Emma strode into her room, dressed for bed in cotton shorts and a t-shirt.
Emily sat up with a sudden jerk, Simba dropping to her knees, and then she flinched at the pain that shot through her at the movement. “You don’t have to sleep with me,” she protested, tugging the covers up to her chest.
Emma rolled her eyes and shooed her towards one edge of the bed. “Doctor’s orders.”
“I don’t want to be a burden.” Emily felt overwhelmed with weakness, and Emma’s presence only made her more weak.
Emma groaned. “I’m giving you a proper psych eval in the morning. Those suicide warning signs are useless, because half of them are just you.”
She crawled into the bed, poking Emily until she lay down on her side.
Emily slowly lay down and let Emma curl into her back, clenching her fingers in the sheets to keep from running. Simba floated on the covers like an ineffectual chaperone. “What do they say?”
“You want to hear them as a bedtime story?” Emma’s voice was dry. She rested a hand on Emily’s arm and Emily felt the press of her forehead as she tucked it into her shoulder. “There’s all the normal ones, you know, talking about killing yourself, making plans to kill yourself, which is really not helpful in this town with the frigging huge river. Then it’s all feeling hopeless and trapped and being a burden.”
“Oh.” Emily’s fingers relaxed. She felt sad, rather than tense, and so tired. She had always felt like a burden. Too many times hearing her parents try to ‘figure out what to do with her,’ too many times where she was obviously in the way.
“Yeah, I figured that would sound familiar to you. You don’t drink and you’re never ragey, but the whole withdrawing, and being anxious, and acting all reckless, like what got you hurt in the first place, are really not comforting.”
“I’m okay,” Emily murmured. “I was pretty upset before, but I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I didn’t know it would be dangerous when I said I’d come along.”
Emma sighed, and Emily could feel her body shift, her breath warm against the back of her neck. “I know.”
“And… I’m really probably doing better on most of those counts than I used to. Before… before Didi came I didn’t really have any friends. And now I have Benji and Jane and Jim and… and you. I’m not isolated. And I don’t feel hopeless and trapped. I just don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want to be pathetic.”
“You’re worried you’re a burden to me?” Emma snorted. “I live in your house, I don’t work, you pay for my fucking doctor visits.”
“But if you weren’t here…” Emily didn’t say: if you weren’t here, the life I would have wouldn’t be worth living.
Instead she just let out a soft murmur, and let her heart be warmed with pleasure as Emma’s arm tightened around her waist.
* * *
“What is this I hear about you getting yourself blown up, Emily?” Her mother’s voice shrilled like a peacock screech on the other end of the phone.
Emily winced. “I’m fine, mom.”
“Burns over 5% of your body doesn’t sound fine to me! Let me talk to Emma. She’ll at least be honest when my own daughter is too macho to tell me about her brush with death.”
Emily frowned into the phone. “Have you been talking to Emma?”
“I never reveal my sources, darling.”
“Mom… I’m okay, really. Full mobility and stuff. Nothing permanent.”
Elizabeth sighed. “External scars aren’t the ones I’m worried about.”
“Emma’s been making me take a psych eval every day since she took me home. I’m apparently in the yellow-green zone for mental health. Normal response to trauma, positive prognosis. And Didi…” Emily couldn’t help but smile. “Didi’s been really great.”
Elizabeth breathed out. “Well! I hear you have a week of sick leave remaining.”
“Yes…?” Emily said hesitantly.
“It’s perfect. You can come to DC for the week and visit me.” Emily gaped. “I haven’t seen my grandchild in months!”
“Wait- you can’t just-”
“Should I tell Mrs. C to ready one room for you and your beloved or two?”
“Mom!” Emily had never been grateful for her mother’s lack of interest in her love life, but now she regretted that oversight. Surely if she had been more grateful, it wouldn’t have all turned on her now.
* * *
Emma glanced up from the cassette tape castle she and Didi were constructing on the living room floor. Emily hovered in the door, the phone handset pressed to her chest, looking a little nervous. “How do you feel about, uh, visiting my mom in DC next week?”
“Your mom?” Emma had thought the last encounter was the only time she would have to deal with Emily’s mother. It hadn’t been bad exactly. Elizabeth had been punctiliously polite, and Emma had returned the favor. It had just made her feel uncomfortably like the person she used to be. And the way Elizabeth had looked at her after she and Emily and Didi had returned from their long cold walk in the snow, well, Emma had never been evaluated by a prospective mother-in-law, but Emma couldn’t imagine that it felt much different. What had Emily told her? She couldn’t bring herself to lie about Didi’s origin to her mother, and though Emma was used to being mistaken for Emily’s lover, it would be a surprise if Emily had lied about that and nothing else. Who did Elizabeth think she was?
“Yeah. She invited us. Or, well, commanded us to come.”
“She wants me there too?”
Emily dropped onto the futon and stretched hesitantly. “I think she wants you there in particular so she can pump you for information about my state of mental health.”
Emma stared down at the tape in her hands. Annie Lennox. “DC?” She had been to DC before. “My dad sometimes spends the summers in DC.”
Emily glanced over. Emma knew her face was blank, but when Emily looked at her, she seemed to see right through it, and her eyes widened in unnecessary sympathy. “You don't… you don’t have to see him. I mean, it’s a big city. It’s really unlikely that you would.”
Emma couldn’t look at her. She felt sick, like she needed to throw up. She wanted to run, too ashamed to admit the irrational fear that clutched its long boney fingers around her chest. “I know that.”
“Do you want to see him?”
Emma swallowed. Did she? She clenched her fists. Yes, she wanted to. She wanted to face him, to spit at him, to slap him, to prove she wasn’t the weak spoilt brat he accused her of being. “No.” She said. She ducked her head, gritting her teeth. “No. I just want to show him, that without him, I’m fine. I survived.” Emily was looking supportive. She shouldn't be. “But half of being fine is you.”
Emily looked surprised. Emma pressed her lips together and didn’t talk about how she had been out of money, they were cutting her hours, she was an inch away from taking up one of the sleazier regulars on his unsubtle insinuations when a small girl and her hapless caretaker had fallen out of the sky to save her.
“I don’t even know what I’d say if I saw him.”
* * *
Elizabeth spread her arms and caught Emily up in a hug. Emily looked surprised and stiffened, like a toothpick poking out up of a slim roll of prosciutto.
“Emma.” Elizabeth turned to her, and Emma, holding Didi in her arms, met her gaze and tried to read what Elizabeth was thinking.
“It’s nice to see you again, ambassador.”
“Elizabeth, please. I mean, you’re essentially family, aren’t you dear.”
Everyone froze. Emma felt like her heart had risen up in her throat and choked her. That word. Emma hated it. Emily looked pale and horrified. Didi reached out.
“I want grandma!”
Elizabeth looked shocked, but opened her grasp and allowed Emma to pass Didi off to her. She held her gingerly, as if she had never held a child before, and Emma’s eyes flicked over to Emily who was watching, hurt visible in her eyes. Elizabeth had probably held her when she was a baby, but by age four she had been sent to the nursery in the care of a nanny. That was the usual way.
Watching Emily and her mother made Emma feel sick. When people went home they were usually sucked into who they were as a child, no matter how they struggled against it, but if Emily was undergoing that same transformation it suggested that she was never really comfortable nor happy here. And Emma felt it happening to her, and it wasn’t even her home, turning snappish and angry, defensive and forbiddingly solitary.
And it was DC.
Her father summered in DC.
* * *
Emily stood in the middle of the unfamiliar bedroom, feeling lost. Emma threw down her bag in the corner and rolled her shoulders, stiff from traveling. Emily stared at her. “You’re staying here?”
Emma shrugged, glancing around. “This is your room?”
“It was.” It looked like a guest room. But honestly, with all the moving they did, it was a guest room. Anything important and personal had to be small enough to tuck into a bag and take with you. They weren’t that small anymore, and yet she had still brought them with her.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling worn down. Didi’s room had been carefully readied and decorated, a perfect play castle taking up the center of the room. She wasn’t supposed to be jealous of Didi.
“You feeling okay? You need painkillers?”
Emma moved close to her, solicitous. Her presence was solid and unexpectedly comforting. It shouldn’t have been. I’m not ready to sleep with you yet. What did that even mean?
“I’m just tired.”
Like it was a conjuring trick, Emma produced the painkillers and a bottle of water. “Take them.”
“I’ll go to sleep.”
“It’s eight. You can go to sleep.” Emma’s fingers brushed gently over her head. “You’ll have an hour or so to get over the grogginess before anyone else gets up. Then you won’t grumble at me.”
Emily looked up and spotted her smiling. It made her stomach turn over. She rested her head for a moment against Emma’s collar bone, unable to look at her, then sighed. She accepted the drugs and water, then stood up.
“I’m going to wash up before it knocks me out.”
If they were together, this is where Emily would kiss her, just a brush of lips, as thanks for being looked after, but all she could do now was stagger gracelessly to her feet and move past her.
* * *
“M’ma?” Didi looked unsettled, very little like her usual dominant confident self. “Don’t leave.”
She glanced around the room as if seeking something familiar. Emma wondered if she was finally starting to believe in monsters. Emma had been trying to convince her of their existence for a while, but Didi had never been impressed by the horrors she invented. (She kept them to the realms of fantasy. But still, fake monsters were good preparation for real ones.) She always just cocked her head and asked bewildering questions like, “Why’s Doctor Hank in my closet?”
“I don’t think I’ll fit in your bed,” Emma said. “But, you could come and sleep in our room.”
Didi nodded and let Emma hold her hand as they walked down the hall. Emily was out cold, face pressed into the pillow on the edge of the bed. There was room.
* * *
It was just past nine, and Elizabeth went to check that her guests were settled in. She opened the door quietly and stilled.
Emily was on her side, one arm half draped off the edge of the bed. Emma was pressed close against her back, her feathery blonde hair falling over Emily’s shoulder. One hand lay on her side, fisted tight as if she was ready to fight to ward off any bad dreams. Didi took up the rest of the bed, splayed out dramatically, sleeping with abandon.
They looked like a family.
It looked like something that Elizabeth had never realized she wanted, until it was far too late to have.
* * *
With occasional stops for Emily to sit on a bench, they managed the natural history museum on the Smithsonian and the Zoo in the first two days. On Wednesday, they slept in.
In the afternoon, Emma was sitting on the edge of the bed, thumbing through a magazine absently, though not absently enough. Finally she dropped it on the bedside table and stood up.
“Do you mind looking out for Didi today? I was thinking I should run some errands while we're here.”
Emily looked at her. “I… we could all-” Emma’s face twitched. “No, of course not. We’ll go to the park.”
“I’ll meet you there later on, okay.”
That expression and those eyes sent chills down Emily’s back. Was she leaving? It would be easy to disappear in DC. Didi was slow getting ready, and Emily ducked back into their room just as Emma stepped into the bathroom, leaving the phonebook open on the desk. Frost, W, 121 Lexbridge. Emily shut her eyes and breathed in, then quickly ducked out before Emma got out of the bathroom.
She found Didi and they headed outside.
They went to the park. An hour later, Emma hadn’t come by. Didi got into a fight with a boy a foot taller. Emily tempted Didi with ice cream, and they headed down the street, towards Lexbridge.
On the corner, a little ways away from 121, Emma was standing, looking lost.
“’S M’ma,” Didi said.
Emily stared at her, then looked down at Didi. “Why don’t you go and give her a hug? She looks like she could use it.”
Didi considered Emily with a thoughtful expression. “Mm.” she said, and then ran over and threw her arms around Emma’s legs. Emma jolted up, and saw her attacker, then leaned down and picked her up. Didi clung to her neck, and Emma turned until she found Emily.
“We were just… walking by.”
Emma smiled tightly, shaking her head. “Sure you were.”
Emily glanced over to the railings of 121. “If you’re not going to knock, you want to get ice cream with us?”
Didi sat up and held her shoulders. “Come for ice cream!”
Emily sidled up next to her. “There’s a place right around there.”
“You’ve got this all planned, don’t you?”
Emily shook her head. “Just… worrying about you.”
“You do that too much.”
Emma gave one glance back at the house and shook her head, then she turned, letting Emily lead her down the street to the ice cream shop.
* * *
“M’ma, ‘m sticky.”
Emma shook her head, catching Didi’s hands and endeavoring to wipe the film of ice cream and chocolate off before she put them all over her shirt. She glared at the useless dry napkin and grimaced, then she spat on it, and cleaned Didi’s fingers. “You’re washing your hands as soon as we get anywhere with a sink.”
Emily watched her, stirring the remains of her cup. Beyond her, on the street, a man, older but still handsome, spotted them and stopped, a look of puzzlement on his face. He bent his head forward, his brow furrowing, eyes narrow, something familiar and unsettling in his expression. Emily sucked in a breath.
“What is it?” Emma looked at her, still facing away from the man.
“Nothing. You just…” Emily looked at her, at the damp napkin still in her hand. “That’s such a mom thing to do.”
Emma’s eyes widened and she sat back slightly, as if she was frightened of the idea.
Emily smiled. “It’s cute.”
“My mom would never have done that.”
“Well, neither would mine. Actually, she would never let me get sticky in the first place.”
“You and your deprived childhood.”
Emily’s eyes flicked past her. The man was still watching, eyes hard but intent. “You’re making up for a lot of it.”
Emma ducked her head, and Emily risked it, leaning in and quickly kissing the corner of her mouth. Emma jerked back, jaw dropping. “What was that for?”
Emily tensed, wishing she had thought this through. She glanced over Emma’s shoulder and met the gaze of the man, just as his face turned ugly and disgusted. Feeling like she had been slapped from both directions at once, she drooped, her shoulders hunching. “Sorry.”
Emma cocked her head inquisitively, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed lightly. “Not worth apologizing for.”
* * *
Emma was standing over the phone book that night after they had put Didi to bed. She looked tired, her posture unaccustomedly slumped.
“You went to see your dad.”
Emma nodded, not turning around.
“What were you going to say?”
Emma laughed softly, turning and threading her fingers through her hair. “If I had known that, maybe I would have knocked.”
“What did you want to say?” Emily asked.
“I didn’t want to say anything,” Emma said. “He could always turn my words against me. I wanted to show him, show him I survived. I made it without him. Maybe it’s a lie. I didn’t make it. I was drowning, and you grabbed me and pulled me out.”
“You pulled me out.”
“Only because you’d drown in a puddle,” Emma retorted. “But I wanted to lie. I wanted to show him what everyone seems to see when they look at us.” Her eyes swiveled to the side. “A family.” The word came out rough and almost ugly.
Emily’s fists balled and her fingernails dug into her palms.
“I know what he’d say,” Emma continued. “Of course I do. I know what look he’d have on his face. When he found my brother…, he was revolted. He looked like he could barely keep himself from throwing up. I just-” Her voice cracked and she flinched. “I wanted to show him I could have a family so much better than his. His was no family at all. But he wouldn’t even care. He’d say it isn’t real. It’s not a real family. I don't really belong here. How could I ever really belong without a man to own me, with out a child torn from my own flesh? It’s not a family unless you take them all down with you.” She spat the words, her face reddening like she was about to cry.
Emily desperately, desperately didn’t want her to cry. “Emma…”
“Could it ever be real?” She looked up, with wide hopeless eyes. “If you really loved me? If I could deal with that? If she was ours and not theirs? Is it real for them? Are they a family? Are they allowed to be a family? What does that even mean? How could you know?”
Every question was like a punch to the gut. Emily breathed out slowly, trying to recover. What was she supposed to say to this? Emma so rarely let her in, but when she did there were so many sharp bits buried underneath. And she didn’t know what her family had been like, but her own years of quiet misery seemed like paradise in comparison. “I think… family. Family is the people you keep,” she said, the words coming jerkily from the same place that was so afraid that Emma would leave, the place that would never hold anything but her mourning for everyone who had left already. “It’s the ones you take with you when you go, and the ones you keep with you when they die. They’re the ones you grieve and the ones you keep in contact with. That’s… I think that’s so much more important than blood.”
Emma looked at her, and then with one step she was in her arms, clinging to Emily’s neck and allowing herself to be wrapped up in a hug.
“I’m so glad I didn’t see him,” she mumbled into Emily’s neck. “He was never family, not like that. I left him behind. I wouldn’t care if he died this instant, but I miss Christian every day.”
“My dad, and Matt, and Michael, and Ro…” Emily felt her eyes tear up.
“Thank you.” Emma pressed her face into her chest, unable to meet her eyes. “Thank you for saving me.”
* * *
“That was a pretty thing you said, about family,” Elizabeth said, standing in the study, a snifter of brandy (her father’s brandy) in her hand, facing the wall.
Emily looked at her, heard the bitterness in her words, and felt sick, knowing too well what it was about. After college, after Michael, she had cut ties, had walked away. Her mother had done her best to stay in contact, but Emily only occasionally picked up the phone, didn’t return messages, didn’t come visit. “I’m here now,” she said. “I’m sorry for before. But I’m here now. I’m trying now.”
“Just don’t…” Elizabeth turned to her. She was near tears. “Don’t turn away from me again. I don’t want to lose you again. I don't want to lose you for good this time.”
“You won’t. I promise.”
“If the child leaves? If Emma leaves? You’re saying you promise you won’t close down again? You won’t go back into your shell? I won’t have to pray every night that I won’t get that call from the police saying they found your body floating in the river? God, Emily! Do you know how much you scare me when you shut down like that? And you can say all the words you want, but you can’t promise not to do it again. You care too much, you always have. But damn it, try to believe that you deserve to be happy. Do it for me, even if you can’t do it for yourself.”
Emily just looked at her mother, at the unaccustomed tears glittering, unshed, in her eyes. Family is the people you grieve. “I’ll try,” she said, wishing she could do more than that. But it was true. She was fine now. She was successfully recovering from trauma. She was happy far more of the time than she ever was before. But she knew why, and it was precarious. The more you had, the more you had to lose. “I promise I’ll try.”The snifter clinked as it was set on the table and Elizabeth’s arms were looping around her neck. She clutched at her, as if afraid that if she let go, Emily would disappear. Emily had squeezed Didi with that same desperation. She knew it well. She leaned into the embrace and closed her arms tightly around her mother’s back. It almost felt like that was where she belonged.