Phones and Photos
AN: This will be very short. Just something that struck me after the asshole-ness that is season eight Hyde.
He'd left for Africa on a desperate whim, hoping against hope that he wasn't screwing everything up for a daydream. He'd gotten sick once in the bathroom at the airport, two minutes before his flight left the ground. Now, eight months later, he felt only slightly less ill about the whole affair, though the puking had thankfully stopped after the first few weeks.
It felt worth it, though, which is ultimately why he stayed. It was all so very new and fragile, going to bed at night feeling like he accomplished good things and was worth more than shit, and he was so unbelievably happy and terrified that it was all just a facade at the same time. So he broke up with Donna and he ignored the stabbing feeling of guilt when he heard the undertone of despair in his mother's voice during his rare calls home. He endured the second hand stories of this Randy guy and ignored the stabbing feeling of jealousy in his gut because damn it, he'd spent his entire life worrying about other people and making sure that Donna was happy, that Mom was happy, that Red was happy (enough) and it left him feeling like half the man he felt he should be, and didn't he deserve this, if nothing else?
But one day on his weekly (more like monthly) call home, instead of the harsh tones of Hyde or Red, or the shrill voice of Kitty, he was greeted with the soft, almost timid voice of Jackie.
At first, he was struck by how different she sounded. How her voice wavered as she explained that Hyde and his wife had treated everyone to dinner, and she was staying home with Kitty, with the flu. How he could picture her dark, round face, creased with pain, so easily. How her features would crumble into tears as he'd seen so many times before.
And then it was like when she'd left for Chicago all over again, how she'd rambled on and on just to keep him on the line because she didn't want to admit that she was alone, except this time he rambled back, about his students and the people he met and how much his apartment sucked and how hot it was during midday. And she listened to all of it and asked questions and gave him advice and the best brand of sunblock to buy and told him not to worry about Kitty, that she was being taken good care of and that if nothing else, Donna was happy at least, as far as Jackie could tell. When he finally hung up, the pressure behind his eyes had eased a little, even if he didn't want to admit it. And if he specifically called back the next day and got her new phone number from Fez, it didn't mean anything except that he wanted to thank her for the advice. On the sunblock, of course.
He was drunk when he finally called again. She picked up with a cheery greeting this time that was only partly faked, and then listened, quietly for once.
He'd lost a student. This kid was thirteen, barely a teenager, and Eric tried to reach him, tried to save him, to no avail.
"Dead at thirteen years old," he slurred. "Thirteen fucking years old. I didn't even get a chance to introduce him to Star Wars."
"You couldn't have known," she said quietly, her voice even and logical. "Some people are beyond help."
He cursed wildly at that. He ranted and raved and threw the phone down a few times, but when he picked it back up, she was always still on the other end. He fell asleep with the plastic pressed against his face, and in the morning there was a message waiting for him with the operator.
"Jackie sends her support," the operator said. Her support. "And she recommends that you 'lay off the weak stuff and drink some manly liquor for once.'"
He collapsed on his bed later with a bottle of Jack Daniels as instructed.
The first time she called him she was sobbing and trying to hide it.
He took on his teacher persona and kept his questions simple and to the point, letting her talk. Did anything happen? Are you hurt? Do you need help?
"No, you doofus," she snapped. "I'm fine. Physically."
"He said he loved me," she said, her voice small. "He said that he never should've married Sam, that I was the one he wanted, the only one he'd ever want."
Isn't that what you wanted?
"Yes," she wailed. More sobbing.
It's all right, Jackie. Calm down, Jackie. Calm and easy. Then what went wrong?
"Everything," she choked on her words, something broken and helpless in her tone. "We slept together and it was perfect and magical, just like it used to be, but then I woke up and he was gone, and I thought he had to get to work, right? Well I go to surprise him—I mean, I dressed up for him and everything—and when I get to the store I see him all over that stripping skank of a wife." She burst into sobs again and he could picture her even easier than before, with her perfectly coiffed hair and makeup done just so and her coy on purpose outfit perfectly coordinated, standing there, watching as the love of her life used his Vegas mistake to break her heart. Again.
It was him who kept steady and logical this time, who listened to her and didn't hang up when the phone hit the wall. He could tell when she'd fallen asleep, and he hung up the phone gently, taking a step back and studying the hard plastic. Then he picked it up again and redialed the operator. No harm in leaving a message.
The cycle continued, as always, and he was the one to call her (it was his turn) and he talked about nothing as she murmured little mmhmms and uh-huhs into the receiver. When he finally found the nerve to ask her if anything was wrong, why was she so quiet, she was silent for a long time before uttering a simple sentence.
Two words, barely a clause that held so much meaning and emotion and possibility behind them that Eric had to give it a moment to sink in. To accept the rude awakening that it brought with them, the unexpected wedge it drove into her life without warning or apology.
"Does he know?" He knew it was Hyde's, he didn't have to ask. He didn't really have to ask this either, but just to voice the topic eased the tension that had instantly snapped to life.
"No." Her voice was missing something that had been present before. "He moved to Vegas a week ago." What? Why hadn't she called? "He got an offer to open up a new branch in Lake Mead, and well, Vegas is like, Skankella's headquarters." There was no emotion in her tone, nothing more than emptiness.
"What are you going to do?"
Her sigh echoed over the line. "Get a job. Move out of Fez's place, get someplace bigger, maybe. My trust fund will last me awhile if I'm careful."
He'd never heard her sound so sad, or so logical, for that matter. "My parents would help."
"They've done enough for me," she said, her tone final.
He was silent a moment, picturing a pregnant Jackie. Maybe a kid. Jackie and Hyde's kid. He couldn't conjure the image. "You know that I'd..."
He started moving around a lot, going from town to village to city, following the schools and finding work wherever he could. Most of what he owned he could fit into a couple suitcases, and his wallet was stuffed to the brim with phone cards. He left messages for her whenever he moved, sent her pictures and clippings from his students in yellow envelopes made from thick, homemade paper. Whenever he got a hold of her directly, he'd sit back and listen patiently to her lists of pregnancy complaints, sipping cold beer and trying his damnedest to stay in his bubble of denial.
She was living in Chicago in Brooke and Kelso's basement, babysitting Betsy and working part time in a grocery store. She'd made it to manager in her fourth month and had ranted about it for an hour.
"I'm a Sac-n-Pac manager, Eric! I am one crappy haircut and a sci-fi obsession away from being you in high school!"
Ouch, that one stung. "What would you prefer, modeling maternity wear?" That shut her up.
She and Brooke had bonded over Ben & Jerry's and pregnancy whining, with a few bad boyfriend stories thrown in. Whenever the former librarian would pick up the phone, she'd subtly keep him up to date on the 'Hyde situation,' as she'd dubbed it. Eric'd been expecting some complicated story of this fight and that squabble, various hook-ups and break ups and letters and phone calls and possibly a divorce, but Brooke had informed him that it was pretty simple, actually.
Meaning, he hadn't called, he hadn't written, he didn't know she was pregnant, and she wasn't too inclined to inform him. Eric had the inkling that it had something to do with the wedding announcement that his mother had sent to him, the 'second ceremony' that WB had hosted for the 'happy couple.'
Eric sometimes wondered how they'd gotten so far away from who they used to be. He looked at this picture of his once best friend, standing with his arm looped around a washed-out looking blonde, his eyes no longer sharp and quick, but dull and empty looking. He stared at the clipping for a long time, trying to remember who it reminded him of, before he recalled seeing Bud and Edna's wedding portrait years ago at Hyde's old house. He thought of Jackie and promptly threw up in the sink.
He had pictures on his walls of Kelso and Brooke's wedding, with Jackie doing her maid of honor thing in a blue dress with her stomach slightly bulging. Photos of Jackie and Betsy, playing and laughing. Of Kelso talking to Jackie's stomach, making her laugh. Of Brooke and Jackie in matching green hats, leaning over the Missouri River on St. Patrick's Day. Her face greeted him whenever he walked through the door, reminded him of basements and cheese maidens with way too much hope. His Donna photos had long been locked away in a storage locker in Cape Town, and he liked to tell himself that it was too painful, that he'd rather look at Jackie, his unexpected friend but comfortable friend.
He remembered her wild stories of going to New York, becoming an actress, a model, a designer, of having her own clothing line and perfume brand and TV show. He saw her here in discount fashions and tired circles under her eyes and felt cheated on her behalf, but her smile was mostly genuine and she glowed through on paper and made his nights brighter, so he didn't question it. That much.
"Her name is Veronica."
Her voice sounded like distant cymbals crashing together, a cacophony of some strange mix of pain and exhilaration that made his chest ache a little. The plastic of the phone was pressing into his ear and his legs burned from sitting in one place for so long, but he couldn't bring himself to hang up and subject himself to that window of time when he wasn't listening to her voice.
He heard her chuckle a little. "It was the doctor's wife's name." She let out a small little breath. "It hurt so much, I thought that it was going to rip me open. I was so grateful to Doctor Albertson, he was so calm and he held my hand through some of the contractions. By the time she was born I was so exhausted I told him to choose the name, just to make it something pretty."
He laughed. "Middle name?"
"Erica," she deadpanned.
She paused, and then laughed again. "Got me. Like I'd name a kid after you, jeez." She laughed again, and he felt kind of dizzy. "No, I named her middle name after Brooke. Veronica Brooklyn Burkhardt."
"That's a beautiful name, Jackie."
"It is, isn't it?" She sounded happy. "She's so gorgeous. Her eyes are brown, and the nurse said that all babies' eyes are brown at first so they might change, but I think they're going to stay brown," she said. "They look like chocolate."
"Seven pounds, eight ounces," she rattled off. "Black curly hair. Brooke said she looks like me."
"Thank God," he quipped. "Can you imagine the horror if she had your hair and Hyde's...everything else?"
"Oh my God!" she squealed. "Don't even joke about that!"
He laughed. "Send me pictures."
"I'll flood you with 'em."
"They can keep the other three million company."
"You know that seeing my beaming image every morning makes your life better, just admit it."
"Never." He paused. "I'm glad for you, you know."
"I know." Her voice was quiet and drowsy, he could hear her soft breaths over the line. Her voice was whisper soft. "I wish you were here." I love you, he thought.
His vision narrowed and his denial bubble popped. His breath shortened. Oh God. "I—I wish I was there, too," he stammered.
"Is everything okay?" Her voice was concerned.
"Yeah." He swallowed hard and made a hasty exit, hanging up the phone feeling like he'd been run over by a truck.
He leaned back and surveyed the 'Jackie wall,' her face staring back at him from practically every inch, making him feel more and more blind and stupid. Her voice in his head. Well of course you love me, who doesn't love me? I'm surprised it took you this long to figure it out. Moron.
He leaned his head against the back of his chair, sipping his beer again. Well, it figured. Leave it to him to find the strangest possible way to complicate the hell out of everything.
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