Again, not really sure where I'm going with this story, but thanks to everyone who is reading (and commenting!) Ideas are welcome...
Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?
Juliet could not get this out of her head. She had mastered the art of self discipline. By sheer force of will, she was able to keep her thoughts from going there – to her sister and her nephew. Her life, before. Because in those times that she slipped, and let her mind inhabit that place, it was too overwhelming. It broke her heart.
It was easier now. She had been with James for three months. She was incredibly happy. Her relationship with him was one of the best surprises of her life.
So it wasn't that she was depressed, or sad, even. It was just that that passage from the book caught her off guard. It snuck up and knocked the wind out of her.
She wasn't dead. Did Rachel think she was dead? Or just missing? And which was worse? Did she live every day with that ache, not knowing? Or did Ben arrange it so that Rachel thought she had abandoned her? She knew that as intensely as she missed her sister, Rachel was missing her too. She could imagine the hell, the grief, Rachel would be living with. Did she have to pack up her things? Deal with her car and condo? These thoughts tortured her.
So much time had passed. So much had happened without her. Was Rachel healthy? Had she met someone? She had a nephew. A whole little person that she worked so hard to help bring into the world. She didn't know him, and she had a feeling, deep down, that she never would. She had missed it, and it was crushing. That the world had gone on without her. But she wasn't dead.
She hoped, so much, that her sister and nephew were safe, healthy, and happy.
She wasn't aware that she was crying until she felt the tears drip onto her hands. She was sitting, hunched over on the couch. This feeling was suffocating. She needed to breathe, but didn't want to sit on the front porch overlooking the row of yellow houses, all lit up. She stood up and walked out the back door. There was one tiny bench in their tiny back yard. She sat down and tried to clear her mind by taking deep, gulping breaths of the cool night air.
It was 11:30 when James walked through the front door. Jerry wanted the day off, so he worked a double shift. He spent most of the day in front of the monitors, so he wasn't overly tired. Plus, he had the next day off and knew that Juliet did too. He was going to ask her what she thought about spending the morning at the beach. He walked to their room and found an empty bed. Did she fall asleep on the couch and he didn't see her? He quickly changed (his one venture out today took him through some mud and he knew she wouldn't appreciate him tracking dried mud throughout the house) and did a quick search of the house. He was getting a little concerned when he scanned the living room and didn't see her. He circled through the kitchen and, out the back window, glimpsed some blonde hair illuminated by the moon. She was sitting perfectly still.
He studied her for a moment. Her knees were tucked under her chin, arms wrapped around her shins. She was withdrawing into herself. He went back down the hallway and grabbed two of his zip-up sweatshirts and a couple of blankets.
She saw him emerge from the house with his arms full. He dropped some blankets in the grass and stopped to put on his sweatshirt. He walked over and sat next to her on the small bench. He kissed her temple as he helped her into the other sweatshirt.
James quietly got up and spread the blankets out flat over the grass. He walked back to Juliet and reached his hand out to her. The moon provided enough light for him to see reflections from the tracks of her tears. She hadn't realized that she'd forgotten to wipe them away. When they reached the blanket, James pulled her down to lay next to him. She curled into him, burying her head in his shoulder. The fabric of his shirt muffled her words.
"I don't know what she thinks happened to me. If she thinks I'm dead."
He knew she was talking about her sister. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart." He was.
"I hope she's moved on. I don't want to be a ghost in her life."
"You don't want her to feel how you're feelin' right now."
Yes, that was exactly it, she realized.
She took a deep breath, and he spent the next few minutes running his hand through her hair.
"Can I ask you something about her?"
"Do you think she would like me?" He said it half in jest, to lighten the mood. But part of him really did want to know the answer. He knew how close Juliet was with her sister.
She chuckled a little. It felt good to smile right then. She turned so that her body was perpendicular to his, her head resting on his stomach. He reached to rest his hand on her stomach. She sighed, considering her answer, and her two hands played absentmindedly with his fingers.
"Hm. I think she'd be skeptical at first, just because she always is." She paused, then continued, "You're a lot different than anyone I've dated."
"You didn't date any high school dropouts turned career criminals?"
"I didn't date anyone as witty and sweet as you. Mostly the pompous, stuffy type, who couldn't take a joke, let alone make one. Although I was a lot different myself, then." She turned to look at him with a smirk, "You're also better looking than anyone I've dated before."
He grinned at that, "Good answer!"
She looked back up at the night sky. "She'd like you though. She's a wiseass too."
"I'll take that as a compliment," he smiled.
He wanted to console her, tell her that Rachel was probably healthy, happy, and carefree with the son that she had made it possible for her to have. But he knew that Juliet was not the type of person to be soothed by empty words. They both knew that Juliet vanishing would always be a shadow over a part of Rachel's life, just as losing Rachel and Julian had crushed a piece of Juliet's heart. There was no sense denying it. But this did not mean that they couldn't each find happiness in their lives. He didn't know what the right thing to say was. He could tell her that she wasn't alone, that there is more than one kind of family. He could tell her that she had someone who loved her, and that he was right next to her. But he was too afraid to say either of those things. He'd never had something so good as what he had with Juliet. He was terrified that he would say or do the wrong thing, and it would all be taken away from him in a moment. He knew how quickly the ground could disappear from beneath his feet.
Instead, they stayed quiet and still until a breeze passed over them and he felt her shiver.
"Let's get you inside," he said.
James woke up first the next morning. He thought about getting up to make breakfast, but ended up watching her sleep. After a few moments of this, he couldn't resist reaching out and gently running his hand down her neck and across her collar bone. He heard her sigh before she lazily opened her eyes and smiled at him.
"Sorry I woke you up," he said.
"It's a pretty nice way to wake up," she replied.
He leaned over and gave her a soft kiss. "So what do you want to do with our day off?"
"Hmm, I don't know. Maybe go to the beach? It looks sunny outside."
"You read my mind, Blondie," he whispered, before kissing her ear. "You ain't in a big hurry to get there, are you?" he asked as his hand made its way up under her tank top.
"No hurry at all."
They spent most of the day at the beach, where Jin tracked them down and invited them over for a game night. (Thankfully, they were actually swimming and decently attired when Jin found them.)
At Miles and Jin's house, they played several games of beer pong. They had practiced their beer pong skills enough over the past few months to make the games very competitive. The result was that they had all consumed a lot of beer, in fairly equal distributions - which is to say, they were all hammered. When they ran out of beer, they decided to sit down and play poker. Since money didn't have much value to them, they played for a more lucrative prize: Dharma Chocolate Candies. Miles dug out a bottle of vodka, and the drinks kept flowing as the game went on. Jin was the first out. He didn't seem to mind losing, he was enjoying watching how competitive the others were getting.
Juliet was the next out. She went all in on a fairly week hand, and merely shrugged and refilled her drink when she lost. James suspected that she lost on purpose because she was getting bored after countless hands. Miles, the most competitive – and paranoid – of the bunch, accused her of throwing the game on purpose to lose to James and give him all of her candy. With Jin and Juliet out of the game, the trash talking between Miles and James began in earnest.
The hands went back and forth, Miles winning one and James the next, for quite some time. Eventually, Miles won two hands in a row.
"Ha! I was totally bluffing on that one, LaFleur. You're getting soft, all cocooned up in your little love nest all the time."
Juliet had had enough to drink by that point to want in on the gamesmanship between James and Miles (she usually stayed firmly on the sidelines rolling her eyes when they went at each other) and to feel bold enough to sit on James's lap after Miles's comment. Much as James might have wanted to shoot Miles an intimidating stare, he couldn't help but grin as he looked at Juliet sitting on his knee. He wrapped his arm around her waist. "How 'bout you just deal the cards, Wild Bill," he shot back at Miles.
Miles dealt, and Juliet picked up James's cards and handed them to him.
"Hey, you're not allowed to help him," Miles protested.
"I won't say a thing, I promise," Juliet responded.
"How do I know you two don't have like, secret communication signals?"
"Are you serious?" James asked, exasperated.
Juliet rolled her eyes and said, "Come on, Jin. Let's go sit outside. It's a beautiful night to not be stuck inside playing a neverending game of poker." Just as Juliet disappeared out the door, a soft breeze drifted through the open window. It was a gorgeous night. If he couldn't beat Miles soon, he was going to throw the game too.
Jin laughed, grabbed the bottle of vodka, and followed her out to the porch.
The next few hands went back and forth. Juliet and Jin talked for a while on the porch but the conversation had dropped off as they started listening to and quietly laughing at the insults being hurled inside the house.
"So I should warn you, LaFleur," Miles stated as James shuffled the cards, "that new girl, Jenny? She's going after you hardcore."
"Is that right?" James shrugged it off, assuming Miles was trying to throw him off his game.
"Yep. That's what Rosie says."
Jin's English had improved dramatically. He was pretty sure that the men inside didn't realize that he and Juliet could hear everything they were saying through the window. He looked over at Juliet. She simply sighed and slowly shrugged a shoulder.
"Well you can tell Rosie to tell Jenny not to bother. I'm taken."
Juliet tried not to let her grin show too much. She trusted him completely, but hearing him say those words still made her smile.
"Rosie said she told her you and Juliet were together. She was unfazed," Miles continued as James dealt the cards out.
"Well then I guess she'll have to learn for herself that she's barkin' up the wrong tree."
"Maybe when she figures out that you can't even stand upright when Juliet is around, she'll move on to me – the real catch around here."
"Hey, that was one time", James retorted, "You know that sidewalk is wonky. And you saw that dress she had on…" he trailed off, realizing that that was not, indeed, his smoothest moment.
"I sure did," Miles muttered.
James shot him a death glare. "All in."
Miles grinned. "I call."
They flipped their cards, revealing that Miles had the better hand. "YES! I rule!" Miles stood up from his chair, arms victoriously held up in the air.
"Enjoy your candy, Enos. Don't eat it all at once. You'll get a tummy ache," James said as he stood up and walked outside to join Juliet and Jin.
"Who won the game?" Jin asked from his chair as James sat on the bench next to Juliet.
James had just opened his mouth to answer when they heard Miles congratulating himself. James narrowed his eyes and looked at Jin and Juliet with a smirk. "Guess you probably already know."
Jin stood up and collected their glasses. "I will go get more ice," he said, excusing himself and walking into the house.
Juliet turned to face James and wrapped her arms around his neck. "So you didn't hurt yourself when you fell down, did you?" she asked with a smile.
"Only my pride, Blondie. Of course Miles had to be there to see it."
She leaned in and kissed him, passionately. If she'd kiss him like this every time he made a fool out of himself, he'd be willing to fall on his face every day. Just when they came up for air, Jin walked back outside with three fresh drinks in his hands. Juliet took her glass from him and turned her body, leaning back against James and putting her feet up on the bench. He put his arm around her and thanked Jin for the drink. Miles eventually joined them. They were up until 2:30AM, enjoying the fresh air, and chatting about their jobs and their neighbors. It flashed through James's mind how much he loved this life; these friends; this Juliet. It was all more than he ever dreamed of.