In My Solitude
by tahlia

Their bathroom is no longer a crime scene. It takes her four days just to stand on the cold tiles and look at it, but her toes curl because they are cold, and she doesn't fight them for long.

She takes a shower in the one down the hall instead and leaves this door shut. All around her, there is so much space, so much that is empty and still, and its silence is palpable. It's only her feet on that one warped floorboard in the hallway downstairs at three in the morning when she can't sleep. They've given her drugs, but the nightmares - the half-opened door, the water, the note, the tiny puddle she slipped on, the ambulance, the people - haven't stopped.

And then, eventually, it is Sunday morning, and there are no pancakes in skillets on the stove or fresh strawberry compote from the organic market on the table, so she opens the bathroom door and sits on the toilet seat with her gun in her lap. She doesn't know how long she sits there, thinking about nothing.

The bathtub is clean; everything is clean. Someone came in when she was staying with her sister and washed it. She still smells the disinfectant, though, and she knows she always will. But the new shine doesn't matter: her eyes have already memorized where the water level had receded a little in six hours and left a faint pink stain around the tub. In her mind, she has mapped the small specks of blood, left behind by hesitation and covered up by cleanliness. It all comes crashing down on her again, so she shuts her eyes and tries to bury the images inside her.

Despite everything, she sees little Jason in her mind -- Jason at the beach, Jason building sand castles with his father; Jason blowing out eight big birthday candles; Jason blowing kisses to her and Michael as he runs to his mother's waiting car in the driveway. She can almost smell him, too, his little boy smell - probably from his shampoo - and it is almost enough to masque the Clorox. Almost, but not quite. She sees him again as she saw him for the time: looking so still and so peaceful and far too tiny for the small casket.

When she opens her eyes, her fingers are gripping the butt of her gun tightly. She doesn't remember doing that. Her knuckles are white; everything around her is white -- the bathtub, the walls, the lights, her knuckles, her skin, her diamond ring, her tank top. Everything but this gun and its dull, cool silver. Her head lolls forward and hair falls around her face. She would cry, if she had tears left. She feels something inside her, but can't touch it.

The doorbell is startling.

The gun makes a jarring sound when it slips out of her grasp and onto the tiled floor. She bends down to pick it up, but doesn't move again. She waits.

It rings again, and then awkward, palpable, crushing silence.

She stuffs the weapon in her top drawer and quietly goes downstairs. There's a shadow of a figure on the front porch, posed to ring the bell for a third time, but the jangling of her unlocking the deadbolt makes him wait. He is wearing sunglasses and hasn't shaved in a while, and she can tell immediately that he is a reporter. She debates whether she should just preemptively slam the door shut again before he can start asking her about finding her fiancÈ floating in his own blood.

"Hello," he says, his accent almost imperceptible until he speaks again. It is oddly informal and comfortable. "You're Susan."

She stares at him, off the beat for a minute. "I'm sorry, who--"

He takes off his sunglasses and extends his hand. "I'm Stephen-- Stephen Laney. Sorry, if this is a bad time..."

It's then that she notices he is wearing a black tie, loosened at the neck, probably intentionally. It makes him look sympathetic, easy to trust. She looks at him - there is something about him she can't make right in her head - at the outstretched hand that she isn't shaking, and then back at him again.

She doesn't know from where she summons the energy to raise her voice like that. "Do you want something?" she snaps. "Or do you just want to take my picture again as I tell you to get the fuck off my front porch?"

He sheepishly drops his hand and steps back. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to--" He turns, not very persistent enough for a good reporter. "I'll go, I'm sorry."


She doesn't know why she does that. Or how she ended up sounding so defeated.

He'd already reached the sidewalk, but he stops. He looks up at her and she almost falls apart right there.

It hits her a second later. "You knew Michael," she realizes. Her throat tightens. "You worked with him?"

He licks his lips before he answers, nodding his head slowly. She invites him inside.

In the kitchen, she idly makes coffee, looking over her shoulder to watch him in the living room every few seconds. He is contemplating Michael's photos hanging above framed pictures of her and Jason and the three of them together. As she pours them each a cup, she sees him squinting at the contact sheet that won him all those photojournalism awards.

"He had a great eye," Stephen says, as she hands him his mug.

She sighs. "He does."

His eyes are watching her. She pretends not to notice.

Stephen picks up a photo of Jason, age five, with cake smeared all over his face. She remembers that it was the first picture Michael ever showed her of his son, three years ago. "Such a beautiful little boy." There is sadness is his voice.

She collapses in the large armchair by the fireplace and tucks her legs under her. "Yeah," she replies absently.

"I was at their wedding, you know." When the tangent catches her off guard, he corrects himself. "He and Chandra."

She nods, but she doesn't care.

"Actually, it was just the reception. They invited the whole damn paper." The tiny speck of laughter in his voice speaks volumes about whatever it is he's remembering, but he doesnít elaborate.

She doesn't want to talk about any of this, but can't find the words to end it.

"But I can't say I was surprised when they split, though," he rambles. He is looking off.

When he turns and sees her face, he comes crashing back to her, squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his head. "Jesus, that was terribly rude of me, I'm sorry." He puts the mug on the fireplace. "I should just leave before I make a bigger fool of myself."

For the second time, she stops him. It scares her, that desperate need for company that she feels inside her.

"At least tell me why you're here, other than..." but she doesn't finish, because she doesn't have it in her to make jokes yet.

He picks his mug back up and sits on the couch opposite to her, but he doesn't seem to relax. "I wanted to," and he fumbles around for the right thing to say, finding it but not seeming to be happy with it, "...check on you. That's all."

There is a small smile on her lips, but no humor. "I don't know you."

"You do, actually." For some reason, this makes him relax. "We met at that party he took you to three years ago. His award reception, for that series on runaways?" Her eyes flicker to the contact sheet on the wall, but only for a second. "He'd done some shots for a few of my articles before, and he introduced us."

She tries to think back to that night, but the faces and the names all blur together, coupled with the feeling of Michael's arm around her waist and the ride home. Of his fingers playing with the thin straps of her dress and kicking off her expensive, uncomfortable shoes. "They seem to think so much of you," she had remarked, and there was that humble smile she would grow to love. Of him kissing her neck and other places and having sex with him for the first time there in the back of the limo, and how that didn't feel wrong at all.

She shakes her head. "God, you remember that?"

Stephen's smile is sweet and sincere. "Of course. The divorce took a lot out of him, and I hadn't seen him look so happy in a very long time."

She blushes and doesn't hide it very well. When she lowers her head, she almost can't stop the tears welling up inside her. Sometimes it hits her so hard, how much she misses him. Misses them both, despite every bone in her body that said she'd never be good with kids. Suddenly, the house is very empty again.

When she feels moisture stinging her cheeks, she begins to apologize profusely, but he doesn't move to comfort her. She doesn't know whether to admire that he respects her personal space or hate him.

She hears him say, "It's not your fault," but she doesn't hear it. She doesn't hear anything anymore.


A day later, Stephen shows up with Chinese food in tow. When she asks how he could possibly know that she liked extra shrimp in her Kung Pao shrimp, he smiles sweetly and replies, "I'm very good at my job."

They talk about anything she wants, but never about Michael. When she tries, his shoulders begin to stiffen up and he changes the subject. She wonders if his own grief is so raw, too, that neither of them are willing to touch it. She supposes it's comfortable.

The night before she goes back to work, he surprises her with an expensive bottle of wine. She is negotiating with the cork in the kitchen and he is in the hallway, speaking brusquely into his cell phone: "Just a few more days, George...I promise..." She tunes out the rest. When she asks, he brushes it off as simple deadline issues.

He sits at the opposite end of the couch, uncomfortable and stiff again, and watches her barely keeping the conversation above water. And then, suddenly, he blurts out: "I'm not here to be your friend."

She blinks. "What?"

"It's my job."

She places her wine glass on the table. "What are you talking about?"

"Susan." He takes a deep breath. "I was sent here to write a story."

It hits her like a ton of bricks. She wishes she were still holding that glass of wine.

"They want to know you're handling everything."

She puts her hand over her mouth, trying to process and trying to think.

"I'm sorry," he is saying, "I didn't want you to know."

Her back stiffens; her voice sharpens. "Oh, so you were going to take advantage of me then?"

His shoulders slump. "No - God, Susan, no." He tries to move closer, but she resists. He settles for placing both palms in the space between them. "When you opened that door, I just knewÖit wasn't worth it. I could see it on your face. No one deserves to have their grief documented like that and published for the whole world to read." He adds, "That's not news."

They sit like that for what seems like an hour. And then she sighs softly and looks at him, sincerely. "That phone call?"

His face brightens. "That was my editor, wondering why I hadn't submitted my draft yet."

His hands are still sitting next to her, and she lays a hand over one of them. Their fingers curl around each other, his fingertips rubbing the band of her ring. She feels comfortable.


She remembers the first time she met Michael - in the dark room in the basement of this house, red light playing with shadows and seeming to be oddly compatible with his face. The smell of the developing chemicals; the way he kept ducking between rows of photos drip-drying on wires that crisscrossed the room, challenging her to follow him deeper and deeper. On one of those photos, he had captured the face of a killer, and she was there on behalf of the San Francisco police department to find it. She recalls studying a photo on a table in the corner, looking through a magnifying glass with him, his body very present over her left shoulder. When he asked her to dinner, she laughed.

But even after his usefulness to her case dwindled, he kept pressing her - leaving her messages at work, sending her flowers. So she relented and let him take her to a banquet in his honor. "I won some sort of award and it's all bullshit, but just come and keep me company before I lose my mind." She wore shoes she hadn't worn in two years. They worked.

She meets Stephen at the bay at sunset. "We used to bring Jason here."

He watches tiny waves lapping the rocks below. "You and Michael?"

"Yeah. The two of them, they used to name the birds and..." The wind blows and she hugs her jacket tighter against her body. She doesn't finish.

They start walking. "How'd your first day go?" he asks.

She shrugs. "As to be expected."

"And what does that mean?"

"Lots of people whispering, sympathetic faces." She kicks a stone in her path. "The Lieutenant's making me see someone, though."

He looks at her, not too surprised. "A shrink?"

She nods. "He's afraid I'm going to self-destruct."

Stephen hesitates, but only for a split second. "He said that?"

She pushes a hair out of her eyelashes, and light catches the diamond on her finger. She squints. "No, but it's what he meant." She thinks. "It's what they all mean."

They walk in silence for a while. "He means well, Susan," Stephen finally remarks.

"Yeah," she replies absently. "Maybe."

They reach the end of the pier, and Stephen stuffs his hands in his pockets, trying to look casual. Even without knowing him very well, she can tell something is bothering him. "What's up?"

He looks around before looking straight into her eyes. "I'm off the story."

She swallows. "Yeah?"

He smiles a little. "Yeah."

She sighs, relaxed. She looks out over the bay in time to catch the last rays of the day's sun slipping below the horizon line.

"And, I made sure that if anyone from our paper contacted you again, there'd be a letter of resignation on his desk. No questions asked."

She thanks him, kindly and softly. She doesn't know what really possesses her to lean forward and kiss him, except one minute, they are standing beside one another, and the next, her lips are pressed against his. It is awkward, but her eyes slip shut anyway.

He pushes her away gently. "Susan..."

A second later, she wishes she could take it all back. Her hand is still on his cheek, though, before she remembers to drop it to her side again. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. Already, she can feel color creeping up her cheeks. "God, I'm...that was...shit."

He looks sad. "Not now."

They don't even say goodbye this time.


Days pass, and then. She leaves a message on his answering machine: "Let's not do this anymore." She asks him to meet her, but doesn't know him well enough to know if he'll come.

At the diner, he orders black coffee and nervously plays with his napkin and his fork. She orders an omelet. His eyebrow arches. "It's ten o'clock at night."

She points to the neon sign in the window: 'All-Day Breakfast.' She orders a coffee, too, and he makes a face when she takes it with two creams.

She lays her hands on the table, to show she has nothing to hide, and begins. "Look, I think I should--"

"Don't." His eyes linger on her fingers, but she doesn't notice.

She flinches. "What?"

"You're going to apologize and, just, don't."

"I tried to kiss you."

He tilts his head. "You did kiss me, but...please, Susan, just don't apologize for it."

She doesn't say anything for a while. Diner sounds float around them. And then she sighs with a smile that isn't forced.

"You're good to me," she says. Stephen smiles, too, maybe with a little sadness that she doesn't notice. "You are so good to me, and I don't want things to get complicated."

When the waitress brings her omelet, her head is turned and she doesn't see the face he makes. The way his whole body collapses with defeat. By the time she looks back at him, it's gone. It never happened.

"You miss him," he says. There's something in his voice.

She says nothing, only holds a fork in one hand and absently twirls her ring on the other. Her silence is enough.


"Tell me about Jason," her psychiatrist says.

She always says this. She always wants to know about Jason and Michael and Michael-and-Chandra and Michael-and-Chandra-and-Jason and about Jason's death. At first, she resists, but when the resistance becomes harder than the pain itself, it's like a dam breaking. She tells Dr. Levy about the time with Michael and the bottle of pills, a week after Jason's funeral - it's something she's never told anyone else. Her mind flashes forward a year, to Michael in the bathtub and the blood - a place she goes to too often - she wishes she had.

She hears herself say, "It's my fault." She doesn't even realize her palm is resting on her stomach until after. She hadn't known whether she should tell Michael that she was late; she hadn't known how he'd react. "I thought, maybe, maybe he'd think I was trying to replace his son, you know? I thought he'd be angry. Angry at me. Angry at the baby." But then his hands were pressed flat against her stomach and he was kissing her over and over and smiling and talking to her stomach and she remembers never being so happy to be wrong. She remembers running a hand through his thick blonde hair and thinking, 'yeah, we're going to be okay.'

"And we were, for a while." In her mind, she sees baby books and lists of names left on the kitchen table for her to find. She remembers the dinner party they threw a couple of weeks later, when Michael stood up in the middle of the meal and told everyone.

"He put everything he had into..." She doesn't know what to call the child. "When Jason was...gone, I honestly didn't think Michael would ever be able to think past it, and I guess I thought that him latching onto this baby was his way of moving forward."

Dr. Levy takes this in. "Tell me what happened after you miscarried."

Michael didn't cry - not at the hospital, not at the house. Never. Once, she found him standing at the door of the room that used to be Jason's - the one they had decided would be the baby's room - but he was only staring at the disassembled crib they had just pulled down from the attic. He didn't even flinch when she put a hand on his shoulder. Still, she knew from experience that he was breaking inside. 'Maybe it wasn't time yet,' she had said, trying to reassure him, but the look he gave her sent chills down her spine. It scared her.

And then it disappeared. The old Michael returned, and she thought, for good. A week later, she came downstairs and found him cooking breakfast. It was Wednesday, and usually left before the sun rose to jog before he left for work. And yet, he was there, flipping the pancakes she loved so much. 'Why aren't you at work,' she had asked, but he replied simply that work wasn't important right now.

She kissed him on the cheek and apologized for having to run. Even now, her mind runs over everything, wondering if she could have known. If it was ever possible to see the way his soul was breaking. She wishes she had stayed for pancakes.

In the end, she survived, and he didn't.

"And, I guess...I don't know, I've just never seen myself as a mother."

Dr. Levy tilts her head at the tangent she takes, but her face is otherwise blank. "How do you mean?"

"I mean..." She stops. What does she mean? "I mean, I've never seen myself as a mother."

Dr. Levy makes her most emotional face, which isn't emotional at all. She supposes she should say something like, 'my maternal role model died when I was a kid,' or, 'I never had any younger siblings,' or, 'my father managed to suck out any of the nurturing feelings I may have had left.' But instead, Susan twists her hands together and adds, "I'm just not good with kids."

"You were good with Jason, though, right?"

She shrugs. "I guess."

"He lived with you and Michael for how long?"

In her mind, she sees birthday parties and Christmases and dozens of his friends running around in the front yard, playing tag. It's peaceful, domestic. "Two years."

She barely understands it when she hears it, but those are her lips moving and that is vibration in her throat. She says, "He was almost like my own son."

"And then he died."

She snaps. "He was taken from us!" Those are Michael's words, Michael's mantra - not hers. It's like stealing from the dead; she feels ashamed. But she repeats it, unable to say anything else. "He was taken."

He was taken by a man whose wife had left him, who had gone to a bar to forget everything. And he did forget - he forgot his name and his wife's name and the man who was fucking his wife. He forgot that he shouldn't drive in his condition. He forgot that you're supposed drive on the right side of the road. He forgot that oncoming headlights weren't supposed to come straight at you. He forgot everything, and then Jason and Chandra were dead. The car was wrapped around a telephone poll, but the doctors said they hadn't felt a thing.

Tears begin to fall. She breaks down for both of them.


She sells the house with the blessing of Michael's family. She buys a condo. She gets a promotion. She gets a transfer. She starts finding happiness in the fortune cookies with two fortunes tucked in them, as opposed to one.

On Jason's ninth birthday, she puts her ring back in the black box it came in, and into a wooden box hidden in the back of her underwear drawer. There's a picture of the three of them in there, too. She shoves it as far back as she can.

She sees Stephen once a week, and then twice a month, and then every other month and whenever she has a free moment, and then suddenly, two years have gone by. And then he is gone, too.

The pain is still constant where Stentz hit her on the back of the head. The paramedic gives her a new ice pack and a Valium for the plane ride back from Boston. She remembers taking off and one shake of turbulence before falling asleep on Creegan's shoulder. She doesnít care about the look Bernal gives her as they get off.

Rain fell on San Francisco while they were gone, and the dew and humidity greet them when they exit the terminal. She left her car in long-term parking, and barely gets the keys out of her purse before Creegan grabs them from her. She doesn't know how he moves so fast.

"David, I'm fine."

"You fell asleep on the flight, Susan."


"You go to orange alert every time your feet touch an airplane."

"That is notÖ" But she feels it pulling at her eyes. She wonders why she's even arguing about this, remembering raw panic and not catching herself before she grabbed onto his thigh for support.

She pinches the bridge of her nose. "I can't believe I'm letting you do this."

He unlocks the door and slides into the driver's seat like a teenager behind the wheel of his dad's Mustang. He already has the car started before she reaches the passenger side, and calls from inside: "Just shut up, and get in the car, Susan."

Her head hurts too much to worry that he shouldn't be driving in the first place. She trances out watching the yellow dashes on the road, and then suddenly they're idling in the parking lot of her building. She looks up and admires the spiraling staircases protruding from the walls, mentally finding the place where Rivers stood and wondering how he managed to make that shot. She does this every time, and hates herself for it. But then, it's hard not to remember some things.

Insides her apartment, she heads downstairs to her bedroom, peeling off her clothes and changing into something to sleep in. She hears Creegan calling a cab from the phone in the kitchen. She takes out her contacts, and her reflection in the mirror is tired and worn. It's how she feels.

When she comes upstairs, he is staring at Michael's contact sheet, still framed and hanging on the wall. Her breath catches in her throat, but she hopes he doesnít notice. She makes sounds on the wooden floorboards, and he turns a little.

"Susan," and he puts his hand over his heart, taking in her appearance, "you're losing your touch."

But she's too tired to play this game anymore. She makes a face, and retreats to the kitchen. He goes back to the contact sheet.

"I didn't peg you as an artsy kind of person."

She fills a kettle with water and puts it on the stove for tea. "I'm not."

She watches him squint at the tiny name handwritten in the corner of the white matting. Maybe he gets it, finally, because for once, he says nothing, having moved on to the spines of the books in shelves around the house.

"Absolution," she suddenly says.

He calls from the living room. "What?"

She thinks about the feeling in her chest when she walked into that church, about her fingers hesitating above the holy water, and then how easy she fell into everything. She wants to tell him that it was the first time she'd seen an altar in almost four years. She wanted to tell him about the fear and the guilt and how she didn't speak to her sister for almost a year because Emily didn't think Michael deserved a "proper" funeral.

She sighs. "Nothing."


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