This is meant to be a portrait, a glimpse of a family on the eve of an immense tragedy. A look is taken at each one of them individually: Mark has been left out of this, because I feel his point of view is slightly overdone, and Benny has also been left out because I don't like him.
There was a pause.
"Didn't you hear me? I said I know. You don't have to keep repeating yourself."
"Mmm-hmm. Yeah. That's what I heard, too."
A beat of silence.
"Sounds like the best plan. Uh-huh. Just have the files on my desk tomorrow morning."
"Yeah. We're okay."
Joanne kicked open the door to her apartment, briefcase and purse jockeying against each other in one hand, cell phone cradled in the other, tongue clenched between her teeth in intense concentration. The toe of one boot caught in the thick carpet and she stumbled, cursing silently, as the light dusting of snow that had coated her briefcase fell onto the dark threads. "Stupid –" she muttered under her breath, tossing both purse and briefcase onto a chair and brushing off her shoulders with her free hand.
"No, not you, Frank," she said hurriedly into the phone. "Just tripped – no, like I said, we're okay. Just let me –" she lifted her shoulder, holding the cell phone pressed against her cheek, while she hauled the briefcase onto a nearby table and popped it open, riffling through it with both hands. "I have it right here –"
She straightened up for a moment, an expression of faint surprise creeping over her face. "Uh-huh. Hold on a minute, Frank. I've got another call." She snapped the briefcase closed, jabbing a few buttons on the cell phone with clumsy fingers before lifting it back to her ear. "Hello?"
The surprise that colored her expression changed into an irritated scowl. "It's me. You called my cell, who else do you think would answer?"
She paused, peeling off her gloves and tossing them to land on top of her purse in a chair propped against the wall. "Uh-huh. I know you've been dealing with other people's secretaries all day. So I guess you've gotten used to asking for the people you're calling? Yeah. Sure. Whatever. Look, it's no big deal, so can we move onto something else now, please!"
Another pause, this time as she kicked off one of her muddy boots. "I'm sorry for speaking to you in that tone," she said mockingly, with a hint of acidic sarcasm in her voice. "I've had a long day too."
She made a face at the other person's reply. "Uh huh. Yes, I value my job. No, I don't enjoy torturing you." She made a ridiculously low bow, sticking out her tongue at the person on the other end of the line, even though they clearly couldn't see her. "How may I be of service?"
She straightened up, crossing her arms across her chest, tapping her booted foot against the floor impatiently. She had completely forgotten to finish ridding herself of her snow-laden shoes, her entire mind now focused on the conversation at hand. "Uh huh. He called you back, finally? Thank God, I've been pestering him all week. And what did he say?" Her hand crept to her pocket, and she drew out the pen she always carried with her, lifting it to her mouth and gnawing slightly on the end, a nervous habit she had picked up in law school. "A meeting! What the hell does he need a meeting for? I've explained it to his moron of a secretary a hundred times!" She let out a defeated sigh, holding the cell phone a little ways away from her ear as an explosion of tinny rage burst through the earpiece. "All right, all right, he can have his stupid meeting!" she shouted at it. "When does he want it?"
The pen dropped from her mouth, and she immediately shoved her free hand into her pocket, worrying and pulling at the loose threads that sprouted along the seam. Her expression had plummeted from irritation into mild horror; her heart turned cold and dropped into her stomach. She felt as if she was going to be sick.
"I can't," she said weakly, leaning against the wall. "Not tomorrow… tell him I can do it any day he wants, any day at all, just now tomorrow. Please, not tomorrow." She closed her eyes with a pained grimace as the voice at the other end of the line exploded into tinny protests. "Yes, I know he's our most important client," she snapped, strain evident in her voice. "I know he has the biggest account on record. I know this meeting might affect my entire career. But –" her voice took on an element of steel that was completely foreign to the pacifist lawyer, "– I can't kiss his ass tomorrow!"
Her expression had flashed momentarily into the most violent of rage, but now faded back into exhausted pain once again. "Why not?" she echoed woodenly, adding a slight mocking motion of the hands, the most vicious revenge she could manage at the moment. "I have another engagement, that's why not."
She listened with trepidation to the unfettered raving from the other end of the line. "I know, dammit," she said wearily. "But I –"
Her tormentor exploded again, and this time she grew livid in return. "Yes, it is more important than this damn meeting! Do you think I would bring it up if it wasn't? I have to –" All the anger drained out of her, and she grew suddenly pale, swallowing nervously. "I have to –"
I have to go the Life Café, her inner voice continued, echoing with painful rhythm in her mind. I have to go and sit at a table in the back and wait for the rest of them to get there, because they'll be late. I have to sit and stare at the door with Maureen for an hour before they come in.
"I have to –"
I have to stand up when Mimi comes in, even though she won't let me help her, the internal litany continued. I have to laugh and make small talk and not stop when Mimi starts to cough. I have to notice how thin and pale she is, then watch her not eat and never stop smiling. I have to not notice her and Roger's whispered arguments and the tears in his eyes when they're over.
"I can't go tomorrow. I have to –"
I have to not notice how still Roger sits because he's the only thing keeping her from falling over, and how heavily she leans on him even though she tries to hide it. I have to touch her hand if Roger ever lets it go, and notice how cold it is. I have to tell her how much she means to me before the waiters take away our drinks because God knows I might never get another chance.
Her mouth moved silently, but she could not speak, could not tell the cold, impersonal voice on the other end of the line what she was thinking. She could not explain to the metal gleaming cell phone that she had to suffer the exquisite pain of clinging to a fading friend. She could not make the speaker understand that this agony was more important than money or her career or the happiness of her spoiled clients. She knew that it would not understand.
"It won't be easy to reschedule this meeting," the metallic voice whispered tinnily from the cell phone into the golden, well-lit warmth of the apartment. "You'd better be doing something damn important, Jefferson, or I swear you'll lose your job!"
Joanne's mouth moved, but no sound emerged.
Her mind ran uselessly through all of the work-acceptable excuses, comparing each one to the image of Mimi's pale face and dark-ringed eyes as she last remembered them, and finding nothing that even remotely compared. She looked for the words to explain the sight of a face so thin that the sweet smile seemed too wide for the sunken-in cheeks, but could not find them.
There was one excuse that would be accepted without question, that would incite some measure of sympathy for her pain, that held an agony close to that which she was going to face. But she shuddered as it passed her lips, because she hated to put that label on what she was going to do.
"I – I have to go to – I have a funeral tomorrow."
There was a moment of electric silence, then the voice she had been wrangling with muttered an insincere "I'm sorry" and cut the connection. Joanne let the cell phone fall to the carpet, dreading the steady monotone that droned in her ear, and crossed into the next room, sitting down on the bed and burying her face in her hands.
"Dear God," she whispered fearfully, images of caskets and thin white hands drifting together in her mind, "What have I done?"
He snapped himself out of a light doze, every muscle in his body tightening in response to the faint whisper that had jerked him so violently out of sleep. The world came crashing in on him in a matter of seconds; he felt, all at once, a dull pain in his neck and shoulders, an ache in the leg that was trapped underneath him, and the needle-jabbing of freezing air in his throat as he sucked in a startled breath.
"Yeah?" he was awake, he was fighting past the slight fog that seemed to obscure his thoughts, he blinked furiously to clear his eyes of the slight haze of tears. He tightened his fingers; he knew there was another hand in his, but it was just as cold as the December night and he could not feel it.
He looked up, frantically, waiting for his eyes to pierce the darkness, searching frantically for the pale face that seemed to glow almost with a light of its own in the gloom. He lifted his free hand, furiously dragging his sleeve across his eyes, and blinked again, finding himself faced with a small, pained smile, a pair of dark eyes that stared into the very depths of his soul.
"You were crying…" Mimi whispered hoarsely, and he felt a cold touch on his cheek, as weak as the breath of a passing breeze. His entire soul flooded by fear, Roger twisted himself out of where he sat, propped up against the fading sofa in the center of the loft, instead turning so that he knelt in front of it. He reached up to his own face, breathing heavily, capturing her free hand with his and gently pushing it back until it rested against her side once again.
"It's nothing," he answered, his voice hoarse as well. Mimi lay stretched out on the loft's sofa, flooded by the frigid ice-cold radiance of the moonlight that poured in through the wide window. She lay under every ratty blanket that Roger and his roommate owned; nevertheless, the cruel lighting of the moon managed to reveal how ghostly thin she was under the layers of faded fabric. Roger felt the entire night like a thing sharp as needles and knives; he waved his hand through a beam of moonlight, looking at it with childish wonder when it did not bleed.
He narrowed his entire universe to Mimi's face, to the eyes made even brighter by the deep shadows underneath them, to the sallow skin that gleamed with sweat in the starlight. He breathed heavily, lifting a hand to brush away a stray lock of hair that lay across her forehead, strikingly dark now that she had grown so pale.
"You've got a fever," he whispered fearfully, his eyes flickering back and forth, searching her peaceful expression for something and failing to find it. "How are you feeling?"
She didn't answer for a long time. Instead, she slipped her hand into his, clutching his fingers with a weak grip that struck him like a blow. He twined his fingers into hers, stroking her palm with his thumb, his anxious eyes never leaving her face.
"I love you," she said simply, turning her head as the words turned into a wracking cough. Roger started, half-rose, and placed a hand on her shoulder, hovering helplessly over her as the coughing eased, leaving her weak and trembling in the cold darkness.
"I love you too," he muttered fiercely, staring up at the moon and hating it with every fiber of his being. "I love you too."
They stayed like that for some time, hands twined together, Roger kneeling beside her, his eyes fixed on the starry winter sky for fear of looking down at her face and loosing the tears he had been desperately trying to contain. His chest rose and fell frantically as he struggled to breathe, feeling as though the night air was a physical thing, was a dark smoke that wrapped around his heart and suffocated him, constricting around his throat and not allowing him to breathe.
He opened his mouth, making a monumental effort to calm his racing heart, to breathe at a normal rate, to ignore the feeling of growing cold that enveloped his heart. He allowed himself to sink back down onto the floor, daring to look into Mimi's loving eyes again, reaching up to cup her face in his free hand. "Go back to sleep," he whispered hoarsely. "We've got to meet the others at the Life tomorrow, remember? You need to get some rest." He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead, gently, his lips barely grazing the sweaty skin.
"I love you," she said again, the words slurring together as her eyes drifted close and she slipped into sleep. It seemed like all she had been saying lately; to him, to Mark, to anyone who crossed her path, she seemed determined to make sure they all knew of her love before she left.
The thought of that leaving filled Roger with a nameless fear, a terror that moved to clench his mind and heart in piercing claws even as he whispered back "I love you, too," a response that had become wooden and habitual from days of saying it in response to her constant half-conscious mutterings. He stared at her sleeping face for a moment, listening to her harsh breathing in the cold silence, and something inside of him burst; a wild white hysteria thrilled through him, his heartbeat pounded like thunder in his ears, the moonlight was in his veins and it burned like ivory fire!
He dropped her hand as though it had scorched him, shoving himself across the floor away from the sofa with a sudden, violent burst of emotion. He was on his feet, pacing back and forth across the dusty loft – always careful, mostly out of habit, to step quietly so as not to wake Mimi.
Looking at her made the burning in his chest more painful, made the fog of exhaustion in his brain catch fire, so he swept around the edge of the sofa where he could no longer see her. Still, even that didn't help – he felt as though he were drowning, but no, it was too hot for that – drowning in burning oil, perhaps, or something like that anyway – he felt as if the whole world was closing in on him, pressing down around him from all sides and staring at him with a wild beast's eyes, and Time had become a tangible thing, an enemy, a vicious animal that tore Mimi away from him, bit by bit, slicing her apart with its leisurely claws, and he could feel its hot breath on the back of his neck.
He did the only thing he could have done – he bolted for the fire escape, burst out into the open night air with all the fury of a drowning man breaking the surface of the water. He charged right out to the edge, throwing out his hands, bringing himself to a brutal halt against the railing, pressing his hands into the cold metal because it felt good, it felt sharp and that was a welcome relief from the softness of Mimi's skin. He threw his head back and stared breathlessly at the sky, and a maniac howl built up within him, the wail of an animal tortured to the last of its endurance, of a thing less than human that has been put through more pain than it can bear.
He opened his mouth to shout his fury to the skies, but before he could make a sound the cold of the night air invaded his lungs, and it made him think of a familiar nightmare, of a future dark and cold and empty. He fell to his knees.
No one on the street below looked up as Roger collapsed with only flimsy metal separating him from empty space, and curled up in on himself, sobbing.
Fire flickered and died.
Maureen stared, mesmerized, her eyes wide and unblinking, her hands falling to rest in her lap like slaughtered birds. There was a stray lock of hair in her mouth, that she chewed on thoughtfully as her eyes darted to follow the shimmer of golden light that gleamed across the floor before her.
Her foot moved, a half-conscious stirring, and clinked against one of the many golden baubles that littered the floor. The sound brought her back to herself with a start, and she blinked, as what had looked like fire dissolved into the light from a single naked bulb gleaming off a pile of polished metal shards. She shook her head, trying to clear it, and rose from where she sat cross-legged on the cold floor of her performance space, shifting so that she was on her knees looking down.
The debris of an entire city was spread out before her; it was a magpie's delirious dream, bits of glass and crystal, metal scraps polished to a gleam, strings of Christmas lights and tin cans and foreign coins. The cold night breeze roared in the rafters of the abandoned lot, but there was a single small light bulb dangling from the ceiling that confined Maureen and her treasures in a small circle of brilliance. Occasionally the light bulb would sway and shudder on its dangling string, and rippling waves of light would surge like wildfire across the piles of shiny things and back.
"What next?" Maureen asked aloud. She liked the sound of her own voice, like the way it echoed slightly in the cavernous concrete emptiness, liked the way it helped to drown out the whistling of the wind in the rafters. "I've got everything that I need… just can't figure out what should come next."
She stared down at the mosaic arrangement on the floor with a scowl. "Stupid," she muttered. "I haven't got all night." A lie, as it happened. She had nowhere to be, and Joanne wouldn't mind if she stayed out late…
"Yeah right," she hissed mockingly. "Miss over-attentive would have a coronary if I stayed out too late. Heaven forbid I do anything I want to do." Her voice rose into a childish whine. "I just wish she wasn't so damned much like my mother…"
That, too, was a lie, but she was exhausted and frustrated and it helped to have someone to take it out on, especially someone who was not there and could not protest. And while it was true Joanne didn't like it when she came home past midnight… she had an excuse this particular night. She knew that Joanne couldn't possibly be angry with what she was doing tonight.
"Hmm." She rocked back on her heels, studying the mess on the floor with intense concentration. One hand reached out to touch the scattered treasure, her fingertips barely grazing the surface of a broken mirror, listening to the faint clink and rattling sound that the movement made.
"Maybe…" her hand passed over a jagged piece of red glass that looked like it had been smashed from some stained-glass portrait. "No."
She bit her lip. Her hand stopped its movement, hovering over a pile of tarnished pennies that looked like ashes of the sun. Her brow furrowed in irritation. "No."
Half of a hubcap. She scowled. "No."
A crystal prism worth a dime from a little store choked with incense. "No!"
A fake silver necklace.
A rusted ring.
A tangle of copper wires.
"No, no, no!"
Maureen let out a furious sigh, burying her face in her hands, digging her fingernails into her hair. "This is so stupid!" she muttered fiercely. There was a new heaviness in her voice that had not been there before. "I'll never –"
Amid the rainbow gleam of her materials, one flash of light flickered in the corner of her eye. She raised her head, blinking away something that looked suspiciously like a lone tear. Her gaze flicked back and forth through the shiny carnage, searching, searching –
Her eyes lighted upon the gleam that had distracted her, and her jaw fell open.
A mirror lay broken into millions of pieces by a spiderweb of cracks and scratches. All of the shards had been shoved into a haphazard pile, so that some of them almost fit together, and it seemed to Maureen that if one was really determined enough, one could spend hours piecing it together until it was whole again. It had been there for hours; for hours she had been staring at it; but suddenly inspiration had struck with the breath of lightning, and she looked at it now in an entirely new light.
"Of course," she breathed, straightening up in excitement. The thrill of artistic triumph pounded in her veins, and all else was forgotten in its ecstasy. "Of course –" she lunged forward, scrabbling among the pieces, barely noticing and not caring that one of them cut her palm. She parted them hastily, eventually picking out two small splinters of glass, both roughly round and each the size of her thumbnail. She cradled them in one palm as though they were the most precious of diamonds and closed her fingers over them with a furtive movement as she finally rose to her feet.
Hours of sitting in various positions on the cold concrete floor had tightened the muscles of her legs, clenched them in a nebulous ache. She stumbled for a moment, unbalanced. Then the thrill of discovery overtook her again and she steadied herself before lunging towards the stage that sat hunched like a sleeping beast in the darkness.
Her eyes struggled to penetrate the gloom as she ducked and wove through a litter of incomprehensible sound equipment that had not been touched since her last show, the infamous protest that had ended in a riot. Some of the machines still sported dents and scratches; one spat sparks and hissed irritably as her foot came in contact with it.
Disregarding the machine's malice, Maureen darted behind the stage, rummaging in a pile of junk that rose like a shadowy mountain in the midnight gloom. She scraped away an outer layer of everyday trash, shoved away a broken speaker that had been carefully wedged into the mound, and pulled out a small box that sported a padlock heavy and gleaming in the moonlight.
She dragged the box out into the open space of the stage, setting it down with a flourish. She made sure it was undamaged and flat on the floor, then took and step back and tilted her left hand downward, as though gesturing at something that lay hidden deep beneath the ground. A simple string bracelet slid down her wrist; a small key, dangling at its end, fell neatly into her open palm.
Her tongue clenched between her teeth in concentration, Maureen knelt beside the box with a certain flair of ceremonial respect, and slid the key into the lock with a cavernous and echoing click. The lid swung effortlessly back; the air that escaped was not musty with age, as might have been expected, but heavy with cheap perfume. The joy of creativity filled her mind now; she held onto it with a viselike grip, not daring to let it escape because if it did she would be forced to examine the emotions that teemed underneath and that was too painful to bear.
"Hello again," she whispered brokenly, looking down at the familiar contents of the box. The grief that she been trying to suppress broke free and flooded her chest; her heart ached, and pressure was rising in her throat, burning behind her eyes. She put her free hand to her throat, self-consciously, as thought hoping that way to stop the tears that threatened to overflow.
Underneath the lid, cushioned by patched and faded velvet, lay a small, shimmering angel. Mirror wings arched out from her shoulders, a small halo of copper wire graced her brow, her clothes were studded with shards of crystal that caught the moonlight and painted with what appeared to be gold nail polish.
Maureen's throat tightened as she remembered a cold hand clutching hers, bony fingers sporting that same gold glimmer, twitching feebly before they shuddered one last time and died.
"Hello, Angel," she whispered, as she might have spoken to an unanswering grave. "It's been a while, hasn't it? Sorry I haven't been talking to you lately. Things have been – hard." she swallowed, fighting to breathe. "Mimi's not doing too well, and – well, I've been missing you more than ever."
She breathed in deeply, trying to focus all of her will, all of her energy on striving not to cry. "It helps, talking to you like this," she confessed to the serene polished-wire smile. "It helps a lot, and – Mimi's been telling us to get ready to lose her. She's never said anything like that, but the way she looks at us, the way she talks – she barely says anything now except 'I love you'. She tells us that, each and every one of us, every time we see her, because she knows that she might not get the chance again. She's getting herself ready to leave, and we've been trying to get ourselves ready to be left – all except Roger, but then that boy's grip on reality has never been too strong."
Sometime during the one-sided conversation Maureen's resolve had crumbled, and tears now flowed freely down her face, but she couldn't find it in herself to care anymore. The cold metal angel seemed to have grown warm, warm like a smile she still remembered and a laugh she couldn't forget.
"So this is my way of getting ready, I suppose," she choked out, reaching out and shifting the angel aside, gently, reverently. "If Mimi's got to leave us, then – I don't want to lose her completely. I'll still be able to talk to her. I'll still think about her all the time. And she can be here, with you." Carefully, not daring to breathe, Maureen lifted something else out of the back of the box, something that gleamed with glass and wire. "Take care of her, Angel. Try not to have too much fun without us."
Her voice broke on the end of the sentence, and she turned over the cat she held in her hands, a sculpture of metal and glass that reminded her of a steel-hubcap crescent moon she had made for her last protest. The animal was cold in her palm; she opened her hand, the glass rounds gleaming like captured stars for a moment. Carefully shifting her long red nails, she slid them into two holes above the cat's open mouth, so that it looked up at her through mirror eyes that captured and reflected her own light.
She ran a loving finger over the little figure, then slid it back into its place and shut the lid slowly, with bowed head. The key turning in the lock boomed with the resonating clang of thunder. Maureen slid the box back into its place, shutting her final monument to her fallen friends back into the darkness that suddenly seemed to her too much like a grave.
She muttered a hasty goodbye, then turned and stalked from the performance space, not bothering to turn off the light, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand as she plunged out into the frigid night.
He shifted on his knees, feeling the soft threads of the thick shag carpet congeal together as if trying to hold him. He breathed in deeply, squeezed his eyes tight shut, and tried not to choke as the thick odors of stale beer and urine burned in his throat. Cigarette smoke had replaced oxygen in the air, and he was finding it difficult to breathe; nevertheless, he knelt on a disgustingly brown carpet in a four-dollar motel room, hands clasped in front of his face, head bowed, trying to hide the grimace of disgust on his face in an attitude of prayer.
Collins had never held any overpowering belief in any sort of god. Anarchy and atheism seemed to fit well together, and he had not given religious matters much thought since he had been young. Computer age philosophy rarely touched on the divine, and when it did, Collins simply repeated what he was told to teach. It was the one part of his lessons that he did not personalize for his students. He had no opinions to personalize it with.
And yet he prayed. Prostrate in front of a bed with lice-ridden sheets, he tried to keep from sneezing as his nostrils twitched and the stench of several years' muck wafted up to him, accompanied by raucous laughter and bawdy singing from the next room. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his mouth, and focused his thoughts in a clumsy attempt to imitate the religious fervor of his boyhood.
He had never believed in God. He had never harbored any particular hope of heaven, or any debilitating fear of hell. It had never crossed his mind, and he had stopped believing to prove that the world could not make him believe. He was bohemian, anarchist, rebellious; his heart could not be dictated.
And yet, he had indeed been forced to believe, been compelled to worship by grief equivalent to a sledgehammer to the head. He had to believe in heaven, now; he had to. It was a mechanism of survival, because he had to believe that Angel languished somewhere bright, somewhere musical, somewhere warm. To think otherwise would be to court insanity.
"Live in my house," he breathed, tearing his mind away from such thoughts, speaking the familiar words with a ritualistic cadence, as though saying them could bring the Presence he sought into the room. "I'll be your tenant… aw, hell. Angel, baby, you know I love you, you know I still love you… I want to talk to you. I want…" he paused, taking a deep breath, trying to muster his thoughts. "I want to ask you for a favor."
He swallowed with a visible grimace. "Look, baby, it was hard when you left. Hell, it damn near killed me. It still damn near kills me anytime I try and think about it too hard." He relaxed his rigid stance, letting his hands drop to his knees. "Don't get me wrong, I haven't given up. I made you a promise, and I ain't gonna go back on that promise, not as long as I live. But… it's the truth. The simple, plain truth. But you know that already, don't you?"
He let out a cavernous sigh. "I've been getting – phone calls, at MIT. From Mark and Roger – mostly Mark. Not just Mark, though. They've all been calling – hell, even Maureen called once or twice. And I think that was what scared me." He turned his face upward, clenching his fingers on his knees, his voice taking on a tinge of pleading, imploring. "Look, baby, I don't know how much you can see up there. You probably know a hell of a lot more than I do. But what I do know – it's been enough to scare the shit out of me. When Maureen calls and doesn't make a single dirty joke the whole conversation, you know something's up."
He shifted restlessly for a moment, half-rose as if to abandon his ritualistic pose altogether, then scowled and forced himself into a rigid stance, clasping his hands again and bowing his head as if the position added some weight to his words.
"They told me that Mimi's dying and begged me to come home," he said firmly, with no hint of trembling in his voice. "And I don't think I can stand another death so soon." His voice rang out strong and confident, as though he were reading a lecture to his students instead of pronouncing a death sentence on himself.
"Listen, baby, you know how much I love you, and how much I love Mimi. I'm asking you – begging you – give me some time to say goodbye. Tell her to hold on, tell my little chica not to leave just yet. Do what you can for her, baby. Put in a word with the big man, or just – keep her holding on. I'm two days from the city – keep her awake for that long. Let me see her before she goes." There was still no hint of weakness in his stance, in his voice, in his words. It was only at the end of his tirade that he relaxed ever so slightly, letting his brazen plea fade into a sigh. "It might be easier that way."
Joanne sat in the cold darkness of the bedroom that she shared with Maureen, staring dumbly at the light shining through the door but lacking the strength, the will to stand. "What have I done?" she asked herself in a horrified whisper; then, shaking her head in a visible effort to clear it, she straightened up. "I haven't done anything," she told herself loudly, listening to the way her voice echoed in the small room. "I told a lie to get out of a meeting that isn't important. That's all. I told a lie."
She paused, waiting for the echoes to fade, waiting for the midnight to give her an answer. "It was a lie!" she burst out angrily, as though the darkness had accused her. "It was a lie. There's no funeral. And there won't be, not for a while." It was important to convince herself of this, important to make herself believe it. "There's no funeral," she repeated breathlessly. "I'm just – going to the Life, that's all. Meeting Mimi and the others for lunch. Nothing to get worked up about."
Except that it might be the last time.
"But it won't," she growled fiercely at the bed, banging the sheets with her fist. "There's no funeral, I told you!"
It isn't called a funeral. But how different is it, really? You still get to watch her die.
She rose from the bed in inarticulate fury, pacing back and forth in the darkness, listening to her long coat whisper against her ankles and amplifying the whisper in her mind, until it was the source of her inner voice, it was the enemy. "I'm not watching her die," she hissed angrily. "I'm watching her eat lunch, dammit! There's a difference between a day out with friends and a suicide! Now shut up and leave me alone!"
But the voice continued to whisper, louder and louder, without words but with dark intentions. Her anger deflating, Joanne threw herself back on the bed, clenching her eyes tight shut and rubbing her face with her hands. The space beside her suddenly seemed very cold and very empty. "Pookie," she murmured longingly, "Pookie, come home."
Maureen stared down at her feet, fiercely watching the long black heels snap against pavement cold and white as moonlight, arms wrapped tightly about herself in an effort to ward off the December chill. It was no use; she shivered slightly as she walked, and sniffled, biting down on her tongue, hard, to distract herself from the tears that still fought to be free. She raised a hand to her face, wiping away the wetness she felt, and let out a muffled curse as she noticed her fingers streaked with black.
She stopped in front of a nearby store window, staring at her own pale face in the glass and the darkness beyond, thoughts of ghosts whispering across her mind. She shook her head slightly at her own stupidity and began dabbing at the running mascara that smudged her cheeks, trying to wipe it away and only succeeding in turning her red nails black.
Cursing continuously under her breath, turning her grief to anger, Maureen pulled a rag from her pocket, that she had been using to clean and polish the equipment on the stage. She wiped the black stains from under her eyes, careful to clean up every trace of darkness; it was important that she look normal, look strong, for Joanne.
Her lip curled at the thought, and she imagined herself standing in their apartment, talking to Joanne as if nothing was the matter, nothing was wrong, refusing to acknowledge the constant ache that they both shared. She knew how it would go; they would make stupid small talk, they would sit on opposite ends of the room, they would try not to look at each other for a while but that wouldn't work so they would end up staring at each other, each trying to share the other's pain but unable to because they were overwhelmed with pain themselves.
Maureen adjusted her hair and wondered who would be the one to break down and cry tonight.
It wouldn't be her, she told herself firmly, curling a stray lock of hair around one finger, staring at her own reflection in a silent challenge. She would be confident, she would be unfeeling, she would be strong. She had to. Too many tears had already been shed, and oblivion was all she longed for right now. She wondered if it would help her shake the feeling that she was mourning Mimi before the girl had actually died, and whether or not that was wrong.
"This is stupid," she told herself harshly. "I've got to stop this. I've got to –"
Got to breathe. The thought penetrated Roger's frantic sobbing, made itself felt as a knife in his ribs through the white haze that clouded his mind. He tried to break the flow of tears, tried to squeeze the bars of the fire escape below him, hoping the cold or the pain would distract him from the tears and he could breathe normally again. But it was useless; the crying had to be finished, there was an iron vice in his chest that squeezed his heart and forced his breath from him in ragged sobs, and he had to wait for that to stop. It was fading away, slowly, and the cold of the night air was making itself felt again, but there was a still pain like heat in his chest and the cold did nothing to ease it.
Got to breathe. The choking weight of tears eased away, slowly, the sobs fading into ragged gasps for breath, and he lay on the fire escape, gripping the bars with shaking hands, drinking in deep draughts of the midnight air in hopes that it would calm his racing heart. Sleeplessness made his mind hazy, made his head ache; he managed to twist himself into a sitting position, and pushed himself forward until he sat against the edge of the bars, his feet swinging out into empty space. He liked to watch the simple movement, like to think that there was only frail, cold metal between him and oblivion.
Panting, staring out at the moonlight gleaming on windows and illuminating graffiti with an angelic haze, he pressed his forehead against the cold bars. The light grew too bright, and he shut his eyes, dreading what he would see – the pictures of death, the flickering still frames of Mimi's too-thin face that always haunted the darkness behind his eyes.
They did not come.
Surprised, he blinked, the world flashing in on him for a split second then plunged into blackness again. He waited numbly for the waking nightmares to overtake him, as they so often did these days; but again, he was shocked as nothing happened. His mind, exhausted, had simply stopped; so there were no phantoms to haunt him this frigid night. It was then, drifting in thoughtlessness, that he realized he was no longer afraid.
His eyes widened slightly in surprise as he acknowledged it as the truth, his jaw dropping slightly so that his mouth hung open, gaping between the fire escape bars like a prisoner sick from longing, from staring at the night sky and barely recognizing it for what it was. He was no longer afraid.
The thought seemed foreign to him, alien, impossible. Fear had become his life. It had consumed his soul, tainted his every thought, lurked at the back of his mind waiting to tear into him with its chimera claws. Vague fear of his own death, then sharp and concrete fear of Mimi's; fear of darkness, fear of silence, fear of empty space, fear of being alone. It had become his mantra, his mantle, his heartbeat. Yet now, quite impossibly, all trace of fear was gone from his mind.
Why? Why this sudden peace? Well – not peace. Grief still tore at him in constant waves, as though a struggling monster were confined within his heart. Yet fear was gone. Perhaps – perhaps because fear was born of uncertainty, and uncertainty no longer existed.
Mimi is going to die.
It was real. It was certain. It was truth.
Mimi is going to die.
Another truth followed on the heels of the first.
Mimi is going to die.
And Roger – the deepest, pulsing, most vital part of Roger – was going to die with her.
"I don't know, babe, I feel like – like maybe I'll have to go with her."
Collins had abandoned his rigid attitude of prayer, had given up on formality and penance and was pacing now, pounding pounding back and forth across the tiny room, his shoes making unpleasant squelching noises on the carpet, his long coat whispering against his legs. "When you died, it was hard," he continued, "But then, I've already said that. It took all of us, all of this crazy little dysfunctional family of ours, to help that hurt. Hell, it took a god-damn miracle. But I'm sure you had a hand in that." A lopsided grin found its way onto his face. "You always were one to make miracles happen. But if –" he paused, scowled, and corrected himself, "When Mimi goes, there'll be – what – six of us left? And that's not enough, babe, not nearly enough to fix a broken heart. Not without another god-damn miracle. And even then it might not be enough."
He sighed. "It's killing me, being here. I should be there, I should be with them, I should be camping out in the loft and keeping Mark from freaking out more than he has to. I should be beating Roger into unconsciousness and dragging him away from Mimi so he can get some sleep." The smile returned to his face, flashing across his features and gone again, like the sun reappearing through a deluge of cloud.
"I know there's not much I can do," he said, with an expression still strong, but with a voice that was defeated, "But I need to be doing all I can."
The confession poured form him like a sob, and with it drained away all his bravado, all his bravery. He sat down on the ratty bed, ignoring the painful squeal from the ancient springs, and buried his face in his hands.
"You told me once that it hurt less when I held you," he said gruffly, and his voice sounded like a sob, though his eyes were dry. "I want that for Mimi. I want to help ease her pain, or know that Roger's kissing her wherever it hurts. I want –" tears had broken loose from his iron will, and he spoke through them now, allowing the flash of a smile to appear again, "I want to tear that boy's guitar away from him because I'm sure he'll play till his fingers fall off, repeating that song. Her song. Damn, I can hear it already."
He stopped speaking for a moment, his shoulders shaking with silent sobs. "I don't hate you for going," he said at last, so quietly that it was inaudible above the creaking mattress. "I don't blame you, baby. It was your time. It wasn't right for an angel like you to be stuck down here with us, not when you could be doing so much good up there. I won't say I'm okay without you, but I don't need to be." He turned his face upwards, smiling blindly through his tears. "You promised you'd always be with me, and you're here. I can feel it. I just hated – hate – feeling so damn powerless. Sure, I can hold you, and that'll make the pain less – but I can't make it go away." He dragged his sleeve across his eyes. "And I want to, baby, I want to so bad it's killing me. I don't want to feel so damn useless anymore.
"So you tell her… you tell my Mimi to hold on just a little bit longer. You tell her I'm on my way home and I'll be there soon and I'll do whatever I can, whatever it takes, to make her hurt less. You tell her…" His control was gone completely now and, for the first time since a disastrous phone call two days ago, he broke down and cried.
"Make sure you tell her…"
"What to tell her?" Maureen asked her reflection bitterly, hands on her hips, face pale and white now in the dark glass. "She can always tell when I'm lying. So what lie is good enough?" She considered telling Joanne the truth, but somehow the truth suddenly seemed too secret, too sacred. She had said farewell to a friend tonight, and she didn't want to share that experience with anyone, not even her lover.
"Nothing. Nothing, of course. Fucking… this is so fucking stupid." She hated to be the strong one, hated it with a passion, hated to have to cover up a bleeding heart with a stainless mask. But she was an actress, a performer, a liar. It was what she did best. It was what was required of her, now especially that their family was falling apart.
"Stupid," she muttered again. "Why can't I be the one to cry and deal with my problems?" She wanted to collapse in Joanne's arms and sob, but that always ended up hurting Joanne more than it did Maureen. Joanne had come to depend on her – they all had – as the invincible one, the one who never cried. The one who was flighty, perhaps, but pulled herself together in the face of a crisis with compassion that equaled her temper. "Why do I have to be the strong one every fucking time?"
"Got to be strong," Joanne told herself firmly. She was reeling, breaking, shivering from force of emotion and she forced herself to calm down, to pull herself together, to breathe and be strong. Oblivion was good. It was good to be unfeeling, to be callous, to be cold. To cry was to give in, surrender. To cry was to lose control.
No. No. She needed control. Needed it now more than ever, needed to exercise the iron will she had tried and failed to exert over Maureen. She was excellent at taking and keeping control, and hiding emotions, at dealing with crises. Hell, she had chosen it as her line of work. Then why couldn't she bring her work, the cold, calculated arguments, the unfeeling papers home with her now, when they were needed?
Because Fate could not be conscribed in a law book and shut away. Because Death could not be argued with.
She wanted to break down and cry in Maureen's arms, but she was afraid to, afraid that the drama queen's heart would be broken by such outward pain, afraid because Maureen was so emotional and Joanne wasn't sure how her emotions would affect the other woman.
"I can't," she snarled to herself, to the darkness. "I can't be the one to cry."
For the first time in weeks, Roger did not want to cry.
He thought hazily that maybe it was because he was too tired. Maybe he had cried himself sick so many times that he was no longer capable of producing tears. Maybe it was because fear had taken the lung-clenching sobs with it and he was left to be cold, unfeeling, dead.
He had to be strong. The thought repeated in his head like a drumbeat. Strong. Strong. Strong. The hated word. Pounding, pounding, pounding on the inside of his skull until it made him sick and dizzy.
Sudden fury coursed through his limp form, and his hand twitched, rising to smash down on the bar in a decisive gesture, but falling back before it could lift high enough. He didn't have the energy to be angry or grieving anymore. He didn't have the strength.
Alone. The word made him sick to his stomach. He didn't want to be alone anymore, dammit! He didn't want to be strong, to be the one that Mimi leaned on, to be the one that had to hold her when she cried out in her sleep. It had taken its toll on him, and he was weary.
Something inside his fog-ridden brain had snapped.
He managed to rise clumsily to his feet, gripping the bars for support, his legs numb with cold. He was panting great gouts of steam into the midnight. He wasn't going to be the strong one anymore. He wanted to break down, and by God, he was going to do it!
He turned and stumbled back inside of the unlit loft, feeling the dark descend upon him as a weight crashing down on his shoulders after the openness of the fire escape. He waited for his eyes to adjust, directing his clumsy steps toward the couch that reared low and strangely menacing in the gloom. He swept around it, and knelt down on the floor beside the pale face that had held such terror for him not long ago. Now, the sight of it invoked only a terrible longing, and a bone-crushing weariness. He put a hand on Mimi's shoulder and gently shook her awake.
"Hmm?" Large, dark eyes focused on his face, and something in them seemed to understand. There was an imperceptible movement on the couch; Roger lifted the blankets and squeezed himself beneath them, laying on his side next her, his arms around her waist, his face buried in her hair. Part of his mind realized just how thin she would have to be for both of them to fit on the narrow couch, and wept; but what little thought remained to him was bound up with the smell of her hair, the smooth touch of her hand that was so familiar.
Rough sobs tore themselves from his throat, and he cried into her bony shoulder, her arms around his neck, weak but still strong enough to press into his skin, still strong enough to be felt. And she held him as he had held her so many times, whispering soothing nonsense into his ear until he fell asleep. She repeated the same thing, over and over, to the rhythm of his tears;
"You're not alone anymore, Roger. I'm here. I'm here for you. You're not alone. You're not alone."
Dear God, Joanne thought fearfully, trembling. I'm not alone anymore.
She could hear a key turning in the lock from the next room, could hear the creak of the door swinging open and a pair of feet stomping in the doorway, a pair of stiletto heels snapping their way with a distinctive patter across the apartment. The door to the bedroom swung open, and Joanne found her senses flooded with light. She was momentarily blinded, but nonetheless stood and did her best to look calm and professional, blinking away the fire in her eyes.
"Pookie?" Maureen's voice was tentative, hesitant, testing whether or not tonight would be one of the bad nights, gently probing to discover which of them would break down and which would be strong. "How're you doing?"
"Fine," Joanne snapped, more defensively than she needed to, with so much vehemence that she saw Maureen's silhouette, framed by light from the next room, take a step back. Then the diva reasserted herself, moving forward into the room.
"Any news from –" the sentence stopped abruptly, and she made no move to finish. She didn't have to.
"No." Joanne snapped tersely. She tried to sweep past the other woman into the next room, but Maureen refused to move from the doorway, and stood blocking her way.
"Come to bed," she said simply, putting out an arm when Joanne tried to shove past her.
"What?" the lawyer asked, annoyed. They were both still dressed, and it was far too early to sleep, especially for Maureen, who liked to stay up into the small hours of the morning. "Why?"
It was then she noticed the faint traces of smudged mascara around Maureen's eyes, the mother-of-pearl glimmer of tears on her cheeks, the way her shoulders sagged, as if defeated. "Because I'm sick of being the strong one," the other woman said quietly, "And I bet you are too. And because I don't want to be alone anymore." Giving Joanne no time to respond, she charged forward into the room, locking the other woman in a bittersweet, passionate kiss, dragging her backwards onto the bed. By the time they landed, both women were crying, and neither one gave a damn any longer about being strong and resolving problems and working late into the night.
They stayed locked in a comforting embrace, wrapped around each other, sobbing at clutching at each other's shoulders, until the moon sank down into the west and they fell asleep.
Collins fell asleep that night with tears still drying on his face, trickling down to wet his lips where they curved into a smile. Because the weight of the world still sat heavily on his shoulders, but just for that one night, he twirled Angel around to music only they could hear, dancing on a pane of glass, with the world beneath them and love pulsing warm all around. He knew what Heaven sounded like then, for the tapping her feet as she danced made the most beautiful music he could ever hear.
And he knew that he and Roger would both be okay, that soon Mimi would be dancing with Angel in his place, that they would be together and the music would be twice as rich, twice as strong, twice as lovely. Snowflakes drifted past his window; and in New York city, several midnight train rides away, Mimi looked over Roger's shoulder at the white angel-winged light; and she felt a hand stroke her hair that was not Roger's, and heard a voice high-pitched and musical, angelic and laughing, calling her away.
Woah. Talk about catharsis. That was… painful. Was it worth it? Review, please…