Chapter 1: Red Eye To Philly
It had to be 3 A.M.
Vic’s eyes jarred open to the sound of her cell phone ringing into the solitude of the cabin. Iridescent light radiated from the pocket of her jeans that lay in a rumpled heap beside the bed. She’d forgotten to put it on the charger in her haste to get into bed. Or rather onto Walt.
Throwing back the sheets and cursing, she rolled clumsily from the mattress to the floor with her hands outstretched. As she yanked the phone from her jeans, the blue LED light pierced her dry, tired eyes.
She expected to see Cady’s or Ferg’s name on the screen, but she didn’t recognize the number. Only the area code.
Instant anger, underscored by a twinge of fear, surged through her chest.
Suddenly, she realized the phone was still ringing shrilly into the silence, and the sheet-draped lump that was Walt was starting to turn restlessly above her.
She jabbed the screen to answer the call, and pressed the phone to her ear.
“Whoever the fuck you are, this better be important.” She hissed into the phone.
There was a beat of silence, nearly prompting Vic to hang up the phone and dive back under the covers to join Walt’s radiating body heat, when a shaky, if not indignant, voice whispered back to her.
Vic rocked back on her heels, allowing her back to rest heavily on the bed frame. Horror, anger, nausea, and a handful of other emotions swamped her chest like a flash flood.
“Victoria, is that you?”
Vic blinked and swallowed thickly. She knew who was calling her at three o’clock in the morning - she just didn’t want to believe it.
Above her, Walt’s hand emerged from the sheets, pulling the covers back from his head. His voice was quiet and husky, interfering with the loud rush in Vic’s head, “Vic, who is that?”
“Victoria, this is your mother.” The voice from the other end of the phone line answered his question, jumping from concern to irritation in a matter of seconds.
“I know.” Vic said, unable to conjure anything more coherent.
“Good. And before you start cursing me out about what time it is - this is important.”
Vic pressed her eyes shut, willing bubbling rage to ease before her blood boiled clean from her veins.
The only phone call in three years, and it had to be in the middle of the goddamn night. Well, she better hope to God it was important.
“So, are you going to tell me or what?”
“Yes. I’m afraid something’s happened …”
There was a long pause, and somehow, Vic realized what was coming before her mother even spoke it. There was only one thing important enough for her to bridge the ever-widening gap between them by picking up the phone.
“It’s your father.”
Walt poised his hands on his hips as he watched Vic scurry around the cabin, throwing balled up clothes, underwear, and toiletries into a suitcase. She was still in her underwear and messy hair, and if a startling phone call in the middle of the night hadn’t thrown a damper on things, he may have considered carrying her straight back to bed - and not to sleep.
But Vic didn’t have to say a word for him to know things were serious. She didn’t scare easy, and the look in her eyes when she’d hung up the phone couldn’t be described as anything other than pure, icy fear.
“Shit, shit! Where’s my fucking wallet?”
“You, uh, left it on the kitchen table.”
Walt pursed his lips as Vic’s shoulder bumped his on her way into the kitchen.
“So you gonna tell me where you’re running off to at three-thirty in the morning? Or should I start guessing?”
He turned slowly, peering at the back of her head. “Has something happened?”
Vic let out a heavy sigh, and pressed both hands to her face. He could see the slight tremble in her shoulders, the way her spine stiffened in a vain attempt to shore up her composure.
Shuffling across the cool tile, he put his hand softly on her shoulder.
Vic dragged her hands from her face, sniffing sharply. Her chin tilted up, defiant against the obvious swell of emotion.
“It’s, um … my … my dad.”
“Is he okay?”
Vic shook her head. Her brief composure collapsed, and she leaned back into Walt’s chest for support. A low whimper came from her throat, a small, muffled sound she tried desperately to suppress.
“Hey, hey.” He whispered, pulling her around against him.
“That was my mom.” Vic whispered, her voice mangled with tears. “They rushed him to the hospital. They think it was a heart attack.”
Walt held her tightly against him for several moments before he decided. “I’m coming with you.”
“What? No, no.”
Vic pulled free of his embrace, and swiped a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand.
“Because, I am not going to have the first time you meet my parents to be at the hospital. Or any of my family for that matter.”
“I don’t want you traveling alone like this.”
“I’ll be fine.”
She snatched her wallet from the table, and marched past him. He followed her, through the living room, back into the bedroom where she grabbed her jeans from the floor. She shoved each foot resolutely into the pant legs, and hiked the jeans up around her waist. Fingers still fumbling with the zipper, she hunted for the shirt he had discarded in the evening’s haste to get her into bed.
“Christ, where is my shirt?”
Walt bent to grab the shirt from just underneath the bed, but hesitated to give it to her.
“I really don’t think you’re fine.”
“C’mon, Walt, just give me my damn shirt. I don’t have time for this.”
“I know you’re probably worried about what your father will think, seeing us together.”
“This isn’t all about you.”
“But some of it is, right?”
Vic sighed, sinking to the edge of the mattress. “I just … the last time I saw my dad, he was trying to pack me up and move me out of here. And he wasn’t painting you in the best light either.”
“I know. I only met him the once, but he was pretty upset about you getting shot. Seemed to think it was my fault. He asked me to fire you.”
“What? You never told me that.”
“Yeah.” Walt said, “He had me pretty convinced you were going to leave voluntarily too.”
“What did you do? I mean, I know what it’s like when my dad issues an ultimatum.”
“Well, as I recall, I gave you a lesson in horseback riding and … um, well, I thought a lot about what it would feel like to lose you.”
Vic’s eyes softened as Walt stepped around the end of the bed, and joined her on the edge of the mattress. Pressing the shirt into her lap, he put his arm around her shoulders.
“Truthfully, there wasn’t much I could do. I thought that you could make your own decision. You were an adult then, and you’re an adult now. I know we agreed to take things slow, but this is important. I don’t think you should go alone.”
Vic nodded, slowly.
“To be honest, I can live with my dad knowing about us. He’s always been strict, and hard to please. Nobody would ever live up to his standards, so I don’t except his reaction to you to be any different from the other guys I’ve dated. It’s my mom I’m worried about.”
“You haven’t told me much about her.”
“There isn’t much to know. She and my dad separated when I was just a kid. Never actually divorced, which I think is worse. She thinks she can just walk in an out of our lives whenever it suits her because she never legally cut ties.”
“And that was her on the phone?”
“Yeah. She’s gonna flip her shit when she finds out about us.”
“You don’t have to tell her. Or your dad.”
“Are you serious?”
“You won’t hurt my feelings.” He said, offering her a reassuring smile.
Vic heaved out a sigh. “Fine. You can come with me - on one condition.”
Vic rose from the bed, and crossed her arms tightly. “You won’t verbally attack, intimidate, or threaten my mother.”
“Why would I do any of those things?”
Vic chuckled, mirthlessly. “Just wait.”
When they caught the red eye flight to Philadelphia, Vic was wide awake and jittery with nerves and adrenaline, but as the plane soared above the clouds, she felt exhaustion tugging at her limbs. Her head lolled against the rigid leather seat until finding a semi-comfortable resting place on Walt’s shoulder.
Deep beneath the layers of bravado and independence, she was relieved Walt had insisted on coming with her. She didn’t know what Philadelphia held for her. She didn’t know how to feel about going back for the first time in years. There was no other expectation than dread, and the inescapable certainty that whatever happened in the following days, it would be a bell that could never be unrung.
She slept for what felt like seconds until the jolt of the plane touching down threw her into consciousness. She sat upright, wincing as she straightened her stiff neck.
Walt’s hand was ever present on her knee. “You ok?”
She nodded, massaging the knotted neck muscles with cold, shaky fingers. She felt weak from lack of sleep, but also hyperaware. The overhead lights were sharp and yellow, the undercurrent of voices in the small confines of the plane like sandpaper against her senses.
Walt carried both of their hastily packed bags as they deplaned. Once inside the airport, she could see the sun rising on the other side of the sprawling building. The floor to ceiling windows that ran along the length of the airport allowing in the burnt orange light and creeping, purple sunrise that anyone would have described as beautiful. To Vic, her restless mind, and her weary eyes, it was nothing more than a painful irritation.
“You want something to eat?” Walt asked.
“I don’t think I can. I feel a little motion sick. Let’s just find a hotel, and figure out where to go from there.”
Vic followed him through the airport, and out onto the sidewalk where taxis and buses skirted to and from the curb, in a constant stream of arriving and departing passengers. Walt made a remark about catching a taxi to a hotel, and renting a car in the morning. She nodded, numbly, aware only of the din of her own thoughts, and nothing more substantial.
All she could think of was her father, lying pale and helpless, against stark, white hospital sheets. It wasn’t a picture she typically associated with him. Her father was a veteran police officer, a man of strength, passion, and will. She wasn’t ready to see him like this. She wasn’t ready to accept that she was reaching the age where losing a parent became more of a realistic probability than a distant concept.
Walt was able to hail them a taxi in the midst of the chaos in front of the airport. After loading their bags, he asked the taxi driver to take them to one of the hotels nearby.
As the taxi pulled away from the curb, Walt’s fingers laced through hers.
“Vic, you okay?”
“I, uh … yeah.” She whispered, pulling herself from the long, hypnotic tunnel of her thoughts.
His hand squeezed hers, a silent but powerful reply. He knew she wasn’t okay, but he was going to let her pretend she was fooling him.
Once they reached the hotel, Walt paid the taxi driver, and led them into the quiet lobby.
“Good morning.” The clerk greeted them. “Do you have a reservation?”
“No, we just got into town. We just need one room.”
“Let me check what I have available.”
Walt cast Vic a gentle smile as the clerk searched his computer. She smiled back, feeling her throat knot with emotion.
“I have a room available on the second floor.” The clerk said. “One king-sized bed.”
“We’ll take it.”
Vic watched without finding to the will to argue as Walt paid for the room with his own credit card. She scoffed at the 3 AM version of herself that thought she was going to make this trip on her own. It was easier to think she was going to be okay with him leading the way.
Once on the second floor, Walt found their room number, and slid the keycard into the lock. The mechanism clicked open, and he held the door for her as she stepped inside.
Shutting the door behind them, he carried their bags inside, and set them down by the bed.
“You sure you don’t want anything to eat? It’s almost seven.”
Vic shook her head. “Actually, I should call Cady. Let her know what’s going on. And my mom too. She’ll want to know when I get here, down to the second.”
“Okay.” He nodded.
Vic took her cellphone into the bathroom, and plopped down on the closed lid of the toilet. She called Cady first, the easiest of the two tasks. She knew the new Sheriff Longmire wouldn’t ask any questions when it came to the health of a parent.
Vic blew out a sigh, and pressed the phone to her ear. Listening to the repetitive trill of the line ringing, she prayed she would wake suddenly to find this was all a terrible dream.
Walt hovered outside the bathroom door, trying only partially to convince himself he wasn’t eavesdropping. Vic’s voice rose and fell from behind the bathroom door, but he couldn’t make out full sentences. Only the weary tone of Vic’s voice during the phone call to Cady, and the adopted aggression during the exchange with her mother.
Parenthood. It was a tricky thing. Difficult as hell. He knew from experience that wounds dealt between parents and children were not ones easily mended. But, even though he was standing on the other side of the situation than Vic, he couldn’t see things from her mother’s perspective either. He would move heaven and earth for Cady; he could never leave her for long periods of time, unexplained, the way it seemed Vic’s mother had.
So much for taking it slow; it seemed they had jumped directly into long-term relationship hurdles with this unexpected trip to Philadelphia.
Vic’s second phone call was brief. After less than a minute, the bathroom door swung open, and she strode past him to the bed.
“So, um, visiting hours won’t be until 10.” Vic said, “They’re still running some tests, but I guess he’s pretty out of it.”
“You should try to get a little more rest.” Walt advised.
“I don’t think I can.”
“Vic, we didn’t get to sleep until nearly midnight. That call came at 3 AM. Now, that’s-”
“Don’t remind me.” Vic interrupted, tersely. “That while we were having sex, my dad was being rushed to the hospital.”
Walt sighed. “I’m just saying, you’re tired and you’re stressed, and there’s not much else you can do until 10:00 so …”
Vic pressed her eyes shut, and nodded. “No, you’re right.”
“Okay. And after you get a little more sleep, we’re going to find you something to eat whether you like it or not.”
He half-expected her to snap at him about bossing her around, but she didn’t have her usual brisk retort at the ready. Sinking down to the mattress, she kicked her shoes off, and wilted over against the pillow.
“Fine.” She mumbled.
He took off his hat, coat, and boots, and crawled onto the bed behind her. Her rigid shoulders softened against his chest as he wrapped his around her, holding her close. A few moments later, she was breathing heavy and even with slumber.
His own eyes remained open, eyelids clicking together in the semi-darkness and unfamiliar solitude of the hotel room. Holding her like this felt right, but the situation was all wrong. For the first time since he’d stopped thinking about Martha every day, he thought about her. He thought about her in hospital, he thought about her thin and frail in their bed, and about her kneeling over the toilet, sick from the chemo.
He thought about the scraps of strength he’d pulled together to usher himself through those dark times, and how he wasn’t sure he was ready to usher Vic through them now.
Vic startled awake in the semi-darkness of the hotel room, groping for something familiar to hold onto. Disoriented, and plagued by the dull headache squeezing base of her skull, she sat upright, purging a guttural groan from her chest.
Walt’s fingers cinched around her elbow as her movements jostled him awake.
“What time is it?” She whispered, squinting for the bedside clock.
In fitful sleep, time had stretched on like infinity, but in reality, only two hours had passed.
“Shit.” She whispered, when her bleary gaze found the bedside clock, “Come on, we have to get up. It’s nine already.”
He sat up beside her, finger-combing his tousled hair back.
Vic swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and pushed away from the inviting cushion of the mattress. Her body was leaden with exhaustion, but her mind was sharp with a fresh surge of urgency.
She turned on the lamp, and hunted for her shoes.
“I think this place has continental breakfast.” She said, wiggling her foot into her sneaker. “That’s probably easier than finding somewhere else to go.”
“That’s fine.” He said, “I’m glad to see a few hours of sleep changed your mind about eating. I thought I was gonna have to hogtie you.”
“You wish.” She retorted, overplaying the coy teasing to a nauseating degree. Ignoring the instant whiplash of self-disgust, she grabbed her hastily packed bag, and dragged it into the bathroom.
While she rummaged for her toothbrush, Walt changed his shirt, and ran a comb through his hair.
She straightened with toothbrush in hand, watching him via the bathroom mirror. On the outside, he was calm and collected, but she noticed the restless motion of his hands. Still, he was holding it together better than her. She hadn’t thought to bring a nice shirt, or even her hairbrush. She looked like a mess, and she knew her mother would notice.
Oh, Victoria, I know the divorce has been hard on you, but the least you could do is put forth some effort” - she could just hear it now.
Only problem was, the divorce hadn’t been that hard, and if Vic had it her way, her mother wasn’t touching Walt with a ten-foot pole. She’d gladly accept the blistering criticism if it meant avoiding honesty hour when it came to her relationship status.
After both were both dressed and half-way presentable, they took the stairs down to the lobby. A few early risers were occupying the sitting area, but they found a corner table for themselves.
Vic picked at the soggy cereal floating around the small, paper bowl. She could feel Walt’s eyes on her, peeling back layer after vulnerable layer, even as she tried to close up tight as a clam.
He wasn’t going to get her to talk about her mother. Not with his gentle gazes, his reassuring smiles, or his careful caresses.
Vic pulled her phone out of her pocket. “I’m almost done here. I’m getting us an Uber to the hospital.”
“It’s like a taxi, but people drive their own cars. You have a phone now; you probably have the app.”
Walt scowled. “I don’t use apps.”
“Of course you don’t.” She chuckled, perhaps the first genuine emotion outside of anger and fear that she’d felt in the last six hours.
Vic scheduled their ride, and dropped the phone to the table with a sigh. She leaned back in her chair, focusing her gaze on the parking lot outside the window. Morning dazzled the rows of parked cars, and the casual pedestrians going about their day as if nothing had changed from the one before.
“It doesn’t even feel different.” She said.
“Home has a way of feeling like that.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been gone for over three years. But it’s like nothing has changed. It should, shouldn’t it? Something should have changed.”
She caught his gaze, clenching her jaw against the absolute, simplistic truth of it.
“We want the past to reflect our feelings. It usually doesn’t.” Walt said.
“You know, I hated it in Wyoming the first six months. The first year if I’m being honest.”
“I know you did.”
“It’s funny, now that I’m back here in Philly, I kind of miss it.”
“Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think.”
“I know you’re just trying to be positive because this situation sucks so much, but you really don’t know my family, Walt.” Vic said, shaking her head. “I love my dad, and my brothers, and deep down, I probably still love my mom, too, even after all the shit she’s done to us - but family’s the only people you’re obligated to care about no matter what. Sometimes I hate that.”
“That’s unconditional love.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it just makes everyone bitter.”
Vic scoffed, returning her glare to the window. He had an answer for everything.
Against her sweaty palm, her phone buzzed. Their transportation had arrived.
Chapter 2: Family Reunion
After her devastating failure at the Running Eagle Challenge, Vic had accepted, if not begrudgingly, that she couldn't make recovery happen alone. Upon Walt's gentle insistence, she tried therapy again, this time in a private setting. She never asked how much the sessions cost him, only that he insisted on the bills being sent to his house.
Meanwhile, her RV remained stationed at the trailer park, but as the agonizing weeks between trauma and the light at the end of the tunnel stretched on, she found herself spending more and more time at the cabin.
It started with one bad night - one bad dream of her name being whispered by insidious lips, her skull being crushed by baseball bat, a tiny, cherubic face swimming in a puddle of her own blood. She ran out of the RV in her pajamas, her body shaking, her fingers stiff and cold with fear. She climbed into her truck, and drove down the familiar roads, beneath the pale eye of the moon. When he answered the door, his eyes heavy with sleep and his hair disheveled, she threw herself into his arms. He was warm, broad, solid - an unshakable boulder amidst the coarse, shifting current her life had become.
She let herself come undone in his arms. Her body melted and melded into his beneath the persistent, attentive press of his mouth, every inch and fiber shuddering back to life with the caress of his hands. It was like feeling the warmth of the sun again since that first night they’d shared after taking Malachi down.
This time, she knew she couldn’t turn him away with fears of the future.
Over the next three months, her clothes became fixtures, her toothbrush in the bathroom right next to his, her bras and panties mixed into the laundry with t-shirts and boxers, her life gradually weaving into the fabric of his. He was patient, not rushing her, even when they both knew what they wanted; somehow, that just made her want him more. She didn’t try to stop the swift descent into radiating, consuming desire despite the fears she’d harbored from the outset.
Those few days turned into weeks, and then into months. Somewhere along the way, she lost track of logic, whatever misgivings she’d clutched onto out of distrust or fear. As such, she’d found herself on day four of an extended sleep over at the cabin when the midnight phone call jarred her from the warm haze of their infant romance and back into the cold of reality.
They were thrown from their element, away from the log walls of the cabin, the green landscape, and the endless blue of the sky, and out into the blackened pavement and skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia. It was a harsh exchange, one Vic could have put off forever, if only she had the power.
As they rode toward the hospital in the back of the Uber driver’s Ford Taurus, Vic gazed in contempt up at the glass and steel plated buildings that had once been as familiar to her as the wooden beams of Walt’s bedroom ceiling.
She hated being back here; but what she hated more was her own selfish desires to continue on in their love-drunk haze without the interruption of her family, and her father’s sudden illness.
The simple thought of her dad lying in the hospital bed plunged her heart into her stomach, turning her intestines to rock. She had been so eager to get here when her mother called, but now that she was mere miles away, she wanted nothing more than to hide from it.
From between the other crowded structures, the white brick of the hospital loomed up ahead. Vic pushed her sweaty palms across her jeans, searching for some hidden well of strength within her. Some bit of fortitude to face her mother, and whatever realities about her father’s health that lay beyond those doors.
Walt’s hand covered hers, wrapping her trembling fingers up against the warmth of his calloused palm.
She lifted her head, and he gave her a reassuring nod.
The car glided to a stop in front of the receiving doors of the hospital. Vic muttered a thank you, and stepped out of the vehicle. Her knees felt like undercooked noodles, and she could feel the cold sweat sticking her shirt to her back.
She watched the car drive away, cutting off her only escape from the dismal situation that awaited.
Crossing her arms tightly around her middle, she rocked back on her heels, and let out shaky sigh. “Shit.”
“Come on, Vic.” Walt urged, softly. “You can do this.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” Vic whispered, shaking her head, vehemently, “I don’t know, Walt, can I?”
“Yes, you can. Now, come on, take my arm.” He said, extending his elbow to her.
She rolled her eyes at the old-fashioned gesture. “God, I am not that kind of woman.”
Brushing past him, she marched through the sliding doors of hospital, fueled by that single irritation that she was certain had been his intention.
He followed her to the front desk, where a young lady was filing charts.
“Excuse me, I’m here to see Victor Moretti. Can you tell me what room he’s in?”
“Are you family?”
“Yes. I’m his, uh … daughter.”
“Okay. Visiting hours just started, but I just sent some of your other family members up. It’s best not to overwhelm the patients with a lot of visitors.”
“Trust me, my dad doesn’t get overwhelmed. What’s the room number?”
“Victoria?” The voice echoed shrilly across the cavernous lobby of the hospital, bringing Vic around on her her heel. A hot, sharp sensation, the untamable lick of pent-up frustration and anger, rippled down Vic’s neck and shoulders. Every muscle stood taut, every hair on end, as her gaze combed the lobby for her mother.
Diana Moretti emerged from the bland palette of navy blue scrubs and hospital gowns, a floral-draped fortress of perfectly coiffed blond hair, and silk attire. Vic could smell the drowning scent of her unforgettable perfume before her mother closed the space between them.
“Victoria, thank God you're here.” Her mother crooned, reaching out her gold bangle adorned arms.
Vic leaned stiffly into the embrace, pulling back before her mother could latch on.
“My Lord, you look like shit.” Diana said, smiling as she imparted that intuitive observation.
“Yeah, it's been a long night.” Vic said, reflexively clenching her jaw at mother's brutal honesty.
“Just wait till you see your father. Now he has had it rough. And I'm only saying that to warn you. I've never seen him like this in all our thirty years.”
“Damn.” Vic murmured. “Do you know his room number? Let's get up there.”
“Now, hold on one second.” Diana said, grabbing Vic’s elbow before she could head for the elevator.
Vic suppressed a groan as Diana turned slowly to Walt, her sharp, blue eyes surveying him with curiosity and predatory aplomb.
Walt stepped forward, extending his hand. Before he could introduce himself, Vic pushed her shoulder in front of his, throwing her body up like a wall between him and her mother.
“This is my, um, my Walt-” Vic stammered, feeling her face grow hot. “My friend, I mean. Walt.”
“Friend?” Diana's brow cocked.
“Because your father told me your boss in Wyoming is also named Walt.”
“Was, ma'am. I retired.” Walt said, offering a easy-going smile.
“I see. You must be a very good friend, traveling all the way to Philly with her.”
“Yes, ma'am. She would have done the same for me.”
For a moment, Diana’s gaze shifted between disbelief and intrigue. And then, as she was so prone to do, she lost interest.
“All right then.” She said, lifting her chin. “But I don't know that they'll let you in seeing as you're not family.”
“I'll wait here.” Walt said, his hand grazing Vic’s lower back.
It was a small semblance of reassurance when all she really wanted to do was bury her face in his chest, and feel his arms wrap tightly around her.
She glanced up at him, catching a warm smile and a urging nod.
Diana had already started toward the elevator, but Vic had a sinking feeling that her mother wouldn't be fooled by such a flimsy moniker as friend.
There’s always that dull beep of the heart monitor to remind you that you’re in a hospital, and that something terrible could happen at any moment. For Vic, it was only white noise as she stepped into her father’s room to see him reclined against the pillows, his arms draped with IV’s and monitors.
His sallow face looked thinner than she recalled, his skin more like parchment than the sun-ripened vigor that she was accustomed to. Her brothers were crowded around the bed, all of them good, doting children. She was late, as usual.
“Victoria.” Her father said, his eyes brightening.
She rushed across the room, brushing around her brother, Michael, to to hug her father. Tears stung her eyes as the tangible evidence of his condition struck her like a bucket of ice water. He smelled of iodine and cold sweat, no trace of the Old Spice she usually associated with him.
He patted her shoulder, and she was relieved to feel his fingers still held a measure of strength.
“Hey, now, sweetheart, I’m not dead yet.” He said, a faint chuckle vibrating in his chest.
“Don’t joke about that, Dad.” Vic said, leaning back to look into his eyes.
He reached up to touch her cheek, his hand lingering as if he was trying to convince himself she was real.
“I came as soon as I could.” Vic said, clutching his wrist. “How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been poked and prodded enough to last a lifetime. But I’m going to be okay.”
“Did the doctors tell you that?”
“I don’t need a doctor to tell me I can beat this.” He said, smiling weakly.
“He’s already trying to get out of here.” Michael said from behind her. “We know you’re a fighter, Dad.”
“So, um, what did the doctors really say?” Vic asked.
“Your father is going to need a lot of help with recovery.” Diana said, imposing herself into the circle of siblings around the bed. “That’s why I’ve decided to move back to Philly for the moment.”
Vic turned sharply to see Diana putting her arm around Michael, a smug smile crossing her face.
“What happened to New Orleans?” Vic asked.
“This right here is more important.”
“Come on, Vic.” Her brother, John, said, “This is dad. Let’s all try to get along here.”
“John’s right.” Dad said before Vic could retaliate. “I don’t want any fighting, especially not over me. Everyone’s more stressed than they should be. I’m gonna be fine.”
“I have an idea.” Victor, the eldest brother, and the quietest, spoke for the first time. “We’re all here in Philly. When is that going to happen again? Everyone should come over to me and Julia’s place. We’ll cook dinner.”
“That sounds divine, darling.” Diana said.
Michael, John, and Andrew all nodded in agreement, while Vic only clutched her father’s hand to tighter. She was here for him, and if that meant suffering through a family reunion, so be it - but she didn’t have to smile for Diana’s sake while doing it. The less her mother knew about her true feelings, the better. If past history had any impact on the present, she knew she would only survive this week with her mouth shut, and as much distance between her and her mother as possible.
Walt waited in the lobby for nearly an hour. He thumbed through the magazines scattered in the waiting room, hardly absorbing the words on the glossy pages. His mind was with Vic, up in that hospital room, confronting whatever demons he’d seen dancing behind her hazel eyes, swimming in her tempered tears.
He knew a little bit about family trauma, but not really the type Vic was dealing with. His own parents had remained happily married until they passed, and he and Martha had always found a way to work things out when their marriage got rocky. Divorce was a word that had never been spoken between them - and it seemed one that had never been spoken between Diana and Victor Moretti either.
It wasn’t any of his business what kept Vic’s parents from signing the papers and cutting ties, but he had to wonder. From his perspective, it seemed the simplest solution would have been the best for everyone a long time ago.
When Vic stepped off the elevator, her head was down, and her jaw taut. Her fingers flexed open and closed at her sides, as if reigning back invisible emotion.
Tossing the magazine aside, Walt rose to meet her.
“How’s your father?”
“He’s gonna be fine - according to him.” Vic said, crossing her arms tightly. She squinted out window across the room, her brows twisted with frustration. “He doesn’t want anyone to worry.”
“And that makes you worry?”
“He’s sixty-five years old. He’s too young to die like this, right?” Vic whispered, her voice turning husky with suppressed tears.
“He’s got you, your brothers. He’s gonna be well taken care of here.”
“I know.” Vic said, swallowing thickly. She rolled her eyes upward, blinking away the glaze of tears. “And I don’t know whether to stay until he’s out, or if I should just go …”
As her voice collapsed, Walt pulled her into an embrace, his fingers winding through her hair. She sucked into a deep breath against his chest, her palms pressing off of his stomach.
“It’s fine, I’m fine.” She whispered, wiping hastily at her cheeks. “It’s just my mom, and everything …”
“Well, you just tell me what you want to do. I’ll stay here with you as long as you want.” He said, pressing his gaze to hers.
She grimaced a smile. “Thanks, because I’m going to need you.”
He cocked his head inquisitively. Vic wasn’t usually one to admit that she needed help.
“My brother, Victor, he invited all of us to dinner at him and his wife’s house tonight.” She said, “My mom’s gonna be there. I’m gonna need you to hold me back when things go sideways.”
“Vic …” He said, shaking his head.
“And don’t tell me it’s gonna be okay.” She said, breaking herself free of his embrace. “With my mom involved, things are going to go sideways - they always do.”
Vic stared into the hotel’s bathroom mirror, critical of the clothes she had chosen to throw into her suitcase at three o’clock in the morning. The only one who would be more underdressed than her at this family dinner would be Andy. The youngest of the children, he had always been given more slack. No one would care if he came in jeans and a backwards baseball cap because that’s what was expected of Andy.
Not Vic. She was the only daughter. Her father’s second namesake. Not to mention, she had been gone for three years, and everyone would be curious about her new life in Wyoming. She hadn’t exactly been writing back home about Absaroka County since her sudden departure. All eyes would be on her.
Vic jarred from her thoughts when Walt sidled up behind her, his hands framing her hips.
“You look good.” He murmured, “Pretty.”
“Thanks.” Vic said, drawing in a deep breath. “Let’s hope my mother thinks so. If she doesn’t, she’s going to let my entire family and their spouses know it.”
“She seems like a handful.”
“That’s an understatement.” Vic snorted. “Nothing is ever good enough for her. Or it’s too good, and she had to ruin it.”
Walt went quiet, drawing Vic’s gaze to the mirror. His reflection peered at her, deciphering.
She glanced away, tamping down the reflexive need to protect herself.
He was learning more about her in the past day than he had in the last three years. More than she’d ever expected, or wanted. If she could have preserved the version of herself he’d met and fallen in love with, she would have.
God, why had she let him come with her?
She cleared her throat. “You ready?”
“When you are.”
After visiting the hospital, they had stopped to rent a car. It seemed apparent they would be in Philly for a few days, and transportation would be necessary.
Vic sat in the passenger’s seat of the borrowed red sedan, giving directions to Victor’s house.
Cutting through downtown, they passed the police precinct. Vic looked away, attempting to block out the memories as quickly as she could, but they were swift to rise crystal clear in her mind. Those skeletons were buried near the surface, and they clawed their way up with stunning speed to take her breath away at the most casual of reminders. The threats, the fear, the humiliation; they never faded.
“You okay?” Walt asked.
She stared keenly out the window at nothing in particular as his gaze bored a hole in the side of her head. She knew he wouldn’t push for honesty, but she half-wished he would. She felt like the little Dutch boy from The Silver Skates, holding back the fury of the dam with one small finger.
When they arrived at Victor’s house, the driveway was already crowded with vehicles. Andy and John were standing on the front porch, drinking beers while John’s wife, Marissa, and Victor’s wife, Julia, played in the front yard with the children.
Vic unlatched her seatbelt, and let it snap back against the door with a clatter. She let out a sigh. “My dad’s in the hospital. You think they’d try not to frame this like a celebration.”
“He did say he didn’t want any of you to worry.”
“ I don’t take his wishes so literally.”
“Sometimes it’s easier for people to pretend they’re happy than to face what’s really going on.”
“Who’s side are you on?” Vic asked.
“Then stop defending my family. You don’t know how fucked up we can get.”
Vic shoved the car door open, and stepped out into the grass. She pushed the door shut behind her, and didn’t wait for Walt as she started off across the driveway. He followed a few moments later, the sound of his boots striking the asphalt announcing his presence on her heels.
“Vic, you made it!”
Andy set his beer down, and vaulted over the railing into the grass. He swaggered up to her, throwing his arm around her shoulder. “We were starting to think you weren’t coming.”
“Me too. Is Mom here?”
“Inside, trying to help in the kitchen.”
“You know Mom hasn’t cooked a day in her life.”
John raised his beer in agreement with Andy. “But she will try. Whatever it takes to look good, right?”
Before Vic could join in on insulting Diana, Andy hoisted himself up on the edge of the railing, and waved a hand at Walt.
“So, you gonna introduce your boyfriend or not?”
“He’s not my boyfriend, Andy.”
Andy huffed a laugh. “Sure.”
John, always the serious one, reached over the porch railing to shake Walt’s hand. “I’m John. Nice to meet you.”
Andy waved, hardly compelled to such politeness as his brother. “Andy.”
“Nice to meet you, Andy.” Walt said.
“So, how did you two meet?” John asked.
“We worked together.” Vic said, “Not anymore.”
Andy’s mouth twisted as he tried not to grin. Vic glared at him, wordlessly daring him to say something, and get slapped down from the railing hard enough to break something.
“You want a beer?” John asked, “Victor’s got like three other cases in the fridge.”
“Yeah, I could use a drink.” Vic said.
As John went into the house to fetch the beer, Vic turned away from the porch with her arms crossed.
“We gonna go inside?” Walt asked, keeping his voice low.
“Not if I can help it.”
Vic glanced up to see Julia crossed the yard with her and Victor’s youngest girl, Summer, balanced on her hip.
“Hi, Julia.” Vic said.
Julia pulled Vic into a hug, pressing Summer up against her shoulder in the process. The baby girl’s little hand snagged on Vic’s hair, turning into a fist when Julia leaned back.
“No, no, Summer.” Julia chided, softly, prying her fingers from Vic’s hair. “Sorry about that, she’s at that stage where she just wants to eat everything.”
“It’s okay.” Vic said, barely meeting Julia’s gaze.
Summer was staring at her with wide, blue eyes that reminded Vic of the Wyoming sky. At eight months old, those eyes were full of wonder and curiosity alone, lacking the history and resentment the rest of her family held.
“How are you doing?” Julia asked. “It’s been ages.”
“I know, I meant to come back here sooner, I just …”
“I know.” Julia said, “I get it. I moved here with Victor five years ago, and guess how many times I’ve been back home? Three times. It gets harder the longer you’re gone.”
“Tell me about it.”
“And you must be Walt.” Julia said, turning to smile at Vic’s silent shadow. “Diana told me you might be coming.”
“That’s me.” Walt said, tipping his hat.
“What exactly did she tell you?” Vic asked.
“She’s glad you rebounded so quickly.” Julia chuckled.
Vic opened her mouth to protest, but Michael’s wife, Angie, called for Julia from the front porch.
“Oh, I better go help her.” Julia said, “Diana might be burning the kitchen down. Do you mind?” She asked, holding Summer out to Vic.
“I, uh …” Vic stammered, taking Summer into her arms.
“Thanks, I’ll be right back.”
Julia darted off across the yard, leaving Vic holding her niece stiffly in her arms. Summer cooed up at her, tiny fists batting playfully at her chest.
Walt leaned over Vic’s shoulder, speaking in low tones to Summer, “Hey there, sweetheart.”
Summer laughed, grabbing onto his finger.
“Woo, you’re a strong one.” Walt encouraged, tugging on her little fist.
“Here, why don’t you take her?” Vic suggested, shoving the baby into Walt’s arms, “She seems more interested in you, anyway.”
Cradling Summer in one arm, Walt caught Vic’s elbow with the other hand.
“I’m sorry, I just-” Vic stammered, yanking her arm free of his grasp, “I can’t, okay? I can’t look at her and ….”
Summer reached up to pull curiously at Walt’s hat, unaware of the the rip current of dangerous emotion she had injected into Vic’s tenuous grasp on her self-control.
Vic looked away as Walt’s gaze shifted sympathetically between her watery eyes and the little girl in his arms. Rubbing her sleeve quickly across her cheek, she turned and marched toward the house. She knew she was running away from something bad toward something worse, but she couldn’t stay. She couldn’t look at Summer, at those beautiful eyes, without thinking of all the possibilities that had ended the night Chance Gilbert shot her.
Chapter 3: Misery Loves Company
The ding of a fork striking a glass brought everyone’s gaze to Victor, who stood at the head of the table with his wineglass aloft.
“I just want to say something.” Victor said, “I know it’s been a rough couple years with Vic moving, Mom traveling, Andy moving to California, then back here, then to Texas ….”
A collective chuckle rippled around the table. Andy pulled his baseball cap down lower, hiding the redness taking over his cheeks.
“And now this.” Victor said, “I just want to say, our dad is strong. He’s determined. He can get through this. And I want to appreciate the silver lining of him being in the hospital by having everyone here tonight. Thanks, everyone, for coming.”
John raised his wineglass in agreement. “To family.”
Vic held her own glass up, murmuring the word along with the rest of her siblings. She took a shallow sip of the red wine, unconvinced by her own recitation.
As they began to pass around the plates of food, Michael leaned forward in his chair.
“So, Vic, tell us about Wyoming.”
Vic gritted her teeth as she scooped mashed potatoes onto her plate. “Not much to tell. It’s flat. There’s the Bighorns, but mostly, it’s just flat.”
“C’mon, you know I’m not talking about the landscape. You work for the Sheriff’s department; there’s got to be a few interesting stories to tell there.”
“Not really a lot worth telling, Mike.”
“Fine.” Michael said, taking the bowl of potatoes from her. “Be that way, but I know you never go anywhere without causing some type of scene.”
“That’s right.” Diana interjected from the end of the table. “Vic the Terror. Remember Dad used to always call her that?”
Vic cast her mother a glare as her brothers laughed in agreement.
“Just accept it, honey, you take after your mother.” Diana added, a smile curling slyly at the corners of her mouth, “It’s hard for people to look away from women like us.”
“What does that even mean?” Vic asked, contemptuously.
John cleared his throat. “So, uh, Mom, how was New Orleans?”
“Oh, you know me. I find a party wherever I go.” Diana said, waving her hands dramatically, “And New Orleans is one big party. Oh my god, do I have stories to tell.”
Vic slid Walt a gaze burning with irritation, praying the simple blank expression of horror on his face would at least ease the urge to jump up from the table and grab her mother by the throat. Diana’s shrill voice melded into static noise as Walt reached over to hold her hand beneath the table. His fingers laced through hers, and squeezed, just hard enough to act as an anchor bearing her down against unforgiving waves of emotion.
Vic choked down as much of the food as she could, hardly wanting to insult Victor and his good intentions.
The conversation ebbed and flowed around Diana, her high-pitched laughter rousing everyone to join her as if by gunpoint. They didn’t dare not laugh, didn’t dare not give her the spotlight for as long as she asked for it.
Vic rubbed her forehead with tense fingers, and checked her watch. An hour and a half down, God knew how many more to go.
Diana had just completed her latest tall tale of New Orleans which involved her getting out of a traffic stop by flirting with the police officer, when she turned to Walt with her wine glazed eyes.
“You used to be a sheriff, right, Walt?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Walt replied.
“I’m sure you’ve had plenty of interesting traffic stops, and the like-”
“Mom.” Vic interrupted, her palm smacking down on the table.
“I thought you said he was just a friend, dear.” Diana said, her voice turning sickly sweet with condescension.
“You’re being inappropriate.”
“I’m asking a simple question, Victoria.”
“Vic, it’s fine.” Walt said, “I’ve had plenty of interesting traffic stops, but not any like what you’re describing, Mrs. Moretti.”
For the first time since she’d starting talking that night, Diana went quiet. Her gaze held onto Walt’s, awaiting some reaction.
Vic sank back in her chair, pressing a hand to her face.
She’d spent two years goading him with some hope of getting a reaction, of gaining his interest. She knew he wasn’t going to give her mother an inch, but that didn’t matter.
John cleared his throat again, intent on being the mediator.
“Well, um, I think we’ve heard plenty about New Orleans for one night.” He said, forcing a chuckle, “What about you, Andy? Got any stories from California?”
“I smoked a lot of pot, if that’s what you mean.” Andy said, casting John a sarcastic smile.
Michael snorted. “You are such a shithead, dude.”
Heat surged through Vic’s chest like a bolt of lighting, the passing comment splitting her tightly held emotions wide open. She couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t stop herself from lashing out at all of them and their stupid, fucking trivialities.
“I don’t get why any of you are laughing.” She snapped, jumping up from her chair. The chair legs slid back along the wood flooring, producing a shrill, scraping noise. “Dad is in the fucking hospital. Why are we eating dinner, and drinking wine like this is some goddamn celebration?”
Silence blanketed the table. Every eye turned to her.
From the other room, one of the kids shrieked with laughter as they played.
Vic swallowed thickly, glancing around the table at all of their blanched expressions through blurry eyes.
“He could’ve died.” She whispered, her voice thin and husky, “I came here in the middle of the night on a red eye flight because I thought I was going to have to say goodbye.”
There was another beat of silence before Diana leaned forward.
“Victoria, darling, he’s going to be fine.” She said.
Vic turned her cutting gaze to her mother. She could feel her cheeks pulsating hotly. Her ears roared with the enraged pressure of her racing blood
“That’s not how you made it sound, Mom.” She said, chiseling each rigid word from her mouth.
“It was the middle of the night, I was as disoriented as you were!”
“You just wanted to get me here, to Philly, didn’t you?” Vic hissed, stabbing a finger at her mother’s end of the table. “You’re worming your way back into Dad’s life again, and you just had to drag the whole happy family into your shit pile with you. You know what they say - misery loves company. They should write that on your fucking tombstone.”
Clambering out from behind the chairs crowded around the table, Vic bolted from the dining room before the reality of what she’d just said could catch up with her reeling mind. She rushed through the living room, ignoring the stares of her sisters-in-law, and escaped out the front door.
She didn’t stop moving until she reached the porch railing, where she let her momentum carry her into the wrought iron. She gripped the rail, and leaned forward, blowing out a steadying breath. A single tear traveled down her cheek, drying in the cool breeze of the impending evening.
Her lungs ached furiously with every breath, but gradually, the scalding heat in her cheeks dissipated to a faint hum.
It was like breathing smoke inside; out here, she could see and think clearly. She could tell she’d overreacted. As usual.
The screen door unlatched behind her, and Walt’s bootheel struck the wooden boards of the porch.
Vic let out a groan, rolling her eyes shut.
His hand came to rest on her shoulder, squeezing gently.
Crickets hummed from the encroaching shadows of evening, filling the dreadful silence. She knew he wouldn’t try to make a bad situation better by offering some weak platitude. He was going to wait for her to be honest with him, and it was either that or the quiet. And she couldn’t stand the quiet.
“God,” She whispered, letting her chin drop to her chest, “I never wanted you to see me like this.”
“It’s pathetic. I mean, come on, you have to admit - that whole thing in there was so childish. My mother, and her stupid stories. She makes half of them up, you know? She probably made that one up about getting pulled over, just so she could get the chance to hit on you.”
Walt’s jaw clenched, but he didn’t have a rebuttal.
“She’s bitter.” Vic said, shaking her head, “Dad always loved me more than he loved her. And somehow, it’s always been my fault.”
“Do you want to go?” He asked.
“Hell yes. I never want to see her again, but that’s not fair to the rest of my family.”
“Do you want to be out here for awhile? Cool off?”
Vic heaved out a sigh, and scrubbed both hands over her face. “I should.”
“There’s not much you can do here, Walt. I know you’ve been Mr. Fix-It with my life for the past couple of months, but you can’t fix this one. It’s been broke for a long, long time.”
His hand retreated from her shoulder.
Vic turned, an apology on her tongue, but he had already headed back inside.
“Shit.” She whispered, rubbing a hand over her face.
So far, Philly had been everything she expected - the melodrama, the lies, the horror. Family history had only grown heavier in her absence, and her mother’s return was the like the perfect storm that none of them could avoid - only hope to weather.
Walt took the beer and the seat Michael offered him in the living room. The kids and their mothers had moved into the backyard where there was a swingset and a game of baseball in full-tilt.
Andy was passed out on the couch, his cap placed firmly over his face. Victor, John, and Diana were still in the kitchen, finishing off another bottle of wine.
“So, how long were you a cop for?” Michael asked.
“I was deputy for ten, sheriff for fifteen.”
“You must be one hell of a detective then.”
“I’d say so.”
“So, in that case, how much of this did you see coming?”
Walt took a swig of his beer. “A little.”
“Family dysfunction is hard to hide. Especially with a mom like ours.” Michael said, tapping his ring on his beer can. “Vic was the smart one. She got out.”
“Not because of your mom, though.”
“No, but it was a good enough reason as any.”
Walt focused on the grain in his jeans, uncomfortable with the direction of this conversation. Vic hadn’t told him any of this, and even though she’d willingly brought him here, he still didn’t feel it was any of his business to find it out from a third party.
“I hope you have a little more steel in your gut than Vic’s last attempt at the a lasting relationship.” Michael said, “My sister, she’s kind of hard to deal with.”
“I’m dealing just fine.”
Walt narrowed his gaze at Michael. Vic’s brother was digging for the truth with subtle conversation. Walt couldn’t blame him; if their roles had been reversed, he would be using the same tactic.
“As a ‘friend’?” Michael asked.
“I’ll leave the definition to Vic.”
Before Michael could interrogate him further, Walt swallowed back the last of the beer, and rose from the recliner.
“Thanks for the beer. Mind telling me where the bathroom is?”
“Down that hall, last door on the left hand side.” Michael said.
Walt ducked out of the room. The hall was dark, each door leading down shut. As he neared the end of the hall, Walt realized that the hall actually wrapped around the back of the house, where he could only assume that it fed into the kitchen, and finally back into the living room in one giant circle.
In the shadows, he made out a figure coming around the corner from the kitchen, swaying slightly.
“Oh!” Diana gasped. She leaned against the wall, clutching her chest. “My God, you scared me half to death, Sheriff.”
“Sorry. You need the bathroom? I’ll wait.”
Walt braced his hands on his hips as Diana shuffled closer, her watery, wine glazed eyes looking him up and down. There was a strange undercurrent to her presence that brought to mind the image of a cobra prepared to strike unsuspecting prey.
“You know, my daughter is insisting on calling you a friend, but I know she’s lying.” Diana said, “She’s always lying to me, Sheriff.”
“It’s Walt, please. I’m not-”
“Are you treating her right?” Diana crooned, shoving away from the wall to bring herself within inches of him. “You look like a man who can treat a woman right.”
“I think I should just go.” Walt said, taking step back. “I left Vic outside. I should check on her.”
“Now, hold on a second.” Diana hissed, snagged him by the collar.
In muted silence of the hall, he heard the top button of his shirt snap open. Diana’s body pressed against him, heavy and swaying under the influence of alcohol.
“Mrs. Moretti, please.”
He caught her by the elbows, prying her gently away from him.
“I think you’ve had a few too many drinks.”
“I know exactly how many drinks I’ve had.” Diana hissed up at him.
He could smell the wine on her breath, as she pulled herself up against him, her fingers latched white-knuckled around his collar.
“Let her wait, Sheriff. She’s young and pretty, certainly - but she’s naive, and she’ll break your heart. Maybe that’s appealing to you, but isn’t a woman my age a little more appropriate for you?”
His fingers wrapped tighter around her elbows, applying just enough strength to throw her off balance. He didn’t want to hurt her; she was drunk, and reckless. Maybe she would wake up tomorrow with regrets. Either way, he wasn’t going to tell anyone else about this.
Diana huffed as she fell back against the wall. “I’m still beautiful, aren’t I?”
“I should go.”
Walt turned his back on Diana’s tearful expression, and marched back down the hall. As he passed Michael, he hooked his thumb back at the hall. “You should help your mother. She’s in the bathroom, a little drunk.”
Michael jumped up from his chair, but not before Walt could note the look of suspicion in his eyes.
Walt shoved the front door open, and stepped out into the cool, night air.
Vic was sitting on the porch swing, her knees drawn to her chest. She let her feet drop to the floor as he crossed the porch to where she sat.
“I think you were right the first time.” He said. “We should go.”
Vic peered at Walt out of the corner of her eye as they drove back toward the hotel. His fingers were tight around the wheel, his gaze concentrated fiercely on the road ahead. His jaw clenched over and over, the way it did when he had a lot to say, but no intention of saying it.
“Did something happen in there?” Vic asked.
“Did my mom say something to you?”
Walt shook his head. “No, everything’s fine.”
“Christ, you are such a bad liar.”
Vic crossed her arms, and stared out the window. Her cold shoulder wouldn’t accomplish anything, but at least he knew that she knew. Not anything specific, just that sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach that she knew well from childhood.
Vic’s eyes slipped shut as memory tugged her away from the present.
She was ten years old, sitting in school. They had just finished their math test, and she was sure she had failed.
The Vice Principal was standing in the doorway of the classroom, his gaze searching every desk until settling on her.
“You need to come to the office with me.”
Rising from her chair, Vic walked up to the front of the room with every eye following her. The Vice Principal put his hand on her shoulder, and led her down the quiet hallway.
When they arrived at his office, her father was waiting for her. He had her backpack.
“Vic, we need to go.”
“Dad, what happened?”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart, but your mom was in an accident.”
“Is she okay?”
“She’s a little banged up, but we’re gonna go see her at the hospital, okay? Don’t worry, it’s all going to be okay …”
Looking back, Vic knew her father kept repeating those words - “It’s going to be okay” - more for himself than for her.
It had been just the first of so many incidents of her mother acting out like some rebellious teenager. Car accidents, arrests, drunken behavior … It never ended. And that look in Walt’s eyes was the same her father had carried for years. He told her just enough to explain the situation, but not enough to fully reveal her mother’s illness.
Vic blinked the thoughts away as Walt parked in front of the hotel. He twisted the key out of the ignition, and the car fell silent. Vic stared up at the neon sign of the hotel, watching as the colors slipped and blurred beyond a haze of tears. Pressing her eyes shut, she swallowed back the lump building in the back of her throat.
“Come on.” Walt whispered, patting her knee.
Vic sniffed, hastily running her sleeve across her cheek. Shoving the door open, she stepped out of the car before he could notice the glaze of her eyes.
They walked silently into the hotel, and rode the elevator up to their floor. When they reached their door, Walt slid the key card into the latch, and held the door open for her.
As they stepped inside, Vic’s cell phone rang.
She tugged the phone out of her back pocket, and pressed her fingertips to her forehead when she saw Cady’s name on the caller ID.
“I should really take this.”
Vic carried the phone into the bathroom, and clicked the answer button.
“Hey, Vic. I was just calling to check in, see how your dad was.”
“I saw him this morning. I think he’s gonna be okay. They’re still running tests.”
“Good, I’m glad. Stay as long as you need.”
“Thanks, but, um, I don’t know if I’ll be in town much longer. The situation seems less serious than my mom led me to believe.”
“Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
“Mm, I guess.”
“So, uh, speaking of dads …” Cady said, “Have you seen mine? I went over to the cabin the other day, and he wasn’t there. He’s not picking up his cell phone either.”
Vic froze, catching her stunned expression in the bathroom mirror.
“I, uh … No, I haven’t.”
The lie came out before she could think otherwise. Walt obviously hadn’t informed Cady of his departure, and perhaps, he didn’t want her to know.
“That’s weird.” Cady said, “I know he’s still not entirely fond of that cell phone, but I hope he hasn’t lost it already.”
“I’m sure he’s fine.” Vic said, “Probably still looking for the buried treasure Lucien told him about.”
“Right.” Cady said, forcing a laugh, “Okay, well, I won’t keep you. I just wanted to check in.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome … Okay, bye.”
Vic dropped the cellphone to the bathroom counter, and let out a sigh. She stared down her reflection in the mirror for a moment, before turning and yanking the bathroom door open.
Walt was sitting on the edge of the mattress, taking his boots off.
“So, you didn’t tell Cady you were coming with me?” Vic asked, crossing her arms.
His gaze swung to meet hers, matching the slack-jawed shock of a deer caught in the headlights.
“Why wouldn’t you tell Cady that?” Vic pressed.
“Maybe it’s because you haven’t told her about us yet.”
He blinked, momentarily, collecting his composure before he spoke. “Are you going to be upset if I haven’t?”
Vic let out a disbelieving sigh. “Maybe a little.”
“Why? You haven’t told your family about us. In fact, you’re insisting that we’re only friends.”
“And you told me that it wouldn’t hurt your feelings.”
“But you don’t get why you not telling Cady hurts mine?”
Walt rose from the mattress, and rested his hands on his hips. “Vic-”
“No, it is not the same.” Vic snapped, before he could offer any argument, “You and Cady are close. She cares about you, and supports your choices. That is not true about my mom. I didn’t tell her because I want to protect you from her. You don’t have to worry about that from Cady!”
“You told me you weren’t sure if this was going to work out.” Walt said, waving a hand between them, “And I told you that we would take things slow. Dragging anyone else into it, that’s not keeping up either side of the agreement.”
“Oh, so now our relationship is an agreement?” Vic demanded, her voice rising to sharp, indignant pitch.
“No, that’s not what I-”
“Then what is it? Are we just having sex?”
“ No .”
The firmness in his tone slashed through her burgeoning anger, plunging the hotel room into silence.
They stared at one another for a long moment, the weight of their words sinking in.
Vic was the first to break - she always was - but, at this point, her pride was so bruised and battered that she didn’t care about winning this one.
Grabbing her coat and wallet from the nightstand, she strode toward the door.
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“I need some air.”
Marching out of the room, she let the door slam shut behind her without a glance back.
She rode the elevator down, and marched across the lobby, her boots striking the drab, gray tile like the blows of a hammer. She shoved past the front door, and out onto the sidewalk where downtown Philly nightlife had taken full affect.
She felt like a fish swimming against the tide as she wove between groups of young people walking arm-in-arm down the sidewalk. The air smelled of fast food and cigarette smoke, making it difficult to breathe on top of the tears already choking her.
Down on the corner, there was a bar named Fitch’s, where they served warm beer and overmixed cocktails. She’d been inside a couple of times in her youth, mainly because their prices were reasonable, and the bartenders didn’t care enough to cut anyone off.
She found an open barstool, and ordered a shot of whiskey from the bartender. A football game was playing on the TV mounted above the rows of displayed bottles. The Eagles were losing.
Vic slammed back the shot, wincing at the burning flavor. She waved her finger at the bartender to hit her again.
And again, and again.
Five shots in, she dropped her forehead to the smooth surface of the bar, groaning against a wave of dizziness.
“You okay, sweetheart?” The bartender asked.
“I’m fine. Just give me a beer.”
“What do you want?”
“Whatever’s on tap. Unless you have Rainier.”
“Sorry, just Budlight.”
The bartender pulled out a bottle, and cracked the lid off for her.
“Let me know if you need me to call a taxi.” He said.
His gaze was compassionate. He’d probably seen enough girls like her to figure out the rest of the story. Maybe not all the details, but “man troubles” was close enough.
Taking a swig of the beer, Vic went over the argument in her head. Every emotion had felt valid in the moment, but in hindsight, her words were hasty and harsh. Her family had burned away at her short fuse until there was nothing left, and Walt was left standing holding the dynamite.
He wasn’t the problem. She should probably go back and apologize, but she didn’t quite trust her feet to get here there with five shots still simmering in her belly.
Instead, she stayed put, drinking the sour tasting beer, and wondering just how badly she’d fucked up. In a half-drunk haze, she imagined a scenario where she apologized, and pieced things back together between them the next morning. In this fantasy, Walt accepted her apology without question, and they went back to Absaroka where they belonged, as if none of this had ever happened.
She had to chuckle ruefully at her own drunken optimism. She was always more confident when she was drunk, and reality never quite matched up to her imagination. She and Walt hadn’t argued before, at least not about their relationship. She had no real grasp on how he would react.
The beer was nearly gone when she heard a voice behind her shoulder.
“Is this seat taken?”
Vic spun the barstool around to see Walt standing behind her.
“Walt, how did you find me?”
“The hotel clerk said this was the nearest bar, so …”
“Shit.” Vic muttered, allowing the stool to twist back around.
He sat down next to her, and placed his hat on the bar. He patted his hair down, and drew in a deep breath.
“How many of those have you had?”
“Just the one.” Vic said, “But I had five shots before that.”
He pursed his lips, but there was no judgment in his eyes - only pity.
Vic glanced away from his gentle, blue eyes, and dropped her forehead into her hands. “God, I’m doing it again.”
“No, you’re not.”
His hand crept along her lower back, forming a slow, soothing circle.
“Yes, I am. I am fucking everything up.”
“Your family situation is difficult. It’s okay to be upset.”
“Yeah, but it’s not okay to take it out on you.” Vic said, “And It’s not okay to be hypocritical about it. I can’t expect you to be okay with me calling you a friend, and then get pissed you didn’t tell your daughter about us. I mean, we’ve only been together for three months. Is that even a relationship?”
“It is to me.”
Vic sniffed, gingerly bringing her gaze back to his. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t like putting half my heart into something - into anything, really.”
“What about Cady?”
“I want to tell her. I’ve just been trying to figure out how to tell her.”
“What do you mean?”
“We should probably address our age difference at some point.” He said, “It’s not something we can just ignore. It’s only going to get worse in the future.”
“What, are you ashamed that you’re dating me?” Vic asked.
“No, not ashamed. I just don’t know how Cady will take it. Seeing as she’s your boss now, I want to do it the right way.”
Vic nodded, slowly, chewing her lower lip. “I guess I can’t blame you.”
“So …” He said, “Are we going to address it?”
She leaned into his shoulder, gazing up into questioning eyes. Her mind felt like a sponge, languid and saturated with emotion and stimulation. All she could focus on was the creeping lines around his eyes, and the silver glint of two-day old stubble on his jaw. She reached out to trail her fingers down his temple and cheek until she reached his chin.
“No.” She whispered, her voice raw with unshed tears. “Not tonight.”
“Vic.” He murmured her name in protest, his fingers clutching loosely at her wrist.
“Don’t.” She whispered, “Don’t fight me on this tonight. I’ve had enough stress for one day. I just want you to take me back to the hotel and … and relieve me of some of that stress.”
For a moment, Vic expected him to argue, but his gaze shifted. Cornflower blue faded to darkness like a sunset sapping away into the night, and the vacuum of space rushing in to swallow existence.
His gaze remained fixed on her as he pulled out his wallet, and slid two bills onto the counter. Taking her by the hand, he helped her down from the stool, and led her quietly out of the bar.
Chapter 4: Unpretty Love
The older Walt got, the more he thought about consequences. He thought not just about the immediate effect, but the tiny ripples every action creates in the universe - how one moment can change everything.
He could have stayed in the hotel room, and not gone after Vic. If he’d done that, he wouldn’t be pressing her up against the wall right now, abandoning reason to crush her mouth like sweet, quaking flower petals beneath his own. If he’d stayed right here, maybe she would still be pissed at him instead of moaning and shuddering in his arms.
He could have stayed in Wyoming. But then he wouldn’t be delving his fingers beneath her shirt, and relishing the creamy warmth of her skin against the hardened calluses of his palms. He wouldn’t be pulling fabric away, and looking into the tarnished gold of her eyes, so lost in their scope and magnetism that consequences wouldn’t mean a damn to him.
He’d already chosen not to tell her about what happened in Victor’s house, between him and Diana, but he wouldn’t think about those consequences tonight. He wouldn’t think about how burying something so damaging under something so insubstantial as sex could backfire tomorrow.
Instead, he buried his face in her throat, devouring skin with hungry, aching need. He closed his eyes, listening to the low, gradual tempo of Vic’s moans, and feeling her body undulate warm and lithe against him.
She was drunk and a little messy, but determined; her fingers clawed at his chest, catching at the collar of his shirt. The snaps popped free in quick succession under the desperate tugging, and her palms rushed up to meet bare skin. Her nails pushed through his chest hair and into his skin, scraping the shirt back from his shoulders, pressing urgency into humming lines they left behind.
A low moan rushed from the back of his throat. His body was thudding with desire, every limb and fiber dense and vibrating with the flush of blood. There was little finesse in her drunken caresses, but it didn’t matter. The slightest glance could steal his breath; and damn these depraved thoughts, but her vulnerability in this moment only made the primal, lurching need to take her that much stronger.
Walt dragged his mouth from the sweet spot below her ear, and brought his gaze level with hers. Their labored breaths shared the minimal space between their mouths for mere seconds, before he caught her lips in a ravenous kiss.
Delving his hands between them, he located the zipper of her jeans, and wrenched the fastenings open. He peeled the denim away from her hips, just far enough to accommodate his hands across her ass. Her skin was warm and supple beneath the thin fabric of her panties, tracking need like fire through his belly.
He tore his mouth from hers, gulping in a breath.
“Hurry.” She whispered, her eyes raised half-lidded in supplication.
As he worked the clinging denim from her thighs, he pressed a reassuring kiss against the corner of her mouth. Don’t worry, I’m going to take care of you.
She sighed, tenuous and shuddering relief in the exhale, as if she could hear his possessive thoughts. In the dim light of the hotel room, he thought he saw the glint of a tear hovering beneath her lashes.
He pressed his thumb there, gathering moisture against the crescent of his nail. Sluggish fear burrowed through his chest, the sight of her pain a faint deterrent to the aphrodisiacal need pummelling him.
“Vic …” Her name drifted from his lips heavy and hoarse.
She swallowed back the emotion, and her eyes opened with fresh, flinty determination.
Kicking the jeans from her ankle, she threw her arms around his neck, and hoisted herself up off the floor. Her ankles locked around him as she pressed another kiss to his mouth.
His hands settled on her backside, fingers kneading into the ample swell.
Blinded by her kiss and overrun with need, he staggered to the bed, and set her down on the sheets.
With her fist around his hair, she kept the kiss alive for another long moment before allowing him to pull back.
He gazed down at her, looking for some sign of his Vic. He hadn’t seen her in a few days. But the only things he saw were scars, covered up with glinting desire, some unspeakable sadness rippling just below the surface.
And what did she see looking back? Someone who loved her, that’s all he could hope for.
“You’re stopping.” She murmured. “Don’t stop.”
“Sorry.” He murmured, bending to plant a soft kiss on the corner of her mouth.
Her arms tightened around his neck, and warm breath spilled over his ear. “I want your mouth on me.”
He swallowed thickly at the simple request.The little flame her whispered plea in the bar had kindled flared hotter, turning yellow, orange, and finally red - an all consuming urge that left him both singly focused and hazy with arousal.
Her mouth was puffy and pink from the force of his mouth, hanging open like overripe fruit. He took her swollen lips again, tasting them sweet and slick with the roll of her tongue. He pushed back with his own tongue, a piercing hunger making him want to consume her, down to her quaking, gushing core.
His hands mapped out the way to her hips, finding her pliant and trembling to the slightest caress. She lifted her hips as he hooked his fingers on the delicate fabric and peeled it away.
As he leaned back on his heels, her knees drifted open. Teeth tugged at her lower lip, and a blush darkened her cheeks. Her thighs trembled beneath his gaze as it traveled over the dips and curves of her golden skin.
Every inch robbed him of breath, of sanity.
His fingers looped around her ankle, clutching the rigid swell of bone. A tremble laced through his muscles as his gaze pondered the luscious symmetry of her glistening folds. Memory, even that of their recent fights and the verbal blows, faded away behind the scope of his vision. She was stretched below him now, opening herself to him like a blooming flower, bleeding with nectar; and she was begging him to take that offering to his mouth.
She squirmed, and he realized he was looking again instead of acting.
Creeping to his elbows, he spread his palms across her inner thighs, and urged her legs open flat against the sheets. His mouth preceded the nudge of his fingertips, following the taut stretch of her left thigh down to the straining juncture.
Her belly quivered, a moan nesting there, and taking flight when his mouth spilled a breath of heat across her swollen, weeping core. Her fingers lodged in his hair, reining him to her with a fierce hiss of rupturing impatience.
He grasped her hips firmly, and pinned her. Lifting his gaze to hers, he challenged the seething look of determination in her eyes.
This pleasure would come - slowly, achingly, and she would feel every coil and burn in her sweet, soaked cleft.
Holding her gaze, he extended his tongue to trace the edges of her distended folds.
She arched against his grip on her hips, a gasp tearing free of her pink, bitten lips. That open-mouthed anticipation held until he circled in to taste the interior edges, right where her arousal issued. The hot pressure of his tongue stayed tight around her opening for a few aching revolutions before swirling up to find her clitoris pulsing and waiting.
The heady, intoxicating scent of her seeped into his nose, fueling the possessive instinct behind his deliberate consumption. His belly twisted with need, just as hungry for this act of devotion and pleasure as she. He pressed his mouth into the moist heat at her center, and felt her lurch against him with a spasm of pleasure.
A raspy sound twisted from her throat. She clutched at the sheets, thrusting her hips into the warm, velvet pressure of his tongue riding her gushing opening.
“Ohh …” She moaned, shuddering against him.
The massage rolled purposeful against her taut, throbbing clitoris, unraveling her easily like a strand of loose thread. While his mouth devoured her in meticulous strokes, her fingers curled rigid and staunch with pleasure around his hair. Her hips rocked into the caress, and his tongue pushed back, finding her pliant and reactive to the intermittent penetration.
The fluid, unified motions came almost instinctively, as if the borders of their bodies had fused and faded. He could feel the pleasure humming beneath her skin, the tremors working up to an explosion. She was softer and more delicate in his hands than he could ever recall, purely relying on his interpretation of her need rather than shouting it at out as she normally would.
Perhaps she didn’t have the strength for words, or the will. Perhaps they’d finally gone beyond words; in this dark place, touch was infusing warmth where talking had failed. He could only wish it could last the length of the next day, or the next week, or however long these confounding emotions held her captive.
Vic awoke because her mouth was drier than cotton, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth like a hunk of lead. The sour taste of whiskey and beer clung to her taste buds, and a dull headache throbbed in a crushing ring around her skull.
Rolling over, she squinted into the dim hotel room to orient herself. The clock beside the bed read 9:30.
Memories of the night before came rushing in like the tide, each one hitting her with a new set of complex emotions. She’s managed to experience all the highs and lows possible in the human heart, and still, she was left feeling like an overflowing sink.
Vic sat up carefully, clutching her forehead to ease the bass drum pounding inside her skull. A quick glance around the room told her that Walt wasn’t here. She swiped her phone from the nightstand, and squinted at the bright screen to see the text message he’d left her an hour ago.
Out for breakfast. Will be back soon.
She grimaced a smile, and fell back against the pillows. The hotel sheets felt divine against her naked skin, and sleep was a more pleasing alternative to facing her problems. She thought about drifting off again, but the demanding thirst clawing at her throat persuaded her otherwise.
Throwing her legs over the edge of the bed, she shoved up off the mattress, and to her feet. She stumbled to the bathroom, still half-intoxicated, still limp and aching from the previous night.
Leaning against the cool ceramic countertop of the bathroom sink, she cranked on the water, and bent to drink directly from the faucet. She lapped up the water like a thirst-crazed animal, too exhausted to care how uncouth her mother, or anyone else, might find her.
She straightened, dragging the back of her hand across her mouth. Her reflection in the mirror boasted dark circles under dull, brown eyes, and messy hair that stuck in every direction like dried wheat.
Is this what Walt had seen last night? A train-wreck? A basket-case finally coming apart at the seams? Why the hell had he even bothered coming after her last night?
He deserves better than this …
The thought was interrupted by the sound of the hotel room door opening, and closing behind Walt’s heavy footfalls.
Drawing in a deep breath and running a hasty hand through her hair, Vic turned and left the bathroom.
Walt was holding a paper bag in one hand, and a cardboard tray with two coffee cups in the other.
“Hey.” Vic said, conjuring a smile.
“Here, I brought you coffee.”
Vic took one of the cardboard cups, and sank back down against the pillows.
Walt switched on the lamp. She scowled against the sharp, yellow illumination, mentally swearing her inability to face emotional pressure without drinking. Last night’s only highlights were three orgasms in a row, and a deep, satisfying fuck to finish off whatever remained of her hostility.
Walt sat down on the edge of the bed, and put a hand on her knee.
“I’ve got one hell of a headache, but other than that, it’s just my bruised pride.”
“You don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
“I don’t? Maybe my memory of last night isn’t very clear, but I specifically remember yelling at my family, and then ditching the party to get wasted on not-very-good alcohol. Oh, and somewhere in between, I managed to take my anger out on you with some very flimsy reasoning.”
Walt frown softly, then clicked his tongue. “Hmm, I seem to have forgotten.”
Vic huffed, swallowing back the lump rising in her throat. “You are so ridiculously unshakable. Christ, I wish I had half your composure.”
“Drink your coffee.” He advised with a gentle smile. “You’ll feel better.”
She took a sip, sighing at the heavenly taste.
“What’s in there?” She asked, motioning at the white paper sack.
He unrolled the top of the bag, and extended it to her. “Bagels.”
She stuck her hand inside to retrieve one. “Thank god. I’m famished.”
Between bites of her blueberry bagel slathered in cream cheese, Vic stole glances at Walt’s contemplative profile.
“So …” She said, clearing her throat, “I was thinking about visiting my dad again this morning, and then if things seem okay, we can get the hell out of here.”
He hesitated a moment before nodding. “Okay.”
“Nothing. It’s not my place to say.”
Vic leaned forward to touch his thigh. “You should really say what you’re thinking more often. And besides, I could probably take some advice when it comes to my family.”
“I just don’t think you should be in such a rush to leave.” Walt said, “This is your dad we’re talking about.”
“I know. But if I have to deal with my mother for one more day, you might have to reinstate yourself and arrest me - for homicide.”
“Your mom can be frustrating, but maybe what she needs is help - not to be pushed to the side.”
“Help? Are you serious?” Vic echoed, her voice rising in disbelief. “All my childhood, that’s all my dad tried to do - help her . Do you know how she repaid him? By wrecking his car, by racking up thousands of dollars worth of debt on credit cards in his name, and by cheating on him - repeatedly. Believe me, Walt, you do not want to dive into the rabbit hole that is trying to help my mother. She’s a lost cause.”
“I figured you’d say that.”
“It’s the sad truth. Maybe you can find some way to pity her because you’re a good person, but she’s not. She has said and done things that can never be taken back.”
“Is that how your father feels?”
The hot, anger streaking through Vic’s chest came to halt. She huffed, lifting her shoulders. “God, I don’t know. I don’t know anymore.”
“You said they haven’t considered divorce.”
“I wish they would. My dad would be better off without her.”
“But she wouldn’t be better off without him.”
“Yes, because she’s like a fucking leech.”
“Mm, maybe.” Walt murmured.
Vic stared down at the last bite of her bagel, not feeling hungry anymore.
“What are you trying to say?” She whispered.
“Just that loving someone isn’t always pretty. You have to love every side of them, even if they hurt you.”
“And don’t you think that at some point, you have to consider self-preservation?”
Walt nodded. “Sure. But not if you don’t think you can live without them.”
Vic blinked back the sting of tears as Walt rose from the edge of the bed.
Those words were all too familiar. You love something so much you don’t think you can live without it .
She’d never tried to imagine her mother from her father’s perspective; but perhaps now she was just seeing herself from Walt’s point of view. It scared her more than anything that after years of distancing herself from her mom, she might be more like her than she ever cared to admit.
After they showered, Vic used the hotel bathroom’s provided blow dryer to make her hair halfway presentable. As she combed out the partially damp strands, Walt came to stand behind her in the doorway. He leaned his shoulder against the door frame. His head was down, but she could feel his eyes on the back of her head.
“You want me to drive you to the hospital?”
“No, it’s okay. I can go by myself.”
“Yeah, I don’t need a babysitter.”
She cringed at the bitter tone in her voice, and lowered her forehead into the pinch of her thumb and forefinger. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. Some trips are meant to be taken alone.”
Vic set her comb down, and turned to meet his gaze directly.
“I never meant for any of this to happen.”
His brows curled with a question.
“Last night … what I said, how I’ve been acting for the past couple of days. I, more than anyone, just want everything to go back to the way it was.”
“Vic, I’m not blaming you for any of this.” He said, his eyes gentle with compassionate sincerity.
“Yeah, well, you never do, even when you should.” She said, crossing her arms tightly.
“Would you feel better if I yelled at you?”
She scoffed against the lump in her throat, and diverted her eyes from her discerning gaze.
“You wouldn’t.” He added, more softly. “So stop trying to goad me into it.”
Vic pressed her fingertips to her tear ducts, keeping emotion at bay with physical force.
He took her by the shoulders, and guided her against his chest. She rested her forehead against his shoulder, heaving out a great sigh of suppressed conflict.
Everything in her wanted to stay here, and not face the reality of family trauma. Equally, she longed for the days when she’d stood on her own; when she’d been the reckoning force in her relationships, and she hadn’t relied on him to keep the broken pieces of herself glued together. But that was before Chance Gilbert, before her baby, before Running Eagle, before it all. Before she’d become addicted to his perennial solace.
Leaning back, she wiped away her tears, and grimaced a smile. “I should go.”
“Okay.” He said. “Call me if you need anything.”
She left the hotel with her fingers wrapped around the car keys, the little grooves and sharp edges digging into her palm.
Driving to the hospital, the sun was just climbing toward it’s mid-afternoon peak. It was another sunny day in Philly, not a single dark cloud to match her mood.
When she arrived, the parking lot was full at the height of visiting hours. She walked what felt like half a mile across the lot until she reached the front doors. Inside, the air conditioning was on blast, turning her skin clammy.
She rode the elevator up to her dad’s room, and counted down the room numbers until she found his. Peering around the edge of the door frame, she saw her father propped up against the pillows, and her mother sitting in a chair next to the bed. The two were holding hands, their gazes fixed on one another. The conversation was too low for Vic to make out, but her mother was visibly crying, even with her back turned to the door.
Vic lingered outside until she heard her mother announce that she was going to get a coffee from the cafeteria.
Diana strode out of the hospital room, the rose gold chiffon skirt she wore swirling around her ankles. She stopped short when she saw Vic, a hand instinctively going to her red-blotched cheeks.
“Mom.” Vic said, “I just got here. I wanted to see dad one more time before I head back to Wyoming.”
“Leaving so soon?” Diana asked, “You just got here.”
“Yeah, and I’m kind of a crucial member of the workforce at my job.”
“Yes, I know. Your life is always more important than everyone else’s.”
“That’s funny, coming from you.” Vic said, keeping her tone even and sickly sweet.
Diana scoffed. “Well, then, go on, visit him.”
She turned, and walked down the hall, her high-heeled boots tapping out a indignant rhythm on the tile.
Vic turned to the hospital room, putting thoughts of her mother out of her head. She was here for her dad.
“Vic.” Her dad said, a smile crossing his face as she crossed the room to him. “Two times in one week. I feel lucky.”
“Hi, dad.” Vic murmured, bending down to hug him.
He patted her shoulder as she took the chair Diana had been occupying.
“How are you feeling?” She asked.
“Better. I got more than two hours of sleep last night so that’s an improvement.”
“Do you know how much longer you have to be here?”
“They want to keep me another two days for observation, but then I can go home - thank God. This place is driving me crazy.” He said, “Of course, I’ll be having regular visits with a cardiologist from now on.”
“I’m sorry.” Vic said, “I can’t believe this is happening to you. When I was a kid, I always thought you were invincible.”
He chuckled, squeezing her hand. “Maybe I was, for awhile. What about you? There was so many people here yesterday, I feel like I barely got to see you.”
“I’m good.” Vic said, “My job keeps me occupied, you know.”
“Anything else you want to tell me?”
Vic’s gaze swung sharply to his. Her dad’s eyes narrowed intuitively.
“Did Mom say something to you?” She asked.
“She mentioned something … about Sheriff Longmire.”
“He’s not the sheriff anymore.”
“But he was - and your boss. Not a very good one if I recall.” Victor said.
“He was a great boss.” Vic said, “And it wasn’t his fault I got shot. It was my own stupid fault for running out into the field without any backup.”
“I’ve been a cop most of my life, Vic. I know how the chain of command works. It doesn’t matter who made the final decision, the superior officer is the one responsible for his subordinates.”
“Then that’s placing a pretty big weight on Walt’s shoulders. I’m ‘Vic the Terror’, remember?”
“Be serious.” Victor said.
“I am being serious. You were way too hard on Walt the last time we talked.”
“Well, maybe I was a little fired up because I knew my little girl was hurt, but-”
“But what? That didn’t give you the right to go in there and demand he fire me.”
“I said ‘let go’. As in, don’t stop you.”
“But I was never leaving.”
Victor released a weary sigh. “Fine. But I have to ask … Are you sure this is what you want? The last time you got involved with a superior officer-”
“Walt is nothing like Ed.” Vic said, yanking her hand free of her father’s. “And we were never involved when he was my boss - I mean, not really.”
“What does that mean, ‘not really’?” Victor pressed.
“It means that I have thought long and hard about being with him. This isn’t just some fling that I rushed into. He really helped me get past the miscarriage, Dad.”
The hard edge in her dad’s eyes faded a little. “So, this is the real reason you wouldn’t leave Wyoming like I asked?”
Vic lifted her chin. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
“Well, I guess that’s that then. You really aren’t my little girl anymore.”
“I’m thirty-three years old, Dad.”
“And you used to think my approval meant something when you were serious about a man. You know, Sean came to me, and asked for your hand in marriage.”
“Whoa, okay.” Vic said, raising her hands. “Number one, let’s not talk about Sean - he divorced me , not the other way around. And number two, Walt and I have only been dating for three months - nobody is talking about marriage.”
Victor raised his eyebrow, nonplussed. “You seem pretty serious to me.”
Vic licked her lips anxiously. “Can we just talk about you? You’re the one in the hospital. My life and my problems are kind of unimportant right now.”
“Fine.” Vic echoed. “So, while we’re on the subject of relationships …”
Victor sighed, crossing his arms defensively.
“I didn’t even say anything.”
“I know what you’re going to say … your mother.”
“You looked pretty serious right before I came in.”
Victor glanced away, but Vic could still see the wheels turning behind his eyes. “All right.” He said. “I’m going to tell you this, but try not to let it out to all your brothers. I meant to do this at a family meeting of some sort, but-”
“Your mother and I have been talking again for a couple months now. She called me a while back because she got arrested in New Orleans.”
“Dad, come on.” Vic said, pressing a hand to her forehead.
“No, let me finish.” Victor said, holding up a finger. “I bailed her out, and we didn’t see each other for awhile until she called me out of the blue last month. She was upset, said she was at rock-bottom. She promised me she’s going to get some help.”
“Help how?” Vic asked.
“Well, I’ve been in process of moving her back here to Philly this last month, and I planned on going with her to check her in and get settled when this happened.” He said, motioning to the tubes attached to his arms.
“Wait.” Vic whispered, “Check-in … as in … to a facility?”
Victor nodded. “Look, sweetheart, maybe you didn’t understand this when you were a kid, but your mom … she’s been in and out of clinical treatment for years, but she never wanted to stick with it. Until now. God knows she’s tested my patience, but I think she’s really ready this time.”
Vic sat back against the chair, letting out a shaky breath. Tears rushed in a stinging wave to her eyes, spilling over with little effort. What her father was saying answered a lot of questions. It was so obvious, Vic was shocked she hadn’t come to the conclusion on her own, but perhaps she’d just been in denial that her mother really was crazy in the most scientific sense possible.
“I tried to keep you and your brothers protected from it, but …”
“Why?” Vic demanded, her voice cracking, “Why couldn’t you have just been honest? Maybe I wouldn’t have blamed her so much if I’d known she was seeking treatment.”
“Because she wasn’t. Every time, I was forcing her to go.”
“So, what is it?” Vic asked, her voice mangled with tears. “Is she diagnosed, does she need medication?”
Her father looked away from her questioning gaze, his jaw working. “A couple of the doctors she’s seen think she’s bipolar.”
“Shit.” Vic whispered, swiping at the tears dripping down her cheeks. “Jesus Christ, Dad, why didn’t you tell us?”
“Would it have really helped; walking around with the knowledge that your mother needs help but she refused to get it? Besides, she didn’t want me to tell you. She didn’t want-”
“Screw what she wants! She’s crazy! I think I had a right to know the meaning behind all the damage she left behind when I was a kid.”
“I’m telling you now.”
“Twenty years later.” Vic whispered, harshly. She rose from the chair, her hands balled into trembling fists at her sides. “Twenty years too late.”
Spinning on her heel, she stormed out of the hospital room. As she fled into the hall, she saw her mother returning with two cups of coffee. She darted in the other direction, her vision blurred with tears. If she heard one more word out of Diana’s mouth today, she might finally find the final straw hidden within her broken heart.
Chapter 5: Ripple Effect
Walt paced a line in the carpet, glancing at his watch every so often to see how long Vic had been gone. He was too worried and restless to sit still.
Those consequences he’d been ignoring since last night were rising up like a congested sewer, stinking and frothing with the scent of buried secrets and unjust wrongs.
The side of Vic he’d seen last night and this morning were a little too close to the aftermath of her miscarriage for his comfort. She was spiraling like a worn-out top, losing control. He didn’t know if he could stop the bleeding this time.
Walt startled when the sound of a fist knocking on the hotel room door rattled the walls.
His hand went to his hip before he realized he wasn’t required to wear a gun anymore, and even though he was licensed for concealed-carry, he hadn’t brought the Colt with him.
He walked to the door, and pressed his eye to the peephole. Through the fish eye lense, he saw Michael Moretti standing in the hall, his hands poised on his hips.
Frowning, Walt opened the door.
“Michael, what are you doing here?”
“We need to talk.” Michael said.
Walt gripped the doorframe as he took note of Michael’s Philadelphia police department badge, and issued gun seated on his hip.
“Are you here as Vic’s brother, or as a police officer?”
Michael’s gaze was dead serious. With decades of law enforcement experience, Walt knew that look. It came with anger, and evidence.
“If that’s the case, then you should probably get a warrant before stepping inside.” Walt said, “And you should probably tell me what you’re about to accuse me of.”
“Sexual assault.” Michael said, his jaw clenching.
“My mother told me about your little encounter last night.” Michael said, shifting closer, “She claims that you fondled her.”
“That’s a lie.” Walt said, struggling not to express the anger quickly growing in his chest. “And considering how inebriated your mother was last night, I might forgive her for inaccurately recalling what happened.”
“And what do you think happened when you took advantage of her impaired state, Longmire?” Michael demanded, his throat flaring red with rage.
“ She propositioned me .” Walt said, “And I did my best to excuse myself from the situation to keep something like this from happening.”
“Seeing as there were no other witnesses, and I don’t know you from Adam, I’m a little more inclined to believe my own mother.”
“You’re right, you don’t know me, and it’s my word against your mother’s. As a cop I get that, but you should check with Vic. She’ll give you a character reference if that would persuade you at all.”
“Michael, what are you doing here?”
Both Walt and Michael turned sharply to see Vic striding down the hallway. Without checking his watch again, Walt knew she hadn’t been gone that long. Her reddened cheeks and watery eyes explained why just enough.
“Persuade me of what?” Vic asked as she joined Michael in front of their room.
“Did you see Mom at the hospital?” Michael asked.
“Yeah, she was pretty upset.”
“I know why.” Michael said, “She confided in me this morning that your “friend” here made a pass at her last night at Victor’s house.”
“What?” Vic said, her cheeks blanching, then flaring red.
“Vic, I tried to tell him-” Walt began.
“No.” Vic said, holding up a hand to stop him. “You don’t have to defend yourself to me, Walt.” She turned to Michael, her eyes spitting fire. “Michael, this is a load of bullshit. Walt would never do that. You know Mom, she makes shit up to make herself feel more important.”
“She was pretty upset.” Michael said, “And maybe you were too young to remember her how she used to be, but I still trust her when she makes an accusation this serious. She’s not that far gone.”
“Oh, don’t try to act like you know Mom better than I do because you’re a couple years older than me. I saw all the shit that you did growing up. And now I know she’s not only a drunk and psycho, she’s also a liar.”
“I’m a cop, Vic.” Michael said, “I still have to investigate-”
“If you’re going to investigate, you should investigate Mom for filing a false police report.”
“She didn’t file an official report, but-”
“Oh my god, you have got to be kidding me!” Vic exclaimed, uttering a mirthless laugh. “She didn’t file an official report because she knew this ridiculous accusation wouldn’t hold any water. Walt was a sheriff for fifteen years. He’s never had one single sexual assault claim against him. And if you knew anything about him - like I do - you would know what Mom is saying it’s so unbelievable it’s almost laughable.”
Michael took a step back, the determination in his gaze wavering for the first time.
“Look,” He said, softly, “I just don’t know this guy, Vic. I had to look into it.”
“You think I would date someone like that?”
“No, I just … I don’t know.” Michael said, running a hand through his hair.
“That’s right.” Vic said, “Because she’s using you. She can’t stand to see me happy, and you know it.”
Shoving past Michael, she put a hand on Walt’s chest to urge him back inside.
“Come on, you don’t have to give this the time of day.” She muttered.
Walt backed into the hotel room, allowing her to let the door slam shut behind her.
Vic leaned against the door, her gaze trained on the floor. “I am so sorry.” She whispered.
“Should I be worried?” Walt asked.
“About her actually filing a report with the police department?” Vic asked, scoffing low in her throat. “Hell no. She’s just doing this to make me suffer … lashing out because I won’t smile and accept her coming back into my dad’s life.”
Walt eased down onto the edge of the bed, and gripped his knees. His heart was still mildly pounding from the confrontation; it hadn’t quite caught up to the part of his brain that trusted Vic enough to know Diana’s claims weren’t a real threat.
“I’m going to ask you something, and I don’t want you to lie about it this time.” Vic said, quietly.
Walt looked up to meet her flint-like gaze.
“What happened last night at Victor’s house? Why did you want to leave so suddenly?”
Walt pursed his lips. He’d meant to never tell Vic, but it seemed Diana wouldn’t have it any way but her own.
“It’s true, your mother and I were in the hallway by the bathroom … alone.” He said, “But it, uh … it happened the reverse of what Michael was saying.”
Vic nodded, slowly, her teeth digging into her lower lip. She swallowed thickly, lids batting at gathering tears.
“What did she say?” Vic asked, her voice hollow and raspy, “This is all happening because of me so … what did she say about me?”
“Vic, I don’t think you need to know-”
“Just tell me, damnit.” Vic cried, her voice spiking from a muted whisper to a fractured shout.
Walt rose from the bed, catching her by the elbows as she lunged at him.
She thrust a fist into his chest, knocking them both off balance. They stumbled back, but he caught her around the waist just as the back of his knees hit the bed frame.
“You don’t need to know.” He said, firmly, “All you need to know is that I left, and that none of what Michael said is true.”
“Let me go.” Vic whispered, harshly, twisting against his embrace. “Let me go. I’m going to fucking kill her.”
She lurched against him, this time succeeding in breaking free of his arms. He fell back against the mattress as she rushed toward the door.
Launching himself up from the bed, he closed the distance between them in one long stride. He caught her by the elbow just as she grabbed the door handle, and pulled her around to face him.
Her head knocked back against the door, but she was unfazed, her eyes wide and beaming with fire, her lips pulled back in a snarl against her teeth.
“Let me go.” She whispered, her voice fracturing into broken pieces. “I’m going to fucking kill her … I’m going to-”
He pulled her against him, cutting off the incensed babbling by burying her face into his chest. She fought him for several brief moments before collapsing entirely, her sobs muffled in his shirt.
He wrapped both arms tightly around her, a flesh and blood straight-jacket the only thing he could offer in this moment of mad, reckless emotion. He held her so tight his muscles trembled, so tight that she couldn’t move even if she tried. So tight that when her sobs eased, he could hardly hear her breathing.
As the storm of anger eased, he loosened his grasp just enough to look down at her tear-streaked face. He placed a chaste kiss against her temple, tasting her skin hot with pounding blood, and the light sheen of sweat on her brow.
“Okay.” She whispered, her voice raw. “You can really let me go now. I’m not actually going to go kill my own mother.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
He unwrapped his arms from her around her, but didn’t step back to allow her away from the door.
She swiped at the tears glistening on her cheeks. “I wanted to. She’s done a lot of fucked up things to me, but she’s never tried to come on to my boyfriend before.”
“Boyfriend?” He offered her a gentle smile.
“Yeah.” She nodded “You know what? She can deal with it. No more of this ‘friends’ bullshit. I can’t believe I thought it would work in the first place.”
“Worth a try, right?”
She gave him a lopsided smile, and he was relieved to see at least that.
Rising on her toes, she pressed a kiss, coarse and laced with the salty taste of her tears, against his mouth. He grasped her hips, holding her back from pressing up against him.
“Vic.” He murmured a husky protest as their lips parted.
Her eyes glinted with hardened determination. She leaned against the resistance of his hands around her hips, peppering hard, messy kisses against his mouth and jaw.
“Vic, wait.” He panted as her teeth scraped against the pulse of his throat.
Looping one arm around his neck, she lifted her head to stare into his worried gaze.
“I’m done waiting.” She whispered, her teeth clenching around each word.
Her next kiss was bracing and fierce, teeth seizing his lower lip to force his mouth taut against hers. A groan jolted from his throat, but withered from pained to aroused when he felt the brush of her fingertips against his crotch.
Her palm slid boldly up the fly of his jeans, and found the hem of his shirt. Crawling beneath the fabric, her fingernails grazed his belly, and plucked at the buckle of his belt.
Despite his misgivings, a dull ache spiraled through his middle, teased to life by her unceremonious caress. Pressure built swift and hot, turning his jeans to confining prison. Relief came with the deft tug of her fingers releasing the zipper, and letting his cock swell and twitch unrestrained save for the last layer of thin cotton.
Breaths came hard-fought as she withdrew her hand, letting him agonize in abrupt, blunt arousal.
He blinked against the blinding need rising like a fog in his brain. Her mouth had let his slide free of her teeth, but she lingered just close enough for them to share raspy breaths, just far enough for their eyes to meet. Murky anticipation swam with the lurking dread in the gold and brown facets of her steely gaze. That look might have scared anyone else; it should have scared him. Instead, all he could think about was her hand creeping past the open fly of his jeans to wrap around his throbbing cock.
She held him firmly, squeezing down on the errant pulses of need that coursed through him.
“Vic …” This time, her name came out a throaty whisper instead of the structured argument he’d offered the first few times.
Her tongue glazed her lower lip methodically as she started to move her hand.
A whimper lunged at the back of his throat. He tried to steady himself with a gasping inhale, but her touch was taking him apart.
Cotton dragged across swelling flesh, leaving him faintly burning, and rapidly throbbing. The massage came faster and faster with each twitch of his cock, until she was jerking hard, merciless, uncaring of the dying protests that stammered from his lips.
When she dropped to her knees, his stomach plummeted with white-hot need. He couldn’t tear his eyes away she dragged the strained fabric of his boxers back from the swollen, stimulated flesh. He was pulsing with aching veins that turned the skin a faint purple; it hurt just to look and see how easy it was for her to do this to him even with the fading threads of her anger burning out behind them like the tails of a comet.
Gripping the base of his cock, she licked her lips, and guided him to her mouth. He shuddered, head spinning with a constellation of pleasure pricked lights. He braced his hands against the door as the first wet, velvet sweep of her lips around the head took his breath away. His cock slipped past her lips in a long, slow suckle, the pressure increasing until her her lips were sealed around him, his head firm against the back of her tongue.
His elbows buckled, and he sank forward against the door. A moan surged from his chest, echoing guttural over the wet stroke of his mouth around him. He instinctively reached for her hair, his fingers hooking under her nape to guide her mouth against him.
Head bobbing with the eager push of his fingers, she took him into the warm, wet recesses of her mouth over and over until her mouth was slick mess of drizzling saliva, and her breaths were coming quick and labored through her nostrils.
It was like some twisted dream - these unfamiliar surroundings, the dangerous, lurking anger, the possessive streak he knew was driving this encounter. She wanted to mark him in a way her mother would never see, but in a way neither of them would forget. Not because he’d forgotten, but because she needed to convince herself.
But he couldn’t force those thoughts to kick in.
It was too good, and the pleasure was already prickling hot through his nerves, riding up the cresting wave toward climax. His hips had found their way into an eager rhythm, urging his cock into her open, eager mouth. Her hands were cupping his balls, holding just tight enough to keep him from pulling back, even if he had wanted to.
Pleasure tracked white fire through his brain, and a tingling, aching sensation through his middle. He could feel himself coming apart, so close to losing it - and the simple thought of pumping wet release into her mouth was enough to make the slow descent unbearable.
The galloping orgasm came to a skidding halt somewhere in the middle of his chest when she twisted free of his grasp, and let his cock slide from her lips. The residual burn of approaching pleasure was left to die in his belly as his cock stood free and glistening with saliva.
He panted into the crook of his elbow, digging deep for some logical part of his brain that could tell her how crazy this was - trying to fix some broken parts of herself with his all too willing body.
She pushed herself up against the door, back between his braced arms. Grasping his jaw, she pushed her mouth against his. Her lips tasted like his flesh, like arousal.
Her next motions were swift and reckless with impatience. Yanking the zipper of her jeans down, she wrestled the clinging denim from her legs, and kicked it from her ankles. She ripped at the panties, popping stitching in her haste to get them away from her lips.
“Vic …” He whispered, blinking against the clinging pang of need.
She avoided his searching gaze until she had removed her shirt and bra, leaving her completely naked in front of him. She leaned against the door, and laced her fingers through his hair, tugging him down into a kiss.
He breathed shakily into her mouth as pleasure laced hot through his middle. His cock pressed against her bare stomach where the skin was soft and warm, and far too close to her wet, pliable opening.
His hand pressed against her hip, intending to slow down this tumultuous encounter.
Grabbing his wrist, she planted his hand over breast.
“Mm.” She murmured, her eyes sliding shut. “Give me your other hand.”
“Walt, please stop.” She whispered, her voice a husky moan. “I need this. Please just give me your hand.”
He held out his hand slowly, his brain too dulled with desire to continue arguing.
Shifting her legs apart, Vic guided his hand down between them.
“Feel me.” She whispered against his mouth.
His stomach thudded with need as his trembling fingers pushed between her legs. She was wet to the touch, even before he pressed his fingers between her labia.
She moaned softly, rolling her hips into the light pressure.
He rubbed his fingers along her slit, and watched as her expression shifted from frustration to pleasure. Dragging his fingertips upward, he located her swollen clitoris, and drew a slow, gentle circle around the tender bud.
“Ohh …” Vic moaned, her lips quivering as she rose on her toes to the delicate caress, “God … Walt …”
Pressing his mouth against her temple, he pushed her legs wider apart, and applied two fingertips to her slick, puffy clit. She clung onto the front of his shirt, moaning and shuddering as the touch gradually grew faster, and firmer. Her hips rocked into his hand in a jagged motions, each one accompanied by a high-pitched whimper that was muffled in his chest.
“When the orgasm came, she held onto his shoulders with white-knuckled fists, and moaned past gritted teeth while her hips spasmed into the pressure of his fingers. He kept the caress steady against her even as the climax rippled through her body, pumping fresh, wet arousal onto his fingers.
When it was over, she sank back against the wall, breathing heavily.
He pulled back, conscious of his dick still hard and waiting it turn.
“Okay.” He said, “You got your way. Now let’s talk about this.”
Vic lifted her head. The dark, restless itch in her gaze hadn’t diminished with her own orgasm. “No.”
He blinked, and licked anxiously at his lips as her petulant response hung heavy in the air.
“I want you to fuck me.” She whispered, her voice husky and edged with dangerous need. “I want it to be hard.”
“I don’t want talking. I want you .” She grabbed him by the front of the shirt, and pulled him to her, so hard the breath jolted from her lungs when his chest collided with hers.
She reached down to grasp his cock, layering fresh need over his reasoning. He thought vaguely that he needed to stop this before he did something he regretted, but she was already stroking him, building up that flame of need that had scaled back to a simmer in the interim between her lips and this moment.
She hoisted one leg up around his waist, and guided his cock against her slick opening. He stumbled forward, a moan tugging at his throat as he entered her. Her body was hot and wet around him, letting him glide in and out at an easy, blissful pace. His hips lunged into a hungry rhythm against her, stammering with a few vagrant objections before losing sight of reality entirely.
Grasping her backside, her lifted both her feet off the ground. She locked her thighs around him, and braced her feet against his lower back. Looping both arms around his neck, she held on while he guided her hips up and down against him.
Their flesh smacked together as he hammered out several needy thrusts. His legs burned, but the minor physical discomfort was lost in the tingle and ache of approaching climax. It wasn’t until Vic started wiggled in his embrace that his reckless abandon heeded his body’s protest.
He let drop down from his hips, and she led him to the nearby chair. Pulling the chair around, she tugged him flush behind her as she bent over the back of it.
He pushed back into her, groaning in satisfaction at the steep angle of penetration. Her hips arched over the back of the chair, both hands bracing against the cushion to keep herself balanced.
Grasping her arched backside, he resumed his powerful thrusts. The smack of their bodies meeting resonated through the hotel room, punctuated by Vic’s whimpering cries, and his lower growls.
The reality of their situation beyond this room wasn’t entirely lost to him, but he felt like he was below water, suffocating in this consuming need that she’d drawn from him. With her bent over the chair, taking every blow of his cock with a whimpered affirmative, he couldn’t break the surface. He could only go on, feeling like a starved animal savaging it’s prey.
With the pleasure already halfway evolved in his chest, it didn’t take long before he felt the tide rising to sweep him away. With a few more hard thrusts, the orgasm seized him, rocking through his chest like a series of tiny explosions that left his body weak and quaking with satisfaction. The spasms rolled through him in hard, deep clenches, purging release in long, thick streams. As his cock continued to rock in and out of her, the excess spilled down her inner thighs in milky lines.
As the orgasm faded into tingling aftershocks, he leaned over her, panting hard.
He pulled out, and grasped her elbow, helping back upright.
She leaned against the back of the chair, smoothing her disheveled hair back from her face. Her cheeks glowed red from the rush of blood to her face. Her eyes were downcast, hiding whatever emotion was lingering in her eyes.
He slid his palm up her arm, and rubbed her shoulder. “Vic.”
“Thank you.” She said, her voice quiet and raspy.
He sighed, flinching at her response.
“We should talk about this.”
“What good is talking going to do?”
Her shoulder wiggled out from under his grasp, and she strode across the carpet toward the bathroom.
He watched her go, concern skyrocketing past the lingering haze of climax.
The bathroom door swung shut behind her, leaving the hotel room cold and vacant of her luminescent presence. She was gold and blinding like the sun, but she was his light, as burning and cruel as she could be. He wanted that light back; and for the first time since he’d tried to understand her family’s situation, he thought perhaps retreating to Wyoming would be the best choice after all.
While Vic hid in the bathroom, she thought about the ripple effect her mother’s illness had created in her life. It was like a darkness, a shadow looming in the background. She didn’t want to believe how much it had influenced her choices and compulsions, but sitting on the hotel toilet, hunched over her cold, bare knees, she couldn’t deny what had just happened stood as evidence to that very fact.
From a young age, she’d watched her mother seduce away her father’s anger when it cropped up. She’d watched Diana slip in and out of their lives, a phantom that always knew just what strings to pull. Sex was a game to her, and Vic hadn’t had any other model to follow.
The only girl in a family of brooding, macho boys, she’d always seen herself as a lonely drifter, blazing her own trail. But maybe she was just following the path her mother had set out.
Vic tilted forward, allowing her body to slide off the toilet seat and to the cool, white tile. Nausea roiled through her stomach, every inch of her feeling dirty and worthless with the sordid realizations.
She lunged to the toilet, grabbing at the plastic seat with shaking fingers as her stomach rebelled. Nothing came up but dry heaves, but she couldn’t stop the urge to purge whatever insanity her mother had passed to her from her body.
Vaguely, she heard the bathroom door slam open, and Walt’s alarmed voice saying her name. His fingers gathered her hair back from her cold, clammy cheeks.
“Vic, sweetheart.” His voice echoed to her as if she were underwater.
The heaving eased, and she rested her forehead against the inside of her elbow. Tears burned against her eyelids, and her throat ached with the sting of acid.
Walt gently pulled her upright, and back against his chest. Both arms wrapped around her, pinning her against him.
She kept her eyes shut, her face burning with humiliation. By now he’d seen that she hadn’t puked anything up but regret, and she couldn’t claim illness. He knew her better than that.
“None of this is your fault.” The low baritone of his voice vibrated against the back of her ear.
Vic squeezed her eyes shut against the instant wave of tears.
“Yes …” She whispered, “It is.”
“No, this is your mother. She’s the one to blame. She’s the one who did what she did, and said what she said.”
“Yeah, and I’m the one who took it out on you.”
“Well ... there could have been worse ways.”
Vic wiggled free of his embrace, and swiped the tears from her cheeks. “Either way, I think it’s time for us to go.”
“If that’s what you want.”
“My dad is going to be fine. There’s not anything else I can do here.”
Walt rose to his feet, and extended his hand to help her up. “Okay. I can check into the plane tickets.”
She slapped her palm into his, and hoisted herself up from the tile.
“I think I’m gonna go on a run.” She said, “I just feel like being alone right now.”
He nodded, his gaze compassionate. “Okay.”
She sighed, averting her eyes to the floor. “I’m really sorry about everything.”
“No need to apologize.”
“Yes, I do-”
“It’s already forgiven.”
His fingers grasped her chin, lifting her gaze to him. She slowly opened her eyes, afraid to see some other truth in his gaze, but there was nothing but sincerity in the deep, ocean blue. Somehow, in the middle of this mess, she’d forgotten that with Walt, what you see is what you get.
“Thank you.” She whispered.
He tugged her forehead to his lips, planting a firm, reassuring kiss into her skin. She pulled away before she could reconsider her run.
Chapter 6: River of Dreams
Vic ran until her lungs burned, and her legs ached. Until she could feel the sweat clinging to her t-shirt and dripping down her temples. Until the afternoon sun started it’s gradual, simmering descent.
The Delaware River, and the scintillating blue of the Franklin Bridge reflected golden light. Across the canal, downtown Philly’s skyscrapers shimmered, their windows like a thousand pairs of eyes keeping watch over the city. The beauty was heart wrenching in a way that only home can feel. If only she could persuade herself to feel something other than sorrow.
Vic stopped at a wooden bench next to the water, and sat down with her elbows on her knees. Her heart eased it’s hammering as a quick break turned into a pause, and then a long stretch of introspective moments.
Bringing her knees up to her chest, she turned against the back of the bench to watch the tiny waves roll into against the stone barrier. Her eyes slid shut, taking in the comforting sound of the persistent tide.
The fluid rocking carried in sensation and memory lodged in the back of her brain that she’d nearly forgotten about.
When she was a kid, her father used to bring her and her brothers out here for ice cream. On a police officer’s salary and with five mouths to feed, it was a rare treat. She could remember clinging to the counter of the ice cream stand, peering up at the array of choices, but picking the same flavor every time. While her brothers always picked the treats with the most toppings, she went plain strawberry every time.
They would eat their ice cream by the water, watching the boats come up and down the canal. When they were finished, her dad would pass out pennies.
“All right now, make a wish, then throw your penny into the water.”
Down the line they went, each child gripping their shiny penny in their sticky hands before pitching it into the Delaware until they reached Vic. She stepped up to the railing, her gaze focused on her scuffed sneakers. The penny stuck her to her palm, glazed with ice cream and sweat.
She blinked out into the water. It was so powerful, rushing past her and on toward the ocean.
Bring Mommy back home.
She threw the penny overhand, watching it’s coppery face glint through it’s short arch until it disappeared into the surging water, carrying away her dreams.
Vic opened her as the moment faded back into memory. Tears stung at the corners of her eyes. She scoffed against the lump in the back of her throat, wiping her face with her sleeve.
What a bullshit, useless idea.
As many times as she’d thrown that penny into the water, she’d never seen a return on her childlike faith. Sure, Diana had come home plenty of times after that, but she never stayed. And for every time she did come back, it was like a drain on the universe, each visit becoming shorter and shorter until she was a nonexistent figure lingering like a ghost in the Moretti home.
Vic rose from the bench, and walked up to the railing. The chipped, red paint hadn’t changed a bit.
Hopping up onto the cement lip of the barrier, Vic leaned over the railing, and spit into the water.
For you, Mom.
As she started her jog back to the hotel room, her cell phone started ringing. Keeping pace, Vic tugged the phone from her pocket, and looked down to see the caller ID. Half expecting to see Walt’s number, she came to a stop when she noted the Philadelphia area code.
Accepting the call, she pressed the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Vic, hey. It’s me.” Her dad said.
“Yeah, look, I know you were already by this morning, but that conversation didn’t go as well as I planned. Can we have another go at it?”
Vic sighed, squinting out at the water. “Sure, Dad.”
“Good. I’ll see you soon, then?”
“I’m out for a run. I’ll have to take a shower at the hotel before I head over.”
Vic hung up the phone, and stood still for a long minute, just staring at the black screen. She was ready to leave this place, but she couldn’t leave without saying goodbye - or apologizing.
Walt offered to drive her to hospital again; she declined again. She didn’t know what this trip held, but she did know that he’d seen more than enough of the side her mother brought out in her to last a lifetime. She didn’t want him to see anymore.
Vic walked down the quiet, hospital corridors, her fingers twisting together nervously. As she approached her dad’s room, she paused to draw in a deep breath. Her stomach was in knots.
Even with predetermined anxiety, Vic wasn’t prepared to enter the hospital room to see her mother seated on the bed next to her dad.
“Vic, come on in.” Her dad said, waving her inside.
“What’s she doing here?” Vic asked, motioning to Diana.
“I have as much right to be here as you do.” Diana said, her gaze hardening.
“Diana, please. We discussed this.” Victor whispered to her.
“Discussed what?” Vic asked.
“I asked you both to come here because I want to end this right now.”
“End what?” Vic said.
“This animosity.” Victor replied, pointing a finger between them.
“You want to talk about rights?” Vic asked, directing her gaze to her mother. “I have every right to have animosity towards you. And you, Dad, most of all should feel that right. I can’t believe you - you raised to me to not take shit from anybody. You were the strongest man I knew. Nobody dared cross you - except this bitch .”
“No, this is crazy! Her being back here, taking your money for ‘therapy’ like nothing ever happened. She doesn’t want to get well! We’ve all seen this a dozen times before. She’s just broke and desperate.”
“I am not!” Diana interrupted, her voice shooting through the octaves. “I love your father. As hard as it is for you to believe that, I do.”
“Sure you do.” Vic said, crossing her arms. “You love him because as many times as you’ve hurt him, he has never kicked you to the curb. You don’t deserve that.”
Silence settled on the room, interrupted only by the beep of monitors.
Diana lowered her head, sniffing quietly. “You’re right, sweetie.”
Vic shifted from one foot to the other, and cinched her arms defensively around herself. She refused to so easily buy into her mother’s act as Victor had.
“You’re right, I don’t deserve him.” Diana said, lifting her watery gaze. “He pulled me up out of the gutter when I was nothing. He loved me, he married me, and he made me a better person. Well, maybe I’ve messed that up a lot, but he’s never given up on me, and that’s why I’m still standing here today.”
Vic swallowed thickly. Her mother’s voice was sincere, but she’d heard this type of apology before.
“I was down in New Orleans, you know.” Diana continued. “Trying to have myself a good time, trying to make myself not feel so empty. And then, I was sitting alone in a jail cell, hungover, and I came to a realization - an epiphany you might call it.”
“And what was that?” Vic asked, each word cutting from the back of her throat.
“That I wasn’t worth anything anymore.” Diana whispered, her voice shaking with tears. “That I would rather die than go on for one more day the way I was.”
Victor quietly reached over to grasp Diana’s hand. She dashed a tear from her cheek with the other hand, smearing mascara.
“That’s when I thought of your father, and you, and your brothers.” Diana said, lifting her chin. “I knew I couldn’t do it. So I called Victor, and I asked for help … like I should have done years ago.”
Vic nodded, processing Diana’s dramatic explanation slowly.
When she found her voice again, the words were shaky and rigid with anger. “Damn straight you should have.”
Diana blinked, her mouth turning down in shattered disbelief.
“You put all of us through years of hell.” Vic whispered, pointing a quivering finger at Diana. “Do you know how I felt every time you would reappear, only to leave again two days later? Like a limb was being reattached and sawed off, reattached and sawed off - over and over again! I deserved to have a mother there for me when I was just a kid, going through life by myself, figuring out the things a mother helps a girl with by myself! Crying by myself because there’s just some things you need a mother’s shoulder to cry on for! And you finally come to this fucking realization now? After one shitty weekend of binge drinking? … Fuck you, Mom. Fuck you and your self-loathing, self-pitying worthless self. Go into rehab - see if I care? You’ll probably fail at that too.”
Dooming silence rushed in to fill the void as Vic’s raspy shout came to a halt.
Victor stared into his lap while Diana gazed at Vic, tears slipping down her cheeks.
Vic huffed out an enraged breath, and turned on her heel to leave. As she marched out of the room, she heard Diana’s heels clicking across the tile after her.
“Victoria, wait! Please wait, I’m begging you!”
Vic spun around as Diana’s fingers closed around her elbow. Her fist was poised to strike, but she stopped just short when she saw Diana cowering behind her.
“You have to believe me.” She whispered, tears mottling her words. “I mean it this time, Victoria, I mean it.”
“God.” Vic whispered, shaking her head. “You are pathetic. First, you try to come onto my boyfriend, then you try to lie about it to Michael. Then, you show up here trying to act all penitent, trying to have all your sins forgiven in one fell swoop. Well, maybe dad has short-term memory, but I don’t. This is just all a part of your pattern.”
“You’re right.” Diana said, holding up her hands in defeat. “I’m sorry about what happened with Walt.”
“You’re sorry?” Vic asked, “That’s cute. Are you also sorry for sending Michael to nearly arrest him for sexually assaulting you? That is a serious claim, Mom.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I was just … I saw you together, and …” Diana turned away, pressing her fingers to her forehead. “You were so wretched to me, I just wanted you to not be so happy.”
“Christ, Mom. I am not happy! I do not want to be here - at all!”
“But, I saw … when he looked at you-”
“You just couldn’t let me have one nice thing.” Vic whispered, “You just had to try to ruin it.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I do the things that I do.” Diana said, “Maybe you can’t find it in your heart to forgive me, but can you at least believe that I will try to get well this time?”
“When does that start?” Vic asked.
“Your dad is getting released from here in two days. After that, I’m going to admit myself.” Diana said, “I promise.”
“Fine.” Vic said, blowing out a weary breath. “You go admit yourself. I’ll believe it when you stay there for longer than a week.”
“All right.” Diana said, nodding, her lips pursed against a quiver. “I accept that, if that’s all you’re willing to give me.”
“Okay, then give me one thing in return.
“A few minutes alone with Dad, so I can say goodbye. I’m leaving tonight.”
Diana nodded. “Of course.”
Vic brushed past her, and entered the hospital room to find Victor sitting with his legs over the side of the bed. His forehead was pressed to his fingertips.
Vic shuffled across the room, and sat down on the mattress next to him.
“I’m sorry for blowing up.” She whispered.
“Well, I did always teach you to express yourself honestly.”
“And what about fairly?”
“Maybe I didn’t put enough emphasis on the ‘fair’ part.”
Vic met his gaze, finding it gentle, if not rueful. She reached over to clutch his hand.
“We’re never going to agree on this.” She said.
“Maybe not, but I want you to understand - I know what I’m doing.” Victor said, “I don’t know if you can understand this, but the thought of never seeing her again, it breaks my heart. I love your mom, you know …”
His voice trailed off shakily, and he glanced away, pressing a hand to his mouth.
Vic pinned her gaze to her lap, shaken by the image. She’d never seen her father cry. Get angry, certainly. Grave, yes. Never a tear shed in her presence … until now.
“You love something so much, you don’t think you can live without it.” She whispered.
Victor cleared his throat. Squeezing her hand, he murmured, “Something like that.”
“Even if that thing is toxic.”
“She’s not toxic. She just needs help, Vic. She’s sick. Maybe that’s hard to accept because it’s not physical, but it’s real.”
“I just don’t know if I can forgive her.”
“Forgiveness isn’t something you can force. It just happens.” Victor replied, “That’s why I’m not expecting you to feel the way that I do. And a husband’s love for his wife is so much different from a child’s love for a parent. A parent - well that’s a kid’s whole world. A spouse is just part of it. A good part.”
“I never thought of it like that.”
“I’ve had a lot of time to think.” Victor said, “Even before this heart attack. But now, I can see even more clearly what I have to do. I have to help her, I have to fix this. I have to do things right this time.”
“You do?” Vic asked, “What about her responsibility?”
“Trust me, she understands her responsibility. But that’s what a marriage is, sweetheart. Giving and taking, evenly.”
“I think she’s taken a lot more than she’s given.”
“And maybe you don’t know the whole story.”
Vic sighed, scraping a hand through her hair. “If that’s what marriage is, I don’t ever want it again.”
“What about this new man of yours?”
“Walt? He’s been married, he’s had the love of his life. This shit that you’re pulling with Mom, that’s the exact type of thing he would’ve done for his dead wife.”
Victor’s hand tugged on hers. “I’m sure he loves you just as much.”
“So now you approve?” Vic asked, forcing out a chuckle.
“I don’t have much of a choice, do I? Besides, he’s a lawman; as a cop myself I couldn’t ask for better for my daughter.”
“Good.” Vic said, “I’m glad you feel that way right now, because I have to get back to Wyoming.”
“Ahh, duty calls.”
“Yeah.” Vic nodded.
“So, this is goodbye. For now.”
Vic turned into her father’s proffered embrace, and buried her face in his shoulder. His arms tightened around her, as if she would slip away like water.
“For not so long this time, you hear?” He whispered against her ear.
Vic nodded into his shoulder. She let a few tears slip free to stain his hospital gown, swallowing the rest back; this place had taken enough of her soul.
Walt found a last minute flight out of Philadelphia, and snagged the last two seats available.
While Vic was gone at the hospital, he put the few things they had brought along back into their suitcase, and set it by the door. Pulling the sheets taut over the bed, he tucked them in neatly, and placed the pillows evenly at the top.
He wandered into the bathroom, and picked up the towels Vic had left behind in her haste to get to the hospital. He hung them up to dry, his fingers lingering around the damp edge. The cotton held the scent of her shampoo, and the residual, if not imaginary, imprint of her body.
Walt checked his watch as a wave of concern rode through his chest.
The last time Vic had come back from the hospital, he’d seen the lingering pain in her eyes. He hadn’t had a chance to talk with her about it then, but he should make the time when she returned now.
He’d seen her go through hell and back after both encounters with Chance Gilbert, he’d seen her face her stalker, he’d seen her go through a divorce and still come out fighting every time. Once upon a time, he’d had faith in that undaunted strength, but as much as he hated to admit it, he wasn’t quite sure how her armor was holding up after only two days back in Philadelphia.
He wanted to help her, but he didn’t know how to approach the topic of her mental health; every question these days seemed to be attached to a live grenade.
Walt strode out of the bathroom when he heard the hotel room door open.
Vic let the door slam shut behind her. Her eyes were clear, but he could see the tinge of red lingering in her cheeks.
“Did you find us a plane out of here?” She asked.
“I did. Leaves tonight at 10:30.”
“Damn.” She muttered. “So we still have another five hours to kill?”
He nodded. “You hungry? We could grab a bite to eat.”
“Sure.” She said, “As long as the establishment has beer.”
Walt put on his hat and boots, and followed her back out the door.
They found a burger and beer joint two blocks down. The place was a having minimal dinner rush, and they were seated almost immediately.
Vic ordered a beer, and Walt asked if they had Rainier. They didn’t. Maybe Wyoming was the only place on earth that did. “I’ll have what she’s having.” He acquiesced.
While the waiter left them to look over the menus, Walt studied Vic over the top of the plastic booklet.
“So, eh … I take it the visit didn’t go much better than this morning.”
“About the same.” Vic said, barely looking up from the menu.
Walt suppressed a sigh.
The waiter returned with their beers. Vic ordered quickly, and the waiter turned to Walt to ask what he wanted. Realizing he’d been too lost in thought to actually consult the options, he offered a sheepish smile. “I guess I’ll have what she’s having too.”
Vic leaned back against the booth, and crossed her arms. “Something on your mind?”
“I’ll be fine. We’re getting out of here tonight, back to Absaroka. Next week, it’ll be like this whole, terrible trip never happened.”
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about.”
“I’m not suppressing my emotions or whatever.” Vic said, “I’ve lived with these emotions, okay? It’s just … old hat at this point.”
“It seemed pretty important to your dad.”
“He thinks he’s gonna convince me to forgive my mom for all the shit she’s done just because she’s decided to finally get help. At the age of fifty-seven! I figured it out at thirty-two. And I didn’t have five kids, and ruin their lives in the process.”
“I know, you’re quite the saint.”
She huffed. “Come on, Walt. I’m not being dramatic here. You have to see how ridiculous it is for me to just forget all that stuff because of one good moment.”
“No. One good deed does not forgive a lifetime of bad ones, but in my experience, everyone deserves a second chance.”
“She’s had a second chance, and a third, and a fourth, and a twentieth.”
“And haven’t you? And me?” He pressed, “We’ve all hurt people. Wouldn’t you want someone to give you another chance if you were trying to redeem yourself?”
She glanced away, her eyes rolling shut against a sheen of tears. Her arms wrapped tight around her middle, defensive and clinging to a sense of control.
“I’m not defending your mom.” Walt said, “I’m just thinking about how this is going to affect your life down the road.”
“How it’s gonna affect my life?”
“Yes, because it already has. Permanently. And anger only bears more anger. I’ve seen it.”
Vic brushed her fingertips quickly below her eyelid to catch a brimming tear. She sniffed, keeping her gaze focused on her lap.
“No, uh, you’re probably right.”
“All I’m asking you to do is consider it.”
Walt leaned back when the waiter returned with their plates. They mumbled their thank you’s, and the waiter left. When he was gone, Walt put his elbows back on the table.
“So, it’s gonna be pretty late when we get back.” He said, “I’m thinking you should just stay with me for the night.”
Vic took a swig of her beer, and set the glass down with a clink. “Sounds logical.”
“I won’t force you to.”
“You’re not.” She said, tartly, her tone implying otherwise.
“Can we just not talk about this for like half an hour? I’m actually looking forward to this burger.”
He sighed, wanting to disagree but realizing she was done talking.
“Sure.” He murmured.
Walt struggled to keep his eyes open as he drove the familiar roads to the cabin. It was nearly one thirty, and Vic was passed out in the passenger seat, his coat pulled up around her cheeks. He cracked a window to allow the cool in breeze to rush inside in an attempt to keep himself alert.
Despite Vic’s apparent resistance to staying with him tonight, he was relieved to see she wasn’t conscious enough to be arguing now that they were back on Wyoming soil. He didn’t want to leave her alone when the reopened wounds of her childhood were still so raw. Whether she liked it or not, she needed support.
Walt let out a sigh of relief as he turned onto the dirt road leading up to his home. The cabin and Vic’s RV took shape from the recesses of shadow, both of them silent witnesses to their ragged homecoming.
Walt crept out of the truck, and carried the suitcase up to the cabin before waking Vic. When he returned and opened the passenger door, she stirred, tugging his coat back from her chin.
“Walt …” She mumbled, “What time is it?”
“Late, too late. Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
He guided her legs over the step and into the grass. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he half-carried her up the porch steps and into the cabin.
She collapsed to the sheets the moment he got her to the bed. Hoisting her legs up onto the mattress, he wiggled her shoes free. As he moved up to take her jeans off, her fingers caught his wrist.
“Why do they really call it unkindness?” Vic mumbled.
Walt frowned. He didn’t have time to ponder an answer to that strange question, as Vic was too exhausted to press further. Her eyes slipped shut, a sigh issuing from her parted lips.
He managed to get her jeans off and the sheets over her without waking her again.
Stripping out of his own clothes, he climbed into the bed, and settled down against the pillow facing Vic. She breathed evenly into the darkness, limbs twitching in deep sleep every so often.
Despite the late hour, his mind was awake and restless. His thoughts trailed on like asteroids lost in space, looking for some answer in the yawning emptiness. She was out there somewhere, too, searching. These thoughts didn’t hold weight or even logic, and he was asleep before he realized he had drifted from reality to dreams.
Chapter 7: Scorched Earth
Walt’s body and mind unraveled from the warm cocoon of dreams to find late morning sunshine spilling through the window, and the sound of birds singing. It was just past nine, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept this late.
As last night’s recollections returned, he rolled over, reaching for Vic’s body, only to find empty sheets. Propping himself up on his elbow, he found a scrap of paper sitting on her pillow.
Went for a ride.
Walt climbed out of bed, and got dressed. He tucked his feet into his boots by the door, and stepped out onto the front porch to squint out into the yard. Vic’s RV and both their vehicles were still parked out front. He could only assume she’d taken the horse.
Walt ran a hand through his hair, considering going after her. The back of his neck prickled with concern like some sixth sense warning him Vic was in danger. More than likely, she wasn’t in any physical danger, but his fears for her mental health hadn’t disappeared with a good night’s sleep.
He didn’t want to suffocate her. Suppressing the protective urge to the go rushing after her, he went back inside to make himself coffee and breakfast.
He made himself scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast, and sat down at the kitchen table with the newspaper. He finished all of his breakfast, but only one article from the paper. His mind was distracted, still trying to work out some meaning to Vic’s strange question last night.
It was a scrap of memory from a conversation a long time ago. He could still remember standing ankle deep in the snow, pondering the death of a stranger and one unlucky sheep. Seemed like ages ago. And it seemed inconsequential compared to what was happening now.
Walt fought his concerns for another fifteen minutes before he grabbed his keys, and stepped back outside.
He drove the Bronco half a mile north of the cabin until the shimmering pond, his grazing horse, and Vic’s figure seated at the edge of the water emerged on the horizon.
Throwing the truck into park, he sat still for a moment, examining the scene. The sun-drenched landscape was like something out of a painting, all the beauty and sadness crafted by oil and brush. Part of him didn’t want to disturb her, but he was here now, already intruding.
When Vic rose to her feet, and turned to cast him a challenging gaze, he stepped out of the vehicle.
He marched across the knee-high grass until he reached the edge of the pond.
“I left you a note so you wouldn’t worry.” Vic said.
“I worried anyway.”
“Is this the first place you looked?”
Vic sighed, and turned to gaze out at the sunlight reflecting off the water. “You know me too well.”
Walt studied her profile for a moment. She was holding a book he recognized from his shelf against her chest.
“What are you doing out here? Birdwatching?” He asked.
Vic held the bird manual away from her chest, and flipped through the glossy pages. “No. I was thinking about ravens.”
“You mentioned something last night. I didn’t think you would remember. You were pretty out of it.”
“Yeah, I was just thinking about … us.”
“What about us?”
“I don’t know, how it happened. How we became us .”
“So you were thinking about me forcing you to trudge around in two feet of snow looking for a dead sheep?”
“Yeah.” Vic said, chuckling softly. “And you, talking about ravens like it was meant to impress me. I was pissed, but I knew right then and there … you were it - and I was so fucked.”
Walt suppressed a smile. “I wasn’t trying to impress you.”
“Well, you were right about one thing. Ravens, they’re a symbol of death.”
“Actually, they’re very friendly, playful birds who have interacted casually with humans for ages. I said it was apropos not accurate.”
“There you go again.”
“Well, didn’t you find that in the book?” Walt asked, waving a finger at the manual.
“Yeah. It also said that they mate for life. And they kind of just kick their kids out when they’re old enough to fend for themselves?”
“Well, the young birds usually leave of their own free will.”
“Mm.” Vic muttered. “I guess I relate to them more than I thought.”
“Leaving of my own free will. And my parents, staying together for life, no matter what.”
“That’s what marriage is. Or what it’s meant to be.”
“And what about us?”
Walt looked away from her pressing gaze involuntarily. He’d been expecting this moment, just not so soon. He’d been hoping to have a good answer when the question finally came.
“I know marriage is important to you.” Vic said, “And I know that after my divorce, I didn’t think I would ever touch marriage again with a ten foot pole. So where’s the middle ground there?”
“I thought we were taking things slow.”
“We are … or we were or, or we were trying to. I don’t know, I just got all these thoughts running through my head. I mean, you haven’t even told Cady about us, and I tried my damndest not to tell my family. Maybe there’s a reason for that.”
“I told you why I haven’t told Cady.”
“Did you? Because I was just hearing an excuse.”
“Do you want me to propose to you?”
Vic’s rapid-fire questions came to halt. Her wide eyes blinked in muted silence for a few moments before she looked away. Her jaw clenched as she focused on the water.
“No.” She whispered, at last, pressing her fingers to her forehead. “I’ve just had all this time to think the past couple days and I don’t know, Walt - I don’t know how to define this, or us, or what I even expect out of you. I just know I have spent too many days thinking I couldn’t make it through another hour without you.”
Her watery gaze glistened gold in the sunlight, searching his face for answers with a broken look of desperation. When he didn’t respond, a sigh burst from her lips.
“I felt that way after I lost the baby.” Vic said, “And I was kind of getting over it until this trip, and now I feel like I’m right back to that moment, breaking down on your couch. And I hate that feeling, Walt. I hate being totally dependent on you.”
“You’re not totally dependent-”
“No, just stop. You don’t know how it feels to be me. Only I do, and that’s how I feel. Like I can’t stand on my own two feet, and I don’t know how I can live with that.”
“What are you saying?” He asked, hearing his own voice like a hollow echo from across the empty field.
“I’m saying I watched my dad totally support and care for my mom for years while getting nothing in return. I’m saying he never stopped her, or said no when she was asking too much of him. And she always turned to him instead of actually getting help.”
“You’re comparing us to your parents? Vic, I don’t think that’s-”
“It’s close enough, okay? How I reacted when I found out what she did that night at Victor’s house … that’s something she would do.”
“You just wanted to feel better. I wouldn’t fault you for-”
“But you should. Because you tried to stop me, and I didn’t listen.”
“I didn’t exactly say ‘no’ or-”
“Just stop trying to defend me, okay? I’m just not in a good place right now. I wasn’t in a good place when we first hooked up, so maybe that’s on me. Maybe I was just reaching for something that made me feel whole again. Maybe I misinterpreted what I needed, but I can’t keep using you as a crutch every time life gets hard. I have to find a way to be independent again. I used to be, you know?”
She strode past him, toward the horse, but his fingers caught her by the wrist.
“Vic, wait.” He said, catching her hard, wet gaze. “You’re right; we got together when you were emotionally vulnerable, but … I can’t accept that we misinterpreted the last three months.”
She paused for a moment, her eyes glistening with tears, her mouth quivering. He thought she might reconsider, but in a breath, that fragility had passed. Her eyes hardened, and she tugged her arm free.
“I just need a few days, okay? To think, to reevaluate. Can you give me that?”
He swallowed back a resounding ‘no’, the bitterest pill he’d ever been forced to swallow. He managed a nod.
She’d barely accepted the strained response before she mounted up, and rode past him, across the sunshine soaked prairie.
When Vic steered the RV into the parking lot of Chrysalis, she shut off the engine and sat in silence for what felt like ages. Her mind was cycling through a whole gamut of emotions so wide and powerful that she hadn’t even taken advantage of the solitude to shed a tear. She felt frozen by crushing dread, powerless to stop this avalanche of fear that was spreading like a shockwave through her life.
She had just all but ruined her the relationship she’d once treasured for selfish - or traumatized - reasons she didn’t fully understand. But in a way, she felt like she was saving him, and that was enough to stop her from turning the RV around to go running back to the cabin.
The sound of knuckles rapping on the window jarred her from the narrow tunnel of her thoughts.
Joe Mega, colorful owner of this establishment and butterfly enthusiast, stood outside the RV, his arms crossed, chin cocked up in curious peruse.
Vic rolled down the window, and swallowed back her pride. “Is my spot still open?”
“Flying back to the cocoon, are you?”
“Just tell me if the spot is open or not.”
“It certainly is. For you, Miss Moretti.”
Vic suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “I’ll be on my way then.”
She cranked the key in the engine, and rolled past Joe with her chin lifted.
She didn’t mind retreating when it was strategic, but this felt more like a humiliating crawl of shame. Three months ago, she’d been so brave and bold; while her heart raced ahead, her mind was left suffocating in the dust, only now finding it’s voice.
She’d had her doubts, but it hadn’t been hard for him to persuade her to stay. One more day, one more week, one more month. It was all a blur.
Vic spent the next hour getting the RV hooked back up to the water and gas lines. When she finished, she took a quick shower, and took her uniform off the rack. She wasn’t particularly looking forward to going back to work after the grueling two days in Philly, but she didn’t have anything else to do; and if she didn’t keep herself occupied, she was going to start wallowing. She’d told Walt she was going to find her independence again, and that’s exactly what she intended to do.
Vic marched up the steps and into the Sheriff’s office as if she had never left.
“Vic, you’re back!” Ruby said, a smile brightening her face. “How’s your dad?”
“He’s gonna be fine, thanks.”
As Vic sauntered into the bullpen, Ferg looked up from his paperwork.
“Hey, Vic. We weren’t expecting you back so soon.”
“My mom’s a little over-dramatic.” Vic said, plucking her sunglasses from her nose. “She may have made my dad’s condition sound a little more serious than it is.”
“Didn’t he have a heart attack?”
“Yeah, but he’s not dying or anything.”
Ferg nodded slowly, a frown creasing his brow.
Vic cleared her throat to fill the awkward silence as she plopped down behind her desk.
“So, what’s been happening?” She asked.
“Not much.” Ferg said, “A few drunk and disorderlies … the usual.”
“Great. I was worried the place would fall apart without me.” She said, slapping a fake smile on her face. When Ferg didn’t even chuckle, she pursed her lips. “So, are Cady and Zach in?”
“Nope. They had to go look into a B&E from last night.”
Vic toyed with the pen on her desk, knee bouncing with nervous energy.
“God, it’s quiet.”
“Yep. I’m enjoying it, and you should be too after everything that happened last year.”
Vic scoffed. She could go for a homicide or a drug bust right about now. What she needed was to work, to lose herself in a case so she didn’t have to think about her own life falling apart.
She jolted when the telephone on Ruby’s desk started ringing.
“Sheriff’s department.” Ruby answered. There was a pause before she grabbed a sticky note and started writing. “Okay, tell me exactly where you are. I’ll send someone over right away.”
Vic jumped up from her desk, and walked as nonchalantly as she could across the office. By the time she reached Ruby’s desk, Ruby had just set the phone down.
“So, where do you need me to go?” She asked.
“Well, you’re quite the go-getter today.”
“I’ve had enough of sitting around a worrying, that’s all.” Vic said, “What’s going on?”
“That was a young lady named Kylie Williams.” Ruby said, “She’s out on Route 5. Somebody hit her, and drove away.”
Vic snatched the sticky note. “Thanks, I’ll handle it.”
Vic never found out who hit the frightened teen girl out on Route 5. The girl was so shaken that she could only give Vic a vague description of the vehicle, and nothing on the driver.
Vic spent the afternoon combing through DMV records in search of an older model, gray - or possibly dark blue - Chevy Silverado with an American flag decal on the rear window. The fact that the girl couldn’t remember a partial license plate, the year, or even the correct color of the vehicle made the task a needle-in-a-haystack situation. Even with the help of the Highway Patrol, she didn’t make much headway even after hours of research.
Vic went home that evening, exhausted and no less satisfied than when she’d left.
Hardly wanting to cook, she stopped for carry-out on the way home. She ate the burger and fries on the RV’s couch, wearing only a t-shirt and underwear. Her phone sat on the cushion beside her, silent. No missed calls, no messages.
She thought about calling him, and immediately stopped herself. She’d asked for a few days. She had to last at least one.
At half-past nine, she tugged sheets over herself, and closed her eyes. Her body was jet-lagged and exhausted, but her mind turning with an overabundance of twisting, turning thoughts. She battled to quiet the voices of guilt and frustration, tossing and turning on the narrow couch, for what felt like a lifetime before finally drifting into a restless sleep.
Three days after their return from Philly, Walt drove into town. He stopped at the Busy Bee for carry-out, and drove over to the Sheriff’s station. Cady’s, Ferg’s, and Zach’s vehicles were all parked on the curb, but Vic’s truck was missing.
Walt took the carry-out bag with him into the building, and strode up the familiar steps into the station.
“Walter.” Ruby greeted him with a smile as he stepped inside. “It’s been awhile. How’ve you been?”
She came out from behind her desk to give him a hug, which he welcomed with open arms.
“Good. And you?”
“Oh, you know me.” She said, patting his arm. “I keep myself occupied.”
He chuckled. “You sure do. Is Cady in?”
“In her office.”
Zach was the only deputy in the bullpen. He nodded and waved as Walt passed. “Hey, Walt.”
“Zachary.” Walt acknowledged.
When he knocked on Cady’s door, she called him in. He entered to find her sitting at the desk with a pile of evidence folders around her.
“Dad.” Cady said, jumping up from behind the desk to greet him. “Where have you been? I’ve been calling.”
“Sorry, I had the phone off.”
“You know, the reason you bought that phone was to keep in contact with people who care about you.” She chided, softly, as they embraced.
“I just wanted a couple of days of solitude, that’s all.” He said. He offered her the carry-out bag. “I brought you lunch.”
“Thanks.” She smiled, accepting the bag. “Any occasion in particular?”
“Nope, just missed your smile, that’s all.”
“Mmm.” Cady said, narrowing her eyes.
“Who are you, and what have you done with my dad?” She said, her smile tilting mischievously. “My real dad doesn’t do anything without a good reason.”
“You don’t think me missing my daughter is a good reason?”
A knock on the door interrupted Cady’s sleuthing. The door opened before she could reply, and Vic stuck her head into the office.
“Hey, Cady, we just got back from questioning- …Oh, hey, Walt.”
“What are you doing here?” She asked, stepping into the office with her arms crossed.
“Bringing my daughter lunch.”
“I see.” She said, her gaze reflecting as much suspicion as Cady’s. “Well, um, you should probably step out since you’re not a part of the Sheriff’s department anymore.”
“It’s fine.” Cady said, “You’re not going to tell anyone important details of the case, are you, Dad?”
Cady a waved a hand at Vic. “Go ahead, tell me what you found out.”
Vic cleared her throat, and marched past Walt to hand Cady a piece of paper. “The previous victim gave me a partial license number. Going by make, model, and color, I narrowed the suspect pool down this guy. He’s had previous arrests for assault and battery.”
“I’ll take Zach to go question him.” Cady said, “You and Ferg, keep working on the other leads in case this doesn’t pan out.”
Cady grabbed her jacket, and paused to give Walt a kiss on the cheek as she left. “I’ll eat lunch when I get back. Promise.”
“Okay, be careful out there.”
Cady left the office, allowing the door to slam shut behind her. Walt and Vic were left in silence, Vic avoiding his gaze.
“So …” Vic said, “Is bringing Cady lunch the only reason you’re here?”
“Well, I would have brought you something too, but I figured I could just take you out myself.”
“You want to take me out to lunch?”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“It’s just lunch.”
“No, it’s not. You’re checking up on me.”
Walt blew out a sigh, bracing his hands on his hips. “If I don’t, who will? You haven’t told Ferg, or Cady about what happened in Philadelphia, have you?”
“No, and I don’t intend to because it’s none of their business.”
“Cady would have gladly given you a few more days off.”
“I don’t need days off, Walt. I need to work.”
“And I need to know that you’re okay.”
“‘Okay’.” Vic muttered, paced to the couch below the window. She sat down, cradling her forehead in her hands. “What does that even mean?”
Walt crossed the office to sit down next to her. He hated seeing her this way without being able to touch her, hold her, kiss her. He wanted to, but he knew she wouldn’t react well under the circumstances.
“It means I know you, Vic.” He said, “And I’ve seen you go down this road before.”
“It’s not the same.”
“It’s close enough.”
“I am fine.” Vic said, shooting him a defensive glare. “I asked for a few days.”
“It’s been three, by my count.”
“So now you give yourself the right to start stalking me to make sure I’m not going to hurt myself?”
Silence took over the sound of their voices as the question hung dense and unavoidable in the air between them.
Vic huffed out a sigh, and focused her gaze away from him. “No.”
“Okay.” He said, rising from the couch. “Then you won’t mind if I take you to lunch.”
Vic scoffed. “Are we going to talk about me dumping you?
“Nope. Let’s go.”
He strode out of the office, and was surprised but pleased when she followed behind him without any further argument.
Walt kept his word. While Vic picked at her chicken wrap, he told her about the new armoire that he was making out of repurposed wood.
“I’ve always felt pieces made out of repurposed wood are special.” He said. “Like they’re getting the chance at a second life.”
For the rest of the day, Vic thought about him saving boards as old as the world from the trash heap and turning them into treasures. She thought about damaged wood transforming beneath his workmanship, a little broken but still functioning.
It was still on her mind the following day when she parked in front of her therapist’s office and considered canceling the appointment. She wasn’t focused on recovery, or even her miscarriage. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to Dr. Brighton about Walt.
A sick feeling churned in Vic’s stomach, as she shoved the car door open, and stepped out into the morning sunlight. She’d already told Cady she wouldn’t be in this morning, and the good doctor likely wouldn’t take too kindly to her not showing up.
After three months, the woman knew her well. Better than Vic preferred, but the sessions were the only thing that had helped her in the past few months.
Vic entered the office, and gave her name to the receptionist.
“Dr. Brighton will be right out.”
Vic sat down in the waiting room, and rubbing her sweaty palms over her knees. Dressed in her work uniform, complete with her sidearm, she felt out of place in the therapist’s office.
Classical music trickled from the speakers, and an essential oil diffuser sat on the counter, dispensing soothing vanilla into the waiting room. The calming effect was making only the slightest dent in Vic’s quaking defenses.
Vic looked up to see Dr. Brighton peeking into the waiting room.
“Come on back, Vic.”
Vic cleared her throat, and rose to her feet. Squaring her shoulders, she followed Dr. Brighton down the hall to her office. The doctor, who was half-Korean, was short enough that Vic could see over the top of her silky, black hair to the doorway ahead.
The door to the office was painted Robin egg blue, and Vic always felt like she was stepping through a portal into another world when she passed under the glowing beams. The sense of unease loosed slightly as she sat down on the familiar couch cushions.
“You look prepared to take on the world this morning.” Dr. Brighton observed as they entered her office. She motioned for Vic to take a seat.
“The uniform will do that for you.” Vic said.
Dr. Brighton chuckled. “So, how are you really doing?”
“Okay, I guess.”
Dr. Brighton tipped her glasses lower on her nose, and peered at Vic with a gaze that demanded honesty.
“I’ve had a bit of a setback.” Vic allowed, pinning her gaze to the floor.
“What kind of setback?”
“I had to go visit my family in Philly this weekend. We don’t exactly get along all the time.”
“I see. Did something happen while you were there?”
“Lots of things. I saw a baby, and I almost lost it. I saw my mom, and did lose it.”
“So, it’s your mother who you have the trickiest relationship with?”
“That’s an understatement. She hasn’t always been there for me. And I also found out that she might have bipolar, so …”
“That’s a very difficult thing to understand. Mental illness can be frustrating, and confusing.”
“To say the least.” Vic muttered.
“Let’s talk about your reaction to the baby.”
“Well, it’s my niece.” Vic said, “My sister-in-law kind of just handed her to me, and I wasn’t really ready. You know, I thought I was over the whole knee-jerk reaction of wanting to cry every time I saw a baby girl, but it just hit me. Harder than ever.”
“Why do you think that is?”
Vic pressed a hand to her forehead, not wanting to meet Dr. Brighton’s gaze.
Vic sniffed, and leaned back against the cushions with her arms crossed. “Walt was there with me.”
Dr. Brighton nodded. “And you didn’t want him to see you cry?”
“No, I didn’t want him to see me as a mother.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. You can tell me, Vic.”
“I wasn’t ready to be a mother.” Vic said, “When I got pregnant, it felt like the end of the world; and as much as I loved my baby, I don’t know if I ever want it to happen again.”
“That’s perfectly okay.”
“Some people want to replace their dead babies.” Vic shrugged. “I just want mine to not be dead. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn't lost her? Maybe I would be preparing for delivery instead of thinking about a relationship. Maybe Walt and I wouldn’t even be together.”
Dr. Brighton nodded, and jotted down a note.
Vic hated it when she did that.
“Honestly, I couldn’t imagine Walt and I as parents. He has a daughter my age. I mean, how ridiculous is that?”
“Does the age gap bother you?”
“No, not really. I don’t care what other people think.”
“But you’ve just described your relationship as ridiculous.”
“I said us being parents would be ridiculous.”
“Okay.” Dr. Brighton conceded. “Does it bother him?”
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“It hasn’t ever been discussed between the two of you?”
“It was - once. I distracted him with sex.”
Dr. Brighton’s brows raised slightly, but she simply made another note. Vic gritted her teeth in irritation.
“Look, I’m not here to talk about Walt.” Vic said, putting her hands up. “He’s got nothing to do with me losing my baby. He wasn’t the father, and we weren’t together at the time so-”
“But you do mention him every session.” Dr. Brighton said, “Did something happen to make you not want to talk about him?”
Vic looked away, her jaw working as she considered a response that didn’t unspool the entire truth.
“I can see that you’re upset about this.” Dr. Brighton said, “You know what we’ve discussed, about talking instead of holding in your feelings …”
“We broke up, okay?”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Me too. Because it was my fault. I pushed him away.”
“Why do you think you did that?”
“I felt like I was crumbling. Like I couldn’t even stand on my own feet anymore. He’s like the sun, you know, he just consumes everything - all that I am. I can’t let myself become completely dependent on someone like that. I won’t make it.”
“You’ve made it this far. And you’ve said yourself that you’ve only dated for three months so you’re clearly an independent woman.”
“I have to be. I’ve seen what co-dependent relationships do to people.”
“There’s nothing wrong with looking to your significant other for support. I want to caution you to be careful with this scorched-earth approach to your relationship.” Dr. Brighton said.
Vic paused, considering Dr. Brighton’s words. They sounded good in theory.
“People in grieving need support.” Dr. Brighton added, “In fact, your support system in a fragile time like this is crucial. That you want to stand on your own makes me think that you’re progressing, but it also worries me that you’re trying to progress too quickly.”
“Well, to me, it feels like an eternity.”
Dr. Brighton nodded. “Grief can feel that way. So can fear. What do you think made you change your mind about your relationship so suddenly?”
Vic didn’t reply for a long moment. She wasn’t ready to talk about her parents, least of all to a stranger, no matter how helpful she’d been the last few months.
“Like I said, I’ve seen what happens in codependent relationships. Can we talk about something else?”
“All right.” Dr. Brighton said, gently.
When the session time expired, Vic nearly ran from the building. Sitting behind the wheel of her car, she listened to the rushing sound of breaths, and swallowed back bitter tears.
Independence had never felt harsher; loneliness had never been more vivid. Pride alone kept her from starting the engine and driving toward Walt’s cabin. An embrace or a whispered reassurance would have been nice right about now.
Instead, Vic lifted her chin, and told herself to get it together. Then she started the car, and drove to work.
Chapter 8: 400 Lux
Afternoon sunlight cast long shadows across the front yard, predicting dusk would come soon and swift. The sky was tinged pink along the edges, the distant Bighorns glowing and melding into the rolling sky. The call of birds over Walt’s solitary piece of land provided the only accompaniment to the rhythmic scratch of sandpaper across wood.
Walt toiled over the armoire, taking away rough edges and finding the deep, swirling grains in the wood. He hadn’t stopped working in the last three hours except to take a drink of the beer can he had balanced on the edge of the worktable.
He’d started building the day Vic left, not because he wanted to create something beautiful, but because he needed a distraction. He’d tried reading a book, but his mind kept wandering. There was nothing like a physical exhaustion produced by manual labor to beat unwanted thoughts back into oblivion.
It had been a week and three days since her departure, and the armoire was nearly finished. He kept telling himself that she would come to her senses and return by the time he applied the finish, but it was starting to look like he would need a new project in the next few days.
Walt dropped the sanding block to the work table, and wiped sweat from his brow. Grabbing his beer, he tilted the can to his mouth, and drained the last drops. He set the empty can down with a sigh.
In the fading daylight, he could barely make out the fine details in the wood. The day would no longer afford him the distraction of work. He would likely spend the rest of the evening thinking too much, and stopping himself from picking up the phone to check in on Vic again.
Their last conversation over lunch last week hadn’t offered him much insight into her state of mind. He’d done most of the talking while she mumbled replies, and pushed her food around on her plate. Distress painted her in broad brushstrokes, no room left for the little nuances. He had no idea if, or when she would end this madness and come back.
As he gathered up his tools, the sound of tires rolling down the dirt road in front of the cabin drew his attention. Shock and relief filled his chest as the vehicle drew closer, and he was able to make out the Sheriff’s department insignia on the side of the truck.
Vic parked the truck, and shut off the engine. For a long moment, she sat behind the wheel, gazing at him from across the yard.
When she stepped out of the truck, Walt set the tools down and strode across the grass to meet her.
“Vic, what are you doing here?” He asked.
She smiled ruefully. “I thought you’d be happier to see me.”
“Then invite me in, and offer me a beer.”
An involuntary smile tugged at his mouth. “Come on in.”
“Your armoire is coming along.” She noted as they walked up to the front porch.
“Slow but steady.”
“It looks good. Are you going to replace the one in your bedroom?”
“Actually, I was thinking about selling it.”
“Selling it? But it’s so beautiful.”
Walt clicked his tongue as he cast a glance at the unfinished armoire laying across the workbench. “I, uh, don’t really need one.”
Vic squinted against the blinding slant of the dying sun. “I couldn’t give away something I worked so hard on.”
Walt stole a glance at her from the corner of his eye. She was glowing in the sunset-tinged light, the brown of her eyes lit up like polished gold. Her hair was loose and wavy around her shoulders as if she hadn’t made any attempt at styling it. He took it all in, malnourished for the sight of her, a quiet starvation he hadn’t realized was so visceral until she was standing here next to him.
He cleared his throat. “I’ll grab us some beers.”
She stayed on the porch while he stepped inside to fetch the beer. He took the whole case out of the fridge, and brought it back out.
She was sitting on the steps, her arms wrapped around her knees. The sky was flushed with pink and purple, creating a vivid, breathtaking picture with her seated at its epicenter. The pain in his chest told him this moment, just like the sunset, wouldn’t last. He could only hold onto the fragments, and hope for a future beyond the impending darkness.
Joining her on the steps, he cracked open two beers, and offered her one.
She took it, murmuring a thank you.
Walt took one drink, and set the can down on the step next to his boots.
“So, what brought you this way?” He asked.
“The beer.” Vic said, casting him a mischievous smile. “I’m all out at home.”
“Well, you know me; I always have a case at the ready.”
“One of the many things I admire about you.”
Walt slid his palms across his jeans, gritting back the urge demand honesty. She was sitting here on his front porch, drinking beer with him, as if nothing had happened, but the undercurrent of solemnity was enough to sour the pretty picture.
Vic took another drink of beer, and cleared her throat. “Actually, uh … I've been thinking a lot … about my mom.”
Walt slid his gaze over to examine her profile. Her jaw clenched, mouth pursing hard against emotion.
“You know, I can divide my life into two categories - times she was there, and times she wasn’t. It’s almost an even split, like she just can’t be away any longer than she can stay.”
Walt didn’t speak, afraid to halt this flow of honesty.
“I remember being twelve years old.” Vic pressed on her, voice shaking, “My dad sent me into the store alone to buy tampons because he didn’t want to be seen holding a box of them. I was so confused, and scared. I just wanted someone to tell me that everything I was experiencing was normal, and that I was going to be okay.”
Walt focused on the scuffed toes of boots.
Vic took another bolstering swig of beer, and blew out a deep breath. “I love my dad, but he did not know how to raise a girl on his own. Not that I blame him. She should have been there.”
“That must of been hard.”
“It was the usual for me growing up.” Vic said, shaking her head. “I have so many memories just like that one - just silly, little things that kids are afraid of that my dad didn’t know how to handle alone.”
“Why aren’t you telling your therapist this?” Walt asked, softly.
“How do you know I’m even still going there?”
“I got the bill in the mail the other day.”
Vic blinked at the realization. “Oh, I forgot. I should probably have those sent to my place now that…”
“No.” Walt said, “You keep going as many times as you need to, and I’ll keep the bills coming here.”
She rearranged her melancholy gaze into a playful one, and nudged him with her elbow. “Why go there when I’ve got you?”
“I’m not sure I’m the right person for you to be pouring your heart out to right now.”
“Neither am I, but you’re all I’ve got.”
“Is that why you’re here. Because I’m the last resort?”
Vic shook her head, her mouth flattening into a thin line as she stared out at the fading sunset. “No, Walt … you’re not my last resort. You’re my first choice, this time, and every time.”
His chest fluttered, some bit of hope returning to nest there.
Vic cleared her throat, and pushed her shoulders back. “My dad called me today.”
“My mom. She’s in rehab right now, asking to see me.”
“Yeah.” Vic said, scoffing a chuckle. “She’s really sorry for everything, and she wants to apologize in person.”
“Are you going?”
“It would be a waste of an airplane ticket. I’ll believe her when she’s done at least thirty days. One week of rehab doesn’t mean shit.”
“What’s going to be the excuse when she has done thirty days?”
Vic shot him a glare.
“You shouldn’t have come here if you only wanted to hear what you want to hear.”
Vic’s gaze wandered back out to the landscape, and she was quiet for a long minute. Crickets hummed from the encroaching shadows to fill the silence. Emotions rippled across her face like water, shifting in and out of focus before despair solidified.
“I had to tell someone.” Vic said, her voice issuing a fragile whisper, “This anger that I feel towards her has got to go somewhere.”
Walt’s hand curled into a fist against his knee as Vic leaned forward, pressing her face to her hands. The quake in her shoulders was barely noticeable, but he noticed - and it was killing him that he couldn’t do anything about it.
“I’m so tired, Walt.” She said, her voice muffled in the cradle of her hands, “I’m so tired of running, and crying, and feeling guilty. I want to stop being angry, but I just can’t let it go …”
He reached out to touch her shoulder, ignoring the warnings in his head. She’d thrown up an invisible barrier between them when she’d asked for a break, but this reflex to protect her, or at the very least, comfort her couldn’t be contained.
She swayed toward the touch of his hand, and he pulled her against his chest without further hesitation. Her head nestled against his shoulder, and her body fit perfectly under his arm. She clung to his side, crying in subdued shudders into his shirt.
He held her close, stroking his fingers through her hair until the emotion eased, and she was quiet, and motionless against him.
“It’s going to be okay.” He whispered, pressing his lips to the top of her head. “I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but it will be. You can make it through this, Vic.”
She sniffed, uncurling a hand from his shirt to wipe her cheeks.
“You really believe that? Because I’m starting to wonder.”
“Yes, I do.”
She gazed up at him, the gold once illuminated by the sun now faded to glistening brass. A stray tear dried on her pink, puffy cheek. He reached up to smear it away with his thumb, and she pushed her chin into his palm.
He paused, swallowing against the rising, primal urge to carry her back into the house, back into his bed.
Her mouth moved softly against the ridge of his thumb, issuing a soft, steady stream of warm breath into his skin. The wandering kiss moved down his palm and against the inside of his wrist, where softer, less calloused skin was more responsive to her touch.
“Vic …” He began, his voice echoing through his head like a foreign sound.
Dropping his hand, she leaned forward to press her mouth against his. The kiss was abrupt and brisk, withdrawing before he could fully grasp the texture and taste of her lips.
They shared a long, motionless gaze, and he could feel the momentum of desperation swinging in a like a pendulum.
He drew in a breath, his lungs quivering as if powerless. He reached out to touch her cheek, to stop her. To stop them both. But his fingers offered little resistance as she leaned in to kiss him once more, this one lingering and simmering with unspoken need.
That gnawing hunger eclipsed thought as her mouth pressed fully against his, letting him taste her. His resistance disappeared with the sinking sun; under the cover of infant darkness, he allowed himself to kiss her back.
She was tender and quivering in his embrace, this desperate, broken cry for help so unlike the vicious demands she’d thrust on him back in a hotel in Philadelphia. The vein of need was identical in every way, though, and he couldn’t help but think they were falling back into the same pattern she’d tried to break up with him over. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from holding her tighter, from savoring the softness of her mouth beneath his, and quiet whimper that vibrated from deep in her throat.
A week and three days were the blink of an eye in the scope of time, but this last week and three days had been longest of his life. The hollow space in his chest ached for this intimacy that they’d shared nearly every day for three months; even if it was just a kiss, even if these few, precious seconds ended with his next breath, he had to take them.
Walt’s hand drifted up to cradle her cheek, his fingers lacing through the hair at her nape. When she pulled back, he curled his fingers around the soft strands of hair, unwilling to let her slip away again.
Her forehead rested against his as she breathed slow and shallow. Her eyes pressed shut.
“I’m such a idiot.” She whispered.
“No … no, you’re not.”
“Yes.” She said, her eyes opening to meet his. “Look at me. I lasted less than two weeks.”
“I’m not keeping track.”
“Yeah, you are. I know you, you’ve been counting the days, the hours even.”
“Because I missed you, not because I think you’re weak or stupid.”
“God, why can’t I be more like you?” She groaned, dropping he head against his chest. “Why can’t I do something constructive like build a fucking armoire instead of trying to set fire to my whole life? “
“Vic, it’s okay-”
“No, it’s not! Stop telling me it’s okay.” She insisted, pushing the heels of her hands into his chest. She leaned away from his embrace, her lips quivering with anger. “It’s not okay; none of this is.”
“So maybe it isn’t, but it will be. We can fix this.”
“Fix it, how?”
“For one, you can stop being so hard on yourself. What your mother has done to you is going to affect you the rest of your life, but the only important thing is how you go on from that. I have seen you get back up after falling down, Vic. And I believe you can do it this time.”
Vic sniffed, smearing a tear from her cheek with an angry swipe of her fingers.
He smoothed a loose strand of hair back from her wet cheek, and tucked it behind her ear. His fingers lingered there, caressing her nape softly.
“I’m not going to tell you how to run your life.” He said, “But I think you should consider going to see her.”
Vic’s eyelids fluttered against a fresh wave of tears. Her voice was subdued and mangled with emotion when she whispered, “I knew you would say that.”
“You said you don’t want to be angry anymore. This is the first step.”
“What if it’s a lie?” She whispered, “What if I go there, and she says what she wants to say, and I come back here only to find out a week later that she’s gone again?”
“Maybe that will happen, but maybe it won’t.”
“I just don’t know if I can handle being tricked one more time.”
Walt nodded, quietly. He slid his hand down her neck, to rub her back in a slow circle. He didn’t have a good answer for that fear. He could only sit with her in the growing darkness until her tears dried, and she wasn’t scared anymore. When the sun came up the next morning, she could face the battles life was throwing at her, but for now, he just wanted her to feel safe.
Vic blinked her eyes open to the morning sunlight, momentarily disoriented by her surroundings. The first thing to come into clear focus was Walt’s rifle, standing guard by the door.
She sat upright, her gaze roaming the bedroom to find that she was alone. Just as he’d left her last night. Her head thudded with the dull ache of a hangover. She remembered kissing, and crying, and drinking all the beer in the house. She remembered him putting her to bed, his hands carefully removing her shoes and jeans before tucking her limp, drunken body under the covers.
He must have slept on the couch.
Vic braced her elbows on her knees, and cradled her face in her hands. It was too early to cry, but she felt wholly undeserving of his care and attention.
Vic lifted her head when a soft, tinkling tune played on piano keys drifted from beyond the closed door of the bedroom. Curious, Vic climbed off the bed, and crept to the door. Cracking the door open, she peered through the two inch crack into the living room.
Walt sat at the piano, his fingers moving gradually, but deftly across the keys. The tune produced was melancholic, yet painstakingly beautiful.
Vic slipped out of the bedroom, and shuffled across the wooden floorboards with her arms wrapped around her middle.
Walt stopped playing to turn on the bench, and look at her.
“It’s Chopin.” He said, “I woke up, couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
“Don’t know. I haven’t played it in a couple years. It used to be one of the Martha’s favorites.”
Vic lowered her head as she crossed the living room to sit on the bench next to him. His arm slipped around her waist, and she rested her head on his shoulder.
“Why was it her favorite?” She asked. “It makes me want to cry.”
“Not all tears are sad.”
Vic pondered that remark for a long moment, wondering at it’s truth. It had been so long since she’d cried out of anything other than desperation or sadness that she couldn’t quite recall the piercing poignancy of positive emotion.
She lifted her head from his shoulder, and motioned to the keys. “You should keep playing.”
He placed his fingers back on the keys, starting back into the same melodic, aching tune. The melody swelled towards the end, before dropping back into into a quiet hum, then fading into a silence. When he finished the piece, his fingers lingered on the ivory.
Vic drew in a deep breath as silence overwhelmed her. She hadn’t had much clarity in the past few weeks, but this moment, drenched in sunlight and melody, was like crystal infused into her skin and mind. She could see all the chaos stretching out behind them, and the two paths, branching out ahead. More chaos, or peace. She had to choose.
“Walt, I’m really sorry.” She whispered.
His hands slipped away from the keys, and into his lap. He didn’t speak, but she could feel his gaze creeping up to examine her face.
Focusing on her hands twisted in her lap, Vic drew in another shaky breath.
“I never meant to hurt you, but I feel like you’re just collateral damage in all of this.”
“No, just hear me out.” She said, swinging her gaze sharply to his. “I have been treating you like my own personal punching bag because I’m mad and bitter about my mom. I have mistreated you, and that’s not okay.”
His jaw clenched, and she could see him wanting to argue - but the clear blue of his eyes only reflected the truth. They both knew she was right.
“I didn’t want to break up with you.” Vic said, her voice rising in perturbed disbelief. “I just wanted to convince myself that I wasn’t my mother’s daughter. And I didn’t want you to see me like this. I could have lived my whole life without you knowing a thing about my mom.”
His hand shifted from his lap to hers, grasping her knee in quiet reassurance.
She clutched the back of his hand, watching as the image of their tangled fingers blurred.
“That was really stupid, wasn’t it?” She whispered, her voice cracking with tears.
“No, it was understandable.”
“You can’t love only half of someone.” Vic said, “I know that. I guess I just couldn’t accept that you would love this part of me too.”
His fingers squeezed hers tighter. “I do, Vic.”
“I know that now.” She said, sniffing back the tears pressing hot at her eyelids. “I’m sorry I got scared, and lashed out at you. That’s all on me, not you.”
“Come here.” He whispered, dragging her into an embrace.
She wrapped her arms around his middle, and buried her face in his shoulder. This time, when she cried, she could feel the anger purging, slipping out with her tears like draining poison. And when the tears did stop, she felt stronger, as if she could face what was coming without crumbling.
She leaned back, wiping her face with her shirtsleeve. His thumb assisted her, rubbing stray tears away with a gentle stroke.
“Listen,” he said, “I made some coffee. Why don’t you get a shower, and I’ll make breakfast too. It’ll make a world of difference, I promise.”
She nodded, managing a smile. “Okay.”
She rose from the piano bench, but his fingers caught around her wrist.
She turned back to see him gazing up at her, his eyes soft with adoration.
“I love you.”
She pursed her lips as tears prickled hot again, and she remembered what it was like to feel that pain out of joy instead of despair.
“I love you, too.”
It was mid-afternoon, and the sun was high over Philadelphia; as Vic stepped out of the airport to greet her hometown once more, she didn’t feel so angry over the sunny weather and indifferent travelers surrounding her.
Only two weeks had passed since she’d last arrived here, but it felt like years in her mind. Trepidation lingered in the back of her mind, but she felt stronger, ready to face whatever it was she encountered at the rehab facility.
Vic scanned up and down the sidewalk until she saw Michael’s black sedan, and her brother leaning against the passenger side door.
He greeted her with a fleeting embrace, and opened the car door for her.
“Thanks.” He said, stepping inside.
He jogged around the hood of the car, and got into the driver’s seat. Starting the engine, he steered the car away from the curb, and into the stream of traffic exiting the airport.
“I gotta be honest, I’m surprised you agreed to come.” Michael said.
“What changed your mind?”
“A song.” Vic murmured, gazing out the window at the passing traffic.
“Nothing.” Vic said, “I just decided that I wasn’t going to let her hold me back anymore, you know. I’ll go, hear her out, and if it turns out to be bullshit then I’m moving on with my life. I’m not gonna cry over her anymore.”
“I should’ve known it’s not about forgiveness.” Michael said, “She did try to accuse your boyfriend of sexually assaulting her.”
“Yeah, and you believed her. Don’t leave that part out.” She said, casting him a rueful smile.
“Yeah, look, I’m really sorry-”
“Don’t be.” Vic said, waving a hand. “I know what a convincing liar she can be.”
“Good.” Michael said, blowing out a breath. “I feel like a real dumbass, you know. I’m a cop, I should be able to tell a real witness from a fake one.”
“She’s our mom, Mike. Give yourself a break.”
“If you say so.”
Vic leaned back in the seat, and consulted her brother’s rigid profile, focused on the road ahead.
“Thanks for letting me stay at your place while I’m here.” She said, “It’s a lot cheaper than a hotel.”
“Mom’s expensive, I know.”
“Well, Walt paid for the last trip, but I couldn’t let him do it this time. He’s done enough when it comes to this whole shitty situation.”
“I can tell he’s a good guy.” Michael said, casting her a smile. “I’m happy for you, Vic.”
When they arrived at Michael’s house, Angie was in the front yard pushing their three-year old daughter on the swingset.
“Vic, hi!” Angie called as they got out of the car.
Angie helped her daughter down from the swing, and led her across the yard. She gave Vic a quick hug, and bent down to her daughter’s eye level.
“Izzie, honey, do you remember Aunt Vic?”
Izzie gazed up at Vic with wide, brown eyes, her knuckles pressed to her mouth.
“Say hi.” Angie encouraged.
“Hi.” Izzie whispered.
“Hey, there, sweetheart.” Vic whispered, kneeling down to too look the little girl in the eyes.
Izzie regarded her cautiously for another long moment before leaning forward to put one, tiny arm around Vic’s shoulder.
Vic accepted the hug, choking back a tearful laugh. “Oh, thank you.”
“She’s a sweetheart, all right.” Michael observed, fondly. “Come on, I’ll get you set up in the guest room.”
Vic straightened, and waved goodbye to Izzie as she followed Michael into the house.
“Kids.” Michael said, casting her a smile. “Sometimes they know what you need before you do.”
That evening after they finished dinner, Michael and Vic sat out on the front porch drinking a beer. Vic could hear Angie singing to Izzie from inside in an attempt to get the fussy toddler to sleep.
“I feel like I have missed so much.” Vic said, “I mean, Izzie was just a baby when I left.”
“We all understood why you left.” Michael said.
“Yeah, but I should have come to visit a lot sooner.”
“It is what it is, right?”
Vic responded with a melancholy smile. She took a swig of beer, and gazed out at the sunset simmering over the rows and rows of neat little suburban homes. She wondered if she might be living in a place like this with Sean if Ed Gorski hadn’t been such a stubborn, crazy son of a bitch.
The peaceful moment was interrupted by the shrill ring of Vic’s cellphone. She tugged it out of her pocket to see Walt’s name on the caller ID.
“Oh shit, I have to take this.” She said, “I told Walt I would call him tonight.”
“Go ahead.” Michael waved his hand.
Vic carried the phone just inside the house, and pressed it to her ear.
“Hey, Walt. Sorry, I forgot to call.”
“It’s okay. I was just checking you got there safely.”
“Yeah, I’m at Michael’s house.” She said, “He’s gonna drive me to the rehab facility in the morning.”
“How’s it going so far?”
“Flight was good.” Vic said, pacing in the entryway. She caught a glimpse down the hall of Angie walking a whimpering Izzie up and down the other side of the house. “And, I didn’t feel like crying earlier while playing with my niece, so that’s … good.”
“Good.” Walt said, his smile filtering through the word.
“It’s weird.” Vic said, looking out the screen door at the colorful sunset. “I just have this sense of peace right now, like no matter what happens I’m going to be okay. Maybe that’s just fatalistic apathy.”
“Maybe it’s you, finally healing.”
“I don’t know. Whatever it is, I hope it lasts through tomorrow.”
“I know you can do it.”
“Thanks.” She closed her eyes to preserve the strength his words gave her. As silence buzzed over the line, she cleared her throat. “How’s your armoire coming without me there to distract you?”
“Good.” Walt said, “I should be able to start applying the finish tomorrow.”
“Still thinking of selling it?”
“What’s the asking price?”
“Six hundred ?”
“That’s cheap, considering it’s handmade.”
“Well, I can’t afford that.”
There was a beat of silence before he replied. “What do you mean?”
“Come on, I cannot let you just give away a labor of love that you have been toiling over for two straight weeks - on account of me.”
“I enjoy building things.”
“When was the last time you built something like this?”
Walt cleared his throat, but left the question unanswered for a long moment.
“Tell me.” She pressed.
“After I killed Barlow.” He admitted, quietly.
“Exactly.” Vic said, “And now, it’s sitting in Cady’s office, and you’re never going to forget how that moment felt. It was important. And so is this.”
“Just another reason to sell it.” Walt said, “Sometimes you have to let things go in order to move on.”
Vic sighed. “Maybe you’re right.”
“I know I am. But we can argue about this later. I should let you go so you can enjoy your time with your family.”
“Okay. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
She hung up the phone, and tucked it back into her pocket with a deep breath. She stepped back out onto the porch where Michael was was just starting in on a second beer.
The sky was full-fledged pink, purple, and yellow, drenching everything in iridescent, shimmering light. Vic picked up her beer, and leaned against the porch railing to watch the sun sink into the horizon.
Michael joined her, leaning his shoulder against the support beam.
“It’s not so bad out here in Philly, is it?” He said.
“No, it’s not.” She said, smiling sheepishly.
“You should visit more often.”
“You know, I think I will, from now on.”
He chuckled, putting his arm around her in a gruff embrace.
They stayed out on the porch, talking about everything and nothing, until the sun dipped below the neighboring homes, and the color drained from the sky. By the time Vic crawled into bed, she was too tired and too tipsy to think about the challenge tomorrow held.
Chapter 9: The History Of Us
It was half-past six when Cady’s car rolled down the dirt path leading up to Walt’s cabin. Right on time.
Walt had just pulled the roast out of the oven. He rearranged the table as Cady’s footsteps thumped across the front porch, and her knuckles rapped on the door.
“It’s open.” He called.
The screen door squeaked open, and Cady slipped inside.
“Hey. It smells incredible.”
Walt crossed the room to give her a hug, and take her coat.
“I hope Zach isn’t too offended I asked it to just be you tonight.” He said, leading her back into the kitchen.
“No, I think he’s happy as a lark unwinding with his Xbox for tonight.”
Walt chuckled. “Good, good.”
He pulled out a chair for her, and motioned for her to sit. Bringing the rest of the side dishes to the table, he sat down across from her to slice the roast.
“So, uh, how’s it going down at the Sheriff’s station?” He asked, “Still liking it?”
“Yes, it’s a big transition as I’ve said before, but it’s going well.”
“Honestly, after watching everything you dealt with last year, I was a little terrified at first, but it’s been a fairly quiet start to my term.”
“Well, maybe it was the Sheriff, not the county that was the problem.”
“Not true.” Cady chided despite his playful tone. “I could never hope to replace you. Only succeed you.”
“I appreciate you saying it. I hope you can appreciate me saying you’re doing better than good.”
Walt could feel Cady’s gaze narrowing on him as he sliced off a piece of roast, and took a bite.
“So,” She said, clearing her throat, “I can tell when you’re hiding something.”
“I’m not hiding anything.”
Cady cocked her head, her arched brow brooking no argument.
“I do have something I want to talk to you about.”
“There it is.” Cady said, a faint smile curling the corner of her mouth. “Okay, go ahead. Spill it.”
Walt wiped the corners of his mouth, and smoothed the napkin down on the table.
“I asked for it to just be you tonight because I have a confession.” He said, meeting her gaze.
Cady shifted closer, a frown curling her brow. “What is it?”
“Uh …” Walt cleared his throat. “It’s about … Vic and I.”
The concern in Cady’s gaze dropped off into dawning realization.
Walt rushed the next sentence, eager to get the truth out before he could change his mind. “We’ve been seeing each other for the past three months.”
Cady blinked, her mouth drifting open as she processed his confession in silence.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, I just-”
“Dad, it’s okay.” Cady interrupted, a chuckle lacing her tone. “I’m not mad.”
“No? Okay, good.”
“Why would I be mad?” Cady asked, her smile spreading. “This isn’t exactly a world altering confession. It’s pretty obvious to me how much you care about her.”
“What did you think I was going to say?”
“Well, um, the last time we talked about me dating someone it was about Donna, and you admitted it hurt that I was replacing your mom.”
“I also said it was time for me to let that kind of thinking go.”
“I’m actually really happy for you.” Cady said, reaching across the table to wrap her fingers around his. “You deserve to be happy, Dad.”
“Thanks, punk.” He squeezed her fingers in return. “But, uh … you aren’t bothered by the fact that Vic is closer to your age than mine?”
“Well, I’m not going to lie, it crossed my mind. But, at the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as it doesn’t bother you, or adversely affect your relationship.”
“It hasn’t … I don’t think.”
“It sounds pretty serious.” Cady said, “Serious enough for you to tell me which is more than you’ve done in the past. Maybe you should talk to her about it if you’re not sure.”
“How did that go?”
“She, uh … kissed me.”
“Ah.” Cady said, “Sounds like Vic … Does she know you’re doing this, by the way?”
“No. I’m sure you already know she’s back in Philadelphia for a few days.”
“Yeah, she told me. It’s not any of my business, but I hope everything’s okay.”
“I think it will be … now.”
“That’s good to hear.”
Cady turned back to her dinner, and Walt watched her conspicuously, looking for any sign hidden emotion. But there was no malice, no disappointment, no anger in her unguarded eyes; relief filled his chest, driving out the nervous butterflies. The only thing that would relieve him more would be if Vic stepped off the plane in two days whole and happy, no longer crying.
Vic stared up as the the glass and brick building the sign labeled as Monarch Rehab Facility. There was a butterfly decal next to the cursive lettering that brought Joe-Mega to mind.
The world was small, so small like a snowglobe.
Vic blinked the thought away as Michael asked, “Ready?”
“No.” Vic said. She unlatched the door, and shoved it open. “Let’s go.”
Michael followed her up the front steps of the building, and into the lobby, where soft piano music played. A few people were sitting in the waiting area filling out paperwork, but the facility was otherwise quiet.
Vic approached the desk, and plastered on a smile at the receptionist.
“Hi, I’m here to see Diana Moretti. I’m her daughter ... Victoria.”
The receptionist consulted her computer before turning to Vic with a warm smile. “Yes, Miss Moretti. If you’ll follow me, I can take you to see your mom.”
“I’ll stay here.” Michael said.
“Wait, you’re not coming?” Vic asked, struggling to keep her voice down in the echoing quiet of the lobby.
“This is something you need to do.” Michael said, touching her elbow. “Mom and I have said what we need to say to each other. Now this needs to be a conversation with just the two of you.”
“You’ll be fine. I’ll be right here, waiting for you.”
“Okay.” Vic said, swallowing back the anxious lump forming in the back of her throat.
She followed the receptionist down the hall. Some of the doors stood open, giving Vic brief glimpses of faces, some tortured, some medicated, some indifferent. Feeling like an intruder, Vic turned her gaze firmly forward.
The receptionist stopped at a room with the door closed.
“Diana, you have a visitor.” She called, knocking on the door.
Vic heard her mother’s reply, and the woman pushed the door open. She motioned for Vic to go inside.
“Thanks.” Vic murmured.
The room was dimly lit by only a small lamp beside her mother’s bed. The air smelled of vanilla that reminded Vic of Dr. Brighton’s office. Reclining on the bed, her mother was dressed in the same plain white uniform as all the other patients, and her hair was down around her shoulders in messy waves. Her face was absent of makeup. If Vic had passed her in the street like this, she wouldn’t have recognized her.
“Victoria.” She said, reaching out a hand. “I’m so glad you came.”
“Hi, Mom.” Vic said.
She paused standing over the bed, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Her neck prickled with ingrained distrust. Her first thought was to turn and flee.
“Here, sit.” Diana said, pulling her feet up from the end of the bed to give Vic room to sit down.
Vic sat stiffly on the edge of the mattress, and clutched her clammy hands together in her lap.
“You look well.” Diana said, “I have to apologize for my appearance. I haven’t had a drink in a week, and they’re still trying to balance out my meds.”
“Dad said you had been diagnosed with bipolar by a doctor in the past?” Vic asked.
“Yes. They seem to think the same here. I’m not really sure what it all means yet…” Diana said, one hand drifting pensively to her cheek.
Vic glanced away, shaken by this pale visage of a woman she had come to equate with chaos and pain. She had entered this meeting with no expectation of change, but she didn’t recognize this woman as her mother, only the fragile shell of a body.
“Victoria, I asked you to come here because I wanted to prove to you that I was keeping my word.” Diana continued, her voice a raspy whisper. “You said you would believe me when I stayed here for more than a week. Do you believe me now?”
Vic drew in a shaky breath. “Yes, I suppose I have to.”
Diana huffed out a hoarse chuckle. “It burns you up, doesn’t it?”
“Did you bring me here to mock me?”
“No.” Diana said, her tone softening. “No, I asked you here because I need to ask your forgiveness, and make amends. That’s what the therapist here tells the group. But I didn’t need her to tell me that I’ve hurt more people than I can even remember in my lifetime.”
“No, I could have told her that.”
Diana held her gaze for a long moment before she pushed herself up against the pillows, and smoothed hair back from her face.
“I want to tell you something.” She said, “Will you listen?”
Vic nodded. “That’s why I’m here. I’m trying, Mom.”
“And I thank you for that. There’s very few people that I have told what I’m about to tell you.”
Vic’s brow furrowed, a sense of trepidation coming to rest like a brick on her chest.
“I was only seventeen when I realized there was something wrong with me.” Diana said, smoothing her hands over her knees. “When I realized that the mood swings, and the temper tantrums, and the uncontrollable urges to do crazy things weren’t normal to other people, but I was so lost in my head that I couldn’t see a way out.”
There was a beat of silence as Diana gathered a deep breath. Tears glinted in the corners of her eyes like tiny gemstones, crystalized by years of suppression.
“I was eighteen when my parents kicked me out of the house. They couldn’t take it anymore. The drinking, the partying, the coming and going at all hours of the night … the drugs, the stealing. I was out on my own for only a couple of months before I got together with this … this man - Tommy.”
Vic shifted against the mattress as her mother’s voice dropped to bitter tone.
“We were together for two years.” Diana said, “And for most of that time, he was beating me and … and raping me.”
Vic’s gaze darted to Diana’s, a cold ripple of shock running down her spine.
“This was before the world could truly accept that a boyfriend or a husband could rape his partner. But Tommy did. Frequently. And it wasn’t until I met your father that I realized that it was rape.”
“Dad’s never mentioned how you met.” Vic said, realizing the truth of her words for the first time.
“He was still just a street cop back then.” Diana said, a nostalgic smile touching her mouth. “And he got called out for domestic disturbance at me and Tommy’s place more than once. Finally, Tommy had beat me so badly that I wound up in the hospital, and Victor was on the scene. He sat with my in the hospital while I cried, and tried to tell him that Tommy didn’t mean it, that he would be sorry in the morning when he wasn’t so drunk.”
A hoarse chuckle rose from Diana’s throat. She swiped at the tear dripping down her cheek.
“Your father was the one to tell me that the beating had caused me to miscarry that baby I was pregnant with.”
Vic’s eyes widened, shock needling goosebumps up and down her arms. “You … you had a miscarriage?”
Diana nodded, her lips pursing hard. “Yes. And at that point in my life, that baby was the only positive thing that I had to look forward to. Yes, it was Tommy’s child, conceived of rape, but it was going to be my baby. I had so many thoughts for the future. It crushed me.”
Vic glanced away at the sudden press of hot tears in her eyes.
“You father looked me in the eye, and told me that whatever apology Tommy came up with would be bullshit. That he’d essentially murdered his own child. He was the first person to tell me that, to make me realize that I needed to get out of that relationship. No one else in my life cared enough to give me that.”
“I had no idea.” Vic whispered.
“No.” Diana said, forcing a smile. “You wouldn’t. Because I made your father promise not to tell any of you this a long time ago.”
“So … what happened with Tommy?”
“I finally found the courage to leave him.” Diana said, “But he didn’t want to let me go that easily. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I was either sleeping on a friends’ couches, or staying at a shelter. Your father was the only one that I could trust. When Tommy’s stalking escalated, he let me stay at his place until he was able to arrest Tommy on drug charge.”
“So, um, is that when you got together?” Vic asked.
“No.” Diana shook her head. “I sneaked into his bedroom one night, and we slept together. Then I left. I just didn’t think I was worthy of him, and I thought I would wreck his life if I stayed. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy, hmm?”
Vic’s mouth tugged with a melancholic smile.
“Well, it would be another couple of years before we saw each other.” Diana said, “I’d been spending some time down in Miami, but I was broke, and in debt to a loan shark. So I went back to Philly to hide out for awhile. I was drinking at a bar one night when I had a few too many, and wound up getting the cops called out for drunk and disorderly behavior. By some strike of fate, it was Victor who got called to the scene.”
“You have got to be making this up.” Vic said, chuckling against the tears in her throat despite the seriousness of her mother’s story.
“I swear to God I’m not.” Diana said, holding up both hands. A smile graced her mouth for the first time that Vic had seen in a long time. “There he was, like some guardian angel looking out for my sorry, drunken ass. And he didn’t blame me for running away. To this day, I’ll never know why.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well, I didn’t have anyone else to bail me out so he let me dry out for the night in the tank before coming to get me the next morning. We went to breakfast, and caught up. He told me hadn’t stopped thinking about me since I’d left three years ago. And who was I to turn down such a romantic notion?”
“For a little while.” Diana murmured. “We tied the knot at the courthouse six months later, and I got pregnant with your brother two months after that. What were we thinking, right?”
“Right. That was quick.”
“My mental health was okay at this point.” Diana said, “I was riding high on love, and I stayed up there for about year before it all came crashing down. I don’t know what set it off. They say these bipolar episodes can come and go without notice, and I suppose that’s what happened. I self-destructed. Binge-drinking, drugs, delusions of grandeur. I tried to jump off the Franklin Bridge because I thought I could fly.”
“Some kind soul stopped me before I could follow through. They called 9-1-1, and I was admitted to the psych wing of the hospital. That’s the first time your father tried to get me to seek treatment, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I left, said I was going on a road trip.”
“Anywhere. I was mostly ashamed. I just wanted to get away because I thought he could never love me again after that.” Diana’s smile quivered, a distant look taking hold of her eyes. “I was so blind.”
“Here we are, years later.” Vic said, “He still hasn’t given up no matter what everyone tells him.”
“That’s Victor.” Diana said, shaking her head. “I infected him, you know, that first night that I crept into his room. He hasn’t been able to shake me since, and so many times throughout the years I wished he would. I love him, deeply …”
Vic lowered her head, a pang of sadness running through her chest. She felt like she was learning about her mother for the first time, and seeing more than just the symptoms of a powerful illness. It was difficult to hold onto bitter anger when she saw so much of herself reflected in her mother’s youthful traumas.
“I kept coming back, though.” Diana whispered, her voice husky with tears. “Sometimes, we would go years without an incident. Some years, the battle with my mind was all that we could talk about, or deal with. Every time he would convinced me to check-in to rehab, I would last a few days before wanting to break free. I know it was difficult for him to hide that my absences were because of attempts at treatment, but I didn’t want any of my children to know their mother was sick in the head.”
Vic looked up sharply when her mother reached over to grip her hand.
“I know it was foolish to lie to you all these years.” Diana said, squeezing Vic’s hand. “Please believe me when I say I wish I could go back and change it all. I wish I hadn’t hurt you - any of you.”
“Me too.” Vic said, “But you can’t change history.”
“But we have the future. Do you believe me now when I say that I’m trying?”
“I want to.” Vic whispered.
“Well.” Diana said, her jaw clenching against the emotion swimming in her eyes. “That’s all I can ask for.”
Morning sunshine dazzled the strip of asphalt ahead, creating a mirage affect in the distance. Walt focused on the distant shimmer as he guided the truck down the straight path back into Durant.
Vic’s flight in from Philly landed less than hour ago, and since he’d picked her up, she’d barely said five words. She sat in the passenger’s seat with her arms crossed, her gaze pinned to the flat, green landscape rushing past.
Walt glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, trying to decipher the emotions in her reticence. She was like a stone wall.
He cleared his throat. “So, uh … you wanna talk about it?”
Her gaze darted to him, and back to the windshield. Drawing in a deep breath, she lifted her shoulder. “I’m not really sure how I feel about it yet.”
“You feel some sort of way, or you wouldn’t be this quiet.”
Squinting out the window, she rubbed her fingertips across her forehead.
“You know, I told myself I was going in without any expectations, but I did.” She said, scoffing out a bitter laugh. “I wanted to go there, and hear her pathetic excuses, and leave knowing that I’ve been justified in my anger all these years. That I could just move on, and pretend that she doesn’t exist like I always have.”
“She told me the whole history of her and my dad, and … I can’t be angry at someone who has been the victim of abuse and mental illness almost their entire life.”
Walt’s mouth compressed over a myriad of questions. It didn’t feel right prying into her mother’s private life, even if he was wracked with curiosity.
“I can’t be angry at someone who’s gone through the same thing as me.” Vic whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“She had a miscarriage a long time ago.” Vic said, “Her boyfriend at the time was abusive.”
She turned back to her window, her mouth working against rising tears.
Walt’s fingers flexed around the steering wheel. Words eluded him; the right words that could make this all okay.
“I went to see my dad after I visited her, and he confirmed everything she told me.” Vic said, her voice choked with tears. “He even gave me a few more details that she left out. I just didn’t want to see her as the victim, but …”
“Life isn’t that cut-and-dry.”
“I know. God, I know, but it’s like my childhood perspectives about her never developed past that stage of seeing her as some evil, cruel person that was hurting us on purpose.”
“Now that you know she wasn’t, you feel like part of your life has been a lie.”
“Yeah.” She whispered, dashing a stray tear from her cheek.
“I’m sorry, Vic.”
“Yeah, me too.” She muttered, “I just wish she hadn’t kept it from us.”
“It’s a parent’s job to protect their children.”
“That wasn’t protection. It was about her pride. She didn’t want anyone to know she’s crazy because she didn’t want to believe it herself.”
“So … what are you going to do?”
“Well, my dad practically forced me to promise I’d come back for Christmas this year.” Vic said, “If she’s still focused on recovery by then, maybe we have a chance at some kind of relationship … I don’t know.”
“You’re at least considering it. That’s a good step in the right direction.”
Vic’s huffed out a laugh. “A baby step. If this is what closure feels like …”
“Is that a word your therapist uses?”
Walt shook his head. “Speaking from experience, there’s no such thing.”
Vic’s eyes met his, and lingered for the first time since he’d picked her up. She toyed with the loose threads in the knee of her distressed jeans. “That’s comforting.”
“It’s the truth, as disappointing as it is.” Walt said, “Maybe time eases the pain, but scars never go away, especially the ones on the soul.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“The only thing you can do. Learn from it. Scars are there to remind us where we’ve been, how far we’ve come. It hurts everyday until one day it doesn’t. You look up and realize you made it through to the other side. A little bloodied, a little bruised, but still fighting.”
Walt’s pensive gaze turned from the road ahead when Vic reached over to grasp his hand. He laced his fingers through hers, and squeezed back.
“You can make it, Vic. I know you’re a fighter.”
“I’m glad you do because I’ve questioned it a lot lately.”
“As long as you don’t give up.”
“I don’t want to. I want to keep fighting.”
They quietly held hands the rest of the way into town. When they pulled into the front drive of the Chrysalis trailer park, Vic untangled her fingers slowly from his.
“I’m just going to run in and get some clean clothes.” She said, “Do you mind if I come over? I don’t really feel like being alone right now.”
“Actually, I was kind of hoping you’d say that.”
A hint of a smile tugged at her lips. Shoving the door open with her shoulder, she hopped down from the truck, and strode toward the front steps of the RV.
Stepping out of the Bronco, Walt followed her at a slower pace.
He paused a few feet out when he saw her standing still in front of the RV, holding a manila envelope between her hands.
She turned to look at him, a confused frown knitting her brow.
“This was on the steps.” She said. “There’s no name, or return address…”
Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Did you put this here?” She asked.
“Open it and find out.”
A baffled smile curved her mouth as she ripped the top of the envelope open.
Walt braced his hands on his hips, a vein of nervous energy running through his chest.
Vic pulled a glossy piece of paper out of the envelope, and turned it over. The smile faded, sober disbelief compressing her lips. She stood utterly still as she stared at the black and orange lettering that spelled out For Sale.
“What’s this for?” She whispered after several beats of silence.
“The RV.” Walt said, nodding toward the vehicle. “There’s, uh … something else in the envelope. At the bottom.”
Vic glanced anxiously at him, and drew in a deep breath. “Walt …”
Teeth pressing at her lower lip, Vic stuck her hand into the envelope, and fished at the bottom until her fingers closed around a small object. He could see her expression shift from curiosity to gradual realization. She withdrew her fist, and opened her palm. A key glinted in a the sunlight, it’s freshly hewn edges sharp and purposeful.
Vic’s gaze cut to him, implications processing gradually in the amber of her eyes.
“I told Cady.” Walt said, “So, there’s not any reason for us to continue acting like this isn’t serious anymore.”
Vic turned her gaze back to the key, and stared at the tiny piece of metal with all its significance, all the future trapped in it’s shiny edges.
“I am serious about you, Vic. Dead serious.”
She closed her fingers around the key, and dropped her fist to her side.
Biting at his lower lip, he inspected her wavering expression. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, so he could only plead, “Say something.”
“What happened to taking it slow?”
“Well, if anything, this whole situation with your family has just made me realize that time is short, and a lot can happen in those brief moments when you’re not really paying attention - or when you’re too preoccupied with other things. I can’t keep letting that happen.”
“We’ve only been dating for three months, and now you’re asking me to move in with you?”
“But we’ve known each other a lot longer than three months. I know you, Vic. And I’m too old to be wasting my time pretending that I don’t know what I want with you. I’ve lived more than half my life, and I lost what I thought was my entire future. But I’ve been given a second chance.”
Tears made her eyes shine like whiskey. Her lower lip trembled as he reached out to clutch her shoulders.
“I want to be with you.” He said, his voice dropping to a whisper. He cradled her cheek, gently turning her misty eyes up to him. “If you’ll have me.”
A hoarse laugh of disbelief and joy rushed from Vic’s mouth. She threw herself into his embrace, and wrapped her arms around his neck.
Relief flooded his chest, letting loose the viscous clutch of anxious anticipation he had been wrestling with for days. Squeezing her against him, he pressed his face into her hair, breathing deep the familiar scent of her, and memorizing the sensation of her body fitting perfectly against his.
Vic pulled back, her fingers clutching his cheeks. Tears were streaking down her cheeks, but her lips were tilted in a smile as she pressed a hasty kiss to his mouth. Before he could enjoy that kiss, she slipped out of his arms.
She marched over to the RV, and stuck the For Sale sign into the window.
“There.” She said, turning to cast him a broad smile. “This caterpillar has officially outgrown its chrysalis.”
Walt couldn’t contain his own smile as he closed the space between them, and grasped her waist.
She leaned back against the metal exterior of the RV, accepting his kiss with trembling lips. He savored the taste of her mouth for a long moment, his chest pulsing with relief and joy.
He broke the kiss gradually, leaning back to whisper. “And what about the butterfly?”
Vic’s eyes sparkled. She lifted the fist still clutching the key, and held it up between them.
“She wants to fly home.”
Chapter 10: Epilogue
Walt’s fingertips journeyed up and down the dips and curves of Vic’s bare back, infusing a sense of calm in her her skin. She rested with her head on his shoulder, her chest pressed against his side. Their naked skin clung together in the sticky, hazy afterglow of pleasure, but neither of them cared to move apart for comfort.
Vic traced the swell of his ribs, and the line of his breastbone with her fingertips. His chest lifted with a responsive shudder, but he remained in quiet repose. His gaze was fixed on some distant concept lost in the wooden slats of the ceiling.
They’d barely spoken on their drive from the RV park back to the cabin. The moment they arrived, they’d come straight here, tearing at clothes in desperate rush for skin-to-skin contact.
Three orgasms later, her hazy brain was convinced she was never leaving him again. Ten minutes of silence, their arms wrapped around one another like some symbiotic creature, and she knew it wasn’t that simple.
“What are you thinking about?” She whispered.
He blinked from his reverie, and glanced down at her with somber, blue eyes.
“All the time I have left … all the time I don’t.”
Vic nodded, concentrating on the swirl of her fingertips in his chest hair. “Okay.”
“We haven’t tried to talk about it since that night … in the, uh, bar in Philly-”
“I know. Do we have to talk about it now?”
“I think we should. At some point.”
Sighing, Vic rolled over onto her back, and glared at the ceiling. “You had me feeling so good.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, but if I don’t say it now, I never will.”
Vic lifted her chin. “Okay.”
Walt propped himself up on his elbow to gaze down at her. “What I said back at the RV is true. At my age, I shouldn’t be wasting my time, or yours. But maybe that sense of urgency I have isn’t fair to you.”
“I’m not a child, Walt. Just because I’m not as old as you doesn’t mean I don’t know what I want.”
“I’m not implying you don’t. I’m just saying you had a fair point when you said we’ve only been dating three months.”
“And you had an even better one when you said we’ve known each other a lot longer than that.”
Vic sat up, and pushed her hair back from her face. For the first time since they’d entered the room, she saw it.
A smile tugged at her mouth despite the somber conversation. “You kept the armoire.”
“Yeah.” Walt said, sitting up next to her. “I didn’t want to argue with you if you tried to give me your own money to keep me from selling it to someone else.”
Vic chuckled. “Your foresight is impeccable.”
He grunted a laugh, and reached out to grasp her knee.
Lacing her fingers through his, she squeezed against the tremble working through her chest.
The armoire seemed to gaze back into their silence, its clean, etched lines a testament of hours of devotion.
Walt cleared his throat. His fingers flexed around her knee, nudging her out of contemplation.
“Vic, I need you to be honest about this.” He said.
Meeting his searching gaze, Vic drew in a deep breath.
“Honestly?” She whispered, “The thought of losing you earlier than I’ll ever be ready for scares the hell out of me.”
His fingers tightened around her knee. His gaze shifted away from hers, but not before she could note his resigned grimace.
“Knowing that one day, I’m going to have to be in this world alone, without you …” Vic huffed out a breath around the lump forming in the back of her throat. “But I can’t hide myself away from loving you just because I’m afraid of getting hurt.”
“And I don’t know if I can be the one to hurt you.”
Impassioned tears pricked at her eyes as her gaze shifted from the completed armoire and back to him.
“I don’t care, Walt.” She said, her voice quivering with fervent emotion. “It’s my decision to make. It’s my life, and if I want to spend it with you that’s for me to decide.”
“Yeah, it is-”
“Don’t say ‘but’.” Vic grumbled, swiping at the tear clinging to her cheek. “Just look around at all of the people that we have lost. Branch was my age; he was supposed to have his whole life ahead of him. Nothing is ever guaranteed. People rarely get second chances like we did.”
Walt sighed heavily. “You’re right.”
“I know I am.” Vic said, “In fact, I’m lucky that I still have you here right now after everything. I’m lucky that I didn’t lose you to the job, and I’m lucky that I didn’t lose you to my own stupidity. That urgency that you feel, I feel it too.”
A smile crept at the corners of his mouth. “Okay.”
Tugging his hand from her knee, she brought his knuckles to her mouth, and pressed a firm kiss to the blunt curves. Her breath spilled across his skin, issuing that whispered affirmation over again.
He caught her cheek in his other palm, and dragged her to him. Imparting a soft, thorough kiss on her trembling mouth, he guided her back against the pillow.
Vic sighed into the kiss as hand traveled down over her breast and stomach to grasp her hip. She leaned into the insistent tugging, letting her body meld pliant and quivering against him.
Mouth breaking away from hers, Walt buried his face her neck. Both arms wound around her, holding her so tight she could feel the air compress from her lungs.
She didn’t object; her eyes slid shut over the faint sting of tears forged deep in her chest - tears of joy, of relief, of belonging. Here she was, in his house, in his bed, in his arms like it had always been meant to be. These were all the works of his love, and she fit in right between the reclaimed wood and his salvaged soul. The past and future could stretch out as far, and dark, and as menacing as they wished; she was here.