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What We Leave Behind

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She’s taken to gardening. Doctor’s orders, of course; it’s not something she would have chosen by herself, not given the rate at which every green thing she plants shrivels in the ground. You’d think that she’d intended for them to die, or sat there thinking malevolent thoughts at the wretched things all day long. She’d told her doctor that she’d done her best but, honestly, she just sat there while David did all the work. And what’s the point of calling it ‘gardening’ when she’s wrapped up in three layers of blankets and sipping her camomile tea while her grandson ineptly digs up her plants, slicing through the roots willy nilly and then looking shocked – shocked, I tell you – when the bastard things fall over and shrivel. Honestly. Much more of this and she’d brain him with her designer teacup.

Alma is suitably horrified when she tells her this. Bah, that girl never did learn to keep any sense in her head. Not that there’s anyone she can blame for it, mind you; it’s not like she can claim the girl isn’t hers. Just… that her brains got forgotten somewhere, possibly falling out on the flight out of Mongolia.

Well, it’s not like she’d be able to stay there with a fat belly, now, is it?

“Gamma, would you like some more tea?”

How sweet and solicitous David’s turned out. Alma’s been tearing her hair out over his antics – he stole out a few nights previous and went rock climbing with friends of his, the middle of the night, he could have died! - but he’s a good boy, really. Always cleaned up after any fights he got into. “No, David, that’s all right. You go on out, now. Have some fun.”

He stooped to kiss her on the cheek – square-jawed, blue-eyed and the sun in his hair – and tucked the blanket around her more securely. “I’ll stop by after school tomorrow, all right?”

That boy should spend more time with his friends and less time with his old grandmother, she thinks, perversely pleased that this isn’t so. Who would help her raise her plants otherwise?

Still. Today is something of a special day, and she isn’t in the mood for company. Today, she wants to be wicked, and laugh over the shock her prim daughter would receive to see her frail old mother drinking bourbon and laughing with imaginary old friends. “Ah, Alma, dear. I’ve no idea who you’ve taken after,” she murmured, and pulled the tiny old flask from the loose folds of her summer dress, sliding the cap open and pouring a generous amount in her empty teacup.

There was a rustle behind her; cloth over cloth. “My father, of course. She’s just as prim and prissy as the old man ever was.”

“She was born prim and prissy; you’d think that being raised by me would knock at least a little of that out of her,” she replied, amused. She couldn’t quite manage the same volume in her voice as she once had, but she imagined that she sounded much the same all the same.

“Well, at least David’s turning out well.”

“No thanks to you.” She turned a little, catching movement out of the corner of her eye. He was still standing by the window, blocking the light, moving restlessly from foot to foot. Not like him at all; of course, she could make him more skittish than a cat in a room full of chairs, or however that went. “Are you going to sit down?”

“Sweetheart, it’s just a flying visit –“

“Of course it is. You’re after the Girdle of Catherine the Great –“

“The last triumph of Augustus Caesar,” he corrected, amused.

“- and can’t stay.” She stared at the plaid blanket; the lost tartan of whozit whatsit – some lost Scottish clan – that had somehow been miraculously discovered these few years past; the pattern sent to a museum by a mysterious benefactor. Not that she cares, of course, but David insisted. And so, here she is, wrapped in her own history, sipping bourbon from a teacup.

“No,” he said after a moment. “I can’t.”

Of course he can’t. His visits have been sporadic for years, now, growing shorter and shorter each time until, finally, it became an annual event. (And how often had he come by before, anyhow? This isn’t something she can claim as hers, she knows.)

She raised the teacup to her mouth, taking a careful sip and willing her hand to stop shaking. It was difficult, now. Even a year ago things had been easier – movement, greater strength, her memory as sharp as ever – and she’s finding the resentment difficult to swallow. Sitting in any one position for any great period of time is difficult, now; she’s finding it more and more difficult to last the hour and a half of David’s gardening. Doctor’s orders, though – sit there and breathe great big health-ridden breaths. As if proximity to plants would cure old age.

He knelt by her side, his hands on the blanket. “I missed you,” he said softly. “I wanted to see you.”

“Liar,” she said pleasantly, looking down at his hands. Rough, weathered hands, but still strong and supple: a young man’s hands, full of life. There is a ring on one finger; a pale thin slice of gold across the tanned expanse. Not hers, of course. (He was never hers that way.) “You had a stop-over here.”

“Yes, because Tuscany is on the way to Ostia,” he said, the familiar snap in his voice. “Anyway. Aren’t you going to say you’re happy to see me?”

She stared at his hands some more. “Did you say hello to David?” She asked instead.

She could hear the grimace. “I don’t think that would have gone very well.”

No, perhaps not. Still. It would have given him something to do, besides coming to talk to her. “You probably have a plane to catch,” she said in a small voice.

A silence. He sighed. “Yeah. I just – I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. You know, for tomorrow.” He leaned in, quickly but firmly, and pressed a kiss to her cheek, his hands in her hair. Soft, soft, soft, with the scrape of stubble against her paper-like cheek, and the smell of gunpowder in his kiss. “I’ll see you next year, Marion,” he whispered.

He stood, and turned, and walked away again, leaving the living room door ajar. It stuck, sometimes, and she’d been having trouble with it for the last couple of years. David would have known, of course, and Alma. And now, Indy, his hands gentle on her hair as he smoothed down the fine strands curling around her head, thin as duckling down. In a year or two she thinks that she might waste away entirely, becoming one of those cartoon ghosts David had used to love as a child.

Just another year, she thinks, and takes another shaky sip from the cup. Another birthday and another kiss, and his young man’s arms around her, like the world had stopped back then. For both of them, this time, instead of just the one.

*

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