Fields of Green

by Kshar

Disclaimer: Characters are the property of NBC. Used without permission, not for profit.

xx

He calls her in the winter, and she's so shocked she puts her hand palm-down on a tray of muffins and squashes two of them flat ("Waste a' money, Jen").

It's a Wednesday at 10.32 a.m. He doesn't speak, but she can hear him breathing, and the shush of traffic in the background, and--unlike other phonecalls she's had like this in the past--she's okay with it. The clock above the coffeemaker ticks out the seconds, and she counts out over two full minutes before she speaks.

"Where are you?" she asks finally, and he hangs up.

That night, she keeps thinking she hears the phone ringing in her dreams, and she sleeps in patches until morning. She gets out of bed while the light's still gray, and in the green-tiled bathroom that hasn't changed since she was a little girl, she washes and washes. Her collarbones are more prominent in the bathroom mirror and she's stopped getting her hair cut and the wisps are always in her eyes, always getting pushed behind her ears.

She's wearing more layers, her dad's shirts and sweaters that are rape-victim oversized. She doesn't drink anymore. She is staying away from men for good, this time.

xx

Every morning she stretches and wraps her hands around the bedpost, curling her fingers. It feels the same every morning. She gets up earlier and earlier, starts the coffee maker and keeps a careful eye on the door, a careful ear listening for sounds above.

Her dad wanders more about the diner during the day, if there aren't too many customers around; hands in his pockets, a questing air about him. Jenny stops going out or going upstairs when things are slow, and one day she brings the radio downstairs with her. She listens to soft rock and jazz, with the volume turned down so low she can't make out the words and only barely the tune. The customers don't seem to notice, or if they do notice they don't mind.

The second time he calls, the days are getting longer again, bleeding into warmer weather. It's 6.40 p.m. on a Friday night, and she's still in the diner, trying to work on the accounts but mostly standing up, walking away from the desk and going to look out at the street outside until she gets annoyed with herself and goes back to the desk. The streetlights are on in the gathering twilight; bright white against gray cement and darkened sky.

"New Orleans," he says without preamble, with a resigned kind of sigh.

Jenny's silent for a while, thinking about Mardi Gras and voodoo and girls with skin the color of the milky coffee she makes for some of the neighborhood ladies. She looks at her own hand, holding the phone, at the blue veins standing out on her wrist.

"You okay?" she asks him.

"We have to keep moving," he says, and she opens her mouth to say something, but he goes on: "I'm okay, as long as we keep moving."

"Where're you going next?"

Time passes, again, and she hears the clock ticking behind her. She closes her eyes. She can hear people in the street outside, walking and arguing; glass breaking further down the road. Her eyes twitch back open and she presses the knuckles of her free hand on the counter.

"I don't know," he says, sounding tired. She imagines him rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes, tries to remember the line of his shoulders after he'd spent a long day doing something she didn't want to hear about.

She thinks: he sounds old, older.

He's not the same boy who'd drawn on napkins, who'd handed back a scarf, who'd shifted his eyes away every time she looked up at him from across the room. He's older, and he has blood on his hands now.

Of course, so does she, and she's beginning to know something about necessity.

xx

Things are quieter in the neighborhood now; it's different. People aren't as friendly. Plenty of the regulars don't look Jenny in the eye like they used to, but they still drink their coffee and pay their tabs, and really that's all that matters.

"Send me a postcard," is the first thing she says the next time he calls. She's looking out the window and squinting at the bright, flat morning light.

"I will," he says, and then she hears the dial tone, and she still stands there for a little longer, listening to the electronic echo.

For the rest of the day she thinks about things she maybe wanted to say. She gets a couple of orders wrong, and her pop gets mad. Gets mad for a while, and then forgets about it and sits at one of the tables and stares out at the street for a long half-hour. Jenny goes about her work, quietly watching him out of the corner of one eye, and is just starting to get really worried when he stands up, and goes back to the office, where he spends most of the rest of the day sorting and resorting invoices with his brow furrowed in deep concentration.

xx

Tommy is a man of his word, but just that. A month later, she gets a postcard ("Greetings from Sunset Crater", blue sky and black rock) in the mail, addressed in Tommy's cramped, backslanted hand. Only addressed, no other words.

She studies both sides of it, carefully, for clues. She's not quite sure what she's looking for. She holds it up to her face and breathes, trying to catch a scent, and then puts it down again when she notices a little kid looking up at her from his milkshake. She drops the postcard on the counter, then thinks twice and picks it up and puts it in her pocket.

She gets back to work.

xx

At the end of spring, her dad goes to bed early one night with a bottle of whiskey. Jenny sits up, listening to the radio turned down low and sipping herb tea from an out-of-date pack she liberated from the diner. It tastes like nothing, but she's heard it might help her sleep.

It doesn't, and she sleeps in vivid bursts of dream in frightening colors, and wakes up with a start. She doesn't know what makes her go to her dad's room in the middle of the night. She thinks later that maybe she heard something through her sleep that made her wake up worried. Heard him speaking a few quiet words, maybe, or heard him knock something small but final down onto the floor.

She didn't even know he had sleeping pills, and she notes the doctor's name and prescription date--just a few days ago--on the label. Once she's finished with the doctors and the police and the funeral home, she goes to the clinic and tries to find the doctor, plans to give him a piece of her mind.

But the girl at the front desk says that doctor isn't here today, and the bubbling-up rage that has her wanting to punch someone in the back of the head has nowhere to go.

She walks past the Firecracker on the way home, and the windows are still boarded up.

xx

They end up deciding it was an accident, and beside her Father Dufelt lets out a breath Jenny hadn't even noticed he was holding.

As for her, she doesn't care one way or the other right now. Consecrated ground's not something that will matter to her until later. And she knows it will matter later, when the shock wears off, so she tries to feel thankful. She has a sheaf of papers in her hand that she's supposed to be signing, and she moves them quietly to her lap.

"Confused in his head, poor man," Father says, and pats her hand, making the papers rustle. And Jenny thinks what a good person he is to be so gentle, and tries not to let him see how she clenches her hands into fists, and tries not to think about how if she could bring her father back to life, accident or no accident, she'd kill him for doing this.

She leaves the diner closed for now, and slips upstairs. She doesn't look into her father's room, doesn't look to either side as she walks. She showers with the water as hot as she can bear it, and the bathroom fills up with steam and the backs of her legs turn sunburn-red, desert-red.

And she's suddenly so very, very tired that she goes to bed as soon as she's toweled off, and sleeps the dreamless sleep of the grieving. She sleeps, gratefully, the clock around and doesn't wake until Father Dufelt knocks on the door of the apartment, his pinched face relaxing as he sees her in the doorway in her bathrobe. She tries to smile.

xx

In the spaces in between, she just lives. There's a carved-out hollow space in her chest when she wakes up in the mornings, and it stays with her. But she can't do anything about it, and the bills still need to be paid, so.

So.

She sets her alarm, wakes and washes and dresses and makes food and eats and serves and sells and counts and signs and buys and calls and watches and wipes and cleans and listens and stands quietly and sits quietly and breathes and sleeps, and sometimes she thinks.

She simplifies the menu--less hot food, less cooking for her--and finds a new bakery. The diner makes less money this way, but she's figuring out the books and she thinks she can still make ends meet. She starts a cake-and-coffee special in the afternoons, and the old men bitch, but the ladies from the neighborhood start coming by in groups, and it's so much easier to cut slices of cake than it was to work the fryer. They always talk to her, and sometimes pat her hand. Jenny smiles. Some things never change.

She starts noticing more when the late-afternoon sunlight reflects off the windows of buildings across the street. Maybe it's just that she's working longer hours and she's punchy because she's not sleeping so well, but it seems like she's getting more aware of the city around her. She notices the sounds of sirens at night that she's slept through her whole life. She pays attention to the debris, the grayish pieces of paper and plastic that she hoses off the sidewalk every morning. She always looks across the road. You never know.

xx

"I was sorry to hear about your dad," Tommy says the next time he calls.

"Oh, you heard?" she says. She thinks her voice is expressionless. She tries to make it so. There's something stubborn and sticky on the counter, and she picks at it idly with a fingernail.

"The funeral notice was in the paper."

"The paper here," she says, and digs harder at the spot of crusted-on something.

There's a long pause. "Anyways," he says. "I heard."

Jenny exhales. The sounds of the street outside get louder.

The phone beeps, and although she wants to pull it away from her ear, she doesn't, and she hears shuffling on the other end. "You're at a payphone," she says, for something to say, and because she's afraid she's losing the ability to picture him.

"Yeah. I got a cell, though."

"Oh," she says, and: "Give me your number," and she doesn't even try to make it sound like a request.

He reads her out the numbers, and she writes them big on a napkin, tearing it in a few places with the ballpoint she keeps by the phone. She reads them back to make sure she's got it right. And then all of a sudden she's run out of things to say, even though she thinks about things she'd like to tell him all the time. It's like her spine slips sideways, and she holds up a hand to her forehead, tired.

"You didn't answer. When I called." She almost doesn't hear him.

"When, today? I was here all day."

"Not today, Jenny. Before."

She curls her fingers back toward her palm, making a circle, a space where metal might press against her skin.

xx

In the background, she hears a muffled voice that might be Kevin: "Ask her," and then a scuffling, and what could be the sound of Tommy's hand connecting with the back of Kevin's head.

The corner of her mouth quirks, and she waits. Thirty-eight seconds.

"Kevin doing okay?"

"Kevin's fine," he says shortly. "We're all fine."

"Good," Jenny says. "That's good."

There's another long silence, and she listens to the sound of her radio playing, and the faint scritches of static on the line, and imagines the scene, Tommy standing at the payphone (still, he won't call her on the cell), Kevin bored and irritable and looking for trouble. Tommy keeping Kevin quiet with a glare.

She still gets moments like this where she can almost see him, and then she has moments where she forgets what he looks like, and it's like the feeling she had last week on the bus to the cemetery, two bunches of carnations in her arms against her chest, cellophane and damp paper rattling.

"Jimmy's clean," he says, interrupting her thoughts.

"For real?"

"Yeah."

"I'm glad," she tells him, and imagines, for some reason, Jimmy standing at the top of a hill, the sun at his back. "I put flowers on your mom's grave." She knows he won't understand the connection between the two thoughts, but it doesn't matter. He doesn't have to understand everything about her.

There's a hitch in his breath, or at least she thinks she hears it. She can't be sure. The line is fuzzy.

"'Preciate it, Jen," he says.

She waits for another long minute and remembers the scent of the flowers, the way one of them had been crushed in the store before she bought it and was browning on the edges. She hadn't wanted to take it out of the bunch and throw it away.

Another minute goes past, and she can feel her control slipping. She blinks, hard.

"What did you call me for, anyway?" she says. She thinks, if you're not going to say anything. She thinks, if you're not going to ask me what you called to ask me.

"I forget."

"Yeah, well, call me back if you remember."

xx

The next week, she gives her bedframe away to a young couple in the neighborhood who are getting married and don't have much money to spare. She hopes for their sake that furniture can't carry bad luck, but either way she's glad it's gone. And she puts her mattress flat on the floor, and now her room looks different, and feels different, and it's a relief.

Then, she gives a few pieces of her dad's furniture to Father Dufelt for his parishioners. And then a few more to Goodwill. And then a house in the neighborhood is gutted by fire and they need pretty much everything there is to need, and she gives them what she has, whatever she can spare, which is more than she'd thought. She bundles up old plates and towels and linen and books.

And then one evening she climbs the stairs, her footsteps slow; satisfied; tired. She notices for the first time that the moonlight is striping the floors of empty rooms, of a skeleton that was once a home. She looks around herself for a while, lights still off. She's lived here long enough that she can find her way in the dark; could find her way by counting steps or breaths to her room. When she reaches up a hand to tuck back a strand of hair, her skin's a study in gray and black shadow.

She leaves the room dark, and goes to shower, humming softly to herself.

xx

They move on again, Tommy and Kevin and Seanie on their own, this time.

Tommy doesn't tell her that Jimmy's using again, or that Joanie's fucking whoever she can pick up in the bar before closing, but Jenny hears the weight he's placing on his words, and she wonders.

She doesn't ask directly.

She and Tommy have never done anything directly, except for that one day.

"Ma'd kill me," she hears him mutter, low enough that she thinks he didn't mean for her to hear.

"She'd understand," Jenny says, hotly, immediately. "She'd be proud of you." Although it's a lie, and Tommy knows it's a lie--he's smart, is Tommy--and if Helen Donnelly was alive she'd be clipping him over the ear and telling him to go back for Jimmy and not to come back without him, but Jenny can't see much point in saying this since they both already know it, so she swallows around the knot in her throat and says: "She'd be proud."

Because if Jenny Reilly's going to be a damned liar, she might as well put some effort into it.

xx

A week and a day later, she's worked late again, and her feet are slow on the stairs again, and the rooms are empty again.

She stands and looks around herself. Through the window, there's still a last crack of sunlight keeping the night away. The buildings and streets are sepia.

She stands for a while, and then goes back downstairs to use the phone.

xx

She'd like to sit alone, but Greyhound passengers make a beeline for any seat next to a young woman, particularly a young woman with no visible trackmarks and who doesn't smell of stale body odor and beer.

So she makes polite conversation, over the course of her journey, with two older women, with a guy covered in home-cut tattoos and a young, greasy-haired man wearing generic blue jeans and shirt, who flinches at every loud noise.

She spends five minutes in Pittsburgh, forty-five in Columbus. She spends eighteen minutes in St. Louis in the early morning, streetlights still on and dawn not even on the horizon. It's drizzling rain, and her newly-trimmed hair turns itself into curls that she twists between her fingers and tugs straight. And in between, she looks out the window and sees parts of the country she's never seen before, never even come close. It feels maybe like a great big adventure.

She feels this way through nine states or so, and it staves off the claustrophobia, the exhaustion that comes from a night without sleep, from a year of living in sparking gray static. She stays high on truckstop coffee and the fact that everything she owns is in two bags.

And then they pull into Denver, and all the passengers file off the bus for the half-hour layover and Jenny's walking around the station, feeling in her pockets for change for the coffee machine, and it hits her seriously that everything she owns is in two bags and her heart. She flashes on what her dad might say ("The diner's our security, Jen"?), quickly, before she reminds herself that he's gone, and she almost fucking busts out crying right then and there.

She bites her lip hard, though, and keeps walking around, leaving the coffee machine behind. It takes a good ten minutes of cursing at herself under her breath before she feels back in control, and by that point even the tattooed guy is looking at her a little funny.

xx

At 3.44 pm, she stands up, duffel bag over one shoulder, and he's waiting for her outside the station, hood pulled up over his head. It's been raining so hard since they hit the state line, she'd barely been able to see anything through the fogged windows and slanted gray water. When she steps off the bus she sees streets, and houses, and beyond them, hills, and Tommy is waiting for her, turning something that catches the light over in his hand and not quite meeting her eyes, and the hills here are green, and so beautiful.

xx

End.

xx

Feedback of any kind would be gratefully received. Thanks for reading.

Kshar

April 2009