Notes: I had no idea where this story would take me when I started to write it. I just knew I wanted to deal with Grandma Fraser's death. The characters led the way. And I was as surprised as Ben when Julie showed up!
Disclaimer: "I, um...found these" characters in the Alliance vault. Since their owner no longer seems to want to play with them, I thought I would. They looked lonely.
Drama; Rated PG; Sequel to "The Other Side of the Mountain"
LEAVING HOME AGAIN
I stood outside the house and watched the lone figure approach out of the distance. It was the dusk of a summer evening, and with no moon or city lights casting upon the area, the figure was very indistinct. There was no mystery, however. It was my father. I had sent for him.
For almost as long as I could remember, there had been no doubt that I would follow in my father's footsteps and become a Mountie. Whether that was his decision or mine, or simply fate, I can't honestly tell you. I'd always thought it had been my decision, but things aren't always what they seem. Regardless of the whys and wherefores, it was something we both knew would happen. And so it did.
I breezed through the Academy, graduating at the top of my class, and then set about the task of making myself indispensable to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I accepted every posting with enthusiasm and did all that was asked of me -- and more. I wouldn't say I was extraordinary, as Mounties go, but I was reliable, honest, loyal, and obedient.
Things went a little awry during my fourth year of service. I won't go into the details because that is a story all in itself, but suffice to say that circumstances conspired to shake my resolve, and the dependable Mountie I had been suddenly became a discipline problem. I even considered resigning at one point but, in the end, settled on a reassignment to the Northwest -- my lifelong home.
I embraced the opportunity for a fresh start by putting my nose to the grindstone and working hard to prove to the RCMP, and to myself, that I was Mountie material. I knew I'd never be the person I had been, but I was going to be as damn close to it as possible. To be working in familiar surroundings and among the people with whom I grew up could only help toward that end, I reckoned.
My widowed grandmother was getting on in years by that time and had been living alone ever since the day I left for the Academy. She was a healthy, strong woman, and not prone to languishing in her solitude. She was well-known and liked in the village, after having run the library with my grandfather since my boyhood days, and was proud that, even in her old age, she was still able to get around to visit or to help a neighbor in need. Still, for all that, she was pleased as punch to have me back home again. I insisted on keeping my own room at the Detachment housing, but on occasion I acquiesced and spent the night at Grandma's, in my old room.
As I leaned against the cabin door, sipping my bark tea, the approaching figure steadily took on the form of my father. He stopped in front of me and we acknowledged each other with slight nods and wrinkling of our faces. Dad dropped his bag and stood beside me and we both stared off into the distance without speaking for quite some time.
"Want some?" I finally broke the silence, offering to share my tea.
He took the mug with a nod of thanks, then leaned back against the house with me and sipped the tea.
"Did, uh, did Buck drop you off?" I asked.
"Uh huh. Down at the village road."
"He coulda come to the house. He didn't have to, um...I mean, he's as good as family." I glanced at Dad and saw that he didn't quite know how to take that. To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what I meant by it. Although I probably did know Buck Frobisher as well as I knew my dad, this wasn't really the time to bombard Dad with those sentiments. "I mean, he's your partner. He coulda come with you."
"Oh, er, yes, yes. He, uh, he had business...in town. He'll be out later. Sends his condolences, Son."
"Ah." I shifted my weight against the house and gazed again into the distance.
"Went in her sleep, eh?" Dad asked.
"Yes, Sir." I blinked back a tear and continued to face away from my father.
"Hmm. Well, I wouldn't have expected any less from Mother. She definitely wasn't the type to die a slow, lingering death. I never did see the day that anything kept her down." Dad offered the mug of tea to me, but I declined it with a wave of my hand. "I know it was a shock, Son, but it's better this way, believe me. In fact, I imagine she had this planned from the start. If your grandmother had had to suffer with illness and old age and depend on someone to see to her every need, well, frankly, it woulda killed her. You wouldn't've wanted that, now, would ya, Ben?"
"Well, would ya? Would ya have wanted to watch her suffer?"
"No, of course not. But do you have to talk about it like...like that?"
"Like, I don't know, like it's a good thing. Like I should be happy about it."
"Now, don't go putting words in my mouth, Son. You're always twisting everything I say. You know I never said anything like that. Of course you're not happy that your grandmother's died. It coulda been worse, that's all. That's all I'm saying."
"Sure, Dad," I sighed in response. We'd been together a matter of minutes and already we were getting on each other's nerves. "Go on in if you want, Dad. I'm just gonna, um...I'll be in shortly."
"Is she, er...in there?"
"Yeah. In the bedroom. Go ahead."
"Oh, no. No, I couldn't. Not when she's, er..."
"It's okay, Dad. She's been, um, taken care of. The burial will be tomorrow. Go say good-bye."
Dad put the mug into my hand and started to back away. "I need to stretch my legs."
"You just walked here from town, Dad. Didn't that stretch your legs?"
"Yeah, I know, I know. But all this standing around tightened 'em up again. You know me, Son. Gotta keep movin'."
"Right." I watched as he disappeared into the distance.
It was fortunate, I suppose, that I'd spent that night at Grandma's -- the night from which she never awoke. Otherwise, it might have been days before she was discovered. Perhaps my father was right. Perhaps the whole thing had been planned.
I hit the snooze button at the sound of the alarm, then closed my eyes. I never did that when I was on my own, but I knew my grandmother wouldn't let me oversleep, so I allowed myself a few extra minutes of shuteye. Before the alarm was ready to sound again, however, my deeply ingrained sense of discipline had forced me out of bed.
I was concerned from the moment I stepped out of my bedroom that morning. The house was too quiet. Not that it would have been noisy in any case, but Grandma was always in the kitchen at that hour. At least when I was at the house. Nothing gave her more satisfaction than rising at dawn to fix me breakfast before seeing me off to work -- usually with a hearty lunch which she had also prepared for me.
"Grandma?" I called out upon confirming that she was not in the kitchen. There was no reply, so I walked around to the pantry and found that all was quiet in there as well. Her jacket was hung on the wall in the mud room, so I assumed she hadn't left the house. With growing unease, I made my way to my grandmother's bedroom and paused before the closed door, hesitant to even knock because I feared the possibility that there would be no answer. Grandma simply did not oversleep, so if she was still in there, something was dreadfully wrong.
Just as I feared, my firm knock to the door elicited no response. I took a deep breath, set my jaw resolutely, and pushed open the door. And there she was. Lying in bed. Absolutely still.
Although I did my best not to show it, losing my grandmother was nearly as hard on me as losing my mother had been when I was a child. It was just hard in a different way, I suppose. When Mum died, I felt abandoned, frightened, lonely, and angry. My whole world seemed to have collapsed. At the time of Grandma's death, I was a grown man with a life of my own, so the emotions I experienced were more strictly related to the loss of her as part of my world rather than as the center of my world. While Grandma had never replaced my mother in my heart, she did have her own special place there. I loved her dearly. She had been my rock throughout my life -- the one constant to balance my perpetual fear of abandonment. She had given me love, security, stability, and the knowledge and discipline that gave me strength when times were rough.
I had to keep reminding myself that it really was my grandmother lying there, awaiting her final resting place. Without the spirit of life in her, the body was barely recognizable. But I remembered it had been the same with my grandfather when he died, so it didn't surprise me to see my grandmother looking unfamiliar. I leaned in and closed my eyes as I kissed her forehead lovingly, then I stood and determinedly wiped away the few tears that had filled my eyes. I smiled, in spite of myself. I knew she was at peace. A peace very similar, no doubt, to that which I had experienced less than a year earlier as I felt myself dying in a snowstorm in the mountains.
Leaving my grandmother, I found Dad at work on his journal in the outer room of the cabin. I began to stoke the fire, just for something to do.
"I took care of that a few minutes ago, Son," Dad informed me without interrupting his writing.
"Ah." I was restless, but I took a seat across from Dad. I couldn't get comfortable, however, and my constant fidgeting eventually caught Dad's attention. "Sorry," I said when I noticed him squinting at me with a hint of annoyance.
"Is there something on your mind, Son?" he asked.
"Well, yeah. Grandma's in the other room, dead. Other than that, you mean?"
"Well, if you gotta be snotty about it, forget I asked," he scolded.
"Sorry. You're right. It, um, just kinda slipped out."
"I told you you shouldn't keep going in there. It's just upsetting you."
"No, actually, Dad, I'm less upset when I'm in there with her than when I'm out here with you."
Dad tried to glare at me for making that remark, but it was clear he was more hurt by it than angered. "Ah," was all he would say.
"I, uh, didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"It's just...um..." I paused, uncertain as to whether I should ask. "Why won't you go see her? You know, say good-bye?"
"Not much point. She's dead. She wouldn't hear a word I said. Not that she heard anything I said when she was alive..."
"Dad! Do you have to do that?"
"Do what? I was just sitting here, minding my own business..."
"Oh, forget it. You're obviously not interested."
Dad sighed his irritated sigh as he always did when I was frustrating him. "Dammit, Benton! The woman's dead. What possible purpose would it serve for me to go in there and talk to a dead body?"
"I don't know. Maybe none. But maybe it'd at least make you feel better."
"I feel just fine, thank you."
"Oh, well, in that case..."
"Would you feel better if I went in there and said 'good-bye'?"
"It's got nothing to do with me, Dad."
"All right, then. There you are." He settled back in his chair with a self-satisfied composure and returned to writing his journal. I felt dismissed, so I got up and started to make my way to my bedroom. "Buck should be here any minute," Dad suddenly announced, as if to keep me in the room.
"You might wanna wait up."
"Fine. I'll just, uh, wait in the other room." I again headed for my bedroom.
"Put a fresh kettle of water on the fire, would ya, Son? They...er, I mean, Buck would probably appreciate a hot drink when he gets here."
"They? Why'd you say 'they'? Is someone else coming, too?"
"I didn't say 'they'. I said 'Buck'."
"You said 'they' first, then you corrected yourself."
"Ah, well, you see?"
"No, I don't see. Why'd you say 'they'?"
"Beats me. Honestly, Son, you're like a three-year-old with all your questions. 'Why' this and 'why' that! Everything doesn't have a pat answer, you know."
"I know that. I'm not a three-year-old. I think you're exaggerating a tad."
"Hmm. Put the kettle on, would ya, Ben?"
"Sure. Fine." It was useless to try to get an answer from Dad when he didn't want to give one. So I put a fresh kettle of water on the fire.
"Would you like another cup of tea, Grandma?"
"Thank you, honey, but you really don't have to wait on me. You're the guest here."
"Oh, don't be silly. Since when can't a guy fetch a cup of tea for his grandmother, even in her own house? Besides, you took care of me my whole life. This is the least I can do." We both laughed as I took her cup and went to refill it, along with my own.
"Sing me a song, Ben," she requested as I handed her the hot cup of tea.
"A song? Er, wouldn't you rather I read something to you? I'll read whatever you want to hear."
"No, no. A song. I want to hear you sing tonight."
"Well, my guitar's back at my place."
"The piano will do. It's old and a little out of tune, perhaps, but it's your voice I want to hear."
"Oh, Grandma. I'm a bit rusty on the piano. Haven't played much in years. And my voice is, well...serviceable, at best." I smiled shyly, then hid my blushing face behind my mug as I sipped the tea. I loved music and was actually pleased that she had asked me to play something for her despite my belief that my musical talents were mediocre. It was fun, and that was all that mattered to me.
"Are you going to keep fishing for compliments or are you going to sing me a song?" she asked with a smirk.
I chuckled and blushed even deeper. "What do you want me to sing, Grandma?"
"Julie!" I exclaimed in utter shock, when she entered the cabin ahead of her father after I answered the knock at the door.
"Hi, Ben," she answered and kissed me quickly on the cheek as I stood there with my jaw hanging and my hand still clutching the doorknob.
Buck followed her into the cabin carrying two overnight bags and immediately put his hand to my shoulder and squeezed affectionately. "Hello, Benton. I'm very sorry about, er, your grandmother. She was a good woman."
"Yes, Sir, she was. Thank you." I stared at Julie and we had a moment of awkward silence. I didn't know why I wasn't taking her close in an embrace. My body was begging me to. Julie and I were friends from way back -- in fact, more than friends -- but something had changed since the last time we'd been together. Namely, me. And I couldn't bring myself to greet her as if I was the same old Ben. It wouldn't have been right.
"Well, invite them in and close the door, Son," Dad ordered from across the room, where he now stood, ready to welcome his friend.
"Oh, sorry. Please come in," I said with my arm extended to direct them into the room. A nervous smirk crept over my face as I closed the door. I hadn't seen Julie in years, and she looked as pretty as ever. Mixed feelings overcame me, some of which were completely inappropriate, considering the situation, so I forced them from my mind. Or tried to, anyway.
It wasn't easy. Her sweet scent wafted toward me as she stepped past me into the room. I brushed my hand across my face to remove the smile before I turned to join the others. When I saw her removing her coat, I knew I should step forward and offer to help her, but I couldn't move. It was as if my body had suddenly become paralyzed. I was relieved that my grandmother couldn't see us because she would have been very displeased with my lack of gentlemanly manners.
"Benton...Benton!" I suddenly became aware of my father's voice beckoning me.
"Take the lady's coat, for crying out loud!"
I had been staring in Julie's direction but hadn't even noticed her holding her coat out to me until my dad roused me from my haze. "Oh. Yes, Sir," I continued to look at Julie even as I answered my dad. "May I take that for you, Ma'am?" I said as I took her coat and draped it over my arm.
"Ma'am?!" she replied with obvious surprise. "Ben, it's just me, Julie," she teased in her old familiar way.
But for some inexplicable reason, I was unable to play along as I always had when she teased me in our youth. "Yes, I know. I'll, um, hang this up for you. May I take your coat, as well?" I asked Buck, finally turning away from Julie.
"Why, certainly, young Fraser. Thank you kindly."
I went across the room to hang up the coats, but I was still able to hear them whispering. "Daddy, maybe I shouldn't have come. Ben seems a little, I don't know, odd. Maybe he'd prefer I wasn't here."
"Don't be ridiculous, Julie," Buck answered softly. "Of course he wants you here. The boy's just a little shy, is all. He hasn't seen you for years, remember. It can take a fellow, oh, a few minutes to, er, get his bearings in the presence of a pretty girl. Eh, Bob? Am I right?"
"As always, Buck. As always. Well, almost always."
Everyone stopped talking as I approached the little group again, and I smiled nervously then averted my gaze toward the feet that were all standing around in a circle.
"Well..." Buck suddenly broke the silence.
We all looked at him to listen to whatever he had to say. But all he did was nod his head sort of knowingly, so we all nodded in return. It makes me laugh to think back on that now. What could be a more ludicrous sight than a bunch of grown men standing around trying to talk without actually having to say something? If it weren't for Julie, we three guys would probably still be standing there, shuffling our feet and nodding about nothing in particular.
I jumped slightly when I felt Julie wrap her arm around mine. I didn't resist her, but I didn't further the intimacy, either. Her touch felt good; however, I wasn't the young boy she had said she loved. Things were different then. We were just kids. *If she knew me now, would she still love me?*
"Ben, are you okay?" she finally asked.
"Yeah, fine...considering..." She started to rub her hand up and down along my arm in a comforting manner, but it disconcerted more than comforted me. "It was just quite a shock, so I'm a little, um..." I watched her slender fingers continue to caress me.
"Just never woke up one morning, eh?" Buck interrupted, much to my relief.
"That's right, Sir."
"Well, I guess that's the way when you're never sick a day in your life."
"That's what I told him," Dad agreed. "I told him it was for the best this way."
I held my tongue, as I really didn't want to get into an argument with my father in front of guests. "Um, Sir," I addressed Buck, "if you'd like to see her, she's in the bedroom."
"Er, um, well..." He was just like Dad in many ways.
"How 'bout a cup of tea, Buck?" Dad suggested as an alternative. "The kettle's boiling."
"Ah, now I couldn't say no to that. Julie, would you like some tea?"
"Not now, Daddy. I think I'll go in and see Mrs. Fraser. If I may, Ben?"
"Oh, um, sure. Of course. Go ahead. She'd, um, like that."
Dad and Buck went off to the kitchen, shaking their heads, and Julie leaned in closer to me. "Would you go in with me, Ben?"
I stood at the foot of the bed while Julie sat in the chair beside my grandmother. Neither of us spoke, and within a minute or so I noticed Julie's eyes were brimming with tears. Beholding her in such a state threatened my own composure, but I took a deep breath and managed to keep myself in check. However, all of a sudden, Julie dropped her head and sunk her face onto the bed and sobbed uncontrollably. I didn't know what to do. My strongest impulse was to leave the room, but before I had a chance to do so, Julie spoke.
"Ben?" she cried onto the bed.
Julie lifted her head and daintily brushed some of the tears from her eyes and face before looking at me. "Why are you standing way over there?" she asked, her eyes slightly squinted in a hurt expression.
"What do you mean?"
My question seemed to answer her question because she changed the subject without further inquiry. "I've never seen a dead person before. Not someone I really knew. It's...um..." Her eyes started to tear again and she couldn't continue speaking.
"I'm sorry," I offered, not knowing what else to say.
"What are you sorry about?" she almost laughed.
"Well, of course. Aren't you?"
"So why are you apologizing? She's your grandmother. You could cry, too, you know."
Julie looked at me silently for a moment, then faced my grandmother as she spoke to me. "I'm tired. Perhaps I should leave."
I knew Buck was planning to spend the night, so I was surprised to hear Julie suggest that she leave. "Um, I thought..." I paused. I didn't want to sound as if I was expecting something. "I figured you were staying the night...with your father."
"I don't want to impose. I could get a room in town." She looked at me and then added, pointedly, "You seem like you'd rather be alone."
I didn't answer at first. I was afraid I had somehow hurt her feelings. I had to turn my face from her view before I could speak. "No. I'd like you to stay, if you want. You can, um, sleep in my bed, and I'll, um...I'll..."
"No, you see, I would be imposing."
"It's not an imposition," I asserted, looking at her. "I insist. Besides, it's not really my bed anymore. I live out at the detachment. You take the bedroom. I'll be fine...elsewhere."
"On the floor somewhere?"
"Just like old times, eh?" she smiled up at me.
I grabbed Julie's overnight bag from the outer room, then escorted her into my old bedroom, where she took a seat on the bed and immediately began undressing. Just the outer layers, mind you, but I was rather taken aback and it showed.
"What's wrong, Ben?" she asked.
She smiled coyly. "Relax. I'm not going to strip naked with you standing there, okay? I'm just making myself a little more comfortable."
"It wasn't that long ago that you enjoyed seeing me naked."
My eyes widened at her comment and I blushed furiously, unable to respond.
"I'm sorry, Ben," she apologized sincerely. "That was a stupid thing for me to say."
"No, it's, um...it's okay. It's just...um...we...we're not...we were just..."
"We were just kids?" she finished my sloppy sentence.
I frowned and sighed slowly. I didn't want to dismiss our youthful romance quite so perfunctorily. It had meant a lot to me, and I did still have feelings for Julie. I loved her. But I had since come to know a need that went beyond my love for Julie or any love I had ever felt before. I shut my eyes tightly and forced aside the thoughts of that other, the forbidden woman whose name I had tried to erase from my memory just as I had erased her from my life. Suddenly, I felt Julie take my hands in hers, so I opened my eyes and found her standing before me, looking concerned.
"Are you sure you're all right?" she asked gently.
"Uh huh." I looked her in the eyes and saw great affection emanating from them, from her whole being. "I didn't mean to imply that we didn't...that we weren't...that it was just..."
"I know, I know," she interrupted. "People grow up. Things change."
"Have you...changed?" I inquired in a soft voice.
"Probably. I don't know. You have?"
"Yes, somewhat. I guess." I shifted uneasily as I tried to answer her question as honestly as I could.
"Older and wiser, eh, Ben?"
"Something like that."
Julie smiled a sad smile, then went to sit on the edge of the bed. "Will you stay and talk with me for a while?"
"Of course, Julie. What, um..."
She lightly patted the bed, so I cautiously went to sit beside her. She took my hand and grinned slyly, without looking at me. "You know what I was remembering when I was in the other room with your grandmother?"
"That night she found us together in the loft in your shed. Remember?" She glanced at me and saw in my smile that I did, indeed, remember. "How old were we then?"
"Um, fourteen, I think. No, fifteen. You were barely fifteen." I felt my eyes glaze over as I remembered us as we were back then.
"BENTON FRASER!" I heard echoing through my head a split second after an insistent kick to my backside had roused me from my slumber. I opened my eyes with a start and found myself curled upon a haystack beside Julie, my arm lovingly encircling her waist as she lay with her back nestled against me. I couldn't see much beyond that, as it was dark except for the glow of a lantern. "Benton!" I heard again and quickly disengaged myself from Julie and rolled over to see my grandmother peering down at us, moving the lantern closer to get a clearer view.
"Grandma?" I offered weakly, still groggy from sleep but aware that I was not in a desirable situation. I felt Julie roll over beside me, but I didn't dare look at her, as that would be tantamount to admitting to her presence, which was not something I was prepared to admit to my grandmother at that particular moment.
"What's going on in here?" she demanded as she crouched nearer to us and repositioned the lantern so that it fully illuminated both me and Julie. There was no denying my companion's presence anymore.
Grandma sighed and glared so severely that I was able to see it even in the near darkness. "Get to your feet, young man," she ordered, grabbing my arm and pulling me up. "Stand up and answer me truthfully."
"Yes, Ma'am," I replied and then turned to help Julie to her feet as well. We frowned at each other in recognition of the serious trouble we were facing, not only from my grandmother, but very likely from Julie's folks as well. We'd apparently been asleep for quite some time, as it had been broad daylight when we'd gone up into the loft.
"I'm waiting for your explanation, Ben," Grandma reminded me impatiently, with a tug on my ear to get my attention.
"We fell asleep, Grandma. That's all."
"What were you doing up here in the first place? A proper young gentleman does not take a young lady into a hay loft."
"Don't be impertinent, Benton! You know the difference between right and wrong."
"Yes, Ma'am, I do -- "
"You haven't answered my question."
"What was the question again, Ma'am?"
"Why did you two come up here?"
Julie and I glanced at each other peripherally and then bowed our heads. I shrugged and said, "No special reason." I lowered my voice and added, knowing it would be wiser to resist such sarcasm, "I didn't know it was such a big crime."
"Go to the study, Ben," Grandma ordered brusquely. "I think perhaps I should deal with you in private."
"But, Grandma," I began to protest, certain that a public reprimand, although embarrassing, would be preferable to a private -- no doubt, harsher -- rebuke.
"I'll see Julie home. You will wait for me in the study."
But I refused to move. I stood my ground and looked my grandmother in the eyes. She didn't say anything; she just looked at me and waited for me to obey her command. Finally, I worked up the courage to speak. "I'm sorry for sassing you, Ma'am. May I please stay and explain what happened?"
Grandma looked at Julie and then back at me, still very severe in her expression. "All right. Go on, I'm listening."
"Thank you, Ma'am." I breathed deeply, then proceeded. "We just wanted to be alone for a while, away from everything and everyone else."
"Um..." I shuffled my feet anxiously in hesitation.
"Haven't I made it abundantly clear in the past that you are not to take Julie behind closed doors?"
"It's not what you're thinking, Grandma."
"Haven't I made that abundantly clear, Ben?"
"Then wouldn't you agree that bringing Julie up here was an act of disobedience?"
"I, um, I don't know, Grandma. I didn't think it was when I did it. I, um, we didn't think we were doing anything wrong."
"I see. So, you just came up here and laid there together and went to sleep?"
"We talked for a while first," I conceded.
"Uh huh. Anything else?" She paused to give me a chance to reply, but when I remained silent, she questioned me more specifically. "Did you kiss, perhaps?"
"Grandma!" Sometimes I could've sworn my grandmother took pleasure in embarrassing me. She did not respond to my exclamation and never took her eyes off me, those penetrating eyes that never let me get away with less than the truth.
It was on the tip of my tongue to admit that we had kissed, because, even if I did get in trouble for kissing Julie in the loft, confessing to that relatively minor infraction seemed the smartest move. After all, Grandma had seen us kiss before. Loving yet innocent kisses on the lips. I figured I would leave it to her to assume that the kisses we had shared in the hay loft had been those same innocent kisses. But, suddenly I realized I did not need to tell her about the kisses, nor about anything else we had done. I held an ace, and it was Grandma, herself, who had given it to me.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am, but that's between me and Julie," I stated confidently.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, um, that's between me and Julie."
"Ben, you're trying my patience. If you think you're too old to have to answer to me, you're going to find out otherwise."
"No, Ma'am, that's not it." I hesitated. As much as I knew I had the upper hand, I was reluctant to throw it in my grandmother's face.
"Then what is it?"
"Don't you want me to be a gentleman, Grandma?"
"I insist upon it. You know that, honey."
"Then I can't tell you what Julie and I, um...if Julie and I, um...kissed. You always said it was shameful for a gentleman to talk about his girlfriend, 'cause that's private stuff."
Grandma let out a breath and appeared to be holding back a smirk. "Hoist with my own petard, eh, Ben?"
"I didn't mean to be disrespectful, Ma'am."
"I believe I know what you meant to do." After a pause, which I'm certain was designed for no other purpose than to let me sweat for a while, she continued. "You're absolutely correct, sweetheart, and I'm pleased to see that you have retained what I've taught you..."
"...BUT," she continued with insistence, "I'm afraid I can't let this matter drop without some answers. Regardless of how grown-up you might think yourselves, you are not adults. I don't want to invade your privacy, but I'm responsible for you, honey. If you're wandering into dangerous territory, it's my job to know about it."
I scowled to find that my defense was not as foolproof as I'd hoped. "Does that mean you're gonna make me tell you, um, if we, um, kissed?"
Grandma paused as she watched me squirm, concern becoming even more apparent in her expression. "It means I want you to answer one question for me and I want the absolute truth."
"What question, Ma'am?" I asked, afraid to hear her answer.
"Did you engage in any behavior with Julie which is improper and unbecoming for a fifteen-year-old boy? You don't have to go into any detail, just answer 'yes' or 'no'."
I had to think before answering. *Improper and unbecoming according to whom?* I wondered to myself. I hadn't lured Julie into the loft and then had my wicked way with her. Everything that had happened had been consensual and, as far as I knew, perfectly normal for teenaged lovers. "No, Grandma, I didn't."
"Yes, Ma'am. Positive."
Grandma looked at Julie. "Would you like to say anything, dear?"
I held my breath. I knew Julie was no better at withholding the truth than I, so I waited anxiously to see how much she would divulge. Don't misunderstand. We hadn't made love in the full sense of the word. However, our kisses had been much more passionate and thorough than any Grandma had ever witnessed between us, and we had indulged our increasing mutual curiosity and desires by exploring each other in ways that we had only previously imagined.
"No, Mrs. Fraser," Julie answered. "Um, Ben said it all."
"But I'm sorry if we've angered you, Mrs. Fraser," she then added quickly, and I could see by the expression on her face that she was feeling as guilty as I.
"I'm not angry. But I don't want you two coming up here alone together again. Do you understand? Both of you?"
"Yes, Ma'am," we answered in unison, and after a few seconds I asked, "Don't you trust me, Grandma?"
"I'm trusting you to do as I ask."
"That's not what I meant, exactly."
"I know what you meant, honey. We'll talk about that later. Right now, we'd better get Julie home."
"May I take her home, Ma'am?"
"I'll accompany you." Grandma could tell that I was about to argue that I was old enough to see Julie home without a chaperone, so she held up her hand to keep me silent and explained her reasoning. "I may want to have a word with Julie's parents. They have been worried." Grandma turned to face Julie. "Your father was hoping to find you here when he stopped by earlier to drop off Ben's father."
"Dad's home?" I exclaimed, more in surprise than in either delight or dread.
"In a manner of speaking. He's come home for a few days, but at the moment he and Grandpa are out looking for the two of you."
"Oh. Is he angry?" I inquired tentatively.
"You'll have an opportunity to ask him that yourself when he gets home."
I nodded in understanding, but was not very happy with her answer. She knew I hated to anger my dad, yet she was letting me stew in uncertainty. Grandma always managed to come up with some very effective punishments.
"All right. Let's get cracking, kids," she said as she made her way to the ladder and started down. "You owe the Frobishers an explanation without delay."
And she made us tell them the whole sordid story. Well, as much as we'd told Grandma.
We laughed together at the memory of that long-ago night until we realized we had relaxed during our trip to the past and were reclining beside each other on the narrow bed, leaning against the headboard, Julie's head cradled upon my shoulder. I coughed nervously and Julie lifted her head and moved over slightly so that she was beside me, rather than on me.
"It's a good thing your grandmother was there to convince my mother that you hadn't...that we hadn't...that if you said nothing happened, nothing happened. Otherwise, I'd probably still be confined to my room." Julie smiled as she spoke, and I couldn't help but smile back.
"Funny thing, though. As much as Grandma said she believed me, I still got a good lecturing from her once we got back home. And she made Dad give me the, um, 'birds and the bees' talk again. That was rather, er, uncomfortable."
"For you or your dad?"
"For both of us." I smiled, then Julie and I chuckled aloud.
"Did she ever know...about us? After we did, uh..." She didn't have to finish the sentence.
"No. I don't think so. I'm still alive, aren't I?" I grinned at her and she smiled back. "Dad knew, though."
"You told your dad?"
"He guessed. Well, I kinda dropped some hints -- some big hints. It was, um...I needed to talk to him. Sorry."
"No, it's okay." She paused, then confessed, "My mum, uh, guessed, too."
A surge of fear ran through me. "She didn't tell your dad, did she?"
"No. No, I don't think so." She didn't seem too certain, but then she turned to me and grinned as she pointed out, "You're still alive, aren't you?"
"Hmm, good point," I agreed, laughing. Suddenly, I became quiet as I remembered my grandmother at rest in the neighboring room. "You know, I think the one thing my grandmother drilled into me more than anything else was the importance of honesty, total honesty."
"Yeah, I remember that about her."
"I never could get the hang of it, though," I struggled to whisper in spite of the lump that was growing in the back of my throat.
"I can't believe what I'm hearing," Julie exclaimed. "Ben Fraser couldn't lie if his life depended on it!"
"You can avoid telling a lie without being totally honest. Look at that night in the loft. My grandmother believed me when I told her we didn't do anything improper."
"Aw, come on, Julie. We both know, we both knew at the time that she would've considered our behavior improper. We weren't...I wasn't honest with her."
"You're not really fretting about that now, are you? After all these years? We were kids, Ben. Kids avoid total honesty if they think it'll get them in trouble. Heck, so do adults!"
"It's not just that." I turned to face away from Julie because I was weeping.
"What is it, then? What's really bothering you?"
"Nothing." I blinked several times to disperse my tears, then turned to look at Julie and forced a smile. "Forget it. I guess her death has just hit me rather hard. I'm fine. Really."
"Everybody has secrets, Ben." She raised her eyebrows at me and touched me tenderly on the arm. "You do know you can tell me anything, don't you? Absolutely anything. You can trust me, Ben."
"Yeah, I know. But I can't tell you something I'm not even ready to admit to myself yet."
"You've got nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about. Your grandmother raised a good man, a wonderful man. I've never known one better," Julie stated with a little shyness.
I forced an embarrassed smile in an effort to keep at bay the tears that were begging to be shed. Finally, I hung my head and whispered, "I was lucky to have her. And, um...I'm glad you're here." I didn't look up, but I was aware that Julie was sliding her way closer to me. When I felt her wrap her arms around me and pull me snugly against her, I gave in and returned her embrace, closing my eyes in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the tears and burying my face in the crook of her neck.
I awoke the next morning and felt the warmth of another body. Curiously, and with a little bit of fear, I opened my eyes. Julie was nestled against me in the small bed and my arm was wrapped around her, my hand innocently lingering within her bosom. We were both stripped to our underwear, yet nothing physical had passed between us that night. Well, nothing more than an affectionate kiss and the embrace we still held upon my waking.
Julie would always be my friend. A very special friend. I had once thought she might be my wife one day, but as I lay beside her all that night, I realized that dream had died. Perhaps that sounds like too strong a word -- died -- but that was exactly what had happened. My dreams had died months earlier when, after surviving a bitter storm, I had awakened to a new world.
A knock at the bedroom door startled me and I withdrew from Julie and lifted my upper body until I supported myself on my arm. "Yes?" I called out softly, trying not to wake Julie. She did stir, however, and woke slowly as the conversation continued.
"You awake, Son?" Dad asked through the closed door.
"Ha-ha, very funny."
"What do you want, Dad?" I saw Julie look up at me. "Sorry for waking you," I whispered to her.
She smiled, but didn't have time to answer before Dad shouted again. "Mrs. Frobisher is here, and others will be arriving soon. You coming?"
"Yeah, okay, Dad. We'll...I'll be right there."
"Is, er...is Julie up?" He cleared his throat. "Her mother was asking."
There was a moment of silence, then he finished with, "Okay. Well..." and then apparently went to tend to other matters.
It wasn't that I didn't want my dad to think Julie and I had... Nor that I wanted to give him the impression that we had. It was just that I figured it was none of his business either way. *But Buck!* I suddenly thought to myself. *What is he going to have to say?* "Sorry," I said to Julie, who still lay, nice and warm, cuddled beneath my partly upright body.
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"Do I? Sorry."
"Ben!" she laughed and lifted her head until she was able to reach me and plant a kiss on my cheek. "Good morning."
"Good morning," I answered, rather distractedly.
"What's wrong, Ben?"
"Your father," I stated.
"What about him?"
"He's, um, what's he gonna say about, um...I mean, he must know we slept together I mean that we, er, that we're, um, in here...together."
"Yeah, well he didn't storm the room last night, so, either he's okay with it, or he's waiting outside the door to shoot you down as soon as you leave the room." She was joking, of course, but the situation seemed a little more serious to me.
"Look, Ben, we're adults, not fifteen-year-old kids. We can sleep anywhere, and with anyone, we choose."
"Well, yeah, but..."
"Does your dad rule your life?"
"No. No, of course not."
"Neither does mine. I've been on my own since going away to school. I can live my life the way I want to. Besides, all we did last night was hold each other and sleep."
"I know, but he might think, you know, that we did more than that."
"So what? What do you think your dad thinks?"
"I don't care what he thinks."
"Then why do you care what my dad thinks?"
I grinned to try to hide the blush on my face. "I guess I don't."
"Good." She kissed me again and my cheeks reddened even deeper. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes. Did you?"
"Yes, very well, thank you."
"I was afraid maybe I was crowding you. The bed's not very wide."
"Oh, is that why you keep apologizing?"
"Well, no, not specifically. Unless you think..."
"Ben, you weren't crowding me! And you didn't wake me up."
"Oh, my dad did, huh?"
"No." She propped herself up on her side to face me. "I've been awake for a while. I, um, didn't want to disturb you, so I just laid here. Sorry," she mockingly returned my apology.
"It's okay. I guess we were both doing the same thing."
"I guess so," she agreed.
"Julie..." I had a question for her, but I didn't want her to get the wrong idea.
"Are you enjoying, you know, living your own life?"
"Sure." I guess she could tell I had something specific on my mind because she then asked, "What is it, Ben?"
"What do you really want to know?"
"Nothing. I was just thinking about what you said before."
"What did I say?"
"That we can do what we want, sleep anywhere we want."
"Nothing. I was just thinking about it."
Julie took my hand in hers and I looked at her to see her smile. "Are you trying to ask if I, um, have a boyfriend?"
"No, no, that's none of my business."
"Why not? We're friends, aren't we?"
"One friend can ask another friend if she has a boyfriend." She wouldn't just answer the question. She was going to make me ask it.
"Okay. Do you?"
She squeezed my hand harder and looked away from my face. After a pensive pause, she said, "His name is Bruce. He wants me to marry him."
"Wow. Good. That's good. I'm happy for you. He must really love you."
"That's what he says."
"Are you...going to marry him?"
"I don't know. I'm not sure I'm....I don't know yet. We haven't known each other very long. Not like....well, not very long."
"How about you, Ben? Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Oh, um, no, no. Not, um, not at the present time."
"Too busy being a Mountie?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
A silence became uncomfortable for me as I grew increasingly aware of her flesh in contact with mine underneath the blankets. Yes, our bodies had been in contact all night long, and I'd thought I could handle it, but suddenly I wasn't so sure. I'd lost my grandmother. Julie was my last link to the life I had known. I didn't want to let her go, although I felt I had to. "Maybe we should get up, now that we're both awake," I suggested.
Without saying anything, Julie quickly slipped out of bed and into her robe, and I feared I had interrupted our morning too abruptly. "May I use your bathroom to freshen up, or do you want to use it first?" she asked.
"No, no, you go ahead, Julie. I'll, um, wait till you're done." After she left the room, I lay back down and enjoyed the warmth of the sheets between which she had slept.
Julie and I barely spoke the rest of that day. I was afraid I had offended her, but, not knowing precisely how, I was at a loss to fix it, so I remained aloof, leaving it up to her to approach me. But she didn't. Oh, we shared a few words. You know, social conversation. Words of comfort at the funeral. But none of the intimacy we had known since childhood. My heart ached as it felt this loss, but in an odd way, I also felt it was necessary to let her go. Just as I had been forced to let my grandmother go. And my grandfather. And my mother. There was still Dad, but I had been letting him go again and again my whole life. I reckoned my father was one thing I was an expert at letting go. Until each time he reappeared and I wondered how I would ever survive his inevitable disappearance.
"Well, that's over, then," Dad broke my reverie as he sat next to me on the sofa after the last of the mourners had left. He looked straight ahead, his face set in what can only be described as an absence of expression, and one hand slapped upon each thigh. He hadn't asked a question, but I sensed he needed a response from me.
"Yes." What else was there to say?
"It's been a long day. I guess I'll go to bed." But he didn't get up or even make a move.
"Okay." I paused, but he still did not get up. "You take my room, Dad. I don't mind sleeping in...the other room."
"Thanks, Son." He blinked rapidly a few times, then massaged his eyes and temples as if to relieve stress.
"Are you okay, Dad?"
"Uh huh. Tired. You know. Nothing a good night's sleep won't cure."
"Are you, you know, gonna be all right?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. I'll, um, be pretty busy, you know, at work."
"Understood." He turned his head to look at me and my heart almost broke when I read his soul in his eyes. "Nothing like the life of a Mountie, eh, Son?"
"No, Dad," I agreed, with an ironic smile. "Nothing like it."