I know much more now than I did then.
Dad's memorial service had been that morning. August 8, 2035. Brief and pointed and relatively private, it featured none of the myriad eulogiums Dad's friends and colleagues had offered. Only Father Miller spoke, and although I'm sure whatever he said was lovely, I really didn't hear a word. I was concentrating on Mom's face, as she sat there with that box of ashes in her lap, her huge eyes sparkling with unshed tears.
I was in college before I realized that planning your own funeral was unusual; I was worrying about sending my own children to college before I learned that the scattering of cremated ashes teeters on the far edge of doctrinal acceptability. Rick and I had known all our lives how Mom and Dad felt about the folly of trying to keep your body together after you've left it, but we had always put that in the same category as how they felt about organ donations, brushing your teeth, remembering to vote, and not feeding Sydney and Walter from the table.
I know much more now than I did then.
Father Miller ceased speaking just as the sun made it all the way up over the horizon. I've wondered, ever since, if he really finished, or if the look on Mom's face stopped him midsentence. She had scheduled this for dawn, in fulfillment of some pact with Dad from long before my memories start, and, like a witness to that pact, Dad's confessor yielded the moment to her. Tears had begun to roll quietly down her cheeks while he spoke, but as she stared across the lake, face to face with the risen sun, her look became one of fierce triumph. I disentangled my hands from my younger son's circulation-cutting grip as the family stood, and glanced over at Rick, trying for one of those unspoken, big-sisterly commands. For a change, it worked, and he hesitantly settled his arm around Mom's shoulders, where Dad's had always been.
Mom grinned up at him suddenly, her smile seeming to smooth the lines of a lifetime. She handed me the box, nodding her head at the tree-sheltered shore. "You do it, Rosy," she whispered, in a voice I thought amazingly unruffled. "I've already said my good-byes."
Rick grinned too, a perfect echo of Mom's expression. Most people's mouths stretch out across their faces when they smile; my mother's and my brother's always tended to pucker up under their noses.
Under their familiar gazes, I walked slowly from the flock of folding chairs to the edge of the grass, pausing over the gravel embankment before unsealing the liner and awkwardly upending that ridiculous black box. I thought the still air would leave dispersal to the water, but as the ashes fell past the level of my feet, they were caught up in a solemn little breeze, bound east over the lake. Though I sometimes wonder what went through the minds of the others as that visible wind flew toward the sun, I know only that my own mind was somehow empty... dull. For three days, I had been home in the house where I'd grown up, and I still had not processed the fact that a stupid heart attack had stolen my father forever. I kept expecting to see him — everywhere. I expected to hear him at the piano, to feel his hand on my shoulder, to have him goad me out of bed at sunrise with the charge of, "Sleepyhead!"
"Good-bye, Dad," I whispered, uselessly replacing the lid on the empty box. Then I turned around to face all the eyes I could feel on my back.
~ ~ ~
"Mom?" I called as I came in the front door. The last of the guests had gone hours before — leaving casserole dishes and cake platters in their wake, as if empty hearts were best soothed by full stomachs — but Mom had still been out on the deck when I had gone to drive Rick to the airport. He hadn't wanted to leave, but we all knew how important the final stage of his project was, and Mom had said she would not be responsible for pulling me away from my husband and kids and spoiling his chances with the provincial arts commission. She was being just a tad sarcastic, as always, to cover her feelings, but it still stung. Alec and the boys could cope by themselves for a while; my work could be done over the Net; and if BC just weren't so far away—
"Back here, Rosy," came her voice from outside. Absently counting the alien tupperware containers occupying every centimeter of counter space, I walked through the kitchen and out onto the deck she and Dad had built in the summer of '04. I remembered it going up board by board over long, dusky evenings, as the Olympics blared from the kitchen TV. I must have been almost nine, then, and Rick an extremely bratty three.
Mom was sitting in Dad's favorite chair at the far edge of the deck, staring off across the neighborhood at the Toronto cityscape, silhouetted by the last rays of the setting sun. I ran my hand along the edge of her old, green hammock, long since tied back under the eaves, and was overwhelmed by memories of this deck as the center of our family circle, eight months in twelve. From scraped knees to homework problems to the day I told them I was engaged — in the precious hour between getting home from work and getting dinner, weather permitting, my parents could always be found here.
I crossed the few yards to where she sat, and dropped my hand to my mother's shoulder as I attempted to follow her gaze into the emerging stars. She covered my hand with her own and said, "I'm glad you're here, Rosy. I thought seriously about pushing the issue and insisting you go back to Vancouver with your family this afternoon but, right now, I'm so glad you're here." Her voice was peaceful, but there was a strange burr in it I could not recall having heard before.
"Oh, Mom," I said, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. "I'm not going anywhere. Not tonight."
She laughed, sounding unexpectedly resigned... even content. "Tonight is different from any night you have ever known, Rosy, any night in your entire life."
"How do you mean?" I asked quietly, leaning on the back of the chair and letting my eyes pick out the scattered patches of worn lawn which had never quite recovered from one too many games of badminton, one too many short-cuts from the bike path to the shed.
Mom was silent for a long moment, and I assumed she had switched topics entirely when she said, "You didn't ask why I refused to have Dad's ashes buried in a cemetery, the way the Church advises, and you didn't ask why Father Miller condoned it, or even where we got the permit for doing it over Lake Ontario."
I shrugged. "I know that's what Dad wanted, Mom. That's explanation enough for me."
She craned her neck and smiled up at me. "It is for me, too, but there is a reason he wanted it — a reason we both want it. It's all fine and good for God to resurrect our bodies, but that's no reason not to make it as difficult as possible for anyone else with ideas in that line."
Confused, I opened my mouth to ask for an explanation, but was prevented by a man's voice coming out of the night behind us. "I hope I am not... interrupting?" it said, and I whirled around in surprise. He must have come through the side yard, I thought, but I had not heard the gate open.
"Of course not," Mom replied calmly, without even looking at him. "Lacroix."
The tall, pale man nodded elegantly in my direction. Then he strode past me to present my mother with a single, white rose.
"You know how I feel about this loss, Doctor," he intoned, as if each word weighed more than the last.
Mom smelled the rose and slowly raised her eyes to his. "'Extraordinary circumstances.' It has been a long time, Lacroix. A lifetime."
"Indeed." He inclined his head, as if to acknowledge her agreement about something. "But first, who is this?" His eyes bored into mine so penetratingly that I was almost surprised he had to ask.
Mom looked up into what must have been my confused expression, and suddenly grinned. "Indeed, 'indeed.' Lucien Lacroix, may I present Rose Campbell? Rose Knight Campbell."
"Rose." My name was less than pleasant to him, judging by the way his lip curled as he said it. But the expression was quickly banished, and he was all gallantry as he kissed my hand. "How... appropriate." He stared into my eyes, and my world swayed suddenly. "Odd that your ... child is ... vulnerable in that fashion," he remarked clinically.
"I always found it convenient," came a strange female voice from behind me. I shook away the fuzz in my head and turned around. A pale young woman with stunning black hair stood at the top of the deck stairs. I wondered who had left the side gate open, and why I had not heard the tread of these people on the steps.
"Janette." Lacroix sighed.
She walked over to Mom and knelt beside the chair. I remember thinking, irrelevantly, that I would never dare get down in a dress that tight; goodness knows how I'd get back up! She took Mom's hands between hers and said, with the slightest trace of a French accent, "Natalie, I am so sorry."
"I know, Janette," Mom whispered. The tears of the morning returned. "For the first time, I really do know."
Janette nodded gravely, and then stood, walking around Lacroix to get a better look at me. "Little Rosy, all grown up. How long has it been?"
"Almost thirty years," Mom answered. "Rick was six."
"Oh, that's right." Janette cocked her head to one side, and her long earring rested on her right shoulder. "Her brother is a resister, you know, Lacroix. That's why I had to leave."
"Leave?" he demanded.
"Of course," she said, not taking her eyes from my face. "That his years were numbered only increased their value. I maintained a presence, of sorts, until the baby precociously proved himself too much his mother's son." She shook her head, as if loosening the hold of memory, and glanced pointedly at Lacroix. "Our family is as important to me as to you. I simply decided to define it more broadly when Nicolas gave me the choice. I made no bargain."
'Nikola' — Nicholas? I wondered. How could she have known Dad? She looked younger than Rick. Had she been one of his criminal-law students? What on earth were they talking about? Noticing my puzzled expression, she laid her hand on my cheek and stared into my eyes. "Remember me, Rosy."
The world swayed around me, and suddenly I did remember. I remembered getting to stay up long after my bedtime for her rare visits; I remembered the one baby-sitter who never seemed to know what we were not allowed to do; I remembered a handful of summer trips to the frozen-yogurt shop in the cool of the evening, though she, herself, never indulged; I remembered confiding my first pre-adolescent crush in my adored — "Aunt Janette!"
She smiled widely and gave me a hug, leaving one arm around my waist as she turned back to face Lacroix. He stood at the foot of the lounge chair in which Mom sat.
"Very touching, I'm sure," he said, looking from one of us to the other. I imagine we made a rather striking picture, my hair blond and hers dark, my skin pink and hers pale, both of us dressed in black. But that was not what was on his mind.
"Quid pro quo, Doctor Lambert," he stated, looking back down at Mom. "A life for a life. You gave me mine, that night, and I gave you his."
"And you bargained well, for someone with a table leg through his chest," she snapped. The grand tone of his words seemed to irritate her. "I was pregnant, Lacroix. He was protecting much more than just me."
"As were you, when you took on his debt — deferred payment notwithstanding." He raised one eyebrow. "Come now, Doctor Lambert, you do ... remember ... that debt?"
"I never forgot, and Nick never knew." She awkwardly swung her legs to the side of the chair, and Lacroix offered his hand to help her to her feet. She took it.
"We had forty years together, Rosy. Your whole lifetime," she said, as Lacroix unbound her still-luxurious gray hair. She did not seem to be paying attention. "A life for a life is a very old code, and I bought your father's — and yours, and your brother's — with Lacroix's."
I had no idea what she was talking about, and I moved to go to her. Instead, Aunt Janette's arm tightened around my waist until I could hardly breathe. "You will stay put," she hissed in my ear. "She knows what she's doing."
The expression on Lacroix's face was changing steadily, if slowly. His eyes glowed in a way for which the dim porch light could not account. Mom did not seem to notice more than to lean her head to one side as he ran his fingers over her throat. "Mine pays an even older debt," she said. And then Lacroix reared back his head and plunged his fangs into her neck.
I screamed. Aunt Janette tightened her grip and repeated, "She knows what she is doing. Rosy, your mother and I discussed this long ago."
She held me there with a strength I could not fight, and I watched, stupefied, as a man I'd never seen before sucked the life out of my mother.
I know much more now than I did then.
He laid her body gently back in the lounge chair, and knelt by her head. "A life for a life, yes," he crooned. "But more importantly ... a love for a love. I am spending my eternity without Fleur. He will spend his ... without you."
I was light-headed when Aunt Janette finally released her grip. I staggered over to my mother's body, searching insanely for a pulse. "She will not come over, Lacroix," Aunt Janette informed him. "For her, death is, indeed, a choice."
His head snapped back up and he snarled. "She cannot refuse me." He shoved me roughly out of the way with one arm, while his teeth tore into the wrist of the other. "You will return to me," he commanded my mother. "Your ties to this world hold you yet! You will not step into the light." He set his bloody wrist at her mouth. Nothing happened.
Long minutes passed in this grotesque tableau. I climbed to my feet, and Aunt Janette sat down on the end of the picnic-table bench. My mother's body cooled, and Lacroix's wrist healed. He rocked back on his feet, and the expression of outraged incredulity was slowly replaced by an anguish of scorching purity.
He stood in silence. Catching my eyes, he bowed, and was gone.
I know much more now than I did then.
I know that Lacroix intended to bring my mother across, to make her what my father had once been, to revenge a loss long forgotten by all but him. I know that my mother had promised him only her death, not her undeath. And I know that she kept her promise by stepping into the light, where, no doubt, my father had been waiting for her. I know that Lacroix, who surrendered the battle a lifetime ago — my lifetime ago — forever lost the war that night.
And I know that, as long as she has the ability to delete this knowledge, Aunt Janette will sometimes appear in my life, and my children's, and my children's children's.
She misses my father, too.
— End —