The sky outside was beautiful; clear, bright blue dotted with perfectly white clouds. Sunshine streamed through the open windows, casting a kaleidoscope of soft yellow and orange across the hardwood floor. It even smelled like spring; the sweet scent of flowers drifting through the house.
Penny wasn’t getting the benefit of the fantastic weather. She couldn’t go out, couldn’t meet up with friends or family since lockdown had been initiated seven weeks ago. Truth be told, she wouldn’t want to go out even if the possibility was there. She had become so used to the isolation of her home, adjusted to being alone.
It hadn’t always been like this; once, Penny had been the centre of her social circle, the one everyone went to. Then her husband died in February, the result of a medical procedure gone wrong, and Penny had been left alone. It was difficult to work up the energy to go out when the one person she wanted to go out with was gone.
At some point, Penny had made coffee – the only thing that kept her awake these days – but it had gone cold clutched between her hands. Scowling she stood, intending to throw it down the sink. By the time she reached the hall the shrill beep of her landline jolted her from her thoughts. Her landline. Only one person ever called her on her landline over her mobile. Cringing, she scooped it from the receiver and murmured, “hello?”
“Penny! It’s been weeks, I’ve missed you.”
Guilt swelled in her chest as she clutched her cold mug tighter. Shiloh. It couldn’t have been anyone else. Only her brother cared enough to check up on her. “Hi Shiloh,” she huffed. Leaning against the side table that housed the phone, Penny tried not to sound to snappy as she asked, “what’s with the call?”
“Am I not allowed to call my favourite sister?”
“I’m you’re only sister.”
He laughed, and in her mind, she saw the broad grin spread across his boyish features. Twins they might have been, but Shiloh got all the looks. “I’ll give you that,” he noted, “but you’re still my favourite. Seriously though, how are you doing? You’ve barely called these past few weeks.”
There’s a reason for that, she thought, I don’t need checked up on like a kid. Out loud she said, “I’m fine. There’s plenty of stuff needing done around the house to… to keep my mind off things.”
Shiloh made a humming sound in the back of his throat – the sound he made when he knew someone was lying. No one could fool him, least of all Penny. There was a burst of static as he moved the phone from one ear to the other. Then, “life’s been hard on us all recently, but for you most of all. If you need to talk, you can come to me.”
Penny hated the sappy sibling nonsense. They were adults – she was an adult, and she certainly didn’t need her hand held. Stalking into the kitchen, she set down the mug hard enough to slosh cold coffee all over the countertop. At least now her free hand had something to do as she grabbed a towel.
“Penny,” Shiloh insisted, “I came to you when my girlfriend was ill, Dad came to you when his business went under. Why don’t you let us help you for once?”
Coffee soaked into the dishtowel, staining it dark brown. Tossing aside the soaked fabric she snapped, “I told you I’m fine.” A lie, but one she stood by. How was being coddled going to help anyway? “I don’t need to talk it out. I need to get on with life. My work doesn’t stop just because I’m in lockdown, and as a freelancer, I don’t have time-“
“Time to what, grieve? Come on, Penny-“
“Do you know what? My coffee break just ended, and I have a bunch of clients to respond to.” Storming back into the drafty hallway, Penny ignored Shiloh’s protests as she hung up. Slamming the phone back onto the receiver, she took a moment to let her breathing calm. One breath in, one breath out. It continued for five minutes before her pulse returned to normal, before she could breathe properly again.
Before clarity set in. Shiloh was only trying to help, after all. He had never lost someone he loved – and few were so lucky to be in his position – but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to help.
Groaning, Penny dropped her head into her hands. Short blonde hair fell in her eyes and she flicked it away with a scowl. Yes, she had been absolutely terrible, and none of it was Shiloh’s fault. Delicate hands drifted back to the phone – only to stop short a few inches from touching it.
No. She really did need the time alone, and she had no energy left. Maybe a nap would do her good – at least then there wouldn’t be so many thoughts swirling in her brain. Thoughts of Shiloh, her family, her husband. It seemed she couldn’t stop thinking about Ash these days, and every time she did it became more and more painful. Whoever said grief got better with time was a damn liar.
Scowling Penny trudged upstairs, deciding a half-hour nap couldn’t hurt.
By the time Penny rose to consciousness, rolling onto her side to fumble blindly for her mobile, it was already after half-past six. Her phone glowed in the dim bedroom light, the numbers snapping her mind fully awake in seconds. Guilt rose in her chest as she kicked back the covers, a wince forming on her full lips.
Half an hour she had planned to sleep. It was closer to two hours.
Grabbing her phone she headed downstairs, idly scrolling through her notifications. The fogginess of sleep still clinging to her – recently it never went away – but her mind snapped to attention when she saw a text from Shiloh.
I’m sorry I pried. If you say you’re fine, I believe you. Don’t be mad.
Huffing out a sigh, Penny tried to ignore the emptiness in her chest. She had some apologising to do. Before she had the chance to back out, Penny dialled his number.
“Penny!” he answered, voice thick with relief, “does this mean you’re not angry at me?”
A groan left her throat as she collapsed onto the sofa. Penny had never been good at admitting her faults, and her skin crawled just at the thought of what was to come. “I’m not angry,” she murmured, “I’m… sorry. You’re right, pretending everything is normal doesn’t work.”
Shiloh seemed to liven up at that, glad at the prospect she was finally opening up. “Yeah? That’s good. I mean, it sucks, but I’m happy you’re trying to make things better.”
“Right.” Twisting a strand of blonde hair around her fingers, she tried not to think about how Shiloh was probably grinning on the other end of the line. “Look, you know I’m not good at this stuff. Talking, I mean. I’ve always been a shut up and deal kind of woman.”
“I know,” Shiloh sighed, “even as a kid you never cried.”
Penny hummed in response. Curling into herself, she ignored the little twinge in her chest, the heaviness in her chest. Sighing softly she said, “I just… miss him. I only had a month before this lockdown came crashing down and everything changed, and now he’s not here and I’m dealing with it all by myself.”
She didn’t understand those stories of couples; couples who, during lockdown, drove each other mad with their presence. She would have given anything to be with him now, to have him by her side.
Shiloh was silent. Thinking? The thought almost made her laugh, except she couldn’t quite bring herself to do so. Finally, Shiloh said, “you’re not by yourself. Not entirely. You’ve got me, Mum and Dad, your weird friends,” he laughed softly, “they’ve got to be worried about you too.”
“Yes,” she agreed softly, “but I don’t think I’m ready to talk to everyone as yet.” Just admitting it was a light weight off her shoulders; admitting that she was isolating on purpose. To avoid everyone.
“Well,” Shiloh offered, “you say you don’t like to talk about your problems, and I won’t make you; but do you think you could just talk. About anything. Maybe even just talking about Ash will help.”
“Maybe,” she offered quietly. Shiloh and Ash had never been close; they were too different, both too protective of her in their own ways. Shifting, she ventured, “not today. But maybe… maybe tomorrow, I could call you again?”
She heard the smile in his voice as he replied, “at your own pace, Pen. Call me when you’re ready yeah?”
“I will. Bye Shiloh; love you.”
Silence filled her home as Shiloh hung up – but it wasn’t so claustrophobic, wasn’t so overwhelming as before. Penny risked a small sigh as she set her phone down on the coffee table.
Tomorrow she would call him again. It was about time she started making an effort. Time she admitted she didn’t have to do everything alone.
Strangely, the idea wasn’t as terrible as she once believed.