by Nifra Idril
Winter comes to the farm, bruise colored and bitter. Nights last longer than days, and when Martha looks out the kitchen window all she can see is a long hard sheet of ice laid over the ground like a quilt. It gets dark here; full dark, like the only light left in the world is the warm yellow glow from the lamp in the kitchen, and the tiny icy points of white light all over the sky. Makes it seem like the only people in the world are within the walls of her home, even though she knows better. The Thompsons don't live even five miles away, and of course, Nell and Lana are right next door, but at night it seems easier to believe these things.
It seems like the distance between one person and the next is so far as to be impassible at midnight in February. Like the warmed space between Martha and Jonathan's sleeping bodies is more than a few inches - it's half a lifetime. It's the way Martha is still surprised some mornings when she wakes up to the quiet gold fields that fan out around the house. Eight years married, and she still misses the rushing sound of traffic as she drifts asleep. Jonathan never liked that about Metropolis; it kept him up whenever they stayed the night there. It's the only lullaby Martha ever really knew, though, and to her it always sounds like her mother whispering "Hush" over and over. In Smallville, there's just the sound of wind and cows and the even puffs of Jonathan's breath.
Night in Metropolis was never like this - it wasn't a black and purple shroud that swallowed up the landscape - more like a permanent twilight, lit up by rows of curved street lamps. She and her father lived in a townhouse, and her bedroom was on the second floor. Not high enough to look out over the entire city, but high enough to see the blinking, twinkling city as she fell asleep. These are things she misses, like being able to walk out her front door and find a street filled with people. She misses Thai food and girls' nights, and being able to get a manicure once a week. It's not an ache, not any kind of longing, just...things she misses, and not all the time either.
Because as hard as winter can be, spring and summer make up for it. She keeps all the doors and windows open, and lets the wind trip through the rooms of her happy yellow house. She plants red and orange flowers in the front yard, and makes blueberry pies and the whole place smells sweet like corn, and hay. When the sun comes up, there are long curling lines of pink that unfurl on the horizon like ribbons, and it's so beautiful that Martha has to catch her breath. But on nights like this, when even the moonlight is cold, and blue, it seems like every color in her whole world is lined with thick layers of ice, and summer's hard to hold on to.
She slips out of bed, and pulls on Jonathan's robe. It smells warm, like toasted almonds, and she cinches the belt tight as she tips out of the room, quietly. She walks down the hall, silent and slow. The door to Clark's room is open, and Martha just leans against the doorframe for a minute. He sleeps on his side, lashes long and dark against the pale surface of his skin. One small hand clutches his red comforter, and the other is pressed between his round cheek and the mattress. His toes peak out of the blankets, small and pink.
Martha loves this little boy so much she can barely breathe. She pulls the covers over his feet and sits down next to him, brushing the black curls off Clark's forehead, and lets her hand rest there for a moment. Her fingers trace the slope of his eyebrows, the sweet upturn of his nose. Clark stirs, moving toward her without waking, and he lets go of the comforter in favor of gripping her robe. His fingers clench so tightly in the fabric, like he's afraid she'll disappear before he wakes up. It breaks her heart, and makes her wonder if he remembers being left before. It makes her angry, and she presses a firm kiss to the top of his head.
"I'm here, baby," she promises, wrapping her arms around the warm, sleeping boy. "I'm here. Mom's not going anywhere."
A board creaks, and when Martha looks up, Jonathan fills the doorway. He stands with his back to the moon, and his hair catches the light. He's tall, and strong, and his smile is like a kiss - Martha wonders if she'll ever stop falling love with him.
He rubs his arms and steps into Clark's room. "Bad dreams?" he asks, sitting down on the other side of their son. "You or, him?"
"Neither," Martha tells him, lips curving slightly as Jonathan twines his fingers with hers over Clark's stomach. "I just couldn't sleep and I thought I'd check on him."
Jonathan nods, eyes on Clark's face. "Sometimes it doesn't seem real does it? Doesn't seem like he can really be ours, not until you reach out and touch him."
"I know," she whispers. Clark presses closer to her, and Jonathan runs a soothing hand over Clark's shoulders.
When she looks up, Jonathan's eyes have darkened, and a thin skin of tears shines over them. "I love him so much." Jonathan's voice shakes a little, and Martha smiles, runs her fingers through his hair.
She leans over Clark and kisses Jonathan's mouth right at the corner, where his lips turn down with worry, and he leans his forehead against hers. All Martha can see is the deep blue of his eyes, how his skin is still tan even in winter, before she pulls back. In his hand, Clark's is small and white. Jonathan bends, and pulls the covers up tighter around Clark, and Martha stands, watching as Jonathan whispers something to Clark when he stirs slightly.
This is everything that matters to her.
Snow falls, swirling around the house like round scraps of white paper caught on the wind as Jonathan and Martha walk back to bed, hand in hand. He pauses by the window, looks out. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he asks her, smiling.
Martha touches her fingertips to his cheek, smiling back. "Yes, it is."
2. As If Maybe Someone Could Hear
The only picture Laurel keeps of Chloe is folded into her wallet, tucked between her driver's license and her ACLU card. Chloe's seven, and her two bottom teeth are gone, so that in her smile it looks like there's an open door. She's wearing a bright red sweater with a duck patch, and bright yellow rubber boots. The edges of the photograph are rounded, and white from being handled so often. Laurel takes the picture out at least ten times a day, and runs her fingers over the image of her daughter's face.
It's an old photo. Chloe's almost ten now. She and Gabe live near the business district, in a high-rise apartment building. Laurel walks by sometimes, hoping she'll be able to see them, without being seen. Whenever she lets Gabe know where she's going to be, he makes a point to send her pictures of Chloe, and when Chloe was younger she'd write letters. Mostly just, "When are you coming home, Mommy?" and lots of sad-faced clowns and dogs.
Chloe hasn't written a letter in over a year now, and Laurel doesn't expect any more for quite some time. Her last letter was more angry than sad, and that's probably what Laurel deserves. After all, Laurel hasn't written in quite some time, and she only calls on Chloe's birthdays.
It's not that she doesn't love her daughter. She does - it would be impossible not to. It's just that living with Gabe and Chloe felt like drowning. It felt like every breath she took was filled with something that slipped into her lungs and just sat there, heavy. Making it hard for her to draw another breath. Making her dizzy, and angry, and then she'd snap at both of them, and they'd get the same expression - eyes wide, shocked, and mouth trembling around the corners. As though they couldn't believe that Laurel would ever hurt them, as though it was impossible to think that Laurel would do anything wrong.
And that only made her angrier. She tried not to be, tried to just love them but they needed. They needed so much. Chloe was so little, and everything they did, everything they said was important. There wasn't any margin of error, not with a daughter. Not with one who deserved as much as Chloe did, and Laurel was never any good at being a role model, or responsible. Or staying in one place.
Before Chloe was born, it was okay for Laurel to take off every now and then and come back with a bag filled with rolls of film. She'd spend a couple of days in the dark room, and she and Gabe would spend the nights in bed. For a few months, everything would be fine, but then it would start all over again and she'd disappear with her camera. She sent Gabe postcards from all over the world and ended up making a name for herself, too.
Then she got pregnant and Gabe was so happy. She'd felt uneasy even then, wondering, "Can I do this? Can I really do this?" but Gabe had been so sure - Laurel had thought he was sure enough for the both of them. So she'd stayed put. Gotten a steady job with the Metropolis Post, and gone to Lamaze classes with Gabe.
Chloe was tiny when she was first born. Just a little pink baby, and her head had fit perfectly into the curve of Laurel's palm. She'd giggled and cooed, and Laurel had loved her immediately. She took thousands of photographs of Chloe before she turned two. For a couple of years, things were mostly fine. When Laurel got restless, she'd just go for a walk, and when she got back Chloe would call out, "Mommy!" and run to her, and things would be okay.
It's hard to say when it got really bad, but it seemed like all of a sudden, Laurel couldn't stand being in her own home. She couldn't sleep in her bed. Everything...chafed. From the way Gabe would put a hand on her shoulder, and proudly tell people that he'd gone and married an artist, to the way Chloe followed her around the house. They loved her, and so she stayed. But because she stayed, it was hard to love them back the way they needed her to.
After both of them had fallen asleep, Laurel would leave the apartment. She'd take her camera and walk as far as she could manage, and take pictures of anything. Everything. An old woman bent over a fire in a barrel, or a drunken man leaning against the brick wall of an apartment building to catch his balance. Paper in the street, and the round holes in the metal that held up STOP signs. She told herself that this was her new subject - the city and everything in it.
They'd never say it, but they knew she wasn't what they needed. She could tell that she was hurting them both, in little ways. She wasn't proud enough of Chloe's drawings, or happy enough when Gabe got promoted. She didn't care when they bought a new couch, and she didn't ever cook. Not even when Gabe wasn't going to be home until very late - then she just ordered take out.
She went to parent-teacher conferences. She helped Chloe with her homework. She bought clothes. She drove to and from play dates. She tried very hard to make it look like being in one place wasn't driving her slowly crazy. Like waking up in the middle of the night, gasping for air and drenched in sweat wasn't something that happened all the time.
Laurel left three days after she took the picture of Chloe that she carries in her wallet. They had gone to the park, and Laurel sat on a bench, and watched as Chloe ran along the edge of the man-made pond. It had been raining and her yellow boots squelched in the mud as she chased chipmunks in the grass and threw rocks into the water. Laurel remembers putting Chloe's hair into two tight pigtails that stuck out from the sides of her head like tufts of straw. Chloe caught a grasshopper with her hands and Laurel took her picture in front of the swing set. When they went home, Laurel made grilled cheese sandwiches and listened to Gabe read aloud to Chloe before putting her to sleep. When they closed the door to Chloe's room, she kissed her husband, and took him to bed.
When she went to sleep that night, all she could think was, "Soon."
The day she left she just walked out the door with her camera. She thought she might come back, but never did. She went to Africa for a year and took pictures there, and then to India. In her bag there's always an envelope filled with glossy prints that she wants to show Chloe - the tiger whose eyes are the same color as Chloe's, night in the Sahara, the Tuvan throat singing competition, the glass beads scattered across a beach in the Caribbean. These are all things she's saved for her daughter.
Laurel always comes back to Metropolis, and she's always surprised when Chloe's not the same as she was the last time Laurel saw her. It's usually just for a second on the street, passing by, or through the windows to her classroom. At first Laurel didn't think she could stay away if she spent time with Chloe, and she knew that it was better for all of them if she did. And now, Chloe doesn't want to see her. So Laurel waits, and catches glimpses of Chloe as though she were a stranger.
At night Laurel takes out the photograph of her daughter that she's carried all the way around the world and back. She worries the corner with her fingertips, and tells Chloe that her mother loves her. And in the morning, Laurel wakes up, and keeps moving.
3. Let Me Go Down In My Dreams
Nell never stops moving, not even when she sleeps. Sometimes she wakes up, her legs so tangled in covers that she can barely move and all of her pillows are scattered across the room. She doesn't often remember her dreams. They tend to fade away before she pushes herself out of bed, thinning down to nothing more than vague wisps of...something that Nell won't call longing.
She wakes up before the sun, and makes coffee, breakfast, and lunch. The coffee's for her, but breakfast and lunch are for Lana. There's no crust on Lana's toast, or her sandwich. Then Nell picks out two apples, and sets them on a plate by the door, so that after Lana's done eating she can go out to the stable. It makes her so happy to feed the horses, even if the apple's just a special treat - not really any kind of meal for animals that size. But Lana holds up the green fruit in her little girl hands, and giggles when the horses' lips brush against her fingertips.
"It's soft!" Lana says, laughing. "Tickles!"
And then Nell pretends to be sneaking up on Lana, and Lana pretends not to notice, shrieking gleefully when Nell tickles her. Lana's whole body shakes with her laughter, and her face is pink when Nell lets her go, and can't help smoothing her long dark hair.
"Go get dressed," Nell orders and Lana scampers dutifully inside, and up the stairs. Her little feet beat out a staccato rhythm as she runs to her room. Nell goes into the bathroom and puts on makeup, making her eyeliner thick and dark, and painting her lips bright and red. She curls her hair and puts on a skirt and high heels, and quizzes Lana on her spelling words as she drives to school.
Nell doesn't let herself think about things like the plans she had to move to Metropolis, or how much Lana is starting to look like her mother. She doesn't think about how big her bed is, and how long Friday nights can be after Lana falls asleep at nine. Instead, she keeps her hands busy, clipping through the thick green stems of flowers, and jostling blooms until they sit perfectly beside one another. She sells long stemmed roses to hopeful high school boys, and orchids to men who shyly tell her it's their anniversary. Fifth, tenth, twenty-fifth...they all say it the same way, proud and sheepish all at once, and Nell always smiles, nods and tells them they've got lucky wives. Then she gives them their flowers, and watches them walk away.
The only person who ever gave Nell flowers was Jonathan Kent, but that was a very long time ago. He comes in from time to time and buys his wife sunflowers, or tulips. Anything simple and bright, and when he talks about Martha he's never anything but proud. He asks after Lana, and tells Nell that she looks lovely. It used to make her wonder if he and Martha were really as happy as they seemed, but she's resigned herself to the fact that it's just Jonathan...being Jonathan. He's kind. It's part of what she liked so much about him, once.
The afternoon lull hits around one, and Nell does inventory. She never had to wear reading glasses before, but she does now. She hates them - they're little rectangular things that remind her of her mother. She's too young for them. She's too young for a lot of things she has to do, and too old for some that she wants to.
At four she puts away the books and closes the shop just long enough to pick Lana up from school. The drive back is easy; with Lana talking as if she'll burst if she doesn't get all the words out. Nell nods, and laughs, remembers to ask if the boy Lana likes has asked her to go the Valentine's Day dance. Lana just blushes, and looks out the window, ducking behind the fall of her hair. Nell knows the answer is yes. At the stoplight, she gives Lana a quick one-armed hug and Lana leans against her, small dark head tilted against Nell's shoulder.
Lana sits behind the counter, frowning with concentration as she plugs numbers into the bright pink calculator Nell bought her. The tip her tongue pokes out of the side of her mouth, and her thin brows draw close together. She looks adorable, and Nell laughs.
"What?" Lana asks, looking up. "What's funny?"
"Nothing," Nell tells her, still smiling. "How's the math going?"
"I hate fractions," Lana says gravely, and Nell bites her lip on another laugh.
"Well, you have to learn them," she says, turning to the flowers before her so that Lana won't see her amusement.
Lana gives a melodramatic sigh. "I still hate them."
Nell makes a noncommittal sound, and smiles into the Mrs. Fordman's peonies. On an impulse, she pulls one out, and tucks it behind Lana's ear.
The bright green eyes go wide, and she smiles with delight. "For me?" Lana asks.
"For you," Nell tells her, kissing her gently on the cheek.
"Thank you, Auntie Nell." Lana hugs Nell quickly, and Nell pats her small back.
"You're welcome," she responds, straightening. "Now. Learn your fractions."
The end of the afternoon passes quickly, and they're home just early enough to go for a quick ride through the woods before it gets too dark. The way the horse shifts underneath Nell is comforting, and she pats his neck fondly. Lana scratches at her horse's ears, and Nell reminds her to keep her heels down.
Underneath the horses' hooves, leaves crackle and twigs snap. The sun sets, red and bright as it spreads over the trees. Nell closes her eyes and tips her face up, feeling the warmth of the light on her skin. The horse keeps walking, and Lana hums tunelessly beside her. When Nell opens her eyes, Lana is watching her, curious.
"Yes?" she prompts, smiling. "What is it, Lana?"
"Are you sad, Auntie Nell?" Lana asks simply, and Nell draws a deep, quick breath. She reaches across and takes Lana's hand, and squeezes it.
"No," she says loudly. "Not at all."
Lana looks down, and her black velvet riding helmet covers her face so that all Nell can see of her expression is the quavering line of her lips. "It's okay if you are," Lana whispers. "I get sad, sometimes."
The air tastes spicy, like smoke, as Nell takes a deep steadying breath. She reaches over, and tips Lana's head up. "I know you get sad, and I'm sorry for it."
"It's not your fault," Lana says immediately, eyes widening in alarm. "I didn't mean - "
"I know, I know," Nell soothes. "Lana, it's okay."
"I'm sorry," Lana mumbles, and tries to pull away, but Nell holds her in place. Lana looks up, eyes skittering away before they meet Nell's and Nell sighs a little.
"I'm not sad, Lana," she says, tucking hair behind Lana's ear. "I just get lonely sometimes, is all." Nell pauses and pulls back. It's starting to get dark, and a little cold. She forces a smile. "Want to go eat some dinner? I was thinking about making spaghetti with meatballs."
"Okay," Lana agrees with a smile, "meatballs are my favorite."
Nell smiles back. "I know."
They wheel around, and head back toward the house. The horses whicker quietly, and their hooves fall in time. The barn isn't far, and they clean out the stalls and rub down the horses quickly. Dinner's easy to make, and as they eat, Lana tells Nell about the science project she's planning, and gets meat sauce on her face. Nell dips her napkin in water, and reaches over to clean Lana's face.
"Auntie Nell?" Lana says as Nell rubs her cheek with a thumb, cleaning off the last of the tomato sauce.
"Mm?" she replies, distractedly.
Lana's eyes are big and solemn as she looks up at Nell and her voice is low, serious. "You don't have to be lonely. I'm here."
Nell can't help the smile that breaks across her face, and tenderness so strong that it's almost violent swells throughout her.
"I know you are," she says, getting up and hugging the serious little girl who was never supposed to be her whole world.
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