DISCLAIMER: I do not own Guiding Light or the characters therein depicted. I do not seek to profit from this story. This is an AU story--based on a drabble I posted in February--that splits off from the "I can trust you with my life!" scene on 2/16/09. All canon after that does not exist in this story. Also, the Phillip Spaulding that returns in this story is still bat-shit crazy and evil. Graphic depictions of love between two consenting adult women are contained within, obviously, but not for a while.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I tried to remain as close to character as humanly possible but as I have only seen YouTube clips of Otalia and no full episodes, I cannot guarantee the results. I should have mentioned this before. I know that this is not canon, but I have chosen to place Springfield in Ohio, mostly to make my research life that much easier. Yes, I am obsessive about my research, which is why Natalia was able to make it to Overland Park, KS in one night to be present for it's sunrise at 6:54am (7:54am Springfield time) on 2/23 (roughly when chapter 2 took place). No, really. I looked all that up. And more. I'm that much of a fact geek. Sad, but true.
THANK YOU: To Meg and Destini for beta-ing this story, to DJ Shiva for her valuable input and to Tiff, who solved all of my plot problems with me the other night. All of you are rock stars!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Hide Beside Me
OVERLAND PARK, KS
Emma says "I'm sleepy, Mom," but she says it quietly. No whine, no dramatics. I look down and my 8-year-old has purple smudges under her eyes. Her face is drawn and pale in the horrifying fluorescent light from the street lamp above us. She's too young to look like I feel and my heart breaks for her. For both of us.
"I know, Em," I say softly, my eyes darting between her and the empty, darkened street. I'm still looking, always looking for Phillip even though we've been here a week without incident. "You can lie down in the laundromat," I tell her. She looks dubious about that but doesn't argue. I know it's horrible that I've dragged her out of bed before dawn but I told you that I'd be at a laundromat with a name beginning with S on the tenth day and I want to be there when it opens. I didn't sleep at all last night. I'm carrying every piece of clothing Emma and I own at this moment--and the linens from our bed in the motel, too--in four pillow cases, hoping that it will last me at least a few hours. It's been a long time since I threatened to do the laundry, but I'm reasonably sure that what I have won't take more than two hours. I wonder how we're going to pass the time until you get here.
If you come.
I can't think like that.
I've been a wreck for the last week as it is. With no sleep and nothing but caffeine in my blood stream, the possibility that you won't show makes my heart pound and my hands sweat and, oh God, I think I'm going to throw up again.
I lean against the gray stone wall of an abandoned repair shop and pray for my insides to stop churning. Emma tugs on my sleeve urgently, asks me if I'm okay. I take a deep breath and try to reassure her, my voice thick with bile. I pray she won't notice that I'm about three minutes from a complete fucking breakdown. I pray you'll have come to your senses and gone on with your life while simultaneously praying you'll have gotten to the laundromat before us and I don't care if that doesn't make any sense. I pray God will forgive me for what I'm doing and I pray He'll forgive me for loving you the way I do, even now, in spite of everything.
My nausea passes and I shepherd Em around the corner. Down the street I can see the golden glow from the window of Sunshine Suds. I sigh with relief. Almost there. My steps quicken and Emma tries to keep up but she stumbles and falls into me and I have to bite my lip to keep from saying something sharp to her. As I get her righted, brushing imaginary dust from her coat, I am overwhelmed with guilt and I kiss her forehead. It's not her fault that I'm insane and I have to remember that she doesn't really know what's going on, why we're hiding out in a motel in Kansas of all places. Why we're going to a laundromat before daybreak. Why we're going to a laundromat at all. I don't think she's ever been in one. I wonder, close to panic, if there'll be a snack machine so I can at least feed her. Something. Anything.
There's no one in the laundromat except its owner, a fat Armenian man who doesn't smile when we come in. Disappointment that you're not there nearly swamps me but the place is well lit, warm, and smells of detergent and scorched cotton. I feel strangely comforted. It even has a snack machine but I'm suddenly too tired to care. I herd Emma towards a row of molded plastic chairs but I know they are too rigid and too small to be comfortable. I drop the pillowcases on a folding table and grab one of the shiny laundry carts parked haphazardly in the middle of the room. I pull it over to where Emma's sitting, strip off my coat, and lay it in the bottom. Then I bunch my scarf and hers into a makeshift pillow.
She's leaning into me, one arm wrapped around my thigh, and I turn to pick her up, stopping myself just before I do. I can't even pick up my own child. My sweet baby girl. An angry, stinging lump rises in my throat as I stand her up on one of the wobbly turquoise chairs. She wraps her arms around my neck and lays her head on my shoulder like she used to when she was a toddler. She's so thin, so fragile in my arms. It terrifies me.
"It's okay, baby," I whisper, helping her into the cart. It's a monstrous bassinet, a perversion of what she needs, and I am fast becoming unglued. "You can sleep in here while I do the laundry," I tell her, rushing to get the words out before my tears come. "Mommy's right here."
She says nothing, only nods and curls onto her side. She's so listless, so lifeless...and I know it's more than exhaustion. I know I'm doing this to her, but I can't let Phillip have her. I don't know what's worse for her suddenly--life on the run or a life with her father--and I am desperately holding back sobs when the laundromat owner approaches me, shuffling toward me on perennially sore feet, holding a blanket out to me.
"Is clean," he says, lifting it so I can see. "Someone left."
I take it and tears start streaming down my cheeks. It's soft and thick, the color of melted coffee ice cream, and I cover Emma with it, tucking the edges around her just like I used to at the farmhouse.
"Thank you," I tell the man, my voice broken. I cannot stop my tears.
"Your man...he beat aghjik?" He gestures at Emma but I'm confused by the word. He blinks slowly and frowns, converting his language to mine. "Beat...girl?" His small eyes are alert, concerned. "Beat you?"
It's as good a story as any and close enough to what's going on... I know I won't be able to explain the truth to him and it's better if I don't anyway. I nod and wipe my face. He frowns again and I wonder how many versions of this story he's witnessed in this place. He seems defeated by the confirmation and also vaguely disapproving, as if wondering why we Americans think beating our wives and children is acceptable behavior. I wish I'd been a good enough person before to wonder the same thing.
"Someone...coming for?" He gestures at the two of us with a disconcertingly graceful wave.
"Yes," I say, too quickly. It's the only thing I'll let myself believe at this point. If you don't come today, I know we'll be lost. Emma and I, we're not suited for this. Phillip will find us, take Emma, destroy me, and I'll be powerless to stop him. You're the superhero, remember? We're the mere mortals.
The man nods. "Good," he says, reaching into his pocket. He presses something into my hand and shuffles away. I look down to find two butterscotch candies wrapped in crinkly, golden cellophane and I laugh as I cry because now he reminds me of you, of the goodness you find in every situation, of the way you draw angels out of the woodwork just when you need them most.
I remember the last time I saw you: through the driver's side window of my car as Emma and I drove away from the farmhouse nine days ago, going "on vacation" as far as the rest of Springfield knew. You were smiling, waving. A brave face for Emma but I could see the worry in your dark eyes. It matched mine. Driving away from you--terrified I would never see you again--was the hardest thing I have ever done. Until the waiting started. I haven't even told Emma about you coming today because what if you...
What if you don't?
I can't think like that.
I distract myself by remembering the day you told me Phillip Spaulding was back in town. As if that will help.
You grasped my hands in yours again and looked up at me with those big, brown eyes. "I am making sense, I promise. And I'll explain how I know that...someday. But for right now, do you trust me?"
"With my life," I whispered, not even needing to think about it. "With Emma's life. You know that."
"I'm not going to let anything happen to your little girl. Not ever. Just trust me a little while longer, okay?"
Three hours later, Emma and I had reservations at the Briarwood, you and I had a plan, and I was at the bar at Towers telling Remy and Christina--and anyone else who asked--that Emma and I just really needed to get away for a few days, to let the police do their job without us getting in the way.
The next morning you helped us put our bags in the car, gave me five thousand dollars in cash that you refused to answer questions about, and stood on the porch, waving as we drove away.
I haven't seen you or spoken to you since but that realization doesn't penetrate the frozen numbness that is the only thing holding me together at the moment. What if something happened? What if you're not coming because Phillip, that paranoid, suspicious bastard, figured out what we were doing and he has you and you're--
I squeeze my eyes shut against the images of your frightened eyes, of Phillip--enraged--towering over you, of all the twisted things he's capable of doing...
I can't think like that!
I force my eyes open. The light of the laundromat is garish and painful. I force myself to breathe, force my jaw to unclench. I force the images of you from my mind.
Eventually I look up at the clock. We haven't even been here an hour. Both loads of our laundry are already in dryers and I am counting Emma's breaths to keep myself from looking at the damned door every three seconds. A black woman in cinnamon-colored scrubs is doing her laundry in the corner. Every once in a while she steals a look at us, pushing her braids out of her eyes. I can tell she's weighing whether or not she should do something but it's clear neither one of us knows what. There's a packet of lemon cookies from the snack machine in front of me. I don't know why I bought them; I can't even think about food. I tell myself I'm saving them for Emma for when she wakes up even as I methodically crush one under my thumb. Lemon cookies are healthy, right?
There's a smudge of gilded haze outside and I realize that it's the sun rising. I don't want to look because there's a hollow ache in my chest where you should be and I don't want to see the sun rise on this day if it means you're not coming.
But I lift my head and look anyway...
Right into your eyes.
OVERLAND PARK, KS
The lights from the car flash across a small green sign that welcomes me to Overland Park, Kansas, "A Top Ten City for Women," and I thank God for His mercy. This could have gone so wrong, could still go wrong. I glance at the clock over the radio. Pale green numbers declare it 7:33am but I know it's not that late. I subtract an hour for the time zone change and the darkness outside makes more sense now. I do some quick math, figure I have about three hours to find you and Emma and get us back on the road before I'm missed at The Beacon and the calls start.
Of course, the calls will all go to the cell phone I left on the kitchen table at home.
Home. I miss the farmhouse, I do. But it's safe. I made arrangements. Risky, maybe, but that's my house. My first house and I'll be--be darned to heck before I let someone else get their hands on it, let someone take it away from my family. I had to put my trust in Jeffrey and that was hard, considering. But I do trust him. He's a good man, like Frank. I thank God for good men right now because so many aren't.
And although I never thought I'd say this, I also thank God that Rafe's in prison right now. Jeffrey promised to check in on him as often as he could and I know Frank won't let anything happen to him, no matter how upset with me he might get. But that's that. I can't drag Frank into this and I can't let you and Emma do this alone. Maybe one day he'll understand why I had to do this. I almost wish I could call him, just to say goodbye properly. But that's not possible now. My son is safe and we'll do our best to protect Emma, too. Nothing else matters.
I look at the two pre-paid cell phones sitting in the passenger seat and thank God for them, too. Since I'm praying anyway. Today's technology certainly makes a lot of what we're going to have to do easier than I remember it. I imagine that it will make it harder, too, and I worry we might be cut by a double-edged sword because I'm not familiar enough with some of these gadgets to know better. I'll have to ask you about it when we have time.
I reach for the Google maps pages I printed last week and flip to the first laundromat on the list: Sawyer's Self-Wash. I don't want to pull over to read the map because I'm so exhausted, I'm afraid I'll fall asleep if I stop moving. But it's too dangerous and I don't know exactly where I am and if I get pulled over this could all be over before it starts and I won't risk Emma that way. So I pull to the side of the road and park next to a parking meter, resisting the urge to get out and drop a quarter into it.
I shake my head, confused. I still want to be the good girl, the one who does the right thing, but you and Emma need me to be something else right now, something more complicated, less clear-cut. But still good. There is no doubt in my mind that I am doing the right thing. Phillip Spaulding is everything you feared he would be. It's in his eyes; they are empty of everything but rage. I shudder just thinking about his eyes.
They kept him in that cell for exactly 48 hours. Not one minute more. I almost didn't have enough time to--but I did and thank God you hadn't checked out of the Briarwood yet! Frank called me as soon as Phillip was released, to let me know he and his lawyers were on the way to The Beacon. I'm pretty sure Phillip expected to find you panicking. I'm pretty sure he expected to find you, period. I wish you could have seen his face when I told him you were out of town. Well, no I don't, actually. I was frightened of what he might do and there were witnesses! He demanded to know where you were, when you'd be back. When I told him, he called the lodge right in front of me to see if I was lying! They must've told him you were there but unavailable because when he closed his phone, he looked very...pensive. Like he'd underestimated you--which, of course, he had. He ordered me to contact him as soon as you called in for your messages and threw a business card on the counter. It was crisp, new. It said "Phillip Spaulding, CEO, Spaulding Enterprises, Inc." I remember thinking Well, that didn't take long. It also explained why I hadn't seen Alan yet. I had expected him to come gloating to you about Phillip returning, but I guess he had other things on his mind.
But the best thing, Olivia, the best thing is that Phillip forgot all about me, dismissed me completely from his mind almost as soon as he turned around. Everything depended on him doing exactly that and he did! I guess no one told him that we lived together. They forgot to because I keep my head down, stay out of the spotlight. No one remembers me or what I do, what I know until it's too late. It's the only reason I've made it this far.
What am I doing? I can't stop now. I've got to find you, make sure you're okay. You and Emma.
Where am I? Mission Road? Sawyer's Self-Wash is on Santa Fe but Sunshine Suds, according this, is closer. On West 95th. And Squeaky-Kleen Coin Laundry is between them. I bite my lip, wondering what to do. What would you do? It's amazing how many times I've asked myself that question this past week. I look at the three maps, wondering which one. Which one did you choose?
"Sunshine Suds," I decide, finally. It's closer. And it sounds happy. You'd go there for Emma's sake.
The horizon is getting lighter as I navigate through the sleeping suburbs toward yet another shopping center. There are so many of them out here. It's different than Springfield. Lonelier. I pass a man jogging before work, sweat stains dark on his gray KSU sweatshirt. Across the street, a woman walks a tiny, ugly dog. She doesn't wave or greet the jogger, though they've probably lived in this neighborhood with each other for years. And as much as I hate it--my neighborhood in Chicago was more like Springfield than you'd think, with everyone in everyone else's business just as much of the time--this pervasive anonymity is exactly what we're going to need if we're going to stay ahead of Phillip for very long.
Suburbs. Crowds. Apathy. Anonymity. When you hear my plan, you're going to look at me like I've grown another head. But it makes sense to me and I know I can make it make sense to you. Besides, Emma won't ask as many questions, won't need to lie as much if we do it my way, and that's important to me. I don't want her growing up like me--always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always running, trying to stay one step ahead of whatever's behind her. Eviction, the heating bill, flu season. Her father...
I make a right onto 95th and scan the street for the number I need. My heart is beating so fast. I see the light from the laundromat before I see the sign and I make a hard right into the nearly empty parking lot, parking crazily, not caring about the lines for once. I run up to the plate glass window and look inside.
What if you aren't here? What if I picked the wrong one? What if--
You're there. You're there and I suddenly feel like I could fly. You're there and--oh my God--you look so sad!
You think I'm not coming. I can see it in your face and it hits me like a baseball bat to the back of my head. You think I'm not coming. Oh God! No, no, no--where's the door handle? Damn it!
You look up just as I figure out the door and you freeze, not believing what you see. Then I'm through the door and you're crying and I'm running to you, wrapping you up in my arms, holding you so tightly.
"I'm here," I whisper, over and over. "I'm here, I'm here, I'm here..."
"You found us." Your voice is small and tears stream down your cheeks. You look like you still believe you're dreaming. I realize you very well could be; you look dead on your feet. When was the last time you slept?
"I found you," I say, cupping your face in my gloved hands. Your eyes are wild and look straight through me. I'm desperate for you to see me. "Look at me, Olivia," I plead softly, resting my forehead against yours. I'm aware of the stares of the nurse in the corner and the man behind the counter and I don't want to make us any more conspicuous than we already are. I think I'm too late, though. "I'm here. It's okay." My eyes dart from yours to our surroundings, looking for Emma. I feel my insides unclench when I see her sleeping peacefully in a laundry cart.
I push you gently into one of the turquoise chairs, kiss your forehead absently. I pull Emma closer to us and lean over to kiss her, too, careful not to wake her. I strip my gloves off, touch her cheek. I've missed her so much, worried about her so much! As I ruffle her bangs, I notice how pale she is, how deeply she's sleeping. Something's wrong. I put my wrist to her forehead, half expecting her to be burning up, but her temperature feels fine.
I turn to you, a question in my eyes, but you're in no better shape than your daughter. I didn't expect this but I know I should have. I should have prepared you better, come to get you earlier. I'm so angry with myself! You weren't ready for this! You're not strong enough yet and Emma--
I turn back to her, stroking her ruddy cheeks, and realize that she's totally exhausted from taking care of you, from making everything okay for you both.
I want to weep. I want to scream and throw things. But we don't have time for that. I can't fix the last week but I can damn well do better now that I'm here.
And if God has a problem with the word damn then He can just--just--bite me!
I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I don't really mean that, I tell Him, apologizing. Please forgive me.
When I open my eyes, everything seems brighter, sharper somehow. I lean down to wake Emma while adjusting the plan in my head. "Em, honey?" I smile into her big, blue eyes as they flutter open. "Em, honey, I'm going to pick you up, okay?"
"N'talia?" she asks sleepily, rubbing her eyes. I lift her into my arms, blanket and all, and she hugs my neck limply.
"Yeah, sweetie, it's me. Come on, I'm going to put you in the car, okay? Liv," I say, and you look up at me blankly. "Can you get the laundry and bring it with you?" I keep my voice gentle but you're up off the chair as if it were electrified. "I'm going to put her in the car. I'm right out front."
I lay Emma in the back seat and cover her with the blanket again, watching you through the windshield. You're stuffing clothes and sheets into pillowcases blindly because you haven't taken your eyes off me. Are you so afraid I would leave you behind? Just the thought curdles my stomach.
Once Emma is settled, I come back into the laundromat to help you. The sun is fully up now and I'm starting to perspire in my coat but I can't tell if it's because it's getting warmer or if it's just all this adrenaline I'm suddenly swimming in.
I open the trunk and throw the pillowcases in on top of my suitcases and the duffel bag I know I'm going to have a devil of a time explaining to you. I slam the trunk shut and come to your side of the car to help you in. I crouch down next to you and take your hands in mine.
"I'm sorry," I say, hoping you can see the apology in my eyes, too. "I'm sorry I frightened you, Olivia. I'm sorry you were all alone for so long." I brush your bangs out of your eyes. "But I'll make it up to you. I promise, you won't ever have a reason to doubt me again."
You close your eyes briefly and when you open them, I see my forgiveness in them. You open your mouth to say something but you stop yourself just as quickly, then sigh, looking away from me. Shaking your head.
I squeeze your hands, trying to tell you it's okay if you can't forgive me quite yet.
I'll just work harder.
INTERSTATE 29 NORTH, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN ST. JOSEPH, MO AND OMAHA, NE
I think I'm drifting in and out of sleep. I'm not quite sure. The car is warm and quiet, everything seems normal, and then there's a turtle on the dashboard singing the theme from Gilligan's Island and I jerk awake with a gasp.
You're looking at me, puzzled, expectant. It takes me a minute to tell myself again that you're really here, that this is real. Then I realize you must've asked me something.
"What?" I ask, more sharply than I'd intended.
"I said when was the last time either of you ate? Or slept, for that matter?" You reach over and take my hand. "Olivia, you're scaring me."
Cue me getting a grip. I scrub sleep out of my eyes, sit up a little in my seat.
"I--I couldn't eat this morning. Only the coffee stayed down and I think that's because it was hot." I pat my coat pockets with my free hand. "I bought some lemon cookies for Emma at the laundromat for when she woke up. Where did I put them?"
You pull your hand away from mine and I miss the warmth immediately. More than I should. "I threw them out," you say, your voice growing cold. "Cookies for breakfast, Olivia? Really?"
There are three ways I can respond to that. I can get defensive and pissy because hey, I'm doing the best I can here and you can just--
But I don't want to put that kind of distance between us. Not now. Not after I just got you back.
I could cry. You would apologize immediately and tell me it's okay. Then you'd spend the next thousand miles beating yourself up for your unchristian attitude. Yeah, that's not gonna happen either. I refuse to manipulate you like that. I know you too well and this new leaf I've turned over is still really new. I don't trust myself yet.
That just leaves agreeing with you. Which I knew I was going to do anyway.
"You're right," I say sincerely. Because you are. Emma's a wreck because I'm a wreck and I should have done something about it. That's my job. I'm her mother and if I'm going to justify taking her from Phillip before he can take her from me again, I should be giving her a better existence, not a worse one. Cookies for breakfast is just one failure on a long list of them this week. I have to do better. I look at you, watch that muscle in your jaw twitch. You're still angry. "You're right, Natalia. I wasn't thinking. I promise I'll do better." The funny thing is, I really want to do better. I want you and Emma to be proud of me.
Please forgive me, I beg you in my mind. I need you too much.
You glance at me and I see your jaw unclench. I let the breath I'd been holding go.
"We'll stop and get a hot breakfast in a little while," you say softly, giving me a small smile. I return it. We're okay. Thank God.
"I still have most of the money left," I blurt, trying to be helpful. You nod.
"I know. I knew you would." You glance over your shoulder to check on Emma, to make sure she's still asleep. "It's good you still have that money, Olivia, but believe me when I tell you money really is the least of our worries. And before you ask, I'll explain later. After you've had some sleep and we can talk without...you know."
I'm not happy with that answer but I don't really have a choice in the matter. You're in charge. And you've taken to it like a duck to water, just like I always knew you would. I suddenly wonder why you were so resistant to it when I asked you to be my assistant all those months ago. Clearly, you're more than qualified.
You take my silence as agreement and move on to a different topic. "We'll stop in Omaha," you say, glancing at the clock on the dashboard, realizing it's wrong. You shake your head and I can actually see your calculations as you make them. It's fascinating to watch, this new Natalia. I wish I were more awake. "We'll find a hotel and I'll get you and Emma settled while I...take care of some things. We'll stay overnight. We could all use some sleep," you say tiredly.
You ain't just whistlin' Dixie. I'm so bone-deep exhausted I almost fall asleep in my scrambled eggs at the little diner we stop at in Craig, Nebraska. By the time we get to the Holiday Inn in Omaha, I'm practically comatose. I only hear half of what you say to the perky blonde at the desk--none of it makes any sense--and it doesn't even occur to me to protest when she calls you "Ms. Santiago."
You herd us all into a room on the third floor, throwing suitcases and pillowcases full of laundry on the little couch in the corner. You deal with Emma first, changing her out of jeans and sweater into clean pajamas. When you have her settled in one of the queen beds, you come to me and do the same, even helping me take off my boots. I try to stop you when start to tug off my jeans but I feel like I'm dream-walking. I'm not even half aware at this point. Your hands are a little cold but they feel so good. I make a little sound of appreciation before I can stop myself.
And then freeze, waiting for your reaction.
It's possible you don't hear it or maybe you don't recognize it for what it is. Either way, you ignore it and my short-lived, adrenaline-fueled wakefulness dies a quick, painless death. You gently push me into bed with Emma, who is already snoring lightly, her tiny belly full of pancakes, orange juice, and crispy bacon. I cuddle my little girl to me and the blackness of oblivion starts to drag me under. The brush of your lips across my forehead and your soft voice are the last things I'm aware of before I drift off.
"I have to go out for a little while," you whisper. "But I'll be here when you wake up. Rest now. I'll take care of everything."
My body clearly believes every word you say because I fall deeply, peacefully asleep for the first time in days.
I wake I don't know how many hours later to the glorious sound of my daughter's laughter, your giggling "Shhh..." and the heavenly smell of char-grilled beef and greasy fries.
"Hey, save some for me!" I cry, smiling even before I'm fully awake. Whatever makes the two of you happy makes me happy.
And whatever I'm smelling. That makes me happy, too.
I throw off my covers and realize too late that I'm wearing only my top, my underwear, and my socks. A hazy memory of you stripping me out of my jeans makes my cheeks burn. I shake my head to rid myself of the image and make a vow to undress myself from now on. It's safer for everyone that way. Then the smile slides slowly off my face. This--right now--is how we're going to be living for the foreseeable future. Shit. We're going to be living in hotels, out of suitcases, on top of each other all the--
Oh God, I didn't mean it that way! My cheeks burn hotter than before and now I have a whole slew of new and incredibly inappropriate images to dislodge from my pathetic brain.
I'm going to have to get used to these close quarters quickly. While somehow managing to keep my feelings for you to myself.
I take a deep breath. Well...no time like the present.
I pad across the room and join the two of you at the table. Emma looks...transformed. Her cheeks are full and pink, her eyes are bright, and she's laughing as she stuffs a ketchup-covered fry into her mouth. She's still in her pajamas, so I know she hasn't been up long either. I ruffle her unkempt hair, more relieved than I want to let on.
"Mommy, we're going to Mount Rushmore!" she tells me, excited.
I look to you for confirmation and you look hesitant, shy. Like the old Natalia. Like the one content to be only a maid. Before I can respond, I notice how pale you are, the dullness of your eyes. The purple smudges that had been under Emma's eyes this morning have moved to yours. I do some math of my own and realize you've probably been up for close to twenty-four hours.
"Well, that sounds like fun!" I say brightly, not taking my eyes from yours. You smile weakly, clearly relieved by my answer.
We're going to talk about this, of course. It's past time for me to get caught up on this plan of yours. But right now, I'm starving.
And this cheeseburger with extra pickles ain't gonna eat itself.
I sit on the edge of my bed in our hotel room, staring into space. I'm so tired I can't even think. I feel next to nothing, only a dull ache in my jaw and the rise and fall of my chest as I breathe. Everything else is just...blank.
I look at the alarm clock on the table between the beds. I've been up for twenty-seven hours now. No, twenty-eight. Time zone change.
You're in the bathroom with Emma, helping her get ready for bed. I can hear the shower running and Emma's indignant complaint about how you're washing her hair. You say something low in return--I can't make it out--and Emma goes quiet. Eventually, you turn the water off and a few seconds later you appear in the main room. Some of your hair is plastered to the side of your head. Your jeans and top are splattered with water and you look harried and annoyed. If I weren't so deeply exhausted, I would laugh. You look like you've been wrestling a wet pig.
"Her Majesty is brushing her teeth and getting dressed for bed," you announce, arching your eyebrow in that way that makes me so jealous. I've always wanted eyebrows like yours: so expressive, so...beautiful. You're smiling and I really want to smile back but I'm not sure I have the energy to do that and talk and we really need to talk while we have these few minutes of relative privacy. Little pitchers, big ears, right?
"I sold my car today," I blurt, staring at your left shoulder. Your posture changes from playfully casual to painfully alert in the space of a breath. You begin to walk toward me, your eyes filled with concern. I can tell even though I'm not looking at them, refuse to look at them. "Then I walked ten blocks and bought a new one with the money. A mini-van. Blue. Very domestic. They threw in a portable GPS because I paid cash."
You're crouching in front of me now, your hands resting lightly on my knees. "Natalia--"
"Let me finish," I beg, still staring where your shoulder used to be. "There are things you need to know before I-- I don't know how much longer I can keep my eyes open."
"Okay," you agree, your voice calm, inscrutable. You begin to take off my shoes and I don't even have the strength to stop you. You shouldn't be doing that. I'm supposed to be taking care of you.
"The five thousand I gave you before you left Springfield came from The Beacon's weekend deposits." Your hands stop what they're doing. I know you have that look on your face--the one that's half disbelief, half outrage. I know you do. "But I fixed that before I left. No one will ever know it was gone. I also fixed it so The Beacon stays yours. I put it in trust to Emma and left Jeffrey and Ava as co-executors." I can't look at you. I know you're going to hate me for what I did, for doing it without your permission, but I had to do it. I had to keep The Beacon out of Phillip's hands and this was the only way I could make that work. Tears pool in my eyes and spill down my cheeks. I can't move, not even to wipe them away.
"I told Jeffrey and Rafe what we're doing, but only them--no one else!" I feel sobs begin to climb their way up from the pit of my stomach and I try to gulp them down, force them back. You take me into your arms so gently, though, that I can't hold them back anymore. They spill out onto your damp shoulder, my tears darkening your top in new patterns.
"Shhhh... It's okay," you say softly but I shake my head.
"No, there's more!"
"Later," you say, rubbing my back in slow circles, rocking me like a child. "You can tell me later. And I promise everything's going to be okay. I won't be mad. I promise." You stop rocking me and pull back a little to look directly into my eyes. "That's why I blackmailed you into working for me...or don't you remember? 'Be my assistant or I'll die right here in front of you.' Ringing any bells?"
Your smile is the exactly the salve I need for my ragged emotions and I feel myself return it, though my face is hot and sticky with drying tears. You cup my cheek with your hand, wipe my tears away with your thumb.
"We'll talk. We will talk, Natalia. And I do need to know everything." Your eyes are serious and alert and I marvel at our ability to reverse roles so seamlessly...and not for the first time. How is it that when one of us is in need, the other one is always there? I don't think I'll ever understand it. "But it can wait until you've gotten some rest," you continue. "You've done enough today. Okay? Even superheroes need sleep."
I roll my eyes and smirk at you. "There you go again," I say. "Using words you don't understand." I mean it as a joke--to make you laugh--but you don't. Instead, you look at me with large, unreadable blue eyes. I think I see longing in them for just a second, but it disappears before I can be sure. Before I can ask you what's wrong, though, the bathroom door bangs open and Emma bounds into the room, stopping abruptly when she sees us.
"Mommy?" she asks, her eyes round with worry. I pull away from you and wipe my eyes, my face. I don't want Emma to see me like this.
"It's okay, Emma," I say quickly. "I'm just really tired from the long drive I had last night. You know how sometimes you get cranky if you're up past your bedtime?" She nods. "Well it's even worse for grownups! And I didn't get any sleep at all last night."
Emma frowns a little, concern beyond her years staining her eyes. "You should sleep then," she says, matter-of-factly. You roll your eyes at her.
"We're all going to sleep now," you say wearily. "Natalia, you take the bathroom first and I'll tuck Dr. Spencer here into bed."
I nod and grab my smaller bag, stealing away while you distract Emma from her curiosity. I lean against the door after I've closed it, wondering if it's possible to sleep standing up like this. I can't remember a time when I've been this tired. Not even when I was working three jobs just so I could afford that little studio I lucked into in Irving Park. God, I loved that apartment. But Rafe needed his own room and--
I look into the mirror and shake my head at myself.
"Do you really have so little to worry about right now that you need to relive worries from another life?"
I stare at my reflection, my expression impassive. I know I'll have to explain more than just what I've been doing for the past week when you and I finally talk. Just the thought nauseates me. I haven't thought about that time in my life for so long. It was all so carefully put away, so deeply buried, that sometimes I wondered if it really happened to me. I could have made it up, right? From bad TV when I was little?
But no. It's all back now. As if it never ended.
In some ways, I guess it never has.
I sigh and stuff my worry and fear back inside. It's not neat but it will have to do for now. I can't let Emma see me break down again, that's for sure. She's been worried enough about you as it is.
I wash up and change quickly, scolding myself for hogging the bathroom. You need it, too, of course. Sometimes I'm so oblivious!
I've just spit my toothpaste into the sink when I hear a soft knock.
You open the door just a crack, hesitant to intrude. "You okay?" you ask.
"Yeah," I sigh, wiping my mouth with my washcloth. "I'm sorry--I know you need the bathroom, too. I'll just--"
You shake your head. "No. No, I wasn't worried about that. I was worried about you." You're still holding onto the doorknob, leaning your head against the edge of the door. Your eyes are expressive now, filled with earnest concern and kindness. There's something else there, too, but it's fleeting...like the longing I thought I saw earlier. I wonder if you really are angry about what I've done with The Beacon and are just pretending everything is okay. For my sake. That worries me a little.
"I'm fine," I repeat, smiling ruefully. "Really. Nothing a good night's sleep won't fix."
You reach out and touch my shoulder, your hand resting there lightly. Your eyes are hauntingly blue and open and I can't help but gaze into them. I feel like I'm falling...or flying. I'm not sure which. Just before I figure it out, though, you blink and pull your hand away from me. Quickly, as if stung. I'm still looking into your eyes but they're different now. Shuttered. Darkened. Their light has gone out. Or has been put out.
"Good," you say, grinning a little too wide. "Then are you done in here? 'Cause I really have to pee..."
Something...something just happened there. What was it? You're being a smart-aleck...because you're uncomfortable. About what, Olivia? Did I do something?
Your eyes are begging me to play along. I don't know what else to do. I laugh but it's forced. "Aha! You weren't worried about me; you were worried about not making it in time!" Your grin turns sheepish but it's rehearsed. I've seen you do this...before. But never with me. Why are you doing it with me? "Well, come on! It's all yours. I'll let myself out." You stick out your tongue as you scoot past me and I shake my head at you, very confused.
I'm still wondering what on Earth that was all about when I turn around. Emma grins at me from her perch in your bed.
"You feel better, Natalia?" she asks.
No. I think I'm going a little crazy, actually. "A little," I reply, not wanting to worry her. "Still tired though. I hope I can fall asleep!"
She looks suddenly puzzled. "Why wouldn't you?" she asks.
I pull down the comforter and sheets on my bed and sit down. I think about how to answer Emma's question while twisting my hair up into a ponytail. I'm always careful when I answer her questions. You don't seem to realize it all the time, but she's quite the listener. She listens to and watches everything we do--and knows a lot more than we give her credit for. It won't take her long to figure out something's going on. If she hasn't already.
"Well, sometimes a person can get so tired that their body can't relax enough to fall asleep," I explain.
This is clearly new and interesting information. "What do they do then?"
"Sometimes, they just wait to fall asleep...no matter how long it takes. Some people take medicine to help themselves fall asleep. Some people count sheep. Some people read until they fall asleep. Whatever they find relaxing, I guess."
She's just about to ask me another question when you come out of the bathroom.
"Em, honey, let poor Natalia go to sleep, okay?" You've changed into some rose-colored plaid flannel pajamas that I've never seen before. Or at least, I don't think I have. For some reason, I always picture you wearing satin nighties to bed. Blue...but not navy or sky. Something in between, like the sea. To match your eyes.
"'But Mom' nothing. Lights out. We have a long drive tomorrow. Or have you forgotten about Mount Rushmore?" Whatever happened in the bathroom is gone; you've washed it away or covered it up. You're all business now. And I'm too tired to wonder about it anymore.
I uncurl myself and stand, leaning across the divide between our beds to kiss Emma goodnight. "I love you, cutie pie," I whisper, nuzzling her. She smells like hotel shampoo and spun sugar. "Que sueñes con los angelitos, chiquita."
"Y tu, Natalia," she responds, kissing my cheek. You watch from your side of the bed, indulgent adoration for your daughter showing plainly in your features.
"Done with all the mushy stuff now? Can we turn off the lights?" You raise one perfect eyebrow.
"Almost," she says, reaching over to kiss you goodnight, too. "I love you, Mommy."
You kiss the top of her head and close your eyes, savoring the moment. "I love you, too, Em. Bigger than the sky." You look up at me and smile and I know you're trying to thank me for being here with the two of you, for helping you keep her safe from Phillip. I hope you know how important being here for you is to me. Being here for both of you.
"Lights out," I say and I twist the little knob on the lamp on the bedside table. After a few seconds of rustling bedclothes and quiet negotiations from your side of the room, everything is quiet. Unnaturally so. There's no traffic sounds like in Chicago or house creaks and crickets like at the farmhouse to sing me to sleep. My skin feels tight and hot, as if I've been hooked up to an electric wire, and my brain will not stop spinning. There's so much to consider, so much to do. And you and I need to have a serious talk so that we're on the same page. Our success depends on that.
I sigh, reluctantly resigned to another sleepless night, when you whisper, "Em? Where are you going?"
She doesn't answer you but in the darkness I feel my bed dip slightly with her weight. "Natalia?" she whispers. "Are you having trouble sleeping?"
"A little bit, sweetie, but you don't--"
"No, Natalia, I know something that will help!" And softly, she begins to sing a lullaby that I used to sing to Rafe when he was a baby. I've sung it to her more recently but I had no idea she remembered it. Her little girl voice is slightly off-key but it's so sweet and so loving a gesture, my eyes fill immediately with tears. I pray it's too dark for her to see them.
"A la nanita, nana, nanita ella, nanita ella," she sings, her voice wobbling a little on the high note. "Mi niña tiene sueño, bendito sea, bendito sea..." She sings it all the way through for me, gently patting my hair, and I'm trying to pretend to fall asleep despite my tears. When she finishes, she leans over and kisses the top of my head. "Sweet dreams, Natalia. Love you." Then she slides off the bed and runs back to yours.
"You never sing to me," you whisper to her, mock-hurt. I can hear the tears in your voice, though, and mine fall harder.
"Oh, Mom," says Emma aggrievedly. I know she's rolling her eyes at you.
"I'm just sayin'," you continue as you two get settled again. I laugh quietly through my own tears and my heart fills up with so much love I feel it might burst.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, I pray, folding my hands together tightly. Please help me keep my...my family safe. I love them so much.
And though it's not right, just before I fall asleep, I add And keep that bastard Phillip away from them.
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