Fool's Gold on Legal Pads
Prompt: yellow- treasure
"Ellie, honey, I need you to do me a favor." Eleanor Bartlet looks up from her mother's medical chart with that look of hesitation on her face that she loves, because it reassures her that she raised this kid not to be a pushover. "Listen. When all this," her hands take in the bed, the antiseptic smell, the bland, mint-green walls, "is over- in my closet, there's this biscuit box, and in there are some of the letters your father and I wrote to each other in college. I'd like to be buried with them, please."
"Mom!" Ellie protests, immediately. "Don't say- you don't need- you shouldn't be thinking about-"
"Eleanor Emily Bartlet, you're thirty-eight years old and you have two children, don't make me teach you a lesson about dying." Abbey snaps, writhing her fingers sadly.
"Mom, seriously, there's no reason to-"
"You're as good a doctor as I am, honey. You know that there isn't…" She stops, shakes her head. "Come here."
Ellie puts down the chart, sits down on the edge of her bed. Her mother takes her hands in hers, wraps the fingers around her daughter's much softer, much warmer palm. "I'd give anything to stay here longer. To see Laura go to college and go see Jessie play the lead in the musical next year, you know I would." Her daughter doesn't respond, keeps her eyes on their interlocked hands. "Eleanor, look at me."
Ellie raises her head, eyes sparkling with tears.
"I'm so sorry, honey," Abbey whispers.
Ellie shakes her head. "Mom, don't- it's not your fault."
"No, it's not," her mother agrees, and pulls back one of her hands to wipe her daughter's cheek. "And I'm not dead yet, so stop crying. But you know now. The biscuit box in my closet."
Ellie nods. "Yeah."
"And Ellie? Don't you dare read them."
A few weeks later, Abigail Bartlet goes to sleep in a hospital bed, and wakes up sitting on the counter of the kitchen back at the farm. Sunlight streams in through the open windows, the smell of fresh coffee lingers in the air, and she thinks she can hear the girls playing hopscotch in the distance. None of this seems very strange, in fact it's wonderfully, achingly familiar, and she feels distinctly like she's come home after a long day.
"You took your sweet time," a most familiar voice says from beside her. Her head swings around, and there's Jed, looking healthy and whole and much younger than she remembers, grinning at her.
"You've been here all this time?" She asks, surprised.
"Nah," Jed shrugs, his eyes dancing with amusement. "I just check in every now and then. It's really a coincidence I'm here now."
"I missed you, Jackass," Abbey smiles.
"I missed you, too." They stare at each other, and then he hugs her, and she can almost feel it.
"What you got there?" He asks, and it's only now that she notices the pack of faded yellow legal-pad sheets in her lap. She smiles, happy that Ellie remembered. "You don't remember."
He picks one up, scans the curly, girlish writing with widening eyes. "Oh, I do." He unfolds the letter and starts reading:
Thank you so much for your last letter, it kept me excellent company while we were driving up to my Aunt Susie's house last week…
Jed didn't realize until much later that he that he hadn't fallen in love with Abbey until that summer, the summer after their sophomore year in college. Sure, he'd definitely fallen into something before –in like, in lust, fallen for the way her dresses curved around her body, fallen for the way her eyes sparkled when she argued with people much smarter than her without thinking about it, fallen for the way she came to find him whenever something good happened to her- but he didn't really fall in love with her until that summer.
Because that summer, he realized something: she trusted him with her. With a quiet, introspective version of herself that she liked to keep secret, she trusted him with that, that he wouldn't tease or use it against her –well, at least not when it really mattered. And so he began to trust her. Trust her with the sense of a calling he sometimes felt, trust her enough to let his guard down sometimes, let slip what he never told anything else, about what life really was like at home.
And they wrote each other letters. Not love letters, those came later, but long, trusting letters about life in their corners of the East Coast, letters about things they had noticed in themselves and in the other, and who knows, if the stars had been aligned differently, maybe that's all that would have ever become of it.
"This is going to sound pathetic," Abbey wrote to him in June, "but sometimes I feel like I'm totally replaceable. There's got to be fourteen other girls out there with spunk and class and whatever it is people like about me, and half them probably have thighs the size of my upper arms. So where do I fit in?"
He wrote back the best he can, but what he really, really wanted to say is that there were no fourteen other girls like her anywhere in the world, and he knew this for sure.
"You know," he wrote a couple of weeks later, "sometimes I wish I would have been old enough to fight in the War. Destroy the Nazis, free Europe for democracy: that would have been something worthwhile. You think we're ever going to do something that worthwhile?"
In July, she sent him a few clippings from the New York Times about the sit-ins spreading like wildfire across the South. "How do you feel about all this?" She wrote. "It makes me proud to see these people stand up and use their voices. My parents would have a heart-attack if they knew that, of course."
Parents, families, the worlds they both lived in, a dream they'd had, a delicious sandwich he'd eaten the previous morning or a beautiful poem by Robert Frost she'd read that night: nothing to small to not be written down on paper and sent the other's way, with underlines, quotes, questions, and always the hope that the other would approve, would understand. And that hope was never really disappointed, though they were each so careful to not say so, so careful to make it seem like this pull, this trust between them was all but accidental.
In the last week of August, she wrote: I do always hate that feeling of the last week of summer, when the nights get cold and people leave their beach houses and go home, and every time you eat ice-cream or go swimming you think to yourself, 'oh, that could be the last time this year, so I had better enjoy it.' There's such a melancholy air around the place, and my little sisters are moping because they don't want to go back to school. But there's one good thing: we'll see each other again. Two weeks!" And she'd crossed out the "I can't wait" she'd added because, in retrospect, it seemed a little too much, for them.
That last letter, he kept in the pocket of his jeans for a full week, fingering the edges of it when no-one was looking, because by now he knew that he was in love with her, in the big, important way that he was trying hard not to think about too much.
And wrote back: "I like the end of summer. But then, I did always like going back to school. I liked how freshly-sharpened pencils smelled and how everything was new and exciting even though you knew exactly what it was you were going back to every year. And it'll be Indian summer here soon, and you can't be a New Englander and not like Indian summer, it's just unheard of."
Not a word of how much he was looking forward to their reunion. And when he arrived at Notre Dame on the Labor Day weekend, he shook off his mother and younger brother and traipsed around her dormitory for an hour, until one of her roommates informed him with a sly grin that she wasn't coming until that evening.
He came back around nine, and she was sitting on the steps of the beautiful brick building with her friends, smoking and talking and her eyes were sparkling and even though there was an undeniable crispness in the warm night, he felt warmer and happier than he had all summer.
"Hey," he called out to her. "Abbey."
She raised her eyes and spotted him, and a small, slightly foolish grin spread on her face as she caught his eye. Her friends started giggling as she walked towards him, hugging her bare shoulders.
"Hi," she smiled, slightly breathless.
"Hi." They stared at each other, wide-eyed, and, he realizes suddenly, very, very young. "It's really good to see you," he says, counting the eyelashes tangled together on her left eye.
That was the moment he truly fell in love with her.
Two lifetimes later, Abbey finishes reading his final letter aloud. "Did we start going out right after this?" She asks, because she honestly can't remember.
"No," he reminds her, laughing now, "You made me wait and suffer for another two months at least. But then…" He smiles at her, and wraps his arms around her. "Then you were all mine."
"Yes, I was," Abbey smiles ruefully. "And still am." He presses a kiss on her lips and she's amazed she can feel it, and how good it feels.
"What about the girls?" She asks him, fearful. "Will they be okay?"
He nods. "We did a good job on them. Even Ellie. They'll be fine." "What about Sam?" President Seaborn, really, who was inaugurated that January, and she knows Jed would have given his right hand to be there, see that happen.
"Sam will be great," Abbey assures him, pressing her lips on his hand. "You did a good job on him. Really."
They smile at each other. "Ready?" Jed asks. Abbey nods. She takes his hand and jumps off the counter that looks so much like the one in their old kitchen, where it still smells like freshly brewed coffee and the girls are arguing about Zoey's pitiful attempts to cheat at hopscotch.
"Come on, then." And still holding their letters in one hand, she follows him out the door, and into the blinding sunlight beyond.