A million apologies to everyone who's been waiting so long for an update! I know I promised it much sooner, but you wouldn't believe the technical difficulties that have been wreaking havoc on my poor computer. I hope you're all still interested in the story, and I hope you remember to leave me your final thoughts on it. Enjoy!
… Slowdance On The Inside
This glass house is burning down;
You light the match, I'll stick around.
The first clue that something was desperately wrong was the house itself. It was lit up like a Christmas tree, every window pouring forth a yellow glow that blazed like a warning flare against the midnight sky.
"Looks like everyone's still awake," Sean commented, accelerating ever so slightly. He knew that, after years of working three jobs to maintain a delicate balance between her debt and her savings, Spike hadn't been financially stable long enough to condone all that electricity being wasted.
"Looks like," Emma echoed. Following Sean's train of thought, she was fidgeting with the door handle before he'd even pulled into the drive. "Um, thanks for tonight, Sean. I'll … I'll call you later."
"Em, wait a sec." He scrambled to unlock his seatbelt and join her on the sidewalk. "I'll walk you to the door."
She could have refused. The words danced on the tip of her tongue before she swallowed them along with her pride. She could be independent and still be holding his hand as she faced whatever lay in wait across the threshold.
Sean had a similar reason for his act of chivalry. There wasn't much left that could happen to Emma in terms of personal tragedy, but just in case something was wrong, he wanted to be with her. She could handle herself, he knew, but he didn't want her to ever have to.
"Mom? Snake?" Giving the door a gentle push, Emma stepped inside uncertainly, as if she wasn't exactly sure she belonged there. "Anyone home?"
Caitlyn rushed out of the kitchen, the phone pressed to her ear and Jack wailing in her arms. "Em, thank God! I've been trying to call you for half an hour!"
"I … turned off my phone," Emma explained faintly, exchanging a nervous glance with Sean. "What happened? Where's my Mom?"
"Oh, Emma." Caitlyn set the phone down so that her free hand could hover comfortingly over Emma's shoulder. Sean braced himself for the worst, steadying Emma in case the news was as bad as he was expecting. "Something happened with your dad."
Emma was already shaking her head. "No, that can't be right," she argued. "He was fine earlier, better than ever!"
"I know, honey," Caitlyn soothed, "But he collapsed during dinner. They had to take him to the hospital for tests. Your Mom's with him, I can take you if –"
"I'll take her," Sean interrupted. He tightened his grip on Emma's hand, anchoring her to reality. "You stay with Jack, Caitlyn. I'll make sure she gets there safely."
"Great," Caitlyn said sincerely. "I'm gonna call Joey, let him know what's going on, and maybe if Craig's around to watch Jack we'll see you up there. Okay? Em? How's that sound?"
Emma was still in a daze. The only thing that made any sense to her was Sean's hand; warm and rough and undoubtedly real. She heard herself agree to the plan as if from a great distance, then allowed Sean to propel her out the door and into the biting night air.
Sean, noting the way her spine stiffened and her jaw clenched to prevent her teeth from chattering, secured his jean jacket around her shoulders and led her to the car. His mind was racing, his adrenaline pumping with a mixture of fear and anxiety. Emma had shut herself down, and he didn't know how to reach her when she was buried so deep inside herself.
There was nothing he could do to help, besides play chauffeur and hope for the best. So he focused his concentration on the road and pored all of his heart into hoping.
If Spike hadn't looked up at the exact moment she did, both Emma and Sean would have passed her by without a second glance. The woman slumped in the corner of the waiting room could not possibly be the woman at the core of the Nelson family support system. This woman was slouched so far down in her chair that she was almost on the floor, her shoulders hunched up around her chin, her head down in a position of utter defeat.
"I don't see her," Sean began to tell Emma, just as Spike's gaze landed on them. She stood, calling out her daughter's name, and Emma hurried to give her a tearful hug.
"Oh, Em, I'm so glad you made it. I tried to call, but the EMTs said we had to go and … oh, I'm a mess." Spike rubbed her eyes tiredly and, giving up any hope of holding herself together, told the truth. "The doctors aren't sure if he'll wake up, Em. It's about a fifty-fifty chance right now."
"That's not too bad," Sean tried, but Spike's sad eyes told him it wasn't that good, either. "Can he have visitors?"
Spike's eyes cut to Emma's silent form. "He's unconscious, but yes, if you want to go in, you can."
She means youEmma instructed herself silently. Just suck it up and get it over with. You're a big girl, you can handle it.
But what if I can't?
Oh, boo-hoo. Honestly! You're not the one with the health problems, now, are you? You can do whatever you want to. So get your ass in gear and go see your father.
Her father. That's what Snake had become in the past year. The kind of man she could look up to and talk with and confide in. The father she'd always wanted – and needed – in her life. After the shooting, it had been Snake who comforted her, who gave her warm hugs and kind words in the middle of the night. Before that, he had been the one to side with her against Spike in household matters, to arrange for her to have weekends free from baby-sitting, to have given Sean a second chance after he stole the laptop.
"I need to see him," Emma said firmly. Both her mother and Sean started. She had been eerily silent since Caitlyn had first broken the news. As they stared at her, she lifted her chin challengingly. "You said he can have visitors, right? Well, I want in."
"Of course you can see him, honey," Spike jumped to assure her. "Go right in. The doctors say he can hear us so …" she trailed off, unsure of how to finish.
"Want me to come in with you?" Sean offered.
Emma turned to face him, a small smile trembling on her lips. "No. No, I need to do this alone. But thank you. For everything."
Spike waited until the door had closed behind her daughter before breathing out a sigh of relief. "I was so afraid she wouldn't see him. Thank you, Sean, for bringing her." She met his gaze steadily. "And for being here for her."
She was referring to more than just his actions tonight, they both knew. He had saved Emma's life once and Spike had never gotten the chance to say what that meant to her. She looked at him now, really looked at him, and knew that he would do it again, jump in front of bullets and speeding trains and a fathers illness every day, for Emma's sake.
"You really love her, don't you?"
For a moment, Sean was taken aback, unsure of how to go about professing his love of Emma to her mother. How did a teenaged boy tell an adult that her daughter was the end-all, be-all of his existence, that the sun rose and set on her smile and that his heart fluttered every time she tilted her head to the side while concentrating deeply? How did he communicate all that emotion into words someone else would understand?
"Yeah," was what he settled on after a long moment of internal debate. "Yeah, I really do."
Brilliant, Sean, he mentally applauded his lackluster delivery. Way to win her over.
Fortunately for him, it was exactly the right thing to say. Spike seemed to melt before his eyes, the tension seeping from her body, her worried expression softening to one of acceptance. "Then hold on to her, okay? No matter what happens tonight, or tomorrow, or ten years from now. Understand?"
Looking at her, still hopeful even after all the trauma she'd suffered, still standing after being knocked down countless times, he truly did.
Snake looked smaller in the hospital bed, a shrunken, shriveled version of the large, boisterous presence he'd been in their house. His eyes were closed, his face pale, his chest rising and falling in slow, painful gasps. Emma took a moment to collect her thoughts before taking a seat and beginning.
"I hope you can hear me," she told him honestly. "Because when you get better, I'm going to deny having said any of this. Okay?"
Another deep breath, another few seconds, and she was ready. "I think you saved our lives, Snake. Mom and me, I mean. We were doing all right when you came along, but just all right. We're survivors, but surviving isn't living. I guess you'd know about that better than anyone else.
"Anyway. You brought us to life. Mom, definitely. I've never heard her laugh with anyone how she laughs with you. She's so much better with you around, so much happier." Emma wanted nothing more than that smile back on her mother's face, lighting up rooms and hearts with its sincerity. "And me. Well, you know I hate admitting that I need help, but you always gave it anyways, mostly so that I didn't even know what you were doing. You were sneaky."
Are, she reminded herself. Present tense, remember? He's not gone.
Yet, another little part of her answered back smugly.
"Are sneaky," Emma clarified, almost laughing at the dozens of little wars being waged inside her. She wanted to go crazy and run in every direction at once, she wanted to curl up in a corner and cry. She wanted to scream, she didn't want to speak for the next two months. She had no idea what to do with herself. But looking at Snake, seeing him laid out in front of her still breathing, still alive, gave her a kind of hope she hadn't felt since watching Sean fade away in the rearview mirror that day in Wasaga.
She sniffled, fighting back the tears that threatened to overtake her. "So whatever happens next, I just want you to hear this … thank you, Dad." She stressed the word, liking how it rolled off her tongue, how it fit. "For being the person you are, and for helping me be the person you knew I could be all along. I love you."
Crying openly now, she lay her head on his chest and listened to his heart beat as the monitor continued to beep steadily.
Sean returned from the hospital cafeteria bearing a bag of potato chips and two cans of Orange Slice, which he knew through Emma was the preferred drink of the Nelson women. He offered his findings to Spike and looked around anxiously.
"She already came out," Spike told him, popping the tab and pouring the warm, sticky liquid down her throat. "She said she was going to find you, but I think she might've made a stop in the chapel first."
"Oh." Sean had no idea what to do with himself. Should he find Emma and see how she was holding up, or was it wrong to leave Spike by herself? What was the proper etiquette when holding a vigil with you girlfriend's mother?
Spike seemed to sense his uncertainty and smiled, albeit tiredly, up at him. "You should go see her, Sean. I'll be fine. Caitlyn just called and she and Joey are on their way, so, really." She jerked her chin, gesturing for him to get moving. "Go."
"I'm going, I'm going," he fake-grumbled, setting the last soda down on the table beside her. "Hey, Spike?"
"Mr. Simpson's the strongest guy I know." Averting his eyes embarrassedly, Sean shrugged. "Just … I'd bet money on him pulling through."
Spike nodded, ducking her head so the boy wouldn't see her tearing up again. Taking that as his cue, Sean left the waiting room and went where he'd been heading since Grade Seven – to Emma.
The chapel was small and quiet, empty but for the lone figure kneeling in its front pew, her blond head bowed in prayer or mourning. It made Sean nervous that he couldn't tell which from his vantage point at the room's entrance.
"Em?" he spoke softly when he reached her, as everyone was trained to do in such situations. "How was he?"
She lifted her head and he was relieved to see that, though her cheeks were tear-stained, her eyes were dry and her expression somewhat calm. "Still not awake," she answered, patting the bench beside her in invitation. He sat and she stood, moving towards the altar of flickering candles. "So no real change."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm lighting a candle," she said, doing so. "For my father."
He was silent for a while, unsure of how to proceed as she gave life to the wick and studied its small bulb of heat. "Everything's gonna be okay, Em," he said slowly. "You know that, right?"
He waited, somewhat nervously, for a response. Finally, she turned to him and held out her hand. "It doesn't have to be," she replied as their fingers knotted together in a familiar fashion. "I get that now. It doesn't all have to be perfect … as long as this is."
Overwhelmed with love for her, he could do nothing but smile dumbly as her thumb brushed gently across his knuckles. And Emma, this Emma in front of him that was both old and new, smiled back at him. A real smile, one that reached her eyes and made them sparkle, one that lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders and filled him with hope – for her, for them, for their future.
They could deal with anything life threw their way, Sean knew. With her in his corner and him at her back, nothing would stop them. He knew she knew it now too, in the way she touched his face gently before pulling him in for a kiss that sealed the deal.
Life would happen. They would survive. Together.