|"The Sweet Hereafter"|
|Disclaimer: All characters, situations, etc used to be the property of the WB. Now they're the property of UPN. Bottom line - none of it is mine.|
Summary: In her last day on earth, a very old Liz reminisces on her life.
Author's Note: Feedback always appreciated! Enjoy!
|She gazed across the garden that was her backyard, her eyes squinting slightly against the early afternoon sun. These days it was a little harder to see across the width of the yard to the little fountain that bubbled continually. She'd installed that fountain herself, had run the plumbing, had poured the foundation, so many years ago. She was a strong woman - her small stature belied her physical abilities. |
She drew in a shaky breath and released it as a barely perceptible sigh. It was time. She was in her final days, if not truly her final day. She was ready. She'd had enough. She hadn't planned on living this long, hadn't planned on out-living everyone she loved. Cancer had taken Maria at age 53; a broken heart took Michael at 54. Isabel had lived the longest, slipping away, childless, in her sleep at 74. Alex, of course, had passed when he was still a teenager at the hands of Tess's treachery. A set of headphones and a slippery diving board had claimed Max at the age of 25.
Another sigh. Not a day had gone by in the last 60 years that she hadn't thought about Max, about the ironies of life, of how enjoying a bit of music had prevented her from going to his aid, of how the one person who had saved everyone else was unable to save himself. She hadn't planned on living a day past that day, but the growing life inside of her had prevented her from curling up and letting herself die the way Michael would many years later. In a way, she envied Michael, envied his ability to say "Screw you, world" and simply wait until he was run down enough to lie down and die. Suicide was so much quicker and easier when you just pulled the trigger, took the pills, knotted the noose. But to let yourself slowly, painfully waste away…what kind of will did that take? Or did it take no will at all?
She looked down at her hands, gnarled and contorted with her many years on earth. Could she really have ended it that day - the day that the only thing that had awakened her was the constant, frantic parade of shadows across her closed eyelids? She thought she could have. She could still feel the cold, wet cement of the poolside beneath her knees as she'd knelt to help them pull his lifeless body from the water. Pink - the water had a pink hue to it, she remembered. Blue - his skin had an odd blue tinge to it. She knew before they'd made any resuscitation attempts that he was dead, gone - she'd felt it in her heart, in her gut. The most important part of her life was over.
Yes, she could have ended everything that day, 60 years ago.
But she hadn't. She had been three months pregnant, not even showing yet, and her soul told her that to kill herself would be to murder Max's child. She'd fled to Mexico with Max's ashes, for fear that the life inside of her would be somehow inhuman when it was born, and without Max's help, she wasn't sure she could cover up the birth. She hadn't needed to. Her baby was beautiful - a boy with a full head of dark hair and his father's eyes. She'd named him Alexander Evan Parker, after the two men she had loved the most. After the birth, she'd bundled her son into a back pack and had ventured to Machu Picchu to lay Max to rest. She'd strewn his ashes among the ruins, feeling that she'd somehow returned him to something resembling his home, even if all of those stories and legends about the ancient place where a farce.
She hadn't led a dull life, not by any means. She'd raised Alexander on her own for four years before she finally married. She'd pursued her molecular biology career, but soon discovered that she had more Grandma Claudia in her than she'd anticipated - ancient worlds and lost civilizations beckoned her. She'd penned four books, countless magazine spreads and had given hundreds of lectures. Only within the past year, as her health started to fail, had she slowed down.
She looked up into those eyes, a unique shade of brown, like his father's. Just now, at nearly sixty, Alexander's dark hair was starting to show gray. There were crow's feet at the corners of his eyes, but his skin was still as smooth as a twenty-year-old's. She had never told him of his father's gifts, of his special origin, and Alexander had never displayed any sort of unusual powers. She didn't know if he had powers that were lying dormant - she never wanted him to know he was different.
"Lunch is ready," he said after he'd gotten her attention. He reached down and took her beneath her elbow and helped her to her feet. She felt her heart flutter in her chest at the sudden physical exertion. No, it wouldn't be long now.
At the table, she watched her son and his wife chatting warmly. She didn't have much to say today. There wasn't anything left to say. She'd told her son countless times over the years how much she loved him - she'd cradled him when he was ill, had read to him before he went to bed. Rarely had they spent even a day apart. It would be an adjustment for him - but he was like his mother, strong. She took special care to note the little things - the clink of a tea cup on its saucer, the smell of hot soup, the taste of the fresh bread - because she didn't know if she'd remember these things where she was going. Oddly, that thought didn't upset her. She was ready.
Funny, she thought, how life has a way of replaying itself when the end is near. She couldn't help reminiscing about times past, about her friendship with Maria. It had hurt so to see Maria suffer, to waste away to less than 90 pounds before she'd finally passed away. There had been nights when she'd sat up holding her friend's hand, just wishing she could give up and have some peace. But Maria was a fighter and she had fought to the very end, even after the cancer had robbed her of most of her mind. Before she had gotten so ill, their friendship had thrived, never waned, and when she'd returned home from Mexico, it was Maria who had grieved with her, held her, let her blame herself for Max's death. Maria had been the best friend she ever could have asked for. Silently she wondered if she would see Maria again soon.
Michael. It hurt the most to think about Michael, about the way he had just given up on life. She and Isabel had both tried to bring him around, get him involved in something, anything so that his life would have purpose. But he didn't care. His only reason for living, his one true thing, was gone. He'd sometimes go days without eating. She'd never seen anyone so gaunt, so lifeless. Michael had been a walking corpse. He'd died months before his body finally gave up. She'd found him, sitting in his recliner, the blinds drawn, an oddly serene smile on his face.
Isabel had been the mystery. She'd appeared to have been healthy for her age, had never spoke of being ill. She'd simply slipped away one night in her sleep. Since there was no sign of foul play or suicide, she was able to convince the authorities to forego the autopsy. It had been Isabel's worst nightmare - to be sliced open and scrutinized like in that alien autopsy video that had caused such a stir when they were younger. She'd been able to prevent that from happening, and that in itself brought some satisfaction.
She looked up into those eyes again, this time her vision a bit blurry. Her son. She gave him a smile and raised her hand to touch his cheek.
"You fell asleep," he said gently. "Let me help you to bed."
She realized she was still seated at the table and that Alexander's wife had already removed the dishes from lunch. She shook her head. She didn't want to go to bed, not yet. She knew when she went to bed today, it would be for the last time. Instead, she requested to go back to her rocker on the porch overlooking her garden, and would he mind reading to her for a while? Her vision was poor these days and she'd been unable to read for herself for a few months.
She didn't concentrate on the story he relayed, sitting on the top step of the porch, his lean body turned sideways toward her. She listened instead to the inflection of his voice, how it changed with the emotion of what he was reading. It had astounded her always how much his voice was like his father's. Not just tone, but the inflections he put in it as well. It was an odd thing to be hereditary, but it had to be genetic since Alexander never had the pleasure of spending any time with his father. She wondered about that. In the womb, not even a viable life form, had he been able to hear his father, experience him? It almost seemed so. In human terms, it was ridiculous. But his father hadn't been human, and Alexander was only partially human.
Many times had she contemplated what Max would have been like as a father. She'd imagined him playing catch with his son, teaching him how to fish, how to drive. She thought he'd have been a wonderful, loving parent, and it hurt her that they all had been robbed of the experience.
She could still feel the hot California sun on her face, hear Incubus blaring in her ears. She'd drifted off, lulled by the heat, only to be jolted awake by all of those bustling rescue workers. She'd been asleep, working on her tan, the world blocked out by rock music, as her lover had slipped on a wet diving board, struck his head and slid unconscious into the water to meet his fate. She hadn't seen it happen, hadn't heard it, hadn't been able to prevent it. Silently, a tear rolled down her cheek.
A warm hand on hers.
"Mother? Are you all right?"
She nodded and wiped at the tear that had betrayed her.
"Can I get you anything?"
She shook her head and gave a little sigh. She squeezed his hand and gave him a weak smile. Odd that it took so much energy to smile at her only child. He rose and kissed her cheek.
"I love you, Mom," he said against her cheek and she brought her hand up to touch his face. She lingered there just a moment too long and she thought she caught a flash of something - worry? - in his eyes when he pulled away. But he smiled lovingly at her. She had the feeling he knew what was coming.
"Let's go inside," he suggested. "I want to look at pictures. Maybe some videos."
It was his way of saying goodbye, she realized. He wanted to walk down memory lane with her, relive the best times they'd shared. She couldn't deny him. They sat on the couch together, a pillow supporting her aching back, and he flipped the pages of the photo albums, stopping long enough to laugh or make a comment on a particular picture. All of those images - Alexander as an infant, Alexander as a child learning to ride his bike, his graduation day, her marriage, his marriage - flipped past in something of a blur. Until he came to a faded, aged photo and held it up.
"My father," he said reverently.
She nodded and looked wistfully at the antiquated snapshot. Max looked much as he had the day he died - skinned tanned to golden perfection, body slim and fit, eyes sparkling with their unusual shade of golden brown. Her heart lurched at the sight of his smiling face.
"I wish I would have known him," Alexander said, giving her a meaningful glance. "He was a handsome man, wasn't he?"
She nodded again, then reached over and turned the page of the album so she didn't have to be tormented any longer.
Later in the evening, Alexander helped her to her bathroom and closed the door discreetly behind her so she could get ready for bed. She looked at her face in the oval mirror, was almost surprised at her own reflection. Perhaps it had been looking at the photos of her youth that had put her in this state, but she never thought she'd looked older, more spent. As she was gazing at herself, she thought she saw a shadow move over her shoulder. Oddly, it didn't frighten her.
Alexander helped her into her bed, pulled the covers over her body. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and gave her a warm smile. He knows, she thought. He knows that I won't be here much longer.
"You sleep well tonight, mother," he said. "I'll see you in the morning."
She watched him shut out the light and exit her room. As the door closed, she let out a weary sigh and felt her breath catch in her chest. Closing her eyes, she let herself drift to sleep.
Her eyelids fluttered but didn't open.
She knew that voice but hadn't heard it in many, many years. Her eyes popped open and she saw Max kneeling by her bed. She sat up quickly, barely able to believe her eyes. He looked young, beautiful and he smiled widely at her.
"Hi, Liz," he said, his voice soft in the darkness of her room.
"Max?" she breathed. She was suddenly self-conscious of her appearance, of her age. But he continued to smile at her as he nodded his head. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to take you home," he explained. "Everyone is looking forward to seeing you. Are you ready?"
"Then come with me," he urged gently.
She pushed away her blankets and slowly sat up, swung her legs over the side of the bed. His smile hadn't wavered as he watched her struggle to her feet. It occurred to her that he hadn't made an attempt to touch her and when she looked at his hands, she realized he had no physical form. She could see straight through him if she tried. Max was but an apparition.
Almost in response to her thought, Max cocked his head slightly. "I am real," he assured her. "I'm just in a different form than you. Soon, you will be like me." He caught a slight look of fear in her eyes and his voice dropped to a soothing whisper. "Don't be afraid, Liz. It doesn't hurt. It's nothing bad."
She followed him out of her bedroom and down the hallway. At Alexander's door, she paused and looked back to Max. "Can I?" she asked. "One last time?"
Max nodded his head and then followed her into Alexander's room. They looked down on him and his wife sleeping soundlessly. Max gave a little smile and stood close behind her.
"You did a wonderful job," he complimented.
She turned to look at him, her eyes wide. "I wasn't sure..."
"I watched you every day," he explained. "I saw the love with which you raised him. He was lucky. You were lucky. And I was lucky to be with you, even though you didn't know it." He looked back to his son. "He's a fine man, Liz. You were a wonderful mother."
She bit her lip - an action painfully familiar to him - and swallowed. "I should have told him. About you."
"You did tell him about me," Max corrected. "You told him all that mattered - that I loved you and would have loved to have been a part of his life. The rest doesn't matter, Liz. Not in the long run."
She gave him an understanding smile and glanced at her son one last time. Goodbye, she thought. We'll be together again someday.
Max lead her through the kitchen and to her back porch. As he reached for the door, his body appeared to have taken on solid form so he could push open the door. She looked at him in awe. As the door swung open, bright sunlight flooded through even though it was the dead of night, and blinded her to the familiar vista that was her garden.
"We may have lost many years," he said, "but now we have eternity."
He held out his hand and she took it, smiling. As their bodies touched, she suddenly felt young, restored; the nagging pain in her joints was gone. Though there were no mirrors available, she knew that she'd taken on the form of her younger self. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze then stepped through the door with him, into the sweet hereafter.
|Max/Liz | Michael/Maria | Alex/Isabel | UC Couples | Valenti | Other | Poetry | Crossovers | AfterHours|