Three Days To Go
Alex Chen drove along empty roads coated with orange leaves and enjoyed a moment of pure, blissful peace. Even the radio wasn't on, a rare occurrence in her reasonably priced Subaru. Steph had spent about four days making fun of her for her choice in vehicle, until Alex had reminded her they were getting married and that the 'most sapphic vehicle in the history of womankind' (direct quote) would soon belong to both of them. Then she had kissed her before she had a chance to respond, effectively winning the argument. She was getting quite good at that. The kissing and the using it to win arguments. Underhanded? Maybe. But Steph was usually amenable.
The same hadn't been true that morning, as Alex brewed herself a coffee at a time that could only be described as gross o'clock. She was trying her best to be quiet, she really was. Dressing herself in her special occasion clothes (No rips, no band logos) in near silence, she thought she might have gotten away with her subterfuge. As she poured herself a cup, however, she heard a small voice from the bed.
"Alex?" Steph said, muffled by the covers.
"Yeah babe?" she replied, the pet name feeling so natural on her tongue. There had been a time when they had started dating when saying anything like that had made her throat close up. She didn't know why. She loved Steph. Steph loved her. Yet somehow it still felt wrong. Felt like she should have one foot out the door. Felt like any wrong word could push Steph out the door like their love meant nothing. It was an issue she was working on with her new, real therapist. And hey, their wedding was in three days so that put some security on the whole thing.
"Where are you?" Steph whined. "I'm cold". How was she the most badass woman Alex knew and simultaneously the most pathetic?
"But the sun is barely up"
"I know, today's the day" said Alex, not wanting to say the words. It was a touchy subject in their apartment. They had relatively few of them and this was probably the biggest.
"Oh" said Steph, suddenly stiff. Even their thick winter quilt didn't hide the tendrils of red creeping into her aura. Alex took a deep breath. Steph wasn't angry at her, she reminded herself.
"I made a promise" said Alex, knowing that wouldn't be enough.
"Our wedding's in three days. What if I go Bridezilla and you're not here to calm me down?" Steph asked. Alex stopped for a moment to imagine it. Steph, chill, funny, dorky but in a cool indie way Steph, her beloved girlfriend of two years Steph, screaming at some poor wedding planner because the flowers were the wrong shade of purple. Alex knew it was absurd.
"Sounds kinda hot, I'm sorry I'll miss it" said Alex, trying to sound light.
"You aren't funny. And you didn't promise that fucker anything, you just forgave him" said Steph, sitting up and pulling the covers down to look at her across the apartment. Alex crossed to Steph, running a hand through her messed hair and placing a soft kiss on her forehead. Alex's stomach was twisting in knots even as she did it. Please don't fight. Please don't fight.
"Go back to sleep. I'll be back this afternoon. I love you" Alex said into Steph's forehead, ignoring Steph's remark. She pulled back to look at Steph's eyes. They were no longer narrowed at least.
"Love you too. Don't let him give you any shit"
That final, defiant look in Steph's eyes stuck with Alex as she walked up to the imposing face of Oregon State Penitentiary. Past the looming guard tower, through the dull gray reception. “Don’t let him give you any shit”. He hadn’t tried to give her shit once. Not during the trial. Not during the first tentative call on that first Christmas eve, only a few months after everything had happened. That Christmas she, Steph and Ryan had spent getting absolutely hammered in the Black Lantern, taking turns crying as the various pains of the year rolled over them.
Realising she would never get to spend a Christmas with Gabe had been one of the most painful parts of it all somehow. Burning and constricting and out of nowhere.
It hadn’t all been bad though. Despite their drinking starting at about 8am and their occasional tearful outbursts they had been visited all day by the people of Haven. They had somehow managed to put together a surprisingly competent Christmas dinner, with the help of a late and sober Riley. Alex had duetted ‘Fairytale of New York’ with Duckie at some point, standing on top of the bar with a bottle of vodka in hand. Ryan, barely able to stand, had spent about forty five minutes explaining to Steph the importance of bird calls in scientific research whilst she compulsively flicked through the jukebox, muttering about each song. An impromptu LARP session had ended with Charlotte as Santa Claus and Ethan in a thrown together Thaynor outfit saving the day from Ryan’s rather Shakespearian portrayal of Krampus.
They laughed as much as they cried. Then in the evening, after everyone else had returned home and the trio were so full of food they vaguely resembled sober, Alex told the two people who mattered most to her in the entire world about her call with Jed Lucan. Ryan, who had not spoken to his father since his hearing, sat in shocked silence. Steph accused Alex of once again putting everyone else’s emotions before her own, even a “piece of shit garbage motherfucker”. It was an argument they had some variation of often. Even ignoring Alex’s gift, she could admit she had a lot of people pleasing codependency to work through (See, therapy!) and that maybe she didn’t always look out for herself in the best way.
But she wasn’t doing this for him. The phone calls, the stilted conversation about prison life and how the Black Lantern was doing, the long awkward pauses when she mentioned some medical complication that had come from her fall down a mine shaft at his hands. The stories about Gabe. The stories about her Dad. It was all for her, as painful as it may be. That’s what she’d tried, stumbling and unsure, to tell them. That she couldn’t be angry, she didn’t have the energy.
As she was walked through a metal detector and patted down by a bored guard chewing overpoweringly minty gum and sporting a blue, depressed aura Alex gathered was from a bad breakup/hangover combo, she thought about the first, awkward meeting in person. Ryan refusing to send any sort of message to his father. Steph, past anger, hugging her extra tightly as she left. The first long drive, anxiety twisting her insides up, zooming through trees covered in fresh leaves and past fields filled with blooming wildflowers. Feeling, somehow, like everything was starting anew. The way his eyes rested uncomfortably on the scar that adorned her forehead. The disappointment when she told him Ryan didn’t have anything to say to him. The smile that played on his lips as she told him about the latest Thaynor comic. The giggle she let out as he told her the story of Gabe and Charlotte’s third date that had almost ended with him leaving Haven Springs.
Now, she sat across from him again. It had been a long time since her last visit. He looked older, drawn. He hadn’t been sleeping well, she imagined. Tired eyes rested in slightly sunken sockets, but the corners crinkled as he smiled at her. It was small, but genuine. Around her swirled reds and blues and purples, from both the inmates and the visitors. Anger, sadness, fear. The first time she had come it had been almost too much to handle. This time it didn’t bother her nearly as much. The voices had been becoming easier to manage as she had reigned her own emotions in to check, bit by bit.
“Hello Alex” he said.
“Hey, Jed” she said.
A moment’s silence.
“How are things going in here?” she added when it became clear he would let the moment of silence drag into an eternity.
“Good. Or as good as prison can be” he said, smiling softly. “It mostly stays the same. I’ve been looking out for a few of the youngers guys, keeping them on the straight and narrow”
“That’s good” said Alex. “You’re certainly stern enough for it.” He laughed at that.
“I see you have some news for me” he said, nodding at the engagement ring on her finger. It wasn’t anything ostentatious, neither of them were that type of girl. A simple gold band with a small diamond on top. Low quality, she had been assured when she began to remind Steph of the money they were trying to save.
“Yeah. It’s uh, three days away actually” she said, blushing slightly.
“I’m glad to see Steph is finally making an honest woman of you” said Jed. “I could tell from your first day working at the Black Lantern there was a spark there”
“No you couldn’t. Could you?” said Alex, eyes narrowing in worry. Had she been that obvious? Had she been as obvious with her crush on Ryan that had started at about the same time? That first day had been a wild ride for her bisexual self even before their trip into the mountains. Jed smirked at her.
"Why do you think I let you spend so long playing the jukebox game on your trial shift?" said Jed. Alex had the good graces to blush.
"Never felt like this about someone before" said Alex. "She's so… So alive"
"She's a spitfire, that's for sure" said Jed with a grin. "Does she still hate me?" He asked the question with no anger, no bitterness. Just a statement.
“Yeah. Don’t think that’ll be changing any time soon” said Alex, repressing the urge to smile awkwardly and add a dragged out ‘sorry’ to the end. She would have, two years ago.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from her. Or anyone in town, to be honest with you” said Jed, leaning back in his seat. “Even if I was ever going to get out of here, I don’t think I could ever go back”. There was a pregnant pause as he looked out of one of the high windows in the visiting room. Clouds drifted lazily through the pale blue sky.
“What’s it like?” said Alex, drawing his attention back to her with a start.
“What do you mean?”
“Knowing you’re going to be in here forever?” asked Alex. Her voice sounded so small. She hoped that negated the fact that it was a brutal question. If she’d thought about it for more than a moment she wouldn’t have said it but it had just slipped out, watching his glassy eyes looking at that four foot by four foot square of freedom. She’d just been thinking about it a lot lately (Three days). The looming possibility of forever. The swirling of hope and fear and excitement and love that came attached to it. She understood his forever was very different to hers. But still, she’d asked.
He looked over at her, sharp for a moment. She saw that rare anger bubbling inside him. His eyes raked over her face, then rested at her own. Jed sighed, and a small, sad smile touched his lips.
“I deserve it” he said.
“That isn’t an answer” Alex replied. Jed was taken aback, then something else filled his face. It was a warm look, one she couldn’t really place.
“You’ve come such a long way, Alex” he said. “I don’t really think about it, to be honest with you. It’s my life, nothing to be done. I know I’m here because I earned it, so I don’t let that distract me. Instead I focus on what I can do. Those kids I mention? I spend a lot of time with them and there are always new ones coming in. So I let them take up my time. They don’t realise they’re doing more for me than I am for them”
“I’m sure that’s not true” said Alex. She imagined having someone like Jed, someone who even after everything he’d done projected such a father like serenity and wisdom, taking some wayward youths into his hands was going to change some lives. There were definitely kids she’d met in the foster care system who could have used someone like that. Someone who had gone as far down as there was to go, understood the pain, understood the motivations and could show them how to be better.
Why couldn’t she hate him? Alex Chen had never had a problem with hating people. She’d done it a lot as a teenager. Too often. It hadn’t stopped in her twenties either. There were some people in her past she would happily push down a mine shaft.
But Jed? So sad. So repentant. So twisted up in everything he had done he couldn’t see the pain he was causing. And when he did? He apologised.
And she forgave him.
That had to matter. That simple act of compassion had to mean more than just words to make someone feel better. That’s what Steph didn’t understand. To Alex, that forgiveness had to be a promise. A promise to fix what was wrong, to understand. To heal. Forever. As long as Jed was in here, trying to be better, she’d be here too.
“I don’t know. But it's nice. Just because all I’ll ever see is these walls doesn’t mean I can’t change. Change me. Change those kids. Maybe, if they’re really good, change the world a little tiny bit” he said. His fingers drummed on the table between them. “Are you worried about it?”
He’d seen through her. Of course.
“Not worried, exactly. What do I have to be worried about? It’s the happiest day of my life, right?” she deflected.
“One of them, hopefully. That doesn’t mean you can’t be scared, or nervous. When I married Ryan’s mother, it was scary as all hell. I thought I was going to throw up. When Ryan was born I was so scared I did throw up. That’s being human, being afraid of what’s next. But then, I stood at the top of the aisle and watched her walk. Then I held Ryan in my arms, felt his little fingers grab onto mine. That’s when the happiness comes”
“And everything before that is the fear” said Alex. They grinned at each other, a small and fragile shared moment.
“Right in one” said Jed, breaking eye contact to look down at his own hands. Alex realised for the first time that they were shaking slightly. Then, he looked back up at her. “So, tell me about the proposal. You or her?”
That was a line of questioning Alex was more than happy to walk down, as she launched into the long and somewhat convoluted story of their proposal(s).