“If this rain doesn’t stop by tomorrow, I think I’m going to go insane,” Amy’s little eight year old voice piped up from the stairwell.
“I thought y-you w-were supposed to be in bed?” Slouching on the sofa, the gentle authority in his deep, quiet voice carried over the roll of thunder.
“Amy…” And he heard her bare feet on the stone floor, and then the sound disappeared. She had stepped onto the carpet and had fallen silent. Like a ghost. He sighed with a knowing smile. “D-don’t think snuggling up to me is going to m-make a difference…”
“Oh…” she complained in her sweet, tiny voice. He imagined her big dark eyes widening with innocent disappointment as she stood before him. Then the sofa cushion sank a little as she clambered up next to her brother like a lost puppy found. The wind howled, hurling the rain against the windows of the old, remote Victorian farmhouse; so loudly that he could barely hear her gentle breaths as she nuzzled into his shoulder. It must be after ten, but how could he refuse her anything? His heart still ached to see her. He moved his head, sightless eyes seeking that one patch of vision right at the edge of his world, but the room was too dim, and he couldn’t find her face. He brought his hand up to her head, stroking her soft, blonde curls as she looped her arms around his torso. She was so keen to hug him that she forgot about being careful with his leg, and her knee went driving into the nerves before he could warn her.
At the sound of the sharp yell that he didn’t mean to let out, she leapt off him, apologising and fussing.
“It’s fine,” he grunted, rubbing the damaged muscles around his hip as the pain danced from pelvis to toes. The series of four letter curses reverberating around his brain was significantly less polite, but as ever, he wanted to protect her from his pain. “It’s ok, c-c-c-come back here,” his torso contracted, shoving the reluctant sound out of his lungs. He patted the sofa again, and she resumed her affectionate cuddle, but this time she sat on the sofa, not on her big brother.
He could have stayed like that all night, just holding her, cradling her, the only family he had left now, all night, but when he heard her breathing deepen, become gradually more even and regular, he knew she was falling asleep, and he’d rather not have to carry her upstairs if he could avoid the pain of that chivalry. “C-c-c…” his slow stammer carved a deeper groove for the consonant in his throat, and the sound refused to leave without a fight. His head nodded and his eyelids screwed shut as he tried again to speak. “C-c-c-come on, you. L-l-let’s get you upst-st-stairs.” ‘L’ was a particularly hated consonant of his, and never came out cleanly. When he was younger, his speech therapist had hated the way he ‘cheated’ on the sound, sucking the air in instead of letting it carry the letter out, but there was no other way he could say that sound.
“But it’s nice here,” she mumbled, her little arms reaching round his neck again like a little sloth.
He chuckled softly. “No, bushbaby, it’s w-way past y-your bedtime.”
She made another good-natured grumble, and then slithered off him, careful to avoid his right leg.
Her feet pattered on the stairs as she scurried away from him, bolting for her bed. By the time he had hauled himself to his feet and then up the stairs, she had curled up under the covers. His hand searched over the surface of the duvet for her tiny form and a safe place for him to sit while he kissed her on the forehead. He wondered how many other twenty two year old men were both brother and father to a such small, perfect, delicate creature as Amy. He leaned forward and kissed her gently, “Sl-sl-sleep w-w-well,” he said softly, knowing she was already drifting off into oblivion.
With the softest of clicks, the door shut behind him, and he lingered there a moment, wondering whether all the lights were off downstairs, and whether he could be bothered to check. With a sigh, he thought of the electricity bill, and decided it was probably worth the effort. His right knee gave a painful jolt and he winced as his jeans caught the very edge of the patch where his KAFO rubbed. Placing a hand on each of the two bannisters which ran down the staircase on either side, he swung himself downstairs, snorting at the fact that it was as easy to get down them as it was difficult to get up. Another roll of thunder reminded him of the weather outside, and he cursed the damp. It always made his joints seize up and ache and stab, and…
There was a violent, rapid-fire knocking on the door. His fear of answering the door ballooned up in his chest, compounded by the late hour and storm, but as the hammering continued, a frown worked its way across his brows and he limped towards the door. “Who is it?” he asked, but either the rain was too loud or he was too quiet, because he got no reply. With the chain still hooked from door to wall, he opened it a crack and the wind rushed in. “Who is it?” he asked, eyes closed. He usually wore his sunglasses for social interactions, and he swore silently as he realised he didn’t have them on.
“Aaron?” It was woman’s voice, and she sounded weak and frightened. He knew that voice, and he knew something was wrong.
“J-Jasmine?” he asked, his fingers scrambling to the chain.
“Let me… let me in?” she breathed, her teeth knocking together, her voice high and barely audible over the wind.
“Of c-course, w-what’s wr-wr-wrong? Why are y-you out at this time, and in th-this w-w-weather?”
He finally slid the chain off and as he shuffled back and let the door swing open, he thought he heard her give a gasp, followed by a little moan. The sound was swiftly followed by a soft flump.
“Jazz?” he asked urgently, reaching his hand out in front of him, but finding only cold winter air. “Jazz?”
He stepped forward with his good leg and his toe came into contact with something solid. He stooped stiffly, trying to keep his right leg from bending like an old rusted hinge, and his heart beat cold when he found her on the ground, her clothes soaking wet. “Amy!” The roar tore itself from his throat as he shouted over his shoulder. “Amy!” He needed her eyes.
His sister’s door flew open after another couple of panicked shouts, and she clattered down the stairs. “Oh my gosh,” she said in a rush as she skidded to a halt. “Aaron, it’s Jasmine.”
“I know. Is she hurt?”
“I know!” he thundered, instantly regretting the frustration that boiled to the surface. “I know,” he said more gently. “But I n-need you to l-l-look for me, ok? T-tell me w-w-what you see.”
“She seems ok,” the little girl said nervously, shivering. “But she’s soaked. She hasn’t got a coat.”
“Alright,” he said. “G-go and r-r-r-run a bath. N-not too hot, ok?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, and he heard her retreating feet on the hardwood floor of the hall.
Rain was still spattering up off the ground as it pelted down from the heavens, and he felt goosebumps rise up the skin of his arms. He ran his hand over her sodden jumper until he found her shoulder and then her face, and he cupped her cheek in his hand, holding her heavy head in his left hand while his right gripped her shoulder. “Jazz, wake up.” He shook her gently and she groaned. “Jazz…” He hooked an arm under hers and somehow, using the doorframe to steady himself, he heaved her dead weight upwards and held her in his arms, grateful that he was still built like a rugby flanker, even with his gammy leg.
The pain as he tried to carry his best friend in all the world up the stairs was almost unbearable, but, leaning on one wall like he had done downstairs on the doorframe, he managed it. The sound of running water guided him towards the bathroom like a homing beacon, but Amy’s nervous question made his worry double. “She doesn’t look very well. What happened?”
“I don’t know, l-little one,” he grunted, readjusting Jasmine’s weight.
She moaned weakly and said, “He was so drunk. I couldn’t stand it any more…”
“He’s still dr-drinking?” he asked, eking carefully through the open doorway into the bathroom and setting her down on the chair he sometimes used to take the weight off his feet. “You g-good?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m not going to collapse again,” she said, her voice creaking like an old church door.
“Y-y-y-you want me to stay?” he asked, his head nodding as he stammered.
“Always,” she murmured, and he heard the thick rustle of wet clothes as she drew her dripping jumper off over her head. It fell to the floor with a heavy squelch and he heard her shivering breaths coming quick and fast. Her teeth chattered louder than a percussion section in full swing, and she added a soft, “Thank you,” to the cacophony.
He motioned at the bath with his head, preferring non-verbal communication while his brain tried hard not to imagine her naked. Despite her vulnerability, he felt himself getting hard against his jeans. He’d loved Jasmine since before he’d known what love was, and he would have been lying if he’d said that he’d never imagined her naked in the shower or the bath, but not like this. Not weak, fragile, half frozen.
Her feet squeaked on the enamel bath as she slipped into the water, the taps still pouring warm water in. He lowered himself into the chair she had just vacated, and he heard her give a long, quavering sigh.
“How are y-y-you feeling?” he asked, terrified that she was going to pass out again, knowing he couldn’t lift her from the bath if she did.
There was the splash of water as she moved a little and again, he tried not to imagine her slender body, pale, flawless, lying in the water…
“Pass me the sponge to your right?” she asked.
Aaron reached out with his hand for the small cabinet and let his fingers glide over the surface until they discovered the soft natural sponge sitting on top. “Here,” he said. God, what wouldn’t I give to do that for you? he thought as he listened to the bright sparkle of drops cascading down from the soaked sponge as she brought it out of the water and up to her body.
“I wish y-y-y-y-y…” the sound was just repeating and he wrestled it to a halt before he ran out of breath. “Excuse me,” he muttered, gathering his breath to begin again. “I w-wish y-y-you’d g-g-got a taxi here or something…”
“I didn’t think,” she half-sobbed. “I was just so frightened. I didn’t even stop for a coat, let alone anything else…” and then she was in tears.
“Shh.” Reaching out for her impulsively with his left hand, he felt an almost electric tingle in his fingertips at the contact of her wet skin beneath his. “You’re safe here.”
Amy’s presence on the other side of the door brought his mind from other things. “Aaron, I found Jasmine some clothes from your room. I’ll leave them outside the door…”
He heaved himself to his feet and said, “N-no, g-g-give them to me now…” and he opened it just a crack, sticking his hand out to take the soft t-shirt and freshly laundered boxers from his sister. “Thanks, l-little one. Y-y-you g-go back to b-bed now.”
“Is she ok?”
“Night, night,” the little girl said. “Love you.”
“Y-you too,” he smiled, turning on his left leg and closing the door softly.
“She’s such a sweetie,” Jasmine said, her naturally husky voice sounding exhausted.
Eventually, there was a rush of water, and he guessed she’d stood up. It was torturous. She was standing completely naked in front of him, and all he could have seen was the vaguest of the blurry shadows at the bottom of the bath. If he wanted to see anything of Jasmine, he’d have had to tilt his head right up and fix his eyes on the ceiling in the hope that his peripheral vision would show him something, but for that, he would have had to open his eyes. And that was something he never did. Not even with Jasmine. Only Amy got to see him without his defences.
“Are you going to pass me a towel, or do I have to stand here and wait for the water to evaporate?”
“I’m sorry,” he blushed. “Here,” and he reached over for the heated towel rail with familiar ease, holding the enormous towel out to her.
“I’ll l-let you get dressed. I’ll be in my r-r-room…” he mumbled, feeling the stinging pink hue creeping over his face.
“Ok,” and he heard the smile in her tone.
The instant he closed the door of his bedroom, he practically hurled himself at his bed, ripped his jeans off and tore at the straps of his KAFO, stubbornly ignoring the pain as he manhandled his leg roughly out of the contraption and finally sliding it beneath his bed when it was off. Lifting his leg up onto the bed and flinging the covers over it, he had just ripped his shirt up over his head when the handle rattled and Jasmine stepped almost silently into the room. He fumbled to find the t-shirt that he slept in, but it wasn’t where he thought he’d left it. He figured he’d be ok without. It was only his leg that was crippled, and that was safely hidden beneath the duvet now.
“Mind if I sleep in here tonight?” she asked. “I don’t want to go on the sofa this time. I want to stay with you, like we did when we were kids.”
A lot of things were different when we were kids, he thought darkly. “If y-you’d l-l-like…”
In answer, the duvet on the other side rustled and he felt her warm body slide in next to his. How many times had he wished for this? For Jasmine to lie beside him again. For him to wrap his arms around her. For her to want him?
He lay on his side, his damaged right leg resting on his left, with Jasmine curled up in a tight ball, like a bud in early spring.
Her soft breathing gradually harshened, and he knew she was sobbing. Without hesitating, he ran his hand over her shoulder and then down to her waist, and drew her backwards into his arms. “Come here,” he whispered.
“You’ve always looked after me.” She looked over her shoulder at him, and he tried to imagine what she looked like these days. Those green eyes still haunted him. He might have forgotten the sight of grassy meadows, of emerald jewels, of great green forests, but would never forget the colour of those enormous eyes. “You know,” she added softly, her drying tears making her voice crack slightly, “You don’t stammer when you whisper.”
“Maybe I should whisper all the time,” he smiled.
“I love the way you speak.”
His heart lurched. “But… I can sometimes I c-can barely speak at all.”
“I love the rhythm of your voice,” she said, turning her head away, the scent of her short, wet hair rising in a sudden cloud. She sighed, and for a moment lay perfectly still, not even breathing. Then, with just the hint of a smile in her lovely voice, she added, “I love you.”