A/N: Years ago, this piece was nothing but a title and a premise. As Only Us was becoming Some Other Me an embarrassing number of years later, it finally wrote itself.
The Last Five Years
He wasn't sure he was sleeping. He must have been, because his eyes were closed and there was this heaviness in his limbs, but he could still feel every aching muscle in his body, and hear voices around him, an occasional siren of an ambulance arriving at the ER below, hushed conferring from the hallway, the constant beeping of the monitor by the bed. He tried to shut them out and sink deeper into oblivion. He hadn't slept properly in days. The previous week had been particularly intense; he only got home to shower and change, and grab a quick bite to eat, before leaving for the hospital again.
There was a rustle from the direction of the bed, and his eyes snapped open. He'd become so alert to these little noises these past few days, like a soldier on the battlefield, which in some ways, he was. He blinked, and the room swam into focus. The light was dim, the figure in the bed swimming in shadows. "Collins?" he whispered. "Do you need anything?"
Collins groaned softly, too weak to even utter a yes or a no. It was painful to see him just lying there – the usually sturdy and vivacious man that he was. But up until a few hours ago he was still cracking his wiseass jokes and charming the nurses, male and female alike. One song before I go.
The door creaked open, and Roger poked his head in, but his cautious stance shifted slightly as he noticed they were both awake. "Sorry I'm late," he whispered into the dimness of the room. As Roger walked past him to remove his coat, he breathed deeply the smell of outside his friend had brought in with him – a heady mix of cigarette smoke and alcohol from the bar he'd been working at, and a fresh hint of rain that probably resumed outside. He wouldn't know, of course. Being in the hospital felt like being inside a bubble, but not in the childlike, fun way like one might evoke.
"How he's doing?"
"In and out of it. I think it won't be long now." It was strange to admit it out loud, this prediction which dawned on him some time ago; and even more heartbreaking than it sounded in his head.
A grumble came from the bed. "Not dead yet, bitches."
And they laughed, because what else could they possibly do in this fucked up situation?
"So, anything?" he asked Roger, then winced at the bitterness of the coffee in front of him and reached for a packet of sugar. A nurse had shooed them out of the room, claiming Collins couldn't rest properly with them constantly hovering by his bedside. Roger had to quite literally drag him outside, then down the hall and actually out of the hospital. The fresh air hit his lungs like a punch – it was so pure; he'd forgotten. How long had he been in there? His only track of time now was the beard he'd been sporting (shaving required too much of his time), which made even the effortlessly unkempt Roger shake his head in dismay. When he realized Roger was steering him towards an all-night diner across the street it was too late to protest or offer any resistance. But at least there they'd be able to speak in private.
"Dave finally got back to me. Turns out that guy he knew really did work with her in Los Angeles. She was doing theater for a while. Nothing major or we would have heard about her, I'd imagine."
"That's great news." Finally, some progress, no matter how inconsequential. He looked at the newspaper clippings Roger had placed on the table between them, provided by that guy Dave, he assumed. It was mostly reviews of what appeared to be fringe magazines, one featuring a photo of the cast, which hadn't aged well. None of the reviews mentioned any of the actors by name, and judging by the tiny size of them, it was hardly the West Coast equivalent of Broadway. "Is she still in LA though?" he asked, looking up at Roger.
His friend deliberated, as if he knew he wouldn't like the answer. "Hasn't lived there for at least three years. The guy heard at some point from a friend of a friend she'd moved to Sacramento, but doesn't know for sure. They fell out of touch, and she didn't leave any forward address with anyone when she left."
He remained silent, letting the information sink in. Then he looked at the clippings again, as if trying to conjure some hidden detail, a name of a theater, some sort of lead that had escaped him the first time around. The ensemble photo was so grainy it was downright impossible to tell apart the men from the women, let alone make out any of their faces. "We could try and track down the people in this photo. Look," he turned the page in Roger's direction, then pointed at one of them in the right. "This one looks like her, right?"
Roger examined the photo for a second. "I mean, if you squint."
"Or we could make a list of theaters in the area, not the major ones, you're right, it's unlikely she – but maybe if we – "
"It's over, Mark," Roger's voice was resolute, his gaze earnest. "We've done all we could. We exhausted every possible resource." He paused, then added more softly, "Maureen doesn't want to be found."
For a moment, neither of them spoke. He sipped his coffee thoughtfully, thinking of the little they had known. She had been living in Los Angeles for a while. She was most likely an actress, working with this guy Roger had tracked down somehow. Was she sleeping with him? It was absolutely none of his business, and completely irrelevant to the matter at hand. It had been years since – she didn't even like – and he wasn't even –
"Well, I'm not giving up."
"She's been gone for over five years. If she wanted us to find her, she would have left us more than a cryptic postcard. She would have called every once in a while. She chose to stay away; why can't you respect that and do the same?"
"It has nothing to do with respect. The postcard, that's just Maureen being dramatic. I'm sure she would have wanted to be here if she only knew about Collins."
"Mark – "
"Collins is dying, Roger," he blurted out so that he wouldn't have to hear the exasperation in his friend's voice. "He was her closest friend. Her first friend in the Village. We won't be able to get her here in time to say goodbye, but I know she would want to be here for the funeral. She needs to be here." He was aware of his voice turning somewhat whiny the more he had insisted, but the words coming out of his mouth were too overwhelming to even contemplate that. Yet another funeral. For Collins. The notion was so distracting, that it was a moment before he realized Roger had asked him something.
"Is this really why you're doing this?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are you willing to go out of your way to find her for Collins's sake?"
"I'm only doing this for Collins. If you haven't noticed, Roger, it's unlikely he'll last another day. He deserves a proper sendoff, a happy one, after everything he's done for us. It's the least we can do for him."
"That's admirable. Selfless. Kudos."
Even in his state of exhaustion, it was easy to detect the sarcasm clinging to each of his friends' words. "Why else would I want to do this?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's some twisted way to feed this everlasting pining you have for her?"
He gaped at his friend. "Are you for real?" Roger gave him his best what do you think look, at which he scoffed. "I can't believe we're back at that same old tune."
"You can't get back to something you never fully let go of." He chuckled, unable to come up with anything to say. "I gotta hand it to you, it's been a while. But I guess Collins' death is good a catalyst as any for it to resurface."
"What are you on about? What makes you think I'm not over her, which I totally am by the way?"
"Maybe the fact you could barely sustain any relationship since she'd left you?" Even if he knew what to say in his defense, Roger just kept going. "I'm not judging, man."
"Sounds a lot like judgment from where I'm standing," he pointed out sardonically. He was sick and tired of this conversation. He wanted to get back inside. At least by Collins' side the voices in his head remained quiet; at least there it was not glaringly obvious that Roger had a point.
"I just want you to be honest with yourself."
"You want honesty? I honestly want nothing to do with her after the way she bailed on us!"
"I don't get why you're so furious with her. She has a right to want to have a life away from here, Mark, she doesn't owe us anything. Collins has told you this time and again since she left, why are you obsessing?"
"Because I'm tired of losing my friends one by one with me having no control over it, okay?" he replied abruptly. They stared at each other; for a moment it was unclear which of them was more shocked by his outburst. But it felt the worst of it was already out in the open, so he just kept on speaking. "It's all falling apart. And soon there'll be nothing left, and I'm terrified of being the last one standing."
The implication was not lost on Roger, who shook his head. "That's bullshit, man," he said, his tone softening. "I'm still here. I'm in better shape than I've been in ages and you know it. Besides, you never know what might happen. You might get hit by a bus, or get stabbed in a mugging, or freeze to death because we didn't pay the electricity bill yet again this month. And then I'll be the last one standing, but you don't see me throw a fit over that, do you?"
He couldn't find the will in himself to see the logic in this. He couldn't speak. He could feel tears of frustration falling, and he didn't do anything to stop them. Passive, as always. He was just so tired of this. Roger pushed the napkin dispenser in his direction. He grabbed a few without looking up.
"I've never seen you so angry, Mark. You can't carry all this burden by yourself, there's no reason why you would. Maybe…" Roger faltered, then said gently, "Maybe you should speak to someone."
Great, just what he needed, spending the little he had on a therapist who would tell him how fucked up everything was. "I'm fine."
And whatever protest Roger might have had, he just shook his head and kept it to himself.
"About Maureen," said Collins. They exchanged looks over his head. "I know you tried. Appreciate it." He looked at Roger, and it was the closest thing to a smile they'd seen on his ashen face in days. "A real Nancy Drew." Roger's chuckle was caught on a sob. When Collins turned his face to him, the smile was all gone, his expression remarkably lucid even though it was so painfully obvious the end was near. "Don't be angry. Not worth it."
"I told you," said Roger. Collins hummed his agreement.
"She'll return. When she's ready. Don't give up on her."
"I won't," he said, although it felt like an empty promise. In his heart of hearts he knew that illogical as it was, he would never be able to forgive her for this. She'd let them all down. In his eyes, there wasn't a worse betrayal.
He avoided the empty bed the best he could, tried very hard not to think of Collins' body on some unmarked slab in the hospital morgue, four floors below. His late friend's absence (the notion itself took some adjusting) was everywhere. His bedside was cluttered with books and magazines and crossword puzzles, from when they were still trying to make his hospital room feel like home. But pretty soon he lacked the energy to solve them, and the magazines were mostly there for their sakes, for their nightly vigil by his bedside. And now he was packing everything while Roger was in charge of the funeral arrangement. His face ached with crying, his body weak with grief and fatigue. He placed everything inside the worn-out leather travel bag Collins had taken everywhere. This would be the last of its travels.
The small bedside table was finally cleared, except for one hardback, the book he had seen Collins read when he was still able to. There was a bookmark about halfway through. He would never be able to finish it. He couldn't help but hope it was a title Collins was rereading; the thought of him dying before finishing a brand new work was too much to bear.
His fingers suddenly flailed; the book crushed to the floor. Holding back a string of profanities, he knelt down to retrieve it. As he did so, the bookmark shifted, and he gasped at the familiar sight. It wasn't a bookmark at all, but a postcard, now somewhat yellowing around the edges, its ink a little faded.
I'm fine. Just needed to jump over the moon. MJ.
A sob escaped him before he had managed to contain it, although he was unsure what he was crying over. He felt overwhelmed by grief and loss and absence. He traced the words on the postcard with his finger, as if the meditative motion would help in stopping the tears from coming. They had given up the search entirely as soon as Collins was gone. It was clear she wouldn't be able to make it to the funeral, even if they did find her, and then what was the point to even try? Roger was right. She'd made her choice; she clearly didn't want to be found.
Filled with sudden rage, he was tempted to rip the damn thing to shreds, until there was nothing left. As it was, he couldn't even bring himself to close his fist around the postcard until it wrinkled completely. So instead, he stuffed it back inside the book, and shut it closed. The book he placed in the recesses of the bag, out of sight, out of mind. Goodbye, Love.
She was sleeping.
She looked down at her lap, where her baby lay curled, wrapped in a blanket. Only her face peeked out, actually, a perfectly round face with heart-shaped lips, like a doll. The nurse would be there soon to take her back, but she was adamant on imploring her not to. She knew she should sleep when her baby slept; everyone had been drilling it into her head for the past few weeks. But she felt too alert to even attempt closing her eyes. It was the strangest sort of high; a combination of sheer fatigue and fading adrenaline, which left behind this blissfulness that wrapped around her like mist. The baby was breathing softly, almost inaudibly. It felt as if the two of them were the only two people left on earth. There's only us, there's only this.
The nurses finally stopped fussing around her, and she'd insisted her parents returned to her place for a much needed rest. Just for a few hours, she told them, we'll be fine. The use of we threw her off-guard somewhat. And now, alone at last, she had an uninterrupted moment to marvel at the member in that newly-formed family unit – her daughter, she had to keep reminding herself. She had never held anything so small in her life. Well, once, when one of her friends got a puppy for Christmas, but this was no puppy. It was her baby girl. She smiled as it dawned on her; this tiny little thing was the only thing that was really and entirely hers. As she watched her in her peaceful slumber, everything that had led to that very moment, absolutely all of it, seemed inconsequential.
She named her Libby. It was close enough to Elizabeth, her mother's name, yet it still carried its own unique sound. She heard once that in Hebrew it meant my heart. It was Mark who was telling her that, she now remembered. The context remained vague, but that detail stuck. And it seemed beautifully appropriate. Libby was only a few hours old, but already it was clear to her she had never known a love like this.
It was a funny feeling, wanting to curl into a ball and sleep for eternity, while at the same time wanting to scream her pride and joy from every rooftop. Her heart felt so full she feared it would explode. Weirdly enough, the person with whom she'd most wanted to share this monumental moment wasn't at all the one who had made it possible (albeit to his dismay), but the people she'd left behind. Thinking of them now comforted her in a way it hadn't done since the first days following her departure.
She could see it so clearly. They would fill the room with balloons and flowers and teddy bears neither of them could really afford. Mark would stick his camera in her face until she would jokingly shove him off. Roger would try to act all cool, but she'd notice the swell of emotion in his eyes, catch him reaching out a finger for her baby to grab on, then laugh at the wonder of if. And Collins, her darling Collins, would be there armed with books no baby – no child, really – should yet be exposed to, and insist on reading them to her over her crib.
"Look, you guys," she whispered. "She's mine. I made this. Can you believe it?"
She waited a second longer, as if part of her was awaiting some sort of reply, but the room remained silent and empty. For the first time since she'd left, she felt the absence of her friends, the searing loss of them. For the first time she regretted the abrupt way in which she'd left her past behind over five years ago. No one had forced her to make it a clean break, leaving behind nothing more than a cryptic postcard, never calling once to check on them or let them know that she'd okay. At the time, with her soul fragile as it was, it felt necessary. But now second thoughts were sipping in, momentarily distracting her. As she held her newborn against her chest, she hoped that they were safe and warm and happy. Maybe she'd call them tomorrow and tell them about the last five years, about Libby. Yeah, that would be nice.
But the thought vanished altogether as the door opened and a different nurse walked in. It was the same nurse who had admitted her, the one who had alleviated her fears at the increasing contractions and helped her breathe.
"Here's hero of the ward," she said, smiling softly at her, as she approached her bedside.
"Are you kidding? In and out of the delivery room in less than two hours on your first time? Must be a new record."
"I blame it on my job. I was trained to get things done quickly." She had no idea where she'd found the energy to crack a joke.
"How are you doing? Still in pain?"
"Not so much if I stay still." Problem was she couldn't stay still; she didn't know how.
"Let me take the little darling back and you could have some rest."
"Do you have to? We're sort of bonding here," she offered a weak smile although it seemed like a lost battle.
"Just for a bit. It's really best that you sleep…"
"When she sleeps, I know." She watched the nurse as she scooped Libby into her own arms, then gently placed her back in the crib. Libby shifted, and for a split second it seemed she was about to protest the sudden lack of a warm body to snuggle against, but she slept on. She lay her hand on the edge of the crib, sudden dread washing over her. "You'll watch her, won't you?"
"I won't let her out of my sight," promised the nurse. In her hazy state of panic, she didn't know whether or not to believe her.
"Can I just…" She wasn't even sure what she wanted to ask. The nurse, being well-acquainted with the anxiety of new mothers, smiled and turned the crib slightly in her direction, so that the baby's head was facing her. She shifted, then winced, but ignored the pain and looked down at Libby. She kissed her finger, then placed it against the baby's lips. "See you soon, Libby."
She didn't take her eyes off the door, not until the crib was out of her sight and the sound of its wheels grew distant enough. Then she leaned back and tried to get comfortable, and discovered she was hurt everywhere. Nonetheless she smiled almost despite herself. She was shocked to feel herself drift almost as soon as she closed her eyes. She guessed she was more tired than she'd realized. She vaguely remembered thinking about something right before the nurse walked in, something she wanted to do tomorrow, but her mind kept turning back to Libby, how she looked the first second she laid eyes on her, and just now as they parted.
What would it be like, five years from now? What would she look like, whom she would take after? The girl she'd conjured was a stranger, but so familiar at the same time, for she'd seen her in her mind's eye ever since learning she was having a girl. She had dark hair and eyes, a dimple on her chin, an infectious giggle. She would share her love for sweets and passion for the theater. A girly girl, but with an inexplicable love for dinosaurs. Her favorite color would change daily. She would be fascinated by her grandmother's doll collection and her grandfather's adventure tales. Already she was the apple of their eye, and they'd known her all of three hours. But in every scenario, it always came down to only them two.
It felt as if she was finally given an answer to a question she'd asked a long time ago. Libby was the change she so desperately sought. She felt empowered and fiercely protective, ready to take on anything and anyone who would dare hurt her little girl. She didn't even consider the challenges that lay ahead, although she was bound to face those, as a single mother. It wouldn't be easy, both her parents warned her as they made sure she was ready for what she was about to take on. But this was the most certain she'd been about anything in her life. The difficulties were there, but blurred in essence yet. She'd face them when she'd have to, head on, like she'd always done. Her daughter would tame her, like no one else in her life had ever managed to do, not even her job. Already she could feel a difference; her demeanor inexplicably gentler. The diva exited the stage, at least for the time being.
She let her gaze drift towards the door one last time. She would see her soon. She couldn't wait until she did. And as she finally allowed herself to close her eyes and rest, two words slipped from her lips.