It was brighter than it usually was when Cornelia arrived home from work. Maybe it was in her head. After all, it wasn't every evening she got to hang out with the coolest person she'd ever known. Part of her wanted to make the most of the shimmering sun as it descended, and sit out in the back garden and paint. It had been weeks since she'd painted anything but the yellow plastic lilies her mother insisted on her painting.
Then again, she thought, as she jogged upstairs to get out of her sticky uniform, soon it would be too late. Six months. Then this could never happen. For months. Maybe even years - who knew?
She found her mother dusting her bookshelves when she walked into her bedroom. The yellow light of the early sunset made the cream walls look less plain that usual. Even gave a pinch of colour to her mother's cheeks.
"You headed out so early this morning!" her mother whined as a form of greeting. Cornelia noted that she was still wearing the flannel pyjamas she'd had on that morning when she'd checked in on her an 7:30.
"I know, I had the early shift." Cornelia unbuttoned the blue checked blouse as she spoke.
"I wanted you to open your present before I went in to the clinic."
"I know, Mam, I'm sorry." The sickening thing was that Cornelia really was sorry - but the words that came out were heavy with strain and didn't sound genuine at all. It was also sickening that she had made it until this hour of the day without thinking about her birthday very much. But her mother had just made it real. She was twenty. Well and truly.
Her cheeks felt tight and fake as she beamed into her mother's face. "I'll open it now for you, if you want."
"Please, do. I barely ever get to see you, Nel."
Cornelia swapped her work blouse for a cotton t-shirt as her mother padded out onto the landing. She also exchanged the scratchy grey trousers for a pair of elasticated grey tracksuit bottoms.
"We could hang out more if you'd come to Mercy's with me," she called out, stepping in front of the mirror and scooping her elbow-length blonde hair into a loose ponytail to the side of her head.
"Nel, stop it. We've discussed this." Her mother returned, bearing a cuboid enfolded in paper of reflective gold and silver. Her eyes were soft, inviting, excited. Cornelia rarely got to see her excited anymore. It was a very welcome change.
The smile came to her face much more easily as she scampered across the room - more like a six year old than the twenty year old she was - to sit on her floral bedspread and take the package. She relished the smooth texture of the paper, the weight of the box. The suspense, the tingling sensation of not knowing what lay just milimetres below her fingertips.
"I know how much jewellery you already have," her mother blabbed excitedly, wringing her hands in anticipation. "So I thought - I dunno - I thought this might be a nicer touch."
Cornelia peeled away the wrapping to reveal a glossed wooden bow, decorated with swirling painted flowers in the most subdued shades of green and pink. She gently lifted the lid to find six little felted compartments. It smelt of wood, and new.
"It's lovely, Mammy, thank you," she grinned, hopping up to hug her mother, more whole-heartedly than she had in a long time.
"Thank you, pet, for opening it. I know this day hasn't exactly been.... Fun for you, has it?"
Cornelia grimaced tightly as she pulled back.
"We'll have a chat in the morning, yeah? I made some scones today, we can have one before you head off to work."
"Yeah." Cornelia nodded. "Yeah, Mammy, yeah, we can do that." She was suddenly hesitant to rush off again so soon. What kind of daughter only showed her face around the house for ten minutes of the day, and even then only stay around long enough to open a present? "Are you sure you don't want me to stay home with you tonight?"
"Oh!" her mother exclaimed. "Not at all, Nelly! I've the new episode of The Walking Dead saved on the box for myself. I'll be grand!"
Cornelia smiled again.
"No, you run along, pet. Your sister'll be waiting for you."
"Just say hi to Mercedes for me, won't you?"
"I will, Mammy."