Chapter One: Weight of the World

Charlotte pulled her rental car into the gravel driveway and killed the engine. Darkness had fallen over rural Alabama, and it was pitch black. The street lights were few and far in between, and some of the rough back roads were still lit by headlights alone. It was a treacherous drive for anyone not familiar with the blind turns and uneven roads. Charlotte, however, knew Monroeville like the back of her hand. When she was just a tiny thing, barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel, Big Daddy had used to let her drive when no one else was out on the road. It was one of Charlotte's most vivid memories of her father, and being back in Monroeville made her miss him all that much more, especially given the current situation -- Doctors had just diagnosed her momma with liver failure.

Charlotte hadn't been surprised by the news. She'd always known, in one way or another, that the alcohol and the pills would cause her mother's death. Even still, the news had touched Charlotte more than she'd expected. It felt like everything was falling apart. Her mother was dying and just few days ago, Cooper had tossed her aside like a piece of trash. Hell, he'd even come right out and called her a trashy little girl. A sex toy that he'd found on the Internet. It killed Charlotte each time she remembered those cruel words because in the end, she'd proven him right. She'd allowed him to use her at Maya's wedding and toss her back aside without a second thought. She was nothing to him. Her heart was broken but her family didn't care about that. They still expected her to jump on a plane and deal with momma in her final days.

The porch lights switched on and Landry stepped outside. He nodded to his sister, but didn't make any move to greet her. He stood on the front porch, arms crossed with a sour expression on his face as Charlotte got out of the car, retrieved her luggage from the trunk, and walked up to him.

"Good of you to come," Landry told her. He spoke to his sister as if he'd actually given her a choice in the matter. Over the phone just yesterday, his exact words had been 'I dealt with Big Daddy when he was dying, now it's your turn'. Landry had all the warmth and sensitivity of a termite. "The private nurse will come twice a week, but I figured you could handle the majority of momma's care by yourself, seeing as you're a doctor."

It was late and Charlotte was exhausted from her trip. She didn't want to argue, so she just nodded. "I'll take care of it."

Landry started down the porch steps toward his car. It was obvious he'd just stayed long enough to pass the baton off to his sister. "I left all the medical contact information sitting out. Duke will come by next week, so if you have any questions, be sure to ask him." As Landry got into his car, he threw over his shoulder, "Same thing goes if you need help wrangling momma. It's on you and Duke."

Charlotte watched her brother drive away in disgust. She knew that she shouldn't be surprised, but it still upset her. "Good Lord," she muttered to herself, "I've died and gone to hell."

X.X.X

For the next week, Charlotte threw herself completely into her mother's care. It was like she was back in medical school doing her residency. Charlotte was on-call twenty-four hours a day. She got very little uninterrupted sleep and of course, her mother was an impossible patient. Every little thing, like changing fluid bags or administering medication, took twice as long. Her mother fought her every step of the way. She was determined to do things the hard way. To say Charlotte was exhausted was a gross understatement. In reality, she was barely keeping it together. She was queasy and lightheaded, and couldn't remember the last time she'd really eaten.

Charlotte carried her mother's dinner tray out of her bedroom. She'd tried to fix her momma's favorite; country ham and red-eye gravy. Ultimately, the meal had been criticized and sent back to the kitchen without being touched. As Charlotte descended the stairs, the bottom dropped out of the room. Stars exploded in front of her eyes and her footing faltered. The tray fell from her hands and clattered onto the floor. Charlotte grabbed hold of the banister to keep herself from falling and crumpled down onto the stairs. She tried to take slow, deep breaths but the room was spinning around her. She felt like she was going to be sick or pass out, or maybe even both.

"Hey there, Lolly." Charlotte hadn't heard the front door, but her younger brother, Duke, with house keys still in-hand, was kneeling down beside her. He touched her arm and asked, "What's hurtin' you?" He ran his hand over her ankles. He obviously expected to find something straightforward like a sprain. "What's happened?"

Charlotte covered her mouth with her hand and choked out, "I'm gonna be sick."

Duke immediately backed off and put some distance between them. He was in law school and not medical school for a good reason. He couldn't stomach the sight of blood or vomit. It made all six foot, two inches of him turn into a sissy. "I can, uh, wait - in the living room." Duke stepped away from her. "Give you a minute to pull yourself together, and get some control."

Charlotte sat there for at least five minutes practicing deep breathing. Eventually, with time, the nausea passed and her head cleared. She used the banister to pull herself to her feet and descend the rest of the stairs. "Duke," she called him back into the foyer. "It's nothing. It's passed, and I'm fine."

"It sure looked like something." Duke emerged from the living room and helped her pick up the contents of the dinner tray. "Momma's gonna give you an earful." He held up a piece of fine china, chipped at the rim, and said, "These are her company dishes."

"Well, they'll be mine in another couple months-" Charlotte grimaced and conceded, "That's an awful thing to say."

Duke didn't fault his sister. He knew his mother had a way bringing out the worst in people. "No worries, Lolly, I won't tattle on you." He winked at her and added, "Besides, I've already laid claim to the silverware."

Charlotte laughed despite herself. "God, we're ugly people."

"No," he told her. "We just cope in ugly ways."

Duke carried the tray into the kitchen and put it in the sink. When he turned around, he saw Charlotte had sat down at the table and put her head into her hands. She looked exhausted and run down, and like she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Duke watched his sister close her eyes and message her temple. "I've got migraine pills, if you want some, but you gotta promise not to crush them up in momma's breakfast first."

Charlotte looked up and smirked. "Tempting, but not necessary." She closed her eyes again and told him, "I'm just queasy from running myself ragged. When I get back to my hospital, I'm giving all the hospice nurses a disgusting raise." She set aside her pride and admitted, "End of life care is harder than I thought it would be."

"Okay, good. I'm glad that's the reason you're having fainting spells." Duke chuckled and made a lighthearted confession, "Because, for a minute there, I was afraid you were gonna tell me that you were pregnant."

...TBC...


A/N: This story isn't going to be the run of the mill BABY! story. I'm trying to put a new twist on an old standard, so please bear with me and REVIEW!