The sun shone brightly through the window as the lithe woman tugged at the curtain yet again, her eyebrows furrowing in irritation as she blinked at the glare from the sun. She clenched the cotton between her fingers, pulling on it weakly before a man approached her, his blue eyes bright with laughter as he set the cup down at her right hand and pinched the curtain gingerly between two of his fingers.
“Let me,” his voice was too bright to be pleasant, she chortled to herself once the sun was out of her eyes. She plucked the teabag none-too-daintily out of the deep, dark brown liquid and set it down on the saucer. A small, sarcastic smile lit her lips as she noted the way the excess liquid from the bag stained the white ceramic, brown patches already drying on the slightly rough-textured plate.
Her pale lips met the rim of the mug as she took a slow sip of steaming tea, the tang of the bitter herbs that had been soaked in the usually-sweet liquid making her gag as she forced it down her throat. The hot liquid seemed to soothe the fire that had erupted in her oesophagus as she took a larger gulp from the mug, ignoring the scalding sensation that burned the inside of her mouth. Slowly, she moved a shaking hand to lift the thick book she’d brought with her.
She’d almost forgotten the last time she’d been so engrossed in a book, she mused to herself as she flipped a page before stopping to massage her temples. Well … it wasn’t like she’d been near a book for months now, had she? The yellowed pages curled slightly as she fingered the edge of the paper, hissing slightly as the paper sliced through the soft skin of her finger-pad. “Dammit …” the curse was hissed out as she pushed the finger between her lips, the soft, almost metallic taste of blood clashing with the herbal tea she’d been drinking in a way that made her want to expel both liquids from her body.
The slight commotion she’d created seemed to be ignored in the bustling café, she realised when she looked up, her cheeks burning a furious shade of red as she bit her lip. She put a hand on her chest to calm her racing heart as she took deep breaths through her nose. ‘Calm down,’ she told herself, forcing her breathing to regulate despite the fact that she was still panting from the slight rush she’d gotten from the cut.
“Are you alright, Miss?” the same bright-eyed teenager approached her, his expression darkening with concern as he put a gentle arm on her shoulder. “I … I’m fine,” she wheezed out, patches of colour appearing on her cheeks in embarrassment before she waved him away, assuring him with a weak smile as she pulled a bottle of tablets from her bag.
“Day one … failed,” she muttered as she picked two of the pale orange tablets from the bottle, glaring at them disgustedly before she popped them into her mouth, cringing at the bitter taste before washing them down with a mouthful of the tea that did little-to-nothing to help with the taste.
It rained the very next day.
She slipped through the glass doors and caught her breath for a mument before realising that she was in the wrong café. Shrugging slightly, she made her way to a small table, ignoring the well-decorated ones to sit at a small table that had been shoved against a window. Her eyes fell on the somewhat milder arrangements that adorner the table as she stared at the single lily that had been placed in the vase, small drops of liquid dripping from the white petals before splashing silently onto the cream-coloured table-cloth.
“Can I get you something?” there was a brunette beside her, she realised when she looked up. His voice was like music, not-too-soft, yet not-too-loud. There was a soft smile in his words that translated easily into the expression on his face as he looked expectantly down at her. “Tea, please, and no cream,” she said, forcibly making her words smooth as she fumbled for her bag almost desperately.
“Right,” he grinned, revealing slightly jagged teeth as he walked away, tapping the pen against his arm in a staccato rhythm.
Fifteen minutes later, he returned with the steaming mug, the liquid a barely a shade paler than the one she was used to, and a small jug of cream appearing on the table as she looked up confusedly at him.
“If you change your mind,” he winked gently as he walked away.
That had been a decade ago.
Leah coughed violently as she curled over the side of her bed, her dark hair falling into her face as she spat a mouthful of blood into the basin, her stomach flipping over at the sight of the thick, dark red liquid that stuck to the inside of her mouth as well as her lips. “Here,” there was a glass of warm, citrus-scented water that was pushed into one hand as a muscular arm took hold of the basin. “Slowly now,” the same voice cautioned her as she washed the inside of her mouth with the liquid before spitting it out into the basin again.
“P-Peter …” she croaked out as the man brushed her hair aside, pushing the strands away from her sweaty forehead as she whined pathetically. “It’s okay,” Peter whispered as he leaned down to press a soft kiss to her forehead. “Don’t … please, Leah … just don’t,” he gritted his teeth as tears filled his eyes at the sight of her blood-stained lips opening again.
I love you, she mouthed weakly, before sliding down the bed slowly. “Are you cold? Shall I turn the temperature down?” Peter was on his feet again, scampering around the room as he pulled the blanket around his wife’s thin shoulders. Leah shook her head softly, despite the shiver that ran down her spine. “I’m fine,” the woman croaked as the man snarled, the concern hidden by an anger that showed even through the pain that had been etched onto his face.
Then, she coughed, hacking violently as she twisted away from the man, the sound raw and unfiltered as flecks of crimson liquid landed on the fluorescent-white pillow. “Dammit!” Peter snapped as he leaned across the bed, his fingers gentle on her delicate skin despite all the anger and rage that churned within him.
“You’re going to be alright, you hear me?” his voice was firm, yet desperate as he held the frail woman in his arms, a small shiver running down his spine as he touched her icy skin. “I love you,” he said as Leah fell limp against his frame, her thinning dark hair splayed across his chest as her breaths turned shallow. There was a slight movement on his skin as he looked down into the dry mass of hair that had once curled so perfectly against her shoulder-blades.
Slowly, he ran his fingers through her hair, sighing mentally at the dry strands that met his fingers. “Peter … I’m sorry …” Leah’s voice was slightly clearer now, he noted as he simply tightened his arms around her. “I’m sorry too …” he whispered as he pressed his lips to her forehead, forcing away the tears that threatened to prick his eyes.
“Peter … come on! Don’t be a snail … Peter!” the brunette pulled on his arm, ignoring his laughter as she whined, dragging him across the park. She wound her way easily around the children that screamed and cried around her. “Why’re we here?” Peter asked as they walked towards a secluded corner, watching as his girlfriend’s eyes glimmered. “It’s a surprise!” she sang before releasing his arm and running into a bush.
“Hey!” Peter laughed as he chased her into the shrubbery, grinning before he caught her, his arms wrapping themselves around her waist as mumentum sent them both crashing onto the dew-covered grass.
Laughing, Leah righted herself, her hair spilling over the white t-shirt she’d worn as Peter remained on the ground, a mixture of perspiration and condensation soaking into his back. “Isn’t it pretty?” Leah asked, her voice almost a coo as she leaned back a little, her neck turning into a cream-coloured column as she stared at the way the light shone through the trees, illuminating the ground in a way that seemed ethereal.
“No … not really,” Peter answered, his voice unimpressed as he met Leah’s widened eyes. “Only because I’ve got only you to compare it with …” Peter would never tell anyone that the way her cheeks coloured at his words sent his heart fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings. “You’re just saying that Mr Cheese,” Leah snorted, her dark eyes twinkling as her lips turned down at the corners.
And that was the day Leah learnt to always believe Peter’s words.
Peter smiled at the memory, shifting uncomfortably in the plastic seat before catching sight of his wife on the bed. “Peter … don’t forget about Jack, alright?” the woman’s voice was weak and her words were slurred as she spoke, her voice barely reaching his ears even as he leaned forward. “Of course I won’t,” he forced his voice to be light and casual as he spoke to her. “In fact, I’ll go get him now, alright?” the man stood and smiled down at the woman for a mument.
“You be good now, okay?” Leah smirked at her husband’s words before nodding weakly and snuggling back under the covers.
“Mr and Mrs Laurent?” the receptionist led them to a small booth, her heels clicking against the black tiles as she left them, her fabricated, full-lipped grin making Leah shudder delicately.
“Good afternoon, I’m Leanne Jameson, how can I help you?” a blue-eyed woman stepped into the room, shaking hands rather firmly with both Leah and Peter before motioning for them to sit on the cream-coloured couch.
“Alright, I’ve read through your application, and despite all of your history with illnesses, we’re deciding to take a change with your family and allow you to adopt a child.” The woman went straight to the point, Leah noted, her stomach churning as her hands itched to reach for the bottle of pills that she’d shoved into her bag only hours earlier.
“This is Jack,” there was a picture of a blond-haired four-year old boy in front of them now, one of his front teeth missing as he smiled for the camera. “We took him from an abusive family; the mother was using, and his father was an alcoholic.” Leanne’s voice hitched as she spoke, and when Leah caught sight of her eyes, there were just the barest hint of tears sparkling over her blue contacts. “He’s perfect,” it was Peter’s words that made Leah nod, the nail of her index finger caressing the boy’s cheek through the photo.
Peter grinned cheerfully as he waved to the teenager, ignoring the roll of eyes and the pseudo-punch that was thrown at him. “How was your day kiddo?” Peter inquired with a grin, forcing the smile to reach his eyes as he looked down at the boy. “Why’d you come to pick me up? I could’ve taken the bus,” the boy whined, his lips falling into a childish pout before he fell into step beside his father.
“We’re going to visit mum,” Peter said, and instantly, the boy fell silent.
“Come on, kiddo, it’s not that bad at the hospital,” Peter jested as he opened the door to the car, sliding into the drivers’ seat and waiting patiently for the teenager as he grumbled, mumbling to himself before getting into the passenger seat beside his father. The twenty-minute drive back to the hospital that had become Peter’s second home was made in almost-silence, Jack breaking the silence every few seconds to relate the events of the day.
“Hey dad, do you think mum would like those?” the boy said, Peter wrenching his eyes off the road to flick them to a road-side vendor with a flower cart. “Girls like flowers,” Peter said, eyes relieved as Jack grinned cheerfully before asking if they should get some. Nodding, the man rolled the car to a halt beside the vendor. Still smiling widely, Jack left the car, money clenched tightly in hand as he directed all his attention to the large variety of coloured plants in front of him.
“Hey kiddo,” the red-faced man greeted the blond boy kindly, eyes twinkling as the boy replied in kind. “Had an argument, didn’t ya?” the grey-haired man nodded knowingly, before sobering when Jack replied that they were for his mother. “Mother, eh?” the man muttered, before retreating behind a particularly large barrel of roses to bring out a bouquet of lilies.
Jack stared, almost breathless as he stared at the gauze-wrapped bouquet of lilies; each individual flower perfect as the man shoved the white-and-pink bundle towards him. “On the house, boy,” the man said as he waved Jack’s outstretched arm away before returning to his wooden stool.
“Leah,” Peter whispered, fingers twitching when he caught sight of the fading bouquet that he’d put into the glass vase almost a week ago. The sleeping woman barely stirred; the large bags around her eyes all the more prominent against her pasty skin and colourless lips. “Jack’s here,” the boy scurried to his mother’s side, eyes wide with a worry beyond his years until he grinned when the woman smiled weakly. “Hi mum,” he said, grinning toothily when the woman’s eyes brightened.
He jabbered a mile a minute all the while he sat beside the large bed, his voice rising until he was waving his arms about over his head as his mother smiled up at him. Finally, when a kind-faced nurse stepped into the room with a mug of tea, he trailed after her in an attempt to find the cafeteria. “Leah,” Peter’s voice was shaking as he took the woman’s hand in his. “You can’t bring him here again,” it was an obvious struggle for the woman to speak, but she soldiered through her words, coughing and warding the man off with a hand, but still shaking her head stubbornly when the man protested softly. “I don’t want him to see me like this, Peter,” the woman’s eyes were wide and pleading as she spoke hoarsely to the man.
Peter pursed his lips, indecision battling inside him and ripping his heart to shreds. How could he make this decision? For a split second, he wanted to rip his hair out and scream at himself; scream at the ashen-faced woman dying on the bed. How could he deny their son his mother? But how could he deny his wife her last wish? He wasn’t a fool, and he wasn’t the blind faithful man they thought him to be. He knew what the doctor’s thought when they ‘checked’ on his wife every morning, he knew what they expected every time she coughed blood or collapsed for absolutely no reason.
“Alright,” he muttered, eyes wild with panic as he looked around the room before his gaze settled on his wife. “Thank you,” there was a peace in her eyes he’d never yet seen; a calmness that pushed the cheerfulness from her gaze until it seemed like a part of her had already given in to the temptation of death. They sat in silence for a few more hours, not moving and not speaking until the woman reminded the man of their boy who’d gone searching for food.
When Peter left the room, eyes downcast and shoulders sagging; the first thing he saw was the blond-haired boy sitting outside the room on the ground, notebook in his hand as he scribbled blindly on the pages. “Don’t worry about me dad,” he chirped later as they walked slowly to the car, and the familiar panic flashed through Peter at his son’s words. “I heard you and mum,” Peter settled a fearful gaze on the boy; searching his eyes for anger, but only finding an understanding that was beyond either of them.