"Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture
And save it from the funny tricks of time..."
Everything stopped; even the air itself seemed to hold its breath. Jack could hear blood and adrenalin pounding in his ears with perfect clarity as the house, with the sudden absence of heated Italian, was plunged into an eerie silence.
Neither of them so much as blinked.
Then slowly, as though the atmosphere in the room had turned to treacle and it was difficult to move, Lucia released her white-knuckle grip on the kitchen counter, pressing her hand tight against her mouth to stop any future flurry of words and insults that only he seemed to be able to bring out of her, he thought sadly. Tears — that he could feel reflected in his own eyes — spilled down her flushed cheeks, leaving ugly smears of makeup beneath her eyes.
She was the first to look away.
“Well,” he said, his voice hoarse from shouting. “It’s nice to know what you really think. Feel better for finally getting that off your chest?”
She flinched at his harsh, bitter tone and tomorrow when he looked back on all this he would regret that, but for the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care. His whole body ached as though he’d been physically assaulted. Though what hurt more, he couldn’t tell; the fact that she had been thinking it for her to come out and actually say it, or that it was probably true.
“That was uncalled for.” Whether she meant her own hurtful words or his, he didn’t know.
“Yes, it was.” He turned away from her, blinking passed tears of hurt and frustration. How much longer were they going to keep doing this? All they did was fight and hurt each other these days. Sometimes he wondered if it had always been like this, and all his happy memories of them together were just an illusion. Nothing more than a dream he’d once had when he was tired enough for sleep.
“Jack…” All the anger bled from her voice, leaving behind only an unbelievable sadness.
He shook his head, not wanting to hear anymore. He needed to get out of there, now, before they said something they couldn’t take back. “I should go.”
Jack took his coat from the back of the chair he had thrown it over when he had first come in and shrugged into it, feeling the familiar armour fall back into place. When the last button was done, he looked up at her with impossibly old eyes and hoped desperately it wouldn’t be for the last time. “Tell Alice happy birthday from me.”
Coward, the scathing, vicious little voice in the back of his mind sneered, and as usual he ignored it. He was used to it now, the voice relegated to mere background noise.
He was almost at the front door when he heard it; soft and almost inaudible even in the quiet house, but undeniably there. The heartwrenching sound of a child crying.
Thoughts of running away vanished as instinct took over. He cursed both himself and Lucia under his breath as he bounded up the stairs, and without so much as stopping to knock, he pushed open the door with the Peter Rabbit sticker on it and peered inside.
The room was dark except for a small nightlight in the corner that cast a warm honeyed glow across the floor. Jack’s eyes were immediately drawn to the small figure curled up on the bed at its centre. Her knees tucked beneath her chin, eyes downcast as she scrubbed all traces of tears from her face, as though she felt guilty at having been caught crying. Jack felt his heart break at the sight.
He padded across the pastel coloured carpet to the bed, pausing momentarily to remove his shoes before crawling in beside her and tentatively pulling the five year old into his arms. She went willingly. Her small arms wrapped around his neck, clinging to him like a beloved teddy bear.
“Ssh, it’s alright.” He closed his eyes and mentally kicked himself for the second time that night. They were supposed to be there to wipe away Alice’s tears when she cried, not be the source of them.
He rested his cheek on the top of her head as she cried into his shoulder, murmuring reassuring nonsense into her dark curls as he began stroking her back in a slow soothing rhythm.
Eventually he felt her quieten and become heavy in his arms and looked down to see Alice losing the struggle to keep her eyes open for much longer.
A shadow hovered at the corner of his vision. Jack looked up over the top of their daughter’s head to see Lucia watching them from the open doorway with an unreadable expression on her face, no doubt having come to check on Alice herself. He tightened his hold on the girl a fraction, silently pleading her mother with his eyes.
“It will make her day if you’re here to see her open her presents in the morning,” she said softly, eyes only for the little girl in his arms.
Something he hadn’t even realised had been there loosened in his chest. It was as close to an I’m sorry as Lucia ever got. He smiled up at her, relieved and grateful, and thought he saw the corners of her mouth twitch in response, but she was gone from the doorway too quickly to tell and he couldn’t be certain in the darkness of the room.
Maybe, he thought as he shifted back against the pillows to find a more comfortable spot to spend the night, untangling the blankets from Alice’s legs to pull them up around them both, Alice wouldn’t be the only one glad to have him there in the morning.