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You're Still the One

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“What are you doing up there?”

A little head pokes out from the beam high above, two eyes staring at her. Sandy hair hangs downward, pulled by gravity. An upside-down pair of lips pout at her, unsatisfied she's discovered him.

“I was trying to scare you,” the child says.

She sets the tools in her hand aside, never letting him out of sight. “You're scaring me plenty. Get down from there.”

His eyes move back and forth as his face grows red. “Nicole, I’m stuck. Can you help me?”

Nicole crosses her arms, leaning against one of the walls of the warm barn. “I don't know. I'm kind of busy.”

“Nicole!”

“I've got the cows, the chickens, those darn pigs. The tractor’s making that funny noise again—”

Nicole reaches upward, a small pallet helping her rescue the child from the cracked old beam above. He sits comfortably on her shoulders, declaring himself king of the world.

“—and I could use some help.”  Nicole pokes the child on her shoulders in the cheek, causing him to giggle. “Want to ride on the tractor, Julian?”

Julian grins, the dimples in his cheeks popping to life the same way as his mother and his grandfather's do.

-

Waverly appears in the room so suddenly, she scares her Aunt Gus enough to drop the tomato in her hand. Waverly's niece laughs when it squishes against the floor.

“There’s a speed limit in my kitchen,” Gus notifies Waverly, who immediately scrubs the blemish off the perfect floor. “Why are you in such a rush? You just got here.”

“Who’s blasting Shania Twain in your fields right now?” Waverly asks. “You guys hired someone?”

Gus laughs, and it makes Waverly feel out of place. “I didn't realize you and your knee were interested in hard labor.”

Sitting now, Waverly absently rubs her hand over her knee cap. “I just like to be in the loop.”

“We hired her weeks ago. In the loop my ass.” Gus returns to the island in front of Waverly, cutting a new tomato. “It's Nicole.”

Waverly sits up. “Nicole’s in town?”

“Darlin’, Nicole's been in town. You'd know that if you went to the funeral.”

Easily, Waverly finds herself frowning. “I was a mess that day. Cut me some—”

Gus stops what she's doing, to remind Waverly, “We all lost her that day. So did Nicole. Nicole lost everything. That ain’t much of an excuse.”

Waverly wants to ask when Nicole became the favorite, but she bites her tongue. “How is she?”

“Go ask her yourself.” Gus glances at Waverly, before looking back at the tomato she dices.

“No, I’ll—I’ll leave her be.” Waverly looks out the window, staring out into the fields. “I’ll leave her be,” she repeats, quieter.

“Mmm hmm.”

Waverly’s eyes leave the window for her aunt again. “What?” 

Gus shrugs. “Nothin’.”

“Now I understand what Julian means when he's talking about his farm friend. I thought you took him riding or something.”

You take him riding, Waverly. He’s your son. You're starting to ignore him like his father does.”

“Gus! Champ is—”

“Champ is hurt. And next week he'll be hurt again. And the week after that.” Gus crosses the island, circling Waverly as Waverly’s face grows red with frustration. “You're smarter than him,”  she says, before leaving for the boxes on the porch.

Waverly sighs. Her eyes wander back out the window, out to the tractor in the field. She watches her son ride the contraption with Nicole, cheering as Nicole laughs.

“I made my choice,” Waverly says under her breath.

-

When Nicole returns to the homestead, she hears an audiobook playing at full volume, echoing through the home’s old walls. The voice details the importance of sleep schedules when Nicole appears in front of her daughter, who turns the volume down drastically.

“Most teenagers throw raves when they have the house alone,” Nicole laughs. “Have a good day, Rachel?”

“I got the dolphin,” Rachel says, her eyes not leaving her computer screen. “But I think I'm more of a bear.”

Nicole doesn't quite know what this means. Her other adopted daughter begins to sing about animals, and Nicole silently thanks her. Nicole picks up the child and places her around the table, next to Rachel.

“What’s for dinner, Alice?” Nicole looks into the six-year-old’s eyes. Identical to her mother's. Identical to Nicole's best friend.

“Pizza!” Alice exclaims.

“Pizza,” Rachel mutters, repulsed. 

“How about we order some wings,” Nicole decides. Rachel is happy with the decision, but Alice pouts. Hushed, Nicole offers, “With fries.”

Alice is satisfied. 

They retire to the couch, and minutes after begging and begging for the remote, Alice falls asleep. Nicole looks at Rachel. Rachel passes a controller and loads up Mortal Kombat.

“You didn’t answer me,” Nicole says after a few rounds. She watches her Cassie Cage declare victory over Rachel’s Kano. “How was your day?”

“Fine.”

Nicole wants more than that, but she won’t push. She remembers being a teenager. She lets Rachel take the next round, too, for good measure.

It’s another long moment before Rachel speaks again. “There's a message on the landline for you. From the fire chief. Why do we have a landline, anyway?”

“So he can't bother me directly.” Nicole's character shoots Rachel’s with her pistols, and Rachel's blocks the attack. Fighting game logic.

Nicole sees Rachel adjust her sleeve. Peek over at Nicole, before looking away. Deciding whether or not to continue this conversation. After a moment, she does, taking the risk. “He says it isn't your fault. That you shouldn’t—”

In the middle of the round, Nicole pauses the game. Standing, she collects Alice and begins to walk off. “I need you to watch her tomorrow, alright? I’m gonna get stuck there.”

There's nothing else. She just tucks Alice in and goes to bed.

Come morning, Alice has crawled into Nicole's bed, clinging into Nicole. Nicole stares at her. 

Another day has passed.

Alice reminds Nicole of Wynonna in every way possible. Her best friend’s eyes. The same curly Hollywood hair. Same pouty face in her sleep. Being a godparent is great, but Nicole would still rather be Alice’s aunt.

The thought makes her leave the bed, kissing the child on the head before she begins her day. 

-

“These numbers are wrong.” 

Curtis McCready looks Nicole in the eye and shakes his head. These terrible numbers are true, and she’s supposed to be okay with it. Nicole’s supposed to be okay with the fact she might lose her best friend’s business. 

“Curtis, we need to invest in those ads. If we—”

“There’s no money,” Curtis argues.

“There’s plenty of money.” Nicole stares him down, but he remains indifferent. As always. “I have the spreadsheets, I’ll happily—”

“Nicole—”

“Chrissy knows the guy. She can get us a great deal. Word of mouth isn’t working for us anymore, Curtis. We see the same dozen people every week. The Clantons are kicking our ass!”

“The Clantons are far from ethical, Nicole. Don’t compare us to them.”

“I’m not. But we need to do something.”

“Everyone’s karma comes to them. They’ll get theirs, don’t you worry.”

Curtis leaves, his faith between his fingers, allowing Nicole to sink in her dread. The restaurant is losing money. At this point, it doesn't even make sense to be open anymore. They need to be putting butts in seats.

Nicole wants it all. Full house, so crowded they'll have to add outside seating. Hours that don't follow the farm work—more applicable to nightlife. A real staff. A delivery service. Take out. Sorry, we're all booked for the evening. Everything Wynonna dreamed of, begins with this. A small billboard. A small newspaper ad. Anything, to push them from barely hanging on, to getting by. 

But Curtis is as stubborn as ever.

Right on cue, as if summoned, Nicole's least favorite person appears. He places his hands on his belt, smiling under his thick beard and sheriff's hat. Looking around the empty restaurant.

“Just came by to see your thriving establishment. Or do I need a reservation?”

Nicole doesn’t answer Sheriff Clayborn. She never has the energy for him. She lets him get his bragging over with, order a sympathy soda, and go about his way.

The Clantons. Neck and neck with the Earps for generations in Purgatory. Petty contests. Senseless hate. Rival restaurants. The second Wynonna gained Curtis's investment and opened her doors, Cleo Clanton was opening her own. Wynonna used to blame it on their dating history, but Nicole knows there’s more to it.

Wynonna may be gone, but she isn’t forgotten. She will never, ever be forgotten, as long as Nicole stands.

Numbers fly through Nicole's brain all day. She comes home to a pouty six-year-old and a moody teen, doors slamming the second she enters the house. Alice immediately runs up to her and informs Nicole of every second of her day. She’s angry, because Rachel is grumpy and won’t play with her.

“Did you scare Rachel off?” Nicole asks. Alice’s pout returns, and all Nicole wants to do is pinch her chin. “Why don’t you bring her down for dinner?”

“I don’t want to!” Alice tells her, crossing her arms. Nicole leans on the table Alice is eating.

“Why not? Did you two fight?”

“I think she’s monster-ating,” Alice mumbles. It takes everything for Nicole to hide her laughter.

“You think she’s monster-ating, huh?” Alice nods her head. “Okay. Let me see what I can do. You finish your food, okay?”

Nicole gathers chocolates, just in case, before she crosses the house and heads up the stairs. One knock on the door. Nothing. Two. Not so much as a whisper from Rachel's audiobooks.

Space is everything. Being a teen is rough. Nicole hasn't forgotten those years. She can leave, let Rachel figure it out by herself.

But she promised Gloria she’d look after her.

Rachel doesn’t ever leave Nicole to her suffering.

“You feeling okay in there?” Nicole asks. “Cramps?”

“I’m fine, Nicole,” a hard voice clarifies. It’s so short, so unlike Rachel, Nicole is almost hurt by it. 

“Well, um, there’s Thai food if you’re hungry. I’m going to bed if you need anything.”

No answer from the person inside. Nicole gathers up Alice, drinks a glass of water, and readies for bed. Come morning Alice will break into Nicole's bed again, the sun will greet her. Another day will have passed. Another will begin. 

Nicole just wishes she could keep up.

-

“You really shouldn't drink soda on the job,” a little voice tells her. Nicole downs the rest of the can before grinning at them.

“Why not?” she asks. His head tilts at her.

“Are you hungry?”

“Nope. Alice gave me some of her little pizza bites things.”

Nicole's response angers the little person in the field. “You need real food.”

Then Julian's off without another word, barging into the kitchen and taking over Gus's cooking. He tells her it's an emergency, and she gives him all the help he needs.

The way he takes charge, boldly commanding an adult woman, reminds Nicole of his mother. 

Nicole focuses on the broken fence. She’s almost beaten the final post completely into the ground when she realizes Julian has returned, and is watching her. Studying what she’s doing in deep thought.

“Your food is ready,” he says suddenly. “It’s my special recipe!”

“Oh yeah?” Nicole sits in the grass. “What’d you make me?”

“You have to come see!”

“Why don’t you help me finish this fence first?” Nicole stands. “Just this one part.”

His head bows, staring at his boots. “I can’t. Daddy says tools are for real men.”

Nicole has to find a respectful way to tell Julian his father is an idiot. She considers it’ll be easier just to say nothing at all. After a long minute she asks, “Wait, if you’re not a real man, then what are you?”

Julian shrugs, his head remaining in its place. Nicole gasps loud enough to gain his attention. To make him raise his head.

“Julian Curtis Earp, are you a goat? Huh? Have you been a goat this whole time?”

He pretends he isn’t amused, failing miserably.

“Julian, are you a penguin?”

“No!” he laughs. Nicole pokes his stomach, and he laughs harder.

“Seems like a real man to me.” She places her hammer in his hands, picking him up.

Together, Julian and Nicole hammer in the post. It sits comfortably in the earth, strong and sturdy. Nicole fits the planks in between the posts, with Julian’s guide, completing the repairs. 

“You know who could’ve helped me?” Nicole asks. She pokes Julian’s cheek, next. 

Laughing, he answers, “A real man.”

“That’s right.”

The second the car pulls up in the driveway, Julian’s smile dies. He buries his head into Nicole’s shoulder, gripping tightly onto her. She tries to ease him off, but he won’t budge. He starts to scream, drowning out anything Nicole tries to tell him.

“I don’t want to go with him!” he yells into her shirt, finally muffling his volume. Nicole sighs. 

“I know, buddy.” She rubs his back. “I know. But you have to, okay?”

“No!”

“Come on. You’ll be back tomorrow. If you don’t go, you’ll make your mama sad. You don’t want her to be sad, do you?”

It doesn’t end pleasantly. Nicole has to walk him back into the house, where his father waits.

His father says he can’t deal with Julian when he’s like this, and Nicole has to force the child into the car herself.

“Good on ya, Haught,” his father says. He pats Nicole’s shoulder, and she makes a note to destroy her shirt, later.

She never was a fan of Champ Hardy. 

-

The popping in her neck brings immediate relief to her entire upper back.

“So, how’s the ad stuff going?” Chrissy Nedley asks her. “Did you guys settle on the design yet?”

It’s the best part of Chrissy’s job in her chiropractic clinic. She meets all sorts of interesting people. A wide range, from travelers passing by, to clumsy local athletes, to big name marketing reps. Chrissy is family. Always happy to pass the interesting ones, the ones with most opportunity, along to Nicole. Nicole’s just happy it wasn’t a single woman this time. She loves kids, Nicole!

Chrissy returns across the table, checking all sorts of reflexes with Nicole’s legs before having her lay face down. She uses the table to adjust Nicole’s pelvis, deeming her session done, everything back in place for Nicole to throw out on the ranch again.

“I settled on everything,” Nicole finally answers. She’s the last patient of the day, so Chrissy hangs back in the room with her. “The real conflict is getting Curtis to agree to go through with it. I love him, but he insists on being as difficult as possible. Thanks again for getting the free consult for us. I really appreciate it.”

“You’re family,” Chrissy smiles. “All I have to do is treat the guy’s wife, no charge, and he’s happy. She’s an easy one, anyway. Shame I can’t get the ads themselves for free.”

“That would be a miracle,” Nicole agrees. She sighs. “Curtis just won’t budge. Wynonna always said he was stubborn and conservative, but he doesn’t even make sense sometimes. We have no real clientele. We’re never busy. We close at five o’clock, when everyone in town is getting off for the day.”

“When everyone in town is hungry,” Chrissy agrees. Nicole nods. “I believe in you, Nicole. You’ve always had a certain charm.”

The statement makes Nicole laugh. “Yeah, like when—”

The door suddenly bursts open, revealing Rachel, done with the other therapies Chrissy had her on. She doesn’t hesitate. She immediately dives into whatever it was she and Chrissy were talking about before Chrissy started treating Nicole. “I’ve been thinking about what you said on my stomach meridian . . .”

Nicole loses them the second they start talking about chakras. Chrissy talks too fast for her to follow, and Rachel fires off more questions than Nicole can hope to understand. She looks to Alice, who is lost in her own little world, coloring in one of the books the office staff keeps for her.

It all started with a simple nutrition question. Rachel’s been deep into biohacking ever since. Sometimes her questions keep even Chrissy on her toes, causing her to run out of the room and question the other doctor, the business owner, before running back. It makes Rachel happy. Gives her something to focus on, to hold on to.

The smile on her face is a wonderful comparison to the brooding Nicole walked into last night.

-

Another day has passed.

Nicole begins the morning no different from any other. Moves slowly so Alice doesn’t stir. Meets Rachel in the kitchen for eggs and bacon. Pleasant chatter before Rachel hops in Nicole’s old car and heads into town for school. Nicole will follow about an hour later in her truck, with Alice.

Open the restaurant. Get the downright depressing numbers for the week.

Head back to the ranch. Work the fields. Make sure the livestock aren’t all dead overnight.

Pick up Alice and Julian. Rachel will see her later. Sometimes she’ll come to the ranch, but not often.

Today is different. Nicole doesn’t jump back into work, not right away. She sits on the porch, allowing her own legs to rock herself, slowly, back and forth. A small breeze tickles the left side of her face as she watches Alice in the field, playing tag with Curtis. Nicole isn’t mad at him. Frustrated, yes. But not mad. Never mad. He’s family.

Family, she’s learned, is for keeping as close as possible. For as long as possible.

Nicole hasn’t registered the person sitting next to her until she begins to speak. It makes Nicole jump, almost yelling with the effort.

“Sorry, Gus,” she says. Gus just passes over a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. It’s afternoon, but it’s fresh, and Nicole was never one to waste.

“I remember the night Wynonna spent with Curtis, arguing about the investment.” Gus begins the tale unprompted, so suddenly, it confuses Nicole for a second. “She was askin’ for a lot of money. A lot. Curtis told her no. But she was so passionate about it. She actually did the research. She had all the numbers. She had a plan—you and me both know Wynonna Earp never had a damn plan in her mind.”

“She implied she worked best under pressure,” Nicole laughs to herself.

“They argued for hours. I was expecting Wynonna to get mad and leave, like she always had a way of doing. But she didn’t. She stayed, and she argued for as long as she could keep arguing. I told Curtis to give her the money.”

Then Curtis spent the entire time they worked together, hovering over Wynonna’s shoulder and making all the executive decisions for her. Finally driving her away with the endless management. But Nicole doesn’t mention it. Gus doesn’t acknowledge it at all.

There’s one thing Nicole will acknowledge, because it’s the thing that scares her the most. “I’m losing faith.” She leaves her job of watching Alice, to watch Gus instead. “I’m losing faith, Gus. It’s what Wynonna cared about the most. I can’t lose it.”

“We both know that little girl is the one she cared about most.”

“If I lose the restaurant, I lose Alice, too.” Nicole slumps back into the porch swing. “And I’m not sure how much more I can lose.”

“If you lose the restaurant, you still have us,” Gus offers. “You’re not the only one making promises and being the protective one.”

Nicole doesn’t respond. Wynonna’s restaurant was never really about the money. About having a job. It’s about keeping her name. Erasing the identity everyone knew Wynonna as: destructive and plain criminal. It’s supposed to be a place for people to get together and enjoy themselves. Enjoy their friends and their families. 

“Well,” Gus says again after a long silence, “if anything, there’s always the firefighting job. Right?”

Nicole gets up so fast, she knocks her fresh orange juice over.

At home, she doesn’t find sleep. She can barely find herself. Alice is in her own bed, thankfully, and Rachel has been locked in her room all night. Downstairs is quiet, not a soul stirring. Not even the one soul who lingers here. 

The dinner Rachel made sits on the table in front of Nicole, between her and the TV she stares mindlessly at. At some point Nicole considers the food has gone cold. Not much thought is invested after that.

“. . . We are pleased to report the Clanton family has won this year’s Best in Purgatory title, and will be presented—”

“You shouldn’t be watching this,” a teenage voice tells Nicole. The news anchor goes silent when Rachel easily finds the mute button. “Like, at all.”

Nicole blinks quietly a moment, before looking up at Rachel. “You shouldn’t be up this late. Like, at all.”

Rachel crosses her arms, offering almost no defense in her case. Maybe she’s tired, too. Nicole sighs.

“What’s going on with you? Come on, be honest.”

Rachel taps her foot, looking away a moment before landing on Nicole again. “School is just very stressful right now. Quarter’s almost over.”

Nicole nods. The pair stand here, holding their ground, keeping the tension tied. Neither is awake enough to argue, and neither is tired enough to go to sleep. So Nicole reaches on the table, across from the cold bowl of food, and grabs a controller.

“One round,” she says. “Then we’re both going to bed.”

Rachel accepts her offer. “How about I go to bed, and you eat the food I spent all day making for you?”

The statement makes Nicole laugh. “Come on, you’ve made this a thousand times, you liar.”

-

Rosita Bustillos is filled with amusement when the door opens and reveals Nicole Haught to her. Rosita’s the current owner of Shorty’s, happy to splurge on whatever drinks Nicole orders on the house. Too bad Nicole never actually orders anything. 

“Whenever I see you here, I’m about to hear about your problems,” Rosita says. “Which is normal for a bar, but it’s weird because you don’t drink anything.”

“Oh please,” Nicole says, grinning, fixing herself onto one of the bar stools, “we both know your ex was the drinker in the friend group.”

My ex,” Rosita laughs. “Like Wynonna Earp wasn’t everyone’s ex in town. In this town, you’re one of two things: military, or Wynonna Earp’s ex.”

“Not mine.” Nicole cringes. Rosita does, as well. 

“Military option, for you. You are practically an Earp. It may be Purgatory, but no one’s dating siblings, here. Cousins, however . . .”

Nicole shakes her head. “That’s terrible.”

“So what can I do you for? I know you’re not here to suck down tap water and listen to drunks ‘sing’ all afternoon.”

Using her elbows, Nicole leans on the counter. Rosita passes her tap water, but she doesn’t pay it any attention. “Just checkin’ in. Making sure you haven’t suffered the curse of the Shorty’s owners.”

“I will not die of a stroke. You’re one to talk, with all the carbs and other crap you eat.”

Nicole shrugs. Sometimes a girl just needs carbs.

“You’re anxious. You always come here when you’re anxious. Go ahead, tell the bartender your problems. I promise to half listen as best I can.”

Nicole doesn’t answer, so Rosita starts the guessing game. If she’s worried about her carbs. Stress about the restaurant, which Nicole flinches enough at to fuel Rosita further. 

“Alice learned to curse?”

No, Alice learned that when she spoke her first word. 

“Rachel’s healthy food is making you sad? You’ve finally gotten sick of Curtis’s singing? Gus threw an apple at your head?”

Nicole looks at her. “These are terrible guesses, you know that, right?”

“Give me something to work with.”

Nicole sighs. She finally takes a sip of the water, tasting whatever horrifying things are swimming in Purgatory’s water supply. She’s certain she’s heard Rachel and Chrissy talking about it before. Then she leans again, more forward than before on her straining elbows. “I think there’s something going on with Rachel. Dumb teen stuff, maybe. I don’t know.”

“She hasn’t told you? That kid tells you everything. Remember the ripped jeans speech?”

“Not this. I trust her, but I worry. Is it because I spend too much time at work? Is this my fault? Is she mad at me? Did something happen? Do I—”

“Constant worrying,” Rosita laughs. “Welcome to parenthood. Definitely not my speed. It’s why I’m so chipper all the time.” She proves her point by screaming at one of the drunk patrons as they climb on top of the pool table across the way. 

“Wynonna used to say kids were gross, then she went ahead and had one,” Nicole laughs. It makes Rosita smile. “Alice is a sweet kid. Even when she decides to throw rocks at people in the park.”

Something overcomes Rosita, shrinking her wide grin into something more serious. “Do you remember when—”

Sheriff Clayborn walks into the bar, as if he sensed Nicole in here and stopped by just to tease her. He sits right next to Nicole, in one of many open seats of the midday slump, smiling at her. Then he turns to Rosita and orders a couple drinks. “The lady can’t afford it. But lord knows I can.” He grins, wider. “My whole family can.”

Nicole gets up in a hurry, not even taking the time to say goodbye to Rosita. She’s halfway out the door when she hears the end of Clayborn’s bragging.

“Best in Purgatory!”

-

It’s freezing. She forgot her jacket. She’s been here for about forty minutes now. She’s starving. Her neck’s out already. Oh, and the car started making that awful sound again!

The children are loud as they get released to their parents, running out from behind the school like they’re in their own little races. It’s not new. Nicole sees it almost every day. But it makes her smile every time, regardless. The carefree little faces. So happy. So innocent. 

Alice and Julian will arrive from the doors last. She’ll pick them up, head back to the ranch, and drown her mind into labor until the memory of Clayborn erases itself. Easy enough. She just has to stop freaking out. 

Waverly Earp walks up to her, and suddenly she’s freaking out at the power of a thousand airplane engines, speeding out the gate hundreds of times faster than any of these kids could ever hope to. 

“I guess Gus didn’t text you,” Waverly says. Nicole’s sure she did, but it’s impossible to check the phone she left at the bar, across town, right now. “They switched Julian’s therapy time on us. Guess the doctor’s leaving town or something on Friday. I was going to grab Alice, too.”

Nicole just nods, trying her best not to be impolite. Though she’s pretty sure she’s coming off as impolite, regardless.

“So, um, I hear you’ve been busy,” Waverly says again after a moment. 

The lively conversations and the screaming children around them only seem to make the slow, forced words more awkward. Nicole just stares ahead, right at that side gate. Looking out for Alice. Waverly rocks back and forth on her toes in that uncomfortable way she does. Nicole’s not happy she remembers this. The small details about her ex should be far away from her memory.

“Super cool”, she says again. “Yep, super cool.”

Nicole makes some kind of grunting sound. 

Waverly continues, despite the crushing awkwardness. “Um, so, the ranch and firefighting, huh? Busy, busy. At least you’re in shape, right? Um, not that I’ve been—”

“Just the ranch,” Nicole says, probably too loud. Too aggressively. She focuses harder on the gate, like it’ll bring her goddaughter to her faster.

“Oh.” Waverly begins to nod. She looks at Nicole, before looking away, back at the gate again. “What happened to firefighting?”

Nicole can feel her heart rate spike instantly, like she’s been shot. She finally looks at Waverly, with wide eyes, before looking away. Luckily, with perfect timing, Alice runs out from the schoolyard and gives Nicole an excuse to kill the conversation. 

Waverly laughs to herself, eyeing the kids as they all run. Some go right to their parents. Others chase their friends around a bit. 

“Look at them,” Waverly says. “It’s like a bomb’s gone off.”

Now Nicole feels like she’s been hit by a bus. She searches frantically for Alice, scanning the crowd of kids as fast as she can manage. She thinks she hears Waverly stammering, but she’s not sure. It’s too difficult to focus. 

“Oh, shoot, Nicole, I didn’t mean—”

Nicole’s gone before Waverly can attempt to apologize. She hears Waverly call herself an idiot before she’s out of range from anything else. 

-

Nicole enters the homestead in a flash. She barely helps Alice out of the truck before she’s running inside, to the back of the house. Her bedroom, like a teenager. 

The house’s actual teenager enters the room as Nicole stands in the middle, staring at the wall. She’s a complete statue. Her muscles can’t move, but her brain rockets to the moon and back, over and over. There are so many sounds in her head, she’s not sure what is which. Then she sees the face of a little girl and her muscles completely give, throwing her to the ground. 

She feels the impact of the sand as she’s thrown from the passenger’s seat. The sand below her fingers, and the sand kicked on her from the broken door. She wants to scream, but she doesn’t know how.

Someone holds her mortal body and tells her she’s safe. Tells her everything is going to be okay, and nothing is ever going to happen to her ever again. It sounds so optimistic, so ridiculously fake, it brings her out of her visions. Away from deserts and smokey sidewalks.

When she returns to reality, the first thing she notices is how sweaty she is. Second, her pulse. Third, her teenage daughter holding her like a little kid. Neither speaks. Nicole finds she’s the champion of awkward situations today. 

“I saw her,” Nicole mumbles. 

It takes a moment for Rachel to understand, to hear what she’s said under her breath and her clenched teeth. “Who? Who did you see?”

“Waverly.” 

Rachel goes quiet. It explains everything. Everything, in a simple word. 

After a long moment, Nicole clarifies, “At the school. She mentioned firefighting. Then she said something that reminded me of the—” Nicole has to stop, shake her head of those thoughts. “I ran off with Alice.”

Nicole sits up, out of Rachel’s grasp, sitting against the bed in her room now. Rachel asks, “Do you want me to call your therapist?” 

“I left my phone at Rosita’s. I’m going soon, I’ll be fine.” She bumps Rachel’s shoulder, trying to smile at her. “Thank you. You shouldn't have to worry about this. Thank you.”

“If you worry about me, I’m going to worry about you,” Rachel affirms. She twiddles her thumbs a moment before adding, “I can’t imagine doing that much for somebody, only for them to dump me. Sorry. That sucks. Especially when he’s the biggest loser in town.”

“It did suck,” Nicole agrees. “But it’s what Waverly wanted for her son. And you know what? I got you out of all of it. So I don’t care.”

Rachel smiles. “I am pretty amazing, huh?”

The confidence of her voice makes Nicole laugh. Helps her move away from the sour thoughts in her mind. “You are a very interesting one.” She makes to stand, helping Rachel to her feet. “Your mother would be very proud of you. All this nutrition stuff you’re doing is—”

The statement causes Rachel to retreat, leaving the room for another part of the house. “Okay, now you’re getting too sappy for me.”

Naturally, Nicole chases her, letting loose the sappiest statements she can think of. She barely even remembers the fact she saw her ex today. Barely remembers the way she feels about Waverly as a whole. 

These kids are what matters most. Not some relationship from years and years ago. She has to put them up high, above everything else.

-

Between the groceries and the grumpy seven-year-old, Waverly isn’t sure she’ll ever get the door open. Julian won’t help. He doesn’t want to go inside. He never wants to go inside. 

Today, he doesn’t make Waverly drag him in. He hangs his backpack on one of the hooks installed on the wall, but pauses when he gets to his jacket. There’s another one, already in his spot, and he begins to become frustrated. Waverly bites her own cheek to keep from cursing, herself. 

Her eyes fall on her fiancé, sitting on the recliner with a beer in his hand. 

“Champ,” she asks over the sound of the TV, “why is your jacket on the wrong hook? I’ve told you, this one is for Julian’s fall coat. Winter coats on the r—”

Julian begins to panic, throwing his jacket and breaking into a full on tantrum. Waverly has to swap the jackets, moving quickly to get him to calm. He doesn’t, so she has to take him to his room and rock him to sleep. 

She doesn’t give Champ any mercy. He doesn’t deserve it—she repeats this same information, every day. 

“It’s a stupid hook,” Champ says. “He needs to grow up a little bit, don’t you think? Really, with the tantrums!”

Waverly feels her fist clench, before unclenching. She takes a long breath. “Our son has autism, Champ. And I have OCD. Can’t you help us out a little bit?”

He scoffs. “You are both ridiculous. You’re both dramatic!”

It’s been a long day. Waverly decides to table it for now, because she’s exhausted. “Help me with the groceries. My knee is killing me.”

“I got thrown off a bull, Waverly. A bull .”

Without another word, he retreats to the couch, back to his beer and television, leaving Waverly and her sore knee to unload the rest of the groceries. 

She sits in the car, wanting to take Julian and drive away forever. But she doesn’t. She gets the bags, puts everything away, and retreats to a different part of the house for the night.