Fifteen

☼►eleven◄☼

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Della sauntered up to the group early Wednesday morning, launching into conversation without reserve, laughing with Liza and Anthony as if the post-Harry awkwardness never happened. I didn’t bring up the fact that she’d avoided me for a week; I just joined in on the chatter and accepted that she was fine now. She had a boyfriend by the time we left school on Friday.

The weather grew even colder as days blended into the next. Winds were sharper, and the sun rose too late and set too soon. The warm half of autumn was officially over. Anne started driving Harry and me to school each morning, which was really the best choice unless she wanted popsicles as kids by the time we got home in the afternoons.

Miss Letts was pleased when I gave her permission to submit my essay - on the condition that I could change the names. She hadn’t pried into the reasons why; she merely handed back the paper and told me to bring an edited copy the following morning. I didn’t tell Anne, Robin, or even Harry about allowing the submission. I was too busy hoping I wouldn’t live to regret the decision.

Before I knew it, Thanksgiving was just around the corner. I’d come to accept that I wouldn’t have that traditional dinners, but it felt almost.. wrong. I’d been participating in the feasts with family and friends since before I could remember.

This year, though, I was in the UK where they didn’t celebrate the first sit-down meal with Native Americans before systematically slaughtering them through various means. So I didn’t bother wasting emotions on a tradition that I hardly enjoyed, anyway.

The twenty-sixth arrived with little fanfare. I made it through the day without thinking once of what my parents might be doing now that they were alone. Who would they be saying grace to, what would they be thankful for. After all, they’d said goodbye to one daughter who thought home wasn’t good enough, and their remaining child had run off to a different country for the year.

“What’s going on?” I asked as I tugged my boots off just inside the front door.

Anne’s eyes widened minutely but she didn’t move away. Evidently, she hadn’t anticipated me picking up on her eagerness about whatever had been planned. The surprise on her face melted away, though, and she grinned brightly, setting my bag to the side while I hung up my coat.

As soon as she could, her hands wrapped around my shoulders; she steered me toward the dining table, and I sought out Harry as I was being pushed. He merely shrugged in response - he hadn’t any more idea than I did what his mother was up to.

Stumbling to a stop in the doorway, I gasped at the sight before me. The table was set with the nicest dishware, a bottle of wine at the head. A roast ham sat dead-centre of the table, surrounded by a variety of other dishes - mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce… everything necessary for a feast. I swallowed thickly, throat tightening, and blinked back tears.

“I know how upset you must be that you can’t be home with your family, so we thought we’d bring the holiday celebration to you.” Anne draped her arm over my shoulders, pulled me close into her side. “I’m sorry if this isn’t quite what you’re used to.”

“Anne, th-this is amazing.”

“Come, sit!”

Harry caught my eye as we sat, his eyes glittering as he matched my smile. A twinge of discomfort tore through me at the knowledge that Anne had gone through so much trouble for me, but that fact also sent a heady warmth to fill me. Her caring enough to give me something that I hadn’t had in a long time was nothing if not reassuring that maybe - just maybe - I wasn’t as much of an imposition as I thought.

I ate as much as I possibly could that night, until my stomach threatened to revolt if I continued. Thankfully, it seemed to be enough that Anne wasn’t upset when I stood from the table. She froze up when I wrapped my arms around her, hugging her as tightly as she’d embraced me over the months, but then she hugged me back with such sincerity that I ached.

As soon as dishes were washed and put away, I disappeared into my room with a glass of water. The scarf was coming along nicely - if a little wonky - but I still had so much more to do. The desperation to finish it was a palpable thing, something that hummed lowly in my blood each second I wasn’t working on it. I didn’t want to not have something for her for Christmas.

Not after she’d done so much for me.

My fingers itched as I worked the yarn over, under, on and off the needle; the wool was soft, but it had started fraying with the manipulation. Scrubbing my hands on my thighs, I blew out a breath and reached for my drink on the nightstand. I’d just picked up the needles again when a knock sounded at the door.

“Yeah?” I called out once my knitting was tucked under the pillow.

Anne poked her head into the room, smiling softly. “Mind if I come in?”

“Oh. Of course.”

“I just wanted to check in on you.” She sat on the edge of the bed, patted my knee. “You’ve been here for three months now, and I just… I wanted to make sure you’re happy and if there’s anything we can do to make things better.”

“Believe me, I’m happier than I thought I would be. And you, you made things even better tonight. I didn’t expect dinner.”

Her smile split her face, blue eyes sparkling in the lamplight. “I was hoping to surprise you with that. You’ll let us know, though, if you need anything?”

“Absolutely.”

I didn’t tell her that she’d become much more maternal than I felt with my own mother at home. Anne was much more present, loving and caring and present. And how could I put into words that I thought she was a better mother than mine? I couldn’t. The guilt at even thinking the words was bad enough. Actually speaking them aloud would destroy me.

Anne hesitated then pressed a kiss to my forehead, the softest brush that brought tears to my eyes. She left with a quiet Goodnight, and I stared down at my hands in my lap. My stomach churned as I sat there, cross-legged and hunched in on myself. Why would I think something so awful?

Yes, Anne had already shown me an unconditional sort of love that I hadn’t felt in a while. Everything involving my parents was still unstable. I was consumed with the thought that I had to walk on eggshells around them, do everything I could to not dredge up memories of Sophie or her selfishness and our loss. Their love for me hardly seemed as strong as it did a few years ago.

But they didn’t deserve me thinking such terrible thoughts about them. I should have been more understanding. They’d lost their first baby, but the loss was worse because they knew - just like I knew - that Sophie was still alive. She was just choosing to not come back home to us.

Swallowing thickly, I brushed away the tears that had begun slipping down my cheek. All I could do was resolve to be a better daughter than my sister. While I was here in Holmes Chapel, though… I could pretend, just for a little while, that this family was my own, even if it would break my heart to walk away.