Sara flipped over onto her back and stared at the dark underside of her tent. Echoes of pre-dawn light shadows cast a haze, so she could see the edges of her blue tarp.
"Time to move," she whispered.
When she emerged from her makeshift home, she noticed that four of them sat there.
"You're breeding like rabbits," she muttered to them as she passed by and walked out to her peninsula. Removing her thick coat and laying it out carefully, she began to stretch, starting with her neck and shoulders and moving to her back and waist.
When every kink was worked out, she looked out across the horizon. Putting her coat back on, she sat down and waited for the sun to burn the sky with color. She never watched the sunrise, though. She always watched the opposite horizon. The colors that emerged were utterly amazing – the deepest, most vivid she'd ever seen.
With the sun casting up over the horizon, she finally went back to camp and began the process of building her fire.
With flames leaping, she grabbed her journal and sat staring at the fire, until the heat of the day and the blaze made it unbearable to wear the heavy coat, and she removed it.
In the fire she found her memories – her classmates, all with dreams of the future, heading onward to better and better things – a friend, preparing for her wedding.
Picking up her journal, she wrote.
Where do I want to be in the future?
That's always been a nebulous question to me. I've never really been offered a choice in the matter. In high school, I wanted to go to college. That's as far as I ever got. The other kids around me would dream of going to school, getting married, starting their careers, having a family… beginning a life. I didn't so much dream as pray I'd get that scholarship. It was that or get kicked to the curb.
When I was younger, I was bounced from place to place, and never by choice. I would be in a good home for awhile, only to find myself yanked away and shoved someplace else. Nobody asked me if I wanted to move, I was just moved. Nobody asked me if I wanted to stay, though, either.
My future has generally consisted of waiting for the other shoe to fall. If I have ever looked too far forward, something has happened.
I got a lot of comments from my teachers and my peers when I got a full ride to Harvard. They were all excited. I really wanted to go to Berkley. I didn't want to move across the country. I didn't have much of a choice, though. The teachers who had rallied behind me and half-pushed me into applying for Harvard and the scholarship were so proud. I didn't want to disappoint them.
When I moved here, I rarely looked beyond the moment – terrified I'd do something to screw it up. The night I got pulled over for the DUI, I felt like a complete moron, because I had actually started seeing myself here. I'd started seeing a future in this town, and on the team. In general, I was accepted. I truly believed I'd blown it. Again. Like every other time, something had happened. I was surprised Ecklie and Grissom let me stay.
Then I started seeing a future in him – us – in the last year or so. What had started out as no more than an affair had tilted and gave way to something so much more. We worked hard to keep us and the lab separate for a variety of reasons. We argued sometimes. Both of us can be so damn stubborn. But even through it all, I could see my future.
I started dreaming about a life with him. When he asked me to marry him, I could see it happening. I could see ten years down the road. I could see growing old with him, holding hands, letting go, and joining again in some nebulous place in another place and time. I was given a glimpse of forever, and it took my breath away.
The other shoe fell. I fell apart. The future became a blur. Wisps of shadowed ghosts intermingle in the future, obscuring it. Until I get through them, I won't be able to move forward.
So, I'm back to where do I want to be down the road. I have a glimmer of an idea. I hope he does, too.
Sara tossed her journal down next to the fire, grabbed her coat, and started walking down the edge of the gully. Scurrying around the two cars, she shook her head and continued walking. Looking back, she could see the peak, and walked around to the other side of it.
She remembered sliding, then falling down that hill. The pain in her shoulder and arm had been so unbearably intense, she wasn't sure how she stood up and continued on.
Approaching the sandy hillside, she began to climb, then slide, and climb some more, until she reached the halfway point, and sat down on a rock in the sand.
Staring out over the landscape, she sighed. Everything lay silent before her in the mid-morning sun, and she could almost feel the light streaking down across the life that lay still across the horizon. Laying back, she simply watched the sun, as it rose into the sky.
As soon as she had made the descent and she was out of sight, Grissom had picked up the journal, read through the entries, and passed it over to Nick and Catherine. They eventually passed it on to Warrick.
Without speaking, they put it back, lay back into the shadows, and waited.
Sara made her way back to camp for lunch. Her first order of business was to stir the existing coals and add a couple of logs.
Pulling out her last MRE, she ripped it open and ate.
As she watched the fire grow and wane, throughout the day, she saw images of herself throughout her life. They'd grow and merge, always being licked by shadow. She watched herself grow from scared child to insecure woman. The shadows always seemed to follow her.
That night, she slept cross-legged out on her peninsula, as the bitter cold wrapped itself around her.
In the morning, she walked back to her camp. There were six of them now.
Shaking her head, she passed them, muttering, "Anyone left in the lab?"
Stoking her fire, she grabbed her journal. She had a question to answer. It was the question she'd started this quest with, and the one she sought and feared desperately.
Who am I?
In the flames, I saw myself. I come from them – my parents. My mother would cower, my father would beat. My mother killed him. The fire turned blood red, and I saw her coated in it.
I saw the defenseless child become the lonely child. I was strange. I couldn't help it. Nobody ever gave me a chance to be any different. I felt humiliated and so very much alone.
Then I saw the defenseless child become a resigned teenager. I'd never recognized that in myself, until I watched it spark in front of me. I remember as a teenager, I was awkward. It's hard to answer questions from friends about why I couldn't drive or why I lived with foster parents. The worst was the pitying looks they'd give me when I told them. So I stopped telling them. I stopped having friends. They wouldn't remember me in a year anyway.
Living in Boston, I had been given a chance to explore. I was no longer in the system. I was on my own. But somewhere along the way, I'd forgotten how to relate to people. I was so awkward that first year. My second year became easier, because I learned to mimic the people around me.
In those years, I grew from resigned teenager to party girl. I maintained my GPA, but it became about having fun, too. It was all a mask I wore. I never talked about my past or my future. I lived only in the moment and for the moment. I was fake. I got really good at imitating those around me. I dated. I slept with a few guys. In the end, they never saw the real me.
I went back to California, and I watched myself turn into this insecure young woman. In class, I knew my stuff. Out of class, I knew nothing. I didn't date much. I spent my free time studying harder than I ever had before. One day at the grocery store, someone hit on me. I stuttered and stammered. I'd left the fake me back in Boston, and I didn't have a clue how to react. I felt… stupid.
When I interned in the coroner's office, I started feeling useful. After that, I became a CSI. I had a title. At least that was a step in the right direction. Full of insecurities, I'm sure I drove my mentor completely nuts with my questions. He was patient, though, and walked me through everything. By the time I was two years into the position, I felt confident in my job. The next time someone asked me out, I smiled and said yes. But I was still only in the moment.
The first time I felt bold enough to really talk to someone was at a conference. I saw these amazingly blue eyes and cute grin. He asked me to stay after, because I had a ton of questions and time was up. We talked. I asked him to have dinner with me. I'd never done that before. He was an interesting person, and I felt comfortable. It was a strange sensation, as the only time I ever felt comfortable was alone. There was a connection there, but we didn't take it past friendship until almost seven years later.
Over the next couple of years, we became friends. He would send me articles on material sciences in forensics, and I'd send him case notes for interesting bug cases. We always had an amicable relationship. So, when he called and asked me to do him a favor, it wasn't a problem. I was actually looking forward to seeing my friend again. So I went to Vegas.
When he asked me to stay, I was so enamored with the way the lab was run and camaraderie I saw there, I said yes. If I'm being honest, I probably also said yes so that maybe we could reconnect with him. It was actually kind of fun to do the job in Vegas. The cases were interesting. I should have known it wouldn't be all rosy, because I ended up having to start everything all over. I wasn't established here. I had been in San Francisco. I felt myself slide right back into the part of insecure woman.
Over time, I've established some friendships, but never really let anyone in to see who I am. It's a little hard, when you can't answer that question for yourself. So I hold everyone at arm's length. It's not that I don't have faith in them. Part of me has learned to trust, but the other part screams that if I open my mouth I'll be alone again. I've had friends before who wouldn't come near me once they knew where I came from.
The only person who really knows me is Gil. He's heard the horror stories, and seen the scars. There are a lot of them – inside and out. He can't heal them, though. I know that bothers him – that he can't fix what's wrong. There's nothing he can do. I know he wanted me to talk to him these last few weeks. I couldn't. I'd lost all my words, and was fading.
When we're together, my insecurities fade. They'd begun to fade, in general, and I'd truly begun to feel comfortable in my own skin. The insecurities pop up every now and again, and I ask him to just hold me or talk to me. When I have a nightmare, he reads me poetry, because it soothes me, and him.
It always seemed to be enough, until lately. Lately, I've been so tired. I've been everything all at once. In my dreams, the darkness drowned me out, leaving me surrounded by my ghosts.
But they're not really ghosts at all, are they?
I've spent my entire life surrounded by haunting memories.
When I left, I wondered if I could be a monster. I think we all have the ability to hurt. I think everyone in this world has the ability to destroy. I guess in that, I'm no different. My mother was no different. My father was no different.
The difference is in how we define ourselves. I'm tired of being nothing more than a title. I'm not Child X, living in House Y. I'm not Student A, living in Dorm B. I'm sure as hell not just a CSI. I have had it with being defined this way.
I had a hellish childhood. I grew up in a system that sucks. I was never given a damn thing. I earned everything I have. No one has the right to tell me different. I'm not the monster my parents turned out to be. They could have made different choices. I've made different choices. I know I'm vulnerable and weak at times. I know I get angry. Sometimes it's justified, and sometimes it's not. I'll always have memories flame up on me, and there's nothing I can do about that. It's NOT my fault.
So I'm back to the question.
Who am I? I'm Sara. I matter.
She looked into the flames in time to see the deep shadows flicker, and dim, receding to the edges. Turning, she looked at the group sitting on the edge of camp, and stared. Gil, Greg, and Nick sat huddled together, while Catherine, Warrick, and Jim sat huddled together.
Grissom, Nick, and Greg looked up at her as she contemplated them.
"Are you okay?" Gil asked.
"I think so," she replied. "I don't know if I'll ever be… normal, though. You might want to reconsider jumping into the deep end head first."
"I have no doubts," he replied, the sincerity evident in his eyes.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" Nick asked.
"You guys read my journal, didn't you?" she accused, avoiding his question.
Blushing profusely, Greg responded. "Yeah."
"It wasn't meant for you," she whispered. Reaching into the journal, she pulled out the pages with the last question. Walking over to Grissom, she handed the entry to him and said, "Hold onto this. There may be a time I need to read it again."
"Do you mind if we…" Catherine started to asked, indicating the pages in Grissom's hand.
With a sigh, Sara said, "You've read everything else. Apparently my life is now an open book."
Turning back to the fire, with a half laugh, she picked up the journal, and threw it onto the coals, and stirred, until the pages caught fire.
While it burned, Sara took down the tarp and packed it into her backpack. Occasionally, she turned back and stirred the embers and stoked the coals with air. Fire licked the binding, scorching. She used a stick to flip the pages open and watch them burst into flame.
She picked up any signs of life around the camp, carefully packing it all in her backpack.
When the last pages had burned to nothing but ash, she took one of her two remaining water bottles and drowned out the coals, sending searing smoke thick into the air.
"Where are you going?" Greg finally asked.
"Home," was her only reply.
She started the hike down the steep sandy slope, gently sliding, but anticipating her footing. When she got to the bottom, she turned around to look, and saw nearly her entire team following her. She heard car doors slam, and engines start.
"It's a long hike," she warned, frowning.
"I'll be behind you the entire time," he responded.
"I'd rather you were beside me," she whispered on a sigh, and he grinned.
Catherine and Brass drove past, explaining that they'd wait by the road.
The rest of the crew kept Sara's pace, stopping every once in awhile, as she recognized something in the landscape.
They weren't far from the highway when Sara stopped and turned.
"This is where you found me, isn't it?" she asked Nick.
"Yeah," he replied, a lump forming when he added, "I couldn't get a pulse."
"I felt water," she stated.
Looking at the four men walking beside her, she frowned when she said, "I was so ticked off that I got that close to the road and collapsed. After nearly drowning, I nearly died from dehydration. Go figure."
As they left the spot, something felt lighter – more forgiving.
"Just remember to read that to me, Gil," she said, as they approached the road.
Once there, Catherine and Brass jumped out and grinned.
"Congratulations, Sara. You made it," Brass said.
Her team had lined up against the cars, all grinning. Tears sprung to her eyes, and she didn't bother wiping them away, but let them pool and fall – making streaks through the dirt that coated her face.
"Could someone give me a ride? I really want three showers, a bath, and something edible. I'm starving and I smell."
When the laughter died down, he held her hand, and she smiled the first true smile he'd seen in a long time.
"Let's go home."
A/N - I want to thank everyone who reviewed this story. I truly appreciate the feedback. It's been an interesting journey for me to write. I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading. Feel free to review.