“How are you feeling, sweetheart?”
The gentle caress of my mother’s tone crept beneath my covers, offering me the comfort I so badly longed for.
“I still feel sick,” I told her, keeping my face hidden. “And my head hurts.”
Sarah Parker had a lot to answer for. Her younger brother, Jamie, was in primary school and had contracted the mother of all sickness bugs. Of course, this led to a pandemic of sorts. Almost every student in year nine was struck down and currently producing fluids from both ends. Bloody Sarah!
“Oh, my poor baby. Come here.”
Mum forced the covers from my face and climbed into bed with me, all regard for her own health long gone.
“You’ll get ill too,” I protested, turning away from her.
“I couldn’t care less,” she smiled, bringing me closer to her perfumed chest.
She smelled like peaches.
“A mother’s need to look after her poorly children is far greater than her need to keep away.” She paused, brushing hair from my sweating face. “If I catch anything, we can be ill together. Then your dad will have to look after us.”
Her smile was insufferable and full of such joy.
“I love you,” I told her, curling into her neck like the needy thirteen-year-old I was.
Her response came in the form of kisses across my head.
“I love you too, my beautiful girl.”
The distant memory played on an endless loop in my mind, mocking me as I refused to leave the safety of Dad’s spare bed. Seconds turned into minutes and all I could do was stare up at the ceiling with nothing but my depressing thoughts to keep me company. The situation with Mum had still yet to fully settle in. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and barely had the energy to engage in conversation. I felt incapable of expressing my true emotions because what I was experiencing was so indescribable. I went from being calm and collective one minute, to enraged and frustrated the next. It wasn’t ideal and certainly not pleasant.
“Jessica? Petal, can I come in?”
Dad stuck his head around the door, awaiting some form of approval before entering.
My voice shuck, much like the rest of my trembling body.
“I made you some tea. Your body needs substance.”
I willed my muscles to move and managed to sit up by resting back on both elbows. An old T-shirt of mine pulled across my chest, belonging firmly in the past with its frail stitching and faded print work. Still, the smell of it took me back to a simpler time and I soon found myself taking comfort from the familiarity of it all.
I chose to let the liquid cool for a while, burdened by the idea of having to force feed myself nutrients.
“How did you sleep?” asked Dad, seating himself at the foot of the bed.
He attempted a smile.
“Fine.” Lie. “I might go for a walk this morning before I head back home. I’ll need to get ready for work tomorrow.”
Dad cringed at my mention of going back to work so early on but decided against offering his thoughts. He knew his efforts would be fruitless.
“Sounds nice. The fresh air will do you the world of good.”
He stared at the beige wall opposite, settling his gaze on a painting Sam had conjured up for his GCSE art exam. It was a landscape drawing of a garden, spewing colours of reds, greens and blues. Simple, yet effective.
“He’s not coping,” he whispered, growing concerned. “I’m worried about him.”
I shuffled uncomfortably. “I know.”
“I have Bethany keeping me updated.”
“He’s closing himself off. Adamant in suffering alone.”
“Stubborn arse!” I accused, slyly smirking his way.
We both let slip a weak laugh, though it didn’t go beyond that.
“We’ll keep an eye on him,” I offered, desperate to ease his anxiety. “He has to deal with things his way. We all do.”
“And you? Are you sure going back to work is the right thing to do?”
I knew he wouldn’t hold out for long.
“I’m sure. If I stay at home for the rest of the week, I’ll drive myself mad. I need the distraction.”
He nodded, seemingly in agreement. For now.
“Then I’ll respect your wishes.”
With that, he went to leave but suddenly stopped by the open door. “I’m incredibly proud of you, petal. I know it must feel like you’re healing two broken hearts right now but all will right itself in the end.”
I said nothing in response and simply stared at him.
“Spencer is a good man and for the record, I think what you’re both doing is extremely brave. Not many people would have the strength to do it.”
“Do you think it’ll work?” I asked, desperate for some positivity. “I have to believe it will but I’m terrified it won’t. I’m scared I’ve already lost him.”
He offered up a scoff, outraged at such a suggestion.
“You could never lose him, Jessica.”
I wished I could believe it.
“That man would walk hell on earth for you. You’ll do right to never forget it.”
If only such a declaration could offer me some peace of mind. I didn’t question Spencer’s love for me. I just feared it wasn’t enough in the outcome of him losing Leila. Would he blame me? I blamed me. I hated how I had done this to him, to us. I hated that we were forced apart because of something I did. I’d give my life to fix this mess and although in the depths of grief, I couldn’t lose sight of the end goal. I had work to do and bringing Alister Branning down was top of my list.
But first, I needed to come to terms with my loss.
I walked for what felt like hours before eventually stopping at a park bench. Immediately, I took refuge on the tattered, old seat and pulled out my phone, in need of addressing a certain situation.
“Hey, is Sam around?”
For a while, silence was my only answer.
“I’ll just put him on.”
As I waited, I took in the glorious sights around me, enjoying the crisp air, however brutal it was. A pond sat to my right, housing a few ducks in search of some food and next to it, another bench similar to the one I was occupying. Most of the surrounding flowers had yet to bloom and the trees were stripped bare of their leaves, but that didn’t matter. Nothing could deter this beauty.
“Hi loser.” I smiled, happy to hear his voice. “You okay?”
A sigh followed.
“Don’t lie,” I pleaded, kicking a stone in between each shoe. “It’s me you’re talking to.”
“Sorry. I just don’t know what to say.”
“Say what you want. Lord knows you’ve been there for me in the past.”
I thought back over the years and uncomfortably shuffled in my seated position. Sam had been nothing short of a saint when I was going through my difficult stage and not once did he express displeasure when picking me up from rock bottom.
“I’m angry,” he admitted, lowering his tone. “Everything that was great about this world has suddenly turned to shit and I don’t know what to do.”
“I understand,” I replied, snuggling further into my coat. “Do you feel like you’re suffocating?”
“Yet, in a strange way you don’t want it to stop. Because if it does, it becomes too real.”
“Exactly,” he expressed, sounding sad. “Beth has been great. She’s barely left my side.”
“She’s a keeper,” I laughed, struggling to imagine my brother with anyone else.
She had captured his heart long ago and with it, his fear of commitment.
“I’m gonna marry her, Jessie.”
“Is that so?” I asked, shielding myself from an unexpected gust of wind.
“Yeah. It occurred to me last night. She stayed up with me when I couldn’t sleep because she didn’t want me to be alone. She said my happiness is her happiness.”
At that, I smiled.
“It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?” he questioned. “To love and be loved.”
“Do you get him to hurt you?” he asked, suddenly speaking. “Spencer?”
“Sometimes,” I answered, offering him honesty.
There was rustling at the other end.
“But you like it? And consent to it?”
His concern was to be expected, though why he was suddenly bringing this up was baffling.
“One hundred percent,” I ensured, catching sight of an oncoming jogger.
Her legs were as lean as the day was long and certainly put my figure to shame. I never was one for exercise but envied her will power. She ran like nobody was watching and I longed for such freedom.
“You’re not worried about me, are you?” I enquired, focusing my mind back towards our conversation. “About what Karen said.”
“Not worried. More curious.”
“It’s BDSM, Sam. He’s my dominant and I submit to him.”
“Why not?” I responded, unable to directly answer that.
In all honesty, I hadn’t the slightest idea why I was the way I was.
“I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just…different,” he explained, doing his best to tread lightly. “And I think it’s great that you’ve found someone you can share those differences with.” Another stretch of silence settled between us, welcoming as ever. “You miss him, don’t you?”
“Terribly,” I revealed, ignoring the ache in my chest.
“I could call him for you if that’s what you want? Explain what’s happened.”
“No, thank you. I still think it’s for the best that he doesn’t know. I can’t be selfish right now. I have to think of Leila and what’s right for her.”
“I understand,” he insisted, offering up a sigh. “You at Dads?”
“For now. I’m coming back to London later. I have work tomorrow.”
Once again, I gazed over at the ducks, transfixed by their movements. One looked to have a limp and struggled to keep up with the others. Not that this bothered him. The thing had sheer will and stopped at nothing to get to his intended destination. I smiled, reminded of Spencer. He rivalled that duck’s determination even with certain limitations.
I laughed. Did I really just refer to my boyfriend as a fucking duck?
“Will you sleep over tonight?” asked Sam. “I need you.”
I suspected his invitation was for his own benefit as much as it was mine but agreed to it nevertheless.
“I’ll go home first and pick up a few things.”
“Thanks,” he whispered, genuinely grateful. “Text me when you’re on your way.”
After promising him I would, we both hung up, ending what I felt was a necessary conversation. I allowed myself a moment to enjoy my surrounding sights, taking great satisfaction from the calmness it had to offer. Closing my eyes, I imagined Mum sitting next to me, feeling her presence with my imagination.
“I don’t understand why this happened to us?” I said, ignorant to anyone who may have been passing by. “We’re good people. Why did it have to be our family?”
I waited for an answer but of course, nothing came. No unexpected gust of wind, no appearance of a reincarnated version of my mother taking form as a bird. Nothing. I was expected to carry on as though I wasn’t confused. Hurt. Heartbroken. I didn’t blame Sam for his anger. Long ago, I was consumed by it myself. In fact, that very emotion was what led me to act the way I did. I sought comfort in the form of intimacy but it wasn’t right. Anger had the potential to ruin a person and I just hoped Bethany was strong enough to pull Sam away from the wreckage. He wasn’t angry by nature but grief was a wicked thing. It could change a person in an instant with no regard for their wellbeing. I worried about him the most and knew Dad did too. Sam was a proud man and would rather suffer in silence than admit to needing help. It was his biggest flaw.
Aside from that, he was strong, kind and had the ability to make anyone smile. He was my best friend and had been since we were babies. His protective nature always kicked in around me and I owed it to him to return that favour now. I may have been younger but that meant nothing when faced with a family dilemma such as this. He’d been there for me during Charlotte’s death and together, we grieved. Me, for my daughter and him for his niece. Now was no different. We mourned our mother. Ripped from our lives in an instant, we had only Dad and each other to rely on. Sure, Bethany was his rock but I was his outlet. I understood his anger because I was experiencing it too. Together, we would cry, kick and scream our way through this loss and would no doubt come out the other end, ready and raring to go. As long as we had each other, we would be fine.
Family is everything.