No more regrets. That was what Helena had promised herself when her diagnosis had finally sunk in and she could begin to deal with it. No more wasted days. No more time spent worrying about what could have been. You don’t have that time. Focus on the present, because that’s all you’ve got left.
She decided that she wanted to spend her last months with her children and her grandchildren, indulging in as much love and laughter as she could squeeze into what time she had. She was even planning to coax Mark back into the sack, if she could, because she didn’t want to go out on a dry spell. But there was a problem with her plan. The problem was that the death that was coming would not be sudden, or quick, or easy. It would be slow and lingering. And it would take a while to build up — meaning that as much as she wanted to enjoy herself, sometimes her body just wasn’t up to the task.
But all the same — no more regrets. If Helena had to spend the afternoon in bed resting because the pain was too much, then she would spend it in bed. Better to spend an afternoon in bed than to overextend herself and spend the next few days in bed. Better to relax for an afternoon than to squeeze too much into it, costing herself days or weeks or months in the future.
Helena eased herself against the pillows, willing the pain to leave through her freed feet, from her resting hands. It didn’t. But the ache did dull to a low throb, and Helena let out a breath she hadn’t even known she was holding. Unbidden, her eyes slipped to the little vial kept on the bedside table. Lady Clarice had mixed it up for her specially, telling her to take a single swallow when the pain was bad. The potion worked; Helena would give Lady Clarice that much. The trouble was that it worked by sending Helena into a drugged sleep — if you could even call it sleep.
She leaned her head against the headboard, closed her eyes, and listened to her body. She could last without the potion, she decided. She didn’t want to lose an entire afternoon.
She especially didn’t want to lose this afternoon. Heloise had just come home for a visit of a few days. Helena would be telling her about the diagnosis at dinner. The thought of losing one last afternoon of normalcy with her daughter was more than she could bear.
Of course, normalcy with Heloise would mean that Heloise would spend most of the afternoon in her bedroom, reading. But Helena would take what she could get.
Eyes still closed, she took several deep, calming breaths. Flowers. The smell of flowers filled her nose. And she knew, too, that she was not losing her mind as well as her body.
Even on her wedding day, she hadn’t been surrounded by as many flowers as she was now.
Helena’s lips twitched in a smile. Her friends really were very good to her. Bianca had somehow gathered enough courage to go to the Queen herself and get the name of the wife of the Plantsim gamekeeper — the woman who ran a flower stall. (Helena had begged Lady Clarice for news of how this encounter had gone down, claiming that a dying woman was entitled to all the gossip she wanted. Unfortunately, according to Lady Clarice, it had been very anticlimactic. Bianca had asked for the name, and the Queen had given it with no fuss.) Thanks to that woman, Goodwife Thatcher, Helena had fresh flowers delivered to the house every few days. The snapdragons in particular were divine. A little whiff of them made Helena feel better than a whole vial of Lady Clarice’s medicine.
She opened her eyes, glanced out the window. She hoped that she would be able to see spring again. It would, she thought, do Darius some good to be able to pick some flowers for her grandmother. It would make him feel that he was doing something, helping somehow, even if there was really nothing he could —
“Mother, did you know Dad’s been reading love poetry?”
Helena had promised herself not to regret anything, but she supposed some promises were meant to be broken. For the sake of the rest of humanity, she would regret not teaching her eldest daughter to knock.
But not so much that she would scold Heloise now and rob them both of a few precious moments. Besides, how often, after Heloise started growing into a woman’s body and Helena tried to grow her into a woman’s interests, had Heloise sought her out voluntarily? Helena wouldn’t spoil this now. “I didn’t know that,” she replied, “but how do you know that your father has been reading this?”
“Because he scribbled a note in the margin. ‘Remember for later.’ I know his handwriting. She snapped the book shut and placed it on the chest on the foot of the bed, then crossed over to stand next to Helena. “I thought Babette was the only one who read that dreck. What’s Dad doing with it?”
“I have no idea,” replied Helena honestly. But all the same, it didn’t surprise her. The soul of a romantic had always lurked underneath the grizzled, hay-scented exterior of the horse trader. Poor man — he’d married the prettiest girl in town, won her by impressing her father with his business acumen and his promise to give Helena all the silks and satins he swore she deserved. And he’d expected love to come out of that. Worse, he’d wanted it, desperately.
But Helena had promised herself, no more regrets. So she steered her thoughts away from that track. “However, Heloise … might I point out that you were reading that so-called dreck?”
“Oh — oh! I was just, um, looking for something to read. Anything, really. I left all of my good books at Camford.”
Helena turned and stared at her daughter. Was Heloise — blushing? Yes, she is! And she was shuffling her feet from side to side. She hadn’t looked like that since — since —
Had she ever looked like that? Even when she had been little and caused trouble, she’d never looked that guilty and uncomfortable. Heloise had been born with a good poker face.
“Really,” Helena said flatly.
“Aye, really! All I brought home with me were books for research. And I — I wanted a break. Truly, Mother, is there something wrong with that?” Heloise threw her hands up in the air, scowling. Ah — Helena remembered that look. That was how she usually tried to get out of trouble. Heloise had always done piqued innocence very well.
“However, if I’m going to be questioned about my reading choices until the cows come home, then I’ll just –”
“Sit with me?”
The words popped out without Helena consciously deciding to say them. But she did not have to remind herself of her mantra this time. She could have no more regretted those words than she could have reached into herself and fix her decaying body.
“Eh?” Heloise asked.
“Humor your mother. I’m — I’m not feeling so well,” she stammered. “Give me something to distract me from … myself.”
Heloise’s eyes narrowed, then, without a further word, she shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed, fluffing the pillow.
Then she kicked off her shoes and swung her legs onto the bed. It was a lucky thing Helena wasn’t closer to the edge — she might have rolled off it in shock.
And of course Heloise had to catch the gaping jaw and indrawn breath. She raised one eyebrow then let it fall, as if to ask, What? Then, without a further word — spoken or otherwise — she let her eyes drift to the ceiling even as her toes twiddled in her stockinged feet.
Ah. She must need something. Heloise would have never stayed so long for conversation if she hadn’t. Hell, she wouldn’t have dropped the book!
But Helena wouldn’t argue with that. It was nice to still be needed by one of her children. The fact that it was fiercely independent Heloise, who had seemed to stop needing her as soon as she got the hang of feeding herself, made it all the sweeter.
“Mother,” Heloise finally began, “if I tell you something, will you promise not to get angry right away?”
Helena blinked. “Er …”
“You’re not going to like it,” Heloise continued, her thick brows — brows that would be so much prettier if she bothered to pluck them — crashing into each other over her nose. “I know that. But I want you to remember, Mother, it’s my life, and I have to live it in the way that will make me happy. I don’t think you, of all Sims, can argue with that.” Heloise turned her scowl fully onto Helena, as if she could beat her into submission with just a stare.
Maybe she could. Even as her alarm began to rise, Helena felt the desire to be angry slipping away. After all, why be angry? As long as Heloise was happy and healthy … who was Helena to argue with that?
But there were limits. “Heloise, let me ask you one question, and then I’ll be able to tell you whether I’m likely to be angry or not.”
Heloise shrugged and nodded.
“Are you pregnant?”
Well, Helena supposed that answered that question.
“I’m not an idiot! I’m not — Babette!” Heloise spat. “Of course I’m not pregnant! Why would you even ask that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Helena replied drily. “It might be something to do with the way you phrased the question. Or maybe the fact that you told me, in so many words, that I wasn’t going to like what you were going to say. Or even the fact that it’s happened once before in this family, and that was when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on Babette. Gee, you know, with all of that, I can’t imagine what could have led me to think that you might, just might, be warming a bun in that oven.”
The sarcasm must have soaked the bed, but Heloise barely acknowledged it. “Still. I’m not an idiot.” She said that word with the same venom and disdain that another woman would have used to say whore. “I know how to prevent a baby from coming.”
“Heloise, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this until you’re married,” but from the way you’re talking, the cat may well be out of the bag anyway, “but if pulling out actually worked, half the Sims you know today would have never existed.” Including you, my dear!
Heloise shot her mother a look dripping with impatient disdain. “I know that. That’s why … well, never mind that. That wasn’t even what I wanted to talk about!”
Helena would have paid a good deal of money to know what was meant to come after “that’s why.” But, alas, it was not to be. For now. She’d figure it out before Heloise’s visit was over, come hell or high water. “Very well. What did you want to talk about? I’ll do the best I can to avoid getting angry.”
“Thank you,” Heloise replied. “You see …” She took a deep breath. “You see — I’ve decided to join the Sisters of St. Allegra after I graduate.”
Helena blinked. “You … you want to be a nun?”
“They’re minor orders,” Heloise replied. “So — so I can leave later, if I want to. It’s not for life.” She shrugged. “But I don’t think I’ll want to. So, Mother, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I doubt you’ll ever be seeing grandchildren out of me.”
Helena winced as her canker sent out a stabbing pain. Or maybe it was just her heart. But she already knew she’d never see grandchildren from Heloise …
She just wished Heloise hadn’t said that so flippantly.
But Heloise had just sharpened her honesty on the whetstone of her tongue, which she tended to do every time she opened her mouth. Helena shook off the pain. Heloise wouldn’t have said that if she had known. And if she had known, they might not even be having this conversation.
So Helena took a deep breath. “Well, how much of a dowry is your poor father going to have to pony up?”
Heloise’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“You heard me. How much is it going to cost your father to get you into this nunnery? He’s not made of mon–“
“That’s it? I just told you that I want to be the next best thing to a nun, that I never want to get married, make babies, be a — a girl, and all you can do is ask how much that’s going to cost Dad?”
“Well, you did ask me not to get angry,” Helena shrugged.
“I didn’t expect you to actually listen!” wailed Heloise.
Helena’s eyebrow arched. “Would you prefer I got angry?”
“No,” muttered Heloise, sounding like the lost little girl she had never been in real life. “I just … I just had so many arguments,” Heloise sighed. “Reasons why you would be wrong when you got angry. I practiced them in my head for days.” She waved her hand vaguely. “And now you just — agree. I don’t know what to do with that.”
You don’t have to do anything with that, sweetie. But Helena couldn’t say that. If Heloise didn’t know that by now … she never would. And there was nothing Helena could do about that.
But Helena could give her daughter a smile a shrug. “Well, if it makes you feel better, the arguments you trotted out before you even told me what was on your mind were so good, they defeated me before I even got a chance to start to fight.”
“Arguments? What arguments?”
“You reminding me that this is your life, not mine? That wasn’t an argument?”
“It wasn’t even a very good one,” Heloise muttered. “Whose life is really her own? And yes, Mother, I said her for a reason. If — if you and Dad had other plans for me …”
“We’re not like that,” Helena replied. “Good Lord, do you really think your father has it in him to make a plan for you that would only serve to make you miserable? Your father is doing quite well on his own, he’ll thank you very much for that, he doesn’t need to pack you off in marriage to some … some fat merchant to get more money or a plot of land he’s got his eye on. He doesn’t want success at the price of your misery.”
“Dad wouldn’t have that in him, no,” Heloise murmured.
Helena blinked. “You think I would.”
Heloise squirmed, her bony hips digging into the mattress, her gaze volleying around the room, everywhere but on Helena. “You spent every waking minute from the time I turned twelve trying to get me interested in clothes, in hair, in cosmetics — in boys!“
“You’re a bright, beautiful — don’t you dare snort like that, Heloise, you are a beautiful girl. I didn’t want to see you turn yourself into an old maid before you got to be a young one. I didn’t want to watch you shut yourself away from all Sim contact –“
“I will not be shutting myself away from all Sim contact!” gasped Heloise. “It’s a teaching order! The whole point is to interact with the students and get them to — to learn something, to think!”
“Heloise, shush,” Helena replied. “Let your mother admit that she was wrong in this instance before you go explaining just how I’ve gotten everything else in the world wrong. All right?”
Heloise didn’t answer. Instead, she gasped.
Then she demanded, obnoxious as ever, “Mother, are you feeling all right?”
“Perfectly fine in my head, yes,” Helena replied, barely holding back her wince. Hopefully Heloise would forget about that remark before dinner. “But yes, I was wrong about trying to force you into … into being a Sim you didn’t want to be. And Heloise …” She reached across the bed and grabbed her daughter’s hand. “I’m sorry for that.”
So much for no regrets. But Helena had made mistakes, and she knew she had. She’d never regret living in such a way as to make mistakes. Anyone who didn’t live like that might as well be dead already. But she could still be sorry, and express that, to the people she had unwittingly hurt along the way.
Heloise’s jaw, however, fell. “You … are?”
“Aye, Heloise. I — I ought to have known better than anyone, how much it … hurts, being forced into a role that isn’t yours. Being asked to live a lie, essentially. I should have remembered that before I tried to force you into my mold. I’m sorry for that, Heloise, I truly am. I just hope you’ll believe me when I said it was done out of love — because I didn’t want to you to miss anything in this life.”
Heloise blinked. And blinked. And blinked some more.
When she finally spoke, though, it was with her usual sardonic half-smile. “Well,” she replied, “I guess I wouldn’t be the headstrong bitch I am today without having to argue all through my adolescence — so I have you to thank for that.”
“Oh, thank you,” replied Helena, rolling her eyes.
“It was a compliment.”
“Hmph,” snorted Helena, rolling her eyes. Then she glanced sidelong at Heloise, grinned, and poked her side. “So. You never said. How much is your poor father going to have to pony up to get you into minor orders?”
“Well,” Heloise replied, “usually the Sisters of St. Allegra ask for a small fortune, because they do have to eat. But the Mother Superior took one look at one of my most recent essays for Professor Baxter, and told me that if I considered joining any other order, she’d break into the chapter house and bust me out herself. So I think the dowry will be waived for me.”
Helena grinned — a real grin, one that stretched from one ear to another. “That’s my girl.”