"But you didn't fall in love with a person. You fell in love with a hurricane that had grown a beating heart and skin." - Nikita Gill
Tapping her nails against the metal frame of the waiting room chair, Holtzmann hummed to herself as she tried to be patient, expecting to hear her name any moment. A wrinkly piece of parchment paper was in her left hand, about to grow damp from her clammy palm, radiated by her nerves.
“Holtz?” A soft voice cut through her anxiety and the blonde popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, all springs as she saw Sarah in the doorway of the psychiatry wing hall. Bouncing to her therapist, she hooked her arms in a hug around the woman’s shoulders. The gesture was returned with a laugh. “It’s nice to see you, dear. Come on back, we’ve got much to discuss, I’m sure!”
Following the woman and scratching her head in habit, she flopped into the next seat that she’d spent much time fretting in a year prior, her billowy, tan dress pants shifting as she wiggled to get comfortable.
“A year to the day, huh, Holtz?” Sarah started their first session in six months with a wide smile of positivity. Her insurance could have continued to pay for the private psychiatrist to treat Holtzmann, but given her progress and other coping mechanisms, they felt the occasional check-in would suit her needs just fine. “Look at you — you’ve done exceptional. You brought your homework?”
“Mhm,” She mumbled, feeling her cheeks grow red.
“Well,” Sarah speed a palm open gesturing to the paper. “It’s been a year since the explosion and the crisis and surgery and PT and therapy and the start of group for you. How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been blown up,” She said teasingly as she opened her paper to make sure she didn’t miss anything major from the year’s hastily-scrawled time capsule of experiences. “In a good way, yeah. My life really has blown up, for the better. I moved in with my girlfriend, then we moved out to a house we bought together and fixed up…work started getting easier around March…Erin started working more for the review and even though I wasn’t really sure I was capable, convinced me to work on an engineering column which became really successful. I, um…won two more awards since the one you were at, both for science, not saving the world, though.”
“Still!” Sarah beamed, “Holtz, your progress has been incredible. You’ve not only maintained your normal life, despite the trauma, you’ve thrived. I’m so proud of you. I still get bi-monthly updates from Dan, but tell me how you’ve been feeling and coping with all this, despite the positivity in your life, I imagine there’s still days when it’s challenging?”
Shrugging, the engineer gripped her paper and nodded. “I still get nightmares. Usually I wake up Erin and she just does her magic with holding me and I fall back asleep with no problem. Sometimes when I’m working I get a flashback but I breathe through it and talk about it in group on Fridays and…that’s about it. Maybe a few times a month I have to deal with it. Oh!” She rolled up her right sleeve and revealed a small, black double triangle on her wrist. “I got another tattoo, too. It’s the alchemy symbol of unity - literally it translates to ‘all that is.’ Erin and I both got it, I think it explains it self.” She winked the last line, tracing the deep black shape that contrasted her pale skin.
“All there is,” Sarah repeated and found a gentle grin. “That’s very appropriate for the two of you. It seems like despite all the chaos of your job, the trauma, the stress of working in an experimental field, the big move — all the little day-to-day exhaustions, you two know that ultimately? You’re all that there is to worry about on this Earth. Holtzmann, you are so lucky the two of you found one another in this big, helter-skelter world.”
That night, Holtz scooted out of bed around three-thirty, pressing a kiss on Erin’s temple when the still-slumbering woman rolled to her side at the movement on the mattress. With trembling fingers, she whispered a few shushing sounds of comfort, for herself or her partner, she wasn’t quite sure. Watching Erin’s brow unfurl once more, the engineer pulled the blanket up over her chest. Taking their logo t-shirt and pair of black and red pajama pants that were neatly folded on the bench at the edge of the footboard, she stepped into them and crept from the room. The December chill was well in the air and the floorboards as she made sure she was breathing normally, despite the nightmare fresh in her thoughts.
They’d moved into the townhouse in May, learning more than either of them knew about building construction during the hot New York summer they spent personalizing the place. Their new abode was almost a half hour ride from the firehouse in NYC traffic, originally a concern for both women. When Holtzmann had seen the size of the elaborate master bath and Erin the cozy benched-in window of a breakfast nook in the cutesy kitchen, however, they’d both been sold. Holtz had been hoarding money for years away in a savings bond, deciding it was time to crack it open and put a sizable downpayment on the more-than-they-wanted-to-spend home. She’d made a half-teasing joke to Erin that she was stuck with the zany scientist forever — though Holtz knew she’d get a return on investment if things ever went south and had to sell the place off.
Still — they’d survived remodeling and trauma in just one year, she was sure things were always going to be fine between them. If they could survive that, they could survive just about any challenge life had for them. Holtz loved their new place too much to leave it.
The stainless steel-filled kitchen was a bit colder as she stepped in, even with clothes on. The silver appliances were accented with white country cabinets that had dark cherry wood contrasting handles to match the floors in the rest of the house. Holtz loved the island that also served as a bar-style counter on one side, stools tucked up neatly under the surface. The white granite countertops had proved durable when she’d tried to sneakily experiment with acids shortly after moving in. Erin had originally thrown a fit, but when seeing that they took the rust out of their highly-coveted balcony railing, she’d settled down.
Holtz winced at the harsh overhead lighting above the kitchen sink as her eyes adjusted after flipping the switch. Opening a narrow drawer to the right of the coffee pot, she retrieved a pair of yellow-tinted glasses, which immediately dulled the tone. With a tiny breath of relief, she poured herself a small glass of water, chugging it in three swallows. Pulling herself up on top of the counter, she rubbed under her eyes, scratched at her hair and persuaded her body that the rolling nightmares of her body being thrust backwards in time and space had been just that.
Reaching blindly behind her, she opened a cabinet and retrieved a box of cereal, trying to quietly unwrap the plastic bag inside the colorful cardboard box. Foregoing a bowl, milk, or spoon, she took fistfuls at a time, shoving Fruity Pebbles into her mouth, dropping some onto the floorboards. Losing track of the early morning hour, Holtz did her best not to stew on the cascade of trauma that still occasionally washed over her, especially after talking about it as she’d done with Sarah.
Snapping out of her stupor at the sound of a groan and rustle from down the hall, the blonde considered rushing to keep her girlfriend on the mattress, but heard the sound of the toilet lid being opened first. Shrugging, she continued to munch on the children’s cereal, not bothered by the pieces that kept falling from the box-to-mouth transport.
Erin shuffled into the room looking like absolute morning hell and Holtz could have eaten the sight for breakfast sans cereal. Her hair was a hot mess of tangles, bangs curled up and pillow-head claiming her. Her eyes were barely revealed beneath their sleepy hooded state, her bottom lip curled out slightly. She frowned at the sight of Holtzmann on the counter, padding towards her.
Holtz coughed on cereal dust in her lungs as her gaze traveled to what Erin had on her body — just a pair of lacy black underwear under the unbuttoned matching flannel pajama top to the pants the blonde had snatched. As Erin was about to stand in front of her girlfriend, she crunched pieces of fruity flakes beneath her feet and moaned, falling dramatically forward into Holtz’s belly as she stepped on more cereal by positioning herself between her legs. “Why are you like this?”
With another improper sound coming out of her as a snort, the engineer shrugged, her hand that wasn’t filled with cereal resting between Erin’s shoulder blades. “Hungry?” She asked teasingly, sticking the palm full of colorful grains in Erin’s face when she turned to the left.
To her surprise, the sleepy woman licked a large portion of the flakes from her hand, making Holtz laugh far too loudly for the morning hour as the physicist gagged down the cereal. “Disgusting.”
“You’re disgusting,” Holtz teased back, licking the rest of it off before bending at the waist to turn on the water, rinsing her sticky hand and shaking the droplets off. “Sorry ‘bout the mess.”
Erin pulled back, the lights still too much for her. “’S four in the morning. Saturday! No inventing before nine on weekends, you promised.”
“Not inventing.” Jumping down from the counter after hearing Erin’s unconjoined thoughts; she opened the country-door’d window-pantry for the handheld vacuum cleaner inside. She sucked up the crumbs on the tile, then lifting Erin’s foot and getting any ground into her skin, making her laugh at the suction while she kept her balance with a hand in Holtz’s hair.
“Just hungry?” Erin questioned groggily as Holtz led them on the light-green runner rug back to the bedroom that was past the stairs.
“Nightmare,” She responded simply, flopping back onto the bed upon arrival.
Erin’s lips tugged downward again as she sat on the mattress next to Holtz, who stared up at the twinkling star-shaped fairy lights around the edge of the room. The house makeover in every space was done for both of their interests and personalities. Compromise and endless shopping trips and clique blogs later had given the couple a bedroom that was soft, glowing just for them. Gone were the greys and creams, and in their monotone place were a variety of shades of blue and purple. With her body spread across navy sheets, Holtz glanced up to stare at Erin’s somewhat guilty expression. “You were so peaceful, it wasn’t my worst one. Didn’t wanna wake you. Sorry that I did.”
Gently tugging her glasses off, the older woman tucked their arms over and placed them on the swirled hues of violet on the nightstand scarf. The blonde tore off her clothes once again, tossing them to the floor, rolling onto her stomach and clutching a pillow under her chin.
Erin tilted her head, trying to figure out what was going on in her girlfriend’s inner circuitry. Adjusting a thin, purple blanket up and over Holtz’s hips, she settled in next to her, still sitting up, taking the velour comforter to her waist. Biting her lip, she traced the cursive writing on Holtzmann’s back with the edge of her index fingernail. When Holtz looked up at her, shadows in the hollow of her ocular bone but twinkling pupils shining from the artificial starlight, Erin felt her breath get caught in the back of her throat for a moment.
“You’re goddamn sexy in this ensemble,” Holtz mumbled, reaching pale fingers to tug on the side of the flannel top. “Just the panties on the bottom — how dare you.”
Giggling, Erin kept her movement across the light skin, even in the darkened room, the words of the tattoo were such a deep contrast to Holtz’s flesh tone. “I was just thinking how beautiful you look right now.” Holtz let out a tutting sound of disbelief before accepting a Fruity Pebble-flavored kiss from Erin. After pulling away, Erin yawned and laid back into her space, rolling to her right to reach for her girlfriend one last time. Holtz took her fingers between her own, holding her hand near Erin’s head as they both fell asleep once more.
Erin found herself up again a few hours later, trapped in watching Holtz sleep (she wasn’t quite the pretty picture from previously in that early morning) before pulling herself out of bed and padding to the kitchen. She tossed her hair up on top of her head and started coffee, noting she was still in that goddamn sexy outfit that Holtz had enjoyed the night before. Spotting a conglomeration of Apple devices charging in their station near the windowsill, Erin grinned and took her Sleeping Beauty’s phone. Forcing herself to look ridiculous in a selfie, she ensured that just enough boob was sticking out before snapping the photo and setting it as the lockscreen. While the coffee finished brewing, she unplugged her tablet and flipped it open to the news, watching a segment from the Today show before pouring her cup of java and easing into her cozy breakfast nook.
Turning on a mellow playlist, she relaxed against the paisley bench cushions of the yellow-and-green space. After finding an article in her email she was supposed to be editing for the Physics Review Journal, she was comfortable and ready for the Saturday morning life she’d always wanted to live…
Until her paragraph faded and a triple beeping sound replaced her music for an incoming FaceTime from…
“No, no, no, no, no!” She hissed to herself, not dismissing the call as she didn’t want her mother to think she’d screened it. Putting her head in her hands, she knew that ignoring the woman would only drive a day of intense anxiety (of course, conversing with her would likely do the same). Sucking up her pride, she answered it as a call instead, awkwardly moving her face down to the tablet speaker while buttoning her shirt up. “H-hello?” She whispered in a sleepy-sounding voice.
“Erin! Honey! Did I wake you up?”
“Yeah —“ She yawned for extra effect, rolling her eyes.
“Sorry, sweetie. Just switch over to the camera when you’re ready.”
“Something wrong with the sound of my voice?” She asked with a little more sarcasm than absolutely necessary.
“No — but I haven’t seen your face outside of tabloids in months, and I haven’t seen your face in person in two years, so I don’t think it’s asking too much to FaceTime with your mother.”
Oh, Barbara with the read, Erin thought to herself as she moved around so it sounded like she was shifting about the house. Making sure her top was done, she sighed and turned the tablet to video mode.
The image before her revealed a long-necked woman with (obviously dyed) brown hair that had chunky highlights as it ended at her nape in a fierce cut that was a bit much for a sixty-eight-year-old woman. She had makeup on along with an outfit straight out of a Lands’ End catalogue. A maroon, black and yellow color block cardigan was crisply over a white button-up top. Erin felt quite underdressed for the unexpected call, but feeling inferior to her mother was a lifelong journey, she supposed.
“Well, there’s a sight for sore eyes! You’re looking fresh.” Erin had to remember her mother could see her now, and restrained the next roll of her eyes which was looming.
“That’s me,” The younger Gilbert woman responded, lifting a hand. “Pretty much look the same that I always have.”
“But your hair is longer I can tell by how high your ponytail is, and the side-swept bangs are really trendy these days! Wait a second…that’s — is that your kitchen?”
Flushing, Erin grimaced visibly, then winced when her mother reacted to the expression. “Aye, ah - yeah, did I mention I moved?”
“Oh, well, yeah, um…I moved! No big deal.”
Barbara’s lips went a little tighter as she leaned towards the camera, trying to inspect the wall behind her daughter (which was thankfully near-bare, save for the yellow curtains).
“Honey, when did you move?”
Chewing the inside of her lip and assuming the conversation wouldn’t get worse if she told the truth, she admitted, “May.”
“Erin, you need to work on your communication!” The woman criticized and at the comment, Erin let the eye-roll slip. “Honestly, sweetheart! I like knowing what’s going on in your life and it hurts that you wouldn’t share something so monumental.”
“Didn’t seem like a monumental move. It’s just further from work, bigger.”
“You can afford a bigger place in New York on a government salary?” Trying to find a good explanation, she heard her mother sigh and watched the woman close her eyes in realization. “You moved in with your girlfriend, didn’t you.”
Fiddling with her sleeves, Erin shrugged, especially with the pointed tone of girlfriend. “We got a place together.”
“Erin,” Barbara looked positively mortified, though she tried not to let it show too obviously. “Honey, you know — I don’t necessarily approve of your lifestyle, but I would like to know what goes on it! But, and…it’s so hard, as a mother to have to say this, but the two of you could be legally married now! Wouldn’t you want to do things more…traditionally? Get married, then get a place together?”
Unable to hold in a snort of laughter, Erin brought her hands up to rub over her face. “Oh, really? Do we have to do this at eight-thirty in the morning?”
“I’m just saying, that since your people have all the rights as regular people do now, you might as well follow suit—“
“Oh, my god, mom,” Erin huffed, watching Barbara struggle to keep a straight face once again. “First of all my people probably don’t like being marginalized as a group to have assumptions thrown on them and two, how is anything about my life traditional right now? And don’t you feel that gays getting married violates the scantily of your marriage somehow? You can’t have it both ways.”
Barbara held up a hand. “You know, I didn’t call you to argue politics, dear.”
Letting out a long breath, Erin raised her brows and rubbed the back of her neck with her left hand, purposefully letting the tattoo Holtz designed show on her arm as she moved it. Unfortunately, Barbara didn't seem to notice, otherwise it would have been another whole can of worms. “If you didn’t call to berate my job or lifestyle,” Erin said sharply, “Why did you call?”
Opening and closing her mouth, the woman quietly stated, “I was hoping you might come home for Christmas.”
Erin was in stunned silence at her mother’s confession. Managing a response, she uttered, “It’s…wow, that’s a nice offer and all but — I don’t see that happening.”
“Oh,” Barbara looked put out and suddenly, Erin felt guilt creeping up the back of her neck.
Meanwhile, Holtzmann woke up with a little puddle on her pillow and a stiff neck. Flinging the covers off her lower half before picking up the sheet and draping it over herself like a Jedi, she stumbled to the kitchen where she hoped the coffee was ready.
Yawning loudly upon entering, she first flopped down on the bench next to Erin, not catching her panicked face as she cracked, “You kept the sexy jammies on just for me? Baby, I didn’t —“
She recognized the expression suddenly, eyes trailing in what seemed like slow-motion to the video feed of Barbara looking quite alarmed at the sight of a nearly-naked lesbian trying to climb in her daughter’s lap.
All but flipping off the bench, she managed an apology before scrambling to get some clothes on. Returning a few minutes later to see Erin had shifted the topic to something Barbara was thrilled to talk about — her little white, fluffy excuse of a dog, she gestured to wonder if she should join her girlfriend in the call or not. Shrugging, Erin patted the space next to her and Holtz slid in, wearing a demur plain blue t-shirt and her hair swept back into a messy bun.
“Good morning, Ms. Gilbert,” She said with a flush when Barbara got another look at her. This was only their second call of any nature, and Holtz was not surprised at how miserably her palms were sweating and legs jittering.
“Jillian, is it?”
“That’s me,” She said and brought a hand under the table to squeeze Erin’s. “Who’s this?”
“This is Angel,” Barbara cooed, “My new baby. She’s just fifteen weeks old!”
“Name should be Fallen Angel!” A grumpy voice from behind Barbara stated before a tall, sandy-haired, mustached man appeared in a sweater vest. “The thing chews everything! Pisses all over the place.” Both ladies laughed as Richard Gilbert shooed the dog away before Barbara could defend it and took a seat. “Good morning, Sunshine. And…you prefer your last name, Holtzmann? Good morning to you, too.”
The patriarch of the family managed to keep a friendly conversation going for about ten minutes before freeing the women of the Barbara trap, which Erin suspected could have lasted several hours had he not.
“Hey, Sunshine, I know your mother here would love to have you for Christmas, but seeing how it is already just two weeks before, maybe we could get together with you before or after, since I’m sure you two already have plans.”
Erin eyed her girlfriend and shrugged. Holtz returned the gesture, chewing on her thumbnail.
“We’ll talk about it. Thanks for the offer, dad.”
Barbara made a long winded speech goodbye before Richard cut her off. “Nice talkin’ to you, honey. You, too, Holtzmann!”
After ending the call, Erin put her arms on the table and head on top of them for a solid five minutes, shoulders shaking in a silent, exhausted cry.
Holtz rubbed her back and kissed her neck, her shoulder, her spine — whatever she could reach as she tried to offer any sort of comfort she could.
“I don’t even know why I’m crying?” Erin finally stated as she wiped her tears with the sleeves of the flannel shirt.
“Because that was overwhelming, unexpected, and Barb always stresses you out,” Holtz offered in response. She stood up and pulled Erin’s hands, taking her into the small cozy space they’d created as a living room. Turning on the electric fireplace that was in a hutch cut out of the far wall, she loaded the fuzzy white rug in front of it with a mound of pillows from the couch, laying across them, slightly propped up. Opening her arms, she took Erin as the woman straddled her and laid her head across Holtz’s chest. She covered the her naked legs in a blanket before kissing her slowly and sweetly a few times, trying to take the undesirable start to their day off their minds.
Erin called Abby and Patty over for dinner and a movie that night. Though she was sure they’d regret the choice about halfway through the movie when Holtz got handsy, she wanted her whole family together as she considered seeing her biological one for the holiday.
“The thing is, though, Erin, your mother means well. You do know that right?” Abby asked, leaned over the kitchen island on her elbows, her black cardigan brushed up against the white granite. Erin chopped lettuce as the taco meat steamed in a crockpot, trying not to let her lips draw into a tight line to resemble the woman of topic. “She’s…uneducated in a conservative environment. That’s toxic for tolerance. And I’m not excusing her behavior, but I really don’t think she says the things she does to get a rise out of you.”
Shaking her head, auburn locks swinging a little, Erin swallowed the bit of pride that was trying to go on the complete offensive. “It’s just hard to feel loved when you know that despite mounting evidence for the paranormal and changing laws for the LGBT community, she still can’t accept the daughter that’s in front of her.”
“Erin,” Abby sighed, walking around the countertop to give her best friend a side-hug. “Your mom loves you.”
“She loves part of me,” The physicist snapped, then cringed, dropping the knife on the cutting board and curling her fingers in as she squinted her eyes shut for a moment. Taking a deep breath, she expressed, “She loves the potential for her normal daughter to have a normal career in a normal relationship.”
“Does Barb really know what normal is?” Abby tried to defend her mother and Erin would have no more of it. She’d always done it — try to smooth things over between the Gilberts and their only child. Partially because she couldn’t handle the physical tension when they were all together, and partially because she’d come from such a supportive environment, it was hard to see Erin so stifled.
“Fine,” She spat out, wiggling from Abby’s supportive embrace. “Traditional — whatever label you want to give a successful, heterosexual, married, middle-aged woman with a budding career in academia who doesn’t have to take medication to function in the world. She loves that far-out version of Erin who doesn’t exist — not anymore.” Letting a little puff of air fall between her lips, Erin looked up, fighting back tears. “Not that she ever really did.”
“Coming back in for the hug,” Abby warned, wrapping Erin up from behind. With a sigh, she pressed her cheek to the taller woman’s back as she linked her arms around her shoulders, squeezing her fist over her sternum. Erin relaxed, swallowing hard. “I don’t mean to defend her. I just know she may not act like it, but she’s always wanted to do right by you. You’re her only child, Erin — and, yeah, you know? Maybe you haven’t given her everything she wants to brag about to her gals at Bible Study, but you know what? You’ve achieved all any parent truly wants for their child, and that is to be happy. You’re happy, aren’t you?”
“Not at the moment,” Erin mumbled but then turned to nuzzle her cheek against her best friend’s. “But in general, absolutely.”
“See?” She pecked her sweetly before letting go. “Even if it’s not the life she pictured for you, it’s the one that makes you happy. Eventually, Barb will see that. But I think she needs to see you in order for that to happen.”
Meanwhile, Holtzmann had Patty trapped in the downstairs, which she and Erin had converted to a modern office and lab. The windows were high on the terrace floor, leaving plenty of room for shelving and tables below. They’d gutted out a wall that had originally separated the single room into two tenant spaces, leaving a wide open space that had a very large drafting table against the furthest wall, with two L-shaped desks touching backs in the middle of the wall opposite the windows. Near the stairs, the only additional doorway in the good-size room led to a spare bathroom that contained a closet with a washer and dryer — a true NYC luxury. The middle of the room housed Holtz’s current project, while everything else was neatly stowed per Erin’s obsessive compulsiveness.
All along the walls, patents, degrees, awards, and articles were neatly framed and displayed in an eye-appealing fashion. Patty enjoyed stalking the perimeter of the room, observing professional photos of them mid-bust while Holtz rambled.
“I just — I know my mother was…her own person,” She sighed, opening up on a rare occasion. Patty didn’t want to draw her in and away from sharing her thoughts, so she tried to stay mute and nonchalant as to not spook her Holtzy. “She had her challenges, but I never doubted that she accepted me. Loved me? Yeah — it’s never been easy to understand how she could claim to love her daughter without giving up her lifestyle — if she loved me, wouldn’t she have stopped and meant it for more than a few months? But — she accepted me, Patty. Flaws and all, aways.”
“Baby, they ain’t flaws,” The taller woman insisted as she settled into Holtz’s black leather desk chair, spinning and rolling it to park in front of the woman and her machine — which she’d provided details on upon arriving in the basement; Patty had smiled and nodded along with the explanation. “Being a massive nerdy gay scientist is not a flaw, it’s who you are. Your mother accepted you for who you are. Not because you were her daughter with some flaws that she could look over.”
“Okay, but —“ Holtz tried to stress, rubbing under her round safety goggles to keep frustrated tears at bay. “No mother looks down at their six pound bundle of joy and thinks, ‘wow I can’t wait to have a homosexual mad scientist with zero social decorum.’”
“No,” Patty shrugged, “They look down at they little baby and think, ‘damn, that’s perfection.’ And Holtzy, you’re perfection just the way you are. Oh, don’t you cry — come here, sweetie.”
She curled up in Patty’s lap, resting her head against the woman’s shoulder as she rubbed her upper arm. “It just really bothers me that Erin’s mother has never accepted her just as she is. You know, she might’ve been drunk when she showed up to the meeting, but my mom let the school administration have it when they tried to put me in special room for kids with disabilities just because they didn’t know what else to do with me. She read off some laws like some well-to-do advocate instead of drunken trailer trash; all because she knew I needed acceptance as I was, not to fit into some mold of how kids should act because it’s what adults want from them. Erin didn’t have that.”
“No,” Patty agreed, ruffling the poof of blonde curls at the top of her head. “But she’s got you now. And we all know you’ll defend her.”
“Until my dying breath,” Holtz said in a silly, cryptic voice. Patty chuckled and patted her arm.
“That’a girl. C’mon, it’s gotta be close to taco time!”
Holtz slid dramatically off Patty’s lap and to the smooth, beige tile floor of the lab. “Patricia will you sit by me at dinnertime?” She asked with her nose closed off and Patty gave a playful tug to the collar of her slightly-wrinkled, muted orange button-up, rubbing the swirly embroidery that traveled along the shoulders when she finally stood on two feet. She slid her goggles off her poof of hair and hung them neatly among others on the wall near the stairs.
“I will if you promise not to pretend you don’t know that my foot isn’t Erin’s. I ain’t about that footsie business.”
“Maybe I just like your feet,” Holtz said with a flirty smile and a wink. She turned off the light with a series of claps and a whistle before motioning for Patty to go upstairs after an exaggerated eye-roll. “Maybe I got a foot fetish — ask Erin.”
“Oh my god,” Abby mumbled as she walked by the staircase from the bathroom, flicking her damp hands at Holtz, leaving a water droplet on her glasses and making her hiss. “All I heard was Erin and foot fetish and I do not want to know.”
The three made their way to the kitchen where Erin had just pulled the soft shell tortillas from their warmer.
“I do not need to visualize Erin suckin’ on your nasty-ass toes. You probably got some serious fungus grownin’ up in there — savin’ it for science or some shit,” Patty jested shaking her head.
Clearing her throat, Erin tossed a casual forearm to Holtz’s shoulder when the woman offered a sheepish grin before pulling her lips into her mouth, waiting for chastisement for joking about their sex life. She rocked on her supposedly, nasty-ass toes, hands curling into a nervous twist behind her back.
“Her toes are clean,” The older scientist assured them. “I lick in all the cracks.”
At that, Holtz fell to the floor laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe while Abby groaned loudly, shouting obscenities and Patty moved herself to the kitchen wall which had a plaque that read in perfect calligraphy, ‘In this kitchen, we dance.’ She knocked her head into the faux country brick mortar that separated the kitchen from the living room, she pretended to cry.
“You’re all very good at releasing Erin’s Box. Far more sinister than Padora’s, I assure you — though I’d like to explore that topic more in the new year. Tacos, ladies?”
At that, Holtz was full on snorting as she rolled face-first into the floorboards. “Oh, baby — I’m ready for your tasty taco!”
“I’m going home!” Abby shrieked, clutching the kitchen island as she wheezed. “I can’t take it! You two are the worst!”
A minute of chaos passed and Holtz finally pulled herself up, wiping the tear tracks from her cheeks before passing plates out to her friends, promising to stop the teasing. Eventually, they were all settled around the booth of Erin’s favorite nook while she opened wine coolers with Holtz’s swiss army knife. The blonde was between Patty and Abby, intentionally placed to keep the couple from getting too touchy during the meal. She chugged half her beverage before lacing her fingers together and resting her chin on them. “My love? Have you come to a decision on Operation Frosty Flakes?” Whispering to Patty loudly she explained the code name, “The flakes are her parents, frosty is her attitude towards them.”
Sighing after a bite of too-good-to-be-inauthentic Mexican food, she announced, “I don’t want to see my parents. But —“ Erin sighed, “I feel like I have to. The thought of going to Michigan and stepping into the cereal capital of the world makes me a little queasy, not just because it’s so full of sugar and artificial dye, but —“ She looked at her hands, which had a little shake to them. Abby noticed, offering one a squeeze. Shooting her a look of gratitude, Erin rubbed her lips together and shrugged. “It’s been two years and I really should.” She squeezed her eyes shut and groaned.
“That’s right, you should,” Abby stressed. “She’s your mother and it will fill the empty void in her life for another two years if you just spend a weekend with her. Holtzy? I’m assuming you’ll be going with?”
The engineer froze, a stuffed mouthful of Spanish rice popping open as she considered the question. “Um…”
“Chew,” Patty reminded her, slugging her upper arm with her elbow, earning a cough while Holtz spewed a few pieces back on the plate. “Ohmygod.”
Managing to suck the spicy grains down, she shrugged. “I guess if Erin wants me to.”
Her girlfriend looked up from her self-loathing with a perplexed glance. “Why wouldn’t I want you to come?”
Quiet for two seconds too long, Holtz shrugged, her gaze locking on the ceiling. Fuck —she was a horrible liar.
Abby’s expression was soft as she put an equally gentle palm on Holtz’s forearm. “Holtz?”
Licking her lips, Holtz stared down at her plate, before muttering in a single breath, “I’m not the type of girl you bring home to impress your parents and I don’t want to embarrass you Erin, I know things are tense enough and I have a feeling I’m going to say or do something no matter how hard I try to behave to ruin whatever calm you manage to achieve and I don’t want to cause any more hard feelings than there already are.”
All three women tried to talk at once, but Erin’s voice rang loudest while Abby clutched her arm a little tighter. “I don’t give a fuck what my parents think about you,” She said with affirmation. Her jaw was set but eyes held nothing but the intensity of two years worth of love and sacrifice that she’d put into the relationships in her life that mattered — namely the one with the suddenly self-conscious blonde across from her. “If they think you’re anything less than the spectacular woman I know you are? It’ll give me reason to never go back. Holtz, Jill — I love you, and if they don’t love you? They’re not worth my anxiety anymore. Blood relatives or not.”
Holtz’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. She couldn’t focus on Erin through the water pooling against her iris. Letting out a little cry, she slid over Abby’s lap to hug her girlfriend, kissing her cheek and then her neck. “I’ll go with you.”
There was a thousand pounds of tension released from Erin’s shoulders as she said the words and both women laughed before sharing a soft, quick peck to the lips before pulling away and Holtz straddled Abby once more, kissing her forehead before Patty’s, not wanting either of them to be left out on the way back to her seat.
“Now that that’s settled — we have been given two week’s vacation. Homeland security is working through the holiday and I say we take advantage of them. I’d like to go home too, and Patty I know you’ve got family obligations here in the city.”
“Oh yeah — Christmas and my Uncle’s seventieth birthday. It’s gon’ be lit at the Talon family, ya’ll. Gon’ be gettin’ all kinds’a crazy text messages from yours truly.”
“So,” Abby continued, offering smiles all around. “What do we say — we take off the nineteenth through the second? You two go on the nineteenth, back by the twenty-third to spend your gross, kissy Christmas together?”
“You know it!” Holtz grinned. “And I don’t think kissing is quite an accurate description of the unholy night we’ll be having—“
She was slugged again mid-bite, causing another spray of rice before laughter.
“Erin?” Patty blinked. “You’re sure you wanna take this one home?”
Trying not to giggle, but nodding with the fondest gaze she held, Erin promised, “I’ve never been more sure of anything.”
An hour later, they were tucked into the upstairs of the tri-level townhouse. Sloped ceilings, one large window with black-out curtains, and a tan carpeted floor made the room particularly useful to media viewing. The large flatscreen on the single burgundy-hued wall in the room had lit up a recently released comedy to lighten the mood. Abby had claimed the large bean-bag with weird hippie print, Patty was in the comfy, well-loved Lazy-Boy, while Erin and Holtz were wrapped up on a futon, the little one with Erin’s head on her legs as they tried to focus. Anxiously waiting for the movie to be over so they could talk more about their upcoming vacation, if one wanted to call it that, Holtz was a twitchy, fidgety mess.
When their friends departed shortly before midnight, the homeowners slumped against one another in a mutual groan of a hug on the main floor. They both chuckled tiredly and Holtz slid slowly, dramatically down Erin’s body until she was sitting on her feet, arms wrapped around her legs, face pressed against her knees. “Bedtime?”
“Talk time,” Holtz muffled into the denim material. “Big Serious Talk Time.”
Cringing, Erin tugged her girlfriend’s arm, trying to lift her up only to find herself pulled to the floor with an, “Ommf!” instead. Containing her eye roll, she criss-crossed her legs, watching Holtz fiddle with her glasses before folding them and chewing her cheek. Letting out a long, loud breath, Holtz looked up at the ceiling as she confessed, “I love you with all my heart and I never want to spend a day without you but I’m not sure I should go home with you since it’s hard enough for you to get along with your family and you know I’m going to say or do something embarrassing and make everything worse or ruin things completely and I just want you to be happy and have some sort of relationship with them and —“ She yipped suddenly when Erin pounced forward like a cub in the Lion King, pinning her to the plush runner beneath Holtz’s back.
Blue gazed at blue, Erin shaking her head firmly. “You are my family. The only relationship I care about aside from our friends is this one. Would I love a relationship with my mom based on mutual respect and sincerity? Sure — but at this point, I’m not sure it’s possible. I’d really rather have you with me, making fun of her handcrafted sweater snowmen, then go by myself. She’s going to say or do something far worse than anything you might perceive yourself doing as embarrassing. The difference is that it’s going to hurt me. And I’d really rather you be there to help me stay strong or hold me if I can’t.”
Pushing off her shoulders and twisting so she was popped up against the hallway entrance, Erin glanced up at the series of black and white photos of them across from her. The first one was of the two of them dressed up at one of Patty’s cousins’ weddings that summer, Holtz had been in a light grey suit, Erin in a yellow dress, the two of them laughing as they danced in the still, bodies close, hands at each other’s waists. “I won’t force you to come, though. I know it’s awkward and unfortunately, I can’t return the favor for you.”
Holtzmann was silent as she continued to lay where she’d been tackled, the smooth beige ceiling very interesting as she tried to find an excuse that didn’t sound pitiful.
Unfortunately, none came to her as she contemplated the mysteries of the universe and Erin’s family and the thought of Erin’s mother saying something that might make Erin cry and her being alone trying to cope with it —
“If you don’t think I’m going to somehow upset you more if I say something…”
Erin skated her thumb over her knuckles and firmly stated, “You won’t.”
Rolling over and pushing herself up on her elbows, Holtz army crawled through their cozy living room and to the far wall. Erin observed her as she wiggled across the floor to one of the tall bookshelves on either side of the fireplace, using her nose to turn titles on the second-to-last row. Finally finding what she was looking for, the odd blonde used her teeth to remove a somewhat thin, paperback anthology, using her mouth to carry it back and plop it in Erin’s lap, mumbling, “One-twenty-six.”
Knowing that the woman had a rolodex of a memory that only she could describe, Erin trusted that there was something important they’d shared together on the page. Clearing her throat, she noted it was an essay, rather than a poem that they usually shared by the author. Not recalling the one Holtz had in mind particularly well, she spoke it out loud, “They say that the world is a hard place, but no one mentions the gut wrenching, soul crushing, heart breaking pain it is to survive growing up.” She read on, the short paragraphs threatening to bring tears to her eyes as she closed it out at the end, “When did we start teaching our children that growing up is having to choose thousands of ways of breaking yourself in two?”
Holtz’s body was strewn across Erin’s lap after a long beat of silence. She stared hard at the fibers of the rug before quietly explaining in a near-shaky voice, “I’m sorry that your family made growing up so hard. And even if I’m not everything they’d dreamed up for you, I hope that I can make your time at home with them a little easier.”
Though they had an entire house they could have shared the tender moment in, Holtzmann and Erin wound up tangled on the hardwood floor, mouths connected in a heated kiss as they ignored the midnight call to bed.
Holtz was pressed to the floor again, on her back, blunt nails scraping along Erin’s hairline while the woman sucked on her neck and chest after unbuttoning the top row. “Erin?” Holtz sucked in a breath with her name causing her girlfriend to stop and sit up, chest heaving and pupils dilated. “Wow,” The blonde giggled, pushing herself into a sitting position, resting her forearms on her knees and shrugging. “I love you. Can we go snuggle somewhere that’s not hardwood? I’ll spare you the joke about my hard wood.”
With half a laugh, Erin bit her lip and stood up. Giving a devilish smirk, Holtz flipped over and put her palms on the carpet. Rolling her eyes, Erin knew what to do and picked up her ankles, wheelbarrow-walking them into the bedroom, where Holtz finished with a summersault into a standing position, pulling her pants down at the same time. When the burgundy pool of corduroy was on the floor along with her button-down top and sports bra that was beneath it, Erin made a similar pile before steering her into the luxurious master bathroom. They took their positions at their own sinks, brushing teeth, unpinning hair, washing faces — the usual nightly routine.
After tossing down the comforter, Holtz slid into bed with a contented groan at the sensation of mattress. Erin curled into her, kissing above her right breast and asking, “Is it okay if I’m super passive aggressive and don’t tell my parents for a few days that we’re coming?”
“Oh, for sure,” Holtz grinned in response, kissing the top of her head and stroking her shoulder with the lightest padding of her fingertips. “Make ‘em sweat.” She bit her earlobe, earning Erin’s groan before whispering huskily, “But not nearly as much as I’m going to make you sweat.”
"But what could you possibly see in her?"
"Everything. I see everything in her, because the stardust that makes her is the same stardust that makes me. " - Nikita Gill
Erin wrinkled her nose and grimaced as she stared hard a tan envelope that had a Battle Creek zip code on it. “Damnit,” She whispered, flipping it over and noting the seal had been hand-stamped. Her mother was crafting again. Great.
“Ohh, did we get a Christmas card?” Abby questioned, almost startling her best friend as she stood next to her at the firehouse kitchenette counter.
Wincing, the physicist sighed. “It’s from my mom, whatever it is.”
“Yikes, she embossed it,” Abby whistled. “That means your house looks like a Hallmark store right now. Your poor father.”
Erin shrugged. “If he was really annoyed by Ms. Homemaker Gilbert, then he could go into the linen closet and find his balls that she keeps on the top shelf and say something.”
“Damn, take some E, everybody!” Holtz had only caught the tail end of the sentence, but was impressed by her girlfriend’s denouncement of her father’s manhood. “Papa Gilbert a little bit of a pushover?”
“Just to my mom. Not to big business.” She pulled the card out of the envelope after using her swiss army knife to slide the seam open. “Oh, there’s so much glitter,” She complained, then rolled her eyes at the manger scene on the front. “She’s the most passive aggressive person on the planet.”
Holtz was barely breathing she was laughing so hard, and Abby read the message aloud with a dramatic flair. “‘Remembering His Presence is the real present this CHRISTmas Season,’ can we please put it on the fridge?”
Flipping to the inside, Erin pulled out the lined notebook paper and Abby continued reading the generic card while she thumbed it open to her mother’s neat cursive.
We're so thrilled you’ll be coming home for the holidays — even if it is a short trip before. We’re so looking forward to having you and Jillian join us for a few days. Please remember to pack at least one festive outfit, we will be meeting with family!
Mom & Dad
Holtz read it over her shoulder and pinched her cheek playfully. “They’re adorable.”
“They’re awful,” She cringed. “God, no, this whole thing is still…mockery. I don’t…she makes me…ugh!”
Abby gave Holtz an eye as she rubbed Erin’s shoulders. “Her parents aren’t that bad, truly. As you may or may not know, Erin, here, is a grudge holder.” Holtz mock-gasped. “Her mom can be quite prickly, but overall, Ms. Gilbert means very well. Even if she keeps her dad on a three-foot chain at all times.”
“Naughty,” Holtz gave Erin a devilish smile, then let it slide into a more normal one. Letting her hand travel from her shoulder to the woman’s hip, she gave her a side-hug. “Well, at least once we’re there, it’s over and honestly if it’s awful, you don’t see them again, if it’s not bad — well, see ya in two years ma and pop.” Holtz nuzzled under Erin’s chin for a moment with a long breath out. “You know, I know my mom had her issues, but I’d do anything to see her at Christmas. Even if she were drunk by noon, I’d still like just…Christmas morning with her.” Erin wrapped her up and Abby sandwiched her in, earning a delighted squeak from the orphaned woman. “Thanks, guys.”
Abby released the couple and turned to clip the card to the freezer door, getting another laugh out of it before adding, “Who knows, Erin? Your mom and dad might get you Christmas presents.”
“Oh, please no!” She said, eyes wide, squeezing Holtz a little tighter while their shortest friend snickered find memories.
Raising a brow, Holtz waited for them to share the story.
“Ms. Gilbert thinks she can crochet, among her many craft talents,” Abby laughed. “Erin has gotten some real doozies over the years. I got some too.”
“Like a Molly Weasley sweater?” The blonde wondered.
“You’ll wish it was a Molly Weasley sweater,” She continued. “It won’t fit — literally, I don’t think it would fit an ape. The holes will be so big, you’d have more than nip slip — you’d have full-blown tit slip. But…then the neck hole, if you want to call it that…?”
Erin scoffed, “You didn’t know you needed a wide-looped turtleneck sweater in a lovely, non-symmetrical striped pattern. Oh, Holtz —they’re truly awful. Actually?” Erin eyed their friend and Abby nodded.
“Yeah, she’ll probably love hers.”
Giving a little whoop, Holtz slipped her arms lower on Erin’s waist, lazily draped against her. Erin patted her back, trying to get her up. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“Yeah, but this is more important,” She said affirmatively, making Erin blush in appreciation. “You know? I think I’m actually ready for a vacation?”
“Going to Michigan is not a vacation,” Erin tried to insist but Abby gave her a playful swat to the shoulder on the way out of the room.
“It’s home, Erin. Even if it’s not your favorite place. It’s still your family’s house. You’ll be fine.”
When the room was just she and Holtz, the physicist kissed the top of the woman’s head and whispered, “I don’t know why she seems to think I need to reconcile things. Home is you.”
Holtz tilted her head up for a long kiss on the mouth, ending it with a little nip to Erin’s bottom lip. “True as that may be and I agree, I want you to think that maybe there’s more to this than you think. Maybe there’s a reason you need to go home and it’s not just to pacify your mother? Food for thought.” A beat passed and she finally pulled away as Erin contemplated the notion. “And food for Holtz. Holtzy hungry!”
“Eh, nope,” Erin stood in front of the fridge with her arms crossed and if she had pointed terrier-ears, Holtz’s would’ve folded them back with her tail between her legs. “Why do you think I’m not letting you pick a snack?”
Keeping her gaze up at the ceiling, Holtz pressed her lips together and folded her hands behind her back. “Cause you’re a meanie?” A stretch of silence passed and she mumbled, “‘Cause I dumped my breakfast and didn’t eat lunch.”
“You get back to work, I’ll make you something bordering on nutritional for snunch. That’s—“
“Snack-lunch!” Holtz giggled and pecked her cheek. “God love ya, Professor Sweetheart. No matter what you say about her, your mother raised you right.”
Erin nudged Holtz’s lab door open with her hip as she carried a plate in one hand and the handles of two fresh coffee mugs in the other after fifteen-odd minutes had passed. The blonde was staring intently at a bundle of wires with her hands on her hips, goggles over her eyes and muttering a string of curses with numbers in between. She felt another presence and glanced up with a side smirk when she caught her girlfriend setting snunch down on her table.
“Thanks, babe.” Holtz reached for the foamy veggie chips on the plate but had her hand get swatted. Pouting she took a cucumber between her thumb and forefinger and as if it were poisoned, slowly and dramatically, she let it enter her mouth, chewing like it would kill her.
“If you didn’t pour half your breakfast smoothie down the sink in the morning, I wouldn’t force you to eat vegetables for snack.”
“It’s green, Erin! It tastes like bananas and strawberries but it’s green! Slime green! It’s just not right!”
With a little chuckle, Erin pulled a stool out to sit on, sharing the plate of food with her girlfriend, who took a long sip of coffee before sneaking some chips. After forcing the half of a chicken sandwich into Holtz’s hand, she wiggled anxiously on the stool. “I think the card was a premonition that we’re going to be expected to attend church at the Gilbert house.”
Holtz almost spoke with a full mouth of sandwich before catching Erin’s eye and swallowing first and quietly admitting, “I haven’t been since my mother’s funeral.”
With a quick blink of mental math, Erin realized that had been seventeen years prior. “I really don’t know what to expect at all, I guess,” She shifted the topic just slightly. “I haven’t seen them since having proof that I wasn’t crazy all those years. Will there be some sort of formal apology? Will they pretend like my job doesn’t exist? Are they going to pretend to be supportive of our relationship? I have no honest idea what we’re getting into.”
Taking three consecutive bites of sandwich, Holtz tried to come up with something to say that she hadn’t already expressed. Every time Erin even mentioned going home, her anxiety spiked. “Oh!” She shook her head as thoughts of her own raw nerves over the situation hit. “Shit, it’s Friday — Er, I’ve gotta get to group.”
Eyeing the time, the physicist nodded. “I’ll call you a cab, finish eating.”
Inhaling the rest of the food, the blonde wandered around the lab, tidying up until she heard a soft, “It’s here!”
Peeling off her lab coat and hanging it neatly inside a wardrobe, Holtz took the steps two at a time down the stairs, tugging on her black leather coat, zipping it and flexing her fingerless gloves. Tossing one strap of her backpack on, she pressed a quick kiss to Erin’s cheek before waving to an oblivious Kevin and dashing out the door.
Arriving at the therapy session just on time, Holtz tossed herself into the seat she usually took next to Norm, her favorite Vietnam vet. He tapped her jittering leg as she sat down. “Thought for a minute there you weren’t gonna make it!” He said with a bright smile.
She tried to give him one back, mind racing. “It’s been a week, Norm. It has been a week.”
Just as he was about to ask for an elaboration, Dan started the group, a red striped sweater over his jeans adding to his usual dad look. He offered her a salute, unaware of it’s meaning, as he gathered the people together.
“Glad to see everyone here today! I know we’re all in the midst of the chaos this time of year brings out, so we’ll try to close on time so that if you aren’t able to socialize with us after with holiday festivities, you’ll be out to do that! I want to start with a quote I read today in the New York Times…”
Holtzmann was only half listening as her counselor spoke and others interjected their thoughts. “Holtz, anything resonate with you?”
She shook her head, uncharacteristically quiet. Thankfully, Norm spared her an awkward moment by jumping in, leaving the engineer to stew in her thoughts once again.
Forty five minutes later, the therapy session officially ended and Dan wheeled the coffee out before crouching in front of his favorite patient. “Anything you want to talk about, Holtz?”
She eyed Norm, then the younger man and shrugged. “I have to go to Michigan to meet my girlfriend’s parents and I’m absolutely terrified. You know, the usual.”
Receiving condoling sighs from both men, she elaborated, “They’ve been very unsupportive to Erin her entire life and I just don’t see how bringing me home is going to help them take her seriously any better. I’m going to say or do something to completely ruin Christmas, I just know it. And after last year’s disaster, I just wanted to give her something to remember, not look back and think, ‘another terrible holiday.’”
“Wow,” Norm almost chuckled, “Honey, I think you might be making that a bit more dramatic than necessary.” She shot him a mock-glare and he continued. “Everyone’s nervous about meeting their significant other’s family! I don’t think you’re going to ruin Christmas if you say something…Holtzy.”
She groaned and put her face in her hands. Dan touched her shoulder comfortingly. “Holtz, you’re different — no bones about it. But it’s not bad different. You make people better just by knowing you, and the Gilberts will hopefully hone that, too.”
Rubbing her head and fiddling with the arm of her glasses, Holtz added, “I just don’t want to make things harder for her.”
Norm cleared his throat and took one of her leather-coated hands and gave it a squeeze. “At this point, the only thing that would make things harder for Erin? Would be going through it alone. Be there for her. Your presence will make this easier for her.”
Holtz stared at her near-empty suitcase with an exasperated look. She was ready for bed, wearing a pair of underwear and a long sleeve shirt that she’d stolen from Patty’s basket after doing post-bust laundry at the firehouse — she liked it because it came down almost to her knees. Her hair was undone, and Erin loved the sight of her as she stepped into their room. “I figured it wouldn’t take you long to pack,” She said quietly, wrapping her arms around the shorter woman from behind. Holtz sighed and reached back, grabbing a bit of Erin’s ever-growing hair. She’d kept the side-bangs over the course of the year, but never trimmed the length. Holtz liked being able to play with it and tangle it around her fingers with a little yank during various activities.
“I don’t know what to pack,” Holtz admitted, feeling very small as she considered the conversation she’d had with Norm the day before.
“Just pack what you’d normally wear,” Erin said as if it were so easy to be that casual. “What you wear isn’t going to change any opinions of theirs.” Holtz had fisted a mound of her hair and squeezed her eyes shut in frustration. She was already embarrassed about what she could say or do that might affect the ever-stifling judgement of the Gilberts — add her general presence to the mix and she was completely doomed.
Erin walked her out of the closet backwards her to sit on the edge of the bed, tilting her chin up and forcing her to make eye contact. “Listen to me. I don’t want to see you acting like this because of them. I spent my whole life in this uptight, awful state of anxiety, and about half of it was due to their actions. Don’t let them hurt you, too. C’mon, can I help you?”
Holtz nodded, letting out a long breath. “Can I borrow some of your clothes?”
Opening and closing her mouth like a fish for a moment, Erin responded, “My life has been devoted to pretending to be someone I wasn’t to appease them. I really hate that they’re making you feel that way as well. What if…I picked out some outfits of yours for you,” Erin suggested sweetly. “And if you still don’t like them, then I’ll let you wear something of mine, but I’m telling you — I want you to be yourself.”
Erin fluttered around the room with some kind of practiced grace — organizing was one of her favorite things to do, after all. They discussed the pros and cons of crushed velvet as the type A of the two of them sorted through Holtz’s wardrobe. Knowing she was feeling self conscious, about coming across too strange, Erin selected clothes that would still give Holtz her style, but toned down. Finally settling on enough outfits to get through the week, Erin tossed in a pair of high heels for herself and a pair of loafers for her girlfriend, their travel toiletry bags, then called it a day. Holtz brought up a few pieces of metal from the basement and deposited them into her carry-on, offering a shrug and a wink when Erin wondered what sort of nuclear devices she was trying to smuggle onto a plane.
The two suitcases were neatly lined at the door and Erin crawled up the mattress with tired eyes. Holtz rolled over to kiss her lips and clapped twice, turning out the overhead light and the lanterns around the room on. “I’m sorry for being so nervous about this,” She apologized.
“Don’t be — sorry, or nervous,” Erin said calmly. “Well, I am certainly not one to talk about not being nervous.”
Holtzmann lifted the woman’s shirt up so she could slide her palm along the smooth skin of her boney spine. Erin moaned at the touch, eyes closing. “If you want to have pre-Christmas sex, we should probably make that happen these next two nights because it would be really awkward if my parents heard us.”
Snickering, Holtz teased, “Aww, I was hoping to do it in your twin bed.”
Erin lifted her head, giggling. “My parents converted my bedroom to a regular-sized guest room like fifteen years ago when I never came home from college.”
“Damn,” The blonde teased, “Your house isn’t like some freaky shrine to you?”
“Nah,” She explained, “They packed me up when I moved out. I mean — there’s pictures, but my mom is too interested in HGTV and Martha Stewart to leave the family sitting on her mantel when she could have some sweater-covered pumpkins or something equally as awful.”
“So I don’t even get to see any baby Erin artwork? There’s not like, a Nintendo sitting in your basement waiting for me to play it?” Holtz’s hand stopped rubbing her back and Erin propped herself up.
“It wasn’t that kind of house. My mom is, to this day, quite conservative and competitive. I think she’s got a craft blog. My dad has his spot in the garage where he works on his fancy car, but he’s pretty strict on too much clutter. The’ve always been like that.”
Holtz felt her interest peeking a little. “What kind of car is it?”
Erin grimaced, raising a shoulder. “Red?”
“Ahh, Errrrrrin!” She leaned back dramatically, falling into the pillows. “Have you learned nothing in all your time with me? Have I failed you so deeply?”
“No,” She giggled, “I just never really cared to find out. That was ‘your father’s car,’” She said in a mocking, nasally tone. “‘Wouldn’t want him cutting the grass or anything useful!’ He had a few when I was little — always fixing them up and trading them in for something new.”
Holtz smirked. “It’s nice that they stayed married this whole time, though. Probably because your dad has still lost his nuts from what I’m gathering in conversation with you and Abby.”
Erin was full on laughing as she pulled her girlfriend in for a kiss. “I love you.”
“Mmm,” Holtz leaned over to suck her neck for a moment, earning Erin’s groan. “I love you, too.” She sat up, motioning for Erin to lift her body slightly. She peeled the woman’s shirt off and then laid her on her stomach. Reaching over to the nightstand, she pumped a significant amount of lotion on her hands.
She straddled Erin and started to splay the thick, oily liquid across her shoulders, tracing her upper back tattoo with a layer first. Realizing she was about to get a massage, the physicist hunkered down against the pillow, reveling in just how good her girlfriend was at doing so.
Holtz started with flat palms, using her thumbs to twist at the knots that formed in Erin’s shoulders, making her hiss in the sweet relieving pain that the sensation brought. Moving slowly and purposefully, she dragged her fingers up to Erin’s neck and the base of her skull, kissing the trail on her way before digging fingers into the sensitive, tender skin covering her brainstem. “Gotta take away the tension of a genius,” She teased, trying not to get too excited at all the noises of pleasure Erin was releasing.
It was almost a full half hour later that Holtz’s hands were sore and Erin was beyond relaxed, almost asleep as the blonde rolled off of her and curled in beside her, receiving a long, lazy kiss. “You’re amazing.”
“I try,” She said, her voice low with sleep. She knew in her soul that Erin genuinely felt that way about her, but it was difficult when the pit of her stomach rolled with anxiety that maybe she wasn’t good enough for the brilliant physicist to bring home to a traditional, conservative family.
“Have I mentioned lately how much I hate poltergeists?” Erin grumbled as she flicked slime off her hands and onto the cement flooring of a high school basement. She shivered, the sticky substance trickling down her back — though she didn’t look half as bad as Holtzmann who stood next to her, uniform drenched in ooze. She had originally found the prankster ghost’s antics somewhat humorous. Now she was trying very hard not to have a panic episode due to her senses being infiltrated with putrid green plasma-like substance best described in a Dr. Seuss book she’d read as a child.
“I’m pretty sure you just wrote an article for the Review detailing exactly how much you detest a pest,” She mumbled, gagging as some dripped from her lip into her mouth when she spoke. Erin frowned and used the clean edge of her sleeve to wipe Holtz’s face in pity. Her gooey-glasses were folded up in her pocket, and at least she’d been wearing them to save her eyesight for the rest of the bust.
Lifting her radio, she announced to the duo upstairs, “Failed capture. Still at large.”
“Same here…these damn ghosts don’t realize our Christmas break started an hour ago! Do we get holiday overtime?”
“I don’t think they celebrate the birth of the baby savior where they’re from,” Holtz added dryly as she pleaded with the universe for the ghost to show up and get into her trap or let her obliterate it so she could go home and shower. About to clomp up the stairs, Holtz froze upon feeling her ears pop and the hair of her neck stand up, despite the sticky residue attached to the baby hairs. “We got company again,” She hissed and Erin turned from the landing, about to dash back down when Holtz’s sudden scream of panic caused her to startle on the spot.
Watching with wide eyes as a purple swirl rifted through the air and tugged Holtz by the shoulder backwards to light, Erin screeched for backup before jumping down the stairs until she was just tall enough to aim above the ghostly dimension ripping through space. Holtz was firing aimlessly with her proton gun from her awkward, reverse angle with nonsuccess. Feeling nothing but raw panic guiding her movements, Erin retrieved the new-and-improved, reloadable shotgun from her back, blinking one eye and glancing through the scope. Finger ready on the trigger, she sent a non-denominational plea to any force in the universe that Holtz wouldn’t buck up in any sudden movement.
In a sick stroke of luck, she managed to hit the gnarly looking, reptilian-like claw that was extending out of the portal. An inhuman cry like she’d never heard sounded through the air as the purple place of hell closed off and Holtz was thrown forward, landing so hard on her ribcage that the wind was knocked out of her. Erin dashed down the remainder of the stairs just as Abby and Patty were running down the flight, unaware of the monster that had tried to cut through time. They only saw Holtz face down on the floor and the two of them were immediately in flashback mode. Just as Abby had her hand on their work emergency cellphone to call for an ambulance, the blonde rolled herself over and wiggled out of her pack when Erin unclasped it, reaching up with a struggle of a breath to hook her arms around her girlfriend.
Erin’s gun was haphazardly tossed to the side as she slipped back onto her bottom and with strength fueled by pure anxiety, she tugged Holtz’s entire body into her hold, pressing her sweaty forehead against the slime-coated one, holding her close as the blonde tried desperately to catch her breath.
“There was something else here,” Erin said in a near-cryptic tone, her eyes darting up from underneath her messy, slick bangs that had spewed over her entire face, giving her a sinisterly serious expression. Abby and Patty shared a look. “It rippled a portal through space and tried to pull her back. All I saw of it was like…a very large reptile claw. I shot it and it doubled back.”
Holtz was finally breathing — though it was certainly a struggle to do so. “I felt it…guys…Er, the HoltzPro?”
Nodding at Abby, who already had her phone out, the woman pulled up the application and rewound the live stream from Erin’s camera to three minutes prior, the expression on her face unreadable as she and Abby watched. The view was from Erin’s shoulder, which was jumpy and grainy at best, not giving the other scientist much to work off of.
Patty watched skeptically. “Alright, ya’ll. It’s our vacation, I say we haul ass outta here and let Homeland Security deal with any portals as a little Christmas present.”
Erin continued to hold her freshly traumatized girlfriend, was unfocused on the present as she theorized. “No, you guys…Abby —“ She shook her head, dread pooling into her core. “Dimensional Rift Theory.”
The shorter scientist cringed. “Yeah, Er, I’m not so sure about that,” She watched the video again. “I mean, it sort of looks like it, but we’ve never proved a spontaneous occurrence of it. Everything we have found post-Rowangate has been because of the charged lay lines. The few busts we’ve had outside of the city have all been welcomed into the home by some damn kids and an Ouija board. I mean…yeah, I can’t explain this at the moment, but I don’t think we’ve got monsters capable of completely ripping through space and time. This isn’t World of Warcraft.”
Patty suggested, “The Poltergeist seemed to really know just how to push your buttons. It could have created an illusion to what you wanted to see, we’ve experienced that before.”
Holtzmann finally sat up on her own, the now-crusting slime completely sending her mood sour. “Yeah, I’m sure the ghost just wanted to fuck with Erin so hard it ripped open a pretend hole through dimensions and tried to drag me back to hell with it. Great theory.”
Everyone blinked in stunned silence at the attitude from their usually upbeat mad scientist. When she sensed the tension, Holtz tutted and shook her head. “I’m waiting in the car for you three to finish arguing about what to write in the next book about this.”
Slinging her proton pack over one shoulder, she marched up the steps, her movements stopping at the top as she suddenly reached back, one-handed, tossed out the ghost trap. Without even having both shoulder straps on, she aimed her wand up. From their position, all the women could see was the blinding glow of the trap, followed by a bitter-sounding laugh. “Mission accomplished.”
When the front door to the school slammed, the three older women exchanged a look. “Um, I didn’t see her get possessed by the ghost in that video, did you?” Patty asked with looming uncertainty.
Her gaze fell above her, to the empty spot in the universe where she knew what she saw and didn’t like it one bit. “I have no idea, on any accounts, what happened tonight. Maybe once she’s cleaned up and the ghost is in the containment unit, Holtz’ll be more ready to explain what she felt. Come on, let’s get the absolute hell out of here before we fall into a trap door or something equally as C-rated horror movie tonight.”
Holtz was already sitting in the back seat, arms crossed, boots on the floor, dingy white socks drawn up to the head rest in front of her. Knowing it would likely cause drama when one of the others inevitably asked her to move her feet for the sake of not wanting them near their faces while in the enclosed space, Erin slid into the passenger seat, taking the stinky sock odor as girlfriend duty while Abby claimed the diver’s seat and Patty sat as far away from Holtz as possible in the back. The sticky engineer was drumming her crusty-slime caked fingers on her knee caps and glaring out the window with a squint, the halo-glow from the street lights intense without her glasses.
In an attempt to restore the standard tone of imperturbation that followed a bust, Erin switched the radio on to relieve a bit of tension. She and Patty fell into a conversation regarding the time of the song coming out which did clear the air to a degree as Abby navigated the busy pre-holiday NYC traffic.
When they pulled into the garage, the car wasn’t even at a complete stop and Holtz was charging up the half-staircase to the first floor changing area for a shower.
The other three women let out a safe sigh and then a mutual giggle before Erin groaned. “Guys, I don’t really know what we saw tonight, but…let’s give her credit — whatever it was, knocked the daylights out of her, but more than that…some security, too. Just — be supportive, okay? I doubt we’ll be here much longer, but try to let her know we’re on the same team and want the same answers she does.”
“You got it, Erin. Sorry we weren’t taking it too seriously in there. We’re all beat.” Patty shrugged and reached over to give her shoulder a little squeeze before they took their time getting the gear put away and uniforms in the wash so everything would be good to go in the New Year.
Taking Holtz’s goo-coated glasses from the pocket before tossing the outfit into the machine, Erin moved to the laundry room sink, carefully removing any trace of the green ooze before drying the lenses on the thin material of her underarmour. Closing the arms, she neatly lined them up in Holtzmann’s locker.
Feeling a little slimy herself, Erin stepped into the community-style shower, coughing at the onslaught of steam when she opened the door. Hastily shimmying out of her clothes, she pulled back the curtain where Holtz was sitting on the tile floor of a stall, knees drawn to her chest near-scalding hot water beating down on the words of her tattoo. Turning the water to cool, Holtz yelped at the sudden change in temperature and looked up, realizing there was another human in the shower with her. Shaking her head, she covered her eyes with a red-tinged arm from the excessive heat, covering her shameful stare.
Realizing Holtz hadn’t started scrubbing yet, Erin dropped a dollop of Holtz’s unique slime-removing shampoo and soap combination into her palm. Rubbing her hands together until it foamed, she silently set to work on blonde, crunchy-yet-wet locks, watching the green detangle in seconds when the chemicals hit. Holtz still had her face covered until Erin took her arms to scrub up, followed by the rest of her body after forcing her to rise with a press of a pulse point under her arm. Holtz was practically numb as she stood with curly, foamy hair while Erin washed her own before rinsing them both off.
Stepping into the chilly tile outside of the curtain, Erin made a soggy dash across the floor for the towels she’d neglected in her panic to cool her girlfriend down. Returning and bundling Holtz up, giggling at the wet sight of her, she received a hint of a laugh back as Holtz pressed her lips together and out. Kissing her loudly, Erin wrapped herself in the fluffy white towel. They bopped into each other a few times while air drying before pulling themselves together and rubbing down, Holtz managing to move her being again now that she was clean.
Stepping out into their locker room, Holtzmann leafed through her messy door until coming up with a barely-passable-as-clothing look of neon cat pajama pants and a bold stripped button down top. Erin didn’t even have words for her as she merely tugged on clean spandex underclothes and called it enough to transport them home.
Holtzmann scurried out of the locker room in her mis-matched glory. Spotting Patty and Abby going through the footage on a large screen of an iMac, Holtz reached to pull both of her friends into a long group hug. “Sorry I was an asshole,” She muttered, ashamed of herself. “I was very overloaded and scared and I took it out on you.”
Patty kissed the top of her damp head and accepted the apology first. “Don’t even worry, boo baby. You gotta relax now, though, ‘kay? Don’t worry ‘bout whatever that creepy shit was today. You’re meetin’ the in-laws tomorrow and that’s more than enough to keep on your mind. You take it easy and be cool. Everything’s gonna be fine. Patty Promise.”
Abby slugged her gently. “We know slime hits you even harder than Erin on the few occasions it actually does. And whatever you did see, was pretty messed up looking. But Patty’s right — we got the ghost and there’s no sense trying to deal with inter dimensional drama now.”
The couple arrived home nearly an hour later around the time they usually started winding down for bed. Erin made a cup of tea while Holtz turned on the faux fire place, shedding the button-down top and leaving her shirtless in front of it as she lifted a leather bound book into her lap, which Erin knew she was forbidden to touch and honored the rule. She was aware Holtz had been fiddling with poetry to match their resolutions from the December before since the year had began. She promised to share it before the year was out.
Noting it was the eighteenth, the physicist got a little overly eager as she stepped into a pair of slippers before sitting down on a large square pillow next to her girlfriend, wiggling a bit in anticipation. “Is today the day?”
Holtz found a mischievous smile. “Sorry, sweetheart.” Erin couldn’t help the exasperated sigh that fell from her lips as she carefully placed her coffee on the ledge of the fireplace stoop and laid back dramatically onto the plush, white carpet behind her.
“Is my prince ever going to come? I’m dead inside, Holtzy, I need the romantic gesture of your poetry to awaken my soul.”
Snorting, the blonde flipped through the pages, taking a pen between her teeth. Nodding to herself, she scribbled something on the cream-colored pages before giving a heavy breath. “Because you’ve been such a good girl all year, I’m going to read you one. It’s a short one and not my best, but…” Her cheeks colored and Erin popped up in excitement. Shifting so her knees were pressed to Holtz’s she held her galaxy mug close to her chest while awaiting the majestic words of her girlfriend.
“Shit, I’m so embarrassed, ahhh!” Holtz bit her lip and looked up before taking a deep breath. “Okay. This one just…reminded me of tonight. Here…here it goes:
I’m falling, into a dark cavern that leads to nowhere.
There’s no one to hear me scream;
She jumped in once before — I saw it —
There was no hesitation;
But it seems like she didn’t make the lunge for me.
And at that, I hit the bottom,
It’s the blackest hole in the known universe that I’ve discovered —
I wonder what sorts of monsters are here, waiting to ascend on me.
Then I feel them.
Wrapping around my neck.
Not the demons I had imagined.
It’s a firm hold, protective.
It’s her. I didn’t see her leap in to save me,
She’d been here all along —
Knowing exactly what I needed before I did
Waiting to give me
The support I require
To stand on my own two feet.
Holtz closed her book and her eyes at the same time, not wanting to see Erin’s reaction to her attempt at poetry.
Suddenly, the very arms she’d written about were folded around her bare torso and Holtz sighed, leaning back into them with a hum. Lips curled around to attach themselves to her own and she accepted them with gusto, twisting so she was half-sitting in Erin’s lap.
There was a pause only long enough for her stunning, savior girlfriend to mumble, “That was beautiful, Jill.”
“I do want to share more with you,” She said softly, pulling away to open her eyes, “But it’s for our Christmas.”
Erin ran her fingers through the messy locks that had curled naturally in the cold cab ride home. Her smile was radiating genuine interest and encouragement. “I know you’ve been working on a particle accelerator that can alter the time stream. Any chance it’ll be ready for the morning so we can blast through the next four days?”
Snickering into another kiss, Holtz pressed her chest against Erin’s covered one, earning a groan at the sensation of her somewhat-scratchy spandex against her nipples. “Unfortunately, no. But believe me, if I could whip it up that fast, I would. I’m nervous and ready to get back for our celebration. A week of you to myself — I can hardly even imagine how great this is going to be.”
With delight, Erin expressed, “It’s going to be our reward for making it through four days with my parents.” She sighed. “We can do it, Holtz. We can do it.”
Erin knew that slipping her girlfriend decaffeinated coffee with a Xanax was wrong. However, the demur woman in front of her at the airport was proving it difficult to hold a grudge against herself for doing so. As they waited in the endless holiday line through security, Erin kept an arm wrapped around the woman’s waist, keeping her mellow, sleepy body close. Holtz was in a pair of black corduroy pants with the bottoms hanging into her non-work Doc Martens replica boots. A black and white checkered flannel was on top, and as Erin promised, she looked like a severely toned-down version of herself. Her hair was in it’s usual style, with a wide, black headband around it to hopefully give a slightly girlier flare. Starving off a yawn, Holtz tucked her face into Erin’s neck, her teeth nipping at her necklace chain for a split second.
Erin felt a little guilty as she fought another big yawn, unable to hold it in at the very end. She was looking every bit Professor Gilbert with a white lacy top that had a Peter Pan collar tucked into a high waisted skirt with black, thick tights underneath. They were adorably matching as they were finally moved through the long Laguardia line.
It was almost two hours later that they were seated on the plane, Holtz completely curled into her girlfriend’s side from her window seat. She was half asleep as she mused, “So — is there like at least an eight percent chance that Madonna’s gonna be at the airport when we land? ‘Cause that’d be freakin’ sweet.”
“Ah, no, babe — she doesn’t live in Michigan anymore. She thinks she’s British.”
Frowning, the blonde nuzzled tighter in, playing with the hem of Erin’s skirt as she rubbed the thick, woolen material between her fingers. “Okay, what about that lovely Marshall Mathers fellow? Of course, I don’t suppose your mom and dad live anywhere near 8 Mile.”
Erin rolled her eyes. “Neither does Eminem. He lives in suburbia now.”
“So he is your neighbor?”
“Wrong side of the state,” Erin squeezed her knee and kissed the top of her head. “The most famous person in Battle Creak is Tony the Tiger.”
“Ohhh!” That caught the scientists attention. She sat up with a silly smile. “Did you know him, personally?”
Erin twirled her finger around her hair in a mildly flirty fashion. “Totally. In high school, I dated Tony the Tiger…but I broke up with him.”
“Damn shame. You woulda popped out some sweet kittens.” Holtz leaned over and kissed her lips tenderly. “At least you never got freaky with Snap, Crackle, and Pop.”
Giving her best wink, Erin shrugged. “I never said that. You know good things come in small packages.”
Snorting, Holtz tucked herself back into her shoulder. “Can you wake me up when we get there?”
Kissing her temple, Erin felt nervous energy settle into her gut as the flight crew started to make their way around checking isles and seat belts. She ran her thumb over Holtz’s wrist that was draped over her knee, trapped in thought as her girlfriend fell asleep on her. Truthfully — she did not care about what her parents thought about her relationship with Holtzmann. No matter what they said or did — she knew there would be disapproval just in defying traditional dating. What she was worried about is what they might say to Holtz. Erin would take whatever insults or passive aggressive statements they had for her. She’d dealt with it for forty-five years.
But Holtz didn’t deserve to get caught up in their backwards thinking. She was the best thing, the purest light that had ever entered Erin’s life. She’d be damned if they made her feel like anything less than the most important person in the world.
Stewing in her thoughts for well over an hour, Erin didn’t even feel Holtz shifting until her firmly sprayed blonde curls were at her chest. Half-slitted eyes greeted her as she mumbled, “Think m’girlfriend drugged me.”
Giggling, Erin smoothed the faux lines of worries on her forehead with her thumb and then put a kiss in the middle. “Don’t think it was anything but out of love.”
Yawning and purring when Erin’s blunt nails scratched along her shirt collar, the younger woman nuzzled in impossibly closer. “Thanks, baby. I was a nervous wreck.”
“I know. I wanted to double my own dose this morning but I also needed to be sober through security.”
“Hmm.” Holtz bit her lip before muttering, “You woke me up by thinking so loudly.” Glancing up again, she seriously questioned, “Are you okay?”
Erin ground her teeth together, keeping her anxious fingers busy by continuing her tender touches. “Nervous.” With a long sigh, she confessed her thoughts, “I just don't want them upsetting you.”
“Hey.” Holtz sat up, shaking her head and touching her cheek. “I’m nervous too, but at the end of the day, we’re going to have each other. And we get to come home and do magical shit. It’s gonna be alright. We get to have our special day.”
The flight began it’s descent in to the Kalamazoo area shortly after the conversation switched to Holtzmann wondering if Santa was bringing her the childhood dream chinchillas she’d always wanted. Erin assured her he wasn’t, while Holtz shushed her for trying to ruin Christmas magic. As they taxied to the terminal, Erin’s fingers were shaking. With a firm kiss to her knuckles, Holtz made a vow to keep her as emotionally safe as possible the entire journey.
Each taking their suitcases from the overhead compartment when the isle started to clear in front of them, Erin sent her dad a quick message that they were on the way out. It was flurrying at two forty-three in the afternoon when she caught sight of a thin, pepper-haired man in the airport lobby, his hands in his pockets as he shifted weight from foot to foot. Feeling suddenly overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of him for the first time in two years, she felt Holtz notice and the shorter woman took her suitcase as Erin called for her dad, then fell into his open arms when he spotted her.
“Hey, sunshine,” He mumbled onto the top of her head, arms over her shoulders. “Oh, how I’ve missed you.”
Richard Gilbert looked exactly the part of Erin’s father, Holtz thought with a smile. Dark dress slacks tucked into a crispy button down under a grey, argyle sweater vest with oxford shoes — the picture of the man who'd given Dr. Erin Gilbert life.
“I missed you, too,” She confessed, not crying but there was a definite lump in her throat. She stepped back after squeezing his hand. “Dad, this is my girlfriend — Jillian Holtzmann. She likes to go by Holtz.”
After giving back Erin her suitcase, Holtz extended a hand out for a shake, then found her eyes widen in surprise at being also wrapped up in a hug by the older man. “Welcome to the family, Holtz,” Mr. Gilbert said in the most sincere voice he could. “I’m glad to have the person who makes my daughter so happy here for the holiday.”
In shock, Holtz nodded and pulled away when Richard did. “Happy to be here, sir.”
He placed a large, warm hand on her shoulder offering, “You can all me Richard, honey. Shall we?”
“Is mom in the car?” Erin wondered as her dad led them through the sliding airport doors.
“No,” He rolled his eyes, “She’s probably draping more burlap across the mantle. It’s her usual Barbara crazy coming out this season. You’ve been warned.”
After loading their suitcases, Erin piled into the back of the blue Volt with Holtz, earning a brow from the woman but not thinking twice about sitting up front with her dad. She squeezed Holtzmann’s knee reassuringly as she buckled up, her dad asking questions about New York and their business. She was pleased to see he was curious, though her mother probably wouldn’t let the topic be breached at her house.
“Well, Jill’s the real expert on mechanics. She can make literally anything that Abby or I dream up.”
Usually, Holtz would be cockily bragging about her equipment, but she remained reserved, filling in details for Erin occasionally, just trying to appear normal.
“I gotta ask, Holtz, has the government ever tried to take you into one of their secret bunkers and build them something for the military?”
“The answer to that is classified, sir. But — let’s just say, Switzerland is quite nice this time of year.”
Richard chuckled and Erin reiterated, “We’re lucky to have her working with us.”
“Better than building nuclear bombs,” He joked as they neared their exit, though Erin and Holtz shared a tight-lipped smile at the notion which wasn’t terribly far off from reality. “Now — I’m going to warn you, your mother has been an absolute Christmas whack-job. She thinks I’ve been working a lot of overtime, but I’ve really just been hiding down at the tavern until nine o’clock almost every night because if I see one more twine ornament or salt-dough garland, I will tear it all down.”
Erin giggled and shrugged, not expecting anything less. “Did she win the block contest this year?”
Richard let out a low groan. “Second place, sunshine. Don’t mention it — very sore subject. I don’t think we’ll be having any summer cookouts with the VanDells this summer. Anyway, you’ve moved to a bigger place? I caught some of your conversation with your mom few weeks ago, but didn’t wanna be nosey — I figured I’d see you soon enough.”
Holtz offered an answer, “It’s really nice — we bought it, and did some remodeling so it fit our needs better. It’s a tri-level, the upstairs is almost like a loft. The basement was technically for a second renter, but we Gorbachev’d it and made it into one large room home lab-slash-office. We love freakin’ out the neighbors with some six am Saturday drilling into a nuclear containment unit.” She grinned wildly, earning a playful slug from Erin.
“It’s bigger, but cozier, too,” Erin clarified, accepting Holtz’s fingers around her palm when she offered them. “We like having our space to ourselves and every room is a place to curl up and relax.”
“Well, I’m happy for you,” Richard beamed in the rearview mirror as they pulled into the subdivision that held Erin’s childhood home and subsequent trauma. She felt her stomach flip. “You deserve it, Erin. You’ve worked so damn hard and it might have felt like a long time coming, but you’ve got your little slice of the American dream now and I couldn’t be happier for you.” Pulling into the driveway, he turned around, trying to truly express, “Conventional or no, I’m happy for you and proud of you. Understand?”
Swallowing a lump of emotion in her throat, Erin nodded and grinned, squeezing Holtz’s hand before taking a deep breath and opening the door. She stared at the two-story house with one arm folded over the other, an unreadable expression on her face. The tan brick was as she remembered, a standard dark grey roof atop was lined with Christmas lights. Animatronic reindeer were in the front of the yard, perched in the light dusting of half an inch of snow on the ground.
Holtz curled around her left arm and tucked her chin on Erin’s shoulder. “You grew up in a really nice house,” She said and the simplicity of the statement almost broke her fellow scientist’s heart. “With decorations at Christmas. Erin — I love it already.”
Turning her face to the side, she kissed the top of Holtz’s nose before nodding to their suitcases, though Richard insisted he’d take them in if she handled the door.
A loud yipping sound rippled through the air as she pushed the entryway open. Holtz laughed when Angel dashed out the door and around her ankles, then back inside when the blonde took a step. Richard followed after the dog did the same to her, then Erin.
“I’m coming!” A sing-song voice rang from the basement steps and Erin took in a deep breath before coming face to face with—
“Mom, hey!” She sighed and accepted the embrace from Barbara, who was her identical height and lankiness, wearing a long a three-quarter sleeve emerald green sweater with appliqués at the shoulder. Her hair was clearly freshly dyed and almost the same color as Erin’s, the smile on her face the most sincere the daughter had remembered seeing in years.
“It’s so great to have you home! Would you believe it’s been six years since you came home around the holidays? We looked back through pictures last night! Six years! I’m so thrilled you’re here!”
Nodding, Erin pulled back and reached a hand for Holtz, who shimmied out of her jacket and extended her hand for Barbara to shake. “You prefer Holtz?” Nodding, the blonde tried not to appear nervous. “It’s nice to meet you, sweetheart. Thank you for bringing my daughter home for Christmas! I suppose you’re responsible for this?”
“Abby helped,” She said simply, “And it’s nice to meet you as well.” Hoping the elder Gilbert woman wouldn’t notice how clammy her hand was she let go and pressed her lips together before finding room on the coat hook at the left of the door. Toeing off her shoes (as she assumed was the Gilbert tradition, based on Erin’s behavior), she stood in a pair of uncharacteristically matched socks before squatting down and greeting Angel, who pawed at her legs excitedly.
There was an awkward moment of silence until Holtz, of all of them, managed to fill it upon rising with the dog snuggled in her hold, unfazed by the white fuzz on her black, checkered top. “You said something about pictures? I have been looking forward to my fill of baby Erin for a few weeks now.”
Barbara laughed, tossing an arm around a red-faced Erin and assuring her, “We’ve got ‘em all lined up. I’ve gotta finish a few things for tomorrow night in the kitchen, Erin, mind showing Holtz around, honey?”
Nodding, she gave the dog an affectionate pet. Holtz tried to put it down but the pup merely whined at her leg again. “Oh fine, but this isn’t what the next four days is going to be made of, little miss.”
“Yeah, right,” Erin snorted and waved Holtz to the left of the door, point out her dad’s office. It was simply decorated, very much Erin-level organization, but clearly held a touch of Barbara’s over-the-top holiday decor that seemed to fill the house. On the shelf that sat just under the windowsill was a little back-lit snowy village, and a tiny, beaded tree under a glass dome covered the table with an attached light next to a gliding chair. Books on finance and neatly tabbed binders of their homeownership filled the taller shelf in the room, with a sleek iMac on the computer desk, trimmed in a fluffy garland. The rug in the middle of the room was snowman shaped and Holtz couldn’t quite hold in her eye-roll. “Is every room this — “
“Yes,” Erin supplied, pointing to a closed door across the hall, “That’s their bedroom — I can’t say I’ve been in there since I was about ten. There could be bodies or gold behind that door.”
“Gold, no — bodies, possible, the season’s right to store them above ground.”
Holtz laughed out loud and turned to face Richard standing with his hands on his hips. Erin was flushed but merely shrugged. “How am I to know?”
He stepped forward to ruffle her hair on his way into the office and Erin waved Holtz into their main family room which was through the home entrance archway. “Oh, wow,” She said under her breath, taking in the tallest Christmas tree she’d ever seen in a house, noting the way the vaulted ceiling allowed for such a large faux fur. It was expertly decorated like something out of a catalogue, a handmade tree skirt of gold satin surrounding it. She grinned a little. “So fancy. My mom used to only hang up the ornaments I made her…and the tree was this one’s infant in size.”
Erin shrugged, her lips pressed together in thought. “She used to let me hang up the ones I’d do in school. They’re probably long gone by now, though. Salt-dough only lasts for so long.”
Holtz kept the dog to her body with one hand, using the other to lift a picture frame that had a snowman attached to the side from an end table that showed a preschool-aged Erin working on a Lite Brite. “Look at you!” She cooed. “You were so cute!”
Her shy smile in the picture hadn’t changed as she had half a hot air balloon illustrated in lights without a pattern. A santa hat was perched on the back of her head and she looked as though she’d been interrupted from something terribly important to the young scientist. Setting the frame down, the engineer continued to let her gaze sweep the living room. A fireplace had a bench in front of it which was covered in Christmas pillows, as was the cream-hued sofa and armchair. The television set was surrounded by snowmen of all shapes and sizes, while every shelf and hanging in the room had been replaced and purged of it’s usual ornaments for Christmas decor. It was all a little overwhelming, though somewhat non-cohesive for Holtzmann. “Everything is very nice and elaborate but…I can’t…It lacks a theme,” She whispered into Erin’s ear as the taller of them led them up the stairs. Erin winked and let off a little ding sound from the tip of her tongue, indicating that Holtz had discovered one of Barbara’s lifelong shortcomings.
The hallway was an open-style, looking down at the living room with a wooden railing leading to the two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Holtz caught several photos on the wall under a ‘live laugh love’ wall hanging, vowing to memorize them later. They came to the last door, which Erin pushed open, finding a tan room with white accents and a crisp cream bedspread. “This is where the magic happened,” She said dryly.
“Well, if by magic, you mean your first ghost encounter which ultimately led you to the most dynamite career and girlfriend you could ask for, then hell yeah — magic.”
Erin shrugged, it was true, but the room held nothing but toxic memories of trauma for her. “It was yellow, when it was mine. I had this shelf,” She gestured to the wall which was now decorated in another Christmas wonderland. “It was books from top to bottom. When I got a little older, my awards from my projects went right at my eye line so I could focus on them whenever I was feeling discouraged.” She sighed, sitting down on the edge of the queen size guest bed and shrugging. “I almost would rather stay in the other spare. This room just feels wrong. Especially to have you, my happiest time, in my scariest.”
Holtz frowned and stepped forward between Erin’s legs, pushing her palms against the woman’s cheeks, kissing her mouth before promising in a hushed mumble, “Let’s give you some happier times in this room than, shall we?”
Giggling, Erin found her smile and leaned her head forward to rest against her girlfriend’s chest. “We’re going to have to exercise extreme caution. My mother is painting a really pretty picture of accepting progressive, but deep down, Barb is losing her shit that her gay daughter and her girlfriend are going to be sleeping together above her.”
“Perfect,” Holtz winked. “We all know how important proof is for her validation.”
Laughing again, Erin squeezed Holtzmann tight, hoping to convey just how grateful she was to have her there.
Holtzmann made silent observations as the family sat down for dinner. Erin hosted their friends at their apartment somewhat regularly, and the layout was much the same; the contents of pots spooned into dishes to be passed around the table, everyone taking the portion they desired. Holtzmann knew this was ‘family style’ eating, but she’d only ever experienced it for herself at the few Thanksgiving feasts her mother and she attended in her elementary days. Frozen dinners, takeout, and ‘get what you want, when you want it,’ had been her way of eating growing up. Living with Erin, the two of them typically took what they wanted out of the cookware and to the table or countertop. Seeing Erin’s family prepare to eat a meal in such a way, knowing it had been a nightly occurrence, made her almost wonder if she’d missed out on something.
About to stuff a bite of mashed potatoes into her mouth, Holtz felt her thigh get tapped. Erin’s mother was shooting the two of them a look over her folded hands as Richard performed the same gesture to his own.
Holtz put her spoon down and placed her hands in her lap, feeling dreadfully awkward as she was about to not only experience a genuine family meal, but a prayer to boot.
Richard began. “Dear Lord, we thank you for this day, for the chance to gather here again as the Gilbert family. Thank you for bringing our daughter home to share fellowship with us as we anticipate the celebration of your birth. Thank you for allowing Jillian Holtzmann to come into her life to share joy and happiness with, for allowing them a safe journey here. Thank you for blessing us with the food we are about to eat as all God’s people say — bless us, oh Lord, in these thy gifts which we are about to receive. From thy bounty through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”
Erin managed to mumble the last part, though it made her want to blast her doctorate degree with a proton gun to add to the insult of her scientific intelligence. Holtzmann had to keep her head bowed for another minute after the prayer ended as she contained her laughter after experiencing the odd phenomenon in real life. Clearing her throat, she finally stuffed mashed potatoes in her mouth before her foot could get stuck there in a religious comment.
After an awkward moment of silence passed, Holtzmann found her voice and spared them all. “Richard, your lovely daughter tells me you have a cool, red car and injuring minds would love to know exactly what kind of red car it is because that is the exact amount of detail she knows.”
Richard looked betrayed for a moment, pointing his fork at Erin. “Seriously, sunshine? Red? Do you listen to anything I say?”
Erin rolled her eyes and shrugged. “I was pretty sure it was a Chrysler, but it didn’t sound right, so I just said it was red!”
“Dodge, my love, same company, different brand.”
“Ohh, is it a Challenger? Tell me it’s a Hellcat and that I can drive it?” Holtz got excited, a gleam in her eye.
Richard shook his head. “My wife won’t let me get one. No — it’s a Viper. 1992.”
“Whaaaaat?” Holtz shot Erin a look, then turned back to her father. “’92? So is it the V8 or V10 model? That’s when they rolled out, wasn’t it, there were both prototypes available?”
Turning to look at his daughter once more, Richard glanced between the two ladies sitting across from them. “Where did you find her and how do we keep her?”
“By letting her drive the Viper?” Jillian offered.
Erin put a hand up to shield her eyes and cringed. “I’m not responsible for any property damage that she causes.”
“It’s a V10, SR-Roadster, of course, that’s all there was, and sadly, no, you can’t drive it because it’s currently out of commission. I had a little problem with spontaneous combustion a few months back.”
“Ah, just a day in the life,” Holtz waved a hand.
Erin nodded. “It’s true. We have one of those ‘WE HAVE HAD X DAYS WITHOUT A FIRE’ signs and the highest number we had in two years has been seventeen.”
“It’s all good, I’ve got stock in Amerex.” Holtz shook her head, “Did you add in the after-market cooling system?”
“I tried, but the instructions were in Japanese since it was designed for the Sleuth and I just can’t manage to get it on. I’ll probably pay a guy over the summer to fix it up for me.”
“Why pay a guy when you can have a girl fix it in about twenty-five minutes for free?” Holtz offered, winking.
Richard leaned back. “I would be extremely impressed if you were able to do that, but only if you’re offering.”
“A cooling system?” Erin snickered, “Dad, I’m not exaggerating when I say she’s the best engineer in the world. You should see our car.”
Holtz took a bite of potatoes, trying not to beam in pride.
“Oh yeah? You got it suped up? What’s the make and model?”
“It’s a Cadillac. Uh — body style is a hearse. But I talked to a guy at the GM plant and managed to get a V10 engine from the GMC and took out the V6 that it had. It was the biggest pain of my life, but I managed to get it hooked up. Oh, and the top has a nuclear reactor on it.”
“You put a V10 in a hearse?” Richard was practically star-struck and Holtzmann clapped her hands laughing, Erin happy to see her relaxing.
“Why must it be a hearse?” Barbara questioned and Erin shrugged. “It’s so morbid.”
“Mom, we capture ghosts in for a living — how much more morbid could we get? We were broke and needed a car and it was literally the first thing that came along. Granted, we’ve gotten a new one since then, but…”
“It’s actually the perfect body style to carry us and our equipment. It’s sleek and ironic. What could be better?”
The conversation eventually shifted towards the upcoming holiday and the guest list as Barbara was clearly uncomfortable talking about her daughter’s work. After cleaning up, Richard took Holtzmann out to see the Viper, leaving Barbara alone with her daughter for the first time in over two years.
Erin slid onto the sofa, Angel jumping into her lap and nuzzling her face into her palm. Smiling and accepting the little licks from the puppy, she offhandedly commented, “Is it sad that after thirty years, I still miss Corky?”
Barbara chuckled, thinking about their spaniel-mix from Erin’s early childhood and all the trouble he caused. “He always meant well. He made you happy, too. Your father and I were so grateful that he adored you.”
Chewing on the inside of her cheek, Erin desperately wanted to bring up the dog’s actions with their neighbor — the chain reaction that led to her haunting and trauma. “Mom, you believe me now, right?” She finally mustered the courage to ask, screwing her eyes shut and regretting it as the words fell from her lips.
A long stretch of awkward silence passed before Barbara Gilbert’s trademark sigh escaped and Erin deflated. “Honey, I know that the government likely wouldn’t fund something they didn’t believe in. And you’ve made a reputable career for yourself, published time over for your work over the last two years — I know this. It’s just all so hard to reconcile.”
“Why?” Erin demanded to know, feeling her blood pressure rise. “Mother, why is it so damn hard to accept that I’ve seen things that can only be classified as paranormal? And it is normal! It’s scientific fact now! To deny the existence of the paranormal is like being a climate change denier!”
“Erin,” Barbara’s pitch was the same aggravating sound Erin had spent her entire life loathing. “I love you, and I’m happy for you. But I don’t think we’re ever going to truly understand one another when it comes to why we choose to believe what we do. You know — you’re surrounded by the beauty of creation every day, but you don’t believe in a Creator. It’s always frustrated me that you’ve had an easier time believing in ghosts than God. But at this point, nothing I can do or say or prove to you will ever change that.”
Dryly, Erin dared to question, “If I released a ghost into this living room, right now, would you believe it?”
There was silence in the room and Erin took it as her cue to leave before she said something she’d regret for three days of passive aggression. Placing the dog on the carpet, she strode through the hardwood hall, walking by pictures of forced smiles from her teenage self and into the garage.
Holtz was lusting over the sleek Viper, her hands resting on the inside as she stared at the engine. She hadn’t done any work on it, to Erin’s surprise, and also to her squeamish state, she greeted a, “Hey baby doll,” in the presence of her father.
“Hey, grease monkey,” She responded despite her blush, “Where’s the grease?”
“We’re gonna have to run to the hardware store and for a few parts before I can do anything major,” She commented. “I’m just enjoying the view. Frickin’ beautiful. Can I get a new car?”
Erin slid an arm over her shoulders and gave a squeeze. “I thought you wanted a motorcycle?”
“Not as nice to look at. And I know I won’t get you on one. I could get you to shotgun in a post-modern hotrod.”
Not saying much in response, Erin observed as her father tentatively strode up to the couple. “Sunshine, what did your mother say?”
Raising a brow, she was about to question how he knew she’d been offended, but Holtzmann easily supplied, “You came out to stare at an engine. Kind of a dead give away.”
Sounding like she’d popped, Erin curled her fingers against her palm. “She still doesn’t believe in ghosts — still doesn’t believe me. After everything.” Feeling an unexpected lump in the back of her throat, Erin shook her head and bit her lip. “It’ll never change. Nothing I ever do will be good enough.”
Richard was awkward next to his daughter. “Honey —“
“Don’t try to defend her to me, please,” Erin stated firmly, earning Holtz’s stiff posture at the notion of a conflict.
He tossed up a hand and headed inside.
At the action, Erin leered and could have screamed. She settled for kicking the undercarriage of the car and grunting loudly, her shoulders heaving as she struggled for composure. Not used to seeing her in such a state, Holtz was slightly startled, but then worked her way towards her job as Erin’s girlfriend.
Resting her chin on the taller woman’s shoulder, Holtzmann shifted so she was behind her. wrapping her arms around Erin’s middle. “You should know, TSA did not suspect my curling iron proton gun or the lipstick miniature containment unit. I’m sure there’s a haunted building somewhere in this town. I’ll text Patty and she can let us know a few locations to check out. We could catch a ghost then put on a little show.”
Letting out a release of frustrated breath that turned into a chuckle, Erin turned and held onto Holtz with a long kiss to her cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here, Jill.”
After waking up to a slightly concerning text message from Abby about work the next morning, Erin took a shower while Holtz slept in. She sprawled out more when the bed was empty, her fingers curling around the edge of Erin’s pillow. Dressing in a long-sleeve navy shift dress, she returned to find her girlfriend halfway to awake, radiant smile at the sight of her. “Mornin’,” Holtz said with tired fondness.
“You managed to sleep past nine o’clock!” Erin teased, sitting on the edge of the bed, kissing her cheek. “We got this from Abby,” She said, tossing her phone over to the blonde, who reached over for a pair of yellow-tinted glasses to read the blinding LED backlit screen.
“HOMELAND SECURITY: Two claims of civilians spotting class III-IV entities coming out of portals in Queens. Across the country, similar claims, none verified. Tell Holtz I’m sorry we doubted what you guys encountered on Monday night.”
Holtz sat up, hooking her arms around her girlfriend’s shoulders after shrugging. “Sounds like Homeland Security’s problem to me.”
Snickering, Erin reached up to untangle Holtzmann’s hair from the ponytail she had in. “C’mon, I want to take you to a really good breakfast place.”
“M’kay,” She stretched, squeaking out an obnoxious yawn. Erin handed her clothes and said she was going to face the music and greet her parents for the day while they all pretended the interaction from the night before hadn’t happened.
Her dad was unfortunately on his way out the door — heading in for a half day of work, even though the factories were on break for the holiday. She shook her head at the sight, accepting his quick hug before dreading the kitchen and facing her mother alone. “I think I know where I inherited my non-stop work habits from, sheesh,” She said to break the ice.
Barbara rolled her eyes. “Because cereal apparently rests for no holiday. Sleep well?”
Erin nodded, accepting a cup of coffee and pouring just a bit of cream in it. As always, the family was going to pretend that nothing offensive had occurred the day before. “What time are people coming tomorrow?”
“Well, it’s Aunt Jean and Uncle Rod and Uncle Frank who are spending the night tonight, everyone else will be here in the afternoon tomorrow. Nana, Aunt Angela and Uncle Todd, Jessica…Cousin Lisa and her new boyfriend…Carol and Tim, Aunt Renee and Uncle Mike. Charlotte and Jim will be here with the kids as well. It’ll be a full house!”
Oh, she could hardly wait. As Barbara rambled on and on about what her family members had been up to, Holtz eventually came down, wearing one of the outfits that Erin had picked out for her. She was rocking a grey crewneck sweater with a dark green button-up shirt underneath, tucked into a pair of Erin’s jeans - of all the atrocities Holtz could imagine. Erin shrugged when she caught sight of the stink eye she was getting. Giggling, she stood and poured her coffee, putting the perfect amount of sugar in and greeting her with a kiss to the cheek, which had Barbara flush to her roots.
“I look like Ellen!” Holtz hissed, trying not to smile through it all.
“You look cute,” Erin said fondly, wrapping an arm around her waist while her mother squeaked and stepped out of the room. “You could have packed your own clothes, miss.”
“It’s okay,” She sighed, leaning back slightly, raising a brow after Barbara. “This your mom’s way of coping with her flaming gay daughter?” She exaggerated — there was really nothing stereotypical about Erin’s sexuality, quite the opposite of her girlfriend.
Erin’s expression curled into a Grinch-like grin. “Yeah, and I want to make it worse. Keep tally for me, I want a score at the end of the day.”
“Well, I think we need a ranking system. Blushing is one point, disapproving sounds are worth two generally — but if it’s really loud, we can call it as we see fit, avoiding us by walking out, that’s gotta be at least six, but if she says something? That’s a ten, easy.”
Hugging her, Erin wanted to shimmy her out of the sweater right there. The easy-going, silly presence of her girlfriend could be such a blessing when she was worked up. “I love you. C’mon, let’s head to town.”
“Mom, we were thinking of getting Clara’s for breakfast — you wanna come?” She asked, holding Holtz’s hand, catching her mother’s gaze quickly flicker from it.
“Oh, no — just take the car, keys are on the hook in the kitchen.”
Holtz laughed as she took the keys to the silver Fusion in the garage. “Seven points in ten seconds! This is great.” Erin made a gesture like she wanted to drive. “Um, after the last time you tried to drive the Ecto? You haven’t driven a car in years. I got this, you just tell me where to go.”
Pouting, but knowing it was probably for the best, she directed Holtz through the ever-exciting city of Battle Creek until they arrived at the place that she and Abby used to go to after school for their club outings.
“Two,” Erin responded when the waitress asked, then led them to a booth further in the back. Erin shimmied out of her jacket, which Holtz took and hanged for her, earning a sweet thanks. As she prepared to sit down, Erin swore she felt eyes on her, but shook her head, taking the menu.
They ordered and waited, Holtz looking more relaxed as she sat, one leg bent up so her foot was on the cushion, knee propped to the table.
“Erin Gilbert?” She heard her name and glanced up, spotting a man in his mid-forties, looking very weekend casual in a blazer with khaki pants. “Look at you!”
Trying not to cringe, she looked at Holtz, who had her lips pressed together, trying to judge the intentions of the mystery man. “I’m sorry, I — who are you?”
“Sorry, sorry,” He chuckled, reaching out his hand. “Carl Lund, from school? I guess I probably look a lot different twenty years later, huh?”
“Oh, uh, sorry — it’s been awhile.” She said, shaking her head. He laughed again, too loudly and invited himself to sit next to her. “But, um, yeah, you definitely look different.” Having grown into his pudgy skin by about seven inches and out of his acne with his beard, Erin supposed if she were still interested in men, he’d be a decent looking catch. But already, she was put off by how forward he was, and knowing what he was like personally as the butt of many of his ‘jokes,’ she doubted much had changed. He looked like the type to use the hashtag ‘not all men’ and defend their current president’s sexual assault charges.
“I’ve seen you on the news! Ghostbusters! I’ve read some of your articles, amazing work you’ve done!”
Erin gestured to Holtz, “This is Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, she’s a member of my team and my —“
“Nice to meet you,” He said hastily, cutting her off with a wide smile. Turning back to Erin, he casually draped an arm on the back of the booth. Holtz was popping her lips back and forth trying to decide if it was funny or not. Deciding on not, she was ready to open up the library and read him.
“Carl Lund, was it? You seem to know all about what Erin’s been up to, Ivy League professor, Ghostbuster, multiple award winner, member of the peer review board for the Physics Review, with her own monthly column…What have you done with yourself since graduating from Post?”
Erin was red from the titles, but was already about to enjoy wherever ride it was Holtz wanted to take Carl, one of her biggest former bullies, onto. As someone who hadn’t had the shred of self-confidence to defend herself twenty years prior, she was ready to watch as the pitiful man learned just how much a little love and support could do for someone’s self-wroth.
“Oh, well — I wound up at State, for undergrad, since I had the full ride scholarship…and then came home for awhile, did some work with Post, the company, went out east for grad school—“
“What school?” Holtz questioned, bringing her hands together under her chin.
“Husson University, it’s in Maine — I did some IT stuff there…”
Holtz thought, shrugging. “Never heard of it…so what are you doing now, with your life, I guess is what we’re wondering?”
He turned to look at Erin, trying to shoot her some glance about Holtz, which she dutifully ignored. “I’m working with Post again, trying to streamline productivity on the line.”
“Ah, engineering. That’s great.” Gesturing, she stated with just as much gusto as he’d described his life with, “Dr. Holtzmann works with the practical side of experimental particle physics. She’s worked at MIT and was offered a position with CERN but decided to use her nuclear engineering skills in studying the paranormal with Dr. Abby Yates and later myself, successfully building a proton stream generator and a containment unit that effectively traps entities from other dimensions.”
“Thank you for that lovely introduction, Erin.” Holtz winked and Carl stared between them for a moment.
“Okay, well, it was nice to meet you, Dr. Holtzmann, but, Erin, I was wondering — are you currently seeing anyone?”
“I’m seeing you right now,” She said, making Holtz snort a laugh as she caught the reference. “But if you’re asking me if I am romantically involved, then the answer is also yes. You’re crashing our breakfast date.”
He blinked, then stood up, staring between them. “Gilbert? You’re a —?”
“Lesbian!” She rang out, winking, giving a shrug. “It was a surprise to me too, don't worry. Oh — oh, were you trying to ask me on a date? After all the living hell you put me through in school? Seriously?” Her tone shifted and Holtz felt her cheeks flare up as she watched Erin defend herself. “You must be possessed by a class four transmographic apparition to be that forward. Or — you’re just that desperate for some gleam of that ‘scientific fame’ you were so sure you were going to achieve.”
“Christ, Gilbert, a simple no would have sufficed,” He stuffed his hands in his pockets, muttering something about ‘still crazy.’
At that, Holtz was about to stand up, but Erin beat her to it, and she could only watch in awe as the woman nodded. “Yeah — crazy enough to work with my girlfriend and best friends to save the world, which unfortunately also meant keeping assholes like you around — The portal to hell wasn’t exactly selective. Go on, tell all your old drinking buddies that ‘Ghost Girl’s gone gay.’ It doesn’t make a difference. I am a ghost girl, and I am gay. And guess what?” She smiled, crossing her arms. “I’m really proud of it.”
At that, Holtz leapt up out of her seat and pulled Erin into a hard kiss — not at all caring that they were in public, in her conservative hometown, and the entire diner was watching the exchange. Erin smiled into it, reciprocating with just as much fervor, one eye watching as Carl Lund tossed twenty dollars on his table and walked out of the diner.
Holtz pulled her mouth away before she could take it any further, though if she could have, she would have pushed Erin’s dress up right there and hike her up to the table, eating her out like the world was going to end again.
“That was so hot,” She whispered as Erin slid into the booth seat she was in, pulling Holtz to the same side and putting her hand on her upper thigh. “Oh my god, Erin! Erin Gilbert! You!” Erin was speechless at her own actions, hands shaking in surprise, but Holtz couldn’t stop gushing. “I’m so proud of you. God — you’re so sexy, Erin — I’m so turned on.” She winced, leaning her head into the woman’s shoulder.
That afternoon, Erin was still riding her confidence high from the morning’s encounter. Pushing her hurt feelings from her mother the night before aside, she and Holtzmann assisted the woman in baking and frosting cookies. The perfectionist and the tattoo-designing engineer were going completely over-the-top, but the notion seemed to thrill Barbara that she was going to have deserts that looked professionally done. Had they been in their own kitchen, Erin knew that a frosting war would have commenced which would have resulted in Holtz licking it off her face and then some.
Richard arrived home a little before four, getting the Gilbert women and Holtz into the living room in front of the TV, where he had a dual DVD/VCR player hooked up. “Now, this is some previously unseen footage,” He teased, ruffling Erin’s hair when she groaned. “But Holtzmann, you’ll enjoy this.”
The footage booted up to a bite-sized Erin — the year on the corner of the film indicated she’d been a little over five when the footage was shot. Holtz giggled at the sight of a curly-haired Erin sitting at the kitchen table. The holiday season was in full swing and she was dressed to the nines to show for it in a crushed velvet black dress with a lacy collar. She was grinning, a missing tooth in the middle of her smile. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to News at Nine — where we give you the weather first! I’m your chief meteorologist, Erin Gilbert.” She lifted up a very detailed line graph that she’d done on tagboard with magic marker. “As you can see from our trend line, we’re having a colder-than-average winter.” She pointed to the red one, then to the blue and green. “These are the last two years here, above our current marker. Boy, am I missing the good old days!” Holtzmann clapped and squeezed her girlfriend’s knee as the miniature version of herself continued to talk. “The good news is, tonight is Christmas Eve! There is enough moisture in the air for the clouds to perform precipitation, and with temperatures being as they are — that’s right, we’re in for a White Christmas! Bing Crosby might have been dreaming about one, but you’re about to live it, Michigan!”
“Oh my god,” Holtz hugged her tight and kissed her cheek. “You haven’t changed a bit!” She whipped the tears of laughter that had collected on her eyelashes, shaking her head. “That’s amazing. Aww - look at you!”
The next shot was the Christmas after. Six-year-old Erin was curled up on the sofa, a black fluffy excuse of a dog in her lap with a blanket half-covering them both. “Hey, sunshine!” Her father greeted her as she looked up from a book. “What’re you reading?”
“My new book,” She said with a bright smile, holding up a hefty non-fiction work on space. “It’s really good, daddy. Thank you.”
“Nerd,” Holtz teased, leaning over to put her head on Erin’s shoulder. The screen shifted a few more times to other bits of Erin’s childhood. Just as she was about to enter her teens, a knock on the door that Barbara wasn’t expecting for a few hours sent her into a tizzy while Richard answered.
“Pastor Fritz?” He questioned, stepping back to let the man in. Barbara was at his side, welcoming the church man with a polite but confused greeting.
The eighty-year-old, white-haired man in a black shirt with a white collar was clearly distressed. “Richard — Barbara, so, so sorry for the interruption but — your daughter, she’s in town?”
Feeling anxiety pooling in her stomach, Erin tried to shrink to the sofa. Had word of the outburst in the diner gone to her family’s place of worship already? Were they actually going to chastise her for her lifestyle?
“Yes — Erin, honey?”
Stepping into the entryway with Holtz behind her, arms crossed and looking sincerely pale, the woman said, “Pastor Fritz? Um, hello? I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“I need your help,” He said plainly, eyes nearly unblinking. “I think our parish is being possessed — and I don’t know if it’s a demon or ghost, or what — but I swear, I’m not going senile, I know what I saw! My ears rang violently just before, and the next thing I knew it was like…the universe was ripped open for a moment and I saw this…mist come out and that was it, seconds! And then the candles went out and I started to hear these weird sounds.”
“APX shift, class two vapor, Erin,” Holtz said eyes wide. “We’ve got the app, the wand and the mini-unit. We should go.”
Nodding as Holtz charged up the stairs to retrieve the needed devices, she warned the preacher, “We experienced something similar in New York earlier in the week. Homeland Security has heard reports all around the country of potential portals being opened. I’ve got no theories so far. We’ve also only got one proton wand and one mini containment unit to trap an entity in, so I cannot promise grand results, but we’ll do what we can since we’re here.”
The preacher was about to speak again when Barbara held up her hands. “Hold on! What…Pastor Fritz, you can’t seriously believe you saw a ghost?”
“I don’t have the education or training to classify what I saw,” He stated, firm in his belief that there was a foreign presence in his life that day. “But I know it’s not from this world. And based on what my secretary heard down at Clara’s this morning, I figured having the Ghostbusters come check it out would be my best bet. I won’t have some spook trying to ruin Christmas.”
“Grinch-busters to the rescue, then!” Holtz said with a wild grin as she stepped into her boots, lacing them up after placing the devices in Erin’s hands.
After suiting up in to jackets, the scientists followed the man out to the driveway, about to pile into a red Prius when Barbara came dashing out the door in her tan peacoat and heels, Richard following behind her. “Mom?” Erin questioned.
“I need to see what it is that you do, Erin.” She said firmly, and Erin groaned, burying her face in her hands as Holtz awkwardly sat bitch between them while Richard took the front.
Arriving at a light brick building with a faded-to-green copper steeple, the couple followed the preacher in, the Gilberts hesitantly behind them. Both women flipped open the app on the phone that Abby had written code for — it wasn't nearly as powerful as a PKE meter, but it did the job. Holtz touched a few buttons on her watch, trying to up the ante.
Clicking her tongue to the roof of her mouth, Holtzmann nodded when Fritz pointed a wrinkled finger just above the alter, just under the stained glass crucifix window. “It was there, near the crucifix.”
Stepping into the space without a proper bow of respect, Erin heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath. “Reading is significantly higher here,” She said.
Holtzmann lit up the proton wand. “Oh, yeah,” She grinned. “Come out for some reindeer games little Christmas ghosty!” She said in a high-pitched voice. “C’mon, light up my sleigh tonight, I dare ya.”
A cool breeze swept through the church and Erin watched her mother’s face pale with delight that she tried not to show. Following an increase in paranormal energy below the pipes of the organ that were along the lefthand all, she ducked as she heard, “Class two, dead ahead!”
Holtz aimed the proton wand and fired, blasting a bright blue replica of a little girl in a school uniform. “Aww, aren’t you just a cutie-patootie.” When the blast didn’t even cause her to recoil, however, Holtz reconsidered, “Maybe a class three, Er. Boosting power —standby with the CU.”
Feeling marginally useless without a weapon, Erin positioned herself to be ready as Holtzmann fired again but to no avail as the little girl ghost taunted them, dropping a slime ball that just narrowly missed Erin. Growling, she stalked up closer to her girlfriend, who was still at the alter.
In her now position, she could see her mother’s face clearly, jaw slack, eyes wide that thirty-six years of her daughter’s story had been truth. Feeling beyond validated, the older woman pleaded quietly with her girlfriend, “Switch me, please?”
Nodding, Hotly took the tiny tube of a containment thermos and Erin lifted the wand, squinting and missing the scope of her gun. Still, never doubting herself in the heat of action, she aimed and —
“Oh! Nice shot, babe!” Holtz activated the trap as Erin lured the ghost with a proton wave that was a near lasso.” Grounding herself and gritting her teeth, Holtz gave a little yell as she successfully sucked the little prankster into the containment unit. Both women gave a whoop but then a groan as a bubble of slime spewed out of the end with a metal clanging sound as it hit the ceramic tile of the church floor. Raising a brow of confusion, Erin rolled up a sleeve and reached into the green ooze as Holtz tossed the mini trap from one hand to another at the unexpected heat radiating off of it.
“Weird,” Erin mumbled, pulling a small, golden coin, a currency of which she didn’t recognize, out of the gooey wreckage.
Holtz grinned. “Is now a bad time or a Holy Spirit joke?”
Snorting a laugh, Erin kept the coin in her palm for later to analyze. Glancing at the two puddles of slime she grimaced. Spotting Fritz’s eyes, she stated, “Um…good luck with that. Without our gear, we don’t have our usual cleanup supplies. Kitty litter might help.”
The preacher was at a loss for words at what he’d seen and her parents were just as dumbfounded. The tension was thick until Holtzmann’s belly gave a loud rumble and Barbara squeaked, looking at her watch for the time, insisting they rush home for the guests.
Erin rolled her eyes when her parents and Fritz stepped outside before either she or her girlfriend. “If you had to put money on whether or not my mother will acknowledge that on her own…”
“Oh, I could put the house up on that she wouldn’t in a million years,” Holtz sighed. She tugged Erin to her, kissing her temple. “I’m sorry, Erin. We couldn’t have asked for better proof. Some people just can’t believe.”
Loudly groaning, Erin turned around to face the sanctuary once again, her arms up, the proton wand still secure in her hand. “Yet she can believe all this! It’s so frustrating!”
Holtzmann slipped her palms along the physicist’s hip bones, giving a tender squeeze.
A half hour and the preacher’s sincere thanks later found Erin in the kitchen, aggressively peeling potatoes while her girlfriend made a masterpiece out of chopping carrots.
Her mother was miffed and Erin could only imagine what sort of internal battle she was waging. Though when the confession of her thoughts finally came out, it was hardly worth the mental imagery. Finally stating a bit of what had been on her mind in the thirty minutes post the simple bust, Barbara goaded her daughter, “I noticed that you’ve got a tattoo.”
Sliding the blade of the peeler down with extra pressure, Erin nearly hissed. “That’s what you took away from the whole thing? That I’ve decided to put ink on my body? Nothing…paranormal of interest there for you, mom?”
She felt guilty as she could physically sense Holtzmann feeling awkward off the bat. She saw the woman slink into her chair and fiddle with the arm of her glasses at the notion of conflict between the mother and daughter.
“Erin,” Barbara worked at browning hamburger meat in the frying pan, her tone so stiff that Holtzmann was about to drop to the floor. “Seeing isn’t always believing. This is all very conflicting to my personal beliefs. What do you want me to say?”
Shrugging with an air of sarcasm that could have been felt all the way in New York, Erin stated, “Maybe, ‘You’re right Erin, ghosts are real,’ or if you’re really feeling honest with yourself, ‘Sorry I thought you were crazy for the majority of your life.”
Her lips in a straight line, Barbara insisted, “I never said you were crazy, Erin!”
“Oh, that’s right.” Erin laughed mirthlessly. “The clinical term is attention-seeking, right? Apparently wanting a little emotional support after repeated trauma is too much to give an eight-year-old who could have just as easily been satisfied with leaving the hall light on and the door open.”
“Sleeping with the door open is a fire hazard for small children,” Barbara mumbled.
Given that she was dating perhaps the world’s greatest fire hazard, Erin threw the peeler down on the counter and prepared to stomp out of the room with a loud roar. “In case you didn’t notice, I stopped seeking your attention when I didn’t have any legal ties to living here,” She spat. “When you wonder to yourself, ‘gee why doesn’t my only daughter ever want to come visit,’ perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want any of your attention.”
She left the room and Holtz finished her task of chopping vegetables around the same time. Barbara hardly seemed fazed by the storm out. Though she felt awkward doing so, Holtz cleared her throat and and took over for Erin at the potatoes, not speaking word. When she finished and ran the garbage disposal with the skins, she made the brief comment at Barbara’s direction in her passing. “Webster defines family as a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household. When they no longer live together, what do they become?”
"They will not, shall not, cannot destroy you. Because you, like Rome, were built on ashes, and you, like a phoenix, know how to rise and resurrect." — Nikita Gill
Erin was on FaceTime with Abby when Holtzmann stepped into her childhood bedroom, holding the currency from the minor bust up to the camera with a very passive expression.
“So weird. I’ll head to the school after this and see if maybe we missed one there before I head to the airport tonight. Send a shot of it to Hawkins and Rorke so they can check the evidence database for the other cases that popped up across the country. Weird that one would happen when you two are in town.”
“Maybe it’s one of us possessed,” Erin said with an eye-roll, rubbing her temples.
Holtzmann eased into the frame with a kissy-face as she blew one to Abby with her hand. Their friend caught it in her hand and put it over her left side chest. “Thanks, pumpkin. Give this one a reason to smile this evening, will you?”
Running a hand through Erin’s long locks, Holtz winked and tossed Abby a salute. “You bet, Abmaster.”
“I’ll let you know if I find anything. Try to have a good night, alright, you two?”
“Thanks, Abby,” Erin said with a wave, ending the call and laying back on the bed, drawing her forearm over her eyes. Frowning, Holtzmann straddled her hips and placed her head between Erin’s breasts, kissing the skin revealed by her dress collar.
“For lack of better words, I’m sorry, Erin. You’d think in the face of it, your mother would be able to acknowledge the truth. Even if it’s hard to believe…I’m sorry, babe.”
Holtz shifted slightly, drawing the hem of Erin’s dress up and her tights down, gliding her fingertips along her smooth, bare leg as they mindlessly lay together. “I think it hurts the most,” Erin finally spoke, “Knowing that she was clearly terrified of what ever she thinks she saw. But she can’t admit that what I saw, when I was a mousy child, wouldn’t have been scary?” She opened her eyes, locking them with Holtz’s blue gaze. “I’m forty-four and I still can’t sleep with the lights off for fucks sake!”
Sitting up, Holtz adjusted her position so she was behind Erin, drawing soothing patterns on her temples and in her scalp. “Imagine the Grudge or one of the things from the Conjuring when you were eight. Standing at the foot of your bed, every damn night. Just staring at you, watching you sob and attempt to console yourself because no one else would. I know that I’ll never have a child of my own to try and rectify any of this with, but I can’t fathom letting them live in that fear and chuck it up to being attention-seeking.”
Simply listening, Holtz continued to rub her head and stroke her hair.
“At this point, I know I cannot expect her to ever honestly say she believes me. I cannot expect an apology. God — a therapist told me this like, fifteen years ago, but it’s still frickin’ relevant.”
Holtz tried to relieve a little tension with a touch of humor. “A wise young man once wrote, ‘Is it too late now to say sorry? I know that I let you down, is it too late to say sorry now?’”
Erin winked an eye and sat up with a ghost of a grin. “You did not just quote Justin Bieber lyrics at me.”
Gently taking the other woman’s face into her hands by cupping her cheeks, Holtz stroked near her mouth with the pad of her thumbs. She sang, “It’s too late to apologize, it’s too late —“
Erin cut her off with a quick kiss before taking her turn, "Oh it seems to me that sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
Holtz tossed her arm out, wiggling a finger with a dramatic face, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry ‘cause you’re not! Baby I know you’re only sorry you got caught!”
Rolling her eyes and falling forward into a long, squeezy-hug, Erin mumbled into Holtz’s sweater-covered shoulder, “Not sure any of those are about mothers who need to apologize to their daughters, but…” She kissed her girlfriend’s neck and sat back up. “Thanks, Jill.”
Drawing herself back to her feet, Holtz took Erin’s hand. “What do you say — we find your dad, you hang out with him until supper, and I’ll be the delightful daughter-in-law your mother never knew she wanted with my quick-thinking humor and well-placed compliments to her crafty home goods.”
“I can survive that,” Erin said with a nod.
Holtzmann shuffled back into the kitchen to find Barbara stoically pouring over a recipe book. “Mrs. Gilbert, need any help?” She asked, wincing at the tone of her voice which sounded so fake.
Barbara glanced up and over a pair of reading glasses. “Oh, honey — you don’t have to. But, if you want to, there’s seven plates on the table, if you don’t mind? Just set it any way you normally would.”
Not confessing that she’d never had the reason to properly set a table up in her life, Holtzmann flew through conventional television programs and movies and tried to remember what the space looked like the night before. If she could solder a prototype ghost containment unit out of pieces she’d found in dumpsters, she could set a damn table.
“Will you be seeing your family for the holidays after this?” Barbara questioned, trying to draw up a conversation.
Feeling her heart sink at having to awkwardly explain herself, Holtz scratched at her hair and shrugged as she put plates on their festive placemats. “My parents both passed away and I’ve never been close to the extended family.”
“Oh,” The older woman said with casual surprise. “I’m sorry, Holtzmann, I didn’t know.”
Shrugging, Holtz didn’t know how to respond and settled for flicking her glasses up and down once before clearing her throat and working on putting salad bowls out next. “I didn’t grow up like this — in a house, where people eat dinner together. It’s really nice.” She let out a breath, pausing to shove her glasses up on top of her head and stare at Barbara. “My mom was an alcoholic. All in all, she was a pretty crappy parent who couldn’t put down a bottle for more than six months at a time to keep me out of state care. But,” She bit her lip, knowing she was out of line, “I always knew that even though she had a hard time caring for me, she accepted me. I’ve always been a freakin’ weirdo. But Mama Holtzmann took me for who I was.”
Barbara’s eyes were anywhere but Holtzmann’s gaze as she moved around the kitchen. Finishing passing out the flatware, the blonde stepped closer to the older woman. Offering one final thought on the matter, she quietly stated, “Fill in the blank. Before Erin was born, you told all your friends and family, ‘I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, I just want it to be healthy and…’”
“Happy,” Barbara finished, sighing. Meeting Holtz’s eyes, she put a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. Looping her arms around the just-slightly-taller Barbara, Holtz bent down and rested her face against the woman’s sternum. Though taken by surprise, Mrs. Gilbert returned the gesture. “Thank you, Holtzmann.”
The hug wasn’t quite as good as one from Erin, her friends or Dr. Gorin. It didn’t evoke the feelings of safety and pride that her family could wield from her. Understanding Erin’s plight just a little more from the five second embrace, she pulled away and offered, “Anything else I can help you with?”
“Well, my dear — if you like to help, I could use some assistance in mashing the potatoes.”
Smirking, Holtz winked. “Smashing things happens to be one of my specialties.”
Erin had trudged down the basement stairs where her father was relaxing against the bar countertop, a phone pressed to his ear. “Production shouldn't be an issue. We can work with Kerry if necessary…yes…” He looked up to find his daughter standing awkwardly in the dim lighting and clicked his tongue to the roof of his mouth. “You know what, Shawn? I’m supposed to be on holiday. I’ll get this squared away when we return. Yup, thanks. Merry Christmas to you as well.”
Hanging up the small device and shoving it in his pocket, Richard looked sheepishly up at Erin, who slowly paced across the floor until she was seated at one of the tall stools. Her father took a seat next to her, taking her hand. “I know you’re upset.”
“Well, wouldn’t you be? What if I walked into the middle of the factory, during production, and told you that none of it was real? You know what, no. Because then you’d just think I’m crazier than you already do.”
“Erin,” He said sharply, shaking his head. “I’ve never thought you were crazy.”
Feeling harsh, she sneered, “Then you also genuinely believed that all of my ghost claims were just a pleas for attention, too?”
Richard picked at the dry skin around his thumbnail. “Sunshine, you’ve made me a proud father from the day you were born. You were well-mannered, respected adults, and so damn smart. You were very quiet, but, I liked my quiet evenings reading with you. When you were eight, honey,” He closed his eyes, hating the confession. “It was like you snapped. I’d never known you to be hysterical. Your mother and I didn’t know what to do. I know it sounds terrible to say, but hearing your child talk about ghosts like they’re real, by that age…it just…looking back, what would I have done different? I don’t know.”
Erin’s blood pressure had spiked again and she could hear blood pumping in her ears. Trying to calm her body down she brought a fist into her lap and hit her thigh repeatedly. “Knowing what you know now?”
“Well — who would I have gone to, when the literal expert on the subject didn’t have expertise for another thirty years?”
Blinking in sudden understanding, Erin hung her head, her hair falling over her ears. “All I’ve ever wanted is for people to believe me and take me seriously.”
Richard rubbed a hand along her shoulder blades. “You do life-changing, life-saving work, Erin. You’ve invented an entire field, and it’s become quite well respected. I’m not a smart enough man to understand it all, and yeah — despite evidence in my face, it’s hard to wrap my head around. But what you’ve done is what you’ve always wanted to do. And,” He paused, pulling her close, “Best of all? You’ve got someone to share it with. Holtzmann is just as unconventional as your career. But she makes you happy. She loves you unconditionally. That’s what life’s all about, sweetheart, finding what makes you happy and who loves you for you.”
“Dad, I know that out of everything I might’ve done to disappoint you, not bringing home a husband and children probably—“
“No,” Richard firmly interrupted, standing and turning Erin’s bar stool. “That’s not what I expected from you. You have a child and all you want for them to be is healthy and happy, Erin. And for a long time, yes, I was worried about your mental health and it seemed to make you so miserable. Now? You’re both and I’m so glad I’ve gotten to meet the person who’s helped you find them.”
As she was about to wipe a few stray tears and respond, Erin jumped at the sound of the doorbell. “Ah, the Yoopers are here.”
Erin accepted his hug after standing. “Thanks, dad.”
“I love you, Sunshine.” He led her up the stairs, greeting his brothers and sister-in-law that lived in the Upper Peninsula.
“‘Sup, Trolls?” Frank, his near twin in looks but almost twelve years younger greeted. “And the city girl, home for the holidays!” He held out an arm as he spotted Erin. “Hey, niece.”
Rolling her eyes, she gave him a hug in return. It’d always been awkward to refer to the man as he ‘uncle,’ so she never had. “I hear you bagged yourself a lady to bring home for the holidays.”
“We’ve actually been together two years,” Erin stated firmly, “She’s not just here to impress you.”
“Though I’m sure she shall,” Holtz stated as she appeared next to Erin, eyebrows wiggling. Chuckling, the auburn-haired woman wrapped an arm around her elbow, which had her button-down shirt rolled up and fastened around the joint, giving her an impossibly more dapper look than before. “Frank, is it? Jillian, Holtzmann. Call me Holtz.”
“Nice to meet you, Holtz. Gotta say, I was sure the pictures of this one with guns in her hands were photoshopped until I saw the videos of you guys. I tried for years to get her to the shooting range! Erin — you fire like a beast.”
Overwhelmed by the compliments from a man who was certainly on the ‘she’s attention-seeking’ side of her previous ghostly encounter, Erin simply nodded and greeted her father’s other brother, Rod and his wife Bea, who both gave her stiff looks before striking conversation with her mother.
Feeling Holtz wiggle her arm free and glide it around her waist, Erin put her head on the shorter woman’s shoulder. No words were needed as they observed the family greeting one another. Watching it with someone she could unload to later was a different form of being an outsider to the family, though. As Holtzmann drew her further into the hallway where they weren’t visible, Erin gave a tiny, quiet moan when her lips grazed her neck.
It was after a semi-uncomfortable family dinner and destroying the uncles in Euchre with Holtz later that Erin received another call from Abby, who was on FaceTime, holding up the coin she’d found at the scene of their last New York bust. “It’s the same,” She assured her. “Patty’s got a theory,” She said, turning the camera to reveal their friend.
“It reminds me of Charon’s obol.” Blinking at one another, then the screen Holtz and Erin both waited for her to elaborate. “Ya’ll can tell me pi to like, the seven hundredth decimal point, but can’t freakin’ remember a thing about seventh grade mythology? What’s wrong with ya’ll? Come on. Anyway — he’s the dude in the Greek legends that looks like the Grim Reaper and drives the little canoe like Pocahontas just around the riverbed of the dead.”
“Oh,” The couple rang together from the other end, giggling at their mutual realization. “Anyway, I’m wondering if some shit’s gone down in the underworld of Ghosts and maybe their reaper or something’s outta order, so they’re coming back to our dimension with their tokens to get across. Like they need help getting through.”
“Are you saying we’re gonna wind up sending Christmas in literal hell if this gets worse?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Patty shrugged. “Course, that might be more enjoyable than Christmas with your mom, right Erin?”
Snorting and rolling her eyes, explaining to Patty how the woman refused to believe even after watching a ghost bust that what they did was real. “Yeah, hell’s probably less aggravating right now. Hang tight, baby. Don’t let her drag you too far down.”
“I’ve got Holtzy with me,” She exclaimed, kissing her girlfriend’s cheek. “She’s certainly keeping the mood much lighter than it otherwise would be. Thanks for the heads’ up. Hopefully we don’t get called out there.”
The following day had Holtzmann watching Erin set her last blonde wave with the curling iron before spraying her whole head of hair and unplugging the device, giving her a smile when she was done. “Perfect.” Glancing in the mirror, Holtz nodded, adjusting the skinny burgundy tie that hung loosely from the opened collar of her white shirt. Slipping into the black jacket that matched her pants, strikingly feminine, yet still every bit herself, she shrugged.
Erin, however was having a moment trying to collect herself at the sight. Holtz raised a brow, then realized her outfit was apparently having more than the desired effect on her girlfriend. “What’s wrong, cutie-pie?”
“You—that, it’s…very, um — flattering.”
“You can say you wanna rip it off me, I won’t judge you,” Holtz teased, kissing near her mouth while Erin slid into a pair of black heels, giving her another two inches on Holtz. She was dazzling herself, in a long sleeve black, scoop-neck top that was tucked into a wide-plaid burgundy, black and white A-line skirt.
“Happy family Christmas, Dr. Holtzmann,” Erin said lowly, pulling Holtz to her by the lapels of her jacket.
“And to you and your kin, Dr. Gilbert.” Sharing one last kiss before facing the family, Erin took Holtz’s hand, intending on letting all of the extended relatives know that they weren’t just Ghostbusting coworkers, and she didn’t care what any of them thought about it.
They’d already assisted in setting up before getting dressed in formal wear, and while they’d been at it, several guests had arrived. Erin forced a smile in greeting her relatives.
“Erin!” A teenage girl called, her dark locks pined into a high ponytail.
“Oh, hey, Jess. Gosh, you must be eighteen now?”
The girl nodded. “I just got my acceptance letter — I’ll be a Wolverine in the fall!”
Sincerely smiling, the former UofM student pulled her into a hug. “Congratulations. You’ll have fun. Are you still interested in medical school?” She shook her head and Erin released her, “Jess, this is Jillian—“
“You’re one of the Ghostbusters!” She greeted. “Sorry, it’s like meeting a celebrity.” Glancing at Erin she shrugged. “It’s not as exciting when you already know the person. You guys are on the news, like, all the time. Everyone is tweeting about it, and everyone at school knows you’re the Erin Gilbert and they ask me about you and I’m always like ‘I haven’t seen her in years, I don’t know!”’ She giggled.
“Jess is my second cousin, Jim’s daughter. I was already off to Michigan myself when she was born.” Erin took Holtz’s hand back in hers mindlessly, not thinking about drawing her cousin’s attention.
“Nice to meet you, Jess,” Holtz grinned, grateful not to talk to someone so stuffy off the bat. “What part of medicine are you interested in?”
“I’m hoping to work in peds for now — though it’s always subject to change, gotta get through my bachelor’s first. Oh my gosh, I have so many questions for you guys!”
Erin gave her a look. Though she hadn’t been born when the whole Ghost Girl drama unfolded for their family, she knew the reputation Erin had over the years. “Not so loud — my mom can’t bear the thought of it.”
Jess rolled her eyes. “Ugh. Go fig, Aunt Barb can’t accept her daughter’s success or happiness.”
“Well, she didn’t create it, so you know she’s probably horribly offended by that.” The cousins giggled and Holtz hooked her arm around Erin, who leaned against her naturally.
“And you guys are dating, right?”
Nodding, Erin smiled a little wider when Holtz squeezed her side in confirmation. “Almost two years.”
“Does Nana know?” Jess asked with a wide-eyed horror.
Shrugging, Erin glanced over at her dad, who was likely wrapped up in a conversation about cereal. “Don’t know, don’t care. I haven’t talked to her since I stopped working for Columbia, I don’t know what she’s privy to — Ghostbusters or the fact that her oldest granddaughter is dating a woman. I don’t know that her heart could handle it.”
Asking Jess to save them a seat, Erin walked Holtz over to the kitchen, purposefully avoiding the minibar - no need for alcohol to add any fuel to the flames she’d likely create when her Nana arrived. Richard spotted them, waving the ladies over.
“Hey, Uncle Todd, Aunt Angela. Nice to see you,” Erin said, accepting hugs from her mother’s sister and brother-in-law, Angela clearly Erin’s aunt with their matching hair color. “This is Jillian Holtzmann, my girlfriend.”
“Yes,” Angela said, brows raised, as she politely took Holtz’s hand. “We just heard. Todd works for GM — Rich was just telling us you put a V10 in a Hearse?”
Finding her trademark, shit-eating grin she got when she talked about one of her babies, Holtz explained the process of swapping out the engines, Todd and Rich eating up the details while Angela subtly tried to ask Erin how she discovered she was interest in women.
“I really don’t think love is assigned to a gender,” She said simply. “I love Jill — what we have works, and I’m not going to be sorry if some people think that it’s wrong. It’s the right thing for us and I wouldn’t trade her for anything.”
“Well, I know your mother was having a crisis when she found out, but —“ Angela patted her arm, “It seems like she’s settled down. I’m glad you’re happy, sweetheart. If you love her, then what does it matter?”
Having not anticipated the comment, Erin offered a quiet thanks to the older woman, watching Holtz animatedly show off pictures of their inventions on her phone. Observing her at ease, she felt herself falling just a touch further in love than she already was. She moved to the island counter with her aunt, who shifted the focus of the discussion to her work. “Erin, I know that things haven’t been easy for you in this family or — in general. I was hoping you’d come home sooner or later so we could talk. I actually just booked a trip to NYC for the spring, I was going to see if we could connect while I was there so I could tell you in person.” She took a deep breath and squeezed her nieces’s hand. “I don’t really know how to say it other than directly, so…I’m very sorry that no one believed you when you were a little girl. Your mother handled the whole situation really poorly, but I didn’t do anything to try and stop my big sister, either. We all saw how anxious and depressed you were, but no one gave you the time of day.”
Angela had tears pricking at her eyes and Erin reached over to give her a deep squeeze.
The dark-haired woman sighed, kissing her tan cheek. “You deserved more than therapy and pills, sweetheart. I’m sorry that we didn’t give it to you. But I’m so happy you’ve found peace of mind — that you know your work is real, and that you have someone who loves you and understands all of what it is you do.”
Pulling back with a sincere smile, Erin simply nodded, accepting the apology. Angela shifted the focus to ask her more about what they did when they weren’t out catching ghosts and Erin lit up as she spoke about her passion, describing their research and her job with the Review journal.
Near dinnertime, the doorbell rang and in popped the woman that Erin was most nervous about seeing. Her Nana - an eighty-something woman with a long chain around her spectacles and powder-hued hair, entered in a less-crochety mood than Erin anticipated. She greeted her sons first, then the rest of the family while Erin stood stoically nervous with Holtzmann’s hands on her shoulders, murmuring some distracting nonsense into her ear which the physicist unfortunately couldn’t process.
Finally, the woman was in the kitchen and there was no hiding from the matriarch. She held a knowing gaze in her blue-eyed stare, greeting Erin with open arms. “Hello, dear. It’s been a very long time.”
“It has,” Erin agreed, unable to argue that she’d been busy or any other excuse that jumped out at her.
“And this is Dr. Holtzmann, correct?” She looked passed Erin and Holtz extended a hand to shake.
“The one and only,” She said with a smile. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Gilbert.”
“Ah, well. Thanks for takin’ this one. I was starting to think I was seeing more action than she was, so I’m glad she’s got somebody to spend her life with now. Are you planing on making her a wife before I die?”
Holtz coughed into her elbow before laughing so hard she had tears coming out of her eyes, while Erin turned the color of the pattern on her skirt.
“Oh, I’m gonna wife her the hell up,” Holtz said with a wink, earning a cackling laugh from the eldest Gilbert woman, who pulled her into a hug.
“Nice to meet you, Dr. Holtzmann. Do you prefer Dr. Holtzmann?”
“Holtz’ll do,” She grinned and pulled her blushing babe to her side.
“Well, now that everyone’s settled,” Barbara interrupted, her own cheeks a touch pink at the interaction. “Dinner? Rich, honey, can you lead us in prayer?”
Folding her hands over Erin’s stomach, Holts pressed her forehead to the woman’s shoulder blades as she bowed, not hearing the words of the woman’s father as she considered what had just occurred. When the people said amen, she gently tugged Erin’s arm, convincing her to slip outside in the chilly Michigan winter air. “You okay?” She asked, checking in.
Erin nodded, putting a reassuring palm on Holtz’s cheek and kissing her sweetly. “Never in a million years would I have thought that was coming, but I’m grateful for it. No one in the family has had an absolute crisis over our relationship, and I’m honestly quite surprised.”
“Times have changed, baby doll,” Holtz said with a shrug, kissing near her mouth. “Even though the president is a giant, hateful yam in a wig, I think most of the country is moving in a more accepting place. Of course, what’s not to love?” She joked, lifting her collar and moving side to side.
Giggling, Erin shrugged, rubbing her arms with her hands. “I love it all. Thank you so much for being here, Holtz. I can’t imagine this without you.”
The whole family had disappeared the next afternoon, leaving Erin and Holtz alone with Erin’s parents once again. Just as they were about to figure out some way to spend their last evening in the state, Erin’s phone rang in a tone that only meant trouble.
“Shit,” She cursed, earning her mother’s disapproving look at the language before she answered the distress call.
“Erin, it’s Jennifer. An emergency flight is en route to the Battle Creek Air Force base. We’ve got a situation here and we cannot handle it without you. Of course, the mayor’s office and Homeland Security will happily fly you back when it’s all resolved —“
“I’m not worried about that, what’s the problem?” She questioned, putting the phone on speaker for Holtz to listen in as well.
“The portal situation is growing out of hand here in the city. Bradley has Yates on the phone now, Patty is already on her way to our office. Our men have the ghosts subdued, but don’t have the knowledge base to handle the phenomenon with the portals. We’re very concerned with curious onlookers finding themselves swept up in one. We need you to work with us in closing them and preventing more.”
“We’re on our way then,” Erin insisted. “See you in about two hours.”
Wincing at her dad, he nodded, heading out to start the car as she hung up. Holtz flew up the stairs to gather their bags, leaving Erin alone with her mother.
Barbara looked lost, as she was still struggling with the whole phenomenon being anything but phony.
With a brave breath, Erin shrugged. “Mom, I know it’s difficult for you to accept and believe in, but ghosts are real, and I’ve got a real crisis to attend to in New York. I’ve got to go.”
Shaking her head, Barbara confessed, “I think I might just need some time to process all this. I want to believe you Erin.” She sighed. “It’s just hard to accept being wrong for so many years.”
“Well how do you think I felt knowing I was right and being attacked for it?” She said in a pitch that was just a bit too high.
“I understand —“
“No, you don’t,” Erin corrected her sharply. “In fact, unless you want to apologize for it, I really don’t want to discuss this with you any more. It only hurts me every time it’s brought up and quite frankly, I’m tired of defending myself to you. It’s a shame when my eighty-something-year-old grandmother has an easier time accepting what makes me different than you do, mom. It hurts, but only because I’m letting it hurt me. I’m making the choice now, that this isn’t going to contribute to my anxiety any more.” Her breathing was rapid and her hands were shaking, but Erin defended herself with grace. “I’m not going to worry about what you think about me for one more minute. I have friends, the government, my peers, and a good portion of my extended family who know I’m not crazy. Best of all, I’ve got a girlfriend who loves me because of my beliefs, not in despite of them.”
With a firm resolve, Erin grabbed her mother in a last minute thought after tugging on her boots while the woman stood there gaping. As Holtz said her hasty goodbye with their bags on the way out the door, Erin gave Barbara a hug despite everything. “I’m sorry you can’t accept me for who I am. I love you anyway, mom. I’ll see you whenever I see you next.”
Not giving her a second to respond, Erin reached for her coat from the hook and slid her arms into the sleeves as she walked out the door, leaving Barbara Gilbert looking guilty in her wake.
Erin was snuggled in between Holtz and Abby on the plane, her head in Abby’s lap, feet in her girlfriend’s. Abby had her fingers absently playing with the taller woman’s hair as she vented about her mother for a few minutes before shifting to discuss possible theories on how they could stop the ghost portals.
Holtzmann had been silent, hands shifted from rubbing Erin’s ankles to playing with her earlobe, staring into the sky which was already getting dark at the four o’clock hour. She knew she could likely build some sort of stream to reverse portals similar to what they’d done with her gear in Times Square two years prior; but if the portals were popping up randomly across the United States, she’d likely have to affix one for ever precinct and train officers to use them. That she simply did not have time or energy for.
“Holtzy? I can hear you thinking over there,” Abby teased, reaching a hand from Erin’s hair to her friend’s upper arm. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” She said quietly, “I’m just hoping we don’t have to go to hell to resolve this. That would kind of put a damper on our Christmas festivities.”
Erin sat up a little bit, shooting her a look. “You’ve always said you wanted to go to the other side.”
With pink cheeks, Holtzmann shrugged. “I’d rather just spend Christmas at home with you.”
“Awww!” Abby teased, pinching her flushed cheek. “You’ve gone soft on me, Holtz! No, but for real — my nephews challenged me to an epic Nerf fight on Christmas and I damn well better be back in time for it ‘cause I’m gonna kick their scrawny butts.”
Erin glanced up at her. “You’re not really gonna go full ‘Buster on an eight-year-old are you?”
“Damn straight I am, Abby doesn’t lose to anybody! I got Trever a Zombie Nerf chainsaw thing that I’m totally gonna turn on him.”
“That’s messed up,” Erin joked. “But I agree, I’d like to be home on Christmas this year.”
Holtz wiggled Erin’s legs off of her then stood, putting them across her seat before laying out across Erin, earning a loud “Oomph!” Abby laughed and rubbed the top of her head. “You two are so ridiculous. I love you guys. And Holtz? Thanks for taking care of my girl so she could spend time with her mom. I know it wasn’t always easy nor did she say the nicest things in the world, but they do love each other and it’s good for them to be together every now and then.”
The flight landed and the women were immediately taken to the firehouse, where Jennifer was trying to work with Patty in going through the history books on Greek mythology they’d pulled out of the public library.
After peeling Holtz off her from the bone-crushing hug she’d received, Patty had her on her lap as she explained her theory. “I think that maybe these ghosts were trying to pass on peacefully. Looking at the information we’ve had, all these ghosts have been familiar with the places their portals opened into. I’m willing to bet that after whatever time they had, they’d accepted they needed to move on. However when they tried to cross over, no one was there to help them, which is why they’ve still got their coins with them. We need to figure out who’s missing and how to get them back to help these ghosts cross over. Homeland Security’s got almost two dozen in stations around the country in those easy-user CU’s you cooked up, Holtzy.”
“So we do have to spend Christmas in hell.” She dropped her shoulders in defeat.
“Not necessarily,” Erin mumbled, taking a dry erase marker and heading to the white board. “We can draw out whatever ghost belongs at that toll stop. He’s obviously left that realm and we can likely assume he’s here on our plane somewhere…We just need to draw him to us and send him back.”
Scribbling out numbers and symbols at a pace which neither Patty or Jennifer could keep up with, Erin had a theory in minutes that had Holtz bouncing up to the lab with Abby chasing after her, shouting that she was going to need earplugs, to which Holtz replied earplugs were for dudes.
“Emergent gravity,” She said as if it were painfully obvious, “It’s a newish theory, that says gravity isn’t necessarily finite, but open to changes in stored in the fabric of the universe. It explains how stars move over time, without absolutely needing dark matter. But, if we apply the holographic principle, we can actually accelerate expansion of the universe…so if Holtz can apply this to a machine, we should be able to accelerate the creation of a portal, which would essentially create a portal to our own world, but with dark matter energy clouding it. I think this would draw out the head ghost that’s lurking in our plane.”
Patty and Jennifer blinked a few times.
The first to respond, Jennifer tossed out a hand. “That sounds totally brilliant and plausible. Let me know if you need anything, literally anything, I’ll find it. We want this closed by tomorrow night if possible. Thanks, ladies.”
They worked well into the morning, Patty and Erin essentially Holtz’s lab rats as Abby worked furiously on code for circuit boards that would allow the device to be controlled.
Taking a break around three in the morning, the four were passed out on the couches in the lounge until nearly eight, when Holtz woke them all with coffee while she had scrounged up a Red Bull for herself nearly two hours previously when she’d gotten up to keep working. Her hair was even more of a mess than usual and she looked quite unhinged, but she told them, “It’s ready,” and they suited up and loaded the car. Headed towards Orange County to take care of the dirty work away from as much civilization as possible, they booted the machine in the middle of an empty field.
Taking turns in shifts, they waited for nearly four hours, heading into one in the afternoon before any signs of paranormal activity occurred.
Holtz was hanging over Patty as the mid-afternoon cloudiness started to catch up with them. She was craving a good cuddle with Erin in their upstairs suite.
“I’m gonna get there and all the turkey’s gonna be gone, I just know it,” Patty complained when something flickered to life on Holtzmann’s machine. Bouncing up and off of her friend’s shoulders, Holtz knocked on the car window, were Abby and Erin had been in the middle of a conversation. They climbed out and readied their packs.
At first it seemed like the blip on the dark-matter creating gravity centrifuge-like machine had been an error, until a screech from behind them caused the hair on their collective necks to stand, weapons ready. A half-dozen portals opened, coins falling to the ground, ghastly characters stepping out. Holtzmann was the first to fire, loading a lasso around one and holding it still as Abby raised a modified Ghost-chipper and obliterated it after sucking it in. “I got this feeling these aren’t even the Reaper’s minions,” Abby shouted after shooting down a set of class three twins, hardly breaking a sweat.
“No, but we’ve obviously found a good point to spin this baby. Give it ti—aye-mah!” Holtz screamed when a portal appeared under her foot almost completely swallowing her whole. Patty’s Holtz-saving reflex had kicked in at the last second, grabbing her hand from the ledge of the ground and pulling her back.
Panting against the woman’s chest, she hardly had time to process a second though fifth portal opening behind her. Closing her eyes and clearing her mind to focus, Holtz made a clicking sound with her tongue before screwing her eyes seriously beneath her yellow-tinted lenses. “Ghost of Christmas present,” She yelled in a deep, threatening tone, “Prepare to meet your future.”
With a loud grunt for the kickback, she fired up her proton wand, going to work containing and holding the ghosts with her knees bent and feet planted as her colleagues worked to obliterate them.
Portals opened and class one through five vapors and spirits haunted the field for nearly two hours with no sign of their main ghost. The four women were completely exhausted as December darkness started to take over the field. Swearing, Holtz activated a battery back-up on the Ecto, illuminating the field, which in the middle of nowhere, had quickly descended into darkness save for the light coming out of her device. Had she miscalculated? Was it not strong enough to summon the ghost-devil?
Frowning, she held onto Erin’s upper arm as her girlfriend panted after wrestling a particularly-stubborn non-blastable class five entity into a containment unit.
“Hang in there sweet cheeks. Hopefully the main attraction is up next.”
Erin was about to offer her a smile when their bodies trembled and they shared a brief look of panic, grounding one another as the earth shook.
“I think we got the big one,” Erin mumbled as the dark-matter machine made a noise Holtz didn’t know it was capable of, sending a blinding blue beam upwards and out. Ducking, the four women threw themselves to the ground before feeling their insides churn at the sound of their Christmas present they weren’t particularly interested in listening to.
A scratching, squawking noise appeared and Holtz was the first one brave enough to glance up at whatever hell-beast was before them. Even she winced and slid back down at the sight, a monster from her deepest childhood nightmares stood before her, hunched and panting, a creation of teeth and gore.
“Yeah, um — I might have been a bit low on my expectations of this thing…I don’t think that the American horror genre is capable of something like this.” She activated her HoltzPro with a gulp, ensuring to record the battle with the demon.
“Eh, the anime community pulled this one out a half-dozen years ago,” Patty insisted, standing up. “Hey, ugly — you here to give me a fancy journal to kill people with or what?”
The beast blended in with the darkness when it wanted to and Abby wasn’t feeling the humor. “Guys, we can’t obliterate it. We’ve got to get it into the center of the device and contain it long enough to get it into the CU back at HQ. Not time for jokes.”
Erin didn’t even have time for talking at all as she struggled to keep her breathing normal, but lit up the night in a blast from a proton stream set to the fullest power. The beast screeched as it was surrounded by light, but easily escaped from the beam.
“Ruh-Roe,” Holtz frowned, following up Erin’s beam with one of her own. Abby and Patty attempted the same thing, but only succeeded it making it yet once more.
Patty fired off a string of curses while Holtz and Abby continued their proton-stream fire after fire to try and wear it down.
Erin, however, was feeling a bit of shock. The creature was one of her very nightmares, like the childhood trauma she’d spent so much time wrestling with in the last week come to life. Still, she knew that their current armory was not going to take on such a demon in the way they needed it to, not without completely obliterating it and potentially destroying the entire balance of the underworld.
“Holtz, I need to get near the machine!” She called between blasts.
The blonde, illuminated in proton stream light, looked at her like she’d grown another head. “Erin, that thing is radiating a stream that could cause instant hair loss and possible internal combustion. You’re not touching it while it’s activated.”
“We need to communicate with this thing! We can’t contain it without destroying it! We need to convince it to go back!”
“Did you get a demon-speak book from your mother for Christmas that I missed?” Her girlfriend roared over the sound of weaponry firing away. “Or a Ouija Board?”
“Holtzmann!” Erin yelled, “Just power it down long enough that I can get to it.”
“Yeah?” Holtz prodded, feeling a bit put-out. “What are you gonna do, rewrite the code?”
“Hey, lovebirds I know you only fight like once a month, but this is not the time!” Abby insisted, screaming as she fought a particularly strong stream that tried to curl around the demon’s neck, using the full force of her weight of gravity against the insane pressure being released by her proton wand.
Erin shot Holtz a searching look. “Okay, I need you to do the code, but I’ve got an idea. “Please, Holtz, you have to believe me, I know this is going to work.”
Seeing the desperation written in her eyes, Holtz softened her expression. All that ever mattered to Erin was that she was believed in. She’d seen the first-hand effects of what happened when those that loved her didn’t. Nodding her head, she gestured with her gun. “What do you need me to do?”
Erin explained her plan hastily and Holtz understood the theory. “Frickin’ brilliant. Erin, I love you.”
She powered down the machine, though at the point they’d thoroughly agitated the demon to, it wasn’t going anywhere. Reaching forward, hissing at the heat still radiating out of the centrifuge when her fingertips made contact. Shaking them off, she moved with haste, taking out what was essentially a mini-computer from the dark-matter machine. Hooking up the coding device from the inside pocket of her jumpsuit, Holtz set to work, begging the universe for Erin to be correct in her theory. She didn’t doubt the physicist though, so about halfway finished with the code, she started hoping that her application of her girlfriend’s brilliant thinking would work.
“Erin!” She screamed, “I got it!”
Jumping in joy at the prospect of actually controlling, not just creating dark matter, the older scientist rounded herself between Abby and Patty as Holtz communicated that she was rebooting the machine.
Almost an entire hour passed, but by the time the centrifuge had lit up another impossibly bright light straight into the sky, the creature from the other side was weakened and dazed. Easily manipulated by the dark energy flowing from the device, Erin shouted, “Now!” As Patty and Abby helped her blast the demon backwards and into the light. It screeched and the four women tossed themselves to the ground again as a new portal opened, surrounding the light pouring into the sky. Screaming, Holtz held tight to the controls, too close to the radioactive machine but afraid to move, lest she get sucked into the emergent gravity she’d created herself.
Recognizing this, Erin army-crawled across the ground as the demon fought like the hell it came from to avoid going back. The physicist reached Holtz’s hand, then yelled back for Abby and Patty, who were behind her to pull as hard as they could.
When she felt secure, Holtz let go of the control and plowed back over Erin and into Abby’s lap, she shook while Erin threw her body on top of them all, waiting for the machine to hopefully —
The light went out in a blip and all that was left was the glow from the synchrotrons on their backs and the faint red lights around the tips of their proton wands.
Panting fervently, the sweaty scientist pulled back, her breath coming out in a red puff when she released her teammates, staring back bravely at the device, barely visible in the darkness of the field.
“Erin?” Holtz questioned in an incredibly small voice. “Did we just control dark matter?”
“Yeah,” She replied, shaking violently. “We…we created…and controlled…possibly the very fabric of the creation of the universe,” She whispered.
There was silence and her deep, nervous swallow could be heard as Holtzmann pulled herself off of Abby. A cry escaped her mouth as she tossed her arms around her girlfriend.
“I think — you’ve earned yourself a position slightly more promising than a job on the Physics Review board,” Abby said as she recognized the gravity of what had occurred.
Patty spoke next, “Should we…tell people about this?”
Erin opened and closed her mouth several times. She’d always wanted to be believed, to be recognized…but in the wrong hands…what the device was capable of.
“No,” She whispered, clutching Holtz’s upper arms when the woman stiffened in her hold. “The world — it can’t…it can never know this is possible.”
Holtz pulled away, a near glare set on her face as she tried to comprehend why, in the name of the very concept science had tried to find and recreate since the start of the study of mankind, Erin would want to hide it from the human race.
“Erin — what you just discovered, could change life as we know it! There will never be another discovery like this!”
“I know,” The woman breathed out vapor once again, starting to feel the chill now that the action was over. Holtz climbed off of her, sitting on her knees, face pressed to try and figure out why, after dedicating her life to understanding the unknown, Erin would want to hide what would be the greatest greatest achievement of her lifetime. After years of criticism, harsh review, and constant mocking of her ideas, she wanted to lock away what the best minds of all time hadn’t been able to uncover?
“We made a device capable of creating…creation,” She explained as Abby and Patty looked on as well, though the two of them seemed to have an understanding already of why she wouldn’t share the information with the world. “Then, controlling it. In the wrong hands? That’s a weapon, beyond mass destruction. I can’t even comprehend what it could do to the existence of the known universe. In the hands of terrorists, it’d be terrifying enough. But in the hands of our government? No. You guys, as proud as I am that I’ve…literally done it, I —“ She shook her head. “I can imagine the…glory that could come along with this discovery, but I — I can also imagine the destruction it could cause.”
Erin collapsed on the sofa on the main floor with her boots and coat still on while Holtz rummaged around the room, climbing up and down the steps with necessary supplies. The ever-effervescent woman somehow still had energy left and as the clock neared eleven-thirty on Christmas Eve, Erin could only wonder how.
Before she knew it, the ornaments from the downstairs storage were out in a box, lights were flickered on around the room and a stereo queue of Christmas music had started, though the volume was impossibly low. Holtz had changed into a pair of festive pajamas that had the likeness of an elf outfit and soon, the blonde had wrestled Erin out of her jacket and shoes to change her into a matching pair. With tired laughter, Erin sat up and pulled her girlfriend in for a long kiss before rising and moving to the bare tree in the corner of the room to the left of the fireplace that they’d set up before leaving for Michigan.
“Due to my incapacitated state, you got us all the ornaments last year,” Holtz started, winking and removing the top box in the container. “I tried to return the favor this go around.”
With a little gasp, Erin removed a layer of tissue paper to reveal a dozen hand-made, stunningly crafted ornaments, the likes of which her mother could never imagine creating. Most were pieces of scrap metal that had been transformed with a soldering gun and glitter. They were immaculate.
Hanging the first one on the tree, she pressed a sweet kiss to Holtzmann’s mouth, then handed her the next one. They exchanged the task, each adding ornaments, the one from Patty and Abby, the photo taken in the hospital, hanging near the middle.
Between selfies and cups of hot chocolate, the couple cuddled and sang along with the songs playing from the self-made speakers that were behind the sofa. Holtzmann danced and twirled Erin to and from her body, the both of them laughing as their tree took far too long to be decorated, though neither of them minded.
Somehow, time passed and Midnight had Erin wore out. She struggled to keep her eyes open, but insisted she wanted to stay in their little festive room. Holtz improvised, dashing up the stairs and dragging the folding mattress off of the futon, arranging large cushion in front of the fireplace. She tossed pillows and blankets on top, dramatically posing with her work. Erin rolled onto the cozy makeshift bed, moaning contently as her head hit a pillow. Holtzmann followed suit, stopping the music and nuzzling in next to her after double-checking the locks and turning out all the lights except for those on the Christmas tree and the fireplace. Taking her phone, she flipped the camera forward again, taking a picture of them both, the fire visible in the background.
“Can we talk about what happened today?” She asked quietly, stroking Erin’s mussed hair.
“Yeah,” The woman responded, eyes locked on the fireplace.
Biting her lip and scratching the side of her head, Holtz said in a quick breath, “I’m so frickin’ proud of you.” Calming her buzzing body, she explained in a more even tone, “Erin, this is the secret of life. This is more than ghosts — this, this is possibly the greatest scientific achievement of all time. You did it!”
Erin reached a hand up, squeezing Holtzmann’s. “We did it, Holtz. I just came up with the theory. You made it possible.”
“But I wouldn't have come up with that,” She explained. “I just wrote some code. Erin, baby — I know it is dangerous, but…after everything you’ve been forced to suppress in your life…after not being believed for so long — you’re sure you don’t want to come forward with this? This is beyond award-winning, I — just, I hate to see you keep quiet about something you deserve such major credit for.”
Erin rolled further to her side, pecking Holtzmann’s cheek. “Holtzmann, Jill..Maybe in a few weeks, I’ll consider a way to essentially censor myself so that this information isn’t as dangerous and do something with it. But for now?” She kissed her again, this time on her mouth. “You were there. Our friends were there. Being with my mom for a few days — even in the wake of massive evidence, she couldn’t quite believe me. And that hurts, it does, but…You know? I’ve got you, now, to go to, when it does. You believe me, without fail. You didn’t question my theory. You validate me. And at this point in my life, Holtz?” She smiled and sighed, leaning forward to rest her forehead against Holtz’s sternum. “It’s enough.”
Holtzmann swallowed thickly, emotion clouding her ability to respond. After changing the face of science as they knew it, Erin was content with keeping the secret between them. The woman who’d forced herself to change for everyone, her entire life, to receive recognition, was willing to skip out on all that because Holtzmann was holding her tight. Her love for Erin was all that the world’s greatest physicist needed.
Settling herself against to the exhausted woman, Holtz reached down and peeled her pants off and hooked an arm around Erin’s waist. Kissing the top of her head fondly, she muttered her declaration of the love that Erin so obviously already knew, following the tired scientist into a dream about their crowning, secret achievement.
The morning was filled with whiny protests as neither of the women wanted to climb off of their comfy abode. Slow, meaningful kisses, morning breath be damned, started off Christmas until Erin had Holtz an incapacitated puddle of mushy contentment.
When she finally pushed herself up to start the day, Erin was chased by a pantsless Holtz down the hallway, screeching when she was tackled to their proper bed with borderline-aggressive tickles. Finally sneaking her body in to give a firm pinch to her girlfriend’s ass, Erin wiggled free and tried to sneak into the bathroom to no avail. Holtzmann, all white teeth and dimples exclaimed, “If you think you’re taking a sexy Christmas bath without me —“
Laughing, Erin pondered, “What does that even mean?”
“It means I’m making excessive amounts of bubble beards.” She teased, practically climbing Erin as the physicist tried to move to turn on the water of their oversized bathtub. “And powdering my ass in cinnamon so I smell like a gingerbread cookie.”
Wrestling her goofy girlfriend off of her, Erin nearly snorted her laughter as she finally got the tub running. As requested for the festive beard-making, she poured an extra amount of bubbles into the water, along with her favorite salts. Tugging Holtz out of her pajama top and underwear, she gestured for her to get in the bath while she retrieved a few necessary items.
Returning with her phone, which was already connected to Holtz’s bluetooth in every room, she turned on the tiny speakers in the corner of the bathroom, which packed quite a sound. Letting Christmas music swirl around them, she also brought a heaping pile of fresh towels. Holtz giggled. “Yeah, we might just want those.”
About to settle in against the backsplash, Erin squeaked when she found herself pulled across the tub to be pushed front-to-front with Holtzmann, who started an assault of kisses along her hairline. “Merry Christmas, babe. Last Christmas I gave you my heart and you’ve held onto it so tightly, I don’t think I could get it back if I asked nice.”
The cheesy one-liner might’ve made Erin groan a year ago, but now she felt herself choked up in pride as she considered they were almost in the second full year of a relationship and still in as much love with each other as the day Holtz found the tattoo along Erin’s ribs she was presently caressing.
“It’s mine now,” She finally managed to speak back, giving Holtzmann a quick kiss to the corner of her mouth. “And I plan on holding onto it for as long as I can.”
Mewling, Holtz dipped her face between them into the water, coming up with her promised bubble beard. In a jolly, deep voice, she poised an eyebrow and demanded to know, “Erin Gilbert, have you been a good girl this year?”
Sticking her tongue out, Erin teased, “I suppose that depends on your definition of good.”
With a growl, Holtz wiped her face on an equally bubbly arm before coming forward to attack her girlfriend in an embrace, which was returned whole-heartedly as Erin laid against her. The soak lasted as long as they could stand the water temperature slowly depleting from hot to lukewarm, and eventually too-cool-to tolerate. Most of the bubbles had disappeared anyway, leaving them to rinse the few remaining suds off and bundle up in fluffy white towels. Holtz bumped into her like a Weeble as they moved around the master bedroom suite to get themselves ready for a Christmas day in.
Wearing their festive logo sweatshirt she’d received last year, Holtz had her hair fastened in it’s usual style. Erin emerged in a cozy, checkered flannel top with a pair of snug cable-knit leggings to lounge around the townhouse in, her hair down. They worked up a brunch of pancakes and sausage, with a fruit and vegetable smoothie that Erin insisted Holtzmann drink if she wanted to to open her presents. Managing to choke it down, she cleaned up the cooking mess while Erin did the dishes. Following the easy morning, the couple relaxed upstairs, Holtz convincing Erin to watch the Muppet Christmas Carol, reciting several of the lines in pitch-perfect voice exaggerations to match the characters.
When the movie wrapped, Holtz flew out of the room, bringing Erin one wrapped gift and a sheepish grin. “I’m making you dinner,” She insisted, handing over the box. “So this is for you to enjoy while I’m doing that.”
“Aww, Jill, I can help—“ Erin tried to insist.
The blonde shook her head. “No, you did so much for me last Christmas, now I get to return the favor even if just by a fraction of the amount of work you put into it for me.”
Nuzzling her shoulder, Erin insisted, “You just spent four days at home with me helping me survive my mother. That’s really gift enough, you know.”
Kissing the top of her head, Holtz nodded to the present. Erin slid her finger under the shiny red paper, revealing a new anthology. She bit her bottom lip in a smile, flipping it open to a random page and reading out loud; “You are a dangerous collection of all of my favorite things. An old soul, a heart of gold and hands that make my body sing.” A mutual shiver passed through them and Holtz kissed the top of her head.
“Find some good ones to read to me after dinner, okay?” She moaned and kissed her again. “Love you so frickin’ much. Promise you won’t try to help.”
Holding up two fingers, Erin nodded. “Scout’s honor.”
“Good girl,” Holtz kissed her one last time before scurrying down the stairs, leaving Erin alone long enough to start to panic. Hearing music coming from the kitchen and knowing her conversation would be silent if she stepped out to the balcony, Erin took her phone from the end table and pulled a blanket around her shoulders before silently stalking out the french doors that led to the small look-out over Manhattan’s upper west side.
Anxiety settling into her stomach, she dialed her long-time best friend’s number. Abby answered just before it could go to voicemail. “Merry Christmas, Ghost Girl!”
“Um, Merry Christmas, Abby…”
“Uh-oh,” Her fellow Wolverine and Karate Cat started, “Sounds like you’re getting yourself worked up.”
“Gee, how did you know?”
“I could sense the vibrations of the universe from all the way over here,” She teased. “Erin, you do know that Holtzmann is not going to turn you down, right?”
Swallowing thickly, the former professor let out a little moan of uncertainty. “I know — I just don’t…I want this to be…Abby, I hope she understands…I don’t — I don’t know.”
“You’re worried this isn’t what she wants or deserves?”
“Both,” Erin sighed, thankful Abby could put her jumbled thoughts into words. “I want to give her everything.”
“I know you do. And trust me, Erin? You already have. This is what she wants. I promise, you’re going to do this and she’s probably going to laugh because you read her mind. I guarantee, this is going to be the perfect present for both of you.”
At her phrasing, Erin felt her stress drop a few notches; as if Abby knew something Erin didn’t. “Okay. Okay, I can do this.”
Talking for another ten minutes in jokes about the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, Erin bid her best friend a thank you and goodbye, returning inside to the warmth of home and her poetry book.
An hour later, Erin was walking into the kitchen with Holtz’s hands over her eyes, making her only slightly nervous that she was going to find a massive mess. With a kiss to the back of her neck, the room was revealed not only in perfect order, but set up as a candle-lit meal in their cozy nook. “Oh, Holtz,” Erin was almost choked up again, turning to hug her relieved girlfriend tightly around the middle. “You’re amazing. I love you so much.”
Squeezing back, Holtz’s shoulders settled with tension rolling off her. “I mad you some Who-hash.”
“You know what? Jokes aside,” Erin insisted, “I’d eat anything you made for me,” She said seriously, making Holtz’s eyes water just a touch.
They were about to start eating the Gordon Ramsy-worthy looking dinner when Holtz’s phone rang out from her pocket, Patty’s specific ringtone pouring out. Both answering excitedly, they greeted the face of their friend when she appeared on FaceTime, clearly inebriated and in extremely loud, festive spirits. “Ya’ll haven’t done gifts yet?” She exasperated. “Lame. I wanted to — well, whatever. Is that…Holtzy, did you actually do a candle-lit dinner?”
Holtz shrugged and Erin nodded. “She did.”
“Oh my god, white girls, I tell you what, that’s nice and cute and all, but — next year, ya’ll comin’ over here for this chaos. This is how we Christmas, right fam?”
There was great yelling and whooping behind her and Patty winked. “Send me a picture after ya’ll do presents I wanna see what ya got for Christmas. Later, losers.”
The call ended and Erin flushed, having a feeling Abby had told Patty about her Christmas gift to Holtz if there was that level of teasing, though Holtz looked nervously pink as well. Perhaps she’d confided in Patty whatever plans she had for their post-dinner exchange.
Dinner was beautiful and relatively quiet at first as both women were clearly preoccupied with whatever was coming next. Erin broke the loose tension by tangling her feet up in Holtz’s, making her press her face forward into Erin’s shoulder. Earning a kiss to the back of her head, Erin quietly mumbled. “This is delicious. Thank you, baby.”
With a catlike noise of appreciation coming out of her, Holtz started inhaling more of the food, legs untangling from Erin’s to come up and criss-cross under her, demonstrating she’d relaxed some. Their usual easy conversation started to flow again, trying to imagine the chaos of Christmas with the Tolan family.
After extinguishing the candles, Erin insisted on cleaning up the meal while Holtz sneaked down to the lab and back up again with a little bag. Erin untucked hers from the linen closet and the two of them giggled like nervous schoolgirls as they sat knee-to-knee in front of the Christmas tree.
“Can I go first?” Erin begged, beyond nervous now that she was actually about to do what she’d dreamed of for the last year.
“Only ‘cause you’re pretty,” Holtz insisted with a wink.
There was a pause as Erin reached into her bag, revealing a modest-sized box. She didn’t want to directly give away what she’d planned with the tell-tale size of the actual contents. It wasn’t wrapped, and she pressed her lips together, trying to keep her words straight as she held it in her hands.
“Jill,” She started in a small voice, “You’ve made the last two years of my life the absolute best. I never thought that I could be so happy or in a relationship where I was so in love and feel so much love in return.” She swallowed thickly as Holtz’s eyes bore into hers, soaking in every word. “I thought I’d be content to lie to myself forever in some traditional life where I’d make my family proud of me, but — now I know that none of that matters to me. Not even the possibility of all the respect the science community, and the world has to offer, seems like a big deal anymore. All that matters is that I’ve got you. You accept me for who I am, never doubt me, and make me feel like I matter all the time. You’re silly and make me laugh, which I had needed desperately in my life. When we do have arguments, you don’t cut me down to win. I don’t feel like I need to run from you when things aren’t going as I anticipated them. Holtz, you’ve made me happier than I ever thought I could be.”
“Erin,” Holtz managed to wheeze out, not taking her eyes off of her girlfriend as she reached into her own bag. Erin’s gaze darted down at the box that she immediately knew the contents of — and they matched her own.
Son of a — no wonder Abby had been so confident that her gift-giving would go so well.
With a nervous laugh that turned into a tear rolling down her cheek, she listened to Holtz describe the same feelings back to her. Her voice was stuttered and gaze kept drifting, but Holtz had clearly practiced what she was going to say, so it made complete sense, despite the awkward delivery. “I’m a train wreck about eighty-seven percent of the time. I’m obnoxious and odd and don’t fit into the world around me, but — you’ve made space in your world for me to fit. I’m about as unconventional as you were conservative before we started getting together. The day I met you and started flirting with you, I couldn’t have imagined you'd really want me like this. Erin, you’ve taken care of me and made sure I took care of myself. You’ve accepted all my weirdness, my quirks, and you let me have them without passing judgement on them. You engage in them and make me feel like I matter. All I searched for since my mom passed was a family of my own, and we’ve become one, the two of us. You’ve taught me what it is to love someone and be loved completely.”
Erin was fully crying by the end of the speech and Holtz’s eyes were shiny as well as she opened the small box while Erin opened hers, each revealing a ring that made the other gasp.
“I think we’re engaged?” Holtz asked with a watery laugh and Erin returned it with a nod and one of her own. Slipping the rings from their respective boxes then onto one another’s fingers, Erin hugged Holtz so hard she fell backwards, contentedly so, onto the rug with the woman splayed across her, crying and kissing and a tender ball of the biggest emotion either of them had ever experienced.
“We’re whatever you want it to be,” Erin mumbled against her lips, pulling away long enough to give Holtz a serious expression of hope. “I don’t want you to think we have to get married if you don’t want to. This is a promise from me to you that this is lasting,” She nodded, gesturing between them and swirling Holtz’s ring around on her finger to convey, “I want to be with you forever, whether or not that means a ceremony. As my mother so politely stated, there’s nothing traditional about us. We’ve got lots of time to think about how else we want to formalize it.”
Nodding, Holtz held Erin close, inspecting the ring on her finger and letting out another round of happy tears. Upon first look, it appeared that Erin had selected a simple silver band for the engineer, but upon inspection and sensation, she realized it was titanium. Erin explained, “I had to pick something that could hold up in the lab.”
There was a simple blue, small — lapis — diamond in the little set in the band, with a thin, engraved six pointed star on either side. Though she wouldn’t notice until that night, the inside was also engraved, a phrase that held weight since the first time they were together. “I love it, Erin.” She felt a shiver up her spine as she pushed them up a little so Erin was in her lap, legs straddled over her hips. Swallowing hard again, Holtz could never have imagined looking down and seeing a ring on that sacred finger.
Fascinated with her own, Erin stared down at the ring, which she would later find out, Holtz had fashioned shortly after her stay in the hospital over her disability period in the previous winter. The thin band was plated in silver, though had an aluminum core. The same hued diamond sat in the middle, which also matched the necklace she’d been gifted from her girlfriend the last Christmas, just slightly above the band so that it wouldn’t get caught up in their ghost busting duties. Recent moons held it in place on each side and Erin couldn’t love it more.
“Abby and Patty knew that both of us were going to be proposing this Christmas,” She said suddenly, shaking her head. Holtz captured her lips in a kiss while she shrugged, not concerned about it.
“They were probably anticipating it more than we were, knowing we both had it planned. What jerks. Can we send them a picture?”
Nodding, Erin climbed off for just enough seconds to retrieve her phone. Settling down again, she kept her back to Holtz’s front as she sat in her lap, letting their left hands intertwine, the rings both sparkling off the light reflected from the Christmas tree.
Beyond happy with the photo she snapped with her right hand, she turned her head back to capture Holtz’s mouth in a long, sweet kiss, hoping to convey how blissfuly happy she was.
1) This was completely without any beta, excuse any technical error.
2) My brain was trapped in about four different plots for upcoming pics as I berated myself to attempt to finish this one. I think it suffered as a result. However, I hope you enjoyed the extra helping of fluff at the end. I mostly just wanted to convey that despite a lifetime of struggling with being approved of and validated, Erin finally realizes, that now with Holtz — she isn't searching for that meaning anymore. She's got something better. (I'm gagging.)
3) The next fic I upload will not be a part of this series, however, more will be coming in the future. I’m about to board the SS Angst in the next few weeks — hopefully you’ll be joining in the adventure! Merry Christmas and Happy Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa to all who are celebrating.