She stared at her food. It probably looked delicious. She just didn’t feel it. Didn’t care. Didn’t want any.
It was just substance. Matter on a plate.
Something was wrong. Her sister had something to tell her – something bad. The hollowness in her stomach had nothing to do with hunger. She knew she ought to eat, but not right now. First, she had to know.
“What are you waiting for?” Paivi sat down in her chair again. She waved at Toini’s plate. “Eat. It’s getting cold.”
Toini stared at her. She looked down at her food and back up at her sister again. She poked at one of the meatballs with the fork. Still steaming, glistening with grease, and resting in a pool of brown sauce.
Paivi reached for her pint and drank deep. “You got your lingonberry jam – like you asked for.”
Toini pushed her fork into the meatball. “What’s up with mum?”
Her sister stared into the fire. Lips pressed together. Face pale.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?”
Paivi nodded. “Overdose. Four years ago.”
“Oh…” Toini’s heart sank. The hollow in her stomach grew deeper. “I’m so sorry Paivi.”
“It’s in the past now.” Paivi sighed. “Sorry won’t change that.”
Toini winced. Those were her words. Sorry never changed anything. She’d said the same so many times. You learned and you made better. It’s what she told the members of her crew when they messed up.
Life went on, and you’d better go with it.
“No. You’re right. I’m…” Toini stopped herself and sighed – wouldn’t change anything. “I guess it was to be expected.”
She should have seen it coming. Would have – if she’d thought about it. Only she hadn’t, and now it was too late.
Paivi’s eyes never left the flames, and after a while she nodded. “She did well for a bit. Snapped out of it for a few years after you died, but then she started slipping again.”
Keeping herself still, Toini waited. Said nothing. Gave a slow nod.
“I don’t know what happened.” Paivi shrugged. Brought her beer to her lips and then lowered it again without drinking. “I guess I was too busy or something. Didn’t keep in touch.”
The words stabbed into Toini. She too had been to busy. She too hadn’t kept in touch.
Her jaws tensed. She pressed her eyes shut. If she’d been here she could have done something. She could have helped her sister, supported her mother, made a difference – done something. Anything.
She’d told her sister she’d been busy.
“After you…” Paivi stopped herself and cleared her throat. “We were good for a while. Spoke on the phone every week. Had coffee. That kind of thing.” She sniffled, and rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. “She even had a job.”
Paivi turned to look at her. For a moment, her eyes met Toini’s, and then she looked away again, back into the dancing flames. Eventually, she nodded, sipped her beer, and nodded again.
Lowering her gaze, Toini stared down at her hands. She still held on to the fork – one little meatball speared on it, dripping sauce down on the plate. She should eat it. It’s what it was there for. You shouldn’t waste food.
She still hadn’t touched her beer. Paivi was almost done with hers. Better eat first.
Put food in mouth. Chew. Swallow. Repeat.
At first, she had to force herself, but after a few bites it got easier. Meatballs and potatoes. Brown sauce and lingonberry jam. Memories.
The local Penny Dinner had served this every Sunday, and they probably still did. Sometimes mom would come with them, but most of the time it had just been her and Paivi. The old matron always used to sneak them an extra apple for dessert.
Then later, they’d learned to cook it themselves, not that it was difficult, but still. Toini peeled the potatoes. Paivi rolled the meatballs. Sometimes they even had mushrooms for the sauce.
The food of youth and childhood. A different time, and a different life.
She hadn’t planned to go see her mother. Hadn’t even thought about it. It stung a little, but she pushed those thoughts away. It was in the past now, and you shouldn’t let regrets gnaw on you.
Her mother’s life had been one of pain and confusion, anger and frustration. She’d gone to join her gods now, whoever they were – probably Telos. She’d be at peace. At last.
Toini sighed and chomped down on a potato. She’d grieve later. Tomorrow, or the day after, she’d go down to the cathedral and pay her respects to her memories. It wasn’t her way, or Ek’s, but it’s what you did up here, and she’d feel bad if she didn’t. Tradition.
Her sister would probably come along too.
– – –
Flames flicker in a fireplace. Candles burn in empty bottles. A trusty old rock song rolls through a pub, and in the corner by the bar, two old men talk about whatever old men talk about when they’ve known each other longer than either of them cares to remember.
A paladin and her sister sit in silence. Unmoving. Alone together with their memories. Reliving days long gone.
Outside, in an empty street, a rain still falls.
– – –
Toini tore her eyes away from the fire. Brought her thoughts back to the present. She took a sip of her beer, and filled up her plate with a second helping. Raoul had brought a lot.
She took another swig from the pint. Lager. Plain and reassuring. Friendly, but a bit dull. The kind she’d drunk to oblivion as a teenager.
“What about dad?” She grabbed her knife and fork and made to attack her plate again. “Is he still around?”
Her sister took a deep breath, shrugged, and pulled herself up. “He’s in jail.”
“Again?” Toini groaned, and she rolled her eyes. Big surprise there. Not. “What did he do this time?”
Paivi stared down into the empty glass in her hand. “Murder.” She paused, took another deep breath, and turned her head away. Stared into the fire again. “Got drunk. Killed his girlfriend and her kid.”
Toini couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. She stared at her sister. Stared until her eyes hurt. Blood ran cold. Heart stopped beating. Stared. It couldn’t be. It mustn’t.
And yet it was.
Her sister told no lie. Their father was a murderer – a killer of innocents.
Something clattered against the floor. Toini gasped and jerked her head up, looked around, and then down. Her knife and fork lay between her feet. She stared at her hands. Flexed her fingers just to see them move.
Her father was a murderer.
She had killed more people than she could count, but none of them had been innocent. None of them had been a child. She was a paladin. He was not. When she took someone’s life, it was by divine right – by the will of her god. He did not have that right.
Life was sacred. You did not kill innocents.
Toini grasped for words, but found none. Her head spun and her thoughts ran in circles. Her mouth opened and closed. Opened, and closed.
Paivi swallowed. “Beat them to death with a frying pan.”
Bile rose in Toini’s throat. Her stomach roiled. She put her hands against the edge of the table to keep from toppling over. Blood. Murder.
Images flashed in front of her. She knew her father. She’d seen him angry. Had hid from him – under the bed, in the wardrobe, behind the shed in the back yard. They used to wait behind the fence across the street, she and her sister, until he left, or until mom turned off the bedroom lights.
Paivi set down her glass on the table. “Kid was five.”
Toini clasped her hand over her mouth. She tasted vomit. Taking long deep breaths she forced herself to calm down. Five years old.
“I’m so sorry Paivi. I didn’t realize. I didn’t know. I…”
So what if sorry didn’t change anything? She still was. Sad and upset and revolted and horrified. That also didn’t change anything, but she was that too.
“Yeah.” Paivi nodded, her face grim. “It’s been pretty shit up here.”
“Yes. I realize…” Toini swallowed and reached for her beer. Her mouth still tasted like bile. ”I realize now. I thought you’d be safe.”
Perhaps it would have been better if she’d said something, kept in touch somehow. She could have sent a card – anything. It would have been a risk, but perhaps it would have helped, even just a little. She’d do better now. She’d figure something out.
“I get by.” Paivi shrugged, and a wry smile tugged at her lips. “Life goes on.”
“It does…” Toini nodded. That was something else she used to tell her crew. “Better go with it.”
“Eat your food.”