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“Again. No freaking way. You told me that you were coming home tomorrow! You can't be pushing the date back again!” I was almost screaming into the phone. My throat was so tight that I was clueless as to how this much sound was bursting from my lips. I didn't even try to hold back the tears, just so Conan could hear them in my voice.
“I'm sorry, Jell-O, I—”
“You can't call me Jell-O anymore! I'm Jill!” I wailed, cutting off his quivering voice. I hunched over, my free hand clutching my ribcage to keep my heart from ripping through. Why was he delaying so much? Didn't he know how much I needed him now? How could he even think of work after what happened?
“Jill. Okay. I'll call you Jill. But you have to listen to me, Jill. I'll call you Jill if you don't hang up on me.” Conan's voice was hard and steady this time, trying to push his way into my head. I couldn't say anything for a while. When he got tired of waiting, he said, in the same hard tone, “Jill, We do have to live after this. I'll lose my job if I go. My bosses made that very clear-”
“Stop lying, Conan! They would let you if you told them what happened! They're not soulless vultures!” I cried. I was then overwhelmed by sobs, violent enough so I didn't notice the long stretch of silence that followed my words. It took who knows how long for a quiet, pained voice to touch my ears.
“And I am?”
In any average fight, the hurt tone of his voice would have tugged at my heart, and made me want to end the argument. This fight, however, was worlds away from those kinds of fights.
'Yeah. Yeah, you ARE a soulless vulture. Beady eyes and all. I bet that tight sound in your voice is just because a bird's throat is smaller then a human's. You don't feel anything at all! Is that why you're not coming home to ease your wife's broken heart?'
Those thoughts swam through my head. I ached to speak them, to hold him accountable for what he was doing. I couldn't speak, for fear that the words would slip through my lips so quickly that I couldn't rein them back in. The words were pushing to hard to be let out... I was afraid that simply opening my mouth would release them. My worries evaporated as his voice took hold in my head, knocking the thoughts out of my mind.
“I am. I get it. That's what you think. I can take a hint! But you're WRONG!” Conan's voice shook with rage. I could hear him swallowing hard, trying to scale down his emotions. He was never one to yell. A much softer tone was took his pained whisper, “I... I just don't want to plan for a funeral... not for her. She wasn't supposed to need one now...”
Suddenly I was shaking so hard that my phone toppled out of my hands. The tears were too hot against my burning skin, like fresh lava over hot cinders. It was worse when they fell onto my arms, though. They were cold, still taking in the shock of what had happened. After I stopped hurting over Conan, the rest of me would match. Then I could hurt over someone else entirely.
In the midst of my next wave of tears, my lips broke open. Air raced inside me, letting the fast, jagged breaths of a sob begin once more. I'd kept my lips so tight to keep from spilling my enraged feelings to Conan. It should've been a relief to finally be able to say them, even with no listener, but all I could feel was pain now. No good emotions could come near me. Not now. Not ever again.
Suddenly my heart started hurting so badly that I rolled down to my side, taking up the entire space of the park bench. The tears stopped running, but only because my heart was in too much pain for tears. I closed my eyes, knowing that if I kept them open, I would forget that I needed to blink. This pain would make sure of that.
The ache wasn't Conan's fault. It was for someone else. Someone of much more value. Someone who my heart beat for the moment she came into existance. Someone whose loss tortured me beyond any person could imagine.
With one last spear of burning pain, Conan's pain ended, and hers began. Shuddering, I felt this new pain, the different kind of pain, change me. The heat I felt from Conan's actions seeped away, allowing cold to seep in. Now I was too cold. Much too cold. Like my insides had been turned to dry ice. The hot summer afternoon sun was like a flashlight, making no effect on the searing cold that froze me to the park bench.
I could have been lying in the midst of a fiercest, coldest, most violent blizzard of all time. Nothing would have changed inside me. I might not even notice the temperature change, because my soul was colder. I was frozen. I would never melt. Not after... her.
Flame touched my skin. Or at least it felt like flame. It burned my skin like a red-hot iron. That made it hard to notice how soft and gentle the fire was. The fire pushed under my shoulder and pulled me upright onto the parking bench. Then the rest of my body burst into flame, the soft cheek singing mine and the burning arms toasting my shoulders. I was welcome to the flame, though. Anything was better then the bitter cold. So I wrapped my arms around the flame, pulling it closer into a deep embrace.
The fire didn't melt the ice. It was more like the fire scared the ice, chasing it down to my heart and restraining it so it couldn't spread again. It felt so good to be free of the ice that for a moment, a glimmer of happiness came close to appearing. But the hollowness left from the ice refused to allow any more then that.
I breathed in deeply, hoping to fill the hollowness. My chest tightened, as if rejecting my attempt. My body was determined to stay hollow, and to do so, it refused air. The hollow feeling grew worse without air, swallowing up more and more of me. Suddenly, I was gasping, trying to get something to lessen the hollowness spreading inside of me. The gasping was of no help, only making me tighten up even more. Only the fire could keep the hollowness at bay. The burning, hot fire that scared the cold away... the kind, compassionate, almost maternal fire...
“You okay, sweetheart?” The fire whispered. All the tightness vanished and my eyes flew open.
Flowy white hair filled my vision and sweet raspberry perfume warmed my nose. I wanted to see who the stranger was, but I couldn't pull away. My arms were welded to the fire woman.
“No,” My voice came out completely distorted by sadness, making me wonder how it could have possibly come from me.
“Why is that, kiddo?” Her last word hit me in an odd way, sinking into the ice still buried in my heart.
Kiddo. I used to call her 'Kiddo.' A quivering breath escaped me before it happened.
An explosion of blinding, mind-numbing, and nearly deadly pain shot out from the depths of my heart. My heart had ripped. That had to be it, because there was no other explanation for this much pain. Why else would it feel like an earthquake inside of me? Why else would I be shaking so hard? Why ELSE would I be dying inside?
I thrust the stranger away. A hug couldn't help me now, and I would not spread the cold. So the comforting scent of her raspberry perfume vanished, and the ice came rushing back to me. I was suddenly shivering, more violently then ever before. Clutching my sides, I tried to hold myself together. I wanted the hug, but sharing this cold would be no way to show my gratitude. But I couldn't stop myself from looking. I glanced -just for a brief second- at the fire stranger, expecting to see her walking away, thinking that I didn't want someone here.
The stranger, a woman in her sixties with flossy white hair and sad blue eyes, hadn't left. Instead, she smiled understandingly and extended a hand.
I felt a pang. Conan should be the one here, extending his hand to me. Instead it was a stranger. Exhaling slowly, I took her hand. She sat beside me, rubbing my shoulders in a strange motherly manner.
“I'm Lily,” She breathed. I lowered my eyes.
“Jill.” I said so quietly that I wasn't sure she heard. There was silence after that. The silence was not empty, though. I could feel binds developing between us, like real friends rather then strangers. Lily knew what I was going through...
“You're not alone,” Lily said, her gentle robin's egg blue eyes on me. “When I saw you... I remembered how it felt to lose Charlie,” She swallowed, biting her lip before she continued. “...My son.”
The ice overpowered me in seconds.
“Dead!” I wailed, tears streaming down my cheeks. “My baby is dead! She was only five!” I screamed, not caring that I was turning heads.
“I'm sorry, sweetie.” Lily whispered. I could barely hear her. Thoughts of Cioccolato were exploding through my head like a thousand mines. My heart was even worse, a battlefield of a billion bombs.
Cioccolato! My sweet little baby, was dead. Gone. Plowed over in a hit-and-run. Killed in an instant. There was no worse crime then killing her. The driver got away with murdering an angel.
Suddenly I couldn't get her out of my head. Her gentle waves of cinnamon hair that dangled just over her shoulders, her warm cream skin, her round, full pink lips that tripled in beauty just from a smile, and most of all, her loving, sweet brown eyes the exact color of chocolate chips on cookies, still melted from baking-- it had all been stolen away in a fraction of a second. I could never again stare into her beautiful eyes and wonder how they could possibly be such a wondrous shade.
The memory surfaced before I could stop it. I'd been gardening in the front yard, only slightly watching Ciocco. She was playing with a little rubber ball. I'd had my back to her... I didn't notice when she threw the ball onto the road. There was barely any traffic. She should have been able to grab it and come out fine. She should have... but didn't.
The sound of her scream... it more horrible then any sound I had ever heard. Her fear, shock, and pain all tied together in the sound. The only sound worse was the car hitting her. I remembered bolting to my baby, screaming and my body shaking. When I reached her there was already a pool of blood beneath her head. She was just crossing the street to get the ball she threw too far off our yard. She couldn't have died... Not just for crossing the street!
I was screaming, trying to get her to wake up. But her eyes were open. She couldn't be asleep, yet I couldn't register that she was dead. I called an ambulance despite the fact that no one could save her. It wasn't until they arrived that I finally looked into her eyes. It was only then did I see it.
Her eyes were no longer the sweet Italian chocolate brown for which she was named. The melted chocolate had hardened because there was no Cioccolato to keep it warm. Ciocco was dead.
“Jill,” Lily whispered. My eyes flew to her, but it wasn't her I was seeing. I saw Ciocco's empty eyes. Everywhere I looked Ciocco's lifeless eyes followed. I wanted the living ones! The ones that I looked into when I called her 'Kiddo!' ...The ones that that I could never stop missing.
“I can't move on,” I croaked. “I just can't.”
“Then don't.” Lily breathed. “You can never let go, sweetie.”
I said nothing for a long while. It was then that I realized that I couldn't fight the ice.
“No, I can't,” Was my reply, my voice finally calm and smooth. My eyes fell on Lily one last time, actually seeing her for this instant. Then, closing my eyes, I filled my head with memories of my daughter.
“I love you, Mama,” Her voice was like a songbird in the early morning. I couldn't help but smile at the child nestled in my arms. “I love you more then anything!”
“I love you, Cioccolato,” I whispered, kissing her soft hair. “I'm never going to let you go.”
“I'm not going anywhere, Mama.”
I smiled. “You're right,” I pressed my lips to her cheek. “I love you, kiddo”
“I love you too. And I'm never gonna leave.”