A/N: This story is set around episode 130 or so, the only big difference being that Olivia is NOT pregnant. Oh, and Paula Stevens doesn't exist. You'll understand later. ;) Happy New Year!
The Key to the Sea
I swear there was no foresight in leaving Carmel Valley a day early. I've heard of parents having these...intuitions about their children being up to no good, but I can't say I've ever had one. What do they feel like? A chill, a coronary, a hair in your food?
(Surely I would've felt it when Caitlin was seeing him.)
Anyway, Gregory was never so happy to hear I wanted to go home. It had been a long time since I'd said those words. It was a wonderful sort of homesickness, of knowing we didn't need to be away from anathing. My head was on his shoulder as he drove, the passing headlights bathing us in a steady rhythm of warmth. His arm was around me, squeezing my shoulder as he gathered speed.
The silence moved, it lived. A blessed silence. When we talked about nothing in particular, it was a blessed nothing.
"It just baffles me that men have no emotional connection whatsoever to the cheesecake," I continued.
"It's not tempting to me in the least. You women always forget the way it hits you like lead."
"Until it's too late," I added, "and we need a forklift to get us out of the restaurant."
"Cheesecake is a misnomer, really. It's a torte."
"That's sheer nonsense. It's a cake."
"Too many eggs. It's a torte."
"You're seriously going to challenge me on this?" I chuckled. "My expertise on this topic goes back to religious rituals in Ancient Greece. It's a cake. What?..." I watched him as he drove, the smirk on his face a mile wide. "What are you thinking about?"
"All the ways I can get you to say torte," he said, squeezing my shoulder. "Loudly."
My mouth gaped, my shoulder feeling erogenous in an instant. "Why did we leave the resort again?" I asked, denting his shoulder with my head.
"Well, with Caity in Chicago, it's probably best not to leave Sean and Tiffany alone for..." His face began to sober as the car approached the house. "Did you see that?"
"The fact that my three top buttons just mysteriously came undone?"
"No. I swear I just saw someone running from the west garden..."
I buttoned up. He put the car in park with a jerk as we pulled into the garage. "Deschanel," he growled.
We hurried through the back entryway, the sound of booming bass getting stronger as we got closer. "Gregory? Thieves don't usually break noise ordinances while they work."
Sure enough, it wasn't a ransacked house we walked into...but a deserted Bacchanalia.
A sitcom disaster without the laugh track.
Crushed plastic cups, pizza boxes. A plant's pedestal tipped over. Something unidentifiable stuck to something else unidentifiable.
The music was still pumping because the disc jockey had fallen asleep at his table.
I don't know, what do you want from me? It's like the more money we come across, the more problems we see.
Gregory stabbed at the mixing board buttons until finally unplugging it. He gathered the boy up by his hooded sweatshirt, hurling him out the front door like Fred Flintstone's cat. "Get the hell out of my house!"
"My God, this is such a cliché," I moaned. "Look at the drapes! What did they do, swing from them?"
"SEEEAAAAAN!" Gregory bellowed. As he stumbled through the wreckage, he started to snarl under his breath all the punishments rattling in his head. "Military school...Ford Escort...chain gang...!"
Tiffany was collapsed on the couch, all curled up with Bette's life-size matador, though I wondered how it got here. Alfonso's black hat was on Tiffany's head and she smiled in her sleep.
"Tiffany?" Gregory called out. "TIFFANY!"
"...uhhnn...oh, hi, Mr. Richie." Her pixie voice was five times as grating under the influence.
"Where, IS, SEAN?" he yelled in close proximity to her face. I recoiled with her, knowing first hand how loud he can be when you're drunk.
"Duh, he's right here." She cuddled the matador tighter.
"Strange," I scoffed. "I've never seen my son dressed quite so flamboyantly."
She looked to her right and let out a horrible rumpus that might've been a laugh. "Oh, you mean that Sean. He's sleeping it over in his room. Off. Sleepin' it offa like Hoffa. He didn't want anyone to see that he couldn't hold his liquor. Get it? Hold his liquor?"
Gregory and I looked at each other, at a complete loss. "You are your own punchline, Iffy my dear," I groaned.
We could hear Spike barking outside, a sharp, piercing bark. "Oh, God," Gregory said. "I'm having a nightmare vision of all the new patio furniture at the bottom of the pool!"
I followed him out the French doors and down the steps, bumping into him as he screeched to a halt on the travertine tile. He whipped around in a flash and buried my head in his chest. "Liv, don't look. Please don't look."
"Don't look at what?" I said loudly over the barking, struggling in his grasp. "Will you simmer down? Whatever it is, it can be replace-"
I choked. A man's body was floating in complete serenity, face down, the water sparkling with a daylight luster. I had a sick flash of all the times the children used to dead-man's-float on purpose, and how we'd give them hell for it. We don't know if you're playing or not!
This was no game.
I stared at the man's bright yellow shirt billowing around him, the way his dark hair gently dusted the nape of his neck.
"...gre...ry," I shook, missing letters in my chill. "It's cole."
Spike was immovable at the pool's edge, crying into his forepaws. My words began to outrun my brain. "No. This could've just happened a moment ago, it could've just happened after they all freaked and ran, how could nobody have noticed this?"
"A bunch of wasted teenagers? What do you expect?"
I pulled Gregory's phone out of his jacket and dialed 9-1-1 with rickets in my fingers. I stuck the phone in his hand. "Off you go, don't yell at the operator," I said, backing away.
"Where are you goi-"
He didn't get to finish. I tossed off my shoes and dove into the water with a great splash. It had been a long time since he'd seen me swim, because he reacted like someone in 17th century Salem. "~LIV!~ "was his muffled call above the water. "~Are~you~crazy?"
I hooked my arms around Cole, flipping his body so his head surfaced. I bobbed up too, but my head slipped under as I fought to keep him steady. He was far from weightless, even in water.
Gregory extended his hand with rigid desperation. "Sweetheart! Come to the side, be careful! He's too heavy, your clothes are too damn heavy!"
"...I've g-got him," I shivered, spitting, one arm braced around his collarbone, the other at his waist. "Help me get him on the deck."
Gregory reached into the water and pulled Cole by the ankles, as I hoisted the rest of him. Gregory dragged me out and into his dry arms. "One Ocean Avenue, please hurry," he exhaled into the phone he had dropped, and it clattered to the ground again.
"My God," I coughed into Gregory's chest as we sank down to look.
I pressed Cole's neck. A slow, meek tap hit the pads of my fingers, as if a tiny animal was trapped inside.
"Gregory, h-he's still alive. He's not breathing, but he's got a pulse!"
"Not surprising, coming from a cockroach Deschanel." I could tell by the despair on Gregory's face that he knew what needed to be done. "Olivia, there's not enough Listerine in the world..."
I tilted Cole's head back. "I'm not going to make you do it!"
"Olivia, wait," he sighed, "maybe we should check his pockets first. What!" he answered the look I shot him.
"Conditional air, Gregory? Honestly?"
I looked at Cole's stone blue lips, leaning closer, and tried to work up enough breath to give him...but I froze. To put this image in Gregory's mind was the last thing I needed right then: Cole and I locked together. It could've made many things suddenly make sense. It could've cost me evrathing.
Oh, Gregory, forgive me. Cole was stolen from my hands for you, but he won't die in them for you.
I pinched his nose and went for it, my wet hair sticking to his face like tentacles. "C'mon, Cole...c'mon...you've much more hell to raise..."
Are you in the habit of kissing a dead man's cold lips? Gregory's voice echoed in my head. Apparently so, but maybe I could distract him from the visual. "Is his chest rising? I can't tell, watch it."
"Yeah, it's going. C'mon, kid. The last thing we need is any more bad publicity!"
"I'm sure that will spur him on, darling, thank you," I huffed with rolling eyes. I knew by the second how hard it would be to keep this up until the ambulance arrived. I struggled to catch my own breath, but I didn't falter. It took a certain amount of passion to rouse someone to life, whether I liked it or not. Tenderness began to fill each puff, too. Please don't die. He was an incorrigible lout, but every one of his faults could be traced back to me. "Don't do this to Elaine. Breathe for Elaine, for Caitlin."
"Just Elaine," Gregory revised. "Look, look, his arm jerked, Olivia, you've got this! Just a little more!"
What I felt the next time my lips met his, I could barely describe. It was like he was struck by lightning, and I swore I could feel the pain of falling at breakneck speed into your own body. He started tossing up water and turning every color imaginable. I rolled him quickly to his stomach. "A roach for damn sure!" I sniffed, realizing that tears had built up with each moment that passed.
Gregory looked away as Cole continued to exorcise Lake Tahoe. "This is why I didn't become a doctor." A pregnant pause passed, and Gregory's disgust washed slowly away. He held my cheek. "Liv, I-I can't...I shouldn't have given you a hard time. I should know this side of you better. The irrepressible woman I met."
My face burned. "I couldn't have done it without you." I averted my gaze finally, remembering that the static in the background was Cole. "You weren't bad yourself, Deschanel..." We waited for him to try to speak, but his eyes were firmly closed. Nothing. He was coughing and taking heavy, rasping breaths, but very far away from us.
"He's still unconscious," I said, my voice shrinking. "That can't be good."
Gregory grasped my shoulder. "It's a definite upgrade from dead. I hear the ambulance coming. Now can we check his pockets?"
"Oh, I suppose."
There was nothing on his person, and I held Gregory's hand in the silence after that discovery. "He didn't take anathing."
"Or he had an accomplice."
"Gregory. Please go and get all the towels from the cabana, he's freezing."
When he returned, he said, "Not all the towels," wrapping me up in one as I swaddled Cole.
I felt the young man's head carefully. "He doesn't seem to have a concussion. If he didn't knock himself out, then what? A grown man with...considerable muscle doesn't just fall in a pool and drown as easily as a kitten."
"If he didn't come to raid the safe during the chaos, I don't see any reason he'd be at a high school keg party other than to take advantage of underage girls. Maybe someone didn't like it and taught him a lesson."
"You honestly think a sixteen year old- three sheets to the wind- was able to force him under, Chuck Norris style?"
"Alright, scratch that. Do you think...he was drunk? Did you...smell anything on..."
He couldn't say his lips. "No, only chlorine," I answered quickly.
We looked at each other, Cole's body a heaving speed bump between us.
"He might never be the same," Gregory said after a while. "He might have to relearn everything, and Caitlin will put her life on hold-"
"Sh-sh. Don't think about that right now."
"Alright. I'll just think about the antics of my heroic wife."
He held me in his arms. Was it really heroism at all? "Someone saved my life tonight, Sugar Bear," Gregory sang softly into my skin - the going-away song at our wedding. The sound of Cole's gritty breathing created a strange percussion within the memory. As the red lights began to swirl about our faces, I knew that this feeling would wear off. The adrenaline rush, the power over our humanity. Once it all sank in, Gregory would ask certain questions, and Sugar Bear wouldn't know the best answer.
There we were, in a South Bay waiting room again. We weren't praying for Sean's recovery this time, but sitting right near him, wanting to kill him. Funny how things turn out.
I had thrown on a velour tracksuit before the ride to the hospital, my wet hair still clinging to my head. Sean's hangover was in its infancy. He'd been abruptly woken up and dragged into the car. He hadn't spoken yet. He looked like human molasses.
"I'm begging you," Gregory grumbled, "not a word. The slightest peep of your voice is ulcer-inducing."
"That goes double for me, Sean," I shivered. Gregory must've been shocked that I wasn't jumping to our baby's defense. How could I? Someone had nearly died, and it just as easily could've been Seanie.
"Where should I start?" Gregory finally said. "The blatant disregard for us, the house, the safety of your friends? Or how about the giant middle finger at your mother's sobriety?"
"Don't you dare defen-"
"I'm not! In fact, I have decided the consequences, Sean. Until further notice, there will be no car, no AOL, and Miss Thorne-in-our-arses will be renting her bedroom. You will help her pay for it, among other things."
"With what money?" he croaked.
"The salary from your new position as the lowliest intern at the radio station, and I mean lowliest. Filing paperwork in windowless rooms, interminable coffee runs, janitorial duties. And most certainly not hobnobbing with musicians at any given time."
That snuffed his eyes out completely.
"You will work until you cover all the damages," I finished.
Gregory's eyes, on the other hand, were downright sprightly, eating me up. "Including -but not limited to- all furniture and decor, new water for the pool, the patio umbrella, the jewel thief's possible funeral expenses-"
He puffed out a sigh. "I said 'possible.'"
Sean stared into the floor. "I never meant for something like this to happen. I never even saw Cole back at the house. Did you ask Tiff if she did?"
I rolled my eyes. "Yes, but when I asked if she'd seen Cole Deschanel, she thought I said Coco Chanel, and babbled something about fashion design. Oh, and F.Y.I.? She also cheated on you with a mannequin."
Sean rested his forehead in his hands, kneading away. "How are we gonna tell Cait about Cole?"
"We're not," I said. "We're not telling her anathing while she's at Nationals, at least. I was shocked she even left her boyfriend behind to dance in the competition. She's worked for this her whole life."
"Besides, you know her," Gregory added. "She'll want an exact timeline of what happened to him and we won't have a clue until he wakes up."
"What if he doesn't?" Sean frowned.
I bit the flesh of my cheek. "Sean, who was the biggest gossip at that party, someone who would've been privy to absolutely evrathing? You know, a junior Bette."
"...I guess Amy Neilson."
"Perfect. Her father's a despot. I'm sure she wouldn't want dear Bernie to know what she's been up to. She'll tell me what she knows, or else."
"Great," Gregory sighed. "Now you've got your mother blackmailing a cheerleader."
Just then, Bette and Elaine arrived. I had asked Bette to be the bearer of the news, too afraid to hear Elaine's devastation. I braced myself as she ran to me.
"Livvie," Elaine sniffed, enclosing me in her arms. "Thank you. Thank you for taking care of my baby."
Bette and I exchanged strangled glances over Elaine's shoulder. "Darling, don't even mention it," I whispered.
Gregory embraced us both. "Everything will be alright, Elaine, you'll see."
"I'm not so sure. Maybe I...I just wasn't meant to have him," she cried into my hair.
"Sweetie, no," Bette said, shaking her head. "Not so, finito, end of story."
Sean shot up from his seat, his eyes trembling with tears, hugging the lot of us. "I'm so sorry, everybody. This is all my fault."
Elaine held his face. "Seanie, you're just a normal, red-blooded American boy. I'd give anything to have been there to crash Cole's first party. It's a rite of passage."
God, I loved her dearly, but Sean didn't need to hear that. I gave him a sharp look to signal that his punishment was still on.
"This is nobody's fault," Elaine continued. "It was a terrible accident. You just focus on making sure your mom doesn't catch pneumonia...while I make sure she gets the Key to the Sea for what she did."
Gregory's eyes widened with interest. It was just the good publicity he was thirsty for. The Key to the Sea was that clichéd honor bestowed by the mayor for citizen acts of bravery. I suppose it had a nicer ring to it than Key to the Town.
"Elaine, please," I said. "That ceremony is so embarrassing. I don't want to be made into a spectacle. I think that what happens in my own pool is my responsibility- there was no valor invol-"
"I agree, Lainey," Bette interrupted. "What Livvie did was incredible. It almost has a...romantic quality. It's like every girl's Baywatch fantasy." I had perfected subtle ways of inflicting pain on Bette when she opened her mouth out of turn. My foot twisted into hers. "Owwhy should we deny you the honor?"
"But...Spike was barking nonstop, I mean, if it weren't for him...can't he get the key? It'll be cute, they can put it in his mouth."
"Olivia," Gregory frowned. "No one is putting the Key to the Sea in a mangy dog's mouth when there are capable human hands to put it in."
"Livvie?" Bette said. "Can I, uh...talk to you for a second?" She pulled me into a corner. "I got a little g-i-p gipped here, don't you think? Hel-lo? I want to know every last detail of that magical liplock de vivre with Luscious Lazarus."
"Will you lower your voice?" I spat in a whisper. "It wasn't foreplay, you fool!"
"Ah, but did Greggie agree? Do you think he suspected anything about your affair?"
"No, and I'd like to keep it that way. Besides, you don't want to know what it was like. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."
"Mmm'kay. Then just wish it on your best friend," she grinned.
"If you could control your libido for five seconds, you'd see that we should be back there, supporting someone we've so royally sucked at supporting. Our dear sister who stands to lose her precious son twice in one lifetime!"
I dragged her back to the waiting room. Gregory's eyebrows questioned me and I pish-poshed him with a toss of my head.
Suddenly, Dr. Chang appeared. "Mr. and Mrs. Richards?"
"His mother is here now," I said, whisking Elaine in her direction.
Elaine reached for Rae's hand. "Is he okay?"
"I'm sorry to say it's mixed. His lungs are responding really well to oxygen therapy. Beautifully. But...he's still in a coma."
"Oh, God," Elaine whimpered as we held her. "When will he wake up?"
"We don't know. He has limited eye responses, but good flexion. I'm confident he'll wake up...I wish I could tell you when. Sometimes, comatose patients just have inner turmoil they need to work through, in a state of absolute peace."
I swallowed with difficulty.
Elaine nodded, managing a shaken smile. "I can't promise him absolute peace, Doctor, but I can promise absolute love."
"Come and sit with him, okay?" Rae said. "I won't make you wait another minute."
I unconsciously began to follow them, until my feet went pigeon-toed beneath me. No one had noticed. "Elaine, I...we'll be back when he can have more visitors."
"Of course," Elaine said, rushing back to hug me once more. "You're my angel. Always have been. I'm so lucky you left that London fog behind and chased after the sun, Olivia."
Like Icarus, perhaps.
It was almost five a.m. by the time we finally got home. In bed, I stared straight up at the ceiling, remembering England days when ceilings had cracks to follow. There were times when it was better than television.
Gregory leaned over and claimed my mouth as I was just easing into a half sleep. I was a bit grumpy with this at first, but thawed in an instant, as always. I rolled on top of him, feeling his warm hands wander my body.
"You were amazing tonight, in every respect," he said. "The pool, the way you handled Sean. And you were so comforting to Elaine."
I rolled my eyes at the last part.
He frowned. "Come on. Don't you think saving the kid's life was enough redemption for Del's plan? Do you even believe in redemption?"
I shrugged. "Giving her a son who can't speak, who lies there like a corpse? I'd say that's only a continuation of the curse."
"You know Lainey. Even if he was in a coma for years, the time would be precious to her. The girl knows how to talk, especially with a captive audience."
I nodded, chuckling under my breath. "It's softened your opinion of him a bit, hasn't it...seeing the way she loves him? Even when you found out he was Elaine's son, I don't think you really connected the two of them in your mind."
He sighed. "No. Not at all. They're not much alike. They don't even look alike."
I turned over. "He had ginger hair when he was born," I said quietly.
He conformed his body to my back. "Listen...I want the kid to be alright, but I still can't see him with my daughter, if that's what you were really asking before."
"Well...tonight may have been his last kiss for a long while." I shivered, realizing I sounded like Bette. After a long pause, I asked, "Were you jealous at all?"
"Of what? Your upcoming special honor? Oh, honey, I'll be soaking it all up by association. It'll be great." My eyebrow rose and I turned back over to him, my lips in a thin line. He made a viewfinder with his fingers and framed my stone face. "The Sentinel will be there, the TV stations. Olivia Richards, heroine. She's overcome her vices, she's the furthest thing from a murderer. Liberty stock goes up, the radio shares go up, the resort project expands to the size of Carlsbad, Spike gets his own Christmas turkey that breaks the table!"
I shot out of bed and stormed into the bathroom, slamming the door behind me. "Olivia?" he said into the wood. "What! What in the world did I say that was wrong?"
"The fact that you don't know is the greatest travesty of my life!"
"Come back to bed, please."
"No. I'd rather sleep on this wet floor! I am not your, your plastic P.R. spokeswoman, and I don't want that blasted Key!"
His sigh filled the solid door, the walls. The whole house. I leaned against the door, listening to him breathing.
I threw open the door and he nearly fell into my arms. "Oh, Gregory," I cried into his robe. "I'm sorry. It's been a terrible, terrible night. Poor Elaine. Poor, poor Elaine. How much more can she take...?"
"If she can weather as much as I can, she's golden," he grumbled.
"We should close the pool until the summer," I said, a tangent of pure sleepiness.
"Well, I have been wanting to buy that new autoreeling Pacific Armor 2000 cover. Guaranteed to keep out water fowl and leaves..."
"Mhm." I would've listened to him talk about the most mundane man-gadgets for hours, as long as he kept breathing.
When Cole didn't awaken in a few days, I made the other dreaded call. Caitlin wailed for two solid minutes on the phone after I broke the news. I kept thinking I'd found a space to slip consoling words into, but the wailing would only get stronger. Finally, "Darling, I'm so sorry."
"Mommy, don't be sorry," she bled into my ear. "I'm so glad you were there. Daddy probably would've let him get stuck in the filter."
"Caity, he isn't soulless, my word! I wouldn't have been able to lift Cole out of the pool without him."
"Yeah...definitely couldn't count on Sean to be of any help. So, how is his slap on the wrist healing up?" she snorted.
"Oh no. Not this time, on my honor. He will be in the bowels of WRIX doing all the hell work until God knows when."
The silence that followed was thick with sniffs. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't talk about crime and punishment. Not at all. Mom...I did a terrible thing behind Cole's back at Nationals...I kissed Kurt Chauncey!"
The Chaunceys were old friends of the family, and Caitlin had taken ballet with their daughter Ingrid since they were five. The older brother had always been a bit of a...constant presence in Caity's stories about visits to their house. "Darling, why?"
"I don't know. God...what am I saying? Of course I know. We talked, and reminisced, and...all I could think about was how Daddy would approve of him. How could that feeling be stronger than love?"
Gregory's approval could be stronger than a lot of things. Truth, reason...life itself. "Darling...what you did with Kurt doesn't negate what you and Cole share. It doesn't. Sometimes people just...connect, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. That little kiss will only make you both stronger in the end."
"Because I have to tell him, right?" she shivered.
"Well...not necessarily. A betrayal can strengthen your relationship without the person actually knowing about the betrayal, I mean...you just work harder on your end to...repair the thing he doesn't know about, that's all."
A moment of silence. "Mom, that makes no sense whatsoever."
"Hi!" Elaine said brightly, as if she weren't in a hospital on a Saturday. "You just missed Father Antonio, but my acupuncturist is going to be here soon. She says she can get Cole's positive Chi flowing within a few days."
"You got Dr. Protocol to allow him to be stuck like a pin cushion without his expressed consent? Highly unorthodox. That's something only you could pull off, Lainey," I giggled.
"I guess she's getting more open to alternative methods as the days wear on."
"And you brought a tape player for a bit of entertainment?"
She looked down. "I don't even know what kind of music he likes," she admitted, "but I put together a mix of all the songs his father and I cherished. A little Bob Seger, Jefferson Airplane, Carole King."
"He didn't happen to be conceived to any of this, did he?"
"No," she sighed. "The rush of the tide was the only soundtrack for that." She drifted off into the kind of reverie only our kitchen goddess of romance could find. "Livvie, I...I know that if my AJ is alive, there's such a pain in his heart right now. He may not know why...but it's there."
We held hands for a few beats of Cole's monitors. She sighed again, deeply. "I'm going to get some coffee, love. Would you like anything?"
"The sludge at the bottom of the pot, with no embellishments," I said.
"That's the Brit I know."
When she was gone, I looked from Cole to the tape player, a frost creeping across my stomach. I pressed play and the piano melody of "We've Got Tonight" swelled in the sterile air.
My brow was heavy on my eyes as they darted away from the gentle sleeper. I looked at the speckles on the floor, did any mindless thing to prevent me from looking at Cole as that song held me.
Still here we are, both of us lonely. Longing for shelter from all that we see.
Once I relented, there was nothing stopping me from clasping his hand, stroking it, raising it to my lips. "Oh, Cole. Don't do this. If...if regrets about me are what's keeping you locked away, stop it. I'll never forget the time we shared, but it has to die. Can't you see how much Elaine needs you? She puts on a brave face, but she's so broken. You're all she has. Her parents are stodgy and cruel, her brother is useless, AJ is gone. Her friends are...ugh. What we are. She deserves so much better." I kissed his hand, and then my lips lingered on his cheek. The monitor beeps kicked up. Then help me, he seemed to say.
We still didn't know what had happened at the house, or why. There was a missing link, and I had to find it.
I rang the doorbell of the Neilson house, which looked more like an old haunted castle. "Mrs. Richards..." Amy began. "Can I...help you?"
I grinned. "Get used to that phrase, dear, it will be a staple of your future career endeavors. I just wanted to ask you a few questions about the illegal party you attended at my home last week, or shall I ask your father?"
She closed the door behind her and slumped down to the steps. "Look...it's not like it was my idea."
"No, I doubt you have many of those. I need to know if you saw someone at the scene of the crime." I dug through my purse for the photo.
"What are you, an amateur detective? Angela frickin' Lansbury or something?"
"If that was an age joke, it didn't stick." I showed her the picture of Cole. "Did you see this gentleman?"
The corner of her mouth turned up right away. "Of course. College guys are like, the Holy Grail when they show up at a Fairmont bash."
"So he was just...mingling?" I squinted.
"Mhm, outside. I think the cutest thing about him was how naïve he was."
"He was naïve?"
"Yeah. He was like, 'Excuse me, where's the champagne?' At a kegger!" she snorted. "And I was like, 'you know, kegger? As in beer?' He said he didn't have many friends in high school and he'd never been to one. What were the chances I'd meet some bitchin' hot nerd who needed to get way corrupted? The best part was, he said he was trying to forget about someone."
I looked down. "Did he...forget with you?"
"I wish. No," she pouted. "He said he had a killer headache and walked off. A guy who uses the old headache line? Hella lame."
"That's the last you saw of him?"
"Well, I moved on to someone else, but I still noticed this guy around," she said, running her finger down Cole's photo. "I saw him when everybody said we were busted, and we ran like hell for the beach. He definitely wasn't drunk, but he was stumbling. Maybe someone dropped a keg on his foot. I totally would've been his crutch, but...you know. Every man for himself when you're busted. I hope he's okay, though."
Medical books were flipping furiously behind my eyes. The last thing I expected to think of in this bubblehead's presence was neurology, but it hit me like a ten foot key. "He will be," I said.
I told Dr. Chang about my talk with Amy. "Olivia, I'm not an affectionate person, but I could kiss you right now," she said. She paged another doctor straight away.
Sure enough, a swift MRI lead to our answer. Cole's weakness and headaches were consistent with a flare-up of Multiple Sclerosis.
"He's too young...he's just too young," Elaine cried in Rae's office.
"I know it seems that way, but many MS patients get their first flare at this age. The disease could've been aggravated by the major stress he's gone through lately- meeting you, the trial."
Among other things, I sighed. I tried to squelch Amy's Valley accent in my head: he was trying to forget about someone. Like, totally. I tried to block out the fact that Cole was awake when he collapsed into the water. He struggled to say afloat. He felt knives fill his lungs and suffered until we happened upon him.
Rae went on, "What's most important is, this isn't the crippling disease it once was. We'll start him on steroids and a daily injection right away. Once the lesions go into remission, I'm positive he'll have the strength to wake up." She smiled, turning to me. "Olivia, you need to finish your RN degree- doctor's orders. I tip my hat to you. Awesome work."
I somewhat cringed at the outpouring from Elaine that would follow, but for once, I let myself savor it. Her embrace was a blessed form of suffocation. "Livvie, I'll never, ever be able to repay you. I love you, honey."
"I love you too, Lainey."
"Will you please let the mayor give you that Key already? Please?"
"Oh, alright. Bring on a whole ring of oversized keys," I laughed.
Gregory drove me home from the hospital. He was silent, but the silence was different from the one on the way back from Carmel. "So? We solved the mystery, right?" I beamed. "Right?..."
He just drove.
"...Caitlin will be home tomorrow morning, that's good. Isn't it?"
The hum of the road, the tick of the turn signal.
"...it's not a cake, it's a torte?"
"It's wonderful, Olivia. All wonderful."
"What is with you? You were the one who said I should take pride in my accomplishments, my redemption. I just got him diagnosed with a treatable condition, to boot, and you suddenly don't care?"
He pulled over with a screech. "You care enough for the both of us. You've been living at the hospital. I thought it was all for Elaine's benefit, but that's only the half of it, isn't it?"
"...gregory, no," I said, slipping down in my seat. "No. H-he's my best friend's son. Like a nephew."
"Oh-ho! A nephew! Like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum Blake back in London, of course. You behave that way with them? Caressing their hands, covering them with your lipstick, rocking out to Bob Seger love ballads? I saw you at the hospital. I saw you!"
My heart shattered at the thought of his face at that moment. He hadn't heard what I'd said over the music, thank Bob, but it barely mattered. "Gregory-"
"This is a whole new territory for you, Olivia. An unrequited crush on a comatose man!"
"I'm sure it's a nice respite from me. I should've known you'd get attached to him...there's something pretty special about bringing someone back to life. Isn't that right, Florence Nightengale? Go ahead and try to make me understand the things that go on in your head."
I shuddered with relief. He wasn't connecting Cole and me before the accident, but I still had to dig my way out.
Yet I didn't struggle for the words.
"...what greater loneliness is there than a coma, Gregory...?" I said, looking down at the glove box. "I comforted him because I see so much of myself in him. When have you ever been lonely in your life?"
"I never was until our marriage, with you and these secret worlds you run away to! Always, without fail!"
"There's more to being irrepressible than what turns you on! I can't abandon someone who needs me, no matter who they are or what they've done. I am not having some childish fancy. He's a sunken statue at the bottom of my life, and there's nothing I can do about it but raise the wreck. Please support me like you did before. Please."
"Why? So you can brush off the support again? No matter what I do, you'll always go back to your little cave. Why can't you just stay here with me!"
His final words were his loudest, and he gripped the steering wheel, panting for breath for a while. I mopped my eyes with a shaken hand. "I am. Let's go back to Carmel. Right now, l-let's just go."
He rested his head against the wheel, his voice much softer. "...If we hadn't left Carmel, he'd be dead."
"And what a wonderful world it would be?" I snarled. "Is that what you're saying?"
He had accidentally turned the windshield wipers on, and watched them scraping back and forth on the dry glass. He flicked them off. "No. I wouldn't want to see the state you'd be in then, not to mention Sean and Caitlin."
"Then why don't you just admit that what I really saved in that water was this whole family! I have a right to be a little emotiona-"
My words crashed into his lips as he lunged across the center console. My grunt of shock dissolved in seconds, as always. We kissed like animals would, if they did, for torturous minutes. Maybe twenty. "I love you," he finally said, when it was more than painfully clear. He dragged me into the backseat of the car as I thanked God for the window tint. Each sensual part of me that was freed from my clothes, one at a time, was caressed and tasted until I pushed him down and we found a coma of our own.
There was always something about constant, ravishing apology lovemaking that made me succeptible to illness. I laid there in bed with a red nose, honking into tissues. I turned to my side and gazed into a family photo, and I could swear my 1996 smile got wider.
"Hey, hey, hey, the cavalry's here!" Bette's voice came bolting down the hallway. Caitlin followed her, holding a tray with a bowl of soup and a little vase of flowers.
"You two," I groaned. "You didn't have to do this. It's a cold. You should be at the hospital with Elaine, not fussing over me."
"Actually, we just came from bringing Laines some of my famous Seven Wedding Soup. Gotta make sure she keeps eating, and now we have to make sure you get better in time for your big award."
My brow furrowed. "I've never heard your name preceding 'famous soup' in my life, Bette."
"Well, Beauty helped me," Bette said. Caitlin pursed her lips. "Helped me a lot. OK, fine, she made it while I provided moral support."
I smiled, the hot broth warming my throat. "How have your sittings with Cole been going, love?"
Caity's voice began to quiver at once. "Oh...I don't know. My presence hasn't been too medicinal. But Elaine, she's great. Her, um...eccentricity always keeps things from being too serious. Today she put a sombrero on Cole, and drew a mustache on him with eyeliner for Cinco de Mayo," she giggled.
We all shook with laughter. "Oh, dear. She's getting a bit Weekend at Bernie's on us, isn't she?" I sighed. "Next she'll be making him wave with a pulley." After a beat of looking in her eyes, I said, "Cait, there's an end in sight. It shouldn't be long now."
The phone rang. I shimmied out from under my soup tray to the nightstand. "Hello?...No...Lainey, you're joking. We were just-! Speak of the devil! I can't believe it...oh, bother my cold, darling, I won't hear of it. I'm getting dressed and we'll all be there in a snap. Love you too. Bye."
Bette and Caitlin looked at me expectantly, with candied eyes. "You guessed it," I said.
"Sleeping Cutey is awake!" Bette shouted, pulling Caitlin into a victory dance.
Elaine stood in front of Cole's closed hospital door. After we all hugged, she looked at us with heartbreak outlining her face. "Girls, I...I want to talk to you first before you go in...to prepare you."
Bette put a hand to her heart and Caitlin looked paralyzed besides her teeth torturing her bottom lip. "What is it?" she finally asked.
She lead us down the hall, taking a deep breath. "...Coley suffered short term memory loss. The last thing he recalls is being on the Italian Riviera. He doesn't remember the last six months. The Deschanel Jewels...Del Douglas...all of you. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, baby," she said, taking Caitlin's hand.
Caitlin sobbed into my shoulder. "Mommy, everything! The best Valentine's Day of our lives, gone! The grotto! Everything is gone!"
I held her tightly. My sore throat clamped up, my mind reeled. Why was Elaine offering...condolences to us, with nary a weep? "Darling, you said...all of you..."
Elaine nodded sadly. "That's the crazy miracle of it all. Dr. Chang doesn't understand it, no one does. He knows who I am. He opened his eyes, and turned to me, and...his first words were 'Hi, Mom,'" she said, choking up, with the most beautiful look of love and pride I'd ever seen on her face.
Bette's blue eyes sparkled with a million unspoken words. "Oh, Lainey...it sounds like the greatest gift you've ever received, and so well deserved, Sweetie. More than you'll ever know."
"Absolutely," I smiled through my congestion.
Caitlin backed away from us, her hand plastered over her mouth. "I'm sorry...I'm so happy for you, Elaine, but I can't handle this right now..." Her blond hair took flight in her wake as she sprinted down the hallway.
"Caitlin, wait!" I said, starting to run after her, but Bette held me back.
"Let her go, Livvie, let her go. She'll be back. Who would miss the chance to make someone fall in love with them all over again, hm?"
"No one," I sighed, feeling Elaine's arms hold us both.
Bette nudged my shoulder. "A clean slate."
The tracks left by Cole and me when we stumbled out of the grotto together had been washed completely away by the tide.
Elaine took my hand. "C'mon, honey. There's someone I'd like to introduce you to."
The door of the room swung open to reveal a downright chipper fellow. He was slurping the remnants of a drink from a straw, a beautiful rosy color in his face. Elaine's mix tape of AJ songs was playing. Way down, below the ocean...where I wanna be, she may be.
"Son," Elaine began after a pensive pause, "I'd like you to meet my two very best friends in the world, Bette Katzankazrahi..."
Bette extended her hand to his quickly. "Enchanté, monsieur. I've always considered myself unforgettable, at least until today."
He laughed. "Sorry about that."
"And Olivia Richards," Elaine continued. "This is the woman who saved your life."
The lack of recognition in his eyes didn't take anathing away from the smile he flashed. "Hi," he softly said, taking my hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Olivia...and thank you. A million times over."
"It was noth...you're welcome," I corrected myself. "You're very welcome. How are you feeling?"
"Well...one minute I was working on my tan in Portofino, and the next...I'm back in the States, I'm dying for a cheeseburger, I've got MS and my mom," he said. "Kind of insane, but...I can't stop smiling." He looked at Elaine as a young immigrant would at Ellis Island.
It was surreal. Surreal, I tell you. Most of all because...I had made peace with what I'd done, knowing that nothing could keep them apart now. Not even amnesia.
But oh, how a part of me railed against the injustice like a young girl, like my Caity. Why can't you remember me, Cole? Why can't you forget you're a jewel thief instead? It's not like that little problem didn't still exist. I checked to see if my bracelet was still on.
I searched his blank eyes. I cursed myself. I thought of the potential disasters if he remembered, longed for Gregory, remembered that this is what Cole wanted, longed for Gregory, longed to be young again, and started the whole process over again. If all this were a film, it would be titled This Woman is a Nutter, and would never end with her receiving a prestigious honor.
"Are you ready?" Gregory asked, holding my hand.
"As I'll ever be, I suppose," I said, pleating my white suit and taking my seat below the boardwalk stage. "I'm just glad I wasn't late, although...it's strange that there's no one here at all. "
Gregory looked around at the ocean of empty chairs. "I made sure our esteemed guest was here very early."
"You lied about what time it starts, didn't you?" I squinted.
"Got you away from the vanity, didn't it? Besides, it gives us time to sit here and talk."
"I want to talk about our next trip to Carmel," I said, planting a firm kiss on his neck and continuing down as far as the collar of his shirt allowed.
"You already conceded to the torte the other night."
"As loudly as you'd hoped?"
"It wasn't the volume that really mattered, it was the...delivery. By the way, did you know that these key-bestowing ceremonies date back to medieval times?"
"So does the Blake family history of public humiliation."
"Just relax, Liv," he smiled.
The sun shone brightly on us when the ceremony began. Sean had rallied up some members of the school band to play a fanfare. "Any special requests, Mom?" he'd asked. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" sounded a bit off in trumpets, but they made do smashingly.
The mayor stood at the podium, a kind, eloquent man who always reminded me of Bill Pullman. "Thank you, Fairmont Prep...family, friends, and of course our honoree. You know...I often wonder when I hear about a tragedy: What would I have done? What would I have done, if I'd I made the discovery that Olivia Richards made? A man, twenty-two years young...floating in the family pool, in heart-rending silence. My best's friend's son, my daughter's boyfriend. What would any of us have done, as parents...as human beings? I would like to think that we would all do what Olivia Richards did. Have hope."
Gregory squeezed my hand and brought it to his mouth.
"She jumped in the water and rescued that young man, to find he was still alive. Revived him, cared for him. He lingered in a coma as his doctors struggled to find out why. And what did Mrs. Richards do yet again? Hope. And thanks to that unwavering hope, he is here with us. Getting stronger each day. And I'm also proud to say that all proceeds from today's gala will be donated to the MS Society in Cole Deschanel's name."
Elaine whistled loudly.
"That's his proud mother, in case you didn't guess," Mayor Andrews chuckled with the rest of us. "So now, without further ado...Olivia, would you please come up here?"
I had never heard such wild cheering for me, and my teary smile hurt my face. As I ascended the stairs, I looked at that giant cartoon key and wanted to gobble it up.
"For your bravery, and going above and beyond the call of duty as a Sunset Beach citizen and friend, I present to you this Key to the Sea."
The roar got louder and louder as I held it close. Gregory looked like he could fly away. The Mayor popped open a bottle of sparkling juice and handed it to me as it overflowed in a joyful spray, and I laughed heartily.
I looked out into the crowd, shielding my eyes from the sun with the Key. I saw Cole in his wheelchair, next to Sean and Caitlin. He was staring up at me with a look of deep confusion, then of a deer caught in headlights. I looked down at the mock champagne bottle in my hand, and my white clothes. Oh, dear. Oh, bugger and dear. If this didn't jog him, nothing would.
But I kept smiling. I truly did. When you save someone, the most important thing you save is their freedom, and Cole could do with his revelation whatever he chose. I would still be here, loving my life- the surface and the abyss. It wasn't about secret worlds, or Gregory's world, but my world. They could either drop the key or hold on for the ride.
A/N: Songs featured: "Mo Money, Mo Problems" by Notorious B.I.G., "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by Elton John, "We've Got Tonight," by Bob Seger, "Atlantis" by Donovan. Unmentioned songs that inspired certain scenes: "Volcano Girls" by Veruca Salt for Amy's memory of Cole, "Electrolite" by R.E.M. for Olivia and Gregory's 2nd car scene, and "A Place in the Sun" by Stevie Wonder for Olivia's key acceptance. :)