A knock came on the door. Frank scratched his head and closed his notebook, blocking admittedly shitty poetry from view. He turned to the door- George.
"You've got a visitor," George said. Frank's brows drew in. Must be Liam..?
He stood and thanked George for the information before heading downstairs. Perched at one of the barstools in the kitchen was May.
She turned to him, brown hair sweeping around her head, and faced him with unreadable dark eyes. A nervous smile lifted her lips. "Hi."
Frank stepped into the kitchen. "Hey."
"I hardly believe it- you look better already."
"A shower and a haircut'll do that," he said.
"And clean clothes and clear eyes," May added, almost grinning. He was surprised by her overall demeanor toward him. "Anyway, I wanted to come check on you. Liam told me about you coming here, and I had to make sure you were okay."
"Oh. Well, I'm doing alright," Frank said, feeling awkward. A stiffness had entered his back muscles as he wondered why May had come. "Can I, um, get you something to drink, or..? We have sweet tea and root beer, you know, for irony. And some other soft drinks and juice."
"Sounds like you've got it made," May said, and Frank shrugged.
"Can't complain, anyway. So, drink?"
"Oh, um, sweet tea will be fine."
Frank poured her tea into a small plastic cup and poured some for himself, and then leaned on the counter. "So, how have things been? Work? River? The cat?"
May chuckled lightly. "Work's been hectic; trying to close six houses before mid-month. Quarters and all that. River's been fine, he keeps asking about you, though."
"What do you tell him?"
"That you're sick so you're getting better since you don't want to get him sick."
Frank nodded. "And the cat?"
May rolled her eyes. "She's fine. Growing like a weed; she'll be going into heat soon. I've got the appointment scheduled for August 1st to get her fixed."
"Probably a good idea." Frank sipped his tea. "So, not to sound rude, I swear, but, why did you come? We've never really gotten along well, and-"
"That's why." May set down her tea and looked at him pleasantly. "We never got along before. I realized the other day when I read your letter that it would probably help you to have a support system, not- not judgment. I've been harsh. I felt like you were undermining my pain; I loved your father, I still do, and it felt like you didn't see that. And… Even when you asked for help, I said yes, but I was still cold and condescending. And I justified it to myself that I was giving you a place to stay and it wasn't my job to fix you." She swallowed. "But we're a family, like it or not, because of River, and I want to help you if I can."
"For you." She steadied herself. "You're a lot like your father, you know. The same wild spirit and dry wit. Same green eyes." It hurt her to say, he saw, and he understood. "And… I'm tired of being the bitter old hag I've been."
"Hey, it's not all your fault." He took a long sip of tea and a deep breath. "I was angry, too. You're right, I didn't think you actually loved my dad. I thought you were comfortable with him and liked the lifestyle you two had, but I couldn't see it as love. My mom was dead a year before you two got together."
"I know." She sighed. "I felt like a- a substitute, for a long time. It felt like he just wanted someone to lay next to at night and kiss when he got home. I thought it was too soon, too, but… I loved him, so I just accepted it."
Four years of bitterness finally crumbled and Frank saw the grieving woman that sat before him. The widowed mother of a two-year-old, the woman who had tried her damnedest to get through to Frank, the woman who had known she could never replace his mother. He crossed the kitchen and took her hand.
"You're not my mom," he said. "And you never will be. But, for a step-mom, you're doing fine. And as a mother, you're doing great- just maybe ease up on the reins a little, River's going to need some freedom."
She met his eyes with tearful dark gaze and nodded. He saw her chin quiver and he crossed the island, coming around the side, and hugged her. He felt her tears on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry I took out my grief on you," he said. "I was twenty and lost my mom and I felt alone because my dad didn't even seem to care after a year. It hadn't been long enough."
"I know," May whispered, her voice shaking. "I'm sorry I was so harsh."
He pulled back from the hug, his own throat tight. "Fresh start? Let go of the bitterness?"
She nodded. "I'd like that."
He managed a smile. "I would, too."
"Fiona said you're on kitchen duty today."
Carson ducked back out of the room in a sweep of pink hair and Ella groaned. Hazel sent her a sympathetic blue glance. "She's still mad?"
"I guess so," Ella sighed. "Glad she brought it the workplace. This is why I never go anywhere with her."
Ella looked down. Julia- one of her favorite kids in the room, when Julia felt like being good. The girl smiled up at her with shining blue eyes and a poof of blonde hair.
"Can we go outside?" Julia asked, and Ella shook her head.
"No, sweetie. Not right now. Go play with Legos."
Julia pouted. "Please?"
Ella deepened her voice to a comical growl. "Go play with Legos!" The little girl bustled off and Ella smiled, and then turned back to Hazel. "Well. Once Nial and Luke go home, will you be good here if I go clean?"
"Yeah, no problem," Hazel said. It was close to the end of the day- about two hours before closing, and kids were steadily trickling out from all the rooms of the daycare. Ella headed for the kitchen.
It had been a long day. Ella was tired. Her feet hurt, the soles of her shoes worn to rinds; she had pulled something in her back when a kid had suddenly yanked her arm while she took him to timeout; and, to top it all off, three of her best kids had been absolutely horrible today.
Ella washed the dishes in irritated, robotic movements. The workers were supposed to cycle through who cleaned up in the afternoons. Ella had been responsible for the past four workdays. To make it better, for a week now she had been woken in the night several times by Maggie, the little girl plagued by nightmares about the wreck. Ella didn't know what to tell her or how to help her.
Ella paused her washing, thoughts piling on. This was just- it was too much. It was all too much. She forced her hands steady and rushed to grab the broom from the supply closet. She swept in frantic strokes, mind whirring. Fiona didn't have the highest opinion of Ella these days but the director had to admit Ella worked hard. Hopefully, it would now pay in her favor.
Ella hurried to the baby room where her boss was feeding a red-faced six-month-old. "Fiona? I- I really need to get some bills paid. Is it alright if I leave Maggie here? I'll be back for her before closing. I finished the kitchen already, and Hazel is fine-"
"Go," Fiona sighed, not looking up at her.
Ella nodded and turned away, grabbing her time-card and clocking out. She nearly ran into May in her rush to leave. May looked at her like she was searching for something; Ella didn't stop to ask what. She just left.
It took ten minutes to reach the cozy coffee shop where Ella had disappeared to for quiet afternoons, reading and drinking coffee, back in her high school days. She had never studied here or brought a date; it was her escape, where she read, doodled, journalled, or occasionally even sketch. She had been offered a job here, but she had refused. Free coffee wasn't worth associating her hovel with stress.
She sat with a sigh and a cup of coffee. Tinsley was the only person she had ever brought here, after Tinsley had returned from college in Pennsylvania. It was where Tinsley had taken her to explain the conditional engagement to Blake, where Tinsley had revealed her pregnancy. It had become where Ella went when her grief got too strong to overcome, and she needed holy black caffeine to saturate her sorrow.
Expunging memories wasn't an easy thing to do, and Ella had admitted to herself long ago that she could never forget her sister. It would never get easier, as the pastor had assured her it would. The funeral would still haunt her for years to come. The 4:45 A.M. phone-call, when the ER had told her she was listed as the emergency contact for the morgue's newest corpse. Ella closed her eyes, swishing coffee around her tongue, wishing she could forget.
Why can't I let go of the pain?
She had been told grieving got easier with time.
She was learning all that got easier was hiding it- and she wasn't sure she could keep doing even that.
"So. Why do you think you're here today?"
Dr. Hayden Hartman's knowledgeable blue eyes met Frank from a weathered, wrinkled face revealed by a tight silver ponytail. She was a beanpole of a woman in a black suit, and her presence commanded respect without being hostile or detached.
"Because I'm an alcoholic," he answered, accustomed to the words now after three AA meetings. They still clung bitter to his tongue, but they were getting easier to say.
Dr. Hartman smiled pleasantly. "That's the obvious answer, yes, but it's not why. Let me ask you a new question: why are you an alcoholic? Why do you, or why did you, drink?"
"Grief." He swallowed the word and his throat was dry. This was the harder part, even after explaining a bit of it to strangers in a white-tile room. "My mother died when I was twenty, a week before I would have been twenty-one. I still made it for a while after that, just drinking on nights when it got to me, so that I could sleep. But it got worse. My father died a year ago and I got heavy into drinking to forget about it. A good friend of mine started pulling me out of it, and I became semi-recovered, no meetings or anything, and then he died. So now I just-"
"Feel a bit cursed? Like it doesn't matter what you do, everyone you care about dies anyways?"
He stared at her, a bit shocked. "Exactly."
She nodded, understanding in her eyes, and jotted down the notes. "Well then. What made you decide to start therapy and move into a halfway-house?"
"My brother," Frank answered. "He's two, and my step-mother threatened to take him away from me for good if I didn't get cleaned up."
She smiled again, her eyes warmed by the words. "An excellent reason. So, let me ask you: is your love for your brother stronger than your grief? Can he fill the pain your mother and father left you with?"
He hadn't even considered it. A dead man's words hung in his head every time he relapsed, and a dead woman's love left a cavity in his chest. She was asking the right questions- but he didn't know if River was enough, if River could make him feel like he was enough. Like life was enough.
"The short answer is no," Dr. Hartman said. Her face had flattened, lips drawn. "You can't recover for someone else. You want to- and you want your love them to be enough- but addiction is a chemical need in your body. Your body starts to think it can't live without those chemicals. And the chemicals that make us feel love aren't stronger than our survival instincts." She took a sip from a monogrammed thermos on her desk. "You want to recover 'for your brother.' But the truth is you can only recover for yourself."
It was better than all the God-talk that had been spouted at him. He had nothing against the Christian element of AA, he got that religion helped people, to feel like some higher power had a plan for them, but it hadn't helped him. Not yet, anyway. This- this did. Because he'd been trying to get better for River, and it hadn't been working so far. He just felt miserable and reluctant.
"Your intent is good," Dr. Hartman continued, leaning toward him over her mahogany desk. "And all you need is a slight change of mindset. You want to get better and you want your love for your brother to drive it. Change that: make yourself someone deserving his love. Then it's not your own strength of feeling motivating you, and it's still about recovery and self-improvement. So: we've covered why you're here, and why you're recovering. That leaves one thing."
"God, what could possibly come after that?"
She smiled. "Glad you asked. Now we set a goal."
He raised his eyebrows. "What? What has that got to do with it?"
He had seen the chips in AA meetings. Just last night, he had watched someone get their twenty-five year chip, and it had been horrifying to think of going to white-tile rooms for twenty-five years.
"You need a tangible goal. Most people think something like, 'If I can make it a month, I'll be good.' Those are shit goals."
He raised his eyebrows, shocked at the word.
"Now I'm speaking your language, right?" She grinned. "So, what's something you want? Something you can strive for, something physical?"
He thought about it. A number of things came to mind- a job, a house, a haircut. But all of those were temporary things, things that would eventually end. He needed something a little more permanent, something to hold onto, something to remind him of what he'd been through and how far he'd come.
Something to hold onto.
"I've got something- but I'm not sure it's exactly the kind of goal you're talking about."
She raised her thin eyebrows. "Oh? And what would that be?"
"There's this girl I don't deserve."