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Try and keep your head up to the sky

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There’s a hole that pierces right through me. - Courtney Love

There was nothing left. No body, no grave, no memorial service, even; they had buried it all deep, including, it felt like, Maria herself. Carol had left everything to Maria in her short will, which Maria had already known (her will left everything to Monica, or to Carol if they both predeceased her), so she got access to Carol's bank account, her apartment, her Mustang -- nothing she hadn't had before. Carol had also listed Maria as her next of kin, which she hadn't known, and wasn't even legally binding. There was no pension, of course, and no real acknowledgement of her grief -- "Your best friend? That must be really hard for you." The Pegasus program was gone, the planes were gone, and the doc was dead, too. If Carol hadn't been her stupid heroic stubborn self it might have been Maria in that plane instead, with the doc, and Monica -- no, she would not think that.

She smiled at Monica instead; they were in Carol's studio apartment, which she'd rented mostly for show, scattering around just enough of her clothes and some junk to make it convincing. But the shampoo bottle and toothpaste tube were new, there was no milk or cheese or fruit in the fridge, and there was dust on the windowsills and the top of the television set. She had expected the little place to feel haunted, but it was hollow instead. It felt as if she and Monica were alone on the surface of the moon, no air or gravity to hold them down, drifting along. Or in the doc's orbital lab, which she pictured as empty and dark, still sailing along in space somewhere, still pointlessly circling in its endless route, just like her.

The worst part was not the grief, which was terrible, in the middle of the night, in the cold, empty bed, although Monica had taken in to sneaking in with her after a nightmare, or a midnight waking. Maria knew she shouldn't encourage it, but she couldn't help it. They would both lie awake, holding each other, silently breathing in synch and thinking the same thought, Maria was sure: if Carol was gone, really gone, they would know. I would know. The government shrink had told her that feeling was "normal" (what, she had wanted to demand, was "normal" about any of this -- ), that without a body, of course she would feel Carol wasn't dead. Maria had just shaken her head, not arguing, because she wanted that honourable discharge, for Monica, for her future, the new, terrible future they both had without Carol in it. No, the very worst part was that Carol was out there, somewhere, probably too fucking stubborn to die, all alone, and Maria was stuck here, grounded.

She stared at the cut-off T-shirts and ripped jeans they were sorting through -- Carol had loved wearing them, and flannel shirts and fingerless gloves, long before everyone else took them up -- and wanted to burn them all. Set the Mustang on fire, the apartment building, see it all go up in flames until nothing was left, until it was all dark twisted metal and weightless ashes, like her heart.

But that was foolishness. Monica had said, What's going to happen to her stuff, mama? focusing on the concrete problem in that odd way all kids do sometimes, what about all her clothes, and all of her things? Really meaning, What's going to happen to us? To me? Monica, who was here because, after her father had heard the news and walked out of the room and then their lives, Carol had said, if you want to keep it, I'll help you. Maria had said, angry and hopeless and hurt, A kid's not like a car loan, you know, and Carol had said, very quietly, still sitting next to her on the bed, holding her hand: I know. And traced the fingertips of her other hand, dry and rough, up the inside of Maria's wrist, slower than slow.

So she had said to Monica, We'll keep it, sweetheart. We'll keep it for her. Monica had said of course, In case she comes back? and then repeated it, making it a statement, reassuring herself. Still a child. When she comes back, we'll give it back, her child had said, of the woman she had called Mama Carol until they had gotten a call from her teacher and then had to give her an early version of The Talk, the one they'd both unconsciously put off because they hated the idea of it so much: not outside, baby. Not to other people. No, it's not a lie, not exactly. They just don't need to know.

Maria found Carol's battered suitcase and duffel bag under the bed, opened them both up on top of the stale rumpled blankets, and started smoothing and folding clothes, like a ritual. She'd always saved shirts ripped beyond repair for rags, so she put those into a paper bag for later. That took too little time, even working slowly, so she drifted into the kitchen space, which was a disorienting mix of tidiness and grime. The coffeemaker, characteristically, was shining clean and ready to go, water tank filled, carafe sparkling, frilled paper filter neatly in place, the sealed Folger's can waiting next to it on the counter, for easy access. The microwave was broken (Maria had forbidden Carol to try to fix it), the freezer was jammed full of Hot Pockets, Bagel Bites and Lean Cuisines, and the oven looked as though it had never been cleaned. The tile floor was swept, but the spot in front of the fridge was gummy. Maria thought of mixing bleach and warm water in equal parts, mopping and scrubbing and dusting and vacuuming and removing every trace of Carol that she could here, and closed her eyes. She felt as though she could sleep forever.

"Mama. Mama. Mama." From the sound of it Monica had been repeating her name for a while, she hoped not too long. She looked down, forced a smile. Forced herself back to here and now.

"What is it, baby?"

Monica was holding a shoebox of loose photographs -- that was just like Carol, throwing everything mixed in together, she did the same thing with her socks and underwear -- and Maria sat down on the floor of Carol's kitchen, right there, her arm around their daughter, and went through all of them with her, slowly as she could, turning them over to check for names and dates handwritten on the back, arranging them in little piles. Maria told Monica the occasions they held, the milestones they stood for, and Monica repeated them reverently after her mother, like a catechism: this was where she and Carol had met, this was her and Carol at graduation, this was Carol's father whom she never talked about, this was Carol's brother who had promised to visit but never shown up, this was Carol's life. What was left of it, worn-out clothes to turn into rags and loose photographs and power company bills that betrayed how little time she had really spent here. As if watching a strange film, Maria saw herself in the future, packing it all up, like relics saved from a bombed shrine. She would sell both their cars, break the lease, box up their dishes and records and every single Little People figure and Lite Brite bulb and Micro Machine of Monica's, leave not a trace behind.

Monica had asked, Where we going, mama? when Maria had told her they were leaving, days after she got the news, her babyish need breaking through her too-calm, too-adult demeanour. Maria hadn't known it, but she'd already made up her mind, probably the moment she had gotten the phone call. She would retreat, quit the scene of battle, walk away from the crash site without a scratch -- at least on the outside. We're going back home, honey, she had said. Her parents had never approved of her lifestyle or any of her decisions, not from going right into the Air Force from high school to having Monica to living with a white stranger in California, but they loved their only granddaughter and would never turn Maria away as a single mother. With her and Carol's savings, her payout, and Carol's life insurance, she might even be able to pull together enough to buy her own home, after a little while -- not in the city, but out where her parents lived, maybe save up enough to buy a small plane or a garage and start her own business. Everything, from now on, would be hers alone: her daughter, her house, her heart. We're going home.