For the next three days, things fell into a pattern, of sorts. True to their words, Chance and Chase did nothing to keep her from her mother, not even for a single moment. While one of them was always close by, hovering almost should she need anything. They gave her as much privacy with Joy as they could. She spent hours just sitting next to her mother’s bed, reminiscing. She lost count of the times she said, “Remember the time, Mom…”
But her mother only lay there. Her chest rising and falling, sometimes gently and other times with visible, raspy effort. She thought she had cried all her tears out, but there always seemed to be more of them from somewhere.
It was not fair. Her mother had never done anything wrong. Never hurt anyone, just the opposite, in fact. Whether it was the homeless man that hung out near the pier that Joy usually bought breakfast for at least once or twice a week, or studio executives, who came to her regularly for her counsel, she was always there to help anyone in need. So, why her? Why did she have to die when she had barely begun to live?
“Mom, do you remember how upset you were a couple of years ago over your fiftieth birthday?” Katie felt the tears sliding down her cheeks once more as she leaned over and brushed what little bits of hair that remained out of her mother’s face. “You were so worried because you just did not feel old, you said.”
“You spent weeks and months thinking about it. About all the things you still wanted to do with your life.” She leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on her mother’s cold forehead. “Then your birthday came, and we had the barbeque. Remember?”
“After everyone left, I was cleaning up, but you said to leave it. That there would be time the next day to clean up the mess. We went for a walk on the beach. We always went for walks on the beach when there was something important to say. We kicked off our shoes cause there was no one around, and we just walked through the water up to our knees in silence for a long time.”
“Then you turned to me, and I swear, Mom, you looked so damned young when you smiled. Remember what you told me? ‘Age is just a number, Kaitlin. What is important is not how long you live, but how well you live.’”
Katie fought to push each word from her too-tight throat then, “You have lived well, Mommy. I’m going to miss you so much.”
“All the things that mothers and daughters do together. Who is gonna help me pick out my wedding dress, Mom? And who is going to come to stay with me after that first baby is born, take care of me and show me how to be the best mother in the whole damned world?”
She reached out and lifted those bruised hands, “Mommy, what am I going to do without you?”
Katie knew that she sounded like that five-year-old little girl, who had pleaded almost the same words on the first morning of kindergarten. But her mother had only smiled and shooed her off to play with the other children. Only many, many years later, did her mother admit that she had never left the school that morning. That she had waited the whole time in the principal’s reception area. Just in case.
“Do they have waiting areas in heaven, Mom? Will you hang out there all day, too, just in case I need you?”
“That’s what she is doing now, princess,” said the deep voice just behind her. Chase entered the room, carrying a tray of food. He set it down on the nightstand next to the bed, “You need to eat something.”
He picked up a washcloth from the tray and a bottle of water. He walked around and sat on the other side of the bed next to her mother. He tried to dribble a few drops of the water into Joy’s mouth, but most of it ran down onto the cloth that he held by her chin. They still did such things, though Melody assured them that in addition to the pain medications, Joy was receiving all the nutrients she needed from the IVs that were constant now.
Katie picked up the sandwich and forced herself to take a bite. She would say it tasted like cardboard, but actually, it tasted like…nothing. That was how she felt, too – like nothing. Numb. Tasteless. Merely existing.
“How am I supposed to do it, Chase? How am I supposed just to let her go? I know it may sound ridiculous. I am a grown woman. I have a career that I love. My own car.” She sighed, “But she is so much more than just the woman that gave birth to me. She’s my best friend. She’s the person I go to when I have a problem.”
“Last year, there was this little girl in my class. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but I watched her change from this happy, bright, outgoing little person on that first day of school to this frightened, withdrawn thing that would burst into tears if I even called on her.”
“I was at the end of my rope. I had talked with my principal, who told me that her parents were getting divorced, so that was probably what was wrong. I had spoken to the mother, but she seemed not to even care.”
“It was almost the end of the year, and I worried about how she would adjust to a full day of school in first grade when she was barely making a half-day now. I talked to Mom…like always. She suggested that I keep her inside during recess for a few days. Just the two of us play and talk alone.”
She smiled as she remembered, “She even made cookies for us. Remember how good Mom’s chocolate chip cookies tasted? You know, as many times as she has tried to teach me, I just can’t seem to get it right. They never taste as good as hers do.”
She pushed the next words out as more tears fell, “He was abusing her.”
“Who, Katie? Who was abusing her?”
“Her big brother. Their mom had to work like yours did. She could not afford a babysitter on a waitress’s salary, so she left her at night with her big brother while she worked. And he…” The tears would not seem to stop, “He hurt her. How could he hurt such a sweet child?”
She wiped her face with the back of her hand, “It was all because of you, Mom. Because of your advice to just play Barbies with her. It all came out. The family got the help they needed.”
“I’m not saying everything is perfect. But when I see her in the halls sometimes, Mom, she will give me that smile, the old one, and I know. I know that in the end, she will be okay. Because of you, Mom. How many people have you saved like that, Mom?”
“How many people owe their lives to you? Are happier today because of you? Why?” Katie screamed. “WHY?” But not even her screams roused her mother from the unnatural sleep into which she had escaped.
Strong arms wrapped about her, “So fucking much her daughter,” Chase brushed the tears from her face, but it was a never-ending job. No matter how fast or how many he wiped away, more took their place. “Always the unanswerable questions.”
He fell back onto the bed next to her and drew her deeper into his embrace. “I told you before we owe her our lives, Chance and I. We could have just as easily ended up in prison as the Navy back then.”
He smiled at her, “Except for this cute girl from our new school that we both had a crush on. She asked us back to her house after school.”
“When we got there, it was like stepping into some fucking Disney show. The perfect home. A funny, accepting mother, who made the best-damned cookies.”
Katie chuckled, “Yeah, but the Moms on the Disney channel don’t demonstrate how to put condoms on at the kitchen table.” They both laughed then.
“Maybe they should. Those lessons sure kept Chance and me out of a world of hurt over the years.”
He inhaled and stared deep into her eyes, “You know no matter where we went in this fucked up world. No matter even the men we killed. The one thing that kept us sane, that keeps us sane, is coming back here.”
“You don’t know the number of times we both have done it. Escaped whatever hell was around us into memories of the smell of those cookies, your Mom’s welcoming smile…” His fingers reached up and caressed her lower lip slowly, “And the taste of your lips that night, princess.”
“This place is the only home that Chance and I ever really had. And I know Joy isn’t our Mom, but we love that woman. This hurts us too. You and she are the only family we have besides each other. Let us help you through this. Let us be there for you both now.”
He leaned his head against hers, forehead to forehead. “Please, princess. Don’t push us away again.”
Katie nodded her head and did her damnedest to force a smile. Her fingers traced the deep lines that bracketed his mouth even through the beard. They added age and maturity to his otherwise still boyish face. “I promise I’ll try, Chase. I missed ya’ll too.”
She looked down at her comatose mother, “I think we both did.”
He sighed, “Yeah, we know. You aren’t the only one that had some long heart-to-hearts with Joy.” He sighed, and half smiled as he held her.
“Hey, am I interrupting anything?” came the deep voice from the doorway.
Katie could not understand it. Why was it that her nipples got hard at the sound of Chance’s voice? When it was Chase who held her? She recognized that since that night, she had increasingly been torn.
A part of her felt deeply connected to Chase, ached for his pain, wanted to share, and perhaps heal a bit of it. But the thing was that she was also attracted to his brother. Her deepest fantasies had never been Chase or Chance. But both.
But everything said that was wrong. You did not love two men. And if you did, then you choose one of them. And let the other go. So, why did the very idea of letting one of them go feel as frightening as losing her mother?
It was for sure that ‘repressed’ kindergarten teachers, as her friends thought of her, who had had only one brief love affair, did not climb into bed with two men…at once. Two brothers no less.
But that is what she had done. Exactly what had happened. And if she were honest with herself, that was what she wanted to happen again. Chase’s words that night, ‘just wait until you have both our cocks buried inside you,’ came back to her often.
She would say it was her new favorite fantasy, but the truth was it had been for so long that she had forgotten what fantasy she would masturbate to before that night: graduation day.
She sighed; the truth was that she knew she could never make herself choose.
That was simply not an option, which left only two others. Either she would push them away again like she did that night, too afraid of what ‘people’ would say and think. Or she would find the strength to love them both and face whatever came with that choice.
She looked down at the shell of the woman who had raised her. The woman, who had always found the strength to walk her own path – in love. Always in love.
Her words came back to her. How many times had she heard them before? But never clearer than at that moment. Though her mother’s lips were silent, her spirit screamed in her head. “Nothing done in love can ever be wrong.”
Was she as strong as this amazing woman who had chosen to give birth to her, to raise her alone, to sacrifice so damned much for her? Could she ever be that strong? Especially now, all alone.
Then one hand squeezed gently on her shoulder while the arms about her tightened just a bit. “You are not alone, Katy-did,” Chance smiled down at her.
Chase smiled, and those lines around his mouth were not quite as pronounced, “You never will be.”
“You have our word on that,” they promised together.
Katie tried to smile, but the deep rattle of her mother’s breathing stopped that. She stiffened in Chase’s arms.
Chance’s hands tightened on her shoulders as he bent down, “Give her peace, Katy-did. You are the only one that can. Release her.”
“Remember what I said, princess. She has gone through so much for you. Now you find that courage for her. We’re here for you,” Chase dried more tears that she was not even aware she was crying.
She nodded as she lifted her mother’s hand. It was limp. And so cold, icy cold. She realized then exactly how right they were. Her mother was not in that body anymore. It was nothing more than a shell of the bright and brilliant spirit that had once inhabited it, given it life, and purpose.
She lifted the hand to her heart and held it there, “Go ahead, Mommy. It is time. I will always miss you, but it isn’t fair of me to keep you here, to hold onto something that is not even you anymore. I release you to whatever is on the other side.”
She bent and kissed her mother’s lips. She felt Joy’s final exhalation. She knew what it was. Recognized it immediately. Once more, her mother was giving her life, strength, and the gifts she needed to go on.
Katie’s eyes clouded over. She was not sure if it was the tears or wishful thinking, but she saw her mother then. Hovering, hanging just above that empty shell.
She was beautiful again. The young, vibrant mother that had taken her for nightly walks along the beach. That had made her cookies. That had kissed her boo-boos better. And that smile. She knew that smile. She had seen it so many times. She knew what it meant… ‘I am proud of you.’
“Nothing done in love can ever be wrong, my beloved child. That is my legacy. Live it. Love it. Find Joy in it always.”
The circle of light behind her mother’s image was growing larger. Katie fought down the need to call her back. She knew then that she could. That she possessed that power. But power was something that her mother had taught her to use wisely. And just because you could do something did not make it right.
“Good-bye, Mommy. I love you,” she whispered as that light swallowed what indeed had been her mother. The most beautiful rainbow spirit that she had ever seen.
And the world went black around her…