|Thu, 5 Jul 2001
[Gauguin Series: Phoenix/Psylocke] "Otahi"
Disclaimer: The X-Men aren't mine. No copyright infringement is intended. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money is being made.
Many thanks to Pebblin, Lise Williams and Xander for the beta- reading assistance. You guys are awesome. Extra special thanks to Mitai who helped me recover this and other files off a corrupted disk. I'm not sure I could have written this again. She's a saint.
"Otahi" is the seventh story in the Gauguin Arc available at the Itty Bitty Archives, Fonts of Wisdom or at Hivemind. It loosely translates as "Sola" or "Alone" and directly follows the action in "Parau na te Varua ino." Many apologies for you readers who waited so long for this story. Sometimes the transition stories are the hardest to write. :-)
The tale of Alexander Hostler and Samuel Jocelyn comes from _Ghosts of the Carolinas_ by Nancy and Bruce Roberts.
There was no denying it. Jean Grey loved to drive.
After all the action she'd seen over the years as an X-Man, after all the different lands she had visited and foes she had fought, after all the victories great and small, nothing quite measured up to a fast car on an empty road. There was just something about wrapping her hands around a steering wheel, putting her foot to the floor and racing into the horizon. It felt like she could almost run away from all her cares, her worries... as if her life was growing smaller and smaller behind her, transforming into a tiny, almost invisible dot in her rear-view mirror while she sped head first into a new one. It was a lovely fantasy, one that tugged at the corners of her mouth and made her heart hum in delight... but that's all it ever was.
Reality was never that easy to escape.
Jean leaned back in the driver's seat as she fiddled with the radio dial of the rented Mustang convertible, trying to find a clear station after the last one had faded. Tuning from one end of the dial to the other, she found her only choice was a twangy country-western station on the AM dial. It was old school and melancholy, nasal but honest. It would have to do.
After ten hours in the car, stopping in northern Virginia for a nap and a few cups of coffee, she'd left behind most of the heavily populated areas of the east coast and was only two hours away from her destination on the Carolina Outer Banks. Jean was headed to a small fishing village Logan had recommended to her as the perfect place for some peace and quiet. He had said it was the perfect spot to be alone with her thoughts.
The last six months had taken their toll on Jean. It had all begun with Scott's passing, which left a hole in her life she knew could never be completely filled. Her grief had threatened plunge her into insanity, so her teammates sent her away with Betsy Braddock, aka Psylocke, to the sunny Pacific to recover. There, the two telepaths battled her husband-turned-Apocalypse on the astral plane, accidentally awakening the Shadow King who lurked in a prison of Psylocke's creation. The outcome lead to both Jean and Betsy mingling not only their powers, but their very selves... an occurrence that left both of them physically and mentally changed. Jean's telekinesis became a part of Betsy and Jean's own telepathy grew in power, rivaling even that of Professor Xavier himself.
But Jean's extended and changed gifts were only a fraction of what was exchanged between them... an unnamable bond which drove Betsy and her lover, Warren Worthington, apart and sent Betsy seeking the shelter of the English countryside, far away from the X-Men and from Jean. It stung more than Jean had imagined it could. She had never expected to need Betsy's companionship as much as she did... to need or want anyone after Scott. But it had happened and coping with it had almost driven her over the edge. In a moment of weakness, she had trouble with her heightened telepathy and nearly lost herself as Logan watched helplessly. Needless to say, when he had suggested a vacation to get her bearings, she couldn't help but agree.
As Hank Williams Sr. droned away on the radio, Jean tapped her finger on the dash. She was nearly out of gas. So she pulled over at the next service station to refuel.
She eased the blue Mustang into the dusty parking lot and stepped out of the driver's side door as she stretched her aching muscles. As she pumped the gas, she leaned against the car and pulled her windbreaker tightly against her skin. It was spring, but there was still a nip in the morning air. She pushed her hair out of her face and stared up into the sky as she adjusted her sunglasses. Tiny wisps of clouds floated lazily across the blue sky, and the sun shone bright and yellow. It was going to be a good day. Jean could feel it in her bones.
When she went inside to pay and freshen up, she smiled at the attendant, a girl in her early twenties... the owner's daughter, the buzz of her thoughts told her, dreaming of a bigger life in a bigger place far away from the monotonous life of rural bliss. When she handed her back her change, Jean asked, "How much farther is it to the Swan Quarter ferry?"
She tilted her head and studied Jean, seemingly amused and befuddled for a few seconds, even though Jean was sure she had been asked that very question many times before. "Well, about an hour more down the road. You should just catch the ten o'clock boat if you go straight away."
Jean smiled and left two copper coins in the tray next to the cash register labeled 'Take a Penny, Leave a Penny'. "Thanks."
As she grabbed her fruit juice and turned to leave, the young woman asked in a dull voice, "So you're going out to the islands?"
She nodded. "Yes."
"It's pretty boring out there this time of year. No tourists, really."
Jean grinned. "That's what I hear."
"Going out there all alone?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I am."
The girl snickered to herself as she began filling a display behind the counter with packs of cigarettes. "Them old salts will just love the sight of you. You be careful. They might think you're a mirage or one of them mermaids they claim they seen when fishing too long."
Jean winked at her as she opened the door and a cowbell clanged against the glass. "I will."
A town of fishermen and their families would definitely be a change of pace. She was looking forward to it. Jean shook her head.
The girl at the gas station had been correct. As she turned the car into the docking area, the small line of cars had just started moving onto the boat. She smiled as she rolled the car onto the large, flat boat. It seems her timing was perfect.
Once the ferry started moving, she got out of her car and walked to the front, resting a foot on a small pylon as a gentle wind kissed her face. As they chugged deeper into the Pamlico Sound and the mainland disappeared behind them, she leaned her arms against the ferry's railing and listened to the urgent squawks of seagulls as they trailed behind the boat, hoping for a meal from the smattering of tourists and locals.
The place she was going to was only accessible by boats like this and she was looking forward to the isolation. There would be fewer minds whispering at the perimeter of her thoughts and fewer worries and strains among them. As the gentle waves licked against the side of the ferry, she took a deep breath of salty air and let it soak into her thoughts. A person's soul is really a sum of many parts, Xavier had told her long ago. She just needed some time to see what she added up to. Alone.
After two and a half hours, the boat finally arrived at the barren shore of Ocracoke Island, supposedly the final resting place of Blackbeard the Pirate according to a pamphlet she skimmed in the lounge area of the ferry. It seems over the years more than a few people had used the island to escape the prying eyes of the world around them... though Jean was sure her excursion would end on a lighter note than Edward Teach's watery demise at the hands of the Royal Navy.
Disembarking from the ferry, she made a right onto the twelve mile highway which led to the island's only village, sand dunes dipping gracefully on both sides of the road, the only protection the island had between the rough Atlantic on the northeast and the hungry Pamlico Sound on the southwest. From her first few minutes on the island with thirsty sea oats bobbing their elegant, reedy necks at her from over the dunes, she glimpsed a seashore strewn with the ancient carcasses of boats, timbers gray with age and cracked open by an angry sea. It quickly became obvious that life on the island was hard for those who stayed year-round. Ocracoke was worn and fickle, both hard and weak, with enough character to make it unforgettable. Jean adjusted her sunglasses and thought it appropriate Logan would send her here. It was a place after his own heart.
She slowed down as she entered the small village, its size barely a square mile, and found the realty office. As she entered the small establishment, a small set of bells tinkled on the door behind her and an elderly woman popped up from behind the counter, an old-fashioned, green clerk's visor separating her wrinkled face from her helmet of blue and silver hair.
"What can I do for ya?" asked the woman, her accent sparkling somewhere between a southern drawl and something Jean couldn't quite place.
Pushing a handful of wind-blown hair behind her ear, she said with a smile, "I have a reservation. Jean Grey?"
"Ah yes." The woman turned to hover over a milk crate of manila file folders. "You're the Yankee gal I talked to on the phone. We've got lots of spots still open. Where you want?"
Jean raised an eyebrow. "Pardon me?"
The woman scratched her head and adjusted her visor. "Well, we've got soundside and lightside."
Jean grinned, realizing the island manner of speech was going to take some getting used to. "Which one is better?"
"Well, the lightside gets better sunsets and ain't as crowded if that's what your looking for."
Jean nodded. "Sounds perfect."
The woman smiled as she wiped her palms on her old, printed dress. "I thought it might."
As Jean began to fill out the paperwork the woman placed on the counter, she said, "We've got bikes for rent, too, if you're interested. It's the best way to get 'round the island."
Pursing her lips, Jean agreed. She could already tell it would be easier to navigate the island's narrow roads and sandy trails without her car. And it was a long way to the beach from the village on foot. A bicycle sounded like just what she needed.
"How many you need, ma'am?"
Jean placed the worn fountain pen on the counter. "Just one."
The woman winked at her. "Getting away from it all, then?"
Winking back as she took a key and a map from the woman, Jean said, "Something like that."
"Good for you, sweetie."
Jean shouldered the backpack she brought in with her. "Thanks."
She hesitated at the door and the woman seemed to read her thoughts, "Bikes are down there by the gate. Pick whichever one you want. If'n ya need one, I can send Jack around for to put a rack on your car."
"No, no. I can put it in the back seat of my convertible. I don't need any help."
"Okay, then. You take care. Come back here if you need anything. Poles, nets, boat rental's down by O'Neals. But I wouldn't recommend fishing today... water fires last night. And it's fixing to breeze up here in a smidget."
Jean just smiled and nodded and shut the door behind her, not really understanding much of what the woman had said to her and refraining from probing her telepathically. She wasn't interested in much more than finding something to eat and spending the rest of the day reading on the porch. Fishing definitely wasn't on the agenda.
The cottage she was staying in was just off Silver Lake, the village's main harbor, not far from Styron's Store and the lighthouse. When she first entered the small, slope-roofed cottage, she noticed there was no television and no telephone and smiled at the rustic charm of the old home. After she unpacked her car, she visited Styron's for a few provisions, picking up a collection of local ghost stories, having forgotten to bring any the mystery books she so enjoyed with her on her rush to get on the road. In the store, Jean once again marveled at the dialect of the locals and then stopped to gaze at the Ocracoke Light. It was older than any other lighthouse she'd seen and the tall but squat conical structure jutted up defiantly between the gnarled cedars that clung tightly to the sandy soil.
Later that night as the sun set and the wind chimes tinkled gently in the Atlantic breeze, Jean curled up in an Adirondack chair on the front porch of her small, two bedroom cottage as she read the thin volume of local ghost tales. The light faded as she read the last of a story set in post-Colonial Wilmington, North Carolina, which was a few hundred miles down the shore from where she was staying. It was a gripping if not gristly story of two young friends, Alexander Hostler and Samuel Jocelyn.
Jocelyn had died tragically in a riding accident and Hostler, wracked with grief had shut himself away from his friends and family, mourning silently in his home. One night he was visited by Jocelyn's ghost who asked him forlornly, "How could you bury me when I was not yet dead?" Though he was startled by the apparition and the frightening news he brought, he waved it off as a side effect of fatigue and grief and paid it no mind... until his friend visited him again, and again.
At his wits' end, Hostler convinced another friend to help him exhume the body under the cover of night and they found Jocelyn lying dead in his grave, face down in his casket instead of face up as he had been buried. It seemed his friend had been buried alive, only knocked unconscious when he had been thrown from his horse and not struck dead.
Jean suppressed a shudder as the story ended with a historian's account of how the mistake could have been made, explaining that a state of catalepsy associated with head and spine trauma might have appeared as rigormortis to colonial-era physicians.
She blinked as she wished the store had instead been stocked with novels by the likes of Agatha Christie or Patricia Wentworth. She was used to a bit less personal horror in her fiction.
In the distance she could hear the sound of children playing flash-light tag and the bells of buoys clanging off toward the what a gentlemen in Styron's called the ditch, which was in all actuality a wide creek which ran through much of the village toward the soundside. She sighed as she took a deep lungful of salt air into her lungs, closed her book and headed to bed.
Sleep came easy for her, but did not remain so. The old nightmares had returned, unsilenced by her change of locale. Like she had more than a hundred nights since Scott's passing, the events in Akkaba replayed before her and she watched again in horror as her husband merged with the essence of their greatest enemy, Apocalypse.
"No," she whispered in her dream as her fellow X-Men fell beside her like limp dolls and her husband lunged toward Apocalypse and the young Nate Grey. "I can't watch this. Not again."
And then she did something she didn't do on that fateful day; she did something she'd never done in her nightmares before. She ran.
The shocked gasps of her teammates and the cries of a newly born Apocalypse faded from her ears as her feet pounded down the stone corridors of the fortress and carried her towards the white-hot desert sun. But before she could reach the outside, a familiar form emerged from the shadows and clutched her wrist tightly, a cold grip searing her skin.
Jean turned to face her challenger and said quietly, "Betsy. Let me go."
Shadows dripped off her skin like oil as the dream version of Betsy Braddock stepped clear of the thick, stone wall. "No, Jean. You can't run away."
Psylocke then turned Jean in her grip, holding her head firmly between her strong hands as she forced her to look back down the corridor and the scene of Scott's merging appeared once again in front of her, louder and more vivid than it ever was in Egypt. Jean whispered, "Betsy, please."
She looked around at the faces of the X-Men that filled the chamber. Ororo, Xavier, Nathan, even Magneto were all focused on her and then everyone began to laugh. She covered her ears as their voices turned shrill and spiteful.
Before she had another chance to plead with Betsy to let her go, she retreated into the shadows as Apocalypse's inner chamber suddenly grew silent and empty save for the lone figure of her husband wearing the blue and yellow of Xavier's school as he asked quietly, "Why, Jean? Why did you let them bury me when I wasn't dead?"
Jean's voice echoed off the crumbling walls as she shrieked, "Betsy?!"
She spun around as darkness filled the large space and she heard Psylocke laughing from the shadows that licked at her feet. "Don't leave me alone! I can't do this! I can't!"
And as the dream faded from her mind and she fell into a deeper, dreamless stage of sleep, she whispered quietly into her pillow, "Please."
The next morning Jean rose early as she pushed her turbulent dreams into the back of her thoughts, instead spending a few hours relaxing on the lonely beach away from the village. She left her volume of ghost stories at home and had stopped at a small bookshop, picking up a copy of _The Chinese Shawl_, a harmless but hard-to-find novel depicting the adventures of Miss Maud Silver, a spinster private eye living in London.
Alone on the beach, she slathered on a thick coat of spf 30 to guard her pale skin from the sun and reclined in the sand with her book. Maud Silver wasn't enough to keep her attention as the seagulls squawked lazily down the beach and the waves crashed on the shore and she soon found herself drifting off into a lucid sleep, an almost trance-like state she'd often entered to meditate or relax as her book dropped to her chest. Around her she could hear the faint whispers the island-dwellers' thoughts as she let herself relax and dig her painted toenails into the white sand. She took a series of slow, cleansing breaths and winked the voices out one by one, attempting to completely isolate herself from the minds in the vicinity.
Finally completely alone in her mind, she stretched out in the sun and smiled like a cheshire cat, her eyes still closed as she turned onto her stomach and attempted to take a quick nap. But before sleep came, she heard someone whisper her name with a lilting, British accent. "Jean."
She pushed the sensation out of her thoughts but it came back louder than before. "Jean!"
Sleepily, she muttered into her towel, "Leave me alone."
She felt a handful of sand pelt her on the back as the voice said, "Sorry, dear. Rise and shine."
Jean opened her eyes and saw Betsy Braddock dressed in full Psylocke regalia crouching in the sand next to her, a sly grin on her face. Scrambling to a sitting position, Jean declared, "Betsy! What are you doing here?"
Psylocke winked. "I'm not really here. I'm actually grabbing a nap in the sitting room at Braddock Manor. In fact, I don't even know I'm here."
She reached out and tapped Jean's forehead with two manicured fingernails. "You've brought me here through what's left of our psychic rapport. Though honestly what you're seeing is the parts of me we shared after our experience on the astral plane. In short, I'm a hallucination... an astral hobgoblin with just enough Betsy behind me to make me almost her."
Jean sat open-mouthed as Betsy jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "But him? I don't know what his story is."
Looking farther down the beach, she saw a familiar form striding toward her. The posture, the tilt of his head, the flowered swim- trunks only he would have the lack of fashion-sense to wear... "Scott," she breathed as her heart leapt into her throat.
She turned to Betsy, "What's he doing here?"
Betsy smiled as she got to her feet and sprinted playfully towards the surf and said over her shoulder. "I don't know. Why don't you ask him?"
Just as Scott was about to reach her small encampment on the beach, Jean heard a southern drawl speaking quietly but urgently, "Miss. Miss?"
Jean blinked her eyes open as she wiped sand from her cheek and sat up from her towel. Standing over her was a pair of elderly women and from their dress and accent she could tell they were fellow tourists like herself. "Sorry to disturb you, but we thought it was best to wake you. Didn't want you to burn to any more of crisp than you already have."
She looked down at her left shoulder, which had turned a bright shade of pink, and got stiffly to her feet, every inch of her back feeling as if it were simultaneously on fire and being pricked by tiny needles.
One of the women tugged on her straw hat and said with a smile, "I saw that Styron's sells that fancy ice-blue aloe cream. I'd recommend getting a few tubes of it."
Jean winced as she gathered her things. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
They smiled as they walked back toward the shore, obviously intent on collecting shells. "No trouble, miss," said the taller woman with a frizzy main of white hair. "Just sorry you'll have to spend the rest of your vacation half-baked. Literally."
"Midge!" Her friend with the straw hat slapped her lightly on the wrist and the joke was wasted on Jean as she walked back up the beach toward her bicycle, wondering exactly what kind of mind games she was playing with herself.
Later that evening, after she stopped by Styron's and purchased two tubes of the aloe ointment the elderly ladies had suggested as well as a local oatmeal remedy for sunburn, Jean sat down in the small kitchen for dinner at the small linoleum-topped table in the equally small kitchen inside her bungalow. As she pushed her carrots around her plate and cut at a slightly over-cooked chicken breast, bought frozen at said Styron's, she blew a stray strand of hair away from her face and looked at the walls around her, decorated in typical tourist cottage decor. There were wooden seagull and pelican statues on the shelves and every wall seemed to have a picture of a local lighthouse hung on it.
Jean had always found lighthouses inviting, their proud, single lights sweeping the shore, warning sailors away from perilous rocks and guiding them to safe harbor. As she chewed on the last of her meal, she decided what she needed was a lighthouse. Too many times she had tried to find her way by the light of another. Charles, Scott, even Logan. Was Betsy to be the next guide through the fog of her life? She wasn't sure. Jean hoped that at last she'd find the strength to be her own guide, the power to be her own island.
She rinsed her dishes off in the sink and poured herself a glass of cheap wine. A storm was rolling in across the sound and she hoped to watch the clouds move in on the porch as the sun set behind them. But as she put the bottle away, she heard a voice behind her.
"How does it go? John Donne, I believe? '...no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."
Jean raised an eyebrow as she took a deep drink of her wine and then continued the lyric Psylocke began, "...If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were..."
Betsy smirked as she circled Jean and placed her katana on the table Jean had eaten her dinner at. "... any man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Setting her glass down, Jean crossed her arms. "How very Hank of you, Betsy. I thought he was the only one that quoted poetry. A tad on the morbid side, but a noble effort."
Stepping toward Jean, the apparition of Psylocke said with a smile, "You're the one putting words in my mouth."
Jean raised an eyebrow and took her glass in hand again as she turned her back on the figment of Betsy, "So I am."
Betsy reached out and put her hands lightly on her shoulders and Jean sank into her touch, her skin suddenly no longer burning from her sunburn, reminding her that the moment she was caught in was entirely unreal. "You must really be going off the deep end to conjure me here."
Releasing a sigh, Jean tilted back her glass, mouth puckering slightly at the sweetness of the white zinfandel. "It's completely unconscious, I assure you."
Behind her, she could feel Betsy's fingers digging into her back, massaging away all the tension in her muscles. "Of course it is. But you will have to face your ghosts on your own this time, Jean."
She turned in Betsy's grip as she pushed her hands off her shoulders. "I know."
They smiled at each other for a brief moment and Betsy said, "On your own two feet."
Jean nodded. "I know."
Betsy's eyes drifted downward and Jean stepped closer to her. "All this power and the damage Apocalypse did to your memories when he left your mind. You've barely had a chance to deal with it... With your grief... It might drive you mad. Like it did... when she... was you."
"For the last time, I know."
The apparition reached out and touched Jean's lips. She was so real. She spoke like her, she smelled like her. Jean tilted her face up and pressed her lips against the still mouth of her own imagination.
She even tasted like her.
A clap of thunder broke their embrace and startled, Jean dropped her wine glass on the floor. It shattered into a hundred tiny fragments as the lights flickered.
When she opened her eyes, Betsy was no longer there and the katana was gone from the table. She hugged her arms around herself as she realized she was all alone as the storm finally arrived on its journey across the Pamlico Sound.
After the worst of the storm passed, Jean drew a bath and emptied the contents of the oatmeal mixture into the tub. While shabbily decorated, the bungalow wasn't without charm and the bathroom was proof of that with it's four clawed-tub and etched windows. A family must have lived in it before, through all the hurricanes and the hardships of isolation. No doubt the property became much more valuable to them as a tourist rental than a home as the modern world crept steadily towards their island.
Jean took off her dressing gown and eased herself into the tub, letting the cooling effect of the oatmeal powder spread over the back of her calves and up toward her neck. It was stupid of her to fall asleep for so long on the beach, knowing how sensitive her pale skin was to the sun, but she was much more concerned with the turbulent thoughts running through her subconscious and the hallucinations which were growing more frequent with her further isolation. She couldn't help but wonder if they'd been there all along and if she was just too busy to notice.
The minutes ticked by as the last few drops of the thunderstorm tinkled on the tin roof over her head. Her bathwater was beginning to grow cold and her fingers were thoroughly pruned. So Jean got out of the bath and put on a coat of aloe gel, glad that her bikini had shielded her skin from the places on her back she couldn't quite reach.
As she got dressed, Jean studied herself in the mirror. She knew that when she fell asleep he would be waiting for her. If anything, the hallucination of Psylocke in the kitchen was a sign of that. Perhaps she had summoned Betsy as a sort of warning device... a guide through her own turbulent thoughts. Again, she was projecting her own neuroses onto the guise of another. But this time it was all in her head. This time she was the puppet master of her own mental drama. She just had to remember to be in control, that speaking to herself through the mouth of an unrequited lover and a dead husband was far from normal, even for the world's most powerful telepath... even for an X-Man.
Still, she put off sleep as long as she could, finally climbing into bed when she could keep her eyes open no longer. Through the beginning of the night, her dreams were fairly unexciting... a picnic on her parent's lawn with a giant, walking teddy bear melted into a trip to the grocery store where the isles were filled with the same flavor of rice-o-roni over and over when she was looking for tuna helper instead.
Though slightly eerie, there was nothing to be alarmed about until in frustration, she found a clerk dressed in a red and white striped shirt pushing a broom down yet another rice-o-roni-filled aisle. She tapped the man on the shoulder and when he turned to face her, she saw he was wearing a pair of ruby-quartz glasses. She gasped as he wiped his hands on his dingy apron and asked, "Ma'am, can I ask you why you let them bury me alive?"
She dropped the basket she had been carrying and stood her ground when all she wanted to do was run back down the aisle as far away from him as possible. But she could find no words and he asked, "Jean? Why?"
Breathing heavily, she said, "They didn't bury you. There was no body!"
He stepped towards her, dropping his broom with a clatter. "Why did you let them?"
She stammered, "I... I..."
She turned to walk away, but remembered Psylocke's words. She had to face her grief. "You're dead, Scott. Apocalypse has destroyed everything that was you. You're nothing but a ghost."
Turning on her heel, she walked past him and out the doors of the grocery store and into a parking lot. It was raining and she looked up into a black void of a sky as the rain soaked her hair and clothes. Behind her she heard someone clapping their hands and she turned to see Psylocke crouched on a pylon, the shadows of the Crimson Dawn licking at her feet.
She called out to her over the wet asphalt, "Why are you still here?!"
Betsy disappeared as the storm enveloped them both and they both sunk into shadow, but she could hear her words as she cycled out of REM sleep.
"Because it's just beginning, Jean. You know it could never be this easy."
Jean awoke with a start, her sheets sweaty and tangled around her ankles as the mid-morning sun streamed into her room. She had slept away most of the morning, no doubt her subconscious mind attempting to recover from the trauma of her encounters with the phantoms of both Scott and Betsy.
Shivering as she got out of bed, her sunburn tingled up and down her back and Jean decided on another soak in the tub. After her fingers grew as pruned as the night before, she got out of the bath, applied another coat of aloe and carefully dressed, choosing a crisp, white buttoned shirt that coved as much of her back arms as possible while letting her skin breathe.
Squeaky clean, she stood in the kitchen and saw her dishes from the night before sparkling on the drying rack next to the sink. Jean barely remembered cleaning the kitchen the night before, but it came back to her in bits and pieces... her fighting off sleep by drinking an entire pot of coffee, reading sections of her mystery novel and scrubbing the kitchen and her dishes until they were cleaner than when she had first arrived.
She needed to get out, that much was for sure. Obviously the beach was out of the question with her sunburn, so she grabbed her satchel, stuffed in her wallet, some sunscreen and a book and headed out to the front yard to retrieve her bicycle. Jean took the main road to the west of her house and cut onto a smaller street she hadn't yet explored. She passed the school, the one truck fire station and a row of local pottery shops. At the end of the lane of shops before the street turned back into residential buildings, she spotted a coffee shop and knew she had found her destination. So she ordered a double vanilla latte, found a spot on the well-shaded porch and got settled.
Over the course of the day, she finished her book, purchased another from the small bookstand they had inside and played a game of chess with one of the staff members. Jean won easily. And she didn't even use her telepathy.
As the sun hung low in the sky, she thought it best to retreat from the cafe before she called any more attention to herself. She supposed it wasn't normal for a solitary tourist to waste away four hours in the shop and the staff were starting to ask too many questions beyond the congenial 'where are you froms?' and 'having a good time on the islands?'. Jean didn't feel like socializing and the buzzing in the back of her head was growing.
So she mounted her bike again, taking an Italian soda and a turkey on rye with her and headed toward the sound side of the island to watch the sun set. She found a vacant spot just past the lighthouse and close enough to her bungalow so she could find her way back in the dark. After she walked out the end of a short pier that belonged to an obviously empty rental property, Jean sat with her sandwich and her soda and watched as the clouds grew pink and orange over the water.
Drawing a deep sigh as she observed the show in front of her, she thought what a beautiful place she had found to regain her sanity and composure. She suddenly thought that Scott would have enjoyed Ocracoke immensely, this sunset in particular. He always liked sunsets, though being the early bird he was, he preferred the promise of a sunrise instead of the finality of a sunset.
Jean stuffed her empty sandwich wrapper in her pocket as purple ribbon of sunlight peeked out of the cloud formation at the edge of the horizon.
"It is breath-taking, Jean. You're right, I would have enjoyed this."
She blinked as she looked to her left and saw Scott crouched on the dock next to her, dressed in a crisp madras shirt. It was one she had bought for him in Salem Center after their return from Alaska. Right before, before, ... she couldn't even manage to think the words.
So he thought for her. "Yes, Jean. Before Akkaba... before the Twelve. Before my death. You said the blue went well with my complexion. You always said I looked good in blue."
She managed to breathe. "You did. It was your best color."
They stayed silent for a while, when Jean finally spoke, "So you're admitting it now?"
Her Scott-shaped hallucination turned to face her, his expression unreadable behind his glinting, metal visor. "Admitting what?"
Her grip tightened on her plastic cup. "That you're dead. No wait, it wasn't the death issue you had the problem with. It was the burying you alive."
He spoke blandly, not even cracking a smile. The real Scott would have at least grinned. His manner was another reminder that her mind was playing tricks on her. "But didn't you in a way? Technically, I'm not dead."
Jean clutched her cup harder and it split in her hand, spilling strawberry-flavored soda onto the dock as it trickled between her fingers. "You are. I've been in what's left of your mind. There's nothing of you there. You hurt me. You tried to kill me for getting too close. It may be your body and some of your memories, but it's Nur's face, it's his will. You and everything I ever loved about you is dead."
Finally, Scott smiled. But his thin facsimile of a grin did nothing to assuage her uneasiness. "You're lying to yourself, Jean."
Exasperated, she shook her head. "How am I lying to myself?"
He reached out and touched her hair and Jean couldn't help but recoil. To her senses, he looked completely normal and alive, but he smelled of decaying flesh. "Something's still bothering you. It's why you can't let yourself begin to heal. It's why you won't ever be able to let yourself be happy again. It's why you can't stand on your own."
Despite her attempts not to cry, tears began to stream down her face as she finally accepted there was no one sitting on the dock except herself and she need not put up a brave front to impress anyone.
Next to her, the ghost of Scott whispered in her ear. "So what is it? What is the question that's haunting you? What is it that's eating you up inside?"
Jean sniffled loudly as she shut her eyes tight and cried out, "Why? Why did you leave me, Scott? Why did you choose duty and honor and a son from another reality who you didn't even know over me?! Was our love not big enough? Was I not enough to live for?!"
But as the sun dipped into the wide Pamlico Sound and the sky grew black around her, she heard no answer except for the gentle rushing of the wind over the tall grass. And she was once again alone with her turbulent thoughts.
Early the next afternoon, she stopped at an establishment on the lake to buy some fresh seafood for dinner and found herself haggling with rather salty old man over the price of her purchase. She was having trouble understanding the man's Ocracoke brogue and was resisting the urge to probe him with her telepathy... just to find out what he meant when he was chastising her on the quality of his catch when a gentleman stepped up behind her and put a wrinkled but sturdy hand on her shoulder.
"Uriah, hain't you mommucked this gal enough? She's right. Eight dollar's too much for that sorry slab of blue marlin."
Jean turned her head and addressed the man, "I'm sorry, sir. I..."
But he cut her off with a wink and continued to speak to the man behind the refrigerated glass counter. "I know where you got that fish from. Washed up in Marshall's net two days ago. And that means it was already dead and floated inland."
He then smiled and whispered to Jean, a gleam in his red-rimmed eyes, "Don't fret, now. It's still good meat. Just not as good as he's saying. More than likely he'll lay a cussin' on me after you leave, but I'm right and he knows it."
Clearing his throat and folding his arms over his chest, he smirked, "So what you say, Uriah? Six dollars a piece for this purdy lady?"
Uriah grumbled and shook his head before he finally looked back towards Jean. "How many?"
Jean stepped forward and fumbled with her satchel. "Two, please."
She pulled out her wallet as the elderly fisherman wrapped her purchase in white paper, forgoing the scales and ringing twelve dollars plus tax into the register. She nodded a thank you to the now irritated Uriah and turned to face the man who had aided her in her purchase. He was a stooped but robust man, with hair that was fading from blond to white and a deep-lined face that had obviously seen it's share of sun and wind. Without scanning his thoughts, she could tell he was honest and blunt and an entirely trust-worthy fellow. And any offense she might have taken at him deciding to play the role of knight-in-shining-armor quickly melted away when she realized his overall genuineness.
"Thank you for your assistance, Mr...."
He took her hand in his own. "Russell. Harrison Russell. But everyone calls me Harry."
She smiled as she shook his hand and then let it go. "Jean Grey. Pleased to meet you, Harry."
He smiled. "Likewise, miss. Vacationing here with your family?"
She shook her head as she shifted her weight. "No. Just me. Taking a break from it all."
Putting his hands in the pockets of his canvas pants, he nodded. "Sometimes you just have to get away for a smidgeon."
She then nodded in agreement and walked to the door, two well- wrapped Marlin steaks in her hand. Before she could get to he bicycle, she heard him follow her down the worn, wood stairs and turned to see him sling a fishing net over his shoulder.
Smiling up at him and squinting at the high afternoon sun, she said, "I hope I didn't get you in trouble up there."
He walked to his beat up Chevy pick up and tossed the net in the back. "Nothing I can't handle, miss. I'll probably have to rustle up someone else to go fishing with me in the morning. But he won't stay mad for long. Uriah needs to learn to be nicer to the tourists. 'Specially the ones who ain't touristy if you get my drift."
She smirked. "That was a compliment, wasn't it?"
He grinned as he retrieved another net hanging over the rail of the building's small porch. "Yes'm, I believe it was."
She walked to her bicycle and put her packages next to the greens and tomatoes she picked up earlier in the afternoon and then hesitated, suddenly dreading returning to her cabin alone. Turning back toward Harry and the docks, Jean asked, "So you're going fishing tomorrow morning?"
"Yep. Seems they're running short of mullet down in Wilmington. Ain't much for eatin', but they're good for catching larger fish."
"And you could use an extra set of hands since Uriah's angry with you?"
Harry loaded the last of his nets into his truck and winked at Jean. "Sounds like I've got a volunteer."
Jean smiled. "If you're willing show a tourist the ropes."
He clapped his hands and laughed out loud. "Jesus H. Christ! Wait 'til them dogs down at the dock see me going out to sea with the likes of you. They'll be talking up and down the ditch, they will."
She grinned as she unchained her bicycle and swung a leg over it. "Don't worry Mr. Russell. Your virtue's safe with me."
Jingling his keys in his hand, Harry said as his laughter faded, "Okay, then. Meet me at O'Neals at seven a.m. Wear some junky clothes you don't mind stinking in. I'll even bring you some breakfast."
Jean situated herself on the seat of her bike and said, "Thanks, Harry. I'll see you then."
As she pedaled out of the gravel parking lot, she heard him laughing and calling up the stairs to Uriah who could no doubt hear him bragging about his 'hot date' through the screen door. She shook her head and momentarily wondered what she had gotten herself into. The girl at the service station was right. The Ocracoke "old salts" would be thrown for a loop. And she wasn't even trying all that hard.
The next morning, Jean rose early, still struggling with the same nightmares, and was amazed she made it to O'Neal's at seven on the dot. The first few fingers of sunlight were creeping over the horizon on the sea side of the island but the sound side where Harry's small motor boat was docked was still cold and dark.
As she chained up her bike, she heard Harry shout from down the pier, "Morning!"
She waved at walked towards him as a few other fishermen looked up from their nets and grinned.
When she reached him, he was finishing tying a pair of old skiffs to the back of the boat and motioned toward a pair of waders sitting on a bench. "Those are for you."
Jean nodded and carried them to the boat as she asked, "You guys do this every morning?"
He shook his head, "Not every morning. Every other one, though. Me, I'm just a part-timer. Here during the spring and summer."
"Yep. I live farther up the coast off island the rest of the time."
Jean stepped into the boat and Harry handed her a white paper bag with a biscuit and two sausage patties inside. They were still warm and Harry told her to go ahead and eat while he finished tying up the skiffs and loading the last of the nets. She poured herself a cup of coffee from the thermos that sat in the driver's seat and asked him, "I thought you lived on the island."
He nodded. "Used to. Grew up here. But it's a hard life. Me and the wife moved up to New Bern for work when we got married. Now that I'm retired, I can come down here and make some money when it gets warm."
Jean bit into her biscuit and it was surprisingly soft and sweet. She swallowed it with a sip of coffee and asked, "What's your wife do when you're down here?"
Harry smiled as he hopped into the boat next to her. "Not much seeing as she passed away more than 20 years ago."
Jean frowned and said quietly, "Oh. I'm sorry."
"Don't be," He said as he started the motor. "It's been a long time and you didn't know."
Jean sighed quietly as Harry climbed behind the steering column of the 18 foot boat. "You ready?"
She smiled and nodded as she continued to eat her simple breakfast and the boat pulled quietly away from the dock. Jean hadn't seen a sign of her hallucinations since she'd been with Harry. Seemingly, being around other people and other distractions was keeping them at bay.
As they made it out towards the sound, Harry kept the motor running quiet, telling her he didn't want to startle any fish. And that suited Jean just fine. She was looking forward to a quiet day on the water and was in no particular hurry. The village grew smaller behind them, he told them they were going to a place called Six Mile Hammock Reef and that it was best to fish for mullet in shallow water near sand bars or reefs. He told her to look for striped mullet jumping a few inches above the water. It would lead them to a good-sized school.
Along the way, he explained how to use the mullet nets, telling her the best way to catch them was to circle around a school in both the skiffs, holding the net between them with poles attached to each end. They would stand in the boats and pole with one hand, while the other held the net until they met on the other side of the school.
"Hope you're coordinated," he added with a grin.
She smiled. If only the Professor knew what his Danger Room lessons on coordination and balance would be used for, he no doubt would be laughing himself silly. Jean Grey aka Marvel Girl aka Phoenix mullet fishing in the middle of nowhere? Stranger things had happened.
They anchored the boat just off of Hammock Reef, put on their waders and untied the skiffs and Jean tried her footing in the skiff as she used the pole to both steer and propel the small boat. Harry poled his skiff toward her and they sat and watched the water ahead for any sign of mullet.
Harry asked her, "How you doing?"
Jean spoke as the sun rose higher in the morning sky. "Fine. I think I've got the balancing and steering down."
He nodded. "Good, good. See, I knew you'd work out okay."
As they sat, Jean noticed the names painted on both the boats, "Sally" and "Viv," and she asked him their significance.
"My wife's name was Sally and my daughter's Vivian. This way they're always with me." He told her as he squinted at the horizon.
"Where's your daughter, if you don't mind me asking?"
Harry smiled. "She's up north at school. I'm real proud of her, I am. Miss her a whole heap load, though."
Jean could tell there was something more to it than college, so she pressed the matter further. "You do? Why?"
Shaking his head, Harry grinned. "If I had any idea you'd be asking so many questions, I would have left you on the shore. Guess that's what I get for taking a woman out fishing, huh?"
Pursing her lips, Jean said mirthfully, "You don't have to answer the question if you don't want to, Harry."
Just then, Harry spotted a striped mullet not two inches long jump above the water several yards a head of them and the two poled out toward the school. Another one jumped and he took out the inch mesh net, unraveled it and handed Jean a pole.
He winked at her when they were in position. "Meet you on the other side."
They quietly worked around the school and Jean was doing well, keeping her balance and her pole sturdy. She smiled over at Harry and then heard the sound of laughter behind her. She turned her head and saw Betsy perched on the front of the boat, her fingers trailing in the water as she smirked.
"You can't escape your own mind, Jean. Not unless you lose it."
Thrown off-guard, Jean lost her footing and fell into the water, losing her grip on the pole and quickly becoming tangled in the net. As Harry helped her out and retrieved a few fish from the net, far less than he hoped to catch on this first netting, Jean knew she was lucky the water was so shallow here in the sound.
When she was back on the boat with a blanket around her shoulders and a warm of hot coffee in her hands, Harry said matter-of- factly, "Looks like you saw a ghost out there, Jean. Something you ain't telling me?"
She closed her eyes, finding comfort in his genuine concern but said nothing. The gentle waves licked against the dingy as continued to hover over her, making sure she didn't catch cold and that she had plenty of hot coffee as he helped her with her waders and wrung out her socks. He went about his work silently, appreciatively like a person who recognized grief and the confusion of the heart it leaves in its wake. She found the words coming to her throat. "My husband, Scott... he just passed away recently."
He sat down next to her, unaware that maybe Jean had really seen a ghost and that she was much further unhinged than her outward demeanor indicated. "I'm sorry, Jean. That why you're here?"
Jean nodded. "That's part of it. I have friends that are helping me through it. Things have just gotten complicated up there."
"Sometimes it's best just to get away." He nodded his head as he continued, always keeping an eye on the water. "I know the only thing that really helped me after Sal died was being alone for a spell. Viv was still young and she wasn't really sure what was going on. So I kinda had to put my grief on hold. But a whole year passed and I was so busy worrying about her that it just wore at me. I had this dull ache in my stomach for a long, long time. Finally her grandma, Sal's mom, said I needed to go away and make my peace. She watched Viv for me for a month and I came out here. Rented an old fisherman's shack and just was for a solid while. And then one night, I was finally able to say good-bye. Went to the spot where I asked her to marry me. It's not far from here as a matter of fact. And I could feel her there, you know? And she told me to move on with my life in a weird sort of way. Then I could go back to Viv and the life we'd made up in New Bern and be a whole man again."
Jean blinked as she felt Harry turn his head to look at her. "And I ain't never looked back, Jean. She's still with me, in every way. But it's not a burden anymore. It's a happiness. It's hard to explain. But that's what I had to do. You've got to make your own peace, too."
She grinned. "You make it sound so easy, Harry."
He shook his head. "It ain't. Everyone's got their own way of dealing with things. Everyone's got their own time and place. I just hope you find yours before it eats you up inside."
Jean nodded as she looked over at the empty skiff that was drifting next to them. She blinked as she watched Betsy wave at her with a purple-gloved hand. "He's right you know? You are letting it get to you. You're going to have to get over it. You may be something, Jean, but you're not worth letting the world die at the hand of Apocalypse. Nobody's worth that."
Jean ignored her hallucination and pointed out toward the sound. "There. Striped mullet. About three inches long."
Harry slapped his knee and laughed heartily. "Dang. You've got a good eye! You're a natural at this."
Jean smirked and raised an eyebrow as they gathered the nets. "Maybe I won't fall in this time?"
Winking as his outboard motor purred to life, Harry smiled, "Naw. I got faith in ya this time."
As they pulled away from the reef, Jean looked behind her towards the empty skiff. She closed her eyes as she let the wind play through her hair and smelled the salt coming from her still-damp clothes as Betsy's voice echoed in her thoughts before it completely disappeared, "But will faith be enough, Jean?"
The catch was a good one and when they returned to Silver Lake, their skiff-load weighed in at 198.46 pounds. As Harry tended to his catch and sought a buyer, Jean took him aside to thank him for the day and the company.
As he tugged on a few gray whiskers growing from his chin, Harry asked, "How much longer will you be with us then, Jean?"
Jean pursed her lips as she pondered his question. "Oh, probably a few more days. I have to get back to New York eventually, though. You know, responsibility, work. I can't ignore my obligations forever."
"New York? I hear it's real crazy up there."
She smiled. "Yes. Though down here has its share of crazy, too, you know?"
Winking at her, Harry ignored Uriah as he stood behind him and cleared his throat. "Truer words have never been spoken."
He patted her on the shoulder, his worn hands obviously smelling of mullet. "Well, I wish you luck. But until then, look for me around O'Neal's if you need me. Maybe we can grab a bite to eat before you leave. Seems to me you've probably got some interesting stories to tell. And in a place like this, stories are about as valuable as gold."
Just then, Uriah ran out of patience and stuffed a wad of bills into Harry's hand as he rolled his eyes, paying him for his catch. Harry smiled as he asked, "Ain't that right, Uriah?"
Uriah just grumbled and headed into his store as two younger men loaded Harry's catch into a refrigerated locker. Harry was about to offer Jean a portion of the money for her help, but she refused and said, "Just buy me dinner tonight. My choice. I'll see you later, Harry. I expect a good round of stories the next time we meet."
As she walked back to her bicycle and then to her bungalow to change clothes and get the stink of fish off her skin, she suddenly wondered about happy endings... about how Harry's life had turned out picture-perfect despite the loss of his wife and that his daughter was so far away. She fingered the book in her satchel as she threw it into the basket of her bicycle. Perhaps it was all just another illusion, his life was perhaps just a tangled web of lies he told himself so he could sleep at night.
She shook her head as she pedaled back to her cottage. Maybe her problem was that for the first time in her life she had decided she could no longer lie to herself. And while the truth might set her free, the search for it might also drive her insane. Drawing a deep sigh as she stopped in front of the rented cottage, she decided that happy endings were over-rated anyway. Endings were only perceptions to begin with. Human stories are never quite over. As long as someone is still watching, living and breathing, they begin again every day.