I. New Orleans, 1982
It had been quiet long enough; she was gonna risk it. Ruth turned around on her knees and peered at the door. Still closed, which meant Mama was still asleep. She plopped down and scooted to the edge of the couch, checking the TV briefly as she padded across the living room and into the small kitchenette. It was the perfect volume -- on loud enough so that any noise she made would be masked but not loud enough to wake up Mama.
She grimaced as she looked up at the tip-toppest cabinet. She knew it was up there ‘cause she’d watched real careful when Uncle Luke put it away but it was so high up, she couldn’t even see it anymore. After a moment’s thought, she dragged a tall stool away from the bar countertop, pausing only to swipe a finger of icing from the half-eaten birthday cake that still sat there.
Shoving from behind, Ruth pushed the stool across the linoleum until it was caddy-corner with the kitchen counter and clambered up. Bracing herself with one hand against the nearest cabinet handle, she rose on her tip toes and reached up above her head, feeling around ‘til her fingers closed around the edges of a small paper bag.
Flush with success, Ruth jumped down from the stool then winced at the ‘thump!’. She froze, crouched down behind the bar counter, but when no noise came from behind her Mama’s closed door, she straightened up with a sigh and headed back into the living room, peering into the bag she clutched tight in one fist.
“Give it up, Ruth Ann.”
Ruth jumped, and her head snapped up, the hand with the bag in it automatically slipping behind her back. “What?” she asked, all seven-year-old big eyed innocence.
Luke shook his head. “Aw, come on, baby girl. You’re gonna lie, you gotta get better at it.” He held out his hand insistently and locked eyes with the young girl. “Now.”
Ruth held out for a long moment, the brown paper bag wrinkling in her fingers. Finally, though, she sighed and stomped over to her uncle; she knew from long experience even she couldn’t out-stubborn Luke. She shoved the bag at him unceremoniously and glared. “Here. It’s just a stupid book and some red licorice. I like black better.” She stuck out her tongue and folded her arms across her chest.
Luke chuckled and slipped the package in his jacket pocket. “Black stains your teeth, kiddo.” He swung his leg over the back of the couch and pulled her close. “What’re you doing lookin’ in your mother’s birthday present anyway?” he demanded, holding onto her shoulders.
Ruth shrugged his hands off sharply. “I just wanted to know what was in it,” she muttered, still glaring hard as she could glare. Sometimes Uncle Luke made her so mad! “It was a dumb-o birthday present, anyway. It made Mama cry.”
A shadow crossed Luke’s face. “Sometimes people cry ‘cause they’re happy, baby doll,” he said, somewhat absently. He slid an arm around Ruth’s smaller shoulders. “Barbara Jean was cryin’ after I left?”
Ruth nodded, reluctantly. “But only a little,” she defended her mother.
There was a pause. “She drinkin’?”
“Only a little.” Ruth’s voice was very soft.
Luke sighed and swung his legs over the couch, tugging Ruth into his lap. “You like it here in New Orleans, Ruthie Q?”
Ruth shrugged, picking at a threadbare seam on the couch. “’Sokay. The kids at school are stupid. And, I miss Aunt Ruby.” She looked up at him quickly, her eyes darkening. “But I don’t wanna go back to Florida,” she added sharply.
“Well, here’s the kicker, baby girl. Aunt Ruby ain’t in Florida anymore.” He tugged the bag out of his pocket and handed her the booklet inside. “She’s livin’ here.”
Ruth examined the slender book, sounding out the words. “Port Charles Uni--university Nursing Program?” She turned her head, looked up at her uncle. “What’s that?”
“It’s a school in the town where Aunt Ruby’s living. Where your mama and me grew up. I was thinkin’ it’s about time we blew this popsicle stand, got back to our roots. Whatcha think about that, huh?”
“Does Mama gotta work for Aunt Ruby anymore?”
Luke winced. “Naw, you know better. Didn’t I promise that Barbara Jean was done with that when we left Florida?” Ruth nodded. “And, doesn’t Uncle Luke always keep his promises?”
She nodded again, and turned around on his lap, rising up on her knees. “Always and always. Is there a beach at Port Charles?”
“There’s a lake. And, hey, Ruthie, in Port Charles, you’re gonna see snow. Come winter, I’ll even take you ice fishing.” He reached out and tweaked a strand of her blonde hair.
Ruth turned back around and plopped happily down in her uncle’s lap, examining the booklet carefully. “Port Charles,” she sounded out clearly. “Think I’m gonna like it there.”
> II. General Hospital, 1996
Caroline braced her hand against the elevator door and counted, 1...2...3. Like most of her mother’s advice, it didn’t do a damn thing. Mother. Ha. As it turned out, that too was another one of... No. No, she wasn’t gonna go down that road, not now. Now she needed to think; she needed to be clear.
The elevator stopped, and she drew herself upright, pasting on what passed for a smile and tugging at her skirt. As the doors swooshed open, Caroline lifted her chin high and strode forward like she actually knew what the hell she was doing. Faking it was always something she knew how to do.
She sauntered up to the desk in front of her and smiled big and falsely at the fake blonde at the counter. “I’m looking for Barbara Jones,” she announced, with all the confidence she didn’t have.
Amy looked the woman facing her up and down; her assessment was quick and brutal. Skirt too short, eyes too hard, smile too bright. Her eyebrows lifted to a point. “I’ll see if she’s available. What did you want to see Bobbie about?” she asked.
If anything, Caroline’s smile broadened. This, this she could handle with both hands tied. “You Barbara Jones?” she asked. When the other woman shook her head contemptuously, Carly retorted. “Then it’s none of your damn business.”
With an audible sniff, Amy turned her back on the younger woman and stormed off. Caroline tapped her fingers on the desk and rotated her neck once; unlike her mama’s mantra, ‘count to ten’, that had relaxed her. And, just in time. Shortly, the obnoxious blonde was replaced by a redhead who wore a puzzled smile. “I’m Bobbie Jones; can I help you?”
Caroline took a deep breath that caught hard in her throat, staring at the woman in front of her. “Yeah, I-- I’m--” She broke off as she noticed the bottle blonde bitch hovering around Barbara Jean’s shoulder. “Look, can we go somewhere a little more private?”
Bobbie glanced behind her and saw Amy’s gaze quickly snap down to the folder in her hand; she rolled her eyes. “Sure,” she stepped out from behind the nurses’ desk and gestured to the small waiting area beside them. “Right this way.” After seating herself on the couch across from Caroline, she looked at the younger woman. “Now, what’s this about?”
“You’re -- you are Barbara Jean Jones, right?”
Bobbie cocked her head to one side. “I can show you my driver’s license if you like.”
“No, no, that’s okay.” Caroline let out a small, nervous laugh. “Sorry, it’s just that this is-- You used to live in Florida?”
Bobbie’s shoulders went back as if anticipating some kind of blow. “A very long time ago,” she said, her voice low and sharp. “And, now, young lady, I think you better tell me exactly who you are and what this is all about.”
“Yeah, that’s kinda what I came here to do.” She took a deep breath, let it out, met the woman’s gaze. Would she find everything she wanted in it? Not that she knew what that was. It was only that she needed, so badly-- She cut her own thoughts off before they began circling so fast they wouldn’t stop. Get a grip, Caroline she told herself sharply. “My name is Caroline Benson. I mean, that’s my...my adoptive name. Mrs. Jones, I think -- I think I’m your daughter.”
III. Jake’s, April ‘97
His eyes flew open as he felt her weight lift off the side of the bed. He watched her dress furtively; ‘cause he noticed everything, even if he didn’t know what he meant, he saw she completely avoided looking in the mirror. He would have watched her walk out the door, but she paused just before she opened it, and turned back, catching his gaze.
Carly started as she saw him watching her; she could’ve sworn he was asleep. “Jase, I--” Her eyes darted back and forth; what the hell had she just done? “Look, thanks for tonight, but -- it never happened, okay?”
He sat up in one fluid motion. “How’s that different from any other time with us, Carly?”
“Yeah, I know, but it is different now. I know that I was the one who came onto you downstairs,” she paused, tucked her hair behind her ears with both hands. “And, I really needed you last night; don’t get me wrong. Came here lookin’ for you, for,” Carly gestured at the bed, “this. But, Tony, he just can’t ever find out.”
“Won’t find out from me.” Jason slid the tangled covers aside and pulled on a pair of jeans before walking across the room to her. “You goin’ back to Dr. Jones?”
She smiled a sad, sad smile and nodded. “If he’ll take me back. Which he won’t if he ever finds out about this.”
Jason hesitated; he didn’t-- Usually, if he wanted to say something, he said it. If he didn’t, he didn’t. And, other people’s business was none of his. But, with Carly, everything had always been different than the way it usually was. “You know you don’t have to.”
Carly bit her lip, and her eyes welled up. “Yeah, I do. Jason, he’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I can’t let him go; I just can’t. I love him.”
“Okay.” There was silence in the room. “Look, you need money for a cab, or anything?”
She shook her head, smiled again. “No, I’m good.” Carly hesitated then leaned in and kissed Jason quickly on the cheek. “Thanks, Jase. Thanks for being ... a really good friend. We were doin’ pretty good at the friendship thing, huh? Hope I didn’t screw it up.”
He shook his head. “You didn’t.”
Carly smiled again, and this time it was genuine. “Good. ‘Cause I don’t have very many friends; you’re pretty much it.” She looked past him, at his beside clock. “God, I better go.” She looked back at him. “Never happened, right?”
Jason half-shrugged, half-nodded. “Sure.”
She nodded once in return and reassurance. “Right.” Both hands pressed against her stomach as she drew in a deep breath. “Tony’ll never have to know.”
IV. Florida, 2000
Sun between her shoulder blades, biting and sharp, and she knew she was gonna burn later but who cares? By tomorrow, it’d fade to tan, and later she’d borrow Sheila’s aloe spray before she goes on.
Or maybe not. ‘Cause she kinda liked the pain. It felt good, same way it felt good to stick her finger over a candle when it’s lit. Because there’s pain and there’s pain. If she’s got the one, maybe she can shut out the other. Or so she told herself, eyes closed, sand gritty between her toes, sun hot on her back.
So she’s a liar, so what? Whatever gets you through the day.
“Damn, girl.” Sheila alternated rubbing cocoa butter into her stomach and thighs and tugging anxiously at the bikini bottom she’s wearing. “You’re ****ing lucky you never had kids,” she gestured at the faint lines barely visible on her stomach as she met Carly’s eyes in the mirror, strung about with lights that were way too bright and way too unforgiving. “See what it does to you?”
Carly kept herself from wincing, but it was an effort not without cost. She bit her cheek ‘til she could taste blood and turned away from the other woman’s eyes before she could speak. “Yeah well,” Carly ran her fingers sharply through her hair, yanking hard enough to make it okay for tears to appear, “never was the maternal type.”
She didn’t talk to Sheila the rest of the night.
Little boys on the beach, those are the hardest. Those are the ones she never allows herself to go near. Last time she moved, it was ‘cause the lady downstairs had a blonde-haired boy about two years old; she used to watch him every day for hours. Toddling around on the lawn, being pushed in his stroller. Always from a distance, though. Never up close.
One day she timed it wrong, went grocery shopping too early or too late. She walked in from her car and didn’t see him at first; there was a bag in her arms, and she wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t even notice the kid ‘til he reached up his hand and patted her leg. He was sitting on her bottom step like he belonged there, like it was home to him, and he patted her leg, just that, and grinned. Carly dropped her bag of groceries and let them scatter, didn’t move, didn’t breathe. A minute later, the boy’s mother ran out of the house, full of apologies. Carly didn’t hear a word. She was trying too hard not to scream. She moved out the next day, and for months, she felt his hand against her calf.
...lucky you never had kids
Fucking lucky, she told herself.
Whatever gets you through.
V. Port Charles docks, late 2002
Carly stormed recklessly down the stairs, wiping tears of frustration angrily from her cheeks. She stopped, abruptly, right at the edge of the docks and looked down with a burning glare as if furious there wasn’t more wood for her to stomp her way across. “Aaaarrrgh!” she threw back her head, yelling out her rage sharply into the night sky.
A man she hadn’t noticed stepped out from the shadows at the end of the dock and approached her. “I’m sorry; I couldn’t help but notice you seem upset,” he said, with a slight ironic twist to his smooth, raspy voice. “Is there anyway I could help you?”
Carly didn’t even hear him, not really. “You know what’s wrong with this stinking town?” her tone was furious, and her eyes glittered, even though the sun had set a long time ago. “People who die just don’t know to stay fucking dead!”
The man threw back his head and laughed, long and hard. It was enough to throw Carly out of her self-absorbed reverie. She looked at him, registered his face -- dark and slightly dangerous and ridiculously sexy.
“What?” she demanded, angrily, as the laughter continued. “I’m not making a joke here.”
He stopped laughing finally, but a smile still flirted across his lips. “No, pretty lady, I can tell you’re not. It’s just that I know a thing or two about both being dead -- and rising from it.”
A shiver ran down her spine at his words, and the gaze he trained on her when he uttered them. For the first time, Carly realized that she was on the docks, alone, with a perfect stranger; Sonny was gonna be pissed if her guards had to step up. At that thought, her back stiffened. Serve him right; it was his turn. Instead of telling him off, she smiled, suddenly, and proffered her hand. “You know, I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Carly Corinthos,” she put emphasis on her last name, just in case, and frowned slightly when his expression didn’t change in the slightest.
Instead, he let his eyes range down her body insolently from head to toe and back up to head again. Carly’s frown deepened, and she started to drop her hand and back away when his hand shot out, faster than she thought people could move and grabbed her wrist. Carly gasped.
“Well, well, well, Carly Corinthos, I’m Stephen Clay.” He pulled her wrist hard, until she stumbled against him and found herself in his arms, his lips brushing her neck. “And, I’m very, very pleased to make your acquaintance.”