a/n: this is a lot happier than SoA would ever be, but that's what fanfic is for! Title and lyrics are from Mat Kearney's "Won't Back Down." :)
And I sing hallelujah, ripped through my veins,
I heard the hammer drop, My blood in the rain.
Sing hallelujah, came like a train
When all is lost, all is left to gain.
Her elbow catches Gemma in the ribs, and she rears up, choking, able to twist, to sock Gemma in the throat. But she can't breathe, and she stumbles. Gemma is on her in an instant. Tara isn't able to escape the hand around her throat, or the fork that stabs suddenly, savagely into her chest.
But in an instant, Gemma is torn away from her, and Tara sinks to the floor.
"She betrayed him!" Gemma cries, her voice harsh, hoarse, breaking on the words. Roosevelt is stunned, his eyes wide when Gemma crumples to her knees, but he cuffs her, and he radios in.
Tara breathes in, and her lungs fill with water, with blood, and she chokes.
Her throat burns with vomit, but "the ambulance is coming, Tara," Roosevelt says.
She blinks, and the world tilts. Her gaze lands on Juice. She tries to ask for help, but the word that bubbles from her mouth is for "Jax," she breathes, because Jax always comes when she needs him most. Hands touch her face, and she focuses on Juice, on the pressure to her chest.
When Roosevelt asks, she looks at Jax. This is what she wants, but she needs him to agree. She is afraid to drop the charges, to pretend that nothing happened. But if he wants, she'll say assault.
His thumb brushes over her knuckles, and he nods.
She charges Gemma with attempt.
Roosevelt is assigned to stay at the hospital with her, and Jax stays, too, after Patterson agrees to give him the night. Tara wakes in the morning to a dizzying headache, lungs that ache, a pain in her battered, bandaged chest, and Jax at her bedside. He holds her gaze, her hand, and says she needs to go. To take the boys away from Charming. "From her," he says, and Tara nods.
The police escort him from the hospital at 8:27 a.m., and she is on her own.
She needs a job, but nobody wants to hire Jax Teller's wife. She digs up old numbers, talks to her roommates at school, to teachers who liked her, to friends from Chicago, and she begs for a job. Her boys are dependent on her. She'll take whatever job there is; it doesn't matter where, or what.
In the end, her advisor from UC San Diego is able to find her a job at a clinic in Redding.
Jax asks her not to visit while he is in jail, while he is on trial. "I don't want the boys to be in this circus," he says. She knows he is right. The boys don't need their faces in the paper; they don't need to have cameras flashed at them, or to hear the horrible, hateful things people say about Jax.
After he is put in prison, she visits. She brings the boys, and Jax tears up when Abel hugs him.
Abel wants to talk about preschool, about dinosaurs, about the drawings that he brought for Jax, and Jax asks questions, talks about how he likes the brontosaurus, praises the drawings. But when Thomas is in his lap, the boy asks for Tara. His ability to say the word purposefully, pointedly, to mean her when he says "Ma" is new. Jax tears up at that, too, smiling softly at Tara.
"Kid knows his mom," he says, and there is something in his voice. Guilt. Regret.
She touches his cheek, drawing him in. She kisses him, and she tastes his tears.
In the car, Abel asks why daddy is in prison. He looks at her, and the words that she prepared for this catch in her throat. She tries to explain that Daddy made a mistake. He wanted to help a friend, but that friend had a son who was sick. He couldn't help the boy, couldn't help his friend.
Abel is quiet, and Tara tightens her grip on the wheel.
The drive to Stockton is three hours, which means three hours back, too. But she makes the trip week after week with the boys. She wants them to know their father, and he deserves to know them.
(They haven't talked about their relationship, about where they stand. Is she supposed to wait for him? Is she willing to wait for him? Are they going to divorce, or are they going to weather this? But those questions aren't important right now; what matters is her boys. She focuses on them.)
She twists her ring around her finger, and she testifies that Gemma tried to kill her. Chibs takes her hand when she is finished; her hand is still in his when Gemma is given seven years in prison.
The club says they're happy to help Tara with whatever she needs, that they want to.
All she needs to do is ask. But she isn't interested in help from the club.
The job in Redding allows her to live her own life, to be independent from the club, and she refuses to dwell on the dreams she used to have, on what she used to be. This job pays the bills.
Mostly, she tests for STDs, administers the flu shot, and prescribes antibiotics, painkillers, and antihistamines. But a job is a job, and she buys a house in Redding with the money from the sale of the house in Charming. The boys are safer without the club involved, and Tara is able to support them on a single salary. She can do this on her own.
She waits for disaster to strike. She waits for somebody to pound on the door, to storm in with a gun, to take her sons, to hurt them, to attack her, to kill her. She waits for the club to announce that she needs to return to Charming, or for news that somebody knifed Jax in prison.
But months pass, and there isn't a gun in sight. She tries to remember how to live without fear.
When she isn't able to sleep at night, her mind lingers on the ways things might've happened. She thought she was pregnant for a week in high school. If she had been, what would've happened? The child would be a teenager, and Tara imagines that she would've been able to convince Jax to leave Charming when their kid was young, and they would've followed a simpler, straighter path.
Things might've been a disaster, though. She might've ended up like Donna Winston.
She is glad that she wasn't pregnant in high school, that she left.
But there are other possibilities, other ways her life could've gone. She was offered the chance to work at St. Thomas after she graduated from Loyola. She could've been an intern at St. Thomas rather than in Chicago. What would that have meant? But Abel might not exist in that scenario, might never have been born. She doesn't want to imagine that, to imagine such a world.
When she is able to sleep at night, she gasps awake to find her legs tangled in the sheets, her skin clammy with sweat, and she remembers how her lungs burned, the way the panic seized her, the pain when Gemma stabbed her with that carving fork. It's the possibility that haunts her the most.
If she hadn't been able to fight back, what would've happened?
Gemma would've killed her. It's what she meant to do, and Tara knows what would've happened.
The nightmare starts with the water in her lungs and ends with a bullet in Abel's throat, with Thomas stuck in the stomach with a knife, with her boys under Gemma's thumb, lost to that life.
But her family is safe, and she doesn't want to dwell on what might've happened.
Summer arrives, and Tara relaxes.
She takes the boys to the lake in June, packing food in a cooler for the trip. She doesn't think the beach is a good idea yet, but the water at the lake is calm, and she slathers them up in suntan lotion, buys a cheap, plastic kite from WalMart, and brings a few toys for them to use in the sand.
They build a sandcastle in the morning, a fancy one with a moat, using sticks that Abel collects to make a bridge, and she makes Abel hold Thomas in his lap beside the castle for a picture. Two minutes later, Abel crushes the castle under his feet in his haste to reach the turtle he spots in the reeds.
Obviously, they need to build a fortress for the turtle.
Once lunch is finished, Abel wants to fly the kite. Thomas naps while Abel runs as fast as he can, kicking up sand while he shouts for her to "look, Momma, in the sky, look at my kite, look!"
She reads a book when Abel dozes off at last.
He is awake within half an hour, though. He roots through her bag while she checks on Thomas, sleeping soundly with his floppy, white hat on. Abel finds the floaties that she packed for him, and he hops from foot to foot while she struggles to slide them onto his waving, eager arms.
One wary eye on Thomas, she teaches Abel how to float in the water.
"Momma, I'm a fish," he says, and he puckers his lips. She puckers hers, too, and gives him a kiss from a fish, making him squeal and squirm from her grasp. He runs along the bank to where Thomas is, and they wake him up with fishy kisses. It's a good day.
The club hasn't forgotten about her. Once in a while, the phone will ring, and Tig wants to ask about these bumps on his dick, or Chibs needs to know what Abel wants for his birthday, and they aren't subtle about the way they check on her, asking how she is, how money is, how life is.
"Have a doctor look, Tig," she says, and she e-mails Bobby a picture from the lake when he asks.
In some ways, those years at the start are the easiest. Her days are busy, and she knows what she needs to do with her life. She needs to find a job, to buy a house, to settle the boys in, to explain what happened to Grandma.
But one year bleeds into two, and three years starts to creep up on her.
What is she supposed to do next?
When a position opens at Mercy Medical Center in neonatal, she isn't able to resist. She applies, and, to her shock, they want to interview her. Better, the whole thing isn't a disaster. They ask about her arrest a few years ago, about her husband, and she explains things as truthfully as possible.
They offer her the job. It isn't as a surgeon, but she is okay with that.
Three weeks later, Jax writes her a letter.
He talks a lot about his brother, about how he wishes that he would've told Opie to leave the club before Donna died. He writes about the way her fear that day in the park haunts him, how he'll never be able to forget that the person he loves most in the world believed that he would kill her.
She writes back. It isn't as though she doesn't see him in person, but the visits are about the boys, and they don't talk about the things that matter in those visits. She means simply to respond to his letter rather than to share her own thoughts with him, but the words pour from her.
It hasn't been a week since Wendy showed up at her door, and she writes about that.
She explains how she told Wendy to leave, slamming the door in her face. She hasn't told Abel the truth. She knows that she needs to, that he'll discover the truth at some point, and everybody says that you have to explain these things to kids when they're young. But she hasn't been able to. She is possessive, afraid, unable to bear that idea that Abel doesn't belong to her, and that makes her wonder about herself, about Gemma, about how, in the end, they're the same.
When Jax responds, she aches for days.
He writes in his beautiful, beautiful words that she needs to know how strong she is, how brave she is, how she isn't wrong to try to shelter her sons after everything they've experienced. He writes that his mother is sick, that she manipulates people in order to hoard love for herself, but Tara isn't like that. She loves her boys, and she is possessive in the way that mothers are, but she wants what is best for them, would never try to control them, to manipulate them.
She clings to the words, allowing them to sink into her skin. Know the goodness that is in you, the grace. Know with the conviction that I do how you saved my life, how you saved our sons. Know that your love isn't a sickness. Tara, your love is redemption. She clings to his belief in her.
Her beautiful boy with his good, guarded heart.
She misses him in way she hasn't allowed herself to for years, and she writes back.
Her life is split along a hundred lines like that. The line that separates what they're able to write in letters from what they manage to murmur when she visits him in Stockton with the boys.
The line between the life she led, and the life she leads.
She makes friends in Redding: another doctor at the clinic who is around her age, Lauren; the couple across the street who like to play Yahtzee on their porch for hours, Mike and Karen; her neighbor, Brian, whose boyfriend looks like a Gap model. They're funny, friendly people, and they're good to her.
They're sweet with her boys, too, and she likes them.
But she doesn't explain her past to them.
She flushes when Brian brings up the fact that Karen claims Tara's husband isn't dead. "I assumed he was," Brian says, and Tara swirls the wine in her glass while Karen elbows Brian.
Honestly, she'd rather play Yahtzee with them than have this conversation.
She watches her boys tumble around the yard with Lauren's daughter.
"He isn't," she says. "He is in prison in Stockton. That's where I take my boys on Sundays."
It's clear that Brian wants to know more than that, but Mike farts loudly, and Karen hits her husband. Lauren starts to laugh, Tara does, too, and her friends pretend to forget their questions.
When she touches herself, she thinks about him. Tig bought her a vibrator for her birthday years ago; the box came in the mail, and she was shocked. She told him wouldn't touch the thing, but she puts the boys to bed, and she locks the door, and she imagines Jax when she turns on the toy.
She remembers his hands on her hips, his mouth against her stomach, his laughter at her neck.
Afterward, she fiddles with the ring that she threaded onto a necklace, and she misses him.
(She took off the wedding band that belonged to Gemma a long time ago. The ring from Jax is what matters, and nobody asks questions about a ring on a necklace hidden beneath her blouse.)
She brings the boys back to Charming three days after Abel turns seven. She knows that nobody expects her to bother, but she couldn't help how sad she felt when she learned that Unser had died at long, long last, and she knows how much he loved her boys. They should be at his funeral.
There is a small, quiet crowd there, and most faces are familiar to her.
His daughter gives a speech that makes Tara cry a little, and she is glad she came. The boys play with Chibs, Tig, and Juice afterward, running wildly around the meadow beside the cemetery, and Roosevelt sits with Tara. "How are you?" he asks, and she shrugs. "Boys look good. Happy."
She smiles. "They are. I am, too. What about you?"
He flexes his fingers. "Got married a month ago. Vanessa." He smiles, and Tara is happy for him.
"Congratulations," she says, and he nods. Before he is able to leave, she touches his arm. "Hey, I, um, I'm glad to have the chance to talk to you for a second. I never thanked you for what you did. For saving my life, I mean. So. Thank you. For everything."
"For everything, you're welcome." He smiles. "I'm glad you have the life you deserve, Tara."
The boys sleep in the car on the drive back that night, and Tara hums Billy Joel songs to herself in tribute to Unser, who loved John Grisham novels, mustard on fries, and Billy Joel. Her mind flickers to Gemma, the woman that Unser loved. But she shakes her head, and she hums Piano Man as she takes the exit for Redding.
When her roommate from Loyola calls her, Tara is stunned.
But Jennifer is excited to say that a position opened at the hospital where she works in Boston, and "you'd be perfect, Tara," she says, explaining that Tara would be able to try her hand at surgery, that the hospital is happy to help her to recover. She'd be able to work with Jennifer, and "Dr. Garcia is the attending for neonatal, do you remember him? He loves you! I mentioned your name, and he is ready to interview you as soon as you're able to visit Boston!"
Tara agrees to look into tickets for a flight.
Jennifer adds that she is sorry that she wasn't able to help Tara a few years ago, "but I've had my eyes open for a position, and this is it! This is the perfect job for you!" When Tara looks into the position, she realizes that Jen is right, and this is her big chance to dip her toes back into surgery.
Boston is three thousand miles away from California, though.
It isn't fair to take the boys three thousand miles away from their father.
But they don't see him as much as they used to. The weekly visits have turned into monthly ones, and she knows that they shouldn't have, but the boys have tee ball on Sundays now, and gas prices are way, way up, and Jax hasn't mentioned how visits aren't as constant as they used to be.
(She knows that one reason, though, the biggest reason, is the shyness between them. The intimacy they once had has faded, and they don't know what to do with what remains. The boys like to visit him, and she wants to be near to him, but she doesn't know how. The bond between them is smoke over a fire that used to exist, is letters they don't talk about when they're together.)
She finds a flight to Boston, but she doesn't buy it. This isn't about her.
This is about her boys.
"I'm sorry, Jennifer," she says, sighing, "but California is where I need to be."
Thomas is eager for school, is thrilled, and she smiles at his excitement.
It was different with Abel.
Abel fisted his hands in her scrubs, pressed his face into her leg. He didn't want her to leave him. But the boys are different in that way. Abel is like Tara was as a child: quiet, shy, docile. He is happy to do what he is told, nervous when faced with new things, new people. But his brother is like Jax. Messy, mischievous, trying to flush his peas down the toilet, trying to pretend he brushed his teeth, always eager for everything, always excited.
"Let go, Momma," Thomas says, insistent, and Tara steps back. The bike wobbles for an instant, and her heart jumps. But he straightens, peddling, and "look, Momma!" he crows. She cheers, running to keep up with him, and his tongue is caught between his teeth in the photo she takes.
"Hey, Tommy," Abel shouts. "Look at this!"
When he bikes past his brother, he rises up to stand on the pedals. Tara starts to shout at him to sit down before he breaks his neck, but suddenly Thomas decides to try to catch up with him. He stands up on his pedals, and in an instant the bike careens off the road. Tara is horrified, sprinting after him with Abel on her heels. Thomas hits the ground, Abel skids to a stop, and Tara reaches them.
Thomas staggers to his feet.
His elbow is bloody, his eyes bright with tears.
Tara kneels at his side, inspecting his arm. "Oh, sweetheart."
"How bad is it?" Abel asks, and Thomas takes his arm from Tara to show his brother the wide, bloody scrape along his arm. "Cool!" Abel breathes, grinning at him.
Slowly, Thomas smiles. "Yeah," he says. He wipes absently at the tears on his cheeks as his smile widens into a grin. "Look, Momma!" He puffs up with pride, and Tara is tempted to roll her eyes at them, but she doesn't. She laughs, kissing him on the cheek.
Five years since that day in the park, she still thinks about the possibilities. About what might've happened. She doesn't as often as she used to, and it isn't as though she'd trade her life now for the uncertainty that the possibilities she plays with in her head represent, but she wonders every once in a while.
If she'd left with the boys when Jax took over the club, what would've happened?
Jax might've realized that he needed to follow them, that he had to settle things with the club, that he had to escape Charming. He might've been able to, and he'd be with them right now, raising her boys with them, and they might've had a third kid, or they might've gone to Boston.
Or he might've died, or Gemma might've found a way to steal the boys from Tara.
But what if she had found a way to talk to Jax before their whole life was in pieces at her feet? After she was released from jail, she could've tried to talk to him. But that might not have worked. He might've made promises that he didn't know how to keep, and she might've been stuck in Charming, or in prison, and the boys would've been trapped in Charming with Jax, with Gemma.
She writes about the possibilities to Jax, writes about the ways she imagines things might've happened differently. He writes back that the same thoughts consume him for days on end. But things had to happen the way they happened, Tara. The truth is that her broken, bitter desperation is what saved him. He needed to see how ruined she was. It was only when she feared him that he started to fear himself. It was only when I'd destroyed the person I loved most that I truly realized what a monster I'd become.
"What are you up to for dinner?" Ryan asks. He works at Mercy with her, and she loves when he is the nurse on duty with her; he knows his stuff, is great with kids, and is always ready with a quip to make her laugh when her day is in the dumps. "Got a hot date, or something?" He grins.
"Sadly, no," Tara says. "I'm watching Casey for Lauren tonight, and I figured I'd make something easy for the kids. Mac 'n' cheese, or pasta." She starts to pull on her jacket. "What about you?"
"My fridge is empty, and my TiVo is broken." He sighs. "I had hoped to convince you to take me to dinner. But, alas. Taken. What about a raincheck? Make Lauren watch your kids for a change."
Tara chuckles. "Sure."
"How about Saturday?" he asks.
"If that works for Lauren, I'm in," Tara says, and Ryan pumps his fist in the air. She laughs.
It isn't until dinner on Saturday night that she realizes she is on a date.
He jokes about the breadsticks, and his suit is pressed, and she hides her face behind her menu. Why didn't she realize this was a date? What is she supposed to do? Does she say something to him?
In the end, she doesn't. They enjoy dinner, and she pretends this isn't a date. He picked her up from her place, which should've been a clue, and he drives her back when the night is finished.
Before he is able to contemplate a kiss, she pats his shoulder, and that's that.
But she isn't able to sleep that night, her mind in knots over the idea that he wanted to go on a date with her, that she is unattached in his eyes. Ryan is smart. His life is together. He isn't a criminal, pays his taxes, is sweet around her kids. Funny. He is attractive, too. Tall. Built.
If she were to date somebody, he'd be on her list. But she is married.
Lying in bed, the loneliness wraps around her. Who is there to talk to? Her friends love her, and they'd listen to her, comfort her, advise her, but she knows that she won't be able to explain what the problem is, how conflicted she is, how her battered, bruised heart belongs to a ghost. She curls around her pillows, and she wants him desperately in that moment, her friend, her husband.
Suddenly, the loneliness is unbearable.
She needs him to breathe the air into her lungs, to put the pieces inside her back together.
Always, she was a lonely girl, and he was the boy who loved her.
She needs him to come back. From prison, from the torment he is trapped in. But she can't have him back, and she cries until her head hurts, until she falls into a fitful, twitchy sleep at 3:30 a.m.
When she runs into Ryan at work on Monday, she says they need to talk. "I'm married," she says. "My husband isn't dead. He is in prison. And I don't know what our relationship is at this point, but I don't think we are separated, and I'm not ready for a relationship. I'm sorry."
It isn't as though she'd have time to be in a relationship, anyway. Her days are filled.
The boys have soccer, and there is Cub Scouts, and they have to bake cookies to raise money for Abel's class to go to the aquarium. The noise wakes her up when Thomas puts a hole in the wall with his basketball, and Abel is mad at her because she won't allow him to adopt the skunk he finds in the yard, and he won't talk to her until he asks her to make spaghetti for dinner, please, Mom. She is a mother, and that's the relationship that matters most.
It's two weeks later that Jax calls to ask her not to bring the boys to the prison on Sunday. "I need to talk to you," he says, voice low. She agrees, but she is worried. She asks Brian to invite the boys to the lake. She doesn't know how to explain that Daddy needs to talk to her without them.
When she arrives at the prison, Bobby waves at her from his bike.
She panics. Is this about the club? Is he going to do something for them in prison? But that'll cost him his shot at parole in a few years, and, oh, God, is he going to become the person Otto was for the club? The killer on the inside? Her heart jumps into her throat, and her hands shake when she tries to lock her truck. She takes a moment to try to calm down before she heads in to see him.
"I saw Bobby in the parking lot," she says, sitting.
Jax nods. "He brought me something that I needed."
She isn't able to ask what before he slides a folder across the table to her. He nods, and she takes the folder, opens it. "Divorce papers," she says, shocked. His signature is on them, and her gaze jumps to him; his hand brushes her left hand at the same moment that her right hand flies to her chest, to the ring that is hidden beneath her blouse, and she doesn't know what to say, what to do.
"I figured it was about time," he says. "I have thought about this a lot, and I don't — I don't want you to put your life on hold for me. Not after everything. It isn't a way to live, and I want you to have better than that. Better than this." He draws his hand away from hers. "This is what I want."
Tara stares at him. "This is what you want," she says. "I see. What about the boys?"
"They don't need us to be married. And, shit. They need a better father figure than I know how to be. If you met a guy, it'd be good for them. I'll still be their dad, but, Tara, I don't want to be —"
"Enough," she cuts in.
He is startled, and she takes the time to look at him. The lines around his eyes are clear to her; he looks thin, tired, like this is too much for him, and something in her snaps. "Tara, listen," he says.
"Shut up," she says. "I don't want to listen to your pity party for yourself. Do you know what I want? Do you? I want my husband back." She breathes in, breathes out. "I want my husband back. I want you to keep your head down. Don't get into trouble. In four years, come home, and help me raise them. They're going to be kids for a while yet. Don't be a coward. Don't try to bow out."
She stares at him, and he stares back. "Okay." He clears his throat, and he nods.
She nods, too. "Okay."
He reaches for her hands, touches her arms, cups her face in his hands.
She holds his hands there, and she breathes in, breathes out. His thumb brushes her cheek, wiping away the tear, and he nods. "Okay. We'll do this your way, babe. We'll do what you want."
He gathers her into his arms before she leaves, and she presses her face into his cheek. His arms are an anchor around her, and she tightens her hold on him. They're going to make this work. They're going to have the life that they talked about before the club sucked him under.
In the next letter she writes to Jax, she includes pictures. One is Abel, holding up a tooth to his cheek while he smiles at the camera with a gap in his teeth. Another has Thomas in his soccer uniform, his hair in his eyes because she hadn't found the time to give him a haircut in a while. There is one at the beach with Tara, too, and they're wrapped up in towels, cheeks pink from the sun.
She writes that they want a dog, and she asks what he thinks.
Abel is in a fight at school. His lip is cut, his eyes downcast, and she is alarmed.
"What happened?" she asks.
He shrugs, and the principal explains that his teacher pulled him off Keller Smith, a boy in his class who is worse for wear after the encounter. "Dr. Knowles, I know the situation with his father is difficult," the principal says, and Tara stiffens. "And I have decided not to suspend him for this. But he is going to be put in detention, and I'd recommend that you have him talk to a counselor."
In the car, she waits for Abel to meet her gaze. "Sweetheart, I need to know what happened."
He picks at a string on his backpack. "Keller said Dad was a loser," he mumbles. "That he killed people, and he deserved to rot in prison. He said his mom told him, and I said his mom was stupid, and I pushed him." He pauses, and Tara doesn't know what to say to that, how to respond.
She wonders how much he understands, how much he hides from her.
The decision isn't conscious; before she knows why, she is on the way to the prison. She calls the hospital to say she won't be back that day, and she calls Brian to ask him to pick up Thomas from school at three. They arrive in Stockton at four, and visitors are allowed until six. They have to wait for a while to be processed, but he is ready for them when they're allowed to see him at last.
He hugs Abel. "What's the matter?" he asks, worried.
"Abel was in a fight at school," Tara says. She looks at Abel. "Tell your father what happened."
"I don't want to," Abel mutters.
She doesn't back down. "Abel Teller. I asked you to tell your father what happened." Abel glares at her for a moment, but he mumbles an explanation; he tells Jax what he told Tara, and Jax glances at Tara when Abel is finished. "I thought he might need to talk to his dad," she explains.
Jax nods, and he stares at Abel for a long, quiet moment.
"Buddy, there always going to be people who say mean things to you. Hurtful things, and you're going to want to hurt them back. But you've got to ignore them, Abel. Got to be the bigger man."
Abel won't look at Jax. "Why'd he say that stuff?" he asks.
Jax runs a hand through his hair. "When I was your age, my mom told me that I had to stand up for myself. That when people said things I didn't like, I had to hurt them. She was wrong, but I didn't know that. I thought I had to be tough. I grew up, and I thought that I had to be a bully to be happy. I joined a club for tough, mean people, and we sold guns to other tough, mean people."
He pauses, and Abel glances at him.
"When I met your mom, I wanted to stop. I wanted to be a good person like her. I didn't want to be the guy the sold guns. The guy that hurt people. But I had to be honest about the bad things that I'd done. To be a good person, you have to be honest. No matter what. I had to tell the police that I'd sold guns to people, and that those guns I'd sold had been used to hurt and to kill people."
"But you didn't hurt people," Abel says.
Jax sighs. "I gave other people the means to hurt people, and that's just as bad. I sold a gun to a guy whose son was sick, and the son used the gun to hurt people. That's why I'm in prison, Abel. But here's the thing. I could've lied, and I could've told people that I hadn't sold guns to people who were bad, or who were sick. But I didn't want to lie like that. I wanted to be a good person."
"Good people are honest," Abel says.
"Exactly. I told the truth, and that's why I'm in prison. I made a mistake. I thought I had to be this tough guy, to be a big bully, but the things I did allowed people to get hurt. Do you understand?"
"But if you know what you did was wrong, why do you have to stay in prison?" Abel asks.
Jax glances at Tara, and Abel looks at her, too. She takes a deep breath, and she explains that Dad needs to be in prison to show everybody that he learned his lesson. That he wants to be a good person. He needs to be in prison to make up for the mistakes he made. Abel listens, and he nods.
When they have to leave, Abel hugs Jax.
"I think you're a good person, Dad," he whispers, and Tara smiles to herself.
Her friends throw her a party when she turns forty. The kids distract her while Karen, Lauren, and Brian put up decorations, and they invite everybody at the hospital. She walks through the door, and thirty people throw confetti, shout "Happy Birthday!" and laugh at the look on her face. Brian's husband made a cake, presents cover the table, and Tara is stunned.
"As soon as you told me that you'd never had a party, I knew what I had to do," Karen says.
The boys are pleased as punch at the part that they played.
They want her to unwrap the present they bought her, and they explain that the confetti was their idea, Mom, and Thomas made her this card at school, and Abel helped Brian with the streamers.
"There is this, too!" Abel says. "From Uncle Tig! We hid it from you when it came in the mail! Like he told us!" The box is small, and the boys insist that she open the present. She doesn't know how to explain that she isn't certain she wants her friends to see a present from Uncle Tig.
Slowly, she tears off the newspaper that Tig used to wrap the box.
It's a small, ornate music box; yellow flowers are painted on porcelain, there is a soft, yellow lining on the inside, and the song that plays is the same one that used to play in the box that belonged to her mother. Tara loved that box. She was heartbroken after her father shattered it when he was drunk. She was sixteen, and she cried to Jax for days about her stupid, stupid father.
The letter in the box is from Jax. Happy Birthday, Tara. She covers her mouth with her hand.
"Who is it from?" Mike asks.
"Jax," Tara says. She wipes her eyes. "My husband." She smiles. Her boys smile back.
They look like their father. The older they grow, the clearer it is. Thomas sports darker hair than Abel, but they have the same eyes in the same face, his face, and their smile is his smile. She hears laughter in the kitchen, and she could've sworn Jax was at the table, but Abel beams back at her; Thomas is excited, and the look on his face is Jax, always, always Jax. They are his sons.
She looks at them, and she remembers the good in the man she loves most.
The boys play basketball with the YMCA in the winter, and it consumes every Saturday morning for weeks. When they return from practice the first Saturday in February, there is a car parked on the street next to their house, and Tara tries to remember who owns an SUV like that. She thinks Ashley from the hospital might, but she doesn't know what Ashley would need.
Oblivious, the boys tumble from the car, and Tara realizes who it is a moment before Gemma steps from the SUV.
Seven years. Time served.
Thomas follows her gaze. "Who's that?" he asks.
It's the worst in Jax.
She looks at Thomas for a moment before her gaze hops worriedly to Abel, and she is relieved at the realization that Abel doesn't know her; he doesn't remember her, doesn't recognize her. "It's a lady your dad used to know," Tara says, and Gemma stares at her from where she leans against the SUV. "But I thought you needed something to drink," Tara says to Thomas. "That was the argument when you wanted a Gatorade at the school." She raises her eyebrows. "There is water in the tap, juice in the fridge."
Thomas scowls, and he disappears into the house with Abel.
Gemma pushes off the SUV, and Tara starts towards her. "What do you want?" she asks.
"Nice to see you, too," Gemma says.
She looks older, and her hair is dyed a lighter brown, but she stands in the same way, smiles like a day hasn't passed. Her nails are painted dark red, and her blouse would make a crow eater proud. But Gemma smirks at her, and Tara flushes when she realizes that she is in an old t-shirt with a bleach stain, that her hair isn't styled, is a short, even cut, clipped back in an easy, sensible way.
"What do you want?" she repeats.
Suddenly, Gemma deflates. Her shoulders drop, and she looks sadly at Tara. "I want to know my grandsons." She sighs. "I haven't seen them in seven years, Tara." She shrugs, and her smile seeks sympathy. "I miss them."
"Right," Tara says. "Seven years. In prison. After you tried to kill me, Gemma."
But Gemma shakes her head. "I didn't want to kill you." She sighs. "I was messed up, and I was scared. I was terrified. But I'm not making excuses. I know what I did was wrong. I've had seven years to realize how wrong I was. To regret what I did." She pauses. "I don't want to take them from you. I just want the chance to be in their lives. Please, baby. Give me a chance to be Grandma."
"I — I can't." She gapes at Gemma. "I mean, did you think I would? Forget what you did to me. What about what you did to Jax? The monster he became, Gemma, the years in prison, the guilt that he feels, that's on you. I won't risk the same fate for my boys. I won't." She frowns, incredulous. "Their lives are good. They're happy. Healthy. Safe. Really, truly safe. Don't take them away from that."
"Do you think I want to make them unhappy?" Gemma asks. "Or unsafe? I want the best for them, too."
"But you don't. All you want is to drag them back to the club."
"All I want," Gemma says, "is to be in their lives. I don't care about the club, or —"
Tara scoffs. "Bullshit. No. I'm sorry, no. We aren't going to have this conversation. If you don't back off, I'll involve the police. Attempted murder might've only put you in prison for seven years, but it'll earn you a restraining order, too."
Gemma stares at her. "How do I get back in?" She crosses her arms. "Tell me, and I'll do it."
But Gemma doesn't back down. "What have you told the boys?" she asks. "That I'm dead? Are you going to try to keep me away from them for their whole lives? Do you really think you can?"
"I'm not you, Gemma," Tara says. "When they're adults, you're welcome to try to get to know them, and I won't stand in your way. I won't try to control my sons, or to manipulate them. They'll be free to live their lives the way they want." She smiles, and she steps closer to Gemma. "But as long as my kids are kids," she says, "I'm going to protect them. It isn't up for discussion."
Gemma shakes her head. "Do they think I'm dead?"
"Howdy, Neighbor!" Brian says. Tara glances at him in surprise. "Sorry! Didn't mean to startle!" He chuckles. "I just wanted to ask Tara about this lasagna recipe. I don't think I've met you, though." He looks at Gemma. "I'm Brian Cohen. From there." He nods at the house to the right.
"Good for you," Gemma says. "Gemma Teller."
"Oh, Teller." Brian smiles. "Like —"
"Tara's mother," Gemma says.
"In-law," Tara hisses, "and she was on her way to her car. Come on, Brian."
But Gemma isn't finished. "I don't see your ring, Tara," she says. "Guess that means you're done with Jax. He is in prison for you, but you've moved on." She glances at Brian. "Hope it isn't Elmo with his lasagna." She sneers at Tara. "I need to know, Doc. Do the boys think I'm dead?"
"Doesn't matter," Tara says. "But for the record, I am with Jax. I love my husband. I haven't left him, or, you know, killed him. That's your style. I'll tell you what, though. Go to Stockton, and talk to Jax. Ask him to let you back in. Tell him what you told me. If he thinks that you deserve to spend time with the boys, I'll let you. But if he tells you to back the fuck off, back the fuck off."
Gemma raises her eyebrows at Tara, and her lips curl in a smirk. "Deal."
(But Gemma doesn't know Jax as well as she thinks. Gemma knows the way she wants Jax to be, but she doesn't know the man he really is. Tara does, and she trusts him to protect her family.)
Gemma leaves. Tara counts to ten in her head, reminds herself to breathe in, to breathe out. "She seems like a delight," Brian says. Tara glances at him. "Cards on the table, though. I don't need help with the recipe. I'm just really, really nosy. So. Is there something you might like to share?"
She talks to the boys. She explains that the woman in the SUV was Jax's mother, Gemma. When they were younger, she tried to hurt Tara, to take the boys away from her, and she was in prison for a while. Tara doesn't know what response she expects from them, but she is relieved at how they accept her explanation. She says they are better off without their grandmother, and they nod.
Gemma doesn't try to contact her after that.
When Tara visits Jax, he says that he talked to her. "I told her to stay away from them."
But she knows this isn't the end. She knows Gemma is going to fight to take the boys from her.
She'll be ready for whatever Gemma tries to pull.
Her childhood in Charming is in her blood, and Tara Knowles knows how to fight back.
She talks to the school. Gemma isn't allowed to pick them up. She explains a little to her friends, how her husband was in an MC, why he is in prison, how Gemma tried to kill her. They listen, and they promise to keep an eye on the boys. They're in her corner. She contacts Roosevelt about what the law is able to do to protect them, and he says that he'll do whatever she needs him to do.
Juice calls. He says that Gemma is a mess. She is annoyed at everybody, at everything, is drunk at ten a.m., doesn't know what to do with herself. "She needs the boys in her life," he says, and Tara realizes that this is a plea on Gemma's behalf. "Jax told her to go fuck herself. Please, Tara."
"Honestly, I'm surprised that Gemma isn't on the warpath," she says.
He sighs. "She isn't like she used to be. Prison was hard on her. She's broken."
He seems to have forgotten the people who were broken after Gemma was through with them, the people who were dead. "I'm sorry, Juice," she says. "I am. But I can't trust her with my boys."
Seven months pass without a word from Gemma, and what happens next isn't about her.
The prison won't allow them to visit Jax. The boys whine that they wasted a whole stupid day on the drive, and Dad promised that he'd edit the paper on South America that Abel wrote, but Abel isn't able to give him the paper to read, and Thomas wore the sneakers he got for his birthday to show him, and this sucks. Tara tries to listen sympathetically to them, but her mind is in torment.
Jax isn't allowed to have visitors; the privilege was lost after he attacked a prisoner.
Eight years, and this hasn't happened. She doesn't know why he'd risk parole after eight years. But her money is on the club. Always, the club. She had assumed he was finished with the club.
She had wanted him to be finished. It's why she waited. Eight years, she waited for him. Put her life on hold for him. She could've moved to Boston. Could've moved on to somebody who wasn't in prison. She knows Jax wouldn't have waited for her. He wouldn't have known how to keep his dick in his pants for ten years. She remembers that pretty, older escort, and she is sick to her stomach.
Oh, God. She hates him.
If he isn't able to make parole, he could be in prison for another ten years. Another fifteen. If he is able to, he'll find his way back to the club, and she'll be forced to take the boys away from him. Again.
She writes to Jax. She is worried that she is like Gemma, that she is dependent on her sons to be happy. She writes about how her whole life revolves around them. She doesn't know who she is without them. But I don't want you to reassure me that I'm not her. It's my demon to face, and you have your own. You have a choice to make, Jax. She stares at the words she writes, breathing in.
She breathes out, and she writes that he needs to pick. The club, or her.
If he wants to sacrifice his freedom for the club, that is his choice. If he wants to return to the club once he is released, she can't stop him. But she isn't going to wait for him while he does favors for the club on the inside, and she isn't going to be drawn back into that world afterward.
She won't expose the boys to that, won't expose herself to it.
She loves him, and she doesn't want to lose him. But what happens next is on him. Pick, Jax.
When she is allowed to visit him a month later, she doesn't bring the boys with her.
He starts to talk before she is able to say a word. The guy he was in a fight with was a pedophile, this creepy, messed up guy, and he saw the pictures that Jax had. "From when the boys were little, and the shit he said was sick. I lost it. But I know that I shouldn't risk my chance at parole."
He reaches for her hand. "Does your lawyer think you did?" she asks.
"He says I still have a shot." He pauses. "Tara, it wasn't about the club. I'm done with the club." His thumb brushes her knuckles. "I know I've made promises before, and I haven't kept them. But this one is for real, babe. I'm picking, and it's you. No more club, no more prison. Just you."
She takes his hand in hers. "Okay." She nods. "Good." He smiles, and she starts to smile back.
The letters in the days that follow are about them. Their past. Their relationship. Their mistakes.
He writes about how messed up he was after she left when they were kids, how he hated her, how he missed her, and she writes back about her life in that time. It isn't something they've talked about; he never asked, and she never volunteered the information. But she writes about the friends she made, what it was like when her father died, the jobs she took, how she met Joshua.
She writes about how lonely she was, and he writes about his marriage to Wendy, about his thoughts when he learned that Tara was back in Charming, and these are the easier letters to write, to read.
When she writes about the days after Abel was kidnapped, her hand shakes. When she reads about his thoughts when he slept with Ima, the anger burns in her gut until she wants to scream.
But they should've talked about these things a long, long time ago.
He writes about Colette. She writes about the miscarriage she faked. Slowly, they heal old, forgotten wounds.
The boys are in a talent show in February, and she convinces them to impress the judges with music that they'll really love. When she watches her sons sing on stage with their friends, dancing to Tearin' Up My Heart, she realizes that her whole life was leading up to this moment.
She laughs until she cries, and she cheers like crazy when they're finished.
In some ways, the years at the end are the quickest. The boys are busy with football, basketball, baseball; they're happy, and she is, too. She isn't worried that everything is about to be stolen from her, isn't afraid that the club is going to creep back into her life, or that Gemma is about to.
When she isn't able to sleep at night, the culprit is the fact that Thomas wants to be a drummer.
Her old mentor at Loyola comes to Mercy for a surgery, and he asks about her hand. "Why don't you give physical therapy another shot?" She talks to her friends at the hospital, who convince her at least to try to rehabilitate her hand. She hasn't been this excited for work in years.
Karen has a fourth kid, and Brian adopts his first.
(There is a crisis when Brian offers to pay the boys to babysit one night, only for the baby to roll off the bed when they're busy with the game on TV. But the baby isn't hurt, and everybody lives.)
She talks with Jax about what happens next. He thinks he might be able to work at this shop in Redding. He is friends with the guy whose brother owns the place, and they need a mechanic who knows bikes. They talk about how they should add onto the house, or look into a new one.
But when Jax is up for parole, time slows suddenly to a stop. His argument is that he has a job, a wife, a house. He is ready to be with his family, to rejoin the world. But parole isn't a guarantee. Only she acted like it was. For ten years, she lived on the assumption that ten years was the time she had to wait.
If she has to wait another five, ten, fifteen years, she doesn't think she'll be able to survive.
The boys are in school, and she drives to Stockton on her own.
She is afraid to believe this is real.
But he walks from the prison. She fumbles to unlock the door. His hair is clipped, and his face is clean-shaven, and he looks like he hasn't aged a day when he smiles at her. She laughs at nothing, and he hugs her. She starts to cry, but she laughs through her tears, and he lifts her off the ground, kissing her slowly, softly. She is dizzy, and he is the whole world to her in that moment.
In the car, he asks her to dinner. "It's eleven in the morning, Jax."
"What about on Saturday?"
She bites her lip. "Like a date?" she asks, and he grins. "Are you asking me to go on a date with you, Jackson?" She raises her eyebrows at him. "I'm pretty sure the last time we went on a date, we were, like, fifteen. In fact, I know we were fifteen. Jurassic Park was in theaters, but you'd already seen it, and we made out the whole time. I still don't know what happens in that movie."
"There are dinosaurs," he says.
"Har, har," she says. "Seriously, though."
"I'm asking for a fresh start, Tara," he says. "I want to make good on everything I promised you. I know you've made this whole life for yourself, for our boys, and I love you for that. I want a chance to be in that life, Tara. To make it better, and to be the husband that you deserve. Finally."
Her eyes stay on the road, but she nods. "Okay. Dinner." She clears her throat. "I like steak."
Summer is humid that year, and the heat scorches the yard. But when her garden wilts, Jax goes to work on the lawn, replanting the flowers that she likes best, putting in a sprinkler system, building a shed in the backyard for his bike. She says his shed ruins the aesthetics. He kisses her.
He gets the job at Fields Auto Repair, and he seems to like the work.
When the boys don't have baseball, they're with him. They help to build the shed, and they're at work with him every sticky, sweltering day. Jax is who he used to be when he is around them; around them, he hasn't lost his father, his best friend, his faith. She hears him regale them with story after story about the trouble he used to get into with Opie, and they share their own stories.
"Abel has a good head on his shoulders," he tells Tara. "Thomas, too."
Tara snorts. "Thomas is a little shithead," she says. She glances at him. "He gets that from you."
For a little while, she doesn't know what to do with herself.
Ten years have passed without Jax, but here he is. Back in her life, in her home, in her bed. There is a hesitancy between them, a strange, shy feeling. But his kisses haven't changed, and she chases him along the beach after he drops that crab in her lap, and they fit like they've always fit.
She isn't alone, and he isn't lost. They're together.
He visits the guys in Charming. The club. But he is back that night. Juice has a kid, and Bobby needs a liver, and the club is packed with guys that Jax doesn't know. She waits for the ball to drop, but his voice isn't wistful, his words aren't a warning, and she relaxes into him, into belief.
Three months after Jax is released, Tara realizes she is pregnant.
"I swear, Teller. Get your sperm in check."
She knows that they aren't ready for this. Their relationship is new in a way; they're new to each other, new in who they are, in who they've become, and they have to relearn one another. Jax hasn't adjusted to life in Redding yet, and the boys haven't adjusted to what it's like to have a father in the day-to-day. Plus, there's Gemma to think about; she is determined to be forgiven.
But Tara wants this baby. They'll make things work.
She is older, and the pregnancy is difficult. It's worth it, though. Their daughter is worth it.
His book is published under a pseudonym, and the dedication reads simply, "To my wife."
Ten years in prison, and this book is the result.
The story is about a murder in a small, southern town, and she laughs when she realizes that he wrote a mystery. She teases him, but his life is hidden in the pages, and she cries when she reads the draft he shows her. He writes about hatred, about obsession, about the emptiness that eats away at you when you've lost your oldest friend. About loss, about redemption, about the love that saves you in the end.
The character who suffers the most, who fights the hardest, is a pretty, dark-haired woman.
"Hey, Mom," Thomas says. "What's with that scar?" He nods at the skin beneath her collarbone, exposed in her tank top. Mostly, the mark is faded; what used to be a twisted, puckered scar faded years ago into stretched, pink skin, and Tara blinks at the question for a moment, surprised.
Honestly, she should be surprised that the boys haven't asked before.
Abel looks at the scar curiously from where he sits on Jax's other side, and her gaze trails from him to Gracie, who looks at Tara with big, bright eyes, a Cheerio clutched in her chubby fingers.
Tara smiles back at the two-year-old. "Well, there was this evil queen," she says.
"Mom, come on," Thomas groans. But Gracie listens attentively while Tara describes how the evil queen didn't want Tara to be with the prince, and she tried to drown Tara in a lake, and she attacked her with a magical wand. But Tara survived, and the prince keeps her safe from the evil queen.
"Do you know who the prince is?" Tara asks. Gracie shakes her head. "Daddy is!" Tara says, and Gracie gasps. "Daddy is the prince," Tara says. "And that means that his daughter is a princess. Who is that? Who is his daughter?" Gracie looks at Jax, who points at her. He mouths the word.
Gracie points at herself, amazed, and Jax nods. Again, she gasps. "I'm a prin'ess," she says.
Jax grabs the crown from Burger King off the counter, and Gracie reaches up to touch her crown in awe when he puts the cardboard on her head, never mind that she wore the crown a week ago.
Abel smiles into his orange juice, Thomas rolls his eyes, and Tara smiles back at Gracie, the crown slinking over her brown bangs into her eyes. Jax catches Tara's eye. She blows him a kiss.
And I won't back down.
I won't turn around and around.
And I won't back down.
Doesn't matter what comes crashing down,
I'm still gonna stand my solid ground.