“….And the Nati…al Weather Serv…..e has advised of a sev…re cold front with tem….tures well below …..zing and significant snowfall warn….gs over the next twelve h….s across the midwest and great lakes region, with snow squalls repo…ed in Mich….n, Ohio, Indiana, and Illi-”
Jim turns the spotty radio off with a groan. It’s snowing like crazy and he’s an hour and a half late coming home, and the terrible forecast is doing nothing to improve his mood. The day began with not one, not two, but five car accidents, every single one of which could have been prevented if the owners had simply put on their goddamn snow tires like they should have done weeks ago and acted like they had some common sense. It continued with the coffee machine breaking, Callahan giving himself a concussion by slipping and falling on ice after forgetting to put the kitty litter out, and three phone calls from Sam Echolls at the Hardware Store complaining about speeding along main street. He hasn't had a moment’s peace all day and all he wants to do is get home, crack open a beer, and relax with El on the couch watching movies.
If she’s not pissed at me, he thinks, sucking in a breath. He can already picture the unimpressed look on her face, the quiet disappointment at being left alone for an hour and a half longer than he said she would be. To make things worse, the snow means he’s only going 20 in a 45 and he can’t reach her on the radio to tell her he’s on his way.
He feels the Blazer’s traction on the icy road slip and slows down even more to regain control. “Fuck, fuck, fuck” he mutters under his breath. She’s going to be upset and it’s his fault, and it really could not have come at a worse time. After being allowed to go to the snow ball she’s been cooped up for almost two weeks because of the weather. They had decided that over the next year she’d be able to see the kids regularly, that the whole group of them would be welcome at the Cabin. But with the snow making that impossible, it’s made her moody and him frustrated. The past few days she’s woken up in the morning, flung open the drapes, and let out a dramatic sigh upon seeing the newest blanket of snow. This morning the little ritual was accompanied by her gravely intoning, “I’m in the depths….of despair”.
He’d aggressively fought an eye roll at the stove. “Okay Anne Shirley, your food’s waiting for you.”
They’d eaten - him quickly and her huffily - and he’d stood in front of her before leaving for the station, lifted her chin up gently with his fingers.
“Hey - it won’t last forever, kid.”
She had looked away from him, given him a half hearted nod/shrug that he’d taken to mean sure, I guess.
“Hey,”he’d repeated softly, crouching down to meet her eyes. “You’ll see ‘em all soon. Once you spend a few hours all playing in the snow you won’t even remember hating it so much. Okay?”
She'd looked at him then, the tiniest of little smiles appearing on her face. “Okay.”
“Okay,” he’d nodded back. “Don’t spend all day in the depths of despair, I want that workbook finished by the time I get home.” The answering bratty “ugh, yes” and eye roll he’d gotten had kept a smile on his face the entire drive to work.
That smile had firmly evaporated by the time he’d arrived at work, and the day had continued to pound it out of him until it was replaced by the throbbing headache currently sitting right between his eyes.
He can see the oak tree up ahead in the distance, sits up a little higher in his seat as he fights the wind and the ice on the road. Just a little farther, and he’ll be home. Don’t be mad, don’t be mad, don’t be mad he pleads. The thing is, it would be fine if she was mad and he would completely understand, but he needs her to be in a good mood because he’s chosen tomorrow as the day to finally work up his nerve and show her the birth certificate.
He’d requested a whole three days off, ignoring Flo’s raised eyebrow and rapid fire questions, because he wants to do this right. He doesn’t want to just throw the news at her and then leave for work. They should - they should have some time together, after he tells her. And yeah, maybe he also thinks he needs the extra time in case he doesn’t quite manage it on the first day. So what? That’s just good planning.
He’s turned off the main road, the Blazer bumping even worse along the snow covered unpaved path. Eventually he makes it to the dead end, begins the lumbering trek to the cabin in the blowing snow. It’s not until he’s almost at the front door, focused on keeping his head down against the storm, that he realizes - none of the lights are on.
Brows furrowed, he walks up the steps and raps the special knock into the wood.
He knocks again - silence.
“..the fuck?” he mumbles, rattling the door handle. “El?” he calls out. Could she be that mad that she wouldn’t open up the door for him?
“Look, Kid, I’m sorry I’m late - just open up, okay?” No answer. He steps to the side and tries to peer through the shuttered windows but he can’t see jack shit. The cabin’s totally silent - he can’t hear the TV or the record player, or anyone moving around inside. He tries the door again, trying to stay calm.
“Come on, Kid - El, are you there?” Had they - had something happened while he was away? Had someone seen her at the Snow Ball? Had they not been careful enough? The wire hadn’t been tripped and he hadn’t seen any other car tracks but they could have been easily snowed over by the ongoing storm.
“ELLIE! ” He shouts, banging on the door, mind going a million miles a minute and steadily descending into panic. There’s still no answer. He’s got his hand on his holster and is about ready to shoot the door open when, suddenly, the locks click open.
He pushes the door open slowly with one hand, the other on the grip of his pistol. He doesn’t know what’s going on here but he’s not going to take any chances.
It’s dark and totally silent inside as he checks the room. He feels along the wall for the light switch to flick it on before realizing it already is on. A power outage? He canvases the rest of the space. No one in the bathroom to his left, and the living room and kitchen are clear too. He doesn’t see El.
Any idea that she was gone or had been taken is shattered by a series of sudden hacking coughs coming from the bedroom. Each time a cough comes, the power in the cabin roars back to life for a split second before being snuffed out just as quickly. What the hell..? He thinks, holstering his gun and taking off his hat, heading towards the bed. She’s basically completely covered by the comforter, and he can see even in the darkness that she’s brought over every other blanket she could find in the cabin.
He moves slowly, sitting on the edge of the bed and feeling for the jut of her shoulder under the covers in the dark.
“El?” He says, trying to move the covers down to get a better look at her. He exposes the top of her head and she lets out a pained moan.
“Ellie, sweetheart, what’s happening? Come on, let me see. I need to see what’s going on.” He’s speaking slowly, softly, even though his heart’s racing. She lets him lower the covers, turn her over so he can get a better look at her.
As soon as he gets his hand on her skin he knows something is very wrong. She’s burning up, her skin unbelievably hot to the touch, the bedsheets drenched in sweat. “Oh, honey,” he whispers.
Her teeth are chattering and her whole body is shivering. All of a sudden she coughs again and the lights flare back to life, and when they do he can’t stop himself from reeling back - her face is covered in blood, leaking from her nose and from her ears. It’s all over the pillow and all over her clothes.
“Jesus!” he yells out, stunned for a moment before reaching for her. She starts to cry, the whole affair a mess of tears and mucous and blood. He’s never seen her like this and it feels like being stabbed through the heart with an ice pick. “Ellie, sweetheart, I’m here, I’m here - it’s okay, it’s gonna be okay.”
“It hurts,” she chokes out around tears and blood.
“What hurts, baby? Where?” he asks, frantically running his hands along her arms and legs, trying to find if anything else is wrong.
“Ev…ev….everywhere!” she sobs out, hysterical, and he is officially freaking the fuck out.
“Okay,” he gets out around the panic rising like vomit in his throat. “Okay honey, okay. I’m here, I’m gonna fix it.” But he’s frozen to the spot, unable to move, unable to think. He has no idea where to start, if this is normal - if it’s not normal he’s fucked because the lab is closed and there’s no one to look at her. It’s not like he can take her to the Hospital, and even if he could - the last time he was in the hospital with a little girl, she never came out.
So he does the only thing he can think of. He runs out of the room, tries the radio in the living room and slams the receiver back down damn near breaking it when he remembers there’s no power. In a second he’s outside running to the truck, hands out in front of him to try and shield him from the snow. He gets there and grabs ahold of the handle, slips on ice and barely manages to right himself without throwing his back out before he can open up the door. His frozen fingers are numb around the receiver but he manages to get it on, sets it to the frequency he knows they use. “WILL,” he shouts into the mouthpiece. “WILL, IF YOU’RE THERE I NEED YOU TO PICK UP, PICK UP RIGHT NOW. PICK UP, PICK UP, PICK UP!” A god he doesn’t believe in is obviously on his side tonight because miraculously, he does. It’s static-y and unreliable but it’s definitely Will’s tinny voice coming through on the other end.
“Chief?” he asks, surprise evident in his voice.
“Yeah it’s me, kid,” he starts out, breathless, “- your mom, I need your mom RIGHT NOW, I need you to put her on the l-“
He’s interrupted by Will who can obviously sense the distress. “Okay, Okay, Okay, Okay,” he says before it’s all just static and for a minute he’s terrified that the line’s gone dead before he hears her voice.
“—Hop?” she asks. “What’s going—”
He cuts her off. “Joyce, I need you. I need you, right now, you’ve gotta get to the cabin.” He can her it in his own voice, how panicked he sounds, and Joyce doesn’t even ask any questions, just says “I’m coming” before the line cuts out.
He lets out a shuddering breath, allows himself to collapse against the truck console for just a minute, before running back into the storm.
Joyce is there about twenty minutes later but it feels like a lifetime. She barely knocks before he’s flinging the door open, ushering her inside. It’s still snowing like all hell and he realizes that he just asked her to drive out to the middle of nowhere in the middle of a fucking blizzard and that she did it without even a question. She’s breathless and shivering and she looks utterly confused.
“Hop,” she starts. “What is going on? And why are all the lights ou-” but she’s interrupted by a particularly nasty coughing fit from the bedroom. One of the light bulbs shatters on the wall next to them and he maneuvers Joyce quickly out of the way, under his arm, so she’s not hit with flying glass. “That’s why the lights are off,” he murmurs to her, in lieu of hello. She stares up at him with a look that says you are gonna tell me what’s going on here and you are gonna tell me right now.
“Something’s wrong with her, I have no idea- she won’t tell me, she just keeps saying it hurts, that it hurts everywhere”. He runs his had through his hair exasperatedly. “I got home and she was covered in blood-”
“No, not - not like that, not like she was cut, blood from her nose, like when she uses her powers. it was coming from her nose and her ears, the pillow was soaked. I can’t get her fever down, it’s - I’ve never - even with Sara I never saw a fever this high. She’s - she’s keeping the power off, somehow. Every time she coughs the power flares back up so I’ve turned everything off, unplugged everything…I have no fucking clue, Joyce, I’m - I don’t know…” he trails off, feeling half crazed with trying to give her all the information.
She’s nodding at him, listening intently - she’s still got her coat and her boots on for Christ's sake. “Okay,” she says. “Okay Jim. Let me see her, okay?”
She shrugs off her coat and toes off her boots, walks quietly into the bedroom. Before she’d gotten here he’d picked El up and moved her to the couch so he could strip the bed. That action had forced a wail from her that cracked every pane of glass in every picture on the wall in the bedroom. He stripped it, throwing the sheets into the corner before hurriedly making it again. He hadn’t made a bed this quickly since being in basic training before shipping out to Vietnam and he hadn’t been half as scared as he was now.
It had taken him what seemed like hours to open up the new extra strength Tylenol bottle he’d bought a couple weeks ago - the new tamper resistant packaging was supposed to stop people from poisoning the pills but all it was doing now was stopping him from helping his kid. In the end he’d taken a butcher knife from the block next to the stove and sawed the top of the damn thing off, leaving the bottle and half the pills strewn all over the kitchen counter. She wouldn’t take the pills, closing her mouth to him when he’d tried to get her to drink. No amount of pleading would get her to swallow. Even water - she took a small amount but let it trickle out of the side of her mouth instead. She continued coughing - huge, wracking coughs - and every time she did so, more blood came out of her ears and nose.
He’d placed her back down on the bed, put towels down under her head and used the blue hair tie he’d given her to gather her hair up off her face. The memory of the last time he’d used that hair tie on Sara before she’d lost her hair made his hands shake, and it took three tries before all her curls were held back. Joyce had arrived not a few minutes after that.
She sits on the bed next to El, her eyes wide at the sight of the girls’ face. “El?” she asks gently. “El, sweetie, it’s Joyce - can you hear me?” El’s eyes are closed, but they flicker open at Joyce’s voice and she whimpers. “Oh honey,” Joyce says. “Were gonna get you feeling better, okay?” She places her hand on El’s forehead, looks back at Hop with a worried look on her face.
“God, her fever’s high,” she says to him.
“She wouldn’t take the pills, no matter what I did” he says. “She won’t drink any water, she just lets it fall out of her mouth.” Joyce nods, thinking for a minute.
“We need to get the fever down,” she says. “That’s the most important thing. I think it - I think it might be making it hard for her to control…her - you know, her abilities.” She still can’t say powers without feeling like she’s in a cartoon. “Maybe if we can get the fever down it’ll help. At least - at least I hope so,” she finishes. “Do you think - could it be the flu?”
“How the hell could she get the flu?” He asks, having a hard time controlling his temper. “She’s in here on her own every goddamn day.”
Joyce makes an aggravated sound. “Except for you, after spending all day at the Station picking up god knows what,” she says firmly, “Or the kids, who spend all day at school bringing bacteria and viruses everywhere.”
Oh, god - of course. She’s got special powers, that doesn’t mean she’s fucking immune to sickness! He hadn’t even - and she’s probably never been sick before in her whole life, spending every day in that sanitized petri dish. And she was here on her own completely terrified while he was on the phone with Sam fucking Echolls arguing about--
“Hop,” she says. “Hop,” she repeats, but he’s staring at El, stricken, not hearing her. “HOPPER!!” she shouts at him. He snaps his attention to her.
“Do you have Vicks?” she asks.
“What?” the question comes totally out left field.
“Vicks - you know, Vicks - the rub,” she rushes out, miming the size of the little green tub with her hand. El is just crying on the bed, her moaning a constant background to their conversation.
“I- I don’t…”
She interrupts him. “See if you can find some, your grandad used to spend whole winters up here, he might still have a tin somewhere. And bring me a pair of thick socks, the thickest ones you’ve got.”
She gets up and runs into the kitchen, sees pills strewn everywhere and the Tylenol bottle cut open on the counter. She picks it up incredulously, just - shocked, for a minute, before grabbing four pills. Next, two spoons from the cutlery drawer. She opens up the fridge, looking for - something, anything she can use to crush the pills up into. They’ve got…not a whole lot honestly - milk, some juice, a six pack of Schlitz - she doesn’t see any applesauce or yogurt or even pudding, but the freezer fares better. She roots around for a minute or two, pulling out boxes to try and see what they are from the light from the window before finding a box of chocolate Jello Pudding Pops. She grabs one, tears open the wrapper and starts mushing it with the spoon into a bowl. The pills go next, crushed as small as she can get them. It’s hard to see without any lights but finally she’s sure she hasn’t missed any big chunks. She opens the freezer back up again to see if there’s something she can use as an ice pack, fumbles around before finding two packs of corn or peas, and runs back to the bedroom.
Jim turns the bathroom apart looking for Vicks, eventually finding an absolutely ancient tin on the bottom shelf of the foot locker next to the tub. He opens it up - sure enough, the smell of Camphor assaults his nose - and thanks every single deity he can think of that his grandfather spent his winters in this old cabin. Back in the bedroom, Joyce is sitting next to El on the bed. She’s got a bowl of…something? In her lap, and she’s got one package of frozen corn under El’s neck and one at her groin.
“It’s cold, it’s cold,” El whimpers, crying and coughing.
“I know, I know baby, but we’ve gotta get your temperature down. I promise it’ll make you feel better, I promise, I know it hurts but I promise,” Joyce soothes. He brings her the jar of Vicks and the socks, and she slathers it on El’s chest before scooping out an absolutely gigantic amount of it on the soles of El’s feet. She gestures to him for the socks, which she rolls on after. They’re too big, and she has him find her another two pairs to put underneath so that they’re snug on her feet.
“My grandma used to do this,” she explains at seeing the confused expression on his face. “The skin on the bottom of your feet is the thinnest, so it absorbs the quickest. I used to do this all the time when Will or Jonathan couldn’t stop coughing to sleep through the night.” She pulls the blankets back up to El’s shoulders, shows him the bowl on her lap.
“It’s four tablets of Tylenol - I’ve crushed it into a pudding pop. Do you think she’ll take it?” Her throat must be raw so hopefully the thought of a cold pudding pop doesn’t make her turn away from it, but he’s not sure. He gets on the bed behind El, lifts her so she’s sitting up a bit, cradled in the crook of his arm. He strokes her brow, damp with perspiration.
“Ellie, we need you to swallow some of this - it’s a pudding pop, okay? Your favourite,” he says. She shakes her head, turns it into his chest. He turns it gently back towards Joyce.
“Come on, sweetheart - just a little bit - a little bit for me, okay?” He can’t force her to take it but they’re quickly running out of options here.
“For me, Ellie,” he tries again. “Come on now, just a little bit.” She sniffles loudly against his chest before giving the tiniest little nod, and Joyce thrusts the spoon into his hand. She takes two small spoonfuls, fusses for a minute, and then two more. They’re able to get a cup or so of water down her and Joyce seems satisfied with that for now, but when she checks her temperature again she frowns, and runs to the kitchen. She comes back with two cans of Schlitz wrapped in paper towels, gives him a look like well, you use what you've got, and navigates El so she can put them under her arms.
“Let’s give it fifteen minutes,” she says to him, “and we’ll try some more Tylenol. She needs fluids, so if the Tylenol helps with the pain in her throat hopefully she’ll take some more water.”
So - they wait.
They wait like that, with El resting against him and Joyce on the bed, rubbing at the cramping muscles in El’s legs.
They reapply the Vicks every ten minutes and it seems like it’s helping - she doesn’t seem to be coughing as much anymore anyway - and the sips of Tylenol in pudding every fifteen or so. They continue on like this for hours, switching positions, changing out the bed sheets again, but even though she’s taken more Tylenol and water her fever won’t come down. They’ve exhausted every frozen food and can of beer in the house, even with rotating them, and Joyce is worrying her lip with her fingernail when she checks El’s forehead again.
“It’s still so high,” she says. “I don’t think this is working.” She looks at him and for the first time all night she looks really, truly worried. El has quieted down some but is more delirious now than before, and things are starting to float - books, her Rubik’s cube, pieces of clothing.
“We have to get her fever down,” she says again. Jim’s got a hold of El, presses his lips into her hairline, and thinks for a minute. There’s only one thing he can think to do, but it’s - it seems cruel, awful - but they don’t have a choice.
“We’ve gotta use the snow,” he says. “We can fill the tub with it, lay her in there. It’s the only other thing I can think of.” Joyce looks tortured by this, but agrees - snow it is. She takes her from him, holds her while he puts on his boots, grabs a pail from the rickety closet in the kitchen, and heads out into the storm, starts bringing in bushels of it. He doesn’t have a coat on and by the time he’s got the tub filled up enough his lips are blue and the skin on his fingers is bright red and stiff around the handle of the pail. He comes back in, and they wrap El in a towel the way he and Diane used to swaddle Sara as a baby, all the edges tucked in. He picks her up, and they move towards the bathroom. He counts the steps - seventeen of them from the doorway of her room to the lip of the tub. She’s got her eyes closed, her face tucked into his neck; he can feel the warm blood from her nose drip down his collarbone.
He and Joyce look at the tub filled with snow, then at each other. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, we’re gonna do this.”
“Yeah,” he says, nodding at her, swallowing heavily. Slowly, he lowers El’s body into the tub, and for a minute, nothing happens. Joyce starts to pile snow on top of her, and he counts the seconds - one. two. three. fo-
Her eyes snap open, suddenly, on a big, shuddering breath in. She looks - panicked, absolutely terrified. “No - noo!” she starts yelling, screaming, wriggling around, trying to get out of the towel, out of the tub, looking at he and Joyce like they’re torturing her. The snow around her face turns pink and then deep red as she shakes her head, the blood from her ears seeping out.
“It hurts,” she cries. “Papa, it hurts.”
He can hear Joyce gasp beside him, hear the shudder and hitch of her breathing, knows she’s started to cry. “Oh my god, Hop, oh my god” she’s murmuring, over and over.
The first time she’s ever called him father and it’s while she’s screaming at him to stop because he’s hurting her. It’s - he can’t think of a worse thing he’s ever done.
She screams herself hoarse as they keep her there in the tub, calling out to him. Around them is pandemonium - cupboards slam open in the kitchen, their innards exploding out into the room. Pans of Jiffy Pop start spontaneously combusting, growing and growing before the aluminum finally gives way and popcorn falls all over the place. Two of the couch cushions explode to their right, and she cracks the screen of the television set clean in half. “Papa, it hurts,” she sobs. “Papa, no, Papa, Papa.”
She repeats it endlessly, and it’s the last thing she says before finally, finally she tires, and lapses into sleep.
He and Joyce sit, frozen in the aftermath, breathing like they’ve just run a marathon. Around them cans roll on the floor, settling. White feathers from the couch cushions fall down from above them, one by one, like snow. He hadn’t realized it but sometime in the confusion and terror of El’s screaming Joyce had grabbed his hand on top of El, locked their fingers together over her body in a death grip. He doesn’t let go until she stands, touches his shoulder with her other hand. “Okay, Hop,” she says. “Let’s take her out.”
Joyce changes El out of her wet clothes and they place her back on the bed, and are relieved beyond belief to feel that her body’s cooled considerably. She’s stopped bleeding, and a test of the light switches shows that the power is working normally again. Still, she sleeps, and he sits there next to her, holding silent vigil by her bedside.
Joyce putters around in the rest of the cabin, putting things back to rights. He wants to stop her, she shouldn’t have to do that, but somehow he thinks it makes her feel better to do it so he says nothing. Another hour passes that way, the only sound in the room Joyce’s movements from behind him and El’s soft breathing. Finally Joyce walks over, cocks her head and hip against the doorway of the bedroom. She’s cleaning her hands with a dish towel.
“Hop” she says softly, imploringly. “You’ve got to get some sleep. I’ll watch her.”
He bites at his already bloody lip, rubs the palm of his hand over his tired eyes. “I can’t, Joyce. I just - I can’t.” How is he supposed to sleep not knowing if she’s going to be okay? How can she expect him to close his eyes for one single second? How is he supposed to live with himself after what he’s done tonight? How can he ever expect her to trust him after this?
“Hop,” she says again from the doorway. He doesn’t answer and she walks towards him, the dish towel still in her hand. She gets on her knees in front of him. “Hop,” she tries again, her hand coming up to gently rest on his forearm. “Jim”.
He pulls his head from his hands, looks at her. She’s staring at him intently, her big brown eyes full of concern and a quiet determination.
“This is not your fault,” she says softly. He blinks at her. This isn’t - he knows that, knows she’s not. He knows. Doesn’t he?
“It’s the flu. It happens to everyone.” she continues slowly, quietly, like she might spook him. “You are not going to lose her. She is not going to hate you. She’s going to be fine.”
He blinks at her, blearily. “I know that, Joyce,” he says weakly.
“Do you?” He doesn’t answer. She goes on. “Because you’re acting like you don’t and you’re going to scare her. Kids get sick - normal, regular, sick. She’ll probably be sick again before the winter’s through, being with the kids all the time and never having been exposed to bugs and viruses before -”
He sits up, interrupting her. “Then she won’t spend any time with them at all,” he says sharply.
“Hop!” she huffs out, incredulously. “Are you listening to yourself? What are you gonna do, keep her from going to school because she might get the chicken pox?” He looks away stubbornly, knows he’s being ridiculous but somehow can’t help it, and that makes him angry.
“I don’t need to justify keeping her safe, Joyce - not to you or to anybody.”
She reels back, an are you kidding me expression on her face. “Are you - are you serious?” she asks, her voice breathy with incredulity. “Do you think I don’t know what it’s like watching your child struggle with something you can’t protect them from? Do you think for one second I don’t know how you’re feeling right now? Every time Will coughs, every single time he has a nightmare, every time it’s a minute past when I think he should be home from school, I am absolutely terrified,” she finishes, the waves and wisps of her hair shaking with the force of her speaking. “You weren't there when we burned that thing out of his body - I held him down and let Nancy Wheeler scald him with a fire poker!” This isn’t gentle Joyce anymore. This is the Joyce that fought an entire town’s perception of her, an entire secret government agency, and a monster from a parallel dimension to get her son back, and she isn’t going to take any pity party shit from him.
“You think I don’t know what this feels like? I do - I know better than anyone else. But I can’t keep him from living his life, Hop. Even if I kept him with me every second of the day it wouldn’t guarantee that he’d be safe. So how can I keep him from grabbing onto life with both hands? How can I say no to that? How can you?” He’s still not looking at her and he feels one of her small hands, cool to the touch, come up and turn his face so that he can’t avoid her eyes. He often notices a slight tremble to her hands, but they’re steady now.
“El is not. Sara.” She repeats. “She is going to wake up and be fine, and you’re going to let her see the boys, and let her go to school in September, and let her try and live a normal life because you love her and it’s what she deserves. She is going to wake up, and you are going to tell her you love her, and she is going to understand.”
He’s looking at her and she's right, she’s right, obviously, he’s just - he’s so scared. He can feel it starting, feel the pressure behind his eyes, and he knows he’s going to cry. He hasn’t cried in front of another adult since Sara died. He can’t - he can’t even speak.
Joyce must realize because she melts in an instant, her other hand coming up to frame his face. “Hop,” she whispers out, her own voice wavering, and - he breaks. “Oh, Hop - come here.”
She gathers him to her, still kneeling on the floor next to his chair, her arms around his shoulders his head in the crook of her neck as he shakes and cries, heaves in breaths only to shudder them back out again. She holds him through it, her hands running over his shoulders and stroking through his hair, and he can feel dampness on his sweater where she must be crying too. She soothes him with nonsense sounds of comfort, soft hushes, whispers of it’s okay, and just let it out.
She's so, so strong - this woman a full foot shorter than him, who looks no steadier than a reed in a stiff breeze. And she’s right - she’s right.
He quiets, eventually, his shudders slowing, but she doesn’t let go. He stays right there, his eyes closed and his arms wrapped around her, feeling her smooth those small hands up and down his back.
“I can’t lose her Joycie,” he says, quietly against her shoulder. He hasn’t called her that in a long, long time. “I can’t - I don’t think I can do it again.”
She sniffles and pulls back, her eyes are red and the ripple of her voice is quiet. “I know you’re scared,” she says. “But she’s strong. It won’t be this hard every day. And you won’t do it on your own. You have us - you have me.”
He lifts his head up, looks at her, their faces so close together and her hands on him. She’s so strong and it strikes him how beautiful she is, how much more beautiful she is now than she ever was at seventeen. He cants his eyes down to her lips and sees her swallow, feels something indescribable shift between them. He cups her elbow in one palm, feels her run her hand from his shoulder down to rest on his chest; feels her spread her fingers wide, right above the thump of his heart.
“Joyce…” he whispers, pulls her closer to him with his hand on her arm.
Her tongue darts out to wet her lips, she starts to speak. “Hop, I—”
But before she can finish, she’s interrupted by a long groan coming from the bed. They spring away from each other like teenagers caught in the act, a riotous blush on her face and his own mouth completely dry, before springing into action.
They rush up to the head of the bed, and El blinks sleepily at them both before sniffing once.
“Hi,” she says quietly, almost normally, as if nothing had been the matter.
“Hey Kid,” he manages, his voice choked up as he places the back of his hand on her forehead. He shoots Joyce an unbelievably relieved glance - her fever’s finally broken.
“How’re you feeling, sweetie?” Joyce asks, running her hand through El’s mop of curls, all matted from sleep.
El keeps blinking, like she can’t quite manage to keep her eyes open.
“Like shit,” she answers, her voice sounding like gravel. He can’t contain the bark of laughter he lets loose, can’t even feel chastised at the look Joyce gives him as this is obviously his language she’s picked up.
“Atta girl,” he says, bending over her to press a kiss to her forehead, one to her cheek. She makes a contented sound, her eyes slipping closed again, nuzzles her forehead closer to him. He tears up again at seeing only Ellie, his Ellie, and not someone afraid of him. They make her drink two or three glasses of water and take a little more Tylenol before she’s allowed to go back to sleep. Jim sits there a minute longer on the bed, tucking the covers up under her chin and just watching her for a bit, before realizing Joyce isn’t next to him anymore. He walks out to the living room, sees her gathering her things.
She looks up, a little started and a little sheepish, maybe. “Well - it looks like things are under control here, so…I think it’s probably time for me to head back. Give her a big kiss for me when she wakes up, okay?”
“You don’t have to leave, Joyce. Stay - lemme get you something.” He starts to move over to the kitchen as if to open the fridge and get her a drink, but she stops him.
“No, I — that's alright. You two could use some time alone, I think,” she says, putting on that same old coat that’s double her size and not half as warm as it ought to be. She huffs out one of her breathy laughs. “Plus, Jonathan’s probably gonna want his car back.” That’s right - she’d taken Jonathan’s LTD because there was no way she would have made it through the snow in her shitty pinto.
He wants to say, Stay - I’ll drive you back in the morning. Stay, and we’ll figure it out later.
Stay and we can finish what we maybe almost started before.
But she’s got that expression on her face like she’s checking for the exits, and he’s got a sick kid in the back. She’s grieving for Bob Newby who was a much better guy than he’s ever been, and he’s still a fucking mess. Doesn’t she deserve more than to be saddled with his problems?
So he doesn’t say any of that. He just says “Okay,” and checks on El quickly before walking with her out to her car.
She tsks at him for coming outside without his coat on, but he’s having none of that.
“I’ll let you yell at me when you get a coat that actually does something, Joyce” he says, and she rolls her eyes at him. In any case, it's not snowing anymore - the night air is crisp around them, sharp - like you could snap a tree branch and hear the sound travel for a hundred miles.
They crunch their way through the snow to the car, quiet the whole way until they reach Jonathan’s Ford parked at the dead end. “You sure you’re good to drive home?”
She rolls her eyes again, good naturedly. “Hop, I’m fine. I’ve been driving in Indiana winters my entire life.” He nods at her, opens up the car door and watches her step in.
“You’ll let me know...how she’s doing?” Joyce asks, looking up at him.
“Yeah, of course.”
“And if she gets worse, you just - you just call us on your radio.”
He nods. “I will.” He’s quiet for a minute, just looking at her. “I can’t tell you - Thanks for coming, Joycie. Really. I don’t - I don’t know what I would have-”
She reaches out to grab his hand, stops him from stammering on like an idiot. “You would have been okay,” she says gently. “But I’m glad I could help.”
“Drive safe,” he says, squeezes her slim, cool fingers in his own larger hand.
“Yes, Chief,” she teases back, before he shuts the door.
He thumps the roof twice with his palm and watches her drive slowly all the way down the road until she turns and he can’t see her any longer. He stays there for a couple minutes, breathing out white plumes into the night, thinking about shared cigarettes and shared trauma and how soft her hands had been on his face before it gets too cold and he heads back inside.
He walks back inside, closing the door gently behind him. The cabin looks surprisingly decent considering the state of things earlier - Joyce had swept up all the feathers, the popcorn, the broken glass. All the cans and packages of food that aren’t ruined are off the floor and on the counter, all the frozen goods back in the freezer. He feels another swell of immense gratitude for this woman who, through coincidence and sheer willpower, is now a part of his life again.
The fire had gone down in the wood stove with all of the commotion and chaos. He fills it and lights it again, stares into the embers as they catch fire and spread, holds his hands out and warms his sore, cracked knuckles over the open flame. He hears El cough in the bedroom, holds his breath as he waits for something to happen - but it doesn’t. Everything stays exactly where it is, no lights flicker. Normal. He walks into the bedroom, takes up his now familiar place on the bed beside her.
“Hey, Kid,” he says, checking her forehead one more time. Cool to the touch. “How’re you feeling?"
She shrugs a little bit. “Okay,” she says.
“Throat’s pretty sore, huh?” She nods her head, the curls escaped wildly from the hair tie.
“Okay. Let's get something to make it feel better.” He brings her back a new bowl of Tylenol in crushed pudding pop, feeds her small spoonful after small spoonful. She takes down more water and looks like she might settle back to sleep, but he stops her, with a gentle shake.
“I wanna show you something,” he says, swallowing hard. He gets up, walks over to the dresser, and pulls the birth certificate out from under the jumble of belts and prescriptions and cufflinks and knick knacks he keeps in his top drawer. His heart’s pounding so hard his fingers actually move with it as he holds the paper.
He brings it back to the bed, holds it out to her. She takes it in her hand and studies it, doesn’t say a thing, just - looks it over, carefully, slowly. He holds his breath until he has to speak.
“It’s - I got it a little while ago. It’s what’s going to make it so that you can stay here with me.” He clears his dry throat. “If you want, I mean. You don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to. But I...I want you to,” he finishes.
She finally looks at him. “This…means…family?” she says slowly, the rawness of her throat catching every other syllable.
He’s not sure if this is just the most wishful thinking ever but he swears he hears the tiniest little bit of earnestness in her voice, of wistfulness, and he nods. “Yeah, it means family. It means you’d be my- my daughter. And I’d be your dad.” Before she can say anything else he rushes back in. “And you wouldn’t have to - this wouldn’t change anything, not if you don’t want it to. We wouldn’t have to be any different and you wouldn’t have to call me -” he falters here, for a minute. “-Call me dad, or papa, or anything like that, if you don’t want to.”
She puts the paper down gently. “I want to.” He can feel his eyebrows raising up to his hairline, feel his heart growing three sizes too big like in the book about the Grinch he used to read to Sara. “You - you do?” he asks, feeling stupid immediately because what if she changes her mind??
But she just nods, slowly. “Yes,” she says, daintily. “I want to stay with you.”
He nods, blinks his eyes at the feeling of tears because apparently being a dad again means you just cry all the time.
“Okay then,” he says.
“Will you read Anne?” she asks, and as he goes to grab the book he’s shocked at how well this went, shocked at how well she responded and how much easier it was than he thought.
He settles on the bed, stretches out beside her and gathers her to him, one of her thin arms slung across his chest with her face resting there. He finds their place and is about to start reading when she speaks.
“You’re a good papa,” she says. He kisses the top of her head, squeezes her to him.
“Back atcha, Kid,” he answers, and begins to read.
“And since you seem to want her, Matthew, I suppose I'm willing--or have to be. I've been thinking over the idea until I've got kind of used to it. It seems a sort of duty. I've never brought up a child, especially a girl, and I dare say I'll make a terrible mess of it. But I'll do my best. So far as I'm concerned, Matthew, she may stay.
Matthew's shy face was a glow of delight…”