Title: The Part of Me That Can't Let Go

Author: S J Smith

Rating: K+

Summary: There are things you remember and things you can never, ever let go.

Disclaimer: Arakawa owns all; I just play in her sandbox.


Daddy and Mommy said 'be good for your auntie.'

They were just going out for the night, out dancing, because soon Mommy would be too big to dance. Daddy winked and held his hands in front of his stomach. Mommy laughed the way she did when maybe she was mad but maybe she wasn't. She said Daddy was a bad, bad man and that I shouldn't be anything like him when I grew up.

I remember how Mommy looked so pretty. Her hair gleamed like a blackbird's wing and she wore a couple of sparkly clips in it that she'd let me pick out for her to wear. Daddy wore black and white and nothing sparkly. Well, his cufflinks shone but they weren't as sparkly as Mommy's clips and necklace and earrings. Mommy glittered. Daddy said he was the 'sober one' and made Mommy laugh. I laughed, too, even though I didn't know what he meant.

Mommy and Daddy made me laugh a lot. Mommy liked to read aloud to me, and she'd tell her stories in a bunch of different voices. She never read anything the same way twice, no matter if I begged her to. And she always knew jokes and she liked to tickle me. Daddy would pick me up and toss me in the air just so he could hear me giggle. He'd blow raspberries on my belly and the back of my neck and tell me he was gonna eat me up.

I remember.

I didn't really like Auntie Chris's house. It was big and spooky and it creaked all the time. Auntie Chris had a lot of girls living with her, too. Just girls. She teased Daddy, saying he had the legs to dress in a skirt and should be one of his girls. And Daddy groaned and whined while Mommy laughed. "Not that again! I'm your brother, not your little sister! And you only got me into the skirt once."

Auntie said there were pictures of that and someday, she'd use them against Daddy.

I saw those pictures once. Auntie Chris offered them to me but, from the look on her face, I didn't think she really wanted to give them up. I didn't even recognize the man in the photos, even if he did look a lot like me. It was better she kept them.

Mommy and Daddy both gave me a good night kiss that night. Their kisses were special. They'd lean in at the same time and kiss my cheeks and Daddy would ruffle my hair. Mommy would give me a Drachma kiss, where she'd rub the tip of her nose against mine. We'd all laugh. We liked laughing. Daddy would sneak up behind Mommy when she wasn't looking and grab her around the waist and spin her around. She'd yell and giggle and, sometimes, they'd fall on the floor, 'cause Daddy was laughing so hard. That night, they didn't play. Daddy still ruffled my hair and Mommy still rubbed her nose against mine but Daddy didn't tickle Mommy and Mommy didn't pat Daddy's rear end. I could tell they were happy anyway. Daddy said Mommy was glowing.

I thought Daddy meant from all the sparkly jewelry Mommy wore and said so. That made them both laugh and Auntie Chris smiled, too.

"You two lovebirds better get out now, before I change my mind." She shooed Mommy and Daddy out the door. Auntie Chris and I stood on the front stoop of her house and watched them head down the walk. Daddy wrapped his arms around Mommy's waist and spun her right there on the sidewalk.

"Later, Roy," he said, over Mommy's giggles, "we'll have to teach you dancing. It's a very important part of a young man's education."

"Flirt," Mommy said, slapping his shoulder.

"Only with you!" Daddy acted hurt. "Only ever with you." He bowed Mommy into the car, closing the door behind her. "You be a good boy for your Auntie Chris, Roy."

"Yes, Daddy!"

Daddy walked around the front of the car. "We'll come and get you tomorrow morning. Have a good night, Chris."

"You, too, lover-boy." She waved.

I did too, catching the kiss Mommy blew at me out through the window of the car door. I waved until the car went around the corner at the end of the block. Auntie Chris tapped my head with her knuckle. "Come on, Roy-Boy, time to go inside. We have supper to cook."

I let Auntie Chris turn me around and guide me through the door. I looked over my shoulder but Daddy and Mommy were gone.

The next day, the military police came to the door. I didn't know that then. Auntie Chris's house had a balcony in the back. Trees shaded the yard, with a fountain playing in the center of everything. During the spring, summer and fall, multicolored fish swam in the fountain to eat mosquitoes but they came inside when the weather turned bad, living in aquariums.

There is a part of me that remembers everything about that day: The heat of the sun on my back and shoulders; the way the light reflected off the pages of my book, glaring into my eyes. The soft rush and trickle of water in the fountain and the splash of a fish, rising to the surface after a bug. The murmur of voices in the house, distant but still a presence. The bell from the clock tower in the center of town. That faint, crisp, earthy scent that told me the leaves were going to fall from the trees soon.

At the moment when the military police came to knock on Auntie Chris's door, I was reading the book of Xingese fairy tales Daddy brought me even though I couldn't tell you which story I read. Was it the story of the baby who swallowed the world? The tale of the golden prince, who couldn't die? The fable of the ruby gem that offered immortality to those who tried to use it but really only gifted those who found out its secrets with horror? Maybe the story of the two brothers who faced the dragon to steal its pearl? I don't remember which story I was reading when Daphne came out onto the balcony, whispering my name.

"Are Mommy and Daddy here?" I sat up, closing my book, marking my place with my finger.

"Your Auntie Chris needs to see you." Daphne sounded funny and her nose was red. Maybe she was catching a cold? She offered me her hand, something strange in that, but I took it anyway, thinking her fingers felt so cold. She led me through the house, down the back stairs and to a crowded little room full of papers and stuff, a desk taking up most of the area inside.

Auntie Chris sat in that room, a cigarette burning in the ashtray on her desk. It smelled funny in here, all smoky and close, and made me cough. She didn't seem to notice, staring at something on the desk in front of her. It took Daphne calling her name to bring her out of it and Auntie Chris raised her head to look at us.

Something was wrong, even I knew that. Auntie Chris never cried, ever. She watched me and, for a few seconds, I could hear the pounding of my own heart in my ears. Every other sound was gone, no more creaks of the floors, no more birdsong outside, no splash of the fountain. It was like Auntie Chris didn't really see me, just saw through me, to something else. Maybe she saw the beating of my heart in my ribs or the way my lungs expanded and contracted as I breathed – if I actually breathed right then.

My book fell out of my fingers and the soft thud of it hitting the carpeted floor made me jerk. It was like all the sound came rushing back in to fill the void. Aunt Chris stood up, unfolding herself like a one of the long-legged birds I'd seen when Daddy and Mommy took me to the lake, moving just as jerky and slow. She came to me, dropping to her knees and wrapping her arms around me and whispered words I couldn't understand.

I remember the stink of cigarettes and the lilac powder scent she wore, clogging up my nostrils, as she cupped the back of my head, holding me against her so tight I almost couldn't breathe. I remember how she felt so small when she'd always been so big before, even bigger than Daddy. I remember the way her body shook and trembled – and years later, the explosions Kimbley set off in Ishbal brought back that memory – and how she gasped and wheezed against my shoulder.

Mommy and Daddy were gone. I didn't know where – they'd gone out dancing but Auntie Chris said they were gone. I wanted to go look for them but no one would take me. When I asked, they'd wipe their eyes or ruffle my hair or give me a hug. One woman offered me candy. I hit it out of her hand. I didn't want candy, I wanted Mommy and Daddy. They'd just gone dancing. They liked to dance. They went out every few weeks, dancing, and then they'd come back and get me. Sometimes, Mommy would give me a pretty flower Daddy bought for her. Sometimes, she'd take my hands and whirl me in circles and laugh.

Auntie Chris made me dress nice a few days later. "It's time to say goodbye to your parents," she said.

I didn't want to say goodbye. I wanted to scream hello. I wanted to see them again. I couldn't wait. I didn't know why I had to dress in these scratchy, tight clothes, but if I got to see Daddy and Mommy again, it'd be worth it. Daddy would laugh at how tight the collar was and Mommy would say I looked silly, dressing like Daddy. I wanted to wear a sparkly thing, like Daddy's cufflinks, but Auntie Chris shook her head and said 'no.'

We got into a big car, bigger even than Daddy's, and drove and drove. I kicked my legs and tried to look out the window but Daphne sat on one side of me and Auntie Chris on the other. I couldn't see anything. I asked when we'd see Mommy and Daddy and Auntie Chris picked up her handkerchief again. Daphne cried.

We drove to a park, a funny place. There weren't many trees and not very many benches, and there was a tent way up on top of a hill. The car parked and Auntie Chris got out, taking my hand. She felt cold, colder than the breeze that caught hold of her dress. She had on a funny hat, with this stuff that came down over her face. I wondered if Mommy and Daddy were going to have a picnic here on the hill, with all the stones around us.

I could read the words on the stones but they didn't mean anything. 'Beloved Father'. 'Mother of Three'. I didn't know what they had to do with the park. I wanted Daddy to come running out of the tent and grab me out of Auntie Chris' hands and swing me up in the air. Maybe we could fly a kite here. Mommy would watch us and then we'd eat and go home.

Instead, a man stood inside the tent, with two boxes on either side of him. There were a lot of people inside the tent, all of the ladies with handkerchiefs and the men with their hands in their pockets. Some of the women cried when they saw me.

Auntie Chris sat in one of the chairs up near the man and the boxes and had me sit next to her. The sides of the tent billowed and popped, like the sheets Mommy hung outside on windy days. I wondered if she'd sneak in from behind and tickle me or if she was pretending to be a Xingese raider and would come in, yelling and waving my wooden sword. I kept turning around, looking for Mommy and Daddy. I didn't see them anywhere. I tried to stand in my chair but Auntie Chris made me sit down.

The man began talking about things, not good things, no funny stories. I kicked my feet and watched a ladybug crawl over a blade of grass. The man said my last name a few times but he wasn't talking to me. Auntie Chris took hold of my hand and squeezed it so I tried to sit really still. On my other side, Daphne cried harder and that almost made me want to cry, too.

Finally, the man stopped talking. He came to Auntie Chris and offered her his arm. She took it, letting him help her to her feet. She seemed far away again, walking over to those big boxes, and patted first one, then the other. When she turned around, she said something about growing up and growing old and I managed to catch the ladybug when it suddenly flew up in the air.

That was my first experience with death and how much it takes away. I couldn't comprehend it for a long time, that my little brother or sister would never be born, that Daddy and Mommy were never coming home. That my home now would be with Auntie Chris, in her big house with all my 'sisters' and 'brothers'. I don't remember it but Auntie Chris said I slept walked and would wander out of the house at night. She had to have special locks installed, so high up on the doors I couldn't reach them.

We got through it, though, she and I. Auntie Chris never made me laugh as much as Mommy and Daddy did, but we survived.

When I graduated from Officer's School, she sent me a book I'd forgotten about, one Daddy had kept on the shelf for when I was older. A collection of stories of a king who fought against terrible odds to keep his country together. Tucked inside was a photograph of Mommy, Daddy and me. I almost didn't recognize them.

My parents' ghosts hadn't haunted me for long. Oh, there were nights I dreamed of their laughter, of how Mommy loved sparkly things. Of the way Daddy's eyebrows would waggle when he teased us. But alchemy and battlegrounds and time itself have a way of erasing the things you most want to remember.

In fact, I'd almost forgotten all of it until the day I buried Hughes.

A bunch of men put the boxes into the ground, grunting and groaning as they did. A lot of people walked up and dropped flowers into the holes on top of the boxes. Auntie Chris watched them all. Daphne put her arm around me and kept saying I could say goodbye in a little bit.

"Why am I saying goodbye?"

Daphne wouldn't answer my question. It just made her cry harder.

Finally, it was Auntie Chris, Daphne and me. The man who'd talked patted Auntie Chris's shoulder and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He came to me and offered me his hand to shake. I had to switch the ladybug to my left hand. "You be a good boy for your auntie, now," he said, "she's going to need you."

I didn't tell him Daddy always said Auntie Chris didn't need anyone. The man turned to Daphne and I hopped off my chair, letting the ladybug go. I followed Auntie Chris out of the tent. She lit a cigarette, staring up at the sky.

"Auntie Chris?" I had to tilt my head back to look up at her. "Are you crying?"

"No, honey." She blew out a stream of smoke. "These aren't tears. It's raining."

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