Another really long one guys! Okay, so this is for naz292 who requested a glimpse of what Jake might have been thinking about while in the coma. Sorry it's taken me so long to get anything written, but I've gone back to school and writing is close to impossible along with the rest of my work. Still, I made a promise and I'm working on all of the request I've got! Love you guys, and consider this a very, very early Valentine's Day present :)
If I was late one more time, Ethan was going to skin me alive. With a frustrated sigh, I tried to hurry my way through the early New York City crowd in time to beat the stoplight. It was colder than I expected and I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets, dodging to the left on the side walk to avoid a fast-stepping man with a cellphone pressed to his ear and a briefcase clenched in the other hand. Even though I had been in New York for two months, I hadn't quite gotten used to the rush that made people hell bent on running me over if I stood even an inch in their way. Shaking my head at one such person as they sped past me, I simply moved with the crowd towards the crosswalk.
My stomach growled in a sordid reminder of the fact that I only had a rushed cup of coffee that morning, but I ignored it, picking up my pace as the traffic slowed down and people began to cross the street. Right as I got the crosswalk, the light changed and I was stuck watching cars wiz by. I sighed with frustration, stopping short at the edge of the sidewalk. Braving the cold, I took my hand out of my pocket to look at my watch. Immediately I groaned. Ten minutes. I had ten minutes to get to the agency. My leg jiggled impatiently as my eyes fastened to the crosswalk signal. If it changed within the next five seconds, I might be able to make it and my skin would be spared. A group of people who pressed on with the same rush that had put a pep in my step gathered behind me, murmuring impatiently at the honking horns and yellow taxis speeding by.
Just when I began debating the likelihood of me making it across the street alive if I simply dashed forward, the traffic began to crawl to a stop. Letting out the breath I hadn't realized I was holding, I watched until the crosswalk light changed to green and stepped out into the street, my mind immediately attempting to figure out if there were any shortcuts I could take. A heard a couple of people coming up behind me and hurried to get across the street so that all of us would make it. Just as I hit the halfway mark, the hair suddenly rose on my neck and I got the distinct feeling that something was wrong.
"Oh my God, look out!"
The older woman's frantic cry came a second too late. The sound of brakes screeching filled my ears and I whipped my head around just in time to see the black sedan hurdling towards me. My entire body froze and just in that moment I made eye contact with the driver of the car. And then, I felt the impact in my side and I flew into the air. What little air had been in my lungs was forcefully expelled as the ground came closer and closer. I realized immediately that I was going to land on my head. 'Well, this won't end well,' I thought belatedly and then pain exploded in my right temple and everything went black.
Pain. Excruciating pain paralyzing me. Where were my eyes? My legs? I couldn't find my mouth to scream that it was hurting—I was hurting everywhere. I felt the bite of something in my upper arm and then…a burning all throughout my veins. The pain drifted away. I was floating in space with weights tied over me, spiraling into nothingness…Waves of heat and cold, washing over me, forcing me down….
"Jacob, wake up." Someone's fingers dug into my shoulder, shaking me into reality. My body and mind snapped together in that instant and I pried my eyes open, blinking confusedly at my father. When had I gotten home?
"Dad?" I felt disoriented. He looked exhausted. His face was haggard, and there were bags under his eyes. When he saw that I was awake, he took a step away and sighed.
"Get up. You have to get your suit on; we're running late."
My suit on? For what? I leaned up in the bed, my eyes scanning over my room. Something didn't feel right. The walls were washed out, the usual bright morning sunlight was streaming in through the window at an odd angle…everything had a fuzzy blur to it. I forced my eyes wider and then rubbed them, thinking that there was something wrong with them. When I opened them back up, everything was exactly the same.
"Jacob, we can't be late. Let's go." My dad wasn't in the room anymore, but I heard his voice just the same. It was then that I realized that I wasn't in my room anymore either. In fact, I was in the kitchen, my black suit crisp and sharp over my body. I frowned down at it. When had I put that on? When had I gotten up?
Something was off. Nevertheless, responding to the impatience radiating from my father, I hurried up behind him and got into the car. It jerked beneath us once we were inside and then we were pulling out of the driveway.
"Where are we going?" I asked after a minute of silence. He didn't take his eyes off of the road.
"Don't do that, Jake."
I was more than confused now. "Dad, seriously. I have no idea where we're going."
He sighed long and loud, braking as we came to a stoplight. Something about his face wasn't right either. Finally, he turned towards me, a look of patient resignation flattening his mouth into a thin line. "I know you've been out of it for the last couple of days, but this isn't fair to me. Suck it up for the both of us."
I studied him, absorbed the pain that darkened his eyes and suddenly a feeling I didn't want at all settled deep in my gut. "What happened?" I asked flatly.
Instead of answering me, he turned back to face the front, his jaw clenching. My chest suddenly felt tighter and I curled my hand into a fist on my thigh, crumbling the fabric of my suit pants unconsciously.
"Dad, what happened? Where are we going?"
He still refused to answer me, driving along in silence on the…completely empty stretch of road. I turned my face to the window. It was raining. Sheets of water poured from the grey sky, giving the entire ride a more ominous feeling. Suddenly, I desperately wanted to get out of the car. Wherever we were going, I didn't want to be. I knew that with certainty. "Let me out of the car."
"Let me out of the car, Dad!"
When he didn't respond, I began scrambling for the handle only to find that there wasn't one there. I stared at the spot that it had been in moments earlier for a long minute, flabbergasted. How was that possible? "This isn't real," I muttered to myself. "None of this is real."
"That's what I've been trying to tell myself too." My dad suddenly said, the sorrow heavy in his voice. "It shouldn't be real, Jake. It shouldn't be something we have to face right now. But it is, buddy. And we have to be strong."
I whipped my head around to glare at him, hating the hitch in my throat. "Strong for what?"
The car stopped. My dad unstrapped himself and hunched over the steering wheel for a moment before turning to face me. My eyes widened when I saw the tear tracks on his cheeks. "It's what she would have wanted," he choked out, pressing his fingers to his eyes with more force than necessary.
What she would have wanted….
The words spiraled in my head over and over again before they started to make sense. And then, my mouth dropped open and everything around me narrowed to one tiny pinprick of awareness. Dragging my eyes away from my father, I looked out the window and then gasped harshly. "No." I whispered through numb lips. "No, no, no; oh God, oh please, no."
When I spun back around to demand that my father take me away from this horrible place, he was nowhere to be found. His door was wide open, the rain wetting his seat. I felt stuck to my own seat. I didn't want to get out, couldn't bear it, but for some reason I couldn't stop my body from exiting the car. Somehow, my feet knew where to go, sloshing through the mud and grime. The rain pounding against my body laid my hair flat to my head, but I barely felt it. I barely felt anything.
I stumbled forward, weaving unconsciously through the slabs of marble sticking up solemnly from the ground until the hazy outline of my father's stooped back came into view. My steps faltered and I nearly fell face first in the mud but caught myself at the last minute. My father turned though, his eyes red rimmed and resigned. I had to see what he was looking at. I had to know.
As though he realized it, he stepped aside, revealing the headstone to me. My breath stalled in my throat. It was the moment I had always dreaded. This time, there was no stopping me when I fell forward onto my knees before it. Of its own accord, my hand came up to trace the inscription carved into the marble.
Here Lies Amanda Gabrielle Riley.
Beloved Mother, Honored Wife, Cherished Friend
Fighter Until the End
"This isn't real!" I shouted at the stone, ignoring the tears that blurred my vision. "It's not real!"
But it felt real. It felt more real than I could bear. A weight pressed hard into my back and I slumped forward, curling my arms around the headstone in a sad attempt at a hug. When had my mother died? Why wasn't I there?
My world had come to a complete and total standstill. What the hell was I going to do without her? She was my everything. She was all I ever had…the reason for everything I did.
I couldn't breathe. In fact, it felt like I had been punched in the side repeatedly. And my head was throbbing, spinning. I was going to throw up. Lurching up, I pushed away from the headstone only to see that it wasn't the same one at all. Instead of the large, imposing dark grey, this headstone was smaller, daintier, and a grainy white. Though the nausea led me to cover my mouth with a hand, I felt drawn to the headstone, desperate to see whose it was. Before I could, out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark haired woman on her knees a little to the left of it, her head bent in mourning. As I studied her, she glanced up, her bright blue eyes zeroing in on me and narrowing with ill-concealed menace.
My curiosity got the better of me, despite the grief that seemed to be pulling me further into myself. "Jennifer?" my voice was hoarse and I remembered that not even a minute ago I had been yelling.
Her glare intensified. "She didn't make it," she said quietly, drawing her bottom lip in between her teeth to hide its trembling. My brow furrowed. Who was she talking about? Jennifer had never even met my mom.
"She didn't make it, Jake!" Jennifer's voice rose in volume. Her eyes stabbed into me, the accusation in them catching me off guard. I opened my mouth to ask what she was talking about, but before I could she jabbed a finger towards the headstone, sniffling loudly. The misery was plain on her face too, but it was gut deep and I felt it like it was my own.
Hesitantly, I looked at her and then finally turned regard the headstone. The name etched carefully into it made the blood freeze in my veins. I began blinking rapidly, my breath coming in short, painful gasps. "Oh God…"
"She did it for you." Jennifer said from behind me, her voice low and mournful. "She did it because you asked her to. Because you needed her to. And now look!"
I couldn't look. Jesus, I couldn't look for one more minute…but it was impossible to tear my eyes away. I stretched my hand out, fingers shaking. But before they could trace the name I knew so well, they fell uselessly to the muddied ground. In a last ditch attempt to reject whatever reality I had been thrown into, I scrambled to my feet. My eyes stayed glued to the headstone, wide and horrified.
Here Lies Crystal Analese Moore…
Before I could take a single step back, my legs buckled and I was back on my knees, head buried in my hands. "What happened?" I gasped, feeling Jennifer's presence behind me. But I was sure I already knew. I was sure, and it was tearing me apart inside.
"There were complications. The abortion…" Jennifer's fingers bit into my wrists, prying my hands away from my face. When I turned to look at her, her face was nothing more than an angry blurb. I was completely blinded by the tears that I had only just begun to shed. "She didn't make it."
You killed her.
The words weren't spoken, but they might as well have been for all of the animosity I could feel coming off of Jennifer. But I deserved it. She was right. I was selfish and I killed her. And I never even got to tell her the truth. I was too afraid. Always too afraid to reveal that last bit of myself to her.
"I'm sorry!" I cried, shuffling forward to press my face against the headstone. "Oh God, Crystal, I'm so sorry." Jennifer was nothing more than a fading memory now. In fact, I wasn't even sure if she was still there. It seemed that she had disappeared to the same place that my father had faded away to.
I had nothing. I had lost the two women in my life who meant more to me than everything I ever was. I draped myself over the stone, hating how cold it was, desperately trying to recall the warmth of our last embrace.
I didn't want it. I knew that from the start. Deep down inside, I never wanted her to do it in the first place. She and I would have had a beautiful baby. My throat felt so tight I was struggling to breath. It felt like someone had burrowed into my chest and was raking over my insides, over and over again. My mother...Crystal…it was too much. How could this happen to me? How could fate be so damn cruel?
The rain had soaked me to the skin and my teeth were chattering, but I was devoid of all feeling except for the throbbing pain radiating from my chest. The apologies were spilling from my lips, but I wasn't even sure what I was saying anymore. What could I say? Nothing would be enough. Nothing would ever fill the hole in my life the way she did. And it was my fault.
My entire body went numb and I fell back on my heels, the mud rising between my fingers. "I can't do this without you!" I howled at the stone. Her name stared silently back at me, taunting, accusing…it was true. I had lost my mom, and though that hurt, I knew it was coming at some point. But to lose my mother and Crystal? I…I—
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another much smaller headstone about a foot away. I knew immediately what it was. "Oh, no." I whispered. "Oh, please. Don't do this to me. Please." Again, I couldn't stop myself from moving towards it regardless of the fact that the last thing I wanted to do was see what it said.
The engraving was covered by mud and I used numb fingers to wipe it away. Delicately carved was a pair of baby booties and under it, the inscription.
Tread Softly; A Dream Lies Here
The tip of my finger hooked around the D in Dream, my face crumpling. My baby. Oh God, it was the baby I had made and never known. Only Crystal could come up with something that beautiful. Only someone with a soul as beautiful as hers. And I had stomped it out. I stomped out both of them. Smothered a voice that had never gotten the chance to speak.
My mind whirled with questions even as the corners of it began to shut down. How long had she lived? How long had she had to come to grips with the decision we made before it killed her? How long had she had to curse me, to let the hate build up inside of her before she was stolen from me like this?
That was the last straw for my system. My back snapped ramrod straight and I dug my fingers into the ground, tilting my face up to the sky. The rain pelted me, but I didn't feel it. Instead, I opened my mouth and screamed, all of the pain and misery escaping from me and leaving me breathless and weak. And then…my consciousness fled and I fell into a boneless heap in front of the graves of all that could have been.
III. The Tunnel
"Someone call 911!"
"Sir, can you hear me? Sir? Can you answer me?"
"White male, late teens early twenties, hit and run…"
"Head and rib trauma. Someone hook him up to a monitor. Does anyone have a name for this kid?"
"We've contacted Mr. Riley's mother. She's working out arrangements now."
"Let's get him some morphine. He could be in a lot of pain."
Warm hands. A tear filled voice. "Come back, Jake. Please. Don't do this to me."
"We're losing him!"
"Call in a crash cart, now!"
Darkness. Light. Darkness. Electricity.
"We've got a pulse!"
"No change in his condition yet. Vitals look good."
A whisper. "I wonder if you can hear me." Stroking fingers.
"Miss Moore, you've been here for a while."
"I can't leave him."
Another whisper, tinged with embarrassment. "I'm really glad you were my first."
Laughter. Beautiful, tinkling, musical laughter.
Sighs. Gentle fingers. The scent of vanilla and sunshine.
"He's getting better every day."
"The swelling has gone down drastically."
"He might be able to hear you."
"I couldn't kill a baby that would grow up to be like you."
An insistent buzzing from somewhere over my left shoulder grew louder and louder as my consciousness returned. For a second, I was afraid to move. The last time I had woken up…well, I couldn't risk that again.
When the buzzing continued though, I realized that it sounded like the regular alarm in my apartment and, hoping for the best, I cracked my eyes open. Sure enough the same white ceiling greeted my vision and I simply blinked up at it, confused as to what the hell was real and what wasn't. In some corner of my mind I acknowledged that most of what I thought I remembered wasn't, but I could still feel the hole in my chest…I could still feel the rain against my face…and those words…were they real?
I exhaled deeply and rolled onto my side, lifting a hand to run it over my face and try and wake up. As far as I could tell, this felt like a regular day. The same kind of day I had been experiencing for two months. And that damn alarm was still going, driving me crazy, making me want to—
"Babe, turn it off," a sleep filled voice whined beside me. Immediately, I froze. Well that was new. Before I could turn around and investigate, the bed dipped and a warm body pressed against my back, dainty fingers grazing my shoulder and reaching over me to turn off the alarm on the bedside table right by my head. Those same fingers curled around my bicep and a soft sigh wafted over my bare back as that same body relaxed into the natural curve of my spine.
I wasn't sure what to do. In fact, I was almost afraid to breathe. I was pretty sure that I recognized that voice, but my sleep addled mind was still chugging along fuzzily and I simply lay there, blinking wide eyed and attempting to process the fact that there was a girl in my bed and she smelled like vanilla and sunshine.
After a couple of minutes of silence, lips brushed fleetingly against my back and the fingers on my bicep squeezed. "Get up, Jake. You have to go to work."
Crystal. My mind finally connected the dots. It was Crystal in my bed. I sat up so fast that she squeaked with dismay and flung herself backwards to avoid the sharp angle of my elbow. "What the hell…?" She squeaked again when I grabbed her briskly and hauled her across the bed and into my arms. I could hardly believe it. After the nightmare my mind had conjured up, I couldn't believe that she was in my bed, in my arms, alive.
A frown crossed my face. She was in my bed though. How in the world had that happened? Mindful of the way her tiny, fragile body felt in my arms, I loosened my grip and then pulled back, studying her. She looked the same as she always had, her lips in a natural pout, the wide almond shaped eyes narrowed warily at me, her hair loose and cascading down her back and over her shoulders.
"What is going on with you?" she suddenly demanded to know. Her hands fell naturally to my thighs and I only had time to thank the lord that I was still covered in a sheet from the waist down. I wasn't sure how to answer that question.
"What are you doing here?" I finally stammered out. My voice was hoarse with sleep and disbelief, but she heard me just the same. Immediately her brows furrowed and she leaned closer.
"Are you feeling alright?" Her hand came up and pressed softly to my forehead and then my cheek. With the way my head was spinning in an attempt to wrap around whatever was going on, I wouldn't have been surprised if I was running some kind of fever. But she took her hand away and bit her lip. "You don't look sick. Do I need to call Ethan and tell him you can't come in today?"
How the hell did she know about Ethan? He and I had just started working together and I hadn't had the chance to tell her about him yet…at least, I didn't think I had told her…
With a groan, I buried my head in my hands. I couldn't figure out what was real anymore. None of this made sense. I was in the right house, in the right city, and if the view I had briefly caught from my window said anything, it was the right time of year still. But everything felt wrong.
Sensing my distress, Crystal came up on her knees and pressed herself against my back, resting her chin on my shoulder. Her hands ran soothingly up and down my arms and the ends of her hair tickled my chest. "What is it, Jake? What's the matter?" she asked, her breath warm in my ear.
"I don't understand," I replied uselessly. I wanted to throw my arms up in the air and simply sit in one spot until my world realigned itself. Her body felt wonderful against me. Even though it wasn't what I remembered, she felt right and I didn't know what to make of it.
"What don't you understand?" she asked indulgently, her arms falling to settle around my waist. Before I could answer, a tiny squall of anger came from the darkened corner of the room. Crystal's arms tightened in warning and she lifted her head from my shoulder, tilting it to one side. When the sound came again, she sighed and pressed a kiss to my neck. "Hold that thought."
I barely felt it when she let me go and rolled out of the bed. Everything in me had come to a shuddering halt and I simply stared wide eyed at the corner she was heading to where I could make out the faint outline of what appeared to be a crib. I heard my heart pounding frantically in my chest, but I couldn't tear my eyes away. Crystal was cooing in that direction, her hips swaying easily with each step that brought her closer to the small sounds of distress. It only took her a few seconds to cross the space and then she was bending over the crib and lifting a tiny squirming bundle out of it, pressing a kiss against its head and settling it on her chest.
"Somebody's hungry," she cooed, her voice heavy with adoration. Casting a glance over her shoulder at me, Crystal smiled briefly and then wandered out of the room. I was completely immobile for all of a minute before I was up and moving. It took me a few seconds to find her, but it felt like an eternity. She was in a room I didn't recognize right off of mine, settled comfortably in a dark wood rocking chair with light green cushioning. I took in the diaper bag and second crib along with the stuffed animals and the smell of baby powder and Vaseline hit my nose. My eyes fastened to Crystal in the rocking chair right when she began to unbutton her shirt with one hand. I came over to her side and fell to my knees, staring unblinkingly at the baby in her arms just as Crystal brought it to her breast to nurse.
A baby. There was a baby in my apartment. And it was Crystal's. Seeing that I wanted to look, Crystal brushed her hair onto her back and pulled apart the halves of her shirt more so that I could see clearly. I swallowed hard and leaned forward, my breath hitching in my throat. It was a girl and she looked just like her mother. Her eyes were closed as she nursed, her fists clenched tightly and resting on her chest. Not more than six months old, she wore a pastel purple onesie and had sandy brown hair dusting her head. She was making small, snuffling noises and the side of Crystal's thumb gently caressed her head, her hand holding the baby steady.
"God, she's beautiful," I whispered, the words out of my mouth before I realized I was thinking them.
I heard Crystal chuckle and I tore my eyes away from the baby to look at her. She must have seen something in my face because her expression suddenly softened and she reached out, cupping my cheek in her free hand. "She's the best decision we ever made," Crystal commented, her voice low.
The truth that had been staring me in the face all along hit me then. This wasn't just a baby. This was my baby. Suddenly, I felt weak, like a hundred tons of brick had fallen on top of me and I was pinned under the weight of a decision that I had apparently made differently this time around. "Wow," I gasped, my eyes glued to my daughter. "I…wow…"
Crystal shifted her body slightly towards me, her fingers spanning to encompass more of my face. "Jake, what has gotten into you?" she asked. "You've been acting weird since the moment you woke up."
I wasn't sure how to answer her. In fact, I wasn't sure how to form sentences. "This is the baby," I heard myself say. "But I thought…"
She had an abortion. I drove her to the clinic. I held her afterwards. She had done it. I was there; I sat in my car and cried for almost an hour after I watched her go inside. I could remember that pain like it was fresh. Just thinking about it made my eyes ache. And yet, here we were. What the hell was going on?
"I'm going to call Ethan and tell him you can't come to work." Crystal said decisively.
I shook my head instinctively. "No, I don't…just…how?"
She frowned. "You can't possibly not remember one of the hardest moments of our entire lives, Jake." I had no response. My eyes had come back to the baby. She was still nursing, but her frantic pulls had slowed and her arms were wheeling arbitrarily on their own. When I didn't speak for a long minute, Crystal sighed. "Okay. Well maybe a shower and some coffee will refresh your memory." She leaned forward and kissed me soundly on the lips. "Get up and get your ass in the shower or you're going to be late."
I didn't want to go anywhere, but I found myself rising and doing as she instructed, my lips still tingling from her kiss. Standing under the hot spray was somewhat refreshing, but I was still drawing a blank every single time I tried to think about how my life had turned into this. By the time I got out, I had come to the conclusion that yet again it wasn't real, but also that some part of me really wanted it to be. Still, the more rational part of me expected to get out of the shower to any empty apartment as per usual. It was not expecting to slide open the shower door and see Crystal with a towel in her hands and an eyebrow cocked upwards.
"Shit," I startled, instinctively reaching down to cover my nakedness. Crystal's reaction was only to laugh and shake her head.
"Babe, we've been together for over a year." She stepped forward and wrapped the towel around my waist, her body heat and the remaining steam from my shower going straight to my head. "You don't have anything I haven't seen already."
Over a year? My mouth opened and closed around that new piece of information. Before I could fully process it, I felt Crystal's eyes drifting over my bare chest and the look burned over my skin in a caress. Clearing my throat uncomfortably, I went to take a step back, but her grip on the towel hanging off of my hips only tightened. Her warm brown eyes flashed up to mine and I could see the teasing laughter in them just before she lowered her head and settled her lips carefully over my uppermost right rib.
My heart coughed to a near stop as sparks ignited just under the skin where she kissed me. I inhaled sharply and my hands spasmed at my sides, instinctively wanting to reach for her. "Crystal, I…" my voice had lost a significant amount of bass and I was deathly afraid that if she kept sporadically peppering butterfly kisses over my skin, I would combust. "I'm all wet," I finally finished lamely, unable to think of another way to get her stop.
Her chuckle wafted over my nipple and I swallowed hard, my stomach clenching. Again, she peeked up at me from under hooded lids. "Me too," she whispered conspiratorially. It took a full minute for what she said to click, but when it did I felt the words deep in the fiery pit that had become my gut and was all I could do not to drag her into the room that was apparently ours and finish what she kept trying to start.
"Jesus Christ," I ground out. Before she could kiss me anymore, I set my hands on her shoulders. It was only a stalling motion, giving me enough time to think of something to say that wouldn't squeak or further complicate whatever situation I was in. Her constant mentioning of my job popped into my head and I used it to my advantage. "I'm going to be late."
Immediately the mischievous glow left her eyes and she took a conceding step back. Surprisingly, I found that the pout that pursed her lips now made me feel a bit of regret despite my inability to figure out what was happening. Impulsively, I leaned down and, after a moment's hesitation, pressed my lips to hers in some kind of apology. She leaned into me, her hands coming to my chest and I marveled at how amazingly receptive she was to me.
This time, she was the one who pulled away. "Finish getting ready. I have to go change Amber." With one last smile, she was gone in a flurry of brown hair and lingering touches. Amber. Giving her a name made it so much more real. And it was such a pretty name too. I simply stood there in the bathroom for a minute, trying to come to terms with the fact that not only did I have a baby named Amber apparently, but I had a girlfriend…who liked me. A lot. The how still wasn't figured out, but I was slowly piecing together the what, and it wasn't looking bad at all.
Again I experienced a small moment of panic when I walked into the kitchen and she wasn't there, but the grinding of the coffee machine and the random baby paraphernalia on the table reassured me that I would be getting at least another couple of minutes in this fantasy. Sure enough, not even a moment later she came breezing into the room with the baby cradled in her arms. She was singing to her, her voice soft and pretty and I realized that I had never really heard her sing before.
"Took you long enough," Crystal said briskly, coming over to the coffee machine. I realized that she was talking to me and I fidgeted. I was desperate to ask her what was going on but I hesitated. If I mentioned that this wasn't real, that none of this had happened, would it end? "How's your memory doing?" she asked, beating me to the punch.
"Uh," I casted around frantically for something to say, but nothing was jumping out at me. Crystal glanced over at me and cocked her head to the side, an indulgent smile on her lips. She was taking the news of my inability to remember any of the details of our life together remarkably well and I distantly wondered if that came with the fantasy or if that was just another facet of her carefree nature.
"Your daddy plays too many games, doesn't he booboo," she crooned to the baby in her arms. Then, she came over and handed her off to me. "Here, hold your daughter. Maybe that will joggle something in that hard head of yours."
Before I could protest, mention that I didn't know how to handle a baby, that she wouldn't recognize me and she would cry, she was in my arms… and I was sinking, flying, falling fast into the magic that was holding the small bundle that some part deep inside of me instinctively recognized as mine. "Ohhkayy. Wow. Okay." The words were out of my mouth, but I didn't even hear them. All I could register was baby powder and satiny skin and chubby, dimpled cheeks. She weighed next to nothing in my arms, but I couldn't help but feel that I was holding the entire world.
A smile curved my lips as the reality of the fact that I had a child—I was a father— finally hit me. All of my fears suddenly melted away. "Hi," I said, the tip of my finger brushing against her cheek. She blinked up owlishly at me and then, to my shock, her lips parted in a giggle and she did a tiny dance in my arms. I laughed too, astonishment and joy and some other unnamable emotion bubbling in my chest. "I'm your daddy," I whispered, awed. "I'm your daddy." I could see it more now that my mind had finally accepted it. There were subtle nuances, miniscule features, but somewhere in the masterpiece of flesh and bone, there was some me.
"And her daddy is going to be late if he doesn't get a move on," Crystal came up quickly, taking Amber from me and exchanging the warm weight of my daughter for a cup of coffee. Though it was made exactly how I wanted, it was a very lacking substitute. A million questions whirled in my head, but I kept them to myself, choosing instead to watch Crystal flit around the kitchen with Amber settled securely in the crook of her arm. The sight was far from unwelcome. In fact, it was one that I could definitely get used to.
When she saw that I was simply standing there, Crystal hustled me out of the apartment, claiming that she would never hear the end of it from Ethan if I was late one more time. Before she pushed me out of the door though, she kissed me again and her purr of approval when we parted let me know that I was getting better at it.
The workday passed in a daze. Apparently, and to my complete and utter shock, I was shooting scenes for a movie that I had a supporting role in. It took me a while to get up to speed on what I was doing, but the role was so easy to fall into that in no time I had it down. Thankfully, we were still using scripts and the shooting had just started, otherwise I would have been utterly useless. But unlike whatever was going on in my home at the moment, work was work. I was used to being thrust feet first into projects and I was versatile enough to figure it out in record time and be on top of my game again.
Ethan railed me for a couple of minutes about being almost being late, but all I had to do was mention Crystal and Amber and I was off the hook. It appeared that my hard as nails agent had fallen for both of my girls.
By the time I was making my way back to the apartment, I was tired but more than happy. Everything was going right. Everything had fallen into place. I was doing what I really came to New York for in the first place. I had a good relationship with everyone on set, my agent was getting calls constantly about the possibility of me working, and …I had a family. Somewhere deep inside I knew that I had wanted that. Crystal and I…well I hadn't expected it to happen that way but I was grateful nonetheless. Still, I wrung my hands in the elevator on the way up to the apartment, unsure of whether or not she would be there or if my imagination would have finally had enough of teasing me.
When I unlocked the door, there was no sound coming from inside. I went into the dark living room, shutting the door behind me. "Crys?" I called out hesitantly, peering around the corner where the bedroom was. There was no response. With a long sigh, I went into the kitchen, a crushing disappointment weighing on me. So that was it then. It was over. Pulling out a chair at the table, I sat down heavily and cradled my head in a hand, the other hand playing restlessly with my keys. I guess I should've expected it. I'd always known it wasn't real. Still, something about it felt right. The second Crystal set Amber in my arms, everything clicked into place. It was more than I deserved, but I realized now that it was everything that I wanted. The windows in the living room were open and out of the corner of my eye I registered that the sun was setting quickly, giving the apartment an auburn glow. I sighed again at how the light hit my white furniture, thought to myself that it was actually very pretty, and wondered if I would ever have anyone to share it with.
"What's the matter grumpykins, rough day?" the voice emerged from the backroom right on cue with my thoughts. My head jerked up sharply and I watched as Crystal padded into the kitchen in one of my old sweatshirts and a pair of leggings. Her hair was tossed casually up in a bun on top of her hair and my sweatshirt was way too big on her, but she looked adorable, and I had never seen a more welcoming sight. Oblivious to the way my eyes drank her in, she went to the refrigerator and pulled open the door, bending over slightly and peering at the contents. "Amber's asleep and I managed to get her in the crib in her room this time. Have you eaten yet?"
She was still here. And so was Amber. I had more time…
At my lack of response, Crystal straightened up and turned around, eyeing me curiously. "What?" she demanded to know, bringing a hand up to her cheek. "Is there something on my face? What is it?"
I shook my head immediately, the breath sticking in my throat. No make-up, hair up, wearing my clothes, completely casual… "You look beautiful."
Her anxious look melted into a smile and she shut the fridge, sauntering lazily towards me. She looped her arms around my neck, stepping between my knees. Instinctively, my hands found her waist and even through the heavy folds of my sweatshirt I could feel her warmth. Her smile stretched wider, "Now, there's my boyfriend," she stated, lifting her head approvingly. "I was beginning to wonder if you were ever coming back."
My fingers tightened on her waist and I swallowed, unwilling to lie to her but afraid to tell her the truth. With a long sigh, I resolved that it was better that she know that I still had no idea what was going on, but right as I opened my mouth to speak, she put her hand over it and shook her head. Her eyes never left mine and we stayed like that until my grip on her loosened and my shoulders lowered. Then, she smiled softly and cupped my cheeks in her palms, tilting my head up. I hadn't turned on any lights and in the fading sun from the windows, her skin glowed and her eyes sparkled. She was more than beautiful, and for a moment it took my breath away.
"Oh, Jacob," she tsked, scolding me for my supposedly feigned amnesia. But there was no heat in her words and when she brushed her lips over my eyelids, I felt all of the tension that had built in me since the second I woke up melt away. I realized then that I was tired and confused, and trying to make sense of everything that was going on had worn me out. But her presence…her nearness acted as a de-stressor and before I could stop myself, I pulled her closer and wrapped my arms fully around her waist, tucking my head into the softness of her chest. She didn't say a single word, she just let me hold her, resting her hands on the top of my head and sifting her fingers through the hair at my nape. It was simple and quiet. I shut my eyes and focused on breathing, inhaling the soothing scent that clung to her and in that moment, I knew peace.
Later that night, she went to take a shower and I found myself back in Amber's room. For a long moment I could only stare, my fingers clenched tightly on the wooden railing for support against the waves of emotion crashing against me. She was beautiful, tiny, delicate…she was perfect. She lay on her back, fists curled and resting beside her head. The outward bow of her legs and the way her toes wiggled in her sleep drew my attention and I simply marveled at the fact that this miniature being would grow up to be like her mother one day. My eyes travelled slowly up her body, remembering the warmth that radiated from her skin when she was in my arms. When I got to her face, I leaned closer to study it, taking in its heart shape, the slightly rounded edges where her baby fat drew away from angles and lines of bone, the upward slant of her mouth and the fullness of her bottom lip, the pert little nose just barely upturned, and the dark lashes resting like crescent moons on lightly flushed cheeks. All of the evidence was there, but I was still struggling to believe that something so fragile and dependent and wonderful and scary and perfect could have come from me.
I didn't hear Crystal come into the room until she took my hand, fingers filling the gaps between mine perfectly. When I didn't shy away from the easy intimacy, she stepped closer. She smelled like shampoo and bath soap and I shifted slightly to regard her. She smiled at me and I felt myself smile back and something tiny sparked in her eyes before she turned her attention back to Amber.
We both gazed at our daughter silently for a minute before she spoke. "When I got into your car that morning, I was 99% sure that I would be getting an abortion." Crystal said, and though her voice was soft, her words were startlingly loud in the dark room.
The breath stalled in my throat and my fingers tightened on hers. This was it. This was the one question I had been the most curious to about. "What stopped you?" I asked.
I felt the rise and fall of her chest as she inhaled, but she didn't look at me. "You did."
She nodded. "We were in the car, right there. Right outside of the clinic. You were telling me that it didn't feel right. I was nervous and I only had ten minutes to get to my appointment, but something in your eyes stopped me. So I asked you what you wanted me to do."
My eyes were fastened to Amber now, thinking of what could have happened, what probably happened, mourning for the little girl I had lost in the real world. "What did I say?" I asked, my voice hoarse.
"You took both of my hands and you begged me not to go in there." Crystal reached down and brushed a corner of the blanket away from Amber's face. "You told me to trust you. You told me that all you wanted me to do was be me and take care of us, and you would handle the rest." Her arm suddenly tightened around my waist. "And you did, baby."
My brow furrowed and I looked at her, noting the sudden hitch in her voice. Sure enough, when we made eye contact, hers had an unmistakable sheen brightening them. She moved away from the crib, turning fully to face me and slide both arms around me. "You held my hand and stood with me when we told our parents, you moved me out here with you, you were there for every step of my pregnancy, and you worked extra hard so that we wouldn't have to depend on anyone. You've devoted yourself completely to this relationship and to our daughter, and I am so, so glad you wouldn't let me go into that clinic."
Even as she smiled up at me, a sick feeling pooled in my stomach. It was hard to hear all of the things I should have said, to listen to light breathing of the daughter I should have had, to hold in my arms the woman I should have been with….it was hard.
If she noticed my sudden stiffening, Crystal didn't say anything. Instead, she whispered that she was tired and led me to our bedroom. Realizing that I was going to be getting into bed with her, my nerves began to act up again and I paused right at the threshold of the room, simply watching as Crystal eased between the sheets. When she saw that I wasn't coming, she sat up and crooked a finger at me. "Come here, silly."
I felt embarrassingly like a 14 year old again when girls and sex were territory not yet explored, much less conquered and I had the sweaty palms and cotton mouth to prove it. Nevertheless, when she beckoned like that, suddenly everything else in the world fell away and all I wanted to do was be as close to her as possible, and do whatever it was she wanted of me.
We simply lay there in the bed together in silence. From somewhere in the dark room there was a ticking noise and it sounded hideously loud in my head while I waited for Crystal to say something. I knew it was coming; even feeling the way that I was it was completely impossible for me to ignore the steady humming of something powerful and entirely beyond our control between us. It had always been like that—it was what had drawn me to her in the first place all those years ago.
Finally, a tiny sigh came from her side of the bed and she shifted, the bed dipping under her sudden movements. "Do you remember me?" she asked, her voice low and carrying a hint of hesitance that I hadn't heard from her all day. I realized then that my behavior really had been affecting her despite her act of nonchalance. Swallowing hard, I thought about her question for a minute, trying to think of how to answer. When I turned my head, her eyes were on me.
She was more than this reality to me. Even if I couldn't remember this life, even if I hadn't lived it yet, Crystal Moore would never leave my mind. And this woman in the bed beside me, clutching the sheets in tight fists and watching me for signs of the validation that she needed was that Crystal, now and forever.
"I could never forget you," I answered simply and I knew as soon as I said it that it was a truth I would live with endlessly. I reached out and took her hand, smiling softly when she let go of the sheet and her small fingers curled around mine.
"Good answer, Mr. Riley," she acknowledged, biting her lip. Then, her eyes twinkled, "but just in case you need a memory refresher…"
She came to me then, no hesitation in her movements and a teasing smile quirking full lips. And I was still so lost in the daze of whatever reality I had graciously fallen into that every touch was electric, every kiss warm and sweet like honey. She was sure of herself and I knew immediately in the practiced way her hands slid under my shirt to press against the ridges of my torso that we had done this before, and we were good at it now.
Sweatshirt, leggings, underwear, bra…each article of clothing drifted from her body with a boldness I had never seen from her before as she exposed herself to me. She must have sensed my uncharacteristic nervousness, but rather than pause and question it, she seemed to react instinctively to it, taking control and lifting up to straddle me, settling my hands on her naked waist and covering my mouth with hers to taste the gasp I couldn't hold in when she opened herself to me and guided me gently inside.
It was slow and leisurely, patient and sweet, but the sparks it set off in my body could have easily started a fire that would take more than one night to extinguish.
And at the last moment, when her back arched and she bit harshly on her lower lip to stifle the shuddering moan that accompanied the spasms of ecstasy that pushed me over the edge, I knew without a moment's doubt that this was the way I wanted to spend every night for the rest of my life.
She collapsed onto my chest, her breath coming in harsh pants in my ear. Before I could stop them, my arms came around her back and I held her as close to me as I could, thinking desperately that if I didn't let go then maybe…maybe there was a chance I would be able to stay in this reality. That maybe I could keep it. Maybe I could keep her.
Crystal didn't move for a long moment even though I could feel her body settling into what looked like an uncomfortable position for her. She simply set her cheek in the dip between my shoulder and neck and pressed a lazy, open mouthed kiss to my jaw. It was almost more than I could bear— this intimacy. It seemed that our hearts were beating in synch.
"I love you, Jacob," she whispered sometime later, the words drifting from her in a long, content sigh. My eyes opened then and I stared at the dark ceiling. In this reality, we had been together for a long time. Long enough to experience pregnancy, a move, raising a child….we had probably done this countless times. But the gentleness with which she handled me that night, the amount of deliberate care she put into every brush, every chance for contact, and the love she let me taste for even one night made it almost seem like she knew that for me this was all new. Like she knew it was my first time as this man who had the whole world drifting to sleep cradled in his arms.
"I won't go to sleep," I murmured determinedly to myself. Crystal stirred, her chest rising and falling on a deep breath.
"Why not?" she whispered, fingers curling around my shoulders in a gesture that spoke of routine.
I shook my head, my eyes blindly staring upwards. "I don't want to lose you," I heard myself confess. "I don't want to lose this."
At that, she lifted her head. I could feel her eyes on me but I couldn't look. Everything was too perfect and I was afraid that if I moved even an inch it would all be ruined. Her lips brushed over my cheek in a gentle caress and she tightened her grip on me, her legs sliding up to lock on either side of my hips she had herself completely wrapped around me and the warmth of her skin pulled me even further into whatever illusion this was.
"You can't lose me, Jake," she promised softly. "I'll never let you go."
And even though this wasn't real, I felt the truth in her words all the way down to my bones. With a shuddering breath, I rolled us over so that she was underneath me and I kissed her. When her lips were red and swollen and she was gasping for breath, I made love to her again, this time with the utmost care and dedication. I worshipped her the way I should have the first time and silently thanked the fates for this second chance, even if it was only for a few hours that I may never have existed. And when it was over, when the tears of joy glimmered in her eyes and she shook in my arms, I held her until she fell asleep and knew that amid the sea of confusion that my subconscious had set sail in, I had finally found my anchor.
V. The Light
Someone was punching me in the side. And someone else was stomping on my head. Hard.
I was in more pain than I cared to think about, especially since thinking hurt. But I was feeling, and that was something new. I had an awareness of myself and my body that had been lost to me for the last…however long. There was nowhere on my body that didn't throb with some kind of pain which sucked, but something was better than nothing.
Still, I couldn't help the tiny moan of agony that escaped me when I tried to move too quickly. My head was spinning, trying to make sense of what was real and if I had found it yet. After a moment of searching, I did find my eyes and managed to crack them open despite the hundred pound weights determined to keep them shut.
The first thing I registered was the acrid smell of hospital in my nose. There was no scent that I hated more than that one, but before I could shrink away from it I picked up another smell that was achingly familiar. Inhaling as deeply as I dared since I had figured out that a lot of the pain was coming from my ribs, I slowly identified it as the smell of vanilla and something else. Something light and airy, like springtime or sunlight. It was a pretty smell; one that I liked. One that I automatically associated with comfort and happiness.
It didn't take very long for the identity that went along with that smell to occur to me, and then I was looking for her, turning my head too fast and ignoring the sudden nausea that settled in my stomach.
She was asleep in a chair beside my bed, her face turned away from me. Memories or flashbacks moved rapidly in front of my vision and I struggled for a moment to sort through what was real and what wasn't. I couldn't help the regret upon realizing that none of it was and I simply accepted that. But I cherished those glimpses of what could have been—the good ones—and filed away the bad ones as a warning to myself.
There was a steady beeping somewhere to my left and a tiny smile of irony curved my lips when I realized what it was. Thanking the heart monitor for assuring me that I was alive, and then more seriously thanking whatever higher power had decided to keep me alive and give me the second chance that had been promised to me, I turned my attention back to the chestnut haired girl whose presence never left me, even in the darkest moments of my mental solitude.
Swallowing, I opened my mouth to speak, desperate to hear her voice, desperate to feel her skin against mine and prove that it was real, and swearing an oath to myself that first chance I got, I would do it right this time.