Chapter 1 of my story, which is yet untitled unfortunately
New Town The plane touches down at Tri-Township Airport in Savanna, Illinois at half five in the morning. It's a small flight, with only two families and a business man on board with us. During the flight, my parents and my eight year old sister, Annabel, become friends with the couples and enjoy a chat, but now everyone is silent as tiredness begins to take over. Especially my mother. Unaware of my eyes on her, she shakily forces the oxygen mask to her mouth and drags in a breath. Her eyes close as she continues, again and again, striving for the power to breathe without a machine. Her hand shakes as she pulls the mask away; she catches me looking at her and offers a small smile. All her smiles are small now: she doesn’t have the energy for anything else. Lung cancer. It was the day I stopped being a seventeen year old and became an adult. His words still haunt me sometimes when I look to find her disappearing before my eyes.
The plane touches down at Tri-Township Airport in Savanna, Illinois at half five in the morning. It's a small flight, with only two families and a business man on board with us. During the flight, my parents and my eight year old sister, Annabel, become friends with the couples and enjoy a chat, but now everyone is silent as tiredness begins to take over. Especially my mother.
Unaware of my eyes on her, she shakily forces the oxygen mask to her mouth and drags in a breath. Her eyes close as she continues, again and again, striving for the power to breathe without a machine. Her hand shakes as she pulls the mask away; she catches me looking at her and offers a small smile. All her smiles are small now: she doesn’t have the energy for anything else. Lung cancer. It was the day I stopped being a seventeen year old and became an adult. His words still haunt me sometimes when I look to find her disappearing before my eyes.
“I’ve got something to tell you, Saphire. It’s about your mum. The doctor got the results from the chest x-ray and blood test back. I don’t want to tell you this, but I feel you’re old enough to handle it.”
His ominous words and phrasing had frightened me. “What’s going on dad?”
“It’s cancer, Saphire. Lung cancer.”
And I hate that.
My mother used to be the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She had eyes that would sparkle when she laughed and hair that would glisten in the sun. She had a smile that could brighten anyone's day. She had a face that would know you inside out from just one look.
Then the cancer got her.
Her eyes got dull from the tiredness and pain. Her hair began to just fall away. Her smile got weaker and weaker until all she could manage was a small one. And her face, well, now she doesn't want to look at people for fear of being judged. I don't recognise this mother.
Dad stands up and pulls out her wheelchair from the cabin above, looking anxious. I quickly stand up to help; it’s expected. There are no air stewards or stewardesses to help due to the small size of the flight: dad thought a small one would be better for mum. Before we’ve properly pulled the wheelchair down though, the door to the cockpit opens and the pilot walks through.
He smiles to the other passengers and heads straight for dad. He’s dressed casually in beige trousers and a chequered red shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. The hair on his head is thinning but it’s his eyes that draw my attention: they’re the kindest I think I’ve ever seen.
He shakes my dads’ hand. “Mr Richards, I hope the flight was pleasant for you and your family?”
"It was fine, thank you."
Dad’s by her side in an instant, forcing the oxygen back to her mouth. This time mum doesn’t have the energy to take hold, so dad presses it gently to her face before he pulls its’ strap up and around her head. Dad then takes her hand, squeezing it full with the love and support he feels, now oblivious to everything else.
I look at the pilot, hoping he’ll now clear the plane and offer us the prestige of privacy. The pilot turns away and my first thought is that he doesn’t like sick people and can no longer bear to look at my mother, that is until he addresses everyone else on the plane.
“Ladies, gentlemen, I hope you all enjoyed the flight and aren’t too tired now! Your luggage can be collected upon your exit further on but for now please collect any over head luggage you brought and exit the plane through the doors I indicated earlier.”
He heads over to help the families with their young children before escorting each person to the doors. Finally, when every person has left and only my family and I are left on the plane, he turns back to the cockpit and comes out to us with four bottles of water. By now mum has leant her head back against the head rest, still weak but now breathing without the mask.
The pilot hands the water to each of us, giving mums’ to dad. “Thanks John.” Dad says, taking a quick gulp of water. He then turns to mum, sitting back down next to her. “Come on, Sophie, you need to drink this. It’ll help your chest.”
Mum turns her head slightly and looks at him. I can tell now that she won’t be with us much longer. Six months ago the chemotherapy failed. Six months ago the doctors gave up hope of seeing her next year. Six months ago mum told me she was terminal.
Gently, so as not to hurt her, dad raises and tips the bottle to her lips. As always, it takes her a while to swallow until finally she turns her head back to the side, closing her eyes.
At this, Annabel tugs at my hand, reminding me that she’s actually here. I turn and give her a kind smile. “Anna?”
“Is mummy ok?”
“Yeah, she’s just tired from the plane ride. Everything’ll be fine once we get her to the hotel.”
“I’m tired.” I’ve always loved how my sister can change topic in an instant. Nothing seems to phase her.
“I know but we’ll be at the hotel soon and you can sleep all day!” Annabel giggles as I predicted she would and sits back, looking out the window.
Due to the fact that we’re moving from New York, only dad has seen the house we’ll be moving to. It’s a risk I’ve never been particularly happy with but neither mum nor Annabel have ever protested so there’s been nothing I can do about it. I do know dads’ taste though and I’ve had butterflies since he told me he’d made an offer.
Anyhow, since this was the only flight dad could find which would take mum, due to her health, dad had to book it, despite it landing at five in the morning. To make up for it though, and I say that lightly, he’s letting us spend today and tonight in this city’s top hotel: Super 8 Savanna. Why anyone would name their hotel after a number baffles me.
Unfortunately, John isn’t as easy to pacify over my mother as Annabel was. “Mr Richards, should I go and get the ambulance men?”
Panic spreads over my mothers’ worn face and she shakes her head, before slouching back in the seat. I know what she’s thinking and why she doesn’t want them: the embarrassment alone would kill her. Mum’s never been one to listen to her body, no, she’d much rather listen to other peoples’ judgements.
“I think she just needs another minute,” I say, sitting down next to my sister. John nods but the concern doesn’t leave his face. I guess the words of a seventeen year old aren’t too reliable. All he‘s got though are my words; it’d be futile to expect dad to back them up: he’s so wrapped up with mum right now I doubt he even heard John speak.
Annabel leans across to me and rests her head on my shoulder. Silently, I pick her up and move her onto my knee, where I know from past experience she’ll be comfier. My sister may be eight, but she’s tiny and naïve and oh so innocent. She’s only had me for a parent for quite a while now.
“I’m sorry about this,” I say to John, “but we knew the change in pressure would affect her.”
John smiles at me, seeming surprised by my consideration for him. If not my consideration, he’s surprised by something. “It’s ok, dear, I helped your mother board the flight knowing the risks. I’m just happy we made it here without any problems.”
“She’s still here.” John and I turn to look at dad, John further surprised at the angry edge to his voice. I’m not surprised. I’ve heard it so many times before. “Stop talking about my wife like she isn’t here!”
At this, mum drags in a deep, ragged breath and covers dad’s hand with her own. It takes him immediately back to her and the strength the anger brought to his eyes instantly dissolves.
Sometimes, I think cancer doesn’t just kill one person. It kills everyone else who has to watch. It kills every one the sick person holds dear. It kills families. And friends.
“I’m sorry. Do you feel well enough to go now, Sophie?” His voice is back to that gentle caress. I wonder how he does it. I wonder how he manages to look upon her with love and kindness whilst looking upon me and Annabel with blindness.
“Yes.” The cancer even changed mum’s voice. It used to be soft, like honey. Now though, now it sounds like she has to use up all her strength to speak. Now it sounds like it hurts her. Now it hurts us to hear.
Relief flooding his features, John quickly pulls the wheelchair down properly and opens it up. Dad stands up and moves to pick mum up to carry her over. I’m about to move Annabel off me so I can grab the oxygen canister for mum when John gets it instead, completely shocking me. No one in New York would have done that.
Picking Annabel up in my arms (her eyes are now closed and she’s breathing so softly I don’t want to disturb her), I follow John, my dad and my mum off the plane. As usual, dad walks with the wheelchair at a steady pace, taking me back to when mum first got it and Annabel and I would race down the hall with it at top speed.
I groan as soon as I see the ambulance. It’s in the middle of the runway, standing out like cancer against a healthy lung. Fortunately though, it’s only just getting light and all the other people on the plane seem to have gone. We’re alone again.
Annabel twists in my arms so I tighten my grip on her, kissing her on the forehead. Understandably, no one’s told her what’s wrong with mum. She knows that mum isn’t very well at the minute and that she might not get better, but that’s it. Dad instructed me to tell her mum was actually dying; I didn’t have the heart.
The ambulance drivers up the oxygen pressure on mums’ machine after carrying out many tests. They think it’s fine for us to carry on to the hotel but have told dad specifically to dial 911 if anything happens. As if he wouldn’t do that anyway.
By the time the taxi comes to take us to the hotel, my eyelids are beginning to droop. Thankfully, in the taxi Annabel leaves my knee to sit by the window, watching the roads as we drive. my plan is to stay awake for the taxi drive, to try and familiarise myself with the new turnings and roads but I close my eyes at the airport and open them again when we’re at the hotel.
Considering my total lack of enthusiasm at the idea of staying here and the low level of my expectations, I’m pleasantly surprised when I get out of the taxi to look up at the huge, dazzlingly white hotel. Suddenly, staring up at the hotel, I feel like part of any family taking any normal vacation. Suddenly I feel like a normal kid.
Well, I do until dad shatters my wonderful delusion by yelling at me to help get mum safely into her wheelchair. I jump at his voice and turn to find our bags out of the boot and dad and the taxi driver next to the front passenger seat with mum. I move up to them, taking the oxygen canister and mask from mum as dad lifts her into the wheelchair.
Dad now offers the taxi driver a twenty dollar bill for the drive but the taxi driver shakes his head and returns to his car, driving away before dad can even protest. Dad does nothing but stare after him in shock.
I grin. “Apparently the people in this town are nice.” Dad just looks at me, so I take the twenty dollar bill still in his hand, fold it into the pocket of my jeans and turn to follow Annabel into the hotel. She went straight in when the taxi had stopped, eight year old excitement still bubbling over at a new place.
Once inside, I find my sister tracing the fishes in a big fish tank with her left hand, her eyes wide eyed. Ever since we visited the aquarium one day when dad and mum had to go to the hospital, Annabel’s been obsessed with fish. I don’t get it but she loves them.
Smiling at her, I turn instead to the reception desk and whack the buzzer. The door behind reception opens and out comes a middle aged woman, with greying hair and small, silver glasses. She smiles at me. “Hello dear.”
I cast a brief glance outside to see dad and mum barely past the front steps so decide it’s best if I do the checking in. “Hello. My family and I are booked in to stay in a room tonight.”
“What name is it?”
She smiles. “Ah yes, I remember speaking to your father.” She rummages in a draw, fishing out a key and handing it to me. “This is your key. You’ll find your room on the bottom floor, the door facing the swimming pool around the back. I hope you have a nice day and check out tomorrow is three.”
I smile. “Thank you.” I turn away, looking at my sister. “Come on Annabel, we’ll come back and see those later on if you want.” Looking unimpressed with this suggestion, my sister turns around and stalks outside to our parents. Sighing, I walk outside myself and lead my family to our current accommodation.
We’re in one big room with two double beds. There’s a chest of draws at the end of one bed and a wardrobe next to the door. I walk through and pull of my jacket, throwing it on the left side of the second bed. Mum and dad should have the nearest one.
Dad wheels mum in and then returns with our bags, shutting the door behind him. We actually don’t have many bags or luggage at all: dad’s company have agreed to send a few vans up from New York tomorrow with the rest of our stuff, including dad’s car.
Annabel goes round to the bed I’ve put my jacket on and lies down, wrapping the covers around her and closing her eyes. I smile and move over to the bags, picking them up and putting mum and dads’ in the wardrobe and me and my sisters’ on top of the chest of draws.
“You okay, mum?” I ask.
She gives me a weak smile. “I’m fine,” she lets out a breath and sucks in another one, “Saph,” again, she lets out the breath and sucks in another one, “just tired.” I nod and look to dad, finding my thoughts mirrored on his face: I shouldn’t have asked and made her talk.
Still staring at me, dad rubs his hands together and says, “well, come on, time for bed I think.” He turns and looks at the wardrobe. “I really can’t be bothered getting changed though.” Mum smiles.
Gently, he goes round to her and lifts her out of the wheelchair, moving her over to the bed. I flip back the covers just in time and then neatly tuck her in, moving the oxygen mask so it’s within easy reach. Removing his jacket, dad gets in next to her, muttering a ‘goodnight’ to me before turning over and closing his own eyes.
I stand there for a while, watching my family drift off into sleep. Moving here was my idea. I had many motives but the noticed one was that a change might do mum good. She’s always hated New York anyway and Savanna was her choice for a new place. I only wonder how long she’ll spend with us here.
I flip off my shoes and get into bed next to Annabel, leaning back and trying to get comfortable. It doesn’t happen. I toss and turn until I’m no longer tired at all and am being driven mad by the sound of dad’s snoring.
Eventually, my mind drifts back to New York to find solace there. It fails. I close my eyes and the image of the very reason I so desperately wanted to leave swims before me, making me jump up and tear open my eyes again.
I realise this isn’t working. Getting up, I put my shoes back on and silently rummage around in dad’s jacket for the keys to our new house. Within minutes, I’m back at the reception desk asking for a cab.
By half seven I’m outside my new house, all alone. The cab dropped me off half an hour ago but I’ve still not managed to sum up enough courage to go in on my own. Something seems to stop me accepting and starting this new life.
From the outside, I can’t say I’m disappointed at all with dads choice. The house is huge. From the front is the main door, a main window on one side and another smaller window on the other and two windows upstairs with an attic window. It’s white with blue shutters and it takes me back to when I was younger and used to imagine what my dream house would one day look like. Before I stopped caring about my future.
The keys are pressing against my leg inside my jeans pocket but I don’t reach to move them. I couldn’t wait to leave New York. In the final few days I never left the apartment, simply spent all my time and energy packing. It was my way of bringing the move closer.
See, I wanted to start again. I was never happy in New York: I didn’t have many friends; I didn’t enjoy school; I had many bad memories there. Coming to Savanna was a chance to start afresh, to make new friends, new memories.
Suddenly though, as I stand in front of my new house, I’m not sure if that’s possible. I’m not sure I can make new friends. I’m not sure I can make new memories. I’m not sure I even know how to.
But I have to.
Taking a deep breath, I step forwards and, taking the key from my pocket, let myself in my new home. And it takes my breath away.