Even after Nancy walked off with Claire, she didn't waste a moment on despair. It was habit, now that she was on survival mode. Calm and alert. Precise concentration.
Ready for anything.
But in this case there wasn't much she could do until she heard what Claire wanted to say.
Then the momentary gap in concentration was filled. In just a blink all the losses in her life came rushing back to her, but her mind first went to the most recent for followup.
Nancy remembered everything about that day without meaning to. In truth, she'd rather she didn't.
She remembered how infuriatingly nice he looked. His hair all combed and him dressed up in a sweater vest. Probably to try to soften the blow.
He shouldn't have bothered.
"I really, really care about you, Nancy; I always have. I just don't…" Ned trailed off. "I tried to be the best boyfriend I could be. I told myself that would be enough for you, for us. For a while, this was perfect. We were perfect. Now I know I have to tell you the truth." He sighed. "I guess I was hoping that I'd never have to tell you and that we could just do this indefinitely. Now that there's somebody else, though—"
"Ned, how many times do I have to tell you?" Nancy's voice rose. "There is no one else!"
"Please let me finish. There's always been a back-up plan for you, but now there's a viable back-up plan. And I wanted to wait for that. I always knew it was easiest, to be with you, and a lot of times the easiest way is the best way. Because of the person you've made me into, you will always be special to me." Ned bit his lip. "Sorry. I'm trying not to make this cliché. As you can see, I'm failing. Anyway, you're perfect for anyone, smart, sweet, but you can probably tell that I'm probably not… into you?"
Nancy started to deny this, then she remembered all the times Ned had been such a perfect gentleman... too much of a perfect gentleman. Everything always chaste.
"You'd be away all of the time; I knew that," Ned continued. "I knew that would make things for me less stressful. And before you say that I was using you, that's not why I dated you. That was just an added convenience, I guess. But I was closer with you than I was with anybody else, and you just got me. And good relationships are about understanding one another, you know? I thought you'd be a good companion, and I tried to be the same to you."
She should have seen the damn signs.
"You made me a promise!" Nancy's voice rose. "Not to protect me from myself! If you tell me something like this, I can take it, okay? I don't need to be coddled. I never did. Now, thanks to you, we've wasted the past four years."
"No!" Ned broke in. "Don't think of it that way."
"Why not? You never loved me!"
"I do love you Nancy, just not in the way that somebody else could love you, and not in the way that I could love someone else. But you have taught me so much about what's important. You have accomplished so much more in the way of justice than most people I know. The stuff you've done, and the stuff you devote yourself to, we usually only hear about from idealists, promoting these values that just can't be upheld by human action. You are truly amazing. I've always felt that, I still feel that, I'm so proud of you, and I love you. But I can't be what you want me to be. I'm never going to be able to look at you the way you want me to. With you, I'm always just going to be the nice guy, and I know you want more than that… and you deserve more than that."
"But Ned, I don't need any more than that," Nancy said sharply. "Nobody ever needs more than the nice guy. I've always been okay with that."
"No, Nancy, I mean…" he sighed. "I'm not into you. I'd never be pushing for that."
She knew the "that" to which he referred, but she'd always assumed that he just wasn't ready. Besides, most people in her town waited. It was nothing unusual.
He looked at her cold, blank face. "Do I really have to say it?"
"Please," she replied frostily.
Even sitting there with Claire staring her down she remembered it. Even now it didn't make sense to her. She never saw it coming.
Well, it made a little sense.
No human male seemed to run away from Deirdre and Minkie as fast as Ned did.
She wanted to laugh at herself. She should've seen it coming. And compared to the process of learning that her mother was never coming back, this was nothing. Nothing.
Carson made his way up to Nancy's room, pausing before her door. Breaths of faint piano chords wafted out to his ears. He almost instantaneously recognized the song and winced as the second verse began. Somehow he couldn't bring himself to raise his hand and knock, as his conscience forced him to listen to every word.
"'Father, you left me but I never left you/I needed you, you didn't need me./So I, I just got to tell you/Goodbye, goodbye…'"
He closed his eyes and leaned his head forward until it rested on the door, so slowly that it didn't make a sound when he had done so. Nancy had listened to this song quite often after Kate died. That interest had petered out after a while, and it had been months since he had heard her playing it. He and Kate had introduced Nancy to the Beatles early on. She had found the songs of John Lennon's darker solo career on her own.
Just then Carson paused for a second, grateful for the second's silence, trying to picture behind the door the way things used to be. Nancy three years old, Kate giving her little puzzles to solve. All of them in the room together at the same time for a change, after Kate promised she wouldn't go back to Scotland.
The day he thought he'd never have to worry again.
Carson's eyes unclouded. He had a plane to catch. He couldn't dawdle. "Nancy?" He knocked. "Can I come in?"
"No." She said right away.
Holding back a sigh, Carson wondered what he had been hoping for. Of course she was going to say no. Only seven months since her mother died, and now…
"I've got a plane to catch in an hour. I'd really like to talk to you."
For a few seconds, nothing. Then, there was a barely audible, "Fine."
Carson walked in. Nancy was lying face-down on her bed, head propped up on one of her hands. Her room was immaculate to the point where it looked as if it wasn't lived in. The desk was completely cleared—no pictures, no pencils, no papers with drawn unicorns—and no books were left out on the floor or on her bed. He walked to the side of her bed and sat.
He didn't say anything for a little while, just gazed out of Nancy's window over her desk while she stared at the ceiling. But he hadn't been lying about his flight time, so he swallowed and spoke. "Believe me, there's nothing I'd rather do than stay here with you, but I have to go."
"Why do you have to go, Dad?" Nancy mumbled over her pillow, frowning.
Carson's eyes narrowed as he thought. Whatever the best way was of explaining this to a ten-year-old kid, it evaded him. It was an unusual situation, though. Having to tell her wasn't fair, not to him and not to her, given what the family had been through. "You know how a lot of people get away with things they shouldn't get away with?"
"Like the guy who caused Mom's accident." Her voice darkened.
"Yeah, exactly like that." Carson stroked her hair. "Sometimes those people are caught. But there are some people who still want them to get away with it."
"Why?" Nancy dragged the word out plaintively.
"Sometimes they're friends. Or sometimes they just want money. That always makes it harder for people to hold them responsible for their actions and make sure they don't do anything bad again. And I'm—" Carson sighed. "I'm trying to do that. Make sure bad things don't happen again."
Nancy's head dropped into the pillow. "Why do you have to go to the other side of the world for that?" she asked, voice muffled.
"Because bad things don't just happen here. They happen everywhere."
"But enough bad things happen here." She said sharply. "Why not focus on here?"
"I'd love to do that, kiddo, but it wouldn't be right." He retracted his hand and absently tapped his knee. "When someone comes to me needing my help, should I turn him down just because he isn't close by?"
Nancy flipped on her side, facing the opposite wall. "What about me? What if I need your help?"
Carson's jaw tightened in despair. He knew this day would be coming ever since Kate left. He had been lucky enough to get local cases for a few months, which had allowed him to spend precious time with Nancy. But he knew, always knew, that eventually he would have to leave again… and, sure enough, for this one he had to do some research in Guerrero. "I want to make the world better, easier." He, too, looked at the opposite wall. "For you."
Nancy didn't reply.
"I'm still able to help you from far away. And you'll know that I'm helping you, as long as you remember everything we talked about after your mom—" his voice caught. "It's not fair, I know. But please, please understand that things can't always be the way we want them. I'll always do my best to keep you happy because I love you more than anything in the world." He blinked. "And I'll be back as soon as possible, but for now I have to go. Hannah will take good care of you."
The song started over. Neither spoke, but Carson knew his daughter was listening. Every second she wasn't speaking, she was listening.
"'Mother, you had me but I never had you/I wanted you, you didn't want me/So I, I just got to tell you/Goodbye, goodbye…'"
Most times Sonny didn't feel pressure to offer timely responses in conversation. This time he wasn't even sure how long it had been since he'd said anything. He wanted to laugh at himself. Nearly a quarter of a century spent living on earth, this tough world made tougher by its (arguably) most sentient inhabitants, and the only death he'd been unfortunate enough to deal with was the possibility of his own.
What had his mom thought when she almost lost him?
A young Korean woman with careworn features stood with her hands clasped in front of her, rotting away in a waiting room in Rhode Island Hospital. She distrusted big hospitals like these; all the advanced technology ostensibly made for prompt treatment, but she had been here twiddling her thumbs for hours while they saw to everybody else first just because she had to drive in from Cranston because she couldn't afford to live in Providence and they were all richer than she, thousands of patients who weren't nearly as sick as her son.
A blond man in scrubs approached her quickly. "Mrs. Joon? I'm Dr. Miller." The hassled doctor shook her hand. "I'm afraid we're going to have to take your son into surgery. It's imperative that we operate right away; the only reason we've waited this long was to verify the diagnosis." He took her arm and walked over to Seung's room. "They're transferring him right now."
Her expression didn't change, although she paled. "And what exactly is the diagnosis?"
"Tertiary peritoneal infection."
"Meaning?" She pressed the nail of one thumb down with her other.
"Two months ago we had treated Seung Joon for a peritoneal infection following an automobile accident in which he apparently received abdominal trauma, as I'm sure you recall." He looked over at her.
She nodded stiffly.
"It appears he's developed complications since then, complications that necessitated a visit to the emergency room and, now, to surgery."
Her eyes locked on a gurney outside of Seung's room. She hesitated, waiting for some sign that the sheet-devoured figure lying there was hers. She hadn't realized how thin and pale he was getting from all the bedrest.
When the tiny head rose, revealing dark, unruly, hair, she strode over to his side.
"We have to operate quickly," Dr. Miller repeated. "I'll have someone take you to the waiting room."
"Mom?" Seung coughed. "Where's Grandpa?"
Immediately Mrs. Joon lifted a hand to her son's brow. "Don't worry about him," she said more sharply than she'd intended. She wanted nothing to do with her father, but she couldn't let Seung know that. It would break his heart. And so often she feared consequences more dire than hurt feelings; for all she knew, Seung was so delicate that anything would send him into complications that no one could fix.
"Am I going to wake up this time?"
Slowly she looked down at Seung and opened her mouth to speak.
Dr. Miller held his arm in front of her as he took both corners of the end of the gurney and pushed. "Nurse!" he called, nodding sharply to Mrs. Joon.
Furiously she blinked as Dr. Miller continued to pushed the gurney through a large set of double doors, sending her an uneven smile before he, too, disappeared.
And in the case that this was something they couldn't fix anyway, he needed to be as happy as possible for as long as possible.
"Here," the nurse said kindly as she led her to her second waiting room that day.
Mrs. Joon gritted her teeth. She needed neither the doctor's smile nor the nurse's kind words. All that was important in this world and all its trials was the truth.
A few minutes later, a little old man walked down the hallway, his head turning at every door and window and picture on the wall. He brightened when he saw a nurse heading his way. When she was about to pass, he cleared his throat. "I need to see a patient…" he began.
Mrs. Joon's eyes leapt up.
"Are you a relative?"
"Yes, I'm his grandfather…Seung Joon's grandfather. My name is Seung Soo Jin."
"Seung Joon?" The nurse looked up. "I think they took him into surgery a few minutes ago."
"Surgery? My daughter said he was in the ER!"
"Twenty minutes ago," Mrs. Joon cut in. She grabbed the shorter man's arm and led him out of the hall and into a seat.
"Someone will come and get you when he's out," the nurse said after them before continuing on her way.
"Where were you?" Mrs. Joon asked coldly, fixing her gaze on a water dispenser across the room.
Jin looked down. His whole stature seemed to shrink. "Stuck in traffic."
"Traffic? Hah!" She barked. "From Bristol?"
"I'm sorry. When I see him I'll apologize to him, too."
"He's very weak." Her voice hardened. "He could die."
"He's one of a strong family. He'll pull through."
"I wish I knew that." She continued to stare. "Children are so fragile. Hurt so easily." Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jin tilt his head, as he always did when he was thinking. As he always had when he was around those stupid alien leads—never around her.
"Once long ago I learned that lesson," he began slowly. "I would have given anything to keep you from learning it."
"Even if it meant my forgiveness?" she looked over at him.
After a second Jin turned and met her gaze.
"It's so easy to slip as a parent," Mrs. Joon murmured. "So easy to hurt your child." Her eyes froze. "By just getting into the car and driving angrily, stupidly. Baba, what do you do when it's your child?"
"You hope your child sees that you're just a bigger, scareder version of her. And hope for both of you that she forgives you." He paused. "Even when her foolish old father doesn't deserve it."
Mrs. Joon took his smaller hand in hers. They waited.
They waited as the waiting room emptied one by one. They waited as the hall quietened, as the passing voices and footsteps slowed in frequency, and as all sounds died.
Six hours had gone. It was 3 A.M. before Dr. Miller returned, mouth drooping at least an inch lower from exhaustion. "We'll need to monitor his reaction to the surgery in Intensive Care."
"How long is a while?" Mrs. Joon snapped.
"It depends, but most likely two to three weeks."
"Where is he now?" Jin asked.
Mrs. Joon looked sideways at him. She hadn't known he was awake.
When they arrived, Mrs. Joon, disoriented from the long wait, expected her son to be sleeping at this late hour. Seung's eyelids fluttered blearily, like a newborn lamb's. "Where were you, Grandpa?" His voice was small.
"I was here," Jin replied, touching Seung's forehead.
After much effort, Seung's lips turned upwards.
How could he be so innocent and yet so worldly and knowing at ten? Mrs. Joon turned away, blinking again.