DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Well, this began as a drabble. It is now an epic. Over 20,000 words. I have discovered that I apparently have a bit of a fascination with mother/daughter relationships. I also love Ava. Hence, this tale. It is Otalia. A happy Otalia. Free of angst. This is set in October 2009, but supposes an established, happy relationship, completely lacking in unannounced departures, unplanned pregnancies, and Frank. All good things, in my book. Also, assumes that Rafe has shown himself to be the man that Natalia raised him to be and has accepted his mother being with Olivia. (Also assumes that despite this, he has decided to continue to live in town.) It isn't quite your typical tale and may not be everyone's cup of tea, but to be honest, I enjoyed writing it tremendously, more so than anything I have written in a long time. I do hope that you will enjoy reading it. I owe an extreme debt of gratitude to my three lovely, patient, and generous betas: flying_peanuts, DiNovia, and darandkerry. Without their expertise, kindness and support, I would be lost. My thanks, my dears. My most sincere thanks.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
"You're sure you want to do this?" Olivia's voice echoed loudly in the now empty apartment, walls stripped bare, a layer of dust and misplaced hopes covering the hardwood floor.
"I'm not sure about much of anything, Mom. I just know that I ran here to get away from all those people and all those memories and all that pain. To get away from that whole fucking toxic town. But it hasn't helped. The only thing it's done is move me half a continent away from the only family I have and the only people who love me," Ava murmured, slipping an arm around her mother's shoulders, resting her head against Olivia's.
"I do love you. Even if you did drag me out here to do manual labor," Olivia replied, her own arm snaking around her daughter's waist. "And you're going to make me drive back across half a continent."
"I don't want to leave my car," Ava repeated for the hundredth time since she had first told her mother of her plans. "And don't tell me again that you'll buy me a new one or have it shipped. Besides, it'll be fun. A mother and daughter Thelma and Louise."
"You never saw that movie, did you?" Olivia muttered, picking up one of the last of Ava's bags and moving toward the door. She grimaced as Ava shook her head in reply. "They drove off a cliff in the Grand Canyon."
"Hmm. Guess we should mark that little side trip off our itinerary. Nothing like tempting Fate," Ava chuckled, following her mother to the hallway. With one last glance at the empty room, Ava closed the door.
"Hey, Mom. How do you feel about the World's Largest Ball of Twine, instead?"
Olivia's grumbled, rather profane response regarding what she could do with the World's Largest Ball of Twine left her daughter laughing all the way out of the city.
"Where the fuck are we anyway?" Olivia groused, shifting uncomfortably in the seat.
Heading east, the sun was beating down on her side of the car. Her shirt was sticking to her back and her left leg had fallen asleep about two hours ago, the feeling returning intermittently with a series of painful tingles.
"Um, we're almost in Nevada," Ava answered, trying to assess her mother's mood. She'd fallen asleep not long after they got out of the quagmire of the Bay area traffic. Ava knew that Olivia still wasn't as strong as she pretended to be and they had worked hard the last few days, packing up her stuff and getting it ready for the movers.
"It's prettier here than I thought it would be. I was expecting nothing but scrub weeds and desert," Olivia yawned, her gaze fixed on the passing scenery. "This looks like parts of New England. The colors of the leaves are amazing."
"It is nice, isn't it? Don't worry, we'll have lots and lots and lots of desert soon," Ava smiled, pleased that her mother wasn't any worse tempered for her nap.
"Oh, joy," Olivia grimaced. "I just love the endless wasteland, the heat and the rattlesnakes and the stench of approaching death."
Ava laughed, shaking her head at her mother's melodramatic tone.
"Well, sorry. Unless we drove up to Canada, across and down, we can't avoid the desert, Mom. Don't worry. If a rattlesnake bites you, I won't tell Natalia you screamed like a girl," Ava smirked.
"Funny. So funny. Are you sure they didn't get those DNA tests mixed up, because I know that any child of mine has to have a better sense of humor than that," Olivia smirked back, eyes sparkling as she turned in the seat to regard her daughter.
"Just remember, you're stuck in this car with me for the next few days, Mom. And you gotta sleep sometime." Ava's answering look matched Olivia's down to the raised eyebrow.
"Oh, please. I've been threatened by way scarier people than you, Cupcake," Olivia retorted, a grin firmly in place.
"Cupcake? Aww, is that one of your pet names for Natalia?" Ava snickered, trying to keep her eyes on the road and see her mother's reaction.
"Yeah, right. That'd go over like a frying pan to the back of the head," Olivia snorted, her eyes rolling at the image of Natalia's face should she ever be so foolish as to attempt that little endearment. "I can get away with 'honey' and 'sweetheart', a very occasional 'baby'. That's my limit."
"What does she call you?" Ava asked tentatively, not wanting to spook her mother out of this rare moment of revelation.
"Seriously? I mean, even, you know, in really intimate moments she just calls you Olivia?" Ava didn't know what provoked her. Like her mother, she seemed to lack the prudence filter that kept other people from saying things like that.
Glancing over, Ava had to purse her lips together to keep from laughing at the positively sappy, love-struck expression on Olivia's face. It was quite clear from the glazed look in her green eyes, and the darkening shade of them, just where her mind had wandered.
"Mom? Mom. Okay, I really don't need to be imagining what I know you're imagining. Mainly because, well, you're my mother. And despite not growing up with you as my parent, I do not ever want to picture you having sex with anyone. Ever. So stop with the dreamy, sexy smile. It's grossing me out!"
Olivia's sole response was to curl her lip up at her oldest child and chuckle.
A companionable silence fell over them as the car sped along mountain roads, edging ever closer to the Nevada border. They left the city early and hadn't stopped yet. Ava could feel a few hunger pangs herself and knew that if she didn't properly feed and water her mother, there'd be hell to pay from her new step-mother. Or whatever Natalia was.
"So, hungry?" Ava asked, calculating the distance to the state line.
"Starving. You haven't fed me since that crummy whole grain, organic, molasses and wheat germ muffin thing you handed me this morning, which I could have used to throw out the first pitch at the Giants' opener, by the way," Olivia replied, an expression of disgust on her face as she remembered the poor excuse for breakfast Ava had provided that morning.
"It was good for you, Mom," Ava began, only to be interrupted by a disbelieving noise from the other side of the car.
"Gee, honey, a high colonic is supposed to be good for me, too, but you don't see me rushing out to get one of those everyday, now do ya?" Olivia jabbed not so subtly. "Although, I would think that eating one of those on a regular basis would do the same job."
"Ava, that thing was disgusting. Now, why don't you pull in somewhere and get me a nice, juicy burger and some fries?" Olivia's face nearly glowed with excitement at the thought of fast food.
"Oh, no. I got very specific instructions about what you can and cannot eat from your what do you two call each other? Girlfriend? Partner? Lover?" Ava didn't wait for her mother to answer. "Anyway, Natalia was very clear on the no fast food rule. And since I have no desire to have her pissed at me, you're going to be eating a lot of veggies and salads on this trip."
"I see. And when did this conversation take place? No, don't answer. She emailed it to you, didn't she? A list of what little Olivia is allowed to eat and when I'm supposed to take my medicine? Did she tell ya how to dress me, too?" Ava could see her mother was getting herself worked up. Not a good thing in general, but in a confined space? Something to be avoided at all costs.
"Mom. She just sent me a few things to watch out for, that's all," Ava began, attempting some damage control, only to be interrupted as Olivia launched a mini-diatribe.
"Goddamn it. You know, I eat the rabbit food. And I drink fifty freakin' gallons of water a day. And I exercise. I've even stopped drinking. Well, more or less. Anyway, the point is, I cannot believe that she sent you a fucking list of things I can't eat or drink or do like I'm a kid going off to summer camp," Olivia's voice was rising, her words filling the small space in the car. Ava considered opening the window, just to let them out, as they seemed to buzz around them, trapped like so many small insects.
"Mom! Mom! Stop! Just stop." Ava managed finally, pulling the car roughly off the side of the road, coming to a halt along the graveled breakdown lane.
"Do you want to know what Natalia's email said? Do you? It said something to the effect of, 'I know I sound crazy and controlling and you must think I'm a lunatic, but the thing is, I love your mother more than life itself and I don't know what I would do if anything happened to her.' So, if you wanna rant and rave and act like a total bitch because this woman adores you enough to want to keep you around for a while longer, go for it. I'll just be outside getting some fresh air. Let me know when you're done." As the last words left her lips, Ava slipped from the car, slamming the door behind her.
She walked along the edge of Interstate 80, drawing in the scent of sage and evergreen and exhaust from passing trucks. She sat gingerly down on the faded gray guardrail, stretching her long legs in front of her. The sun was warm on her skin and she tilted her face back, letting the gentle rays create a golden glow behind her closed eyelids. Over the rushing of passing vehicles, she heard the sound of a car door open and then slam shut.
"I thought that you were going to feed me. You know the animals get cranky if they're not fed properly. What the hell kind of traveling carnival you running here, anyway?" Olivia's voice was a bit higher than normal, her teasing tone holding an undercurrent of repentance.
"You sure you're done with your little tantrum?" Ava asked, not bothering to open her eyes, knowing that her mother was no doubt making a slightly childish face at her.
She heard her mother's footsteps crunching on the gravel, heard the click of a door latch lifting. She opened her eyes to see Olivia standing, half-in, half-out of the driver's side door.
"Why don't I drive for a while? I'm sick of riding," Olivia stated, no question in her tone.
When Ava didn't respond, Olivia raised her voice.
"You coming? Or have you decided to set up camp here by the side of the road? 'Cause I can just leave your bags and head out and catch a flight in Vegas." Both eyebrows raised this time, a faux grin tilting her lips up at each corner, chin jutting forward. "And that wasn't a tantrum. It was a rant. When I have a tantrum, I throw things."
Without another word, Olivia slid into the driver's seat and slammed the door.
Ava snorted softly, wondering what in hell she had been smoking when she had decided that driving cross-country with her mother, of all people, was a good plan. Finally, she pushed her body off the warm metal guardrail and walked slowly over to the passenger side door and climbed in.
Olivia had attached her iPod to the car's stereo system and as she eased the vehicle back onto the interstate, the first chords of Hotel California issued forth from the speakers. Ava glanced over at her mother as the car gathered speed and sailed down the highway.
"Really, Mom? This song?" Ava asked incredulously.
"What?" Olivia smirked back, taking in her daughter's own raised eyebrows and inquisitive look. Her green eyes twinkled with an ever-so-slightly malicious gleam. "It seemed appropriate."
Tiffany twisted, indeed, Ava thought, shaking her head in amusement as she watched the world speed by the windows, a blur of red, orange, gold and green.
They stopped for lunch outside of Reno, NV. As they took an exit promising a variety of restaurants, Olivia's cell phone rang. Reaching around, she managed to pry it out of her back pocket.
"Mom, you can't talk and drive at the same time," Ava admonished.
"Actually, Ava, I can. I can also walk and chew gum," Olivia replied acerbically, glancing down to press the talk button on the phone.
Ava immediately reached over and snagged the phone from her mother's hand.
"You drive, I'll answer," she told her firmly. "Hello, Olivia Spencer's phone. Hi, Natalia. Mom, it's Natalia." Olivia simply glared at her. "No, nothing wrong. She's driving and I told her it isn't safe to talk and drive." Pause. "We're just coming into Reno, NV. We're going to grab some lunch."
"Salad. We're going to have a huge freakin' salad. Then we might try our luck at a few slot machines. Oh, and we may hit the local brothel on the way out of town," Olivia yelled loudly, more than loudly enough for Natalia to hear.
"Natalia says to enjoy the salad, Mom. She also says not to waste your money on the quarter slots. Oh, and also, if you do stop at the brothel, be sure and find out if they offer long term accommodations, 'cause you're going to need a new place to live," Ava relayed, a wide smile creasing her face.
"Oh, please. As if Olivia Spencer ever needs to pay for it," her mother scoffed, deftly navigating the heavy traffic.
"Yeah, Natalia says that if your mouth keeps going like that, you're going to pay for it for a long, long, long time," Ava laughed, clearly delighted to discover her stepmother's sense of humor.
While they were talking, Olivia had managed to pull in to the parking lot of an Applebee's. While hardly haute cuisine, they did have the requisite salads on their menu. She eased the car into a space and parked. Reaching over with a speed that surprised Ava, Olivia snagged the phone from her daughter's hand.
"Hey, you," she murmured sweetly into the phone. Ava chuckled out loud at the utterly goofy grin that was now turning up the corners of her mother's full lips.
"Hi. I just wanted to check in and see how the two of you were doing," Natalia replied, her tone still teasing. "Have you been behaving yourself?"
"Me, behaving? Of course. I've been practically breezy," Olivia assured her, glaring at Ava again as her daughter rolled her dark eyes at her.
"Yeah, that was what I was worried about," Natalia told her, laughter threading her voice. "I'm very familiar with breezy you."
"Hey! I've been a certifiable angel," Olivia informed her, giving Ava's shoulder a slight shove as her child actually snorted at her, muttering under her breath that she was certifiable alright. "Hang on a second, sweetheart." Turning to Ava, who was still laughing. "Why don't you go on in and get us a table? I'll be right there."
"What, you think that she's going to believe you more if I'm not listening, Mom?" Ava smirked, opening the door and swinging her long legs out onto the cement. "Kind of like a tree falling in the forest: If no one hears you tell a bold-faced lie, it won't be true?"
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child," Olivia quoted to her, clasping her hand to her chest in what Ava decided was one of the more melodramatic gestures in her mother's vast, semi-histrionic repertoire.
Ava could hear Natalia's silver laugh coming through the phone.
"Don't make me start quoting Macbeth back at you, Mom. I'm going inside now. Tell Natalia it was good talking to her and ask her to pray for me, will you?" Ava deadpanned, simply ignoring her forty-two year old mother as she stuck her tongue out at her.
"There's no doubt in the world that she's your kid," Natalia giggled, pleased that the pair seemed to be getting along so well. She knew that Olivia had been worried about being alone with her eldest child for such a long period of time, with no distractions.
"I miss you," Olivia said softly into the phone as she watched Ava make her way across the dull black asphalt of the parking lot.
"I miss you, too. A lot." Natalia replied, her tone equally tender. "But, it's only two more days and you may never have the chance to spend this much time alone with Ava again."
"I know. It'll be fine. If we can manage not to kill each other before we make it to Nebraska." Olivia agreed.
"What's in Nebraska?" Natalia queried, clearly confused.
"Nothing. It's just Nebraska. Dying there would just seem sorta redundant," Olivia explained, her tone perfectly serious.
"You're really not as funny as you think you are, you know?" Natalia admonished, her smile carrying through the phone.
"Yeah, I am," Olivia laughed. She paused, imagining Natalia's beautiful face and the feel of soft lips under her own. "I love you."
"I love you, too. Call me when you get to where you're going to stop tonight, alright?"
"I will. Give Jellybean a kiss for me," Olivia couldn't keep the slightly wistful note out of her voice.
"Already did. But I'll do it again. Now go have lunch. Ava's waiting." Natalia ordered. "And Olivia? Salad."
"I'll bet they'd let me have a burger and fries at the brothel," Olivia whined.
"Better hope it's the best damn burger you ever had," Natalia responded, laughing. "Goodbye, Olivia. I love you."
"Love you, too," Olivia grinned, pressing the end button on the phone.
Ava fell asleep not long after they got back on the highway. It had been a stressful few weeks, with packing and making arrangements to ship her belongings back to Springfield. She'd been up at 5, although she'd let her mother sleep until 8. Ava had enough experience with Olivia Spencer to know that mornings were never her best moments.
Olivia had insisted on driving again, claiming that if she had to put up with hundreds of miles of desert, she planned on getting through it as quickly as humanly possible. And since she claimed that Ava drove like a little old lady on muscle relaxants, she'd do the driving.
Ava hadn't even tried to protest, sensing that her mother needed to be doing something. Inactivity didn't suit Olivia Spencer, despite her outwardly hedonistic tendencies. Her mindher complex, brilliant mind--- needed to be occupied. It was in moments of quiet that Ava knew her mother's demons, her ghosts and fears and insecurities crept up on her, padding through tall, lush grass like a cat ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Ava knew because she had moments like that herself, moments that sent her hurtling down a highway back to the one place she swore she'd never return. So much for nurture versus nature. She was Olivia Spencer's daughter. God help her.
Through half-closed eyes, she watched her mother's strong hands on the wheel. Her mind began to wander, the steady motion of the car, the sound of the wind rushing past them, the soft, sibilant sounds of music wafting gently from the back speakers, lulled her into that drowsy state between wakefulness and sleep. She wondered, not for the first time, what it would have been like to have been raised by Olivia.
She knew that her mother had been so young when she was born, knew the terrible circumstances of her conception. Knew that, at sixteen, Olivia had already faced the responsibility of raising two younger siblings. Yet, Ava couldn't help but imagine that perhaps she and Olivia would have been able to help each other, to grow up, mother and child, navigating a treacherous world together. Maybe a child's unconditional love would have made the difference, would have stopped the hardening of a heart so beaten down and bruised by callous friends and faithless lovers. By cruelty and betrayal.
They'd never know, of course, but at the sight of Olivia's slender fingers tracing a pattern on the solid center of the steering wheel, Ava couldn't stop the sliver of pain that threaded through her as she imagined those same hands soothing away her childhood fears, just as they now did for Emma. Ava had adored her adoptive mother, had thanked heaven for her every day since her death, but there was still some small part of her, some instinct, some longing that called out to the blood flowing just beneath the surface of Olivia's smooth skin.
Despite the speed at which they were hurtling down the interstate, the speedometer ticking off seventy-five, then eighty, then eighty-five, Ava felt no apprehension. She drifted off into a peaceful sleep, safe, knowing that her mother would never do anything that would put her in harm's way.
"Ava," Olivia nudged, reaching over to lay her hand gently on her daughter's arm. "Ava. Hey, sleepyhead. Wake up."
Ava forced her eyes open, blinking uncomprehendingly at the red glow of the dash light, the small clock reading nearly six p.m. The sun was beginning its slow descent behind the mountains and the colors of the passing scenery were muted to a wash of beige and brown, shadows standing out in stark relief. The headlights were on, beams of yellowed light that cut through the murkiness of the gathering dusk.
"God, Mom. Why'd you let me sleep so long?" Ava demanded groggily, trying without much success to stretch her lanky frame in the confined space.
"Why not? You were obviously exhausted and I'm perfectly capable of driving without a conscious co-pilot," Olivia told her matter-of-factly, although the glance from those green eyes was decidedly fond.
"I guess I didn't realize how tired I was. Where are we?" Ava yawned again, still trying to shake the lingering traces of sleep from her brain.
"Um, we are coming up on the huge metropolis of Bum Fuck, NV; otherwise known as Elko. Not merely Elk, mind you, but Elk-o. Makes me wonder if it wasn't originally, Elk? Oh-fuck!" Olivia informed her concisely.
Ava couldn't help the laugh that bubbled up at her mother's words. She'd never actually admit it to her, but her mother did have her moments of humor. It often wasn't the words, as much as the dry, deadpan delivery. Still, the fact that Olivia Spencer thought she was quite amusing was enough to stop those near and dear to her, as if by some unspoken, mutual assent, from ever letting on that they agreed. The woman's ego was large enough without being fed.
Speaking of being fed, Ava felt a twinge of hunger start low in her stomach. They had indeed partaken of salads for lunch; Olivia because she had been, to all intents and purposes, ordered to do so, and Ava because she wasn't sure that her mother would let her live if she ordered the juicy burger she'd been craving since Olivia had mentioned it earlier. As a result, she was hungry again.
"So, do you think that this great big metropolis has anything in the way of food?" Ava inquired, watching the smirk that slid across her mother's lips.
"Gee, Ava, honey. What's a matter? Feeling a little peckish after all that wonderful salad? I can't imagine why you're feeling hungry, sweetie. All that lettuce and lettuce. Oh, and don't forget those couple of slices of cucumber. And the two hard chunks of orange that I presume were tomatoes. Yum yum," Olivia said, her voice sweet enough to bring on a diabetic coma.
"You're a riot, Mom. Can we skip the before dinner entertainment, do you think?" Ava griped, rolling her eyes at her mother's sarcasm.
"On one condition. We have real food for dinner and you don't snitch to Natalia. I promise, I'll get some chicken dish or something, okay? Just no more salad or I may wake up chewing on my pillow. Deal?" Olivia implored, her eyes fixed on the road ahead as it wound through rugged desert mountains.
Ava sighed deeply, knowing she had little choice. At this point, better to face Natalia's wrath once they made it back to Springfield than have to endure her mother's charming salad-only disposition.
"Okay. We'll make a deal. Healthy breakfasts, salads for lunch and then real food for dinner, alright?" Ava haggled, knowing that her mother would agree.
"Deal. Now, let's see what the fine city of Elko has to offer," Olivia concurred, a smile lighting her face at the thought of anything other than more fucking lettuce.
They managed to find a decent Mexican place and, true to her word, Olivia had some sort of roasted chicken marinated in lime and tequila. Ava wasn't going to mention the tequila part, content that Olivia was keeping to the semi straight and narrow. They ate as quickly as possible, getting back on the road by a little after seven.
Ava took a turn at the wheel, noticing that her mother immediately slumped down in the passenger seat, her head dropping back against the headrest. A few miles down the road, and Ava could hear the slow, steady sound of her mother's breathing as it evened out in sleep. Glancing at her, the deepening shadows obscuring most of her face, Ava smiled. As far as days went, this one had been relatively pain-free.
As they approached the Utah border, Olivia stirred.
"So, I'm thinking that we can stop in Salt Lake City," Ava began, looking over when her mother failed to respond.
"No? Um, Mom, care to expand on that thought?"
"No, we're not stopping in Utah. Period."
"Okay. Is there some particular reason we're avoiding an entire state?" Ava asked with a profound sigh.
"Yeah. Mormons," Olivia pronounced firmly.
"Mormons? Honest, Mom? Mormons? You do realize that there are Mormons in every state, right, not just Utah?" Ava countered, her eyes rolling automatically at her mother's words.
"Yes, Ava, I am aware of that. However, Salt Lake City is the heart of the hive. And I absolutely refuse to give the great Mormon state any of my money. So, we are not stopping in Utah. We can make it to Wyoming. It isn't all that much farther." Olivia's tone held no room for argument.
"What's your issue with the Mormons, Mom?"
"You mean aside from the super secret, super rich cult that likes to baptize dead people and has no fucking idea what the whole concept of separation of church and state means?" An expression of distaste settled on Olivia's lovely features.
"Mother, when did you develop this religious bigotry? I mean, the Catholic Church is just as rich, just as narrow-minded and just as prejudiced as the Mormons are, particularly when it comes to homosexuality," Ava decided to try a little logic.
"You're right, Ava. Trust me, I know exactly what the Catholic stance is on same sex anything, which is why I am not planning any vacations to Vatican City in the near future. I'm also not going to intentionally drop a single dime in support of the so-called Latter-day Saints. If that makes me a bigot, I'm in good company." Olivia's voice brooked no discussion. "Besides, if we did stop there, I have no doubt I'd spontaneously burst into flames. All you'd find in my bed in the morning would be a pile of ash."
Ava considered arguing, considered a hundred other reasons she could offer her mother to convince her of the flaws of her position, but a quick glance at Olivia's face caused her to swallow her words. Sometimes it paid to pick one's battles and, clearly, fighting this one would only end in angry words and silence, neither of which would be worth the convenience of stopping a few hours earlier.
So, on to Wyoming.
It was after eleven when they made it to Evanston, the first real town over the Wyoming border. The hotel selections were few and Ava couldn't help but envision the tall, inviting buildings of the Hyatt and the Hilton whose lights had twinkled at them as they sped past the skyline of downtown Salt Lake City. They finally found a Holiday Inn Express. Not Olivia Spencer's usual standards, but it would do in a pinch.
"Get some sleep," Olivia told her, her own eyes already at half-mast as they trudged down the hallway to their adjacent rooms. "What time do you want to leave?"
"I don't know. Eight? Or is that too early?" Ava replied, fumbling with the thin plastic keycard in her hand.
"No, eight's fine. I'd love to be able to get to Omaha by tomorrow night. That would get us into Springfield by late afternoon, early evening the next day. Friday's movie night." This last was said as an explanation for all the rest. "Em would be so happy if we were both there for movie night."
"Natalia probably wouldn't mind either, would she, Mom?" Ava laughed, catching her mother in a loose hug. "Eight it is. Night, Mom."
"Night. Sweet dreams," Olivia smiled, and softly kissed Ava's cheek. Turning, she disappeared inside her room, the door clicking shut behind her. Falling onto the queen-sized bed, Olivia tiredly pulled her phone from her pocket.
Natalia answered on the second ring.
"Hey, you. I was really starting to worry. It's after midnight here and I hadn't heard from you. Where are you?"
"Wyoming. Evanston, Wyoming."
"Wow. You made really good time, didn't you? You sound completely exhausted though. Ava is capable of driving, Olivia. You can't drive the entire way," Natalia said, concern coloring her voice.
"I know. I promise, I'll let her drive in the morning. I am tired. I can barely keep my eyes open," Olivia admitted. "Sorry I didn't call sooner. We were trying to get through Utah and you know my kid has this thing about driving and talking."
"Utah, huh? Mormons?" Natalia chuckled softly, having heard the religious cults diatribe on several occasions, particularly in reference to Proposition 8.
"Yup," Olivia laughed back, the sound of Natalia's voice sending a soothing wave of contentment through her body. "So, tell me about your day. How was work? You didn't let my hotel burn down, did you? And how did Emma's spelling test go?"
All the tension that had built up inside Olivia throughout the day seeped out as she listened to Natalia recount the events of her day---the icemaker on the third floor of the Beacon that wouldn't stop making ice, the elderly guest who had managed to lose three keycards; Emma's spectacular performance on her quiz---each new story smoothing out a roughened edge inside Olivia. Each rounded syllable from that voice that she loved more than any other slid like massaging, caressing fingers along her skin.
She felt a wondrous lassitude slip over her mind as she struggled to keep her eyes open and stay awake.
"Olivia? Are you falling asleep on me?" Natalia asked sweetly, sensing from the slowed speech and the deeper breathing that Olivia was drifting off.
"Um-hmm," Olivia managed, the hand holding the phone slowly relaxing its grip.
"Are you in bed?"
"On the bed. Not in it," Olivia muttered, her voice barely intelligible.
"Okay, so tell me goodnight and climb under the covers, alright?" Natalia suggested, her voice incredibly tender as she pictured a sleepy Olivia. "I wish I were there with you."
"Me, too. Miss you so much," Olivia breathed, her voice catching a little.
"You'll be home soon. Now, say goodnight, hang up and go to sleep. Olivia?" Natalia prodded, worried that the older woman might just fall asleep with the phone still to her ear.
"I love you," Olivia whispered, her voice low and husky from exhaustion.
"I love you, too. Now go to sleep. Call me in the morning when you get on the road? " Natalia replied tenderly.
"'Kay. Night," Olivia sighed.
As she slid into a deep slumber, it occurred to Olivia that Natalia had called her sweetheart. Definite progress.
Wyoming stretched on forever, it seemed. Miles and miles of empty highway bordered by vast expanses of pasture and open plain. Far off in the distance, so far it might have been merely a trick of the imagination, a mirage of white and blue against a grayish sky, snow-capped mountains rose up out of the flat earth. Ava drove, even her normal reticence about speeding overcome by the immense, desolate space.
For the first hour or so there were other cars on the interstate with them but, as they moved farther into the interior of the state, traffic thinned to a trickle. For miles on end, they were the only vehicle. Ava felt a sense of oppression settle into the muscles of her shoulders, a tightness that had nothing to do with the normal low-level anxiety she experienced when she drove. This was something stronger, something much deeper, more primordial.
"There's nothing out here. No houses, no farms. Nothing," Ava murmured to her mother, although it appeared that Olivia had drifted into a fitful sleep about thirty miles before.
"I know," Olivia responded quietly, her voice startling Ava. "You really get a sense of what the early settlers must have experienced. How overwhelming it must have been to have traveled here by horse, by wagon, having left huge, teeming masses of people in overcrowded cities. Left the confines of ships packed to the brim with immigrants only to find this. This space. This infinite continent. It must have terrified and awed them."
"It terrifies me," Ava admitted, sounding much younger than her twenty-six years. "There's no point of reference here. No tall buildings. No buildings at all. Just land and more land. Not even the sense that there's anything else, that there is anything beyond here; no cities, no civilization. Nothing but emptiness."
"I grew up on an island. You could drive from one end of it to another in a couple hours. As a child, my entire world was this minute patch of land surrounded by endless ocean. So, in a way, this doesn't bother me. It's like being out at sea, waiting and praying for the sight of land, for that tiny glimpse of something solid to stand on." Olivia's eyes were hooded, her tone somber and reflective.
"Do you ever miss it? San Cristobel, I mean?" Ava asked, grateful for the distraction of her mother's words and the chance to finally get answers to some of the mysteries that compromised Olivia Spencer.
Olivia didn't respond immediately and Ava wondered if her mother was going to deflect, going to put up one of her standard issue defensive walls. After a few moments though, Olivia spoke.
"Sometimes, I do. I miss the beach at night, the sound of the waves and the wind. I miss being a kid. Being free and careless and all the things most adults miss about being young," she said lightly, an answer she might have given to a casual acquaintance. Not to her daughter. "It's a beautiful place."
"That wasn't really what I meant, Mom," Ava rejoined, the sense of isolation creeping in through the partially open window spurring her on. "Do you miss home?"
Again, Ava felt the shift in the atmosphere inside the car, the altering of the charge in the molecules. Olivia sighed deeply, her eyes closing. Ava didn't push, waiting for her mother to make a decision.
"San Cristobel hasn't been home for a long time. The only family I have left from there is Sam and I never see him. My father died when I was a child, my mother when I was sixteen. Then Marissa was murdered. There's nothing on that island but ghosts and memories of a girl I haven't seen in twenty-five years." Olivia explained slowly. "Home is a little farmhouse outside Springfield. It's where you and Emma are. Where Natalia is. Wherever the people I love happen to be, that's home."
Despite the genuineness of the sentiment, Ava could sense the melancholy lingering beneath it, a warm, dangerous current that flowed just under the solid ice Olivia presented to the world. One small misstep could break the surface, sending it all crashing through to the paralyzing cold, a place where Ava instinctively knew her mother had frequently found herself stranded and alone.
"How about for you?" Olivia queried gently, head tilted to rest against the back of the seat, clouded moss green eyes regarding her curiously. "What's home for you?"
A sad smile touched Ava's lips as she focused for a moment on the yellow stripped highway stretching out as far as the eye could see. She should have known better than to think that the road inside the car would be any more of a one-way street than the one they were traversing. Questions begot as many questions as they did answers. And answers, information, knowledge: those were the reasons for this journey, for the two of them being here, speeding through this barren landscape.
"Four or five years ago, I would have told you it was the street and the house where I grew up. My mother---my adoptive mother---my old high school, the friends I had. But all that's in the past. It's like a life I remember from a dream, all hazy and vague in spots. Now, I don't know what home is. I guess that's why I decided to move back to Springfield.
"The only thing I know is that the one constant in my life for the past four years has been you. Even when we hated each other, part of me knew that if I really needed you, you'd be there, if only out of guilt. And now, well, I'd like the chance to know you better. To know Jeffrey and see Emma and Colin grow up. To spend time with both my new step-mothers," Ava knew she was rambling, but the words just spilled out of her, water from an overturned glass.
"Just for the record, Mrs. Peralta was your mother. She sat up with you when you were sick, she worried about you, sent you off to school, helped you with your homework. She loved you and she was your mom. So please, don't ever feel like you need to differentiate for me or anyone else. I know how lucky I am to have been given a second chance with you. To be able to be your friend. I know I will never replace your mother, but I promise that I will always be here for you," Olivia said quietly, turning her face to stare at Ava's profile, so like her own. "And I am so glad you're moving back. So pleased that you're going to stay with us for a while, until you find a place. I want that, too, that chance to know you better. The chance to be the kind of person you deserve in your life."
The gray road and the stretches of pasture, brown with the changing season, all began to blur as Ava's eye filled with tears. She tried to blink them away, one hand coming up in an embarrassed swipe, hastily brushing them from her cheeks, the other hand holding onto the steering wheel in a death grip. She forced a deep breath into her lungs, tasting the sudden tang of ozone on the cool air rushing in the partially open window. She risked a glance at her mother, grateful that Olivia hadn't offered her a comforting word, a hand on her arm, knowing the softness in that voice, in that touch, would be her undoing.
She wasn't prepared for the slightly distorted mirror image with which she was met. The eyes filled with tears were green instead of brown. The hand that lifted to wipe them away was the same shape as hers, but older, the nails shorter. The lips turned up at the corners in a half-smile, half-grimace were fuller than her own. None of which mattered, as the sight of her mother crying, crying for their shared loss, their shared pain, dragged a sob from Ava's throat.
She wasn't sure how she eased the car off the side of the road, but as they slid to a stop, she felt her mother's hand cup her cheek. Ava leaned into the caress, closing her eyes at the unfamiliar familiarity of her mother's skin against her own, feeling as if the invisible strands of her DNA recognized parts of itself, drawn by some inexplicable instinct towards the source of its existence. Her mother had touched her before, had held her hand, kissed her cheek, hugged her, and yet, for some reason, here on the side of this never-ending highway, Olivia's gentle touch to her face felt as it must feel to a new born, placed for the first time in its mother's arms.
Looking into Olivia's eyes, she saw love, a wide stain of regret lacing through it like cream into black coffee. The tears fell in a steady stream over her cheekbones, their flow unabated. Ava tried to get a handle on her emotions, tried to stem the flood, with little success. The sound of her mother's throaty chuckle brought her head up, eyes widening as she took in the broad grin spreading across Olivia's face.
"God, we're a mess," she snorted, both hands now rubbing the tears off Ava's cheeks. "It's a good thing we're on the side of the road in East Podunk, Wyoming, 'cause if anyone saw us, we'd never live it down. Spencer women do not weep. Very undignified."
Ava laughed, an occasional sob still sticking in her throat.
"Your mascara's running a little," Ava pointed out, sweeping her own thumbs under her mother's eyes, pulling them away lined with black. "How's mine?"
"Not great. And your nose is a little on the red side," Olivia informed her, head tilted to the side in contemplation. "Fortunately, I don't think that the bison or buffalo or whatever those big hairy fuckers are in that field are overly concerned with our appearance."
Looking out the window past Olivia's head, Ava could see the massive, shaggy brown shapes to which her mother referred.
"Bison, I think. And no, they're probably not all the interested in the merits of waterproof mascara," Ava agreed, relieved that the emotional equilibrium between them seemed to have righted itself.
"So, we should probably go, I guess?" Ava asked tentatively. "Wanna drive a while?"
"Thank God. I thought you'd never ask." Olivia unbuckled her seat belt, throwing open the passenger door. A burst of cooler air rushed in, chilling the remaining moisture on Ava's cheeks.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"No offense, sweetie, but have you ever seen Driving Miss Daisy? 'Cause Hoke could've taken lessons from you on pokey-ass driving," Olivia smirked, stepping out to cross in front of the car, opening the driver's door just as Ava grabbed the handle.
Exiting the car, Ava stretched to her full height, a good four inches taller than her mother. Staring down at her, she responded.
"Well, I guess poor old Hoke and I have something in common," she began, only to be silenced as her mother brushed past her and settled in the driver's seat.
"You say it and so help me, Ava, I will leave you standing by the side of this friggin' interstate," Olivia warned, one slender finger pointing emphatically in Ava's direction.
Laughing triumphantly, Ava walked around to the passenger side and slid in.
"So, come on, Miss Daisy. Drive."
"I'm hungry," Ava said plaintively. They had just passed the massive rise of Elk Mountain, its peak lost in the low hanging clouds and mist.
"God, it's like having Emma here. How old are you again?" Olivia chided, shaking her head as her older daughter made a face very reminiscent of her younger one.
"Yuk, yuk, Mom. We haven't eaten since that continental breakfast, which no one on any continent I know would lay claim to, by the way. I need food. And so do you. Don't want the warden getting mad at me," Ava smirked, laughing as her mother curled her lip at her.
"Yeah, yeah. You just wait till we get home and Natalia starts fussing over you and what you eat, and how bad too much caffeine and sugar and fat are for you. Then we'll see who's laughing, won't we?" Olivia gloated, a gleam of amusement lighting her eyes as she envisioned having another adult, one whom Natalia would still see as her child, to take some of the attention off her.
"Gee, someone to cook for me, and help me with my laundry, and worry when I come home too late. Someone who makes sure I eat right and get enough sleep. Someone who makes, according to my little sister, the best banana pancakes in the world. Someone who adores me, even when I'm being a total bitch. Sounds like heaven to me. Hmm. Maybe I need to find a wife, too," Ava teased, gleefully watching the slight blush that covered her mother's cheeks.
"Shut up," Olivia ordered, cutting those bright green eyes in her direction. After a moment she sighed, quite contentedly, Ava thought. "Who knew, huh? I mean, all those years I tried, very unsuccessfully, I might add, to be a good little wife, and all I really needed was one of my own."
"So, can I ask you a personal question?" Ava queried quite tentatively.
"God, I hate it when people qualify things like that. I just know I'm not going to like the question," Olivia replied, her tone as dry as autumn leaves.
"Fine, I don't need to ask," Ava responded, a trace of hurt shifting across her face. "It's not important. I'll bet there are restaurants in Laramie. We could stop there for lunch."
"No, Mom. It's fine. It wasn't an emergency or anything." Ava knew she was being a little childish, but she couldn't help herself. "Really."
"Ava. Ask the fucking question," Olivia demanded irritably. She wasn't sure if her irritation was at her daughter's passive-aggressive wavering or at herself for not being more amenable to begin with.
"I was just going to ask if you'd, you know, ever been attracted to a woman before. That's all. Not your cup size or your social security number," Ava said sarcastically, looking at her mother's profile out of the corner of her eye.
"36-D," Olivia smirked back at her.
"Just forget it, Mom," Ava huffed, feeling once again what it was like to run headlong into one of Olivia Spencer's infamous walls.
For five minutes the only sound in the car was the snick of the tires against the well-worn highway and the accompanying whoosh of the wind as it barreled past them.
"I don't know." Olivia said quietly.
Ava didn't respond immediately, waiting to see if there was more forthcoming, but her mother didn't speak again.
"What do you mean, you don't know?" Ava asked hesitantly, her voice soft, as though afraid of startling a feral animal.
"I mean, I don't know. If you'd asked me that question last year, I would have said, no fucking way. Now, I'm not sure," Olivia admitted quietly, her face pensive. "All my life, I've seen other women as rivals, as competition for whatever man I wanted. But looking back, maybe there was something else to it, something else there."
"Something else?" Ava prodded gently, sensing that her mother wanted to talk about this, but needed a little subtle pressure to help her sort it out.
"I never really had any female friends. Not as an adult, anyway. The few times I allowed myself to be more than acquaintances, more than rivals with another woman, there was this I don't know how to describe it. Tension, I guess. I put it down to jealousy or competitiveness, but who knows, maybe it was a little more than that. With Dinah. With Cassie. Maybe if the circumstances had been different, or I had been different, I might have recognized it as something more than simple feelings of rivalry. It wasn't until Natalia came along ," Olivia's voice trailed off, her eyes distant as she remembered her earliest encounters with the younger woman.
"We hated each other. Or at least, she hated me, although she'll never admit to it. And to me, Natalia was just an impediment, a bump in the road to get past in order to get to Gus. And then, after Gus died and Natalia gave me his heart? God, we fought. We fought all the time. About my health, about work, about everything. And then one day, the day Emma gave her school presentation on her family, I got so frustrated with Natalia that I kissed her, just to make a point."
"Did it? Make a point?" Ava prompted, turning fully in the seat to watch her mother's face.
"Yeah. Just not the one I was trying to make," Olivia answered, her voice so low that Ava could barely hear it over the rush of the wind outside the car. "Because suddenly, I wanted to kiss her again. It was as if, in those four or five seconds of that kiss, I'd opened this floodgate of emotions that I had no idea what to do with."
"I don't think that I fell in love with Natalia because she's a woman, but I didn't fall in love with her in spite of it, either. I love the fact that she is a woman. Does that make sense?" Olivia asked, the glance at Ava's face full of doubt and insecurity.
"It makes perfect sense, Mom. Honest." Ava rushed to reassure her, a warmth settling across her chest at her mother's admission, at her trust. "Perfect sense. You really do love her, don't you?"
"More than I've ever loved anyone in my life," Olivia said simply. "More than I ever thought I could."
"I'm really glad, Mom. You deserve to be happy," Ava told her, trying to force every ounce of the sincerity of what she was feeling into her voice.
"Yeah, well, I don't know about that. I haven't done much in my life that merits a reward, much less that should have gotten me this amazing love. But I'm going to do everything in my power to keep it. And to earn it," Olivia promised, more to herself than to Ava. "I'm not going to turn down a chance at a little redemption."
"I don't think you earn love, Mom. I think it's a gift, a gift that even those who think they're undeserving deserve," Ava asserted, reaching over and covering her mother's hand with her own, gently squeezing her fingers.
"So. Laramie, huh?" Olivia asked, quirking her mouth sideways as the discomfort of sharing settled in on her.
"Yeah. And you know what? I think both of us could do with a burger and fries," Ava offered cheerfully, intent on easing some of the tension in her mother's pose. "Maybe even a milkshake."
"You want coffee instead of a milkshake?" Ava laughed.
"No, I want a coffee milkshake. And a cheeseburger with onions. Won't be as good as a Buzzburger, but it'll have to do in a pinch. Oh, and maybe a piece of pie for dessert. Hmm. There should be pumpkin pie this time of year, right? I love pumpkin pie, especially when it's still warm and it's all creamy and spicy," Olivia's face lit up at the thought of forbidden pleasures, and Ava had a vaguely nauseating idea what her mother looked like anticipating other pleasures as well.
Cringing inwardly, Ava shook herself to rid her mind of that particularly unpleasant thought, earning a puzzled look from her mother.
"What, you don't like pumpkin pie?" Olivia asked, astonishment written all over her face.
"Not anymore," Ava replied, knowing that from now on, Thanksgiving had the potential to be a very awkward holiday.
Clouds stood out on the horizon, dark, towering shapes. Steering the car down the silver-gray ribbon of highway, it occurred to Olivia that they looked for all the world like an army of Titans marshaling for war. Perhaps they were the ancient gods of the Arapaho, intricate patterns of war-paint marking their faces, gleaming feathers flying out behind them as they rode once more into a battle that spanned the millennia.
Huge, fat drops of rain began to fall intermittently on the windshield, hitting with the force of bugs splattering against the glass. Soon, the rain was a hard, steady downpour, obscuring all but a few feet of road in front of them. The world was reduced to a box of metal and plastic, creeping down a road that was now more river than highway, water rushing in inundated currents along its surface. There was nothing beyond the dark hood of the car, nothing beyond the wall of water that surrounded them, threatening to wash them away into the dark gray sea that had once been barren fields.
Olivia slowed the car to a veritable crawl, the tires no longer finding traction on the concrete. Ava noticed that her mother's grip on the wheel had tightened, a deep frown of concentration furrowing her forehead. She leaned forward in the seat, her eyes straining as she tried to make out the faint hint of yellow along the center of the road. Eventually, the storm grew so fierce, the winds buffeting the car from all directions, that Olivia gently eased it off the side of the road into the emergency lane.
"Fuck. I can't even see the hood of the car or the headlights anymore. I know the road is reasonably straight and flat, but I can't see a goddamn thing," Olivia muttered, bending her head first to the right and then to the left as she attempted to alleviate some of the tension in her neck.
"Maybe we should have stayed in Laramie a while longer. Or at least asked if they could rent us an ark," Ava murmured, relief settling over her that her mother had finally pulled over. "I don't think I have ever seen it rain this hard before. Ever."
"I have," Olivia replied, leaning her head back against the seat and closing her eyes, the sound of the rain pounding on the roof of the car nearly drowning out her voice. "Growing up, we had several tropical storms every year, and usually at least one hurricane. When I was fourteen, we had a category five come through. Allen. The name should have been a warning to me for the future, shouldn't it." Olivia chuckled mirthlessly. "Anyway, it laid waste to several of the surrounding islands. We sustained a lot of damage. I remember being in the house with my mother and Marissa and Sam. God, we were all terrified. It sounded like the end of the world outside."
"Why didn't you evacuate to a shelter?" Ava asked, feeling a jittery excitement, as she always did when her mother spontaneously shared her past.
"To be honest, our house was probably as safe as anything. When the winds are that strong, it's more about relative location than anything else. We lived on the southern end of the island, to the west, on the left side of the eye, where the rotation is less intense. Besides, my mother believed that God would protect us, so she made us stay," Olivia explained, her tone darkening as she went on. "A fucking category five hurricane barreling toward your children and you place your trust, and their lives, in the hands of some specious, fickle deity."
"It worked, didn't it?" It was as if Ava could see the words take wing in the still, enclosed space, and she longed to reach out and grab them and stuff them back inside her.
Olivia's expression was such a complicated mass of emotions it took Ava a few moments to decipher them, like working out a complex, vital code. Disbelief. Anger. Hurt. Shock. Regret. Sadness. Betrayal. Olivia didn't speak, her breath coming in short expulsions of air from her parted lips.
"Mom," Ava began, reaching out a hand, one that Olivia pulled away from, drawing back toward the hard surface of the car door. "Mom. I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"Really, Ava? And how did you mean it?" Olivia glared, green eyes narrowed, almost black in the murky light of the storm.
"I just meant that regardless of why you stayed, it turned out alright. That you and your family survived. I wasn't endorsing relying on God to save you from a natural disaster. I promise," Ava's words tumbled from her lips in a rush of reassurance. "I just meant that I'm glad that, for whatever reason, you and your brother and sister were okay."
Olivia didn't respond and it seemed to Ava that she could see some of the strands of the tenuous thread they had woven between them the past few days unraveling. For a moment she had forgotten to tread lightly, precariously, over the cracked places inside her mother. Now she stood, waiting to see if the floor was going to crash in beneath her feet.
"I don't suppose I have much room to talk, do I?" Olivia whispered, her voice so low that Ava had to lean forward, the gear shift prodding painfully into her ribs, to hear her mother's words. "I've trusted Emma's fate to fickle, specious men. Phillip. Alan. Bill. And none of them came through for us. Not one managed to see us through a single fucking storm. So, maybe my mother wasn't so crazy after all, right?"
"Hey. You're a great mother. Emma's an amazing kid and that's because of you, Mom. You. Nobody can control other people's actions any more than we can control the weather. So, maybe you should cut yourself some slack? And maybe, just maybe, you could consider giving your mother the benefit of the doubt, too?"
"Rain's letting up," Olivia observed, straightening in her seat with a deep sigh. "I could use a cup of coffee. Let's get back on the road and see if there's any place we can stop before we get to Cheyenne, okay?"
"Mom? Are we alright?" Ava asked, hesitant and unsure.
"Of course we are," Olivia assured her, reaching over and taking Ava's hand as she pulled the car back onto the interstate. "Storms pass. All sorts of them. But you're my kid. That doesn't change."
Wrapping her fingers a little tighter around her mother's, Ava closed her eyes and let the lingering fall of rain against the hard metal of the car wash over her.
They changed drivers when they stopped for coffee and restrooms. Ava watched her mother sip her convenience store coffee from its Styrofoam cup, a small smile turning up her lips at the picture of Olivia Spencer drinking FastMart swill. Still, Olivia seemed content, holding the cup cradled between her hands, probably more for warmth than the piquant taste of the brew.
"I'm going to call Natalia and let her know where we are. That is, if I'm allowed to drink and talk at the same time?" Olivia asked, her face a study in sincerity.
Ava simply rolled her eyes at her, the thought crossing her mind that if she didn't watch it, she might end up with some serious eye sprain.
The phone rang. And rang again. Olivia could close her eyes and see it, resting on its cradle in the kitchen of the farmhouse, or lying on the coffee table, a small black and grey turtle abandoned on its back. Finally the voicemail clicked on, announcing that no Spencers or Riveras were able to come to the phone right now. Olivia hung up without leaving a message, quickly pushing the end button on her phone and dialing Natalia's cell.
Voicemail again. This time telling her that a certain Natalia Rivera was unable to take her call and urging her to leave a message at the tone.
"Hi. I miss you. I love you. That's all I wanted to say. We're on the far side of Cheyenne. We should be in Nebraska in a little while. We're going to try and make it to Omaha tonight. Then we'll be home by four or five on Friday. Did I mention that I miss you? I do. Ava's driving, so no fear of any cell phone related incidents. Well, other than where she just suggested I could put mine."
"Mother!!" Ava protested, rolling her eyes at Olivia's smirk.
"Oops. Eight second warning. I love you. Call you later." Olivia rambled into the phone, head tilted in disappointment at not being able to talk to the woman she loved.
"Talk about feeling like I'm traveling with a nine year old," Ava muttered, not even acknowledging the amused grin on Olivia's face.
"I'm bored. We should play a game," Olivia announced, her voice sounding for all the world like Emma's.
"What kind of game?" Ava inquired suspiciously, the gleeful gleam in her mother's eyes all the warning Ava needed to know she probably wasn't going to enjoy it.
"Hmm. We could play twenty questions," Olivia invited, eyebrows rising and falling, a smirk plastered on her full lips.
"Couldn't you just take that porcupine quill you picked up at the gas station in Evanston and stick me in the leg every few miles? I have no doubt it would be less painful," Ava quipped, secretly pleased that she had an invitation to ask her mother questions. She just wasn't so certain that she wanted to know the answers.
"You're just a friggin' laugh riot, aren't ya? Come on, it'll be fun," Olivia promised, a wide smile gracing her lips now and she nodded her head in agreement. "I'll let you go first."
"Fine. But only because I am bored out of my mind, too. That's the only reason I can imagine why I would let you talk me into this," Ava reluctantly agreed, trying not to overplay her hand.
"'Kay, whatever. So, go first."
The list of questions that buzzed through Ava's head sounded like a frenzied hive of pissed-off honeybees. Where to start? She considered question after question, discarding them as too vague, too specific, too personal, too impersonal. There was so much she did not know about this woman who had given her life and to have her curiosity reduced to the limits of a children's game threatened to short-circuit her brain.
"Ava? I know that we've only got a few months of it left, but sometime this freakin' decade would be nice."
"Patience really isn't one of your virtues, is it, Mom?" Ava complained, shooting a sideways glance at the passenger seat.
"Fine," Ava said, drawing in a deep breath in preparation. "Do you believe in God?"
"Do I believe in God? That's your question? Seriously, Ava? Of all the friggin' things you could ask me, that's what you pick?" Olivia fumed incredulously, her voice rising in pitch and volume as she stared at her daughter. "Let me guess. Natalia put you up to this, right? She added a little note in that email about what I should eat and when to take my meds and said, 'Gee, Ava, if you get a chance, ask your mother about her stance on the existence of God', didn't she?"
"Yeah, Mom that was it. And my follow-up question is going to be, 'Have you always been this amazingly paranoid?'," Ava stated sarcastically, shaking her head in astonishment at her mother's reaction. "I would think that Natalia would be fairly well-versed in your views on religion by now, Mother. I don't think she needs me to find out for her. She doesn't strike me as being too shy to ask herself, either."
"As for me, I asked because I don't know the answer. Because it seems like something that carries a lot of baggage for you. Considering that I know very little about my grandmother other than a few remarks here and there about her faith, and the things I've heard you say about religion, I just thought I'd ask. That's all. No grand conspiracy. So, maybe we should find another game to play." Ava's voice had grown quiet and serious, the sardonic tone slipping away.
A hundred different responses flitted through Olivia's mind, some far less kind than others, most sacrilegious and often profane. Vitriol about ignorant masses following the dictates of churches that were more concerned with crowd control than faith. Invective about the rampant misogyny of the world's three major faiths, the intolerance, the mass slaughter committed in the name of the one true God. Diatribe about the inability and unwillingness of religious groups to keep their paws off the Constitution, about the hate-filled proscription on the sanctity of marriage spewed by so many who claimed to speak for God.
All of which died in her throat as she studied her daughter's tense profile. Ava hadn't asked to upset her, hadn't asked for any other motive than she didn't know the answer and, for whatever reason, it mattered to her.
"Just God? Not organized religion or a particular faith, right? Just, do I believe in some greater power?" Olivia questioned softly, not needing the clarification as much as needing to let Ava know she understood.
"Yeah. Just God," Ava answered, resisting the urge to meet her mother's eyes.
"Yes," Olivia replied, her eyes fixed on the still gray, soggy landscape rushing past the windows. "But not the way Natalia does. Not the way my mother did."
"What do you mean?" Ava ventured gingerly, sensing that her mother was trying to get past her own disinclination to discuss this issue to share a portion of herself with her child.
"I can accept that some higher power exists. I can even allow, on a good day, that whoever or whatever that power is created the universe. But I don't think that he or she or it intercedes in our lives. I don't think that anyone's listening to all those billions of prayers, and even if anyone is, that they get answered. You know a lot of the Founding Fathers were Deists. A great many people during the Enlightenment were. They believed that God was a clockmaker. That He built the clock, created the universe and then let it go. Just set it all in motion and let it run.
"I guess that makes the most sense to me. Because otherwise, I can't reconcile all the pain, all the atrocities, and the chaos in the world as the workings of some loving god. I just can't. I wish I could. I wish I could believe, could have Natalia's faith, because it brings her so much comfort, so much solace. But I don't." Olivia explained slowly, her face pensive and touched by an intense sadness, one that caught at Ava's heart.
"I'm not sure I do, either," Ava admitted. "We didn't really go to church when I was growing up. Easter. Christmas. Weddings and funerals. But that was about it. I always thought that the services were pretty and I loved the stained-glass windows and the candles and the singing. But I never understood the fervor. Or the looks of peace on people's faces as they prayed."
"Me, neither." Olivia agreed quietly. "But sometimes, when Natalia comes home from Mass, and I see that look in her eyes, and the sense of stillness and contentment all around her, I really, really wish I did."
Silence descended, both of them lost in her own thoughts, the steady rhythm of the tires on the road the only sound.
"So. It's your turn," Ava said finally, her voice jarring in the silence.
"Um, yeah. Okay. So," Olivia stalled, clearly no more ready than Ava had been to select one question out of the hundreds that jockeyed for position in her head. "So, when you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
"You'll laugh," Ava warned, a hint of insecurity threading through her tone.
"I promise. I won't," Olivia assured her, the smile on her face warm and encouraging.
"I swear. I wouldn't do that."
"It's such a cliché," Ava said with a self-deprecating chuckle, "but I wanted to be a ballerina."
"So what stopped you?" Olivia asked with a curious smile.
"Mom, I'm almost 5'10". Way too tall for a ballerina," Ava said wistfully. "I loved it though. I started lessons when I was five. But then I got to be around eleven or twelve and I started getting taller. And taller. My instructor told me I should try tap or modern dance, but I didn't want to be that kind of dancer. Still, that's one of the things that I'll miss about living in San Francisco. I had season tickets to the City Ballet company."
"There's a ballet company in Chicago, you know?" Olivia informed her, smiling sweetly. "When we get home, we'll buy four season tickets and we'll go watch the ballet. And you can teach Emma all about it. She'll love that, having her big sister take her to see the dancers."
"Really? You like ballet?" Ava felt a warmth settle inside her at her mother's smile.
"I do. And I know that Natalia and Emma would be so thrilled to go. I doubt Natalia has ever been and I know Emma hasn't. It'll be fun. We can make a night of it whenever they perform. We'll go to a fancy dinner, stay over at a nice hotel," Olivia enthused, so pleased to see the broad grin that lit Ava's face.
"I'd like that, Mom. A lot," Ava smiled.
"So, it's your turn again. You're not going to ask me about my politics now, are you? I mean, since we've covered religion," Olivia teased, green eyes twinkling.
"God, you're not a Log Cabin Republican, are you, Mom?" Ava smirked back at her. "Please don't tell me you have a Sarah Palin t-shirt in a drawer at home."
"You got me," Olivia sighed, her expression resigned. "I keep it right next to my signed copy of Ann Coulter's last book and my autographed picture of Dick Cheney."
"So how much did you give the Democratic Party last year?" Ava chuckled.
"A lady never divulges how many people she's slept with or how much she's given to the Democratic Party," Olivia answered, "because either way, she just looks like a dumb tramp."
Ava tried to stop the snort of laughter that came out. Never good to encourage her mother's delusion of humor, but she couldn't help it. Sometimes the woman really was funny.
"So, what shall it be this time, my darling child?" Olivia teased, pleased at Ava's laughter.
"Darling child? Good Lord, Mother. Try not to ruin my appetite for dinner, will ya?" Ava groaned with the expected eye roll in her mother's direction. "Hmm. Something benign and simple, I think. What's your favorite book?"
Ava wasn't sure what she was anticipating. She knew her mother was brilliant, educated, well-read. Perhaps some Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf. Even Fitzgerald or Nietzsche. As in many things, Olivia Spencer surprised her.
"Le Petit Prince," Olivia said quietly, a faint blush just touching her cheeks. "The Little Prince."
"Why? Why that book?" Ava asked, eyes narrowed in curiosity.
"That's another question and it isn't your turn," Olivia countered, a small smile touching her lips.
"Mom," Ava said sternly. She regarded her mother's profile out of the corner of her eye, sensing the sudden rush of melancholy that had settled over Olivia. Suddenly, it all made sense to her. The prince and his love for the rose. The meeting with the fox and the revelation that things, all things, need to tame or be tamed in order to truly connect, to become part of each other. Ava's voice was gentle when she spoke again.
"So, are you the fox or the Prince, Mom?"
Olivia just smiled at her, a blinding smile, one that took Ava's breath away. She could see the gratitude in her mother's eyes, the relief at being understood. At not being judged. It occurred to Ava that that was an all too rare happening in her mother's life, one that Ava knew she had been guilty of compounding many times.
"For the first time in my life, I think I'm a little of both," Olivia replied, her head tilting to the side, her eyes focused on the unfocused scenery flashing by the windows.
"Your turn," Ava nudged gently, aware, as she always was, of the mercurial nature of her mother's moods and unwilling to send this one of introspection plummeting into melancholy or self-doubt.
"Actually, I think I get at least three questions, since you just went way over your quota," Olivia chuckled, cutting an amused glance in Ava's direction.
"No, I didn't. That was simply a multi-part question. A complex and layered query," Ava retorted sarcastically, trying but not quite succeeding in keeping an innocent look on her face.
"Oh, it was layered alright. Layers of bullshit, maybe," Olivia grinned, a hand snaking over, a slender finger poking Ava in the ribs.
"Yeah, yeah. Stop stalling, Mom."
Olivia pursed her lips, deciding the time had come to get a little more personal on the question front.
"Okay. Who's the last person you kissed?" Olivia asked sweetly.
Ava groaned, having wondered when her mother would make it around to asking about her sex life. Or lack thereof. Olivia had asked her a few veiled questions when they were packing up her apartment, subtle enquiries about "leaving anyone behind", but Ava had refused to take the bait. And to be honest, there wasn't much to tell. Since she'd moved to San Francisco, she had been out three times. They'd all been nice guys, kind, considerate, funny. Acceptable. Completely lacking in the tiniest little spark.
She'd finally decided that the fault was in her, not her choice of dates, so she simply stopped dating. She wasn't sure why, wasn't certain what was lacking, what was holding her back from living her life. She just knew that a good book and a glass of wine were more appealing on a Saturday night than dinner and anything else that might be on the table with any of the men who asked her out. So she stayed home. Somehow, she doubted that her mother would understand that.
"Earth to Ava. What's the matter, having a hard time sorting through all those guys to come up with a name?" Olivia teased, green eyes sparkling with mischief.
Suddenly, Ava leaned over in the driver's seat and pressed her lips to her mother's cheek. She straightened with a impish grin.
"You," she answered triumphantly, a self-satisfied smirk firmly in place.
"Cheater," Olivia accused, eyes narrowing as she threw a look of grudging admiration her daughter's way.
Ava's low chuckle filled the space between them, and she couldn't help but grin at the disgruntled look on her mother's face at being thwarted.
"My turn again," she gloated, still laughing at Olivia's expression. Her smile faded slowly as she realized that she'd get no better opportunity than now to ask the one thing she wanted to know. The one thing she needed to hear her mother say.
"Fine. Go ahead, you little cheat," Olivia whined, her gaze fond.
Ava schooled her voice, trying hard to keep it firm and unemotional, not quite succeeding as a barely noticeable tremor threaded through it.
"If you could go back and change one thing, make one different decision in your life, what would it be?"
Risking a glance at the passenger seat, Ava could read little from the stillness on her mother's face or see the expression in the now hooded eyes. Olivia didn't respond for long moments. Ava could almost feel the tension between them grow, pushing them farther apart, like an inflatable life raft, expanding to leave them staring at each other across a distance, one that could either save them, or doom them as they clung to the sides, weighted down in numbingly cold waters.
"Pull over," Olivia ordered quietly, her eyes still focused out the front windshield to the gray road.
"What?" Ava asked, her mind slow to comprehend the non sequitur.
"Pull over," Olivia repeated, her voice firmer as she turned to meet Ava's eyes, her own a dark, murky green.
Ava drew in a deep breath, letting the air out slowly as she eased the car off the highway, coming to a gradual stop alongside a dilapidated shed that sat abandoned in the field next to the road. Her eyes swept over it, absently taking in the bales of hay stacked haphazardly under the slanting roof. She heard the click of a seat belt being released, felt her mother shift sideways until she was facing her, but still, she didn't meet Olivia's eyes, a wave of terror washing over her at what she imagined she would see there.
"This is why you asked me to drive back with you, isn't it?" Olivia asked softly, the gentleness in her tone sending a rush of moisture against the back of Ava's closed eyelids. "This is what you needed to know, right?"
Ava could only nod, not trusting her voice, unable to force her eyes open, knowing that if she did so, she would be unable to stem the flood, unable to keep her carefully maintained dam from breaking through the now crumbling clay walls she'd built. She heard her mother sigh, a quick, forceful release of breath and then she felt strong fingers gripping her chin, forcing her head around and up.
"Look at me. Ava. Look at me," Olivia demanded, her voice low and remarkably firm.
Opening her eyes, tears blurring her vision, Ava met her mother's unflinching stare. She blinked rapidly, an ineffectual effort to stop the stream of moisture that flowed down over high cheekbones.
"Ava," Olivia began, thumb stroking softly across Ava's cheek, "I need you to listen to me. Can you? Can you really listen to me and hear what I'm saying and not what you expect to hear?"
Her breath coming in slightly staggered gasps, Ava managed to jerk her head up and down in assent.
"I know what you expect me to say. I know that you think I'm going to say that I would never have gone to that party at the embassy. Or that I would have had an abortion. And you know what, if you'd asked me that two years ago, the answer would have been different. But I'm not the same person anymore. I know that. I'm not just talking about almost dying or getting Gus' heart. I'm talking about who I am, who I've become. What I've learned. What I know.
"And what I know is that every single moment that has brought me to this point, every decision, good or bad, every choice, wonderful or rotten, has made me what I am right now. And what I am right now is happy. Really and truly happy, for the first time in my life. And if I changed anything, if I went back and made anything different, if I tried to alter anything, I would lose this. I would lose all of it." Olivia paused, searching Ava's face for reaction. "Because you can't simply pull out one strand of thread without loosening another one and another, until the whole thing unravels."
"Do I wish that I hadn't defied my mother and gone to that party? Do I wonder what my life might have been like if Jeffrey hadn't raped me that night? Do I regret every single day of my life that the last words my mother heard from me were 'I hate you'? Of course I do. So much that it was this hollow ache in the pit of my stomach, one that I tried desperately over the years to fill with money and power and sex and booze. And every once in while, I thought maybe I had managed to make it disappear, to stop it from eating away at me. But it was only temporary and pretty soon it started again and I started again, trying to fill up that empty space inside me.
"It wasn't until I almost died, until Natalia stormed into my life, until she slipped in under all the walls I had put up, that I began to realize that the only thing that was going to make me whole again was love. I know, talk about clichés, huh? But it's true. She's made me a better person. She's shown me just how powerful love can be. And there is nothing, nothing Ava, that I would change. Nothing that I would do differently. Nothing. Especially not you." Olivia finished, the truth of her words carrying through in every syllable, glowing brightly from her eyes.
Ava let the words sink into her, allowed them to flow through her veins, to become part of her bones, knitting together all the broken bits, all the barely noticeable fractures to her psyche. Olivia's eyes searched her face, seeking confirmation that Ava had heard her, really heard what she was trying to tell her. Looking down, Ava reached slowly and deliberately for her mother's hand, lacing their fingers together, almost able to picture those strong, capable hands pulling her up into that life raft. Out of the numbing water that she suddenly understood she had been treading now for four years.
"Thank you," Ava said quietly, her eyes still fixed on the link of flesh and bone, on the solid feeling of her mother's hand in her own.
"Do you believe me?" Olivia asked, her face apprehensive as she tried to gauge Ava's response.
"Yes. I do," Ava answered, finally raising her eyes to meet her mother's questioning gaze. "I do, Mom. If there's one thing I know about you, it's that you're one of the most honest people I know. You don't pull punches, even to save someone's feelings."
"Not about important things. I might tell you your ass doesn't look fat in those jeans or that I like that really shitty yellow sweater you had on yesterday, but I wouldn't lie to you about this," Olivia assured her, the beginnings of a grin just touching her lips.
Ava snorted, shaking her head at her mother's innate need to distance herself from emotional intensity with humor.
"You're really not funny, you know?" Ava complained, one hand coming up to wipe at her still wet cheeks.
"I'm a little funny," Olivia countered, pulling down the sleeve of her shirt over her wrist and wiping at Ava's remaining tears.
Ava simply rolled her eyes, deciding not to justify the ridiculousness of the words with comment.
"So, I say we suspend the game for a while?" Olivia offered, head tilted to the side in what Ava had long ago dubbed her mother's 'if I tilt my head and look cute then you'll agree with me' look. "Or at least declare a moratorium on any more intense conversations, at least until we make it through Nebraska?"
"What's Nebraska have to do with anything?" Ava asked, her voice a trifle hoarse from her tears.
"Nothing. It's just Nebraska and I don't think I can take drama and Nebraska, you know? My heart probably wouldn't be able to take the excitement," Olivia told her, expression serious.
"As I said, Mother, you're really not funny." Ava replied, sliding the car back into gear and on to the highway. "But you keep trying."
"Maybe we should stick to license plate bingo and punch buggy?" Olivia suggested.
"Ow! Mom, we're the only car on the friggin' road. There is no Bug!" Ava complained loudly, rubbing her right shoulder where her mother's fist had playfully come in contact.
And punched her again.
"Damn it, Mom! I mean it. Stop!" Ava demanded, glaring at her laughing parent. "You do that again and I'm going to flag down a cop and have you arrested for child abuse."
Olivia just laughed and yelled, "Punch buggy!"
Part way through Nebraska, Ava was forced to agree with her mother: Boring didn't begin to cover it. By mutual consent, they stayed away from any potentially emotional topics. Instead, they talked about books they liked, about movies they had seen. Olivia told stories about Emma and her adventures on the farm. About the ducks. About a slightly disastrous run in with the cow.
They listened to music and Ava discovered, much to her surprise, that her mother had a pretty fabulous singing voice. And that she knew the words to a veritable plethora of cheesy eighties songs. A fact about which she was sworn to secrecy. Under pain of death. Or worse.
They made it to Omaha by ten.
Unfortunately, so had thousands of podiatrists. According to the desk clerk at the Doubletree, the International Association of Podiatry had chosen Omaha for their convention site. According to Olivia, it was only fitting that this sixth circle of Hell include podiatrists. She apparently had a theory that each successive circle of hell was occupied, in turn, by high school counselors, morticians, dentists, used car salesmen, life insurance salesmen, podiatrists, actuaries, lawyers and IRS agents. A hypothesis that Olivia was more than happy to share with the front desk clerk, as well as anyone within a fifteen foot radius.
Ava just shook her head and groaned.
Finally, after pleading, cajoling, threatening, and a judicious bribe, the clerk coughed up a room that had yet to be claimed by any arriving foot specialist. Or, as Olivia pronounced, foot fetishist.
Ava was simply glad when they made it safely into the elevator. Good thing that podiatrists seemed a bit slow-footed, Olivia muttered, chuckling.
Ava groaned again.
Thankfully, the room had a lovely king-sized bed, one that Ava dropped onto in exhaustion as soon as they entered. Closing her eyes, she could hear her mother moving around, unzipping her suitcase, pulling out various items. There was something soothing in the sounds, in the presence of another person, that had been lacking in her life for quite a while now. A twinge of regret lanced through Ava as the thought occurred to her that she and Olivia could have shared a room last night as well.
"I'm going to jump in the shower, okay?" Olivia's voice seeped into Ava's consciousness.
Opening one eye, she peered groggily at her mother, somewhat bemused at the look of fond amusement on Olivia's face.
"What?" Ava muttered.
"I have that same problem with getting both eyes to open when I'm tired. Apparently it's genetic," Olivia chuckled, picking up her toiletries bag and heading toward the bathroom. "Don't get too comfy there, by the way. That's my side of the bed."
"Your side?" Ava snorted, allowing the cooperative eye to close, sighing blissfully at the lovely, cushion-top mattress beneath her weary bones. "You're too much, Mom."
A wondrous feeling of lassitude had settled over Ava, seeping into her muscles like rain into drought parched ground. The soft drone of the water from the shower, the gentle whir of the fan in the air conditioning unit, the energy of the hundreds of souls occupying the building around her, washed over her, slowing her breathing, beckoning her into a welcoming blackness.
All of which disappeared with the strains of Ella Fitzgerald and "The Very Thought of You" issuing forth from her mother's cell phone. Ava had heard it enough for the past few weeks to know that was Natalia's ring tone. Forcing that eye open again, Ava glanced at the bathroom door, still hearing the steady drum of the shower.
Rolling over with a decidedly unladylike grunt, Ava stretched the length of the bed, just managing to grasp the strap of Olivia's purse. Hauling it up the bed, she reached into the side pocket, pulling out the phone and pushing the talk button.
"Olivia Spencer's exhausted answering service," Ava sighed, a smile creasing her face as she heard Natalia laugh.
"Hello, Olivia Spencer's exhausted daughter. Where is Her Majesty?" Natalia chuckled, her voice sympathetic.
"In the shower. We're in Omaha. Along with a million podiatrists. We managed to snag a room at the Doubletree and make it up here without being lynched. No thanks to mom," Ava explained in a slightly sing-song tone.
"Which circle of Hell is that again? Fifth or sixth?" Natalia was genuinely laughing now, the melodious sound bringing an answering smirk to Ava's face.
"Oh, good. She's shared her theory with someone besides me, the desk clerk and about fifty or so foot fetishists, as she so generously called them," Ava responded sardonically.
"Yeah. Once when we had to meet with Emma's guidance counselor and once around tax time. She has lots of theories like that. It's best to just nod your head and change the subject as soon as possible. Don't ever let her get started on whether men who are named Richard but called Dick are actually predisposed to being well, you know .because their parents named them that, or are they called Dick rather than Rick or Richie because they are um, well you get the point. Anyway. It's not pretty. Never bring up Watergate," Natalia advised matter-of-factly. Ava could almost see the look of resignation on Natalia's face.
"What you're trying to say is are Dicks really dicks because of nature or name, right? You know, I've wondered that myself sometimes," Ava clarified, her intonation so much like Olivia's that Natalia snorted.
"You two really needed a DNA test to figure out you're mother and daughter?" Natalia teased.
"I know. I inherited the snarky gene. Still, my mother is strange, isn't she?" Ava asked rhetorically.
"Yup. But I love her," Natalia agreed, her tone softening as she said the words.
Ava sighed. "So do I. God help us both."
"So, I take it you're sharing a room?" Natalia asked.
"The last hotel room in Omaha, at least according to the clerk."
"One bed or two?" Natalia asked.
"One. King-sized. We should be able to manage, although on her way to the shower, Mom informed me I'm on her side," Ava replied, leaning her head back against the incredibly soft pillows with a sigh of contentment.
"She doesn't have a side. No matter where she starts out, she ends up in the middle. Major bed hog. She also wraps up in the covers," Natalia said informatively. "Oh, and don't let her sleep on her back. She well, she kinda snores a little. Just poke her and make her turn over."
"See this is one of the things that makes me glad I'm not married," Ava muttered, her mind already imagining a night spent fighting with her mother over space and covers and snores.
"I suppose that's one way of looking at it. Still, waking up next to the person you love for the rest of your life makes up for an occasional sleepless night or stolen covers," Natalia said softly, the love evident in her voice. "By the way, don't tell her I said she snores. She gets a little indignant."
"My mother gets a little indignant? I didn't know Mom did just a little indignant. I thought there was extremely indignant and just fucking pissed off," Ava laughed, a twinge of guilt hitting her at her language. Still, Natalia was, well, married, to all intents and purposes, to Olivia Spencer. Surely she heard more than the occasional "fuck". As for the rest of what Natalia had said, Ava pushed it aside, not prepared for the sharp lance of emotion that knifed through her chest at the words.
"She can do little. Sometimes. Okay, not often, but she's getting better," Natalia agreed, marveling again at how much Ava sounded like her mother.
"Don't worry, I won't tell her," Ava promised, just as the door to the bathroom opened in a cloud of steam.
"You won't tell me what?" Olivia demanded, half her head obscured by a large white towel as she rubbed the excess moisture from her hair.
"That sometimes, rarely, like giant meteor slamming into the Earth rare, you have moments when you're a little funny," Ava prevaricated, pleased to hear Natalia laughing in her ear.
"That's okay. I don't like either one of you," Olivia rejoined, sticking out her tongue at Ava as she dropped heavily onto the edge of the bad, jostling Ava so that the cell phone smacked into her jaw.
"Oww, Mom," Ava grumbled, sending a Spencer glare her mother's way. "Here, talk to your woman."
"Her woman?!" Natalia complained loudly. Ava chuckled and handed the phone to her mother without replying.
"What do you mean, 'her woman'?"
"What's so bad about being my woman?" Olivia teased, Natalia's words reaching her as she raised the phone to her ear. She pushed at Ava with her hip to get her to move over.
"You mean, aside from the whole shackled to the stove image? Do you want the reasons alphabetically or in order of ludicrousness?" Natalia retorted, her broad grin carrying through the line.
"Please. Shackled to the stove? Now, if you'd said shackled to the bed ," Olivia smirked, the end of her wet towel falling over Ava's cheek.
"Olivia!" Natalia's voice was indignant and not a little embarrassed.
"Mother, please! And stop smacking me in the face with that towel," Ava complained, rolling across the bed to other side. She pulled herself off the edge, a groan escaping her lips at the effort. "I'm going to take a shower before you make my ears bleed."
"God, you'd think you'd never heard about sex," Olivia muttered as she watched Ava shuffle towards the bathroom.
"Again, just for the record, Mom. Never, ever want to think about, imagine, or visualize you having sex. Ever," Ava informed her sternly, an expression of extreme distaste on her face. "Scar me for life."
"God, my kid's a drama queen," Olivia whined to Natalia.
"Gee, I can't imagine where she got that," Natalia replied, more than a trace of sarcasm coloring her voice.
"I miss you," Olivia said softly.
"You're impossible," Natalia laughed, clearly amused at her lover's attempt at deflection. "Yeah, well, 'your woman' misses you, too."
"How's Em?" Olivia asked plaintively.
"She's fine. She misses you. And she's mad at you," Natalia replied.
"Mad? Why?" Olivia's voice rose a little in pitch.
"She's convinced that you've only called when she's in school or asleep on purpose so you won't have to tell her what her surprise is," Natalia said archly.
"What surprise? And I have called in the evening, but she was at Sally's," Olivia countered, not sounding much older than her nine year old offspring.
"I know you have. Doesn't matter. She's convinced that the reason that you and Ava are driving back is that you're bringing her something too big to carry on a plane. So you'd better come up with something before you get here tomorrow," Natalia responded, a hint of laughter in her tone.
"It would've been nice if you'd told me this before we reached Nebraska! I mean, the only place between here and Illinois is Iowa. Unless you want me to wrestle a prize pig and put it in the backseat, my choices are going to be somewhat limited." Olivia's tone was decidedly put out.
"I didn't find this out until this evening. She's been all pouty and quiet, so I asked her what was wrong. She was very adamant that the only reason you would consent to drive all that way is to bring her something 'huge'," Natalia pronounced calmly.
"Great. Now I have to find something to bring her. In Iowa." Olivia Spencer did not sound pleased.
Natalia Rivera laughed.
"Good luck, sweetie," she chuckled. "I love you."
"Yeah, yeah." Olivia pouted, clearly disgruntled. "Just remember that when Ava and I get home with Wilbur."
"Just as long as you don't bring Charlotte along," Natalia rejoined, still laughing. "You know I hate spiders."
Compared to Iowa, Nebraska had been a veritable traveler's paradise. For miles on end there was nothing but fields, fields and more fields. An occasional grain elevator rising up from the flat prairie. More fields. It was too late in the season for waving fields of grain or corn as far as the eye could see. Instead, everything was brown, the earth a carpet of soil, the scattered shards of corn stalks rising like brittle, half-buried bones from the dirt. Even the rivers were brown in the late morning light, slow and sluggish as they charted their course through the vacant countryside.
They had gotten an early start. It had been a less than successful night, neither Ava nor Olivia sleeping well. Between the slamming of doors and the drunken voices of a parade of podiatrists, and Olivia's increasingly frequent, increasingly infuriated calls to the front desk, neither of them got more than a few hours of sleep. Still, when the phone rang with their seven a.m. wake up call, they both struggled out of bed, threw on some clothes and headed for the car, taking a great deal of pleasure in slamming their own door as they left.
According to the GPS, it was only a seven to eight hour drive from Omaha to Springfield, but as the miles clicked by on the odometer it seemed to Olivia that despite the speed of the car hurtling down the interstate, they were barely moving. Each mile closer to home seemed to stretch out, measured on all sides by the ceaseless, rolling fields, Fitzgerald's 'dark fields of the republic', that extended as far as the eye could see, disappearing into the horizon like the limitless ocean of her youth. Not for the first time, watching the silver ribbon of highway vanish beneath the wheels of the car, it occurred to Olivia that Natalia and that small plot of farmland were truly the only solid ground she had ever found to stand on.
Ava dozed in the passenger seat, her face turned toward Olivia, head resting at an odd angle against the seat back. The faint smudges of violet under her eyes were visible reminders of the distance they had traveled, measured as much in words and tears and laughter as mile markers. Olivia reached her right hand over, gently brushing the back of her fingers along her daughter's cheek, a wash of gratitude sweeping over her at Ava's presence in her life. She would never have admitted it to anyone, even Natalia, but for a few moments, along an isolated stretch of road outside Lambs Grove, Iowa, Olivia Spencer offered up a silent prayer of thanks to a God she wasn't absolutely convinced existed.
A prayer of thanks for Ava. For Emma. For Rafe. For Natalia. Especially for Natalia. For the home and the family she had found.
What can it hurt, she thought with a self-mocking smile.
Olivia woke Ava around noon just outside of Iowa City. They stopped for lunch at a diner, a silver railroad car complete with red vinyl booths, gleaming chrome and the best home fries west of the Mississippi, a claim that the Spencer women were hard pressed to dispute. They even had coffee milkshakes, one of which accompanied them as they headed back out onto the highway.
"So, what the hell are we going to get your sister?" Olivia asked, not for the first time. Or the second. Or even the third.
"Mom. I don't know. Like I said, I wish we had known earlier, but even then, it isn't like we've been anywhere near shopping meccas. I don't even know what we could have brought her from San Francisco other than a gigantic stuffed animal or something," Ava supplied, shrugging her shoulders in defeat.
"Well, we've got about three hours to find something here in Bumble Fuck, Iowa. Your sister could qualify for the Olympic team when it comes to pouting and holding a grudge, so I'm not showing up without something friggin' amazing," Olivia explained, the corners of her mouth turned up in a slight grimace.
"Can't imagine where she got that particular skill," Ava muttered, shooting a sideways glance her mother's way.
"Criticize less, think more," Olivia ordered, sending an equally contemptuous glare back at Ava.
"We could get her a huge pumpkin? It is close to Halloween and they do grow some freakin' humongous pumpkins here in the Hawkeye State. Much bigger than you'd get in Springfield. We could make a really cool jack-o-lantern and put it on the front porch?" Ava knew she was reaching, but honestly, it was Iowa.
"A pumpkin? A fifty pound pumpkin? We're going to convince Emma that we drove half way across the country to bring her a goddamn pumpkin?" Olivia asked incredulously.
"I don't hear you coming up with any better ideas. And no, Mom, a pig is not a better idea," Ava retorted, glaring at her mother's profile.
After minutes of silence, brown, stubby fields rushing by outside the windows, Olivia sighed.
"Fine. We'll get her a pumpkin," Olivia conceded. "I am in such shit."
"It'll be fine, Mom. She'll be distracted with helping me unpack and she won't even have time to think about it," Ava attempted to reassure, reaching over and offering a faux-sincere pat on her mother's arm.
"Emma, distracted? Please. The kid has the concentration of a Zen master," Olivia muttered, shaking her head at the image of her younger child's expression when her surprise didn't measure up.
On the other side of Davenport, they pulled off the highway, lured by signs advertising an enormous farm stand. If the number of cars was any indication, they had found the right place for the perfect pumpkin.
On one side of the ramshackle building that housed the farm stand, lay an ocean of orange. Row upon row of pumpkins, some small, some large, some gigantic, all glowing cheerfully under a brilliant blue sky. Olivia stood surveying them, clearly flummoxed as to where to even begin choosing a prime specimen.
Ava left her mother standing in a sea of orange gourds, wandering into the shade of the stand itself. As she rounded a corner by an enormous pile of Indian corn, she pulled up short, a smile spreading across her face.
"Mom! Mom!" Ava called, trying without much success to get her mother's attention.
Olivia was about halfway out in the makeshift pumpkin patch, honeyed hair bright in the late afternoon sun. She had one hand shading her eyes, like a ship captain gazing far out to sea, scanning the bright orange waves.
"Mother!!" Ava yelled this time, ignoring the glances thrown her way by curious Iowans.
Olivia turned, drawing in a deep breath and sighing as she saw Ava's hand gestures, motioning her back to the building. She slowly made her way, navigating the squat, round shapes, stepping over and around hundreds of pumpkins.
"What?" Olivia's tone was a bit sharp as she finally reached her daughter's side, but she had spotted a likely prospect and she was concerned that someone might make off with her pumpkin before she could get back to it.
"Come here," Ava demanded, grabbing her mother's hand and dragging her toward the interior of the building.
"I'm coming already. Stop pulling on me," Olivia complained, trying unsuccessfully to wrest her hand out of Ava's grasp.
Ignoring her mother's pleas to slow down, Ava tugged her around the corner table overflowing with multi-colored ears of corn and pointed at a small sign, a huge grin lighting her face.
Adorable Kittens. Free to Good Homes. Have all first shots.
Olivia rolled her eyes and turned to glare at her eldest child.
"What do you mean, no? Come on, Mom. It's perfect. We don't have to bring her something big. Just something alive. I mean, we wouldn't have wanted to bring a kitten on a plane, so it makes perfect sense. And you know Emma will love it!" Ava exclaimed, her grip on Olivia's hand tightening, her eyes glowing with triumphant excitement.
"Ava ," Olivia began, only to be interrupted by her daughter's voice.
"Every child should have a pet, Mom. And since you lived at the Beacon all those years, Emma never had one. Now that you live in the country, it's ideal. Just imagine her, all tucked into bed, a little ball of fur curled up beside her, purring away, lulling her to sleep." Ava stated slowly, emphasizing each word. "And having a pet teaches responsibility. She'd be in charge of feeding the kitten and cleaning up after it. Come on, Mom. You know Emma will be so happy."
"You're good," Olivia admitted, a grudging glint of admiration in her eyes.
"You like cats, Mother," Ava reminded her. "You said so the other day."
"Actually, I believe that I said that I like umpphh," Olivia corrected, her last word muffled by her daughter's hand across her mouth.
"Mother!!" Ava glared, glancing quickly around to make certain that no one had overheard.
"Fine." Olivia snapped, her face a study in capitulation. "Get her a kitten. But they'd better have some sort of carrier and a litter box for it."
"Actually, you know, you can't just get one kitten, Mom," Ava informed her sagely.
"Why the hell not?" Olivia growled, irritated at having been outmaneuvered by her child.
"Kittens need companionship. Someone to play with them," Ava explained, her tone calm and reasonable.
"That's what Emma's for. To play with the kitten," Olivia stated, one eyebrow beginning its ascent up her forehead.
"Yeah, but Emma has school, and both you and Natalia work and the kitten will be alone a lot. It'll need someone to be with it, to keep it company," Ava answered logically.
"You want a kitten," Olivia charged, one slender finger pointing accusingly at Ava. "This isn't about the kitten having company, or suffering from loneliness, it's about you wanting a little ball of fur curled up and purring on your bed."
Ava considered her options, contemplating telling her mother that she was wrong and delusional, but in the end, it seemed easier to simply admit the truth.
"Fine. I want a kitten. Can I have a kitten, Mommy?" Ava asked sweetly, lowering her head and gazing up at her mother through long eyelashes.
"You win. Go get two kittens. And I mean it, Ava. They'd better come with their own little house and potty or you're getting out every thirty miles and walking them," Olivia threatened, rolling her eyes as her daughter simply grinned at her and marched off to pick out two small furry creatures for her and her sister.
"Brat." Olivia grumbled.
At least Emma would be happy.
Half an hour later, they were back on the highway. Taking up three quarters of the back seat was an enormous wooden apple crate, a window screen jerry rigged across the top. Inside, on layers of old towels, slept two fluffy balls of calico. In one corner of the crate was a miniature litter box, beside which rested a bowl of Kitten Chow. Even Olivia had to allow that Ava had come through with flying colors in kitten accommodations. As for the kittens themselves, the great and powerful Olivia Spencer had taken one look at the small bundles of orange and white and black, greenish-gold eyes blinking up at her and made a noise that sounded distinctly like an "aww".
Ava had simply smirked.
Resting next to the 'kitty kingdom', as Olivia had christened it----although her first suggestion had been another alliterative that included the word 'palace', a name Ava boycotted as being a tad too risqué for this particular car trip---was a large and rather glorious specimen of pumpkin. According to her mother, they might as well get the pumpkin, too. Ava was convinced that Olivia actually liked the huge, round orange gourd and, after having witnessed her mother actually pat it and call it 'The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown', she was pretty certain that no one would be allowed to cut it into anything.
"Iowa isn't that bad," Ava remarked as the car sailed past the "Welcome to Illinois" sign that marked the state line. "You and Natalia could head over there and get married."
"Hmm. We could fly to Boston and stay at the Four Seasons, drive out to the Cape, or take the ferry to the Vineyard. Or we could drive four hours and stay in Des Moines and go to the Iowa State Fair. Let me think .," Olivia replied dryly, one eyebrow making its customary trek toward her hairline. "If we ever get married, it won't be in Iowa, bless their astonishingly liberal little pointed heads."
"You're such a snob, Mom," Ava accused laughingly.
"No. I am not a snob, Ava. I am simply someone who, over the course of her life, has learned to appreciate the finer things in life and who has, through hard work and innate business sense, managed to accrue the wealth necessary to pay for those finer things. And I refuse to be ashamed of that," Olivia stated matter-of-factly. "I live in a farmhouse, for God's sake, and I like it. I am not a snob."
"Fine. Point taken. Still, Iowa is closer for a wedding," Ava hinted, glancing surreptitiously at her mother.
"What the hell is with all this wedding crap, anyway?" Olivia groused, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"Nothing. I mean, I just kind of assumed that, well, you know, given Natalia's background and religion, that she'd probably want to get married in some way," Ava hedged, sensing the lava bubbling just beneath the surface.
"Um hmm. Well, last time I checked, the Catholic Church still wasn't down with same-sex marriage, so I don't think we're going to be standing up in front of Father Ray any time soon," Olivia retorted, her animosity to the church and the priest in particular quite clear in her tone. "Besides, marriage and I do not do well. Period. If you'll recall, I have a shit load of frequent flyer miles on that trip down the aisle and none of them have ever ended well. They've just ended."
"You've never married Natalia," Ava replied quietly.
"Ava. Drop it, okay?" Olivia asked, her own voice low and intense.
"Okay, Mom. If you ever do decide to tie the knot again, I'd be proud to be your Maid of Honor," Ava smiled, her eyes sincere as she turned to meet her mother's stare.
Olivia simply shook her head, chuckling.
Outside the windows, the fields began to make way for a string of small towns, a staccato rhythm of small farmhouse and mobile homes, of gas stations and strip malls and scattered signs of encroaching suburbia. Ava felt an odd sense of melancholy settle over her as their destination loomed closer and closer. Despite the tensions and the tears and the exhaustion of the trip itself, she had loved the time she had spent with her mother and she was loathe for it to end.
It wasn't until they sped by the sign for Lincoln that it occurred to her that that time wasn't really ending. Just shifting. Altering into something that had the potential to be infinitely richer and more complex. Time not only with her mother, but her little sister, her father, her new baby brother. Time to continue to build on her burgeoning friendship with Natalia. Time to finally find her place in her family.
"We're almost home," Ava remarked, a shard of surprise cutting through the lingering traces of her melancholy as the truth of her words sank in.
Olivia grinned at her, green eyes sparkling with an inner light, and reached over to take her hand, loosely linking their fingers together.
"Yup. We are. Almost home."
Ava blinked her eyes rapidly at the prick of moisture against her eyelids. No more crying, even if they were happy tears.
"So, what do you think Emma will name her new baby?" Ava asked, turning her head to peer into the back seat where the kittens still slumbered. "I can't believe how good they are. They've slept the whole way."
"Yeah, well, the big meal they fed them before we left didn't hurt. Plus, they're probably like babies. The rhythm of the car puts them to sleep," Olivia chuckled. "And knowing your sister, they'll end up named after some character in a video game."
"Not mine," Ava exclaimed somewhat indignantly.
"I thought you didn't care which one you took?"
"I don't. I told you, Emma can pick out the one she likes 'cause I love them both. But I get to name my own kitten," Ava proclaimed, sounding far closer to ten than thirty.
Olivia laughed, a throaty chuckle that drew a similar laugh from Ava, as instinctive as a bird's answering call.
"I'm staying out of it. You can deal with Emma yourself. God help you," Olivia continued to chuckle. "Speaking of, grab my phone and call the house and tell Natalia we'll be there in about thirty minutes. See if she wants us to stop and get anything?"
"Hey, Natalia. We're almost there and Mom wants to know if we should stop for anything?" Ava asked, smiling as she listened to her step-mother's answer.
"That sounds amazing. You really didn't have to go to all that trouble, Natalia," Ava responded, laughing. "Oh, yeah, we did find something. Two somethings, actually. No, you get to be surprised, too. We'll be there in about twenty-five minutes or so. I'll tell her. See you soon!"
"She's making chicken and rice and homemade blueberry cobbler," Ava grinned, her face lighting up like a kid's at the prospect of a home cooked meal. "And she says she doesn't need anything but us home safely."
Olivia smiled, eyebrows quirked as she waited for the rest of the message.
Ava looked at her innocently, a question in her eyes as her mother's stare grew more intent.
"I believe I heard you say you'd tell me something?" Olivia prodded, rolling her eyes at the guileless expression on Ava's face.
"Did I? I can't remember what it was. Hmmm. Now what was I supposed to tell you?" Ava pondered, one finger pressed against her lips, tapping lightly.
"God, you're easy," Ava laughed. With a Cheshire grin she finished. "Natalia said to tell you she loves you."
"Brat." Olivia countered, all the malice of the word erased by the soft smile in her eyes.
"Yeah, yeah, Mom." Ava smirked.
As they entered the outskirts of Springfield, Ava was astounded to find that the sense of dread that was the usual accompaniment to her visits here was missing. In fact, watching as familiar landmarks passed by the windows of the car, she felt only an oddly exciting sense of anticipation, an awareness of infinite possibility. But most of all, she felt the immense happiness and peace that radiated off her mother as they drew ever closer to home. Ava wanted to reach out and capture a little of it for herself, like cautiously lowering a net over the startlingly beautiful wings of a Monarch, and hold that feeling inside. She could get used to feeling this way, she decided. Get very used to it, indeed.
She opened her mouth to comment on how little Springfield had changed but a tiny ruckus from the backseat forestalled her. Twin voices, high-pitched and decidedly unhappy, announced their displeasure with their current circumstances.
"See, even the babies know we're almost home," Ava laughed, twisting in the seat to poke one slender finger through a hole in the side of the apple crate, feeling the cold wetness of a small nose press against her skin.
"Oh, please. That major feast they had has finally worn off and they're hungry again," Olivia stated, although she peered in the rear view mirror, watching as Ava cooed softly at the kittens. "I don't know which one of you is going to be happier about having a kitten, you or Emma. Why didn't you get a cat when you lived in San Francisco? Didn't they allow pets in your apartment building?"
"They did. I thought about it, but, well, it just never seemed permanent enough. Does that make sense? Like it was never really going to be home," Ava explained slowly, glancing up to meet her mother's understanding eyes.
"Yeah, it does." Olivia assured her, smiling gently. "I'm so glad that this feels like home. The farmhouse, I mean, and me and Natalia and Emma. We're so glad you're going to live with us, even if it's just for a while."
"Well, you know, now that I have the kitten, and I'm sharing her with Emma, and the two kittens really do need to stay together, at least for the first six months or so, I guess I might have to stay for a little while longer than I planned," Ava murmured, rambling a bit, her voice and face hesitant, not certain of her mother's response.
"Just six months? 'Cause I would think that the first year is really important. You know, before you think about separating them," Olivia offered, clicking the signal and turning the car onto the long dirt and gravel drive. At the far end, the farmhouse sat, serene and lovely, a faint wisp of smoke rising up from the chimney.
Ava pressed her lips together, swallowing down the lump of emotion that lodged in her throat. For a moment, the brick of the farmhouse wavered in the fresh rush of moisture in her eyes, but she blinked the tears away.
Olivia pulled the car to a stop, provoking a fresh outburst from the backseat. She and Ava looked at each other and laughed, their chuckles growing to belly laughs as the kittens mewed their disapproval of their current situation. The door of the house opened and a small blur of color came hurtling at the car, gold and chestnut tresses flying behind as Emma sprinted toward them. A few feet behind her, Natalia walked quickly, her pace only a trifle more controlled.
Olivia and Ava climbed from the car just as Emma reached them, throwing herself into her mother's arms.
"Mommy!! You finally made it! Natalia said you'd be here in time for dinner and movies. We picked out two new ones to watch," Emma began, words spilling out of her like coins from a winning slot machine. "Ava! I'm so glad you came home. I missed you. Mom missed you, too. Did you bring me a surprise? I told Natalia that you were bringing me something big!"
Ava laughed at Emma's exuberance, her eyes flitting from her little sister's face to the subdued but loving embrace of her mother and Natalia. Olivia held Natalia's face between her hands, her expression so tender and so loving that Ava's breath caught in her throat at the sight. Someday, maybe someday, she'd be lucky enough to find someone to look at her that way, someone she could gaze at with complete and utter adoration. She tried to focus on her sister's words, but it was difficult to tear her eyes away from the picture of the sweetest kiss she had ever witnessed.
Emma launched herself at Ava's legs, wrapping small arms around one knee and thigh, eyes rolling in a very Spencer fashion at the extremely common sight of her parents kissing.
"Hey there, little sister. I missed you, too," Ava grinned, struck anew by how much Emma looked like their mother.
"It took you and Mom a long time to get here," Emma smiled back, tilting her head to gaze up at her sister. "You're tall."
Ava was laughingly agreeing when she heard Natalia say her name. She found herself engulfed in a warm hug and she returned it just as warmly, bending a little to wrap her arms around her step-mother.
"Welcome home, Ava," Natalia said sweetly, sincerity in every syllable.
"Thank you. For inviting me to come live here and especially for making me feel like this really is home," Ava replied, brown eyes suspiciously moist as she smiled down at Natalia.
"Ava? What did you and Mommy bring me?" Emma demanded impatiently. She tugged at Ava's hand. "Ava!"
"Okay, little Miss Bossy. Look in the back seat," Ava answered.
Olivia and Natalia stood by the other side of the car, arms wrapped around each other's waists, smiling indulgently. The squeal of joy that issued forth from the back seat only widened those grins.
"Mom! Kittens!! Two kittens!" Emma shouted, practically jumping in her excitement.
"Yes, Emma, kittens!" Olivia answered, grinning. "But, you're going to have to share. One is yours and one is Ava's. They're sisters, just like the two of you. Isn't that good?"
"The best, Mom! Which one is mine?" Emma asked, her face glowing with happiness and excitement.
"Whichever one you want," Ava answered, bending over Emma's back as the girl peered into the apple crate. "Mom and I picked them out and I love them both, so you get to pick the one you like the best, and I'll take the other one. Of course, they'll probably want to sleep together for a while. And they should probably stay here together for at least six months or so, don't you think?"
"Does that mean you're going to live here with us for a long time?" Emma asked her sister, her eyes wide in delight.
"Well, at least until our little friends here are big enough to be separated," Ava answered, her own face as delighted as Emma's.
As the two began to discuss the relative cuteness of each kitten and possible names, Natalia turned to Olivia, sliding her arms around the taller woman's waist.
"Kittens, huh? Not bad," she smiled, brown eyes twinkling in the fading light. "Let me guess: Ava's idea, right?"
Olivia opened her mouth to deny the charge, but quickly closed it. Natalia knew her too well.
"Yeah. You should have seen her. She was as excited as Emma picking them out," Olivia admitted, grinning at the memory. "We were going to get her a huge ass pumpkin, which we still sort of did , but Ava saw the sign for the kittens and coerced me into getting not one, but two. Said they'd be lonely." Olivia snorted at Natalia's expression. "I know, I'm easy."
"Yes, you are, my love." Natalia laughed. "It's one of your better qualities. I'm so glad you're home. I've missed you so much."
"I've missed you, too. And Emma. And my own bed. Mostly the person in my bed, though," Olivia replied, her eyes darkening as she gazed down at the woman she loved, at the perfect curve of her lips. She was just bending to explore those lips with her own when she was interrupted.
"Mommy, Ava thinks we should name the kittens, Emily and Charlotte," Emma interjected, appearing from nowhere, as she often seemed to, to wedge herself between her two mothers.
Natalia chuckled at the thwarted look on Olivia's face. With a deep sigh, Olivia pulled away a little, meeting Ava's amused eyes.
"Thank god for a literate child," Olivia pronounced. "I think that's a wonderful idea, Emma. And when you get a little bigger, Ava can read you Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. 'Cause Charlotte and Emily were sisters who were famous writers. Kinda cool, huh?"
Emma pondered the information for a moment, a frown creasing her forehead in an expression that Ava and Natalia both recognized as eerily similar to one that graced Olivia's face on a regular basis. Suddenly, she seemed to make a decision, the frown fleeing, replaced by another wide grin.
"Okay, but I want to call mine Emily. Emma and Emily."
"That's fine with me, Em," Ava agreed. "I like Charlotte."
"So, Ava, why don't you take Emma and Emily and Charlotte and get them settled in their new home. By then, it'll be time for dinner. What do you say, Jellybean? Wanna help Ava move the kittens inside and get them settled in your room?" Olivia suggested, her gaze pointed as she looked at her older child.
"Okay, Mom," Emma enthused, rushing back to the car and climbing in the back seat.
"And take your time," Olivia advised Ava, her words spoken slowly and clearly. "I need to see a woman about another kind of kitty."
"What?!" Olivia squawked, looking from one shocked pair of brown eyes to another. "Great, now I have two of you."
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