Cold, so cold, icy water soaking through clothes to skin, salt stinging eyes, panic: no air. Just water, cold seawater, holding breath and kicking hard, hands bound, shoes heavy. Trapped, doomed, freezing – dying. Dying, lungs burning, darkness descending, and the water conducting one sound hellishly clear: Luthor’s laughter…
I sat bolt upright in bed, gasping for air, my skin clammy with sweat, and I panted in terror until reality asserted itself: I was almost sixteen, not six and helpless; this was my familiar bedroom, not the cold Atlantic Ocean; and I had been dreaming, not drowning. For the millionth time, I cursed Luthor; even ten years later, the nightmares were still just as intense. Some part of me would always be that little girl, heroic enough to attack a madman to protect her father, but too weak to stop herself from being flung off a kryptonite island and into the merciless ocean.
It took a moment to regain my breath and my composure, but once I did, I got up and pulled a bathrobe over my nightgown. It was automatic after all this time, just one of those weird twin things. If I had a nightmare, Jason did too. So I was already heading for his room when I first heard his voice.
He wasn’t quite awake yet, still murmuring in his sleep, but his breath was fast and shallow and his heart was racing. Still stuck in his version of our endless nightmare, my twin would eventually thrash himself awake, probably wrecking his bed and his room in the process. Super-strength can be a bitch sometimes.
Before he got to that point, I was in his room, sitting on the side of his bed and rubbing his back. “It’s a nightmare, Jase,” I whispered, using the nickname I’d given him. Only I called him Jase, and only he called me Kal. “The same old dream. Daddy’s okay, Mom’s safe, Luthor’s long gone, we’re grown up, and it’s just a stupid nightmare.”
Gradually he stopped tossing and turning, curling up on his side. I glanced at his clock; it was almost four in the morning. Not much point now in dragging myself back across the hall to my room for another hour’s sleep. The nightmare had been known to strike twice in the same night, so we were better off together. Sighing, I lay down next to my brother and cuddled up to his back, listening to his breathing deepen and slow as I tried to get back to sleep.
Jason’s room was a reflection of his personality. The walls were painted a handsome forest green (I’d teased him unmercifully about painting his room to match his iguana) and bookshelves dominated the walls. Half of them were science fiction, the other half dry science texts, with a couple of books about chess and some very literary fiction sprinkled in for variety. Gazeera’s cage took up part of one wall, the red heat lamp casting an eerie glow over the whole room. Fortunately, this nightmare hadn’t gotten to the point where the noise woke Gazeera, and the lizard was still draped over his sleeping branch, semi-comatose.
This was nothing like my room – a riot of black and red and violet, with horror movie posters on the walls and sculptures and photos mingling with books on the shelves – but I still felt comfortable here. Jason and I had shared a room for most of our lives, only separating when Mom offered to let us decorate our own rooms. Even when we moved in here and were first given separate rooms, we both slept in the same one for a year. That was right after the Luthor debacle, though, and not even the shrink Mom took us to would deny us the right to stay together.
I burrowed under the thick sand-and-sage colored comforter and curled up on my side, my back against Jason’s. We looked like mirror images, almost, his hair finally as dark as mine. Always together, me and Jason; we kept no secrets from each other, and in spite of all our quarreling we never even tried to pretend we didn’t love each other. And we protected each other, no question about it. He’d killed a man to save me once (not that we knew that Brutus was dead at first), and I’d gotten into more than a few fights at school over the years protecting him. Jason wouldn’t fight if he could help it; what was fair, he’d say, about a kid who could throw a grand piano taking on an ordinary first-grader? As his strength grew, so did his reluctance to defend himself when the school bullies taunted him. He’d leap to my defense, but wouldn’t raise a hand to protect himself. I didn’t have the strength, so I was his champion. It was much less likely that I’d really hurt someone, but everyone quickly learned not to mess with Jason Kent, or his sister would beat them up.
Still don’t have the super-strength, not really. Oh, I’m stronger than an ordinary teenage girl, but not strong enough to juggle cars. I’ve got other advantages: super-speed and hearing almost at Dad’s level, a little of the x-ray vision, some invulnerability, and heat vision. I can’t weld steel with my eyeballs like Dad and Jason, but I can burn through most things. And I don’t have to look for a lighter when I steal one of Mom’s cigarettes – a nice perk. She rarely smokes anymore, so she doesn’t count the ones in the pack, but if the lighter went missing she’d know.
Not that I smoke all that much. I know it’s bad for you, but it goes with my Goth image and besides, I like the taste of Mom’s cloves. The menthol ones are positively yummy. And it’s not like having a couple cigarettes a month is gonna hurt a half-Kryptonian. The older Jason and I get, the more sunbaths Dad lets us have up above the clouds, the more our off-world legacy protects us. That’s the number-one benefit of Superman being my dad – I’m immune to a lot of things.
If only we could share that invulnerability…
I caught myself blinking back tears again, and rolled over to nuzzle against Jason’s shoulder. In his sleep, he turned onto his back and hugged me, and the closeness was comforting. There’s still an empty ache somewhere deep inside, and I still have days when I pick up the phone to call her, only to remember she’s gone.
I remember it too perfectly, lounging in the bedroom with the window open, letting the cool Milanese evening breeze in, and lazily contemplating which of the cute Italian boys I wanted to talk to. Summer break in Italy with Richard and Lana, a wonderful vacation, and it had seemed like nothing could possibly go wrong. Then I heard Dad’s voice, just outside, and it was that tone. It had to be something very serious for him to arrive in uniform, and Jason and I both scrambled to meet him. I couldn’t hear exactly what he told Lana, but I heard “hospital” and “hurry” and after that my heart was pounding so hard its beat blanked out the rest of it. I saw fear and grief on my father’s face, and heartbreak on Lana’s, and the next thing I knew Dad was wrapping his cape around me and Jason and flying us back to Metropolis.
That trip was fast, way faster than we’d ever flown before, mere minutes to cross an ocean. Then we were in the hospital, and I saw Nana lying there. My brave, wise Nana, always so strong, always so certain, hooked up to a dozen machines. I saw her with a pitiless new clarity: the wrinkles around her eyes, the sparseness of her white hair, the tension in her mouth where she’d been holding the pain between clenched teeth. And she was so thin, something I hadn’t noticed before I left for vacation. Even her eyes, that strange hazel that Mom and I both inherited, were glassy with drugs and pain instead of the usual Lane keenness.
Worse than that was Mom. She was sitting beside the bed, holding Nana’s hand, rocking slightly in her chair. She didn’t make a sound – Lois Lane, who could bellow across the city room like the best of the guys, was utterly silent. Only I could hear her tears falling, splashing across the back of Nana’s hand.
“It’s all right, sweetheart,” Nana whispered, and her voice was so thready it made my heart skip a beat. Jason and I came toward her slowly, almost afraid to intrude. Truth be told, we weren’t all that eager to get better acquainted with death, either. And that’s what was in the room with us – death.
Nana held out her other hand. “Jason, Kala – my little darlings. Come here, it’s okay. It’s all going to be all right.”
Jason went down on one knee beside her hospital bed, and she put her arm around his shoulders. I was right beside him, her hand on my cheek, feeling the papery thinness of her skin and hating it. Hating death and life and anyone and everything around me for taking her away. Not my Nana, she didn’t deserve this…
Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ron were there, and Nora and Joanna and Michelle. Sam was off in college – he made it there the next morning, and it was only after the funeral that we found out Lana had paid for his plane ticket, finding a seat for him on the very next flight he could catch. Lana and Richard and Kristin made it there, too, chartering a plane that night, but Kristin didn’t stay. She and Lucy’s two youngest girls wound up going home with Ron that night – it was after midnight when they left, and they had to get some sleep.
Nana told us all that she’d known about the cancer for a year. It was already too far advanced to treat with surgery when it was discovered, so she’d kept it a secret. She hadn’t wanted all of us weeping and brooding and panicking every time she coughed. It was too late for radiation or chemo, so she chose to go gracefully. She’d thought she had a few months left, and had intended to make the announcement when Jason and I came home from our big trip to Italy.
The cancer surprised her, though. She woke up one morning feeling very run-down, and went to see her doctor. While she was there, Nana just kept feeling sicker and sicker, and the doctor wound up transferring her to the hospital. Blood tests revealed that her organs were shutting down – she had a few days. Maybe.
Our entire family silently listened to her whispery voice. We were all in shock. I knew that Dad and Jason and I were thinking the same thing: with all these powers, there was nothing we could do to save her. Nothing.
Then I understood how Dad had felt when his father died right in front of him, and how frightened he’d been when Grandma broke her hip two years ago. And the pain I was already feeling doubled; I was losing Nana, and at that moment I had to acknowledge that someday I’d lose Mom. I looked across the bed at her, and saw her face ravaged by grief. Fearless Reporter Lois Lane looked every one of her years, then, and I felt a shudder pass through me. No one knew how long Dad would live, but Mom … oh, Mom was all too mortal…
If I could’ve somehow made everything right between us at that instant, I would’ve. It would be a great story: “And then, by my grandmother’s deathbed, my Mom and I swore to love each other like we used to, and stop fighting all the time. And they all lived happily ever after.” But life isn’t like a fairytale. Mom and I had been feuding for years, and not even Superman had been able to bridge the widening gap between us. I’m not even sure when it started, only that as I progressed from cute kid to (admittedly) snarky teenager, Mom started to be a little sharper with me. I got sarcastic, she started riding my case all the time, and then I got defiant. Would it have killed her to get off my back once in a while? She didn’t understand the first thing about me, and she was always suspicious, always expecting me to get in trouble. I figured, why disappoint her? Anyway, now, at fifteen, I couldn’t get through a week without at least one voices-raised argument with her.
Nana did manage this much, however: there was peace between us in that hospital room. All that night, and the following day, we stayed. Lucy’s girls came back the next morning in time to see Sam, and Dad had to step out a few times, but he was there as much as he could be. He coaxed Mom to eat a little bit, but for the most part she stayed glued to Nana’s side. One of the nurses tried to tell us to go home around lunchtime, but the flat, threatening Lane glare from multiple sets of eyes silenced her.
The afternoon of that terrible Thursday, Uncle Perry came in. He must’ve heard from Dad or Ron, I guess; someone had to explain why his International and City Editors weren’t at work. Aunt Loueen drove him, but she waited in the hall.
Perry looked his age at that moment, and I remember feeling an icy shiver run down my back. Was everyone getting older, growing closer to their date with the reaper? Even the indestructible Perry White, in his late sixties and still Editor-in-Chief of the largest newspaper in town? He stood in the doorway for a long moment, just looking at Nana, and the rest of us quietly found reasons to step out. All except Mom; she stayed. She hadn’t left the room since she arrived.
Jason and I hung around in the hall while Ron spoke to Loueen. Just because we were out of the room didn’t mean we weren’t keeping watch over Nana, though. I had this insane thought that the minute I stopped watching, she’d be gone, as if it was my will alone that kept her alive from one moment to the next. I dreaded turning my back even for the few seconds it took to walk outside.
Dad came and put an arm around each of our shoulders, Jason and I standing just outside the door. I’m pretty sure all three of us were watching through the wall as well as listening when Perry went to the bedside and put his hand on Mom’s shoulder, squeezing gently. But he looked at Nana, not at Mom. “Elinore,” he said, his voice rough with emotion.
“Peregrine,” she replied, trying valiantly to sound stronger than she was. “A delight as always.” She held out her trembling hand and he took it, and for a long moment they simply stared at each other.
“You had to be an Army wife to the end,” Uncle Perry finally said. “Stubborn and secretive. No pity for General Lane’s widow, is that it?”
“No pity,” Nana replied. “Not for Sam’s widow, and not for Ella Tremaine, either. I’ve had a long life, I’ve raised a wonderful family, and I’ve had good friends along the way. Now I’m going to a better place than this, Peregrine. I’ve got family and friends waiting there, too.”
Another silence descended on them, and Mom finally seemed to notice who was there. She got up, slowly, and hugged Perry, who never let go of Nana’s hand. Then Mom came outside, moving like a sleepwalker. Dad had both of us, so Richard caught her elbow and pulled her into a hug. I’d never seen her look so utterly beaten, so weary and defeated.
I looked back into the hospital room just in time to see Uncle Perry lean down and kiss Nana. I knew – the whole family knew – that they had always been fond of each other, but that was a surprise. He drew back from her, tears shining in his eyes, and whispered huskily, “I’ve always loved you.”
“And I’ve always loved you,” she whispered back, her hand tightening on his. “For being a good friend to me and my family, and for being a father to Lois when Sam couldn’t. Thank you for that, Peregrine. I wouldn’t have asked it of you.”
“She’s a good kid,” he replied. “I’m proud of her.”
“So am I,” Nana said, and her voice was getting fainter. She rallied with visible effort, and told him, “Take care of her for me, Peregrine. And take care of that lovely girl you married, and the son she gave you. Be happy with the life you have. Don’t dwell on what might’ve been; don’t miss me too much.”
“I’ll try.” He squeezed her hand, bending to kiss her knuckles. “But you’re too grand a lady not to be missed. The world won’t be the same without you.”
“Flatterer,” Nana chuckled.
“Only truth,” he said, very quietly.
He didn’t stay long; Nana was putting on a show of strength for her old admirer, and it exhausted her. Uncle Perry took Mom aside for a few moments, talking to her gently, and he hugged her and held her until she got some of her composure back. The nurses came by then and insisted that we remain outside for a few minutes while they “took care of things”. All of us headed down to the cafeteria for a joyless meal. Even Lana was silent, and she had always been the one we could count on to be optimistic, the one who took responsibility for the whole family’s emotional well-being. Then again, Lana had grown quite close to Nana, who considered her an adopted daughter.
When we trudged back upstairs, Nana looked a little better, but that was only because she’d had another dose of medication. She asked to speak with all of us one-on-one, and we obliged her. Mom went first, and a stern glance from Dad told me that I’d better keep my super-hearing to myself.
It seemed like forever while each of the adults solemnly went in to talk to Nana, most of them leaving the room unashamedly daubing tears from their eyes. At least Mom seemed to have some of her old Mad Dog Lane spine back; she wasn’t on the verge of collapse any longer. Aunt Lucy had some of her composure back after her visit, too, and instead of huddling in Uncle Ron’s embrace she went to her three daughters and hugged them. Lana was more of her old self after talking to Nana, too, and she paused to kiss my cheek and hug me on her way out of the room.
My turn finally came, and I went in to sit at Nana’s bedside. I had no idea what to say to her, or what she meant to say to me. But at least I wasn’t afraid to come close to her anymore. She was still my Nana, even with so many machines crowding around her. The glassy look was gone; her hazel eyes were perceptive as ever, and they searched my face for a long moment before either of us said a word.
Nana’s hand came up to stroke my cheek, and she smiled. “You have the Tremaine eyes,” she told me, and it startled me to realize that the strange hazel was her family’s legacy, not General Lane’s. I didn’t have a chance to feel stupid for missing something so obvious, though, because she continued speaking. “The Tremaine spine, too. I see a lot of myself in you, Kala Josephine. And I’ll deny it if you ever breathe a word to anyone else, but you were always my favorite.”
I preened under the praise, actually. I wanted to be like Nana – I love all my family, but Nana was my favorite after Dad, and I felt like we were especially close. She was always the one who could jolly me out of a cranky mood, always glad to spend time with me, and after I’d turned fourteen and couldn’t seem to get along with any other female in the Lane family, my relationship with Nana never suffered in the slightest. She never seemed shocked by my choice of clothing or my taste in music, and she actually talked to me like a grownup.
Best of all, though, she was the only person in the whole family who didn’t tell me all the time about how I was the spitting image of Mom, or how I was so my mother’s daughter – those constant comparisons drive me nuts. I mean, seriously. I’m not a Lois Lane clone, and I got sick of that particular little supposed ‘compliment’ by the time I was thirteen.
Nana caught my chin and my attention, bringing my wandering mind back to the present moment. “Kala, my dear, you also have the Lane neck and the Lane skull – the one’s stiff and the other’s thick. If you let them, those can become your greatest weaknesses. You are a brilliant young lady, Kala, but no one on the face of this earth knows everything. Not even your grandfather on your father’s side knows it all. Try to keep an open mind and an open heart. And try to learn to forgive, to give way a little here and there.”
She paused to cough, and I watched her with open-mouthed shock. Nana, one of the strongest, most determined, most absolutely indomitable women I knew, telling me to give in? What the hell? Nana got her breath back and squeezed my hand. “I used to be a proud young woman, you know. Vain as a peacock, too. And when I wanted something, I was so stubborn! My aunt Marion told me once that I was like an oak tree, strong and straight, resisting everything. That was the strength it took to marry my Sam; my family never liked him, and I had to push past all of their opposition to get my way. But my aunt, she was the only one who thought if I loved the boy I should marry him, and no matter if he was just an Army captain from a family no one had ever heard of. She was glad I managed to out-stubborn the rest of the family, but she warned me about myself. She said that oak trees get blown over by hurricanes. They lose branches, and if the winds are strong enough, the trees get ripped out by the roots.”
I nodded, not understanding, but knowing she was telling me the story for a reason. “Now, willow trees almost never get blown over,” Nana continued. “They’re flexible; they bend before the storm. Bend, but never break. And if you cut down willow saplings, they grow back twice as strong. I listened to my aunt and I nodded like you’re nodding now, and I thought to myself that my way was best. I didn’t learn the value of yielding to the storm and springing back again until your mother was born. And Lord, we had storms aplenty then…”
Her eyes slid closed, and she breathed shallowly, her fingers slack in my hand. I thought she might’ve fallen asleep, just dozed off mid-story, but then Nana took a deep breath and looked at me again. “You’re a good girl, Kala Josephine Lane-Kent,” she told me, then smiled. It was the same brilliant smile I’d known since childhood, when I’d brought her a painting or a test I’d made an A+ on. Tears started to spill down my cheeks at the thought that this might be the last time I saw that wonderful smile. “You’ll turn out just fine,” Nana said. “You’re going to grow up into a beautiful young lady – you’re already more than halfway there. And you’re going to accomplish everything you want in life. You will be someone people are glad to have in their lives, darling, someone others look up to. And I will always love you. A little thing like dying doesn’t change that.”
I broke down and wept then, bent over and rested my head against her frail shoulder as the sobs shook me. She put one arm around me and shushed me, crooning that oldest lullaby. Who would’ve thought a Moody Blues song could be such a comfort? When I got myself halfway under control again, Nana handed me the box of tissues they’d left by her bedside. “Kala, sweetheart, you look like a raccoon,” she told me with a chuckle, and I laughed.
“Should’ve worn the waterproof mascara,” I joked back weakly. “I’m gonna miss you so much, Nana.”
“You shouldn’t,” she said, almost stern. “I won’t be gone. If you start to miss me, my little girl, just look into a mirror. Or into your mother’s eyes. Or go to your aunt’s house and have her make you up a batch of my lasagna. I’ll always be near you, dear. I’ll always watch over you.”
I started crying again then, but it didn’t last as long. When I was done, I kissed Nana and told her I loved her, then went out and sent Jason in. Everything Nana had said was still sloshing around inside my head, so I sat down by myself to think about it.
It had taken two more days, during which most of the family stayed at the hospital the entire time. The staff was understanding, and since we were quiet and didn’t harass the nurses, they let us stay overnight. Nana’s heart was starting to fail her. The doctors had been surprised she lasted so long; they never said so to us, but we saw the expressions on their faces when they looked at her vital signs and test results. She was running on determination alone at the end – pure Lane stubbornness, Mom whispered.
Everyone had been in and out of the room that day. The place was crowded with flowers and cards and photographs. Tobie and Maggie had come by with a bottle of Nana’s favorite bourbon when they got the news, mostly to comfort Mom – and anyone who thinks Mom and Tobie hate each other would be very surprised by the way they hugged for such a long time. Professional rivalry aside, they’re always there for each other. Of course, the nurses threw a fit when they saw the bourbon, but Nana dryly informed them that it wasn’t going to have time to do too much harm, and they shut up.
Uncle Jimmy had been in yesterday, shyly bearing an enlarged copy of Nana’s wedding photograph. She and General Sam looked so young and so very much in love that even Mom sniffled a bit. Lucy’s girls had brought some things from home – a softer pillow, Nana’s hairbrush, little things that meant so much. Tangible reminders of how much we all loved her surrounded Nana, and she smiled every time her glance took in the room.
It happened early in the evening. Nana had been dozing in the bed, and most of the family was out at dinner. Mom stayed in the room, asleep in the chair by Nana’s bed, finally letting exhaustion claim her. She was still holding Nana’s hand, though. Dad was in the reclining chair on the opposite side, trying to stay awake. He’d been up for over fifty hours with only thin snatches of rest, trying to manage the newspaper, the world, and the family heartbreak.
Jason and I were sitting on the heating register, me leaning on his shoulder. We were pretty worn down too, but I didn’t need to see his face to know he was as awake as I was. We were watching Nana, watching her chest rise and fall, listening to her heartbeat. It was slow and irregular now, not the steady rhythm it had always been. Sometimes there would be a pause between beats, and then it would suddenly speed up like a lagging jogger sprinting to catch up. My nerves were frayed by every one of those little hesitations, until I was almost numb with dread. So when it finally happened, we all almost missed it.
Nana woke up, her hazel eyes sweeping the room with a loving gaze. She smiled at me, and I smiled back, thinking from her peaceful expression that she was about to doze off again. But instead, she squeezed Mom’s hand slightly. Her strength was so far gone that none of us saw the faint movement. Mom woke up, though, and looked at her mother. “Love you, baby girl,” Nana whispered, so softly.
“Love you too, Momma,” Mom replied. At that, Nana smiled and closed her eyes with a sigh.
For a moment, none of us realized what had just happened. That soft, contented sigh was Nana’s last, however. When she didn’t breathe in, machines started to beep, and Mom started calling for Nana in tones of rising distress.
The next few minutes were a whirl of panic, grief, and confusion. Doctors and nurses crowded into the room, but there was nothing they could do except confirm the obvious. Mom wailed, keening so hard that she frightened the doctors. Dad held her, rocking her gently while she sobbed, and I remember thinking it was only his strength that kept her from falling to pieces from the force of sorrow within her.
Jason and I had never seen Mom come unglued like that, plus we’d both just seen our Nana die. I turned and buried my head in his shoulder, and he put his arms around me, both of us holding on to the one thing we knew we’d never lose…
In the present, Jason’s arm around my shoulders tightened again, and I hugged him back, leaving painful memories behind for the moment. My brother – nerd that he is, hopelessly old-fashioned, absolutely content to bend his head beneath the yoke of Jor-El’s plans for him – in spite of all those things, I love him. With that more comforting thought in mind, I snuggled close and drifted back to sleep.