"When were you gonna tell me, hmm? You weren't--I know you weren't. You were waiting for Hackett to do it, weren't you? 'I'm sorry, Shepard, but your husband has been killed in action on Torfan.'"
Heather Shepard opened her eyes and blinked heavily. The waking world filtered back into her mind slowly as she stretched and yawned, squirming and flopping over in bed. The faint voices of her parents grabbed her attention--she tilted her head to the side and held her breath to get a better listen.
"How could you do that to me? HOW?"
The little girl startled at her mother's roar; one small arm was still tightly hooked around a large stuffed Krogan and she hugged him close, curling her body back up into a ball and sinking back into her blankets. She drew pensive brows and pursed her lips together as her stomach did a cartwheel.
Mama was mad again.
"TELL ME HOW!"
She was mad a lot these days.
Heather tucked her chin into her chest and buried her nose into the Krogan's head. Bronx was soft and he smelled warm, like the chili peppers Uncle Paco used in his tacos every Tuesday.
"It's an N7 mission. I have to go."
She squeezed her eyes shut; daddy's voice was dark and getting darker--how it always did, just before he started yelling, too.
"NO! NO WAY, NATHAN! YOU'RE NOT GOING!"
"I don't have a fucking choice here, Dakota. What, you think I can't handle it?"
"YOU DO HAVE A CHOICE!"
Heather squared her shoulders and braced.
"I'm a soldier FIRST. YOU KNEW THAT WHEN YOU MARRIED ME!"
"FUCK THE ALLIANCE!"
"IT'S ALL I'VE EVER BEEN TRAINED TO DO."
"THINGS CHANGE, PEOPLE ADAPT TO THAT CHANGE--EVEN I KNOW THAT!"
"AND I KNOW THAT I'M GOING."
A huge lump unfurled from the foot of her bed, stretching along her arched back. A heavy box-like head tipped into the side of her face, and she opened her eyes again. Jeff, the family dog, nuzzled her once with a silent rumble in his throat. Heather rolled over and hugged his neck, wedging Bronx safely in between them both.
None of them liked it when Mama and Daddy fought.
Especially Bronx. He hated it the most.
Probably because it made Heather cry.
And that just made him mad.
Madder than both her parents put together.
Just like a real Krogan.
"WHAT IF YOU DON'T COME BACK?! WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?"
"...I'll come back..."
"DON'T MAKE PROMISES YOU CAN'T KEEP!"
"You're Ex-Commander Dakota FUCKING Shepard, AREN'T YOU? YOU SAVED AN ENTIRE GALAXY! YOU'LL BE FINE."
"Fine! Forget about me! What about your daughter? What's she gonna do?!"
No. No, no no no no, no.
Mama's voice was scratchy and breaking and Heather wished it would break completely--she didn't want them to fight over her again.
"She doesn't NEED ME. SHE NEEDS YOU!"
"BULLSHIT! SHE NEEDS YOU, I NEED YOU! WE BOTH NEED YOU."
"....I'm done arguing...I'm going--that's final."
Jeff's head whipped up and he leapt off the bed. He ran towards her bedroom door like he ran to any door when someone was ready to leave. He looked like a big shadow at the edges of her nightlight's reach and his long tail swept across the light, back and forth. He made a coughing sound and slammed his shoulder against the door.
Heather sat up in horror. Where would Daddy be going this late at night? And why was Mama so afraid he'd never come back? She tumbled out of her blankets and onto the cold hardwood with a thud. Leaving Bronx by her pillow, she scrambled out of her room, Jeff close by her side.
Mama was standing against the front door, arms spread hard against the frame. Heather could see blood falling from Mama's lip and down her chin.
Mama's lip only bled when she was scared.
Daddy tried to pull her away from the door, but she just yelled louder. "I WON'T LET YOU GO, NATHAN!"
Heather cowered at the top of the stairs, watching as Daddy grabbed Mama's shoulder and pulled harder. "MOVE, DAKOTA!"
"NO! NO!" She jerked around and tossed her head; she growled and shrieked like the neighbor's dog, and kept saying, over and over again, "NO! NO NO NO! YOU'RE NOT LEAVING, NATHAN! I'M NOT LETTING YOU LEAVE US!"
Daddy's hands fisted around the front of Mama's shirt next; Heather shrieked.
Mama's eyes got big when she looked up over Daddy's shoulders and at her and Jeff. Her fingers were dug into the doorframe like claws. "Go back to bed, baby!"
Heather dusted her fingers over Jeff's head and curled a frightened hand around his collar. "Wh-wh-where..." She wanted to talk, but the words were gone. Her voice was too scared to come out of her chest. She was shaking and felt like throwing up.
"Everything'll be okay--"
Mama was lying.
"--just take Jeff and go back to your room."
Daddy didn't even turn around. He reached under Mama's arm and opened the door and she fell backwards onto the porch with a cry. Heather ran down the stairs so fast she tripped over her own feet and slid on her butt down the last five steps. Jeff fell too--he landed on his face next to her.
Mama was on her hands and knees and Daddy was almost to the car by the time she'd made it to the front porch.
"NATHAN!" Now she was howling his name; Mama sounded like a werewolf. "NATHAN! NATHAN, DON'T YOU FUCKING DARE--"
Heather watched from just inside the house, too scared to stand on the porch. She was afraid of Mama--she looked scary with her big mad eyes and claws and teeth.
Daddy couldn't hear her--he kept walking--and Mama yelled louder. Over and over and over.
He got in the car and she jumped up and ran to the door. She pulled on the handle and tried to open it and hit the window with her fist and screamed at him.
Heather's eyes felt hot and her nose scrunched up tight; she sat on her knees and grabbed Jeff and hid her face in his big neck and wished she could close her ears--just like her eyes.
She heard the car drive away and Mama bark after it...and then it got quiet.
And that's when she started to cry.
Mama was really quiet after that. She only talked to Heather when she wanted to say something important, like when it was time for dinner, or when she was supposed to go to bed. She sat at the table in the kitchen in her pajamas a lot, and always wanted to be left alone.
She drank lots and lots of tea. And took lots of medicine.
Heather pretended that she didn't know how sick Mama was, or that there were a bunch of bottles of pills in a drawer by her bed. Mama's heart wasn't working right and so she was sad all the time. The medicine never worked--it just made her sleepy and took away her words.
Daddy was the only one who could make her better.
And he was gone.
Heather asked Jeff if he was ever gonna come back, but he didn't know. Bronx didn't know either. And she was never, ever, gonna ask Mama, because she was too scared. What if talking about Daddy broke the rest of her heart forever, and she died?
Mister Alenko came to visit after Mama stopped answering the phone. Heather had to let him in, because Mama wouldn't leave the kitchen table anymore.
"Shepard...what's going on?"
"...It's ok...everything will be ok...cuz...it's always ok..."
Heather took Jeff and Bronx and sat in the living room, drawing pictures at the coffee table, and listened.
"How many, Shepard?"
"Your eyes are so glazed over I can hardly see them. How many?"
"Can't remember...whatever...the many...however....doctor...said..."
"Don't do this, Shepard. Don't be selfish."
Heather heard a chair scrape across the floor and then Mister Alenko grunt when he fell in. Mama didn't say anything to him--she'd probably used up all her words again and wouldn't find get more until she fell asleep for a while.
"She needs you."
Heather wrapped her arms around her stuffed Krogan and ducked her head, and let her brown hair fall over her face to hide it. She didn't want to be talked about again--the last time she was talked about, Mama was yelling and screaming.
The house got quiet again, and it stayed that way. She got up and carefully crawled across the carpet like an Asari Commando, doing her best not to make any noise and stay invisible. Lifting to her knees, she held Bronx with one arm and touched the edge of the dining room wall with the other; Heather slowly poked her head around the corner to peek into the kitchen.
Mister Alenko was sitting next to Mama with his hands together on the table; she was bent forward like a "C" and looking away, hands in her lap. Heather wasn't sure if she looked more sad now than she did at breakfast--and now she felt bad for opening the front door and letting Mister Alenko in.
"It's...two...weeks...almost...haven't heard nothin' for...almost..." Mama turned her head and picked it up to look at him. She moved it like it was heavy. "Kaidan."
He didn't say anything, just stared back at her and blinked once.
"I'm scared...he...just...left...and..." She wrapped her arms around her chest and gave herself a tight hug.
Heather frowned--she'd give Mama a hug, if she wasn't too scared to be near her. Now she felt bad because she hadn't given her a hug when she needed it.
"Kaidan, I'm...what...what if he's..." Mama was whispering now, and hugging herself so hard it looked like she was gonna break herself. "what if he's dead?"
Heather's eyes got big and she jerked Bronx back up to her face.
Daddy's not dead, is he? He didn't drive away that night to go and die? To leave them forever and ever?
"Shepard--don't talk like that."
"I can't do this anymore....be strong...I'm...too tired..."
"You have to. You have to keep fighting--if not for yourself, then at least for your daughter."
Mama started to bite her lip again and she dropped her head; her shoulders were shaking a little, but she wasn't crying. Heather's eyes burned when she saw Mama like this. The pills took away Mama's words and her tears--so she cried for her.
But she had to be quiet--she couldn't make any noise--if Mama saw her like this, it might make her even more sad...
Mister Alenko moved away from her with a sigh. "I--sorry."
"What do you want...?"
"You haven't returned any of my calls. Or Ash's, or Cortez's, or-or even EDI's. It's been a week and the neighbor said he hasn't seen you leave the house. We were all worried sick."
"What do you want, Alenko?"
"I want you to stop this. Put the pills away and eat something. Take a shower, change your clothes...you can't take care of a child when you can't even take care of yourself."
Mama coughed and jumped out of her chair; her legs slipped out from under her and she fell into the table. "Don't...judge...dunno what....s'like!"
He put his hands around her shoulders and put her back in her seat. "Shepard. She may have already lost one parent...don't make her lose you too..."
She curved back around the tabletop and nested her head in her arms.
"I don't know how to do it," Mama was very quiet now, whispering, voice almost gone.
Heather squinted her eyes and moved her head forward to try and hear what she was saying.
"I don't know how to live without him..."
Mister Alenko tilted his chin and his brown eyes caught her in the corners. Heather jumped backwards so fast she lost her balance and flung her arms high into the air as she fell; Bronx smacked her in the face and she scooped him back up and scrambled to hide behind the wall again.
Great, now Mama would know she'd been spying on them this whole time. Heather wasn't afraid of getting into trouble for it--she was afraid of the fake smiles Mama forced and all the lies she told her over and over, saying how everything would be fine, until she got tired.
Mama shouldn't be wasting her words on lies. She should save them all up so that if Daddy did come back, she could use them to tell him how much she loved him.
Because that was the truth.
"You'd better find a way, Shepard. You don't have much choice." Mister Alenko didn't say anything else, and neither did Mama.
Heather was thankful and used the chance to sneak away and go hide in her room, where it was safe.
She didn't realize she'd fallen asleep until the doorbell rang and Jeff wriggled out from under her head and ran out of her room again. Heather stayed on the floor and curled back up; Bronx would be her pillow now. He didn't mind at all.
He was too busy being mad to care about having his tummy smushed by her head. He was mad at Daddy for leaving Mama, and even more mad at Mama for breaking and wilting like flowers that don't get enough water; and he was even more, more mad at the doctor for giving her the pills that made her worse. But...but Heather felt like he was the maddest at her.
It was her fault that all this happened. Mama and Daddy fought about her. That's why...that's why he left...because she was standing on the top of the stairs and yelled. Daddy walked out the door right after she did that...
But she didn't cry. She had to save those tears for Mama now. For when Mama needed to cry them and couldn't.
There were more voices downstairs, not just Mister Alenko, but Auntie Ashy too. Heather closed her eyes and listened again, hoping that maybe Auntie Ashy knew something about Daddy. Auntie Ashy was smart--she knew lots of stuff, and always had messages from Admiral Hackett.
"I'll take care of her, don't worry."
"Ash, she's...fragile. Go easy on her."
"I said I'll take care of her, Kaidan! Skipper needs a kick in the ass, not a mother!"
Heather scrunched her face and sighed. Auntie Ash was wrong--Heather felt so sad for Mama. It was hard to not have a mom. Mama was in the house, but Heather still felt like she wasn't there, like she was gone. If Mama had her mom, then...then would things be different?
"I...fine. I just...I just worry."
"I've never seen her like this before, and it scared me. Is that all right with you?"
Mister Alenko was scared? If he was scared, then...then it must be really bad. There was something about his eyes--the way he looked at things made her think that he could see things nobody else could.
He could see how sick Mama was. It was a lot worse than she could see with her little eyes.
He knew something really bad was gonna happen to Mama, and now she was scared, too.
"Listen to me, El-Tee. Fihne. Eff-ai-en-ee. Ffffiiinnneee."
"Call me, if anything changes."
"Go home and get some sleep, Alenko."
The front door opened and closed again; Heather got up and scampered over to her bedroom window to watch Mister Alenko leave. He walked across the lawn really slowly, and he even stopped to turn around and look back at the house twice. When he got to the driveway, he stopped again and stood to stare for a while. It was too dark outside to see his eyes now, but she could still see the way his shoulders were pulled back and tight; his hands were curled into fists, too.
He looked really upset. Was...was...why was he upset? Why-what did he know?
Heather spread a hand along the windowpane and swallowed a lump in her throat. She wanted to hit the cold glass and shout at him, beg him to tell her what he knew. What was going to happen to her? Why was he so scared?
But she just coughed and pulled her nails down the window. She couldn't find her voice, and he disappeared before she could.
Her Auntie didn't leave for days and days; she slept on the couch every night and always had breakfast on the table by the time Heather woke up. She made sure Mama ate and changed out of her pajamas, too. She tried to get her to talk, too, but it didn't work very well. She tucked them both in at bedtime, and even told stories to help Heather sleep.
They were always ones about the the war with the Reapers. Back when her and Mama and Daddy and even Mister Alenko were all heroes. They'd saved the whole galaxy, everyone in the whole, entire, big wide world.
Auntie always waved her hands around and got excited when she told Heather about all the cool things her parents did. And Heather did too, sort of. But all the stories made her really sad, too.
They made her wonder:
Why Mama couldn't be as cool now as she was back then?
But she'd close her eyes and try to ignore the question. If she ignored it hard enough, then sometimes she'd get lucky and see her Mama as the "Mighty Commander Shepard" in her dreams.
The morning Auntie Ashy went to the store to buy food is when she'd heard him come back in her sleep. Jeff had jumped off the bed again and run out of her room and she heard Mama chase after him like loud thunder through the hall and down the stairs.
The front door opened with a creak, and then it got quiet.
Bronx told Heather to wake up and open her eyes, but she was too afraid; she wanted Daddy to come home. She didn't want to open her eyes and find out that none of it was really happening--that none of it was real. But he started to get real mad and jumped off the bed. She tried to reach over to pick him up with her eyes squeezed shut tight, but she lost her balance and fell on her face.
Great--now she was awake.
And just as mad as Bronx.
Why did he make her open her eyes?!
She didn't want to open them!
Heather snatched up her Krogan friend and threw him back on her bed as hard as she could. It was his fault now. All his fault.
She hated him forever...
She grabbed Bronx out of the blankets and got ready to slam him onto the floor; she heard noises coming from downstairs and froze.
Mama was crying:
Heather listened really hard then. Maybe Daddy came home? But then why would Mama be crying? Scrunching her nose and making fists, she tried as hard as she could to hear Daddy's voice...
...but he wasn't there. The only thing her ears picked up was the scratching sound of Mama's tears.
That's it. No more.
She stomped down the stairs as loud as she could and decided that she was tired of Mama and her sadness. Daddy wasn't ever coming back, and Heather was gonna make her Mama listen. If Heather had to wake up and realize Daddy wasn't coming home, then Mama needed to wake up too.
"MAMA!" Heather roared louder than a tiger did. "STOP CRYING! BRONX SAYS YOU'RE SO STUPID, MAMA! DADDY'S NOT COMING BACK! HE DOESN'T LOVE US ANYMORE! LEARN IT IN YOUR STUPID...HEAD!"
Heather kept yelling, even as she came around the corner and her eyes burned like fire. "BRONX SAYS YOU NEED TO WAKE UP!" She started to cry now and got scared because Bronx was going to be mad at her for crying. She took a big breath in as she marched into the living room and shouted, "WAAAAAKEEE UUUUUUP!!!!"
Mama was sitting on the couch and stared at her with big, confused eyes. They were red and wet and puffy. There was a man next to her. He was in soldier clothes, like what Daddy wore. He looked like him, too. He had the same hair and eyes and everything.
But...no. That couldn't be right. Because...because he was never coming back.
Heather gave up and flopped down on the floor. She curled up tight like a ball of yarn and just cried. She wanted the world to go away and to take all her mad feelings with it.
The air moved and all of a sudden she was being squished by this man. He had his arms wrapped around her so tight, she thought she was going to snap. Heather kept crying and pressed her face into his uniform.
He smelled like Daddy, too--just like the ocean. She felt one of his giant hands stroke her hair; some of it caught in his rough skin.
"Ssh...no sweetheart, no...I'm right here. Daddy's right here."
Wow... He even sounded like him. Maybe...maybe it was him? She hugged him back and tried to stop crying.
"Now Mama can get fixed," she hiccuped, "she won't be sick anymore..."
He snuggled her tight and kissed the top of her head. "I'm here now; shhhh it's ok, it's ok..."
She squirmed backwards with her arms still tightly latched around his neck to get a good look at him. She wanted to believe he was her Daddy but had to be 100% sure. He tipped his head and stared down at her with a gentle look on his face.
Sniffling, she squinted and hiccuped and looked him in the eye. They were that soft purple--the kind that got shiny and friendly whenever they looked at her. Only her.
A tiny smile cracked through her tears and she slammed her forehead into his shoulder. "That was from Bronx! He says to never do that again!"
He hugged her tighter in response--now she felt like she was gonna break for sure. But it was ok; she was safe now. So even if she did break apart, he was right there to put her back together.
Heather stayed with him for the rest of the day. She followed him around everywhere he went and wouldn't let him out of her sight. She had to make sure he was still real and she wasn't dreaming.
She made both her parents pinky-swear they'd never fight like that again. And she was gonna make sure they kept it. And if they didn't, she'd make sure she fixed the problem before it got bad and anybody started crying again.
Bronx told her to stop worrying that night, at bedtime. It felt like forever since she could go to sleep and not be sad. She listened to the quiet downstairs just to be sure there wasn't going to be more fighting.
Mama was mumbling something--she could hear the rumble in her voice.
Heather slithered out of her blankets and crept from her room to the end of the hall. She spied on her parents from the top of the stairs, one tiny hand curled around a bannister.
Mama and Daddy were standing by the front door again, but this time there was no yelling. Mama's words were so quiet this time that Heather couldn't understand what she was saying.
Daddy had his arms around her and was stroking the top of her head. Her face was hiding in his chest.
"I know. I know." His words were just as soft, but more clear. "I'm sorry," he gave her hair a kiss, "I would never leave you like that. You know I love you both, always."
Heather smiled and slowly turned around to go back to bed. Her parents were acting more normal and so that meant life would be ok again, too.
And that made her happy.