Sleep. Something so simple could disappear in the blink of an eye. No peace at night, no sweet dreams to keep Holly company; all she had was emptiness. Darkness surrounded her and the empty space besides her felt colder as each day passed. No more warm skin to cuddle up to, the tickle of his facial hair on her cheek.
She patted the sheet beside her and looked at the pillow; the creases where James rested his head had disappeared. It was almost as if every trace of his life had faded away. The remainder of his clothes hung in the wardrobe but every time she opened the wooden doors to face the endless reminders of everything that once was stared back at her.
Did she even remember what it felt like to be happy? To be human? She could hardly remember what it felt like to crave intimacy. Something inside her stirred as she stared at the lampshade. The white Chinese lantern brought back more memories than Holly cared to remember. She closed her eyes to block the images from blossoming into a full memory, but it was futile. After an hour of trying to make his own, James finally gave up, leaving his failed attempt hanging from the ceiling in the laundry room.
Before she knew it she burst into laughter; perhaps it wasn’t exactly appropriate to make such noise at this hour. She covered her mouth and tried to contain herself but she struggled. She only stopped when she heard Joey’s footsteps against the wooden floors of the hallway. Her smile faded as she focused on his heavy movements. The click of the light in the bathroom confirmed his location. Did he have trouble sleeping or had she disturbed him?
She nibbled her fingernail and glanced at her alarm clock. Three in the morning. Her meeting with Amber had been arranged for eleven-fifty at their local coffee shop. What better place to discuss such important matters?
Click. Footsteps echoed through the hallway until Joey’s quiet mumbles brought another memory to mind. Even as a child Joey used to mumble to himself when he was sleepy. Rather than communicate with anyone else, Joey usually spent more than enough time talking to himself than anybody else. Well, that wasn’t quite true. Joey’s father could easily break the trance that often took over, trapping Joey in his own private world. What was the secret to unlocking her son’s affection?
She rolled onto her side and pulled James’ pillow against her chest. The only comfort she could find from the empty bed was a cold pillow case against her chest, squidging it within her grip. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Five hours of sleep, that was all she needed. The chances of Joey getting out of bed before midday was almost as unlikely as Holly’s chances defusing the situation. As she fell into shallow dreams, the creaks and grunts of the other room broke through her trance, molding her dreams.
When sunlight peeked through the gaps of the curtains, it almost blinded her as she opened her eyes. Holly glanced at the alarm clock; three more minutes of peace before she would be rudely awoken. She turned it off then got out of bed. The pink dressing gown hung over the coat hooks on the back of the bedroom room.Tugging it down, she wriggled her feet into the silk slippers and abandoned her bedroom. She followed the light from the bathroom and stopped at the open door.
‘Joey? Are you there?’
No response. No noise.
‘I’m coming in.’ She stepped inside, but her eyes widened. ‘Why didn’t you answer me?’ She turned around and groaned. ‘I asked if you were in here.’
‘Well, I am. Can you leave me alone?’
Holly raised her hands in the air and mumbled under her breath. After several meetings with her son, strolling around the hallways in his boxers, she should have adjusted. The main bathroom was Joey’s, while the downstairs was for her. Smaller, less shower or bath space – but how much did she need? It wasn’t like she needed that much room anyway.
She grazed her hand against the banister as she reached the bottom stair. Just as she stepped down to the wooden floors, Joey trampled through the hallway, slamming his door on the way back to his bedroom.
Great. She glanced back upstairs, then aside at the downstairs bathroom. She was already here, why fuss with going back up stairs? She stepped into the bathroom, closed and locked the door, then undressed. She reached into the sink and twisted the handle. Water trickled out, then it spat against the glass shower screen. Had it always been this bad?
With James’ passing, everything seemed to fall apart and what should she do about it? She hadn’t a clue. Who could she ask? There was nobody to help her, take her hand and lead her towards safety. Normality.
Holly stepped into the shower and basked in the glory of the hot water, the power beating against her neck, tensed shoulders, and her lower back. She massaged her head as the dark locks absorbed the moisture. She hummed quietly as she lathered the foamy shampoo into every inch of her hair, gradually rinsing it out as the temptation struck. She turned the tap off and stepped out to the bath mat.
The cold chill made her shudder. She wrapped a pink towel around herself quickly, then slipped the dressing gown on. Slippers bringing warmth to her feet, she unlocked the door and walked into the kitchen. Joey ran down the stairs fully dressed.
‘Where are you going?’ She watched him grab his coat from the pile he’d left in the corner of the room.
‘When are you coming home?’ A large part of her expected a generic answer. Later. Tomorrow. Eventually.
As expected, Joey said, ‘Eventually.’ At least his nonchalance was predictable. His six feet tall, deep and wide wall separating them remained. If anything, Joey armed the wall with barbed wire. Any attempts were futile.
‘Who are you going to see?’
Joey finally gifted her with his undivided attention, his hands in the air. ‘What’s with all the questions?’
‘Can’t a mother ask about her son?’
Joey blinked. ‘Seb.’
She tilted her head to the side. ‘Excuse me?’
‘You asked who I’m going to see. Seb. Is that all or would you like an itinerary? I could write one up. You could always come with me. Babysit me. Hey, have you thought about micro chipping?’
A sudden throb appeared in Holly’s forehead. She rubbed it gently. ‘Joey, please. I’m just worried about you.’
He shrugged. ‘I’m fine. Okay. I’m not five. I’m not a baby. I’m a man. Now can I please go, or would you like to drop me off?’
For the first time since Joey’s usual sarcasm had spiraled out of control, she genuinely considered his offer. What was the harm? As if Joey could moan anymore. ‘Actually, I’d love that. I’m seeing Amber Beckett today. I can drop you off on the way.’
Joey groaned. His face contorted and he slipped his coat on quickly. ‘Why are you doing that?’
‘Because I don’t want you to go to prison for assault, or get a criminal record. Unless you’d rather I keep out of it?’
He looked at her with an ounce of understanding. A tiny fraction of gratitude appeared on his face. Not quite a smile, but enough for a mutual agreement. ‘Go ahead. Don’t suppose I can take the car tomorrow?’
‘Date with Sasha.’
‘She has her own car.’
Any hope of reparations shattered before her. ‘Don’t trust me?’
‘I never said that. I need the car.’
Holly knew exactly what he would say before he even said a word. ‘But you have your car. Just give me the keys.’
‘I said no.’
Joey groaned. ‘You know what? Forget it. I’ll walk.’
‘Later.’ He slammed the door on his way out.
~ ~ ~
Holly held the warm cappuccino cup in her hands, taking in the scent. After three cups the panic hadn’t faded. It only accumulated until she felt faint at the thought of the conversation due to take place. How would Amber react? Would she smile with kind eyes and allow the frustrated and anger to breed?
After a painful wait Amber finally arrived, red cheeks and bag swinging with every rushed step. ‘Oh, Holly, I’m so sorry! I had to drop Darren off at his friend’s. How are you, honey?’
Holly shrugged. ‘I’m fine, how are you? How’s Darren?’
Amber settled in the chair beside her and took her black jacket off. ‘We’re fine. Darren’s really milking this. Honestly that boy is more like his father than I’ve ever known.’
Amber laughed and Holly tried to join in. But she couldn’t. Her eyes betrayed her casual laughter. She picked the dead skin from her fingers and gathered her courage. She had to ask, she couldn’t fight the topic for long. ‘I’m really sorry for Joey’s behaviour. I just can’t get through to that boy.’
‘Don’t be sorry. Darren’s a nasty piece of work when he wants to be. Again, he gets that from his father. There are times I’ve wanted to beat him with his hockey stick but I refrained. I wouldn’t worry about it, Holly. He’s just causing unnecessary trouble.’
‘He wouldn’t go any further with this, would he?’
Amber shrugged. ‘He’ll probably try but I’ll put him in his place. Sometimes all boys need is a woman to tell them what to do. After all, behind every great man is a great woman.’ Amber beamed, scanning through her bag to produce her purse. ‘Another coffee?’
‘I think I’ll explode if I drink anymore. Not sure I’ll get any sleep tonight.’ Holly rested her chin against her palm and tilted her head to the side. ‘Don’t suppose an apology would make Darren let this go?’
Amber laughed. She seemed to struggle to stop. ‘I know your son, he’d probably rather go to jail that apologise. All boys are the same. Stubborn pains.’
The cold reality in Amber’s prediction couldn’t be closer to the truth. ‘Boys. Who knew they were so much trouble?’
‘All children go through that stage … even you.’
Holly laughed. ‘I was never bad!’
‘Coming home at midnight, pretending to be at my house when you were out with James?’
Holly blushed. ‘That’s different.’
‘That’s precisely why I’m glad I didn’t have a girl. At least I can expect Darren to bring home different girls every month. Girls would give me a heart attack.’ Amber took £20 from purse. ‘Cake?’
‘I couldn’t let you do that.’ Holly reached into her bag. ‘Don’t suppose you’re free tonight?’
‘Not tonight. It’s date night with my husband. Darren’s out god knows where being a nuisance so I can have peace and quiet. How about tomorrow?’
Tomorrow? ‘I was hoping to have dinner with Joey and encourage him to apologise.’
‘Good luck with that one. Are you okay? You look so tired.’
If Holly looked as bad as she felt, then she must look like death. Pale and lifeless skin tainted with heavy bags aged her more than forty years had. ‘I can hardly sleep these days. Is this what getting old feels like?’
‘It’s all downhill from here.’ Amber reached out for Holly’s hand. ‘Cheer up. Coffee? Some lunch? I need a girl’s day. Those boys are driving me mad!’
When Amber walked away from the table, Holly sighed deeply. What she’d give for a busy house; constant chatter, even a daily argument about leaving the milk out or drinking juice from the carton would brighten her day. The only conversations she shared with Joey ended in a slamming door and several days of peace before the pounding bass vibrated through the ceiling.
The only trace of Joey’s presence may cause her headaches but his absence awoke something deep inside her, something she had once forgotten – loneliness. Without James, without the empty shell that once was her son, she’d almost forgotten how to live.
When Amber returned with a tray with two cups of coffee and two slices of chocolate fudge cake, she offered a kind smile. ‘Eat up, honey. You’re getting so thin these days.’
Holly looked down at her shirt; it barely fitted her anymore. She had rolled the sleeves up weeks ago, hardly noticing the slimming waistband. Who needed diets when mourning reduced pounds effortlessly? ‘I suppose I am losing weight.’
‘What will it take to put a smile on your face?’
‘A good night’s sleep. And maybe a few dozen pieces of this delicious cake.’ Holly took the small fork and sliced the cake in half. ‘I can’t stop worrying about Joey.’
Amber shrugged. ‘He’s a big boy, he can take care of himself. Besides, I doubt he’s sitting there worrying about you, how you’re feeling.’
‘S’pose you’re right.’ Admitting the truth didn’t soothe the nausea stirring in her stomach. ‘I wonder if Joey will come home tonight.’
‘Don’t bet on it. Boys his age want to flee the nest, to live their own lives. It’s only a matter of time before they become strangers.’
Holly sighed. Loneliness would soon become her. ‘I don’t think coffee is strong enough.’
‘How about some wine?’
‘You read my mind.’
- ‘All At Once’ Chapter One (calliehunter.wordpress.com)