Disclaimer: Characters don't belong to me.
Rating: PG-13 (language).
Spoilers: Through "Missing" (s10, e09).
Summary: �It will all get better, I promise you.� EC(RR).
Thanks: To Alexandria for beta-ing.
Mysteriously, I am back in the hospital, the air coldly sterile on my bare arms and the floor smooth against the soles of my feet. I don�t quite remember walking here so I think I took the El.
�My patient,� I say urgently to the desk clerk. �Where have you put him, where is he?�
I am wearing pajamas.
�Never mind that,� I am irritable and rushed and I must get to him.
�Recovery. He hasn�t been moved,� she says, her voice clipped.
No, he hasn�t. Hasn�t been moved, and hasn�t moved. His eyes are closed and his body still swathed in a sky-blue sheet when I stumble over-eager into the room.
Shirley looks up from her work on another and I motion silently with my hand, never mind me.
The room is hollowly silent; the dim light hits only the outlines of his face, bathing the rest in melancholy shadow. His eyes open at the sound of my footsteps near his bed.
�Are you awake now?� I ask with a smile.
He turns his head away.
�Don�t,� he says bitterly. �I know why you ran away. You don�t have to explain � you don�t have to come back.�
A stool has been placed at his right side, as if someone knew I would be returning � and for the man, not the patient. I sit by him and I say something about being asleep when I suddenly realized I couldn�t leave him here alone.
�Stop it, that didn�t mean anything,� he insists, almost desperate.
I lift my shoulders and accept this as irrelevant to the moment. �I know.�
His right arm is flung across his torso, and I reach over, my eyes locked on his. His jaw clenches � that jaw, yes, I remember that jaw so well � and his breath is ragged, as I take his hand and bring it to my lips.
His face crumples, as if he can hardly stand this tenderness, and I look away briefly to allow him a moment of privacy.
It is then that I notice we are alone in the recovery room. All the patients have been moved out of the room while he and I sit here in our private claustrophobic pain. Even Shirley has managed to leave.
Somehow I didn�t hear them.
I look back down at the man beside me. �We�ll work this out someday,� I tell him. �Not yet, because we�re hurting too much. But a long time from now, when we�ve healed a little, we can try.�
He shakes his head and murmurs my name like a plea. My real name.
�It will all get better,� I say. �I promise you.�
Suddenly I feel as if he must believe this, that I can�t leave without his believing this.
His eyes pierce mine darkly. �How do you suggest I go about healing? Go ahead, tell me; feed my soul a little chicken soup.�
I want to cry. �I don�t know. I can�t do it for you.�
Then he twists his right hand from my grip and tangles it harshly in my hair, and I gasp as he pulls my mouth down roughly on his.
He kisses me like he�s wanted nothing else all his life.
It�s not right, it�s too soon; I cannot be this man�s salvation and he won�t want me to be, once he comes to his senses. But for now, just for now � I feel my body melt down into him, hear my voice tremble against his lips � I need you, God, I need �
I wake up.
Ella is tugging at my arm, wanting a drink of water, and I am alone in my bed.
I realize that my mind has been playing tricks on me, that months have passed since the night I was imagining. That whatever crazy whims my dream-self just acted upon, my real self left him there alone.
She sits on my bed, all dolled up already for school. New jeans, a fuzzy red sweater with white teddy bears on the front, her blonde curls in pigtails. The scarlet sweater brings out the flush in her ruddy cheeks, the winter-red of her chapped lips. Her eyes search my actions through the reflection of the mirror in front of me.
I pull a dress over my head and notice how easily it goes: too easily. The fabric sags dark and shapeless around my waist and hips. I have lost weight, I realize: my ribs protrude from my flesh as I run exploring hands up my sides, and the hollows of my cheeks have grown deeper and sharper.
Now I wish I had thought of it sooner, but in the whirlwind of arranging the entire day, the absolute absurdity of being the one to do it, I had forgotten about the clothes.
On to the jewelry: the dress can�t be helped. Earrings dainty, glittering against dark red of my hair in all its morning wildness. I pull the curls savagely back into a bun, noting the austere outlines of jaw and neck and cheekbone rising chalk-white from pitch-black silk.
It�s been a long time since I wore this dress.
The little girl behind me asks to see. I turn, desolate, spreading my arms as if to say: here it is, nothing much.
�Wow,� she breathes. I am dully astonished by her ease of expression: has she grown older when I wasn�t looking? �Beautiful.�
I turn back to the mirror and rip my hair from its restraints, letting it tumble wildly over my shoulders. My face is softer this way, the set of my mouth seems less grim than merely firm. But the blonde streaks that date from those short weeks with Eddie, too bright and too new: I wish I could rip the strands from my head.
I don�t feel beautiful. Just terribly old.
I am in exile from a land I never owned. I remember being the woman-surgeon, the pretty doctor, the daughter of the bigwig, and how once someone noticed how fucking good I was, I was only too ready for him to take me away.
My ties to home were tenuous. I hated my work, and I had always had every adult�s relationship with her parents, that quintessential blend of love and hate and, above all, distrust. It wasn�t difficult to leave.
But there was Jeremy.
He had brown eyes: I like men with brown eyes, with a hint of depth behind darkness; so different from mine. It was the only thing my husband had in common with the long line of rascals before him and with the long line that will stretch after him.
I told him I was going as if it were nothing significant. �To America,� I�d said, tasting the word on my lips. It had the sweetness of freedom and the bitterness of unacknowledged loss.
We were curled up in bed together, his body solid behind my softness, his arms entwined warmly about me. �I figured you would sometime,� he said, his lips soft on my neck. �I�ll miss you, babe.�
Then he flipped me over playfully and kissed my lips, a taste of good-bye. At the airport he jokingly bought me a keychain shaped like the Big Ben, to remind me of the old country he said � and he waved with a wink at the check-in gate and we both walked away smiling.
We never admitted to each other what it might cost to give up, and I would pretend for the rest of my life that he was just another good fuck. But later Eddie�s eyes would remind me of Jeremy, and he would feel dangerous, like someone I�d loved a long time ago. It was why he tempted me and why, against every instinct and every opinion I held of myself, I fell halfway in love with him.
I wanted to break Jeremy�s heart, but it was out of reach. Remembering that, I looked for someone who could belong to me, to whom I could belong.
Now I know that some people are born exiles. That a family doesn�t make a home and that, despite my best efforts, I will always endure loneliness more easily than love.
Mother calls while I�m having breakfast and she�s preparing dinner. We have a good, if wary, goss. The research, the work schedule, so hectic, Isabelle says, as if everyone else weren�t just as busy.
�Yes, yes, I love work more than ever,� I chirp.
�It is all you have now, isn�t it?� Isabelle answers in a clipped voice.
I hate her when she�s like this and I hate that I grow more like her every day.
�I have my daughter,� I answer out loud, and quite stiffly.
But that isn�t enough and never will be. They always grow up to hate you. To live, to have an existence outside of them, is the one unforgivable crime.
Then she asks about my day.
�Whose?� Isabelle says, when I tell her where I�ll be going.
�No one you knew.�
Anxious to keep the secret from her claws, and at the same time aching to confess, I have come up with this half-truth, half-lie.
�Friend of yours?�
�No. He�s just always been there.�
The lab coat goes over the dress. I have to go down to the ER, a consult on some severed fingers � the world wants to laugh in our faces today, as always.
Try not to think about it. Just try � I distract myself from the sight of that bloody hand, from the images that it calls up in my memory. Ask about the service, make sure Susan and Abby will be there.
They promise, their voices grudging: a favor not for him, but for me. Although I know in the end you can�t count on an ER doctor being anywhere and so it�s deadly important that I, at least, show up with something to say.
Not that I wouldn�t, anyway. My dream must be put to rest.
After removing a spleen from Susan Lewis�s ex-husband, I got roped into an ex-lap because someone had idiotically opened County to trauma. Ella at that moment was having her Thanksgiving dinner at Chris�s house.
As always. She would be scarred, I thought, she would blame me for this later, this parade of holidays when I simply couldn�t be there. It is always the mother�s fault.
I was thinking about that as I closed on the ex-lap and went to recovery to check on Chuck.
On the way I ran into Kerry Weaver. �Good,� she said, the curtness of her voice momentarily lessened. �Elizabeth, I�ve been looking for you.�
�What is it?� I said impatiently.
She let go of her crutch when my knees seemed to give way.
I didn�t faint, though she held my arm tightly as if she thought I would. There was only one shudder of disbelief, one instant that my very bones failed me, and then I straightened back up.
Deep breaths rasped desperately in my throat as I stepped backwards and shook off her touch � repulsive now � though the concern in her eyes I knew to be honest.
After torturous seconds, I said, �Are you sure?�
Kerry nodded, looking away from me. �The arm��
My choked gasp must have told her not to finish that sentence. She bent laboriously and picked up her crutch and left without another word, her duty done. I sank back against the wall, too shocked to do anything but press my fingers lightly to my gaping mouth.
When I did come into Chuck�s room Susan told me she�d already heard, hours ago, and said quietly, �At first I thought it was a joke.�
I fell into a chair, exhausted by the mere effort of walking down the hall to this room. �Some joke.�
Looking up at her face, I felt as I had felt when I saw her at Mark�s funeral, a twinge of kinship.
The thin piece of paper, rolled into a cylinder, is pressed rigidly into my curled palm. I grow surer with each second that I will need it, as I stand here like a fool and smile at passersby desperately, hopefully. Med students wanting food. Anspaugh, only here to tell me he has an emergency bypass surgery and can�t be here.
Seeing my face, he pauses to add with sober, phlegmatic melancholy, �I�m sorry. I know you knew him well.�
I shake my head. I didn�t.
Dr. Upton looks over at me from her chair. �I�m starting to think we�re alone here.�
�Life goes on,� I say with a hint of bitterness. I had hoped Kerry would be here. Had hoped that after all she�d seen of him, she�d recognize someone akin to herself.
I have more written on that paper than I�d imagined I could say. Talk of honesty, talk of courage, talk of how his face softened when he talked to a child. At the end, what really mattered: He saved people�s lives.
Back to work, a splenectomy, biting back savage anger that flares at all and sundry, saving it for the true recipient.
Jensen�s face is puckered in concentration as he talks off-handedly to the nurses and the anesthesiologist � not Babcock, thank heaven for small favors. We dive in: stitch and clamp and bovie and pickup and it�s all ordinary enough to drive me mad. He is bland, impersonal, and when I tell him his incision is too shallow he obliges by fixing it.
Ah, yes: because I am Chief of Surgery now.
It�s all I can do to concentrate because in this room, finally, the tears have gathered to press behind my eyes � I suppose that makes sense, in this coldly professional place where we used to work our particular, fiery brand of magic.
There�s no crying in the OR!
Ridiculous, now I�m smiling.
�Let�s have a little music,� Jensen says when he�s tired of conversation. �Something light? A Mozart, maybe?�
�No,� I say, and everyone is startled because I haven�t been talking and because my voice is shaken by vehemence. �Carmen.�
I remember him, layer upon layer upon layer, stretching back into Carmen, that unimaginably distant beginning and the ugliest, simplest story of all the tales we wove together. I remember it all.
We were alone at the admit desk. I was working the computer, but acutely aware of how much needed to be said. His eyes flicked sideways to mine, over the ever-present coffee. He had walked over to stand close by me, said some simple greeting, and taken a long, pensive sip in silence.
The corner of his mouth twitched upwards under that scruffy new beard. �It�s nice, for a change.�
I had never experienced such a silence, heavy with longing and blurred by ambiguity, and making it impossible for me to think of something to say.
Dorsett passed on his way out from a consult, with his impeccable timing, as soon as I had started fumblingly to speak. He nodded to me, and I almost detected a flush on his smooth, chiseled face. ��Night,� he offered tentatively.
The sting was too fresh for me to answer courtesy with courtesy. I shot a scornful look at him and heard the man beside me make a sound very like a snort.
�Never liked him,� he said when Eddie had left.
�And I never should have,� I said in a low voice.
He turned those dark eyes upon me and put his coffee down. �I heard. And I�m sorry.�
The unutterable word.
I wished I could return the sentiment � was it that hard to say, once it was all reduced to him and me and this empty, peaceful corner? He needed to know that I recognized the origin of his cruelty to Abby and his irrationality with the nurses. But something told me a conversation would be irrelevant, because his situation was beyond blame and beyond any words I could offer.
So, no apologies. Instead I touched the back of his hand, and heard his breath catch momentarily in his throat before he turned his fingers to curl up into mine.
For that second before he let me go and strode away, his grip was at once tender and intolerably fierce. I couldn�t have pulled away if I�d tried.
I am on the El, crowded in the middle of dozens of people, when I realize I can�t leave just yet. I had walked straight from the hospital doors to the station, wanting to go home to Ella and pretend it was any other day. Then, at the last possible moment, my very body rebelled against me and threw its weight towards the outside.
�Excuse me � excuse me �� I try to shove through the crowd but am reduced to snapping, �Let me off please!� before I step back out onto the now-empty platform.
The train doors slam shut behind me, and I lean against the railing, looking down at the hospital. From here I think I can see the memorial humbly illuminated by its proliferation of candles. Tugging my scarf closer about my neck, I start from the top of the long stairway down.
My bare hands glide along the handrail, battered by the freezing air; then I am on the ground, and walking back towards the hospital. In front of the pile of cards and photographs and wreaths, I draw my arms together against the front of my body and shiver.
Cheap keychains and rings in refrigerators and dark crosses on death-pale skin. All the evidence whispers into my mind, and I think that possibilities sometimes are as important as realities.
Tomorrow I need to get up at six o�clock and bring Ella early to Chris�s house. Then a liver transplant, and then a staff meeting to discuss the new head of the ER, and then dinner with the med student I�m tutoring. Places to go, people to heal. The chaos will suck me back in, trick me into feeling alive again.
There will be no more inexplicable dreams.
I�m not sure how long I have been standing here. Long enough to have forgotten the time, but not long enough to feel satiated of this ghastly falsity.
An uneven footstep behind me. I want to lash out at the bearer of those uneven feet, to scratch her eyes out. Instead I try to excite guilt, forgetting that she can�t be manipulated so easily.
She ignores my attempts, and my words fall uselessly onto the brittle winter air. Her indirect answer is crystal-sharp and truthful and starkly cold.
She walks away again. Leaves me to wonder what it means that I am the only one standing here: what it means to me, and how staggeringly, unbearably much it might have meant to him.
Last night, Ella asked to read about Mary and Joseph and the wise men. Obligingly, I found an old children�s Bible that Isabelle had given us when she was born.
Honestly, it�s not my fault if she doesn�t know much about this. I do want her to have it, at least for her childhood. No little girl should go to sleep feeling wholly alone in the dark.
But I�ve taken my mother�s way around the problem: I send her to a nursery school that says grace over grape juice and graham crackers, and teaches her to kneel and recite a rhyme before bed. I�ll let her believe if she wants to, a schoolgirl�s faith, dry and remote; but I won�t teach her, because I don�t know how.
I didn�t get far before she had questions. We were up to the part where God sent an angel to Mary.
Ella understands about angels. But she asked, �What is God like?�
�God is love,� I quoted ironically. My smile was trembly, uncertain.
She could read my expression better than I expected. �Why is that funny?�
�It�s not,� I hastened. �It�s only the truth.�
She accepted this. Really, she just wanted to hear about the wise men.
We never got there. Ella fell asleep before the star rose, her head a soft heaviness against my arm, her little hand curled possessively in my hair. I untangled her fingers from my curls, laid her head on the pillow.
My last thought before I left, as I dropped a kiss on her forehead, was that if what I had told her was true, then maybe, distantly and unwillingly, I had been an instrument of redemption.
Snow prickles on my cheeks. The sky is weeping ice, and I have not managed yet to shed a tear, as I stare at our faces laughing together. I�ve had the picture for years and now I feel irrationally as if I can�t bear to walk away from it.
My lips tremble, but only because I am bitterly cold. Somewhere along the line, I lost the ability to cry.
Another picture, one without laughter and without color, flickers in the candlelight. Slowly, achingly, I crouch down to stare into the dark shadows of those eyes and stretch my hand towards them, holding an insignificant scrap of paper.
I stay there until the ashes are invisible under a layer of fallen snow.