All The Little Moments

BOOK: All The Little Moments
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DEDICATION

For
my mum:

Because, without you, there is
no me.

Forever you’ve told me I can be anything I ever wanted
to be

You gave
me wings.

x

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Where
to start?

Lauren. You were the first I told and the first to be stuck as my test reader—you’ve always been one of my biggest cheerleaders, yet I can always rely on you to yank my feet back down to the ground when I need it—thanks for being there to do the same again.

To Erin, who had to deal with being my first-ever beta reader. Your suggestions and comments had me laughing, smiling, and nodding at your wisdom. I hounded you with questions, and you always replied with honesty. I hope we get to work together again—and again
and again!

A massive thanks to the editing team at Ylva, especially Michelle, who edited this into the streamlined, professional piece it is now. I have no words for how much you taught me with your editing; you’re all amazing at your jobs, and I can’t thank you enough. I’ll try anyway: thanks—one
hundred percent!

Melissa, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have learnt to write an essay, let alone a book. You proofread my teenaged ramblings and helped turn them into something acceptable. Ten years on, and you did the same
here—thank you.

Lastly, and certainly not least, to Astrid (and Daniela, for pushing her to email me repeatedly): Thank you for not giving up on me. Thank you for the advice, the ideas, the support. This would not be the shiny work it is if not for you. You believed in this story when I didn’t, and I think you’ve ruined me for every other publisher ever.
You’re gold.

CHAPTER ONE

The car turned down a
quiet street and Anna blinked rapidly as she realised it was her parents’ already. Her neck ached from sitting so stiffly, and she turned awkwardly in the passenger seat. In spite of herself, a smile tugged at her lips: Hayley lay sprawled over in the back, seat belt digging into her neck. The normally poised and put-together lawyer slept with her mouth hung open, and there was a slight sign
of drool.

The last fourteen hours had been a kind of hell, and both of them were exhausted.

Swallowing heavily, Anna looked back to the front and clenched her fingers together in her lap. She kept her eyes off her father, scared to look at the expression on his face as he pulled into the driveway. The car had been eerily silent the entire drive from the airport. There were no words for
this situation.

Now, with the engine cut off, the silence somehow became even more oppressive.

Heart racing, Anna let out a long, slow breath. The house looked as it always had, white and two story with a simple front garden. It all looked the same, yet everything had changed. How could it be that just yesterday she’d been on a beach on the Gili Islands, Indonesia, relaxing with a mojito in
her hand?

Her father cleared his throat and opened his door, sliding out easily. As usual, Anna followed his lead, while Hayley unbuckled herself and got out on Anna’s side, squeezing Anna’s fingers in comfort. Anna returned the gesture as they stood next to the car, looking up at
the house.

If she could just stand out here and not go in, Anna thought, the reality that awaited her could be avoided. Maybe her brother, Jake, would actually be in there, smiling and asking what had taken her so long. He would wink at her and ask if the islands were as romantic as people said. Sally would laugh and punch her husband’s arm, rolling
her eyes.

Except that
wouldn’t happen.

She didn’t want to go inside. The driver’s side door slammed shut, and it made her jump. Warm fingers wrapped around her wrist, and she turned to see Hayley looking at
her intently.

“Sandra will
want you.”

Anna sighed. She didn’t know if she was ready to see
her mother.

The walk to the house felt like it
took forever.

She’d spoken to her mother for less than a minute from the hotel, as Sandra had sobbed the news into the phone. Unable to listen as shock crawled through her belly, Anna had simply handed the phone
to Hayley.

The front door pushed open too easily. Framed by the doorway, Sandra looked small and at the sight of her red eyes and pinched face, Anna had to swallow past a lump in her throat. Sandra fell upon Anna, grabbing her like a lifeline, sobs hot against Anna’s cheek, her fingertips digging into her skin. Anna wrapped her arms around her mother and ran her hand along her greying hair. Words failed, and the only sound was that of Sandra’s grief. Anna felt a powerful urge to look around for Hayley, to find the person who always knew what to say, but her mother clung so hard there would be bruises. All there was to do was to sway gently and bite back the burning in
her throat.

“Na!”

Anna flinched at the contrast between the grief-stricken woman in her arms and the delighted shout of her nephew. Throughout the entire panicked trip off the island and the flight to Melbourne, she hadn’t let herself think of
the kids.

Her mother took a shuddering breath, and Anna felt her tense as she straightened and wiped her
eyes quickly.

Jake’s fifteen-month-old son Toby was making his way, step by step, down the stairs, ratty blue blanket clasped in one hand while his other hand clung to the rail. He was grinning around his pacifier. As she watched the little boy, the spitting image of his father, stumble his way down, her smile was the closest to a genuine one she’d managed since receiving the news. Still, her heart ached, and her stomach twisted so badly, she thought she’d
be sick.

Regardless, she took two long strides towards the bottom of the stairs and threw her arms wide; Toby all but fell into them, his little arms wrapping around her neck and his legs around her middle. He giggled as she cuddled him tightly. Squeezing her eyes shut, Anna hugged him to her. Warm and solid in her arms, he gave another giggle. Out of the corner of her eye, Anna saw her father grimace and disappear down the hall to his study. The door closed with a
solid thump.

Toby pulled back from her neck, blanket clasped to his chest with one hand while the other pulled out his pacifier with a pop. Serious big blue eyes looked at her, smile gone. “Na,” he said, with a nod. He patted her face, pacifier poking her cheek, then broke into another
smile. “Stay!”

Even as her stomach twisted again and nausea rose in her throat, Anna nodded and returned the smile. “Of course I’m staying, Tobes. I’ve
missed you.”

She squeezed him to her again and he wiggled in her grasp, already wanting to get down and run around on his chubby legs. The moment his feet touched the ground, he was tugging her towards the living room. Anna looked up at her mother, pretending not to see the fresh tears on her cheeks.
“Where’s Ella?”

“Upstairs.” Sandra’s voice was like a guitar string tuned too tight. “She’s gone
very quiet.”

A promise to return satisfied Toby, who ran to a pile of blocks, either to demolish or create. Halfway up the stairs, Anna stopped and turned to Hayley. “You
okay here?”

Hayley smiled slightly and nodded. “Sandra and I will have
some tea.”

Anna nodded absently and continued up the stairs, thoughts already on
her niece.

Ella was an incredibly chatty child—an incredibly chatty child who loved her aunty. She’d been a surprise that had come into her brother’s life when he and his fiancé were twenty-five—the surprise that had turned Anna’s jokester, loud brother into a ball of sap who looked at his tiny daughter like he’d destroy mountains for her. The change in him had been immediate as he held the tiny, squealing bundle. When he’d returned to Iraq after three months’ leave, he’d done so with a new love of his life in
his heart.

Sudden, overwhelming anger made her screw up her fists. Her brother had survived a war that had claimed thousands, only to be killed years later, along with the wife he’d left active duty for, by one drunk asshole in
a car.

Sometimes, the world was a
shitty place.

Almost dizzy, she paused outside the room her parents kept for the kids. Taking a deep breath, she knocked and pushed the door
open. “Ella?”

There was
only silence.

She glanced around the room: a single bed all made up in pink in the corner, portacot along the wall, toys everywhere. A hiccup reached her ears, and her sight zeroed in on the neon orange Converse shoes sticking out from under the bed. Anna almost smiled: she had bought Ella those shoes for her sixth birthday five weeks ago. Jake had laughed and rolled his eyes when he caught sight of them. That was the last time Anna had
seen him.

He’d said the shoes were ridiculous, that Ella would grow out of them too fast. Anna had punched his arm to shut him up, and Ella put them on straight away. The night Anna left, Jake sent a photo message of Ella in bed, fast asleep with her shoes
still on.

She had no idea how that was only five weeks ago. A lump formed in her throat and she swallowed it down with difficulty. She slid under the bed on her back, wriggling until she lay shoulder to shoulder
with Ella.

Her niece was still, staring unblinkingly at the springs over their heads, so Anna didn’t attempt to touch her. Ella’s auburn hair was a mess around her head, and her eyes were intent on not looking at Anna. Somehow, the sprinkle of freckles over her nose had gotten even sweeter since Anna had last
seen her.

“Hey, Ella Bella,” Anna
said softly.

Ella continued to stare
straight up.

Anna wasn’t brilliant at this. Becoming an anaesthetist, rather than a doctor or a nurse, had been a choice she’d made because she wasn’t great at conversation or small talk. When they lost a patient, she didn’t have to give terrible news to parents and loved ones, didn’t need to know what to say, how to act. Kids had always been even more of an enigma to her. She could smile at a child in physical pain on her table and make them smile back enough to settle down before she put them to sleep. She could play games with kids, entertain them. She loved to sit with her niece and nephew and read them stories for a few hours, to make them giggle and watch their eyes widen at the things she told them. There had been the weekend she would never forget, when she had stupidly offered to take the kids so Jake and Sally could have two nights alone. But then she’d handed them back and returned to her life. There had been no permanence in that situation—she could handle a few nights because then she got to give
them back.

But this? She didn’t know how to do
this
,
how to comfort a six-year-old who had just lost
her parents.

She lifted a hand, grateful that the bed left a little room, and pushed a lock of hair behind Ella’s ear. And that was all it took; her little face crumbled and tears spilled as she turned into Anna’s arms. The girl’s frame was thin, and Anna wrapped her arms around her shaking, sobbing, almost gasping niece as best she could in the
restricted space.

“Our class rabbit died last year. He never
came back.”

Anna’s throat tightened, and she squeezed
Ella closer.

“Does that mean Mummy and Daddy aren’t coming back too?” Ella’s voice hiccupped over
every word.

Anna didn’t know what to say. So, she went with the truth. “No, they’re
not, honey.”

The joint funeral was beautiful and hideous all
at once.

Throughout, Ella clung to her grandparents and to Anna in turn, green eyes wide, barely speaking
a word.

In the middle of the service, Anna and Hayley had to take Toby outside to play on the grass. The tiny boy didn’t understand and didn’t want to
sit still.

Sally’s parents barely spoke a word to anybody, saying hello to the kids before retreating quickly. They had never bonded with their grandchildren, and Anna tried her best to be polite while harbouring a feeling of resentment towards them. The stories Sally had shared didn’t foster familial bonds. In spite of herself, Anna had kept looking for them at the wake, thinking that surely they would make
an appearance.

That night, Hayley came up behind her in the kitchen, running a hand down her arm and making Anna jump and
spin around.

“What was up with
Sally’s parents?”

Leaning back against the sink, Anna shrugged and crossed her arms. “They’re
born-again Christians.”

Hayley’s eyes
widened. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

She pulled Hayley in for a kiss, relieved she was there as a shield between herself and the crying relatives. Most of her life, Anna had thought herself happier single, but when she’d met Hayley three-and-a-half years ago, the two women who didn’t settle down for anyone had settled down for each other. She smiled, remembering how there had been heartbroken women everywhere in Brisbane when she’d taken Hayley off
the market.

“Why are
you smiling?”

Anna shook her head, pulling Hayley in for another kiss.
“No reason.”

It wasn’t easy to be the partner of someone who was grieving. Hayley ghosted around Anna, offering comfort where she could, which was hard with someone who refused to take it. Anna was aware that it must be maddening, but she didn’t want to talk. All she wanted was to squash down the feeling that was threatening to swallow her whole. Whenever she pulled Hayley to her and crushed their lips together, Hayley looked almost relieved. Sex was easier than words, and after five days in her parents’ house, they learnt to
be quiet.

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