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There are no sycamores on Sycamore Street, as far as Cameron can tell. Just a few stunted palm trees with strings of Christmas lights wrapped tight around their skinny trunks. Big houses sit far apart, separated by picket fences shining eye-searingly white in the afternoon sun.

It's the second week of December. By now, most of the street's residents have dutifully adorned their doors with Christmas wreaths. Some are tastefully studded with small gold ribbons, others with frosted red berries or pine cones, but all the front yards are uniformly bare - empty plots of hard-baked dirt and crispy grass, yellowing in the heat.

All the yards, that is, except one.

Cameron sits in her truck, the Florida sun beating through the windshield hot and bright as a flare, and stares out across the street at the hulking blow mold of Santa Claus. Tall and solid, the colourful plastic figure leans slightly askew where it's propped heavily between two spindly shrubs. The Santa seems to stare right back, his unnaturally blue eyes boring into hers, one mittened hand frozen over his head in a jaunty wave that should be friendly but falls just short. There's something about the way he's arranged - all six feet of him casting a long shadow across the sun-scorched lawn - that puts her in mind of a grizzly bear rearing up on its hind legs.

Cameron bites her lip, tastes salt. Even with the windows rolled tight against the thick, soupy air and the AC roaring away valiantly she can still feel pinheads of sweat beading on her forehead, the steady flow of cold air turning it to ice against her skin. The scrap of paper she's been clutching has gone limp, softened by the damp heat of her palm. When she smooths out the creases the black ink is smudged, the letters blurry with sweat but still legible.

206 Sycamore

This is definitely the place.

Aesthetically dubious Christmas statues aside, there isn't much to distinguish her mom's house from any of the other houses out here in this bland little suburb. It's just another tidy, biscuit-beige split-level on a street full of tidy, biscuit-beige split-levels. Peering out the window, Cameron studies the house for signs of life. A shadow in a window, the twitch of a curtain. The flickering flash of a TV screen. But there's nothing. The place is closed up tight, still as a painting.

The strangest sensation creeps over her then. A faint prickle of awareness, like someone reading over her shoulder, and Cameron is suddenly struck by the image of her mom stood motionless in the upstairs window, carefully concealed by those tilted Venetian blinds. Patient as a spider, studying her right back.

She shakes her head sharply, irritated with herself. It's a ridiculous thought and more than a little paranoid, but even as she clamps down on it she finds herself slouching deeper into her seat. Her fingers clench hard around the slip of paper until it's crumpled spitball-tight, then she flicks it away. The sun seems to throb overhead, swollen as an over-ripe fruit, and she puts a hand over her eyes against it.

It's been many weeks and many miles since she sat out all night, numb with cold under a star-choked Nevadan sky. Her teeth had still been chattering in her head the next morning, inching her truck back down the mountain with stiff fingers and eyes dry as salt. But she hadn't frozen to death in her foldout chair or been torn apart by wolves. So. A successful little field trip, overall.

In fact, apart from a few wrong turns the rest of the drive up through Nevada and across Utah had been a cinch - good weather, minimal traffic and the truck running like a goddamn Swiss watch. All she had to do was sit back and watch the miles melt away under her perfectly aligned tires.

This run of good fortune had held out only until Wyoming.

It'd been somewhere in Sweetwater County, and she was driving a little later than usual. The sun had long since set, the sky turned a dark, heavy purple, but she had a full tank of gas and a smooth stretch of road - narrow and straight as a surgical incision, with tall trees pressing in close on both sides making her feel like the truck was burrowing through a long, verdant tunnel. It felt good to be cutting through the darkness with the windows down. Last Splash blaring from the tape deck, the grind of the guitars buzzing in her chest. Even the familiar dead weight of the Airstream felt lighter, bouncing gamely over the dips in the gravel as if to the beat. The chorus had just crashed in on Cannonball and she'd been drumming the steering wheel with her fingers, half-singing, half-yelling along when the light from her high beams had bounced off two huge eyes, blazing bright and round as silver dollars in the gloom.

On instinct, she'd slammed on the brakes hard, the Airstream shuddering alarmingly at the sudden drop in momentum, listing left then righting itself as she screeched to a halt with her front bumper just inches away from a white-tailed doe. Close enough to see the soft bib of white at its throat, its lithe muscles rigid with terror where it had stopped dead in its tracks, blocking the road ahead.

You've gotta be kidding me, she thought, still clenching the steering wheel so tight that the tendons stood out of her forearms in hard ridges. Because what was the protocol here, exactly? Was she supposed to get out and, like, shoo it away? Honk her horn? Or, wait, weren't you meant to kill your headlights? The glare freaked them out or something.

It didn't seem smart to go dark out here, though. Not on a back road at night, where any moment a ten-tonne tractor unit could come screaming out of the darkness and flatten her sturdy F-150 like a tin can. Mercifully, before indecision could paralyse her completely, the deer had blinked. Once, twice. Three times. Thrust back into its body, the strange spell broken, it flicked an ear and frisked away into the trees, barely shaking the branches.

Cameron relaxed her grip on the steering wheel, let her head fall forward as she blew out a long breath. That could have gone a lot worse, she knew that much. If she'd been driving any faster - or reacted any slower - she could've had two hundred pounds of fur and flesh exploding through her windshield. Maybe taken a thrashing hoof to the temple for good measure. At the very least, it would have taken forever to scrub the gristle and gore off her front bumper. Not to mention the karma points the universe surely must shave off your tab when you turn a fuzzy woodland creature into cold cuts. She'd caught a break, really.

Still, it had shaken her up enough that she'd pulled over into the first empty lot that came along. She curled up in the Airstream, the neon light of a 7-eleven pinching at her eyes as it smeared through the windows, painting the walls with its green-and-orange glow.

Suddenly exhausted, she'd fallen asleep in her jeans and awoken, sandy-eyed, the next morning to the sound of screeching tires and beeping horns. Stomach sinking, she glanced out of the sleep-fogged window to see that yes, the parking lot was now packed tighter than Tetris with trucks and hatchbacks and SUVs.

Motherf-

She closed her eyes, let her head clonk forward against the glass then rubbed at it, wincing. She thought of Bos - his slow Texan drawl ringing in her head as clearly as if he were standing right beside her.

Listen up sweetheart, because this here's Towing 101: unless you wanna get stuck like a mouse in a glue trap out there, remember that just because you can squeeze that contraption of yours into a parking lot ain't no guarantee you're gonna be able to weasel your way back out again.

And there she was, boxed in from every angle. Outside of bending the laws of physics, there was no way in hell the Airstream would make it through the deadlock. There was nothing to do but wait. And so she'd huddled in her bed and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In the end, she'd wound up losing a full day trapped in that stupid parking lot, rereading Timequake and impatiently sucking down cherry Slurpee after cherry Slurpee until her teeth ached and her head throbbed.

After that debacle she'd made sure to stick to truck stops at night, where the parking was ample and the gas was cheap. It had seemed like the smart play right up until the night she'd pulled off the highway and into the barren wasteland that was the Food-N-Fuel Travel Supercenter. With the chill wind whistling between rows of long-rusted gas pumps and a few dimly flickering lights that did nothing to illuminate the dark, desolate corners, it felt less like a rest area than a homing beacon to every depraved serial killer in the tri-state area.

That night, Cameron lay wide-awake in her narrow bed, painfully aware that a thin sheet of aluminum panelling was all that separated her from whatever Hills Have Eyes situation was no doubt unfolding outside.

So, yeah.

The grubby reality was that the nights were scary and the driving was monotonous and every evening without fail she would unfold herself from behind the wheel with her whole body creaking like a fucking haunted marionette.

But there was a freedom in it too. A kind of exhilaration in answering to no one. Doing exactly what she wanted to do, exactly when she wanted to do it. And for all her big ideas about this trip being a grand odyssey of self-discovery, it turned out she didn't really want to do all that much. She found she was happy enough to just... meander along. Blasting her tapes and taking in all rural America had to offer.

After the first thousand miles she still hadn't discovered anything more profound than the fact that - given adequate refrigeration - string cheese was by far the superior road-trip snack, and that driving more than six hours without stretching made her legs cramp up.

Oh, and she still couldn't pick a favourite Pixies album with a gun to her head.

Surfer Rosa or Doolittle?

Multiple re-listens had only cemented her belief that it was impossible to say. Both albums were shit-kicking masterpieces, each one perfect in its own right. To elevate one above the other was like being asked to pick between your children.

Or so she'd imagine.

Her thoughts continued in this vein all through Nebraska, then into Iowa. Nothing too insightful, as far as navel-gazing went. Not quite the life-changing epiphanies she'd been hoping for. Still, once she gotten used to the smell of fertiliser she was surprised and delighted to find that she was actually enjoying her whistle-stop tour of the Corn Belt.

There was something about the prairie - so wild in its emptiness - that had her driving with a kind of slow deliberation. Like checking code for errors, line by meticulous line. It was almost meditative - the steady metal churn of the engine as she moved under wide open skies that seemed to stretch out forever, the setting sun spilling light over the cornfields in a perfect golden halo.

It was in Iowa that she'd taken to hunkering down in Walmart parking lots when her body cried out for sleep. She liked the way they stayed lit up like football fields all night long, chasing away the shadows until morning broke. Then she'd set off again, rolling her eyes at the cheesy roadside attractions, stopping for coffee in tiny bump-in-the-roads towns. She'd lost count of the number of times strangers had waved to her from their cars, beamed at her at gas stations, or directed her to the nearest Sani-Dump station with what seemed to be genuine enthusiasm.

Midwesterners were friendly. And not in that weird Texas way, where the women would smile those big dead smiles that never quite reached their eyes. She thought she'd find their endless good cheer irritating, but after weeks of being alone it was kind of nice. Comforting.

Those loose Midwestern weeks turned out to be a great shock absorber. A soft cushion between her stuttering California departure and the inevitable weirdness waiting for her in Florida.

Unfortunately, she could only drag her feet for so long. This became abundantly clear in Cedar Rapids, where she'd stepped out of the Dollar General and gotten tangled up in an unruly line of beleaguered parents and their shrieking children, delirious at the prospect of meeting what was probably an ex-con in a rented Santa suit.

It was there, watching the dusty tinsel glinting in the sunshine with her arms full of Top Ramen, that the truth had hit her like a slap to the back of the head - that while she'd been goofing off in Whistledick, Iowa getting her American Gothic on, November had been doggedly forging ahead into December. The clock was ticking, whether she liked it or not.

Did she really want to pile the stress of Christmas on top of an already teetering shit-heap of family drama?

The answer, she realised, was a definitive fuck no.

She needed to burn some rubber and soon, or else run the risk of showing up on her mom's doorstep while she was smack in the middle of decking the halls, or stuffing the goose, or... whatever the hell it was her mom did on Christmas now that sucking mulled wine straight from the bottle was apparently off the table.

No, a dramatic holiday homecoming would only succeed in escalating a delicate situation from pressure-cooker to powder keg. So she'd swung her truck onto the I-65 and put her foot down as much as she could in the stop-and-go traffic through Hannibal. Then past St. Louis and towards Mt. Vernon, with the air pouring through the open windows getting heavier, more oppressive, the closer she crept to the Gulf of Mexico, and as the miles on the odometer ratcheted up so had the tight knot of tension in her stomach.

Any lingering sense of calm had gone out the window somewhere around Nashville, leaving her brimming with a nervous energy so electrifying she'd hurtled through the last five hundred miles overnight in one frantic, sleepless burst. Her thoughts an incoherent jangle as the truck shimmied loosely in the slipstream of a Freightliner.

As Friday night rolled into Saturday morning the sky began to lighten, the flaking blue-and-white sign finally emerging out of the low-hanging trees, welcoming her to Florida, The Sunshine State! But she barely registered it. By this time her eyes were gritty and raw, her stomach churning like she'd swallowed something that had no business going down a human throat. A hot coal, maybe. Or a pit viper.

Squinting against the early-morning sunlight, she pulled the Airstream into an RV park at the end of a dirt road just off the interstate, found a spot between a Winnebago and an ancient VW camper, and parked with a jolt in the shade of a sheltering pine tree.

Outside, an early morning breeze carried the smell of hot tarmac and vegetation. Apart from a flurry of chirping in the trees above, the park was still and quiet. With the residual heat of the engine warming the seat of her jeans, Cameron sat on the hood of the truck and watched tiny lizards skitter through the undergrowth. They seemed absurdly green. Unrealistically so, like their saturation setting was too high.

She stayed like that for a while, absently swatting away blood-swollen mosquitoes while she gulped down fresh air and waited to stop feeling like an unexpected visitor in her own head. What she really wanted to do was sleep for about a week, but with the amount of adrenaline still flooding her system she figured she had a better chance of being hit by a meteor. It wasn't even worth the effort of lying down.

In the end, she settled for a tepid shower, fresh clothes and a Jolt Cola from a coin-op soda machine, the sugar and caffeine hitting her brain like 50,000 volts. Then, before it could wear off, she picked up the pay phone and dialled her mom's number with shaky fingers. It had been Len who answered on the third ring, sounding irritatingly chipper as he relayed directions down the line.

They hadn't been complicated, a straight shot back along the I-10, but she'd driven southbound at a geriatric pace, then accidentally-on-purpose missed her exit, skillfully dragging out what should have been a half hour trip into a two hour expedition.

And that's not including the time she's been parked across the street with the engine idling. She's not sure how long she's been sat here. Long enough that pins and needles have started doing wind sprints up and down her legs, toes to butt and back again. Wincing, Cameron shifts around in her seat to get the blood flowing, but makes no move to exit the vehicle.

The idea had been to take a few minutes to just sit with the anxiety swirling in her stomach like a sickness. To let it run a few laps, tire itself out. Except it doesn't seem to be tiring itself out. If anything it's gotten a second wind, rallied itself into a sprint. She feels jittery. On edge.

Jumpy as a flea on a skillet, as Bos might say.

And behind all that is the sneaking sense of déjà vu. Holed up outside her mom's house, staking the place out like a low-rent Sam Spade, daring herself to walk up the drive and close the gap. All of it feels horribly familiar.

Only last time it was a blazing hot Fourth of July Weekend in Texas, stuffed into a crappy airport rental that smelled like chorizo and onions from the breakfast burritos Bos was snarfing down in the driver's seat. Sitting there paralysed, watching that crusty biker dude put his big meaty hands all over her dad's Panhead Harley. The ache in her chest as the familiar, rumbling pop-pop-growl of the V-twin engine faded away. Watching him disappear around the corner in a cloud of exhaust and hating him for buying it. Hating her mom for selling it. Hating herself for letting it happen.

What was it Bos'd told her back then? People don't make mistakes because they don't love you, Cameron. They make mistakes because they do.

At the time she'd thought that was such a crock of shit. Now she's not so sure. Because now she sees how easy it is to fuck up your life. To make perfectly horrible, life-altering mistakes. And how once you've made one mistake it's almost impossible to stop - they all seemed to feed into each other, feed off of each other. Until your life became this writhing knot of fuck-ups that refused to be untangled.

It's appallingly easy to hurt the people you care about. She's known this for a while now.

But she's been holding onto this resentment for longer, the satisfying burn of righteous anger warming her belly as far back as she can remember. The thought of letting it go, of letting her mom off the hook, feels uncomfortably close to rolling over.

But maybe once they talk they can... clear the air a little? They don't have to be close, but maybe they could smooth things over enough to be normal. Phone calls on birthdays, cards at Christmas. That could be enough, Cameron thinks. Even that much would go a long way to putting a stop to the uncomfortable questions.

All her life she's had people looking at her like they can't quite figure her out. As if she were an interesting but ultimately volatile science experiment, liable to explode in their faces at any moment.

That's what happens when you're five-foot-ten and more comfortable around computers than people. She's used to it. She's long since grown accustomed to people furrowing their brows and throwing her sideways glances. And all this is before they've discovered the skeletons shrivelling away in her closet - that her father is dead and that, aside from a few terse phone calls in her twenties (disorienting events that always left her feeling simultaneously like she should call more often and never again), her relationship with her mother had settled into a nuclear winter of silent estrangement since she left home at seventeen.

That's when the party really starts. Because it is officially Very Fucking Weird to cut off contact with your mom, and once people find out it's like some garbage magic trick. Watch and be amazed as the person you're talking to becomes shocked, dismayed and personally offended by your shitty family situation!

Marvel as they metamorphosize into Dr. Dipshit: Licensed Family Therapist before your very eyes!

And then comes the curl of the lip and the sad shake of the head. The reprimanding you must be breaking your mother's heart. Or the condescending you'll understand when you have your own kids. Or even once, a vitriolic you'll regret it when she's dead! 

She must've heard them all. Every last one of those classic knee-jerk responses that set her teeth on edge even as they make her stomach roil hotly with guilt and shame. Because while the rational part of her recognises them for what they are - the unsolicited opinions of busybodies, shitheads and morons - it doesn't stop the flickers of doubt that come creeping in at 3am, spreading through her mind like cracks in a mirror.

The tiny, cringing part of her that would always wonder what if they're right? Maybe she was being unfair. Being selfish. Maybe it was wrong of her to cast her mom aside, to cut her away like a diseased tree branch. And maybe some day when her mother dies she'll realise exactly how stupid and cruel and childish she's been and she'll be filled with regret but it'll be too late.

There will be no fixing it. There will be no taking it back.

These are the thoughts that have muddied the waters of her mind for years. The unrelenting soundtrack to countless sleepless nights. Her own personally infuriating Cantina Band theme.

But it had all seemed so clear cut at the time. The day she'd left home she'd been so desperate to move forward that the sledgehammer approach seemed her only viable option. Total factory reset. Ties severed, contact cut. A life wiped clean.

Austin Tech had been her ticket away from all the drama. A new city and a new start.

She doesn't regret leaving. Not for a second. But try as she might, she's never quite been able to shake the sneaking suspicion that she'd overreacted somehow. Blown it all out of proportion in a ridiculous fit of teenage melodrama.

Sure, her mom had been a mess after her dad died. Fall-down-throw-up drunk on her best day, genuinely frightening on her worst. But didn't the headshrinkers say that it's always the bad memories people remember the most clearly? That's why everybody remembers exactly where they were when Kennedy got shot. Or when the Challenger exploded. Or when We Built This City went to number one.

Shit sticks, in other words.

There must be some truth in it - she remembers some of the worst parts of her childhood with a kind of dizzying clarity. Those nights when her mom would stomp and seethe and shout so loud it felt like she might tear the whole house down around them. And that day in the hospital. She can remember every tiny detail. From the tang of disinfectant, to the re-run of Jeopardy! playing on a cheap TV bolted high to the wall. All of it, right down to the pattern of the scuffed linoleum floor.

But the rest of her childhood is just a blur. One long hazy jumble that refuses to come into focus. It's probably because she spent her entire adult life deliberately side-stepping thoughts of the past that now, no matter how hard she tries, her memories seem determined to twist away from her, dropping out of sight before she can get a good look.

Sometimes there are fragments. Funhouse mirror memories that warp and distort, rearranging themselves over and over in her mind until she's not sure who said what, or who did what, or when they did it, or why. Or if it any of it happened at all.

Until she's not even sure what she's looking at anymore.

And maybe that's why it's been so easy to lay the blame squarely at her mom's feet for so long. It makes a certain amount of sense. If she's spent all this time laser-focused on a string of isolated incidents, the worst of the worst, then of course it's easy to take her childhood and paint the entire thing with the shitbrush. It's easy to make her mom the moustache-twiddling villain of the piece.

But it's never that simple, is it? After all, she's been wrong before. With Joe, then with Donna. There had been times when she'd walked away from both of them, convinced that they'd wronged her. That she was the injured party. Conveniently overlooking the fact that there was plenty of blame to go around.

And here she is again, with that same sick, sinking feeling that maybe she'd gotten it all wrong. Turned her back on her last living family member based on a jumble of fuzzy kid-memories, now twenty years degraded.

A loud metallic thunk shakes her out of a reverie so deep it's bordering on catatonia. Startled, she looks out the passenger-side window to see a huge pair of wide brown eyes peering up at her.

It's a kid. A dark-haired shrimp of a boy dangling a catcher's mitt that looks bigger than his head. She's about to roll down the window, ask him what his problem is when the little wiener ducks down out of her line of sight. He pops back up, guiltily clutching a baseball to his chest. His mouth is a tiny, perfect O of fear that Cameron figures must mean her passenger door now has a distinctly baseball-shaped dent in it.

It's no big deal - probably she can fix it herself with a plunger and some determination - but the kid is frozen to the sidewalk, lower lip trembling like a leaf in a high wind. Cameron finds herself smiling down at him, suddenly anxious to reassure this strange, skinny child that she's not about to leap out of her truck and bounce his head off the sidewalk. He doesn't return her smile, just watches her, unsure, until she mimes clonking herself in the forehead with the heel of her hand, crossing her eyes and lolling her head back like she's been sucker punched.

That does it - his face splits into a tentative smile that showcases the gap where his two front teeth should be. He motions to the door with his enormous glove, then either mouths sorry or says it so quietly it's silenced by the glass between them. Cameron shrugs, throws up her hands. The universal gesture for what can you do, kid? 

He nods back at her in that deeply solemn way unique to little kids, then turns tail and hops a fence to land cat-soft in a front yard where two taller kids, probably his older brothers, are gawping at her.

And why wouldn't they? This is a nice neighbourhood and her huge, filthy pickup - bug-spattered and road-dusty - doesn't exactly blend in on this street of sensible minivans and spotless sedans. Plus she's a total stranger who's been sat here forever, staring into space and gripping the steering wheel like she's going to tear it off. It's only a matter of time until some friendly neighbourhood rent-a-cop shows up to haul her out by her elbows.

Eyeing herself in the rear view mirror, she combs her hair through with her fingers. Checks her nails to reassure herself that they're clean. They're old childhood habits, long buried, and she's suddenly irritated with herself. Why should she care what her mom thinks? She runs a defiant hand through her hair, roughly mussing it up again, then reaches for the handle and throws the door wide with a boldness she does not feel.

It's like stepping into a sauna. The air is stultifyingly humid as she makes her way up drive, past the Santa statue. He's even creepier up close. Her knees feel loose. Every step is an effort, like she's wading through molasses. The door is heavy and wooden, so thick that when she knocks it seems to absorb the sound. Long seconds tick by without an answer, insects chirring in the grass, the sun baking down. Sweat rolls freely down her back as she indulges in a brief fantasy of sprinting for the truck and launching herself through the window Dukes of Hazzard style. She could be hurtling back along the interstate before you could say mommy issues.

Back to California. Back to-

The door swings open with a creak, and there she is.

 

---

 

Cameron's first thought is that her mom looks pretty much the same.

Those keen steel-blue eyes. The dainty, slightly-upturned nose. Those high cheekbones, sharp enough to slice a finger on. Years of sucking on Newports and squinting through the smoke have left dozens of fine lines around her mouth and eyes, but there's no denying that Virginia Howe is still beautiful. Dressed for the heat in a sleeveless lemon sundress, she looks every inch the former Miss Tex-Arcana, 1956.

"Hi, Mom." She means the words to sound strong, nonchalant, but it's been a while since she spoke to another living, breathing human being. Her voice is hoarse, unsteady.

"Catherine," her mom says pleasantly, squinting against the sunlight. "Look at you, all grown up." She stands with one delicate hand braced against the door frame, the other on a slim hip. Her expression is mild, smooth as glass, but she holds herself taut, like the dancer she used to be, and her eyes are watchful, studying Cameron with an intensity that makes the back of her neck prickle. Her shoulders tense under the the weight of her mom's gaze, and Cameron tugs lightly at her sleeve.

While unpacking the boxes of her personal effects directly into the dumpsters outside Joe's apartment building had been cathartic, it had also left her with seriously limited wardrobe options. Even before this past month, where anything that couldn't be washed in the sink and dried overnight on the steering wheel got kicked out of sight under the bed and forgotten. After careful examination of the few clean clothes she had left, she'd landed on her least-threadbare jeans and a forest green crew neck Joe left behind. It's long-sleeved and a bit tatty, the stitching on the collar just beginning to unravel, but it's plain and it does the job of covering up her stinging left arm, sunburnt to a peeling crisp after driving through most of Alabama with it dangling out the window against the breeze. It's not exactly a high-fashion look, but if her mom finds anything objectionable in her appearance she doesn't comment. Instead, her mouth curves into a soft smile, slim fingers twitching against the door frame, as if she's stopping herself from reaching out. "You grew out your hair. Makes you look different. Softer."

Cameron feels her cheeks warm. "Thanks."

"It's funny," Virginia says, tilting her head to the side, "I almost didn't recognise you." Then she is stepping back, waving her inside. "Well, come on in. You're letting the air out."

The hallway smells like cold air and new carpets. There's a shoe rack under the stairs and, shuffling her feet awkwardly on the doormat, Cameron is suddenly hyper-aware that under her boots she is wearing ancient, dish-water grey tube socks with elastic so far gone they collapse forlornly around her ankles. She sends up a silent prayer that Japanese shoe etiquette hasn't made it to Florida just yet.

Somebody must hear her, because her mom turns and starts off down the corridor. "Excuse the mess," Virginia urges, putting a hand to her hair as she leads Cameron through a house that is so immaculately kept it looks fake, more like a model home than the real deal. Cameron gets the sense that if she went to open a drawer she'd find it glued tightly shut. "We've been renovating." Her mom stays a few steps ahead, that familiar gait - light steps, toes pointing slightly outward.

"It's nice," Cameron offers weakly, quickening her pace to keep up.

"It's getting there, I suppose," her mom allows, shrugging, then launches into a detailed account of her month-long hunt for the perfect blond wood cabinets for the kitchen. Cameron trails behind her, nodding along as though she can hear much of anything over the harsh pounding of blood in her ears. She's not crazy, right? It's weird - deeply, utterly, Outer Limits-tier weird - that she's here. In Florida. In her mother's house, pretending to care about the difference between hickory and maple.

So why does her mom seem so calm? She's practically radiating tranquillity, chatting away like nothing could be more normal than her estranged daughter swinging by to visit. It could be a pharmaceutical calm, Cameron supposes. A cloudless, Klonopin glaze. But when she looks for the slight give in her mother's step, the tell-tale sheen of glassiness in her eyes, she finds nothing. Her steps are sure as she leads them through a kitchen straight out of a Pottery Barn catalogue, and when she turns her head Cameron glimpses eyes that are clear, ice-blue and watchful. She doesn't look stoned. If anything, she looks razor-sharp. Totally put together.

Sober, Cameron realises with a pang. But that doesn't mean anything, she reminds herself warily. Her mom could always look like that when she wanted to. It was jarring, the way the woman who passed out with lit cigarettes in her mouth most nights could be the same woman who emerged, immaculate, from the bathroom in a cloud of hairspray the next morning.

They come to a sudden stop in a living room so awash with colour that it takes a moment for Cameron's eyes to adjust. The walls are a riot of pink, white and aquamarine on every side, like somebody filled a kid's birthday cake with Semtex. The sofa her mom ushers her towards is no better - a flower-patterned monstrosity, pastel-pink and frilly as a parade float. Worse still, it's encased in a shiny plastic covering that squeaks as she sits down.

Her mom had insisted on saran-wrapping their old three-seater back in Houston, too. While this one is smooth and unblemished, back then it had been smudged with grime and pitted all over with perfect circles of hard-ridged cigarette burns. Cameron remembers long Texas Summers slipping and sliding all over the damn thing, its sticky heat against her bare legs as she balanced a bowl of cereal on one knee.

The memory is sudden and searing and she quickly blinks it away, refocusing her attention on the stockings hanging over a wall-mounted fireplace she can't imagine much use for in this heat. Photos beam at her from their frames on the mantle, her mom and Len pressed close against a variety of backdrops. Soft-focus shots of clasped hands and matching bland smiles, Marital Bliss brought to you by Sears Portrait Studio.

Virginia follows her sight line, adjusts a picture frame. "You thirsty? I made iced tea."

No shit? a bitter part of Cameron's brain snipes without her permission. And is that Long Island or Texas? 

"I'll bring us some," Virginia continues. "It's good. Not too sweet." She still says sweet like swayte, seven years in Florida apparently having done nothing to dilute her thick, syrupy Southern accent, in much the same way that the Florida humidity has done nothing to flatten her big, teased Texan hairdo. It stands out from her head like a halo, stiff with hairspray.

"Sure," Cameron manages. "Thanks."

Her mom bustles off into the kitchen, leaving her alone in a room swamped with holiday cheer. The Christmas tree is a far cry from the sad Charlie Brown-looking trees of her youth. Spindly branches draped with matted tinsel, always half-dead by Christmas Eve. This tree is full and fragrant, crammed with baubles and lit with a cacophony of candy-coloured string lights.

She's still admiring it when Len comes thumping down the stairs, whistling tunelessly. Something about the air down here in the Panhandle must agree with him, because he too looks much as she remembers - built like a wrestling coach, with broad shoulders and sturdy legs. A ruddy face, fleshy but still handsome, adorned with a bristly Tom Selleck moustache that's now threaded with grey. His neck, freshly-shaved and pink as a dog's tongue, is a little thicker than before, but he looks fit and strong.

"Well now, look what the cat dragged in!" Fast too - within seconds he's standing over her, grinning. Before she can form a reply he reaches down, puts a sirloin-thick hand on her shoulder and squeezes. "It's good to see you, kiddo."

It's a level of familiarity Cameron is not prepared for - it might be the most physical contact she's had in weeks, in fact - but she doesn't shrug him off, and the warmth of his gesture makes her stomach bunch up.

She's never had a problem with Len. Probably no one in the history of the universe has ever had a problem with Len. The man's a slice of Wonderbread come to life, with his office job and his golf and his cargo shorts. For as long as she's known him, his favourite band has been the Eagles.

Now as far as Cameron can tell, soft rock exists on a kind of sliding scale of awful. At one end you've got your standard, garden-variety bore-you-to-tears soft rock schlock. That's your Billy Joel. Your Foreigner. Your REO Speedwagon. Then, at the other end, you've got the fucking Eagles. A band whose body of work is so singularly bad Cameron can only think to categorise it as music for people who hate music. 

Not that she'd ever hold his shitty taste against him. Even as a kid, Cameron couldn't have cared less that Len had all the personal charisma of an aging museum docent. All she knew was that when Len started coming around to the house all of her mom's sketchy sometime-boyfriends had disappeared. No more random dudes with stubbly faces and scratchy voices leering at her over her cornflakes. Just Len. Steady, reliable, gainfully-employed Len, who could always be counted on to empty his pockets of change whenever she wanted to go to the arcade and who, as far as Cameron knew, had never pawned any of their shit to pay off his bookie.

"You're white as a snowbird," Len chuckles, releasing her shoulder. "I thought you were living out in California, you should be as tan as I am!" Without warning, a thickset arm appears inches from her nose. Against the brilliant white of his Ralph Lauren polo his golf-tan skin is a deep glossy brown, almost like he's been dipped in varnish.

"He's right," Virginia announces, bustling back in with sweating pitcher of iced tea and three glasses on a tray. "You're practically translucent, Catherine. Like a peeled prawn." The glassware rattles as she sets down the tray, then she sniffs and straightens, smoothing the skirt of her dress. "I suppose you're still shut up in a dark room all day long, tinkering."

Cameron's sunburned arm gives a sudden throb under her shirt, flaring hot like a reprimand. She fiddles with a loose thread at her sleeve, then shrugs. "I mean, yeah. I guess. But that's kind of an occupational hazard in my line of work."

There's a pause as Cameron waits for her mom to ask just what line of work that might be, exactly. In anticipation of this moment she's prepped a great answer: freelance video game developer. True, it's just a fancy way of skirting around the fact she's currently, technically, unemployed, but it sounds impressive in her head and holds just enough truth to be credible. But the moment stretches and her mom doesn't ask, just nods and settles herself into a nearby armchair, legs crossed primly at the ankle.

Len plonks himself down next to Cameron on the sofa with a grunt, springs groaning in protest under his weight. There's a slow beat of pin-drop silence where the three of them just look at each other. Cameron can hear the distant squawk of gulls, the hum-hiss-hum of the air conditioning. Len reaches for his iced tea and she follows suit just for something to do with her hands. It's ice cold, refreshing between her fingers, but when she takes a sip it sucks all the moisture from her mouth, strong and Tylenol-bitter where it's been left to brew too long. Len doesn't seem to mind, his Adam's apple bobbing furiously as his drains his glass in one long swallow, then wipes his mouth with the back of one huge hand.

"Delicious, Ginny" he declares, grinning and raising his empty glass as if to toast her.

Jesus, the man must have a stomach of cast-iron. Or else he's a world-class bullshit artist. Either way, her mom doesn't acknowledge the compliment, doesn't even spare Len a glance. Her eyes are fixed on Cameron, lips pursed, face thoughtful.

Unperturbed, Len reaches for the pitcher again. It's a heavy pour, ice cubes clattering together, nearly overflowing the glass. Cameron watches his eyes widen as he jerks the pitcher upright, sending a fine mist of droplets flying. That certainly gets her mother's attention. Her head snaps around to him like it's spring loaded.

"Len, honey, could you give us a minute?" Her voice is acid-sweet. Len's up and off the sofa so fast Cameron thinks she hears the cartilage in his knees crack.

Same old Len, then. Still besotted after all these years. Poor sucker. He'd probably stick his tongue into the wall socket if her mom asked him to. Carefully holding his brimming glass in both hands, he hip-checks his way through a pair of french doors and out into a yard full of wilting plants. The doors swing shut behind him with a soft click, and Cameron watches as he ducks carefully under the bed sheets hanging motionless on the washing line and out of sight.

She's sad to see him go.

 

---

 

As soon as they're alone Virginia leans forward in her chair, a pained expression pinching her face. It's a subtle change in demeanour, but one that tells Cameron exactly what's coming.

Historically, whenever her mom would shunt Len out of the room and start affecting an air of grim-faced gravitas that was usually Cameron's cue settle in and get comfortable, because fifty bucks says there's some big speech on the horizon. Sure enough, her mom clears her throat theatrically and it's all Cameron can do to suppress her eye roll.

She's heard the spiel before. Even fallen for it once or twice. Those times when her mom was making a big show of emptying all the bottles down the drain, when it looked like AA might actually stick once and for all. Back when she was young and trusting and hadn't yet figured out that while her mom could talk a good game about letting go and letting god, it didn't stop her from locking herself in the bathroom every night, chugging bottles of NyQuil like Mountain Dew.

So Cameron has a theory about what's in store - her mom will spend a good half hour rattling through a selection of excuses that conveniently justify every fucked-up choice she's ever made, never so much as grazing up against an apology and then, as her grand finale, get overwhelmed with emotion and make a few grand, misty-eyed promises that will ultimately amount to nothing.

It's a fucking joke, and just the thought of sitting through it makes her face feel hot. Cameron clenches her jaw, suddenly furious at herself for coming here. For thinking that things could be different, when it's always, always the same old bullshi-

"I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry."

Well, shit. That's a new one.

Cameron blinks, thrown. "You're sorry," she repeats slowly, carefully.

"I am." Virginia says, nodding. "Truly, for all of it. You have to know that. You have t-"

"I don't have to do shit," Cameron interrupts, holding up a shaky hand. Her mom blinks hard, her perfectly painted mouth twisting. The air seems to condense around them, growing thick with tension, and just as Cameron starts to worry that the silence might swallow the room her mom lets out a sharp little laugh.

"You know what, you're right. You're a grown-up now," Virginia says, tilting her chin to look at her shrewdly. "Thing is, part of being a grown-up means realising that life is complicated. It's hard and it's messy and people won't always live up to your standards. But that doesn't mean they weren't trying." She closes her eyes for a moment and sucks in a breath. "I know you think you had it rough, but there are a lot of people out there who've had it a whole lot worse. Lord knows my childhood wasn't exactly a pleasure cruise." Virginia shakes her head, the motion sending a stray blonde curl tumbling free from her elaborate, beauty-parlour hairdo. When she reaches up to tuck it behind her ear, Cameron spots a pearl drop earring as fat and round as a baby's fist. "Do you remember your Nana Beatrice?"

There's the faintest ghost of a memory - pressing her nose into a soft cardigan, the smell of lavender - but Cameron can't quite tug it loose. "Not really."

"Be glad about it. That woman was meaner than a wet cat. And for the longest time I held it against her. But now..." Virginia trails off and shrugs. "People can't help the way they are. My momma could be a nasty piece of work but she fed me. Clothed me. Put a roof over my head."

A clot of heat rises in Cameron's chest, rattles there. "That's a real heartwarming story, Mom. So, what, I'm supposed to thank you for not letting me starve to death? 'Cause I'm pretty sure they don't hand out blue ribbons at the parenting awards for doing the absolute bare minimum."

Virginia stiffens. "Are you gonna to listen to what I have to say for once in your damn life?" she demands, eyes flashing dangerously. "Or did you come all this way to make smart-ass comments?"

Cameron bites off a laugh, shaking her head. "Honestly, I don't know why I came here."

Virginia gives her a meaningful look, a knowing smile dancing around her lips. "Sure you do."

"So you're psychic now, too? That's fascinating."

Virginia ignores her. "It's because deep down you knew that it was the right thing to do. That you don't turn your back on family." She stops, bites her lip. When she speaks again her voice is softer. "Can you meet me halfway here? All I'm asking is for you to hear me out. Don't I deserve that much at least?"

Cameron doesn't know what to say to that. She doesn't know what her mother deserves.

Virginia inches closer, reaches for her hand. Her mom's grip is weak as a baby's, the skin of her palm as cool and dry as paper. The soft pad of her thumb rubs thoughtfully over Cameron's ring finger. "No husband?"

Cameron shakes her head mutely, some instinct telling her not to elaborate.

Virginia sighs and pulls her hand away. "Then you could never understand how it feels. I married Cameron when I was nineteen years old. It does something to you, promising yourself to someone like that. You become something bigger than what you were, and losing that..." She trails off. "It loosens your moorings", she admits, finally. "The day he died... it was like my whole world went dark."

And that's all it takes to unmoor her, apparently. Even after all these years, that's all it takes to send her somersaulting back in time. There's a sharp, tilting vertigo and suddenly Cameron is nine years old, stretched out on her bedroom floor in an old stripy Houston Astros shirt. Carpet burn on her elbows, her knees. An atlas flopped open before her, tracing the curve of coastline with a slow finger. Hearing those three slow raps at the front door, heavy like a portent, and knowing, just knowing, something was terribly wrong. Crouching on the stairs out of sight, heart hammering in her mouth. Two solemn-faced men shoulder-to-shoulder in the doorway. Her mom crumpling like tissue paper.

That was the day her world had split down the middle, forever divided into the before and the after.

When reality reasserts itself, her mom is fidgeting with the hem of her skirt, her eyes distant. "That day was..." She takes a deep shaky breath. "It was the worst day of my life."

"Mine too." Cameron murmurs, almost to herself. Her voice sounds distant to her own ears, like it’s coming from another room.

Virginia gives her a soft look, not quite crying but close. "I know, baby girl. He loved you very much. I think he saw a lot of himself in you. I see a lot of him in you too."

Over her mom's shoulder Cameron can see the Christmas lights pulse and flicker urgently, epileptic bursts that don't seem to follow any pattern she can work out. It's making her head hurt.

"The only blessing I can find in all this is that he wasn't there to see the way things played out between you and me." She shakes her head slowly. "If your daddy had lived to see all this... this animosity between us. Well. It would have broken his goddamn heart."

Critical hit.

The guilt sloshes through her like motion sickness, sinking heavily into her stomach like industrial sludge sliming its way to the bottom of a riverbed. Her stomach heaves and she has to fight the impulse to duck her head like a little kid. Because her mom's right. He'd always hated it when the two of them fought. And they had. Constantly. Even before her mom developed a taste for hard liquor.

She thinks of her sweet, good-natured father coming home most evenings to raised voices and slamming doors. Forever caught between his hot-tempered wife and his over-sensitive daughter. Constantly stepping in to play peacekeeper, when probably all he wanted to do was crack a beer and shut himself in the garage to tinker with his restoration project (a 1951 Indian Warrior, Cameron remembers. Springfield Blue and an engine that leaked oil like a sieve.)

"I know you think I failed you somehow," her mom presses, "and maybe I did. In a perfect world we'd all make perfect choices. I'm sorry if you feel like I made all the wrong ones but you have to understand that I was doing the best I could with what I had. And you certainly didn't make it easy on me." She lets out a rueful laugh, the dry rattlebox chuckle of a woman who has spent her life with a cigarette in her hand. "I know we've caused each other a great deal of pain, and we can't get back any of the time we've lost," Virginia continues breathlessly, and the tears do fall then. Fat droplets roll down her face, leaving twin trails on her powdery cheeks. "But what we can do is forgive each other. We can move forward." She lifts her eyes to Cameron's, hopeful. "What do you think, Catherine? Can we leave the past where it belongs?"

There's a tumbleweed moment. Cameron hesitating, her mom watching her hesitate. The air conditioner gurgles, slamming a chill through her. Her keys are cutting into the soft meat of her thigh where she'd jammed them in her pocket. She adjusts her legs awkwardly, every movement feels magnified with Virginia's eyes hard on her, slate blue and wet with fresh tears.

It's a good speech, but it's not how she pictured it. And she has pictured it, in her weaker, pettier moments. Her mom down on her knees, begging for forgiveness. The whole sackcloth and ashes routine. This isn't quite that.

But it isn't nothing either. Her mom's face is etched with contrition but her gaze is unwavering, those blue-grey eyes so like her own. So familiar, yet so unfamiliar and this doesn't seem like the woman she remembers from her childhood. The woman who'd backed her Oldsmobile out of the garage without opening the door first. The woman who'd gotten wasted and missed her daughter's high school graduation. The woman who'd once, on Cinco de Mayo, drank so many micheladas she'd stumbled home barefoot then almost drowned in the bath tub.

That Virginia Howe would rather have crawled over broken glass than say she was sorry for any of it. But here she is, all apologies. Olive branch fully extended.

Can we leave the past where it belongs? 

It's a complicated question, but when Cameron tries to answer it her thoughts come through disjointed and clunky. Fuzzy fragments that won't line up in her head the way she needs them to, like trying to do calculus with a 103 fever. It's exhaustion, is all. Too many miles on too little sleep finally catching up with her, leaving her muscles aching and her eyes itching and her head heavy and thick as Jell-O.

Through the mental fog she's dimly aware that this is one of those Kairotic moments life sometimes throws up at random, like an error message. Those instances where the whole trajectory of your life hinges on the next words out of your mouth. Memories struggle to the surface of her mind then, rising slow like swamp bubbles.

(Sitting in a dingy taqueria, Joe pitching Cardiff with a maniacal glint in his eye. I was scouting you. Scouting you for this exact moment.)

(Lying naked with Tom in his childhood bedroom, his mom clattering plates in the kitchen. I won't move to California for a girlfriend, but I would move there for my wife.)

(Newly wed and newly ousted, hiding from the world in the house Donna had picked out for her. How do you feel about moving to Japan?)

Now here she is again. Another tipping point. Another crossroads. She could say no.

No, I can't get past it.

No, it's too hard. It's too much. It's too little, too late. 

No, you don't get off the hook that easy.

No, eat shit. You ruined my life. 

It would feel good, maybe. To say these things and watch her mom flinch away, eyes wide with shock and hurt. Then, another flash of the past:

(She's seven years old and she's in trouble again. She's not sure what she did but it made her mom stomp downstairs and start yelling. Something shatters in the kitchen, so she focuses all her attention on picking at a bobble on her comforter. This way, she can usually tune the loud noises out. After a while the front door slams, the house shudders, then all is quiet. Her dad appears in her doorway looking tired and she scooches over in her twin bed until her butt hits the wall. He slides in next to her and they lay side-by-side, two tall candles in a box. He's got his boots on and smells musty like the garage, but she doesn't mind. Don't worry, he reassures her, she'll come back. But Cameron doesn't want her to come back. She hates her and she tells him so. His shoulder tenses against hers and for a moment she thinks he'll get mad too. But he only rolls over to face her, jostling the bedsprings until she giggles. Your mom's not perfect, but she loves you. He smooths her hair with a huge, oil-stained hand and sighs. You only get one mom, sweetheart. Remember that.)

The memory slams into her like a nailgun to the temple and her heart twists. "Okay," Cameron hears herself say. Her voice is thin and faint. "Okay," she says again, a little more forcefully. "Let's do it. Let's have a fresh start."

"A fresh start," Virginia echoes softly, almost reverently, as she delicately dabs a tear from the corner of her eye with the pad of a manicured finger. Her nails are polished to a shine, painted pink as lungs. Then her face splits into a smile, revealing perfect rows of straight white teeth. Before Cameron can make herself smile back her mother has moved to sit beside her and wrapped her in a powdery hug. It's an awkward angle, their knees knocking together as her mom holds her tight to her chest, one hand cradling the back of her head.

It's a bit much, Cameron thinks. Like they're in a disaster movie, her mom shielding her from a hail of falling debris. But it's nice, too. Kind of. Cameron doesn't hug her back, exactly, but she doesn't pull away either. The smell of her is familiar, menthol cigarettes and Diorissimo and Aquanet hairspray.

When Virginia finally releases her she's wiping at her eyes again. Cameron looks away, embarrassed. Jesus Christ, she thinks, now what? Are they going to break out the photo albums? Watch Murder, She Wrote? Play Monopoly?

Would it all unravel if she just left now?

Because she kinda wants to leave now.

"You picked the perfect time to visit," her mom tells her, clasping her by the elbow, "Dinner's your favourite."

 

---

 

A lot has changed the past few years, and she gets brought up to speed over meatloaf (which is not and has never been her favourite).

According to her mom, they'd left Miami for Tallahassee in '91 after Len's construction firm sent him to oversee development of a complex of high-rise condos. A big fat promotion, Virginia preens while Len flushes, eyes firmly on his meatloaf. Cameron figures it must have come with a big fat pay rise too, because, oh yeah, her mom has her own dance studio now and there is no fucking way that happened without serious financial backing from the Bank of Len.

Back in Texas her mom had taught ballet and tap at the elementary school, square dance and ballroom at the senior centre. Now she reigns over her own little kingdom - the vomit-inducingly named Tiptoes Academy- behind the Walmart in Perkins. Cameron finds it all too easy to imagine her mother barking instructions at a room full of preteen girls with rictus smiles and budding eating disorders.

After dinner Virginia excuses herself to the yard to smoke, leaving her and Len to clear the table in companionable silence. Len scrubs the dishes while she stacks them into cabinets, carefully examining their contents while his back is turned. She's half-convinced that if she looks closely enough she'll spot a dusty bottle secreted away amongst the pots and pans.

"If you're looking for booze you won't find it." Len's voice comes from behind her, shattering the quiet.

"Shit," Cameron startles, stepping back, "sorry, I wasn't-"

"It's okay," Len smiles at her from where he's stood at the sink, up to his elbows in soapy water. His eyes flick to the window, then back to hers. "Things are different now, Catherine. Your mother had a health scare a few years back," he explains quietly, "hasn't touched a drop since then. Doctor's orders."

Cameron frowns. "Health scare?"

"We did try to call you, but I guess your number changed?"

"Yeah," Cameron mumbles, rubbing the back of her neck, "I moved."

It's not much of an explanation but Len nods. "Well, you're here now," he observes, decisively clattering a dish into the rack. "And Ginny's willing to forgive and forget. It'll be good for the two of you to get a clean slate."

"What are y'all whispering about in here?"

Len jumps with her this time, both of them turning as one to see Virginia standing in the doorway, the faint smell of smoke clinging to her. Her tone is light enough, but her eyes are sharp. Cameron finds herself looking to Len for guidance.

"Just doing dishes," he replies evenly, holding up his dripping hands as evidence.

"Oh, leave all that 'til later." Virginia flaps a hand at him airily. She turns to Cameron and smiles. "I want to give Catherine the tour."

 

---

 

Her mom her is clearly angling for a long flattering commentary as she leads Cameron up the stairs and around the second floor. Cameron does her best to provide - she makes appreciative noises over three identical-looking rugs, a hideous art deco vase, and even drudges up a compliment for the grouting in the salmon pink master bathroom. But there's only so many times you can say that's cool and be convincing.

She's trying to think of a way to politely extricate herself when they reach a closed door at the end of the hallway. Her mom stops and turns to her, one hand resting on the door knob. She beams like a game show host before opening the door with a such a flourish Cameron almost expects confetti to come exploding down from the ceiling.

The room is covered in ruffles. Ruffles on the comforter, ruffles on the pillows, ruffles on the curtains. It's like someone took Marie Antoinette's petticoats and converted them into a guest bedroom, yet somehow it still manages to be as sterile as an operating theatre. Maybe it's the smell - dead air and furniture polish, like it's been dusted and vacuumed a million times but no one has ever once slept here.

Her stomach sinks as she realises exactly what's coming next. And sure enough-

"And this is your room," Virginia informs her brightly, stepping inside and straightening the comforter.

Oh, absolutely not. 

"That's a really kind offer," Cameron says carefully, "but I'm not going to be staying here."

"Of course you are, we've got plenty of room! It'll save you wasting your money on one of those awful motels." Virginia lowers her voice conspiratorially, "those places are simply crawling with disease. A woman in my bridge club caught lice at a Holiday Inn. Big as blueberries, she said."

Jesus Christ. 

"I won't be in a motel room. I have the Airstream, remember?"

Virginia just looks at her, equal parts wounded and uncomprehending.

"It's a mobile home," Cameron clarifies. "Remember, like the Lowmans used to have?"

"Like a trailer?" Her mom ventures, wrinkling her nose.

Cameron grits her teeth. "Yes, Mom. Like a trailer. You know, the thing I drove cross country to get here? I told you about it on the phone."

Her mom rolls her eyes. "Honestly, Catherine. If you'd told me that I wouldn't have spent all day setting up your room, now would I?"

A dull pain has settled behind Cameron's eyes, she rubs them absently with a knuckle. Had they talked about sleeping arrangements? Now she thinks about it she can't be sure. It suddenly seems like a lifetime ago since she made that call, that day in the diner with Donna. California feels very far away.

"What's wrong?" Len asks, poking his head round the door.

"Catherine doesn't like her room," Virginia tells him mournfully. "She'd rather stay in a trailer park." She says trailer park with palpable distaste, the way you might say dumpster full of dirty needles.

"That's not-" Cameron tries, but Len is already turning his disappointed eyes on her and the words die on her tongue.

"Your mother worked really hard to get all this ready for you, kiddo."

Over his shoulder, through the window, movement catches her eye. The wind has picked up out in the darkening yard, bedsheets white as sun-bleached bone twitch and shiver in the breeze. Len's still talking, but for some reason it's the sight of those sheets that do it. The way they seem to be quivering with displeasure tugs at her, and she feels the last of her resolve crack like a wishbone. She wants this day to be over. Needs this day to be over.

And it can be.

All she has to do is give in.

"You know what, I just- I'm really tired." She swipes a hand over her face. "This is great. Honest. Thank you."

"Good," Virginia exclaims, clapping her hands together. "It's settled. Now let me get you some towels."

 

---

 

Later - when she's finally, mercifully alone - she sits down heavily on the bed, covers her face with her hands and groans.

Because this was not part of the plan. In fact, this might be diametrically opposed to the plan - get through dinner, then get the hell out. She should be back in the Airstream right now, blasting some Minor Threat and processing the events of the day in the privacy of her own (trailer) home. Instead, she'd let herself be ushered straight into the belly of the beast and agreed to a fucking slumber party.

She should have seen this coming. Her mom always did have a knack for talking people around. It's a gift, Cameron supposes. Getting your own way. Joe had it, too. With a few choice words he could Jedi mind trick you into jumping off a cliff. You would be half-way to the ground before you'd even realise what he'd done.

She'd let herself be Obi-Waned, like an idiot. And now she's here, in a strange room in a strange house in a strange city, with unfamiliar walls pressing in on her from every side. There's a sensation brewing inside her like a storm, as achingly familiar as it is unwelcome.

Probably there's an actual medical term for what she has always simply thought of as the fuckfuckfuck feeling. The one where her lungs suddenly feel like they've been vacuum sealed shut and her heart starts thundering along like a high speed train. Blood pulses in her fingertips and she knows she has maybe a minute to sort out her breathing before her body goes all HAL 9000 and decides to lock her out of the controls completely.

Lurching to her feet, she half-stumbles across the carpet into the en suite bathroom. Her nose fills with the reassuringly sharp tang of Clorox as she grips the sink, making herself take deep, even breaths. Eventually - after the iron band gripping her chest loosens and it stops feeling like she's trying to suck every breath in through a Krazy Straw - she straightens up, splashes some cold water on her face and goes in search of a telephone.

There's one on the bedside table, between a seashell lamp and a clunky clock-radio flashing the time. She lifts the receiver, does the math in her head. 5pm in California. Bos would be home now, probably in his garage farting around with fishing lures. He'd pick up if she called. But what is she going to say?

Help, my mom offered me a place to stay? 

Pathetic.

She drops the phone back in its cradle, then flips off the light, strips down to her underwear and gets into bed. She's being ridiculous. So she has a bad feeling. When doesn't she have a bad feeling? It sometimes feels like her whole life is nothing but a constant, irrational jumble of bad feelings. This is just something her brain has always done, scream danger at her where there is none.

It had happened constantly those first few months in Japan. Everything felt so strange, so alien, like she'd stepped out of one dream into another. Her first time at the Tsukiji fish market she'd almost lost her shit completely, no matter that the most immediate threat to her safety had been the extremely dead fugu laid out over ice. It was lucky Tom had been there - his hand at the small of her back, guiding her through the crowds - or she would have ended up the crazy gaijin hyperventilating in the street. He'd always been good at that, Cameron thinks wistfully. Making her feel safe. Cared for.

Probably that wasn't enough to base a marriage on, in retrospect. But still.

Through the window, the moon hangs a sickly yellow in the sky. A perfect half circle, like it's been sliced straight down the middle. From below her comes the slow scuff of slippered footsteps. Tensing, Cameron tracks their progress from living room carpet to kitchen tile and back again. Pulling the sheets tightly around her, she rolls onto her side and curls up as small as she can go.

She stays like that for a long time, eyes wide to the dark.