Worth fighting for, p.4
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       Worth Fighting For, p.4

         Part #2 of Fighting to Be Free series by Kirsty Moseley
 

  Everything in me wanted to stride over there, close the gap between us, and wrap her in my arms. I needed to comfort her, to kiss her hair, to stroke her back and tell her everything was going to be okay, that I was here for her and that I’d never leave her again. But my legs just weren’t moving. I stood stock-still, hidden from view by the gathering people, wondering what she would do if she saw me. Would it make it worse or better? If I strode over to her, covered in bruises, reeking of last night’s alcohol, with my opponent’s blood dried and spattered on my sneakers, what would she do? I’d come here to see her, to help her, but now that I was here, I somehow knew that I would make it worse for her if I revealed myself. She was already dealing with so much that being confronted by the guy who broke her heart probably wouldn’t help.

  While I was still wrestling with what to do, a blur of blonde breezed through the crowd. Ellie’s eyes twitched; her lips parted, then pulled into a small, sad smile, and the blonde girl crashed into her at practically full speed.

  I sighed, my hope for any kind of reconciliation fading as Stacey stroked Ellie’s hair, just as I had wanted to do, and comforted her with an embrace. I’d never been jealous of a girl until now.

  I turned, scowling down at the floor, and slinked out of the airport, heading back to my car before I could be seen.

  CHAPTER 5

  ELLIE

  THE BAGGAGE CLAIM area of JFK airport was a hive of activity. People buzzed around me, pushing their carts, talking to each other about where was the optimal place to stand so they could make a quick grab for their luggage. They chatted excitedly about their vacation plans, where they were supposed to meet their transfer buses; they laughed, smiled, carried on as normal. I was numb to it all, wondering silently how these people didn’t know I was screaming inside, breaking, grieving so badly that it felt like a hole had been punched directly through my chest. Surely it was etched as clearly on my face as it was on my heart?

  I moved slowly through the crowds, checking my phone every few seconds. I’d turned off airplane mode as soon as I was off the plane, but it was taking a while to find a network to connect to—too used to being on UK networks for the last couple of years. It was still searching for a signal when I stopped next to the designated conveyor belt for my flight.

  After a minute or so, the quintessentially British family who had sat behind me on the eight-hour flight squeezed into the gap next to me. Their little girl, who was probably no older than six, was whining about how she was tired, how she was bored, asking and asking how much longer it was going to be before they could start their holiday. Her voice, getting louder and louder by the second, was making my head throb.

  On the plane she’d been excitable, babbling about what she wanted to do and see first in New York, speculating about their hotel, how warm their pool would be. She’d sat nicely for hours on end, watching in-flight movies, laughing at whatever she was engrossed in. Now, though, it seemed her patience had worn thin, and she wanted out of the airport immediately.

  I glanced down at her, not really seeing her. I hadn’t been able to focus on much since the phone call fourteen hours ago, the one that ripped my life apart and threw me into a spiral of grief, loss, and guilt. I was on autopilot, going through the motions: show passport, collect ticket, sit on plane, get off, show passport, collect baggage—I was still on that part.

  “Sorry, she’s a little overexcited. And she didn’t manage to get any sleep on the plane, so it’s been a long day.”

  I dragged my gaze up from the little girl, who was now being distracted by her mother with a packet of candy, and met her dad’s eyes as he smiled at me apologetically. Graham, his name was; I knew this from the plane.

  I couldn’t quite summon a smile but tried anyway. “It’s fine, don’t apologize.” My voice came out as a mumble as I watched the little girl reach out and take her dad’s hand. My chest squeezed at the small gesture, the bond between father and daughter. Something I would never have again. I wrenched my gaze away from them—this perfectly cute little family of three, the girl and her dad—as memories of trips, plane rides, hand holding surfaced in my mind. Seeing it hurt, and I wanted to turn to him and tell him not to let her take it for granted, to treasure every second because you never know when it could be taken away from you.

  I didn’t, though. I held my tongue, instead busying myself by jabbing at the screen of my phone, willing it to connect so I could see if there was any news from my grandmother. Before I’d boarded the plane in London, my mother’s condition had been stable. She had come out of surgery with no complications and had been admitted to recovery. Then I had to turn my phone to airplane mode, so I hadn’t heard anything else. A lot could have happened in those eight extremely long hours. I just prayed she was still there, still fighting, because I wasn’t sure how I would cope if I lost them both.

  Just as luggage started to appear on the conveyor belt, the mockingjay whistle from The Hunger Games sounded from my phone, alerting me of a new message. It had finally connected to a network. A couple of texts came at once, and I held my breath as I unlocked my screen, punching in my passcode to awaken it.

  Two messages: one from my best friend, Stacey, the other from Toby. I sighed, more than a little relieved that there was no message from my nana. No news was good news, wasn’t that how the saying went? No message meant that my mother was still with us, recovering from her operation. At least, I hoped that’s what it meant.

  I opened Stacey’s message first: I’m on my way! Late as usual. Stuck in traffic. Be there in a few xxx

  I smiled, remembering my least favorite trait of hers—her inability to ever be on time for anything. In a weird way, I’d even missed that about her. I’d called her before I boarded, asking if she could pick me up from the airport. I knew I’d need to see a friendly face after hours of being on my own during the flight. Stacey had agreed at once, as I’d known she would. I could barely wait to see her; it had been way too long.

  I didn’t bother to reply; she was driving and would be here soon anyway. I opened the message from Toby: I love you. Text me when you land and call when you can xx

  A lump formed in my throat at his short but sweet message. Toby had been amazing since I heard the news. He’d stepped in and taken control, soothing me, settling me, and even making me a cup of tea for the shock—a Brit’s answer to everything. He’d called my nana back, getting the full story of what had happened because I still couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud. Then he’d booked the first available flight out to New York, and he’d even packed my clothes for me. I wasn’t sure what I would have done without him.

  Unfortunately, though, he hadn’t been able to come with me. At least, not straightaway. He had his kids staying over, and their mother was on holiday so he couldn’t send them back early. Plus, he had the pub to run, and that would take a couple of days to get covered even if he hadn’t had the kids over. He’d tried to persuade me to wait a few days before leaving so that I wouldn’t have to make the trip alone, but I hadn’t been able to wait. I needed to get there. I needed to see my sister, hold her, cry with her, and tell her everything was going to be fine.

  As I read his message again, a wave of loneliness hit me, causing my stomach to clench and my skin to goose-bump even though it wasn’t particularly cold in the terminal. Taking a deep breath, I wrapped my arms around my torso, hugging myself tightly as I watched the cases pass me slowly, none of them mine.

  When mine finally came around, I struggled to lift it, the weight and movement of it catching me off guard, and Graham, the dad from the family next to me, had to grab it for me and hoist it off the belt and onto the floor.

  “Thank you,” I mumbled, still fighting my loneliness.

  The little girl’s mother frowned, her eyes narrowing in concern as she reached out and placed a hand on my elbow. “You okay, honey? You look a little pale. You feelin’ all right?”

  I tried to smile but my mouth just wasn’t cooperating. Instead,
I gave a small nod. “I’m fine. Just tired,” I lied. “Have a nice vacation.” Without another word, I turned and followed the crowd of people who already had their cases, heading through the nothing to declare exit and finally stepping out into the arrivals lounge.

  After a quick glance around at the people milling there, holding name cards or flowers, at the one lady with her welcome home banner, I noted that Stacey wasn’t among the crowd, so I stepped to the side, leaning against the wall as I sent a quick reply to Toby, telling him I’d arrived safely and would call him later.

  I tried to keep my eyes down, focused on the floor, not wanting to see the hugs and kisses that were sure to accompany the squeals of delight when people met up with their relatives and loved ones. But I lost the battle and looked around, watching as they walked into each other’s arms, smiled, laughed, embraced. A stab of jealousy hit me when I saw a guy in a full dress suit walk out of the exit and straight into the waiting arms of the lady with the homemade welcome home banner. The family that had sat behind me walked out too, the little girl happier now as she perched upon the luggage while her dad wheeled the cart along. I ground my teeth, glancing around again, silently hoping Stacey had appeared in the last few moments. I didn’t want to stand here alone anymore. As if my hopes had been answered, she darted through the door, her lithe, athletic body dodging around people as she mumbled “Excuse me” to them.

  Some of the tension seemed to leave me at the beautiful sight of her, and for the first time since I woke at four a.m. to the sound of the ringing phone, I felt a small smile tug at the corners of my mouth. I stepped forward, dragging my case behind me, and Stacey crashed into me, the force of it almost knocking us both off our feet. Air left my lungs in a rush as her arms wrapped around me, her fingers digging into my back as she clutched me to her tightly. When warmth enveloped me, I felt the emotional wall I’d constructed around myself on the plane begin to splinter and crack. I closed my eyes, fighting to regain my composure and not break down. I couldn’t afford to lose control of myself again; there was no Toby here to look after me this time. I had to be strong. I was the one who needed to do the looking after; I was going to be the one who had to reassure and be a tower of strength for my thirteen-year-old sister. She deserved for me to be there and be strong for her; I couldn’t turn up a watery, blubbering mess of hysteria.

  I pulled back, looking into Stacey’s red-rimmed eyes. “Hi,” I croaked.

  “Hi,” she squeaked, pulling me into another bone-crushingly tight hug. “Oh, Ellie, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I can do, but if there’s anything, anything...”

  She didn’t need to finish the sentence, I knew what she was saying. I nodded, biting my cheek just hard enough that the pain from it kept my mind focused. No one paid us any mind as they walked around us, oblivious to the pain we were sharing.

  She pulled back again, sniffing and plucking a Kleenex from her pocket, proceeding to wipe her eyes with it. I let my gaze wander over her; she looked the same as I’d left her three years ago—tall, slim, and effortlessly beautiful, even with the messy topknot and the bloodshot eyes.

  Her smile, warm and comforting, somehow made it seem a little bit easier to breathe. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

  I shook my head in rejection. “I want to go straight to the hospital.”

  Her arm looped through the crook of my free one as she guided me along toward the exit. “It’s between visiting hours, they won’t let you in. Your nana said to bring you home first and you can go to the hospital later.”

  “Oh.” I tugged my jacket tighter around my body, shielding myself against the chill in the air as I blindly let her lead me along, stopping to pay for her parking ticket, before guiding me to her car—a brand-new Mercedes S-Class, the coupe version. My eyes widened in surprise as she pressed a button and raised the trunk.

  I picked up my luggage, forcing it into the small trunk, thanking my lucky stars that I’d only packed a medium case and not tried to bring all my things in a large one; there was no way anything bigger would have fit.

  “This is a nice car,” I mused as we slid into our seats. “Did you come into some money while I was away?” I joked, shifting in my plush leather seat and reaching to turn on the heat because March weather here was slightly colder than what I was used to in London.

  “It’s not mine. It belongs to my boss, Owen,” she answered, starting the car with the push of a button.

  “And your boss doesn’t mind you borrowing his car?” I asked, wanting to keep the conversation going so there wasn’t any silence. When the silence started, my brain whirled, and my grief intensified and became too painful.

  She shrugged, smiling over at me before pulling out of the space and heading toward the exit. “Owen likes to make me happy, because he knows if I’m happy, then I keep him happy. If you know what I mean...” She trailed off suggestively, leaving the meaning hanging in the air.

  Understanding washed over me. “You’re sleeping with your boss?” I asked, a little shocked she hadn’t told me this tidbit of information before. I knew Stacey was personal assistant to some rich businessman who made a fortune from real estate developments, but in all the times we’d spoken, she’d never once mentioned the fact that she was seeing the guy outside of work.

  She pursed her lips, glancing at me from the corner of her eye. “When it suits me to, yes.”

  The drive from the airport to my house seemed to take forever. Stacey talked practically the whole way without much encouragement or participation needed from me—for that I was grateful, because my exhausted brain wasn’t up to much socializing.

  As we pulled into my street, drove up the road that I had learned to ride my bike on, passed trees that I had climbed and doors I had knocked on at Halloween, my heart became heavier. When the familiar white house came into view, my heart seemed to skip a beat. My eyes took in everything: the polished windows, the immaculately cut grass, the spring flowers just beginning to peek through the freshly overturned earth in the borders, the perfectly edged lawn, all of it so familiar it was like the last three years hadn’t happened.

  I popped my seat belt and climbed out of the car still in a daze, my body just going through the motions while my brain was still playing catch-up. Stacey was quicker than me, already having lifted my case from the trunk and standing by the curb, waiting for me with a sad smile on her face. I smiled back, or tried to, and her arm wrapped around my shoulders, giving me a small comforting squeeze as we walked up the stone path toward the blue front door.

  At the door, we stopped, and I reached out, my hand on the cold knob, unsure if I was strong enough to go in. Inside, people were grieving, just like me, people hurting, and I was supposed to be able to be strong enough to hold them all together. What if I couldn’t cut it? What if I broke down and made things worse? What if I—

  But I didn’t have enough time to complete my worried thoughts, because the door swung inward, and there stood my nana in one of her floral dresses, an apron tied around her waist. She had aged quite visibly since the last time I saw her, the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth more prominent, her hair thinner, her cheeks hollowed, her small frame now looking frail instead of sturdy. The dark circles under her eyes betrayed how tired she was. Her thin lips twitched into a smile, her eyes shining and pooling with tears as she opened her arms to me.

  Without hesitation I stepped into her embrace, wrapping my arms around her, noticing how much weight she’d lost. I could feel the bones of her back and ribs pressed against me. The three years had changed her so much, and I suddenly realized how old she had gotten.

  “Oh, Ellie, I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, pulling back and holding me at arm’s length, her eyes shining as she cupped my cheek softly with her cool hand.

  I gulped, willing my voice to work. “It’s great to see you. I’ve missed you so much.”

  Her smile grew, but in her eyes, I could see the sadness swelling. She looked stressed, worn, close to the br
eaking point. I could see the desperation and sadness in her eyes as she stroked the side of my face, just looking at me softly. Finally, as the silence stretched out and neither of us knew what to say, she blinked a couple of times and stepped back, pulling the door open wider. “Well, don’t just stand there all day, we’re letting all the heat out.” Nana smiled weakly over my shoulder. “Hello, Stacey dear.”

  As the door swung open, a wave of nostalgia hit me at seeing the hallway and all of our possessions there: the umbrella stand, the oil painting my dad had purchased for my mom when I was young, the side table with the old-fashioned dial telephone on it that didn’t actually work but was there just for show because my mom had thought it pretty. Seeing it all was like a stab to the gut as memories intensified my heartache.

  I took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold, instantly noticing how quiet the house was. It was never quiet like this unless it was empty. There was always a TV or radio on, always Kelsey singing or dancing around, my mom’s foreign language tapes playing lightly in the background while she repeated the words she couldn’t quite pronounce. The house was always warm, bright, and full of noise. Now, though, it felt cold and devoid of life, even though there were people inside.

  I gulped, my eyes moving around slowly, stopping on the shoe rack that was off to one side. My heart stuttered as I saw a pair of large shiny black men’s shoes neatly stacked there. My dad’s shoes. My body suddenly felt cold, so I wrapped my arms around myself, dragging my eyes away from the shoes and back to my nana’s face.

  “How’s Mom?” I asked, my throat scratchy.

  Nana’s eyes dropped to the floor as she unconsciously wiped her hands on her apron. “She’s still in recovery. They sent us home a couple of hours ago and promised to call if there was a change.”

  I nodded slowly, not knowing what else to say. I couldn’t bring myself to mention my dad—not yet, maybe not ever. “Are you okay? You look tired.”

  She shook her head as if to clear it, a forced smile gracing her lips but not reaching her eyes. “I’m fine, honey. Don’t worry about me. I was just making some lunch. Are you hungry, have you eaten?”

  Food. My nana’s answer to everything. The Brits had their tea, and my nana liked to feed people until they were fit to burst. “I’m not hungry,” I answered automatically. I should have been hungry; I hadn’t eaten all day. Being on UK time, it was now dinnertime and I’d skipped three meals already, but my body was too tightly strung to feel anything as mundane as hunger. Food was way down on the list of priorities.

  “You sure? How about I make you a plate anyway?” she cajoled, already heading to the kitchen, where I could smell the unmistakable scent of five-bean chili, Nana’s specialty.

  “I ate on the plane, Nana,” I lied, wanting this conversation to be over already. She stopped, turning back to me, her disappointment evident in her slouched shoulders. I knew she was just trying to keep busy, keep herself distracted, but I wouldn’t even be able to force down a single bite. “Where’s Kels?” I asked, looking over her head and into the empty living room.

  Nana’s body seemed to tighten. “She’s up in her bedroom. She
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