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what am I doing here, if you're not with me?

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Happiness has always been fleeting for Judy Hale. All she's ever wanted is security, love, someone to depend on, who will depend on her in return. Whenever she's managed to find it, she's lost it- no matter how hard she tries. It's like she's struggling desperately to hold onto sand, unable to stop it as it slowly slips through her fingers. 

 

*

 

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

 

The steady sound of the heart monitor and the weight of Jen's hand in hers are the only things keeping Judy tethered to the ground. She can taste the salty tears running down her cheeks as the words "brain swelling" and "medically induced coma" echo over and over again in her mind. It's a sick joke, really, that this happened after all they've been through, after against all odds they'd been happy. Jen would laugh, Judy thinks, if she were conscious, about the irony of it all, of how things have seemingly come full circle- Judy and Jen now being the victims of a hit and run. 

 

But she's not, and all Judy can do is hope she hears Jen's laugh again, soon. She's been hearing it more and more lately, was getting used to the utter joy she felt every time, as things were changing between them. The heaviness of lies and betrayal and violence was fading away, being replaced by their deepening connection and love for each other. Judy closes her eyes and lets herself remember. 

 

*

 

There had been a shift after Jen came home from her failed confession attempt. As they sat on the outdoor couch and Jen held her and said, "I love you", Judy could feel how much she meant it. The kind of love they shared was impossible to label, didn't need to have one, yet, but Judy thinks Jen loves her more than anyone ever has. 

 

Jen has given her so much since they met, and Judy is thrilled after she gets her paintings back and she has the money to give her something in return. When Judy tells her she wants to help her buy out Lorna, she can see the weight lift off Jen's shoulders, relishes the genuine smile she sees on her face, knows she put it there.

 

Their meeting with Lorna is something else. 

 

"For commission on 20 million dollars, I get along with anyone," Lorna sing-songs.

 

"Oh, that's..." Judy trails off, stops herself from saying "fucked up", as she glances to her left, sharing a look with Jen. 

 

After a moment, Lorna speaks again. "So, Jennifer... this money came from Judy," she gestures vaguely in her direction, "so she owns half of the house my grandsons live in?"

 

Judy opens her mouth to say something, to reassure Lorna, but Jen beats her to it. "Well yes Lorna, I guess she does, but I'll make sure they stay in the half that I own, how's that?"

 

Judy stifles a laugh, as Lorna looks back and forth between the two of them, like she's trying to work something out in her mind. "So... is she your... life partner, then?" 

 

Judy is surprised there isn't disdain dripping off Lorna's words, she just seems genuinely curious. Again, she opens her mouth to respond, "No-"

 

"Yes, actually," Jen speaks over Judy as she reaches and grabs her hand. "That's probably the best term I could use to explain what Judy is to me."

 

To say Judy is shocked is an understatement. She turns to look at Jen, but Jen just squeezes her hand and continues to address Lorna. "You should also know that I've made her the boys' legal guardian if something were to happen to me. But you will always be a part of their lives, Judy would make sure of that. And no- I'm not sick, my blood work came back perfectly normal, thank you for the recommendation," Jen smiles sweetly. 

 

Lorna looks as shocked as Judy feels, but manages to compose herself. "Well, the boys do seem to be attached to her... and I have always thought she was pretty."

 

Jen laughs, "Yes Lorna, that's the number one quality I look for in someone to help me raise my children- attractiveness," she finally looks at Judy, "She is, though."

 

Judy sees something new in Jen's eyes, and feels a blush spread across her cheeks in response. 

 

"I've seen the Ellen show. I like when she dances," Lorna chimes back in.

 

"Ohhhh-kay, I think it's time for us to go," Jen says as she stands up. 

 

When they get into the car, Judy feels a bit confused as Jen just laughs and slaps the steering wheel. "That was a fucking blast!"

 

Judy looks at her, then, quietly, "Jen, what was that?"

 

Jen levels a gaze right back at her, "What do you mean?"

 

"'Life partner'?" Judy feels foolish using air quotes, does it anyway. 

 

Jen smiles and shrugs, "Lorna's words, and yeah... I mean, what other phrase would you use to describe our relationship?"

 

Judy can't come up with a good answer for that. "I- I don't-"

 

"What's the problem? Do you have a better life partner prospect I don't know about? I'm a catch- I asked you to raise my kids, and I called you pretty," Jen teases. 

 

Judy smiles despite herself, but she can't quite place the feeling in her chest, the slight ache. "Of course not! But..."

 

"But what? You need more than that?!?" Jen's still teasing, but Judy's not laughing. 

 

Ah, that's what it is. The ache. It's there because, yes, she does need more than that. Judy squeezes her eyes shut, then looks back at Jen. "Yes," she says, simply.

 

Judy sees understanding in Jen's eyes, and something else- the look from before. She nods, her eyes grow serious. "You'll get it." 

 

Nothing else needs to be said. Judy believes her. She can be patient. 

 

They start sharing Jen's bed every night after that. There's no discussion about it, but Judy never wants to part from Jen at the end of the night, and the feeling seems to be reciprocated. Nothing else has happened, yet, but when they go to sleep, Judy holds Jen; in the morning, Jen immediately reaches for her when they wake. Judy knows how difficult physical intimacy is for Jen, and she'll never push her, even though she wants her so badly she can hardly stand it. This new closeness is perfect, and they have time. 

 

A few days later, Judy suggests they go car shopping for Charlie. Jen protests at first, but Judy won't have it. "I still have some money left, and he deserves it," she says, and Jen eventually agrees. 

 

It's kinda fun, car shopping, Judy has never done it before. The salesman is probably in his mid-fifties, mildly attractive, and his entire focus is on helping them find the perfect car. Well, most of his focus, anyway, because Judy can feel the way he's looking at her, which she doesn't enjoy, but she does enjoy the reaction Jen has to it. She's definitely noticed, and rolls her eyes at Judy every chance she gets.

 

"So," he segues as they are buckling into the SUV for a test drive, "this will be for your son, ma'am?" he directs the question at Jen. 

 

"Oh, no," Jen responds easily, "for OUR son," as she reaches and grabs Judy's hand, her words making Judy's heart soar (it won't ever get old hearing that, Judy knows).

 

"Ahhh," he laughs a little, "that's too bad!"

 

Jen doesn't even bother shooting him a glare or biting his head off, like Judy's expecting; she just barks out a smug laugh, "Ha, yeah! Too bad for you. Pretty great where I'm sitting."

 

Judy bites the inside of her cheek, feels herself blushing (God, she hasn't blushed so much since middle school. Jen has this effect on her now). 

 

As they drive off the lot, Judy feels pure happiness. She knows Jen is happy, too, and when Jen brings up a vacation, she can't help but flirt. 

 

"Oh, talk to me like lovers do!" (She knows Jen HATES the word "lover", who doesn't.)

 

"Ew!" But Jen laughs, so Judy keeps going, wants to hear her laugh as much as possible, craves it now. 

 

That's where the good memories end.

 

Next comes Jen's bloody face after they're hit, the relief she feels when Jen speaks, the panic when she passes back out and doesn't wake up again. The ride in the ambulance to the hospital that feels like the longest 20 minutes of her life, clutching Jen's hand for dear life the entire time. 

 

*

 

"Judy?" She hears her name from the doorway, it snaps her back to the present. It's Christopher, he picked up the boys and brought them to the hospital. Judy hadn't been able to get a hold of Lorna, which is probably for the best, her energy wouldn't be good for anyone right now. 

 

Judy wipes tears from her face as she stands up and walks toward Chris. He looks ghostly white, terrified. "It's okay," she says, trying to will herself to believe it.

 

"Judy!" Henry propels himself into her arms as she enters the hallway. "Are you okay?!" He looks so worried, and Charlie is standing a few feet away, but she can tell how scared he is, too. She has a few stitches and some bruising on her face, but that's all. 

 

"Where is Mom?" Charlie asks, firm. 

 

Judy takes a shaky breath. "I'm fine. Your mom... she got the brunt of the hit. There's some swelling in her brain, the doctor decided to place her in a medically induced coma to help. I know that sounds super scary, but it's for the best, it's so her body can get some rest and heal."

 

Henry's crying against her while Charlie looks like he's going to puke. "Will she be okay?" He looks at Judy, eyes pleading, 'please don't bullshit me'. 

 

Judy's shaking, "I can't say anything for sure. The doctor seemed very optimistic. I'll have him come talk to you, okay? Do you want to go sit with your mom and I'll go get him?"

 

She looks toward Chris, and he nods. "Let's go, boys," and heads toward the door to Jen's room. Henry squeezes Judy before letting go and she kisses his head, whispers,  "I love you. It's going to be okay."

 

"I love you, too," he mumbles, and Charlie puts his arm around him. Judy reaches for Charlie's other arm, squeezes, and he doesn't pull away- but when she says "I love you," he doesn't respond. Judy understands. She watches them go into the room, then goes to find the doctor. 

 

The boys seem to feel a bit better after speaking to Doctor Johnston, and after he assures them they should go get some rest, there won't be any change, Judy decides it would be best to take the boys home. Henry needs to use the bathroom before they leave, and Charlie goes with him.

 

Judy is in a daze when Christopher touches her arm. "Hey," he says, quietly as to not startle her, as if he knows how fragile she is. "Are you okay?"

 

She looks at him, fighting back tears, and shakes her head. She can't manage words at the moment. 

 

"I know this is hard. I know how... special your relationship with Jen is."

 

That surprises her. "Really? What has she said to you?"

 

He smiles, a bit sadly, "Oh nothing really. But you two have basically been a lesbian stereotype since the moment you met. I mean, she knew you for five minutes before asking you to move in," he nudges her with his shoulder, trying to lighten the mood.

 

Judy shakes her head, huffs out a forced laugh. "It wasn't like that," she says.

 

"'Wasn't'? Does that mean it is now?"

 

Judy pauses, not sure what to say. Jen is a very private person. "I... think we were heading there," she replies, wistfully, then feels something like a fissure in her heart. "Now we might not get the chance."

 

Chris puts his arm around her and gives her a squeeze. "Don't say that. Our girl? She's a fighter. And if I know anything, I know she loves those boys," he looks at her, "and she loves you. She's fighting to get back to you."

 

Judy wipes away more tears, "Thank you," squeezes him back, "I know she is."

 

He pulls away as the boys approach from the restroom. "She better be fighting to get back to me, too. She's going to be my maid of honor and I already picked out her and Adele's matching outfits." 

 

*

 

When they get home, Judy isn't sure what to do. For the second time in as many weeks, she is preparing for a possible life without Jen, one where she is living in their house and raising their boys without her. It feels impossible, but she has Charlie and Henry to think about, has purpose, and is determined to be strong for them. 

 

Charlie goes straight to his room, hasn't said much, but Judy gives him space. He's so much like his mother. She goes to Henry's room with him, reads to him, strokes his hair until he's all the way asleep. She hasn't even been out to the guest house in several days, but decides to go get some things so she can be in the main house permanently. Most of her essential items are already in Jen's room, but she grabs some clothes, and the wooden box from underneath her bed. After she gets changed and brushes her teeth, she curls up on Jen's side of the bed with the box. She needs to read the letter Jen wrote to her, needs to hear Jen's words in her head, needs the validation of her love and trust in her. 

 

Judy pops open the box, and her heart stops. The letter is gone, along with some of her weed. There's only one person who could have taken them, and she feels nauseous at the thought. She wants to lay down and cry, but knows she needs to deal with this, so she walks down the hall to Charlie's room, stops at the door. She can hear him moving around, he's still awake, so she knocks lightly. "Charlie?"

 

"Yeah?" He responds, annoyed, but definitely on the lower end of the spectrum of annoyed that she's ever heard him, so she'll take it, and pushes the door open. 

 

"Hey," she walks over and sits on his bed, where he's playing a game on his laptop, "can we talk a sec?"

 

"Oh sure, please, make yourself at home!" He closes his laptop and takes his headphones off.

 

"I shall!" She curls her legs up under her, tries to calm her racing heart. "I think you might have taken something of mine. Maybe a couple somethings?"

 

He snaps his eyes up to look at her. "Yeah, so?" He asks, challenging. 

 

Judy grimaces, but presses on, "Well, one of those things you should NOT be doing, and I at least hope you are doing it responsibly," she gives him a pointed look, "and the other thing.... that was very personal, between Jen and me. Do you have it? Did you read it?"

 

Charlie's eyes narrow, "I did read it. And I did have it, but I threw it away."

 

"Oh," Judy gasps, feels a rush of pain as she realizes she'll never see that letter again, that tangible evidence of her connection to Jen. "Okay. That's fair. Is there anything-"

 

Charlie cuts her off, "Did you have something to do with my dad's death?"

 

There it is. Judy squeezes her eyes shut, steels herself before looking back up at him, tears in her eyes. "I was driving the car. It was the worst moment of my life, the worst mistake, and you have no idea how sorry I am," she pauses, taking a shaky breath, "It's no excuse, but Steve wouldn't let me stop. I was so weak, I let him control me, and I'll regret it every second for the rest of my life." She reaches out to touch Charlie's arm and he snatches it away, the rage morphing his features reminding her of Jen. 

 

"Mom KNEW this?! And she FORGAVE you? Let you live in our home? Wanted YOU to be our legal guardian?" His voice is shaking.

 

"I know, it sounds crazy. It's extremely complicated and your mom and I have been through a lot together. She knew- knows. She knows how much I love you all, and I'd do anything for you," she's pleading with him to believe her. 

 

"And what was Mom talking about, confessing?" Charlie isn't calming down, "What happened to Steve?"

 

Judy feels sick, swallows the sudden lump in her throat. This she can't answer. "That's... also very complicated. It's a conversation you need to have with your mom."

 

Charlie laughs, bitterly. "Yeah! Let me just go up to the hospital and fucking ASK her!" He's yelling now, nearing hysterics.

 

"Shhh, Charlie, please, you don't want to wake up your brother-"

 

"No actually, I think I should wake him up. I need to get him and take him to Grandma's. It is absolutely INSANE for us to be here with YOU," he moves to stand up and Judy stops him, close to panicking now. What can she do? What would Jen want her to do?

 

Judy places her hand on his arm, firm, but soothing. "No," she says, unyielding. "Your mother wanted ME to be your guardian, and you are going to trust that she knows best." Charlie lowers his eyes, but doesn't pull away from her this time, and she can see tears rolling down his face. Her heart clenches. "You can be mad at me, and I truly hope you forgive me, but you're staying here. I love you. I love Henry. I will do everything I can to take care of you until she gets home, and we will all be here, together, when that happens."

 

Charlie looks up at her, and the look on his face shatters her heart. "What if she doesn't come home?" he chokes out. Judy pulls him into her arms and he leans into her as he breaks down, sobs wracking his body as she hugs him. "I can't lose her, too."

 

Judy holds him as he cries, her own tears falling onto his hair. "She will come home, Char," she assures him, assures herself. "You won't lose her."

 

Judy doesn't know how long they stay like that, but Charlie finally calms down, and she  leaves him to get some rest. She knows she will have to gain his trust, again, but feels like they at least have a fragile understanding. 

 

Judy crawls into bed, physically sore and emotionally exhausted. She grabs Jen's pillow and curls around it, breathing in deep, inhaling her scent. As she tries to slow her breathing and drift off to sleep, she repeats the parts of her letter she remembers, that she never wants to forget. "I'm so glad that we met. Thank you for loving me and our boys. I love you more than wine."

 

*

 

They fall into a routine over the next week, getting up early so Judy can take the boys to the hospital to see Jen before school. (They want to skip, but Judy knows Jen would want them to continue life as normal. She can't be a pushover.) Then Judy goes to work, back to the hospital, then home in time to make dinner. She's arranged with Lorna to pick the boys up from school every day and bring them home, and she's actually being surprisingly helpful and reliable. 

 

Doctor Johnston explains to Judy that the swelling in Jen's brain is improving, but they will probably keep her in the coma for the maximum of two weeks so she has the best opportunity for healing and complete recovery. Judy misses her, so, so much- even though she's constantly talking to her, telling her everything about the boys, how strong they're being, how brave. It's been a week, and Judy can't wait for the next week to pass.

 

One afternoon, Judy is at work when Angela flags her down. "Judy! Can I talk to you for a second?"

 

"Sure! What's up?" Judy follows her to her office, curious. "Is this about the pastels? I know we're over budget but they're really popular with the residents-"

 

"What?" Angela shakes her head as she sits down at her desk. "Oh, no. This is about something else. Look, I know this may not be the best timing with everything you're going through-"

 

"Thank you, for being so understanding about that, by the way," Judy interjects, sincerely. Angela has been great.

 

"No problem," she pauses, "I think I know the answer, but I have to bring it up  anyway. There's been an opening for a Director of Activities in our corporate office, and my boss asked if I knew of anyone to recommend for an interview. You've done some great work here, and I immediately thought of you."

 

Judy's jaw drops, surprised and flattered. "Wow," she exhales, "that's so nice of you to think of me, what an honor. But that would be moving to corporate-"

 

"In San Francisco, yes," Angela nods, "It would be a big promotion and raise. Your moving expenses would also be taken care of."

 

Judy doesn't know what to say. She feels so thankful, but she CAN'T leave. 

 

Angela senses her hesitation. "Look, I know you've been living with your friend and helping her out. I also know you, and know you'd want to see her healthy and back home before you commit to anything. There's no immediate rush, but they do want to start interviews in the next couple of weeks. You've earned this, Judy, and it would be a great opportunity for you. At least think about it."

 

Judy's nodding, Angela is making a lot of sense. It's a great opportunity, but she doesn't need to think about it. "Angela, I appreciate so much you thinking of me for this, I really do, but I can't move. Jen and the boys, they're my family. I'm happy here."

 

"You're sure?"

 

Judy nods. 

 

Angela smiles, lifts her hands up in defeat. "Okay, I at least had to try. Everyone here will be thrilled you're staying. It'd be tough to lose you."

 

*

 

Judy is making dinner in the kitchen one evening, waiting for Lorna to bring the boys home when she hears the doorbell. She wipes her hands off, goes to open the door and finds her neighbor's smiling face. "Karen, hi!"

 

"Hi, Judy!" Karen reaches out to give Judy an awkward hug. "I wanted to check in on you, see how you're doing."

 

"Oh, I'm hanging in there," Judy nods, "Just ready for Jen to come home."

 

"How is she doing? Has there been any change?"

 

"Thank you for asking Karen, that's so sweet. Her doctor said today her brain swelling and function is looking good, and she should be able to come out of the coma in a few more days," Judy grins, feeling great about the update. 

 

"That's wonderful! Oh I'm so happy. Can't wait to have my wine drinking buddy back!" 

 

"Sure, sure! I'm sure she'll be happy to see you, too."

 

"Okay, well I'll let you get back to it- oh, wait! There is something I wanted to ask your advice on. I want to document my experience getting back out there, trying to find love again after divorce," Karen starts.

 

"Uh huh, yeah, makes sense," Judy nods, wide-eyed. 

 

"So I need your opinion. Should I do a blog or a vlog? I enjoy writing, but I think my personality would come across much better in a vlog. What do you think?"

 

"Oh absolutely. Your personality would SHINE through the video medium," Judy says seriously. 

 

"Great! I've been brainstorming some names, do you want to hear them?!"

 

"Actually, Karen, I've got the oven preheating," she gestures into the house, "and I would hate to ruin the surprise!"

 

Karen smiles, "Of course! Well please keep me updated on Jen. Thanks Judy!"

 

Judy laughs to herself as she closes the door. She can't wait to come up with a drinking game with Jen for Karen's vlog.

 

*

 

It's two days until Doctor Johnston is set to bring Jen out of the coma when Judy's phone rings at work. Panic floods her body when she looks at her phone and sees it's the hospital calling. 

 

She quickly steps out of the art class she's teaching to answer it. "Hello?"

 

"Judy, hi, Dr. Johnston here-"

 

"Is Jen okay?!" Judy cuts him off, can't help herself, she feels like she's going to throw up and pass out at the same time.

 

"Yes, actually, she's doing very well. Her scans were so good, in fact, we decided to bring her out of the coma today. Can you get here?"

 

The panic in Judy's body is quickly replaced by joy. "Yes! I'm on my way!"

 

"The process could take some time, no need to rush."

 

"I'm on my way."

 

*

 

Once in the car, Judy calls Lorna to pick the boys up from school. Luckily, she's available. Judy is already close to the hospital, and can't bear the thought of Jen waking up alone. 

 

All Judy can think about as she drives is what she will say to Jen when she wakes up. If the last two weeks have taught her anything, it's that nothing is guaranteed. The promise of "more" for them is no longer enough, and all of her feelings for Jen are ready to burst out of her. Once she sees those eyes, those beautiful blue eyes who see her more clearly than anyone ever has, she knows she'll have to tell her. She'll kiss her and tell her she loves her, has loved her since the moment they met and always will.

 

Judy stops to speak to the doctor before she reaches Jen's room. He tells her Jen is slowly coming to and some confusion is to be expected. "You will have to be very patient with her, and she will probably have a lot of questions," he explains. 

 

"I've got nothing but time," she tells him with a smile. 

 

Judy sits down in the chair that has become her second home and grabs Jen's hand, squeezing lightly. She's stirring, and Judy feels as if she has butterflies with steel-tipped wings in her stomach. "I'm here, Jen," she whispers, and brings Jen's hand up to kiss her fingers gently. 

 

Jen's eyes open, and Judy can feel the tears threatening to spill out, the huge grin quickly overtaking her face as she kisses Jen's hand again. "Hi," she says, so soft, so happy. 

 

She sees confusion clouding Jen's eyes, and it quickly turns to a look of disgust as her gaze shifts to her hand at Judy's lips. She yanks her hand away. 

 

Her voice is raspy, but Judy can make out her words, and it's like a dagger to her heart.

 

"Who the fuck are you?"