Myshuno Meadows, for all the work the landscapers took to cram as much nature as possible into a painfully efficient 64×64 grid, wasn’t so much the oasis the city planners told people it was. There was a turf-war feel to the skyscrapers closing in on all four sides, like the park shouldn’t have come to this neighborhood and was cruising for an architectural bruising. And so the conversations you could hear tinkling in any cobblestoned or turfed area, those where sims reassured each other that it was so nice to get out of the city for once, could be one of the lies people who should know better tell themselves or could perhaps be a strained attempt to let the building-mafiosos know everything’s cool. Put the pesticides down and we can talk it out. Most of the fauna were urban types that adapted to have a symbiotic relationship with humans and their trash. Flying rats and bug rats and mammal cockroaches. If something else showed up, the place went wild; all you could hear were murmurs from the crowd around the beast’s general area and the species name bouncing around like a game of telephone between San Myshunites under the same collective wilderness-delusion. If the something that showed up was a bird of prey the world just about damn stopped.
Anyway Kendra got in her head that Aileen, with her suburban lifestyle, wasn’t here for the quote-unquote nature at all but rather, if she could, wanted to push the trees aside for a better look at the skyscrapers and the memoir-quality vignettes happening in and between them: a deliquescent nanny hissing to a child in Simână that no you can’t get a quarter water from the place with the cartoon llama advertising bubble solution no I don’t care how much you want it I’m not getting it for you, the guy who slept on the community center steps and wasn’t bothering anyone and the monolithic guy whose pee-crusted duster made him even more wall-like and who only begged simoleons from petite women, a High-Powered Business Boss Lady sneering so hard at the couple walking toward her that she didn’t notice her stiletto punting a fossilized dog dropping across a mica-spiked financial-district sidewalk; and was perhaps—Aileen was—calculating optimal area and population density for her to carve out a spot and avoid running into her ex-husband and his husband smooshing faces everywhere. Right now they were standing in front of the urn with faces nearly smooshed, so that Aileen’s neck couldn’t be in its default position if she wanted to avoid seeing that sort of thing.
Aileen wasn’t looking at Kendra when she spoke. She may have figured out where that kebab smell was coming from. “So I suspect you want to know what happened.”
“You guessed it.” What she was about to say was not PC from a Mike-and-Hector standpoint, Kendra admitted; if only she’d had more time to choose her words. “From you, specifically. Hate to admit it, but I don’t trust what my dad and brother are saying.”
“Any particular reason?”
“I mean, you were there. Right? Hector wasn’t there the whole time—I’m guessing, because he was at school—and I never know with Dad. It’s like he’s either waiting for you to slip up so he can make a joke or trying to trick you into thinking his memories are yours. Plus also I talked to him during the reception and the first words out of his mouth were ‘You believe me, right?’ I didn’t even say anything. That’s suspicious, right? It’s suspicious.”
“If you’re asking about your father’s motivations, it’s not going to do us any good to speculate. We’ll never know what he was thinking.”
“I guess.” The range of pitches she covered in ‘guess’ covered the tessitura of most pop singers, so you’d have to be tone-deaf to believe Kendra was satisfied with that answer.
“What I can do instead is tell you my version of events. I suspect that’s what you came here for anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s all I was hoping for.” And yet Kendra felt she should clarify again so Aileen gets that she, Kendra, isn’t an idiot who still thinks parents can read minds. “I know you can’t tell me what my father was thinking, but I was hoping you might have some insight or something to point me in the right direction.”
“Like I said, I’m going to stick to the facts and let you figure it out for yourself.” Of course she would. Kendra had read the back of one of Aileen’s book jackets and it was all about that informational freedom. “So I don’t over-explain, how much has your mother told you about the Selvadorada trip?”
“Jungle was beautiful. Produce was better. Than the produce here, not the jungle. She went on about parrots for a hot minute.”
“I see.” She seemed caught in an internal debate. “Well—something happened in Selvadorada that convinced your mother to leave your father.”
“No.” As in you’re-shitting-me-man-that’s-juicy, not as in what-do-you-mean-Mommy-and-Daddy-don’t-love-each-other-anymore.
“Xiyuan, Bernard and I were all in on it. We talked with her two days ago. And early yesterday morning, she told us she was going to leave. After your father went to work, I was supposed to help her move her things to my house, where she’d be staying temporarily, while your uncles dealt with Mike.”
“Wow, Aileen, that’s—thank you.”
Aileen recounted what she’d done up to to and including Claudia’s death. “I’m sorry, Kendra. I did everything I could think of at the moment.”
“So did Bernard come after you sent the text?”
“He did, and he brought quite a few paintings, like I asked. But by the time he got there, she was already dead. No one was paying enough attention to let him in.”
“I didn’t have the presence of mind, either, even though I was expecting him. He texted me later. He must have been looking through the window and said something about wanting to avoid another brush with the Reaper.”
“Understandable. I keep forgetting he died a long time ago.” Generations of sims grew up with the Von Haunt Estate ghost Lord legend. But not Kendra’s. To her, Uncle Bernard was the one with the beard and hair curl who kissed Uncle Xiyuan and at his wedding they stuffed her into a pink dress. “Poor Bernard. But what happened after the Reaper showed up?”
“Well, you know how we always carry death flowers?”
Shit, yes, of course she knew. Kendra found it metal as hell that her mother was growing these ominous and friggin’ sweet skull-with-mane-looking plants in the front garden for everyone to see, and that the whole family had to carry them in case of accidental death. Like you’re just sighing off the day’s stress before you kick off your and then bam, memento mori. Claudia’d shared them with Aileen and the Lius, too. Though Kendra wanted to paper her house with the damn things, she didn’t have a partner, roommate, or gal pal to gift them to in case of emergency, and she considered maybe that was where the parental pressure to be in a relationship, but not necessarily to incubate more sims, was coming from.
Aileen continued. “Well, I had my death flower out, of course. But I couldn’t get to the Reaper before—“
“—Oh no. Hector plead, didn’t he? Sorry. Sorry for interrupting.”
“No, you’re right. Hector was so desperate to save her, he got to the Reaper first. And I don’t have to tell you how that went.”
Dread set in if Kendra tried to think about it. “Does Hector know you had the Death Flowers?”
“I put them away before he could see them, at least I hope I did. He doesn’t need to be reminded. I’m not sure whether he’s realized he has them.”
“I hope not.” Kendra glanced toward the community building, inside which Hector was probably still honoring his mother’s life in his own bread-enclosed way. “He doesn’t need that kind of guilt right now.”
“That’s true. Look, Kendra. Even though I stopped him from joking with his mother, I do think he might feel guilty about the failed plea. And I don’t think he can be convinced it’s not his fault. Do you mind if I give an opinion, Kendra?”
“What is it?”
“You, more than anyone else, have to be there for him.”
There were a thousand excuses Kendra could’ve used: the age gap, the favoritism, the divergent personalities, the divergent interests, the Charlie thing—Charlie the teenage girl—and she silenced them all. “Okay. I don’t know what to do, so I’ll try.”
By this point Aileen had said her piece and trailed off inside her own mind. They were facing the Arts District—out of the question as far as the San Myshuno dream she imagined Aileen having was concerned. Uptown as well. And then there’s Spice Market; everyone goes to Spice Market for Spice Festival, even out-of-towners, and even if that’s too tourist-friendly for San Myshunites it’s still where the good karaoke bar is. Clearly her best bet was the Fashion District, which Kendra knew well because it’s where the Pride Parade is held. She’d asked Xiyuan why he never attended Pride, and what he told her, but hadn’t told the San Myshuno reporters he’d compared to gnats, was that the general consensus around his house was that they were old and Pride was loud.
But the way Aileen’s hand clasped and unclasped, as if reaching for a treasured blanket, the hem of a mother’s coat, was too nervous for Kendra to ignore.
“Aileen? Is there something else you want to say?”
She gave no indication of hearing Kendra, off in her mind, fingertips still twitching.
“I know you said you want me to decide for myself, but I do want to hear your opinion. That’s like a form of evidence, and I won’t mix it up with fact.”
At this, Aileen turned away. That had to be intentional.
“It has to do with the death flowers, doesn’t it?”
Aileen winced, her shoulders nearly reaching her ears as if to squeeze herself shut, and from the tension in her right cheek, Kendra guessed that her eyes were also closed tight. She waited a beat. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Aileen’s next exhale was more of a sigh, letting the pressure out. But rather than turning to Kendra, she still gazed past the cherry tree at the city beyond, dreaming of belonging, maybe, or escape.
“Do you know who brought Bernard back to life, Kendra?”
“It was my mother.”
“Exactly. Your mother’s aptitude at cooking extends beyond Central Simerican spice mixes. Claudia was the first among us to control life and death. Thanks to her home garden and your brother’s fishing, she’s made Ambrosia before. She has the recipe, has the ingredients. And you’re trying to become a great poet, if I remember correctly.”
“So I’m guessing you aspire to become a bestselling author. Do you know what power is awarded to the greatest authors?” Even though no one was close enough to eavesdrop, Aileen hesitated to scan her surroundings, then reached into the left breast of her coat and pulled an object from her inventory in the sketchiest way possible. She revealed just enough for Kendra to recognize the spine of a book. Matte black, and if Kendra had to guess, there’d be a lotus on the cover.
“Nah, Aileen, that’s not the Book of Life, is it?”
“Again, exactly. It’s not the one I bound to Claudia, but she has one. She could resurrect herself in a flash if she wanted. All of us, both of our families, we’ve got a foot jammed in death’s door.”
“So what you’re getting at is, there was no reason to have a funeral at all.” At this point Kendra was just spitballing. “Her ghost might come out, and she’d have multiple ways to resurrect herself. And even if her spirit doesn’t come back for a while, she’s got me, Hector, all her friends—come to think of it, so many mourners strengthening her connection to the physical world. There’s no way this is permanent. That’s what you’re saying?”
Aileen’s closed-off posture told Kendra that no, no it wasn’t. Just as Kendra began to fear that maybe she regretted showing off the Book, Aileen twitched in what appeared to be a total-body flash of contempt. She spoke again.
“Earlier, you asked me what your father was thinking when he joked with your mother to the point of hysteria.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Mike’s very good at that; getting people to focus on himself. It’s all about him. Mike, Mike, Mike. You’re asking the wrong question. You’ve asked yourself what your father was thinking.” When she looked at Kendra after minutes of avoidance, it was like the shock of cold water against bare skin. “Have you asked what your mother was thinking?”
“When she died? How could I possibly know what that feels like?” Now that was—damn, that was a damn embarrassment of an answer, defensive and shamefully incorrect. The truth was she couldn’t bring herself to consider what Claudia felt. Every time she looked at the urn, there was this little hint of her mother’s giggle that she felt rather than heard, if that made any sense, and she had to look away before it turned into honest-to-god choking. But Aileen didn’t know that.
“I mean beforehand, Kendra. For years. Whether she was happy with her life; with her relationship. Why she made the choices she did.”
“Not that I’m saying this is her fault, but what caused her to laugh? To stay? To be drawn back in? What was she looking for?”
“I thought my mother just wanted to be happy. For all of us to be happy.”
“And was she?”
That, Kendra knew, but she left Aileen to fill the silence. It was a silence she felt. Whatever Aileen said next, she wouldn’t be prepared for.
“Remember, Kendra. No one in your family stays dead unless they want to.”
“And you’re saying she might”—Kendra felt herself curling up the same way Aileen did—“want to.”
Aileen nodded. “Even if we don’t know what she was thinking on that day—no matter what anyone else intended, least of all your father, your mother’s choice is the only one that counts. And if she chooses not to resurrect herself—“
“—She’s choosing death.”
“You have to prepare yourself for the possibility.”
“Wow. Just—” Kendra didn’t have a thought to complete yet. Then one did pop up, inconveniently long after she’d begun the sentence. “But why speculate on it when we haven’t even seen her spirit yet? The Book of Life could be the first thing she reaches for when she resurfaces.”
“Kendra, I think you know,” Aileen said. “Your mother was a much sadder woman than she let on.”
“I suspected—the juice—but was she really that bad off?”
“Well, let’s see if I can express this properly. The thing is, your mother learned to be passive in order to survive. That’s why Xiyuan and Bernard and I were so proud when she decided to take action; we were ready to drop everything and do what it took to get her out of that house. You see, up until that morning, I thought she lost the will to fight. And then she proved me wrong. But the truth is, Kendra, here’s the thing: she never stopped fighting. She was fighting the whole time. Fighting to keep her strength hidden in a home that both punished and rewarded her for it, to do what she thought was right for her family without considering the cost of her self-sacrifice. And if she’d gotten out, I don’t know—I don’t know what would have happened, if she found something new to fight for or if she felt like she didn’t have enough left in her to start again. Like a car running on empty. You want there to be enough left to get to a gas station, and people keep telling you that ’empty’ doesn’t really mean ’empty’ and it’s usually got a couple miles left, but no, there’s actually physically not enough. And now that this has happened, the bar’s even higher. And does she have enough left? I don’t know, Kendra—god help me, I don’t know—and I want her to, I really do, I’ll do whatever she needs to get there, but we have to accept that she may be spent. She may be done fighting.”
“Wow.” Nothing really for Kendra to say to that.
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” Aileen took a sec to mumble incoherently to herself. “I want her to go on. But I can’t convince myself she can. And if she can’t, I want her to know there was one person who understood.”
“So here’s what I’m getting.” Kendra raised three fingers on her left hand and gestured to each as she spoke. “Hector thinks it was a murder, Mike’s saying it’s an accident, and now you’re telling me it might have been—might have been a suicide. And now how the hell are we supposed to figure it out when it’s impossible to know what everyone was feeling?”
“I wish I could tell you, Kendra. I wish I had the answers. I don’t.”
“But you said it yourself.” Down went Kendra’s hand, the rule-of-threes thing having been satisfied. “We could ask her ghost.”
“I think that’s—she might not even know herself. But it’s worth a shot.”
“Aileen, anyway. Thank you again. I’m glad you were the one to help Mom on her last day.”
“Me? I couldn’t save her.”
“But you’re the only one who could have caught it. I’ve always had this sense about you, that you always see past the joy. You see bad things happening and you don’t ignore them. It’s like you can’t. So who else could have seen my mother, laughing and happy, and immediately made the connection to hysteria?”
That did cause Aileen some discomfort, as Kendra expected, but she wasn’t looking off into the distance anymore. She wasn’t longing for escape. “It’s not the easiest job in the world.”
“Look, Aileen, c’mon, I know people use ‘the weight of the world on your shoulders’ to be a bad thing, like to scoff at you for taking on an unwise and impossible task, but it’s not shameful to want to hold everyone else up.” She racked her brain. “Maybe it’s just selfish to want people like you to run everything. People who are miserable because they don’t just admit their mistakes, they feel them; who know they’re not perfect and never pretend to be; who don’t want to be in charge because they know every detail of every way they can mess it up. The people who want power most deserve it least, right?”
“I mean—thank you, it’s a nice sentiment. But it’s hard to do anything when I’m exhausted all the time. The guilt, the mistakes—it just piles up. And it doesn’t stop when you need it to. All I want is an off switch sometimes.”
“What can I say? You’re a fighter. She still needed you.”
Letting herself sink deeper into the park, Kendra reminded herself that it wasn’t the first time she was seeing color. The sky’s just as blue here as it is in Newcrest or Strangerville. But it was the yellows and oranges: Kendra had never been one for the warm colors, but now all she had to do was look and the good parts of her mother came rushing back, immediate, electric; the sunshine, the idea of a never-fading smile without all the baggage that came with it; and for now she couldn’t imagine wanting to look at anything else. It was like seeing through her mother’s eyes. It was the closest she’d felt to her mother, almost like something had awakened, a part of her she imagined as an illuminating yellow arc that fit into all the other parts of who she is; a memory she would never lose. One that she would take to the grave. She muttered to herself.
“Now you’ve got me thinking what she felt when she died.”
“Maybe she’ll tell you someday.” Aileen nodded her chin forward, toward the backdrop of marigolds. “But for now, there’s one other person you can ask.”