“My grief meets me when I come home, and the house is full of ghosts.”
- Louisa May Alcott on the death of her youngest sister, May
It was supposed to get better, Laurie thinks. He’s supposed to look at their daughter, hold her and cradle her and play with her, and it was supposed to get better. But little Bess, with naivety tangled in her pale blonde wisps (Amy’s blonde) and clouded innocence in her gray eyes (Laurie’s gray), is but two months old and her mother has been tugging at the stems of daisies through six feet of earth for nearly a week.
It’s only the two of them in this great big void of a house. Whenever he enters it, he sees the front doors as a yawning bear trap, lined with sharp teeth that contain a false promise just a bit further down its acidic throat, the vacant foyer and all the empty hallways beyond it. So Laurie stopped going outside, if only so he no longer has to eventually turn around and dive back in fresh among her laughing, smiling, golden ghosts.
Of course, Amy’s family comes to visit him and Bess often, because they’re his family too, and her blood. He doesn’t go to the March house anymore— though there is far less room for Amy to haunt him there, she always finds a way. She squeezes into the cracks in the ceiling and the gaps in the floorboards. Her essence is soaked into the home’s walls; she’s woven into the quilts; she’s projected through the smiles of the remaining March girls, a beloved group now halved. He’s sure that somewhere there must be fingerprints of hers, years old by now, preserved in dust and undisturbed on a windowsill in the attic. So he doesn’t interrupt her spirit there, but—
But at his home, their home, now his home and Elizabeth Amy Laurence’s home— she has portraits. Her own work, of course, navy oil lakes and snow-capped chapels splashed with tie-dye watercolors, all framed and shoved together on the walls until there was no longer any bare space, until there were more of her beautiful scenes to gaze into than windows. Laurie pauses now, standing in the hall, feet soft on the carpet with a cloth slung over his shoulder and their child in his arms. He burps her gently, fingers drumming a rhythmic pattern on her back like Beth’s fingers on piano keys.
He stands now and holds Bess and stares into one of Amy’s little worlds, stares into that rather than the window beside it, because that displays a snowy world he feels rather indignant towards right now.
When he questioned her about which painting should be hung above their bed, Amy insisted on a good, sound decision being made. So Laurie had the finest frames constructed for her decorated canvases, had the best ones made and shipped in so that, one by one, they could all be hung up on the walls and be fairly judged. They had to determine which of her pieces most deserved to be the last thing they viewed each night, and the first each morning; which was to be observed keenly in either bright or dim light when they made love (in case of the thin sliver of a chance that they might’ve tired of looking at each other).
Toward the end of the hall, wedged between two ever idle doorways, sits a finely detailed illustration of himself, one of the few sketches she’d made that was able to withstand its smudgy charcoal beginnings. It was one of her last, worked on fervently while waiting for Bess to make her eagerly anticipated appearance. “Seeing that I’m still uncertain about the appearance of my newest subject,” Amy explained to him, touching her middle with a pencil between index finger and thumb, “I might as well refine the features of my existing model.” Through those months, she traced over his jaw in graphite; filled in his jacket, trousers, and shoes with layers of grays and browns; and highlighted each individual key on the piano at his fingertips. When he complained about the lack of color, she huffed and said, “I’m about to have your child, Laurie Laurence, and you’re bemoaning the lack of vibrancy in a scene that I recall to be quite neutral?”
“We don’t live in black and white, my darling,” he said, kissing her cheek. “How could I, when I’m with you?”
But she groaned and sighed and shooed him away; then the following afternoon came, and when Laurie peeked into her studio, he found an array of colors splashed onto the wall behind his painted self.
Now Laurie moves back into the bedroom, removing the cloth from his shoulder and folding it over the dresser. Bess remains in his arms, soundly asleep. She’ll never know her mother who had been so over the moon to meet her. Laurie sits down on the edge of the bed, shifting his daughter until she’s curled alongside his chest, so he can gaze at her.
Amy hadn’t wanted to go, as she lay here ailing in this bed. She fretted and fretted— “They’ll have to break frozen ground for me— it’s so cold this winter,” “Make sure I look lovely, Laurie, but don’t let them bury all my favorite rings,” “I want Bess to know how I saw her as the most perfect little thing.”
Laurie remedied that last one by bringing in her favorite pencil and the best paper they owned, better paper than the sheets she used to steal off Jo’s desk. “Sketch her now,” he begged, “and she’ll have it forever.” And he sat there and held their baby while Amy tried to translate the smooth plumpness of her cheeks from life to paper. Her hand moved slower and slower until it stilled completely and the pencil dropped to the bedspread, and her fever spiked.
When he’d applied a cool cloth to her forehead and summoned someone from Orchard House via a light signal in the window, he picked up the paper. Little Bess only existed faintly in the sketch, for Amy had chosen to focus on carving out Laurie’s features first.
Now, just a few weeks later, the bed is cold and Amy March Laurence is no longer sprawled in it, not giggling and responding to his kisses in kind, nor flushed with her hair all undone. He loved her, she gave life, and death struck her— all in this bed.
Laurie looks up at the painting hanging above the headboard. The portrait that won the contest was their own family portrait, all of the Marches, including him and Hannah and the stray cat that wandered across their lawns infrequently. Jo told him once that he might as well have his surname changed to March since he was with them all the time and Marmee had taken him in as the son she never had. Laurie considers the change made, done long before he and Amy exchanged rings, confirmed in every which way except legally.
Laurie stares at the portrait. Only little Bess is missing, not yet born at the time it was painted. Amy fell ill too soon after her birth to add her in with two broad brush strokes as a mere bundle in someone’s arms.
Some time later, Jo lets herself into the house, as Jo does; no permission requested because none is needed. She finds him upstairs in that cavern of a bedroom, slouched down on the pillows with the baby snoozing on his chest.
She circles around the bed and sits next to them, kicking off her shoes and folding her legs. She strokes her niece’s head, and those soft fair curls are Amy’s indeed, so golden from holding the sunlight within it.
When Beth died, it was a dull throbbing, an ache, like they’d all been kicked in the stomach a while back and had some time to catch their breath again, until every now and then the feeling would spike again as a reminder, just a little stab to say don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget. But this— this is a pang.
Laurie wakes soon after. “This is a cursed world, Jo,” he tells her without looking up— he knows the familiar frizz snagging the edge of his vision, and the thumb, blackened by ink, smoothing over Bess’s scalp.
“Oh, Teddy,” she says.
“In here,” he says, lifting an arm gently so as to not disturb the baby, and gesturing around, “all through here, it’s all stained. Soiled. Her blood is everywhere.”
“There are better memories too, I should think,” Jo points out. “And you have Bess.”
A transparent smile tugs at his lips. He takes his daughter’s tiny hand between his thumb and index finger the way Amy would take a pencil. “We planned to have a house full of children, but... when she was born, Amy,” Laurie swallows thickly, “she looked up at me and said, ‘She’s all we’ll ever need. We’ve created happiness in this one tiny being.’” Then his face sours, a lemon slice shoved into his smile. “But— even if we had plans to the contrary— it wouldn’t have mattered, would it.”
Jo hums. “Life doesn’t much like heeding any set directions.”
“Well, I have plans,” Laurie says. “I’m taking Bess to France, once she’s matured another few months.”
Jo sits up abruptly, the bed jerking. “Teddy—”
“Nice for a short while, then to Paris, to settle along the Seine—”
“Teddy, no,” Jo says. Her brows are fully knit together, a deep crease between them. “Look at me— Teddy, you can’t.”
Bess stirs and fusses, so Laurie stands and takes her over to her bassinet in the corner of the room. For hours in the night she would cry, and Amy would cry too because she couldn’t nurse her.
Jo chokes on his name again and Laurie spins to face her. “Why not, Jo? I must. I’ll wither in this house if I don’t.”
“Think of your daughter,” Jo snaps. “She won’t know any of her family.”
He looks at the floor. “She’ll have me,” he grunts. Him, and her mother in snippets, in a million unfinished sketches.
Jo is silent. Then she says, “France took Amy. You brought her back, Teddy.”
Laurie stands there and looks at Jo March, Jo, his oldest companion, Jo March who’s written novels that have reached farther than she ever will physically, Jo March who lives at Plumfield and runs the school with her friend Bhaer, teaching music and philosophy and writing. Jo March is fine.
“You and Bess are our last pieces of Amy,” Jo tells him. “Please don’t, Teddy.”
He pushes a cluster of chestnut curls off his forehead. He knows that’s not true. So much of Amy lives on in her mother’s house, in the paintings Jo asked her to hang in Plumfield, in the illustrations she provided for Jo’s stories. They have their pieces, he has his.
He looks at Jo and shakes his head.
Her face crumples. “I have two little sisters cold in the ground, and now you’re telling me you’re leaving too.” The statement comes out in a mutter, but it’s dripping with thorny resentment that’s so unkind to his ears.
So he responds in kind. “My wife,” Laurie says, and his throat is already collapsing before the words are fully out, “is dead, my best friend, dead, and it may as well have been at my own hands. And it seems I’ve lost you— my first best friend— now, too.” His eyes are cubes of ice pressed into her skin. “The only thing keeping me from swallowing a pistol right now is Bess. She’s all I’ve got left. And she deserves more than the loneliness in this house.”
“I’m not lost, Teddy, I’m right here. We’re all right here.”
He goes back over to the bed and sits down heavily on it. Now she’s standing over him, arms sagging where they cross over her chest.
Jo finds his gaze and holds it steady. “Please reconsider. Before you do anything drastic. Won’t you?”
Laurie leans down and puts his face between his knees. The tears are silent acid on his face, streaming in neat little rivers. He thought he’d emptied his eyes enough already, thought that maybe if he planted seeds in the frozen ground and cried enough, he could get a bouquet to bloom over her grave in January.
Even in their adulthood, Jo still isn’t used to touching him in a manner that isn’t sparring or swapping jackets and vests. But she tries a gentle hand anyway, placing it between his heaving shoulder blades. He thinks of Amy’s fingers dancing over his skin, counting all the freckles on his back.
It was supposed to get better after a while. But it had already been better, he thinks. Before. There’s no bringing that back.
But the best— Bess is the best of Amy.
If only he could force back the hands on the clock, and bring Bess along with him, and have her live with them in the world they used to have. It was a fragile world, he thinks, corked in a glass bottle.