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While She Sleeps

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Miranda loved her son. Of course she did. He was tiny, helpless, and he needed her. She'd step in front of a truck for him, just as she would for the twins.

But she couldn't forget where he came from and, to her shame, she'd already realized that she never would. It would always matter. Stephen had been fucking her and another woman at the same time, and then he'd dropped her like a dirty rag on the floor. He'd used and discarded her for one last hurrah. And now his child was one month old and Miranda was tired all the time, more exhausted than she'd ever thought possible, even during the first trimester when she'd spent most of the day trying not to collapse.

Perhaps it was understandable. She'd been keeping busy. She'd been juggling the pregnancy, the love of her life, and the ultimate coup d'etat, and then, in a frantic hour in her bedroom surrounded by EMTs, all of it had come to a head. She hadn't realized how hard she'd been fighting until it hit her all at once in the hospital. And life just kept going on while she struggled fruitlessly to keep up, feeling as if she was dragging herself along on her hands and knees.

These days, she couldn't bear to think about getting up and going to work. Sometimes it was even an effort to nurse. She tried hard to hide it from the girls, but Andrea knew, and had developed an irritating tendency to hover.

Andrea. At the end of the day, Miranda had seized and kept her. She hadn't left. Twenty-five years old, with a demanding baby at all hours, and the twins, and Miranda, and she hadn't left.

That probably explained why, when Miranda heard Archer crying down the hall in the middle of the night, she hefted herself out of bed. Andrea slept next to her now, keeping her warm and safe. She had insisted, and Miranda had no strength to resist her. She had no strength at all, except what she could cobble together right now to get up and head down the hallway. Tonight, Miranda didn't want Andrea to wake. She'd had a long week. A long year. She was exhausted too. And…

"We cannot mess this up," Miranda whispered to Archer as she lifted him, and settled down in the rocking chair by the crib. Her breasts were aching and she hadn't pumped them earlier tonight, so this was just as well. She opened the panel on her nightgown, and his crying stopped while he fed. "We cannot lose her. We'll let her sleep." She stroked her thumb across his soft, plump cheek. "Let her rest." He suckled agreeably, and she closed her eyes, trying not to pass out in the chair. Feeling like she'd been run over. By a truck.

 


 

Archer watched his mothers lean gently into each other on the couch. They didn't usually sit like that, but Mom was asleep. Mommy was tracing patterns on her knee while she read a book.

She didn't look mad anymore. Earlier that day, somebody had asked if Archer was her grandson, and she'd become very cold, like she did sometimes. Then she didn't touch him all afternoon except to hold his hand while they walked. Archer wondered how he'd been bad, but Mom had greeted him with a big smile and hug when they got home, and he didn't get in any trouble.

Just then, Mommy looked up and saw him watching. Archer fidgeted and wondered if he should go to his room. Instead he whispered, "Can I come sit with--"

Mommy set down the book and held out her hand. Archer rushed forward and sat on her other side, trying to be quiet and not wake Mom up. Mommy slid an arm around his shoulders and he wriggled into her softness and warmth, overjoyed to get some of it. She didn't feel cold now.

He felt her fingers in his hair, and then she kissed the top of his head. "Ssh," she murmured, but he didn't need to be told. On the other side, Mom slept on. She'd worked really late a lot this week. They'd all missed her.

"I'm glad she's home," Archer whispered, using his best indoor voice.

"Yes." Mommy kissed him again, and then snorted when Mom sighed and moved closer in her sleep. "Do I make a good pillow?"

"Yeah," Archer said, already sleepy himself but not wanting to miss this. It felt like a special treat. He breathed in her smell, and she petted his hair again. So he dared to ask, "Are you still mad?"

Her fingers paused, and Archer got scared. But then she whispered, "Don't be silly. I'm not mad about anything."

She was his mother, and he was six years old, and parents weren't supposed to lie, so Archer believed her. He rubbed his cheek against her shoulder and closed his eyes.

 


 

Cassidy knew it was a bad idea to be drinking coffee at three in the morning, but since she couldn't go to sleep, she figured it could only help to get hold of something that would push her all the way into wakefulness. She wished she could just go back to her own apartment--the morning was going to be awkward and uncomfortable--but that'd only make her mother feel worse. Her mother who excelled at fucking things up.

Then Cassidy heard footsteps, and sighed. Just like magic, she thought, as Miranda entered the kitchen, wearing her bathrobe and squinting in the light. "What are you doing up?" she asked hoarsely. Cassidy silently lifted her coffee mug, for answer.

Miranda sat down in the empty chair next to her at the kitchen table. She looked awful.

"Andy's still asleep?" Cassidy asked.

"In the guestroom," her mother muttered.

"Yeah, well," Cassidy said, not needing to add, What did you expect?

Miranda sighed and rubbed her hands over her face.

"You know he didn't mean it," Cassidy said. "He's just angry, he's only sixteen. Andy knows that. She said--"

"Stop." But Miranda's voice was weary. She looked like a different person than the fire-breathing dragon who'd thrown Archer out of the house just a few hours ago. Cassidy remembered the look on her mother's face: wild with rage, like she'd never seen it before. Rage that had turned into something raw and painful when Andy had yelled at her before trying to call Archer, who of course didn't have his cell.

"You know where he's gone," Miranda had said, but Andy didn't calm down until Stephen (fucking Stephen) had called, briefly, to let them know that Archer was indeed with him and was quite safe. And now Andy was sealed up in the guestroom while Miranda stared off into space and Cassidy didn't drink her coffee.

Cassidy wondered if her mother and Andy had ever quarreled about Archer before, behind closed doors--if Andy was upset by the distance between mother and son. If she wanted all of them to be as happy together as she and Miranda were by themselves. It seemed like the sort of thing that she'd need, but there was no way to tell. The only thing that Cassidy knew, and that she'd worked out long ago, was that her mom would do just about anything to keep Andy happy. It would have pissed Cassidy off if it didn't work both ways. But Archer would come back, and Miranda would let him in.

Then, a bare five minutes after she'd arrived, Miranda stood up from the table. "Good night," she said, and headed for the stairs. Cassidy listened to the sound of her footsteps and, as she had predicted, they stopped on the second floor and then headed to the left. Towards the guestroom.

 


 

"Thanks for coming all the way up here for this thing. I mean it."

"I wouldn't have missed it." Caroline flopped back down in the leather armchair and smiled at Archer. "Congratulations, baby brother."

Archer rolled his eyes, but looked pleased. "Thanks, but maybe you should congratulate me when I actually get a job."

"You'll be fine." Caroline waved her hand carelessly.

"Yeah, because MFAs are in such high demand."

"Oh, you'll get something," Caroline said, rolling her own eyes. "You know you will. With both Mom and Andy around, who's not going to hire you?"

"Forget it," Archer growled at once. She'd known he would. For a moment, instead of the twenty-five-year-old man, she saw the angry adolescent. When was he going to get over it? "I'm not doing that."

"Your last name is Priestly. What are you going to do? Apply for jobs under a pseudonym?"

"There are plenty of people named Priestly. Like the old fart who used to be on some teenage show--you know, the one who's producing that awful new comedy--"

"He spells it differently. 'Priestley' with an 'ey'."

"Whatever." Archer's eyes gleamed. "Wouldn't Mother just love it if I pretended to be related to him?"

"I hope your first novel is going to be about the man who was fifteen forever," Caroline said.

He grinned. "Yeah. And his annoying preggo sister and her much, much more annoying husband."

Caroline sighed, used to it by now. "'Preggo' is demeaning, and Ellis is perfectly lovely to you, me, and everyone else."

"Yeah. Perfectly lovely." Archer batted his eyes. "Dark hair. Big brown eyes. Great smile and doofy laugh."

Caroline blushed. Seeing it, Archer laughed. "I'm pretty much sick of hearing that theory, Archer."

"I bet you are."

"Ellis is Ellis, and nobody else. Trust me. I know."

"Who else would Ellis be?"

The room temperature dropped a few degrees as Miranda strode in, looking down at both of them with an arched brow. Archer's grin vanished at once, and Caroline sighed again. "Archer's just being a brat, Mom. That's all."

Andy would have made a joke, and possibly kissed both of them. Miranda merely shrugged as if to ask what else was new, before seating herself on the sofa. "I enjoyed the ceremony, Archer."

"Yeah, it was nice, wasn't it?" Archer asked. "Dad said the same thing." Miranda's eyes narrowed, and Caroline almost hid her face in her hands. "Anyway, where's Mom?"

"Having a catnap. She told me to wake her up in about fifteen minutes. That's what happens when you stay up all night planning a party and making sure it's perfect for someone."

Archer had the decency to look embarrassed. "I told her I didn't want a fuss."

Miranda snorted. "Then I'm not sure she heard you. Don't worry. You'll have plenty of time to go out and deconstruct with your friends later."

"Awfully thoughtful of you, Mother," Archer said. Caroline had long ago given up chastising him for calling Miranda 'Mother' like some little kid out of Thackeray. Or like Norman Bates. "What's on the menu?"

"She agonized over every dish you've ever liked," Miranda said sweetly. "I'd hate to ruin the surprise." Then she turned to Caroline, and her smile became so much warmer that Caroline nearly cringed. "How are you doing, darling? Not too tired, I hope."

"Just fine," Caroline said, relieved that Archer took the brush-off in stride as he, too, turned to look with interest at her belly. "It's the second trimester. I'm amazed how much better I feel."

Her mother nodded. "It was the same with me. Both times, but especially the second." She briefly glanced at Archer.

Archer stretched out, folding his hands behind his head. "And it's all been downhill since then." He grinned, and it was a little bitter, but not as much as it could have been. Partly because Caroline knew he couldn't wait to be an uncle. When she'd told him the news during their weekly phone chat, he'd let out a most uncharacteristic whoop.

"On the contrary," Miranda said. "The last twenty-five years have been the happiest of my life."

Archer widened his eyes, and he and Caroline both stared at Miranda, stunned. She went a little pink as she rose to her feet again, but sounded quite even when she said, "I'm going to pour a little wine. Caroline, sparkling water?"

"Just plain water," Caroline managed. "Thanks."

Their mother swept out of the room, and Caroline and Archer stared at each other. "Well," Archer said, "how about that?"

"And you thought she didn't like you," Caroline joked.

"She doesn't. She loves me, but she doesn't like me. Now, that one…" He pointed up at the ceiling, towards where Andy was asleep on the third floor. "She likes me."

"Yes," Caroline said, and felt the old rush of absolute warmth that had been her companion for years whenever it came to Andy--almost a mother, more than a friend, a piece of the puzzle. Archer was wrong: Ellis was Ellis, and there could only be one Andy. Caroline loved and needed them both.

Above them, the source of their mother's quarter century of happiness slept on, taking ten more minutes of well-deserved rest.

 


 

Archer faced his mother across the hospital bed. Between them, his other mother slept while the heart monitor gave reassuringly steady beeps.

"She'll be fine," he said for the thousandth time.

"Of course she will," Miranda snapped. For the first time in her life, she looked as old as she actually was. Archer had been as gentle, as calm as possible when he'd told her about the heart attack, but she'd still gone pale, still swayed on her feet. She'd even accepted his physical support. She'd whispered, "What? Oh--what--? Oh, my God--" And then, suddenly, tears were running down her face and she was gasping, clutching on to him as they headed towards the front door and the waiting car.

That was two days ago. Neither of them had seen the inside of their own homes since then. And Archer could see that his mother needed to get out of here, at least for a little while.

"Let's go for a walk," he suggested. After a moment of consideration, and to his relief, she nodded and stood up. They left the room, Archer nodding politely at the nurse at the desk. Miranda said, "We'll be back shortly," her voice cold with warning.

The surrounding hospital traffic was loud outside. But the air was cleaner than it used to be, at least, and Archer didn't mind taking a few deep breaths.

They walked in silence down the sidewalk. Archer paid careful attention in case Miranda stumbled. She was still sure-footed and graceful, but she had the bones of a ninety-five-year-old woman and they could shatter as easily as anyone else's. All it would take was one misstep. Hesitantly, he offered his arm.

To his surprise, she took it. She didn't lean against him, though; rather, they might have been an Edwardian couple taking a sedate, dignified walk down the street.

"I talked to Nigel earlier," Archer said. "He said he'd call again around seven, if she's awake and up to talking." Miranda nodded. "He wanted to know if you needed anything. If any of us did."

"I need Andrea," Miranda said. Under any other circumstances, such a confession would have embarrassed her. Here, she scarcely seemed to notice she'd said it as she glanced around restlessly. "Tell me how Nigel intends to accomplish that."

"Well, you never know with Nigel," Archer said. He nodded towards a nearby bench. "How about there?"

"We can't stay long," Miranda said, but she consented to sit down with him. "They'll bring her dinner soon."

"Not for another half-hour." He took her hand. "You're holding up well, Mother."

"There's no other way to hold up. If I haven't taught you that, I haven't taught you anything."

She was joking, mostly. Some time during the last ten or fifteen years, they'd reached a point where they could tease each other--tentatively--without either one of them flying off the handle when the other misjudged how funny something was. She didn't let go of his hand, either.

And then, to his shock, she leaned over and rested her head against his shoulder, sighing heavily. "Oh, Lord," she mumbled. "If she survives this, I'll kill her."

Archer tentatively slid his arm around her. He hadn't done that in a very long time, even when the ice had thawed. "She'll survive. In style." He patted her arm, trying not to worry even more. "Caroline and Ellis are coming tomorrow, right?"

"Caroline is. Ellis can't get away. Just as well. We don't need a crowd."

"No," Archer agreed. "We'll keep it low-key. Oh, hey--this morning I talked to Dr. Lewis about what we need to do to set up for her at home. I made a list. I'll show it to you."

"You made a list." Oddly, Miranda sounded amused. "A care list. You do take after her."

"Huh?" That was weird. His mom was very organized and efficient, but Archer hadn't noticed that she had any particular mania for list-making.

"Nothing. I'm merely reminiscing." She glanced towards the hospital again. "You do that more when you're older. Especially during times like this."

"Yeah?" Archer decided he could press a little. "What are you reminiscing about in particular?"

She was silent, and he was certain that she was ignoring him. But then her thumb moved against his hand. "Many things." Her voice sounded choked for the second time in two days. "I have so many memories. I've just realized this. I can pull them up like photographs." She swallowed. "The way she fussed over you on your first day of school."

"Oh," said Archer, who didn't remember that at all, and who hoped that his mother wouldn't start crying again. There might be a little room for awkward teasing between them, but there wasn't much for tears. Here, without the rush of the hospital all around them and the distractions of an emergency, Archer knew he wouldn't have a clue about how to deal with her grief.

An atheist, he nevertheless prayed and prayed that he wouldn't have further cause to find out. Some day, he knew, he would lose his mom's wide smile. But not today. Please, not like this. Some other time, some other way.

"She adored you the minute you were born," Miranda said.

Archer blinked, and then pressed his lips together hard. "Well, I adore her too," he said. "It all works out pretty well."

"Yes," his mother said. "Yes. I think it's all worked out pretty well." She squeezed his hand gently.

He kept his arm around her. "So I guess we'll keep her, then," he said, trying to sound hearty. "We won't let her go. Right?"

"Right," Miranda agreed. And they sat together on the bench, holding each other and waiting for Andy Sachs to wake up.

FIN.