Original story: Habits of a Lifetime by dossier
Notes: With thanks to miss_zedem, crystalshard and donutsweeper for help.
Summary: When Meredith is four, she buys him a Big Chief tablet
When Meredith is four, she buys him a Big Chief tablet. She puts it on the table in the kitchen, its red cover a splash of life in the drab room. Meredith's father doesn't like bright colours, so everything is white and cream and brown, from the work surface to the cupboard doors to the carefully chosen clothes in her wardrobe. Later, she watches Meredith carefully write in the notebook, filling page after page after page, and she wants to read them all, to remember and hold onto them. Because things don't last, nothing ever lasts, and she doesn't want him to lose this. He seems to understand, because he gives her copies of everything, entrusting them to her. She will keep them safe for him.
When he has gone to school the next day, she goes to the hardware store. At home, she paints all the doors of the kitchen cupboards red. It looks better that way, she thinks.
When Meredith is six, his hands are always covered in blue ink, sometimes smeared across his face and neck as well. He no longer sits at the kitchen table to write, and although he gives her summaries now and then, she knows that their time is over. She takes the copies, still grateful for the little she can have from him, but he is growing so much, how can she hope to hang onto the boy he was? His father laughs when she tries to share her fears.
"So he's writing in his room? It's not the end of the world." He takes another mouthful of wine, washing down the portion of dinner that she saved for him. It's late. "Honestly, Sheila, he's only six."
But Meredith always showed her what he wrote. His father doesn't understand. Meredith is his own person now, writing away in secret, and she will never get him back. Later that night, she quietly gets out of bed and changes all the pictures round downstairs, swapping the black and white photographs for the brightest prints that she has saved up in the garage. Even so, she can't seem to get them in the right places, can't get the colors to really work, the correct formula always staying just beyond her reach.
When Meredith is eight, she brings him home a new baby sister. He spends an hour watching them, watching Jeannie wave her hands and open her eyes and kick her legs. He leaves when she needs to feed, goes to his room where his new typewriter sits and spends an hour banging on the keys. The noise makes her head hurt and Jeannie cry. When she yells at him for it, he watches her wide-eyed, just watching and listening as she shouts. Later, he brings her some copies of what he was typing, but she puts them on the nightstand, unread.
She paints Jeannie's hands blue and guides them to the wall. The prints will stay there for years, a memory of her daughter, aged four months and three days.
When Meredith is ten, she finds the typewriter under his bed, displaced by the gleaming machine her mother-in-law gave him. His room is always quiet now, and he's put a lock on it with the toolkit his father bought him for Christmas. He says it's to stop Jeannie getting in.
She puts a lock on Jeannie's door as well, to keep the room safe as she paints pink and purple stripes onto the walls.
When Meredith is thirteen, he plays computer games with his grandfather and he barely notices her unless she calls him for dinner or yells from the bottom of the stairs. She watches him shoot at the aliens, and sneaks into his room while he is occupied. It is neat and ordered, all his thoughts written down and kept, binder after binder along the shelf. She wants to pull them all out and read them, try to find the boy he was, to learn the man he's becoming. He won't become his father, with his career and his car and his secretary; he won't become her, with her house and her tears and her half-empty bed. There is no way of knowing what he will become, with his intelligence and his brilliance and his carefully locked room.
He comes home from school after the Valentine's dance, flushed and excited, and sits at the kitchen table for half an hour, telling her how good it was, and how good he was, and how he made the lights flash and dance and how impressed everyone was. She listens, pouring him a glass of milk, bringing him a sandwich as he talks and talks, the words as good as any he has ever put on paper for her. When he is finished, when his eyes are shining with pleasure and his smile is as broad as she's ever seen it, he tells her that he's decided he wants to be called Rodney now. He goes off to bed, leaving her with an empty glass and a plate of crumbs.
When Meredith is fifteen, he only comes down from his room long enough on Christmas day to eat his lunch and open his presents. It gives her some satisfaction to see the look on her mother's face, to see her understand what happened when he got his shining new computer. He takes the new printer upstairs as soon as he can, and she hears it whirring away when she goes up to the bathroom. In January, she makes him do chores to earn money for more paper. At least while he's taking out the garbage or washing the windows, he is hers again, he belongs to her and her house, for however short a time.
When Meredith is seventeen, his father takes him and Jeannie away for the weekend. The secretary has left, and he has come home, and he wants to spend more time with his family. He talks about redecorating, about new curtains and furniture and pictures and carpets. He talks about making things better, about going away and coming back to something new.
"Come on, Sheila," he says, trying to corner her in the kitchen. "It'll be good for us, for all of us."
She shakes her head and refuses to go and doesn't watch them drive away down the road. They don't understand, haven't appreciated all that she's done for their home through the years, all the way she's marked it and changed it and made it her own. The house is hers, it will always be hers. She won't let anyone else have it. She won't let him have it.
Meredith's folders have grown to fill half the wall space in his room. It takes her nearly forty minutes to pile them properly in the middle of his room, then another ten to stack Jeannie's books. She piles up the cushions in the lounge and in the bedroom, she puts the brown dresses that Meredith's father bought her and the red blouses she bought herself and hid from him on the bed. Then she drapes their duvet in its cream-white-cream cover over the heap and fetches the matches from the kitchen. It takes her three attempts before one lights, her hands are shaking so much.
She sits on their neatly trimmed lawn and watches the flames against the sky. They are red and yellow, beautiful and bright, making the sky glow and bathing her in golden light. There are sirens in the distance, but she can hardly hear them over the roar of the fire. The heat is incredible, far more than she'd expected. She wonders how long it will burn for.
When Sheila is forty-one, she sits at the plain white table in her plain white room and writes on the plain white paper that she has been given. She is only allowed a pencil for now, a mechanical one since they won't give her a sharpener. It writes what she is doing, what she is thinking, all in neatly rounded letters and carefully spaced lines. She will write it and keep it and save it, for when Meredith comes to visit.
When Sheila is fifty, she has a room full of papers that she won't let anyone touch. She tells the nurses they're waiting for her son to come and collect them.