“You’re staying at home because of me, aren’t you?” I persisted.
“Sweetheart…” Mum sighed. “I love being here with you. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
There was silence and we watched as Jo turned down Laurie’s proposal, which, every time I watch it, I wish she would say yes.
“But still, I think you should go back to work,” I said. “You’re all shiny when you’re at work.”
“Shiny?” Mum seemed a bit taken aback.
“Shiny. Like, super-mum.”
Mum looked incredibly touched. She blinked a few times and threaded another ribbon through the bow, and then said,
“It’s not as simple as that, Audrey. I might have to travel, there are long hours, you’re starting a new school…”
“So we’ll make it work,” I said, as robustly as I could. “Mum, there’s no point me getting better if things don’t get better for all of us. I mean, we’ve all had a bad time, haven’t we?”
I’d been thinking about that all morning. About how it would be easy for me to get better and spring happily through the door, and leave Mum and Dad and Frank and Felix behind. But it shouldn’t be like that. We were all affected by what happened. We should all spring happily out of the door together.
Well, you know. Maybe Frank could slouch happily.
We watched for a while more in silence. Then Mum said, as though she was carrying on the same conversation,
“Dr. Sarah told me why you ditched your meds. You wanted to have a straight graph?”
My heart kind of sank. I had really not wanted to get onto the subject of meds. But I might have known it would come up.
“I wanted to be better,” I mumbled, feeling hot. “You know. Properly, one hundred percent better. No meds, nothing.”
“You are better.” Mum put my face between her hands, just like she used to when I was a little girl. “Sweetheart, you’re so much better every week. I mean, you’re a different girl. You’re ninety percent there. Ninety-five percent. You must be able to see that.”
“But I’m sick of this bloody jagged graph,” I said in frustration. “You know, two steps up, one step down. It’s so painful. It’s so slow. It’s like this endless game of snakes and ladders.”
And Mum just looked at me as if she wanted to laugh or maybe cry, and she said, “But, Audrey, that’s what life is. We’re all on a jagged graph. I know I am. Up a bit, down a bit. That’s life.”
And then Jo met Professor Bhaer, so we had to watch that bit.
And then Beth died. So I guess the March sisters were on their own jagged graph too.
That night I come downstairs for a cup of hot chocolate and hear Dad saying, “Anne, I’ve ordered Frank a new laptop. There. I’ve said it. It’s done.”
I creep forward and peer through the open door to see Mum almost drop her mug.
“A new laptop?”
“Secondhand. Excellent price. I went to Paul Taylor, he has some good deals—” Dad breaks off at Mum’s expression. “Anne, OK. I know what we said. I know. But I can’t cope with the tension in this house anymore. And Frank’s right, he does need the Internet for his schoolwork, and he can hack into my emails, as we now know…”
“I can’t believe you just went and did it.”
Mum is shaking her head, but she doesn’t sound quite as shrieky as I was expecting. In fact, she seems almost calm.
It’s eerie. I’m not sure I like Mum calm. She’s better all mad and voluble.
“Is it so bad for Frank to play computer games once in a while?” ventures Dad.
“Oh, I don’t know, Chris.” Mum rubs her face. “I don’t know anymore. About anything.”
“Well, nor do I.” He pulls her in for a hug. “Anyway, I’ve got him a laptop.”
“OK.” Mum kind of subsides onto Dad and I can see how tired out she is. Frank said he’s never seen Mum like she was when I was missing. She was kind of grey, he said. And her eyes were flat inside, like their battery had died.
I’ll never get over doing that to them. But I’m not brooding. I’ve talked to Dr. Sarah about it and we’ve agreed that the best way I can make it up to them is to stay well. Stay on my meds. Think healthful thoughts.
“You remember that Christmas when they got ill?” Mum says presently. “The year they were about two and three? Remember? And got poo all over their Christmas stockings, and it was everywhere, and we said, ‘It has to get easier than this’?”