It was like an alarm had gone off. The sound pierced the room like a warning bell, demanding action of everyone who could hear it, spreading terror.
Charlotte compulsively lent forward to grab her tea, which had gone cold whilst they had been sitting there. She watched her brother’s lean hand grab the phone.
From the corner of her eyes, she saw her husband, Mark, grab their three year old son, and exit the room. Nobody spoke. There was no sound, but for the creaking and scraping of chairs, the sound of footsteps, a door being closed. And the phone.
Then the sound stopped. For a short moment everything was quiet again. But the silence didn’t mask the fear that rippled through the room.
“William speaking,” her brother made a valiant effort to sound confident. But she wasn’t fooled.
Charlotte couldn’t help herself, she raised her gaze to stare directly into her brother’s face. He was deadly pale. His whole body was shaking. She knew he could not yet have received any news, good or bad. Still, he was fighting hard to keep back tears. His honey-coloured eyes shining bright and beautiful.
She felt her heart shatter into a thousand pieces. Charlotte could scarcely breath herself, and it wasn’t her phone call. This was her brother’s pain, and she did not know how to take it off him.
William turned his face away from her. He must be receiving the news any second now, Charlotte thought. She gripped the mug tighter. She would not have been able to lift it, if she had wanted to drink the cold tea. She could feel her own hands trembling, clinging unto the mug as if it was her lifeline.
He is still alive. Charlotte kept repeating the words over and over as she drank in the view of her frail, baby brother.
“Why you?” she had asked him once. “Why did it have to be you?”. He had looked at her, with his warm, earnest eyes. She remembered it well, his chocolate-coloured hair, once curly and full of life, slack, but not yet gone: “Why not me, Lottie?”
As a child, Charlotte had stepped into the protective mothering role. Now, she was failing to keep him safe and happy. She felt like she was letting him down. But this was something far outside of her control. Just love him. Just love and treasure him every single day. Even today, the worst of days, just appreciate his presence. You don’t know for how long you will have him.
Silence again. William had lowered his phone. He turned to Charlotte and their father. His eyes were dry now. He is gone, she observed. Charlotte could see that her baby brother had gone to a dark and terrible place. It would be her job to find him there, and help him back.
She pushed her chair away from the table as she rose to walk over to him. The hollow expression was enough. She knew.
“It’s positive again” she said softly. It didn’t need to be a question.