For the next week I watched the pile of bills grow taller, and the hollows beneath my children’s cheekbones sink deeper. Without Mary’s income I couldn’t keep up. Without her whispers in my ear each night that “as long as we have each other it will all work out”, I barely had the will to try.
Every day I walked past the Wilson’s tidy garden and fruit-laden trees, growing as bitter as the bright yellow lemons which ripened in the artificial sunlight.
When I returned home from work that Friday, the elevator opened and I braced myself for my usual welcome, but Hope did not spring forward and wrap her arms around my knees. She wasn’t even waiting behind the doorway of our apartment. Instead Aaron’s worried face greeted me.
“Where’s Hope?” I asked, frowning as I scanned the room.
“Here,” Aaron replied, backing up and gesturing toward the couch.
Apprehension filled me until it pressed against my ribcage as the door closed behind me. I hurried into the living room and knelt beside the curled form of my young daughter.
“What’s wrong?” I asked as I gripped Hope’s hand and felt heat transfer from her skin to mine. Bruised eyelids half-covered her glassy eyes.
“I don’t know,” Aaron responded. “The school nurse sent me home with her after lunch, but she didn’t say what was wrong.”
“Hope?” I leaned in and spoke softly as I brushed wet curls off her forehead.
“Dad?” she whispered back, her pain evident in her voice.
What was left of my heart tore into pieces.
“What do we do, Dad?” Aaron asked in a tight voice.
I shook my head as I blinked back tears.
We took turns holding a damp cloth on her forehead, covering her when she shivered, and taking the blanket away when she complained of being too hot. Aaron finally fell asleep on the living room floor. I sat by her side all night, jerking awake from time to time as my head lolled forward. Somewhere around midnight she began to cough, the dry barking sound which had become horribly familiar in our house. The sound woke Aaron.
“Is is the same thing Mom had?”
I hesitated for a fraction of a second before I answered.
“Is she going to die?” Aaron’s scared whisper reminded me how vulnerable he was, despite the brave face he usually wore.
Reaching out, I wrapped my fingers around his hand and squeezed.
“Not if I can help it.”