Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 30 March 2007, 2:24 am
The wheels of the car compacted the snow beneath the tires, drawing two parallel lines in the flat white calm. The sound it made was distantly familiar, and more than anything brought the reality of her task to bear. She marveled at the power of memory and the curious recollections it would bring to mind when prompted by certain trivial circumstances. Moreover, she was angered by how it made her heart skip a beat and overwhelmed sense and reason. She tightened her grip on the wheel and pressed on.
At first, she was concerned by the undisturbed condition of the winding drive. The snow lay flat and undisturbed, lacking even the faint impression of recent footsteps. She reminded herself, however, that it was early yet in the year and this had probably been the first snowfall. After all, her mother had not been in her Edmonton home; indeed, the dark condo had had very much the appearance of a place that had not seen inhabitants for quite some time. She had taken to spending most of her time at the cabin rather than in the city during the final years that she had spent on Earth with her family—the appearance of the property likely spoke more to her mother's isolation rather than her absence. Not that that was any great comfort.
Though it was not yet evening, the sky was an onerous overcast, making it much darker than the hour should have permitted. It enhanced the quiet beauty of the family cottage when at last she came upon it, however: flanked by white-tipped spruce trees, the log cabin stood small but impressive, with flickering orange light dancing on the snow banks outside the frosted windows. A car was parked out front, covered in snow as deep as it lay on the ground.
At least I know she's here, she thought. She found herself quite relieved; she had not wanted to call—she didn't deserve to be told like that—and she was gratified that her long trip had not been in vain.
She pulled the car alongside the one already parked and reluctantly but unhesitatingly left the heated interior. It was much colder here than it had been in the city and the biting cold penetrated her winter accoutrements, especially her gloves. Appropriately, her hands began to shake. It was the temperature, she reasoned, and not her nerves.
Not even the walk had been shoveled, and she ascended the stairs with caution. Next to the front door was nailed a decorative sign with the phrase In Deo solo spes mea written in delicate golden letters. The family motto.
The power of memory once again worked itself on her overwrought mind. She recalled her father nailing that very plaque to the side of the cabin when he had first bought this place. He was a very proud man, and he wasted no opportunity to regale her with family history.
"You know, our ancestors were fisherman," he had told her afterwards. "It's where our name comes from: it derives from quay, long ago. They would no doubt utter this sentiment often enough, on the high seas!"
He looked at the product of his labors then and smiled distantly. "It is always important to remember where you came from. And I'll tell you: space may be far more expansive and perhaps more mysterious—but it has nothing on the open ocean. You could smell it the sea
taste it. It was a different life."
"Not to return," she had muttered.
"No," he agreed, returning to the present. "Gone forever."
It was when he was most verbose.
She looked at the sign now, staring steadfastly at the motto until the memory faded from her mind's eye. She brushed the ice that clung to the letters with her gloved hand, returning the luster to the words and the name emblazoned underneath: "Keyes."
The door opened suddenly and her mother appeared on the threshold. Likely she had heard her approach and wondered at the hesitation of her visitor. Her jaw dropped at the sight of her, and instinctively she rested a hand upon the oak frame.
"Miranda," she said by way of greeting.
"Hi, mom," she answered weakly.
Her mother looked unblinkingly at her for some time, slowly nodding her head. "It's your father, isn't it?" she asked with a sigh.
It had been quite some time since Miranda Keyes had seen the inside of her father's cabin. As she had expected, it was largely unchanged but for a few new pieces of furniture. It was simple, elegant, and efficient; probably what had so attracted her father to it in the first place. Most of the building was taken up by the common room in which she now stood. An open kitchen lay to the right, separated only by a counter and some cupboards, while on the left two doors led to guest bedrooms. A hallway on the far side of the room led to the master bedroom in the loft above.
Her mother already had a fire going when she entered, though she had thrown a few more logs into the hearth upon her arrival and it was now crackling merrily. Miranda had taken a seat on one of the couches that surrounded the fireplace in a circular fashion, sitting silently and quite uncomfortably as her mother made calls at the desk by one of the front windows. For want of something to occupy herself, she reached for a datapad on the coffee table in front of her. It displayed the day's news, if it could be called that; rumors that Sorrento III had been glassed and speculation on when the Covenant would arrive at Earth now that Reach had fallen. She tossed it back on the table and shook her head. The last thing she needed now was to be reminded of the war.
At length her mother put the phone down. "Your brother is working at the shipyard," her mother told Miranda, coming over to join her. "He said he'll have to finish his shift but that he'll be here by the morning."
Meaning he has to sleep off a bender in New York, Miranda thought privately. To her mother, however, she merely said, "It will be good to see him again. I can only stay until tomorrow night, though, and then I have to get back to my ship."
"That's fine," she said. She turned then to the bar near the kitchen. "I think I need a drink. Would you like one?"
"It's only four," Miranda said, glancing at her watch.
Her mother slammed her hand on the counter. "I've just been told that my husband is dead!" she cried in a voice that shook with emotion. "I can have a drink in my own home if I please."
"I just meant I won't be joining you, mom," Miranda answered tiredly.
"Fine," she retorted, bringing a glass of straight vodka with her as she sat down on the couch next to her daughter. She touched a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. "I'm sorry I snapped at you."
Now that she was very close to her, Miranda studied her mother's face more carefully. Though it had been less than a year since she had last seen her, her face had aged considerably. Wrinkles now dotted her cheeks and forehead and her eyes looked listless and dull, as if they saw little in the world that still captured their interest. Her hair was flat and grey and she had lost weight that was in need of being found. She smelled strongly of alcohol, as well; this was certainly not the first pre-dinner drink she had indulged in, this day or the last.
"Don't worry about it."
"So," she said, tipping the glass to her lips. "How did it happen?"
"You mean how did he die?"
She winced. "Yes."
"I don't know. It's the reason you haven't been told until now. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in pitch black. It stinks of ONI."
"So he didn't die at Reach?"
"I don't know, but I doubt it. I only found out through the back channels, and even then I only learned that he is confirmed KIA. If it was that innocuous, we would have been told weeks ago. There were some rumors of fighting beyond the Outer Rim, but who knows?"
"Bastards," she said vehemently. "They can't even tell his family?" She leaned forward and took her daughter's hand in her own. "You're a captain, aren't you?"
She waved a hand dismissively. "Whatever. You could find out more, use your father's sources. I deserve to know what happened."
"I agree. But they're giving me nothing but platitudes and assurances. I'm sure the truth will come out soon enough—for now, though, I've told you all I can."
"Did you even try?"
"Of course I did," she said, stung. "He was my father."
"Yes, he was. Though one might never know".
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"The only reason you're commanding a ship at your age is because of Jacob, and how did you repay him? With an annual visit, if we were lucky enough to be graced by your presence."
"Well, how the hell were we supposed to spend time together, mom?" she asked angrily. "There's a Goddamn war on, if you hadn't noticed. How often did he manage to find time for leave anyway?"
"He loved you so much," she went on as if she hadn't heard her. "Every Christmas he would say how much he missed you and he hated that he could only see you once a year."
"Christ!" Miranda cried helplessly. "How was that my fault?"
"Whenever you were here, you made it very clear it was the last place in the galaxy you wanted to be," she shouted hotly, her face red and her eyes filled with tears. "It was painted all over your face and in your eyes—it is there still."
"You will of course have to forgive me if I do not bear your attack on my character with any great enthusiasm," she returned through clenched teeth. "If perhaps some reason for coming home was offered to me besides awkwardness and the traditional Christmas bitterness. If maybe I could come here and share my grief with you over my lost father without your drunken spite—then, perhaps, you might have seen my face more than once a year!"
Slowly her mother got to her feet as if she lacked the balance to do so with any haste. She brushed an imaginary strand of hair from her face and bent to pick up her drink. "There's no grief in you, child," she said. She turned and walked with seeming calm towards her room.
"Mom," she began, but her mother did not turn around and Miranda said nothing further. The clinking of ice against glass accompanied her as she disappeared from sight, up the stairs to solitude.
Miranda sighed heavily, ran her hands through her dark hair, and leapt suddenly to her feet. She began pacing around the room, as was her tendency when frustrated in a situation for which she could do nothing to solve. At first she berated herself for acting the way she had to her mother, but as she worked herself into a greater fury, she berated herself for coming at all. A brief call, perhaps a recording, would have sufficed.
In her pacing she came upon the fireplace mantle where about a half dozen framed pictures of the family stood. One of them was of their latest Christmas gathering at a restaurant in Edmonton, all four of them with fake smiles plastered on their faces. Another was of her father and her brother many years ago on a fishing trip, the former looking a good deal more enthusiastic than the latter. Yet another was of her father and herself on the bridge of her ship, In Amber Clad, just after she had been promoted to the ship's commander. His arm was around her and they were both smiling.
All of these she looked at dispassionately; they all seemed so disingenuous. They stirred no emotion in her heart, evinced no feeling of nostalgia or loss. She wondered if this hardness should worry her, upset her. He truly had raised a cold-hearted soul—the apple of his eye.
After a time she began to hear a sound emanating from the loft, drifting faint but distinct to her ears. Her mother was crying.
She could not bear the sound of her mother crying. She was far too quick to tears; as a child she was always disgusted by the spectacle she was apt to put on at this or that provocation. Though she was now spared the sight, she was still driven mad just by the image the sound produced in her mind. She grabbed her coat hanging by the door and quickly stepped outside.
Once on the porch, standing in snow that reached her shins, she looked longingly at the car before her and seriously considered leaving. She placed her gloved hands on the low banister and wrung it fiercely, trying to drive the anger that she knew was clouding her judgment from her body. The cool air felt soothing on her hot skin and she was soon able to control her erratic breathing. She released the railing and descended the few front steps, at first with hesitation but then with increasing direction.
She walked around the cabin, slogging determinedly through the deep snow and across the uneven, frozen ground beneath. Almost directly behind the cabin lay a dense copse of trees, long ice crystals hanging from their stubbornly green boughs. She and her brother had once delighted in these woods, playing the timeless games of youth in its depths, talking seriously of building a tree house without any notion of how to begin. It had been their sanctuary, their haven away from the oppressive fear and paranoia that consumed the city; the Covenant had seemed very far away amongst the trees.
It seemed so much smaller than she remembered it, though, now that she walked through it. The trees seemed much lower and far fewer in reality than in her memory. Only the smell was the same, subdued though it was by the winter frost; the smell of pine; the smell of Christmas. She was again thrown back in time, flooded not with any specific memories but merely the feeling of memories.
She emerged shortly on the far side of the woods, stopping just beyond the tree line and breathing deeply the cool air. Before her was an open field that led up to an expansive lake, stretching well beyond sight. Along the rim of the lake other homes could be seen, the yellow light of their windows reflecting off the still, unbroken surface. The water had not yet frozen, though it moved sluggishly in the light breeze and scattered ice floes bobbing quietly near the shore threatened to close all that lay beneath from the world above.
This had been her father's favorite spot, his own private retreat when all the stresses of his life became too much for him. In the summer he would come to the lake for a swim and in the later seasons he would come to this place to hunt. He was an avid hunter and the spot was well suited for this purpose. The field, with its tall grass and abundant shrubbery, was home to many rodents, while the lake attracted birds of all sorts. Occasionally even large game could be seen deeper in the forest to the north; her father had never but once killed these animals. Its head was displayed in the cabin still.
He would take her out with him, from time to time, though she had little interest in the activity. By the time they were old enough to accompany him, her brother had become increasingly alienated from the family, being quite enamored with the life of a failing student. So her father had turned to her, eager to pass on the joy of his hobby and to share his experience with one who might appreciate it with equal élan. He was given very limited leave, especially when the war turned for the worse, and she was forever conscious that each time he left it was quite possible she would never see him again; it had been impossible to refuse.
Their expeditions together had been painful, however, almost physically so. They had been consistently unable to relate on any level, though he never tired of trying. He was insistent on never speaking of his service to his family and a darkness would spread across his face if she ever tried to broach the subject. This being the only line of questioning she knew to pursue, they frequently reached an impasse if alone for any length of time. He would criticize her unendingly—her form when she held a rifle, her lack of awareness, the noise she made when prey was nearby. This was not done out of malice but rather out of desperation, himself aware of the agonizing silences that would stretch interminably during all of their forays. Quickly, his sporadic appearances became events to be utterly dreaded.
Following her father's well-treaded footsteps had been a great reprieve from the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of her family, though her decision had caused much friction with him. He had gone to tremendous lengths to secure a position for her in the UNSC Operational Command in San Diego, though she had rescinded this offer and instead enlisted as an Ensign. Her father had been quite naturally furious, having tried so hard to keep her from the front lines, though reluctantly accepted her desire to serve. Indeed, it seemed like he had done more than merely accede; with less than seven years and only a handful of minor engagements under her belt, she had been given her first command. She had spent many nights since quietly hating him, unsure of whether her status had been earned or ascribed.
She returned suddenly to the present, remembering with a start where she was. Unlike the woods, this place was exactly as she remembered, being in reality so grand a sight that memory had not the power to aggrandize it any further. It appeared particularly magnificent during a sunset, the water played tricks with the vibrant hues of the sky above. It should have done so now, for undoubtedly the sun was setting, but the clouds masked this beauty from her eyes.
Another memory came, unbidden, to her mind. The family had come to the cabin for a long weekend in late fall one year during her studies at the Academy. Her parents had fought viciously over dinner, a spectacle that became more common as time drew on, and he had decided to clear his head with a walk. She had, despite herself, offered to come along, being at least fonder of her father's company than of her mother's self-pity.
"War is the ultimate atrocity," he had said as they strolled along the lakeside. "But my God, how much simpler it is than such pettiness!"
She had said nothing to this, for she was not just surprised by such emotion but worried that any inquiry would smother it.
"I have a million concerns in my head, a million little voices that never cease talking," he continued. "I come here for respite from that world—when I find the opposite, it makes it all the more difficult to cope."
"I know exactly what you mean," she had said. She remembered the impulse to put her hand on his shoulder, though she had been unable to do so. Instead, they merely watched the slow descent of the sun together, in silence; not the uncomfortable silence she was accustomed to but merely the absence of words. For that moment he had shed the uniform that had been stitched into his skin and became the man that existed underneath.
It had not lasted. After their next separation, the barrier had been rebuilt, and he was once again the rigidly defined man he felt he ought to be. They never again found the mutual understanding that had been gained that day by the lake.
She stayed there a while longer, turning back only when it became so dark that navigation could prove troublesome. She entered the cabin through the back way when she returned; passing the staircase to the loft she heard neither crying nor movement and continued on to the common room with a small shake of her head.
A bottle of vodka was still open on the bar and she considered pouring herself a glass, though she decided against it. She did not really want a drink but only thought that she probably should. She replaced the stopper on the bottle and put it back in the cabinet beneath.
Instead, she sat down in a loveseat by the hearth—her father's favorite chair, a piece of furniture that quite possibly outdated the cabin that housed it. The fire had since been reduced to a few glowing, sputtering embers; as she looked into it she unconsciously reached into the pocket of her jacket and brought out a long silver case, retrieving from it a single cigarette. She put it on her lips, tasting the paper and rolling it from side to side, before she finally lit it. She inhaled deeply, letting it warm her lungs, before finally releasing the smoke in a long stream from her nostrils. She had long since given up any pretence of quitting. It seemed a ridiculous concern, with the Covenant likely now on Earth's doorstep. Besides, it felt good to have a vice.
She leaned over to the side table next to her to dispose of the cigarette, but thereupon noticed the drawer of the table had been left slightly ajar. Twisting the butt into the ashtray, she opened the drawer and peered inside. Laying at the bottom was a worn silver and purple book with the image of a gladiator's helmet on the front. Written on the front in raised letters was, "Hillcrest High, 2512-2513." She was vaguely surprised to find that either of her parent's had kept a copy of their yearbook over all these years. Curiosity compelled her to flip through it until she came upon a page that been earmarked long ago.
The page contained a picture of the school's couples of that year, many of the sort that one would guess the two had parted ways before the photo had been put to paper. Her eyes were drawn to one picture in particular; more precisely, to the unmistakable face of her father. Even then he looked as if he were destined to be a military man, with a square jaw and regulation haircut. Even so, there was a tenderness in his eyes and his expression that she had never before seen.
She studied the girl he was with less carefully, though slowly it dawned on her that his companion was, in fact, her mother. She had never seen a picture of her mother so young; she had been a very beautiful woman, with smooth, pale skin framed by long, raven black hair. A grin born of genuine happiness lit up her face and she had both arms flung around her father's broad shoulders.
In the margin next to the picture a fading message had been scrawled in black ink. It read:
I love you more than words can say, so I won't try.
Don't ever forget the feeling!
As long as I live,
She reread this tiny passage many times, likely written at the time with careless haste, and slowly turned back to the photo. At last, the grief that had been so long absent pierced her heart and she wept bitterly: for she looked now upon not one lost parent but two.
Fresh tears fell on the already tear-stained page.