It was time. Ember knew that it was time. It was the night of the fortieth anniversary when she had dug up the time capsule left for her. It was her turn to repeat the tradition.
It was time for her to gather up the things that she wanted her great-granddaughter to remember her by. Time to put together the little pieces of history that would help the girl learn who her family had been, where they had come from, how they had loved her before she had even been born.
The first thing into the capsule was a little doll that her mother had gotten her from a craft fair one day, hand made in what was now-a-days considered a ‘classic’ style. It was one of the only truly happy memories she had of her mother, a treasured time of perfect happiness that she shared in the letter she included next to it. She whispered a wish into the cool, crisp twilight air that the person who she was sending this to would know how much Ember loved her to give this memory away.
Letters were the next thing to go in, ones from other family members. All of them had chosen to write something inspirational or kind eventually, even if some had taken longer than others to decide to do so. Ember had made sure that everyone was included here. The person this capsule was for deserved nothing less.
Little knickknack’s came after that, from Ember and her family both. Things that they had imagined a child might like. Ember paused in her packing to study a particularly silly soapstone figure of a frog making a shocked face. She hoped that it made the person she was sending this to smile.
“I’m sure she’ll love it. Everything looks so great, Ember!” Ember’s best friend exclaimed from her side suddenly, ending the quiet that had previously cloaked the back yard.
Having known Alice since her childhood, Ember was far too used to her friend doing this sort of thing to jump, but it was a near thing. She felt comforted by her friend’s presence- and yet, at the same time, torn apart. Even though she’d been expecting this, expecting her, having her here was something that Ember had been dreading.
She looked up instead of jumping to see Alice standing beside her, next to the box that contained the items Ember was packing away into the capsule.
“Do you remember when we got it?” Ember asked softly.
“Yeah.” Alice confirmed with a laugh, “At that little novelty shop we stopped by years ago. You tried to give it to Claire as a reward for winning her spelling bee and she looked at you like you were insane and asked for an Apple giftcard instead!”
“She’s always been a character.” Ember agreed with laughter of her own, before quieting herself as she asked , “Do you really think my great-granddaughter will like it?”
“I know so. It will be the thing that she treasures most, besides the doll. They’ll both mean quite a bit to her. I'm sure of it.” Alice said cheerfully, smiling a smile at Ember that bit with its familiarity and the knowledge that soon it would be lost.
"I hope you're right." Ember put the figure into the capsule, and then paused at the lone item that was left. She looked down at the little folded bit of paper she’d been hesitating to touch, running one finger gently over the red origami swan waiting patiently in the box. Made from some sort of shiny red paper with no visible wear or tear to it at all, it looked as though it could have been folded yesterday.
But it hadn’t been.
It really, truly hadn’t been.
“I think that you’re going to be what she treasures most. You were for me.” Ember murmured in a subdued voice, her throat closing up with the emotion that swamped her and threatened to do away with her composure entirely.
As her strength deserted her and she slumped forward, Alice sighed deeply and stepped close, gathering Ember up into her arms. Feeling small, feeling like she was just a child again, Ember turned to bury her face in her best friend’s chest. She could hear her friend’s heart beating, hear it pulsing blood through her friend’s veins. But it wasn't real. It was just an illusion. It had always been an illusion.
Alice’s heart had stopped beating centuries ago.
“Oh, Ember, sweetheart, you knew it was always going to be this way. You knew it from the day that you turned ten and dug up your great-grandmother’s time capsule. The day that we met for the very first time and I told you-“
Ember cut Alice off, “Forty years awake, forty years asleep. Yes, I remembered. I just- I just didn’t realize that forty years could pass by so fast.”
Alice had been Ember’s rock ever since her childhood. When Ember’s parents fought, Alice was there to comfort her. When Ember had a difficult choice to make, Alice was there to advise her. She had never let Ember down, never steered her wrong. Not once.
And now Ember was going to lose her.
Ember was going to lose her no matter what either of them did.
Ember cried then, she cried long and hard and sobbing. It was an ugly cry, one that felt like it was being wrenched out of her chest even as she tried desperately to stop herself. These were going to be her last few moments with Alice. She didn’t want to spend them like this.
But when she managed to look up at her best friend through her tears, she saw that Alice was crying, too. It wasn't only Ember, then, that found this parting to be impossible to bare.
“I wish- I wish you could have gone to my daughter. Even if I wouldn’t have been able to see you any longer. I wish I could know that you’re going to be safe.” She confessed desperately through her sobs.
“That’s not the way it works.” Alice said softly, continuing to rock Ember gently in her arms, “You know that I would if I could. But I have to go back to sleep now, darling.”
“I know.” Ember gasped hopelessly, “I know.”
Swallowing harshly, shaking as she pulled away and desperately wishing she didn’t have to, Ember allowed herself to take one last, long look at her ancestor’s face. The ancestor that had cast the magic that allowed her to guard over her family for the rest of time- even if only for certain generations. The ancestor that had done such a good job of looking after Ember for the past four decades. The ancestor that could no longer do so now.
She looked, and she carved into her memory the face of the woman who had been her best friend. The woman who had been more mother to her than her biological one had ever been. She took in every last detail, every imperfection, every beauty mark. And when she was done….
When she was done, she heaved in one last gasping breathe before gently gathering up the origami swan and placing it into the time capsule as if it were made of spun sugar instead of an indestructible paper. An indestructible paper that Alice had told her time and again to never try to destroy.
“Goodbye, Ember.” Alice’s voice sounded from behind her.
“Goodbye, Alice.” Ember replied in a voice that cracked with emotion.
She twisted shut the time capsule and watched as Alice disappeared from where she had been standing. When she was gone- when Ember could be sure that Alice was trapped in her forty years of sleep - Ember left the open hole she’d been standing in front of to walk around the house to her front yard. She stepped onto the driveway there, and walked to where her car was parked. She had a passing thought to be grateful that her husband was away on business, and her kids long since grown out of the house. There would be questions about her leaving at this time of night if any of them were here.
Once she reached her car Ember got in, starting it and driving to a building that was dark and locked up tight. That didn’t matter, though. Another one of Ember’s friends worked there, and he’d given her the keys to the building and instructions when Ember had begged.
Unlocking and pulling open the mortuary door, Ember walked the path to where the cremation chambers stood. It was chilly in here, but the cold didn't seem to touch her, resolved as she was to see this through. She paused for only a moment to peer into dark and unlit depths of the chambers before opening one of the heavily reinforced steel doors. She reached into her purse, pulling out the time capsule and placing it into the open chamber before her.
It was eerie to be here, still and quiet as it was. Even eerier considering what Ember intended to do. She had a mission, though, she reminded herself sternly, and she wouldn't give it up because this place was giving her the heebie-jeebies.
This would work. People may have tried to destroy the origami swan before her, but technology then hadn’t been what it is now. Now, technology was good enough to counter magic. Now, Ember would be able to set Alice free.
On a piece of paper she'd written the instructions her friend had given on how to start the process of cremation, and her heart leapt with joy as the chamber she had put the time capsule into fired up obediently. Racing over to peer closely into the machine through its window, Ember watched with a heart galloping in anticipation as she squinted past the bright flames to where the time capsule sat.
Through the bright flames, she was just barely able to make it out as the capsule and its contents melted and turned to ash. But something was wrong, and it wasn't hard to spot what. For some reason, and Ember suspected she knew why, it was far easier to watch the red origami swan than it was to see the rest of the capsule. To watch as the swan didn't burn.
Ember began to scream and writhe and burn instead of that folded piece of enchanted paper, and she wished that she had taken Alice’s advice to never try to destroy the swan.
As her body turned to dust, she felt the parts of her that made up her soul be drawn to somewhere else. Somewhere surrounded by burning flames. Somewhere red, and small, and made of paper.
She didn't know how, but she could still see as she was funneled into the swan. See the flames all around her as she was sucked in. See through the window of the chamber to the room beyond. There, standing where Ember once stood...