Fiction

All I can do

“A relationship is all about teamwork, isn’t it?”

“Sure is.”

Emily looks up, watches leaves shift in the summer breeze. “What’s the old saying? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That applies to a marriage, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe more than anything else.”

“Oh, the things we’ve done, John! Our children are our best legacy, I suppose. Nothing changes that. They both turned out pretty well, didn’t they?”

“They’re fantastic. I couldn’t be more proud of them.” There’s nothing easy about parenting, but nothing more rewarding.

“Sandy is a struggle at the moment, though.”

I feel like I know where this is going. “Hasn’t she always been?”

“She’s so grown up, but still a child. So headstrong, but so vulnerable. I suppose we have to trust her… Trust that she’s a person with her own power.”

“She’s only just coming into herself.”

“And she’s smart as hell. Maybe that’s half the problem. The really smart ones suffer more. When you understand a lot, there’s so much to worry about.”

I can’t help an ironic smile. “They don’t call it blissful ignorance for nothing.” Seems there’s plenty of it to go around. “I miss them, Emily.”

“Sandy’s so much more like you than me in that respect.”

Here it comes. “Is that a bad thing?”

“I never used to worry about it. Not before. It was endearing. Now it’s… well, now it makes me anxious.”

I reach out a hand briefly, clench my fingers, let it drop. “Sandy will be okay. She has your strength. And haven’t you always been so much more resilient?”

“I shouldn’t have to hope there’s more of me than you in her, but now I do.” She frowns. “That’s a new burden.”

“That’s my fault, is it? That’s a crime? Both our kids are strong, Em.”

Emily shakes her head, that ambiguous smile nudging her lips. “I’m not saying Josh isn’t clever, of course. Far from it. He’s so practical and capable. A pragmatic kind of person. More like me. While Sandy has always been so… cerebral.”

Who would have thought that was a pejorative? Then again, Emily’s practicality seems more calculating now. Like the way she dealt with the kids’ grief when the cat she never liked ran away. Or so she said.

“They balance each other well, though.” A sudden bitterness claws me. “We’re lucky they’re such good friends. Maybe we got something right?”

She sniffs, looks up at the trees again. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t cry. It’s not all about me. It’s just that no one should have to go through this alone.”

“Harder than you thought, is it?”

“No one should have to grieve at all. They say it’s the price we pay for love. You ever think maybe the price is too high?”

“No. But what are you grieving, really? Maybe I was more than my income, after all?” I never realised choosing early retirement would be so catastrophic.

“No, no. It’s not. No price is too high for love.”

Anger simmers deep in my gut, but I say nothing. Again. Like usual.

She sucks down a steadying breath. “This isn’t something anyone can ever get used to, I suppose.”

“I hope you never do.”

“But you know what?” Her eyes flash brief rage. I’ve seen that often, but never realised its depth. “In some ways it’s easier. One thing less to worry about. And the kids will be okay.”

Yeah, they’ll be okay. Sandy’s 18 in a few months, Josh already 20. How did that happen?

The days are long but the years are short. Shorter than I expected, that’s for sure.

“I miss you, John. We were a team! Greater than the sum of our parts. Why did you have to upset that balance?”

“And yet…?” I can’t even bring myself to say the words.

“Why even talk to you? You’re gone. You and your little habits, all your infuriating aphorisms, your bloody jokes. I couldn’t bear it, all day every day, John. I had to, don’t you see.”

This boiling impotence. I never recognised it as rage. “And you sit here and talk of love...”

“The kids are old enough. They’ll be okay eventually. And so will I, once I know they’re safely out in the world. Then I’ll really have some peace. I love you so much, though, John. Still. I truly do.”

“Not as much as I used to love you, I’ll wager.”

I absorbed her cruelty as completely as my body did the poison, without leaving a trace. I always strove to see the best, to forgive the worst. No more.

I know she can’t hear me, has no idea I’m even here, but I will her to feel me. To feel something outside herself.

She blows a kiss at the headstone and stands, wincing slightly as her knees crack. She walks slowly away, without looking back.

I sink back into the earth. She’ll be back next week, maybe the week after. The time between her visits grows ever longer. I suppose that’s to be expected. But I’ll be here. I won’t go anywhere. It’s the least I can do now. It’s all I can do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "All I can do".

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Alan Baxter is a multi-award-winning author of horror, supernatural thrillers and dark fantasy.

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