DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
WARNING: Part 2 contains a graphic description of a violent attack. This is not included for salacious intent, but rather to convey the horror of what occurs. If you are sensitive to this, please do not read this part!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Easy Life
Raphael Rivera had not had an easy life. That's not to say he'd been aware of that fact, per se, but it was there nonetheless, a stain on his childhood, a blemish on his youth. There had been many hours of loneliness and boredom in the back rooms of his mother's many jobs, because she hadn't been able to afford a babysitter to care for him while she labored, moonlighting three ways at once just to pay for their apartment. He had not known that it was any less wonderful than his classmates from the brownstone playgrounds mere blocks away, their lives and upbringings guarded fiercely by all the power and prestige that money could buy. Rafe had not had an easy life; he just hadn't known that.
It wasn't until he and his mother abandoned that not easy life that he saw it for what it really had been. They came running to an outwardly sleepy little town tracking down the remnants of a ghost who'd never haunted him except by its vacancy of presence. They came to this little hamlet to get him a father. They came searching out the boy who'd started the seeds of Rafe's life, then promptly vanished into the ether, never to be seen or heard from again, his memory kept alive and fresh in the wisteria-laced longings of his mother's smile on a warm, muggy day, when the sun baked the Chicago pavement to broiling, and even the hazy heat waves were too lazy to move more than a few inches off the ground. He'd lived in softly whispered bedtime stories and ardent confirmations of his sure love, promised when tears at taunting from classmates with real fathers, who weren't ghosts at all, had found themselves tracking trails down his cheeks.
They'd found him, and they'd eventually gotten to keep him, but not for long, and Rafe's almost used-to-be-difficult life became hardships and making do all over again. A broken down devil had stolen their home, and taken his ghost-again father's heart into her chest, and a devil in a tailored suit denied him the supposed birth right he'd been stunned to have been offered in the first place, deciding that it no longer suited him to pin the hopes of a demon family on the boy who'd been raised by a saint. And then a different devil had taken up residence inside Rafe's own heart, had whispered black tidings of anger and retribution against any scapegoat who might be found, and had grown stronger and stronger until it seemed that his heart was now the fiend, starving for violent sprays of rage into the world, desperate and craving that dark release, until, until
The world had been no kinder to him behind metal bars. His glorified cage had been filled with boys and men just like the fiend in his heart, all rage, all lust, for power, for strength, for whatever they could grasp right now. His mother's tears were all that stood between him and allowing himself to become another imp, another creature of darkness. He'd allowed himself to be caged for her love, for her sanity; he would not allow himself to die anymore than he already had, just to appease the right now. He lived for tomorrow, for the day after, and then the day after that.
And while his caged bird heart sang for a little redheaded orphan, his mother's forever locked down heart had found the key to its little grey room, and ventured out into the sunlight to feel the warmth, guided by the most unlikely ally. She found herself a new home, safely guarded and watched over by the no-longer-broken-down demon, who, as it turned out, had never really been a demon at all, and the never-really-was-a-demon-at-all's daughter, who was in all likelihood the world's most unexpected angel.
They had come to see him often in his metal cage, sometimes together, sometimes not. They kept him apprised of the world outside his limited walls. The saint, the un-demon and the angel were never far from him, in his heart or his mind, and his tomorrow song began to be about the three of them, adding in harmonies for his mother's solo melody. When a knight-errant began to visit him as well, he knew what the tarnished armor man really wanted. What knight was worth his shield without a lady to protect? And Rafe didn't disagree, and so, when the gallant offered out the gauntlet, Rafe accepted his challenge, and blessed his mission. The mission had gone south; and life became difficult again.
He had heard of the un-demon and her angel daughter's exit from the house his mother had intended for them all. He had not known why they left, just that they did. His song stuttered. His mother drew away, became quiet about her days, and spoke often of the little angel, and never of the un-demon. He had asked her why, and she'd said it was complicated, and that was that. He knew there was more to it, but Rafe also knew that he would never know it if he pushed his mother to tell too soon. He resolved himself to wait.
His cage opened sooner than expected. His knight-errant had been forced to make do with a lad to protect in lieu of his chosen lady. Rafe went home to the house his mother had made into a home with the two harmonies, and tried to pretend that he didn't notice when the home that had been eagerly awaiting him was just a house in their absence. His fiend, never truly ousted from his heart, merely muted, would not let him be at ease. He didn't know how to relax anymore, how to forget that life was difficult. His mother's care angered him, and so he lashed back instead of returning her affection. When his fiendish impulses wounded the little angel, cruel words spilling from his no-longer controlled lips, the dark smudge on his heart had laughed. He had called his knight, needing shielding from the anger. When the knight gave him his own shield, the left-behind symbol of a ghost father, a token he'd given away not out of respect, but for wanting a useless thing gone, he'd been as thankful as he knew how to be. And then he'd wanted to be alone. The un-demon and her angel had left not long after. They'd not been back since.
Rafe had sung a caged bird's song to three melodies, but the melodies had drifted apart. The harmonies he'd envisioned around his mother were restrained now, pulling back from her clear, true tone. He didn't understand why, but he suspected he was at the heart of it. His mother needed her un-demon, her little angel. He did not think she needed a tainted-hearted bird like him. He resolved to get the un-demon and the little angel back, into the house that needed them all to be a home. It was right. It was good. And it would make their lives easy, not a struggle, not a weight around the neck to be carried. He just needed to know how to do it. And then he could slip quietly away into the night, and free his mother of the last burden she carried from her difficult life.
He took to late-night walks, strolls under the moonlight, white starlight to clear his mind and keep his imps at bay. He came back from one such walk on a later summer night, and saw the dim glow of a white car next to the house. He smiled. The un-demon was near. He'd crossed behind the house, intending to greet her, the moon's caresses having washed away the confusion and desperate blind grasping for footing that he'd known the last time they'd met. He wanted to hear her song, had missed the devilment in her eyes that only he and few others were ever allowed to see beyond.
He'd heard it then; his mother telling her un-demon that it would take more time, that her sweet-hearted boy had lost his way, and that she had to wait on him to be calmed, his lost footing to be found, before she could allow any further shaking of his world. The un-demon had murmured her understanding, had spoken of her patience, her love. He hid in the shadows and watched them draw together, their night-darkened forms blending into one in their embrace. Their heads interlocked, resting on the other's shoulder, arms lacing around warm bodies to hold love tight. And, as he watched this moment that he was not supposed to see, Rafe could no longer feel the stain in his heart.
"Actually, I don't think you need to wait at all," he said, smiling as one figure leapt into the air and became two again, twin gasps carrying through the evening air to his ears. He walked forward. "Look, Ma I know this is gonna surprise you and all, but this? Right here?" He pointed to their still joined hands, unconsciously unbreakable in their steadfast grip. "This is about the only thing that's made any sense to me at all since I got out of jail. Please don't hide it from me because you're worried that I won't like it. It just means- it-" He shrugged, at a loss for words, glancing at his feet before looking back up to meet his mother's eyes. "This is the family you promised me when I was growing up."
His mother's hand flew to her mouth, tears glistening in the muted light that seeped from the windows behind her, and her companion's attention left Rafe's face, focusing on her expression, gauging the response best needed to make everything better. Rafe watched Olivia watch his mother, and wondered how he hadn't seen it all before, realizing just as quickly that he had, and just hadn't known it for what it was then. "Olivia?" Green eyes snapped back to his, full of hope, love, and brimming with fear. He stepped closer. "Do you love my mom?"
"Yes." The word was barely a breathy exhalation, but it left her without a second's hesitation.
"Then ask her out already. I think Frank's gonna start goin' after her again soon if you don't." He grinned wickedly. There was a moment's silence, then a peal of laughter rolled from the taller woman's lips, escaping steel bands of tension and anxiety that were already vanishing from her much abused chest.
She turned to look at the darker woman, lifted a tan hand to her lips and pressed the gentlest of kisses to knuckles that no amount of labor or work had ever been able to turn hard or calloused. "Natalia Rivera, would you do me the honor of-"
"Well, for heaven's sake, yes, Olivia!" Natalia interrupted but did not pull her hand away. She tore her gaze from the beatific smile that erupted on her beloved's face to look at her first true love, the only man she'd ever really loved, and the only man who really knew who she was and loved her in return. "Rafe, are you sure? You're not mad or, or confused? You don't want to talk about God, or the Bible, or, I don't know, what this means?"
Rafe looked at Olivia. "Seriously? I just told you to ask her out, and she wants to know if I want to talk about the Bible?" Olivia guffawed, then guiltily put her hand over her mouth, shrugging at Natalia's reproachful glance. "Ma!" Rafe smiled. "I like your girlfriend. A lot. Do you think maybe someday she'd like to be my new dad?"
Natalia gaped. "I mean, I know she looks a little girly for the role, but I could see Olivia being all butch with the strap-ons and stuff. I'm up with the lingo, mom! I'm down with the lesbians!" He grinned, watching the twin sonic boom prepare to erupt.
Alicia had been migrating to this pond for three years now. She'd gotten her name from the little boy who'd raised her from a chick, but had left it behind when she slipped out the open door one day to begin her life on the wing. She liked it well enough, but she was considering finding a new pond next year. This one had strange things always going on around it. Take now, for instance. She heard the shouts, but didn't understand what it meant to be so-not-a-butch anyway. She definitely didn't know or care what it meant to be kissing in a tree. She was a duck. She had no lips with which to kiss, so why bother knowing what the hell a kiss was?
She did, however, have a passing familiarity with what it meant to be caught if her pursuer could manage it, so she was understandably wary when pounding footsteps heralded a young Latino running on the path around the lake, chased closely by an older, smaller female version of himself who was waving an empty coffee mug and yelling, "You come back here, young man! Where did you learn that kind of language anyway?! I will not have you making innuendo like that! Swear jar! SWEAR. JAR!!" As their voices, laughter and footsteps faded back around the lake, up toward the house, Alicia and her ducklings settled back in. The people from the farmhouse were nice. The littlest one often had bread. Still, they were weird. She'd have to keep an eye on the new hatchlings until they were old enough to understand that people next to other lakes and ponds didn't act like these people, with their bread and midnight jogs and their headcounts from little girls. She huffed. Unruly humans.
Please read the warning before reading this chapter
Rafe couldn't keep the grin off of his face even as he chewed his Buzz Burger, masticating and grinning like a fool, though thankfully with his mouth shut. "Careful, there, or you're gonna choke on it." Frank chuckled as Rafe did just that at his comment, slapping him on the back a few times to help the younger man clear his throat.
"Sorry," Rafe said, his voice hoarse from his recent coughing fit. "I'm just really happy."
"Oh, yeah? Why?" Frank leaned on the bar at which they were seated, wishing he'd brought Rafe to some other restaurant now, instead of Company. He had a sinking sensation that he was going to need a beer after hearing whatever Rafe had to say.
"Um. I-" Rafe faltered. "Nothing. Don't worry about it, Frank." Dammit! He couldn't just happily tell his mother's ex-fiance that he was happy because his mom had fallen in love, was desperately loved in return (by a someone neither imaginary nor dead!), and was happy finally, and that he'd just been thinking about how happy that made him, knowing his part in the most recent unfolding of the love story between Olivia Spencer and Natalia Rivera Dammit, he was grinning again!
"Would it happen to have anything to do with a late night visit from one Olivia Spencer to the farmhouse last night?" Frank bit the bullet. He hadn't been stalking. Really, he hadn't. He'd just been unable to sleep last night, and had decided to go driving. That his car had pointed in the direction of the farmhouse had been unintended. That he'd seen Olivia's car still parked there, so late into the night, had been unwanted. That he had seen the same goofy smile on both Natalia and Olivia's faces earlier today when he'd passed by the park and seen them sitting together had been unfair. But, Frank could not deny either of them the happiness he'd seen. After all, he'd loved both women in his life, and hadn't been enough for either one of them. It hurt, but he sincerely wanted the best for them, even if that meant that he'd end up alone, again. Man! Being the nice guy sucked ass sometimes.
"How did- how did you know about that? I didn't think they'd told anyone. They just now told me, and that was an accident!" Rafe's half-eaten burger lay forgotten on his plate.
"A little bird told me." Frank smiled, or tried to; it looked like a grimace. "Look, I love- loved- your mom, but she's in love with Olivia. I'm not going to fight that. I want your mom to be happy, and, though you might not believe me, I want Olivia to be happy, too." He shrugged.
Rafe looked at him for a moment, his eyes dark with contemplation. Frank met his gaze. After a moment, Rafe spoke. "The judge gave me the best mentor I could ever ask for in you, Frank." And Frank decided that maybe he really was ok with having a lad to protect instead of a lady. This boy actually seemed to need him. Frank needed to be needed. It wasn't going to be easy, but it was good enough.
He looked back to his own plate, the grimace becoming a real smile. He did not see angry eyes watching from the open kitchen doorway. He didn't notice when their gaze left him and turned inward. He was busy being the knight.
And Buzz Cooper had just become the devil.
Olivia was alone in her suite. She was waiting on her dry-cleaning to arrive so she could start getting ready. She'd sent Natalia home early, to prepare for their first date. Their first official, we're-going-out-as-a-couple date. There would be candles, wine and fine food. She'd already pre-arranged all of that. Afterward, she was hoping for dancing, for close bodies and long, meaningful gazes. She had plans for those gazes, plans that involved those gazes ending in closed eyes and joined lips. If she was very lucky, one kiss would lead to two, and the second to a third. Maybe, if she was really good, and very, very lucky, there would be wandering hands. Perhaps, if the fates did not conspire against her, there might be nudity, and a bed, warm sweaty bodies and a full night to taste, touch, smell, kiss everything! She had waited so long. Sharp arousal pierced her stomach, turning her knees to jelly and flooding her panties. Well, ok then. She ran her fingers through her hair, closed her eyes and pressed both hands to her fluttering belly, taking a deep breath in through her nose. Whoa, girl, she told herself. One step at a time. At this rate, she'd be coming in her high heels on the dance floor if Natalia just looked at her too hard. That would be awkward.
There was a knock at the door, and Olivia looked toward it and frowned. Agnes had a pass key. Why didn't she just let herself in? She walked to the door, noting that it was a good thing she was done for the day. The insides of her thighs were sticky and wet from her thoughts moments before, and her skirt was going to do very little to hide that if she were to walk around in it much longer. She opened the door, and had just long enough to register the identity of the person outside before pain exploded in her jaw and she saw stars.
The floor became unsteady, and rushed upward to meet her as she fell backward into her suite. "Who the fuck do you think you are, Olivia Spencer?" Her attacker towered over her, rage making his normally smallish body seem twice its size.
"Well, you seem to think I'm Olivia Spencer, Buzz." She couldn't help it. Dazed, with a rapidly swelling jaw and twin rivulets of blood beginning to ooze from her mouth and nose, and absolutely terrified of the man looming over her, Olivia simply could no more contain the sarcastic response than she could fly. She heard the snick of the door swinging shut, and, for the first time since she'd set foot in the Beacon, she cursed the excellent construction that had granted her the selling points of self-locking doors and soundproof walls.
She rolled over and tried to push herself up on her knees to stand, clumsy in her fear. She had only seconds to note the clump of moving feet before bricks of fiery pain exploded in her ribs and she tumbled to the side, Buzz's sneakered foot having crashed into her torso.
"Aaah!" She cried out, immediately cursing herself for showing any pain. "What the fuck, Buzz?!" That was better. She wrapped one arm around her torso, using the other and her legs to perform a painful crabwalk, scooting backward on her butt to try and escape him. Her heels slid uselessly on the carpet, gaining no purchase, and her side throbbed with every desperate jump as her backside skated jerkily across the floor.
"What the fuck do you mean, what the fuck?" Buzz advanced again, coming closer to the woman who refused to cower away from him, even as she tried to escape his wrath. Green eyes flashed rebelliously up at him, and he felt his rage grow even stronger. "You FUCKING whore! You haven't done enough to my family? You had to steal the happiness from the only son I've got left living? The ONLY one?" He saw recognition flash in her eyes, and then guilt. Good. That felt good.
"Buzz, I-" Olivia fumbled, her back coming up against the bed, halting her attempted escape. Oh, God. This was her punishment for all she'd done wrong in her life. She had been so close, so goddamn close, to a happy ending at last! She struggled to speak of the growing lump in her throat. "Please, I-"
"Shut up, Olivia." His voice was low, no longer screaming. Olivia swallowed. He was going to kill her. "You are the biggest whore I've ever known. Ever!" Olivia winced at his words. She'd never thought to hear such things from him. "You'll fuck anything, just for fun, if you think it'll get you something. Tell me, is that why you went after Natalia? Did you want something? To make her love you? To see if you could? Or were you just bored?!"
"Buzz, I love her! I'm in love with her! Doesn't that mean anything to you?" The wail tore from her throat, the last defense against a crime for which she was already convicted in his eyes.
He paused, cocked his head and gazed at her. "No." And his hand connected with her face again, sending a spray of blood across the pale bedspread at her head snapped to the side. She kicked out at him, felt it connect and heard a pained grunt, then tried to push herself up using the mattress as leverage. Her ribs screamed, but she was halfway there, her legs straightening and bracing for a run to the door when heavy hands wrapped around her throat and squeezed.
Olivia choked, wrapped her hands around the inhumanly strong man's wrists and tried to pull his hands away, but to no avail. He stared into her eyes, his own cold and filled with white-hot rage, and he smiled as her vision began to go black, fading away. Then, suddenly, he released her, and she felt herself drop back onto the bed. She couldn't move, just gasp for air.
"You know what?" she'd never heard his voice so dispassionate, so bitter and hateful. "Maybe you just need a reminder of the kind of whore you really are." She felt cool air on her thighs as he shoved up her skirt and a new kind of panic blossomed behind her eyes.
"Nooo!" she managed to croak out, but another stinging, stunning slap across her cheek prevented her from doing anything else. His hand pressed between her legs. No. Not this. Not now, not when everything was finally, finally going to be ok for her!
"You see, Olivia? You're wet for me. You want it. Fucking whore." She heard the buckle of a belt being opened, and beyond that, she heard another sound. It was the sound of a pass key being inserted into her door lock, faint, but unmistakable after having lived and worked there for so long.
Olivia Spencer braced herself, took a huge gulp of air into her still screaming lungs and yelled as loudly as she could, "HELP!!"
As a child on San Cristobal, Olivia had known an old woman who lived in a tiny shack at the edge of a marsh. She had been a recluse, an escapee from the world. She had bookshelves loaded down with tomes of varying ages, and she was, according to her own assertions, in the habit of reading at least one a day. Olivia had discovered her by accident, while wandering the marshes one day, intent on escaping her own small world. The old woman had invited her in, had sat down with her on the earthen clay floor of her shack, and had read her the entire collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales. They had been the original ones, too, not the Disney-fied child-friendly ones that had become so popular with the rest of the world.
Olivia had traveled to faraway lands, ridden the backs of unicorns and dragons, and resided in the most sumptuous palaces with beautiful men vying for her attention. Olivia had done all of these things, all while sitting on the earthen, packed clay of the old woman's shanty floor. She'd never gone back to the old woman's shack after she left that day, the gifted Grimm's held securely in her grasp, but she'd always missed it evermore. She'd often wondered if that old woman had spared her another thought after she vanished from sight, wondered if maybe that woman had missed her, too.
Years later, she had stood in her room in the Palace of San Cristobal, the handsome men vying for her attention at her back as she gazed unseeing out the windows, looking at the beautifully manicured grass and seeing only packed earthen clay. Fairy tales had always been prettier when they stopped at happily ever after; she had wondered what those fair heroines would make of the things she'd done. Her fingers had touched the glass, prints just barely appearing in the clear crystal panes before sliding away in tandem with her innocence and dreams, a wanton, willing woman walking away in their place, only tiny smears in the window remaining to indicate they'd ever been there. Much later that day, a maid had washed them away, and then it was like they'd never existed.
Olivia stared unseeing up at the ceiling of her hotel room, but she didn't see the subtly shaded wooden panels; instead, her eyes tracked the faint broom bristle marks tracked in earthen clay, following the pattern of an old woman's broad strokes. Her hand reached up to touch the dirt, to grasp it within her fingers, and see if the hopes and dreams she'd never thought to lose would still be seeded there, waiting patiently for the waters of time and remembrance to germinate them again. If she could just reach a little bit farther
The feel of soft fabric brushing against her thighs perturbed her, and she frowned. What was that feeling? Her eyes squinted, confusion filling her features as a head came into view over her line of sight, blocking the earthen floor she sought. Dark hair stood out wildly around a wide-eyed face, dark pupils boring into her own urgently. It was too much. She shut her eyes.
"No, no, no, Olivia, open your eyes back up. Please, I-" Rafe reached for her face, but pulled back, afraid to touch her, afraid he would hurt her, or worse. He looked down at her body, at the white dress shirt, ripped at the collar and splattered with blood. He tucked his grey sweat jacket tighter around her hips, having draped it over her lower body to cover her modesty when he'd seen the torn condition of her skirt. He stood back up, looking back over his shoulder at the two police officers standing at the door talking to Greg. One had the door propped open ever so slightly, waiting on the paramedics to arrive.
He looked back down at Olivia, and found her viridian eyes again on the ceiling, her hand reaching toward it once more. On impulse, he snagged the appendage, wrapping his own tan fingers around her pale, cold and trembling hand. Olivia blinked, and he watched the large black circles at the center of her eyes suddenly shrink to pinpricks, and her eyes snapped to his with all the intensity of a summer's lightning storm. They gazed at each other for a moment, two lost souls meeting across the divide of the distance between their hurts, and Rafe knew in that moment what his mother saw in Olivia Spencer.
"Olivia," he whispered, the word a broken plea for something, some sign, any hint of the woman he'd come to adore, had come to rely upon, had come to cherish. She held his gaze a second longer, and it felt like hours. Her face was swollen, already purpling and blood streaked her features, damage dotting and swirling its way across her visage in a grisly Suerat of violence. She looked out at him from behind the wounds, and then she whimpered, a broken, harsh sound. Her arms reached up, and Rafe fell to his knees beside the bed, pulling her into his arms as gently as possible.
They stayed that way until the paramedics arrived, Olivia curled into a ball on her side at the edge of the bed, her head pressed into Rafe's chest and his arms wrapped tenderly around her, one hand supporting her skull, the other rubbing circles on her back, the pieta reversed. When they finally separated, allowing the medics to lift Olivia and drape her across a wheeled stretcher, Rafe's fingers remained tightly intertwined with her own, and when the foolish medics tried to make him stay behind because they were ready to leave, Rafe felt the frantic pull from the still icy hand in his own, and he put his other hand on top of the two conjoined, looking up to speak softly to the two men. "I'm riding with my mother to the hospital. That's final."
As the ambulance made its way across town toward the hospital, Rafe sat crouched next to Olivia's side, their hands still linked. He brushed the hair off of her forehead, noting the purpling bruise creeping up her left temple, seeing the lumps on her jaw, the cuts on her lips and cheeks, and the handprints on her neck. He swallowed back the lump in his throat, and blinked away tears, looking back to her eyes. Her eyelids fluttered open, green orbs meeting his near obsidian irises, and she smiled for the first time since he'd stumbled into her hotel room, having run all the way from Company with Frank when the call had come over the police scanner. "All units respond, attempted sexual assault at the Beacon Hotel, penthouse suite "
The two men had locked eyes, then as one raced for the door. They'd arrived to find hell unfolding in the hotel. Greg had taken Olivia's dry cleaning up to her room because Agnes had been running late, and he'd grabbed a crystal vase of fresh flowers on the way to appease the cranky mood he knew Olivia would be in. He'd opened the door, just in time to hear Olivia let out the most bloodcurdling cry for help he'd ever heard, and to see Buzz Cooper poised above her, his hands on his belt, his knee on her belly, holding her legs open beneath her badly torn skirt. The image would haunt Greg's nightmares for years to come.
Without thinking, the young man had dropped the expensive bundle of plastic wrapped clothing and charged, swinging the heavy glass glorified jar with an accuracy his ex would have sworn he did not possess. It had connected with Buzz's head, exploding into a thousand starbursts around his skull like a crystalline supernova. Buzz had crumpled to the floor, falling into shards of piercing rain, tiny cuts opening wherever they touched his skin. Greg had taken one look at Olivia, lying unmoving on the bed, eyes vacant and upward bound, and he'd called 911. They'd asked if he'd been sure the attacker was safely detained, and Buzz had chosen that moment to groan. Greg had dropped the phone to the bedspread and dragged Buzz out of the room by his foot, trailing blood and broken glass and destruction. He'd left him on the floor outside the door, shutting and locking it behind him, which is how Rafe and Frank had found the room when they'd arrived. Greg had not allowed Rafe into the room until he had been flanked by two more uniformed policemen. Frank had stayed with the man who looked like his father but whose actions surely belied that identity. Rafe had gone to his second mother.
His second mother, who was now smiling up at him, the expression clear even through the damage done to her beautiful face. He knew why she was smiling. She didn't have to say it. "Yeah. I called you Mom. Deal with it." He smiled back at her until her eyes closed again. She took a deep breath, her chest rising with it, and then it fell, coinciding with the sudden shrieking alarms of a flatlining heart. "Olivia! Mom!"
Her eyes opened, and her brow furrowed, confusion and merriment dancing in her eyes. "It's ok," said one of the medics. "Her heart monitor just came off." He reached over Rafe to readjust the suction cup to her chest, quieting the alarms as he did so. Rafe blew out his cheeks in a sigh, met emerald eyes again.
"You gotta stop scaring me like that!" She tried to speak, her lips pursing, but the paramedic stopped her.
"Miss Spencer, it's best if you don't speak until we've had a chance to evaluate the extent of the injury to your throat." She glared at him. He wavered.
"Mom, stop it, he's right." Olivia softened instantly, eyes snapping back up to an olive-skinned face. "Let's just get through this hospital visit, and then I'll bring you back here myself so you can yell at him all you want, ok?" She smiled, eyes drifting half-shut in contentment, the pain wracking her body temporarily forgotten. Her fingers squeezed his. "Yeah, yeah, I love you, too." And, because he really did love her, he pretended not to see the tear that slipped from beneath her eyelids at his words, and because he had asked her to, Olivia did not try to speak again until they got to the hospital. At which point, she still didn't speak; she screamed bloody murder.
The smell of dry-erase marker ink permeated Rafe's nostrils, finally succeeding in turning his stomach where the malodorous alcohol, painful cries and bloody gauzes had not earlier. He'd known, in theory, that Olivia was not a good patient. He'd certainly seen enough of her irritability when she'd been recovering from her transplant, and vaguely knew that his mother had suffered mightily at her temper's hands, and yet, he'd still been surprised at just how vocal she'd been about her displeasure once they'd gotten to the hospital. Of course, he supposed she'd earned it.
She'd screamed when they'd taken her out of the ambulance. Rafe wasn't sure if it had been out of fear or pain; they'd stopped, opening the doors and jerking her out so quickly that her hand had slipped from his. The wheels of the medical trolley had hit the ground hard, and she'd screamed, her voice raw, like broken glass scraping against rusty metal. He'd jumped out, shoving one medic out of the way with a brief scowl, grabbing her hand and shushing her softly, catching her gaze. She had calmed instantly, and they'd gone into the exam room without further incident.
He glanced down at his bruised hand. Olivia had held it tight, clenched within her surprisingly powerful grip, the whole way through her examination. Rafe had planted himself next to her gurney, and had, in no uncertain terms, made clear his absolute refusal to leave her side, as well as the extraordinary measures to which the hospital staff would have to resort if they tried to force the issue. The doctor who'd barely looked any older than Emma had looked like he was about to try it, but the Amazonian nurse next to him had overruled whatever he'd been about to say with a stern instruction, pointing her finger directly between his eyes as she spoke. "Fine, but no looking when we have to check her out below the neck."
"He's my son!" Olivia's raspy voice had chided her, and the woman had actually had the grace to look penitent for all of about three seconds. Then they'd begun their examination. When they'd looked at her ribs, Rafe's head turned modestly to the side, his eyes on the pristine green walls, Olivia had gripped his hand so hard it hurt, grinding the bones together. They checked her face, holding a light to her eyes to check her pupils, looked at her neck, her arms, and her ankle, which she had apparently twisted badly when she'd kicked out at Rafe shook his head. He'd deal with that betrayal later.
Right now, his mom was calmly writing her statement, paragraph by paragraph, onto a dry erase board the hospital had given her. She sat up in the bed, braced by a raised mattress and about three billion pillows. Trust Olivia to make even a hospital bed somewhat opulent. The detective, a man by the name of Pratt, had been on loan from Brooklyn, part of an exchange program. He'd been the only detective with no connections to this case, and thusly, he was the lead investigator. He was asking Olivia question after question, and she scrawled her answers back to him.
She was annoyed about the writing thing. The baby doctor had told her that she shouldn't speak for several days, to allow her throat time to recover. It had been severely bruised when she'd been strangled, and she currently had a glistening salve applied to the hand-print shaped purpling across her neck. It was some kind of lotion version of aspirin and would help with the swelling. She met his eyes, flashing annoyance at her predicament, arching her left eyebrow on the largely unmarked side of her face. Rafe stopped zoning out then, just in time to hear Det. Pratt ask another question. "So, you were married to which Spaulding again? I'm confused. And you were going to marry Mr. Cooper, but didn't, and wait, hang on. Which Cooper?"
Olivia glared at the hapless man, wiped the board clean with an irritated swipe of her palm, and then scrawled a new message, holding it up when she was done. "Wow. I didn't even know you could use that word as a threat," Rafe marveled aloud. He looked at the detective. "Look, I think she's had enough. Time to leave. She'll call you if she thinks of anything else." The man opened his mouth as if to argue, but a marker bouncing off the side of his head quickly changed his mind.
"Ok, then, I'll be in touch." He hurried out of the room.
"Mom, that was mean, yeah?" Rafe grinned, scooping the marker up off the floor and bringing it back to its launchpad. He eased his hips onto the bed next to her knees, facing her, his dark eyes dancing. Olivia took the stylus, holding his gaze with melting green eyes, then wiped the board clean again, scribbling a new message.
You keep calling me that.
"Yeah, well, you called me your son earlier!" Olivia laughed, a harsh sound, and the sandpapery quality of a tone that usually rang so clear scraped across his heart, tearing it open and leaving a bleeding, bloody mess in its place. He gasped, tears coming to his eyes. "You could have died. I could have lost another parent today." His voice broke on the second to last word, a choking sob wracking his chest.
Olivia reached out, ignoring the pain in her chest and shoulders as she did so, pulling her boy to her. Rafe allowed himself to crumple, crying, burying his face into the sheets across her belly, his hands flattened on the bed on either side of her hips. The hotelier wound her fingers into his hair and rubbed his back, soothing him with as much love as she could convey through her fingertips. This was how Doris found them when she entered the room.
Doris Wolfe was many things. Among them, she was a beautiful and passionate woman, a political animal, a dedicated liberal (who had admitted conservative leanings on some issues), and a closeted lesbian. These were, Doris had always felt, the most defining aspects of her character. Less so were the facts that she was a brilliant lawyer, a mother, and lonely. Of course, Doris only told herself that these last three were not as important as the others, because they represented her biggest failures.
She had been unable to jail, or even successfully prosecute a single Spaulding, and oh, how she'd wanted to. She had a lovely daughter who was sweet and earnest and utterly disappointing. Ashley was as feckless as Doris had been driven at her age, and the mayor couldn't help but feel a twinge of embarrassment when she watched her daughter's lumbering gait sway toward her in a crowd. She loved Ashley, adored Ashley. She just wondered sometimes where her daughter had gotten her personality.
Doris was lonely, too. She didn't like to admit it, and would never, ever acknowledge it. She played her part well, and indulged her physical needs quietly and discreetly whenever she felt the urge, but she had no real friends. That is, she hadn't had any real friends, until one day she'd gotten a bug up her ass and had thrown on a stupid hat to go to the local Ladies' Night. Of course, she'd been caught there, and her house of secret cards had been sent spinning in the full force gale that was Olivia Freakin' Spencer.
She had been so sure that Olivia and Natalia would tell everyone, especially after Phillip walked free and clear once more in the streets of Springfield, but they hadn't. In fact, she and Olivia had begun meeting for lunch several times a week. At first, it had been to talk about Natalia, and Olivia's undying, idiotic devotion to seeing her happy with another, with fucking hairy, Greek, 'couldn't buy a clue if it smacked him in the face' Frank Achilles Cooper. God, she'd hated hearing about him. Slowly, though, those lunches had grown, changing from venting sessions into actual conversations. Doris had found a warm, intelligent, humorous and engaging woman living behind the façade of the Beacon Bitch. Doris had found a kindred spirit. Mayor Wolfe suddenly had a real friend.
Which was why, she supposed, she was sitting here now, on a wooden bench outside the farmhouse, waiting impatiently for Natalia Rivera to return from her walk in the woods. Who walked in the woods anyway? In the yard, a fat duck waddled across the grass, a line of fuzzy yellow ducklings behind her. "Dinner, and snacks," the strawberry blond muttered. Then, she spent a full minute trying to convince herself that the fat little duck hadn't heard her, hadn't stopped to glare at her, and hadn't proceeded on her way, trailing a baleful, threatening quacking all the way back down to the pond. Doris shook her head. God. There was too much nature out here. It was bound to get to her eventually.
She saw a movement at the treeline, and watched as a dark-haired form materialized between two massive oaks, strolling slowly across the field back to the farmhouse. "Emma," she called, turning her head slightly so her voice would carry better through the open door but keeping her eyes on the figure making its way toward them.
"Yeah, Miss Doris?" Emma appeared in the frame, a purple marker clutched in her hand.
"You said you were going to watch a movie with Jodi tonight after you finished your homework, but I'll tell you what." Doris had turned to face her now, a gentle smile on her face. She may not have been the best mother, but she'd always been good at showing her affection to her daughter until she'd gotten too old to be treated like a child. It wasn't hard to extend that courtesy to the pixie looking up at her with a matching grin. "Why don't you go ahead and start that movie now, and we'll get to that homework later, ok?"
Emma grinned full force, ran to Doris and wrapped her arms around her shoulders in a quick hug, then ran back inside to turn on that film before the adult-in-charge-at-the-moment changed her mind. Doris smiled past the punched feeling in her gut. Good god. That smile it was pure Olivia. She looked back at the door in alarm. The world had no idea the trouble that was brewing for it in that little girl.
"Doris?" Her thoughts were instantly realigned to her task when she heard her name from the steps. She snapped her head around, meeting Natalia's confused and slightly standoffish gaze.
"Hello, Natalia." She stood, pulling herself up to her full regal height. Then she remembered why she was there, and slumped. "Olivia asked me to bring Emma by to spend the night, and to speak to you about something that happened today." She faltered, dropping back down to the bench. "Um, you wanna sit here with me?"
"No." Natalia's tan face had gone sheet white. "Tell me what happened now. Tell me why Olivia can't be here herself."
Shit. Doris thought back to her conversation in the hospital.
Olivia had met her eyes over Rafe's form, shaking her head minutely when she'd opened her mouth to speak. Doris had nodded her understanding, watching awkwardly as Olivia held her brokenhearted son. She watched Olivia gaze at him with such love that it almost embarrassed her to see it. She waited.
A few minutes later, Rafe sat up, wiping his face. Olivia placed her hands on his cheeks and pulled him to her, dropping a kiss on his forehead. Doris couldn't take it anymore. Ahem! She cleared her throat. Rafe jumped up, whirling to face her, and Doris quickly understood why she'd been instructed to stop somewhere on the way over and pick up a shirt for Rafe; the one he was wearing was caked in dried blood all down the front.
She held out the new top, pretending she hadn't just been witness to one of the most heart-fucking-breaking sweet moments just a few seconds ago. Rafe quickly peeled off his stained article, dropping it into the chair as he pulled the new one over his head. Absently, Doris noticed washboard abs, and considered whether or not Ashley might like to get to know Rafe better.
She reached over and grabbed the discarded white cotton tee. "I'll wash this for you. Don't worry; I'm a politician. I know how to get the blood out." Rafe had smiled, then glanced back at Olivia, who was watching them with dark eyes.
"Look, we- I- Olivia needs you to do us a favor." Ah, Rafe, Doris thought. I'd blame the tactlessness on prison, if I didn't know better. She stuffed the bloody tee into her bag.
She looked at Olivia. "What, you can't talk yourself?" It was a joke. She could see quite clearly that Olivia couldn't speak; half of her face looked like a prizefighter's punching bag, and her neck was sporting two nasty purple handprints. Her hand was currently sporting a rude gesture as well. "Mature, Olivia," she rebuked. "Real mature."
She listened as Rafe explained what they needed. "Are you serious?!" She couldn't believe what they were asking. "You want me- ME?!- to go get your daughter from her friend's house and cart her to the farm before she hears about this-" her hand waved in Olivia's general direction- "and then- THEN- you want me to stick around and break the news to Natalia, AND you want me to stay there afterward, to make sure Natalia doesn't come tearing up in here?!" She looked back and forth between two nodding heads incredulously. "Why on earth do you want me to do this?!"
"Because you are my friend," Olivia said, her voice as raw as a winter's day in Antarctica. Doris barely recognized it.
"Mom, you aren't supposed to speak." Rafe gently chided her.
"Mom?!" Two instantly defensive glares leveled on her. "Ok, Mom it is." She raised her hands in supplication. "Seriously, though, why me? I can stay here with you, Olivia, and Rafe can go tell his mother and sister. I'm sure they'd much rather hear it from him."
"No. Ma can't see Mom like this. It'll destroy her."
"Your mother is a strong woman, Rafe, and you can't protect her from-"
"No, no, no, you don't understand." Rafe took a step toward her, his voice lowering. "If Ma sees Olivia like this, she's going to kill the man who did it to her." Doris looked at Olivia, saw the glint in her eyes, and knew what he said to be true.
"Ok, fine. But first- who did do this?"
Rafe and Olivia both seemed startled. "You mean, you don't know?" Rafe even squeaked when he asked her that.
"No. All I know is that someone attacked you, that he was stopped, and that he's currently in the prison ward of the hospital." Doris sniffed. "As well he should be."
"It was Buzz."
As she looked at the ashen glow on Natalia's face, Doris remembered the hollow, dead tone in Olivia's ruined voice when she'd stated the name of her attacker. Yeah. She saw it now. They had been right. Now, she just had to figure out a way to tell Natalia that didn't get her killed, too.
Doris sighed. "Goddammitalltohell," she muttered. Too late she remembered her present audience's predilection for disliking the Lord's name taken in vain, and she looked up with a sheepish expression on her face. Natalia's eyes were narrowed, shooting poisoned daggers as her nostrils flared over pursed lips. Well, hello, though Doris, who suddenly saw the attraction. Saint Natalia's got claws. Figures. She mentally shrugged.
"I will not repeat myself, Doris. Why. Are. You. Here?" Aw, fuck. Doris made a mental note that she really, really needed to get laid soon, threw back her shoulders and flipped the switch in her head, the one labeled "Mayor Wolfe."
"Natalia, I need you to come sit with me. I need you to do this because I was given very specific instructions as to how to tell you what I've come to say, and, by God, I will do what has been asked of me. Now cooperate, or I'll be forced to treat you as a hostile witness." Natalia remained unmoving at the steps for a moment, stonefaced, but then she bowed her head ever so slightly. She walked to the bench, sitting down at the far end, with as much distance between herself and the strawberry blond as possible.
"I can only assume that Olivia sent you, and it's for that reason alone that I'm cooperating." Natalia faced the yard, her eyes not focused on anything. She had no idea what was going on. She'd been in such a good mood, so carefree, just hours ago. Her sweet boy knew her deepest secret, had discovered it the night before in a moonlit embrace. He had not turned from her because of it, had not been angry. No, he had welcomed her secret, had been so happy for her.
He'd sat with her at the kitchen table after Olivia had left, after he'd put a folded up IOU inside the swear jar, waiting until he secured a job to pay back the money he owed for his impertinent statements. They had talked for hours, late into the early morning hours. Rafe had shared what he'd been feeling, the way he'd hoped to bring their family back together, and that he'd planned to leave after accomplishing that. He had told her of his fears, that he had lost himself, and that worried he would never be her sweet boy again. She'd cried in earnest as he spoke of the sudden strength he had found in himself as he witnessed his mother and the woman he'd come to think of as a second mother inadvertently reveal themselves as lovers. She had blushed at his choice of words, and he'd teased her when he realized why her face had gone crimson.
"Don't tell me, Ma- you're waiting for marriage right? Well, look, you can't get married in this state. You might as well just jump each other. I'll watch Emma for you. Stay out all night tomorrow if you want!" He'd laughed at her mortification, and even at the expression that had come over her face when she actually thought about what he'd said.
She and Olivia had danced around each other all morning, sharing shy smiles and long, smoldering looks. She'd rested her hand on Olivia's arm when showing her contracts the hotelier needed to sign. Olivia had run her hand across the Latina's back when she walked past her desk outside of her large office. Olivia's fingers had traced down the suddenly burning skin on her arm to lace with Natalia's own slim digits when they'd stood together in the elevator. When Olivia had sent her home, ostensibly to have time to prepare for their date that night, Natalia had known it was because Olivia was afraid that her famed sexual appetite was going to overtake her, causing her to throw herself at Natalia, and them together at a bed, long before the evening rolled around. Natalia had known that, had thought about it all the way home.
When she'd gotten to the farmhouse, she rushed inside, her head spinning from arousal. She'd gone to Olivia's room, thrown herself down on the older woman's vacated bed, and closed her eyes, wanting to feel close to her. Instead, Natalia had found her senses even further engaged as Olivia's unique, spicy scent invaded her nostrils. Of course; she hadn't washed the sheets. Of course and she had not tried to fight it anymore when her body rolled onto its back without conscious thought from her brain. She hadn't bothered to feel any shame when her nimble fingers set about unfastening the closure to her dress pants, and she'd only moaned once her hand had slipped inside the fly, under the silky fabric beneath, into the molten lava Olivia had summoned, like a priestess of the most unholy, seductive order.
And, when she had come with Olivia's name on her lips, she had not spared a single moment for regret, marveling instead at the woman who could engender such feelings in her that her own body would crest to such heights at the mere thought of her, heights to which no one, man or woman, husband or friend, had ever sent her before. She knew that it was different when two people were in love, knew it was more, but she also suspected it was something to do with the person to whom she'd given her heart as well. One didn't simply feel lust for Olivia Spencer. One was consumed by it; Olivia did nothing by halves.
She'd stayed in the bed a little longer, then gotten up to take a shower. On the way to her bathroom, she had been beset by such an intense feeling of disquiet that she had been ill to her stomach. She had known, without a doubt, that something, somewhere, was wrong. She'd taken to the forest then, seeking to be one with God in his most pristine creation, no longer trusting him to be found in a man-made temple, where God's love was ignored in favor of man-made rules. She had prayed, prayed that nothing would go wrong, prayed for her loved ones, for the parents she'd not seen in almost twenty years, for the family to whom she no longer spoke. She had prayed for the family she'd almost joined, hoping against all hope that no harm had befallen them. She had prayed for her son, for her daughter. And then, she had prayed for Olivia, and herself. She had prayed herself to tears, the bad feeling never easing, until her cell phone rang. She'd been puzzled when she saw who the caller was.
"Hello, Doris. Are you looking for Olivia?"
"No, actually. I'm looking for you. And, seeing as how I'm standing here on your porch, and can see your car in the drive, but am told the house is quite empty of you, I'm wondering where exactly you are."
"You went in my house?" Damn. She really was going to have to start locking the doors.
"No, Emma did. She tells me you're not there. So, where are you?"
Natalia's heart sank to her knees. Doris. Doris had Emma. Not Olivia. Not Rafe. Not Jane. "I'm on a walk. I'm coming back now. Please wait outside for me to get there. Tell Emma there's juice in the fridge, and to start her homework in the kitchen." She had hung up, not waiting for a response, the blood rushing in her ears, drowning out the sounds of the forest and the God with whom she'd come to commune. She began her walk back, feeling as though she should be rushing, should be running for her life, but having to force her limbs to move, dragging them as if through molasses. She'd not seen or heard anything, moving in a trance, until she'd heard Doris Wolfe speaking to her daughter, on the porch of the home that was meant for their family, in the spot on the bench in which Olivia had always sat. Never had she hated someone so much.
And now she sat, waiting on this woman, this imposter in Olivia's place, to tell her why the woman she loved was not coming tonight. "Natalia." Her eyes met the other woman's, cold, granite flints the color of steel mocha burning into sorrowful drops of blue misery. And, just like that, the anger, the hatred, the bitterness was gone, melted away in the face of her misery so clearly shared. She blinked, and realized that she was already crying, her face already wet with tears.
"What happened?" she asked, and then waited, listened as the other woman shattered her world.
"Olivia was attacked in her hotel room this afternoon." Doris kept her voice cool and professional, relying on her many years as a prosecutor to aid her. "Her assailant gave her a severe beating, resulting in severe facial contusions, a minor concussion, lacerations of the inside of her mouth, and a burst blood vessel in her left eye." She swallowed, the lump in her throat temporarily making it hard to breathe. She did not look away from Natalia's broken brown eyes. "He also strangled her, potentially damaging her trachea and vocal chords." She felt a single tear slip from her own eye, sliding down her face, cutting a swath through perfectly applied foundation and outlining its path with traces of mascara. "The attack was- was- ah, God, why did it have to be me to tell you this?!" Doris swiped at her face with an angry hand, not caring that her make-up was further smeared at the action.
"Because Olivia trusted you to take care of me, to tell me what I need to know, without cruelty, deceit or lies." Natalia reached out, took Doris's hand in her own, and held it until blue eyes met her own again. "Please. Please finish. I need to know. I need to know so I can know what I need to do to fix it, to put her back together again." Tears streaked Natalia's tan visage as well, unmarred though they were with any make-up on her skin. Doris nodded, and took a deep, calming breath.
"The attack was apparently meant to be sexual in nature, and the assailant had succeeded in subduing and partially disrobing Olivia before he was interrupted by an employee, who promptly put him the fuck down." Doris could keep neither the vehemence nor the vitriol out of her voice. "Rafe and Frank were nearby at Company when the call came over the radio. They were the first on the scene." Doris had found her flow again, and, with Natalia's hand still in hers, she found the strength to finish what she'd come to do.
"Rafe stayed with Olivia the whole way to the hospital and hasn't left her side since. He's actually the one who called me to come do this- Olivia can't speak right now to give her throat time to recover. He told me that I needed to go get Emma, to bring her here, to tell you all of this-" Natalia was already starting to stand, and was surprised when Doris held her hand more tightly, pulling her back down to the bench.
"Doris, please let me go, I have to go grab my things and get to the hospital. Could you stay with Emma, I-"
"No, Natalia." Doris interrupted. "You can't go to the hospital. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Olivia doesn't want you there."
"She doesn't want you there." Doris repeated herself, because the blank look Natalia was casting in her general direction was making her uneasy. The two women sat on the bench, silence upon them like a muffled cloak, the wraith of disaster sitting between them, swirling agitation behind their deceivingly calm exteriors. The brunette pulled her hands to her lap, her posture becoming brittle and rod-straight.
"You have exactly thirty seconds to explain that to me, Doris."
The older woman's eyes widened. She had never heard her name drop so icily from any human being's lips, and, let's face it, she had earned some pretty cold recitations of her name in her life. But this Such a chill had never before permeated her ears, and she knew without a doubt that the frigidity was streaming straight from Natalia's heart, bleeding out in crystalline streams of betrayal, and, if left unchecked, it would rake its icy grip across the tender organ until there was nothing left but shreds. She did NOT want to have to explain that to Olivia.
"It's not like you think! She wants you there, she just doesn't want you there." Natalia's brow furrowed, and then her eyebrows arched clear to her hairline. Her whole body crumpled then, her face falling into her hands, and she groaned.
"Oooh, Goddammit, Olivia!" Doris looked at the sky, pushing back into the bench as far as she could. Saint Natalia had just cursed, had taken the Lord's name in vain more specifically. She didn't want the lightning to hit her by accident. Natalia's head reared back up, sharp eyes pinning the Mayor with pinpointing intensity. "She doesn't want me to see her like this. She doesn't want me to see her, hurt, because someone hurt her, because of us, right? What, is she afraid I'll get scared and call it off now?!"
"Um, Nat-" Doris tried to interject.
"Shut it, Doris! I'm talking!" Natalia was up and pacing in front of the bench now.
"Yes, ma'am, you got it." Doris had not survived this far into politics without learning how to pick her battles, so she shut it indeed.
"Does she really think so little of me that she'd keep my son, my baby, at her side, and use him to hold me off, just so she can be sure I won't go anywhere?! God, I am so sick of this! I love her! I've seen her at death's door by God's own hand, not by any man, and I didn't run then!" Doris wanted to stop her, wanted to save her the upset and doubt that was going to come later, when she really thought about what she was saying now, but Natalia was fine when she was angry, not to mention absolutely scary. No wonder Olivia was so smitten.
"Who the fuck does she think she is anyway, to tell me, me, that I can't go to her, can't be with my, my, well, hell, the woman I love! I love her." The anger bled out, leaving behind only barren emptiness, and a dizzying sense of loss, aching nothingness. She fell to her knees, her hands coming up to her mouth, holding in the sob that was threatening to spill out and take her heart tumbling to the ground along with it.
Doris gaped, her mouth opening and closing like a fish. Oh, this had been a bad idea, she'd known it, she'd known it, and damn that green-eyed vixen and her sad "you're my friend" bullshit anyway, and aw, fuck, Natalia was fucking crying now. "Um." She looked around, hoping against all hope that a random passer-by might walk through the lawn and see them, would say, 'oh, my, you poor dear' and would come jogging over, ready and able to offer the comfort and solace that Doris was pretty sure she had been born genetically incapable of naturally giving.
The lawn remained empty. Well. She squared her shoulders. She'd watched Oprah that one time (when the topic had been on powerful women in the media, mind you, but she'd watched it nonetheless), and then there was that Lifetime Movie Marathon she'd been forced to watch in the hospital after having Ashley, because the remote had been missing, and the TV had been more entertaining than watching her IV drip into her vein. They'd hugged and talked and things on those programs. She could do that. Right?
She crouched next to Natalia, putting her hand on the small of the broken woman's back, fully intending on patting it gently, because, that was comfort, right? Instead, the slightest touch of her hand seemed to activate the Latina and before you could say Sally Struthers, she was sobbing into Doris's shoulder, her arms wrapped around the politician's waist. Doris patted her back awkwardly. Nope. It didn't matter how much she might want to, and she did; she just couldn't seem to not be herself, and herself? Herself wasn't a hugger.
Herself was a talker, though, and a damn good one. This was why she'd been chosen, and by God, it was time to get to work. "Natalia Rivera." She spoke into the closest ear, the one pressed into her jaw as the head to which it was attached attempted to cry itself off. "Stop crying. Listen to what I have to say."
Natalia pulled back, her face streaked with tears and confusion. She was not surprised when Doris hadn't hugged her back. She knew the woman was about as tactile as a thirsty cactus. What did surprise her was that Doris expected her to just stop crying when her heart was breaking. Good grief! How cold was this woman? And then Natalia realized that, in her confusion, she'd been distracted. She had actually done just as she'd been told- she had stopped crying.
"Good, thank you." Doris stood, pulling her armload of basket-case up with her, turning and depositing her soggy burden securely back into the bench's supporting embrace before beginning to pace herself. "Now, first thing's first: One. Olivia most certainly does not want you to see her this way, injured as she is, but it isn't because she's afraid you'll leave." Natalia started to open her mouth. "Ah! I'm speaking, you're listening. Understood? Nod if you understand me, no words." At Natalia's mute nod, Doris turned back to her pacing, her eyes watching her steps, her head down.
"You see, she's unbelievably fucked up looking right now. Her face is all swollen, her lips are busted, she's bruised basically from the neck up " Doris took note of Natalia's green complexion, and swiftly moved on. "But, she wants you to be there, because, if you were, she wouldn't feel any of that." Doris ran her fingers through her hair.
"Ok, but, you see, here's the thing: as badly as she's hurt, and I'm not going to sugarcoat it and pretend she's just knocked around a little bit- she can't even talk right now because her throat's damaged so badly!- as bad off as she is, she doesn't want you there. She doesn't want you to ever remember her like that, hurt and small in that bed." Doris shot a haunted glance Natalia's way, and the ache in her eyes speared the seated woman, making her limbs weak, and her mind glad she was already on the bench.
"Also, she's got Emma to worry about. She doesn't want Emma to hear about this from somebody else, and she doesn't want anybody but you to be there for Emma when she does find out. She wants you to be the one to tell Emma, because you're the only one she trusts, and she wants you and your daughter safe, here in this house, which is why she sent me, to get you both here, to bring you together in your home, to ensure you stay here, and to safeguard you from the outside world until it's no longer as big a threat." Doris gulped in air, pausing and looking at Natalia's face. "She sent me to bring Emma to you, by way of my place, which was my first stop, as I had to pack an overnight bag so I can stay here tonight." Natalia blinked. "Olivia's orders." Blink. "Look, I'm staying. I'm not about to have that hellion pissed at me again. I can't afford to have any more of my secrets uncovered for blackmail!"
Natalia tilted her head, the gesture signaling her acquiescence to Doris's assertion. She'd make Olivia pay for that later. Doris continued. "She's keeping Rafe with her because he's the only comfort she'll allow herself right now, and even she knows she needs something." Doris saw another sheen of tears. "He's a good boy, Natalia, a good man. He's taking care of her. He's taking care of his mom." Natalia gave her a startled look. "He was calling her that the whole time I was there. Mom." She chuckled. "It was disgustingly sweet."
Doris stopped pacing and moved to sit back down on the bench. They sat there together, eyes casting out over the field and forest, around the pond, sifting through the clouds of the sky. Faintly, they could hear the sounds of the movie Emma was watching as they filtered through the open windows of the kitchen. A far off duck quacked. Crickets half-heartedly began chirping, readying themselves for the evening festivities. Heat rose from the car hoods like drafts of warm air up Marilyn Monroe's skirt in her famous pose.
"You never told me his name."
"The man who did this. The man who hurt Olivia. The man who needs no longer fear God, so long as I walk this Earth. Who was it?"
"Um, I'm not sure-"
"Who. Was. It."
Doris looked at Natalia's blazing eyes, her red cheeks. Well, this sucked.
Emma really liked Dory. Even though she was a blue fish, and she didn't remember things as well as other fish might, but she never let that stop her. She was a really great friend to have, too. She was such a good friend, in fact, that she could make friends with anybody, from sharks to huge packs of silvery fish to squishy pink jellyfish, although that last example probably wasn't the best, since the jellyfish had almost killed Dory in the end
Emma paused, blue crayon poised above the page, a furrowed line appearing between her eyes. She was kneeling on the floor, propped up on her elbows on the coffee table, so she could draw while still being able to see the television. She had been watching her favorite movie while doing one of her homework assignments, which was to draw a picture of and write a brief statement about her favorite movie character. The picture was easy. The statement was supposed to be about why she liked the character so much. What would mommy say to do? Emma shook her head. Telling her teacher what her mommy might say was just bad news all over, especially considering her mommy's mood swings lately. Maybe Natalia, her other mommy, might know. Where was Natalia, anyway?
She looked around. It was starting to get dark outside, the afternoon light stretching across the ground like a golden blanket. Miss Doris had come to get her from Jodi's house after Rafe had called Jodi's mom to let her know. Jodi's mom had been really weird then, and had gotten this really sad look on her face. Emma didn't know why she was so sad, but she'd hugged her as they were leaving just to be sure Mrs. Jodi's Mom knew that Emma thought she was really great.
Jodi had gone out to the car with her, so they could promise to talk about the boy who'd been giving them butterflies tomorrow before class at school, and Emma had noticed Miss Doris being restrained behind them with a hand on her arm. Strangely enough, even though the hand on Miss Doris's arm was the same that had stroked her hair in an embrace just moments before, this hold was entirely different. Instead of gentle, maternal touches, this time the fingers had been fisted into the material of the other woman's jacket, bunching the material and whitening the knuckles.
The two women had whispered furiously for a moment before Ms. Doris had broken free and joined Emma, who had already been waiting in the car. Ms. Doris had looked at her, and, for just a moment, Emma had been afraid of the intensity she'd seen in the older woman's eyes. Then it had been gone, and Ms. Doris had told her that they were going to the Farmhouse, and that they'd be spending the night there with Natalia, and wouldn't that be fun? Emma had smiled, and squealed with delight over getting to see her ducks, to spend the night in her room again, to fall asleep to the sounds of Natalia reading her a bedtime story.
Now, though, in the lengthening shadows of the day, she realized that Ms. Doris had never said that Mommy would be spending the night with them, too. And Rafe had called Mrs. Jodi's mom. And Natalia still wasn't in the house, because Ms. Doris had needed to talk to her, and they were still outside on the porch, and the adults always did this when Mommy was sick again! They always locked her up inside somewhere with toys and homework and baby things, and talked over her head, and pretended that nothing was wrong, like she wasn't the girl whose Daddy had been "dead" until he wasn't, whose Mommy had nearly died more than once in the eighth year of her life, and whose brother had been in jail until just a week ago for shooting one of the men she called Uncle.
Emma's backside hit the floor with a gentle thump as she lost her balance, tears filling her eyes. No, no, no, no this was supposed to be over, she was supposed to be happy now! Mommy was all better and she and Natalia were always talking and laughing and hugging, and they both loved her very much. Emma had known, had just known, that they had been about to move back to the Farmhouse, that if she could just be a little patient, she'd get her home and her second mommy back just the way she'd left them, with a big brother as a bonus. Tears slipped from green eyes so like her mother's, making their way down cheeks still rounded with the flushed down of youth.
It was worse this time, and she knew it. Ever since Natalia had come into her life, the dark woman with nothing but light inside her heart had made sure that Emma was fully aware of what was going on with her mommy. Emma had been her little helper, making sure Mommy ate right, and slept enough, and exercised properly, and she even knew the signs to look for in case Mommy had a relapse of some kind. Natalia had sat her down one day and talked to her all about bad hearts, and what the signs of them were, and what she could expect to see from her mommy because of her bad heart. After that talk, Emma hadn't been scared of her mommy's bad heart anymore. She knew how to help her, and that made it a monster that could be kicked out from under the bed, because it wasn't unbeatable anymore. This time was different.
No one had said anything about her mommy, good or bad. The last time that had happened had been when her mommy was in the hospital right before she got her new heart. Everyone except her sister, Ava, had pretended it wasn't serious, and even Mommy had smiled and laughed through her blue-grey lips when Emma had gone to visit her, but Emma had seen Bambi, and she knew that her mommy was dying, just as surely as Bambi's mom had died when the hunters had stopped her heart with a bullet. Ava's barely contained misery had only confirmed that to her, and when she'd asked the older girl if their mommy was going to go to heaven, Ava had not hesitated in responding affirmatively. Ava had been lied to as well when she'd been Emma's age. She didn't tow the company line once when it had come to Olivia's heart, and Emma had trusted in that honesty, as discompassionate as it may have been. Ava had never made the monster less scary, but she had at least given it a name.
A soft sob escaped the little girl sitting dwarfed in the large room. Emma didn't know what to do. She didn't want to go to Natalia; she was with Ms. Doris, and even though Ms. Doris seemed nice, she didn't want to act like a big crybaby in front of her. The reddish-haired woman reminded her too much of the bullies at school for that, and she couldn't get to Natalia without getting past her. Her chest started to tighten, and her throat began closing up, desperate sobs ready to overtake her. She slapped the tabletop, not wanting to give in, not wanting to cry with a stranger in the house. Mommy never cried in front of strangers; she wouldn't either.
Suddenly her miniscule ribcage heaved, and she sucked in a lungful of air. She pulled herself up off the floor with the lip of the coffee table, rising to her feet with a blazing purpose in her eyes. She ran upstairs, to her mother's old room, where the big bed with her unmade sheets still basked in the hazy, shady, dappled afternoon light, where the scent of her two mommies filled the room, and where the landline her mother had insisted upon having installed but had never used still sat on the top of the beautiful antique walnut dresser.
She dialed a number her Mommy had insisted she memorize by heart, and then brought the receiver to her ear. She listened to the ringtones with growing trepidation, two, three, four, please pick up, please!
"Hello?" A man's deep voice spoke into the line.
"Uh- I- I wanted to talk to Ava?" No, no! The number had changed, she'd gotten it wrong, she- There was a murmuring in the background, the sounds of that voice calling out to someone else to go get Ava, NOW, and then it was back, talking to her.
"She's just outside, but I sent someone to go get her. It'll be just a second. Is- is this Emma?"
Emma sniffled, her voice shaky. "Yes?" Her breath caught on the end of the word.
"Emma! What's wrong? It's me- it's Uncle Sam!" And then, as the afternoon faded into early evening, on the phone with the man who'd loved and nurtured her as an infant, whom she had not seen in years, with the distant voice of her older sister coming across the line in the background as she rushed for the phone, Emma fell apart in a dark room all by herself, not in front of strangers, not alone, but with no one there to hold her at all. "Mommy's dying again!" And then the tears consumed her.
Ava listened to Emma's tearful sobs, feeling her heart being pulled out from the back of her throat. Sam had put the phone on speaker just in time for everyone in the room to hear the little girl's frantic pronouncement. Sam spoke softly into the receiver, awkwardly holding Ava's cell so that Emma could still be heard, close to his lips so his soothing tones could resonate to the young girl's ears. Ava's assorted friends fumbled nearby, shifting gracelessly from foot to foot as they felt their welcome waning.
In what felt like hours, but was really only the tiniest fraction of a second, Ava saw her life as she knew it fade, saw herself and Sam standing together on a cold spring day, next to a rectangular cut of brown earth, an ashen monument at its head, a sobbing child between the two of them, her little hands in each of their own, clutching, grasping, coming up empty Too many gravestones in this family, she thought. Too much loss for one child to bear.
She looked at her answering machine, saw the blinking light that she had noticed earlier, but to which she had not responded, not thinking it could be important, not wanting to waste time on the mundanity of her everyday life when the uncle cum brother she'd only so recently come to know was standing in her life again, the sunshine in his eyes and hair and smile bringing the first undiluted happiness she'd known since the spark went out in her own son's eyes. Sam had arrived in a hailstorm of unexpected duality of purpose, to comfort his long-lost niece on the anniversary of her tragedy, and to find again the purpose of a life he'd used to want, but now could no longer stand.
Sam, like Ava, had come to San Francisco looking for a home. Now, as their eyes met over the sorrow pouring from a tinny speaker, they both suddenly knew that they had traveled to the ends of the earth to find that which they'd left behind in the very start. It was not a joyous epiphany.
Ava took three steps to her answering machine, pressing the red blinking button and filling her chest with ice cold intent, ready to hear the aural harbinger of her mother's impending, perhaps already passed, doom. What she heard instead stopped her heart, and then sent it racing all over again, beating the rage through her body like thick, viscous blood, washing her heart and her mind and her eyes with the sweet craving for vengeance, setting her skin afire from the desire of it.
"Hey, um, Ava, right? It's Rafe. Raphael Rivera. I- uh. You don't really know me, but, but you know my ma. Anyway, Mo- Olivia, she asked me to call you, to let you know. Uhm, she's, uh. She's ok!" His voice faded slightly as he spoke to someone in the background. "Calm down, Mom, I told her you're ok! Lay back down!" A pause, then his voice returned to the line, full strength. "Ok, I don't know a good way to say this, and I'm probably gonna get into some shit for tellin' you like this over the phone, but here it is. My Ma and your Mom, they just recently got together, in that they are together, you get me?"
A strangled cry in the background, and Rafe's voice moved away once again. "Be quiet, Mom, you ain't supposed to talk! I'm handling this, ok?" He came back again. "Sorry. Anyway, it's new, real new, and we were all gonna be a big happy family, and we still are-"
Another indistinguishable vehement murmur, and Ava realized with a start that the voice she'd just heard so vaguely was that of her mother, though it had sounded oddly choked, as if she'd been talking through cotton. A sharp, piercing relief blossomed in her abdomen at the realization that her mother would not be able to speak if she were dead, and she dimly registered that the room had gone dead quiet to hear this message, even the brokenhearted sobbing on the phone having stopped to hear what Rafe had to say.
Again directing his speech to her distant mother, Rafe spoke sharply. "Ok, Mom, you get one more chance to be quiet, or I leave the room to finish this phone call." Silence. Then, "I'm gonna tell Ma you said that. Just because you wrote it out don't mean it don't count." Ava laughed, the sound a knife through the tension in the room. She couldn't help herself; it was so funny, so like her mother. Rafe's voice returned yet again, and he continued his tale.
"So, like Mom just rudely pointed out, we are still going to be a family. That said, we have come up against a slight complication. Buzz Cooper came to Mom's, Olivia's, suite today, and he beat the ever loving shit out of her. It's a long story, but basically he thinks Mom's the reason that his son and my Ma didn't work out, which is total crap, but it wouldn't matter if it were true. He hurt her, strangled her, and then-" The boy who was trying so hard to be a man suddenly lost his voice, and his breath hitched. He took an audible breath. "Yeah, then he tried to rape her. They stopped him, and Mom's here in the hospital, and she's fine! Banged up, but she's fine," his words geared more toward convincing himself than his audience. Distantly, Ava noted that he had stopped correcting himself when he called Olivia, her mother, 'Mom,' and she wondered if he had even realized it himself.
"Yeah, so, I know I just used up most of your machine, but she wanted you to hear it from family, and right now I'm the only family here to tell you." He paused again, and she heard him speak to the side again, saying he'd be right back, heard a door open and shut.
"Look, I tried finding a number in her phone here for Sam, but she told me not to call him because she didn't think he'd want to hear about another mess she'd gotten herself into. I call bullshit. You call that uncle of yours and tell him to get over his shit, whatever it is. She misses him, has missed him for a long time now, and it's time he came home to the woman who was more mother to him than he apparently ever deserved. And yeah, I don't know the whole story, but I know enough, and what I do know is that she raised him and loved him, did her best, and he cut out on her when the going got tough. She's not perfect, no one is, but she could use you both right now, so think about it, ok?"
He took a breath, and then spoke again. "Or maybe don't call him. I don't want him to decide not to come home and hurt her even more. Just- I don't know. She wanted you to know so you wouldn't worry. She doesn't expect you to come, and if you don't, that's fine, because she's got a family here that loves her plenty. Don't do her any favors if you aren't going to stick around when she's better." Click.
The kitchen was flooded with silence, and then the sudden clumping of feet as the barbeque that had been about to begin canceled itself in the form of fleeing guests, escaping the impending wrath they knew was about to spew forth from one Ava Peralta. From his spot at the table, where he'd sat holding the phone, their tenuous connection to the most fragile and most uncorrupted member of their family, Sam looked up, the tiny bit of technology cradled in the paw of his hand looking obscenely puny given the weight of what it represented. Ava opened her mouth, the vitriol ready to fly unchecked into the air around her, when suddenly, she was interrupted.
"Buzz? Uncle Buzz hurt my mommy?! But- but why?!" The pain and profound lack of understanding in Emma's voice sapped Ava of whatever she'd been about to say, and she rushed to Sam's side, hunching over his shoulder to talk to her little sister.
"Baby girl, I don't know, but it's gonna be ok, alright? I'm gonna get some things together here and I'll be on a plane by tonight, on my way home to take care of you until Mommy's all better, ok?"
"Me, too, Emma," Sam piped up, having finally found his voice after Rafe's accusations had pierced his façade so entirely. Shaken to the bone, he had been unable to shield Emma from the story unrolling out over the answering machine, and the guilt gnawing at his insides now promised no good for his rest later.
There was a long silence, and then Emma spoke. "Don't bother." Her voice was hard, unlike anything they'd ever heard from her before. "I've got Natalia and Rafe. They'll help me take care of Mommy. You should have been here already, but you weren't, just like Rafe said. I have to go." And with that, the phone disconnected, leaving two matching green-eyed stares to gaze unseeing at the phone that had once spoken to them with the voice of Emma Spencer, but that had ended by sounding unlike any Spencer at all. That coolness, that icy rage all trapped in a seething bundle of hurt? That had Spaulding written all over it.
Sam looked up at Ava. "We need to hurry. Little girl's about to go postal."
Doris pondered the truly unbelievable state of her complete and utter fucked-ness for five whole seconds as Natalia Rivera, saint of the upper Northeast, resident angel of mercy and general doer of good, stared her down with murder in her eyes.
"Who. The fuck. Was it, Doris?" Sheeeyit! And now she'd dropped the f-bomb, which was second only in devastation to the a-bomb in the minds of good-natured, non-swearing folk like Natalia. Frantically, inner-Doris flicked the switch to Mayor Wolfe back and forth, but the lights were out and nobody was home. Doris was on her own here.
Suddenly, there was a pounding of feet, a staccato rhythm beating its way from the interior of the house to the kitchen, from there to the door, blowing through it like a hurricane in brightly colored puma sneakers.
"Ma!" Neither woman missed a beat.
"Yeah, baby?" Natalia whirled and knelt to the floorboards, her eyes betraying no sign of the death and mayhem they'd promised seconds ago.
"I need you to get me Mommy's gun. Uncle Buzz hurt her, and I have to go kill him for it." It was spoken in the most matter of fact, practical way, as if it had been followed by an, "Oh, and then we should go by the toy store, because I really want that new Barbie." Doris had been scared before; she was fucking petrified now and strangely proud. Look at her, just like her mommy skittered randomly through her mind.
All thoughts, however, stopped entirely when Natalia's eyes swiveled back to spear her own. "Buzz? Buzz Cooper?" Doris said nothing, her mouth gaping open. Finally, she snapped her jaw shut with a click, and meekly shrugged, her head jerkily nodding once to indicate the affirmative answer Natalia sought.
The latina turned back to the little girl in front of her. "Emma, don't worry about killing Buzz. I'm going to take care of that, and what I have in mind will be much, much worse."
Doris shifted uncomfortably on the hard wood of the kitchen chairs. Figures, she thought. Natalia would have severely unpleasant seating in the room with all of the catholic guilt artifacts staring down upon her. She repositioned herself again. Damn wooden chair. She hated sitting on wood. She preferred soft, padded seating, or molded plastic, maybe formed rubber. Not wood. She looked up at the sound of footsteps making their way into the kitchen.
"Ok," Natalia said. "I've gotten her calmed down. She still won't tell me how she knows what happened, only that she does know, and that she intends to kill her Unc- she intends to kill that man if she ever sees him again." Natalia swallowed. Her eyes skittered jerkily around the kitchen lighting on the surroundings just long enough to bounce off of them and land on the next item. "I don't know what to tell her. She seems satisfied that Olivia is ok, but she doesn't understand why we can't go see her. She's let go of it now, but she won't leave the issue on the table for long."
Doris watched Natalia as she crossed the room and sank into the chair on the opposite side of the table. Her normally caramel complexion was sallow and there were dark hollows under her eyes. Her cheeks looked sunken, and there was something in the broken sway of her shoulders that alarmed the normally aloof Mayor.
"Natalia. Olivia is ok. She's alive, banged up yes, but trust me- I saw her. She's very much the same cantankerous woman we've all grown to love." Natalia's eyes flicked to meet the mayor's blue eyes and there they sharpened and focused like a laser.
"Yes, I love her very much, as does the rest of our family. She doesn't need you to love her, too, Doris." Doris would later recall, upon retelling this story to enraptured audiences, that Natalia's warm amber eyes flashed a violent green as she glared at her rival across the table in the kitchen of the home she had once shared, and intended to share again, with the object of both their affections. They stared into one another's eyes, the lumbering elephant in the room finally acknowledged between them.
"That's the thing about it, Natalia. You can no more tell me not to love Olivia than I can tell you the same." Natalia inhaled through her nose, her heartbeat jack-hammering in her chest as Doris finally admitted, to the both of them, what it was that had really brought her rushing to Olivia's aid that, and every other day. "At the end of the day, though, her heart belongs to another, and is happier with that love than it could ever be with mine. And, because I love her, I want nothing more than her happiness, and her happiness is you."
The slender politician stood and walked to the door, arms crossed over her chest to hold in the pain she could not, would not show to the woman who'd, seemingly without even knowing it until after the fact, gotten the one thing she'd always craved: a chance at a real love. "So, to paraphrase Goethe, what business is it of yours if I love Olivia? I would never cause her pain, and to deny her you? In any form, that would only bring pain."
She turned to look out the window cut into the door, the quaint square-paned glass reflecting her own image inside a home where she felt would always be at best a guest, and never a member of the thriving family within. "But I always make good on my promises, Natalia, and I promised both your son and your- well, your Olivia- that I would come here and keep the world at bay long enough for the storm to blow over and Olivia to come home. And I will."
She turned her face back to the table, ready to make some disparaging, self-deprecating remark, but was brought up short when she saw Natalia's visage. The younger woman sat, eyes closed, tears tracing lines of agony down her face, her hands clenched together in front of her. Her brow was furrowed and her back was ramrod straight, and she looked for all the world like a praying penitent ripped from Rodin's Gates of Hell. "Natalia, what are you doing? Are you alright?"
The seated woman's eyes opened, releasing another silent wave of tears down salty-tracked cheeks. "I'm thanking God, Doris. I'm thanking Him for protecting Olivia and bringing her safely through her ordeals alive, and I'm thanking Him for my son, my daughters, my family, my life, and for the reminder He has sent to me in the form of a good woman who wears her cynicism like an invisibility cloak."
"You already thanked him for Olivia, Natalia. That's twice now."
Natalia shook her head slowly. "I wasn't talking about Olivia, Doris. I was thanking Him for you." With that, she stood, walking to the pantry. "I'm going to make some pasta for dinner tonight. I hope you like Ragu, because I don't have time to make it from scratch, and Emma likes it better than my homemade sauce anyway. Do you have any special dietary needs?" Ever aware of having raised a diabetic child, Natalia never assumed anything when it came to food.
"You got any scotch?"
Dinner had gone smoothly, and Doris had been amazed at Natalia's deft efficiency in the kitchen. No wonder Olivia always let her cook; she'd been to the Spaulding Mansion before when Olivia had still been the resident Queen Bitch. She'd seen what the beautiful woman could do to a kitchen, and she knew how little Olivia ever cared to clean up after herself if she could avoid it. She cast her eyes over the counter and stove tops from her seat in the wooden chair (now padded with a throw pillow from the couch). Nary a speck of food, filth or grime was to be seen, and that was impressive, considering Natalia had just made spaghetti and meatballs for them.
She looked back down at her empty plate, a "victory plate" as Emma had proclaimed it. Rafe's influence, Natalia had stated. Her belly was full. The murmur of conversation between mother and child sitting around the table next to her warmed her ears. Her mind was calm, buoyed by the combined relaxations found in the effortless inclusion of her present company and the hefty sampling of Glenlivet from Olivia's personal stash. It had been left over from the hasty retreat she'd made from the home she'd hoped never to leave. Doris looked up, her gaze unfocused as she suddenly suffered a rather painful epiphany. This was what she was giving up by staying in the closet. No amount of political clout, no courtroom win, no mayoral recognition had ever, ever made her feel so
"Aunt Doris?" She blinked, her reverie shattered, and brought her eyes back down to meet green eyes, eyes that earlier that day had been the bright viridian of unshaded Irish grass, but which now held the deepening shadows of a lengthy day, the dusk of innocence approaching. It made her want to cry, what those eyes had seen today. She cleared her throat over the lump and responded.
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry for interrupting you and Mama earlier. I was really mad, and Mama told me that I can't just go around interrupting people and trying to kill bad guys." She stopped, and Doris sat unmoving for a moment, until Natalia's subtle tilt of the head told her she was expected to have a response to that.
"Ah, well- thank you for the apology, Emma. That's very grown-up of you. I understand that you were upset today and that is a very good reason to want to hurt someone. But, I will tell you this," she leaned closer. "Little girls aren't meant to chase down the bad guys. That's for us old adults to do. Your job is to be young and happy, and to watch movies and feed the ducks, and to love your mommies. So," she sat back and extended her hand. "Do we have a deal? You'll be the little girl, and me, Natalia and your Mommy will be the adults?"
Emma pursed her lips for a moment. "Does Rafe get to be an adult, too?"
"Absolutely not," Natalia said.
"Ok, then, deal!" She grabbed Doris's hand and pumped it twice, the happy grin rounding her cheeks and sparkling in her laughter almost hiding the fact that the shadows had not left her eyes. She ran from the room, calling over her shoulder that she was going to finish her homework, and then they were all going to watch a movie.
It wasn't until almost a full minute later that she realized it. "She called me Aunt Doris." She turned a stunned expression to face Natalia, who was wearing a rather astounded look herself.
"Yeah?" Natalia arched her brows. She called me Mama."
Natalia finished tidying up the kitchen from dinner, puttering around and listening absently to the sounds of her daughter- she called me Mama- and Doris in the next room watching Shrek. She smiled as peals of laughter rolled through the open hallway. Doris had never seen the movie, and was obviously enjoying herself. She was very good with Emma, a fact that had managed to surprise the Latina. Then again, Doris had a daughter, a very precocious daughter, and spending time with Emma was probably as wonderful for her now as it had been for Natalia when she first met the little girl. Emma was such a joy, and had always been able to touch that part of the darker woman she'd thought had been lost when Rafe got older- the part that was mother to a young child. She felt her smile fade.
Emma had shown true darkness today. Natalia had never imagined that the day might come when her sweet, angelic little girl would regard her with the eyes of the woman who'd done her best to destroy her second chance with Gus when she'd first come to town. That woman had been cold, hard and merciless, ice cold in both beauty and deed. Today Emma's eyes had not been the warm, ochre green of a fresh spring day, but rather the frozen, wintry steel of jagged cut emeralds.
She had truly been that old Olivia's daughter today, and Natalia wanted to die of the shame of it. She knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Olivia didn't want her at the hospital because she didn't want to, once again, be that broken woman in the white sheets, waiting for God, mercy and medicine to piece her back together again. Pride was Olivia's greatest strength and her greatest weakness. There was a part of her that Natalia suspected would never truly be comfortable with being weak, with being needy.
Fortunately for them both, prideful though she was, Olivia was also unfailingly honest. Though she had hated herself for it every time, she had never once hesitated to reach out for Natalia's help when she truly knew she needed it. That honesty, that willingness to concede her need, her desperation, in the face of the largest pride God had ever seen fit to place in a single woman's body, had been the building block that was the keystone of the foundation that brought them together.
Natalia knew that Olivia did not want to be seen as weak, but that she would also be dying for Natalia's eyes to rest upon her, so that they would both be able to see, to really see, that the monster under the bed hadn't stolen away the essence of the person they'd come to cherish. Olivia hadn't wanted her to stay away because of pride alone. Olivia knew her better than anyone. Olivia knew that this, this thing, this beast of a man who had done this to her love, her heart would now have no defense against Natalia. Olivia knew her, knew her loyalty, her frailty, her strength and her courage, but more than that, Olivia knew her anger.
And Natalia was angry. She was so angry that the stars in the sky above her all the way down to the tiniest drops of dew in the grass glittered red with ruby rage, dripping like blood across her willpower and her sense of right and wrong. In the moment that she'd heard what had happened, the second that she'd been able to reconcile the perilous feeling of doom and dread by which she'd been overcome that day with the events that had caused it, Natalia had become a woman of nine commandments.
Olivia knew her anger like no one else, but Olivia also knew her guilt like no other. Olivia would have known, just as she had known what she felt for Natalia so long before the other woman had been able to name it herself, had known what Natalia herself was feeling long before the first inkling skittered across her frightened psyche, she would have known that Natalia was capable of a rage so pure, so sweet in its gnashing agony, its clarity, that she would be able to take another's life. Olivia wanted her distance not just for her pride, but for Natalia's soul as well, for, although the Latina now knew that she would be capable of murder, she also knew that it would destroy her to fulfill that dark, hungry urge.
And then, she thought of the little girl sitting in the next room, and a deep, drowning shame filled her. The stain she would always feel on her own soul for what she was capable of doing now was enough to mar her conscience for life, and she knew she would carry the black mark with her to the grave. Emma, though; Emma had been a soul as pure as angel lights, mischievous and frolicking, never more deadly than a fickle sprite in the woods who would hide your lunch from you just to watch you look for it.
That had changed today. Today, Emma had, like Natalia, painted a great black slash across her soul. Natalia braced her hands on the table in front of her hanging her head as a single tear seeped from her eye and ran down the bridge of her nose, hanging precariously for just a moment before splashing onto the scarred wood beneath her palms. She was so young, so pure, and she was the one thing Olivia had managed to keep pure in her life. It had meant so much to the older woman, the knowledge that her daughter would enter the world an unblemished thing, like a rose growing from the deepest mire, unexpected and radiant, and good.
Natalia knew that it was just a bit selfish, the way Olivia had prided herself on that, and that it spoke highly of Olivia's own dark perceptions of herself, that she would see in the mirror the shit from which a pure, untouched blossom would have to rise, but she knew that it was also about Emma, about giving her the unfettered goodness that none of them had ever really known. The desire to keep her innocence whole was a promise they'd all silently made to one another, time and time again, every time something happened, to Olivia, to Phillip, to the world, and they had been succeeding! It had been working, Goddammit!
Natalia cast guilty eyes at the swear jar, but then firmed her lips into a hard line. No, she thought. You earned that one. There is no purpose to this, no great lesson to be learned. Whatever suffering the rest of us have incurred, that child has done nothing, and yet you punished her with the rest of us. The whispered proverb, the sins of the father, hissed through her mind, but she closed her heart against it. Whatever sins Olivia may have committed in her life, they were committed against her first.
Natalia looked skyward. Blame her all you want, father, but I'm right and you know it. You were unfair to do this. You were not just. You were not righteous. You were not-
Natalia jumped, jerked her head around to see what had made the soft noise. She saw it immediately. Doris's purse had tipped over on the counter, the oversized bag unbalanced by the large amount of random bric-a-brac floating about inside it. And there, spilling forth from its belly was a white ball of fabric, swaddled up around itself and bundled into the tote. Natalia reached for it, compelled by some unseen force to see it unraveled, curious beyond all description to see what had found its way into Doris's safekeeping.
As she unrolled it, as her eyes fell upon the cracking, ruddy brown stains of blood, seeped and smeared across what she recognized now as her son's shirt, she felt the world shift beneath her feet, felt the lights go dim, and as she smelled the tang of Olivia's dried lifesblood in her kitchen, she felt the crescendo of purpose, intent and deed come clapping together inside of her, erupting in a primal scream the likes of which no other, human or animal, had made before or would again.
Dimly, she registered the pain as she fell to her knees in her kitchen, clutching the sullied shirt to her heaving chest, gasping for breath through her shredded throat, her eyes wide and unseeing as she saw Olivia in her mind's eye, pale, bloodless, dying, and she could not live one more moment in this agony.
Doris exploded into laughter again, cheering as Princess Fiona neatly handed Robin Hood and his men their asses on a silver platter. Beside her, Emma grinned, her eyes sparkling merrily. "Just wait," she said. "The dragon is my favorite!"
Doris turned to ask her what she meant, when suddenly a tearing, viscous, oozing sound started in the kitchen, building in a wave of harsh anguish until it exploded into fireworks of audible rage and despair. Wide eyed, she and Emma could only stare into the hallway leading to the room from whence it had come for long, unblinking moments, the merry sounds still coming from the television doing nothing to appease the disquietude permeating the entire farmhouse structure.
"Shit," Doris breathed, eyes glued to the opening of the kitchen.
"Swear jar," Emma reflexively replied. They sat a moment longer, then Doris turned to the little girl. "I'm going to go be an old adult and help your Mama, ok? I need you to stay in here, and trust that I will take care of her. I don't want you to come in there, ok?"
Emma looked at her quietly, stubbornness in her eyes, but then nodded. "You'd better hug her, though. Mama likes hugs."
Doris tilted her head in acknowledgement of the statement, then headed into the kitchen.
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