Author's Note: This story was written for the 2006 OC Sentence Challenge on LJ.
Thanks to beta's Crash and Joey. Big Smile Girls. Sentence was provided by Shelbecat…an amazing author.
Sentence Prompt: "Marissa is stuck between Heaven and Earth, having to make sure Ryan forgives himself before she can cross over."
This was a tough sentence prompt for me because this material, dying…stuck between heaven and earth… has been presented in television, books, movies, etc… in a variety of ways, and I didn't want my story to be cliché or a rehash of anything already done. (The Lovely Bones comes to mind… teenage girl, violent death, caught between worlds…Not to mention the post-finale fic already out there.) I did the best I could. In the end, I took a lot of my thoughts from an incident I went through in high school, with a friend of mine whose sister died in a car accident when she was only fourteen.
When The World Is Frosted White
As Marissa dies, she floats high up into the sky, like she's on a rocky rainbow roller coaster of Crayola colors and curves and arches and loops.
She calls out to Ryan to come and fly with her, be with her.
Hold her hand and count the stars.
She figures out that wherever she is it's actually nowhere in particular and everywhere else, all at the same time.
It's wherever and whatever she wants it to be and it's full of more vibrant colors than she has ever imagined possible. The grass isn't just green and the sky isn't just blue and the sun isn't just yellow. It's as if the world has been repainted in a whole new color wheel and sometimes Marissa reaches out to touch anything and everything, just to see if the color itself is alive.
She closes her eyes and thinks about a time when she was little and her mom still loved her dad and, when she opens her eyes again, she's at school in the first grade with her hair in tight, long pigtails that her mother took forever to braid.
Summer's there too, in a bright fuchsia sundress, raising her hand sharply, demanding to know why they can't go to the Fashion Island Mall for their upcoming field trip instead of the La Brea tar pits.
Eddie Hampton's desk is next to Marissa's and he's picking his nose like he always does, all day long, even at lunch.
Directly behind her, Marissa feels a tug on one of her braids. She spins around and sticks her tongue out at Luke. He pulls the other pigtail just as hard.
The bell rings and everyone leaves in a rush of antsy, teacher-organized, almost straight lines.
Marissa's dad rolls up to the front of the school in a shiny new forest green car and asks cheerfully, "Do you want some ice cream kiddo?"
She claps with excitement and asks if Ryan can come along and have some too.
When her dad says yes, Marissa closes her eyes and opens them up again and now she's sixteen, on the boardwalk, buying two frozen Balboa bars and sitting on a bench, listening to the repetitive and familiar sounds of the ocean as she waits for Ryan.
Ryan's dream smells of salt and popcorn and ocean air. He sees Marissa, smiling, waving, holding an ice cream bar out to him and he leans in and kisses her lips.
She tastes like chocolate and cold.
He touches his finger to his lips, tracing the kiss' trail and sits down and quietly asks Marissa, "Do you know you're dead?"
She nods a "yes" as she places a Balboa bar in his right hand and reaches out for his left.
Ryan doesn't care if it's not real, if Marissa's not really sitting next to him and if he's not really holding her hand and the two of them aren't really watching waves collapse onto the beach in milky white foam.
Right now, at this moment, it's enough to see her as she was before she died.
Before he and Volchok each contributed their own individual parts in driving her off the dusty cliff.
Marissa goes here and there, in out of her memories randomly, and she's sure time must be lapsing. But it's passing like a folded blanket fresh out of the dryer, hot and in layers instead of spread out straight.
Sometimes, when she's not sure where she wants to go, which memory to visit, Marissa finds herself sitting cross-legged in the shade of her and Ryan's lifeguard stand, watching Johnny surf in the crystal blue ocean, his board sailing on the glistening caps and crests of the shifting water.
He runs in for a break, patting his knee and telling her confidently, "It doesn't hurt anymore. It's like I never had surgery."
"Do you understand why we're here?" Marissa asks him.
Johnny answers with a shy smile, his long hair obscuring half his face, "Hell yes, to surf."
Marissa's not nervous or upset or scared about what's happening to her, about where she is, but she has a constant curiosity that follows her around like a long-ago toddler, Kaitlin.
"I think we're here for a reason," she tells Johnny.
"I don't know, Marissa," he says, sitting down next to her and laying his head on her shoulder. "You were always way smarter than me. I'm just relaxing and enjoying the waves."
She assumes Johnny knows his "situation" but Ryan felt a need to remind her so she in turn reminds Johnny. "You know you're dead, right?"
"I'm not that stupid," he scoffs and swats at her hair playfully as he stands back up and dusts his shorts of loose sand. "I'm going back out," he says, pointing towards the water. "Do you want to come with me?"
Marissa says no.
She has somewhere else to go.
Up ahead, beyond the beach, on the road where she died, she can see Ryan's truck on fire, bright yellow flames burning brighter than the blazing sun.
Ryan tosses and turns and feels himself rolling down the incline as his graduation SUV folds into itself like a crunched aluminum can.
Everything comes to a stop as he breaks out the window and crawls out of the wrecked truck, one painful inch at a time.
The air around him reeks of gasoline and his own sweat and Ryan's so hot, he's sure he's already on fire.
He slowly stands up, using the truck as an unsteady ledge and looks around and shakes his head in bewilderment because somehow, Marissa has managed to climb out of the vehicle before him and is standing right next to him.
Her face is pristine, unblemished, her hair perfect. Confused, Ryan asks, "Marissa, where's all the blood?"
"It's gone," is all she says before taking him by the hand, leading them both away from the flames.
Before he knows it, he's sitting on the rough, black concrete of the deserted road.
He stares at Marissa and realizes why there's no blood on her and why she looks as perfect as she did on the night of their graduation.
None of this is real.
He's dreaming about her.
It's always so confusing whenever Marissa appears.
Sounds are loud and smells are tangible and his brain tugs him along, quick and fast, because whenever he dreams of her, there's always a sense of urgency.
"Everything's wrong," he tells her.
"It's okay," she says soothingly.
"No, it's not," Ryan answers, and he can feel the bile rising in his throat and the anger flashing in red hot streaks across his face.
He can hear the fire crackling and another explosion.
Away from them, down the road, more bright flames inject themselves into the dark sky.
"Everything's so wrong."
"Hey," Marissa says softly, placing her hand on his cheek and steering his head so that he's looking into her eyes. "Ryan, it's ok. Everything's ok."
"No," he repeats, tears of frustration welling in his eyes, "No, it's not ok. We went to court today. Volchok only got six years. Six fucking years. Sandy said it was a fair plea bargain, but how the hell can anyone call that fair? He killed you."
"It doesn't matter," she tells him. "Let it go."
"How the hell do I let it go, Marissa? He killed you."
Ryan wakes up with tears running out of his eyes and his fists clenched so tight that his nails are digging into the flesh of his palms, and he says to no one at all, "We…killed you."
Marissa is six years old and opening up the best birthday present she has ever received.
She rips apart the wrapping paper and grabs and hugs the lavender Care Bear with all her might.
It's the most purple thing she's ever seen, soft and fuzzy with baby blue and powerful pink colored lollipops criss-crossing its tummy, the attached lollipop sticks decorated with frenzied, matching stripes.
"It's Share Bear," her mom tells her, leaning in close and whispering in her ear, "He'll help you share your things with your baby sister."
"Like hell I will," Marissa answers, and she's no longer six, but an older, petulant sophomore in high school, glaring at her mother across the kitchen table as she forbids her to spend one more minute with Ryan.
"He's not a criminal!" she yells at her mom for the thousandth time. "Ryan's not like that."
"That boy is trouble, Marissa. I am telling you to stop seeing him and you will stop seeing him. Do you understand me, young lady?"
Marissa hates this memory.
Her mother never understood Ryan.
She never took the time.
Marissa closes her eyes and wishes it all away.
When she opens them again, tentatively, it's Christmas time, the last Christmas Marissa was alive, and her mother is holding Ryan's hand and smiling and everyone is happy, swinging in time with the music and singing in unison.
Ryan dreams he's in front of Julie Cooper as she bangs a judge's gravel and repeatedly screams at him, "Guilty!"
He stares at the ground and nods in agreement, almost relieved that someone at least has the nerve to say out loud what he has been thinking in his heart and soul for the last five long and draining years.
"Maybe the jumpsuit will still fit," Sandy says encouragingly, patting Ryan on the back.
"You've kept yourself in pretty good shape, Atwood," Summer comments, eyeballing him up and down. "No college beer gut."
Ryan feels the cold steel cuffs slap onto his wrists but before the police officer can begin escorting him towards the exit, Seth steps in front of them with a shining gold key to the handcuffs and points to the head of the courtroom, where Marissa now sits in the judge's chair instead of her angry mother.
"Not guilty," Marissa says softly, looking at him straight in the eyes.
Ryan wakes up with a start, her words trailing after him, getting caught up in his feet like dried fall leaves in an October wind, as he struggles to stand and stumble away from his bed.
She's soaking up the sun, in the middle of the ocean, floating in her favorite lounge chair as Johnny surfs by her.
"Ryan has been dreaming about me," Marissa tells Johnny.
"Story of my past life," Johnny quips, turning with precision into a larger-than-life turquoise wave.
"I'm serious," she answers, splashing water towards him. "I'm worried about him."
"Ok, ok," Johnny says with an apologetic laugh.
Marissa's not sure how it all works, everything that happens in this place where she is, but Johnny doesn't need to swim into the shore and out again anymore. He can be by her whenever he wants to be and he disappears from the middle of the wave he's riding, only to reappear directly next to her straddling his surf board.
"My dad dreams about me," Johnny tells her, and for the first time since she has been "here," she sees Johnny looking sad and sullen, just like he used to, back before they both came to this place.
"Well, it's more like he has nightmares," Johnny adds, swishing the water with his fingers.
"When they dream about us," Marissa says, "I think it means something."
Johnny shrugs casually, "I don't know. I don't care."
Marissa doesn't know either.
But she cares.
"I'm engaged," Ryan says quietly, taking a photo from his coat pocket and gently placing it in Marissa's hand. "Her name is Inez."
"Is this her son?" Marissa asks, concentrating on the piercing hazel eyes of a little boy sitting on the lap of the smiling young woman.
"Yes," Ryan says. "She's divorced. Her ex-husband lives in Vegas. After we get married, I'm going to ask him to sign off on his parental rights. I want to adopt Ivan."
"Still saving people," Marissa comments as she hands the picture back to him. "She's beautiful, Ryan."
His hair is cut shorter than she has ever seen it and he's wearing a business suit and looking like an actual adult and Marissa wonders how time could have rocketed forward so quickly from then…to what must be now.
Ryan's eyes still sparkle with their familiar vibrant blue, but she notices there are permanent wrinkles in their corners as he smiles with a semi-frown before telling her, "You look exactly the same, Marissa."
She doesn't ask him if he misses her, or if he wishes somewhere in his heart that it was her whom he was marrying, because somehow she knows that his answer would be yes.
And she knows his answer would be no.
And maybe it's better for the both of them, that they'll never really have to know what would have happened if she would have been allowed a future, with or without him.
Ryan can feel the softness of her hair in his fingers as he touches the individual strands.
He's glad he's dreaming about Marissa because she's all that has been on his mind since the moment he realized that he wanted Inez to be his wife.
They're sitting on his old bed in the pool house and Marissa is wearing a wedding dress of simple, sleek ivory, her hair sprinkled with the same exotic and delicate flowers that Ryan once bought for her after yet another one of their fights.
Summer helped him pick them out.
"You look exactly the same, Marissa," he tells her, and she does.
She looks like she always did, how he always remembers her, with a band of light brown freckles tickling her nose and the tops of her cheeks.
She's still seventeen and she won't ever be anyone's bride.
Marissa returns the photo to him and Ryan slips it back into his pocket carefully, almost afraid it might break in two if he's not mindful about how he handles it.
When he looks up, Marissa is no longer wearing a wedding dress.
Instead she's in jeans and a shimmering tank top and Ryan doesn't know what else to say to her.
If his truck hadn't have been so old, if it would have had airbags, maybe she would have survived the accident.
If he'd never punched Volchok so long ago and started the insane chain of events… maybe Marissa would be alive and her wedding dress real and her flowers new.
If he would have tried a little harder to understand her, if he would have been a little more patient.
If he would have just…
It's suddenly freezing cold and there's a fog so thick he can't see Marissa through it and he doesn't want her to be gone.
He's not ready for her to be gone.
Inez wakes him up, rubbing her hand slowly up and down his back and asking him, "What's wrong, baby? You're shivering."
Ryan lays his head on her bare stomach, soaking up the warmth of her skin and holding on to her tight.
He closes his eyes.
And pretends to go back to sleep.
Marissa is on the beach, watching Johnny as he walks towards her, his surfboard nowhere in sight.
"I'm leaving now," he tells her. "I have to go."
"Where?" she asks inquisitively, intrigued by his sudden departure.
"I don't know," Johnny says honestly. "Someplace else I guess. Somewhere other than here."
"Why?" she asks, following him as he heads towards where the sand ends and the abandoned boardwalk begins. "What changed?"
"I think my father did," Johnny says quietly, as he waves goodbye. "He figured out he didn't really hate me or my mom. He hated himself."
Marissa decides maybe she's breaking one of the rules of this place when she goes to Ryan first, instead of him seeking her out through his dreams.
She closes her eyes and wishes for him to be under the pier.
She concentrates hard, harder than she has ever wished for anything before and an uncomfortable feeling buzzes through her, as if this place is sending her a very certain message that she's most definitely violating an unstated ordinance.
But nonetheless, Ryan comes to her, his hair a bit longer than the last time she saw him. His eyes just a little more wrinkled, his face a little fuller.
She lays out an orange beach towel and invites him to sit down on it, but he shakes his head no and she thinks maybe he might even be aware that this really isn't his own dream he's in, but actually a minute of his sleep that Marissa has stolen from him.
But she had to.
This is important.
And she knows that Ryan will never dream it himself.
"Ryan, who do you blame for me dying?"
"Volchok," he immediately answers and although he manages to look her straight in the eyes to say that much, he redirects his vision right after.
"Who else besides Kevin?" she asks. "Who else do you blame? Do you blame me?"
"Sometimes," he says crossing his arms and taking a step backwards, as if distance actually possesses real measure in this undefined void she has forced him into.
The booming and constant crash of the waves against the wooden posts of the pier is threatening to sweep their conversation out to sea so Marissa raises her voice and yells into the wind, "Do you blame yourself, Ryan?"
He stops backpedaling, looks out into the ocean, looks down at the sand, looks at his hands.
Looks up at Marissa and answers, "Everyday."
Marissa's not sure what to do to help him because Ryan doesn't ever dream about her anymore and she wonders if he even remembers her at all.
She knows he has a baby of his own.
A little girl.
She knows he and Inez are wonderful parents, because once in a while Marissa continues to bend the rules of this place and sneaks a peek outside of it.
Sometimes she spies from a distance as Ryan and his wife play with their kids, or watch television or eat family dinners out on the patio.
She smiles as Ryan painstakingly teaches his daughter how to ride a bike.
Marissa tries to be nothing but happy for him, even though at times, she's occasionally sad for herself, because it would have been so nice to have a little girl of her own and sit her down at the kitchen table and spend lots of time braiding her hair into long, tight pigtails.
She shuffles through her memories but doesn't find any she wants to go to, to visit, so she sits alone in the lifeguard house and patiently waits to go someplace else, someplace other than here.
Ryan dreams of so many things, like he and Inez and Summer and Seth leaving their various kids and their respective nannies with Sandy and Kirsten in Newport and finally taking that summer vacation they are always talking about, the one where they sail to Tahiti on a yacht that Seth spent three years researching.
He dreams about all of them sitting in the balmy breezes of the Pacific, laughing and celebrating their friendships, Inez and Summer drinking way too many martinis and he and Seth downing countless shots of whiskey.
He dreams about waking up still drunk, to an empty bed and wandering off the boat, onto a private beach they are docked at and discovering Inez having sex with Mitch, the yacht's twenty-five year old hired deck hand.
He dreams about the satisfying crunching sound Mitch's nose makes when he slams his fist into the guy's face.
He dreams about stumbling into his cabin and sitting with his head between his knees and vomiting violently because the whiskey is ripping a path from his stomach back up his throat every time he closes his eyes and sees that kid fucking his wife.
He dreams about Inez begging him to open the locked door and let her in and pleading for him to understand that it meant nothing, what he saw between her and Mitch, and that she's so lonely because every year he gets more and more distant and maybe she's trying desperately to hurt him, to force him to face the fact that little by little, they are falling apart because no matter how close she physically is to him, he won't let her into his heart.
He dreams about leaning against the wall, his head pressed against the yacht's wooden paneling and listening to Inez saying to him, "You never talk to me, Ryan, about anything. You never tell me about your mother or your father or the brother you pretend doesn't exist or who you were and what you went through before you began living with Sandy and Kirsten. I've told you everything, Ryan, everything about myself. You know everything about me. Yet I have to find out tonight, hear it for the first time, from Summer, about a girl named Marissa and how you loved her before you loved me and how she died in your arms on graduation night. Your goddamn arms, Ryan. How is it possible that you could go through something like that and it takes all these years of marriage and seven martinis for anyone to ever tell me? I feel like I don't even know who you are."
He dreams about wanting to open the door and letting Inez in and telling her all about it, about the bruises his father gave him and the alcohol and drugs his mother neglected him for and the brother who turned his childhood trust against him and how he's still waiting, deep down, for Sandy and Kirsten to reject him and about how sometimes, he dreams about a girl he once loved.
A girl he once had a part in killing.
Because that spring so long ago, he knew Marissa was in way over her head, and instead of taking her back, he shoved her away, and instead of thinking about her needs, he only thought about his own, and instead of protecting her the one true time it mattered, he failed her.
He dreams about all of it.
He dreams about Inez crying quietly in the hall, saying over and over, "Ryan, please let me in."
And then he dreams about Marissa.
He comes to her at the lifeguard stand, slowly up the ramp, one step at a time, shoulders hunched, body heavy.
She sits next to him, side by side, their legs separated by mere inches, their shoulders touching.
"Inez slept with another guy," he tells her.
"She didn't mean to," Marissa answers, and she's not sure how, but she knows for sure that what she just told Ryan is true.
"How do you not mean to have sex with someone?" Ryan says forcefully and yells, "How the fuck does something like that happen? What? She forgot she was married? She forgot we have two kids? She forgot I existed?"
"She loves you," Marissa says, and she knows she's right about that, because Inez looks at Ryan exactly how she herself used to look at him.
"She's just like the rest of them," Ryan says bitterly. "Just like everybody else in my life."
"No, she's not," Marissa counters. "Inez is different. Don't push her away. She loves you. You can forgive her."
"Screw that," he says angrily, but Marissa knows better.
She knows Ryan better than maybe he knows himself.
She knows he won't walk away from his children.
She knows he won't try to separate them from their mother.
He'll stay with his wife, but that's not the real problem.
"You need to forgive her, Ryan."
He shakes his head and looks in the opposite direction and asks her, "How can I do that? What you're asking me to do is impossible."
"I forgave Kevin," Marissa says.
"It not the same," Ryan answers. "This is different."
"Forgiving is an act, not a situation," Marissa says, and she knows that before she came to this place, she wouldn't have been able to tell Ryan that. She wouldn't have understood the meaning of the words.
"You're so good at giving people who love you second chances, Ryan. But you never forgive them for anything. You have to start forgiving them."
He glances back at her and asks softly, "Have you forgiven me?"
She doesn't hear him ask the question in the voice of the grown man in front of her, but rather he sounds like the shy boy she remembers from when they first met.
From when they were both young.
"I never had to forgive you," she tells him. "You were never to blame."
Ryan only dreams about Marissa one more time, in one last place.
The diner's flashing neon sign warns that it's closed for the night and yes, Ryan might be thirty years older than when he first met Marissa, but he sure as hell can still pick a lock.
They sit across from each other in their favorite booth and Marissa wishes up some cheeseburgers and a bunch of golden brown French fries and Ryan waves his index finger back and forth from her to the food and says, "Nice one."
"You too," she laughs, pointing at the jimmied door.
"Inez and I are going to counseling," he says. "I want to work it out."
"You need to talk to her."
"I know," he nods. "I'm getting better at it."
"You need to forgive her," Marissa reminds him.
"I almost have," he says.
Marissa closes her eyes and when she opens them again, they're sitting on the front steps of Harbor and she's running her fingers through his hair and teasing him about the shiny silver grey streaks she finds peppered here and there.
She wonders how it can be possible that Ryan has somehow become as old as her father, when wasn't it just a few minutes ago that the boys stood in royal blue gowns and the girls in deep maroon and they all threw their graduation caps high up into the air and challenged life to try and keep up with them?
"It wasn't your fault I died, Ryan. You need to forgive yourself."
"I'm trying," he promises.
When the world is frosted white, Marissa goes to heaven.
She's not sure of the precise moment Ryan kept his promise to her but she knows he has, and that he has truly forgiven himself, because this anywhere and everywhere place that has been all around her for as long as she can recall, is quickly disintegrating into no place at all.
Its Crayola colors are draining and fading into a soft, soothing bleached light.
There's only one memory left she hasn't used.
One last moment Marissa hasn't visited in all the time she has been here.
One memory she has been saving.
An unforgettable brief second of her life when nothing else mattered.
Marissa closes her eyes and when she opens them again, she's at the Kickoff carnival, sitting in the Ferris wheel, holding Ryan's hand and kissing the boy she always loved and will continue to love forever.
They go around one more time in a smooth fluid circle and Marissa doesn't even care about what might happen, about what it all might mean, when she leaves the colors behind.
As she floats high into the sky.
Counting all the stars as they pass by.
Thanks for reading guys.