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
"Don't look now," said Buzz Cooper to his son, Frank, as he leaned over the mahogany bar of his little town grille. A puzzled grin pulled his mouth sideways. "But I think you have groupies." He raised his eyebrows and gestured toward one of the tables along the wall.
Frank Cooper wiped his mouth with his napkin and glanced over his shoulder to the table his father indicated. He frowned. Two girls sat there--one blonde with frizzy curls and one with shorter, darker hair and olive skin--conspicuously looking away from his general direction. The blonde, though, kept glancing nervously back at him. The dark one, he'd never seen her before, but the other one...
"They're from The Beacon," he said suddenly. The one he recognized was part of the senior staff. What is her name? he wondered. Cathy? He got up from his burger and started toward them. Carly?
"Cindy?" he asked, reaching their table.
The young woman's eyes went cold. "Cynthia," she corrected him, disapproval coloring her tone. But then she sighed uncertainly, staring at her hands wrapped around her half-empty glass of lemonade. "Detective Cooper...we have a problem."
Frank sat at the table with them uninvited, leaning toward the younger woman as if sharing a confidence, his features serious. "What can I do for you? Your boyfriend giving you some trouble?"
The dark-haired girl snorted her disbelief. Cynthia just stared at him blankly, wondering what had possessed her to come to this...this ridiculous man in the first place. She started to get up but the other girl stopped her.
"Cyn, we need his help. He knows her."
Cynthia angrily sat back down.
"Knows who?" asked Frank, his concern growing. "Maybe one of you should tell me what's going on."
The dark-haired girl and Cynthia stared at each other for a long moment, seemingly competing for control of the situation. So much was being said between them but with no words at all. Finally the blonde nodded once and the brunette turned to look at Frank, sighing.
"It could be nothing, okay? It's just that she scheduled this staff meeting herself yesterday and then she didn't show up for it. That's really not like her...but things happen, right? So we called her--"
"Wait, wait." Frank held out his hands as if to stop an onrushing train. "Who are we talking about here? And who are you in all this?"
"I'm Dennie--Denise Piola. I work at The Beacon with Cynthia. And I'm talking about Natalia--I mean, Ms. Rivera."
Frank sat forward, shocked. "What about Natalia?" he demanded, his voice measured and low.
"That's what we've been trying to tell you," interrupted Cynthia. She couldn't keep her exasperation out of her voice. "She never showed up to work today! She missed a staff meeting that she scheduled. And she's not answering her cell phone or the phone at her house. We've left messages, we've asked around. No one's seen her since she left the hotel last night."
Dennie added, "It could be nothing but--"
"No." Frank stood suddenly, looking a bit...lost. "No, you girls were right to come to me. It's...ah...probably nothing but I can check things out. Ride out to the farmhouse. See if everything's okay." He started to move toward the door but then stopped, remembering his training. "If I need to talk to you again, though, you'll be at the hotel?"
"We get off at seven," confirmed Dennie.
"Great. Thanks for... Just thank you." He caught sight of his father coming out of the kitchen as he grabbed his coat from the rack by the door. "Dad!" he called. "Dad, I've got to run out to the farmhouse for a minute. Stick by the phone, okay? Just in case!"
"Just in case of what?" called Buzz after him. But Frank was already gone.
"Come on, come on.... Pick up!" Frank took the corner into Natalia's long driveway a little wide, just missing her mailbox. He was on his cell phone and was very unhappy. "Natalia, honey, you've got some people worried about you out here, so when you get this message, call me. It's Frank." He flipped his phone shut as he drove up to the house, slamming on his brakes when he reached the parking patio. He hit a patch of ice and his cruiser slipped a little sideways, coming to a drunken stop. Natalia's car wasn't there.
Frank bolted out of his car and ran to the side door by the kitchen. He looked into the window but the kitchen was dark...and remarkably clean. No dishes on the counter or in the sink, nothing out of place. Except a cell phone lying on the table. He tried the door but of course it was locked.
"Dammit!" he swore. He kicked an empty planter next to a bench and ran his hands through his hair. He walked away from the door, wondering what to do. It wasn't like her to disappear like this. But she was also a grown woman who was more than able to take care of herself. She'd been doing it long enough. He went back and forth in his head, making equally solid cases for both breaking down the door and for waiting to hear from Natalia. In the end, it came down to what he could live with and, unsurprisingly, he could live with breaking in. He'd deal with the consequences later.
He went back to the door and gripped the knob, bracing his arm and shoulder against the muntins in the window. Three sharp thrusts and the lock succumbed, the door banging off the wall loudly. "Natalia?" he called, heading for the kitchen table. He scooped up the cell phone left there and powered it up. It was Natalia's, all right. It showed that she had 17 missed calls and that the last call she'd made out had been to Company the night before at 6:33pm. Had she forgotten her cell on the way out of the house? Where could she be?
He flipped open his own phone and called the station. "Hey, yeah, Mallet? Frank. Listen, do me a favor, will ya? Check with the local wrecker companies and see if Natalia's car has been towed recently, would ya? ... No, it's probably nothing but she doesn't have her cell with her and no one's seen her since last night. ... Check the hospital, too. Cover all the bases. ... Yeah, thanks. I will." He snapped the phone shut and went into the living room. It was as clean as the kitchen had been. Not a thing out of place. He knew Natalia had been a maid, but this was ridiculous. The house didn't even look lived in!
He headed upstairs to see if her room held some clue as to where she'd gone. Of course, he had no idea which of the four bedrooms was hers. He'd never been farther in the house than the stove. He started with the door at the top of the stairs which, when opened, revealed a pink and purple wonderland. Emma's room. As cluttered as it was with the little girl's prized possessions, it was neat. The bed was made, the books and papers on the tiny white desk were arranged neatly. There were no clothes on the floor or toys out of place. Although he had no personal experience with the rooms of eight-year-old girls, Frank thought there was something...off about this one. He couldn't quite put his finger on the problem, though, and he filed the feeling away for contemplation later.
He turned left and went down the hall. The only other door on this level opened onto what looked like the scene of a recent bombing. It was chaos! Clothing strewn everywhere, the bed unmade, the closet doors askew... Olivia's room. Suddenly his uneasiness about Emma's room clarified itself: it was too neat. For an eight-year-old in general but especially for the eight-year-old daughter of Olivia Spencer. Which meant that Natalia probably cleaned it for the little girl.
"Well at least Olivia doesn't make her clean in here," he muttered, closing the door on Olivia's room firmly. He decided he was going to have to have a talk with Olivia when he saw her next. It was one thing for Natalia to clean at The Beacon but quite another for the hotelier to make her clean her daughter's room at home. Natalia's home, at that. He shook his head and climbed the last set of stairs. The first door on that level opened into a very utilitarian room with a bed, a desk, a crucifix on the wall...and little else in it to identify it's owner. After a moment, it came to him: this was Rafe's room, for when he got out of prison. Natalia had provided the basics for her son, clearly intending for him to make it his own when he moved in. He smiled a little. It was a perfectly 'Natalia' thing to do.
The last door opened onto what under other circumstances would have been a palatial master bedroom. It was spacious and filled with light. There were a pair of French doors that led onto a beautiful, South-facing deck and a wall of floor-to-ceiling palladium windows. But the furniture didn't match the grandeur of the room. A small, efficient double bed with no headboard, covered in a colorful but worn quilt, seemed lost in the space. A mismatched chest of drawers and armoire stood along one wall; a standing mirror and a quilt stand--displaying another beautiful if a little threadbare quilt--stood along the other. A blanket chest kept watch at the foot of the bed while another crucifix, this one larger, more ornate, hung on the wall over the head of the bed. The only other thing in the room was a small table next to the bed that sat completely bare except for three photographs in frames. The first photograph was of Natalia and Rafe together. Rafe was a boy in the picture--no older than ten--and he grinned unabashedly into the camera. Natalia's smile, on the other hand, was less exuberant but no less beautiful and she shaded her eyes from the sun with her hand. Frank smiled at the photo; he couldn't help it.
The second photograph was of a very young Gus Aitoro. He looked no older than seventeen and Frank could see the resemblance between this young man and his son instantly. Gus wasn't smiling in the picture. In fact, he seemed to be looking away from the camera at something that had caught his eye unexpectedly. The frame around the photograph was a bit...banged up and the glass pane was dulled by scratches and nicks. Frank imagined they'd been acquired during Natalia's many moves. She had to have been carrying this picture around for years.
The detective sighed. How was he supposed to compete with a ghost? With this particular ghost--a man who was better looking than him, a better cop, a better person? Natalia had already had the best there was--why would she settle for him? After a moment, he shook his head and made an effort to stuff his insecurities down deep. He couldn't worry about things like that now. He needed to find Natalia. That's what was important.
The last photograph was one of Natalia with Olivia and Emma and he would have overlooked it if he had only glanced at it and had left it at that. But the glance led him to look more closely. The photograph had to have been taken recently because it had been taken on the front porch of this very house. It was of Olivia and Natalia standing shoulder to shoulder behind a gap-toothed Emma and it looked for all the world like a family portrait. Natalia and Emma were both grinning at the camera, Natalia's dimples prominent and gorgeous. Olivia, on the other hand, was gazing shyly at Natalia, a sweet smile on her lips and a rare light in her sea green eyes.
Why is she looking at Natalia that way? he wondered, frowning down at the photograph. It didn't make sense to him. I mean, I know they're close but...
But the photograph suggested something altogether different.
He'd heard the rumblings in town after Emma's presentation at the school but that was ridiculous... Wasn't it? Emma hadn't meant it that way and Natalia--her faith would never allow something like that! He grabbed the picture off the desk and scrutinized it intently.
Nah, he decided finally. Olivia's just a passionate person. Natalia must've done something nice for her or something. They're like sisters, that's all. Olivia's sister died and she's looking for someone to fill that part of her life again. Natalia never had a sister. She'd like having someone look out for her like that. Yeah, that's it. That's what it is.
Satisfied with his explanation, Frank put the photograph back where he found it and looked around the spartan but spectacularly neat bedroom again. The wheels in his brain started spinning faster. So they're like sisters... If Olivia panicked when she heard about Phillip Spaulding suddenly reappearing in Springfield, would Natalia have...
How would you know? This place is a museum... Think. What would she do only if she were going away indefinitely?
His mind screamed through scenario after scenario until something occurred to him. He bounded out of the room and down the stairs, taking them two at a time until he ended up back where he started--in the kitchen.
Natalia's frugal, he thought, remembering all those stories of her being a young, unwed mother trying to provide for Rafe on the combined salaries of a waitress and a hotel maid. If she were going away and she didn't know how long she'd be gone, she'd--
He ripped open the refrigerator door. It was empty. Dark. Room temperature.
She'd empty the refrigerator and turn it off. No waste, no spoilage, no unnecessary power drain...
"They're on the run," he said to no one in particular. Hearing the words aloud didn't make them any more believable. He slammed the fridge door.
"Dammit, Natalia! Why didn't you tell me?"
TOWERS RESTAURANT & BAR
"You bastard!" growled Rick Bauer under his breath.
"Hi, Rick. I'm well, thank you for asking. How are you?" Phillip Spaulding sat, utterly relaxed, at the table he'd requested. It afforded him a perfect view of more than half of the restaurant, allowing him to mark the comings and goings of Springfield as they visited a favored eatery.
"How am I? Frankly, Phillip, I'm pissed off. You have some nerve showing your face here again."
"This is my home, Rick. Where else would I be?" The blond man folded his hands in front of him. "Please sit down. I invited you for dinner, not a show." He removed his glasses and looked pointedly at the chair opposite him.
Rick snorted. But he sat. "You haven't changed," he observed.
"I have but I'm not surprised you can't see it. You, on the other hand... Springfield in general..." He shrugged lightly. "Nothing's changed here. It's still Hell on Earth."
"Is that any way to talk about your 'home'?" asked Rick sarcastically. The waiter arrived just then and Rick waved him away. He had no appetite whatsoever.
"Dr. Bauer will have the sea bass," said Phillip, handing his menu to the waiter. "And I'll have the filet. Rare." The waiter nodded and left. Phillip turned his gaze back to his friend. "Whatever Springfield is or is not, I can no longer deny that it is where I was born and where I belong. When I left, I was a still a victim of its cruelty, fighting its influence and making little headway."
"And now?" Rick sat uneasily in his chair. He had a bad feeling about this. Phillip had changed--and it made his skin crawl.
"Now, I intend to be its master."
Rick stared at the man who used to be his closest friend, who he used to trust implicitly...until the madness had set in and ruined it all. He thought once, even after all that, that there might be a way to get through to Phillip again, that there might be a way to pull him back from the brink. He was a doctor, after all. When there was a problem, he did everything he could to fix it. He never gave up.
Looking into Phillip's eyes now, he thought the man might finally be beyond his reach.
"Olivia was right about you," he said, shaking his head. "You're insane."
Phillip smiled politely at the waiter as he set their salads in front of them. "Ah, Olivia," he said, pleasantly. "How is the tired old barfly? I haven't seen her or my daughter since I've been back. They'd apparently rather ski than face a tender family reunion."
"She's probably terrified."
Phillip considered that carefully. "Perhaps," he acceded. "A more likely scenario involves her cozying up to Emma's ski instructor and a martini or three."
Rick shook his head. "No, you're wrong. Not Olivia. Not now."
"Are you telling me Olivia has..." He cast about in his mind for something suitably ridiculous. "...found religion?" he asked, stifling a chuckle. The very idea amused Phillip. The Olivia he knew would darken a church's doorway only for marriage, preferably to man wealthier than her last husband.
Maybe in a pair of cocoa-colored eyes, thought Rick to himself. Aloud, he said, "No, not religion. Happiness."
Phillip dismissed this assertion out of hand. "Not possible. You forget, I was married to Olivia. She's not that kind of woman. She does 'victim,' she does 'vamp,' she does 'tragic'--all very well. She doesn't do 'happy.' She's not wired that way."
Rick leaned forward over his untouched frisée salad. "People can change, Phillip. In fact, there's your change in Springfield. Olivia Spencer. She been through a metamorphosis! More of one than even I thought was possible. At first I thought it was the heart transplant because--and I'm speaking from experience here--something like that will change a person in ways you could never imagine. But now I think it's something more. I think it's because she's found a home out there in that farmhouse and I think she's truly happy, for the first time in a long time! Maybe ever."
Phillip laid his fork across his salad plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin, using the time to order his thoughts. A heart transplant? That was valuable information and worth the unpleasantness of Rick's company. Worth it and more. He filed it away for contemplation later. What he wanted to focus on now was this...farmhouse.
"Olivia?" he asked, his tone perceptibly disbelieving. "Living in a farmhouse?"
Rick stopped and took a breath. He'd said too much and he knew it. But Phillip would get the information he wanted eventually. Rick's hesitance would only delay the inevitable.
"Yeah. Yeah. Remember that old place out on 4 near the State Park? She and Emma live out there now, with Natalia, and they--"
"They live with whom?" interrupted Phillip, his voice deceptively light. His eyes, though, had gone jet black.
The sinking feeling in Rick's stomach grew exponentially.
"With Natalia. Natalia Rivera, Olivia's assistant at The Beacon."
Phillip sensed Rick was holding something back. "And?" he asked simply.
Damn my big mouth. "And Gus Aitoro's widow. Whose heart Olivia received."
Phillip actually smiled. It was not comforting. In fact, it was rather...serpentine.
"Well, you've been much more help than I expected, Rick. Thank you. I hope I can expect more of the same over the next few months."
"What--no! I'm not helping you with whatever it is you're planning! I helped you once before and a man died because of it!"
"Yet you're still practicing medicine at Cedars, still a free man. It doesn't seem to have impacted your day-to-day living much." Phillip seemed almost bored.
Rick was flabbergasted. "'A free man?' My 'day-to-day' liv-- You bastard! I will carry that man's death with me for the rest of my life! I barely go an hour without thinking about it, even now!" Rick threw his napkin on the table. "You know what? Whatever friendship you and I had died with Ross. I'm done." He started to get up to leave but the arrival of their waiter kept him seated.
Phillip remained quiet while the waiter cleared their salad plates and served their entrées. When the young man had taken his leave, he smiled another serpentine smile. "How's Jude?" he asked quietly as Rick began to rise from the table.
The change in topic threw Rick for a moment and he sat back down, running his hand through his hair. "He's fine," he said cautiously. "He's with Harley."
"Are you sure?" It was a simple question, delivered blandly, but Rick exploded out of his chair.
"Are you threatening my son?" he growled at Phillip, leaning menacingly over the table at the man.
"Not at all. I asked if you were sure where he was. Because I am. I know where all my children are and I once told you I loved Jude as if he were my own. You were right; he is, in fact, with Harley." His eyes darkened considerably. "You see? I know where all my children are--except for one."
Rick slowly sat back in his chair. "You mean Emma? I thought you said they were skiing?"
"I thought they were. But it was Natalia who told me so. I confirmed it with a call to The Briarwood, but..." He retrieved his cell from his pocket and initiated a call. "Yes, Olivia Spencer's room, please... I see. And when was that? ... Thank you." He disconnected the call and looked up at Rick. "They checked out the day I called," he said impassively.
"I believe it's time for me to pay a visit to this farmhouse. And to have a few words with Natalia Rivera." He caught the waiter's eye and motioned for the check. "If you'll excuse me?" At Rick's nod, he said, "It's almost touching, in a way, you know. Your willingness to help me."
"I never said I would help you," countered Rick but his protestation lacked anything in the way of force.
"Yes, you did," Phillip assured him.
Rick slumped in his chair, staring blankly at his untouched fish. "When I sat down," he said ruefully, his mouth twisting in a self-recriminating scowl.
"No," said Phillip. His eyes were as cold and as calculating as Rick had ever seen them. "When you showed up at all."
A REST AREA ON I-90 BETWEEN MITCHELL, SD AND RAPID CITY, SD
We barely make it to the bench in the playground at the rest area before collapsing with laughter.
"Oh my God! That place was so...so surreal! Have you ever seen anything--"
You shake your head, your dark hair swinging to and fro with the movement. "No! No--I--I had no idea! I mean--the signs! Corn Palace? It sounded, you know, harmless! Educational even!" You giggle and I'm as charmed as I can be without broadcasting it to everyone in a three mile radius.
"I know! Corn, right? Major US commodity. Driving force in US agriculture and the world economy. Who knew they were going to glue it to the outside of the building?" You're hiding your laughter behind your gloved hand and I am not satisfied with that. I push on. "And all those crows! I felt like I was in a remake of Hitchcock's 'The Birds'--except without the protective phone booth covering." I mime the shape of a phone booth and that does the trick; you're laughing out loud now.
"And did you see the--" You gesture with your hands and I know exactly what you're talking about.
"All that bird sh--"
"Eh!" you admonish, raising your hand like a crossing guard. "Language!"
Emma is twenty feet away making herself dizzy on a merry-go-round and is not at all interested in what we're talking about. But okay.
"Poop," I amend. "All that bird poop."
You grin widely, dimples and everything. My heart almost stops.
"You're cute when you say that," you tell me. "Your nose crinkles up and--"
My heart has actually stopped now and I'm desperate to get you off this topic. "Uh huh. Keep talking. You'll see 'cute'..." I mock-threaten, shaking a fist at you weakly. Meanwhile, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from that Christmas special you and Emma love so much is leaping all over my brain, crowing, I'm cute! I'm cute! She thinks I'm cuuuuuuuute!
I don't know if it's the change in my mood or something else that derails us, but our laughter peters out until it dies. You turn to look at Emma, a small frown taking up residence between your eyes. I wonder what that's all about, but I'm too busy telling myself to get a fucking grip to ask.
After a few minutes of silence, with both of us lost in our own heads, you reach into your coat pocket and pull something out. You look down at it--whatever it is--for a long moment. I can tell what you're thinking: Should I or shouldn't I?
You make your decision finally and look up, handing me an Ohio driver's license with my photo on it. My photo and someone else's name.
"It won't fool the police if we get pulled over or...arrested," you say quietly. My eyes are still wide with shock and I look at you. You swallow uneasily and continue. "But it'll be okay for other things, like at the hotels or if you need to show ID to purchase...something..." The unspoken specter of a gun hangs heavily in the frigid air between us. You look down at your hands. "I have one too. I used it yesterday at the hotel."
"Thank you, Ms. Santiago," said the perky blonde at the front desk, handing you the room key. "The elevators are just down the hall on the left. Your room is on the third floor."
There are so many questions running through my head that I feel them as a pounding ache. They tumble over and over one another while you begin to look more and more worried and I pluck one at random, forcing it out of my mouth just to erase that look from your eyes.
"Where did you get them?"
Your panic at my reaction recedes just a hair. "Do you remember Carlos Flores, the dishwasher in housekeeping?" I shake my head. "Oh." You seem a little disappointed by my failure as an employer and I vow, on the spot, that when we get home, I'm going to get to know every goddamn one of my employees. "Well, he got them for me."
"Remind me to give him a raise right before I fire him," I mutter, rubbing one of my aching temples. I always fall back on sarcasm when I don't know what else to say.
"You...sorta already did," you admit, wincing. "I gave him five hundred dollars and a one-way bus ticket to Miami. Then I 'lost' his employee file."
I raise one eyebrow at you. "How very Tony Soprano of you.... Lemme guess--you were raised by a pack of wild mobster ninjas," I deadpan. I expect laughter but instead your face crumples in grief and I not only want to take my words back, I want to cut them from your memory somehow. I reach out to rest my hand on your arm but stop before I do, feeling suddenly as if I don't deserve to comfort you. "I'm sorry," I apologize. "I didn't--"
You close your eyes. "No, it's not you. It was--so long ago. I never thought.... It was over. It was over."
Oh God.... What is it? What happened to you? The look on your face makes my chest ache. I can't stand it--have to stop it.
"Natalia, you don't have to tell me." The words rush from me, all in one breath. "You don't ever have to tell me about any of it--not about the money or The Beacon or Carlos or...or whatever it is that should have been over.... I just-- I don't--" I shake my head, trying to organize my thoughts so I can get at least one coherent sentence out. "I trust you," I say finally and you open your eyes. "I trust you," I repeat, searching your cinnamon cocoa eyes for comprehension of what I'm trying to tell you: that it's okay for you to lock it all away again if that's what you need. "That's all I ever need to know." I hesitate before I take your hands in mine because I'm afraid of how much I need to touch you. But you need the comfort more than I need the illusion of control.
Your eyes fill with tears but you swallow them back before they can fall. "No," you say, your voice steady, strong. "There are things I need to tell you so this--" You turn to watch Emma descend the slide again. "--works," you finish with a sigh. Looking at me again, you add, "And there are other things...about me...that you should know. I'll...I'll do the best I can."
I try to smile in what I hope is an encouraging way. Mostly I just want to take you into my arms and make the whole world disappear until it's just us: you, me, and Emma. We could stay right here, on this playground, in this moment. Together and safe. Forever.
"Start with something easy," I suggest, squeezing your hands briefly.
You nod and take a deep breath. "There's a duffel bag in the van with eleven thousand, seven hundred dollars cash in it."
I blink. I blink again. "That was the easy one?" I blurt, completely flabbergasted. I look at the van to make sure it's still where we parked it. God, if it got stolen...
You ignore me. "There was more. I had to pay back The Beacon with some of it...and Carlos, for the..." You don't finish your thought. You don't need to.
I'm still staring at the van when something occurs to me. Something horrible. I whip around to face you. "Natalia, if you sold your house for this--"
"I didn't! I didn't!" You shake your head violently, trying to convince me you're telling the truth.
"Then where...?" Did you knock over a liquor store or five when you left Springfield or what?
"I called Mr. Ablest in New York and told him that you wanted to buy the ten acre lot next to the farmhouse, that you needed to sell off some of your under-performing stock for the down payment. I had him wire it into a sub-account I created under The Beacon and drove to Cleveland the same day to empty it." You chuckle but it's mirthless. "I drove the speed limit the entire way back to Springfield, terrified that I'd get into some horrible accident and the money would end up fluttering around the wreckage of my car, like in the movies."
I shake my head again, stunned. "We could live on that for six months--a year if we're frugal." Two if we're frugal like you're frugal, I think wryly.
"That's kinda the point," you admit, averting your eyes shyly. "I didn't want you and Emma to...struggle with money when it was within my power to do something about it. You don't need that on your mind, too."
I look at you for a long moment. "Remember that raise I was going to give Carlos?" I ask. You nod. "Double it and give it to yourself. And give yourself an extra week of paid vacation while you're at it."
"Hmm..." you say, tapping your chin thoughtfully. "In that case, you should know I'm going to need some time off..."
We both laugh and the tension in my body falls away. Emma has moved on to the monkey bars and we're watching her with nearly identical smiles on our faces. She slips on one of the bars half-way up, but catches herself and continues to climb. Meanwhile, both of us are off the bench in a flash, ready to run to her, to catch her or to pick her up and put her back together. Whatever she needs. It takes me a moment to catch my breath--aborted adrenaline wreaks havoc with my body--and while I do, I watch you. You still haven't relaxed completely either and you watch Emma for a moment longer than I do. I realize that the title 'My Two Mommies' was very accurate from Emma's perspective. You are truly her other mother and I am so grateful for that, for how much you love my daughter.
She's so lucky to have you. Right now, especially. We both are. You're risking everything to protect my child. Without you, she'd be lost. I can't help her. I'm useless. You saw--I was going to give her cookies for breakfast, for Christ's sake! Do you even understand what it means to me that you are here with us? I could spend the rest of my life trying to explain it to you. I'd like to, too...
I have to get my thoughts under control. I can't keep thinking about you like this. You're going to see through me--or I'm going to let something slip and I'll ruin everything. Everything. Emma needs you too much and if I fuck it up for her because I--because of how I feel--
I can't take that chance. I just...can't.
I close my eyes and breathe slowly, letting the cold air fill me, numbing myself with the sharp chill of it. When my brain has settled down some, I open my eyes, sufficiently steeled--or so I hope--for whatever else you have to tell me.
"So..." I say finally, breaking the silence. "Tell me about this plan of yours..."
A REST AREA ON I-90 BETWEEN MITCHELL, SD AND RAPID CITY, SD
"So.... Tell me about this plan of yours," you say, and you look as nervous as I feel. I can see in your eyes that you're afraid of what other surprises I might have in store for you. I don't blame you. Not one bit. This isn't the way I'd planned to tell you about my childhood. Well--not that I'd really ever planned to tell you about it at all. It's just that if I had, I wouldn't have chosen...this.
Of course, who would?
I sigh and my breath swirls in the frosty air. I look at Emma on the monkey bars and wonder if she's warm enough. We should really get her back in the van. She could catch a cold or--
I close my eyes and drop my head.
Stop it, I tell myself. You have to get this out. The plan is the easy part. Stop avoiding her. I look up again and your eyes are pale celadon green with expectation. They change colors, you know. Your eyes. Depending on your mood or what you're wearing. You don't know this but sometimes I'll say something outrageous or unexpected just to see the color change....
I can't look at you right now. I look at my knees instead. I have the sudden, uncontrollable urge to do dishes. Why is it so much easier to have long, serious talks with you when I'm elbow-deep in lukewarm soapy water?
"I--I was thinking," I begin hesitantly, "it will be easier on Emma if she doesn't know what we're really doing, if she thinks this is...something else. For as long as we can keep it from her, I mean." I look up at you and smile ruefully. "She's too smart not to catch on eventually. She's your daughter after all."
"As frightening for her as that is," you agree, rolling your eyes.
I swat you gently on the arm, laughing. "Stop! I didn't mean it that way, Olivia!"
Your sudden smile is.... For one moment, it's like none of this ever happened--no Phillip, no running, no fear--and we're on the couch in the living room of the farmhouse, folding laundry while Emma does her homework upstairs. I say something to make you laugh and you do, smiling at me like sunshine--like--
It's breathtaking. There's just no other word for it.
Then--just as abruptly--it's gone, replaced by something less...brilliant. Something sadder.
"I know," you say softly, lowering your eyes. "Go on," you urge. "The plan?"
I'm the only one who gets to see this side of you, I realize suddenly. I'm the only one who knows this sweet, gentle woman who you hide under layers of boldness and sarcasm. I know trusting me with her must be hard for you. You've spent your whole life having to be stronger...faster...first in line.... It must scare the heck out of you to show even the slightest hint of vulnerability. What a gift--that you trust me that much. How can I ever repay that?
"Natalia?" you ask and I jerk my head, startled out of my thoughts by your concern. Where was I? Oh right. The plan.
"What if we pretend this is a vacation...for Emma. Take her to places like...the Grand Canyon or Disneyland or--or Washington, D.C. or Mount Vernon. Places with a lot of people from all over.... We'd blend in, in a way. Just another...just people seeing the--the sights. We'd stay on the move--a couple of days at the most at each place--and Emma.... Well, it would be easier to distract her from the truth this way." I search your eyes for your reaction but they're unreadable. "What do you think?"
"The Grand Canyon, huh?" you ask, beaming me that sideways grin of yours. "What--no World's Largest Ball of Twine? No Pez Museum? I mean, what with the Corn Palace and all--"
"Olivia!" I want to be infuriated with you, but instead I find myself trying not to smile. You will never let me forget the Corn Palace as long as I live, will you? "I want it to be educational! Really this time! She's missing enough school as it is."
"I guess we can't just leave the country, can we?" you ask, your disappointment evident.
I shake my head. "We--we don't have the resources for that," I explain. "We'd need fake passports--which is hard enough to do now, since 9/11--but we'd also have to exchange money, book flights.... The paper trail is too...obvious. And if Phillip isn't watching the airports and borders, then Frank is. It's possible they know what we're doing by now." I wince, afraid to confess the next part. I feel stupid enough as it is. "I missed a staff meeting yesterday."
Your head whips up and you're goggling at me incredulously. "You missed a--"
"I know! I know!" I say, agreeing with your lecture before you can even start it. I cover my face with my hands. "I scheduled it ages ago and totally forgot about it! I--"
"Do you think Cynthia waited until lunchtime to start looking for you or do you think when you hadn't showed up by 10:15, she tapped her foot twice and released her housekeeping minions on Springfield like the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz?"
I peek through my fingers, horrified. "Oh my God!"
Your eyebrow arches over a pair of ruefully amused eyes. "Yeah. That's what I'm saying. A splash across the front page of The Mirror would have been less conspicuous."
"We have to assume he knows now--they both know. Even if we could get passports, it would be too dangerous to put all our eggs in one basket like that. Leaving the country, I mean."
"No, you're right. The landmarks--it's a good plan, Natalia. It is. We won't look out of place with other tourists and it'll be easier to stay ahead of Phillip if we're on the move every few days."
"And Frank," I remind you absently, wondering if he's been to the farmhouse yet. Who am I kidding? I'd be surprised if he wasn't still there, using it as a base camp or a tactical command center or whatever cops call those things.
You don't say anything and the silence is deafening to me. I look up and catch something in your eyes--a mixture of disgust and regret that puzzles me. "Olivia?" I ask, concerned.
You look away. "I'm sorry, Natalia," you say quietly. "I'm sorry I've dragged you into this, taken you away from him--from them. You should be in Springfield, making Frank pancakes, staying near your son, not running all over God knows where with me...with us. If you want to--" You blink rapidly a few times, then close your eyes. I can't tell if you're trying to say something or trying to keep from saying something, but your jaw twitches and, inexplicably, I want to cup it in my hand, smooth the knotted muscle with my thumb.
You open your eyes and they're dark jade with resolve. "You should go back. Emma and me, we'll be okay. We'll be--"
"Unh-unh," I say, shaking my head. I'm angry and confused and touched all at the same time and I can't decide what to feel. I settle on insulted because how dare you? "Don't do that. Olivia, don't. Don't be noble with me. Don't tell me where I should or shouldn't be. You didn't 'drag' me anywhere, 'take' me from anyone. I chose to be with you and Emma. I did, not you. I'm a grown woman. I came here of my own free will--and I'm Catholic! I know what that really means. So don't you try to push me away because you--you feel guilty or responsible or whatever it is that you're feeling right now. I won't stand for it. I won't."
I can feel the heat in my face as my anger grows. "My son is fine, Olivia. He's still in prison, yes, but he's safe there. As safe as he can be." I lean toward you, wanting you to read the emotion in my eyes, wanting to pummel you with it. "I told him what happened, about Phillip coming back to town and what that could mean for Emma, for you. Do you know what he said to me?"
You shake your head, your eyes round with fear, and I stop, stricken by the look on your face. You've never looked at me like that before, never been afraid of...of me before. My stomach twists with revulsion. This is not who I am. I am not this person!
I take a deep breath, deliberately trying to quench my anger, deliberately trying to cleanse my mind of its poison. I will not be like that. Not with you. Not with anyone.
My voice softens, my muscles relax.
"He said 'You gotta go with them, Ma. You'll never forgive yourself if something happens to them.' And he was right. He was right, Olivia! I would never, ever forgive myself if I left you and Emma alone out here with Phillip--" The thought squeezes my throat shut and I can't breathe past the sudden panic rising in me. "--and something happened...to you or your little girl..." I choke the words out, my voice breaking. "Please...don't make me feel that..."
What would I do if I lost you, lost Emma? It's unthinkable, that's what that is. So I just won't think about it. I won't.
Tears well up in your eyes. "How am I supposed to deal with this guilt?" you ask, but you're smiling now, too, and I know where this is going.
"Denial's always an option," I reply and you snort bleakly, raising one eyebrow at me.
"It didn't make you feel any better when I said that to you, did it?" you ask, looking away.
I shake my head. "Nope. Sorry." I catch your eye, though, and make you look at me. "But I got through it. Let me help you, Olivia." I cover your hand with one of mine, wipe my eyes with the other. "It's still my job, isn't it? Unless you managed to find someone to replace me out here in the Wild West."
"Never," you say and the conviction in your voice is almost...Biblical. Then you blink and that silly grin comes back. "I mean I interviewed a few people in Kansas but none of them had your--your--"
You're covering something with humor again. I saw the change, like a switch being flipped! I play along because I still don't understand this--this reflex of yours. I want to, though. Badly.
"My...winning personality? My...loyalty and dedication? My unique je ne sais quoi?" I try a French accent with the last one but it fails miserably.
You raise a dubious eyebrow at me. Again. "Your bullshitting skills," you deadpan--and then correct yourself before I can. "Or would that be 'bullpooping'?"
Seriously, the way your nose crinkles when you say 'poop' is extremely cute and I'm just about to point that out to you again when you look me straight in the eye and say, "If you say the 'c' word to me one more time, Natalia, so help me God..."
I just laugh. "Well, it is," I say. "And that's not my fault."
You mutter something under your breath that I carefully avoid listening to because I'm sure it contains profanity. Instead, I turn my eyes to Emma, who has moved on to the swings and is twisting hers tightly in one direction until her toes barely reach the gravel beneath her feet anymore. She lets go then and flings her head backward, her long blond hair splayed around her head like a cape as she spins. Her unrestrained laughter peals like silver bells across the playground. She is unbelievably beautiful and I feel my smile widen.
And then it slides away.
I have to protect her. You don't understand because you don't know...what I went through. Years of...this, of running. Years of bus shelters in the middle of the night, of listening to my mother sobbing in the bathroom of whatever dank apartment we lived in that month, of leaving everything behind--sometimes even the cereal in our bowls at breakfast, fleeing in mid-bite--only to start all over again in the next town. I won't let Emma's father do to her what mine did to me. I won't. And if that means leaving Springfield and my house and my son--who is safe and sound, Thank you, God--for a little while, then that's what I have to do...that's what I am doing. And not even you can stop me.
"Hey," you say, gently touching my arm. "Hey, you okay? You looked as if you were--I don't know--girding yourself for battle or something..."
I glance at your worried eyes and grimace with another wave of nausea. This is the hard part. This is the part I've been dreading.
"You know how I said there were things about me you...you should know?"
You nod, just once. As if you're afraid too much movement will startle me. I look away from your sea green gaze. You leave your hand where it is, though, and that gives me hope that maybe I can keep it together long enough to tell you everything.
The words crowd my mouth, held prisoner by my clenched jaw. I know I have to say it sooner or later. Why couldn't it be later?
"My father was César Delgado-Vargas. He was a...a lieutenant in a Columbian drug cartel and he was not..." I close my eyes, trying to forget.
Trying to forget his crazy black eyes, his cruel laughter.... Trying to forget his fists, like hammers.
"He was not a nice man," I whisper.
I wait for the shock, the outrage...but you say nothing. I search out your eyes and they are more intensely alert and open than I think I've ever seen them.
"Tell me," you say and it's an order. Your voice is measured and calm.
But before I can, a breathless Emma runs up to us and grabs my hand. "Can you push me on the swings, Natalia? Please? I want to go really, really high!"
I look blankly at you and I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. You have a similar look on your face but it softens when you see Emma's joy. You rub your eyes with a gloved hand and chuckle.
"I guess we'll have to finish this later," you say softly. You pin me with a sharp look. "And we will, okay?"
I nod, numbness setting in. "Yeah. Later."
"Natalia! Come on!" Emma tugs at my hand and I smile weakly.
"I'll be right there, okay? Go on and pick out which swing you want." I let her go and she tears off across the playground like a doe. I wonder where she gets her energy from. A thirty-minute conversation has practically wiped me out. I could sleep for days.
"Just a few minutes on the swings," I tell you, rising from the bench. "Then we'll get back on the road. It's only three or so hours to Rapid City from here. We should get there in time for supper." I look at you, trying to gauge how you're doing, if you're too cold or too tired. "Will you...be okay here while I--"
"Yeah, go. Go. She loves the swings. I'll sit here and--I don't know--watch the van so it doesn't get stolen."
I laugh and shake my head at you. "Okay then--" I say, turning to go. But you stop me.
"Hey. You never told me--you never told me your new name," you say, holding up the fake ID I gave you as a point of reference. Your smile is tremulous, hesitant...and heartbreakingly beautiful. I suddenly don't want to leave you, not even to go ten yards to the swing set, and I feel pulled--physically pulled--in two directions at once.
I clear my throat, trying to cover my uncertainty. "Um...it's Laura," I say. "Laura Santiago."
I turn and walk away from you before you can say anything else.
My legs ache every step of the way.
MOUNT RUSHMORE GIFT SHOP --HERMOSA, SD
Well, Mount Rushmore is much smaller than I expected it would be. But then, it's not like I've never said that about a man before, so why should four dead presidents be any different?
You and Emma are prowling stacks of stately blue "Mount Rushmore" sweatshirts and baskets of tiny stuffed president dolls, respectively. We've come inside to escape the biting cold. They keep telling us it's thirty degrees out there and that that's warm for this time of year, but I can't really hear them over my chattering teeth.
The gift shop here is very warm. It's also massive and I feel rather conflicted about that. These are government employees--a dozen of them, easily--selling us appalling coffee cups and "authentic Little Chief Fry Bread mix!" I'm not sure I approve. But if the social and financial desolation of the small communities we passed on the way here is any indication of the problems facing the entire state, then who am I to complain about twelve or thirteen people making a decent wage by hawking souvenirs to loud tourists with disposable incomes?
I smirk at myself. You make me think like that, you know. Two years ago, I would have been a loud tourist with a disposable income and a burning need for an overpriced alabaster carving of a Plains Indian War Pony. I also wouldn't have acknowledged the gift shop's employees in any way--unless they had pissed me off somehow. I've changed. Because of the transplant, yes, but more because of you. Because of your heart, your capacity for love and forgiveness--even your rock solid faith has made an impression. You're either a bad influence or the very best influence and either way, I'm screwed.
I peer into the jewelry case beneath my hands, looking at a row of earrings. There's a pair in the middle of the top row: a delicate loop of oak leaves, one each in silver, yellow gold and Black Hills gold. They would look amazing on you--autumnal against the backdrop of your long, dark hair--and I'm trying to convince myself not to buy them. I find I'm not very convincing.
"If you'd like me to take anything out of the case, just let me know," says a woman behind the counter. I had no idea she was even there. Phillip could have walked right up to me and I wouldn't have noticed because I'm too busy picking out inappropriate gifts for you. I have to watch myself better.
Before I can answer the saleswoman, Emma runs up to me, her tiny hands clutching various treasures to her chest.
"Look what I'm getting, Mommy!" she says, splaying them out on the jewelry counter. There's a Jefferson doll, a stack of post cards, a Mount Rushmore key chain, and a handful of sassafras candy sticks.
I raise my eyebrow at the collection--especially the post cards. We can't send those but how do I explain that to my eight-year-old who thinks we're on some exciting, unexpected vacation?
You walk up behind Emma and you know exactly what I'm thinking. I can see it in your eyes.
"Em and I are starting a scrapbook of our trip," you say brightly, ruffling her hair. You meet my eyes with your own, radiating serenity and a calmness that soothes my reactionary soul. "That's what the postcards and the key chain are for," you explain.
Of course they are.
Your presence of mind astonishes me. Somehow, once again, you've arranged the universe to suit me, allowing Emma and I both to have our cake and eat it, too. And all without any screaming or tears.
Forget about earrings, I muse. I need to buy you a friggin' cape.
"Would you like a basket for those?" the saleswoman asks Emma, handing her a blue plastic shopping basket from behind the counter. "That way you won't lose anything!"
Em accepts the basket with a gap-toothed grin. "Thank you, ma'am," she says politely, carefully scooping her treasures into it. Then she looks up at me. "I'm going to look over there," she announces, pointing in the general direction of a pyramid of shot glasses, hand-painted with various Mount Rushmore and Native American designs. "They have little tiny glasses--for dolls!"
She bounds off and I cover my eyes with one hand. "It could be worse--" I begin and you finish with me.
"--she could actually know what they're for!"
We both chuckle and our eyes connect for a moment. I get lost in the subtly shifting color of your big, brown eyes as they change from a dark French Roast to a sun-splashed Corinthian leather, warm and open and...gone. You look down suddenly.
"I'd better stay with her," you say softly, your eyes now tracking Emma's every move. "But I wanted to let you know I gave her ten dollars for souvenirs." You look up at me again and the sunshine has left your gaze but not the openness. "So don't you give her any money, okay? Ten is enough."
What the Hell was that? I don't have the foggiest idea what just happened there but something did, I'm sure of it. Dammit!
Instead of asking you, though, I smirk at you. "Yes, 'Mom,'" I drone, and you shake your head at me, smiling shyly. Just before you turn away, I think I see a hint of rose in your cheeks.
"Your daughter is beautiful," says the saleswoman to me after you've gone. You catch up with Emma and usher her away from the shot glasses to something more appropriate for her age: a metal tree covered in hand-puppets. You're grinning--a complete, full-on, no-holds-barred grin including those amazing dimples--and it's like a kick to my stomach and the Fourth of July all at once. I'm having a hard time breathing.
"Thank you," I manage around the swell of adoration rising in me. Again. Why can't I get this under control? Really, is it too much to ask to be able to look at you without having my stomach do its Mary Lou Retton impression?
I glance at her, this friendly woman, this government-subsidized trinket huckster. She's tall, has a few extra pounds around her middle, but she's not unattractive. She has kind gray eyes and short blondish hair. She could be anywhere from thirty to fifty years old; I can't tell. She smiles at me warmly.
"How long have you two been together?" she asks. I mistakenly believe she's asking about Emma at first and I think How long do you think we've been together, you moron? Since her birth!
But then I realize she's talking about you--as in 'How long have you two been a couple?' My first instinct is to launch into my now-patented "We're not gay!" speech and I nervously jam my hands into my coat pockets. Unexpectedly, I feel the plastic edge of the fake ID you gave me yesterday, snuggled where I left it.
I finger it thoughtfully, a dangerous shiver shimmering up my spine.
I'm no longer Olivia Spencer and you're no longer Natalia Rivera, I realize. We're no longer boss and employee, no longer friends who share a house with my daughter and the giant awkward elephant that is my love for you. Now we're Melissa Anderson and Laura Santiago and we're blank pages.
I can tell whatever story I want.
And what I want is a different story. For just five minutes, I want...us.
"Hmm...seven years," I say, clearing my throat. "In June."
My eyes must still show hesitance because she rests her hand on my forearm and says, "Don't worry. I'm not one of those crazy religious zealots with their heads stuck up their asses." She laughs and I smile with her. "My brother, Danny, and his partner, Bill, just celebrated their 21st anniversary a couple of weeks ago. They've been together longer than both of my marriages combined." She laughs again.
"I've had a few of those," I say ruefully, rolling my eyes with the ridiculousness of it all.
She looks surprised. "Marriages?"
I nod, searching out my daughter amidst the crowds of tourists, smiling wistfully at her and at you as you run pennies through the penny-stamping machine. Are you guys going to play with everything in the store or what?
"Em was the one and only good thing to come from the last one. My sweet miracle baby...."
Remembering her birth and the year I kept her secret from her father, I'm suddenly lost in the terror of Phillip again, staring off into space, my body tensing. The cold grip of dread begins to squeeze my heart and my blood pounds in my ears. The woman senses the dark turn in my mood and gently brings me back to the present.
"Where did you meet...um..." She glances at you across the room and I realize she's waiting for a name.
"Laura," I say. The name feels strange in my mouth but at least I don't mangle it. Not bad for the first time. "I'm sorry...I'm Melissa." Two for two. So far, so good.
"Robin," she says, glancing at her name tag. "So, where did you meet Laura?"
"At work. I was the boss. So cliché, right?"
Robin grins. "Was it love at first sight?" she teases.
I shake my head firmly, laughing. "Oh hell no! We hated each other. It was...it was bad. I was so awful to her! And she was...well, she didn't like me much but she was always civil." I remember a few of the less civil conversations we had and amend my assessment. "Well, mostly."
I should be more worried about how easily this lie is tumbling from my lips, but it feels so good to talk about us the way I imagine it, the way I hope it could be. I know it's selfish and stupid and probably a thousand other really disturbing things, but I can't help it. I glance at you, intending to make sure you're far enough away that you won't overhear me, and I see you and Emma standing behind a novelty photograph stand with the two middle heads of Mount Rushmore cut out to allow for grinning tourist faces. You catch me watching you and you whisper something to Emma. Then suddenly you both wave at me, calling, "Hi, Mommy!"
My heart melts. Right there. One big sloshy puddle between my lungs.
I wave back weakly.
"But then I got sick," I whisper. "And she was the only person who seemed to care what happened to me." Inevitable tears sting my eyes. I blink them away. "She fought for me. I'd given up but she wouldn't let me. She wouldn't let me throw away the second chance I'd been given. It was that, more than anything, that made me realize...."
I still can't say it.
"That you'd fallen in love with her?" prompts Robin.
I nod. "It took us a while to work things out," I say, somewhat cryptically.
"Well, it's clear you did. She adores you--that much is obvious."
I am...thunderstruck. I look from her to you and back to her, my eyes probably as large as the decorative plates this woman is peddling. I forget myself and the lie and squeak, "It is?"
Robin laughs again. "Um, hello? Have you looked at her recently?" She shakes her head at me again, then looks down at the jewelry counter. "You should get the earrings you were debating about. A little romantic gift?" She waggles her eyebrows at me. "Maybe you'll get lucky tonight...."
I'll be lucky if I don't die of a heart attack right this fucking second, I think to myself, gaping at the woman. Blood rushes to my cheeks--and to other locations--as my disobedient brain conjures too many vividly detailed images of what I've been trying not to imagine for the last month.
Your head thrown back.... My fingers wound in your long, dark hair.... Your body beneath mine....
God help me.
"Seven years and you still blush like a newlywed?" Robin whistles. "You've got it bad." She reaches into the case and retrieves the pair of earrings I was looking at earlier. "Why don't I just wrap these up for you?" she crows as she heads to the cash register, inordinately pleased with herself.
I nod weakly and hold onto the edge of the counter as if my life depends on it.
Which, at the moment, it does.
Return to Guiding Light Fiction
Return to Main Page