Title/Prompt: Kitchen
Rating/Warnings: PG | adult themes
Word count: 6980
Summary: One event begins the bonds of a strong friendship between Elizabeth Thomas and Richard Spier.

Warning: Discussions/depictions of illness and cancer, character death.

Notes: I came upon the idea, a few weeks ago, that while Kristy and Mary Anne were out playing as children, Elizabeth and Richard were in the kitchen talking about their own lives and obstacles. This sparked the idea for a fic. [This ends up as a five part story - the next chapters all continue as sequels to this one.]

There is a lot of conflicting information regarding Alma. There are sources that say she is a terrible cook and she hated it, and there are sources which indicate she was an awesome cook.

I also think that Alma's death was one of the main reasons Richard became so 'stiff' and uptight. That's not to say he didn't have it in him before Alma died, but I like to think he was a little more relaxed before he began to worry about what people thought of him raising Mary Anne alone.

The year is mentioned at the beginning of the story because the next couple of stories will cover more than one year. This story only covers a few months, but I wanted to start the timeline off properly. Please let me know if the passing of time is really difficult to follow here.

Beta: Thank you, isabelquinn!


Charlie has stacked a maze of boxes in the den. He declares it a fort, and informs his mother in a firm voice, "No girls allowed."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, beaming up at his mother.

Elizabeth puts her hands on her hips and blows her hair out of her face. The February air outside is horrifically icy, but she has stripped off her outer layers, hot and slightly sweaty after lugging boxes into the house. "Where's your father?"

Charlie points to the stairs.

Elizabeth treads upstairs, exhaustion finally beginning to settle into her aching muscles. "Patrick?"

She finds him assembling Kristy's crib. Kristy is on a blanket on the floor, kicking her legs in the air.

"I'm going to the store," Elizabeth says tiredly. "I'll just get the necessities - and something for dinner. What do you feel like?"

"I don't care," Patrick answers distractedly, turning one of the rails around in his hands. And, "Do you remember how I took this apart?"

She smirks. "I told you to write it down so you'd have instructions..."

He grins sheepishly at her and she smiles back. "I'll take Sam," she says. "Charlie's busy with his fort downstairs.

"Okay," Patrick answers, only half-listening to her.

Elizabeth trails her fingertips along the wall as she makes her way back through the house. Their house. The first house she hasn't paid rent on.

A mortgage is different. A mortgage will let her paint the walls and pull out the kitchen cabinets and maybe, one day, add a small room to the back. She is no longer at the mercy of landlords and tenancy agreements. She smiles to herself as she treads down the stairs again, secretly loving the way the eighth step creaks under her weight.

The house, with peeling wallpaper and thick patterned carpeting, is her house, and it holds her family snug and safe.

She can't stop smiling.

She dresses Sam warmly in woollen jackets and layers before she takes him outside. The weather is bitterly cold. Bradford Court is windswept and bare, the houses closed tightly against the icy temperatures.

She tries to find the local radio station as she drives through the ice-slicked streets, breathing against her gloved hands and listening to Sam's nonsense chatter in the backseat.

The supermarket is busy. Elizabeth wheels her shopping cart up and down every aisle, unfamiliar with the layout. She buys frozen pizzas for dinner and dreams about spreading a blanket on the living room floor to eat it picnic-style with her family gathered around her.

People smile at them. Elizabeth smiles back. She's not sure if it's obvious she's new or if people are just being friendly because that's the way Stoneybrook is.

She grins at Sam and he cheers as she whirls the cart around another corner.

It rains, their first night in the house. She and Patrick have sex, warm and close beneath the blankets. He curls tiredly around her, and though she longs for sleep, she is too happy to settle. She listens to her husband fall asleep behind her, his breath on her shoulder. She listens to the rain pour from the broken spouting outside the window of their bedroom. The street is quiet - not a single car passes. The house creaks when the wind blows against it.

As midnight slides past, she gets up to check on her children. Charlie is sleeping, though his face is tear-streaked due to the strange house and strange noises. She combs his hair gently off his forehead and kisses his cheek softly.

Sam has wriggled sideways, his arms flung out either side of him. She gently straightens him again and tucks the blankets around him.

Kristy is awake. She blinks up at her mother and gives her a gummy smile. Elizabeth rocks her in the kitchen, watching the rain pouring down the bare windows and listening to Kristy's satisfied grunts as she drinks hastily.

"My head's been in the clouds all day, little girl," Elizabeth whispers. "I've been daydreaming."

Kristy's eyes close and she lets out another little grunt of satisfaction.

Elizabeth smiles. She can't stop.

Charlie's face falls as he watches his football sail over the fence into the yard next door.

"Didn't I tell you to throw it in the other direction?" Elizabeth asks, hand on her hip.

Charlie looks at her miserably. "Can I go get it back?" he asks in a small voice.

"Come on," Elizabeth answers, holding her hand out. "We'll go and ask."

Charlie takes her hand, but as he does so, their neighbour emerges and smiles at them cheerfully. "That was quite a throw," he says, tossing the ball back into their yard. "I saw it from my living room."

"Thank you, mister," Charlie breathes with relief, snatching up his football and running around to the backyard.

Elizabeth smiles at her neighbour. "Thank you," she says, stepping closer to the fence. She holds her hand out. "Elizabeth Thomas."

"Richard Spier." He smiles at her and nods towards the backyard. "And your football star?"

"That was Charlie."

Patrick appears on the porch. "Liz! Where's the bottle opener?"

She turns and beckons him over. "I don't know where it is," she says as he nears earshot. "This is Richard Spier, our neighbour."

"Patrick." Patrick gives Richard's hand a quick pump and turns back to Elizabeth. "No bottle opener?"

"It's somewhere," she says, exasperated and a little embarrassed. "Try the box on the counter."

Patrick grins at Richard and gives him a small wave. "Nice to meet you."

Richard nods.

Elizabeth feels her face warm. "Sorry," she says. "He's usually a little chattier than that."

"Never mind," Richard says, smiling. "I understand how stressful moving can be. My wife would like to know if you have time for coffee later - she'd like to meet you."

"Oh," Elizabeth says in surprise. She tucks an untidy coil of hair behind her ear. "That'd be nice. Should I..." She trails off and looks back towards the house. "I have three kids," she says after a moment. "I don't have anyone to sit for them -"

"Bring them over," Richard answers with another smile. "And tell Charlie he can fetch his ball anytime it lands in the yard."

Elizabeth smiles at him and he walks back to the house, hunched against the cold.

Charlie is on his best behaviour. His hair is neatly-combed and his hands are clean.

Alma loves him. "Would you like a slice of cake, Charlie?"

His eyes widen at the cherry-covered slab of chocolate and cream in front of him. "Yes please," he breathes, looking up at Alma with a clear expression of adoration. She sets a slice of cake in front of him and seats herself beside Elizabeth with a smile.

"I'm sorry Patrick isn't here," Elizabeth blurts nervously, her fingers twisting beneath the table. "Kristy's just gone down for a nap, and Sam won't be far behind."

"I understand," Alma answers. She appears slightly nervous herself, but she gives Elizabeth a warm smile. "My little girl's upstairs. She's almost five months now. Mary Anne."

Elizabeth smiles back at her.

"Rioko's got a little girl as well," Alma says, motioning towards the house across the street. "Claudia's a couple of months ahead of our girls, but I'm sure they'll all be growing up together. I'll introduce you tomorrow."

"That'd be great," Elizabeth says. "Thank you." She gives Alma another wide smile, unable to contain the excitement and joy that has built up inside her since the move.

"Mrs Spier?" Charlie is swinging his legs slightly and still licking cream from his lips. "Are there any boys here?"

Alma laughs and glances towards her kitchen window. "You haven't met the Jones boys yet, Charlie?"

Charlie shakes his head.

"We should go and introduce ourselves to a few more people," Elizabeth says suddenly.

"No, nonsense," Alma replies. "It's hard being new. It took weeks before I got the courage to introduce myself to the neighbours. Sit there. I'll make some calls. Maxine Jones has two boys - Ricky and Randy. They're the same ages as Charlie and Sam. She should be home now. I'll ask her over for coffee." Alma smiles again and Elizabeth thinks how lucky she is to have moved next door to the Spiers.

February disappears slowly. The weather barely changes. Elizabeth unpacks boxes to the sound of icy rain pattering against the window panes. Patrick starts his new job and comes home in the evenings with a wide smile on his face. He paints the living room one Sunday in March, when the afternoon light is white and cold. Elizabeth sneaks up behind him and kisses him behind his ear. The paint dribbles on the skirting board and he grins at her and tells her it'll be a constant reminder of her audacity.

She laughs at him using the word audacity and goes to call Charlie in from the cold.

"I've still got boxes stored in the basement," Elizabeth says, resting her chin on her palm. "We've been here nearly two months and I'm still not unpacked."

Alma smiles and tops up Elizabeth's coffee. "Do you need any help, Edie?"

"No," Elizabeth answers with a sigh. "I'll be fine once I get started. Motivation is the hard part. For some reason I can never seem to find the time."

"Any spare time you get is spent here, gossiping with me," Alma teases.

The doorbell rings and Alma gives Elizabeth another grin as she goes to answer it.

Elizabeth leans back in her chair as Alma answers the front door. Under the curve of Alma's arm, against the backdrop of misty rain, Elizabeth can see Charlie. He is panting and red-faced, and muddy stains grace the knees of his jeans.

"Hey, Mrs Spier!" he says breathlessly. "Is my mom here?"

Alma laughs and puts her hands on her hips. "Oh, dear. What happened to that nice, clean little boy who moved next door a couple of months ago?"

Charlie looks down at himself, then back up at her, confused. "It's me!" he says. "Charlie!"

Alma laughs again and he beams at her. "She's in the kitchen, sweetheart," Alma says, stepping back and gesturing Charlie through. "Have you been playing football?"

"Baseball!" Charlie calls back over his shoulder as he pelts towards the kitchen. "I hit a home run!"

"Charlie, don't run in the house," Elizabeth says, half-exasperated, half-amused. "Where's Dad?"

"At home, with Sam. He says there's nothing for dinner." His eyes widen slightly with hope. "Can we get pizza?"

Elizabeth checks her watch and sighs. "Tell him I'll be home in a minute."

"Okay," Charlie answers. He grins. "I hit Ricky for a home run. Right over the fence."

"Good for you," Elizabeth answers, grinning back at him.

"Yeah," Charlie says happily. He turns and hurries out the door again, stopping to wave briefly at Kristy and Mary Anne, who are both kicking about on a blanket in the living room.

Alma sits opposite Elizabeth again. "Is everything all right?"

"Oh, yeah," Elizabeth sighs, checking her watch again. "Just Patrick, reinforcing his inability to do anything domestic. I should go home and put dinner on."

"Finish your coffee. They won't starve."

"It's getting late," Elizabeth says guiltily, glancing at the clock on the wall.

"Finish your coffee," Alma says again, giving her a warm smile. "Richard will be home soon. Wait and say hello."

Elizabeth sips her coffee, listening to Kristy gurgling nonsense in the next room.

Alma is watching them through the doorway with a small smile on her face. "Claudia's crawling," she says suddenly. "Rioko says she's pulling herself up on furniture and everything already."

"Kristy's not crawling, but she can wriggle across the room if she puts her mind to it," Elizabeth says. "I put her down and, before I know it, she's across the room." She cranes her neck around to check on her daughter.

"She's fine," Alma says, watching Kristy squirm about on the carpet. She drums her fingers quietly on the table. "I feel a bit behind," she says suddenly, giving Elizabeth a slightly-embarrassed smile. "You and Rioko know what's in front of you. Maxine Jones has two boys, but they're at completely different stages to Mary Anne... She's my first. Everything is new. I feel a bit lost sometimes."

"Everybody feels lost," Elizabeth says. "Kristy's different to both Charlie and Sam. And she's my first little girl." She gives a smile and a small shrug. "She's different. We can learn together.

Alma gives her a rather grateful smile.

Richard comes through the front door a few minutes later. "Hello, Elizabeth." He smiles at her and kisses the top of Alma's head.

"Hi," Elizabeth says, draining the rest of her coffee hurriedly. "I was just leaving. I'll let you guys start dinner."

"There's no hurry," Alma assures her.

"No, it's okay," Elizabeth says. "The boys will starve unless I plate something up in front of them."

"I know what you mean," Alma says, shooting a cheeky look at Richard.

"I'm a good cook!" he insists.

"No you're not, dear," she answers, getting to her feet. Richard smiles at her again and follows Elizabeth through into the living room. Mary Anne beams up at him.

"Goodness," he says, stooping to pick Mary Anne up and smiling down at Kristy. "If I didn't know any better, I'd swear these two were twins."

Elizabeth laughs and lifts Kristy gently, bouncing her on her hip. Kristy gives Richard a dribbly grin. "I think Mary Anne is better behaved," Elizabeth says. "The similarities are only skin deep."

Alma smiles and puts her arm around Richard's waist. "I don't think that matters to them," she says.

The rain makes the weeks pass slowly. Charlie escapes outside at every possible chance. Elizabeth has grown tired of warning him not to play in the mud.

Patrick kicks his shoes off at the door and walks through to the kitchen, whistling. Elizabeth smiles at him, but doesn't stop vigorously stirring the pasta sauce, which is slightly blackened against the bottom of the pan. "How was work?" she asks.

"Fine." He kisses her cheek and peers down at the sauce and the bubbling pot of pasta. "How was your day?"

"Fine." She turns the stove off and drains the pasta over the sink. Steam gently bathes her face. "Charlie's out in the back yard. He wanted you to throw the ball around.

Patrick checks his watch. "It's late. I'll do it tomorrow."

"Go and throw with him for five minutes," Elizabeth says. "I'll call you when I've got this plated up."

Patrick throws the kitchen window open. "Charlie! Dinner's ready!"

Elizabeth sighs, but Charlie's suddenly too hungry to care about games in the back yard.

They gather around the table. Sam is hoisted onto a stack of cushions so he can reach his plate. He seizes his plastic fork and carefully pokes at his meal. In her high chair, Kristy grabs fistfuls of mashed vegetables and sucks the mess from her fingers.

"I ran into Richard today," Patrick says, stabbing a piece of penne onto the end of his fork. "He looks terrible. Has something happened?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth answers distractedly, reaching across to push Sam's plate closer to him. "I haven't seen either of them for a couple of days. Alma was out yesterday and I took the boys for haircuts today."

"I cried," Sam tells his father, rubbing his hand over his hair.

"What'd you cry for?" Patrick asks.

Sam shrugs and looks down at his plate again.

"What do you mean Richard looks terrible?" Elizabeth asks after a moment, curiosity getting the better of her. "Alma said he's working hard."

"He looked sick." Patrick shrugs and glances around the kitchen. "Where's the paper?"

"No," Elizabeth says firmly. "You can read the paper when you're done eating."

Patrick exchanges a glance with Charlie and pulls a face. Charlie giggles.

April is moving sluggishly. The temperature is still cold and snow is still crusted in the gutters. Elizabeth gives it a bitter look as she crosses the yard to the Spiers' front porch. Kristy is a rugged-up little bundle in her arms. Charlie and Sam are playing with Ricky and Randy Jones in Maxine's back yard. Elizabeth can hear Maxine calling for them all to get in out of the cold.

Elizabeth is almost at the front door when she realises Richard's car is sitting in the driveway. She hesitates for a moment, wondering if she should intrude upon them while he is home. She wonders how ill he is, and if it's contagious.

Alma spots her from the living room window, and waves. Elizabeth smiles and waves back, and starts to move towards the house again, her mind made up now that Alma has appeared welcoming.

Alma opens the door before Elizabeth reaches the porch. "Hi, Edie."

"Hi," Elizabeth says, smiling widely at her. "How are you?"

"Fine," Alma answers, closing the door firmly against the cold. Her own smile is rather shaky, and Elizabeth can see dark circles under her eyes.

Richard appears at the foot of the stairs. "Hello, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth blinks. "Hi, Richard." She makes a concerted effort not to stare, but she can't help but think he looks dreadful.

"Richard," Alma sighs, sounding exasperated, "go out and get some fresh air or something. Take Mary Anne to the store. We need more milk."

He clears his throat softly. "But -"

"You're driving me crazy," Alma says gently, giving him a small smile. "Go on."

"I can go, if this is a bad time..." Elizabeth says awkwardly.

"No," Alma says firmly, pointing to the living room. "I want you to stay."

Elizabeth hesitates for a moment before she gives Richard a small smile and heads to the living room, Kristy kicking and squirming about in her arms.

Mary Anne is stretched out on her stomach, kicking her legs and chewing wetly on a set of connected plastic rings. She ignores both Elizabeth and Kristy.

The front door opens and closes, and then Alma appears, sinking into the chair opposite Elizabeth. She looks tired.

"Sorry," she says after a moment.

"It's okay," Elizabeth says. She has the distinct feeling she's intruding. "Is everything all right?"

Alma fusses with a doily draped over the arm of her chair. "Yes," she says after a moment. She clears her throat and shakes her head. "No. I don't know."

Elizabeth immediately picks Kristy up and places her gently inside the playpen beside her chair. "I'll make us some coffee," she says.

Alma nods gratefully.

Elizabeth leans against the counter and listens to the coffee machine humming. The pot fills slowly. After a moment, Alma comes in and sits at the table. She straightens the salt and pepper shakers in the centre of the table with her fingertips.

Elizabeth sets a cup of coffee down in front of her. "Alma, what's wrong?"

Alma smiles down at the table, tracing the grain of the wood with her finger. "I haven't been feeling very well," she admits after a moment. "I thought I was just feeling run-down because of Mary Anne, you know..." She swallows with difficulty. "And I thought... I mean..." She gestures to her chest and looks around the kitchen desperately, as though seeking a way out. "I've had some breast pain," she says. "I wanted to breastfeed but it never really worked..."

"Alma, that's okay," Elizabeth says. "I don't think that's particularly unusual... Charlie was a nightmare..."

"But there were all these other things, and Richard kept insisting I see someone," Alma says, swallowing hard. Her skin has gone gray and clammy. "I've been..." She shakes her head. "I thought back pain and aching limbs were because of the weight I gained when I was pregnant..."

Elizabeth can hear her heart beating in her chest.

"Anyway," Alma says quietly, looking down at the table again. "It turns out it's not anything to do with Mary Anne." She rubs her palms tiredly over her face, and her voice comes out muffled. "It's breast cancer, and it's spreading."

Elizabeth swallows. She can feel sweat prickling at her hairline. "Are they sure?"

Alma nods and then gives a shaky laugh. "I should have listened to Richard sooner," she says. "I just thought all these stupid changes were because of the pregnancy..." She cups one of her breasts before she lets both her hands fall to her lap. "Hindsight is twenty-twenty," she says, giving Elizabeth a wobbly smile.

Elizabeth rakes her hands through her hair and shifts forward a little. "So, what's next?" she asks. "Treatment? Surgery? What are you going to do?"

Alma glances through into the living room. Kristy and Mary Anne are both babbling loudly, as though trying to outdo each other. "Treatment will buy me more time," Alma says quietly. "But that's all."

Elizabeth takes her hand. "No," she says, "It'll be okay. You'll be fine."

Alma smiles, but she looks very pale. "It sounds silly," she says tearfully, "but it's only just hit me. I thought I knew what I was facing, but..." She trails off and blinks rapidly. Her eyes are bright.

"It's the shock," Elizabeth says. She squeezes Alma's hand again. "It'll be all right, Alma. You're young. It'll be fine." She sounds so confident, Alma can't help but smile.

She's my best friend," Elizabeth whispers into the dark quiet of the bedroom. Her voice is still husky with tears.

"I know," Patrick answers gently. He runs his fingers through her hair.

"She was the one who made us so welcome... She introduced us to everyone..." Elizabeth blinks fresh tears onto the shoulder of Patrick's t-shirt. "She makes Charlie's favourite cherry chocolate cake."

Patrick kisses the top of her head. "It'll be okay."

"No it won't," Elizabeth says, and her voice cracks. "That's the whole point, Patrick. It won't be okay. She's going to die. It's spreading through her bones and it's too late to stop it."

He sounds suitably guilty, and he keeps his voice gentle. "What do you want me to say, Liz?" He hugs her tightly and she gives another sob and squeezes her eyes closed.

"No wonder Richard looks like shit," Patrick says after a moment. "Poor guy. How's he coping?"

"He's not," Elizabeth says, wiping her eyes. She squirms closer to her husband and closes her eyes. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost you."

He hugs her again.

Elizabeth thinks back to all the cigarettes she smoked in high school, and the cigarettes and weed she and Patrick smoked in college, and she books an appointment for a check up.

The doctor treats her anxiety with good humour. "You're very young, and in good health, Mrs Thomas."

"Just give me the damn tests," she says gruffly.

The results for everything indicate perfect health, and Elizabeth's relief and good fortune cause her to feel a little guilty.

"Hey, Mr. Spier!"

Elizabeth looks around at Charlie's joyful greeting and spots Richard a few feet away, a bag of groceries in his arms.

"Hello, Charlie," he answers. He is still pale, but his smile is quite genuine. "Hello, Elizabeth."

She smiles back at him. "How are you?."

"I'm well," he answers, hefting the grocery bag slightly. He pauses for a moment. "Alma would like you to come by later," he says to Elizabeth.

"Has she seen the doctor?" Elizabeth asks awkwardly. She's still not quite sure how to act around Richard. As much as she loves Alma, and as comfortable as she is around her, Richard is still a mystery. It seems such an intimate thing, questioning him about Alma's health, and she feels uncomfortable about it.

Richard clears his throat quietly and nods rather stiffly. "We both went this morning." He glances at Charlie and then back to Elizabeth, looking a little helpless. "There are very few options."

"I'm sorry," Elizabeth whispers.

Richard nods. "She's got something for the pain, now. I suppose that will help."

"I'm making Mrs Spier a card," Charlie says, looking up at Richard. "I got new markers."

"I'm sure she'll love it," Richard answers.

Charlie beams.

"Just keep the markers away from Sam, this time," Elizabeth says, suddenly desperate to swing the conversation away from the heaviness of illness. "We don't need more scribbles on the walls."

"Where are Sam and Kristy?" Richard asks, glancing into the backseat of Elizabeth's car.

"With Maxine Jones," Elizabeth explains. "Grocery shopping with more than one Thomas child is kind of exhausting."

Richard chuckles, and the sound greatly relieves Elizabeth. She suddenly realises she's just as worried about him as she is about Alma.

"Tell Alma I'll come by this afternoon," Elizabeth says. "I'm sure Charlie's card will be ready by then."

"Yup," Charlie answers cheerfully.

Richard gives him another small smile. "Her favourite colour is yellow," he says. "If that helps."

Meeting with the doctor has well and truly brought the reality of the situation to Alma. Her face is pale, and when Charlie hands her the card he has made, she bursts into fresh tears.

Charlie looks panicked, until Alma hugs him tightly. "It's beautiful," she sniffs. "Thank you, Charlie." She kisses the top of his head, and he is so worried about her he doesn't squirm away and complain like he usually does.

"Sam helped," he says nervously, pointing to red scribbles on the back of the card. "Kristy's still too little."

Alma kisses him again and wipes her eyes on her handkerchief. "I love it," she tells him. "It's beautiful."

"Why don't you go and play with Sam in the living room?" Elizabeth asks.

Charlie recognises the dismissal and he takes it rather gladly, hurrying into the living room where Sam is sitting on the floor with a picture book.

"So, what did the doctor say?" Elizabeth asks hopefully. "Are they going to send you for treatment?"

Alma dabs at her eyes. "No," she answers shakily. "It's all through my bones. In my spine." She draws a deep breath. "Treatment could buy me some time, though it would be very little. I thought it would be worth it..." She glances towards Mary Anne, smiling in her high chair. "But, the treatment I'd need is so aggressive, and it would buy me so little extra time... The doctor warned it might make me feel worse." She gives Elizabeth a small smile. "I don't feel so bad, you know. The pain comes and goes. It's easy to ignore, most days."

Elizabeth digs her fingernails into her palm, panic almost overwhelming her. "How much time do they think you have?"

Alma tucks her hair behind her ear with a trembling hand. "I ignored it all for far too long," she admits tiredly. "I thought I was too young, and I thought the changes were more to do with my pregnancy than anything else. I just want to see Mary Anne's first birthday."

Elizabeth swallows hard, and glances at Mary Anne. "And do they think you will?"

Alma dabs her handkerchief to her eyes again. "No," she says.

"Alma's asleep," Richard says, greeting Elizabeth at the front door. "Come in."

"I don't want to bother you," Elizabeth says nervously. "I just thought I'd stop by while my mom can watch the kids."

"Ah, I wondered who your visitor was," Richard answers with a smile, stepping back and letting Elizabeth into the front hall. "Is she staying long?"

"She's leaving tomorrow afternoon." Elizabeth follows Richard into the kitchen. "Is Mary Anne sleeping, too?"

"Yes," Richard answers. "Coffee?"

"Thanks." Elizabeth sits at the kitchen table, feeling nervous. She's spent very little one-on-one time with Richard, though she supposes she should try to get used to it.

"Does your mother live far away?" Richard asks.

"Not really," Elizabeth answers, "but she's always busy." She gives Richard a smile. "She saw Kristy walk yesterday."

"Kristy's walking?" Richard asks, looking at her in surprise.

"Running, apparently," Elizabeth answers. "I missed it. I was making lunch. The kids were out in the backyard and Kristy ran after a ball Charlie was throwing around." She buries her face in her hands and gives a strange little laugh. "I can tell she's going to be more trouble than the other two put together."

Richard gives her a small smile and places a cup of coffee in front of her.

"How's Alma feeling?" Elizabeth asks finally, unable to put the question off any longer.

Richard traces his finger up and down the outside of his own cup of coffee. "She hasn't been out of bed today," he admits quietly. "Her pain medication makes things rather unpleasant."

Elizabeth watches him for a moment. "And how are you?" she asks.

He looks surprised at the question, and Elizabeth wonders how many others have thought to check upon him as he watches Alma slip further and further into obvious distress.

"Quite unwilling to look past tomorrow," he admits after a moment, shifting his gaze back to his coffee. "Alma is loading me up with instructions." A shaky smile appears on his face. "She's written a letter to Mary Anne. She's told me what things she wants passed on. And she spent an hour yesterday instructing me as I tried to braid her hair, so if the need comes up, I can do Mary Anne's."

Elizabeth gives him a sad smile. "Learning to braid is a really important step," she says. "All of my dolls had braided hair at one point."

Richard chuckles and then pushes his glasses up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I don't know how I'm going to do this alone," he says softly, his eyes closed.

Elizabeth suspects it's the first time he's ever voiced the concern aloud.

Alma watches Mary Anne crawl her way across the carpet. "I never really worry about her, you know," she says after a moment.

Elizabeth looks up, still slightly distracted as she attempts to placate Kristy, who is very unhappy about being confined to the playpen in the Spiers' living room.

Alma continues, her eyes still on her daughter. "I worry about Richard more often than I worry about Mary Anne."

"You don't need to worry," Elizabeth says, desperate to remove any burden she can from Alma's shoulders.

Alma gives her a small smile. "I'm very glad you moved next door, Edie," she says. "You'll look in on him from time to time, won't you? Just to make sure he's okay?"

"Of course I will," Elizabeth says, feeling the now-familiar ache in her throat again.

"Thank you," Alma sighs, reaching her hand towards Mary Anne. Mary Anne smiles up at her.

Alma is rushed to hospital in late June.

Elizabeth finds a bunch of yellow daisies in the gift shop and takes them up to Alma's room. She hovers in the doorway, terrified about what she will find when she approaches the bed. She peers around the door carefully.

Richard is in the chair beside the bed, Mary Anne asleep in the crook of his arm. His free hand is stretched towards Alma, his fingers holding onto her as though she might physically slip away from him at any moment.

Elizabeth knocks softly and he looks up.

"Hello." He clears his throat quietly and sits up a little straighter. "She's sleeping."

"What happened?" Elizabeth asks, gripping the daisies in her fist. The stems bend and snap inside the cellophane wrapping.

"Pain, in her stomach," Richard says, his voice gravelly. "They said that could happen if it - if it kept spreading. They think they've stopped it, for now."

Elizabeth holds her hand to her forehead, grief and despair hammering at her temples. She does her best to hold her tears back. She lays the flowers on the bedside table, suddenly desperate for movement and action. "Let me take Mary Anne for a while," she says. "It'll give you a break."

Richard doesn't argue. He lets Elizabeth take his quietly-slumbering daughter into her arms.

Elizabeth kisses the top of Mary Anne's head. "We'll be back," she says. "We'll give you some time alone."

Richard gives her a small smile, and Elizabeth leaves to pace up and down the corridor, tears burning in her eyes and the need to keep moving forcing her onwards. "I guess I get it from my mom," Elizabeth whispers to Mary Anne, who sleeps on, oblivious. "She was never really one to sit around and cry, either. No matter how inviting it might seem." She hoists the little girl gently in her arms. "I wonder how you'll take after Alma?"

Mary Anne sighs in her sleep and Elizabeth kisses the top of her head again.

When she finally returns to Alma's hospital room, Alma is awake, though pale and weak.

Elizabeth hovers in the doorway, watching Alma and Richard talking softly.

"I'm really frightened," Alma whispers.

Richard leans his forehead against hers. Elizabeth watches his thumb trace gently across his wife's temple, before she turns away again, not wanting to intrude upon them.

"Mom?" Charlie asks, tugging on her sleeve.

She stops chopping carrot and looks down at him.

"How old do you have to be to get cancer?" he asks.

"Old," Patrick answers, turning a page of the paper as he sits at the kitchen table.

Charlie peers around the counter at him. "Like Mrs Spier?"

"Why do you want to know?" Elizabeth asks, running her fingers lightly through his hair.

Charlie looks up at her worriedly. "How do you catch it?"

Elizabeth's heart sinks.

Patrick looks up from his paper. "Stop worrying, kiddo," he says. "Why don't you go and play with Ricky?"

Charlie ignores his suggestion, as does Elizabeth.

"Come on, honey," she says, taking his hand. "We'll go and talk in the living room."

"He's five," Patrick says pointedly.

"And not stupid," Elizabeth snaps at him. She leads Charlie towards the sofa and pulls him onto her lap. She kisses his forehead. "It's not like a cold," she promises him. "You won't get it just because Mrs Spier has it."

Charlie looks a little relieved. "What about Mr. Spier and Mary Anne?"

"They'll be okay too." Elizabeth strokes his hair away from his forehead. "They'll just be sad for a little while, after Mrs Spier goes to heaven."

"Oh," Charlie sighs. He leans his head against his mother's shoulder. "Me too."

"Me too," Elizabeth echoes, hugging him tightly.

"What a way to go," Alma says tiredly, looking around her bedroom. She's propped up against the headboard with several pillows. Elizabeth is painting her nails for her.

Elizabeth isn't sure what to say. "At least you're home," she says after a moment, carefully dipping the brush back in the nail polish.

"Yes. I'm not going to die in a hospital," Alma says determinedly.

Elizabeth gives her a small smile. "Richard's glad to have you home," she says.

Alma nods and watches Elizabeth carefully apply another coat of nail polish to her little finger. "He's lost weight," she says, sounding guilty. "I feel like I need to comfort him and I don't know how."

Elizabeth pats her leg gently. "I'm afraid nothing short of a cure will comfort him."

"I guess not." Alma sighs and leans back against the pillows. "My parents keep calling. They want to come and stay. I think that would drive Richard right over the edge."

Elizabeth laughs. "Don't they get along?"

"Oh, they do," Alma answers. "It's just that everyone is so stressed. I think it would make things worse, having all the worry and tension under one roof." She shifts uncomfortably. "I love them," she says softly. "I don't want them to see me like this. I've told them I have time."

"Oh, Alma..." Elizabeth looks at her sorrowfully. "What if you don't? What if they don't see you again?"

Alma's eyes fill with tears and she fixes her gaze on the window, blinking rapidly. "I want everyone to remember me healthy and happy," she says. "I don't want them to remember me like this."

Elizabeth doesn't push it, but she can't help but worry Alma's parents would want to say goodbye. She wonders if there will be consequences later, should Alma die before they do eventually visit.

"There's so much left to do," Alma says after a moment, changing the subject.

"Can I do anything?" Elizabeth asks immediately.

"Oh, no," Alma answers. "You've done so much." She gives Elizabeth a smile that lights up her entire face. "I've lived in Stoneybrook for years, Edie, but I've never managed to find a friend like you."

"Don't," Elizabeth says. "You'll make me cry."

Alma chuckles. "No," she says. "I don't want people to cry over me."

"We all will, you know," Elizabeth answers, blowing gently on Alma's nails to dry the polish.

"Not for too long, I hope," Alma answers. She gives Elizabeth another smile. "I'd never have chosen this," she says, "but I'm going to die very happy, you know. I have everything I've ever wanted. I only wish I could be around to enjoy it longer. To watch Mary Anne grow up."

"Well, I'm not sure what happens when we die," Elizabeth answers carefully, "but I'd really like to think you will be around to watch her."

Alma smiles, but her eyes look sad."I wish she could watch me back," she answers heavily.

At first, Elizabeth thinks it is the thunder that has woken her. It has been rumbling around the edges of town all day. The heat is still heavy in the air, and the breeze is warm, bringing no relief into the dark bedroom through the open window.

"Get off," Elizabeth mumbles, her eyes still closed. She pushes Patrick's arm away from her and he snorts in his sleep. She sighs and opens her eyes to squint at the clock. Blue light pulses regularly through the chink in the curtains. She watches it for a moment with a frown on her face until she realises what it is.

She scrambles out of bed, breathless with panic. "Watch the kids," she says, watching Patrick's shadowy figure stir.

"Hm?" he asks.

"Watch the kids!" She throws the bedroom door back and takes the stairs two at a time, landing heavily and painfully on the floor in the front hall. She fights the lock on the door. The porch light has been left on and moths batter against it.

She runs out onto the front lawn, merely glancing at the ambulance as she rounds the curve of the fence. Its back doors are open.

She nearly crashes into Richard as he comes onto the front porch. Mary Anne is in his arms. His face looks yellow against the odd light of the porch and the street.

"Richard." Elizabeth grabs her stomach, breathless and sick.

He doesn't answer her. Elizabeth knows it's too late. "Give her to me, Richard," she says gently, reaching for Mary Anne.

He looks at her in surprise. "Yes," he breathes. "All right."

"I'll be right back," Elizabeth promises. She carries Mary Anne carefully, talking to her quietly as she hurries back towards her own house. Mary Anne is sniffling and hiccupping as though she has been crying for a long time.

Elizabeth thrusts her into Patrick's arms.

"What's going on? he asks. "Is it Alma?"

"Take Mary Anne," Elizabeth says. "I'm going back to find out. For God's sake, keep Charlie inside if he wakes up."


She's gone, hurrying back into the front yard. She arrives back in time to see them loading Alma's body into the back of the ambulance. The still form is very small under the sheet.

"Oh," Elizabeth sobs, clutching at her hair. "Oh, Alma."

She turns to find Richard. He is standing in the shadow by the living room window. She takes his hand and squeezes it. "Richard?"

"I missed it," he whispers, watching the ambulance. "All those times I pictured her last moment... We were awake, every time, and I could say what I wanted to say. But I woke up and she was cold."

Elizabeth can feel tears on her face. She presses her cheek against Richard's arm. A light has come on in the Kishi's house. The neighbours will be arriving soon, coming over to question him.

"I missed it," Richard says again. "I can't remember the last thing I said to her."

Elizabeth squeezes his hand again. "She wouldn't care," she whispers. "It was all the other times she wanted you to remember. Not the very end."

He nods once, though she wonders if he really heard her. He lets go of her hand long enough to go and talk to the paramedics. As they prepare to leave, Elizabeth follows Richard and takes hold of him again.

"Let's go inside," she says desperately, feeling breathless and choked. "Come on, Richard. Come on." She tugs at his hand and he follows her quietly.

The ambulance pulls away and he stops to watch it disappear around the curve of Bradford Court.

Elizabeth makes coffee, but neither she nor Richard makes an attempt to drink it. The sun is coming up in the east, and the sky is pink and yellow. The house is silent and open and it feels very, very empty.

"What am I going to do?" Richard asks helplessly.

After a moment, Elizabeth reaches across the table and takes his hand. She doesn't want to tell him it'll be okay. She's not sure, herself, that it will be. She runs her thumb gently across his knuckles. "We'll get through this," she says. "It won't be easy, Richard, but we'll get through this."

He looks down at their hands and squeezes her fingers gently. "Thank you, Edie," he whispers.

It's the first time he has ever called her Edie. She finds herself smiling at him.