Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2003 7:50 PM
She stands on the porch of her house overlooking the sea, that last sunset.
Of course, she has no way to know it will be the last. Finality is a tangible presence, hers to grasp if she wished, but she has never been a grasper. Maybe when she was young, very young, in the dim misty back alleys of her memory. It isn't a place she's ever liked to frequent.
She stands on the back porch and watches the waves roll in, interminable beneath the implacable stars. This is forever. The waves will not care when she's no longer here, they'll still lap up the shore. Perhaps one year they'll grow curious enough to taste the house, to swallow it, to pound the brick and glass and carefully exposed beams back into sand and driftwood. Gone without a trace.
I was gone without a trace, she thinks, and waits for her mind to do that thing it does and flutter off, hands waving like a very small girl playing at butterflies.
I am a butterfly, she admits to herself. I flit and flit and flit and never settle onto anything for more than ten seconds.
Her mind doesn't flit this time; maybe she's finally settling down. Now, just before it's all gone. The irony twists her mouth in a brief, unwilling smile.
"There'll be riots," she says, hearing him moving through the open doorway.
"Not for a while," Jason answers, coming up behind her. "Not until something actually happens."
"They don't know how bad it is, do they?" Even she can hear how strange her voice sounds, light and unconcerned, as if commenting on a friend's decorating taste.
"I don't think so. The news stations are doing a good job of keeping everyone calm."
"Unless they don't know how bad it is either."
It's a long away away, the bad. The real bad. So far.
His hands come to rest on her shoulders. They turn her gently towards him, away from her mindless, beautiful ocean. Away from peace and the unfathomable distance of stars.
"Did you take your pills, Samantha?" he asks, stooping slightly to look into her eyes. "You know how you get when you don't take them."
"No," she answers equitably. "No, I don't know how I get, not really. I guess we're about to find out now."
His mouth hangs open mid-reply. She's deviated from their usual script, the one where he says his lines and she replies that she's already taken her pills, or trots off obediently to line them up in the palm of her hand -- one blue, one white, one green-and-white capsule. She hasn't not taken her pills since she was a teenager, days she can barely remember. Trying to look at that time is like taking the lid off one of those back-alley trashcans -- all she sees inside is a jumble of noise and colour and pain and she always jumps back, lets the lid fall again.
Jason closes his mouth and opens it, but he still doesn't know what to say. Her poor husband, saddled with a lunatic wife and two sullen boys in a country he never even wanted to visit. She's the one who wanted to move to Australia, wanted to move as far as she could get from that man who claimed to be her brother, and Daddy made it happen. Daddy makes everything happen, she thinks, walking out from under Jason's hands. Even this.
She reaches into the pocket of her sweatjacket and pulls out one of the clear amber prescription bottles. The tiny blue pills. There's no label on the bottle, and this is how muffled her mind has been, that she's only now questioning this.
"When you get my prescriptions refilled, Jason, where do you go to do it?" she asks, not turning to face him. Held up to the fading sun the amber plastic turns the little aqua pills a deep emerald. She tilts the bottle this way and that, enjoying the way they look as they tumble about, tiny trapped jewels.
"Just take the pills, Sam."
His voice is closer now, right behind her, and it's lost its usual softness. She wonders idly if she should be afraid of him, but it seems rather pointless. Die tonight, or tomorrow or in a few weeks, what's the difference? Not in where you go, but how you get there. If these are truly the last days of mankind, she might as well stay awake to see them.
"Do you know," she says, uncapping the bottle and letting the bright tablets pour into her hand. "Do you know how many years I've been taking these? I don't even know. I have no idea what they're for, or what will happen if I stop. I think now's as good a time as any to find out."
Before he can stop her she flings the pills into the air. A light breeze carries them briefly west before they drop to mix with the sand.
She turns to face her husband, not knowing what to expect. Admiration is the last expression she might have imagined shaping his features, but there it is.
"You know," he says calmly, "I was always hoping that one day you'd do that."
"What are they, Jason? What do they do?"
He shakes his head. "I don't know. One of them is obviously a tranquilliser, but I don't know which."
She breathes in deep. Scared. She hasn't been scared in a long time, and the feeling is definitely unpleasant. Unpleasant but real, she reminds herself, and she wants to be real. Now, before she runs out of time to be anything.
"Do you think there'll be some kind of withdrawal?"
Admiration turns to concern. Not the painted-on mask of concern he's always worn before. This time he really does care.
"I don't know," he says and comes forward to take her in his arms, as tentative as their first night together. "Probably, yes."
She lets him hold her, and it's nice. The feel of him is familiar, the smell of him brings a twinge deep in her belly, as it's always done. Does it really matter now that she's probably never meant anything to him?
She sighs and hugs him a little tighter, grateful that he's still there.
"So what do we do?" he whispers.
In their seventeen years together, this is the first time he's ever asked that. The question only heightens the fear and she's tempted to reach into her pockets and see if the white pills are the tranquillisers, or the capsules, tempted to jump off the porch and see if she can retrieve anything blue from the sand.
Instead, she holds on to her husband, to the one word that jumps out of his sentence and gives her a weapon to wield against the uncertain night about to fall on them.
He said we, not you or I. She's not alone then.
"Daddy said they'll come for us before first light. We should pack everything we'll want to keep. He'll have a plane waiting in Brisbane."
Jason leans away, enough to see her face while their bodies remain pressed together. "To take us home," he says, in a voice she hasn't the experience to decipher.
"Some people are talking about going inland, into the bush, if the power goes off again. The Greenwalds from next door, some others. She came over this morning and told me to stock up on canned goods and water."
"And did you?"
"I went to the corner shop, but it was boarded up, and the shelves at Coles were almost bare."
"But we don't have to worry, do we?" he asks, in that same odd voice. "Because we're going home."
This is the hard part, the part she had to pick painfully out from between the lines of what her father said. This is the part that made her put the pills back in her pocket this morning, instead of taking them. The part that she needed to clear her head to take in, and she's still not sure if she's gotten it right. The years of fog aren't going to burn off in the light of one day, no matter how strong the sun in Australia.
She shapes the words carefully, needing to get them exactly right. "I don't...think...we can."
They lie together in silence, curled beneath their soft quilt, in their perfect king-sized bed, surrounded by tasteful furniture in a house that's won architectural prizes for the elegant use of light and space.
None of it seems real.
This is real, she thinks, Jason's hand curved around her breast and the hot sticky place that still throbs between her legs. For the first time in seventeen years she's made love to her husband without the aid of drugs and she wasn't quite prepared for the sharp, exquisite pleasure of being pounded senseless, wasn't quite able to control herself once she understood how much there was to feel. On her knees and back and side and over the edge of the bed and up against the wall -- she wants to try it every way she can imagine. Wants it for hours and hours, until the alarm goes off and it's time to go out into the future, probably never to have the chance again.
Alas, a man has his limits, and Jason has reached his.
"If I'd know what that could be like, I'd have stopped taking the pills years ago," she says, though she thinks he might be unconscious.
"You'd have killed me," he murmurs against her back, then squeezes her breast, as if he's just remembered where he has his hand. "But I'd have died a happy man."
She clasps his hand so he can't pull it away, because there's something else she needs to ask.
"Jason," she says softly, "You never loved me, did you?"
He stiffens and her instinct was right. He does try to pull away his hand.
"It's all right," she adds, holding on. "I just needed to ask."
"It's not that I didn't love you," he finally answers. "It's more...I never got the chance."
She lets go of him and sits up to light the candle that lives on the nightstand now. Another night she might have turned on the lamp to see if the power was working or not, but tonight she doesn't care. In a few hours it won't matter.
"I had the misfortune to fall in favour with the daughter of the czar," Jason says slowly. "Nothing I wanted mattered after that. Not if I wanted to live."
"I'm sorry," she whispers. It's never occured to her that love could be such a poison, that by taking her out for dinner and making her laugh, by taking her to bed never knowing who she was, he somehow managed to lose control of his entire life. Because she'd wanted him, Daddy had made him hers. Now that she can see this, she also sees that Jason has been remarkably good at never letting her see his resentment. Perhaps it was part of the bargain -- he could live as long as she believed she was loved.
It's a miracle, really, that he doesn't hate her for it.
Jason rolls onto his back and lies there, staring at the ceiling. She imagines he sees his life playing upon the cream-coloured expanse. The life he's had juxtaposed against the life he dreamt, lying on his back at age twenty-seven, just before they met.
"It hasn't been so bad," he finally allows. "I got the boys out of it."
That's true, he did, and they've always been more his responsibility than hers. Whatever was in all those pretty little pills that kept her smiling and vacant all these years has also made her little more than a butterfly flitting in and out of the lives of her sons.
"You've been a good father," she says. A father that's been there, which is more than she can say for her own. She's Daddy's little girl, that's for sure, but Daddy is a busy man. She remembers a house on a base somewhere, and a room painted blue like the sky, but she doesn't remember her father being home very much. Mostly she remembers Daddy's wife and their son. Cassandra she still thinks of fondly, but Jeffrey alternately ignored or annoyed her and Samantha wasn't sorry when he was sent away to school.
And Cassandra tended to disappear from time to time herself. Abducted by aliens, she always said, and she'd be smiling and vacant, just --Samantha realises now -- just as she's been all these years. For the first time she thinks of Cassandra as something more than a kindly fool, as a woman who might have been caught in just the same trap.
You know how you get... Yes, she remembers now. Jeffrey used to say that to his mother, too.
"Jason." She turns on her side, tilting her head as if that can make the vague memories fall into their proper places. "Jason, the times when I got...like that...and you had to call my father, where did he take me?"
He rolls on his side to face her. Honesty night, she thinks, running the pads of her fingers over his late-night beard.
"I don't know. Your father didn't usually come himself. He usually sent the Incredible Hulk." She smiles at the name their older son gave to her father's eerily silent bodyguard. To this day she has no idea what that man's name really is. "They'd take you off in the limo and bring you back a week or so later, calm as a cucumber. And about as reactive."
She nods as if she remembers, but she doesn't. It's not all there yet. The fog in her mind is like steam on a glass -- so far she's only been able to clear a small place in the center.
The alarm clock starts to ring and Jason reaches over her to turn it off. She catches him around the waist before he moves away, staring up into the warm brown of his eyes. If he's with her, she's sure somehow she'll get through this. But if he's not --
Terror bursts through her and she starts to hyperventilate, as if the last of her happily drugged clouds have finally dissippated, revealing a stark, twisted landscape. A land she's going to have to travel, with or without him, inside her head as well as out there, where the world is going to end in less than six hours.
This nightmare land, these writhing monsters in her head, this is why they gave her the drugs to begin with, is it not? How crazy was she to think she could last without them, she can't and it's been too long, twelve hours or more, she's missed her third dose and she needs them now noW NOW--
She opens her eyes and she's on the floor by the bedroom door with Jason wrapped around her, pinning her arms to her sides to keep her from flailing at him.
This is what you're like, comes the voice in her head. This is what you're like and it's the voice of her father, of Jason, of a sneering adolescent Jeffrey forcing a bottle of little blue tablets into Cassandra's shaking hands.
"Sam, it's the pills. Your body wants the pills. That's all, there's nothing there, there's nothing wrong with your head." He shakes her against him and she realises she's been babbling all her thoughts out loud, all the snarling gargoyles and stooped, drooling demons and back-brain alleys strewn with rancid stinking garbage.
This is what she's like. This is her brain not on drugs.
"You can do this," Jason shouts in her ear, and his voice reaches her through the babbling of a thousand split tongues speaking languages that don't exist. "You can do this. You don't need the pills. We don't need your father. I can take care of us. I'm here."
She grabs onto his arms where they cross over her chest and rocks and rages and sweats and shudders, but somewhere deep inside is a tiny voice that she remembers from long, long ago, a voice that stood up to things that went bump in the night, and the temper of a woman who might have been her real mother and the boy --
- screaming for her, torn apart with fear.
She reaches across the emptiness, feels hands flailing through the fog, and grabs them. One set of hands there, in the past, and the other here, holding her tight as her body convulses with longing for a refuge it will never know again.
At some point she's aware that she's burning with need and thirst, that things are moving and this is a car, their own car, that's she's lying in the back seat wrapped in the quilt from their bed and the pillow beneath her head is her older son's leg.
She never feels the end of the world, coming as it does not in flame, but in silence.
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LIFE DURING WARTIME can be found at http://mouldiwarps.shriftweb.org/Wartime.html. I realise it's been awhile <g>, so for an excellent 'the story so far' see the introduction to "Fimbulwinter."
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Title: Unfathomable Distance of Stars Life During Wartime, The
Series Name: Life During Wartime
Author: Fialka [email]
Details: Standalone | R | 15k | 02/14/04
Summary: On the other side of the world, destiny awaits.
Notes: Mid-colonization. Angst.
Disclaimer: 1013 and Fox own 'em. Used without permission.
Beta by Cofax and Marasmus
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