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episode nine - talk of angels

Of that group of friends that used to swing on the swings at Memorial Park together, the only ones of us that go there on any sort of regular basis anymore are Jaimie Cross and I. It's not that we got older; really, at ten, we were all probably already too old to be on swings so much, even in a small town like Reverence where there's little to do. It's just, after Olivia was gone, things moved on. Things had to move on. Our little band of friends never dissolved exactly--we still do stuff together, as I think I've mentioned before--but it would always be different. Olivia wasn't with us long, just the end of that summer three years ago, but she was important while she was here. We cared about her like we cared about each other. We were just kids--hell, we still are--so we would hardly have been eager to say it, but we all loved each other. We all loved Olivia.

But, things change.

And, it's just me and Jaimie out of the lot of us that go there much anymore. And, she's generally swinging with her own friends, friends her age, while I watch or find something else to occupy my time. She doesn't need me as her friend anymore, so much. But, as Olivia wanted, I've looked after her little sister, and I suppose I always will. For three years, I've been most of what Jaimie has in her life. Her mother has been trying to fill the emptiness in her life with another man, trying out local guy after local guy, but just not finding what she wants, I guess. In the process, she's moved more and more in the direction Olivia knew she had already headed three years ago, farther and farther away from her remaining daughter. Several times in the past three years, Jaimie has ended up spending the night at our house--this not just because I've been her friend, but because despite a small age difference, I got Jaimie and my youngest sister Danni to be friends. All around, it's worked out well so far. She may not have her sister anymore, and she might not completely have her mother, but she's got me, she's got Danni, and my other sisters and even my father have been good to her too.

"You've been good for her, I can tell," Olivia told me that night in my room. Just a ghost, an angel, or maybe a figment of my imagination, a hallucination--not too strange, considering my mother's condition. Whatever she was, she was there in my room, and whatever she wanted, she was taking her time getting to it. Looking at photos, examining my room, sitting on my bed, she hardly said much. If I'd been able to decide right away she was a ghost, that she was somehow some conscious version of that girl I'd known, I would have just come right out and asked her what she wanted. But, so much of me was just too damn scared that I'd gotten a horrible inheritance from my mother, that I was gonna go crazy years before my mother ever did. So, I just sat there, unable to speak much, unable to move much, mostly just waiting, waiting for her to flicker out of existence, or waiting for her to leave my room however she'd gotten in, or waiting for her to get to her point, to let me know what unfinished business she had. You know, like all the ghosts in all those books and movies, can't move on to the next world until they finish business here in this one. I assumed that, if this WAS a ghost, there was unfinished business and she was there to tell me about it, to get my help.

"You love her don't you," she asked me.

I guess I nodded, or smiled in a certain way, or did something, or she just knew that I meant to. I know I didn't give any answer out loud.

"I thought so," she said. "You love her like you do your own sisters, maybe more so sometimes. I know how much Carrie annoys you sometimes." She laughed a little. "I'm glad she's had you, Travis. I really am. I knew you'd be good for her. I knew you could do it. I knew you could do it better than I ever could. I was too screwed up. I tried my best to just put her needs before mine. That really worked too. If I was worrying about Jaimie, I wasn't worrying so much about me. I wasn't thinking about how my life was going, how I was stuck with Dalton and doing things with him I had no business doing, how I had pulled myself into a corner I couldn't quite get out of. I never thought about my problems much when I focused on my little sister.

"That's kinda how I imagined it might be someday when I had kids, you know. Yes, I thought about that. Every girl does. At least, that's the rumor. I even had names picked for my kids. You want to know what they are? No, you probably don't. Oh well. Doesn't matter anyway. I'm not here to talk about kids I can never have now. I'm not here to talk about the future I should have been promised. I'm not here to--"

I interrupted. "Why ARE you here?"

A deep breath, a heavy sigh, then Olivia looked me in the eyes. "You love her. You've been looking after her for three years. You've protected her from harm more than once. That time she fell off the bars and you caught her. That time she slipped on that rock in Icles Creek. Just to name two. But, you haven't just protected her from physical harm. On that camping trip in Smoker's Canyon, when she was so scared after that guy's ghost story, you stayed up with her. You weren't even supposed to be in her tent--and, believe me, if my mother had noticed, she would have killed you--but you were. You just sat there, your arm around her for a bit when she was sitting up, then your hand holding hers when she laid down and as she finally drifted off to sleep. She couldn't have had a better big brother, a better protector.

"I know you weren't perfect, Travis. I know there've been times Jaimie has been more of a burden than you needed. I know that one time you got up the guts to talk to Haley about your feelings Jaimie ruined it, screaming her head off over a cut on her shin that turned out to be nothing. I know how mad you got. You tried to hide it, tried not to let it out. And, you did well. You didn't yell, didn't raise your voice. You just kept it inside. I loved you for that, you know. I've loved you for everything you've done for her.

"Even before I died, I loved you. You were only two years younger than I was, but I still thought you were just a kid, at least at first. I went from being with Dalton, or with Dalton and his friends, to being with you and your friends. Looking back, I guess Dalton and his friends were immature, but they seemed so old to me at the time. He was practically an adult. Next to that, you were just a kid, not as much of one as Jaimie, but close enough. But, I loved you pretty quickly. Whether it was the sweetness in you pining after Haley Manning or how quickly you took to looking after Jaimie, or how you put up with her conversations about subjects you cared little about, or how you were just so nice to both of us right from the start. Whatever it was, I loved it. I loved you. But, I was twelve. You were ten. What did I know?"

Olivia got up, and she walked over to my desk again. She didn't get anything out of any drawer, didn't even open any drawer, just looked at the stuff sitting on the desk, then looked around the room again, like she was looking for something specific but wasn't sure what it was. Then, she looked at me again. "You never told Haley that you liked me, did you?"

"Liked you?"

Olivia smiled. "I was there, you know," she said, "at the funeral. I saw how you cried. And, I was there before that too, before I died. I know you were so in love with Haley, but you couldn't help but like me. Hell, as much as any ten year old boy could, I'm sure you loved me. You wouldn't have said it to me, of course. You probably wouldn't have even said it to your sister Samantha, though you tell her just about everything else. So, chances are, you never told Haley. You think she'd care? You think she'd be jealous? Well, I guess now she wouldn't be. Three years after the fact, it'd be kinda hard to be jealous. Plus, there's that whole thing between her and Kyle DeMetz, isn't there? But, you think she woulda been jealous then? I know at the funeral she watched you a lot. Did you notice that?" Olivia picked up one of my notebooks from school off my desk. She turned it over, and held it up. There was Haley's name. No heart around it. Nothing that obvious. Just her name. "You noticed," Olivia said. "You were sad about me, of course, but you were ten. There wasn't enough stuff in your head yet that your whole world would fall apart over one thing, my death just the first domino in a long line of them. Kids are so resilient that way."

She touched the letters of Haley's name, then set the notebook down on the desk again.

"Strange, I guess. Kids are supposed to be resilient. And, most of them are, don't get me wrong. But, look at me. Daddy raped his little girl, and she's supposed to get over it, right? She's supposed to be able to bounce back and be fine. She's not supposed to fall apart. She's only seven years old. It's not supposed to be that hard. She's not supposed to live right next to hell for the next five years, living day to day only because she wants to make sure her sister never has to suffer through anything as bad as she went through. She's not supposed to welcome death. She's not supposed to listen to some guy who claims he's an angel. She's not supposed to hand off the caretaking duties of her little sister to some boy she's only just met. She's supposed to get better. She's supposed to grow up just like anyone else. She's supposed to never feel guilty or sad. It's not supposed to hurt so much. She's just a kid."

She came back to the bed and sat down again. "She's just a kid," she repeated. I had barely moved up until then. Now, I moved close to her, put my arms around her. That my arms didn't pass right through her surprised me a little, but I shook off that surprise, let the idea that this was Olivia, ghost or not, and she was sad take center stage in my head. She put her head down and wept. Ghost, angel, hallucination--whatever she was, she put her head down and she wept. I kept my arms around her.

At her funeral, Haley had done something like that for me. It was right after the minister had finished talking. People were getting up from their seats, the few of them that had seats anyway. Olivia's mother was just starting to get people hugging her and telling her how sorry they were and their prayers were with her and all that sad stuff. Jaimie was still sitting down. I was sitting a couple seats away, one of Phyllis Cross' sisters and her husband between me and Jaimie. Haley was by me. She'd been watching me through the whole thing, just like Olivia would say three years later. She noticed that I wasn't just sitting there because I didn't feel like going anywhere. I don't know if she knew just how much I wanted to get up and just run away, get as far from that gravesite, as far from that cemetery, as far from Reverence as possible. But, she did know that wherever it was that I wanted to go, I couldn't get there right then. I couldn't move. I couldn't get out of my seat, couldn't stand. If I had really tried, I would have just collapsed, my knees buckling or whatever, my legs too weak to keep me up. And, Haley could see that. "Come on," she said, "let's get out of here." And, she put an arm around my shoulders, the other in front of me. To anyone watching, it would have looked like she was hugging me and that's it. But, she was holding me, lifting me up. Without her, I don't know if I ever could have stood from that seat. Well, of course, eventually, I could have. But, right then, I couldn't have, not without Haley.

Now, Olivia closed her eyes. "She loves you, you know," she whispered. "Sure, Kyle's her boyfriend. Sure, if you asked her to dump him and be with you, she most likely would tell you to go to hell. But, she still loves you. She loved that you felt so guilty about that thing at King's Fate, that whenever Saint McMasters happened by, you felt ashamed, inadequate. She loved you then. And, she still does. And, she always will. Even if you two are never the couple you've imagined--and, she's imagined it too, you can count on that--there will always be something there, something no one can take from you, not Kyle DeMetz, not Saint McMasters, no one. You might not even remain friends forever, but you'll always be there in each other's heads, a piece of the past, a piece of what makes you you. A coupla kids in love--that's what you two were. That's what you'll always be. And, you're lucky. I never had that. I'm sure I tried to pretend Dalton and I had something great, but that wasn't much more than sex hidden behind the illusion of love. He never really loved me. I never really loved him. We just served purposes in each other's lives, fit into the right holes at the right time. You and Haley have got something better, something that will never go away, no matter what happens. You love her, she loves you. When you die, you'll die happy, because you've had something too many people never have, or never realize they have anyway."

Her eyes were open again. She wiped away tears from them, then turned toward me. "There's so much that's horrible out there in the world. But, as much as there is, most people will never have to experience the worst of it. They only get to hear about it. Most people think they have it bad, that life isn't turning out how they want it, but they don't even know just how good it is. They don't know the agony that's possible. They don't know the pain. And, I'm not just talking about what my father did, either. I'm not trying to say my life is even the worst one anyone's ever had. I'm not that arrogant. I'm just saying, there's always something worse, always something different. One person loses the love of their life, one person loses a child, one person loses a limb, one person loses his sight, or she loses her hearing, or she chooses to kill her own child before it's born because life will be too difficult when it comes, or takes a job he doesn't want because his passion in life just isn't gonna let him make it in our society, or she gives up her dream of being a dancer because she's got to take care of her ailing mother, or he gives up his dream of playing professional football after he gets into an accident and gets paralyzed from the waist down, or she learns that she'll never get to have any kids because of an infection that could have been gotten rid of if she'd just gone to the doctor sooner, or he learns he's got three months left to live and it's just going to be a painful ride the whole way. No one has it easy. The problems may be big or small, but they're still problems. They still hurt. And, as they say, everything's relative. One guy's fear of going bald could really hurt him as much as another losing an eye. It just depends. And, I don't pretend that there aren't others out there that could have gone through what I went through and come out unscathed, or come out well enough to live a life that at least resembled something normal. I don't pretend anything. At least, I try not to."

She looked down, made a strange face, then shook her head. "Why didn't you tell me I was rambling," she asked me. I shrugged. "Well, whatever, my point is there's a lot out there that's bad. And, it was always my belief that as a parent I'd protect my child from that. There are parents out there like my father that would hurt his own child directly. There are parents that punish their kids a bit too much because of some imagined sense that pain somehow teaches lessons better than anything else. There are parents that hurt their kids through inaction, through not caring. There are parents that never even try to love their kids. I never wanted to be one of those parents. And, I don't think I would have been. I'd like to believe that I would have loved my kids with all my heart, that I'd put their needs before mine, that they would come first. And, I really wish my mother would do that with Jaimie, but she doesn't. She never has. She thinks of Jaimie as a burden, you know. She goes out with all these guys, pretending that somehow her taste in men has changed so much since dad that she won't just find the same guy over and over, and she wishes she'd be able to just bring him home and do whatever she wants with him, nevermind that kid in the bedroom upstairs. She wishes she never had a second kid. Hell, she wishes she never even had me."

"Don't say that," I said.

"It's true. I'm not saying I can read thoughts or anything like that. But, I know her. She IS my mother, afterall. She's supposed to know me better than anyone else, and I think I'm supposed to know her just the same. We certainly were never as close as we should have or could have been, but I had plenty of opportunities to figure her out. I know how she is. She's not like me. She never wanted kids. She thought she did. She dreamt of that picture perfect family life, believed she wanted it. But, she never did. She wanted something else, something simpler. She wanted less responsibility, less structure. She wants to be able to bring each new guy home without having to think about Jaimie catching them together. She wants to erase my dad from her life completely, erase him and all he did, all he gave her. And, by all he gave her, I mean me and Jaimie and the hardship and heartache of it all.

"My mother's not cold. She's not unfeeling. She doesn't hate me. She doesn't hate Jaimie. She doesn't wish that Jaimie might cut her wrists some night like I did. But, she does wish that we'd just never been born. And, that's why Jaimie needs you, Travis. You're all that stands between her and all those horrible things in the world anymore. Obviously, you can't protect her from everything. She'll get hurt. Everyone will. But, you can protect her from some. You can hold onto her when she's too scared to sleep. You can catch her when she falls. You can help her find her way in life. You can keep her from getting hurt by people who are supposed to be good for her."

"You mean your mother, don't you? What's she gonna do?"

Olivia shook her head. "First of all, I never said I could see the future. I'm dead, not psychic. Second of all, yeah, I'm talking about my mother. Well, sorta. She's not going to do anything to stop it until it's too late. She should have seen what was going on with my father, and maybe she did, but she didn't do anything until it was too late."

"So, what is it? What's she not going to stop? Your father's still in jail, isn't he?"

"Actually, no, he's out. But, she's got a restraining order against him. He can't come anywhere near this place or near her or near Jaimie. But, just because she realized he's bad and she's put something in his way doesn't mean she notices when any other guy is bad. She thinks her judgement has improved. She thinks she's not just finding the same thing time after time. But, she just keeps finding him. She keeps finding my father over and over, just disguised as some other guy. It's the same wolf in a different sheep's clothing. And, I don't know if you noticed or not, but Jaimie's had a few extra bruises lately. And, if she noticed them or not, my mother's doing nothing about them."

"Bruises? From who?" I tried to think of who Phyllis Cross was involved with lately. I couldn't remember. Olivia had described it well. Phyllis had gotten together with guy after guy after guy in the three years since returning to Reverence. She'd picked up some local guys right here in town. She'd picked up more in nearby Carlton Falls, of course, guys who lived there and tourists as well. And, last I heard, she was with someone from here in Reverence again. But, for the life of me, I could not remember who it was.

"Sam Carson," Olivia said. "He runs a gas station during the day. But, at night, he's the best lover my mother's ever had. Or so she believes, I'm sure, at least until the next guy comes along. And, I doubt he's laid a finger on her. Or if he has, she's looked right past it, put it behind her, or blamed herself for it, or whatever it is all those battered women do. But, he's hurting Jaimie now."

I had to ask, "is he--"

"--molesting her," Olivia finished. "No. I don't think so. It's not like that--thank God. She's just got bruises. He's hitting her, or he's grabbing her a little too roughly. Or, something. I don't know what, exactly. But, he IS hurting her."

"And, you want me to do something about it."

"You have to do something about it, Travis. You know that as much as I know that. You accepted the responsibility of taking care of Jaimie. You don't have a choice in the matter. If he's hurting her, you have to stop him."

I had to admit, she had a point.