. You rediscover what a child you are when the creature comforts you take for granted can delight you. The ugly canister set on the counter that I usually try to ignore is suddenly glorious. The familiar creak of the floorboard sounds like a favorite song and the hum of the running dishwasher is as soothing as a lullaby. I open my mouth to tell Erica that we don't need another vacation for a while when Ruma and Feo come charging into the room.
Their hairless status has not seen any marked improvement in our absence. Weaving around our legs and mewling pitifully, our cats welcome us home in grand style. I lift Ruma and hug him while Erica does the same with Feo, crooning to him like he's a baby. Both cats go weightless in our arms as they soak up the attention and when we sit down on the sofa, the cats stay in our laps, purring like little engines.
We stay there for close to an hour and when our pets are satisfied that we're not figments of their imagination, they scamper off, one chasing the other. Their nails don't make a sound on the hardwood and I admire their grace as much as I miss Buddha's clumsiness. Usually the sound of his nails was followed by a thump and a grunt. Always amusing. Like Erica falling off her horse.
I feel gritty from the day, dirty from where I've been and what I've seen. Pain like Erica's at the cemetery can stick to your body like paint. War paint. Sorrow, maybe.
"Let's take a shower," I suggest. "I hate planes."
She doesn't need a second invitation and we're naked and under the pulsating waterfall within minutes. I soap her hair before she can, because she once told me that my nails scrubbing her scalp erases tension from her body. Knowing that I'm doing that for her chases away my own tension and by the time I've washed my own hair, I think I could sleep for days. I quell the urge to yawn when her soapy hands move over my back, washing, massaging. They slide around me ... chasing sleep entirely out of the picture when she kneads my breasts. I'm fully awake, fully aroused, and up for anything as she rubs my chest, teasing, twisting just enough to elicit a gasp.
I put my hands over hers, guiding her, and I feel her chuckle against my ear when I urge her between my legs. She teases my earlobe with her teeth, but it's her breath against it that turns me on so much. I press her fingers against me and feel her tongue trace the soft spot behind my ear. "Oh ... God," I moan, grinding my ass against her crotch.
I reach behind me, skimming her thighs as I seek her center and she parts her legs for me. She's just as aroused at I am. I think the only thing better than what she does to me is knowing that I can elicit the same thing from her. She's wet, supple, and ready beneath my fingers. I spread her apart just enough to graze her clit and she yanks me back against her. It's not slow and seductive that she wants. I turn around, forcing her hand away from me and pin her against the wall. She lets me. She lets me push her hands over her head and pretend that I could hold them there with one of mine if I wanted to. Truthfully ... she could have me on my back in a flash and we both know it.
Leaning into her, I trace the curve of her mouth with my tongue before sucking her bottom lip. When my hand finds her again ... there's no pretence. I'm going to fuck her with my fingers until she can't walk straight and we both know that, too. I feel her foot on the back of my leg as I push into her. She's bracing herself, balancing for the intensity and I don't disappoint. I move so fast, so hard, that the sound of flesh against flesh nearly drowns out her cries. Nearly. Not quite.
She yields fast, giving up, giving in. I don't mind that she claws my back or that she nearly yanks me bald. Because after she rides out her release for less than a minute ... she sinks down on her knees in front of me and I give up trying for any conscious thought at all. She draws amazing designs against me and I let her ... no ... I beg her for more.
I plead with her not to stop ... then I tell her to stop because I could drown any second ... but she's gone deaf. She pushes me until I break with the same guttural intensity and leans her head against my stomach.
The water cools before we do.
We take it to the bed, which Addison has turned down neatly, and fall into a tangle of each other. Our hair is wet and we'll look like hell in the morning, but really ... does the morning even matter when you're living for the moment?
I see her watching me and smile. "What?"
"Your eyes get so glassy when you come. You look stoned."
"Natural high." I touch her neck. "You turn red when you come."
She glances down at the flush on her breasts. "True. Or maybe I'm just embarrassed that you have no stopping sense. The things you do to me ..."
"Excuse me. I'm the molested one. You accosted me on a *plane*."
She smirks. "Guilty. But you got your kink on in an airport bathroom, skank."
"I wasn't alone, ho. I didn't straddle a toilet seat."
We settle under the cover, quietly unwinding. Her foot is rubbing the top of mine when she says, "We are getting *married*."
"No way! Seriously!?"
Her foot kicks me now, lightly. "How do you want to do it?"
"Jumping out of an airplane?"
"As long as it doesn't involve Vegas or the Church of Elvis, I'm fine."
"Do you want the white dress and -"
"My mother would have a heart attack if I attempted to wear white." I move closer to her, pillowing my head on her arm. "Are you trying to tell me you want something traditional?"
"Well, I don't want to wear jeans," she replies. "I don't know. I've never even contemplated marriage until right now."
I look up at her. "You and Rachel -"
"No. I told you ... we stayed as far in the closet as we could get. And there wasn't a lot of talk about gay marriage or anything then. We just ... never considered it."
I'm somewhat comforted by that. There may have been women before me, but I'm the one she wants to pledge her life to. It means that I get to be her first in something the way she was mine. I want to tell her all that, but all I can say is a meek, "Oh."
"I'm not looking back anymore ... so don't you."
"I've decided that everything happens for a reason."
"That's very old news, Yellow."
She kisses the top of my head. "I'm just catching up. I can't be mad that people died and ... left me. I had to be left behind so you could find me."
And there you have it.
This long, rocky and oftentimes heart mutilating journey called life can suddenly make sense after it has scarred you to death. In the blink of an eye you can fall. You can fall from a horse. You can fall on your face. You can fall over good intentions, but the very best way to fall is when someone clutches your hand and you go together. I fell so much in love with Erica Hahn that I didn't know if she was with me for a while, but now I know that she was there all along.
After you fall ... the only thing you can do is rise.
And we're going to soar from here on out.
Only not like a bird, ‘cause that's creepy.
We'll make our own wings.
Thank you for reading me! :)
I'm bored as crap tonight so if you guys want to ask me any questions about the fic or the characters or the motivations or whatever ... ask away. Just don't ask me to spoil it because I *so* won't. :)
Thank you again!