TITLE: Thin Fire
AUTHOR: Luna (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SUMMARY: She'd never thought to wonder about God until she'd found herself praying unanswerable prayers.
CATEGORY: Slash, Ellie Bartlet/Winifred Hooper,
NOTES: Ceci n'est-ce pas my characters. Don't sue. Wonderful beta work by Tahlia and Jae. For the WingSwing.
Thin Fire by Luna
If you never get out of the car you can ignore the truth; you can outrun it.
The gray-blue Volvo drives through the low-hanging gray-blue morning. Before the sun comes up. A city underwater.
Ellie's hands are slick with sweat on the wheel. Her fingers jitter. Her teeth chatter. Her car with the dew on its windshield follows side-streets and shortcuts, no compass but the white needle of the Washington Monument in the sky.
In another hour traffic will be impossible. She makes a series of right turns, searching for the highway. Her engine has a rattle in it that gets louder as she drives faster, competing with the windy whir of the tires. Competing with the conversation inside Ellie's head.
Doctors' voices. Her parents' voices, talking at or near but not to one another. Liz's voice, soft and trembly as she spoke to her daughter over the phone. Everyone was talking except the youngest Bartlet girl. Who sat small and still in a hospital bed, like a motionless speck of matter at the heart of a whirling atom, or galaxy.
Without thinking, she presses harder on the gas pedal. A Volvo fish on an asphalt riptide. Police parked in secret places tag her with their radar guns, run her plates, and let her pass.
Ellie was twelve when she quit being Catholic. Every Sunday before that had been the same. Dad--and Mom, if she wasn't at work--rounded their girls into churchworthy clothes. Nice skirts. Nice blouses. And into the sedan, bickering over whose turn it was to ride in the front seat. Adults went up the stone steps to the chapel, crossing themselves with fingers dipped in holy water. Children went to the basement for Sunday school, to be herded upstairs later in a well-dressed, fidgeting, shh-ing line. After church, gossip in the parking lot, and home for pancakes with maple syrup-- and, if Mom was at work, chocolate chips--for breakfast.
Ellie had been Confirmed two weeks before. She'd worn Liz's same dress although she'd lobbied hard for a new one, but there was a silver St. Joan medal in a black velvet box for her, and cards with checks from a dozen relatives. She'd frowned in all the photographs. The dress had been a breath too tight.
That Sunday she lay in bed in cotton thermals, with Saturday's braid in her hair and an unpurring cat held in her arms. She waited to be noticed. Missed. Finally her father opened the door a crack. He remembered to knock and did, twice, quickly, before he opened the door the rest of the way. "Eleanor," he said, playing with her name. "Let's get going, we'll be even later than usual."
She took a breath and used all her nerve to say it. "I'm not going."
"Let's go, honey." He stood in her doorway, wearing a bathrobe over his church pants. "It's warm out, you won't have to wear tights."
"Stockings, Dad." She let the cat go, watched it run out between her father's ankles. "I don't care about that. I'm not going to church, that's all."
"Don't tell me you're not feeling well. You were fine at soccer practice yesterday; you can't just this minute have come down with something."
"I think I might throw up." It wasn't really a lie, she thought. She might.
"Ellie." He came and sat down by her feet, still without asking, and wrinkled his brow at her. "What's going on? What's the real reason?"
There were two Real Reasons. One was that, months ago, she'd stopped believing in God. Though Mom had done a good job talking her past her "but-what-about-the-dinosaur-bones" phase, and though Ellie had always despised the kids who asked wiseass questions in CCDs, she had stopped. Perhaps it was history sinking heavily into her. She'd had, after all, twelve years of Dad talking over dinner about crusades and inquisitions, plagues of locusts, pillars of salt. Perhaps it was just that she'd never thought to wonder about God until she'd found herself praying unanswerable prayers.
The other Real Reason was that, having graduated from the basement Sunday School, she was obliged to sit through the whole sermon. Father Cavanagh was a nice old wire-rimmed man, but sometimes she shut her eyes while he spoke and felt the whole church pull downward, one big mouth, frowning at her.
"I'm so tired," Ellie said, pulling the sheet up to her nose. She coughed. An unconvincing cough for a doctor's daughter. "I just don't feel--oh, leave me alone."
Her father's eyes narrowed to pinpoints. The corners of his mouth dug trenches and hid in them. His anger filled up Ellie's room like a fog. Thick and stifling. Pea soup.
He stood up to pace her floor. "You're old enough not to be dragged kicking and screaming," he said grimly. "If you don't want to go to church, I won't make you."
She sat up a little. "Dad--"
"We'll talk later," he said. His back to her. He left her a roomful of pea soup.
Ellie pulled a book out from under her pillow, a Nancy Drew she'd read twice before. She looked at the pages and turned them, but the words were blurry and didn't hold onto her eyes. She stayed in bed, even when she heard the door open downstairs. Her father's voice boomed from the kitchen: "You're the top! You're the Coliseum!" Her sisters' singing floated up after his, and the smell of chocolate chip pancakes.
The fog pressed her down into the mattress. She put her pillow on her face.
It could have been a few minutes or an hour before she heard footsteps skidding up to her doorway. Ellie moved her pillow enough to peek. There was Zoey. Church-clothed. Pink-faced. Bearing an overfilled glass of apple juice carefully in her small hands. She shuffled to the bed and gave Ellie the glass. Spilled droplets sparkled on her patent-leather shoes.
"Well," Zoey said, as matter-of-fact as a seven-year-old could be, "I don't think you're going to hell."
And she scurried out of Ellie's room, pigtails bouncing behind her.
On the road to Baltimore, her hair escapes its rubber-banded knot and falls damply down to her shoulders. Curls cling to her eyelashes and to her skin, sticky as flypaper. At least the inside of the Volvo is dry.
She keeps to the left-hand lane, farthest from the clumpy, birdless trees along the shoulder. In the low light, their green is dulled to gray. Government-sponsored forsythia spikes up on the narrow median. This early the road is still mostly for truckers, and Ellie the only civilian driver. She zips past half a dozen semis, so quick that the billboards on their trailers don't have a chance to sell her anything. Even as they shake her hands stay at ten and two.
Across the backseat, like a white dog dozing, lies her lab coat. Name tag still attached, an antiseptic smell on the cuffs. Sixty-four hours ago she'd gone from Zoey's graduation straight to work; later she'd gone straight from Johns Hopkins to the White House. Somewhere in there, she'd taken a shower, eaten a little something, ridden in a helicopter. And waited, and waited, and waited. How had it happened in such a short time?
How is this happening?
Ellie thinks of herself as a professional. In her first year post-doc, she still gets treated like a student sometimes, still gets stuck taking inventory. Yet there is so much to learn from the work. Secret knowledge, inexplicable, although her mother understands when she marvels over these little things. How pure science translates to healing. In her awe at her own learning she stands a little apart from the other young researchers. She works through the weekends, volunteers for doubles and holiday shifts. She has never complained about paying her dues. Her evaluations--and her colleagues--always say that she's capable, insightful, dedicated. Doctor Eleanor Bartlet.
Zo, talk to me. Anything you say, only, talk to me.
She said that. And Zoey said, okay.
It is close to six a.m. as the first signal flare of dawn reaches the dark sky. Within a minute, it spreads to a thin red-gold line, a streak of gasoline fire across the horizon. Thank pollution for beautiful sunrises.
She squints at the wedge of the road held within her headlights. Hands at ten and two.
Yes, her mother was on her side. Many times. Ellie knew from childhood that she had an edge--that she was an edge between her parents. She didn't mean to take advantage. Usually.
It began with church, the secret war between Ellie and her father. It began with adolescence, and the discovery that she was not everything he assumed she would be. Certainly it began somewhere deeper than politics, although if he hadn't become a politician, they might have grown closer, sooner.
If he hadn't become a politician--never mind.
He was surprised to see her when she arrived, driving her own car in the center of a Secret Service escort. Red and blue lights eddying around them like mosquitoes. Zoey had been kidnapped, and he was surprised Ellie came.
On the second sleepless night they went to Mass together. Silence rode in Zoey's seat in the black motorcade. Ellie's throat ached dryly and she could not help thinking it was like a funeral. She bit her lip, tasted blood. Her eyes glittered. Her fingers jittered.
It was hot inside St. Joseph's, an old church full of the smell of old incense. Candles sagged under the weight of their flames. The priest spoke and moved with an evenness, a flow to his white vestments and his words, as if he was alone in the ritual. Ellie leaned back into the pew, not listening. She studied her family.
Liz's head kept drooping toward her hymnbook. In profile she didn't look any different than she had at sixteen, though she was flushed, feverish. Her eyelids dusted her cheeks. She yawned, and caught it with her fingers. Nobody noticed but Ellie.
Mom, on the other hand, was wide awake, the last traces of sedative burning off in her eyes. A rosary shook from her white-knuckled hands. She was motionless in the fierce way of a cornered animal about to spring, muscles tensed, brittle bones prominent. It was hard to look at her.
Ellie couldn't look at her father without turning around, but she didn't need to. He was a raw nerve. He hurt.
She flinched at the ring of a bell and looked up to watch the priest blessing the host. She remembered her father's face when she'd gotten out of the car, his eyes sunk in shadows. Surprised to see her. She'd taken a step backward. It was later--sensing the anger that crackled between her parents, and the chaos in the other wing of the White House, sensing in the way that only a middle child could when someone is left out--that she'd understood what he felt. Pain, yes. Anger. But he felt so guilty. She'd hugged him in the kitchen. He'd felt so small.
Now she crossed her arms. Her heart swelled, pounded painfully at her rib cage. She wanted to cry out.
Liz walked out from the rows, up the center aisle, and knelt at the communion rail. Head bowed, hands cupped. It was a position of supplication, of submission to the will of God.
Ellie stood up. Her knees knocked together. Bless me, father, for I have sinned. She hadn't gone to Confession in years, and didn't even agree on the definition of sin. It didn't matter. She went to her knees and lifted her hands.
The priest looked down at her, milky-eyed above his milk- colored robes. He placed the circular wafer in her hands. "The body of Christ," he said. "The bread of heaven."
She accepted it. The wafer did not become flesh on her tongue. The priest held the chalice to her lips and she drank. The wine did not become blood. She accepted it: for herself, but really for her mother and father, and for her sister. Separated by space and time, joined by these gestures. This story.
As she stood, turning, she tried to catch her father's eye. He was looking past her, past the altar and the cross and into the hot spring night. His stare was fixed on unmeasured distance.
It didn't matter.
She tiptoed back to her bench and sat down, gripping the cool wood. You were supposed to sit in silent prayer until everyone had received the Eucharist. Ellie thought: please. Nothing else.
She is driving through her neighborhood, down her own street. There are her toes on the brake. Sooner or later she'll have to stop. So she does.
Her long, dim shadow leads her up the block. The tulips by her stoop lay their petals wide open for the first touch of sunlight. Physician, heal thyself, she thinks. Get a shower, Ellie, and a little sleep. She climbs the stairs and pushes her key into the door.
Someone's sleeping on her couch.
Ellie almost laughs, nursery rhymes in singsong through her head. She doesn't laugh--the breath dies in her throat. She's grappling, butterfingered, with her cell phone as the blanketed shape rouses itself. "Don't shoot," it says. "It's only me."
"Winifred." Ellie slumps backward, letting the door take her weight. "Jesus Christ. That wasn't funny."
"No, I don't do funny," she says, as if she's proud of it. She sits up and gives a yawn that shows her sharp little teeth. Her dark hair is pulled back in a messy horsetail. "You gave me a key, remember? To pick up your notebook, that time."
"And you just let yourself in."
"Well, I knew you weren't here."
"Oh," Ellie says. Too much air riding her voice. She wipes her forehead with her thin wrist. For the first time she notices that the TV's on, flooding her living room with splashes of blue light, fact and story, strangers' voices soaking into her walls. With two strides she crosses the room and shuts it off.
"They said your sister was going to be okay," Winifred murmurs. Ellie pushes past her, into the bedroom and its overheated, closed-window dark.
She peels her T-shirt off, frowning at the welts its seams and wrinkles leave on her skin. Beads of sweat tickle the crescents beneath her breasts. She bends to slide her feet out of her shoes. Sweat glistens at the back of her neck, the backs of her knees, like water slipping from the surface of a block of ice. Ellie looks down at herself and the hysterical laughter bubbles up again in her chest.
"They don't say much on the news about what really happened."
Winifred, in the doorway. Small, pale and plain, with pointed teeth in a pointed smile. The kind of girl who becomes your friend even as she tells you exactly what she thinks of you. Incapable of keeping secrets or opinions to herself, as the GAO had figured out and fired her.
Her steady stare catches Ellie half-bent, half-turning. Truth climbs the ladder of Ellie's spine.
"Don't talk to me right now," she says, and lunges for her.
Their bodies collide with each other and the wall, muted crashes that might show as bruises later. Hot skin glides against cool skin. She tips her head to kiss her, or to be kissed. Her lips are dry and wounded. Her lips part like the sky promising morning. Her hands in her hands. Fingers jittering.
It isn't the first time, and it isn't gentle. They clutch drowningly at each other's shoulders, waists, hipbones. Scratches on a round white shoulder. Teethmarks encircling a nipple. A pinch on the inside of a thigh. But pain and awkward angles are ignored in the names of want and need. Bellies tighten together as clothes are shrugged off, yanked down, thrown aside. Her hair in her eyes. Her hands in her hands, plunging toward a dark openness.
After the President had to go, after the First Lady had gone to speak to the doctor, after Liz had gone to speak on the phone, Ellie watched Charlie across the hospital room. So he watched her. It became a staring contest. No blinking. No looking at Zoey in the paper gown and the bed. It could have gone on for hours if necessary. But Charlie lowered his deep-dark eyes, ducked his head, and walked out.
Ellie went and squatted at her sister's bedside. She picked up Zoey's hand, squeezed it. Eyes opened and Zoey looked out from them, from some recessed hollow space inside herself.
"Zo," Ellie said, lacing their fingers together. "Talk to me. Anything you say, only, talk to me."
In a small, still voice, Zoey said, "Okay."
There was a waiting silence.
"They didn't make me have sex with them."
A wave of blood rose to the shore of Ellie's face. "That's...good."
"I thought they might." Her eyes went wide and flat as glass. They killed Molly, did you know that?"
"I saw her. They--we walked through her blood." Zoey's breath rattled, between sentences that sounded at once raw and rehearsed. "A man grabbed me. He put me on the floor of the van. I felt the gun at the back, at the back of my head. Then I blacked out. I guess you know that, too. About the Ecstasy."
Ellie blinked, then understood. "Don't worry about that."
"So I didn't know where they took me. Just, when I woke up, I was there. In the dark. I thought I was dead. Then..."
"I threw up." A smile wobbled on her lips. "So I knew I wasn't dead."
Ellie tried to return a reassuring smile. It wouldn't come. She shut her eyes, let Zoey's whispery voice lead her through the black.
"They...let me out to take my picture," Zoey went on. "And show me their guns. I guess they thought the guns would make me cry. But I didn't, so one of them, I think he was the man who grabbed me, he came. And twisted my arm. I couldn't help crying, and then I couldn't stop. And they laughed. And put me back in the closet for a really long time. My arm felt broken, I couldn't breathe, I had to pee and I--I don't know. I went a little crazy."
Oh, Zoey, Ellie didn't say. Silence stitched her lips together.
"Later, or maybe the next morning? They heard a noise. The man got in the closet with me. And a gun. He made me put it in my mouth. And he kissed me. On my ear. He said they'd kill me before anyone could come get me. I... believed him."
Her hand fluttered in Ellie's grip.
"Don't tell Dad that."
"I don't want him to know I gave up."
Slowly, Ellie stood up, not slow enough to stop the dizziness, the swirl of stars in her head. She opened her eyes, looked at Zoey still holding her hand, and read the please written on the pale face. Ellie's feelings did not spread out in weather patterns, like their father's. They waited, chambered inside her like fire inside a cigarette lighter.
"You made it home," she said. "That's all he cares about now."
Zoey shook her head so the pillow rustled underneath her. The thin air was full of sounds: a beep, a drip, a sleepless buzz. The walls listened.
"I won't tell him," Ellie said. The words made her mouth feel scalded.
She stooped and kissed Zoey on the corner of her mouth. "Want me to go find Mom? Or Charlie?"
"I wish I could fall asleep." Zoey's gaze drifted again to the ceiling. "Yeah, I want Mom. Thanks."
Ellie didn't want to turn around so she stepped backwards toward the door, aware of the hallway behind her. A long hallway and a hundred rooms of patients and machines, scalpels and drugs. She had never had a problem with hospitals as safe places. Safe as houses. She watched her little sister, tucked tight into the bed. Paper-gowned. White-faced.
The impulse to run kicked awake, tingled in her legs. Ellie turned and went, with measured steps, to find their mother in the hall.
She wakes up in bed with Winifred, their limbs tangled so that for a second Ellie has to wonder: is this my arm? Is this me? And sighs, a sigh of sudden gratitude for this girlfriend she didn't invite.
Still afloat on the current of interrupted sleep, she extracts herself from the embrace. Winifred snuffles into the mattress, curling up catlike, indifferent. Daylight peers in through cracks in the blinds. Ellie puts on a clean T-shirt, and Winifred's cotton shorts, and goes outside just to breathe.
The sun has simmered away the cloud cover and conquered the sky. A fat, happy king. Ellie on the steps bundles her knees against her chest and looks into the glare, half- hoping to be blinded, or burnt away like so much haze.
No science exists to teach her how to balance this. How to empty her crowded chest of love, and grief, and this implacable, clawing rage. Truth with its teeth in her swollen heart, making her hands shake. Staking out that hollowness inside Zoey. And everyone in her family.
Ellie giggles. A little crazy. Her keys jangle from her fist. No matter how fast you are or where you go, the tether yanks you back to home.
She stands and walks down to the Volvo, barefoot on the rough, seed-speckled pavement. She sneaks a glance at her convex reflection in the window. A round, tired, sad- streaked face. Doctor Eleanor Bartlet.
Whose prayers were answered.
She hesitates, with her face in the glass and her fingers on the door handle. No, she won't go back to Washington. Not yet. Let Zoey rest, let it rest, just for a while.
Ellie walks, back to her door. She cranes her neck to see, over her shoulder, the red-gold sun in the huge, glassy sky. A sky to make sure she knows how small she is.
It's midmorning already. She lets herself in.
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