Day had turned to night by the time she had her opportunity to talk to him, alone.
The others had gone to bed. It had been a long night filled with stolen glances and choreographed conversations. Bernie and Kathleen kept asking questions, and she was so accustomed to the never-ending curiosity belonging to her current state of mind that it didn’t bother her, not really.
Not much could be said for Elliot. His futile need to protect her sensitivities was a little obsessive, if not annoying.
Yet here she was, back in the Stabler garden on a cool spring night, the moon hanging small and yellow and gibbous in the sky, reminding of weaker nights survived. She can do this. She must.
Staring at the near stranger, her heart pumped with familiar fondness she’d never before directed towards the boy in front of her. For a strange moment, it felt like she was staring at an older version of Noah, a beloved son she didn’t quite know.
“Hey Eli, mind if I join you?”
He had an iPad in hand, its bright lit screen illuminating the dark circles underneath his eyes.
“Uh, sure.” He replied, cautiously, as though he hadn't any choice.
Olivia could hear the constant ebb and flow of the city behind, like the breathing of some great, slumbering creature at rest, and she knew that everyone bar the two of them were at rest now, too.
She crawled onto the seat across from him, placed two cups of heated non-dairy milk, cared less of what he had to say about the peace-offering, and more of what she should say.
I’m sorry for what I put you through.
I’m sorry for your mother.
I’m sorry for everything.
This was uncharted territory of the greatest kind, another slice of stolen property added to her collection. She hopes wherever Kathy Stabler is, the woman hasn’t anymore pens.
“Can’t sleep either?”
“We don’t need..”
They spoke at the same time.
“What was that?”
She sighed, scrubbing her face. “You go.”
“I was just gonna say we don’t need to do this.”
She took a sip of milk, an attempt to mask the blow. “Do what exactly?”
“You know, have a heart to heart over anything.”
“Well, that’s sad. I’m quite good at heart to hearts, actually.” she teased, mildly, and blinked when Eli merely looked away, quiet and withdrawn like his father was, or could be.
“I noticed earlier at dinner; you were a little distant. I just wanted you to know that you can talk to be about anything; anything at all that might be bothering you. I can take it.”
The city sighed, slumped in darkness.
“You’re really great with Noah. He talks about you a lot when we’re at home.”
“Your dad insisted that you were fine with sharing a room, but I don’t mind converting Noah to the bed with me. He pretends not to know me, but he’ll take any opportunity to drape my arm around him at night.”
A timid smile tugged at the corners of Eli’s mouth. A win for her.
“I don’t mind Noah. He’s good company. The room is big enough. Unfortunately for him, it has no door. Dad took off the hinges last year so...”
Her brows perk up at that, she doesn’t ask.
“I appreciate it. The hospitality that is, not the lack of privacy. You want me to have a word with your dad?”
Eli grinned, just a fraction. “Nah, that’s alright. It won’t work.”
“But thanks anyway.” He added.
“Eli..” she heard herself saying, closed her eyes and saw only wounded animals, orphaned children, a sinking casket flanked by waterfalls of dirt.
“I’m about to say something terrible. Only because I – the new Olivia, haven’t said it yet and it’s been a year. I am so sorry for what happened to your mom.”
Eli slackened in his bones, as though she’s placed a flower at his feet and not a sword. A door opening just a fraction, in his unyielding gaze. He reminds her so much of his father in ways that clearly surpass looks.
“That’s not terrible.”
“No. It’s uh.. thanks. I get it.”
“I don’t expect any of this to be easy for you, taking over your home like this. Just know that its only temporary, okay? I’m really not tryna replace Kath.. your mom.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
His words hang in the air.
“You were always good at that. Setting boundaries, making sure none of us felt uncomfortable talking about her when you were around. I mean yeah, it was awkward when you started seeing my dad and all – but that had nothing to do with mom gone.”
Olivia nodded. More new information that she didn’t ask for but welcomed, only because it was him. She tried to find the app in her brain to log it, to memorize it, become it, failing every time.
“May I ask what exactly made things awkward?”.
“Ah. I don’t know, just the way you were with each other, I guess.” He blushed, as though he were trying to suppress a terrible memory.
“We didn’t uhh.. do pda in front of you, did we?” she felt mortified even having to ask.
“No.” Eli laughed, grimacing at the same time. “You just uh.. you argued a lot when you thought none of us were paying attention. You’d either come out here or you took it somewhere else. Like the night of the twin’s birthday. I could tell you were fighting cause you were doing that thing with your hands, and dad was pacing, and then you just left and we never saw you again.”
He moved his body so that it angled in the direction of the patio doors, away from her. She felt at once connected and detached from him all the same.
“I don’t mean to make you feel bad. I just know what it’s like to be treated with kid gloves s’ all. Sometimes learning the truth is better than being concealed from it.”
“Yeah.” She agreed, looking off unto the doors as well, where the blur of one lonely lamp provided a dull golden glow to the home inside. Though it didn’t feel like her home, she was convinced that Eli had once felt a similar disconnection. She stared at him intently and dug deep inside herself to find what they had been looking for.
Nothing, not a single thing.
“What’s it like?” asked Eli, longing in his voice.
“Not remembering a thing about last year.”
She felt the quicksand open at his feet and she saw it, his desire to switch places, to take her car keys, to plunge right into that power poll without ever really considering the consequences. She had almost welcomed the oncoming oblivion too, the promise of nothing, of no feeling, until she realized she was living in it.
“It’s like waking up one day and finding out your house was burgled while you were sleeping in the next room. All your favourite things stolen from you. Violated in a way that not a lot of people can understand.”
“Do you want your memories back?”
She shared a strange desire to swing nothing more than the raw truth. This kid had been through hell and back, with and without her, and she owed him that much.
Eli let out a sigh that she failed to understand, selcouths of emotions she could not see growing between them. “But why not?”
“What happens when your house gets burgled?” It was a terrible analogy, she knew this, but she didn’t feel the need to impress him. His protective nature inherited from a certain someone seemed to indicate that the old Olivia had impressed him enough.
“I don’t know. You call the cops and try get your stuff back?”
She chuckled, the first in a while. “You get to start over.”
His gaze shifted past her, back towards the insides of his home, expression distant in a way that made her worry, reminded her of green traffic lights and meeting in-laws and breaking hearts.
“I’m sorry. Was that too much?” she asked.
“No. Just thinking.”
“Tell me.” she pressed, softly.
“I just think uh..” his voice was hoarse, drained. “It’s been a hard year for all of us and I’m just really glad you’re alive.”
Her throat made a mournful noise.
“Cause if you weren’t..” his tone travelled off and so did his gaze, back to the dim gold glow of the apartment, the big corner-side sofa at the heart of it all, where his father lay dormant to the world.
Elliot wakes with a thud.
He rummaged for a moment to collect his gatherings, remembered where he was, who he was, and why they were here. He kept counting everyone compulsively, even as they were far from sight. Mama, Eli, Noah, himself, and Liv. All five of them, as if he were afraid one or two might disappear.
His gaze landed on the clock, it was just after midnight, the time in which today becomes tomorrow. Mere hours away from seeing each of their faces again.
They were safer in bed, he told himself, though that did very little to tear his gaze away from his bedroom door. The wooden panel creaked ajar, even though he distinctly remembers Olivia shutting it after she bid goodnight.
He imagined her getting up in the middle of the night, tiptoeing the invisible paper arrows that led to the bathroom, pausing to catch sight of him asleep, and he felt a wistful smile take shape. She was safe, and home, and within arm’s reach.
There was a loud clatter that came from outside, then muffled voices. It was instinct for his hands to fly to his hip, where his gun might usually sit if he were on duty. Steadily he stood on two legs, stopping carefully when he realized the glass doors were unlocked.
“Has nobody really given this a go yet?” he heard Liv first, her deep raspy voice reverberating the empty night.
“Nobody. Maureen thought it might give us all something to do together, but everyone pretends to be busy these days.” Eli’s voice.
He stepped out into the garden; his presence already known by the scraping door. He stopped dead in sight at the picture of Olivia and his son, stringing a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle together, all in the name of dawn.
“Hey you.” Liv rasped, brown eyes melting into blue, reminding him of how little it took for her to frustrate him.
“You two starting a book club as well?” he teased.
“Lost track of time. Sorry.” Eli yawned, face a little droopy.
“How long have you two..”
“A couple hours.” Answered Olivia, fixing another piece.
“I should get to bed.” Eli took one last gulp of his milk and rubbed his eyes again.
“Yeah.” His father agreed, a soothing hand on his back. “Goodnight. I love you.”
“You too. Goodnight, Olivia.”
The door closed, leaving the two of them alone amongst the stars. There was a cold chill that grazed the curvature of his spine, and he wondered if it was the wind or her stare.
“Ever heard of a t-shirt?”
He spun around and peered down at the rock of his broad breastbone. Elliot laughed.
“Sorry. Habits die hard.”
“Here.” She threw him his own zip-up hoodie that lined the back of her chair. It was bathed in Olivia’s scent and reminded Elliot of those few weeks they spent tangled in one another.
He won’t give himself the pain of thinking beyond.
As he sat, and threw on the zip-up hoodie, her gaze flickered over his bare abs for just a fleeting second, though he needn’t embarrass her by mentioning it. He’d done enough of that already.
It felt nice having her attention.
“You two get to talking?”
“Hm-hm.” Her fingers hover above the line. He hates puzzles. He hates this puzzle. Its birthdate is as fresh as the image of her wanting another man.
“He’s a good kid, El.”
“He’s been through a lot.”
When it’s not the nightmares, or the flashbacks, it’s the look on his sons face as his father stormed down the hospital, Olivia’s blood soaked through his shirt like blackberry cloth. He hates it there.
“The other night, you mentioned you were in therapy.”
He nodded; brows furrowed. “Is it working?”
“It doesn’t not work.”
“What’s on your mind, Liv?”
“There’s obviously a lot we have to work through, you and me. And I have no idea what happened last year.”
“I wanna tell you, I do. I’m not tryna hide things from you. I just think you needa be in a better headspace s’ all.”
“A part of me just wants to get it over with, like ripping off a band-aid. I wanna know, I wanna breathe. I wanna sleep it off while I have the time.”
He reaches out for her hand, feels pleasurably crushed under the weight of her power over him, his colossal need to touch her at all times, to own her, to climb into her mind and figure out the orient of the sun so he can adjust.
Olivia’s hand is so small in his own.
“My therapist wants to meet you.”
Her mouth parts, eyes wide like the black above. The night is clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation. He can see it now, feel it, is responsible for it.
“You talk about me in your sessions?”
Her cluelessness to the enormity of his feelings for her are absolute body blows.
“For the last couple months, you are all I talk about.”
He’s jealous of the air her lungs so desperately cling to in that moment, the way it pokes a hole into their bubble, invading space, taking her away from him.
“Right, wow, ok.” She looks away.
The problem is that he’s scared her. The problem is that he’s probably more terrified than she is. There’s an ugliness to him that would like to lock her in and throw away the key.
“Don’t worry. I told her no. You have Lindstrom, and that neurologist, and whoever else to deal with as it is. This doesn’t have to be a thing, Liv.”
“Well, what exactly does she think I can do?”
He pauses, retreats, moves in again, he feels like he’s rocking, floating to the tide of the moon above.
“Elliot,” she levels him. “What does she want?”
“She wants to have a couple’s session.”
Olivia repeats the last two words under her breath, as though she can’t quite believe it herself.
“Wants to go over some things. To understand our dynamic, impossible I know. I don’t even understand our dynamic.”
“Well, maybe that’s why she suggested it. Maybe she wants to help us.”
He wonders if she’s playing games with him.
“You agree with her?”
“What’s the harm in us trying?”
Her eyes give him the claustrophobic sense of being stuck at the bottom of a very deep well. Even if he wanted to deny her of anything, even if it was for the greater good, he simply could not.
And he shakes inside. Shakes. A disbelieving breath escaping him. Does she not realize what her hope does for him? How different of woman she is to the soul who struggled to forgive him, who he loved anyway, despite the claw marks drawn across his entire back.
“Tell me why.” She pleaded. “Why not?”
Jesus. She was out for the kill tonight.
“Because I can’t risk it. Because she’s my shrink and running into that room will make shit about me. I don’t want that. This has to be about you and your healing journey, Liv.”
“Elliot stop. Just stop.”
She stood on two feet, blanket pooling to the ground like silk saffron in slow motion. He waited for her feet to disappear like they often did when she fought, but instead she zoomed around and to his side, her hands trembling as they picked his jaw off the floor.
He felt like a god as he stared up at her, the faint glow from inside iluminating her holy face. Sublime against the dark sky that she had made.
“You’re good Elliot, you may even be noble, but I need you to stop treating me like some delicate little wallflower. I’m fragile, not weak.”
Danger. All he sees is danger.
“Don’t you dare put words into my mouth Liv. I never said that..”
“I know just… let me finish. Will you let me finish?”
He can never say no to her.
“Soon enough I’m gunna have to stand on my own two feet. I’ve gotta walk into that hospital and learn the fate of my future, my badge, my everything. And you’re not gonna be there to hold my hand.”
Well, no, because there isn’t a world in which she will let him.
“Exactly.” Said Olivia, “You wanted this, you wanted me to move in with you. You wanted me to get better. But I can’t do that if you’re constantly doing everything for me. I want this to work, our friendship, the other thing. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
His mind is still stuck on the other thing.
“You want us to work?” he’s dying by mere inches.
Her hands feel as light as feathers on his shoulders, like they weren’t even there to begin with.
He wonders if she is a ghost.
Come back to haunt him.
“I wanna be able to look at you and not feel the urge to run.”
Elliot drops his head so low the ground is all he sees. Golden hands frame the back of his head, and he pushes his forehead into her belly.
It’s impossible to lock away a ghost.
The pressure of her fingers against his scalp heals the burns she put there, weeks, months, days ago. Her fingers line his jaw, her eyes find his again and they are – sweet jesus – they are open. Not dead, not loathsome, not even hesitant. But open and all for him.
He is hers and she is his and he could get lost there and stay lost all night.
“Can I tell you something, something I’m not proud of?” Elliot says.
Olivia’s breathy sigh is her surrender.
“I like this version of you. The you who wants to try and fix what I broke. I don’t take any of it for granted, Liv.”
“Can I tell you something?” she whispers back.
“I like me better this way too.”