Written in the River

A Carby Reunion Saga (Post-Season 10)

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: I claim no ownership of these characters, nor will I make any money from this writing. However, you do understand I claim the right to protect the story and dialogue in principle. It is here for the enjoyment of the fanfic community and my Carby friends at C&P and elsewhere. But if the real ER folks want to read or poach, be my guest!

Author's Note: Thank you in advance for your attention and comments. Relax and enjoy.

CHAPTER ONE: Bill's Place

ABBY'S HEAD WAS far away. Even the rumble of the El train on the platform didn't stir her. Nor did the sound of metal on metal as the train squealed to a painful stop. Were it not for being carried onto the train by the crowd, she'd still be standing on the platform. What a day—she did her best for a steady stream of unfortunate souls who found themselves at County General today. But that pretty14-year-old girl—the one used by men like a rag doll—made her stomach ache.

And then to top it off, seeing Carter come to the ER this evening so unsteady, emotional . . . and drunk, quite frankly . . . was more than she could deal with. He turned her down when she asked him to join her at tonight's AA meeting at the Welles Street Community Center. She knew it would be good for him to remember there were other people who think booze and drugs are their friends. Only she wasn't like that anymore, and she didn't want him to be either.

THE ALCOHOL DIDN'T make Carter feel better. Nothing did. With the baby gone and Kem back in Africa, he didn't want to go home to that big, empty townhouse. He didn't want to work. His stomach was doing flip-flops from the booze he tossed back earlier, so Ike's was out of the question. As he stood on the corner just outside the ambulance bay, a taxi appeared in front of him. The driver nodded for him to get in, and Carter obeyed.

"You look like you need a ride, buddy. Where can I take you?" the driver asked while sizing up Carter through the rear-view mirror.

Carter responded with the first thing that came to his mind: "Welles Street."

ABBY SAT IN the second-floor auditorium of the Community Center like she had more times than she could count. Despite her air of indifference, she knew these people helped her, and for that she was grateful. But in recent months, the meetings became times for her to quietly study for her Medical Boards. Many times she would ponder the circulatory system, diseases of the liver, and anatomy of the brain while feigning interest in the speakers sharing their stories with the group. But now that the Boards were behind her, her mind was free to wander, and it kept coming back to the image of Carter—clearly in pain. She was all too familiar with the feeling of hopelessness she saw on his face. She'd felt that way many times before—and never wanted to feel that way again. It was the one thing she was sure of in her life. Absolutely sure. So when the person at the podium ended and stepped down, Abby saw her own hand in the air. She was ready, finally, to share her story with the group. And no one was more surprised than Abby herself.

THE TAXI ROLLED to a stop at the traffic light at the intersection of Welles and Michigan. The turning blinker snapped on and off in a hypnotic rhythm that Carter found oddly soothing. He sat back in his seat and breathed slowly, his head beginning to clear from the afternoon's binge. He caught a glimpse of himself in the taxi's rear-view mirror. He barely recognized the face that looked back at him. This man had dark, empty eyes with deep gray circles all around. His skin was pale and his expression was . . . lost. He realized that it had been a long time since he looked in the mirror and saw the optimistic young man he used to be.

"You need this meeting, John," he mumbled to himself.

"Say somethin', buddy? Are we going the wrong way?"

"No, sir. I think . . . I think this is definitely the right direction."

"HI, I'M ABBY, and I'm an alcoholic," she said using the standard AA introduction she's heard so many times.

"Hi, Abby," was the friendly but conditioned response of the group.

"I haven't had a drink in a year. But before I started again, I hadn't had a drink in six years. What made me start again . . .?"

Abby took a deep breath, closed her eyes tightly, and clenched her fists as if it would hurt physically to reveal anything about herself.

"It was a problem I've had my whole life," she continued. "It was just easier to give up on things . . . to give up on . . . me." She held her breath and opened her eyes just wide enough to peek at the audience in front of her. She saw the faces of people nodding empathetically, warm faces filled with caring. She exhaled, opened her eyes the rest of the way, and began to speak more easily.

"Growing up, my mom was sick—but she looked healthy, so it was hard for other kids to understand why she'd show up at school in the middle of the day for a picnic. They whispered and snickered when she ran naked across the football field and when she crashed my junior prom. But worse, they never understood why she'd stay in bed for weeks at a time. I learned to escape as a kid by dreaming; I learned to escape as an adult by drinking. I blamed it on my crazy mother and on my lousy marriage and later on my brother—but it wasn't their fault. I chose to drink rather than allow myself to lo . . . I mean, live."

CARTER WIPED HIS face with his handkerchief after he paid the cabby. He stood for several minutes on the steps in front of the Community Center. He dreaded stepping into that place again, searching for that hidden meeting room in the back of the building. He thought that was all behind him. All those people, all those problems. He knew they were like him—people who were suffering but not strong enough to manage without the help of a drink or a pill or more. But not Abby, he thought. Not anymore. She was beaming these days. Funny, he thought, I used to have nightmares of Abby with a bottle in her hand. Now I can't even picture her with a wine glass.

INSIDE THE MEETING room, Abby's voice began to tremble a bit. "Well, I made a mess of my marriage. I blamed my Ex, which was easy because of all the other women. But I really betrayed him—not with other men. It's just that there were things I didn't tell him . . . couldn't tell him."

Her voice started to quiver, and she suddenly wanted to bolt. But Abby stood firm.

"Anyway, he paid me back for all that. I had to quit school because of him, and I was angry for a long, long time."

Carter slid through the hall of the Community Center toward the auditorium. His feet dragged, his shoulders sagged. He knew the meeting would have started already by the time he got there. He hoped to slip into the back of the room without being noticed.

". . . And then I met someone, and things were really good with him," Abby recounted. "But I messed it up because I was too busy being a friend to my bottle . . . and a daughter to my mother . . . and a sister to my brother . . . and I forgot to be a friend to him."

Carter turned the corner toward the meeting room. The soft echoes of a speaker told him the meeting was under way from all the way down the hall.

". . . One day, he went away," Abby continued. "Soon after I got a letter from him. You know the kind."

The women in the audience rolled their eyes. "Yup, a letter," Abby affirmed. Her audience laughed. "I knew then and there that things had to change . . . that I had to change. I never took a drink, a cigarette, or a chocolate bar since then. Well, OK, I'm still working on the chocolate." They laughed warmly again.

"But I swallowed my pride and scraped together money to get back into med school. And when I was doing what I wanted, everything started to fall into place. So here I am, ready to put all this behind me."

As Carter got closer to the meeting room, he realized the voice on the podium sounded familiar. It was a voice he'd heard many times—at work, at home, in his head, and next to him on his pillow whispering in his ear in the dark. He couldn't make out the words, but he was sure it was Abby.

". . . I learned a good lesson," Abby added quietly, "but it cost me a lot to learn it." She almost whispered that last part. The room grew quiet. Suddenly her cheeks felt damp, and she realized it was from her own tears. She paused to compose herself. Her throat was so tight, she had to swallow hard to relax it enough to speak. Now the audience had tears in their eyes, too. The first row leaned forward in their seats to encourage her.

"I forced myself to look at it this way . . ."

Exactly at that moment Carter slipped into the back of the auditorium, in time to hear Abby say:

". . . Getting my ex-boyfriend's letter was the best thing that ever happened to me."

And just when Carter thought his heart couldn't sink any further, it dropped through the floor.

NEXT

Chapter Two: Being There