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Parental guilt and car therapy (and feeling less alone)

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“The fire department responded at approximately 3:40pm and evacuated the area,” Eddie explained into the phone, reading his notes to the reporter on the line. As much as he hated relaying information that he wasn’t a part of – especially after his conversation with Bobby – it beat answering twitter questions about firetruck speeds and when the next calendar was coming out. “By 4:12pm, they found that there were no hazardous materials, and all fire crews were released from the scene.”

“Is there any comment on what hazardous materials were thought to be on the scene when 911 was called?” the reporter – Jared, he was pretty sure – asked.

“As it says in the statement, there were no specifics given,” Eddie told him, trying to resist the urge to roll his eyes and let his frustration bleed into his tone. Why could they never just take the press release as it was? “Caller just reported a chemical smell.”

“Any idea on what actually caused the smell?”

“I am not privy to that information,” Eddie said as pleasantly as he could. If Bobby had let me back, I might be able to answer this question, he thought bitterly, knowing that the 118 took the call. He immediately felt regret as soon as he thought it, though, because it didn’t really take long for him to prove Bobby right, did it? He wasn’t fit to come back yet, and he had learned it the hard way. “I promise I am telling you all the information that I’ve been given.”

“Come on, Eddie,” Jared said, trying to work the magic he had tried on him before. He knew from Taylor just how persuasive reporters could be, but he also knew he wasn’t going to cave to it. As much as he hated to admit it, Jared wasn’t nearly as good of a reporter as Taylor – even if Eddie still considered him more ethical, despite his efforts to get extra information. Atleast Jared never took advantage of a fire captain who was slipped an LSD brownie. “I think we’ve built up a pretty great rapport. Are you sure there isn’t anything more you can tell me? Even off the record to satisfy my own curiosity?”

“There isn’t,” he countered. “And even if there was, you know that if I told you that I would have to be fair to any other news outlet that contacted me, so it wouldn’t be an exclusive.”

“You’re a tough nut to crack,” Jared told him sternly, even though Eddie could hear his grin through the speaker. “Thank you for the information, Firefighter Diaz. Please let me know if anything else comes up.”

“You know I will,” Eddie replied before saying his goodbyes. As soon as he hung up the phone, he let out a long-suffering sigh, dropping his head onto his crossed arms on his desk.

This wasn’t what he wanted to be doing with his life. He had spent most of his life doing what was expected of him, being pushed or pressured into things – whether by his parents’ or his own expectations – so it wasn’t a new feeling. But it was one that he thought he was done with. One that he thought he had left behind in his parents’ living room in El Paso. He had never shed the implications that he was good enough for his son, or the don’t drag him down with you that echoed in his head every time he made a mistake with Christopher, but he had atleast thought he had shed the dread that he felt coming into work anymore. It was bearable when he thought it was what Chris wanted, what would make his son happy, but now? Now he hated it just as much as he did when he was surrounded by sand and desert, of both the Afghanistan and El Paso variety, and he just wanted it to be gone. He wanted to go home.

But he couldn’t do that. And it had been easier to deal with when he could place the blame elsewhere, pretend that Bobby was punishing him. It took him completely losing it and Buck doing his best to put him back together to know that the anger was misplaced. Now he knew.

The only thing stopping him from going home was himself.

Atleast you have a job – a good one, he could hear his father’s voice in his head saying. A lot of people have it so much worse. Atleast you can provide.

That was the good and bad thing about therapy with Frank so far. The good thing was that Frank helped him figure out whose voice was saying what negative things in his head. Once he identified them, he could separate them from his own voice, identify them as external negative factors, and work on correcting them. The bad thing was how annoying it was to hear his parents’ voices in his head when they were 12 hours away.

I deserve more than that, he argued. I deserve to be more than just a provider.

“I agree.”

He snapped his head up, finding no other than Maddie Buckley in his office doorway, a soft but amused look on her face. Buck had told him she was back, but he hadn’t seen her yet. She looked somehow better and worse than when he last saw her, months ago. She looked exhausted, like she was still going through it, but there was also a glow about her that had been missing for a while after Jee-Yun was born. Her hair was darker and shorter than it had been, and it looked good on her. Healing looked good on her.

“You did say that out loud,” she clarified, clocking his confused expression with a soft smile. “And I agree.”

“Maddie,” he said, a grin overtaking his face as he stood up and met her halfway for a hug. “What are you doing here?”

He knew as soon as the question left his mouth how dumb it was. Of course she was here, even if he knew by her clothes that she was just visiting. He might just be a guest in this house, but Maddie had found a home here.

“I wanted to check in,” she explained anyway, unphased by his awkwardness. Both of them sat down, the desk in between them. “See what changed around here while I was gone. Although, you being here was definitely not a change I saw coming.”

Eddie couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “Me, either. But it’s hopefully temporary. I’m just… a guest for a little while.”

He said it casually, hoping that the words would sting less if he said them himself. It only helped a little.

Maddie’s brows furrowed a little, eyes narrowing in confusion. “Do you feel like just a guest?”

“It’s just the nature of this job,” Eddie explained with a shrug, grabbing a pen and holding between his fingers. He knew she was close with Josh, and he wasn’t about to be the one to fill her in on unnecessary drama that was only something in his head because of his own insecurities. She was closer to Josh than him at any rate, and he didn’t want to mess with that. “I’m not a dispatcher, I’m a liaison. It comes with the territory. But May and Linda have been really welcoming regardless.”

She studied him for a moment, and he cursed himself for naming specific people and not being more vague.

”You know,” he continued, intent on getting her to stop looking at him like she was trying to solve a puzzle. “I can cook now thanks to Linda.”

She let out a surprised laugh at that. “Really? I was always jealous of her lunches.”

They fell into a silence, and Eddie half expected her to take her leave then. They had never really talked much outside of group settings, and he didn’t necessarily expect that to change after she was gone for so long. But she sat there, like she was waiting for him to say something. Not the small talk that he hid behind every day with May, and Linda, and Sue. Something real.

“How are you doing?” he asked instead, leaning forward on the desk. “Really?”

A pained expression ghosted over her face, and he instantly regretted it. Of course she didn’t want to talk about that. He wasn’t family, like Buck or Chimney. He wasn’t a close friend like Sue or Josh. He was just… Eddie. They ran in the same circles, sure, but they weren’t close. Why would she want to open up to him? Especially in the cold professionalism of his office?

“I’m sorry,” he said, leaning back slightly. “It’s not my place to ask that. I’m sure you’re tired of people asking that.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s not that. I mean, yes, a lot of people have been asking me that, but it’s warranted given the circumstances. I just… I don’t really know how to answer it honestly, other than that I’m better, which feels like a cop out even though it’s not.”

Eddie nodded slowly, understanding her more than he would like. “My, uh… my go-to response is ‘I’m gettin’ there’ if you ever wanna change it up. But you gotta make sure to cut off the g so it sounds casual enough.”

“I think that might just be the Texas talking, but I’ll give it a shot,” she teased, another laugh escaping her. There was another short lapse of silence, but she was the one to fill it this time. “How’s Christopher?”

“He’s doing good,” Eddie said, glad that he wasn’t lying when he said it. “He had a rough time a couple months ago, which I’m sure Buck told you about, but he’s doing good now.”

“No, Buck didn’t tell me,” she said, concern filling her face. “Is he okay?”

Right. Buck’s issues with his best friend probably didn’t come up during their reunion. “He’s fine. He was just struggling about the dangers of my job. That’s why I made the change. But he’s better now, and he wants me to go back to firefighting again.”

“But you’re still here,” she said, her voice questioning, studying him again. He knew what she saw. The dark circles, the sharp lines. They were slowly getting better after starting with Frank, but they were still there. “Eddie, are you okay?”

He looked away from her, past her, at the open door to his office, and he wasn’t sure how to respond. No one here knew anything about his spiral, his complete and utter breakdown that left him sobbing on his bedroom floor with bloody knuckles and a baseball bat. May might know some of it if she happened to overhear Bobby and Athena, but if she did, she didn’t say anything or treat him any differently – even though he deserved to be treated differently after what he said to her stepfather.

“I’m gettin’ there,” he told her, knowing that his was more of a cop out than hers.

She raised an eyebrow at him, and he knew she didn’t believe him for a second. Nodding slowly, she seemed to decide something as she looked at the time on her phone. “Have you taken your lunch yet?”

He hadn’t, so he left with her, taking his truck and going through a drive-thru down the street on her insistence. He followed her directions, making more small talk until they were back in the dispatch parking garage. He went to grab the bag of food from her and get out of the car, assuming that she wanted to eat in the break room like old times, but she stopped him.

“Nope,” she said. “We’re eating in here.”

“Why?” he asked, confused.

She shrugged, looking ahead through the windshield instead of at him. “I think it’d be nice.”

“Eating in my truck would be nice?” He wasn’t sure where she was going with this. “Instead of at a table inside?”

“Absolutely,” she said. There was a beat, and when she spoke again, her tone was wistful, nostalgic. “Some of the best conversations Buck and I had were in our parents’ driveway after I got my license. Whenever I’d go take him to do something fun, get him out of the house and away from Mom and Dad’s apathy and judgement, and we’d eat French fries and talk about the things that mattered away from the expectations of our parents. We’d sit out there until Mom would come out and get onto us, telling me I was wasting gas or my battery, or just that the neighbors would think we were weird. But we still did it anyway.”

And, well… Eddie really couldn’t deny her that, now could he? But… “Why aren’t you doing this with Buck?”

“Oh, I have,” she told him, pulling out their food and handing him his. He took his burger and fries without comment and waited for her to continue. “The night I got back we sat in his parking lot and caught up on everything we missed. But now I want to do it with you.”

“Okay,” Eddie obliged, unwrapping his burger halfway so he could get a bite. “But just so you know, I still have a lot of payments left on this thing, so don’t spill anything.”

“I promise,” she said, rolling her eyes good naturedly. They ate in silence for a few minutes, looking out the windshield as the radio played softly in the background. Admittedly, it was kind of nice. It reminded him of simpler times, running around after dark in high school with his friends and getting food at the nearest Sonic, ignoring the tables between the rows of stalls bathed in fluorescent lighting for the darkness of the car and their own music. There was something that felt safe there. Like it was okay to be vulnerable. Maybe that was why when Maddie broke the silence, he didn’t mind this time that she was asking him to be real.

“Are you okay? Really?”

He was silent, watching her as he chewed. They weren’t that close, really only connected through Chimney and Buck, but there was something in her eyes that made it feel like he could talk to her. Like maybe, if anyone could understand right now, it was her.

“I’m not trying to push you to tell me anything you’re not ready for,” she clarified, and it only aided in weakening the armor he tried so hard to keep on at work. But he wasn’t at work right now. Not technically. “But I know what it’s like to pretend that you’re okay when you’re not, and how damaging it can be. You have to know that it’s okay to not be okay, Eddie. You know that, right?”

He could feel more than hear his parents in his head as he looked at her, trying to ignore the burning in his eyes as he looked back out at the windshield. It was more panic than words, the flashing sign of WRONG WRONG WRONG that he knew came from them. He was the oldest. He was the son. The man of the house when Dad was gone on business. He didn’t have room for weakness or not being okay. No matter how much he failed them with mediocre grades and getting his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock, with being a bad husband and father and driving his wife away, with failing to provide for his son when he was just trying to survive the consequences of spending years in a warzone only to come home to a different one. There was no room for not being okay, only moving on and getting over it.

You know that’s not true, Eddie. That was Frank. Great, now Frank was in his head, too.

“Christopher wasn’t the only one who was struggling,” he admitted quietly, clearing his throat when his voice came out thicker than he wanted it. “I just… I didn’t realize how much until I stopped moving.”

Maddie nodded, understanding filling her features. “You’ve been through some pretty traumatic stuff, Eddie. It’s bound to take a toll.”

“So have you,” he countered.

“Yeah,” she agreed, her voice soft. “And you know what finally broke me? My thyroid.”

“What?” he looked back her, shock filling him.

She nodded, absentmindedly eating a fry. “Yeah. All my issues had to do with a postpartum thyroid issue. That’s why the medications didn’t help at first.”

“Maddie, I’m so sorry,” Eddie said. All that time, all that struggle, and it was something as simple as that? “I can’t imagine.”

“No, it was a relief at first,” she admitted, taking a deep breath as she tucked her hair behind her ear. “Because I knew what was wrong with me. And I knew that there was something wrong with me, and it wasn’t just me, you know? It was something fixable. That’s not the part I struggle with. Now, looking back, the part I struggle with is why I stayed away for so long. Why I left my daughter for so long.”

There was something achingly familiar about this conversation, and for a quick moment he was in the parking lot of Christopher’s school, with Shannon crying as she admitted that she regretted leaving, even if she thought it was her only choice at the time. He couldn’t fault Shannon for that, not without being a hypocrite, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to fault Maddie for it. “You were doing what you thought was best for her.”

“I know,” she said, sniffling as she fought back the tears that were suddenly filling her eyes. “I know that logically it was, both for her and for me. But when I finally saw her, after so long… Seeing how big she had gotten and how much I had missed, I couldn’t help but feel like it was the wrong decision, even if I knew it was to keep her safe. I was gone too long, and I felt like a stranger to her.”

And that… that hit a little too close to home.

“I’ve worked through a lot,” she continued, giving him a watery smile. “But I’m still working through the guilt of that.”

Eddie nodded, not knowing what to say to that. She couldn’t tell him that the guilt never really leaves, that he was still fighting for redemption so many years later. But there was a difference in their situations, and while he should feel the guilt of leaving Christopher like he did for the rest of his life, she should be able to be absolved of it.

“Hey, you had a good reason,” he told her. “A valid reason, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for that. Not everyone can say that.”

She looked at him in confusion, realization dawning a moment later. “Oh my God, Eddie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t even realize. Christopher… his mom… this must be bringing up so much for you, I’m sorry.”

“No,” he said, his own face scrunching up in confusion. He wasn’t sure why he wasn’t expecting her to jump to Shannon first, their situations being tied together by motherhood the way that they were, but he should have. “Shannon had a valid reason to leave, too. Her mom was sick, and I had just gotten discharged, and I was being a complete ass about coming to California. She left to take care of her mom. And also, a little bit because I broke her.”

“Eddie…” her face was full of sincerity, compassion, and he wasn’t sure why other than the fact that she was unfailingly kind like her brother.

“No, it’s true,” he insisted. “I can admit that now. I wasn’t there for her when she needed me. I left first, and I didn’t have a good reason.”

“You were doing your job,” she reasoned, the same way everyone else did. “You can’t really control that.”

“I could have talked to her before I enlisted,” he countered, looking out the windshield as he rolled a fry between his fingers. “Either time. I didn’t tell anyone until the papers were signed, not even her. I was scared, and I didn’t know how to be a husband or a dad, and everything was happening so fast. The first time, when a recruiter offered me not only a way to provide, but to escape, I took it. And then I did it again when the bills were piling up and Christopher needed new treatments. It was a way for me to solve the financial issues without having to deal with any of the rest of it. And I took it. Because I still didn’t know how to be a husband or a father. I only knew how to be a soldier. Like I said, Maddie, you had a valid reason. You left because you loved her. You shouldn’t feel guilty for that.”

He finally looked over at her, and she was studying him again. It felt less invasive in the truck than it did in his office.

“But you think you should,” she finally said, her voice free from judgement. He only shrugged in response, finishing off his burger so he didn’t have to say any words. She kept watching him, her eyes filled with a compassion he didn’t deserve after his confession, and it reminded him so much of Buck that it hurt. He knew vaguely from what Buck had told him about growing up that Maddie was the one who really raised him, but he didn’t really know how similar they were until now, finding out that their kindness and compassion was a shared trait. He barely deserved it from one Buckley, so he definitely didn’t deserve it from both of them.

“Eddie,” she started again, after a few more beats of silence. “You are one of the best dads I know. Whatever mistakes you might have made – which are far less than a lot of parents I’ve experienced – I think you’ve more than made up for them.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said, not actually believing it. They had gotten off course. He hadn’t meant to talk about how he had failed Christopher, only encourage her that she hadn’t failed Jee. “But, that’s not where I was going with this. The point is that I left. Shannon left. Whatever those reasons were, we left. But that didn’t matter to Christopher. What mattered is that we came back. He didn’t care about the time that we missed.”

They sat in that for a moment, Eddie letting Maddie take that information in. It was true. Chris had never held leaving against him or Shannon. He didn’t know how he got so lucky to have the best and kindest kid in the world, but he knew he never wanted to take advantage of it.  

“You know,” she said, her voice a little thicker than it was a moment ago. “I made a friend when I was in Boston. After Chimney finally found me, I told her how many milestones I missed and asked her if I was gone too long. She told me that even though I can’t get back the time that I lost, I can still move forward and be there for the next milestones. But the only way that I can truly move forward is if I forgive myself. Obviously, I’m still struggling with that.”

They both laughed at that, their eyes wet as Eddie took a drink. “Yeah. Yeah, me too.”

It kind of surprised him how alike Maddie and him were. How even though their experiences were vastly different, their feelings and struggles were so much of the same. He was regretting not getting closer to her before, or atleast talking to her more. Maybe they could have helped each other before they fell apart.

“I remind myself of it every day,” she continued, reaching out and resting her hand on his arm. “I think you should, too.”

“It’s not the same,” he argued, shaking his head with a shrug.

“Isn’t it?” she asked, tilting her head slightly. “I left because I loved Jee and I wanted her to be safe, and at the time it wasn’t with me. You left because you enlisted – and even though you say you might have had other reasons – I know that the main drive behind that was you wanting to provide for your son because you loved him, even before he was born. You wanted him to be safe and comfortable, even if it meant you risking your life for a seemingly endless war, even if it meant you might not come back. And then you did it a second time because you loved him so much that you wanted him to have what he needed, and that was the only way you knew how to make it happen – don’t argue, you said it yourself. Could you have done things differently? Yeah, sure. But you made what you thought was the best choice at the time. That doesn’t sound like someone who just ran away to me, Eddie. We both left them, even for different reasons, because we loved them. And we came back for the same reason.”

Eddie… He didn’t really know how to respond to that. Had never actually allowed himself to think about it like that. He knew he loved his son more than anything in this world, and he know that a large part of him enlisting was to provide, his father’s voice in his head going on about duty and obligation, even if he realized his other reasons later. He had panicked when he had found out he was gonna be a dad, trying to figure out how he was going to try and give Shannon and his unborn child what they needed when he was barely able to take care of himself. They hadn’t been expecting it at all, but he still wanted to give them both everything he could, and he had found himself woefully unprepared.

When he walked by the recruiting office and stopped to talk to the recruiter standing outside, everything the guy had said made sense, and he took the opportunity before he could overthink it and panic even more. It was how he could give his growing family everything they needed. It was how he could fix the mistakes he made, how could you be so stupid, getting her pregnant echoing in his head in the form of his mother. The recruiter didn’t tell him about the realities of war that had been romanticized and glamorized through the movies over the years, or how hard it was to navigate the VA to get the things that he needed. But Eddie knew that it was part of the tactic. The recruiter was only being a good salesman, and Eddie had bought it hook, line, and sinker, guided by the disappointed voices of his parents.

And while he could only remember feeling stress and panic at the future and the weight of his unexpected duties and obligations, he knew that the love was already there. He had already loved Shannon, had even pictured marrying her and starting a family with her a few years later than it actually happened. Once he had gotten over the shock of the positive pregnancy test, he never even thought to look back, or reject the idea of a kid. Even then he knew he was going to do everything he could for Chris. And when he held his son in his arms for the first time, he had known that he would die for him, even in war.

He knew he had loved Christopher from the moment he knew about him, and it had guided every decision he made, even the ones he ended up regretting. No matter what other voices he had in his head telling him about duty, and providing, and bringing his son down with him, they were always guided by the love he had for his son. That was the one thing he could always count on being his own voice.

Yeah, he definitely had some new material for Frank at his next appointment.

He didn’t realize the tears in his eyes until he blinked and felt them fall. Quickly, he wiped them away, the familiar shame that came with tears rearing its head before he took a deep breath to fight it. He didn’t want to go into work with red eyes and tears tracks, but he also didn’t want to reign it in because of his learned shame. One Buckley had already seen him at his worst. The other could see him shed a few tears.

“My plan was to make you feel better,” he told her, attempting a light tone, instead of voicing the swimming thoughts in his head. “Not car therapy.”

Maddie laughed at that, loud and deep, and pride swelled in him at getting her to laugh like she truly meant it for the first time around him in a while, even if there were a few tears that fell from her eyes.

“If it helps, you actually did make me feel better,” she admitted, the glimmer of the laugh still in her eyes. “You made me feel less alone.”

He felt his brow furrow in confusion as he looked at her, and she shrugged. “I had a whole group of people in Boston who I could relate to, and it helped a lot in feeling like it wasn’t just something wrong with me, you know? But since coming back, even while knowing that, it’s been a little harder to really remember. Talking with you has made it a little easier to remember.”

Eddie gave her a small smile, holding up his plastic cup and ignoring the condensation that fell from it while he waited for Maddie to pick hers up, too. Once she did, a confused look on her face, he tapped their cups together in a toast.

“To parental guilt and car therapy,” he started drily, drawing another laugh out of Maddie. “And to not feeling so alone.”

Maddie tipped her cup to his, touching them again before bringing it closer to her lips. “I can cheers to that.”

“For real, though,” he said after taking a drink. “Thank you for this. Car therapy is kind of nice.”

“I’m telling you,” she said, a grin playing on her features. “Something about car talks just hit different.”

He looked at her for a moment, studying her at her choice of words. “May taught you that one, didn’t she?”

“Oh absolutely,” she admitted freely, nodding earnestly. “Is she teaching you, too?”

He nodded, putting down his drink again. “Oh yeah. She taught me what FOMO meant the other day. I told her it sounded like a disease.”

They continued their conversation about what phrases they each learned from May for a few more minutes before he realized he needed to get back to work. When they got out of his truck, Eddie only hesitated for a moment to hug her after walking her to her own car. She squeezed back tightly, and it didn’t matter that she was shorter and less broad, it was still a signature Buckley hug.

“If you ever want another car therapy session, just let me know,” she told him as she got into the driver’s seat with a smile.

“Don’t think I won’t take you up on it,” he said, pointing at her to emphasize. “I’m a therapy guy, now.”

“Good,” she said with a laugh. “Bye, Eddie.”

“Bye.”

He waved at her and waited until he couldn’t see her car anymore before heading back inside, feeling just a little lighter than he had when he left.

“How was lunch with Maddie?” May asked, between calls as he made his way through the dispatch floor.

“It… hit different,” he told her, tipping drink at her slightly as he walked by.

May’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, and she slowly spun in her chair to keep him in her eyeline as he walked towards his office. “I haven’t taught you that one yet!”

“I read ahead,” he joked, turning around and walking backwards to look at her. “Taking initiative.”

Her screen lit up with an incoming call, and she spared him on last glance before turning to answer it.

“We’ll talk about this later!” she called out quietly as he turned back around, followed quickly by her greeting the called on the line. Just before he was out of earshot, he heard her slightly exasperated tone. “No ma’am, it is not a crime to flip off a Hollywood Star and take a picture of it, even if it is a former president’s.”

Yeah, he was going to have to get the story on that one later.

As he sat down, his phone went off with a Twitter alert, and it filled him with slightly less dread than usual after his talk with Maddie. He thought about her, and how she had overcome everything that life had thrown at her and it gave him hope that he wasn’t a lost cause. It wouldn’t be easy, and he knew better now that not expect it to be.

But he knew that if Maddie could find her way back home, then maybe – just maybe – he could find his way back home, too.