Over the next two weeks, I had one option: forget about the deal I’d made, write it off as ridiculous, and move on with my life. Even if I’d had any other choice, my mother’s health made sure that all of my attention was focused on her.
But James and Ava wouldn’t let me forget it. With each day that passed, they argued in hushed whispers across the lunch table, sometimes seeming to forget I was even there. James seemed determined to talk me out of it, pointing out how little I knew about Henry and how he had to be a few colors short of a rainbow to even think about inviting me to stay with him for half of the rest of my life. But for every flaw in the deal that James brought up, Ava countered. She defended Henry relentlessly, even though none of us knew anything about him, but it was easy enough to figure out why. Without Henry, she’d be dead; of course she felt some amount of loyalty toward him.
They dissected the myth, both borrowing heavily from it to give weight to their argument, and asked me repeatedly to tell them exactly what Henry had said, but there was only so much information I could give them. Part of me worried and counted the days with them, but most of me was too focused on my mother to care. The nightmares also continued, leaving me with only a few hours of sleep a night, but no one commented on the dark circles under my eyes. Eden was a small town, and they all knew about my mother.
A few days before the beginning of autumn, I came home to find her sitting in the middle of the weed-choked garden, and a knot of panic formed in my throat. Scrambling out of my car, I hurried to her side, kneeling next to her so I could get a good look at her face.
“Mom?” I said, my voice choked with worry. “You should be inside resting.” How did she even have the energy to do this? I glared at Sofia, who sat on the porch knitting.
Sofia shrugged. “She insisted.”
“I’m fine, slept all day,” said Mom, waving me away, but not before I could get a good look at her. Her skin was pale and paper-thin, but there was a spark in her eyes that hadn’t been there the past few weeks.
“Come on,” I said, taking her elbow gently and trying to guide her upward. She stubbornly remained sitting, and I was too afraid of hurting her to put much force behind it.
“Just another few minutes,” she said, looking up at me pleadingly. “I haven’t spent time outside in ages. The sun feels wonderful.”
I dropped back down to my knees. There was no point in arguing with her anymore. “Do you need any help?” I made a face at the tangled bed of weeds. How long had it been since anyone had tended to it?
Her expression brightened considerably at my offer. “I don’t need any, but I’d like some. Just start tugging.”
It was dirty work, but together we continued to weed out the small clearing she’d already managed to create. I didn’t want to think about how long she’d been out here. She didn’t have the energy to waste on this sort of thing, but when my mother set her mind to something, there was no talking her out of it.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” said Sofia from the porch, and she ambled inside, closing the door behind her and leaving us alone. I watched my mother out of the corner of my eye as I yanked out a weed that was nearly half as tall as I was. At the first sign of trouble, I was taking her inside.
But she hadn’t been this energized and lucid in days. I hadn’t told her about what had happened at the party, not wanting to worry her, but with the autumn equinox approaching and James and Ava at odds with each other, I found I wanted to tell her—if not the whole story, then at least something. I’d never kept anything like this from her before, and I wouldn’t have many more chances to talk to her about it.
“Mom?” I said hesitantly. “You know Eden Manor?”
“Of course.” The crease in the middle of her forehead deepened as she tugged at a particularly stubborn weed. “What about it?”
I gripped the base of the stem below her fist and helped. After we tugged together, it came loose with a shower of dirt.
“Does someone named Henry live there?”
She straightened, not bothering to try to hide her surprise. “Why do you ask?”
“Because.” I shifted uneasily on the grass, my knees already starting to ache. I knew I should have told her and that she’d want to know, but what if she tried to do something about it? What if I scared her, and it hurt her?
So I lied.
“Some kids at school were talking,” I said, unable to look at her as guilt gnawed at me. I never lied to her unless I had to. “I just wondered if you knew anything about him.”
Her shoulders slumped, and she reached forward to tuck a loose lock of long hair behind my ear. “If you insist on bringing up difficult subjects, can we at least talk about what’s going to happen when I die?”
I was on my feet in an instant, all thoughts of Henry flying out of my head. “It’s time to go inside.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I’ll go inside when you agree to talk to me.”
“I am talking to you,” I said. “Please, Mom. You’re going to make yourself worse.”
She smiled humorlessly. “I don’t see how. Are you going to talk to me about it or not?”
I closed my eyes, ignoring the sting of tears. This wasn’t fair. We still had to have some time left, right? She’d made it this far—surely she could make it a few more months. Christmas, I thought. Just one more Christmas together, and then I could accept saying goodbye. I’d made the same deal for the past four years, and so far, it’d worked.