To say I was dreading the dinner party would be the understatement of the century.
A year had passed. A year and eleven days. A year and eleven days, about three hundred sympathetic eyes (multiplied by each time I was in their company), way too many lonely moons and even more liquid sin on my mother's behalf.
The rain was quiet beneath the sound of my mother's whimpers two doors away. I tuned them out the way I had learnt about six months ago, when no amount of talking, tea and my attempts at comfort was ever enough. I folded the newly-washed tea towels, I washed the side and cut mum's sandwich - that wouldn't be eaten - into two.
Moving quickly because I would definitely be late, I took a breath and knocked on the living room door. I didn't wait for an answer, walking in to be greeted by a smell that had become their house's scent. I cringed but showed no sign of discomfort. My mother, sprawled across the carpet craned her neck and looked at me; well, through me. She looked back at her hands. I didn't even bother addressing why I was there. She knew. I placed the plate down where I always did, opened the curtains slightly and closed the door again.
Back against the door, I let my eyes be free from the light that seemed too yellow, for just a second.
* * *
He watches her, seeing everything the world saw: beauty, happiness and a laugh so pure and beautiful. He was just as in love with her now as he was twenty years before. She had barely changed. Sure, she has a few lines more than she did at seventeen and there are slight - only slight - shadows beneath her young eyes. Yet, he was ignorant.
She laughed her own melody and he turned to Flame. "How's it going Flay?"
"Just got them!" Flame says.
After she brings back the crisps and cake, he kisses his daughter's forehead and Flame grins as if she were still a toddler. "I live for days like this, you know."
Flame nods. "I know."
* * *
I felt myself drift through the high-street, past the car park and through the field.
Every year my auntie Deb holds a dinner party. She makes grand cakes and scones, even lemonade and jam. She makes strawberry jam, raspberry, blueberry and cherry. She puts up decorations and her knitted table cloth is placed proudly over the dining room table and fills glasses on the coffee table with breadsticks. She makes her own CD full of old classics and songs she thinks are 'cool as cucumber' and photographs every moment. My uncles dance and my cousins scream. Every year there are more people: Auntie Deb's workmates, neighbours, paperboys. It's the talk of the family for weeks after.
Last year was less lively than normal. Every time someone braved a topic change, someone related it to him and told a story, a memory of him.
I stopped just before I reached the front of my auntie's house and took a breath. This will be worse than horrible; my relatives will fuss over me and show how terribly sorry they are and attempt to make sure I'm smiling at every moment. I know they truly do feel bad for me and that's fine but it was so tiring. It will be over soon.
I approached the door with as much confidence as I could muster and rung the doorbell.
There it was.
A pair of Eyes of Sympathy.
"Hey Uncle Jon," I made sure my eyes met with his only briefly.
"Hi there sweetheart. How are you doing?"
The first 'how are you?' of the afternoon.
I chatted with Jon until I reached the living room and all conversations came to a sudden silence.
I made myself smile to the crowds of people in auntie Deb's living room. Everything looked too small.
There was a boy about my age, maybe a year older, maybe nineteen sitting next to my auntie Deb. He had green eyes that were obvious a few feet away and floppy brown hair that stuck up in all the right places. He had long, dark eyelashes, the kind that made girls jealous. I looked down when his eyes rose to mine. He was about to give me the sympathy look.
My eyes felt heavy.
* * *
He breathes an uneasy breath, forming a cloud in the early August air.
Flame bites her lip. She couldn't cry. Not now.
"Flay..." he tries.
"Everything's fine. I'm here," is all she could manage.
"I know," he almost whispers. "With... With you by my," he coughs and winces at the gash on his hand. "With you by my side, I know everything's fine. Life is the best it could be."
Flame felt her heart quicken, she felt it stop, feel comfort in his words and break all at the same time.
From the corner of her eye Flame can see bright yellow. She wonders whether the sun's coming up and she hadn't noticed. Then she heard a voice whisper that she was trying to be protected from, only she could hear, "the time has come." There would be no sunshine.
She turns back and can see he's struggling. "I love you so much," she says and then all at once, she can't stop, "I love you. I love you. I couldn't have a better-"
"Sweetie," he stammers and manages to say through a cracked breath "I love you."
"Dad," Flame whispers. "Dad, dad. You can't go. Mum hasn't said goodbye. Dad, I love you. Dad."
She sees the bright yellow again. She feels the paramedic's hand on my back but this was no comfort. She feels nothing. I watch as the man calls the time and closes my father's eyes.
* * *
I brought my eyes back to his, finding strength somewhere in my gut. I was ready for a new pity stare by a new, so-upset-by-my-story person.
"Hey there," the boy smiled, approaching me as noise filled the room, relatives finally chatted away animatedly.
I searched. My eyes darted around his face for a few seconds, looking for some kind of sadness, some form of grief for me. Instead I found freckles, a slight smile and, what stood out the most: eyes that smiled.
"I can help you escape."
"Pardon?" I managed beneath his stare.
"They have cards. All of them. Debbie has one that reads 'A year has passed, but memories stay, our love for him, still here today.'"
I felt myself laugh and he grinned back at me. Last year was a like a second funeral but under the influence of his grin, I felt like this one might be almost bearable.
For a brief second I closed my eyes and felt a brief wave of tranquillity. I felt a smile at my lips and opened my eyes.
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