DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Given that TPTB did indeed manage to take an amazing storyline that they labored over with love and devotion for the past eighteen months and royally screw it up, I decided to write my own version of what I, and some good friends, felt would be a logical storyline in keeping with the overall arc of this relationship, in order to explain Natalia's month long absence. It also embraces the over-riding theme of family and motherhood without resorting to the trite and clichéd, hack-writer scenario of making Natalia pregnant, much less having her leave Olivia without a word or note, a plot that beggars the imagination. This is a story that does deal with the past, with the struggle on the part of both these women to somehow be better parents than their own mothers were. And of how all of us, eventually, have to come to terms with our own pasts. This is set post June 22, but does not include the events of the week of June 29, 2009. This timeline and story veer off forever from this point. Thanks to DiNovia for her advice, her encouragement, and above all, her friendship. It means the world to me. Most sincere and grateful thanks as well to Peanuts for her eagle eye in beta'ing this story. You're the best grammar beta ever! To Tremblingmoon for her input, advice and kindness. And to darandkerry for the support, encouragement and friendship! Love ya, Tex-Ass! Thanks as well to Kelinswriter, who has offered advice and suggestions, and who lets her Liv come out and play with my Bossy one. Cheers!! And a new addition to the Few's Betas team, Senpai20, who has generously offered her extensive knowledge of Chicago to one whose entire store of information about the Windy City comes from sitting in the terminal at O'Hare. Thanks, dear!! In chapter 2 there is also a reference to Olivia's religious upbringing, or lack thereof. Thanks to a wonderful reader, thOu art that, who sent me the link for the specific clip, I have found a concrete reference to Olivia being raised Catholic in a conversation with Jeffrey about the incident described in this story. Thanks so much to thOu_art_that! Hence, I have made an edit to the story to reflect this, and the coming chapter will reflect it as well.
WARNING: Chapter 2 does make a reference to Olivia's past and in particular to an act of violence in her past. I did want to make certain that I made the reader aware of this discussion, due to its sensitive nature.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Sins of the Child
By Fewthistle


Chapter Six

Strange, really. She had grown up here, spent more than thirty years within the brick and concrete confines of this city. She'd only been gone for three years and yet, to anxious brown eyes flitting back and forth as she glanced nervously out the windows of the car, the city blocks rolling by might just as well have been Moscow as Chicago, the once familiar landmarks now unrecognizable. Or perhaps it was simply that her vision had altered.

How quickly she had grown accustomed to waking to the sound of warbling birds instead of cacophonous car horns. How easily she had become acclimated to the pale golden rays of sunrise meandering slowly across the lush green of a meadow, instead of the thin, sickly light that peered down through smog, trying feebly to trickle down to congested streets.

She had grown used to wide, lazy small-town streets, winding country lanes that rolled through fields of corn and wheat; not endless, narrow miles of asphalt, cars flying by at breakneck speeds. Even with the parks scattered across the city, there was the knowledge that just a few blocks away tall buildings rose up against the sky; the perfume of flowers often overwhelmed by the odor of exhaust fumes.

Now the crush of traffic, the jarring of tires in dozens of potholes, the fetid air, heavy with exhaust and ozone, the buildings and overpasses littered with generation upon generation of graffiti seemed to her a foreign country, war damaged and not a little frightening. Or perhaps it was merely her past that was another country, one for which she wasn't entirely certain she still possessed a map. One she only hoped she would once again be able to escape, leaving its scarred borders behind her forever.

Driving down Division, the square bulk of Clemente Academy pushed itself out of the concrete, the utilitarian lines and dark brick more factory than school. And perhaps that wasn't far off the mark, for what were they producing there but young minds inculcated with ideas and knowledge, with centuries of acquired information that had little to nothing to do with their lives on the streets outside the school. In there they learned about Newton and his apple, about immoveable objects and irresistible forces; Natalia suspected that these days the laws of gravity and motion were learned far quicker in the velocity of a bullet leaving a gun, in the speed with which a body, deprived suddenly of life, fell to the ground.

She had loved school, loved the simple pleasures found in new thoughts, new ideas. She had loved her English classes the most. In the pages of Shakespeare and Dickens, of Du Maurier and Fitzgerald, she had left behind the cramped, overcrowded quarters of her classroom, left behind the cramped confines of her parent's apartment and seen new worlds, met fascinating characters, become something rare and exciting, something so far removed from her real life. Until that life of fantasy ran headlong into reality, a reality that came in the shape of a small, helpless being and a young girl suddenly faced with a life no one wanted to read about.

With a sigh, Natalia tried to push aside the sharp pangs of regret that jabbed at her with stunning precision. The loss of school and the shattered dreams of college were the least of her concerns right now.

Half a block down the street, St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital sat, looking for all the world like a rectangle of corrugated gray cardboard, odd shoots protruding here and there, curved vents that had always reminded Natalia of the booster engines of some alien spacecraft. Parking across the street, Natalia paused for a moment, leaning back against the headrest, her eyes closing as she dragged in one deep breath after another.

This shouldn't be the way things were. She should be filled with fear and anxiety, but at the disease that was threatening her mother's life, not at the woman herself. She felt like the knight in one of Emma's stories, terrified and quaking in her boots, trying to muster up the courage to go in and face the dragon. In a perfect world, she would have been here already, been a constant, loving presence at her mother's side, a cool hand against her brow, a soft touch in moments of pain.

But this wasn't a perfect world. Her world never had been, at least not until recently. It still wasn't quite perfect, she reflected, her thoughts going again to her son and the anger that seemed to roil off him like the haze of heat and ozone that rose up off the blistering city streets. Still, it was as close to ideal as she had ever known, the memory of Olivia's fingers trailing down her body, of the softness of Olivia's lips under her own, of the look of complete, unconditional love in those green eyes settling over her soul like a protective cloak, easing the tension in her shoulders, evening out the rough edges of her breathing.

The circumstances that would have allowed her to be here, the obedient daughter, unsullied by sin, living the suffocating life her parents had imagined for her, those circumstances would never have brought her to Olivia, and that was something that no easing of her conscience, no relinquishing of assumed transgressions, no perfect world could ever make right. Every step she had taken on her journey had lead her there, to Springfield, to joy and heartache, to the love of her life, and she found she couldn't regret one single footfall, one solitary stumble on the path.

Now it was time to take another step. One foot in front of the other, into that hospital, into that room. In to face the dragon.

Pulling her cell phone from her bag, she pressed 2 on her speed dial, listening to the few, faint clicks, before the phone began ringing.

"Hey, I was just starting to get a little worried. Are you there?" The gentle, rounded syllables of Olivia's voice brought a prick of tears to Natalia's eyes and she forced another lungful of air into her body, willing her own voice to carry a calm that she was not feeling.

"Yeah, I just pulled into the parking lot at the hospital. Traffic was awful. I had forgotten what Chicago drivers are like," she replied, trying to keep her tone light. "Did you get in touch with the movers?"

Olivia chuckled, the low, rich sound trickling down from Natalia's ears into her chest, settling with a slow warmth inside her.

"Yes, I got hold of the movers. They'll be at the Beacon at eight on Monday morning. Emma and I are packing as we speak. Well, Emma's throwing everything she owns into boxes and I'm going behind her and trying to sort them just a little. It'll probably be months before we find where she put everything," Olivia laughed again and Natalia could see that smile, the one that crinkled along her nose, that brought out the faint, gorgeous laugh lines beside her mouth, the ones that Olivia insisted on lamenting as wrinkles.

"I'm so glad she's so excited about moving. That you're excited. I need my girls home," Natalia murmured, unable this time to keep the trace of sadness from her voice. "I can't believe that I'm not there to help you."

"Hey. You'll be home soon and we'll be all settled in. At least this time, you don't have to do all the work while I sit and supervise," Olivia teased. Natalia knew Olivia was trying to jolly that note out of her voice, the longing to be home nearly overwhelming her.

"True, except I know when I get home, I'll have to go behind you and put things where they belong. And do not even think about putting that ugly modern art thingie in the living room or in our bedroom. Put it back in your old room. That way, if we have guests, they can be impressed at your stunning taste in art," Natalia teased back, determined not to make Olivia worry any more than she knew she was.

"I'll have you know that his work hangs in some pretty prestigious galleries and museums," Olivia huffed, but Natalia could hear the grin on her face coming through the line.

"Do you think they want another one? 'Cause I know I'd be happy to donate it. We could be patrons of the arts," Natalia laughed, the weight of what lay waiting for her in the building across the street much lighter at the sound of Olivia's answering snort of laughter.

"Was that a joke? I didn't even know you could smile. You know, you're really not as funny as you think you are?" Olivia said in a faux-wounded voice, her words teasing echoes that brought another grin to Natalia's face.

"Hey, don't be stealing my lines. I get to say that to you, not the other way around," Natalia complained. "And I'm very funny. Ask anyone." She paused, eyes slipping shut for a moment. "I guess I should go inside, huh?"

"I guess you should," Olivia replied gently. "Just remember, the only power she has over you is the power you give her. You came because she asked you to. You're not the one who has any explaining or apologizing to do. Don't forget, baby, you aren't sixteen anymore. You're a grown woman, who managed to raise a son all on her own. You're smart and strong and I love you. Promise me you'll remember that, especially how much I love you?"

"I promise. And I love you, Olivia. So, so much. I'll call you from the hotel later, okay?" Natalia assured her, taking strength from the words and the woman who spoke them.

"Okay. Emma and I have enough clothes packed, so we're going to stay at the farmhouse…at home. We'll be home tonight, so call there, alright?" Olivia answered, her voice low and husky with emotion.

"I will. Give Emma a big hug and kiss from me? I love you," Natalia willed all that she was feeling into those three words, needing Olivia to absorb them, like rain into parched ground.

"I love you, too, baby. Bye."


Natalia felt an odd peace sink into her bones. Olivia was right. Olivia was usually right, not a fact that Natalia would ever share with her, but there it was. She was a grown woman, one who had weathered a lifetime of long hours on her feet, of long nights worrying if she could pay her bills, of long years wondering if she'd ever have anyone to share the burdens with her. She had lived through all of that and now she had someone, someone who would stand with her, who would help her shoulder the weight of whatever life threw at them, someone who believed in her, believed that she was strong and capable and smart. Separately she and Olivia were more than a match for just about any calamity or crisis. Together, they were so much more than the sum of their parts, something infinitely finer, infinitely greater.

Together they were whole and real and complete. And despite the 189 miles that now separated them, Natalia could feel the strength of the ties that bound them to one another, could feel the surety of Olivia's love, the depth of her commitment. She wrapped it around herself, like the finest of chain mail, armor against what she knew faced her inside that hospital: her mother's anger and disgust and contempt. Natalia wasn't certain what response she would face from her father or her brothers, but she had no doubt that even cancer had not worn away the sharp, deadly edge of her mother's tongue.

Stepping out of the car, she felt the unseasonable heat of the late June afternoon hit her, the humidity from the lake hanging in the air like a mist, bringing a sheen of moisture to her forehead she made her way across the crosswalk to the front entrance of St. Mary's. She paused, glancing up at the ten foot cross that graced the light stone of the building. Her neck ached as she stared up at it, all the prayers of a lifetime of prayers seeming to dry up in the glaring light of the summer sun.

She cast about for what to pray for--strength, compassion, guidance, forgiveness---and the words of St. Francis came to her, offering up a prayer of love and understanding. Stepping closer to the building, out of the path of people moving down the sidewalk towards the entrance, Natalia closed her eyes and silently prayed, willing God to hear her.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

As she finished her prayer, a small smile touched her lips, a trifle sad and wistful. She knew those words weren't the heartfelt supplication to God's will that she would have offered up just a year ago, full of self-flagellation and doubt. She wasn't that woman anymore, the one who blamed herself for everything that happened, the one who was still that frightened teenaged girl. And she knew that that was just as God intended, that she should grow and change and become all that He had made her to be. She wasn't here to ease her mother's conscience, not here to beg forgiveness from her parents for shaming them and disgracing the family. She was here to finally try and understand what had driven her mother to cast out her only daughter. She was here to finally forgive herself for imagined sins.

Pushing open the door, she crossed the lobby, coming to a halt at the reception desk. A slender man with thinning gray hair smiled kindly at her.

"May I help you?"

"I need to locate a patient: Maria Rivera. She has cancer so I don't know if she's on the oncology floor or in ICU," Natalia explained softly, a sliver of shame piercing her mind as an echo of her mother's voice scolded her, noting that a good daughter would never have to ask such a thing. She would know where her mother was, would have been with her from the start. Natalia pushed the voice aside, ignoring the wash of guilt as she listened to the man's directions on how to find the Oncology floor.

"Take those elevators over there to the ninth floor. Make a left out of the elevators. Her room will be towards the end of the hall."

"Thank you."

Stepping off the elevator, Natalia was struck by the smell, the scent of disinfectant that covered up the lingering traces of illness, of decaying flesh and bone, of lost hope and unanswered prayers. Rounding the corner of the long hallway, she saw her father standing outside the closed door to a room, flanked on either side by short, middle-aged men, dark hair flecked with gray, one with the beginnings of a paunch just showing beneath his Cubs t-shirt. Her father seemed smaller, shrunken, his shoulders bent forward, hair merely a wisp of gray against olive skin. He looked so old, so frail and a wave of regret threatened to drown her as she realized, fully for the first time, how much time had passed.

A rush of memories nearly overwhelmed her: her father reading to her each night, his soothing baritone lulling her to sleep. Her brothers, so much older than she, Roberto twelve years older, Carlos ten, swinging her like a sack of potatoes between them, back and forth as they walked down the street toward the grocery store, promising her a candy bar if she didn't tell her parents about the cigarettes she'd seen them buy. She almost didn't recognize those two laughing teenagers in the sober men standing at her father's side.

One of them recognized her, though.

Roberto's words echoed harshly against the institutional beige of the walls, his face contorted, angry, incredulous.

"What the hell are you doing here?!"

Even as her mouth fell open slightly at the spite and contempt in his voice, Natalia couldn't help but ask herself the same question.


Chapter Seven

"Thanks, Jane. You can go now," Olivia said, ushering the young woman out the suite door as green eyes scanned what had been a reasonably disaster-free zone when she had left it forty minutes ago.

Olivia shook her head in bemused disbelief as she surveyed the jetsam left in the wake of the small tsunami known as Emma Spencer. At least a dozen t-shirts and pairs of shorts were tossed across the floor and sofa with an artistic flair that Jackson Pollock would be proud to claim, brilliant spots of pink and lime green and purple against the subdued shades of the carpet and furniture. From where she was standing, Olivia could see five different sandals, none of the them matching any of the others, a complete pair of orange and green spotted Keds, and one slightly pathetic, lonely boot, still bearing its salty film from last winter, leaning forlornly on the side of the end table.

Sighing deeply, Olivia bent to gather the shoes, setting them into one of the boxes labeled, "Emma's Room". Maybe when Natalia came back, she could manage to reunite the mismatched footwear with their proper mates. For now, Emma would have to make do with the shoes she had on, or the Keds, until they could locate those missing in action flipflops. Hurricane Emma had initially made landfall in her bedroom, leaving a widening field of debris in her wake, but clearly the storm surge had spilled over into the living room while Olivia went in search of some packing tape, leaving Jane to help Emma with her packing.

She's a good babysitter, but honestly, Jane couldn't supervise her way out of a paper bag, Olivia thought snidely, plucking another pair of shorts off the back of the couch.

"Em? Hey, Jellybean, why are most of your clothes thrown around the living room? You having a yard sale and didn't tell me?" Olivia asked from the doorway, a fond smile gracing her lips as she watched Emma rooting around under the bed, only her thin, yellow sock clad legs sticking out.

The muffled reply was lost on Olivia, who walked over and, with a sudden tug on small feet, pulled Emma from her semi-submerged position.

"What, 'bean?"

"Those are the ones I need to keep on top 'cause I wear them to camp, so I didn't want to pack them yet. And we don't have a yard to sell, Mom. This is a hotel, remember?" Emma explained patiently, one of the missing sandals clutched in her right hand.

Oh, good. One less lonely shoe, Olivia chuckled to herself.

"So, you thought that throwing them around the living room was better than folding them and stacking them neatly to be packed last?" Olivia asked, trying to look stern and failing miserably.

Emma regarded her seriously for a moment before replying, her tone a little less patient with her mother's endless, and patently unnecessary, questions. "My big suitcase is in the closet in there and so I thought that they would be closer if I put them on the couch. That way, I don't have to carry them all the way in there."

"Ah, but there's a difference between on the couch and in the general vicinity of the couch, Em. Kinda like the difference between eating a spoonful of ice cream and smearing it all over your face. But I see your point," Olivia couldn't help but laugh at the impatient tone of her child's voice. "Guess I am not the brightest bulb in the chandelier today, huh, Jellybean?"

"Mom, you're silly. Why would I waste ice cream? It's okay, though. Last time we moved, Natalia was here to take care of all the packing," Emma replied a little dismissively, her attention clearly focused on the pile of books she was sorting into three teetering stacks. She looked up suddenly, her blue-green gaze intent as she met her mother's eyes. "I wish Natalia was here now. I miss her."

Olivia couldn't stop the half-sigh, half-whimper that escaped her lips at her daughter's words. "I miss her, too, 'bean. I miss her a lot. But she'll be home soon and, when she gets back, we'll be all settled back in and she'll be so happy, okay?"

"Okay." A slight frown furrowed Emma's brow and when she spoke, Olivia could hear the faint tremor of fear, like the rumble of a faraway train, seeping into her bones. "Mom, is Natalia's Mommy going to die?"

Olivia drew in a sharp breath, head tilting to the side as she regarded her daughter, trying to keep the rising tide of guilt and remorse at what Emma had suffered through this past year from overwhelming the floodgates. Closing her eyes for an instant, she braced herself, moving to perch on the edge of Emma's bed, drawing her daughter's thin frame onto her lap, breathing in the scent of soap and laundry detergent and innocence, holding it in her lungs for a moment, as if it were the most expensive of perfumes.

When Emma was born, Olivia had promised herself that she would be a better mother to this child than her mother had been to her; than she had been able to be to her first child. As long as Olivia drew breath, she could make sure that a day would never pass that Emma didn't feel safe, loved, and protected. And she had promised that, however difficult and painful it might be, she would never willingly lie to her daughter. Olivia knew, at least on some level, that she had succeeded, that Emma was a beautiful, confident, immeasurably kind and generous child. None of which made answering this question any easier.

Because Emma's words weren't simply about whether or not Natalia's mother was going to die. They were about whether Emma's mother was going to die, and no matter how much she reassured her daughter, no matter how healthy and strong she became, Olivia was aware that some small part of Emma would always be worried that one day her mother would be gone. The fact that there was nothing she could do to eradicate that insidious doubt left Olivia feeling angry and off-balance and extremely helpless. Not feelings that Olivia Spencer enjoyed.

"I don't know, honey," Olivia answered softly, wrapping her arms tightly around Emma's slender body. "I know that Natalia's mom is in her sixties and that she has lung cancer, which is a disease that makes it hard for people to breathe. I don't know much more than that, Em. She's in the hospital, which is good, because they can treat the cancer and make her more comfortable, but I don't know how long she's had it or how bad it is."

"Natalia will be very sad if her mommy dies, won't she?" Emma's voice was small and quiet and Olivia could feel the moisture welling in her eyes.

"Yes, baby, I think she will be," Olivia admitted, the truth in the words seeping into her heart. Despite everything, despite the angry words and the feelings of abandonment, despite the long, empty silence of the past nineteen years, Natalia would weep for her mother's death. Weep for the loss of the woman who had held her through all her nightmares, who had stood wiping away tears as she sent Natalia off to her first day of kindergarten. Weep for the grandmother her son never knew. She couldn't do anything but weep. Not and be the woman to whom Olivia had given her heart. "If that happens, we'll just have to hold her and give her extra hugs and kisses to make her feel better, won't we?"

Emma nodded silently, the silken hair on the top of her head tickling under Olivia's chin. When she spoke, her voice sounded impossibly small and young and uncertain. "Mommy? Do you think…would it be okay with you if I said a prayer for Natalia's mom to get better?"

Again, Olivia's breath caught in her throat at the implication of Emma's words. Emma was a very smart, very observant child. She knew that her mother wasn't fond of religion or church, knew that it was with a slight reluctance that she allowed Emma to accompany Natalia to Mass, something for which Olivia never, ever joined them. Despite that, and because of it, she was asking her mother's permission to speak those most private of words, to pray for a woman she had never met.

God, what did I do to deserve this kid? Olivia thought, the irony of the sentiment not lost on her.

"I think that would be wonderful, 'bean. I know that Natalia will really like that. You are such a sweet girl to want to do that," Olivia murmured, her lips pressed against Emma's hair, a few tears escaping to slide down, lying like drops of dew against the fine golden chestnut strands. "Emma. Do you still worry that I'm going to get sick again, that I might die?"

The words had left her lips before she could stop them, rising like a flock a geese from the pond, taking flight into the still air of the room. Olivia felt Emma stiffen slightly in her arms, felt the slow, reluctant nodding of her daughter's head under her chin. Pushing down the wave of panic that swelled in her chest, Olivia forced a few shuddering breaths into her lungs, wishing for the 1, 273 time since she had watched Natalia's car disappear down the driveway that Emma's other mommy was here.

Pulling back slightly, Olivia tilted Emma's face up, cupping her daughter's cheek tenderly, willing her voice to be strong, willing into her eyes every ounce of love she felt for this amazing being to whom she had given birth.

"Emma, one day, I might get sick again, and one day, a really, really, really long time from now, I will die, because everyone does. It's part of life. People are born, they live, hopefully for a long, long time, and then, one day, they die. And I can't promise you that when I do die that I'll be ready or that you'll be ready for me to go. Nobody can promise that. What I can promise is that I will do everything I can to be with you as long as I can. Be with you and Ava and Natalia, because I love you and I want to stay with you. And I promise you that even when I am gone that you won't be alone; that you'll have Natalia and Ava and your daddy. You'll always have someone who loves you, Em. And I will always be right here," Olivia told her, her voice thick with emotion, one hand coming up to rest gently over Emma's heart. "Right here. I love you, Jellybean. Okay? Do you understand?"

Emma regarded her solemnly, her expression unreadable as she stared intently into Olivia's eyes. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Olivia felt the muscles in Emma's back begin to slacken, felt the slender arms wrapped around her neck begin to loosen their grip. Finally, Emma nodded, the movement of her head measured and calm.

"Okay, Mommy. I understand. That's why you take your pills everyday and drink lots of water and don't eat bacon, right? So you can stay with me and Natalia and Ava?"

"That's exactly why, 'bean. 'Cause I want to stay with my three girls for years and years and years," Olivia heard the slight crack in her voice, blinking away the wall of tears threatening to break through her composure. Dropping her fingers to her daughter's ribcage, Olivia informed her, "Besides, I am the official tickler of Emma Spencer and I take my job very seriously."

The resultant peals of laughter, along with Emma's pleas for mercy, erased most of the tension and sadness from Olivia's mind. As she placed a rather loud raspberry on her daughter's stomach, Olivia couldn't help but offer up her own form of prayer, stilted and less than eloquent, but profoundly sincere nonetheless.

Thank you for my little girl. And please, bring Natalia home soon.


Chapter Eight

A rush of memories nearly overwhelmed her: her father reading to her each night, his soothing baritone lulling her to sleep. Her brothers, so much older than she, Roberto twelve years older, Carlos ten, swinging her like a sack of potatoes between them, back and forth as they walked down the street toward the grocery store, promising her a candy bar if she didn't tell her parents about the cigarettes she'd seen them buy. She almost didn't recognize those two laughing teenagers in the sober men standing at her father's side.

One of them recognized her, though.

Roberto's words echoed harshly against the institutional beige of the walls, his face contorted, angry, incredulous.

"What the hell are you doing here?!"

Even as her mouth fell open slightly at the spite and contempt in his voice, Natalia couldn't help but ask herself the same question. The answer came as Olivia's words repeated in her mind: "You came because she asked you to. You're not the one who has any explaining or apologizing to do. Don't forget, baby, you aren't sixteen anymore. You're a grown woman, who managed to raise a son all on her own. You're smart and strong and I love you."

"¡Basta, Roberto!" Natalia could see the faint flush that stained her father's cheeks as he turned to his eldest son, although she couldn't be certain that it was merely from anger or if there was a hint of shame to his chastisement of her brother. "I called your sister and asked her to come. Your mother wants her here."

"Ma wants her here? Why would she? After close to twenty years? She didn't say anything to me or Teresa about it," Roberto said sullenly, dark eyes glittering with anger and something else that Natalia couldn't quite place as his eyes swept down her slender frame.

"Father O'Dell spoke with your mother and urged her to make peace with Natalia, to forgive old transgressions so that her spirit will be more open to receiving God's healing," Hector Rivera explained solemnly, his own eyes never leaving his daughter's face.

As little as two years ago, those words would have been a sharpened spear, piercing her heart, tearing open old wounds of shame and humiliation, but not now. They still hurt, but they were no longer the body blows that once would have brought her to her knees.

"I didn't commit any transgressions, papa," Natalia said quietly, her expression just as solemn.

Before his father could respond, Roberto made a disgusted noise. "Oh, so having sex before marriage and getting knocked up at sixteen doesn't count as a transgression in your world, eh, Tally?"

"No more than throwing your pregnant sixteen year old out in the cold to fend for herself," Natalia replied, only the faint tremor in her voice hinting at the tumult of emotions swirling within her. "Or having sex with your girlfriend in the living room of your parents' apartment while you're supposed to be babysitting your little sister. You and Teresa weren't married yet, were you, Roberto? Oh, and don't call me Tally. I'm not a child anymore."

Roberto took a step toward her, a spark of menace flitting across his face, only to be brought up short by a strong hand on his arm, halting his forward motion.

"'Berto. Cool it, man. This isn't the time or the place to get into this. If Ma wants Natalia here, then I'm just glad that she was willing to come, despite the bad blood. Right?" Carlos spoke soothingly, glancing back and forth between his siblings.

Hector Rivera moved hesitantly in Natalia's direction, an expression of such despair and contrition on his face that Natalia drew in a deep breath. He looked far more than his sixty-five years, lines etched around his mouth and eyes, lines that spoke not of laughter and wisdom, but of too many years of hard work, too many cigarettes, too many bills and too little joy. Without speaking, Natalia simply opened her arms to him, as she had done to Rafe when he was small, as she did to Emma now, offering a refuge against a world that was far too quick to wound the heart of a child. Or a man old before his time.

"Natalia." Her name came on the crest of a sob as her father wrapped his bony arms around her. The scent of him, the faint, stale smell of tobacco and smoke, the lingering traces of an aftershave she was certain they stopped making twenty years ago, were like an olfactory time machine, sending her reeling back to 1989. He had hugged her like this the last time she saw him; a surreptitious embrace in the cramped entranceway to the apartment, away from the harsh, judging glare of her mother's eyes, her suitcase sitting on the floor between them, the toe of each of their shoes touching it, its presence a silent indictment of them both. The hug had been brief and shameful and yet, now, as her arms slipped gently around his thin frame, Natalia suddenly realized that the shame had been his, not hers.

Glancing over her father's shoulder, Natalia could see the contempt and anger in Roberto's eyes. She had expected nothing less. He had been her mother's first born and in the two years when she had belonged only to him, a bond had been forged that nothing, especially not the appearance of two rivals for her affection, had ever been able to break. In both mother and son's eyes, she was his mother first, plain and simple. The rest of them, Carlos, Natalia, even their father, all had to make do with whatever was left.

Carlos had stayed close to Roberto's side, watchful and silent. His lips turned up in a small smile, an apology in his eyes, although whether it was for his brother's words or his own sins against her she wasn't sure.

"It was good of you to come, Natalia, whatever the reason." Natalia could hear the sincerity in his voice. At his brother's words, Roberto made a sound of annoyance and shook off the hand still resting on his arm.

Natalia's father patted her back, his breath a bit ragged as he murmured, "I'm so glad to see you, cariño. So glad you're home."

He pulled back from her embrace, turning his head away from her and from his sons as he hastily wiped at the few tears that had managed to make their way down slightly sunken cheeks. Roberto's lip curled in disdain at his father's words and he shook his head in disbelief.

"So, you're the prodigal daughter now, eh, Natalia? Right, papa? Little Natalia come home to make everything all better?" Roberto sneered, voice strident. "But you know what, little sister, you're too late. The factory that papa worked at for the thirty years closed down five years ago. There were no pensions or retirement funds because the union mismanaged the money and with the economy the way it is papa couldn't find another job. Then mama got sick. They got no insurance so they're on Medicaid now. Me and Carlos, we help pay as many bills as we can but we've got families of our own to support. So you think you're gonna be able to swoop in here and fix all that just 'cause Ma's priest thought it was a good idea to call you. Huh? Do you, Tally? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Natalia."

The urge to simply turn and walk out of the hospital was so strong Natalia could feel it in each muscle of her legs, tensing with her brain's command to flee and to get the hell out of there. For an instant, she allowed herself to fantasize about stepping out into the humid summer air, sliding into what would now be the suffocating heat of her car, the vinyl of the seat searing through the thin layer of her dress; imagined turning the ignition, pulling the car back out onto Division, back to the interstate, back to Springfield, back to Olivia. Her father had said she was home, but this wasn't home. Home wasn't even the farmhouse, not really. If she lost it tomorrow, she would survive. Home existed in the circumference of Olivia Spencer's arms, and Natalia Rivera couldn't remember ever wanting to be home more than she did at this moment.

"No, I don't think that, Roberto. I'm sorry for all the things that have happened," Natalia said quietly, dark eyes seeking out her father's as she continued. "I'm sorry the factory closed, papa. I'm sorry about your pension. I'm so sorry that mama got sick and that there is no insurance to help pay for things. But none of those things are my fault." She paused and dragged a much needed lungful of air into lungs that suddenly felt tight and aching. "Neither is the fact that I wasn't here to help you. You and mama threw me out, papa. You, all of you, made it absolutely clear that I was no longer a part of this family. I came because you called me. Because you begged me to come. You told me that mama wanted to see me, and despite everything, you're my parents, and so I came. But it doesn't change anything, papa. You can't change the past."

As she spoke, Natalia could see each word strike her father like small stones against his weathered skin, could see him flinch as each truth hit home, and she felt a fleeting sense of shame at causing such pain to this tired, old man. "I'm sorry, papa, but it's true."

Hector Rivera nodded slowly, the movement of his head jerky and trembling, as if the admission brought him physical pain, and, again, Natalia felt the sense of guilt and shame wash over her. It was like kicking an old, injured animal and she closed her eyes tightly at the sudden rush of tears. She had promised herself in the car that she would not cry, that her parents and her brothers would never witness that weakness in her, as if the show of emotion would be some acknowledgment of wrongdoing on her part. As if her tears would be a flag of surrender to their already tarnished opinion of her. She hadn't bargained for this though, for this broken shell of a father and two middle-aged men who still held, stamped on their features, faint traces of the brothers she once knew, faces that were now stamped with other things, with loss and bitterness and disappointment at the way their lives had ended up.

"Why don't you just stab him with something, Tally? It'd be less painful," Carlos said in quiet indictment, his own eyes showing the marks where her words had struck home.

"I'm not trying to hurt him. I don't want to hurt anyone. I never did," Natalia replied, a catch in her voice despite her best efforts not to allow the emotions that were nearly overwhelming her to show.

"Yeah, well, too late for that." Roberto flung the words at her, his own version of small weapons fire, intended to cause damage. "You broke mama's heart when you got pregnant. Papa's, too. You think they wanted the humiliation, the suffering you caused them? It was years before mama could go back to Sunday mass. She went on Saturday night, so she didn't have to face all the women from the neighborhood. She was so ashamed, like she didn't raise you better. And papa, he never got over having to do the right thing and disowning you. And now you come here and say those things to him, like some puta barata?"

"Roberto! You will not speak to your sister that way!" For the first time since she had arrived, Natalia caught a glimpse of the man who had raised her as her father's spine straightened and a flash of anger lit his dark eyes. A flash that faded with the next words he uttered. "She's right. None of this is her fault. There will be no further talk of blame. Natalia came to see your mother and I will not have your mama upset by any of you. Do you understand me, Roberto?"

For a moment, Natalia thought that her brother would defy their father, the look on his face stubborn and angry, but after a few seconds he relented, a brief nod the only acknowledgment of his father's demand. An uncomfortable silence settled over them, broken only by the mundane sounds of the hospital, the occasional squawk of the intercom, the voices of nurses and patients, the muted beep of monitors.

"How is she?" Natalia asked hesitantly, a little unwilling to break the uneasy peace.

"She's dying." It was Carlos who answered, the flatness of his tone making the pronouncement all the more bleak. "The doctor's admitted her because there isn't anything else they can do for her. They offered to get a hospice nurse to come to the house, but she didn't want that. Said it wouldn't be fair to papa to die in their marriage bed. So they've had her here for a week, hooked up to a morphine pump. She's out of it most of the time, but she refused to take anything this afternoon. I guess papa must have told her you were coming. Guess she wanted to be awake to see you."

"I told her I had talked to you and that I prayed that you would come," Hector responded to his son's implied question. "I told her that even if you did agree, I didn't know when you would get here, but she said you would be here today. You know your mama once she makes up her mind." A brief smile ghosted across his face at the mention of his wife's intractable nature. "Your brothers and I were just going home for the day, but we will wait while you see her. Then you can come home with us and we will have dinner and you can sleep in your room tonight."

A sharp stab of pain lanced across Natalia's mind at her father's words, at the uncomplicated belief so clear in his voice that now that Natalia had returned, now that all the ugly words had been said and laid to rest, that things would simply go back to the way they had been twenty years ago, a belief that sent a fresh wall of tears rushing against the back of Natalia's eyelids. Slowly, she reached out and gently grasped her father's hand. The skin felt thin and warm and dry against her own.

"I want to see mama. There are some things I need to say to her. And I'll be happy to have dinner with you. But I can't stay at your apartment, papa. The last time I was there I stood in the hallway outside the door and cried for hours, pleading with you to let me back in. I can't just pretend that none of that happened. I've got a reservation at the Marriot nearby. I'll be staying there while I'm in Chicago." Natalia tried to keep the accusatory tone from her voice, tried to be as kind as she could, but even so, she saw the older man flinch again at the sting of her words.

"What'd you marry a rich man, there, hermana, that you can afford to stay at a ritzy hotel, or have you moved from waitressing to another kind of service?" Roberto taunted, leaning his stocky frame against the wall outside their mother's room.

No, a rich woman. The thought nearly translated to words as Natalia took in her brother's arrogant stance, the sharp edge of his meaning grazing her skin, leaving tiny cuts.

"Not that it's any of your business, but I have a good job as the assistant to a publisher, so I can afford a few nights at a hotel." Natalia's attempt to keep her voice neutral wasn't too successful, her eyes flashing dangerously. She didn't mention that the hotel was someone else's idea, someone who loved her enough to know that having to sleep in her childhood bed would be more painful than she could bear. Someone who called ahead and reserved a room for her at a nice, safe hotel, one with room service and a manager with whom she had done a lot of business. Someone who always put her first.

"I just thought that you would stay with me," her father said again, eyes on the streaked linoleum of the hallway.

"I know, papa. I just can't. I'm sorry. I'll come for dinner tonight and I'll come visit while I'm here, but I can't stay there." Natalia squeezed the hand still in hers, willing her father to understand. "I guess I should see mama now, so that she can take her medicine and get some rest, hmm?"

"Don't upset her. Don't go in there and get all high and mighty and tell her the crap you just pulled on pa. You hear me, Natalia?" Roberto said harshly.

"'Berto, let it go, okay? Just let her see ma?" Carlos gave her a brief, encouraging smile.

Natalia didn't reply, her obdurate gaze meeting Roberto's, daring him to continue. Squeezing her father's hand one last time, she brushed past her brother, only pausing as her hand fell on the door handle.

"Should I knock?" She asked her father, her confidence faltering for the first time since she had stepped off the elevator. This was it, this was the moment she had been praying for and dreading for nineteen years. The sheer mundanity of the moment, the beige walls, the pressed wood of the door, the trickle of sweat rolling down to the small of her back, struck her just as the enormity of it all left her weak in the knees.

Androcles and the lion, she thought. I just hope that I fare better than he did.

"No, just go on in, cariño," her father advised. "She may not hear the knock."

With a slightly trepidatious nod, Natalia pushed open the door.

The air in the room was tepid, laced with the scent of antiseptic and the barest hint of the sour smell of decay. Staring at the woman lying in the bed, Natalia stopped just inside the door, pushing down the tide of panic, willing herself to simply breathe, to gather her resolve. Her mother, who had always loomed so large in life, a tiny giant of a woman, a general who ran her family with a dedicated, ruthless precision, now lay, a slight, emaciated figure, barely disturbing the line of the white sheets. Her head was wrapped in a brightly colored scarf, reds and yellows and blues that gleamed like a flag of warning against the pale pillowcase.

As Natalia watched, her mother's eyes flickered open, their dark gaze focusing slowly on the figure standing motionless by the door.

"Hello, mama."

Minutes ticked by as her mother lay silently, her eyes raking deliberately up and down Natalia's figure, analyzing her dress, studying her face. At length she spoke, her once pleasant voice now a strained, hoarse whisper.

"Well, you don't look like a prostitute."

Natalia felt the air leave her lungs in one, harsh expulsion. Willing the spark of anger inside her to die, she replied as calmly as she could. "No, mama. I'm not a prostitute. Or a stripper. Or anything else you might have thought."

"I wondered. You know, over the years, I wondered if you'd been forced to make your money on your back to support your bastard child. It happens, you know," her mother responded, her tone almost conversational despite the ravages to her voice.

Natalia couldn't stop the short bark of bitter laughter that accompanied the half-smile, half-grimace on her face. "You know mama, I don't know which is worse: that you thought that I would ever resort to prostitution or that you thought it and still did nothing to try and find me and help me."

"You made your own bed, Natalia. Made it and crawled into it with that worthless Nicky Aitoro. Why would it seem all that big a leap to think you might have turned to whoring after that?" There was a hardness to her mother's face, an astringent, acid tone to her weak voice that Natalia didn't remember being there.

"Somehow, I doubt that this was your priest had in mind when he advised you to make peace with the past. With me," Natalia replied, ignoring her mother's cruel words, walking toward the shaded window, the snicking sound of her shoes against the sticky tile floor a counter rhythm to the steady hum of her mother's oxygen.

"He's a good man, Father O'Dell. One of those granola types though. Thinks that my 'negative energy', as he puts it, my anger and resentment, are keeping me from being able to receive God's healing power. I told him that the only negative here is how little air gets into my lungs these days. I'm dying. God has let me know it's my time and I'm ready. These doctors can't help me once God decides. You'd think a priest of all people would know that," Maria Rivera explained, her words punctuated occasionally by gasps for breath. "I told him I didn't need to make peace with anything. That I know I did what was best for my family, that I followed God's word. Father O'Dell convinced your papa that I needed to see you. I finally just gave in. Too much trouble arguing with both of them."

A thousand replies crowded Natalia's mind, words of anger and indictment, of hurt and confusion, of guilt and pain, all of them clamoring to be spoken, demanding to be heard. Looking at her mother's face, Natalia knew that each of those words would die a quick, merciless death at her mother's hand. No matter what she said to her, no matter how she screamed, yelled, pleaded, cajoled, her mother would not hear her. When she said the things she had come here to say, and she renewed her vow to herself that she would say them before she left, they would be for her benefit alone, something that she had always known, in the back of her mind, would be true.

She wasn't here to make peace with the dying woman staring coldly at her from her hospital bed; she was here to make peace with herself, with the sixteen year old girl who still hid away inside her, waiting for her parents to come for her, waiting for an absolution from her mother's lips that had never, would never, come. And that girl deserved to find that peace, even if it came at the expense of Natalia's pride and righteous anger. She deserved to finally know this woman who had given her life and then taken away everything she loved and held dear, deserved to understand why her parents' unconditional love came with so many conditions. Not to forgive them, but to understand them and, maybe, to forgive herself.

"Here, mama, let me get you some water before I go," Natalia said gently, crossing to the bedside table and lifting the pink plastic pitcher to fill her mother's cup with icy water. She handed the thin plastic cup to her, now close enough to see the pallor of the older woman's skin, the purple stains that circled her eyes, the faint blue tinge to her lips. "You should take your pain medicine now and get some sleep. I'll come by tomorrow."

Maria took the cup from Natalia's hand, a haze of suspicion blurring her already pain-clouded eyes.

"Don't worry, mama, it isn't poisoned. I don't want you dead. I have too many things to say to you. Here, take the button for the pump," Natalia said, a sad smile gracing her lips. She handed her mother the small control for the morphine pump, waiting to make certain the woman used it. As the lassitude of the drugs spread through her system, her mother's eyes closed.

Pausing by the door, Natalia closed her own eyes, bracing herself. If her mother was the lion, then her brothers definitely ranked as Roman soldiers. Well, Roberto, at least. Tilting her chin up, Natalia reached for the door handle and stepped out into the hallway, offering her father a brief smile as she moved purposefully down the hall. She had survived this encounter with the lion. She could only pray for the strength and the courage to face her again.

Right now though, she needed something else.

Stepping into the waiting room, Natalia pulled out her phone.

"Hey, you. I was just thinking about you. Are you okay?" She felt Olivia's voice as a palpable caress, soothing her ragged breathing, smoothing each ruffled, bedraggled feather in her soul.

"I wasn't, but I am now. I am now."

To Be Continued

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