When the final bell rang, a terrible ache started in my heart and I decided on my walk back that I couldn’t stay in Willow Street. I had to go back to Cullham and The Grove to be with Mum, the one person I had left to try and express my love to.
Perhaps that was because I was saving the hardest and most important until last.
Once I reached Willow Street, I threw my bag in the car and scribbled a note for Dad and Angela that Mum needed my help with something and I was going to stay the night there. Angela was still at work in the library and Grace would be with her, which was fine with me as I wouldn’t have to try and lie to their faces. I didn’t need them worrying about an ulterior motive.
I pulled up outside our house on The Grove and fished around in the bottom of my bag for the key, glad I always kept it on me just in case. Slumping onto the sofa, I texted Mum to tell her I was here so she didn’t assume something had happened with Grace again when she arrived to see my car on the drive.
The next thing I knew there was a sound of a key in the lock and I had a dead arm from leaning on it. I rubbed my eyes and sat up. I must’ve been more tired than I’d first thought.
Mum laughed her high pitched squeaky laugh at my confused expression as she came in through the front door. “Been asleep have we? It’s alright for some.”
“Yeah.” I pulled myself up and smoothed down my hair where it had stuck up. “I guess I’m tired.” I shrugged.
I watched her plonk her oversized bag on the desk before sitting beside me and taking my hand. “What’s up, Abz?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. I’m just tired.” I did my best to hold everything in but my heart was starting to race as her blue-grey eyes examined me. I was terrified she could see right through me. Sometimes I wondered if she knew me better than I knew myself.
“I don’t believe you.” She smiled.
I tried to give one back but it became wobbly and I had to suck a breath in to keep steady. “I’m just . . . everything’s getting too much and I feel like I’m drowning.”
She put her arm around me and I snuggled up to her. “What do you mean? At Dad’s? Here? At school?”
“A bit of everything,” I whispered, much more comfortable with the truth. “But I just wanted to be here with you tonight. Is that okay?”
She chuckled. “You don’t even have to ask. If I could have it my way you’d be here all the time.”
I sniffed. “I don’t think Dad’s the same.”
She squeezed me tight. “Of course he is, you just don’t ‘get’ each other like we do. We’ve been through thick and thin together, you and me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. You’re always welcome here, this is your home. We picked it together, remember?”
I gave a little laugh and nodded, though it wasn’t a clear memory as I’d only been four when we’d moved in. Mum and Dad had split up when I was just three years old so I had only the one memory of all of us together as a happy family. I was lucky to still remember it. It wasn’t much, just the image of the three of us all sitting together on a long gone sofa watching something. I had no more details but I didn’t need them. All I needed to know was that they’d been happy once.
“I love you,” I mumbled into her cardigan, shutting my eyes and breathing her in, trying not to imagine a place without her. I didn’t want to go if she wasn’t there.
I didn’t want to go.
“I love you too.” She kissed me on top of the head and we sat there.
I had nothing more to say to her because what else could I say? I let silent tears run down my nose and Mum didn’t say anything more. She knew I was crying but she also knew that I needed to. She only sat with me and stroked my hair, knowing nothing in the universe was as important as me and her right there in that moment.
“You’re everything,” I croaked to her. “Everything.”
Her heart sped a little and she sniffed like she was about to cry too.
“You’re probably my best friend.”
Her chest rumbled as she laughed. “Don’t say that, poor Otter.”
“I mean it.” I pulled my head up to look at her, not caring I had tears on my face and obvious woe in my heart. “You’re the best. I love you so much.” I was shaking my head, breaths hitching in my throat. “I can’t imagine life without you.”
She pulled me close to her. “You don’t have to.” I felt her chest rising and falling in the rhythm of suppressed sobs and I knew she was thinking of her mother, my grandmother, and how she wouldn’t wish motherlessness on anyone. She had no idea that I wasn’t talking about being left motherless. I was talking about leaving her childless. Was there anything worse I could do to her? Could anything hurt her more than I was about to? I didn’t even have brothers and sisters she could find solace in. It was just me and her. It always had been.
But now I wished she had someone more.
I twisted her angel wing bracelet round her wrist as she gazed at Grandma Claire’s bangle on mine. I pulled it off and handed it to her. “Did you want this?”
She pushed it back into my hand. “It’s yours. She wanted you to have it, being the only granddaughter and everything. I’ve got a lot of her things. That one’s for you.”
I just looked at it, wondering if like Zed and his tattoo, I could manifest it back onto my wrist when all this was over and I was forever doomed to the Hereafter. My heat jumped around and a smile crept its way onto my face.
Grandma Claire. If what Zed had said was true, and I had no reason not to believe him, I would be reunited with my grandmother in the Hereafter. Still far too soon but I hadn’t thought I would ever see her again.
I wet my dry mouth before speaking. “What do you think about Grandma and . . . you know? After?”
She looked taken aback. “What a deep and spiritual question from my science inclined daughter.”
“I’ve just been thinking about it.”
“Well . . .” She sighed. “You won’t like it. You’ll probably laugh at me. You know you don’t have to believe what I believe.”
“No, no, I want to know. I won’t laugh. I promise.”
“Okay.” It was the first time in a long time that I could remember seeing any sort of doubt on her face. She tucked a strand of her soft black hair that wasn’t up with the rest behind her ear. “I believe she’s still here with me somewhere. Just little things I think remind me of her, and I think about her every day. I hope she guides me to do what’s best for me and for you. Plus of course I want to believe that she listens when I talk to her.”
“I never used to believe in anything of the kind until she died.” She shrugged. “I just can’t let go.”
“Me neither.” My voice was quiet. “I don’t want to.”
“Whatever the truth is it doesn’t matter does it? As long as it’s making it easier who cares what really happens after?”
And there was so much truth in those words it hurt.
“I’ve never really said anything like this.” I pushed some fringe off my face. “So you should listen.”
“But I’ve been thinking and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s your Guardian Angel – if they even exist at all.” I added too fast, not wanting her to wonder why her painfully science and reason driven daughter was thinking about angels and after.
She smiled that crinkled eye smile I most loved. “I’m not sure about that but it’s a lovely thought.” She tucked some hair behind my ear. “I’d like to think she’s yours.”
The warm burst of love in my heart made me smile and nod, though I knew my Primary Guardian at least was a man, though Zed hadn’t revealed anything about my Secondary, if they even still had a job to do this close to the end of everything.
We spent the evening under a blanket on the sofa though it was June now and getting too hot for such things. We talked about everything and anything and laughed like there was nothing on the Earth that could suck the happiness away.
I knew better than that.
I went to bed when Mum did but as usual I didn’t go to sleep. I sat on top of the covers twirling my grandmother’s bracelet around in my fingers. It was the only thing I had of hers other than a few stray things that didn’t mean anywhere near as much. She’d worn this every day as I had for almost three years now. Even in hospital she’d refused to take it off. It was as much a part of her as a limb. But this was something that could stand the test of time and stay with me always.
But always was over.
I tiptoed into Mum’s room with a note I’d written for her. I held my breath as I clicked open the door. She didn’t stir as I crept over to her chest of drawers where her white ceramic jewellery tree sat. It was adorned with bracelets, rings, necklaces, and a few earrings sitting in the dish surrounding the bottom. A lot of it I’d never seen her wear and I wondered what could be in the overflowing jewellery box if half of this stuff was foreign to me.
I placed Grandma Claire’s bangle in the dish with the earrings, sliding the note underneath. It read, Keep this safe for me. I love you x
I felt a twinge of pain in my heart as I shut the door and made my way into my room. I lay down on my bed and circled my hand around my naked wrist. I felt too light and empty without it but there was no way I was going to damage it with the end of my life. I was going to damage enough already.
On that note, I slid off my watch. It was silver with attached circles making up the chain, pale green stones going most of the way round. It had been a gift from Dad and Angela on my sixteenth birthday. I put it on my bedside table and yanked my almost matching ring off that I’d bought myself. It was silver with the same pale green stone in it. I didn’t know if anyone would like them but I wanted to give them the option. Jewellery I’d worn and loved would be much more precious to them than bracelets and necklaces I’d shoved in my jewellery box.
If Heaven or Hell had gone for Otter, I would want to know what had happened to all her ridiculous owl jewellery. But especially that necklace. I supposed that was the same for everyone. It was weird that a tiny piece of metal could mean so much. No wonder Mum had opened a jewellers; at last I could see the draw of it.
Too little too late. But wasn’t everything?
I exhausted myself with thoughts of before and after and right and wrong and life and death and fell into a disturbed sleep of too many weird dreams. The night was hot and I awoke often, twisting and turning in and out of the covers.
It was mine. I couldn’t hear anything over the wild thrashing of my heart and my puffs of breath. I was sitting up, body trembling with fear. It took me a moment to realise it was only my phone ringing. It took me another moment to realise that it was too early for a phone call. I fumbled for my glasses.
06:26. My stomach churned with sickness.
I answered the call, not looking who it was before picking up. “Hello?”
“Abi?” There were tears in Grace’s voice.
My heart leapt out my mouth. “Grace? What is it? What’s wrong? Are you alright?”
She let out a sob and she was struggling for breath.
I gripped the phone tighter. “Grace! Grace! What is it?”
“You – you were gone.”
“I’m at Mum’s. I’m fine. Are you alright?”
“I thought – I thought . . .”
She was howling down the phone, choking on her breaths. “I thought that was it.”
“It?” I asked though I feared I already knew.
“You were – were gone.”
“Well I’m right here. I’m talking to you. Listen. Listen. I’m fine.”
It didn’t help. She was hysterical. I built up a picture of her red in the face, tears streaming down her cheeks, and snot dribbling out of her nose.
There was silence and I imagined she was doing that thing that kids did sometimes when they were so hurt they couldn’t breathe. Where they just stare at you for the longest time and you panic they’re going to pass out.
She coughed and gulped and cried.
“Grace? I’m fine, Grace. Are you okay?”
“No!” she squealed. “You’re gonna leave me!”
Tears took my breath away all at once and my skin flashed hot. “I’m okay right now,” I forced out.
“I dreamt it.”
I nodded though I knew she couldn’t see. At any other time it would’ve made me laugh. “Me too.” What else was that dream I couldn’t remember going to be? “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t, Abi! Don’t! No!” I could only just understand her.
“Grace,” I begged. “Please, Gracie, it’s okay.”
“No it isn’t! It can’t be!”
“It was just a dream.”
“You know it wasn’t.”
“Maybe it was. Calm down. There’s no need to panic.” I was such a hypocrite. I could hardly draw breath. “Have you woken Dad and Angela?”
“No.” She sucked in a breath. “I’m in your room.”
“Why don’t you wake them up?”
“No! I can’t!”
“Grace, they won’t mind.”
“Okay, okay.” I took a moment to try and calm my heart.
“Abi?” Grace said.
“Yeah.” I sighed.
“I don’t want you to go.”
My breath caught five times on the way up and tears sprung from my eyes. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said to her. But it was obvious I was crying now. Grace wasn’t a fool. Like Zed had said, she was a smart kid.
“You can’t, Abi! You can’t! I love you!”
“Grace – I –”
“I love you!”
There was a clatter as the phone hit the floor and a scream took my breath away. There was a thumping sound and a crash. Then nothing.
“Grace?” I panted. “Grace? Gracie? What happened? Are you there? Grace? Grace!”
I jumped out of bed and pulled on some shoes, flying down the stairs. I caught sight of my alarm clock as I left my bedroom.
I ignored it and raced for my car, the rain pouring down clinging to my hair. Slamming the door and revving the engine, I tore down our street and towards Suddich. I didn’t care what had been said. I didn’t care what I thought was going to happen. What Zed had told me was going to happen. Something had happened to Grace. For real. I couldn’t just sit back and not act. That wasn’t who I was. I needed her to be okay. I needed to tell her I loved her too. I needed to stop living in the Hereafter and get my act together here on Earth.
When I got out of The Grove, certain Grace wasn’t going to reply, I hung up and I dialled for an ambulance. If there were exceptions to using your phone while driving, this was it. I screeched with frustration when they didn’t pick up after one ring. I yelled, “Ambulance! Ambulance! Ambulance! Ambulance!”, until they answered and transferred me to the right line.
“Ambulance Service, what’s the address of the emergency?” A voice of a bright sounding woman asked me.
I rattled off our address at Willow Street.
“And what is the telephone number you’re calling from?”
I did the same with my phone number, trying not to shriek abuse at her, knowing she was only doing what she had been trained to do.
“What’s the problem? Tell me exactly what’s happened.”
“I dunno. I was on the phone to my little sister and it sounds like she fell. I think she fell down the stairs.”
“Are you with her now?”
“No. I’m trying to be. I’m going as fast as I can.” As I said it I came off the roundabout and dropped my foot heavy on the accelerator.
“How old is she?”
“Do you know if she’s conscious?”
“I don’t think so. She didn’t pick the phone back up.”
“Thank you. Now I just need to ask a few questions, this won’t delay help at all, it will be arranged while we’re talking.”
“Oh, thank you! Please hurry!” I was gasping for breath, checking my stupid little analogue clock on the dashboard. Half past six.
“Just stay calm. What’s her name?”
“Grace. Grace Elizabeth Angel. I’m Abia, her sister.”
“What’s her date of birth?”
How ironic that birth was the last word for me to hear.
There was a cat in the road just staring at me, willing me to run it over. I tried to go round him but I was going too fast and the road was wet and I skidded into the other lane and I couldn’t stop.
My heart tried to leap out my body. I couldn’t breathe. I screamed my throat raw. I had never felt terror like this before. There wasn’t a word to describe the Earth shattering dread and fear and horror of that moment.
I slammed my brakes but I was already in the wrong lane.
A car’s lights illuminated in front of me.
I held my breath.
I didn’t expect it to be today. I didn’t expect it to be now.
And then it was.