Notes: Merry Christmas, everyone! This is my present for you lovely folks. Without your support, encouragement, feedback and criticism, I'd be still dabbling in the oneshot kiddie pool, not churning out monsters like this! Merry Christmas to all, and 2013? Bring it!
He was instantly recognisable.
All the McCoy kids were, even when they weren't kids anymore. They were all the same – dark hair, a particular kinda mouth, the way they just carried themselves...and Len McCoy had always been the spittin' image of his Daddy.
She could remember Len alright – a scuff-kneed six-year-old in Mrs. Kilgannon's class, way back when Jenna herself had been doing teacher trainin'. He'd been a kinda cute kiddie, really, all scowls and fisticuffs in the playground with Jack Burns, and usually over the little girls, even back then. He'd always been the boy that the girls could twist around their little fingers.
All 'cept his sisters. Whole damn world knew when Len McCoy's sisters were in town, and mostly because he went from gruff and grumpy to downright unpleasant. Jenna recalled those, too – the tantrums if Alice were waitin' at the gate for him, or his momma had sent Rose to pick him up. He hadn't liked it; he'd once clung to her hand and insisted they wait for Momma "'cause I ain't goin' nowhere wit' no Alice!"
His grammar hadn't improved much.
Jenna couldn't much remember him at school – there were too many six-year-olds, too many noses to wipe and skinned knees to nurse, just to remember Lenny McCoy – and it was a long time since 1978, but when she'd married Eddie in the fall of 1980 and they'd moved into their little wooden box opposite the church, she'd seen them just about every morning, standing in the kitchen with the baby and watching the kids gatherin' for the school bus, Len marched there by their Alice and seen onto the bus, because everybody knew Leonard McCoy wasn't the type to go to school unless really made to go, right up until he was fourteen and decided to become somebody like his grampy.
He'd always been the same, as far as Jenna could recall. The number of times he'd been at the bus stop with a daisy clutched in his steadily growing fist, a paltry offering to the latest girl in his life, and a big purple one for Jenna once, too, when she and Eddie had christened their baby girl in the spring of 1983. She'd been Daisy ever since – they'd christened her Kate, but she was Daisy, with a big purple namesake pressed and framed on the kitchen wall ever since, brought by a student Jenna barely remembered but for his scowl and his skinned knees.
He was no charmer, no looker, no genius – he was nobody but another son of a Georgia man, another piece of grass in the largest damn haystack Jenna'd ever known – but Len McCoy was a man, after all of it, and one made out of a heart somewhere in that gritty, cloudy exterior. The McCoys were all like it – explosive, difficult, stubborn, and sometimes downright nasty, the lot of 'em – but they had hearts, and in the right place, and Len had always had a daisy in one hand for the pretty girls he chased down at the youth club and his various home room classes throughout the years, and a fist in the other for the boys that dared to cross him.
Jenna didn't know him well enough to know when, but somewhere in there, he grew up. Suddenly, the lanky boy marched to school by his sister was gone, and there was a young man with jeans and a failing for shaving learning to drive his grampy's pickup truck, and studying math with the grade above him (and biology with the girl next door, so Jenna heard from the local rumour mill). He didn't smile much, and he didn't say much to strangers, and he held doors for ladies and curses for men, and he stopped goin' to church somewhere in the middle of it all, and David McCoy would sit in the local bar of a Friday night and say, "Well my boy David is a hard worker and all, but our Len's gonna be a doctor one day." And Eddie would laugh, but Jenna could remember the stubborn-mindedness of the boy and think that just maybe there was more to old David's bragging than just being a plain ol' father.
Then in the fall of 1989, Micky Bell died.
Everyone knew Micky. Micky had been here as long as the town; he had a picture of his late wife, Beatrice, hangin' up on the mantlepiece that was religiously dusted and cleaned, and he kept a diary for her when he got to Heaven too, and at a hundred and five he'd still totter out to sit in his front yard and say g'morning to everyone passing for church. He couldn't go, but the pastor would go to him every Sunday afternoon after prayers, and talk to him – and hell, everyone talked to ol' Micky Bell. His wife was gone, God rest her soul, and he couldn't get out much anymore, but everyone talked to Micky Bell, even if he did think he'd been in the Civil War sometimes.
In the fall of 1989, he fell asleep in front of the six o'clock news, and didn't wake up again. He had gone peacefully, the doctor said, and he wouldn't have felt a thing, and a week later, the church was packed out with the mourners.
He was Len McCoy's granddaddy, and it was the last time – until today – that Jenna saw Len face-to-face. A broad-shouldered young man, with the same scowl as the six-year-old that had clung to her hand and shouted at Alice to leave him alone and he could walk home by himself, and the beginnings of the weight of adulthood.
"I can't stay in Dahlo," he'd told her then. "I gotta get out. I'm gonna go to medical school, and then I ain't comin' back."
"Len," she'd said, "this is your home."
"It ain't home," he'd replied. "Georgia might be home, but Dahlonega ain't. I gotta go and live, ma'am, and I can't do it here."
Jenna hadn't known why. He'd never been all that close to his siblings, she supposed – he was just so much younger, and David McCoy Jr. had always been a nasty piece of work to start with, but Len had always fiercely defended his momma from schoolyard jibes, and Jenna could remember the pride and bluster of his old man after takin' his youngest out on fishin' trips and huntin' trips, and told the whole wide world about how his kid was gonna be the next big thing around here, and was gonna change the world, and all the rest of it. Maybe Len was just a teenager with itchy feet, maybe David was right and brilliance never lingered long in one place, but either way –
A year later, he was gone. The rumour mill simply ground to a halt where Len McCoy was concerned, and while she'd been told he got married, and then divorced, and had glimpsed him briefly in the crowded wake that had been held for his own father David in the winter of 2000, she hadn't really seen him again.
She recognised him immediately in the shimmering wet heat of a northern Georgia summer, waiting for a photograph and cradling his new nephew to his chest with expertise. He smiled a little, but it looked forced, and he handed the bundle of blue back off to Rose, and took himself off to the shade of the trees by the road, and there she'd caught him.
"Len McCoy, you've changed."
He had. He was older, and if he'd looked like his Daddy before that wasn't nothing to how he looked now. He carried a weight to him – but also an ease, in the lines around his eyes and the confident strength in his jaw.
"I suppose I have, Mrs. Lane," he said, and kissed the back of her hand like a gentleman from way back when she'd been a little girl herself. Oh, the fifties, how she missed them now.
They talked. She didn't miss how he kept himself to himself, even now, avoiding the conversation (or sarcasm) of his relatives and in-laws, and the way he never entirely relaxed against the tree.
"Goin' home tonight," he'd said. "Overnight in Birmingham and Alberqueque, then straight on through 'til mornin'. Makin' a road trip out of it."
His smile was idle; his language was Georgian, but his accent had died a little, sacrificed to the west and the city life, and his suntan was not t-shirt, but suit-jacket.
"I'm a doctor," he said, when she asked. "Guess my old man got that one right," and there was none of the angry darkness about him when he spoke of David, lying some twenty feet from them in the silent confines of the churchyard. "Workin' out in San Francisco for – I don't know how long. A while now."
"And Jocelyn?" because she remembered the redheaded storm that had disappeared off to Mississippi after him, in her momma's clapped-out old car, and had never come back at all, not once, to the motherland. If Len had felt out of place, then Jocelyn had been it: the girl might have been in born in Dahlo, but she weren't Georgian.
"Joss? She's a lawyer."
She blinked, and her eyes strayed. His ring finger had a slip of whitened skin, but no ring, and Lizzie McCoy's tight-lipped silence over Len since David died was suddenly explained.
"Oh," she said.
"We divorced, ma'am, you might as well say it," Len drawled, and shrugged. "We didn't fit, and I've never been ashamed of it."
He wouldn't have been, Jenna supposed. He hadn't been entirely Georgian either, had he – or at least, not Georgian the way that they hovered out here around the church. Times were changing. Perhaps he wasn't Georgian, or perhaps he'd simply adapted to the west a little more than Jenna.
"If you're alone out there, you should come home."
He blinked, and she realised the contradiction as soon as she'd said it. It was clear as the day – he wasn't truly Georgian anymore, not like here, and he chuckled, ducking his head briefly.
"I'm not alone," he said. "Got a house, got a partner, got friends, got a job, got a little girl, got a life out there. California's not exactly what you'd call smart, but..." he paused. "It ain't Dahlo."
She hadn't seen Len McCoy smile in years, and it was Micky Bell's smile. It was the contentment watching people come and go from the church and stopping for a chat; it was the comfort, despite everything, in his own skin and his own life, even while he talked about waiting to go back to his wife and Jesus and leaving behind the hours of medication every morning. She had never seen Len McCoy smile like that, and...
"Who is she?"
He cocked his head. "Who?"
He shook his head. "Aw hell no, ma'am. You'll get me into trouble. Even my momma don't know."
"Leonard, please. I'm a teacher. I know how to keep secrets."
He smirked. "Yeah, I suppose you do. You must hear a lot of 'em. What grade is it now?"
"No distractions, young man. Who is she?"
"Lessee," he peeled off from the tree long enough to locate his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans, and unfolded a small, battered photograph bleached from sunlight and overexamination. He handed it over with a, "There y'go. Last Christmas or thereabouts, musta been."
It was –
Jenna blinked and refocused, as if the world had swum and crystallised again before her very eyes.
It was a cream couch with a red throw over it, in the low light of an early morning or a late afternoon, the bare wooden floors and thin door just out of sight indicating an apartment in – probably San Francisco. And it was of the man on it, caught in the act of glancing up from a book, all dark eyes and dark hair and white, white skin, feet crossed at the ankles in slacks and dark socks – a monochromatic smudge on the pale surroundings...
"Living in sin, huh?" she offered, handing it back.
"More than you know," he said cheerfully.
"Well," she said. And then, "Well," again.
It explained...did it? She wasn't sure. He'd spent his whole life offering daisies to the girls around the town, and Lizzie had been all puffed up with pride when he'd married Jocelyn, even if it had been way out in San Francisco and Alice had refused to fly and made them go by car – but then he'd divorced her too, and now offered a photograph of this dark-haired young man as a reason for the smile, and the lack of shame over breaking his vows, and – San Francisco, he'd said, was home. And out there, right now, was this young man, waiting on Len McCoy to come home.
Had he known? Had it been more than Dahlonega not being home, or was that the otherworldly strangeness of California sinking through the Georgian in him and corrupting him? Would he recover, or stay the same – and yet...
He simply waited. Len had always been the fierce, defensive type, even as a child, and the way he simply lounged and waited for her to say something was...
He had changed.
"Well," she said. "No wonder your momma don't know."
He simply shrugged.
"Children should always be allowed their secrets," she said loftily, and he smirked. His smile was Micky's, but his smirk – that almost sinister curve – was Lizzie's, Lizzie-on-the-warpath. He had not lost his ferocity, then. "I feel old, you know. You used to be as high as my hips and now you're a man."
Rose called his name – shrieked it, really, a woman with a bundle of blue and a husband as fat as she was loud, and the McCoys and their mess of children and rough interaction had grown up. Jenna felt old, just from the stubble on the man's jaw, and the loss of the baby fat and the sticky fingers that used to tug on her sleeve and show her the latest spider he'd captured outta the cloakrooms.
He disappeared into the church, bowing to the corralling of his eldest sister, and Jenna lost sight of him – the man, not the boy. Len had gone, and she was unsure who had replaced him, but certain that she would never learn.
He would not be coming back to Dahlonega. The Lord had seen another path fit for him, rightly or wrongly, and it was his task to walk it the best he could. His life, his home, was elsewhere.
The village had died, in the intervening years. The house that overlooked it was rotting at the beams, and the farming land overgrown and ready for the concrete mixers to come from the city. Sendai would swallow them whole; the past would be buried.
The past did not live here, beyond the clumsy carvings in the tree bark from hands that had withered to dust. A boy still proclaimed his love for a girl in the wood; they drifted, ashes in the wind, somewhere in the east.
The cherry blossom was still standing a lonely vigil at the base of the property. Once, a village had stood in the path of its petals: generations had plucked the sakura from the branches to offer, paltry gifts of affection that their tongues couldn't form. The tree had rained white and pink on thousands of nameless, faceless children; its wood bore the scars now of their messy lives and torn webs, and a few names lived on in the carvings made by childish hands. And so life had run – the nameless had aged, reformed, moulded, and their webs beget more of the faceless and the nameless, until history became one long season after another, never and always changing and changed.
The bark still told of the undying devotion of a young widower to his late wife; the cemetery told the rest, of the sixty-three years between their deaths, and the memorial erected by their only son. The time had been long enough ago, and the village still isolated enough, that her name became synonymous with beauty, perfection, and temperence; his, with wisdom and poise as he aged, sitting under the trees for decades and tending to the cherries in her absence, and waiting for news from the gods.
But time changed. The city was rising in the east; the sun falling over the enemy in the west, and the world was waiting. Their son had gone away, and returned in a medalled uniform with a bride from the southern islands on his arm, and the first stirrings had begun. The children no longer came to pluck at the flowers; the wood remained undisturbed, and the war outside raged.
The bodies returned in coffins, dead at the hands of those who challenged the might of the emperor.
The sons of the village bled away, one by one, and the daughters waited with sakura in their hair and heavy anger staining their painted mouths. The serene acceptance of fate that had shrouded the widower and his lost wife was wafted aside, and a new rage brought in. The widower's first grandson was born to a soldier and a traitor, and the midwife's hands were bloodied.
The children returned, one by one, and carved messages of hate. The world had leaked in; it would never retreat. The blossoms were trampled into the mud under military boots; the painted ladies were bitter and twisted.
The widower's first grandson captured and destroyed his young bride on the steps of the temple, their unborn child dying with her. The second grandson re-emerged from the bulging cities with books and studies to take the home that was passed to him, a wife with herbs and a frown trailing in his wake, and the cherry tree was surrounded thereafter with the stench of science and the lonely solemnity of their own children: a son and a daughter, with the same sombre expressions and war-scarred history passed down from their forefathers. The daughter remained; the son did not.
The widower lay forgotten in his tomb; his young wife a mere whisper in the air, of a time lost beyond the fog of war and humanity. The madness of a people ripped apart by conflict had infected them – the village, the family, the very air – and the scientist mixed her potions and healed the screaming babies, bringing life, but at a price of severe solemnity. She died; her wisdom was not revered, but spoken of in hushed whispers and the stinking aura of fear.
The city rose in the east, ever higher.
The son returned. He carried none of the serenity of his forefathers, but a foreigner on his arm and a confidence borne of study, borne of wealth, and borne of the rigidly enforced lessons of history. The scratches of love in the bark of the tree were long since gone; the foreigner never had a name.
The cherry tree survived; the widower's tree did not. In the early dawn of an icy winter, the foreigner came down from the house with a fury in her eyes that clanked like the medals on the chests of the forefathers of her husband. The boy at her side waited, the mud staining his shoes, and reached to touch the bark of the tree, rubbing the mark where his great-grandfather had carved the name, in grief, of a woman lost too soon.
His stone-faced father, the stone-faced son of a mathematician, son of a soldier, son of a widower, watched, and said, "So American."
The foreigners left for the final time, and the city breached the horizon to the east.