A/N: Although I managed to post the last chapter, I did have some doubts that I would succeed in posting this one, especially since it’s been several months, but here I am, and here this is, and it’s kind of surreal. After all, the last Joanne update was on August 27th, 2015. Over five years ago and yet, here we are. Here I am, with an update five years overdue. Wild.
On that note, you might be like me and might have literally forgotten what happened in Joanne’s story, so if you’d like a refresher but don’t quite feel up to reading an entire generation like I had to do (oof), then I wrote up a summary that you can find HERE. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful! Anyway….
The song for this chapter is “In My Arms” by Plumb. Joanne and Gabriel also sing “Baby Mine” by Alison Krauss near the beginning of this chapter. “Lavender’s Blue,” an English folk song you may recognize from the latest remake of Cinderella, is briefly featured as well.
My hope is that Joanne’s story still feels worth hearing, even after all these years and even though it’s coming to a close. You’ll notice too that the twins are featured here (albeit solely from Joanne’s perspective) as I tie the stories back together and continue them.
Since I do not learn and this chapter is long, I’ve split it into two parts, which will hopefully not become a habit. The wait between the parts, however, will NOT be long this time—I’ll force myself to stay on this and make sure of it.
Happy reading ♥
Trigger/Content Warnings: Some strong language, use of tobacco, some brief depictions of PTSD and depressive thoughts
It has been such a long time.
So much has happened that I haven’t written down. So much has happened that I have.
I watched my father claw his way back from death, immersed myself in the comfort creating music could bring, and became an internationally acclaimed superstar, but lost everything important to me along the way. I lost a boy who loved me, a childhood best friend, my family who I have always loved, and finally, myself.
It took a long time to find my family again.
It took even longer to find myself.
I was so far gone I felt I wasn’t worth saving, but thanks to the kindness and care of those who did find me worthy, I’m here scrawling memories on countless blank pages.
I have shared so much already, but there’s more I’d like to tell, a few more songs I’d like to sing. So, if you’ll listen for a little longer, I’ll share with you all that you have missed, and then leave it to others to continue our stories.
I’ll take you back to the time where we left off, to that feeling of love that overflowed from me in rivulets, shimmering and ebullient—to when my son, my precious boy, came into this world. Where my happiness had no limits, and all was sparkling light.
Milo James Winters.
* * * * *
Your baby blues
So full of wonder
Your curly cues
Your contagious smile
I woke with a gasp, sheets wound tightly around my waist and only the light of the moon to guide my sight. The night’s deep quiet fractured with the sound of a wailing cry.
Gabriel stirred beside me and I placed my hand on his arm. “I’ve got him,” I assured. He slumped into the mattress, burying his face into his pillow. The corners of my mouth quirked upward in a smile. I loved him. With everything I was and ever would be, I loved him.
I freed myself from the tangle of blankets and slipped out of bed, my bare feet treading across the cool, hardwood floors. Milo cried louder and I picked up the pace.
“It’s okay, baby,” I soothed as I neared. “It’s alright. Momma’s here.” I reached into the crib and carefully picked him up. He quieted some as I cuddled him, but still his tiny face shone with fresh tears. “It’s alright, Milo. What woke you? Are you hungry? You must be hungry, right?” He whined, kicking his legs, and I bent my head to press a kiss to his brow. “It’s okay. Momma’s got you.”
I turned to take him downstairs, but Gabriel got up after all, turning on a soft light and giving me a quick wave to stay. “I’ll go warm up his bottle.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit disappointed as I’d wanted to gift him the extra minutes of sleep. He’d already gifted me so many since Milo’s birth. “Alright. Thank you.”
He nodded and hurried down the stairs two at a time.
I walked over to the rocking chair and sat down with Milo, cradling him in my arms. The cold of the air conditioning made my skin prickle. I held him closer, not wanting him to be cold too.
“You won’t have to wait long, okay, baby?” I murmured. He was still whimpering, but at least wasn’t screaming, which was a relief given the late (early?) hour. I leaned my head back, closing my eyes, but was soon startled into alertness by Gabriel’s footsteps hurrying up the stairs.
“I already tested the temperature—it should be fine,” he said, handing me a bottle.
“Thank you.” I brought the bottle up to Milo’s lips, and after a bit of coaxing he began to drink, staring up at me with watery eyes. I couldn’t help but smile. He was so cute—so precious. I loved him with my entire being too. “There you go, Milo,” I encouraged. “Not too fast, okay?”
He managed a couple ounces, but then stopped, fussing, and turning his head away from the bottle. I frowned slightly, trying to get him to finish the last two, but he didn’t seem to want any more. “Not too hungry?” I asked. Milo whined and looked as if he was on the verge of tears again. “It’s okay, baby. Maybe later.”
“He didn’t finish it?” Gabriel asked from where he’d sat on the bed.
I shook my head. “He did his last feeding though, so maybe he isn’t too hungry yet. I’ll try again in a bit.”
“Alright.” He got up and took the bottle from me. I was grateful for his assistance, but still couldn’t help but notice the dark circles beneath his eyes, visible even in this low light.
“You should try to get some more sleep,” I entreated. “I’ll join you soon.”
“Mm… yeah. Think I will,” he admitted. I beamed at him, tired, but happy, and he smiled back, sleepy and loving. My heart flittered like butterfly wings. I loved him—loved him so much. Gabriel headed downstairs to put the bottle away and Milo started crying again.
“Oh, no. Not hungry and your diaper’s dry, but you’re still upset. Did something spook you, Milo? Is that why you woke up, hmm? Or maybe you felt lonely. Momma’s here, baby. You’re never alone. Never,” I whispered. I used the heel of my foot to gently rock the chair, glancing up only briefly when Gabriel returned upstairs and stood beside me. He placed his hand on my shoulder, gentle and bracing as he gazed at our son too.
“It’s alright,” I repeated as Milo whimpered, and then softly began to sing, “Baby mine, don’t you cry. Baby mine, dry your eyes. Rest your head close to my heart, never to part, baby of mine….”
“Little one, when you play,” Gabriel joined. “Don’t you mind what they say.”
“Let those eyes sparkle and shine,” we sang together, “never a tear. Baby of mine.”
I felt warmth bloom in my chest as we continued to sing, our voices soaring upward like glowing fireflies in the night. My husband took the next verse, I followed with another, and then we rejoined each other, in both voices and in heart. Milo watched as if mesmerized, eyes opened wide with wonder, but soon they began to droop, subdued by our continued melody.
“From your head, down to your toes. You’re not much, goodness knows….”
“But you’re so precious to me….”
“Sweet as can be….”
Baby of mine.
* * * * *
And as I watch
You start to grow up
All I can do
Is hold you tight
Time passed in leaps and bounds, in hazy awakenings in the middle of the night, in words cut too sharp by lack of sleep and impatience, in apologies that coalesced into kisses and hugs, in love and wonder for this new, precious life.
Often, I called my parents or Gabriel’s grandmother for advice, but in the end, it fell to us to learn not only how to care for Milo, but also Milo himself. We learned that he loved our gently sung lullabies and that he fussed whenever he didn’t have his favorite stuffed toy. We learned that he could sleep through action movies and late-night conversations but would wake with the slightest amount of sun shining on his crib. We learned that smiling goofily at him could make him laugh, and that he often woke up cranky, but was quick to soothe with whispered words and melodies.
We learned that he had my emerald eyes and Gabriel’s endlessly soft, russet hair. We learned that a piece of our hearts could live and flourish in another, and that we would do anything to keep him safe.
Knowing clouds will rage in
The sun was low, and Milo was sleeping, the baby monitor next to me emitting soft, breathing sounds. I’d dozed off, the credits of the movie we’d been watching rising steadily on the screen.
It was perhaps unsurprising—we’d had a late night, and then spent the better part of the day preparing to stay with my parents for the week so I could be there when my siblings returned home from college. It would be the first time in years that we’d all be together for an extended period of time.
I rubbed my eyes, drowsiness still sitting heavy upon them, but gradually replaced by confusion as I realized Gabriel was no longer by my side. A swift look around my surroundings confirmed he wasn’t downstairs.
Puzzled, I stood up, absently massaging a knot on the base of my neck as I ventured upstairs to search for him.
Milo was still asleep in his crib, tiny fingers enclosed on his puppy toy’s leg. Gabriel was nowhere to be found.
My heart beat a little faster, but I willed my thoughts to resist racing with it as I hurried back downstairs. Grabbing the baby monitor, I slipped out the pool door, where I was greeted by the pungent smells of chlorine and cigarette smoke. The corners of my mouth tipped downward in a frown.
There, by the foliage obscuring our yard from spying eyes, stood Gabriel. He was staring straight out to the horizon, where the surf continuously pushed onto the shore, only to be pulled back out to sea. He was holding a burning cigarette in his mouth. My stomach gave an anxious turn. I hadn’t seen him smoke since we’d been married.
“Love?” I called cautiously.
Gabriel’s shoulders tensed, but he didn’t voice a response. I chewed my lip, the lack of welcome disquieting, but moved forward anyway, placing the monitor down on the table and then stopping at his side.
Storms will race in
“Are you getting those nightmares again?” I ventured. Since I’d fallen asleep on the couch, it stood to reason he might have as well and been jolted awake by their reappearance. Perhaps that too was why the dark circles around Gabriel’s eyes had not only persisted, but deepened since Milo was born. Maybe it was Milo now he saw dying in his dreams. The thought alone was enough to turn my blood to ice.
“Sometimes,” he admitted, and took a pull from his cigarette, exhaling the smoke in a short, agitated puff of air. “It’s usually enough though to see that he’s okay. What I can’t get rid of is this—this—” He faltered, which was unlike him. My brows knitted in concern.
Gabriel rubbed the side of his neck. “You really don’t feel it?”
“Feel what?” I pressed, unable to hide my worry. “I was under the impression that—well, I thought, at least, that everything had been going quite well, actually. I’ve been happy. Very happy. A little stressed, yes, and sleep deprived, but—”
He narrowed his eyes, gaze fixed on the ocean, though he did not seem to see it. Lines of distress appeared on his face as he lowered his cigarette and said, “We’re happy—happier than I’d ever thought I could be since I lost Daisy, but…I don’t know.” He shook his head. “The happier we are, the more I get this fucking creeping feeling of dread. Sometimes I feel like—like the universe has taken notice of how happy I am and now it’s just biding its fucking time before it destroys me all over again.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but snapped it shut as Gabriel turned toward me, his autumn eyes capturing mine. “I know that I’ve felt this way before. I also know that you feel like the odds have tipped in our favor, and I’ve believed that too, but lately….” He looked away again, irritation flashing quickly across his face. “I don’t know, Jo. It’s like, the happier I get, the more I feel like something really fucking bad is going to happen. It’s like I’m sabotaging myself,” he realized with a humorless laugh.
A short breath escaped my lips, a feeling of nausea settling within me. While I’d been floating on clouds of light and happiness, Gabriel had begun to fall, and I hadn’t noticed at all. I’d assumed his weariness was due to Milo waking in the night, and not the rising nightmares that had followed him in the day.
It also wasn’t as if he didn’t have a point. Life was composed of ups and downs; fortune and misfortune, and everything between. Challenge was as inevitable as the setting of the sun. I stepped in front of him, though kept my eyes downcast as I mulled over my next words.
“I feel like…that’s normal,” I slowly began. “To some extent, at least. I mean, there will always be new hardships, no matter how much we try to avoid them, but no matter what happens, we’ll pull through it. Together. There’s nothing we can’t overcome. I know that may sound silly of me, maybe even naïve, but I believe it—I truly do. And in the meantime—”
I looked up and gently cupped Gabriel’s face, lifting his gaze to mine. “In the meantime,” I repeated, “don’t let your fear of what might be on the horizon overshadow the happiness that you feel right now.”
Gabriel lowered his eyes. “I find that’s easier said than done.”
“I know. That’s why we have help. We have each other, and we have our families—our friends. We’re not alone in this. You’re not alone.”
He reached up to grasp the hand I had on his cheek and then turned to press a tender kiss to my palm. My spirits lifted but hesitated in their ascent as Gabriel lowered my hand to my side. I could feel my breath catch with uncertainty, but found it at least encouraging when he snubbed his cigarette out on the table nearest to us and left it there.
“You say that to Milo a lot,” he said quietly, and then glanced up at me. “‘You’re not alone.’”
“Yes,” I whispered. “In my lowest moments, that was always the feeling that hurt me the most. The one that could break through even my best facades.” I shrugged my shoulders in a casual gesture, but could feel my eyes begin to well up with tears. “So, well, I don’t—I don’t ever want Milo to feel that way. I don’t ever want him to experience that.”
Gabriel nodded in agreement and stepped forward to enfold me in his arms. I went willingly—gratefully. He was warm, and beneath the smell of cigarettes, he still smelled like him, like coffee and sunlight and the fresh ocean air.
“I love you,” I murmured against his skin. “I love you, and I’m happy, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of that, so I never live to regret that I didn’t.”
“Message received,” Gabriel said, and I smiled because I could hear the smile in his voice too.
“I love you,” I repeated, because I did, and the feeling was far too much to contain.
“I know” —he kissed my forehead— “and I’m so fucking grateful for that.” He kissed my lips, and I melted against them like candy in the sun. “I love you too, Jo. More and more, every day.”
I threw my arms around his neck and his arms rose to hold me tight.
“More and more, every day.”
But you will be safe in my arms
* * * * *
The first frost of the year found us standing outside my parents’ home, our breaths suspended in the frigid air and Milo bundled up like a marshmallow in his father’s arms. Both had similar disgruntled faces, which admittedly had me giggling as I hopped in place to warm up. Maybe, if we were lucky, we’d get some snow come Christmas Day. There was nothing quite so magical as that.
“Do you think the doorbell’s working?” Gabriel grumbled as Milo tried to grab his nose.
I smiled bracingly. “Give them a minute—it’s a big house!”
It was an understatement. My parent’s home was a sprawling edifice that sometimes felt too big for even our large family, but it was beautiful, and comforting, and regrettably, for sale. By the summer, my family planned to move to Hidden Springs, a fact that I was still having difficulties coming to terms with. Perhaps if it’d been a nearer location, I might have dealt with it better, but Hidden Springs was true to its name and secluded in the mountains five hours north. It would grace them with the quiet they’d sought for quite some time, but leave Gabriel, Milo, and I alone in this bustling city.
Unless, of course, we decided to join them.
The front door opened with the tinkling of silver bells, and I lit up as my mother and father appeared, their familiar faces as sparkling as the lights strung all along the roof.
“Mom! Dad!” I exclaimed, and leapt forward, looping one arm around each of them in a clumsy attempt to hug them both at once.
“Hello to you too,” Dad said in amusement, while Mom laughed and added, “You’d think we hadn’t just seen other last week.”
I stepped back with a exhilarated grin. “I’d be excited to see you even if it’d been this morning.”
“I believe that,” Dad said, still smiling.
They greeted Gabriel then and cooed over Milo, who waved with some assistance from his dad.
“There you go—say ‘hi’ to Grandma and Grandpa, Milo!” I encouraged. He looked at me in confusion, which made everyone laugh.
“You know,” Mom began, casting me a skeptical look, “I’m still not sure about being called ‘Grandma.’ Couldn’t we go for ‘Mama’ or ‘Mom #2 Who is Somewhat Older’?”
I laughed. “I mean, if you’re serious, we could absolutely go for ‘Mama Candice,’ instead of ‘Grandma.’”
Dad folded his arms and smirked. “Could I be Papa James then?”
“Nah, you’re definitely ‘Grandpa,’ you old man,” Mom teased, elbowing him in the side.
“We’re the same age?”
“Anyway!” she sang, disregarding that. “Come in! Come in” —she opened her arms— “And give me my grandson, will you?”
We all laughed, Dad included, and Gabriel gently passed Milo to my mom, who immediately had our son laughing too by showering him with kisses.
As we stepped inside, I couldn’t help but marvel. The house was decorated gorgeously. There was garland trailing down the banisters, fat wreaths hung and adorned with big velvet bows, dozens of twinkling lights, and the warm scents of cinnamon and burning logs enfolding us all in their welcoming grasps.
It was dazzling, and not for the first time I felt a pang at the thought that this would all soon be gone. In another city, another house, another fireplace—it wouldn’t be the same.
“Thomas!” my mom shouted, jolting me from my thoughts.
“What?” he yelled back, voice distant.
“Come greet your sister!”
My youngest sibling ambled down the stairs. He looked grumpy, but I couldn’t help but feel happy when I saw him as he was usually still at school whenever I came to visit.
“Hi!” I chirped merrily and waved.
I resisted the urge to run up and squeeze him, instead settling for beaming at him as he joined us in the living room. “I swear you’re taller every time I see you. I bet you’ll end up being the tallest of us all!”
“Maybe,” he said awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck. His mahogany hair was sticking up in all directions.
“Where’s everyone else?” I asked, addressing the room at large.
“Oh,” Thomas said, remembering. “Tobias texted about an hour ago saying they got caught in traffic, which sucks because Gus said he’d take me out for ice cream if they got here early enough.”
“He wouldn’t have been able to do that anyway because you’re still grounded,” Mom pointed out, “which I’m sure you neglected to tell him.”
Rains will pour down
“I’m always fucking grounded!” Thomas snapped, which admittedly startled me so much that I jumped. I’d known for a while that he had a temper, but I’d never quite heard him like this.
Dad heaved a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. “Please don’t start.”
“Start what?” he demanded. “Fucking expressing myself and pointing out that you guys are being totally unfair? It’s Winter Break! What are you gonna do, keep me locked up ‘til Christmas?”
“That depends on you, doesn’t it?” Mom asked with an arch of her brow. She bounced Milo on her hip, but any trace of good humor had left her expression. “You keep this up, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
“It’s what’s going to happen anyway no matter what I do because you guys are fucking set on ruining my life!”
“Thomas—” Dad began sharply, but my youngest sibling cut him off by throwing his arms up and shouting, “Don’t bother! I’ll go to my room myself! God!”
True to his words, he stormed right back up the stairs. I jumped again at the sound of a slamming door, unsure of what to do. Part of me wanted to follow and try to talk to him, but another part reminded me that although I’d never been on his bad side, he also probably didn’t feel comfortable enough with me to want to do so.
“I don’t understand,” I confessed, at a loss. “What happened?”
“This boy cussed out a teacher again right before break,” Mom explained tiredly. “Somehow, he got it in his head that since finals were over, he could act like a fool.”
“Indeed,” she muttered, and then walked over and handed a distressed Milo to Dad.
“Admittedly, I also acted like a fool when I was that age,” Gabriel hesitantly supplied.
Mom cracked a smile, never one to hold onto anger for long. “Me too,” she confessed, “but he doesn’t seem to get when enough’s enough.”
“I seem to recall sometimes you didn’t know when enough was enough either,” Dad said, and wryly added, “I guess at least one kid had to take after you.”
“Pfft. All our kids are like me—they just lack the melanin.”
Dad smiled, but I could tell by the strained look in his eyes that despite his attempt to lighten the mood, he was worried about Thomas. Again, I felt at a loss as to how to help. Silence settled over the room save for the crackling of flames in the fireplace, but the tension broke when a pair of headlights flashed outside the front windows.
“Speaking of….” Dad playfully lifted Milo into the air and asked, “Ready to see the rest of your uncles and your Aunt Gemma?” Milo squealed in delight, which we all took to mean that he absolutely was.
What followed was another flurry of hugs and exclamations, the atrium crowding and then dispersing as we shuffled back to the living room where there was much more space.
I couldn’t help but grow teary eyed as I hugged Augustus, Gemma, and Tobias. I could vividly remember when they were as small as Milo—could remember singing songs to Gemma to soothe her or holding Augustus because he loved to be cuddled or hearing Tobias’ contagious laugh whenever I tickled him. I remembered all of it, and found it that much harder to reconcile these memories with the bright young adults standing before me.
It made me that much more regretful for the time I’d missed with them.
“Gus, could I talk to you for a second?” I heard Dad ask.
Augustus turned away from where he and Tobias were making Milo laugh and nodded. “Sure. What is it?”
Dad led him aside, but I couldn’t help but glance over at them, curiosity preventing me from looking away. Amidst the bustle, I couldn’t make out Dad’s words, but guessed he was talking about Thomas because Augustus kept glancing in the direction of the stairs. He nodded at whatever Dad was saying, his expression serious and concerned.
“I’ll talk to him,” I heard him say, because I could see his face and somewhat read his lips. Dad said something else, his brows furrowing, but Augustus shook his head and smiled at him—the same reassuring smile I gave whenever Dad worried. “It’s okay. I don’t mind.”
The two exchanged a few more words which I didn’t catch because I got distracted by the sight of Mom hugging Gemma for a third time, and then Augustus excused himself and hurried up the stairs.
The sight made my heart sink, which I didn’t understand until I remembered how helpless I’d felt only moments ago when I realized I couldn’t do the same. Thomas probably wouldn’t talk to me. Thomas probably would talk to Augustus. It was why Dad had asked him, and not me.
I wished he could have asked me. I wished that I was the eldest half-sister that they could trust in and rely on. Instead, I barely knew them, and the time I had to reverse this was fast running out. It was an awful quandary because time was also precisely what I needed to earn their trust. They were growing up faster than I could keep up.
“Mm?” I glanced sideways and felt my heart soften as I caught sight of Gabriel standing beside me, an exhausted Milo fussing in his arms.
“I think our son may be due for a change of clothes and a nap,” he remarked. As if on cue, Milo whined and kicked his little legs as if he was swimming.
“Me too,” I admitted, and smiled when Gabriel chuckled.
“Let’s bring our things upstairs and do that then, hm? Your mother said she’d call us down when dinner was ready.”
I nodded in agreement, still feeling somewhat blue, but I took comfort at least in the understanding that I was already doing the one thing I could—I was here, and that alone was more than I could say for several years.
I was here, and I would make sure that would never change again.
* * * * *
“Lavender’s green, dilly, dilly; lavender’s blue. If you love me, dilly, dilly; I will love you….”
“Let the birds sing, dilly, dilly; let the lambs play. We shall be safe, dilly, dilly, out of harm’s way….”
I let my voice trail off as Milo slipped into sleep, his small face untroubled and his breaths soft and measured. My heart felt as full as a Christmas bouquet as I watched the loves of my life rest soundly side by side. Gabriel had been up late with him the night before and had fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. The past week with my parents hadn’t exactly been a vacation with Milo to take care of, but I’d treasured every minute of it, keenly aware of all the times I hadn’t been here.
Christmas Eve was also fast approaching, which meant that Gabriel and I would briefly leave to share that time with Gabriel’s grandmother. Two days in Bridgeport, and then back to Starlight Shores to spend Christmas Day with my family. It was a bit circuitous, but I felt it was worth the extra effort to spend time with everyone and Gabriel didn’t seem to mind.
In fact, whether it was the time spent with loved ones or the holiday season or maybe even our talk, he’d seemed a little happier lately—a little more at peace. I loved seeing him so at ease, and hoped the feeling would stay.
Not tired yet and my throat dry from singing, I carefully rose and slid out my bedroom door, closing it behind me. The lights were low, and the house was so quiet I believed everyone to be fast asleep, but as I walked down the stairs, I caught the sound of muffled voices. I started to smile, excited to have some company, but stopped when I heard a bitter sob.
Waves will crash around
My heart banged and I hurried down the last few steps, only to freeze under the archway as I saw Mom and Gemma. My only sister had her head in our mother’s lap, and Mom was soothing her as she cried, fingers carding through her hair.
“You’re going to be okay, baby girl,” Mom murmured. “You are so much more than you think you are, and so fiercely loved.”
Gemma let out another anguished cry, and I swore my heart broke, tears stinging my eyes. What had happened? What was wrong with Gemma? Just as I’d never seen Thomas’ temper spark so hotly, I’d never seen my sister like this either. She was always so poised, so confident, so fearless. So completely unlike me. It scared me to consider what could shatter that resolve.
Not wanting to disturb them or be caught eavesdropping, I made a beeline for the kitchen. There, I felt the first tears threatening to fall, but gasped in fright as I realized I wasn’t alone.
Augustus was sitting at the counter, staring into a mug gripped in his hands that looked as though it’d long grown cold. He startled when he heard me, swiftly wiping his face with the palm of his hand. He glanced up at me, but I couldn’t decipher his expression in the shadows.
“Hey.” I reached out to turn on the kitchen lights, setting them to their softest setting. “Are you alright?”
He lowered his head again, eyes squinting a little. “Yeah. Just…couldn’t sleep.”
“I see.” My heart sunk. We did not know each other well enough. I paused, shuffling in place, and then asked, “Would you like a fresh cup of tea? I was just going to make some for myself.”
“Oh, uh” —his fingers twitched on his half-empty mug— “Sure. Thank you.”
“Of course.” I picked up the electric kettle, filling it with water and then replacing it on its base before flipping the switch on. It took me a second to find the mugs that I wanted because their location had changed, but I eventually found them, grabbing two and setting them down on the counter. I reached for the selection of teas by the kettle and hesitated. “Um, which…?”
“Jasmine. I can—” He started to get up.
“No, no, it’s okay. I’ve got it.” I gestured at him to stay. He did, and I hurriedly busied myself with the tea. “It’s the same brand Grandpa always brought home from China,” I noticed.
“Mhm. Dad um—he orders it online now.”
“Right,” I said softly. I brushed my thumb across the Chinese characters as I held the box and let the tea steep. I’d missed out on getting to know him better too before he passed.
He and my dad hadn’t had the greatest relationship when I was growing up, and by the time this was mended and Grandpa was in our lives again, I was soon on my way out. I did have some memories of him, but I knew that my siblings had many more. I remembered how devastated my sister had been at the funeral—remembered how Augustus had gone out of his way to comfort her even though he was mourning too. I remembered the sight of her sobbing in our mother’s lap only moments ago.
I set down the box and spun to face Gus, unable to stop myself from asking, “It’s Gemma, right? That’s why you’re hurting? I saw her and Mom just now—in the living room. I didn’t say anything to them. I just—is she alright? What happened?”
Augustus gaped, clearly caught off-guard by my outburst. I resisted the urge to apologize and take the words back. I was worried. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to help.
“She’ll be okay,” he answered carefully. “I don’t know what she’s comfortable with you knowing though, so….”
“Oh.” I flushed and wrung my hands. “Right. Of course.”
“No, no! It’s okay, really. I’ll—I’ll reach out to her and let her know that I’m—that I’m always here to talk if she wants. I’ll leave it up to her.”
I’m leaving it up to you too.
Augustus nodded and I turned back around to attend to the tea, pouring two cups and adding a teaspoon of honey to each. I gave Gus his new cup and he murmured a thanks. I nodded and blew softly on my tea before taking a sip. It was subtly sweet and fragrant, like lying amidst a field of flowers in spring.
I glanced at my brother from over my cup. He was cradling his mug in his hands, but again seemed lost in thought—unbothered by this batch going cold too. Part of me wanted to nudge him—wanted to see if he’d speak more to me, but another was afraid of making him uncomfortable or irritating him. He would say more if he wanted to say more.
I took another small sip and then ventured, “For what it’s worth, I’m glad she has you.” Augustus looked up in question and I smiled wanly. “It’s a lot worse—going through something alone, but she’s not. She has all of us, but she especially has you. You two have always been there for one another, and I know that she knows that. I know that might even be one of her greatest comforts when everything else feels like too much to deal with.”
“And honestly?” I continued. “I can’t think of anyone better than you to be that person. I’ve noticed how good you are at comforting her. I’ve noticed how Thomas will always talk to you, even when he’s pushing everyone else away. I’ve noticed how you join Tobias on his wildlife surveys even though you don’t like traipsing about in the cold and want to scream whenever he picks up some strange animal.” I gave a watery laugh, my eyes welling with unbidden tears. “You’ve always been there for them all—and they know it. I see it.”
You are exactly what I wish I had been for all of you. What I should have been for all of you.
A number of emotions played across Augustus’ face, each more unreadable than the last. He seemed at a loss for words, which pushed him to take a drink from his tea as he bought himself time to reply. “I’m uh…I’m not as great as you make me sound,” he said.
“I think you are. I think everyone around you thinks it too, so it must be true,” I insisted. “No one is perfect, of course, but I believe you’re rather wonderful…though perhaps too hard on yourself. You do more than enough, Augustus, and I’m so proud of you.”
Gus looked as though he wanted to argue, his lips parting and closing several times, but eventually he bowed his head and said with some embarrassment, “Thank you, Jo.”
“Of course.” An awkward silence fell upon us, but I could find no more words to fill it, so I smiled instead. “Well, I think I’ll head upstairs—hopefully get some sleep.”
He nodded and I left, mug in hand, but as I was about to step through the entryway Augustus stood up and said, “Wait—”
I turned and tilted my head in question. “Yes?”
“I know I haven’t said much to you since you’ve been back,” he slowly began, eyes averted, “but it’s not because I don’t want to. I just…don’t know what to say beyond ‘how are you’s’ and how school is going. It’s apparently a thing with me, I guess.” He cleared his throat. “I also wasn’t sure if—if you even cared that much because for a while you didn’t seem to want to talk to us at all and when you came back…I guess I still wasn’t sure. But I can see now that you do. Care, I mean. That you probably always did. And I’m glad you’re here. I always wanted you to be.”
I covered my mouth with the back of my hand to stifle a gasp, but couldn’t hide the tears that flowed freely down my face. Augustus paled, looking ready to apologize, but I shook my head, stopping him from doing so.
“It’s okay. I cry easily. It’s not your fault.”
“Still….” he began, but I shook my head again.
“It’s okay, Augustus. They’re mostly happy tears anyway. I’m happy that you’re glad, and I’m so sorry that I ever made you feel like I didn’t want to talk to you—that I ever made you wonder if I cared. I love you—all of you—so much, and I never want to make you feel that way again.”
My voice broke so many times and my hands shook so much that Augustus helped me set my mug aside and pulled me into a hug. Or, perhaps I hugged him, hating that I’d ever made my little brother feel the way he had.
I couldn’t stop my tears, but they weren’t all unhappy ones because Augustus had told me he was glad that I was here. That he wanted me to be. That when I’d felt completely undeserving of their love, he’d thought of me and wished that I’d been here.
I hoped my other siblings felt the same, but even if they didn’t, I would continue to try. Because they were worth that, and always had been.
But you will be safe in my arms
* * * * *
The lights of Bridgeport glittered beneath a layer of freshly fallen snow—bright enough that the skies never quite grew pitch black, but instead maintained an inky blue that stretched for miles over the never-sleeping city.
We drove deep into its outskirts, to where a few stubborn stars managed to shine through the lighted night; to where Gabriel had grown up in the house his grandfather had built. The same house that, for this reason and despite many requests otherwise, Gabriel’s grandmother had chosen to stay.
It stood nestled amidst frosted evergreens, easy to miss if it weren’t for the strings of white, sparkling lights hanging from its roof. As we pulled into the driveway, two figures exited the house. The first, I recognized as Grandma Camilla, while the second was Claire Fitch, Ryan’s mother.
Having been best friends since they were children, Gabriel’s grandparents were like the grandparents Ryan had never gotten to know and Ryan’s parents were like the parents Gabriel had never gotten to. Mrs. Fitch and Grandma Camilla were also close friends and as Camilla had aged and needed more help around the house, Claire had stepped forward and provided that without ever being asked.
Gabriel’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. Although he was always happy to see Mrs. Fitch, the fact that she was here the day before Christmas Eve, when we knew her son Ryan and the rest of the family were already visiting, was admittedly of some concern.
I glanced out the window as the car came to a stop, but felt my worries ebb as the two women waved cheerfully at us. Mrs. Fitch had probably simply been there to help, just as she usually did.
“Merry Christmas!” I called as soon as I stepped out into the frigid air. I hurried to the backdoor and opened it to free Milo from his car seat. He made excited noises and flailed his arms, clearly eager to exchange greetings too.
“Merry Christmas!” Grandmother Camilla kissed Milo and I on the cheek as we neared, Milo getting an extra tickle that made him giggle.
She moved to hug and kiss Gabriel and I greeted Mrs. Fitch, who was all smiles and likely wouldn’t be if something was wrong.
“Merry Christmas! We thought you’d be busy spoiling your granddaughter,” I joked, giving her a hug. Her granddaughter Audrey was only a few months older than Milo and absolutely adorable, looking just like Ryan, but with her mother Shanta’s jewel-bright eyes.
“Oh, you know I was,” Mrs. Fitch said with a chuckle, “but I wanted to go ahead and lend Camilla a hand. She really wanted to go the extra mile for you guys.”
“That wasn’t necessary,” Gabriel replied, catching his grandmother’s eyes. She waved him off, already reaching for Milo. I passed him into her waiting arms.
“Not everything worth doing is necessary, angel,” Grandma Camilla noted, and then chuckled as Milo tried to reach for her earrings. “You three will always be worth the extra effort.”
I smiled, feeling touched by her words, but I couldn’t help but notice Gabriel exchange a look with Mrs. Fitch. The latter gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head, which I did not know the meaning of.
“Shall we go inside?” I tentatively suggested. Grandma Camilla agreed, thanking and saying a warm goodbye to Claire, who was going to head back home after being away all day. I also started to say goodbye, but faltered as I noticed Camilla going inside with Milo while Gabriel hung back.
“How is she doing?” he asked as soon as the front door closed.
“About the same,” Mrs. Fitch answered with a doleful smile. “She tires easily and doesn’t drive anymore. I come by every Sunday morning to take her to Mass and every other Wednesday to take her grocery shopping, but otherwise she stays home. Been in good spirits though and refuses to let me help out any more than that—says she’d let me know if she needed anything else.”
Gabriel nodded, his eyes flicking to the house—perhaps to check if Grandma Camilla had looked to see where we’d gone. “I see.”
Mrs. Fitch gave the house a quick glance too and then added, “I did notice a bit of bruising on her hip and asked about it, but she said she bumped it on the table.”
He looked at her, heavy brows furrowing. “Do you believe that?”
“Hard to say,” she said with a shrug. “It didn’t look bad though, so maybe.”
“Did she see Dr. Ricchetti about it?”
“Now you already know the answer to that, honey.”
Gabriel let out an irritated sigh and ran a hand through his hair. “I feel like she has a death wish sometimes,” he muttered.
“Nah. Camilla sees every day on this Earth as a blessing. I think it’s more that she’s ready. There’s nothing about death that woman fears. Honestly, I hope I’m that at peace when the time comes. On that note, I hope I’m as old as her too,” she admitted with a chuckle. I laughed lightly as well, but Gabriel’s countenance only grew more morose.
I understood why.
Other than perhaps some distant cousins he’d never met, she was the only family on his side that he had left. If I discovered the existence of some sort of elixir that could make you immortal and there was only one dose, I’d give it to Camilla, so Gabriel would never have to live a day without her. Even if such an elixir existed though, I knew she’d never take it. As Mrs. Fitch had said, Camilla had no fears concerning what came next, only gratitude for what was, and had been.
Mrs. Fitch smiled bracingly and squeezed Gabriel’s shoulder. “Don’t you worry, honey. If there was something wrong, she’d say so. She doesn’t have a death wish, and she wouldn’t leave you in the dark.”
Gabriel nodded, and she stepped forward to hug him. “Thank you,” he murmured. “For everything, but especially your help.”
“It’s no problem for me. She’s a damn good friend.” Mrs. Fitch stepped back and smiled at us both. “I’ll be off now. You two have a merry Christmas, okay?”
“You too,” Gabriel and I echoed. We saw Mrs. Fitch to her car and then headed inside, where Grandma Camilla was showing Milo the Christmas tree.
She looked over at us and smiled knowingly. “Finished gossiping about me?”
I flushed and pretended to be very interested in a light fixture on the wall, while Gabriel shifted and rubbed the back of his neck.
“I just worry,” he mumbled.
“I know, angel, but I hope your heart’s at ease now.”
Camilla turned and pulled an ornament from the tree, which she dangled before Milo’s curious eyes. “On that note, I have a request that you’re probably going to want to refuse, but I insist” —she glanced at us over her shoulder and smiled— “Go out tonight, just you two. Leave me to bond with my great-grandson, hm?”
“What?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.
“It’ll only be for the evening, and besides, when’s the last time you two went out? Just the two of you. I’m willing to bet you haven’t since Milo was born, am I right?”
We shuffled uncomfortably.
“See? Enjoy a night to yourselves. I even went ahead and booked you a reservation in one of those fancy restaurants downtown. Consider it my Christmas gift to you.”
I peered at Gabriel, unsure. Admittedly, the idea sounded divine, but I also didn’t want him to be miserable or anxious if we went. He glanced at me too, his expression questioning, and I offered a small, encouraging smile.
Gabriel still hesitated.
“Go,” Camilla insisted, her eyes only for Milo. “It’ll make me happy.”
Whether convinced by these words or realizing he was outnumbered, Gabriel nodded reluctantly. I tried not to look too overjoyed, but couldn’t help but hop in place, excited.
“I’ll go get ready! It’s so lucky I brought an extra dress. Will you help me get the suitcases?” I asked.
Gabriel nodded again, but this time he smiled, and my heart bloomed.
Storybooks are full of fairy tales
Of kings and queens and the bluest skies
A little over an hour later and Gabriel and I were walking arm in arm through the heart of the city, a taxi having dropped us off since parking was a pain to acquire. The evening was cold enough that our breaths were clearly visible, but the air smelled like the promise of snow and the roasted chestnuts sold on every street corner.
Gabriel looked less than pleased by the temperature and voiced worry about leaving Milo and Grandma Camilla alone, but I assured him Camilla would never have offered if she thought it wouldn’t be okay, and coaxed smiles from him by playfully singing carols as we walked.
By the time we found the restaurant we were awfully chilled, but thawed almost instantly within its welcoming warmth. We checked in our coats at the front, and I couldn’t help but blush when I noticed Gabriel staring.
“Is it too much?” I asked nervously, looking down at myself.
“No,” he answered without hesitation. “You look stunning. How did you even know to pack that?”
I felt my blush deepen. “I didn’t. I only brought it because, well, one never knows when you might need some formal attire,” I stated matter-of-factly. “Although, I didn’t think I’d get the chance to wear it. I’m glad your grandmother did this for us.”
Gabriel placed his strong hands on my waist and squeezed, making me gasp. “Me too,” he said in a low voice. I looked up at him, every inch of my skin suddenly warm and acutely aware that we hadn’t actually slept together since Milo had been born either. I’d never felt up to it and now, well, we were in the middle of a damn restaurant.
“Don’t tease,” I whispered.
Gabriel chuckled softly and let me go, looking rather pleased with himself. “Shall we be seated then?”
“Um, yes. Let’s!” I squeaked and then hastily headed toward the hostess, my face pink and Gabriel’s near-silent laughter following me.
Initial, er, awkwardness aside, we had a wonderful dinner, talking and laughing with one another at a level of ease we hadn’t experienced in some time. Admittedly, we mostly talked about Milo and how strange it felt not to have him with us, but it was good and happy, and all I felt were pleasant waves of love and gratitude.
There’d been a time in my life when such brimming joy felt like an impossibility, but here I was, sitting beneath golden chandeliers and sampling wines after a four-course meal with the love of my life—the father of our perfect son, who was also fortunate enough to be surrounded by so many generations of love. Here I was, and never would I take a single second of it for granted.
Afterward, we walked and admired the city’s lavish holiday decorations, even passing by a winter festival in which people ice skated, drank hot chocolate, and danced beneath sparkling lights. Gabriel and I shared a hot cocoa too, and I kissed him amidst music and laughter, amidst snowflakes that fell in a magical flurry all around us.
It was like a scene from a storybook with the happiest ending and though we knew it wouldn’t last, because so little did, we lived a tiny eternity within these stolen seconds and simply reveled in their existence.
To be continued in Pt. 2
A/N: Thank you again for reading and please, please don’t hesitate to leave comments as its been such a long time since I’ve written a Joanne chapter and I’d love to know what you think so far. Also, don’t worry, Pt. 2 is already well on its way and should be posted in 3-4 weeks, which is about how long I think it’ll take me to capture and edit all the photos. Hang in there, please, and thank you again!