An Epic Overseas Carby Exploration
(Post-"Now What?" with spoilers through "The Lost")
Chapter One: Chasing a Feather
Rating: PG-13 with cautioning for some violence and romantic situations.
Summary: A cinematic Carby tale set in their recent past, complete with moments we wish we got to see.
Disclaimer: Of course, I claim no rights to the ER characters, though I reserve rights to this story and dialogue. It's all I can cling to—that and the hope that TPTB fix things.
Author's Note: I hope in some way this story helps survive the lack of Carby romance on ER. First of nine chapters is below.
"I CAN'T KEEP doing this!"
Abby shouted it at Carter as he walked away. She meant it. Her arms were folded across her chest to shield her from the crisp spring breeze and to protect her heart from the pounding it was taking—again. She'd seen the back of his head as he walked away one too many times over the past few weeks. For a moment, she thought he hesitated, but he continued on as if her cries were meaningless. And it left her confused and angry and a little afraid.
She waited until he disappeared from view—and then some, still holding out hope that he would have a change of heart. Busy rush-hour pedestrians struggled to get past her on the way to the El train, and they jostled her as she stood on the sidewalk.
Resigned that he wouldn't change his mind, Abby walked slowly back into the hospital and ran into Susan.
"Hey there," Susan said quietly.
But Abby's head was caught in the whirlwind of the day. She walked passed Susan into what was left of the lounge and sat down at the edge of the round table—the only spot in the room that wasn't covered with plastic or sawdust from remodeling. A piece of paper lay alone on the table. She placed her index finger on it and absentmindedly twirled it around the smooth surface, until she looked more closely and saw Carter's handwriting. It was his flight itinerary.
"7:40 pm: Air France Flight 293—O'Hare to Paris
(connects in Montreal, Glasgow). Arrive 6:30 pm local.
10:05 pm: Flight 1390—Paris to Kinshasa.
Local trans. to Kisangani"
Behind her Susan entered.
"Are you okay?"
Abby looked over her shoulder at her but was afraid to answer. She didn't have to; her face told the story.
"I was looking for Carter," Susan said gingerly. "Kerry just got off the phone with somebody from that 'adventure doctor' organization that Carter and Luka were working with. They said they are dispatching a team to look for Luka."
"Too late. Carter went to find him."
"I'm not kidding. He stuffed a bag with supplies and ran out of here."
Abby choked a little on the last few words but cleared her throat to keep her composure.
"Did you try to stop him?"
"I ran after him like an idiot," Abby confessed. "The more I chased him, the faster he ran away—"
She stopped to try to contain the emotion she could hear in her own voice. She cleared her throat and continued. "I begged him to stay . . . I don't understand what's going on with him . . . or us. I don't even know if there is an 'us' anymore."
"I thought you went for coffee? Didn't you talk?" Susan wondered.
"We ended up fighting, and I stormed off."
"He was telling me about Africa . . . the conditions . . . I know it affected him. But he never talked about why he went and what was wrong and why he left so suddenly. I asked him what he thought about me while he was away, and he couldn't answer. Then we said stupid things."
"Well, it sounds like he's been through something pretty devastating. Maybe you needed to be more patient."
Abby hated to admit it, but Susan was right.
"I know, I just . . . all I could think about were these last three weeks, wondering if he was dead or alive or coming back or if he—"
Abby was glad to talk to Susan, but she could never get used to confiding her deepest thoughts to anyone. What she was really wondering was if he ever really cared about her.
Susan tried to console her. "I'm sure he understood. This is all just bad timing."
"We said awful things . . . I told him I don't know why he bothered to come back, and he told me walking away is what I do best, and then I told him he had big problems. Next thing I knew, Chuny ran out with the news about Luka. He's taking it hard, harder than I am—and I dated the guy for a year," she said, choking back grief over Luka and pain over Carter.
"He seems 'off,' Abby. He hasn't been right since his grandmother died. Maybe before."
"No, something's different. He's different. I don't know why I ever got involved."
Susan rested her hand on Abby's shoulder.
"Abby, he can't go to the Congo, it's too dangerous. You can't let him go."
"What can I do?"
Susan looked at her, and Abby could see what she was thinking.
"No, I can't."
"Abby, you can head him off in Paris," Susan said, looking over Abby's shoulder at the paper on the table.
"Susan I can't get on a plane—"
"Do you have a passport?"
"Yes, somewhere—I haven't used it since Richard's sister got married in London. But I can't go."
Abby spun the paper around some more, and her voice grew quieter.
"He doesn't want me around right now. I can feel it," Abby said. "And I'm not sure I want to see him either."
"Things just got off to a bad start this morning. He's probably forgotten about it by now."
"And if he hasn't? I just can't jump on a plane and track him down. I just can't. It's . . . crazy."
"You would if it were your mother or brother—and you have many times."
"That's because they were sick or in trouble."
Susan sat down across from her and touched the back of Abby's hand with her fingertips: "Abby, I saw Carter today. He's in trouble."
Susan was worried. Abby looked at the itinerary on the table, looked at Susan, and back at the itinerary again. She grabbed it, flew out her chair and shouted, "I must be out of my mind!" as she headed toward the door.
"Good luck," Susan yelled after her. "Call me!" she added, but Abby was already out the door.
ABBY TOOK THE el to her apartment, nervously tapping her foot the whole way. Once home, she quickly packed an overnight bag with some toiletries, a change of clothes, and extra underwear. She found her passport and grabbed all her credit cards, hoping that one of them would have a credit limit large enough for the last-minute ticket to Paris. She closed the light and opened her front door, and just before she ventured out into the bright hall, she ran back in and opened the drawer where she kept her underwear. This time, she pulled from the bottom, where she kept her "less-respectable" ones. The ones she saved only for special times with him.
She grabbed a bra colored a pastel shade of lavender with demi cups and a tiny white satin butterfly that rested between them. There were matching panties with the same satin butterflies where they fell on her hips. She tucked them in her bag and hurried downstairs hoping to flag down a roaming taxi to take her to the airport. In the cab, she remembered the last time she wore them.
CARTER HAD WAITED for her outside the hospital after her shift and startled her as she was on her way to meet her AA sponsor. He had a strange look on his face when he said, "You know, right?" and made her confess that she was indeed aware that he had an engagement ring four nights before when they dined among a sea of empty tables at the beautiful downtown restaurant he bought out to ensure their privacy. He confessed to her that he didn't go through with it because "it didn't feel right" and that "something wasn't working." He accused her of a "quick fix" by trying a nicotine patch to quit smoking and scheduling this meeting with her AA sponsor. She tried to let him off the hook. She said if he was sick of her, she wouldn't blame him. But that made him angry—angrier than she'd ever seen him—and he stormed off to his Jeep Wrangler. His fury confused her, but moments later he pulled up behind her. He stepped out of the vehicle, and they approached each other gingerly. And in a rare moment, she surrendered herself to him. He brought her close and rested his head on hers and held her tight.
He broke away and looked in her eyes, brushing strands of her long blond hair away from her face with his fingertips.
"You'd better go if she's waiting," he said.
"Come by later . . . okay?" she asked tentatively.
He touched her face. "Okay"
He seemed sad, and it scared her.
She sat in a booth at a local coffee shop three blocks from County and a million miles away from her AA sponsor—a lovely chatty woman about five years her senior. They ordered sandwiches and shared a basket of fries, but Abby could not focus and made excuses to get home quickly. She offered to pay for the entire meal for getting her sponsor out for nothing. Having mentored Abby for almost 7 years, the woman knew better.
"Abby, if something's wrong, you can tell me," she offered.
But closed off as Abby was, she didn't mention her relationship with Carter. Instead, Abby said she was tired from her rough shift and suggested that her fourth day without a cigarette was making her fidgety.
Abby arrived back at her apartment at 8:30. She quickly showered, put on her lavender underwear and covered them with a soft gray blouse and black pants. And then she waited . . . and waited. At 10:05 she called his apartment. He wasn't there, but she spoke to his machine with a lump in her throat, though she forced a casual tone: "Hi, it's me. I thought you were going to come by tonight . . . I guess you changed your mind . . . You're probably tired . . . Well, okay, I guess I'll see you tomorrow. Bye."
At 11:10, she took off her blouse and pants and tossed a thin satin robe over her lavender butterfly underwear. She lay on her bed with the phone next to her and fell asleep.
When Carter arrived close to midnight Abby was still asleep, her robe open just enough to reveal the pretty lavender underwear. He watched her for several minutes. He loved her like this, when he could imagine her to be anything.
He left his coat on the couch and kicked off his shoes, he pulled off his sweater and the shirt underneath and moved over to the bed and climbed on slowly. His weight on the mattress jostled her, and she woke up. Before she could speak, he cupped her face in his hands and stared at her for a long moment. She didn't quite understand the look on his face. His thumbs swept her cheeks gently, and he kissed her.
"I'm not sick of you. How can you think that?"
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do," she said.
"I don't know either."
She lay back on her pillow, her robe spilling open, and he rested on his side propped up on one arm. With his free hand, he played absentmindedly with the tiny satin butterfly that rested between her breasts.
"Where have you been? I called your apartment."
"Downstairs in front of your building—in my car."
"All this time?"
"Couple of hours."
"I don't know what's wrong."
They were quiet for while, until she said softly, "I understand if you want someone else . . . someone different."
"I don't want anyone else!" He almost shouted the words but softened his tone when he saw he startled her. "Understand that, okay? I just want you to—"
He paused and looked away from her.
"To what?" she asked nervously.
He moved closer and leaned over her and looked down into her eyes searching for something. She looked up at him, trying hard to connect, desperate to understand his mood.
Then he lowered his head and touched his lips to the base of her throat and felt her pulse quicken, and then kissed the valley just above the butterfly. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around him, happy to end the discussion that had begun to frighten her. He slipped the thin satin robe off her arms, and they made love.
It would be the last time.
They blamed it on their schedules. Sure they'd grab a quick meal here or there and they'd talk on the telephone. But they were mostly working opposite shifts and never seemed to connect. However, that morning when Carter's grandmother died and her brother Eric turned up, the distance between them grew obvious—if not to her, then to him.
WHY SHE BROUGHT along the lavender butterfly undergarments she didn't know. However, she knew that seeing them on her body excited him. Why she cared was a mystery to her. She was angry with him—but then again, she missed him already.
At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, Abby purchased a coach seat to Paris and hurried to board the plane. By her calculation, she was only an hour or two behind Carter. And since he had a three- to four-hour layover before his flight to Kinshasa, she was confident she would find him in time to . . . well, she didn't know exactly. All she knew was she needed to see him before he got on that plane to the Congo.
Stuck in the middle seat as her penalty for last-minute travel, Abby leaned her head back and tried to get some sleep. Luckily, she was tired, since Carter woke her at 5:30 in the morning when he returned from Kisangani. She couldn't fall back to sleep after he left her apartment so abruptly—at her request really. As she napped, she remembered the look on his face when she asked for her key back. Pain and frustration was visible even through the bluish smoke from her cigarette that curled in the air between them.
Abby couldn't remember getting off the plane, but suddenly she was in the waiting room of the airport. The air seemed filled with smoke, which she thought was odd and assumed Parisians to be more tolerant of nicotine and tar than her fellow Americans. She didn't know why all the faces seemed hazy to her. But she spotted him, and she thought he must have changed his clothes because she remembered he was wearing a denim jacket when he left. Now he had on a lab coat over his scrubs. He ran to her as soon as he saw her. The only thing she could feel were his lips on her, and she knew that everything was going to be okay . . .
A voice broke in.
It was coming from next to her and sounded annoyed.
"We've landed, and I'd like to get off the plane, please."
Abby shook the sleep from her head. She was groggy and surprised to still be on an airplane. The woman in the window seat was yelling to her, and the businessman on the aisle was gone.
"You're blocking my way, and I'd like to get off please!"
It all came back to her now. She unbuckled her seat belt and started to exit the row, but the impatient woman next to her wedged past her, spinning Abby around until she plopped down in the seat again.
Abby sat there as all the passengers filed out and the crew assisted those needing wheelchairs.
And when Abby was the only one left on the plane, a handsome young flight attendant came over to her.
Abby slumped in her seat. "Can't I just wait here until you're ready to go back?"
ABBY TOOK THE long walk down the gangway, running her hands along the fiberglass walls just to assure herself that she had actually made the trip. When she emerged in the gate area of Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport, her stomach began to twist.
She scanned the infinite rows of seats and wondered if she would ever find him in this vast place. She approached a video monitor and tried to make sense of it. She found the number of the flight bound for Kinshasa and checked it against the notes Carter made in the lounge at the hospital. "FLIGHT 1390 TO KINSHASA-GATE 22" the monitor said. It wasn't leaving for another hour or two, but she headed there anyway hoping to find Carter. When she arrived at Gate 22, no one was manning it. But a woman was preparing to open the adjacent stand.
"Can you tell me if Dr. John Carter is on Flight 1390?" Abby asked, crossing her fingers that the woman would understand her.
"I'm sorry, I am not working that flight, this is 961," she said, in clear, unaccented English while pointing to the board behind her.
"I am trying to locate a passenger on 1390. It is very important."
"Sorry, even if that were my flight, I couldn't do that—security, you know," answered the woman.
Of course, she couldn't; Abby knew that but persisted.
"Please, I flew all the way from the United States. I need to talk to Dr. Carter before he gets on that flight."
Abby noticed how beautiful the woman was—chestnut brown hair with light brown eyes and perfectly applied make-up. Abby ran her hands through her own hair and suddenly was conscious of how messy and unattractive she must look.
"Why don't you wait here until boarding—or I can page him for you."
Page him? Good idea.
"Yes, could you page him please? It's 'Dr. John Carter'—C-A-R-T-E-R," she spelled carefully.
The woman picked up the page phone and spoke into it. Soon the airport echoed with the sound of his name in English and in French. The message instructed him to come to the gate. Abby thanked the woman. She could do nothing now but wait.
"I'll call you when I get to Paris," he had said as he stormed away from her, and she hoped he meant it. Abby spied a pay phone and used her credit card to dial her answering machine at home. As promised, he did. The sound of his voice on the machine did not make her feel better.
"Abby, it's me. Are you there? Pick up . . ."
Her hand trembled as she heard him speak.
"Well, I'm sorry I didn't catch you; I know you were upset when I left. But if you are there, and you're punishing me for walking away from you . . . well . . . maybe that's the whole problem. Look, my flight to Paris made good time. I'm going to hurry and try to catch a flight to Rome that connects to Kinshasa rather than hang around the airport for the direct flight . . ."
Abby's heart sank fast with the realization that Carter wasn't even in Paris any longer.
"Abby, I don't know how long it'll take to find Luka," his message continued. "Then there's all the red tape to get him home. I don't know when I'll be back. You're probably so angry at me right now that you don't care what I do, but that's okay. I'm too tired to fight."
The tone in his voice was angry and defeated at the same time.
"Look, I know you're upset about Luka, and I know you're upset with me. You probably have good reason to be. I think you and I . . . we need a little time apart. I mean a little more time apart. Obviously, you agree—you proved that this morning."
Abby's heart was pounding. She quickly replayed her first waking moments when she opened her eyes to see him contemplating her from the edge of her bed after not having seen each other for weeks. Although he tried to apologize for ignoring her and walking away from her weeks before, she would have none of it and requested her key back. But instead of trying to convince her otherwise, begging her forgiveness, kissing her and telling her how much he loved her as she'd hoped, he simply stood and dropped the key in the china bowl atop her dresser—and he left.
And now, his voice on her answering machine was barely above a whisper. She heard pain.
"Abby . . . I don't know what's next, you know? I'll call you when I've found him and this is all over . . . I guess."
She had the feeling her life had changed, and she was the last one to know it. Her mind raced as the rest of her messages played.
Abby, it's Haleh. Could you work for me Friday night? You owe me from last Thursday, remember? Give me a call.
"Ms. Lockhart, this is Chicago Power & Light, we have a question about your account."
That's all she needed—to worry about bill collectors. She went to hang up.
BEEP."Abby . . ."
It was Carter's voice again. Her stomach wound into a knot, and her throat tightened as if someone's hands were around it."It's me again. I just want you to know—"
There was silence. She heard him breathing, but no words until . . .
"—nothing, nothing. Take care of yourself."
And it clicked. Her answering machine gave the short beeps indicating the end of messages, and the call broke off.
Abby hung up slowly. Yes, this morning she was angry with him for having left for Africa three weeks prior with hardly a word. Who wouldn't be? But now she was angry with herself for not seeing that he was upset and confused. She shivered. She was alone in a huge airport in a foreign country thousands of miles from Carter and only inches from tears.
She leaned against a wall, and wished she could start all over again.
THEY SAW EACH other that morning in the most unlikely of places—the auditorium where the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was under way. But it wasn't until later that evening, after the trials of the day had taken their toll, that fate had brought them to the same threshold once more. When Abby entered Doc Magoo's to order coffee, she heard him call to her over her shoulder from one of the booths. She joined him, and they talked and shared and became confidantes and supporters, bound together from that moment on by . . . ice cream.
She teased that one of their rules would be that he had to splurge with her. He laughed and gave in to her pretty smile. He handed her the menu and told her to pick for him. Shortly thereafter the waitress returned.
"Can I get you anything else?"
"I'd like a hot fudge sundae with chocolate ice cream, please," Abby answered. She noticed him watching her lips as she ordered.
"Sure. And for you, sir?"
He held up his hand. "No, nothing for me."
"Hey, we had a deal!" Abby reminded.
"Okay," he laughed and deferred to her.
"He'll have a banana split."
The waitress walked away with the order.
"Banana split?" he asked.
"Yeah, it's good for you—there's fruit in it."
He grinned, and she smiled back at him and found herself falling into his warm, chocolate eyes.
"So, how does this sponsor thing work?" Carter asked a few moments later.
"Well, we talk about problems you have with the program, and you let me know if you feel tempted, and I help get you through it."
"So that means I should call you if I have a problem or a question?"
"So, I guess that means I'll need your phone number."
"I guess that's right."
He grabbed his newspaper, which he had placed next to him on the seat, and took a pen from his pocket just as the server placed old-fashioned sundae dishes in front of them.
"Well . . .?" he said, his pen poised to take down what would become the most important digits of his life.
She lifted the bright-red cherry from atop her sundae by the stem, tilted her head back and held it poised over her lips. Then she rattled off the numbers quickly, "5-5-5-0-1-1-0," before plopping the fruit in her mouth and plucking off the stem.
He scribbled the numbers but never took his eyes off her.
"Want yours?" she asked.
"What?" he said, realizing he was staring at her.
She pointed to the banana split in front of him. "Are you going to eat your cherry?"
"Huh?" He looked at his dessert. "No, be my guest." And he pushed the dish closer to her.
"Thanks," she said as she plucked the cherry from his dessert under his gaze.
As he watched her, he could feel the warmth rising from his neck up to his cheeks.
"Don't sponsors take an oath to be available any hour of the day or night?" he asked.
"Oath? There's no oath. This isn't the Boy Scouts."
He looked a little disappointed, and she found herself saying, "Yes, call me if you need me, day . . . or night."
She blushed a little into her sundae dish, and he noticed.
"What if you're not home?" he asked.
"Leave me a message."
"You wouldn't risk my new-found sobriety, would you?"
She smiled. "Okay, okay. You can have my cell phone, too. It's 5-5-5-6-7-6-7. But don't abuse it."
"I promise I'll keep it off bathroom walls."
He looked at his writing on the newspaper and then looked at her warm eyes, and then he smiled back. He seemed to have words on his lips.
"What?" she asked.
He stared in her eyes.
"You have . . . nice . . . numbers."
She chuckled. "Thanks—I think." Her cheeks grew warm.
He smiled at her, and she at him. They reached for their spoons and hunkered close to their desserts. And as they savored every bit of creamy sweetness, they talked . . . and talked . . . and talked. Soon, her heart—so heavy from the death of a preemie in the ER—felt less heavy. His head—so burdened with his career on the line—felt less burdened. And somewhere inside they touched each other that evening.
ABBY DROPPED INTO the only empty seat in a long row of chairs filled with passengers awaiting flights. She watched the old man across from her fiddle with the brim of his cap as he read a newspaper that rested across his legs. She closed her eyes and leaned her face into her hands and tried to gather her thoughts. First, she'd need to make her way back to the Air France desk, purchase a ticket back to Chicago, go to the—
Startled by the sound of her name, Abby yanked her hands away from her eyes and looked up. She saw the same elderly man reading a newspaper as before. He felt her eyes on him and pulled his cap down closer to his brow. Mistaken, Abby exhaled and slumped back in her chair.
This time she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned around, and it was him.
Next . . .Chapter 2: Cold Heat