Kenny had gone to his mother’s grave.
He had stared Epheral down, had her stop his heart. He had thought his friends dead and gone forever. He had exposed his most vulnerable self to Quincey.
But nothing had ever filled him with more dread.
It felt like he wasn’t supposed to enter Anchorsway’s Hallowed Halls. The blue-cast depths of the solemn, silent graves felt forbidden to him. Guilt and shame gnawed at his heels with every step he took inside. He didn’t even know where his mother’s grave was, and that fact made his heart heavy. The black he had adorned himself in wasn’t enough to project the grief and sorrow he felt in that place – but he couldn’t wear a void.
He had stopped at the gates, staring up at the engraving above the archway. Donec iterum convenient. “Until we meet again.” The arch felt like a barrier that repelled him when he tried to step closer. He pressed against that precipice and willed himself forward to no avail. He stumbled back. He felt vulnerable all over again.
A thought, an epiphany. He reached out and called the scabbard from his back. It latched on to his black sleeve, and the mechanism sprung to reveal his shield. The polished, buffed metal surface reflected the aurora of sunbeams cast through the ocean waters and into the dome, making the light dance around the chamber. The engraving was displayed prominently, the tulip his father had drawn into the metal. Kenny considered it for a moment, and then held his shield toward his body. The light that reflected off it lit up the gateway before him, and with it, the path. Holding his shield before his heart, defensive and poised, he stepped forward and passed through.
He navigated the corridors, walking among the blue-lit flames that bathed everything in sad cerulean. He walked among the dead, knowing that behind each plaque rested a chamber where someone had been put to rest. Flowers had been placed among several, or candles lit. Every grave was pristine, cleaned regularly, and respected. The dead were revered there, and Kenny’s mind couldn’t wrap around it. His experiences with death had been anything but respectful. His presence was blasphemous.
Finally, he had come upon one lone, little grave. Though the etching was modest, so as not to inconvenience those resting around it, flowers covered it extravagantly. An array of tulips was placed there, standing vibrant and healthy. Kenny stopped when he saw them and felt it difficult to breathe. He remembered those same flowers decorating almost every square inch of his old home. Slowly, he lifted his gaze from the potted flowers and the planters to the silver plaque.
Floria Baxter, loving mother, taken by tragedy.
He couldn’t argue with that. That tragedy had walked right up to her grave just then.
He thought he would be stronger, but he fell to his knees when his legs wouldn’t support him anymore. He slumped back and sat there staring at the grave in silence. What he felt, he couldn’t describe. He couldn’t cry. He wasn’t afraid. He felt immediately small. Insignificant. Humbled. He wasn’t worthy to be standing there. He didn’t deserve the chance. Not yet.
And yet, there he was.
There was a lot he’d done that he perhaps never truly deserved. What is the weight of a life? What could he have possibly done to ever repay that? There was no answer to that. The only thing that remained was… him. He continued to live, even after forcing someone else to die. He’d long thought on that. He had wondered why. He had yearned to know what the terms of punishment were for someone like him. But there never had been any answers. The only thing left was him. He continued to live in defiance of it, and when he thought back to all the times, he’d wanted to make things even and give it all up, he persisted for reasons beyond his own understanding.
He truly was an insect before this woman.
He found his voice, soft and quiet. “Hi, Mom.”
“I’m sorry…!” His apology came with a well of emotions that left him quietly sobbing on his knees before the floral epitaph. He clutched his shield tightly in his arms and pressed it against his chest. “I’m so sorry.”
He was, of course, met with silence. His words wouldn’t reach her.
For a time, he grieved. He apologized until his voice got tired. As he rested it, he thought back on his mother. He thought back to what she even was when she died and wasn’t entirely sure how to picture it. The vibrancy of her grave was a stark contrast to what he could remember. She was gray. She was bland. She was cold. Surrounded by all that beauty, she was a husk of a woman who had been carved out. Her mind had gone. The attempts to slow the degradation had left her with nothing. As Kenny looked again at the violets, the blues, the yellows of the flowers around him… it felt like a lie. It felt… incorrect.
There was a nagging feeling that he had missed something. Something he’d never seen. It left him confused.
His PET chirped.
Slowly, he reached for it, withdrawing it from his pocket and looking at the screen. He looked up from it at the silver epitaph, noticing that a small blue light blinked at the base of its center. It was transferring. He felt as if his heart had stopped all over again, his eyes quickly darting back to the screen anxiously. It had not been approved, there was no warning. The file simply downloaded onto his PET and played by itself.
What he saw was surreal.
A woman he didn’t recognize sat in a chair. The room she was in was painted in pastel colours, decorated with toys and flowers. She looked young and her blue eyes looked out from the screen and into him with something he couldn’t put his finger on. She seemed to glow. Her gray fur had a lustrous shine, and her smile spread across her cheeks beautifully. She was a short, chesty sort of woman, Kenny noted, wearing maternity clothes. The reason for that was clear, as in her arms she cradled a small baby, one that looked startlingly like her. When she looked down at the child, she radiated a maternal aura. She offered the baby a finger and he squeezed it in his little hand, and she wiggled it around, and she laughed. Her laugh was almost musical.
She enjoyed a moment with her fussy little child, adjusted her hold on him, and then returned her attention to the screen. “Hello, Kenny.”
“Haah…!” Kenny exhaled, feeling his chest tighten.
“If you’re watching this, then… I’m already gone.” The woman said, though her calm joy didn’t leave her. Only for a moment did she stop to dwell on those words. “I can’t possibly know when it’s happened, but… I do know that… I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I never knew you. I’m sorry I had to leave. Believe me, I want nothing more than to spend my entire life with you, but… there are complications with that.”
As Kenny wiped tears from his eyes, he saw her give a sad little smile. “As you likely know, I have long suffered from a neural degenerative disorder… one that we simply caught too late. It’s something I’ve lived with all my life, and while it’s been somewhat problematic in the past, it has more recently become… more severe. And so, I know that one day, through no fault of mine or yours… that I will forget you. I want you to know how much that hurts me. I wish so badly that I could just… get better, so that I didn’t have to be so afraid that I’ll one day just… fade away.”
“But by the time you see this… I know I’ll have disappeared. I know that the woman you know will be… empty. She’ll have forgotten the joys she loved. She’ll have forgotten the good times. She’ll have forgotten the things she wanted for oh-so-long… and you were one of them.”
She paused, grimacing. She sniffed and sucked in her breath and held it to maintain her composure. She looked down at the baby in her arms and cradled it, holding it so close to her. Try as she might, she couldn’t keep the tears back, and they steadily trickled down her face. “I know it was selfish,” She said, “Wanting a family when I’m like… this. And I’m so, so sorry. There aren’t enough years left that I could apologize for what I’ve done, what I’ve no doubt put you through…”
She began to sob. “I’m afraid I’ll have hurt you, and if I ever did… I want you to know I hate myself for it. I hate everything about this, I have for so long… I’ve felt so hopeless and so angry. I wish things were different.”
The baby in her arms began to cry, and she rocked him in her arms and choked back her tears to shush the boy and hum a tune, urging him to be calm again. Kenny sucked air in through his teeth and rubbed his eyes with his arm, taking a moment to calm himself at the sound of her gentle humming. Painful as it felt, and shaky as his grip had become, he held on tight and didn’t let go.
Eventually the woman looked back to the screen when the baby had calmed. “But this isn’t about me… It’s you. It’s always been you. I want everything to be about you. Everything that I am in this moment… it’s all for you. I love you. I tell you every day, and I am going to continue to tell you that until… until I can’t anymore. I want you to know. I want you to know that no matter what happens to me, no matter what I become… I love you. You’re my world.”
“I look down at you now, and your little face fills me with so much happiness. You can’t even begin to know how seeing your little smile makes me feel.” She said, “Kenny, I know that one day… you’re going to be amazing. I know it in my heart. You’re destined for greatness, I can see it in your eyes. I know that one day, you’ll accomplish so many amazing, remarkable things… I can’t even imagine what. You can be a fussy boy, you cry so much, but I know that you’re going to grow up into someone wonderful, even if I’m not around to see it…”
“… But I want you to know that it’s okay. I don’t know how you feel about me being gone… but it’s okay. Because losing myself, losing my memories… losing you… I’d much rather be dead. I’ve told Gerald to let me go if it comes to that, but… well, he’s always been a stubborn man. Bless his heart. I’ve never met a man who fought so hard for me. But it’s all for nothing, I’m afraid. I don’t think it can be stopped. And I don’t… I don’t want to hurt you like that.”
“I hope in the end, you could be there with me… but I understand if you couldn’t. No matter which way it goes… it’s okay. Whoever that woman was… wasn’t me. I’m sure I was lost a long time ago, and it hurts to leave you behind... but I know you’ll be wonderful. I know that you’ll be strong, and you’ll be brave, and you’ll be smart. The world will be so much better with you in it.”
“I love you, Kenny, and I always will. Even when I’m gone, and we’re worlds apart… I’ll always love you. I hope more than anything that I never caused you any pain or any grief, and if I did… I’m sorry. Though… I want you to know something, because if you’re watching this, then… the last thing I recorded is irrelevant.”
“Gerald will never let me go. I’ve long stopped blaming him for this, and I don’t want you to, either… I was going to pass that decision on to you, and I was going to ask… selfishly… that you do it.”
Kenny dropped his PET. It clattered on the ground, and he stared ahead at the silver epitaph and the flowers, feeling numb.
“If I ever hurt you, I want to be taken away. I want to be removed from that, away from you. I don’t want to do that to you. So… it’s okay. If you’re watching this, then you never had to make that choice. Just know that if you were ever angry with me, it’s not your fault, and it’s okay. All I want is for what I feel right here and right now to somehow reach across time, and I want you to feel it.”
“I love you!”
“I love you.”
“… I love you.”
“And that’s it. That’s what I want. More than anything else.”
“I love you, my son. And words cannot express how sorry I am.”
“And I guess… this is goodbye. I need to put you to bed now.”
“Goodnight, sweet prince. My darling boy. I’ll see you tomorrow. Bright and early.”
Then, it ended.
Kenny screamed into the chambers. Crying out and dropping to the floor, curling up. He cried, harder than he felt he’d ever cried in his life. It poured out of him without control. His heart felt like it was being torn into pieces in his chest, and he gasped for breaths between his wailing sobs. He was trapped there, paralyzed, for an eternity. His tears flowed until they dried up, and no more would come. He choked on his dry sobs, letting out pitiful, weak whimpers of pain and sorrow. For an eternity he stayed there, detached from the world, isolated in that moment.
Then, he snapped back to reality. He blinked his eyes, panting for breath. He got his arms under himself and pushed up, rising from where he had laid out in front of his mother’s grave. How long had he been there? The sunlight that shined through the ocean blue had left and was replaced with the black of night. The Hallowed Halls were dark. All save for where he sat. A warm, golden glow surrounded him from a light above. Lights danced in the air like fireflies around him, dipping into the open bloom of the tulips, lighting them up like beautiful bulbs, casting the area in an array of colour. He reached out to touch one of the lights, and it rippled as his fingers passed through it. A projection. A hologram.
He saw his PET on the floor. He picked it up and looked at the screen, seeing that the message had transferred with an image proudly displayed. It was of his mother, his father, and him, together and happy. The words “I love you” were scribbled on in pale yellow, with drawn-on hearts and flowers surrounding it. Kenny clutched the screen to his chest and let his head fall back against the grave.
“I love you too, Mom.” He said, smiling sadly. “I’m sorry.”
Kenny stepped off the train and barely looked up to see his friends waiting for him. Daxton, Laila and Quincey approached him, concerned about the way he seemed to be so quiet. They expected him to be upset after coming home, but the way he seemed to be so distant was out of left field.
“Hey man,” Daxton said, “You alright?”
Kenny threw himself at Daxton and fell into his arms, pressing in tightly for security. Daxton was surprised, even stumbled a bit, but he quickly wrapped his arms around the boy and rubbed his back. “Whoa, hey now,” Daxton said, “Hey, it’s alright.”
Quincey and Laila flanked them from either side and gently pressed in to support Kenny as well. Laila placed her hand gently on his shoulder, and Quincey wrapped her arms around him with Daxton and squeezed him tight.
“Rough time, I reckon.” Laila said, “Can’t imagine, but y’did it. Yer back.”
“How do you feel? Do you need anything? What can we do?” Quincey asked.
“… I dunno…” Kenny said thoughtfully, sniffling somewhat. “… I feel… weird. I kinda just want to go home.”
He stepped back from Daxton and looked at his friends, blinking somewhat as he tried to sort out his feelings. Daxton stepped aside but offered his hand anyway. “We can walk you there, if you want,” He offered, “Or we could leave you alone. No big deal either way. Whatever you need.”
“… I think I’d like that.” Kenny said, reaching out with both hands. Daxton and Quincey took his hands and walked in step with him, with Laila following behind them, towering over her as she did. They kept Kenny at the center of them, protectively.
“Are you glad you went?” Quincey asked gently.
“That’s good,” She smiled, “Then it’s good that you did.”
“She loved me, y’know.” Kenny said.
The pack smiled at him, and Daxton swayed the boy’s arm a little, back and forth. “Heh, what’s not to love?”
“She must be real proud of her lil’ man,” Laila smiled, “Eh?”
Kenny thought about that for a moment, looking at each of them in turn. “Hm, maybe,” He said, “Don’t know for sure, but… I’ll make sure she is one day.”
When Kenny entered his apartment, Gerald practically ran as fast as his portly legs would take him to meet him. Kenny stepped inside and stopped with a start, staring up at his father, who simply stared back down at him. The silence between them was heavy.
Finally, it was Kenny who spoke. “Dad? Do you have any of mom’s stuff?”
Gerald stood struck for a moment, studying Kenny’s face and his expression, trying to get a read on his state. He was so distracted by his worry, he’d almost missed the question entirely. “… Of course,” He said, “Come here.”
He took his son to his room, and opened the closet, standing on a small stool he kept inside to reach the top shelf. Nestled in its own spot was a simple box, like a small trunk. Gerald pulled it down, careful as could be, and he walked it over to his bed where he put it down and waved Kenny over. Kenny stepped forward to look at the small chest. It was rather ornate and seemed to shine with a wood polish. It hardly showed any signs of age at all. It was obviously well-kept.
Gerald stepped back and invited his son to open the chest himself. Kenny looked between his father and the chest before moving to do just that. His hands trembled as he unfastened the hatch and then slowly drew up the lid.
The box opened with many compartments folding out and to the sides, creating a multi-layered display of what was clearly a few keepsakes and mementos. It seemed to be quite a collection of old things – a pressed flower, a tag for a dress, a positive pregnancy test, some sea shells, among other little knick-knacks. In the bottom of the chest, a collection of external data drives was packed edge to edge, filling the thing entirely despite their small size. Kenny’s immediate feeling was forlorn. That box contained a life he never knew of. It contained a history. It was worthy of a chest – it was a treasure. He marvelled at it. He picked some of the objects up and studied them. Gerald gave him all the time he wanted.
Taking one of the data drives, Kenny asked what they were.
“… When I learned that your mother’s memory was shot, I started recording… everything.” Gerald explained. That news made Kenny regard the drive much more carefully. He held it delicately, treating it as precious.
Soon, Gerald joined him, standing over him and peering into the box. He placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and enjoyed the flood of memories that came back to him. “I met her when I was a little older than you,” He explained, “She was the daughter of one of my clients when I was trying to be Anchorsway’s Mr. Fix-It. The second I saw her, I was hopelessly in love. Started finding every damn excuse I could to run into her and go to her old man’s place to do jobs for them. She wanted to be a botanist. Every time I saw her, she was with some kind of flower. Tulips were her favourite.”
Kenny listened with an interest he’d never had for it before. Hearing it, he thought back to how afraid he’d been to learn anything about his mother. He didn’t feel afraid then.
“When it became obvious that she and I were going steady, her parents told me about her condition. I was pretty surprised at first. I thought the whole thing was bunk. Had a bit of a spat over it. But I couldn’t get her off my mind. I was in too deep, and she meant so much to me. So, I came up with this little thing.” Gerald took one of the data drives out himself and held it up. “Every date we went on. Every holiday we spent together. Every single day I could press record. Our wedding. Your birth. I recorded everything so that if she ever forgot, she could watch these back and remember every detail. It meant a lot to me.”
“Whoa,” Kenny said, “You have… what, a bunch of years worth of stuff in here?”
Gerald smiled. “There’s around eight years of memories in there.”
“Eight?!” Kenny exclaimed.
Gerald nodded. “Though… around the time you were seven years old, it started getting more than just her memory; but her memory got so bad, she forgot who we were. She wouldn’t watch the recordings. She didn’t trust us, and her mind was starting to break down. I decided to get the neural implants to buy more time, but… well, the rest is history.”
Kenny turned his attention back to the box. It seemed unreal that the woman in the video and the woman who that box represented was the same woman he had grown to despise so deeply that he… ended her life. The tragedy of it all was almost too much to bear. The note his father had left on was left vague specifically to avoid mentioning that part. Kenny looked at his father, and before he could say a word, Gerald cut him off.
“Kenny, I’m sorry.” He said. “I bear a lot of the responsibility for how things turned out. I just… I just couldn’t…”
“You loved her.” Kenny cut him off in return, somberly returning his attention to the box. He placed the drive back inside and picked up the small parchment with the pressed flower in it, examining it. “… I get it.”
Gerald was caught completely by surprise. He wore an expression of shock Kenny had never seen, and the boy wasn’t even looking at him. “I… uh…” The man was left somewhat speechless. Bewildered, he raised a bushy eyebrow at his son. “Still…”
“No, really,” the boy insisted, “I get it.”
Gerald pat his son on the shoulder. “You’re a bigger man than I am,” He said, “If it were me, I’d hate me.”
“You probably already do,” Kenny said, “But… it’s alright. Mom said she doesn’t blame you for it. I don’t either. If it was someone I loved, I’d probably hold on too.”
Gerald, once again, couldn’t find the words. He simply stared down at Kenny as the boy continued to quietly pick through the things in the box. He took a moment to really think and felt compelled to one action. “Kenny,” He said, “Would you like to… watch these? It’s a little painful for me these days, but you’re free to watch as many as you want. This box is as much yours as it is mine.”
The opportunity to learn what sort of person his mother was lay before him, and Kenny at first felt apprehension. The prospect seemed a little frightening. He didn’t know how that might make him feel toward his own actions that caused her death. He wasn’t sure, knowing that his mother sought that release from her pain, whether to frame the act as a mercy or utter vindication on his part. As he stood there gazing into that box if memories, the positive pregnancy test stood out. That was when he entered their lives. It was a strange sort of sentimentality he felt for it as he tried to imagine their reactions. He didn’t want to just ask – it seemed self-centered and was an odd question. But there was a life there that he suddenly felt eager to uncover.
“Yeah,” He said, “I do.”