“Granny!” George burst through the door, his broom tossed clattering to the porch. “Granny! I –”
He stopped. It was not as if she could know that he had the Elixir of Life with him. George made a point of never mentioning his planned enterprises ahead of time, both for his pride’s sake and to avoid being yelled at ahead of time. But he needed to see her regardless.
“Granny?” he called again. “Mum? Where are you?”
No answer. Logically, however, they could only be upstairs. George checked on the precious bottle tucked up his sleeve; then he ran up the stairs with the pounding tread only a fifteen-year-old could manage.
Down the hall, around the corner, last door on the left – George threw it open and darted inside. “Granny! Mum! I –”
“George!” gasped Bianca. “What are you doing here?”
“I – I came to see Granny,” George replied. And it was the truth! Why else would he be here, if not to see Granny? “Hi, Granny.”
“Hallo, George,” she replied. As for Granny, now that he was seeing her … she shot him a wan smile and a waggle of the eyebrows, as if to ask, So, kiddo, what do you think of this new nonsense? Her eyes, however, were tired and shadowed, and her cheeks were flushed with what George guessed was a fever. She was awake and alert – but not well, not by a long shot.
Well, George would fix that.
“Mother,” Bianca said pointedly, “give me a minute with my son, will you?” She had a way of saying my son – she used the same tone with it that most Sims would use to say my wart or my tax form. Funny how Freddy never got the my son treatment. “George, out.”
“But Mum –”
“Listen to your mother, Georgie,” Granny wheezed. At least the wheezing was followed by a chuckle, not a cough. That was the only thing that got George out the door. That and the knowledge that she would feel better soon.
Bianca followed after him, and when George and she finally faced each other, Bianca looked more drawn and tired than usual – usual even for after Granny had gotten sick. “George, do the Emryses know you’re here?”
“They won’t be angry, Mum,” George replied. It was true, too. After nicking Elixir of Life from their secret laboratory, the fact that he snuck off to see his grandmother would be the least of his infractions.
“That’s not answering my question.”
… Damn. “Mum, they’re fine with it. They said that I could go to see her whenever I wasn’t in classes.” And they had said that. He would give it to the Professors; they had been more than accommodating, more than kind. A better Sim would probably feel sorry about taking the elixir after that – but since they had been so accommodating, so kind, they would surely understand, wouldn’t they?
“Did they give you permission for this specific time?” asked Bianca.
“They said I didn’t need to ask permission!” Also true.
Bianca watched George’s face and sighed. “Georgie, what am I going to do with you? They don’t know you’re here, do they?”
“It’s not like I’m cutting class, Mum, honest! You know I wouldn’t do that!” Good Lord, he had suffered through eight years of Sister Margery’s religious classes – well, most of the time – did his mother really think he would skip class when he was learning something interesting?
Bianca narrowed her eyes at him. Then she shook her head. “Get back to school.”
“George, you can’t –“
“But Freddy’s going to be here tomorrow!” It was sad, strange, and pathetic how easy it was to pitch his voice into a whine, and how hard it was to keep that whine from spilling into tears. “And you and Dad think – I heard you – and – and I just want some time with her!”
He watched his mother’s green eyes grow glassy and watery. “Oh, Georgie! You –” She ran a hand over her eyes. “You can’t just go skipping school, even if –”
George did not wait for her to finish – he barreled into her arms and hugged her as tightly as he could, instead.
Bianca yelped in surprise, but she held him in return. George rested his head on her shoulder and kept his eyes tightly closed for fear of anything leaking out.
She sighed. “When this is over,” she announced, “we are having a talk, young man. With your father.”
Funny – Freddy, George was sure, often talked with both or either of their parents, but very rarely had a talk. He also doubted if the promise or threat of Richard’s involvement in their conversations was often wielded as a weapon.
“Yes, Mum,” George murmured. He added, “You can send a message to the school if you think they’ll be worried.”
“If I think they’ll be worried. George, of course they’ll be worried.” No, not so much worried as furious, but you think that if it makes you feel better, Mum. “Still, I’ll do that.” Bianca smoothed back George’s hair. “I suppose the fact that you think of others’ wishes and convenience even after the fact is a sign of improvement and maturity.”
“You bet, Mum.”
Bianca kissed his forehead. “You go see your granny, son,” she murmured. “She’s having a good day.”
George knew the subtext of that: tomorrow might not be so good, so enjoy today while you can. He would just have to prove that wrong.
Still, he was careful enough to wait, contain his energy until Bianca was safely down the hallway, around the corner, and making her way down the stairs. Then he burst into his granny’s bedchamber, elixir held high. “Granny, guess what I’ve got!”
Maude jumped. “A penchant for startling old ladies?” she asked, and coughed.
George did his best to ignore the cough. “You’re not old!” he replied instead, flopping into the seat his mother had vacated.
Maude’s reply to that was only a look, but it spoke louder than any words: And if I buy that one, will it be oceanfront property in the Dousa Desert that you’re selling me next?
“Well … you’re not that old,” George corrected. Maude humphed and nodded, but her eyes twinkled. “Anyway, you didn’t guess!” He put the bottle onto the bedside table with a flourish. “Ta-da!”
Maude’s eyes narrowed. “That bottle looks like something your father used to bring home.”
“Aye. Some sort of jumbo juice from the –“ Maude paused and coughed. “Ahem! Excuse me, son. What was I was saying?”
“Some sort of jumbo juice …”
“Ah, yes! From Twikii Island.” Maude sighed in happy reminiscence. “He brought home a bottle of – well, of something, I’m not sure once. He slipped it into my tea. Made me see … oh, huge birds, black and white and ‘bought as high as my waist, dancing around me for a while there.”
“Dad played a trick on you?”
“It was a long time ago,” Maude sighed. “Before we left Glasonland. Dannie was only a baby. Or was she even born yet? I don’t remember. I do remember that your mother almost left him over it, though. Or kick him to the curb, more like, since they were both living in my house.”
“She did? Mum leave Dad?”
“Oh, yes! She was mad, George! Madder than I was. As far as she was concerned, that potion could have been anything – could have killed me, even. Except it didn’t. I had a job of a time calming her down, I did.” Maude sighed. “But then again … that’s your mother, Georgie. She’s always been the protector of the family. The one who got her claws out and defended what she had to. Sophie, she was too sweet and kind … and Pamela, well, Pamela always was more interested in defending her and hers than anybody else’s.”
“Aren’t you Aunt Pamela’s?”
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Maude murmured. Her eyes went unfocused and she stared at the wall. Again she sighed. “Anyway – what did you bring for your old Granny, kiddo? If it’s the bird juice, I’m warning you, I’ll tell your mother and I can watch you face her wrath.”
“It’s better!” George answered. “It’s Elixir of Life!”
Maude gaped. Then she sat straight up.
“… Elixir of Life?” George whispered.
“George Ferreira, how in the good Lord’s name did you get a hold of that? Wright Almighty! What did you – you didn’t go anywhere near the Orkneys, did you? Because if you did, I swear to Wright I’ll—”
“The Orkneys? What? No!” George protested. “It’s not that kind! It’s not the bad kind! It’s the good kind, the one the Emryses make!”
Maude blinked, very slowly. “You … you got the Emryses to make this for me?”
He should have just lied. He should have lied and been done with it. The problem was that he never lied to his Granny – never even told half-truths, as he did often with his parents. You didn’t lie to Maude. Maude would more often than not laugh at whatever you did, even if she did send you to Bianca and Richard afterward. Her child-punishing days, she swore, were over.
Apparently, she had lied.
“George, what did you do?”
“I …” He scratched the back of his neck. “I just … borrowed some …”
Maude’s eyebrows went up.
“… perhaps without strict permission …”
“George! You stole this?”
“I wouldn’t call it stealing –“
“George! Your parents – hell, I raised you better than that!”
“You always said that the rules were made to be broken, Granny!” George protested.
“Not rules like stealing, and well you—”
“When there are bigger things at stake!” George continued. “Like your life, Granny! Don’t you think your life is a little bit more important?”
Maude flopped against the pillows. “Oh, Georgie.”
“Well?” George challenged. “Isn’t it?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Not that simple? How can much simpler can it get?”
“Quite a bit – no, hear me out, Georgie. It …” Maude sighed and looked upward. “I’m sixty-eight years old. Do you know what that means?”
“That you could still have a lot of good years left in you. You’re healthy, Granny. Or at least you were healthy until you got … sick.”
Maude’s eyes slid to the elixir and rested there. “George, if you thought I had a lot of years left in me, would you be bringing that elixir here?”
“Well –” George squirmed, scratched his head, hunkered down in his chair.
“If you thought I had a lot of years left in me,” Maude repeated slowly, even patiently, “would you have brought that here?”
“You would have a lot of years left if you drank it!”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
George crossed his arms. “I don’t see why it matters. You could have a lot of years left in you.”
“Only by breaking every last law of nature and destroying the Lord Wright’s plan.”
“So?” George asked. “Anyway, how do you know that it’s not the Lord’s plan that you drink it?”
“I don’t know that, Georgie. I’ll grant it to you.” Maude nodded, slowly, in the manner of one granting a great concession. “But when you get to be my age, you learn a thing or two about the laws of nature and why they shouldn’t be broken.”
“What would you know? Granny, you’re a shopwife! You never – never – did anything with magic! Or science!”
“No-o, but I had my brother Georgie, you know,” Maude pointed out.
George’s breath sucked in through his teeth. “Did – did he –?” He didn’t know, after all, what had happened to Great-Uncle George. He’d never asked. Never even wondered. You didn’t wonder what had happened to your grandmother’s brothers and sisters – you assumed, if they weren’t obviously in evidence, that they had passed on. Because they were nearly as old or maybe even older than your grandmother, you never thought to ask how …
“Ever do something monumentally stupid that led to him getting killed? No,” replied Maude. “No, it wasn’t like that. It was more … George, you can’t let yourself go thinking that you’re better than the rest of us, that you’re entitled to break the rules that the rest of us have to live by. Maybe you can bend them a bit, but you can’t break them. You go that way, eventually you’ll end up cut off and alone.”
“Is – is that what happened to Uncle George?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Maude. “I haven’t spoken to him for almost thirty years. He went deep into the magical community – and as far as I know, he never came back out again.”
George blinked. “Because – because –?”
“He started thinking he was better than the rest of us – more. He didn’t go to the bad, I don’t think, unless that was after we lost touch. Not like Lady Morgause. But he … he hated having to live in hiding, to be a great name but a name that was only spoken of in whispers. He thought, with his talents, he could be a hero. He started to resent the rest of us for it – and by ‘the rest of us’ I don’t mean his family, Georgie, I mean everybody. Everybody who wasn’t magical. He blamed us all for keeping him down. And eventually – there was a rather explosive row over it, and he retreated into the company of people who, he said, would understand him. And that was the last I ever saw of him.” Maude sighed.
“But I thought you liked Uncle George?”
“Oh, of course I did. I still do. But liking somebody – loving them, even – doesn’t mean you have to like every last little thing they do.” Maude cast a glance at the elixir on the table. “Like now, for instance.”
“That – that goes both ways!” George answered, trying not to blubber.
Maude’s smile grew soft, gentle. “I’m sure it does, Georgie-porgie. But – try to see it from my perspective?”
“I’m sixty-eight years old, Georgie. My husband, Alfie, he’s been gone for over thirty years. I’ve spent longer without him than I ever did with him. My children are getting older. My grandchildren are grown and leaving the nest. I’ve had a long life and a happy one, Georgie. And nobody needs me anymore –“
“We do!” George shouted. “I do! You don’t – you don’t have to –”
“No,” Maude interrupted. “No, George, you don’t need me. You want me, and believe me, I’m flattered, but you don’t need me.”
“We do! We do! We always will!”
Maude watched him, head cocked a little to one side. “Maybe that’s what you think now,” she answered, “but you don’t need any one person to help you be happy. Being happy is on you, George. It’s on each and every one of us to make our own self happy.”
“And if you really love something, and care about it, Georgie, you have to let it go when it’s ready to go. You know that. Or at least, I know that, and I’m giving you the benefit of my experience. Holding onto something that doesn’t want to be held only leads to trouble and heartache for the holder and the hold-ee.”
“But why don’t you want to stay?” George quavered. “What’s so bad that it makes you want to go?”
“Oh, it’s nothing bad. It’s just – it’s time, Georgie. I’ve had a good life, I’ve had my share of downs, but I think I’ve had more than my share of ups. I’ve enjoyed myself. And now I’m ready for the next thing.”
“How can you say that? It’s not the next thing! It’s the last thing!”
“You don’t know that, Georgie.” If Maude had said that any less gently, George might not have hated her for it quite as much. “And even if it is the last thing – there’s no escaping it.”
“Yes, there is!”
“That’s not an escape, that’s just putting it off for a time. And you know it.”
“But it’s not fair.” If that wasn’t the whine of a six-year-old, George didn’t know what it was – but it was true!
“Fair?” Maude asked, eyebrows arching. “Fair? Who said anything about fair? And if you want to talk about fair and not fair, kiddo, I think you need to have a chat with your cousin Blanche or Cressida. Or Geoffrey, or Henry, or Pippa. Or your friend Ravenna, for that matter.”
George hung his head. “I still don’t have to like it.”
“Nobody said you do. And I don’t blame you that you don’t. And Georgie-porgie,” she patted his knee, “you don’t think I’m just going to up and abandon you, do you? If the good Lord gives us a view from Heaven, you know I’ll be watching you every waking minute.” As the probable implications of that began to sear through George’s horrified mind, Maude murmured, “Well – not every waking minute. I know what you boys are like.” She shuddered. George shuddered too.
They looked at each other and laughed, at least until Maude started to cough. George fumbled for a handkerchief to hand to her.
The horrible hacking was over by the time he found it, and Maude had settled back on the pillows. George tried to smile at her even as he sniffled. “Are – are you sure I can’t – you sure you won’t …?”
George slumped. “… I still don’t get it.”
“I’m glad you don’t,” Maude answered. “You’re not sixteen, George. You shouldn’t get it. I’d be more worried if you got it than if you didn’t.”
“If you say so, Granny.”
“And I am saying so. I still know best.” Her eyes narrowed and she watched him speculatively. “However … there is something you can do for me, even if I won’t let you break the laws of nature for me.”
George perked up. Something he could do for his Granny? Something to make her happy? Something to, maybe, keep her around?
“Good!” she cackled. “Because you’re not going to like this one. George … I want you to make your mother’s life easier and a little happier. I want you to get yourself a haircut. A decent one, mind.”
George’s face fell. Then – against all thought and better judgment – he smiled. “How decent is decent?”
“Let me put it like this: if your mother comes up to join me within a week or so, and if I find out that it was because of you, then I will be watching you every waking minute. Imagine what that means, my boy.”
“So … I just have to avoid giving her apoplexy?”
“You have to avoid making her more exasperated with your new haircut than with your old. You don’t have to make her happy, because I know you, but you have to make her less annoyed.”
George considered that, nodding. “All right. I can manage that. For you, Granny.”
“Good boy,” Maude sighed. “Because you know – I’ll be watching.”