Until two years ago, I’d been living the dream. Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s idea of living the life, but it sure had been mine.
It’d started with a random story idea I’d come up with in the shower. An idea I’d spent every night developing into a story from that day on for the next few years until it was finally done.
At the ripe young age of twenty-three, I self-published my first novel. I never really thought anything would come of it or even that it would get noticed among the millions of great books out there.
I’d spent all those years building the world in that book, though. I refused to give up on it, even after having my manuscript rejected hundreds of times over by agents and publishing houses.
Much to my surprise, the young-adult world I’d created turned out to be a hit. It became more popular than I ever would’ve imagined less than three months after I’d hit the publish button.
Suddenly, publishers were falling all over themselves to work with me. It was a dream come true.
I almost signed on with Knightley Publishing House, my ultimate place to have landed, but then my sister convinced me not to. I got my own team, and in the three years that followed, I produced six more bestsellers.
Living the life, for me, had entailed living in a trendy little apartment in downtown Savannah, planning all the trips I’d always wanted to take, and getting to have Sunday dinners with my family every week. Best of all, I got to write about pretty much whatever I wanted, and I never had a manuscript rejected again.
I was reaching for the stars, and just when I’d begun to feel like I might be able to touch them, it all fell apart. All it took for everything to change was one lousy phone call. A phone call that had lasted all of two minutes, but nothing had ever been the same again.
Now I was living a different dream. It wasn’t my own, but that didn’t mean it was bad. It was simply different.
As I stood in the living room of my new home, it was really difficult to believe it’d only been two years. Sometimes, it felt like a decade had passed since that fateful day. Other times, I wondered if my old life had ever really happened at all.
The new house was nice. It was a charming, single-level, three-bedroom house with a red front door and a decent backyard. It wasn’t big by any means, but at least there was space between us and our neighbors—unlike the way it had been at my apartment downtown.
I sighed when I looked around at all the moving boxes still stacked almost to the roof. Sunlight streamed in through the dusty windows, illuminating just how desperately I had to get on with cleaning and unpacking.
As I had every morning for the last month since we’d moved in here, I went to make some coffee and prepared myself to get through more than one box today. The problem wasn’t that I was too lazy or even too busy to unpack. It was that most of the stuff in most of these boxes didn’t belong to me.
It had belonged to my older sister, Katherine. My parents had kept it in storage for me since that horrible day, and I was grateful to have it. Unearthing all her treasures and trying to use them to decorate a home to live in with her daughter just wasn’t easy.
Whenever I opened any of the boxes, I was assaulted by memories of her. I remembered the very morning that had been the last time I’d seen her. I’d gone to her house to have breakfast with her and her daughter, Katie.
My niece had been five at the time. She was also my goddaughter, and I adored popping in to surprise and spoil her whenever I could. Thanks to a career that had been becoming sort of lucrative, spoiling her was something I had finally been able to afford to do.
Mere hours before that phone call, I had taken her a kite and promised her we’d fly it together that weekend. We never did.
Instead, we’d spent that weekend at my parents’ house planning my sister’s funeral.
It didn’t seem possible in this day and age that something like a ruptured appendix could claim the life of an otherwise healthy young mother. According to the doctors, it wasn’t a common occurrence, but Katherine just hadn’t gotten to the hospital in time for them to stop the toxins spreading through her body.
An unfortunate tragedy was what they’d called it.
Already on the verge of tears from the onslaught of memories I both cherished and wished I could forget, I reached into my first box for the day. My fingers brushed over something hard with raised edges, and the lump in my throat grew when I realized what it was. Picture frames.
Tears burned my eyes when I started unpacking them. I paused to trace Katherine’s face with my fingers before gently placing each one on our new mantel. There were several of my sister when she’d been pregnant with Katie, some with just the two of them or the two of us, and some with all three of us grinning at the camera like goofballs.
This sucks so darn bad. There hadn’t even been any warning. No time to prepare or say goodbye.
One minute, she had been with us, laughing and trying to be the best mother she could be, and the next, she was just gone.
All of a sudden, there were phone calls from the hospital, doctors, and lawyers. Katie’s father had never been in the picture. He wasn’t really a stand-up guy and Kat had made the choice to be a single mother.
I knew how hard that choice had been for her, but it was the right one to make. She’d always been able to make the right decisions, even when they were the toughest ones.
The next thing I knew, I had been appointed as Katie’s legal guardian. While trying to juggle my own devastation and grief, I suddenly also had to take care of a shattered, confused five-year-old in mourning.
Katie was my world, and I only ever wanted to do what was best for her, but I wasn’t convinced I was really it. Katherine had chosen me for the job, and because I knew how much my sister had lived for her daughter, I knew it wasn’t a decision she would have made lightly. It was an honor really.
But it was also a responsibility I hadn’t been prepared for. All my choices about Katie were second-guessed. Even moving out here to the suburbs.
The neighborhood was cute and charming. A lot of kids lived on this street and it was close to the school Katherine herself had chosen for Katie, but in the back of my mind, I always wondered if this was what Katherine would’ve done.
Would she approve of the decisions I made? Would she think this was the right choice? Would she have preferred those pictures to go in Katie’s room or would she be happy with them on the mantel?
It was a constant struggle, and one that felt like it would never end. Not until they installed phone lines in Heaven and I could finally ask my sister all my questions. Unfortunately, last I heard, no one was making any progress on those lines of communication.
Another heavy sigh came out of me, but then I heard little footsteps coming down the hall, and I pulled myself out of my moment of sadness. While I was definitely still struggling to come to terms with everything that had happened, I was the adult in this situation.
Somehow. Who let that happen? I mean, me? An adult? I need to speak to the manager.
But I was the adult, and I refused to let Katie see me grieving for her mother when she herself was only just starting to smile more often than she cried. She was the bravest, most resilient little girl on the planet.
I knew it was important not to hide all my emotions from her—I’d been told by all the counselors that it was important for her to know she wasn’t alone in her grief—but I also didn’t want her to have to deal with the wreck I became whenever I opened one of their boxes.
Katie, now seven and becoming way too smart, came around the corner into the living room with her arms spread wide at her sides. She turned in a slow circle, a proud grin on her face as she showed off her Halloween costume.
“I look just like a real farmer,” she said, her chest puffing out when she came to a stop. “One day when I’m a farmer for real, I’ll get to wear this every day.”
“You look amazing.” I set my coffee down beside the photographs and went over to give her a hug.
“Thank you for getting me the outfit,” she said with her thin little arms around my waist. “I especially love the overalls.”
I smiled into her blonde hair. “You’re so very welcome, baby.”
More tears pricked at the backs of my eyes. Katie looked cute as heck in her shiny red cowgirl boots, a plaid shirt, and a straw hat. I’d found the overalls at the thrift store, and she’d been enamored with them since I’d brought them home.
I wish Katherine could see her like this. I tried not to think too often about all the moments my sister was missing, but since I’d started the move, it’d been more of a challenge than ever.
I still didn’t want Katie to notice how sad I was, though. Especially not this morning. She’d been excited for Halloween for months. Her cornflower-blue eyes, Katherine’s eyes, were wide and bright. The smile on her face hadn’t faltered since she’d come into view.
“You look ready to plow the fields and milk the cows,” I joked in an attempt to cover up my melancholy. “Get over here. Let’s take a few pictures, shall we?”
Releasing her to grab my phone from the table, I took a deep breath before going back to her side. Get it together, Laurie. The house isn’t going to unpack itself and you can’t keep weeping every time you see a picture of Kat.
“How about you pose for a few by yourself first?” I asked, trying to buy myself the time I needed to follow my internal instructions before I had to appear on the other side of the camera.
Katie smiled and nodded. “Will you send them to Granny and Grandpa?”
“You bet.” My parents had always been my rock and safe haven, but that had never been truer than it had been since Kat’s death. “They would never forgive me if I didn’t send them pictures of their favorite granddaughter, the farmer.”
She giggled, and I caught the most beautiful natural shot of her as she lifted her hand to hide her mouth. “I’m their only granddaughter, so I have to be their favorite.”
“Really?” I tilted my head and scratched my jaw. “That doesn’t seem right. Are you sure?”
While she nodded and giggled again, I took a few more bursts of pictures. It turned out the dusty windows combined with the early-morning sunlight provided soft lighting for beautiful pictures.
There’s always a silver lining somewhere. You just have to look for it.
Katie and I laughed our way through our impromptu photoshoot before I mentioned cows again. Her eyes suddenly widened and she took off back down the hallway to her room.
“Cows!” she exclaimed while running. “I forgot Mr. Moo. I can’t go to school without him.”
“Of course not. Go get him. I’ll get breakfast ready.”
Mr. Moo was her favorite stuffed animal, and even though it wasn’t in the best shape since she’d been sleeping with him her entire life, she didn’t let that stop her from taking him to school every day.
While she retrieved her most prized possession, I decided to give up on unpacking another box right away and headed to the kitchen to make her some breakfast. I wouldn’t have had time to get through another whole box before we had to leave for school anyway.
Baby steps are still steps.
Our kitchen was small but cozy. It had a breakfast nook in front of a bay window, bright yellow sunflowers on a row of blue tiles above the countertops, and some of Katie’s artwork under magnets on the fridge.
At least I’d gotten more than halfway through unpacking in here. All the basics were out, and since my mother firmly believed in the kitchen being the heart of the home, I was proud of myself for having turned this space into somewhere we could enjoy some family time.
After popping in some toast for her and cutting up an apple, I refreshed my coffee and sipped on that while she ate. I’d already packed her lunch, and her pale purple backpack was packed and resting against the wall next to the front door.
“There’s a costume contest after lunch today,” she said excitedly. “I can’t wait to see what my friends have dressed up as.”
“I’ll be looking out for the pictures on the class group later,” I replied, surprisingly being completely honest about it.
A lot had changed over the last two years. I now hardly wore anything that wasn’t casual, when I used to dress up just to go get coffee. My hair was always up, when it used to be blown out and styled on a daily basis even if I hadn’t been planning on leaving the house.
Back then, my professional star had been on the rise. I wasn’t even sure if it was even really in the sky anymore now, but having lost my muse was the least of my worries.
Katie had always been important to me, but now, she was the most important person in my life. Everything that affected her, affected me. If she was excited about a costume contest and getting to see her friends dressed up, then so was I.
I might not have planned to become a mother to a five-year-old at twenty-six, but I had. The circumstances sucked and I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy, but they were my circumstances and I had to make the best of them.
And for my parents.
For today, that meant getting excited about a costume contest. At least we were finally getting excited again, finding joy in the little things. I’d never realized how much all that meant to me until I’d lost it. Now that it was back, I planned on cherishing every moment like it was my last.
Because who knows? It very well could be. I’d learned that lesson in the hardest way possible, and it wasn’t one I would ever forget.