When Monica is five years old, her mom and Auntie Carol don’t come home in time for dinner.
This is unusual, they’re always home in time for dinner. But that day they aren’t.
She’d known something was weird before that, when the phone rang while she was playing Planes and Pilots with her bears Bessie and Jerrie, and Grandma almost dropped the phone and then pulled the cord until she could talk from the other side of the door. But it wasn’t anything that was important.
She’d thought so at first anyway.
But when Monica starts asking for cookies Grandma actually gives them to her instead of making her wait until she’s eaten her lunch. And then she doesn’t start getting ready for her mom and auntie to come home. And then Grandpa comes over to watch her too, and that only ever happens when Mom and Auntie Carol have to work on Sundays.
By then something has started clawing inside Monica, it feels like there’s a cat trapped in her stomach and trying to scratch everything in its sight. Grandma and Grandpa are so quiet.
She spends almost the whole evening just trying to draw but none of the colors look right and even though she’s big now, there’s frustrated tears at the edges of her eyes that she’s holding back by sheer stubbornness.
By the time the front doors finally open, Monica’s eyelids are beginning to grow heavy and her head is tucked into Grandma’s lap. She shoots up straight and is off the couch like a rocket before those doors get a chance to close.
“Mom!” Monica exclaims as she rushes into the hallway but stops short at the sight of her mom.
There’s tear tracks on her mom's cheeks and she’s clutching at the wall like she’ll fall if she lets go. And she’s all alone.
“Mom?” She asks, suddenly so scared she doesn’t know what to do.
“Hey, honey.” Mom says, voice hoarse, and drops to her knees in front of Monica. She smiles at her, but it’s small and weak and only makes Monica more scared. “Let me talk to Grandma and Grandpa for a minute, and then- then I have to tell you something. Okay?”
“Where’s Auntie Carol?” Monica says in response, the claws inside her stomach getting sharper.
“Just a minute. Okay?” Her mom says again and leads her up to Monica’s room, sitting her down on her bed. She kisses her forehead and whispers into her hair before she leaves. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” She says back because that’s what she and Auntie Carol always do, and because it’s true.
Then she grabs Amelia from her pillow and clenches the bear against her chest. Waiting for Mom to come back. It feels like forever before she finally does.
And then her mom sits in her bed and pulls Monica and Amelia into her arms.
She knows this means it’s going to be a ‘serious conversation’ - just like the time when Mom told her about how she couldn’t tell her friends that Auntie Carol lived in the same room as Mom because some grownups could be really mean about it, even though there was nothing wrong with that. Monica knew that anyway though, the moms and dads of her friends had the same rooms too, and though Monica didn’t have a dad she had Auntie Carol, which was the same thing.
“There was an accident.” Her mom says, her hands running slowly and soothingly over Monica’s braided hair.
“What kind of accident?” Monica asks, pulling Amelia so close to her chest that her nose dug into her shoulder.
“Auntie Carol’s plane crashed and we can’t find her.” Mom says and starts rocking her in her lap. Monica’s lower lip trembles and she smushes her face into Amelia’s fur to hide it.
“But… you will, right?” She says, voice tiny and quivering, and she doesn’t feel very big at all anymore.
“I don’t know, baby,” Mom says and squeezes her tighter “I hope so.”
Monica looks up to her mom and bursts into tears as soon as she has, her mom is already crying, eyes staring forward out the window and into nothing. She looks just as scared as Monica feels, and something about that is so very wrong Monica has no words for it. Just the inherent certainty that Mom isn’t supposed to be scared.
She falls asleep in her mom’s arms that night, doesn’t remember if she ever stopped crying, just remembers feeling her Auntie Carol’s absence like a cold river-stone in her chest and somehow knowing there’s a stone just like it in her mom’s chest too.
Monica is eight years old and Auntie Carol has been missing for three years. There was a funeral not that long after the day of the accident but her mom doesn’t really believe that Auntie Carol is dead, Monica can tell because she doesn’t believe either.
She’s heard her mom and grandmother fighting about it sometimes, because Grandma can tell too and she does believe that Auntie Carol’s really gone. Monica doesn’t like it when they fight about it, she’s afraid that one day Grandma will win and her mom will start believing it too.
She doesn’t know what wakes her up that night. But when she opens her eyes, the windows are dark. After blinking the sleep from her eyes though Monica grows thirsty and carefully gets up from her bed, pushing her feet into her fluffy panda slippers.
Halfway down the steps though she hears her mom’s voice. She sounds upset so Monica stops to listen.
“Where the hell are you Carol?” Mom says and Monica’s heart starts running in her chest. She slowly takes the last few steps down, avoiding the creaky one by grabbing hold of the railing and very carefully skipping it.
She sneaks a look into the living room and her heart falls with a painful swoop at finding her mom alone.
“I heard your voice. I know I did. I didn’t imagine it no matter how much those badge wearing bastards try to tell me otherwise. You were fine after the crash, so where did you go.” Mom’s pacing back and forth through the room, eyes toward the ceiling, like that’s where Auntie Carol’s hiding in.
“My mother’s been trying to get me to let you go. Yes, I know what you’d say: 'She never liked me, Maria.’ And you’re wrong, she liked you fine… eventually.”
Grandma didn’t like Auntie Carol?
“Maybe… maybe she’s right. Maybe I should stop waiting for you to show up like some kind of gift from heaven.” She says, sounding frustrated now.
Monica has to bite her lip to stop herself from yelling that Mom couldn’t do that.
“Wherever it is you are, it’s not here. And it doesn’t look like you’re in any particular hurry to come back.” Her mom says, and she sounds mad now, but also sad, like she did when Monica spilled ketchup on Auntie Carol’s favorite jacket after she took it without asking permission.
“Where the f-” her mom starts saying but stops mid word as she finally seems to catch sight of her. “Monica?”
Monica steps out of her hiding place, feeling a bit guilty, she knows it’s rude to spy on grownups. But then she remembers what Mom had just been saying and that overcomes the little niggle of guilt. “You’re angry at Auntie Carol.”
“No, baby. I’m not.” Mom tells her, dropping to her knees in front of her.
“You sound angry.” Monica argues and then flinches as a terrible thought crosses her mind. “Do you- do you think she left us on purpose?”
“Of course not. She loved us, you know that.” Mom says and her eyes are as wide and honest as ever, so she knows that her mom isn’t lying to make her feel better.
But that just makes it more confusing.
“Then why are you mad?” She asks, not understanding.
“Sometimes it hurts less when we’re mad.” Her mom says very quietly and wipes away a tear from Monica’s cheek. She hadn’t even noticed she’d started crying.
She looks down and starts playing with the sleeves of her pajamas, it makes it easier to say something she’s never told anyone before. “Sometimes I’m mad at her too.”
“And that’s okay. It’s okay, baby. It doesn’t mean we love her any less, do you understand?”
Monica nods, even though she doesn’t really.
“Did you come down here for something, baby?” Mom asks after Monica doesn’t say anything more.
“I was thirsty.” Monica says through a sudden hiccup. She hates them, they always show up when she gets upset.
“Let’s get you a glass of warm milk then, okay?” Mom offers and wipes more tears from Monica’s face.
“Yeah.” Monica nods and lets her mom pull her up into a lingering hug, feels it as she starts drawing little circles over her back while they move toward the kitchen. It makes some of the lingering pain of thinking about Auntie Carol leach out of her but some of it remains, some of it hasn’t really ever gone away.
Monica is ten years old. And lately she’s started to think about something that never seemed like it mattered before but now doesn’t feel quite right. She’s thought about it so much that it finally feels like she’ll burst if she doesn’t ask her mom about it.
“Hey, Mom? I have a question about Auntie Carol.” Monica says after she stops in front of her and sits down on the opposite side of Mom’s work table.
They’re in the little hanger near the house. Her mom’s busy working on what looks like a faulty injection pump.
“What is it, baby?” She asks and looks around for a different tool when hers proves too big to ply open the metal covering. Monica passes her the smaller one that’s on her side of the table. “Thank you, honey.”
“Why do we call her Auntie when… when she was… more?” Monica says, jumping straight to the point.
Her mom puts down the broken engine part and the tool she’d just given her, and looks at Monica. Then she lets out a long breath and seems to be steeling herself for the conversation.
Monica doesn’t let herself fidget. She’s not going to be nervous about this, if she doesn’t look like she can handle the answer her mom might decide to tell her she’s too young to understand.
“You loved her.” She instead says, continuing to her next point in her mental list of reasons for why something isn’t quite right.
“Of course I did.” Mom says but her face tells Monica she’s taking her question seriously.
“And she lived with us. And she made us breakfast because she always woke up so early, and she used to kiss you sometimes, and we were a family. And it doesn’t… feel like my aunt is gone.” It’s the truth, because she thinks about her as Auntie Carol, but she’s never thought of her as her aunt. Not the way other kids have talked about their aunts and uncles anyway, even though some of them live at the same house as them, just like Auntie Carol used to live with her and Mom. “Laila’s aunt left for Minnesota and it doesn’t hurt her like it hurts when I think about Auntie Carol. It hurts like it hurt Johnny when his mom died last summer.”
“That’s because we were raising you together.” Mom says but it sounds like an excuse.
“Like parents do. So shouldn’t she have been Mama Carol? Why didn’t I use to call her that?” She says, trying to drive her point home.
Her mom sighs and gets up to pull her bench to Monica’s side of the table. Then she sits down and takes Monica’s hands into her own.
“Because people can be really cruel.” Mom tells her, eyes staring straight into Monica’s. “You remember that talk we had about how you should always tell me if one of your teachers is particularly harsh on you, Laila, Gabriel, Angel and Jordan but not the rest of your class?”
“Because we’re black and they’re not allowed to do that?” She asks, a low-burning flame igniting in her chest at remembering the conversation Mom’s referring to. The one her mom has had with her more then once because she always says it’s important to have it fresh in her memory.
“Yes, well sometimes there are people who hate us for who we choose to love, like there are people who hate us for the color of our skin.” Here she picks up her smaller hand and pointedly kisses it like she always does during those talks, she says it’s a reminded that Monica’s beautiful and that no one is allowed to make her think otherwise. “And no matter how much we’d like to punch them all in the face, and no matter how much they would deserve it, sometimes when we have something to protect, it’s safer to not step in front of those people in the first place.”
“What did you have to protect?” She asks, not wanting to but beginning to understand.
“You. Our jobs. Each other.” Mom says with a sad smile that makes Monica feel like maybe she shouldn’t have asked in the first place. She hates making Mom sad.
“Oh.” She says and thinks about this for a moment, feels herself grow angry at yet another unjust thing. “Well, it’s not fair, we shouldn’t have to lie about how much she means to us just because people are stupid.”
“You’re right, baby, it’s really not fair at all.” Her mom says and squeezes her hands between her palms. It’s like being reassured but Monica doesn’t want to be reassured.
She pulls back to jump to her feet and clenches her hands into fists. The flickering flame inside her has been fed a little bit more fuel.
“And you said we should always stand up for ourselves because other people won’t, so isn’t that true here too?” She says, knowing she’s right, knowing her mom agrees, and still knowing that there’s very little she can do about it right now anyway.
“I wish it was that easy, Monica.”
Monica is eleven, and yesterday Auntie Carol came home. Monica and Mom had been right, she hadn’t died and she didn’t leave them on purpose.
It’s been a day since then and so much has happened. Mom and Auntie Carol are heroes, they saved a spaceship full of people - they were aliens but they were also people. She’s already prepared to argue with anyone who would say otherwise, even though she knows this is a secret and that there’s no one else who knows.
One of them is her new friend. Her name is Talia, she’s shy but really nice, Monica’s going to miss her.
She’s going to miss Auntie Carol too. That shouldn’t feel like a new absence, she’s been missing her for so long now after all. But somehow the sting is fresh. Even though she’s so proud of her.
They said goodbye to her half an hour ago but Monica and her mom are still sitting on their porch and looking up at the stars, staring at them like if they try hard enough she’ll still be up there looking back. It’s here that Monica finally pulls together the courage to ask the question that has been bothering her for the past two days.
“Why didn’t you tell her, Mom?” She asks, turning her face sideways to look at her.
“What’s that, baby?” She asks, voice sounding far away even coming from right beside her. Monica’s pretty sure it’s somewhere up in the sky with both their hearts.
“You didn’t tell Auntie Carol that you loved her. And that she loved you.” Monica isn’t going to let this go, they’d gotten her back. She won’t let them lose her when there’s so easy a way for them to keep her.
“She doesn’t remember it, honey.”
Monica continues staring at her mom, her mom continues looking up.
“So? You could have reminded her. And she remembered that I was Lieutenant Trouble.” She says and feels a smile crossing her face again, Auntie Carol remembers her. Even if it’s just that one memory, it’s one Monica shares with her and somehow that’s all that matters.
“I know. But… it would have made it harder, and it would have meant making her choose and it wouldn’t have been fair to do that. Talos and his people need her right now.” Mom says, finally looking down and tucking Monica against her side.
“But she left us that communicator, Mom. We’ll be able to talk to her now, and she said she’d visit.” Monica says, pleading for her mom to change her mind about this.
“And I’m sure she’s going to. But you can’t tell someone they love you, they have to figure that out on their own or it doesn’t really mean anything.”
“It’s late, baby, you should get ready for bed,” She says, standing up and reaching out to pull Monica to her feet too.
Monica lets Mom take her hand but doesn’t let her drop the conversation. “I think she does though. Love us.”
“She looked at you just like she did in that photo you took out before we showed her the rest of them.” Mom looks surprised, like she’d thought Monica hadn’t noticed. She had though, and once they started going through them, Monica knew which one she’d taken. It was the one where there were just inches between Mom and Auntie Carol’s faces and both of them were visibly laughing at something. But there was also a strange look on Auntie Carol’s face, like she was completely spellbound by Monica’s mom. “So I think you should tell her.”
Her mom just shakes her head and goes on the offensive, starting to tickle her till Monica yells at her to stop through her uncontrollable giggles.
“To bed with you, Lieutenant Trouble.” Her mom says with amusement.
Monica finally listens. She doesn’t admit defeat though, she just needs to think of a new strategy.
Auntie Carol does call them. She calls them almost every night around dinnertime. And when she hasn’t she always tells them why later, sometimes she even retells the coolest parts of whatever fight had happened. Monica’s pretty sure she skips a lot of the more gnarly details to not make Mom mad though.
But during the nights when Auntie Carol calls on time, Monica pays close attention to how she and Mom interact during them.
By this point Monica’s pretty sure she has conclusive evidence that she was right. Auntie Carol might not remember how it was before, and if Monica’s honest there’s a lot she doesn’t remember either - she was only five after all, - but she’s sure that however it was then, it’s a lot like that now too.
They smile at each other and joke with each other, dryly and occasionally through sarcasm but Monica’s well aware that those are her mom’s favorite modes of humor. And whenever Mom isn’t looking at her, Auntie Carol’s smiles turn all sappy and soft.
Auntie Carol loves Mom, it isn’t even a question.
Besides, there’s also the way she’s started to say goodbye when it’s time to cut off the call.
“Love you, Trouble, Maria.” Auntie Carol says with a smile for Monica that she knows is honest but also only half the story. Because then, like gravity, her eyes would always flicker toward her mom.
And yes, Monica has noticed how Auntie Carol always puts her first. Like a barrier between the sentiment and the other person it’s being directed at. Her moms are impossible - she’s started sometimes to think of Auntie Carol like that, as the second of her two moms, if only inside the safety of her own mind.
“Love you too, Captain.” Monica says and turns significantly towards her mom.
“Goodnight, Carol.” Mom says instead as the hologram flickers off, leaving them alone a second later. It was still enough time for Monica to see that brief half a heartbeat where Auntie Carol’s smile fell a bit.
She glares at her mom. Mom, as is starting to become her habit, pretends not to notice it and stands up to take the empty dishes to the kitchen.
“Grab your plate, honey.” Mom just says, already by the doorway.
Monica does and then stomps off after her.
“You’re supposed to say it back.” Monica says, losing her patience. It’s been happening for months now, this weird thing where they almost say something and then never actually do.
“We’ve talked about this, Monica.” Mom says, placing her stack of dishes in the sink and then taking the ones from Monica.
“No. you said that Auntie Carol had to figure it out on her own. I think she’s figured it out.” Monica says back and then, perhaps rather unwisely, actually says the thing that’s been hiding in her mind for a while now. “I think you’re just scared.”
Then she freezes, she knows she’s not supposed to talk to Mom like that.
“I am.” Mom says, instead of immediately sending her to her room, though the look that comes with the words is stern. Monica’s on thin ice here.
Monica stops in her tracks, - not because she’s one step away from getting in trouble but because she didn’t expect Mom to actually admit that she’s scared. Now that she has, Monica’s not sure how to proceed.
For a minute she just stands there as her mom starts washing the dishes. What finally comes out is: “But you love her. And she loves you too.”
“Maybe. Or maybe she thinks so because one of those flashes told her that she once did.” Mom says back, adding more dish-washing liquid to the sponge.
“But don’t you want it to be like it used to be?” Monica asks, finally feeling lost.
“It’s complicated.” Mom says and continues doing the dishes.
Monica grabs a towel to help with the drying and falls silent after that. Mind busy stewing in frustration over adults and their need to call very simple things ‘complicated’. It’s not complicated, it’s so easy; her mom still loves Auntie Carol and Auntie Carol is clearly either starting to remember or has fallen in love with Mom all over again. Either way the answer to what they should do is very obvious.
Monica has a terrible feeling that if she lets them continue like this on their own they’re never going to figure it out. She can’t let that happen.
She’s not supposed to call Auntie Carol for anything other than an emergency because there’s no way to predict if she’ll receive that call while on board their hijacked space cruiser, during a live firefight or while on a covert op. It’s all around safer if Auntie Carol’s the one who contacts them.
But Auntie Carol is not the only person Monica uses their holographic communicator to talk with.
Which is why Monica is closing her bedroom door and turning on her radio to cover up the noises from her planned conversation. That done, she goes back to the communicator and enters the - by now familiar - string of Kree symbols.
“Hey, Talia. Are you by yourself right now?” Monica says as soon as the call connects and her friend’s image forms above the device.
“Hi, Monica.” Talia says from her side of the galaxy as they grin at each other. “I’m in my room. What’s up?”
When Monica first met her, Talia might have come across as shy and quiet but she learned really fast that this was true only while Talia hadn’t known her. Now that they’re friends they’ve fallen into the habit of talking for hours, sometimes right up until the point where their parents have to make them stop and go to sleep.
“I think I need your help.” Monica says and starts ruffling through her bag for the book that’s given her an idea. “You know how Auntie Carol plans to come to Earth for a few days next month, because it finally looks like things are going to be quiet for a little while?”
“Yeah, my dad’s going to be free too, he said he wants us to spend some time together while it lasts. Why?” Talia says, looking curious.
“I need Auntie Carol to spend more than a few days home. I’ve told you about how she and Mom have been dancing around each other without ever just sitting down and admitting that they’re in love with each other, right?” She says, knowing she’s kinda whining a bit but after seven months with a first-row seat, she thinks she’s due.
“Only once or twice.” Talia says with a smirk and a heavy dose of sarcasm.
Monica throws one of her stuffed bears through the hologram and gets met by the sound of Talia laughing as the light reforms back into her.
“That wasn’t nice. I thought you wanted my help.” She says, still smirking. This is why Talia is her best friend even though she’s two years younger than her.
“I do.” Monica says and turns serious. “Can you talk your dad into taking you here to Earth too?”
“Maybe?” She says, though she doesn’t sound entirely sure. It’ll do for now, they can throw around some ideas on how to accomplish that part after Monica explains her plan.
“I found this book in the library and it gave me an idea,” she pulls out her copy of ‘Lottie and Lisa’ to show it to Talia, “it’s about these twin sisters who got separated as babies by their parents, and then found each other and decided to switch places while pretending to be each other.”
“But what does that have to do with your mom and aunt?” Talia asks.
“Well, I was thinking. If you were here and pretended to be me and neither of us would tell anyone which of us was which…”
“…your aunt and my dad couldn’t leave before we told them.” Talia says, finishing Monica’s thought.
“And we won’t tell them until Mom and Auntie Carol admit how they feel about each other. I don’t even think we’ll have to do much, they just need to spend enough time together that they forget all the stupid reasons they’ve come up with for why they’re too scared to be together.” Monica finishes by letting out a long, extended, exhausted breath.
“That’s brilliant.” Talia says, her pretty green eyes widening in wonder.
Monica smiles, proud of herself.
“So can you do it? Make yourself look like me?” She asks and bites her lip, this is the one part of her idea she isn’t sure of. If Talia can’t turn into her, then her plan gets unraveled at the seams and she’s back to square one.
“Probably?” Talia says, bending her neck to the side and seemingly taking a new look at Monica. “You’re not that much bigger than me and I’ve been practicing with dad. It’s also a lot easier if we know the person we’re trying to turn into. But I can’t really do the memories thing yet.”
“That’s okay. I’ll tell you everything you have to know and if they ask us something we haven’t covered we’ll both pretend that we don’t know the answer.” Monica says and smiles an exhilarated smile.
This is going to work. This has to work.
They step downstairs hand in hand - hand in the same hand, in fact, - it’s time for the show.
“Monica?” Her mom says cautiously.
“Yes, Mom?” Monica and Talia answer in unison just like they’ve practiced, two identical grins on their faces.
“What are you two doing?” Mom says a suspicious cadence coloring her voice and a look on her face like she’s already getting an idea of what they’re planning. And why.
Monica doesn’t mind, as long as her mom isn’t sure which of them is the real Monica there’s nothing she can do about it. Knowing what Monica wants from them might actually hurry this thing along faster.
She does know that as soon as this is over she’s going to be grounded for a very, very long time. But sacrifices have to be made in the name of the greater good of Mom and Auntie Carol getting back together.
“Yes, what are you two up to?” Auntie Carol asks looking over the back of the couch. She looks amused and unlike Mom clearly hasn’t yet worked out that Talia’s not about to change back any time soon.
They exchange a look and pull their lips in a smirk, Monica has to admit it feels a bit strange seeing her own face looking back but it’s also kinda… really cool too.
“Nothing, Auntie Carol.” Talia says innocently.
“Nothing at all.” Monica echoes her.
They both look left at the sudden loud chuckle coming from the corner where Talia’s dad is standing, as soon as they do, he sends them a quick wink and continues laughing. Monica likes him. She has a good feeling that he’s not gonna snitch on them even if he does have some way to tell them apart.