TITLE: Many Waters (1/1)

AUTHOR: C. Midori

CATEGORY: Angst/Romance (JC/AL)

RATING: PG

SPOILERS: Season 10

ARCHIVE: Ask and ye shall receive permission.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own ER. But if I did there sure as hell wouldn't be as many helicopters.

AUTHOR NOTES: Written for the Coffee and Pie Summer Contest Series, spit-and-polished for public consumption. Originally titled "Fevers and Mirrors", but I think this one makes more sense.

You can still read the original at Coffee and Pie. (Look under "Carter and Abby" > "The Fans" > "Hall of Fame". I'd link it except the Document Manager hates me and my HTML-loving ways.)

SUMMARY: "Memories don't always fit in albums, in boxes, aren't as dead as most people think." Carter/Abby. Post-S10.

--

Carter likes to lie with his head on her lap, up against her belly, a swollen shell, a distant roaring, regular, rhythmic, the sea, the sea, in his ears. Likes to lie with his arms up and over his head, as if in surrender, wrists rubbing up against the circumference of her waist and fingers the ships that make their voyage across the globe of her stomach. In return she smiles at him, she always does, and when she leans over to kiss him her hair falls like a curtain over them both, and the world narrows until it's just the two, three of them. She is alive, fecund, round and rotund, bursting with life and lovely, his, all his, absolutely.

It's like magic, what she does to him, for him. It's like magic, what's happening between them. He feels crazy. A little bit. Enough.

And, like magic, one day she disappears.

---

The morning of the funeral dawns bright, clear, like a windowpane in winter, the weeping of the mourners condensation on the glass.

Abby is there on time. Early, even. A minor miracle, all things considered. The first time she skipped the invite and crashed the after-party; it hadn't even occurred to her how badly she had fit in, all rumpled hair and department store wear, a wrinkle in a sea of smooth suits. The second time was worse: Eric decided he had to throw a surprise party of his own, and her baby brother made clear something she suspected she knew all along: she wasn't ever going to fit in, ever, and she and Carter weren't ever going to fit, period. Period.

But the third time's a charm, an ellipsis. She's seen a lot of death in her lifetime, thanks to the ER, but she's never been to as many funerals as she has because of Carter. Three, including this one. Four, if she counts the little service she had to mourn the passing of their relationship (standing room only in her head). She prays there won't be a fifth. She fears a fifth would break him beyond recognition. Beyond repair. Everybody has a breaking point, everybody, especially—

Carter. He's flanked by the only people left in the world with the right to claim this place beside him: his father, and Kem, who is weeping silently. She is much like Abby remembers her. French, probably. French-born or French-educated. French-something. European, definitely, somewhere in there. Small and fine-boned, like a bird. Beautiful, even in her grief. You know. You know the kind. Perfect.

They're holding hands, she and Carter, but he still looks as if it's his funeral, his hole that they're all standing in front of. It's such a large hole, too. Such a small body but such a large hole. It almost doesn't make sense except, of course, it does. Children are symbols, and what they lack in size they make up in meaning, and mean more than they have any right to mean. Especially in death.

She should know, anyway.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The coffin lands with a soft thud. Carter's eyes are dry when he drops Kem's hand to reach for that first fistful of earth. Abby watches it fall, hears it hit the coffin lid, gunshot-loud.

Later, Abby shakes his hand, because everyone else is doing it, and she tries to catch his eye, because nobody else will try. As the crowd bleeds away and Abby with it, the last thing she sees is Kem, not Carter, and the look on the other woman's face as she turns away from the little grave. It's the kind of look only another mother can recognize, so Abby's not surprised when Carter doesn't see it. And she's not surprised when she comes home to find that there's dirt on her hands, too.

---

One day Carter wakes up to find that Kem's left him. He's not all that surprised.

He'd like to blame her, he would. Really, he would. Too bad he can't, because he understands. After all, he did it once, not so long ago. Still remembers the tremendous guilt and the tremendous freedom of leaving it all behind. All of it. Everything he ever loved in this mortal world, everything whose terrible weight caused him to bow like a branch bending under too much snow. He wonders, briefly, if this is what it's like for Kem; wonders if she, too, can taste the sharp ecstasy of freedom, like a drug racing through her veins, wonders if he will even get a letter, if she will do him that courtesy, that insult.

As the sun rises he rubs more than just sleep from his eyes.

Work, work is hell, breathing is hell, living is hell, and he makes it through his shift, barely, sleepwalking, slow and shattered. Sad. There's no other way to describe it, as banal as it sounds. Because he knows when he goes home the only people who will be there will be there because they are paid to, the only people who matter having become nothing more than ghosts, one in the ground and one an ocean away. He knows he will see wallpaper samples fanned out like a huge shell marooned on the kitchen table, leftovers for two in the fridge, an unmade bed bearing the weight of her body on its sheets; he knows it's what he won't see that will hit him the hardest.

So he's sitting on this bench in the ambulance bay when she comes to him, the shadowy half-light like a curtain going down on the world and on the two of them.

"Hey," Abby says, without preamble.

"I'm fine," he says automatically. "Thanks."

She says nothing, just takes the seat next to him and hands him a Styrofoam cup, the smell of weather in her hair. He knows what she is thinking, because he is thinking the same thing.

Liar.

"You're welcome," she says, as he warms his hands.

He watches as she takes a sip of her coffee, then another, then wipes the lipstick from her cup, and he stares. He can't help it. In all the time he's known her he can probably count on one hand the number of times he's seen her wearing lipstick.

"I know," she says. She's staring straight ahead, embarrassed. "I've got this—thing."

"Thing?" he echoes. "What kind of thing?"

Now Abby is positively writhing. For a moment he forgets who he is, forgets his place and their history, and—grins.

"Susan…set me up with this guy."

"Blind date?" he asks, amused, coffee all but forgotten.

"More like a suicide mission if you ask me."

"Come on, how bad can it be?"

"Famous last words," she intones, darkly, as she stares into her cup.

"Hey, you never know. This may be Mr. Right."

"More like Mr. Yeah Right."

"That's very positive."

"Well, my spirit counselor gives me an A for effort."

He smiles, and they're silent for a moment. Companionable. He can't remember the last time they had a real conversation, it's been so long. He likes it. He misses it.

"You look different," he blurts, before he can help himself. It's because he sees the lipstick, the sunlight streaked into her hair. He's the one who went halfway across the world but it's she who looks different now, and it's not just cosmetics.

"Different?" She looks at him, curious, amused. "Like Extreme Makeover different?"

"No." He studies his hands. "Happier."

She smiles at him, the last of the light catching on her lashes. "I am," she says. "Happier."

"I know," he says, and he knows. She is happy, in a way she never was with him.

Abstractly, he wonders why he couldn't do that for her.

She clears her throat. "How's Kem?"

Carter is silent for a moment before answering. "Gone."

Try as she might, she can't hide the surprise. "Gone?"

"Gone," he repeats, for emphasis, as if it weren't true enough already. "On a plane, with her parents, Europe, Africa, I don't know. Not here."

She looks at him carefully before she speaks. "When did she leave?"

The real question, he thinks, is when was the last time she was really here?

"Today, I think."

Abby looks at him like she's going to say something, something that means something, but then a man is standing in front of them. Her date. Tall, dark, and handsome. Very Luka, without the accent. Carter's amused to find that Abby has a type. He's been looking for her in the ER and she apologizes. He's brought her flowers. She thanks him blandly. Carter can't help but smile.

Carter watches them walk off together, her body a black shape against the twilight. He watches as she turns her head, the wind lifting her hair. "I'll call you tomorrow," she calls over her shoulder, and then she's gone.

--

He's drunk when he opens the door. Smells like cigarette smoke and whisky, the expensive kind. His hair is tousled; it looks like he rolled out of bed no more than ten minutes before she got there.

"You didn't pick up the phone," Abby explains.

He lets her in, the funniest expression in his eyes.

She knows this is bad, this is a bad idea. She regrets ever coming in the first place, almost. Except she knows that he needs her. Not her specifically, but someone, anyone, to do the things he needs but won't admit, like make sure he eats, hold his head as he vomits, be his friend. And she's as good a candidate as any. She's known him for years and years, shared his coffee and his bed, and she can't help but care, still. Too much history. Too much left between them, even if they are just memories. Memories don't always fit in albums, in boxes, aren't as dead as most people think.

He leaves the door open and disappears. Abby locks the door behind them both and realizes only belatedly that the butler, the maid—all the hired help, in fact—are missing.

She finds him by the pool, a half-empty bottle and a glass set down on the concrete, a crumpled pack of cigarettes in his hands. The lights from the pool cast inverted shadows on his skin, shadows the color of foam on waves.

He offers her a smoke. She shakes her head no.

"You look awful," he says, with a glance in her direction.

"Long shift," she says, patiently, and she takes a seat next to him. "You look like hell, too."

Carter lets out a short, sharp laugh. "I feel like I'm there."

"Can't be much worse than this," she counters, the humidity making her hair stick to the back of her neck.

He's silent for a moment before answering. "I don't belong in this world anymore."

"Do any of us?"

He shrugs, and then he holds up the glass. "Thirsty?"

It's a joke, a terribly unfunny one, but she lets it pass. She's never been good at being the bigger person but she's gotten good at taking care of others. It's in her blood.

"How about something to eat?" she asks, though she's not hungry, not very.

Again, he shrugs. But the ice clinks against his glass as he finishes his drink, and then he stands there looking at her. It takes her a moment to realize that he's waiting for her to lead the way into the kitchen.

She doesn't know her way around his place that well—she's only been there a couple of times and, besides, it's a mansion—so she makes the wrong turn once, twice, enough so that he gives up and steers her. It's just a small touch, a hand on her back, and it's barely even there, but—still. Memories.

They're in the kitchen. The phone is on the hook but the light from the answering machine is blinking: eight messages. At least two of them are from her, she knows. She watches as Carter walks over and deletes them all without listening, and that's when she knows it's worse than she thinks. Because if it was her she would've done the same thing, but it's not her. It's Carter, and he's a different animal entirely. An optimist. Makes lemons into lemonade, and she's all about the vodka tonics. The Carter she knew would've gone through all eight messages, hoping to hear Kem's voice. Kem's apology. Kem's goodbye. Something. Anything.

But that Carter she knew is gone, buried in a hole far too large for the body that rests in it but not nearly large enough for the dreams that died in it.

Unexpectedly, he takes a hold of her wrist, holds it up to his face in a fit of lucidity, or maybe drunkenness. It's oddly romantic, like kissing under street lamps, or flowers (dead ones, in her case). Vaguely, she thinks he must miss Kem. Very, very much.

"What happened to you?" he asks.

"One of my patients bit me," she says.

He chuckles, then drops her hand. He's not as drunk as she originally thought when she saw him silhouetted against his foyer. In fact he seems sort of steady as he flips on a switch and begins to heat up some leftovers. Enough for the both of them, she's glad to see, because that means he'll eat. Then she realizes it's not because he's hungry but because he's used to cooking for two.

She blinks, comes to in the yellow of the light. There's a stack of wallpaper samples on the kitchen table, all dreamy pastels, edges curling with the humidity. A faint layer of dust tells her that they haven't been moved in awhile. Children are symbols, and some symbols don't stop meaning things even after they're dead.

Absently, her hand brushes against the orphaned scraps.

"Leave it." His voice comes out at her, unnaturally sharp. His back is turned to her but she can tell from the way his shoulders are set that he's tense, in pain. So, with all the entitlements of their history, she puts a hand on his arm and wills him not to cry. It's not that hard; he's dead inside already, and the dead do not grieve for themselves.

---

In all the time Carter's known Abby he's never known how old she is, or even her birthday. So he's a little surprised when the day comes that there's a cake waiting at the front desk that says "Happy Birthday Abby" in bright blue frosting.

He looks at her and says, somewhat apologetically, "I didn't know it was your birthday."

She looks at him back, matching confusion mirrored on her face. "It's not."

She manages to snatch the accompanying card before it can implicate the perpetrator then joins him in watching the ER swoop down upon the cake like scavengers descending upon their prey. Frank, in particular, is unforgiving. It reminds her of watching hyenas on the Discovery Channel.

"Greg?" Carter reads over her shoulder. "Who's Greg?" he asks.

"Oh," she says, vaguely, as she folds the card out of sight, "You know."

"What, you and Pratt?"

That earns him a scowl. "God, no."

Carter hides a smile. "It's not your birthday."

The scowl disappears, and she shrugs casually, elegantly. "Greg's a funny guy."

Funny, maybe, but Carter's not laughing. He was at her place fixing a sink—didn't bother to ask why she didn't go to her landlord, knew and appreciated the fact that she just wanted to get him out of the mansion from time to time ever since she found him at the bottom of a bottle—when he first spied the flowers sitting on her window sill. Very potted, very much alive. Very much "from Greg, with love" (love?). At the time he had snickered to himself, certain that Greg and his flowers were one step away from a compost heap. But when he came back to put in a shelf a week later, they were still there--in fact, they had multiplied, like rabbits. Disgusting.

The days are hot, humid, distinctly and unbearably Chicago, and the cake, which is ice cream, goes fast, faster than it can melt, though Carter refrains from taking a slice (no thanks, Greg) and Abby doesn't, either. But it's summertime, and she is tanning beyond all belief, and freckling, just a little, right over her nose. He notices these things because they spend time together. Not a whole lot, but enough. It reminds him of first getting to know her, way back when her hair was short and his nightmares were lit with the edge of blades, before he fell in love with her, before everything went to shit. Now her hair's waterfall-long and his nightmares are as dark as Kem's eyes, Kem's skin, but everything's still shit.

But enough has changed, and spending time with Abby is like getting to know a new person you know you will like. For one thing, they have more in common, in a good way and in a bad. They're both doctors. Not that her being a nurse was ever a problem but her being a doctor is like an added bonus. They complain about the same things, about the meetings they have to go to, the conferences, talk to each other about the papers they have to present. He's got more seniority but she's got just as much experience from spending more time with her patients as a nurse, and from really getting inside illness in a way he knows her family trained her to do. She's stubborn, a pain in the ass sometimes, but she also has an oddly empathetic streak that, try as she might, she can't hide. The softer side of Abby, he likes to call it, and he likes that he's seen it.

Like the day she was there to see him clear his kitchen table, begin to put his life in order, and when he caught her looking at him it was with a question in her eyes.

"I thought it was time," he answered.

She had said nothing in return, but there was something, some kind of indefinable longing, in that silence. Then he remembered: she had a dead child, too.

Mostly, things are different now. Very different, from the madness that runs in Eric's blood and now runs his life, to the appallingly small number of people Carter has left to call with news, either good or bad. His past disappeared with his grandparents, his future with Kem and their child, and sometimes, less frequently but not less painfully, he feels like he's living with one foot in a grave.

But then she reminds him there's another foot, and it keeps him grounded. It's crowded, their relationship, with enough baggage to hold a Samsonite liquidation sale. But it's theirs, hers, his, and it's something to hold on to.

Besides, when things get bad, unbearably so, he can always count on Abby to call him, because she's purposely clogged her drain again.

---

"Luka and Sam are getting married."

Started, Carter stops, his hand and the pitcher attached to it frozen in air over the flowers lined up on the windowsill. He's watering her plants not because she asked him to but because he wants to, like he's over at her place because he wants to be and she's finally given up the pretense of calling him as if he were the handyman. "Really?"

Abby is sitting at her kitchen table and going through her mail, letter opener in one hand and a nothing of a cigarette in the other. A bit of a fire hazard, but she's being careful and Carter doesn't seem to care too much. What a difference a year makes. Though she supposes most of it has to do with the fact that if he said something he'd probably be the mother of all hypocrites and she'd probably kick his ass. Probably.

She takes one last drag off her cigarette before putting it out of its misery. The piece of paper in her hand is thick and creamy. Obviously very expensive and definitely Luka's idea, Abby's sure. Sam would never go for it. Besides, Luka is enough of a romantic to want to give her everything she never had with that jackass of a first husband, including a real wedding. In addition to the fact that sometime after she broke up with him (he broke up with her? they broke up with each other?), he acquired a real love of stuff. Like his Playstation, fish tank, and sportscar. Oh, that Luka, becoming American before their very eyes.

"Uh huh," Abby says, breaking her own train of thought as she finishes scanning the invite. "And we're invited."

"We?" Carter says, and she looks up to find him looking at her, curiosity and something else kindling in his eyes. She's alarmed to find that he's looking at her like that more and more these days. But he keeps his voice light. "Is that what it says on the invitation?"

"Well, I'm invited," she clarifies, reaching for her cigarettes and, damn, empty pack. "And I imagine you are, too, if you'd check your mail instead of using it to line your bird cage."

Carter rolls his eyes. "I don't have a bird cage." Then he does something uncharacteristically Carter and sticks his tongue out at her.

She finds him doing things like that these days, weird things, in this, his "old age" as he jokingly calls it. It's true, he's beginning to gray, just a little, at the temples, tiny hairs the color of doves' feathers showing in his nut-brown hair, but it's more a condition of mind than body if you ask her. Too much grief, too much loss and loneliness, is enough to age anybody, even a doctor, single, young, and capable, especially a doctor, human and fallible. Anyway, she's older than him, not by much but enough to know better, enough to know that he is far from old and older than the trees all at the same time. She knows he knows it, too, but he falls into his random fits of levity and he thinks it funny all the same. She's never known him to be so goofy, before.

Later, in the hot, yellow sunshine, he offers to buy her an ice cream from a man in a multicolored truck. She declines, so he buys one for himself. They sit together on her stoop, he with his cone and she with her cigarette. She watches as the ice cream drizzles down his fingers, watches as he sucks on his wrists and knuckles, and knows that these days are fast coming to an end, knows that the autumn will bring about a certain set of changes that she can neither stop nor predict. She can feel it in her bones. But she doesn't quite know how she feels about that.

---

Her hair is brown, again, changing leaf-like with the seasons, but it's an Indian summer and he's left all the windows of the mansion open because the air conditioning unit has chosen this day of all days to break down, and because he's sent all of the hired help home early, like he does most days, now.

Carter asks her about it, but she gives one of her typically non-committal responses, like when he teases her about Greg, who has moved on from flowers to funny things, random things, like balloon animals. It's funny, because most people end the summer with hair like butter, moon-bleached and sun-streaked. It's funny, because most people would dump balloon animal guy out of exasperation or fall for him out of fascination. But Abby, Abby keeps her hair dark and says little to nothing about Greg.

Abby, of course, has never been most people.

Carter has picked up gardening, of all projects, and that's how Abby finds him when she wanders over to his place one late afternoon, shovel in hand and dirt smeared on his cheeks. He supposes he has Greg to thank for the inspiration; though somewhere along the way he also tired of stopping by the florist en route to the cemetery every week and wanted to grow mementos of his own. And because he has no patience with seeds, and not enough patience to wait until next spring, he has bought a round of potted roses and he has begun to dig holes.

"Isn't it a little late to be planting rose bushes?" Abby calls out from under the safety of the canopy.

The sky is going purple at the edges and it looks like it's going to storm, soon. A few drops of rain hiss on the pebbled walkway. Carter wipes at his face. "Maybe."

Abby just rolls her eyes, folds her arms across her chest and shakes her head. Most moments are like this, exactly like this—easy, comfortable, weightless, tied to neither yesterday nor tomorrow. A few are not. Moments like when he runs his hand through his hair and realizes that this is what his son's hair might have felt like. Moments like when he catches himself staring at Abby in a way that is nothing like the way he used to stare at Kem--she, a fever dream, and he, sick with love. No, looking at Abby is like looking into a mirror, and in her he sees himself past, present, and future, or into a glass, and he can see through her and his self reflected in her, all at the same time. Moments like these were few and far in between, but now they happen more frequently and he is sure he is not the only one who feels it.

"Don't you think you should do this some other time?" Abby half-whines. A clap of thunder sounds and she gives him a look as if to say, see what I mean?

Carter ignores her; a little rain never hurt anybody and, besides, he tells himself, she can't possibly understand why he needs to do this, has never had to bury as many people as he has, doesn't have to live life as if she's already got one foot in the grave—

But as he is furiously driving the shovel into the earth, dirt flying, he knows that he is wrong, that she does understand, more than he thinks she does, maybe even more than he thinks he knows himself, because she, too, lost someone she loved, loses someone everyday, to death and to disease, and she, too, is scared, and if she wasn't then she wouldn't be here with him, beside him, in the rain, in his arms, breaking his fall as he comes down on his knees by the hole he has made, which is just a little larger than a small grave.

The air is full of electricity, and all around him the fireflies blink incandescent. Then the rain, and then the tears, begin to blot them out.

"We've all cried. Sometimes it's the only thing we can do."

---

As the days grow shorter, the air colder, sharp and cutting like knives, like the stars, Abby smiles more, laughs often, and thinks, I can't, I can't do this again.

They can't do this again. They can't go down this road again because they know where it ends. All summer long she told herself she'd stop things before they got too serious, before either of them got hurt, but that was unrealistic, impossible, stupid. She's stupid. You can't not get serious and you can't not get hurt when you're in love with someone.

And Carter is in love with her. He doesn't know it yet but she does. She sees it in him, in the way he looks at her, in the way he touches her, and it's only a matter of time before he knows it too. It was there, all summer, the knowledge of his falling in love with her hovering over her like a specter. And if she wants to be truthful she has to admit that she's liked it, a little bit, liked the attention and the flattery, the same way she liked it the first time it happened, once upon a time ago. But she can't admit it to herself, can't believe in it, in them, because it's too easy, too familiar, because she fears she's the rebound girl, because she knows how this story goes and she knows one day it ends, and not with a happily ever after, because he's falling in love with her for all the wrong reasons, because she doesn't want to be there the day he wakes up, realizes what he's doing, and leaves her, maybe not for Africa but for some place, or someone, else, because she's not who he thinks she is, can't be the quick fix solution to a problem only time can solve. She has too much pride, and she's damaged enough already.

It's November, a clear, dampish November night, and she's lost her tan, she's the color of the harvest moon that hangs big and round in the sky. The dusk is blue on her skin, like a bruise, and she's wearing lipstick again, but only because they're on their way back from the wedding, Sam and Luka's wedding, and few things are as odd as watching your former lover swap vows with someone some might say is your spitting image: smart, stubborn, and tough as nails. Like looking into a past life, or a possible life. One of many. Maybe that's why she accepted Carter's invitation back to his place, even though she's working tomorrow, even though she's got an early shift. Or maybe it's something else entirely.

Maybe she's afraid.

He's saying something to her, something that might make her laugh if she were listening, because he likes to make her laugh, these days, he likes to do that for her, almost the same way she keeps him from falling. Almost. Not quite, because she does it whether she likes it or not, holds him in the rain as he bends over in grief whether she likes it or not, stays with him to make sure he can make it through some nights whether she likes it or not, can't figure out whether she likes it or not, though she knows whether she loves him or not.

"Abby? Are you there?"

"What? Yeah." Barely. They're at his door, the driver having dropped them off and been dismissed for the night and the next day, like Carter is in the habit of doing. In many ways he's trimmed the fat from his life as much as possible, except for the fact he still lives in a mansion. Which won't be for long, he's explained, as it's scheduled to be renovated and handed over to the Foundation within the next year. She has a feeling he'll be taking little with him when he moves out, and on, save for the clothes on his back and his rose bushes, which are still in their pots, which is where they'll be weathering the winter.

"Are you going to come in?" he asks, giving her an odd look as she stands on his threshold.

Maybe. Eventually. Yes. "Coming," she says, obediently. "I'm coming."

He gives her another odd look but lets her follow him into the kitchen without explaining herself. She helps herself to a glass of water as he hits Play on the answering machine and begins to sift through his mail. One of a handful of signs that things are getting better, at last.

"Bill, bill, bill, bill, request for a charitable donation, I get the feeling that it's not me anybody wants, it's my money," Carter says, only half-seriously.

"Well, that's why I keep you around."

"Gold digger."

"Hey, I like to call our friendship an investment."

He looks up at her and grins, over a handful of leaflets he's junking. "Oh, is that what we're calling it nowadays?"

"What, you got a problem with me calling this an investment?" she teases.

"No," Carter says, and suddenly he's serious, very serious, and her heart leaps up into her throat. "With calling this a friendship."

A profoundly uncomfortable moment passes in which her heart is thumping on all the wrong beats and her next words are turning on a dime. But she never gets a chance to know what she might have said or what she might have done because in that moment, in that exact moment, the answering machine, that damn answering machine, comes to the last message, and from the static and the white noise in the background it sounds like someone's called from long distance, and then she knows for a fact that someone has, because the voice that comes out over the speaker phone comes to them from an ocean away but still manages to drown her out and flood him with memories.

It's Kem, and as Abby sees the look on his face she thinks, if I don't tell you I love you it's because we started like this.

---

For days Carter passes through a troubled coma. Passes the time, only because he is living another life, one in which he is a husband and a father. He's never celebrated an anniversary before but in his dreams he grows old with her; he's never known what it's like to hold his child but when he sleeps he never lets go of his son.

He knows that memory can play funny tricks on the mind; make things sweeter than they really were, truer than they had any right to be. He knows that dreams aren't enough; not on their own, not without people to dream them with you. But he still misses Kem. Loves her. So he leaves the message on the machine, listens to it from time to time, wonders if it's only in his imagination that he can hear the distant roar of an ocean in her voice.

He wears the tape thin, but takes care not to let it break. After all, he will have to erase it one day.

It's slow, excruciating, like the curl of wallpaper, but he knows it will happen: one day his fever will break, and he will see things for what they are. And on that day he will move out of the mansion, out of the place he called home for so long, and, as Abby already knows, he will carry little with him except a few personal possessions, the few things that matter. He'll spend the cab ride to his new home gazing out the window and out at the wintry Chicago landscape: it'll look like it's going to be ice and snow forever, but he'll know better. He'll know that spring isn't too far off, that the seasons will change along with Abby's hair. And, even in the middle of winter, that there are still things that are alive and that are real, as alive as the pot of roses in his lap, as real as the smile that will break like sunrise across her face when he shows up at her door with a birthday gift. He'll know, because she's one of these things, Abby, his Abby, has been and always will be.

And, one day, so is he.