The young mother stared out the window at the gray day. For London the weather was nice, she could even see patches of blue here and there where the sun had won out over the cloud cover. She sighed and let the curtain fall back into place, her attention turning to her daughter instead.
The young girl sat perched on the very edge of a faded, floral couch watching black and white re-runs of a show she loved but didn’t seem to be holding her attention today. Her expression was vacant, her skin pale, and the sight of her sitting there like that pinched something in her mother’s chest. Even other Londoners would have balked at the pallor of her skin, so pale as to be translucent, with angry purple bruises beneath her eyes. Even at that very moment Death was cradling her hand in his own, waiting patiently for the right moment to whisk her away.
With a sigh of her own the girl cast her millionth wistful glance out the window. Only the barest glimpse of sky was visible in the crack between the curtains but she stared at that sliver for all she was worth. She caught her mother’s eye and smiled, a twinkle in her own eye. In that moment her mother saw her as she should be, young, bright, beautiful and full of life, and it made her eyes well up with unshed tears.
Maybe the doctors are wrong. She thought. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.
The girl smiled sweetly. Her gaze drifting back to the window, her expression earnest. The longing in her pinched features was palpable. No child should be kept in a cage. Her mother decided the day was fair enough to allow her precious girl a much desired taste of freedom.
“Very well.” The mother sighed. “Go get your coat.”
The girl’s expression was radiant. She ran to fetch her coat nearly tugging down the coat rack along with it in her enthusiasm. She even grabbed a pair of mittens and a hat without being reminded. She wasn’t going to give her Mother any excuse to change her mind. Her step was light, barely a stumble as she skipped to the front door. Her mother watched all of this with a wistful smile while she gathered her own things and joined her at the door.
As they walked the girl alternated between skipping ahead and meekly returning to stay close by her mother’s side and hold her hand. Other young mothers with young children of their own were spread like breadcrumbs around the park. After surveying the scene the girl’s mother chose a place on the last empty bench. The girl ran off, pale and thin as ghost, her auburn tangles tumbling behind her with the wind like fall leaves.
For hours she played, always alone but never discouraged. She saw the entire world as her friend that day so it mattered very little if she received attention from the other children. She played until red bloomed in her cheeks lending some life beyond her lively hazel eyes. At the most random moments her laugh would ring out, beautiful and glittering, for all of London to hear if they happened to be listening.
The daylight faded all too soon, storm clouds winning the day over the sunshine. The cold set in and took root in the bones of anyone daring enough to linger too long outdoors. The girl’s mother was already gathering her things when it began.
It started with a hiccup, then a fit of coughing that brought the little girl to her knees. Her mother rushed to her side already berating herself for acting so rashly and letting her stay out so long. The girl looked up at her mother with tears glistening on her long eyelashes. She shook her head. Even still the little bird could not bear the thought of returning to her cage. With tears in her own eyes her mother scooped the girl into her arms and rushed her home. Carefully the mother laid the girl in bed and set about doing all the right things.
All the right things.
The girl’s eyes fluttered closed and her mother kissed her closed eyelids. At times the coughing would wake her. At times she would whimper and moan. The mother tried to keep her own sobs as silent as possible so as not to disturb her child’s rest. Tears wet the edges of the blanket while a storm raged both outside the little house and in.
The guilt was suffocating. So many things she could have done differently. Should she have done things differently? But then she would think back on her daughter’s breathless joy and the guilt would be made bearable by the knowledge that it had been her daughter’s single greatest day. She had managed to give her freedom, fleeting as it might have been, and with it the best day of her life. Allowing the memories of laughter to float through her mind she kept her hopeful vigil through the night.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning the clock on the nightstand stuttered and stopped in tandem with the young girl’s heart. The clock had always stopped at started randomly but this time it felt like a sign. The little girl was smiling when she greeted Death… they both were.
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/automotocycle/3523892813