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always (forever)

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“Hey,” a voice says behind her, and she might’ve jumped if she hadn’t run out of fucks to give. “Can I bum a light?”

Gail breathes a half laugh. “Last time I checked, you were still nursin'.” She flicks at the fallen ash on the leg of her jeans, takes another drag.

“Last time I checked,” Erica says as she moves to sit next to her, groaning in mild discomfort, still healing from childbirth, “we agreed you wouldn’t run off without telling me where you were going. Not after last time.” Gail grabs her arm to help her down, slowly but surely, and they lean against the siding of the house. As Erica settles, Gail sets a hand on her thigh, squeezes once, twice.

“I know, doll,” she sighs. “I’m sorry.”

Erica leans on Gail’s shoulder, shifts until she can’t help but let out a comfortable sigh. “Something happen? Or just the usual.”

“Just these,” Gail rubs at her temple, concentrates on the feeling of Erica against her and the cigarette between her fingers that’s smoldering away to nothing. “Friggin’ nerds we live with.”

“Carol again?” Erica asks, watching as Gail puts out her cigarette.

Gail wipes her hand on her jeans. “Her husband.”

“What happened now?”

Gail shakes her head, bites the inside of her cheek. “Keeps askin' me what Dawn’s gonna call me. Whether we’ve done a DNA test to determine if she’s mine or not, typical idiot stuff.”

“He said all that?”

“It was more Tandy-fied, and accompanied with an original song played on the spoons, but yeah.”

“So ignore him,” Erica offers.

Gail scoffs. “He’s one out of eight of us, Erica. And two of those are children who don't talk.”

“He means well,” Erica tells her, and at Gail’s raised eyebrow, she adds, “He’s an idiot, but he means well.”

“Better.”

“And anyway, why does it bother you so much? I thought you would have learned to tune out the Tandy channel by now.”

Gail smiles, but there’s no real humor to it. “You woulda thunk, but anythin' relatin' to you and the baby makes me tune right back in, apparently.”

Erica verbally ‘aw’’s at this, making Gail roll her eyes. “No, no ‘aw’,” she says. “Last time I tuned out I unknowingly gave him permission to patent a long range baby slingshot for easy nighttime feeding'.”

Erica’s brow furrows. “What? You didn’t tell me that.”

“You were asleep and I had a baseball bat and a couple drinks in me.” Gail shrugs. “Long story short, it got taken care of.”

They sit together for a moment, the light breeze comforting in the new climate’s heat. The distant sound of the ocean covers for the fact that the sound of living, breathing, humans is a reality that no longer exists.

“Dawn can call you mama, if you want,” Erica says softly, biting her lip, and she studies Gail intently. When she offers no response, Erica quickly amends, “Or she’ll—she’ll call you Gail, like everyone else. It’s up to you.”

Gail has a far off look in her eye, and she stares at nothing in particular. Erica plays with the fingers that are still resting on her thigh, takes Gail’s hand in both of her own.

“If you want to be her mother at all, I mean,” Erica continues. “I know I always sort of just...assumed you’d be. We never talked about it, now that I think of it, but you—you were the one reading bedtime stories to my belly. You went out to search for prenatal vitamins, put up with me when I was hormonal and horny—“

“—yeah, really suffered on that one—“

“You were—are—her mom. But I—god, Gail, I don’t want to force you into anything. If I ever made it seem like you didn’t have a choice, like I was pushing you into this, I—you don’t have to be—“

“Listen, darlin’,” Gail pauses, turns her head to look into Erica’s eyes, which are wide with worry. “You’re gonna have to pry that kid outta my cold, dead hands.”

Erica lets out a breath. “Really?”

“Really.” Gail nods.

“Oh, good, ‘cause I really can’t do this alone.” Erica smiles, eyes filling with tears. “God, I don’t know why I’m crying.”

“You’re beautiful,” Gail tells her. “And amazing, but you already know that.”

Erica sniffles. “I know because you tell me,” she says, and she pauses before, “Why the panic about this? The mom thing. Carol’s been calling you ‘mom’ for months.”

Gail clicks her tongue. “Carol’s a grown woman who looks to me for some kind of maternal...whatever,” she says, shaking her head. “But Dawn is—she’s—she’s a baby, Erica. She’s a baby who’s gonna grow up in a fractured world with no sense of normalcy and no idea if she’s gonna live past four. I mean, chicken pox? Broken bones? God, the virus? Are we gonna pretend like everything’s fine and dandy while we let her play on a beach that’s covered with bodies?”

Erica winces at this, looks to the ground. The two of them are quiet for a moment, and Gail can barely make out the quiet sniffle from Erica’s direction. She closes her eyes tight and leans forward, covering her face with her hands.

“Sorry. Jesus, I’m sorry,” she says, and it’s muffled as she breathes shakily into her hands. Eventually, Erica tugs on the hem of Gail’s t-shirt, an unspoken request for her to lean back again, so she does.

Gail looks to the sky and takes a breath. “It’s just— I lost a son in a world where his biggest worry was what I was gonna put in his lunchbox every day. What kind of life is our daughter gonna have? And worse, what if—what if I only make it worse for her?” Gail swallows, emotion welling in her throat. “What if I’m the problem?” she croaks.

“That’s impossible.”

“Is it?”

“Sweetie, Adam’s death—“ Erica starts, and Gail tenses at the mention of her son. Erica reaches out to cup her cheek. “Adam’s death was not your fault. The world was just as ugly then as it is now, alright? It was terrible and unfair and cruel. But you were a wonderful mother, and you will be again—if you want.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“I do, though, Gail.” Erica insists. “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. And sure, this isn’t the kind of world I’d want to raise a child in, but it’s as good as we’ve got. And I think you and I—out of anyone—are the best ones to do the job.”

Gail clears her throat, brings a shaking hand up to move her bangs out of her eyes. “You think?” she asks.

“I know. I mean, honestly, you think Carol and Tandy are gonna beat us out for parents of the year? Their kid is… god, their kid is gonna be—“

“A friggin’ weirdo,” Gail finishes.

“A friggin’ weirdo,” Erica agrees. “And Dawn is… she’s—“

“Perfect,” Gail says. “She’s perfect, just like you’re perfect.”

Erica smiles brightly, almost blushing, and nudges Gail’s shoulder with her own. “Shut up.”

Gail kisses Erica’s cheek first, breathes her in like her life depends on it, and then moves to her lips. She forgets, after all the time they’ve been together and apart, after all the places they’ve lived and things they’ve seen, how normal this feels, here with her. How right it is.

“Mama,” Gail says when they pull back, eyes still closed and forehead resting on Erica’s. “Mama’s good. For her to call me.”

Erica smiles, nods against her. “Mama it is.”