Authors: K.A. Sterritt
By K.A. Sterritt
Copyright © 2014 by K.A. Sterritt
Edited by Vanessa Lanaway at Red Dot Scribble Editorial Services.
Cover designed by Scarlett Rugers Design
Formatting by Polgarus Studio
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or people, living or dead, is coincidental.
To my mum. I will love you forever.
I bit my lip, trying to contain my distress as she thrashed around on the bed, yelling incoherent thoughts. I wanted to be strong for her, but the tears were threatening and I was losing the battle to keep them at bay.
“I’m going to call the ambulance. It’s time.” With his head hung low, Dad left the room.
Time for what exactly? Time for her to die? Time to acknowledge we couldn’t do this anymore? Time to admit defeat? For the past few weeks it had been getting worse. It was like her mind had gone, leaving a frantic stranger in a frail and cancer-ridden body. I was scared of my own mother - the woman I loved more than anyone in the world. The woman who had loved, protected and raised me.
“I’m not ready, Mum.”
The tears escaped. I couldn’t reach her anymore and I worried that she would never listen to me again. And worse, that I would never hear her again. I couldn’t even remember her voice.
There’s something about the sound of ambulance sirens that makes you panic. It’s the sound of fear. And this time, the sirens were for someone I knew, so the fear had turned into a monstrous beast, taking over my body and threatening to swallow me whole.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I surprised myself by saying I’d go in the ambulance with Mum. I knew I should be with her. She needed me, and I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to say that.
The back of the ambulance was claustrophobic. Mum was lying on the gurney being hooked up to God knows what. The paramedic was trying his hardest to put an oxygen mask on her face but she kept batting it away. The more he persisted, the more violent she became. It might have been funny if it wasn’t so goddamn horrific.
“She doesn’t want it,” I said, stating the glaringly obvious. “Can you leave it off, please?” I knew the guy was just trying to do his job, but at this point, I just wanted her to be as peaceful as possible.
Arriving at the hospital, a nurse ushered me into a waiting room. Dad arrived soon after with my younger sisters, April and Jamie. At just eleven and six, they were oblivious to just how grim the situation was.
“How come Holly got to ride in the ambulance?” Jamie whined.
“Shut up!” April shouted. “Just get over it. You haven’t stopped whining the whole way here.”
Dad tried his best to put on a brave face, but I could see he was about to break. “We’ll be able to see your mum soon.”
Eventually they allowed us into the tiny, windowless room. I wish they hadn’t. It was intimidating at best. The smell of disinfectant and death made me want to cover my face. Mum was lying on the bed, hooked up to an array of wires and tubes. She was awake, but there was something different about her now. Looking back, I think it was that she had accepted her fate. The fight was over. My fierce, funny, beautiful mum was already gone.
April and Jamie clung to Dad and started to sob. Hugging them protectively to his side, his eyes darted around the room. He looked lost and distressed. He was biting his bottom lip so hard, I was sure he would draw blood. I needed to step up.
Rubbing my palms against my forehead, I moved slowly to Mum’s side. I couldn’t work out how I was supposed to say goodbye to her forever. I felt like my brain had shut down. I wanted to run away as fast as I could. Instead, I looked her in the eye and started to speak.
“Bye, Mum. I love you. I’m going to miss you so much,” I choked. “I promise to make you proud.”
Taking hold of her hand, I kissed her cheek. It felt like she squeezed my hand briefly, but that may have been wishful thinking. I glanced back at April and beckoned her over. She took a deep breath then edged forward. She looked terrified.
“Bye, Mum.” She gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, then rushed back to Dad, pale and distraught.
Jamie, crying hysterically, refused to go anywhere near the bed. Why was this happening to us?
I took the girls home, leaving Dad to be alone with Mum. My best friend Audrey called as soon as we got home wanting a full update. She loved my mum, and often referred to herself as the fourth Ashton daughter, having practically lived at our house since we were five years old. Audrey was more than a best friend; she was the sister I got to choose. Having to tell Audrey how sick she really was made it all too real. I ended the call quickly before the grief crushed me.
Lying in bed that night, I watched the hours on my bedside clock slowly tick by. The loneliness I felt, coupled with a bubbling anger deep in my gut, was overwhelming. I was too young to deal with this. I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t want to be strong enough. I was only fourteen.
, I corrected myself as the clock ticked past midnight.
As daylight started to filter through my blinds, I heard Dad’s car rumble down the driveway. I dragged myself out of bed and headed to the kitchen.
“Your mother is gone, Holly,” whispered my father. I felt my legs give way.
They were the words I had been dreading for months. I was mature for my age – watching your mother deteriorate will do that to a girl – but at that moment, I felt like a naive child. One who’d been hoping for a miracle.
“Her heart gave out early this morning. She couldn’t be revived,” he choked. “She’s not suffering anymore.”
I was only half listening. All I could think about was the last time I’d seen her.
Sitting on the kitchen floor with my face buried in my bent knees, I let the tears fall. I cried for the pain she’d suffered since her cancer returned a year ago. I cried for the enormous hole she was leaving in our family. I cried for the eternal grief my father was going to endure. I cried for April and Jamie, who barely knew her. But most of all, I cried because I was weak and I knew, from then on, I needed to be strong.
Happy birthday to me.
Ten years later
Happy birthday to me.
A quarter of a century? I felt old -
old. I heard the front door close. It was early for them to be going to work, but my flatmates Audrey and Zara knew to avoid me on my birthday. I had a date with the couch, the TV, a box of tissues and my favourite ice cream. Switching off my emotions usually wasn’t a problem – except on this one day of the year, when I allowed myself to open old wounds, feel everything and have my own personal meltdown. It was the one day of the year I grieved my own fate. My mother died of the same disease that claimed her mother, and her grandmother before that. I was a ticking time bomb.
Tomorrow I would go back to pretending to be the strong, independent woman everyone expected me to be.
Stepping out of the shower, my long dark hair dripping wet, I thought I heard the front door close again.
“Get dressed, Holly,” called a familiar male voice through the bathroom door.
“What are you doing here, Jason? Your spare key was only for emergencies.” Despite the protection of the closed door, I was shocked by the intrusion, and embarrassed by my nakedness.
an emergency. You have to come in to work today, and I knew you wouldn’t answer your phone. You’ll thank me, I promise.”
“Absolutely not. Go away!”
Wrapping a towel tightly around my body, I strode out of the bathroom, determined to get him the hell out of my apartment. There was nothing going on between us, but seeing him standing in my living room, his dark suit perfectly tailored to his broad shoulders, made me weak at the knees. And there you have it. I can’t be around anyone today. Emotional and needy have no business with me.
“Ready to go then?” he asked, laughing as he looked me up and down.
“Jason, this is my one day. I thought you of all people would understand.”
“Holly, I know this is a tough day for you but it’s been ten years. She would want you to take your seat at the adults’ table.” He stepped forward and hugged me. “Ryan Davenport flew in from London last night. He’s asked for the presentation to be brought forward to this afternoon.”
I breathed in his aftershave, resisting the urge to bury myself in his chest and hide from the world.
“Can’t you stand in for me?” I asked. “I’m sure Slater won’t mind. You know my design almost as well as I do.”
“If you’re not there, Eva will have the upper hand. We were both at the office early this morning when the call came through. She was obviously thrilled you wouldn’t be there. I asked Slater if I could come and get you.”
Eva “Bitch” McCormack was my arch rival. She played dirty and was constantly looking for ways to undermine me. We were the two youngest architects at the firm, but our design styles were as different as our appearance and personality. Her designs were all glitz and glamour, while I always strove for understated elegance and intelligent layout. Eva epitomised every man’s fantasy with her model figure, long caramel hair and piercing blue eyes. She wasn’t above flaunting her boobs, either, if it got her what she wanted.
Jason and I studied architecture together at the University of Sydney and both managed to secure coveted internships at Slater Jenkins. Eva started her internship at the same time, took an immediate dislike to me and spent all her time flirting with Jason. A few months ago, the three of us were asked to submit a design for the Davenport project. Jason’s workload was already unmanageable. He was working with another senior partner on the Hong Kong project so he had to pass up the opportunity.
I had to make a decision. Wallow in my own pity party or suck it up, face the world and take the opportunity. This was the one day of the year I allowed myself to be weak, but today I had no choice.
Breathe in, breathe out.
By sunset, it would be over for another year - I could do this.
One foot in front of the other.
I chose a simple, charcoal grey tunic dress over a white shirt and my favourite black boots. With my hair pulled back into a ponytail, I took a little more care than usual on my makeup. I couldn’t help noticing the sadness in my grey-green eyes as I stared at my reflection in the mirror. They were my mum’s eyes – doe eyes. Audrey always told me they were exotic and sexy. Today, they reminded me of the vacant stare I’d spent the last ten years trying to forget.
Breathe in, breathe out.
“You know you’ve ruined me for every other woman, don’t you?” moaned Jason as I emerged from my bedroom.
“Thanks Jase, but you don’t have to be nice to me today. I’m totally fine.”
“I’m not being nice. I’m being honest.” Considering my fragile emotional state, his sincerity was unsettling.
“Let’s get this over with,” I stated firmly. “Tonight I’ll need wine - a lot of wine.”
One of the many joys of inner-city living was being able to walk to work. Audrey, Zara and I lived in a three-bedroom luxury apartment overlooking Hyde Park on the south-eastern edge of the Sydney CBD. Zara’s dad had bought it for her when she graduated from law school. The rent we paid her was a fraction of what the market would have commanded.
Audrey and I met Zara during orientation week at university. Despite the fact that she was a disaster with directions, Audrey was confident she knew where we needed to be. The university campus could be very confusing and we had become completely lost. We stumbled upon Zara who had been equally disoriented, so the three of us worked out the map together. She was wild and crazy, yet kind and generous. The three of us spent almost all our free time together. Soon after classes started, Jason and I were paired for an assignment and our trio soon became a tight foursome.
Stepping outside, I was greeted by a gorgeous winter day – my favourite kind. Clear, blue sky with a cold breeze. Perfect skiing weather, I thought to myself. Mum loved to ski. I pulled my coat and scarf tighter around my body, shaking off the thought.
“Are you okay?” Jason asked, seeing my face scrunch up and my palm rubbing my forehead.
“Yep, fine. Just a bit nervous.”
He put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me in close.
“I need a coffee,” I said, eyeing the cafe at the bottom of our building.
“Okay. I’ll let Slater know you’re coming. See you up there.”