Friday, 5 October 2012

Good Things, Small Packages by Natasha J. Stillman

"Once upon a time," Katya began. 

"Once upon a time, there was a woman who loved..."

"...to read. Just like me,” chirped the voice from the bed.

Katya smiled down at her daughter, auburn hair fanned out like a frame around her head on the pillow.

"Yes, she loved to read, just like you. But, she was very sad."

"Not like me, Mama."

"No, dear heart. Not like you."

Katya gingerly traced her daughter's forehead with one fingertip and began again.

"Once upon a time, there was a woman who loved to read..."

As she spoke, Katya let her mind wander to that day five months ago. At the cafe near her office, her husband was cupping her hands across the table between his, their cappuccinos forgotten.

"It is taking so long. Phillip I don't think I can do this anymore. It hurts too much."

"I know, Kat. I know."

They'd been married for three years. At 42, she was 12 years older than Phillip. He always insisted age would never be an issue, not even where kids were concerned. They could adopt, he said. He refused to risk her health for anything. But, the adoption process was arduous and fraught with ups and downs. Mostly downs, as it turned out. Kat despaired of ever becoming a mother.

"I am sorry, Phillip."

"Hey, hey. None of that. We are in this together. I love you."

His pager went off. He checked it and groaned.

"You would think the lab could do without me for one afternoon."

Sarah squeezed his hand and sighed. "I should get back to the office as well. Except my people are so competent, they don't seem to need me at all."

Phillip laughed. Sarah longed to kiss the lines that appeared on the left side of his mouth.

"You are something, you know? You trained them well. You shouldn't be surprised. Besides, the boss deserves a break every now and then."

"I will take a break when we have a child."

"And, we will, Kat. I know it." He brought her hands up to his lips, set them gently back down on the table, pushed back his chair and stood up.

"I really don't want to go," he said.

Katya swallowed her threatening tears. "I will be okay, Philip. Really."

"Call me in a few hours, okay? I should be home by seven. I'll pick up dinner. Any preferences?"

She smiled lovingly up at him. "Surprise me."

He bent over and kissed her. “Always.”

As she watched Phillip walked away, Katya let her mask slip and pulled her sunglasses back down from her head over her eyes. A shadow fell across the table. She frowned and glanced up, but no one was there.

Taking a deep breath, she got up, draped her purse around her shoulder and gathered her coat in her arms. The walk back to the office was only 15 minutes, and she would take the scenic route through the Botanical Gardens.

As she went on her way, she did not notice that a shadow had detached itself from the green and was following her.

The day was cool and crisp, but Katya felt hot inside. She did not know what was the matter with her. The stone bench flanking the pond was empty - a cool and calm place to sit for a spell. She looked at her watch. What was the point of being the boss if you couldn’t take a little extra time over lunch? She set her purse down on the bench next to her, folded up her coat on top of it and closed her eyes. The shadow skittered to settle beside her on the bench. While it was man-sized before, it had gradually shrunk to the size of a pea.

Katya felt a slight pressure on the back of her right hand. She opened her eyes and there sat a ladybug. Katya moved her sunglasses back to the top of her head and very carefully brought her hand closer to her face. Its shell was bright red. The polka-dots perfectly rounded.

“Hello there,” Katya ventured.

She had always been fascinated by ladybugs as a child. To her, they were most enchanting in form. Whenever they happened to land in a particularly precarious perch in her presence, she would always move them to safety. And, she still did. She felt they added a small elegance to a world that needed all the beauty it could get.

“May I help you?” Katya whimsically queried the ladybug.

“It is my turn to help you,” a woman’s voice resonated in her head.

Katya froze. The ladybug flew away.

Katya shook her head. She must be more tired than she thought. She would take the rest of the day off. As Philip said, she deserved a break.

10 minutes later, sitting in her car at the top level of the office parking complex, sadness threatened to overwhelm her once again. The keys were in the ignition, but she just could not bring herself to turn them. Her hands seemed glued to the 10 o’clock/two o’clock positions on the steering wheel.

“Come on,” she whispered to herself. “You can make it through this.”

A shadow fell across her seat as someone tapped on the driver’s side window – a security guard. She rolled the window down.

“Is everything okay, Ms. Foster?”

She looked up into the concerned frown of the guard.

“I am fine...” she began, glancing at the name on his badge.

“...Lyndon,” she finished. She did not recognize the guard or the name.

“Are you new here, Lyndon?”

“No, ma’am,” he answered with a grin. “I have been here for several months.”

Katya prided herself on learning the names of all her employees. However, she had admittedly been preoccupied as of late.

“Well, Lyndon. You are doing a fantastic job. Thank you for watching out for me.”

“It is my job, Ms. Foster, and my pleasure.”

He cordially and strangely reverently tipped his hat and backed away so she could move out of the parking spot.

As she drove away, Katya saw a flash of red and black in the rear view mirror. She paused to glance directly out of the back window, but Lyndon had disappeared. When she turned her focus back to the dashboard of the car, she thought she saw a ladybug settled in the recess between the gas gauge and the speedometer. But when she blinked, it was gone.

“I think I’d better just get home,” she muttered to herself.

One hour later, she had poured herself a glass of her favourite Beaujolais and stood in the kitchen in front of the sink, staring out the picture into the garden. The sun glinted off the wet boulders in the koi pond. Bees and butterflies buzzed and flitted in and out of the rose bushes. Dunedin was verdant and lush this time of year. Katya reached out and opened the window so she could let the fragrances of the blooming garden into the kitchen. She took a deep breath and inhaled the scents of spring. Everything would be okay. She had Phillip. They loved each other. That is all that mattered.

Katya felt a slight, familiar pressure on the hand that was resting on the edge of the sink. She glanced down to see two ladybugs perched on her second finger. Suddenly, they flew up towards her face. Startled, she dropped the wine glass on the floor. The clear crystal shattered and the claret-coloured liquid splattered across the tiles. The ladybugs whizzed around her body and the air began to shimmer. More tiny, red blurs flew into the kitchen window from the garden and soon the kitchen was filled with ladybugs. Rooted to the spot for what seemed like an eternity, Katya could only watch in utter disbelief as clouds of ladybugs surrounded her, red shells glowing, black spots gleaming. But, when they began to move into the living room, her feet began to move as if by their own volition. She could do nothing else but accompany them.

The ladybugs congregated in the corner of the large, L-shaped couch. Katya was standing at a few feet away from the couch when the glow from the insects became unbearable and she was forced to cover her eyes. Yet, she discerned a bright flash through her hands and when she drew them away from her eyes, the ladybugs had disappeared without a trace.

In the corner of the couch, where they had been, curled up in a ball on her side, was a sleeping girl.

“That was me, Mama, wasn’t it?” a mellifluous voice chimed.

Katya shook herself out of her reverie.

Katya smiled brightly at her daughter, who was so small that her bed was the size of a shoebox.

“Yes, my darling Lina. That is the day you came into our lives.”

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