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The Sum of Contradictions: 23 Nine
By beurre blanc


Olivia sat staring quietly across the lake, the setting sun casting long shadows across the water. The Ramble's deepening green foliage was heavy with the scent of early spring blossoms; the calls of settling birds filled the stillness, children's distant laughter rose and fell, and a light breeze skated across the surface of the lake.

But Olivia noticed none of it. Focusing entirely on her left hand, she spread her fingers, allowing the bracelet to drape over the first three, and rolled her wrist slowly. She smiled for a moment at the glint of reflected sunset, marveled briefly that the links' polished surfaces had retained their shine after all these years, a testament more to the craftsmanship than to the care it had received. Olivia hesitated, then lifted the small golden bear with the thumb and forefinger of her other hand. She held it, the three tiny buttons just perceptible beneath the pad of her thumb – 'Yesterday – Today – Tomorrow', and unremarked tears traced their way down her cheeks.

"Happy birthday, honey." Serena handed her daughter a small package, a carefully-wrapped box with a fine scarlet ribbon tied around it. Olivia's eyes lit up. Too small for a record, could be movie tickets, maybe a Yankees pin.

"Thank you, Mom." She stood on tiptoe to kiss her mother's cheek, and accept a hug in return.

"Go ahead, baby. Open it." Mom, don't call me that! I'm not a baby!

"Ok, Ok." Movie tickets, movie tickets, movie tickets… She untied the ribbon and laid it on the kitchen counter beside her, then began to peel back the sticky tape, careful not to damage the paper.

"Come on, honey. Tear it open!" Olivia smiled at her mother's impatience, and deliberately took her time, her cheeky grin largely hidden by the mop of unruly hair, bangs over her eyes.

What emerged from the wrapping was entirely unexpected - a dark, velvet-covered box with a hinged lid. Olivia held her breath, and slowly opened the box. Inside, nestled in royal blue satin, lay a gold charm bracelet, and attached to it a single charm – a teddy bear with three ruby buttons. She gasped, and stared at her mother, stunned and delighted by the extravagance of the gift.

"His buttons, they stand for 'Yesterday – Today – Tomorrow'. Remember the past, embrace the future, and always make the most of now."

"Oh, Mom, this is so beautiful. Thank you." She closed the box carefully, and launched herself into her mother's arms, hugging for all she was worth, but never releasing her grip on the box and its precious contents.

"Happy Birthday, Olivia. I love you, honey, so much."

"I love you too, Mom. I'll always love you," she whispered, and at nine years old, she meant it.

A tear splashing onto her arm drew Olivia back to the present. She turned the bracelet again, recognizing the bittersweet irony with which it had come to symbolize all that was good in her childhood - and all that went wrong in her adolescence.

Serena Benson had purchased the charm bracelet just after her appointment with the University had been confirmed. Years of struggling to raise her daughter, working nights, studying to complete her degree, had finally paid off. Now that she could expect a regular paycheck she could also afford a few luxuries, and the first had been this. For Olivia, her ninth birthday signaled the beginning of the happiest period in her childhood. Her mother's new profession meant respect, and self-respect, for Serena. She kept regular hours, they ate regular meals, and every significant date or achievement was marked by the addition of another charm. By the time she was twelve, Olivia had seventeen charms, some with stones more precious than Teddy's rubies, and each imbued with a special meaning or the remembrance of a milestone event. It was clear to her now, in retrospect, that her mother's gifts had become increasingly extravagant, culminating in the purchase of a diamond-encrusted egg to commemorate Easter of 1980. That was the same year Olivia could remember having to telephone the University on behalf of her mother for the first time, declaring her to be too ill to teach her Tuesday morning Literature class. Too hung-over. The first time…

Her cell rang, startling her. She pulled it from her pocket, and glanced at the caller ID. Alex. Olivia took a deep breath, thumb poised over the answer button, and sniffed, trying to rid herself of the telltale signs of her tears. She hesitated, cleared her throat, sniffed again, then pressed.

"Hey, Alex."

"Hi, sweetie. Thought I'd check in and see if you've got time for dinner. You busy?"

"Ummm, no. Not really." She swallowed, trying to concentrate on the conversation, to ignore the distracting flow of the bracelet's chain across her palm. "Anywhere in particular?"

"Well, I could meet you at your place. Maybe we could get some takeout?"

"Yeah… Yes, that sounds good. I should be home by six."

Olivia caught sight a pair of hawks cavorting and wheeling, silhouettes against the last rays of the sun, and the silence stretched.

"Where are you, Liv?" Alex asked quietly. When there was no reply, she prompted, "Liv?"

Olivia swallowed, and rubbed her thumb across Teddy's tummy one last time, before her hand enclosed the bracelet in a tremulous, less-than-tender grip. "Yes, Alex?"

And then the gentle voice was behind her, and beside her, and the warm hand around her shoulder, on her cheek, turning her chin, was Alex's. Alex stared at Olivia, took in the desperate sadness the detective had had no time to hide, and asked again, "Where are you, Liv?"

The End

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