It was early in the evening on Christmas Eve when Susan heard a knock at the door.
"Again?" she groaned as she sat at the kitchen table, contemplating whether or not to answer.
She was sick of visitors, sick of flowers, sick of holiday invitations, and most of all sick of condolences. Nothing made her more furious than when people spoke to her through breathy sighs, saying "I know how you feel" as they talked about some grandmother that had passed away in her sleep or some friend of a friend who lost a brother in the war. They most certainly did not know how she felt, nor could they begin to imagine it. The invitations for Christmas dinner were almost as bad. Though she knew they were kind-spirited gestures, the last thing she wanted to do was go watch another family parade about happily together, taunting her with peace and laughter while she was quite certain that she would never smile in that way again. Susan wanted to pretend that Christmas did not exist and she sat there wondering if it was too late to turn out the lights in order to dissuade the person outside. She stayed unmoving in hopes that they would turn away, but the knocking remained persistent.
"Fine, fine, fine!" she growled, throwing herself off of the chair.
She marched to the door (the knocking getting more impatient by the second) and flung it open angrily. The cold air blew against her face and just as she was about to holler, her words escaped her upon seeing the woman waiting on her doorstep.
"Hello Susan," Judith replied with a bulky basket of groceries almost toppling out of her arms. She was bundled from the winter chill by a thick wool coat that seemed too large for her narrow shoulders and a tightly knit scarf knotted at her chin.
"What are you doing here?" asked Susan with a great hesitation.
"I have a proposal for you."
Susan furrowed her brow warily. "What is it?"
"I have just seen my father and he has been struck with enough compassion that…"
"No," Susan crassly interrupted. "I thank you for the invitation, but I certainly won't be spending Christmas with your family."
"What? No, no," stuttered Judith, biting her lip and trying to regain composure. "Actually, due to the poor decisions I have made as of late, my father and his wife thought it was in their best interest to disown me."
Susan's face softened. "Oh, I'm sorry…"
"Please don't waste your sympathy on me," she insisted, struggling to hold up the heavy basket any longer. "My father has giving me a fairly large endowment and I was thinking that you possibly couldn't afford to live in this house on your own."
Skeptically, Susan crossed her arms and looked at her feet, spotting a worn suitcase suitcase sitting on the stoop. "You want to live here?"
"I will pay for every expense," Judith replied earnestly.
"I can't let you do that…"
"Yes you can. Please, I have no where else to go." Judith's face twitched as she tried to smile, fighting against the cold and the unfortunate circumstances that forced her to beg on a doorstep.
With a large sigh, Susan took the groceries from her visitor's wobbling arms. "Oh, come in before you catch your death."
Judith carried her suitcase into the warmth and happy that she made it over the threshold, she shut the door behind her in victory. With groceries in hand, Susan rushed off into the pantry, leaving her guest alone in the hall. As Judith tugged at the fingers of her gloves with her teeth, she recognized a pile of unopened letters carelessly stacked among a mess of mail on a cluttered side table.
"I thought you were in Italy," said Susan over the noise of cabinet doors and drawers opening on their hinges and then banging shut.
"I was. I'm not anymore," answered Judith as she knocked aside a few papers and inconspicuously fanned through the envelopes. All were addressed to Peter and all were unanswered letters postmarked from the Comune di Pompei. She remembered eagerly waiting to hear from him for over a month, wondering if his replies had been lost in transit.
"I didn't know how to get a hold of you….otherwise, I would have let you know about the funeral."
"Don't worry yourself. I've only just been able to arrive back a few days ago."
Judith idly wandered into the living room, unwrapping the scarf from around her neck. Everything in the Pevensies' house was the same as when she left except it had become eerily empty. The home felt like it was in a state of constant anticipation, as though at any time the rest of the family could come barreling through the door. The rooms, once bustling with energy, were still and reserved like an elaborate set mimicking a moment of the past.
She walked slowly along the walls, running her eyes over every object as she would a museum exhibit. This place, though familiar, had become strangely foreign. Every surface was scattered with vases of wilted flowers and votive candles burned down to a final bit of wick. And then up on a shelf she spotted a photograph of Peter. It was a picture that Judith had seen many times in passing- it was the same as it had always been, in the same spot, and in the same frame. She studied his eyes, the slope of his nose, the curve of his upper lip, and her heart began to pound violently in her chest. Frantically, she slammed the frame down on its face.
"Since you're here now, maybe you can shed some light on this for me," said Susan from behind. "They gave it to me at the morgue."
Startled, Judith turned to find Susan holding an old necklace- a golden pendent strung on a chain and a wedding ring kissed up against it. The very sight made her feel ill. Snatching it quickly, she balled it up in her hand and forced it deep within her coat pocket. "We planned to tell everyone once I was home."
"Is it legal?" Susan asked with a raised brow.
"Yes," answered Judith solemnly . "My father made sure of it...as a final courtesy."
"That explains some inquires I've received regarding 'the betrothed of the deceased.'"
"There's something else…"
Judith readied herself to speak, but then nervously bumped into an end table, sending a vase crashing to the floor. Porcelain and dry flowers laid at her feet in a pool of stagnant water and she threw herself onto the ground, tending to the mess with embarrassment.
"I'm so sorry! I'm so clumsy!" she squealed as Susan hurried to the kitchen to retrieve a towel.
Getting down on her hands and knees, Susan began sopping up the water and suddenly started to sob. "I couldn't bring myself to throw all of the flowers away. If I throw them away then it means that the funeral wasn't just yesterday and I'll have to start to move on. I'm just not ready! It's too much!"
"Come here," said Judith softly, reaching over the puddle to cradle Susan's head against her shoulder. "You take your time and don't let anyone tell you to hurry up. You have every right to feel the way you do- don't you dare be ashamed of it. Sometimes we just need the world to stop."
Susan cried into the collar of Judith's coat until her tears dried up, and when she quieted, she lifted her head. "I miss them terribly."
"So do I," replied Judith as she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and placed it in Susan's hands.
"Thank you," Susan muttered, blotting her eyes dry. "I'm sorry for always being so rude to you."
"All of that is in the past and it doesn't matter anymore."
Susan picked herself off of the floor and offering Judith a hand, helped her guest to her feet. "Where are my manners? May I take your coat?"
Judith's face turned flush and she smiled uneasily. At first she hesitated as if she was about to speak, but then nothing came of it. After fiddling with the twill on her lapel, she delicately unbuttoned her coat, slid it off of her shoulders, and handed it to Susan. No longer concealed by thick wool, it became apparent that she was with child, though only just noticeably.
Susan drew her hand to her mouth. "Are you…?"
Judith swallowed hard and nodded.
Dropping the garment onto the floor, Susan threw her arms around Judith and held her tightly as she welled up with tears. "If only Peter could..."
"Please don't," Judith snapped as her body tensed.
Susan backed away, surprised and saddened by the adverse reaction. Without any words, she knelt over the fallen coat, slipped her hand into the pocket, and pulled out the necklace stuffed inside. Peter's wedding ring slipped down the chain as she loosened the tangles and Judith's gaze rested low to avoid contact with the artifact. The necklace hung gracefully in Susan's gentle hands, and with outstretched arms, she fastened it around Judith's neck.
With her eyes wet, Judith tightened her lips and adjusted her dress, smoothing the creases over her bulging abdomen. She clenched her jaw and ran her fingers once along the chain, feeling the weight of the ring dangling against her chest. Raising her chin, her voice warbled as she retreated into the kitchen. "I think it's about time that we start dinner."
"Go on, I'll be right with you," Susan responded in a faint mumble, noticing the hole within the line of family photographs on the shelf. She reached over and carefully righted the picture of Peter, wondering if her older brother was watching over them.
Suddenly, everything didn't seem so impossible.
Author's Note: Many thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and review this story. I truly appreciate the support and input. Please keep an eye out for the upcoming sequel. -Hev