Helena yawned as she skipped through the news pages on her tablet. It was way too early. Well, too early to be up if she had her way. The summer holidays couldn’t come fast enough. Until then however, there was always coffee. Stifling another yawn she picked her mug up and took a tiny sip, scalding her lips as she did. It was worth it. She sighed as she savoured the taste, and the stories she was reading started to make more sense.
There was a clatter from upstairs and Helena rolled her eyes while she could still get away with it. There were two teenage girls in the house, yet it was always their mum that made all the noise.
Helena looked at the clock on the stove. The dislike of mornings was genetic as well. Once again their mother was late. After suffering for another sip of coffee Helena slid off her bar stall and went to shove some bread in the toaster. If her mum didn’t have time to eat it, it would do for Cassie’s breakfast.
Speaking of, where was–?
There was another crash from upstairs, followed by “Not now, Cassie!”
Helena froze halfway into her seat. It sounded like Cassie was having another bad morning. But why would she go to their mum first? She’d have better luck asking the toaster for help.
There were footsteps on the stairs, and in a whirl of half-organised panic Helena’s mother stormed down the stairs. She only had one shoe on, forcing her to hobble as the high heel made her lopsided. Her suit jacket was over her shoulder and her blouse half button upped, but her make-up and hair were perfect. Even dishevelled, her presence still changed the air of the room. Helena sat up a little straighter.
“Good morning, Mum.”
“Morning, dear. Sorry, can’t talk now.” She hobbled over and planted a kiss on her eldest daughter’s forehead, and Helena could feel the sticky lipstick mark she left behind.
“Ah, Angel.” Another kiss, then their mother hit the cancel button on the toaster and stole a slice to eat while she put her other shoe on. It’s little more than bread at this stage, but Helena’s just glad she’s eaten something.
“Mum,” came another voice from the doorway. Beneath all their mother’s chaos, Cassie moved as silent as a mouse, and now she lurked in the doorway.
“Not now, Cassie.”
“No, Cassie! I’m too busy. It was just a nightmare, and I’m sorry you had to have it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. Didn’t your therapist give you any coping techniques?”
“Mum, this wasn’t a nightmare! It’s going to come true, I know it. Please, don’t drive to work today.”
“Cass, look at the bloody time. If I don’t drive to work I’ll be late. I’m a director, how can I be late? For pity’s sake, we called someone in last week for always being late. How’s it going to look if I’m late now, hm?”
Helena was back on her seat, tablet in one hand while the other one rested around her coffee. Out the top of her eyes she watched the argument, not that either of them would have noticed if she’d been staring open-mouthed. Their mother was talking with her mouth full more often than not, still putting the last bits of her wardrobe together. But it was Cassie that Helena was more interested in.
With their mother’s obliviousness to Cassie’s problems, Helena spent more time helping her sister. She took her to therapy, and several times when their mother had worked late, Helena and Cassie would stay up talking about all the things that worried Cassie. ‘Severe anxiety’ was all the doctors had labelled it as, but Helena knew there was something more to it.
Despite all the time she’d spent helping however, she’d never seen her sister looking so distressed. Her eyes were red and puffy, there were tear-stains down her face, and Cassie hadn’t bothered to change out of her pyjamas.
“Please,” Cassie begged. “Don’t take the ring road today. There’s going to be an accident, a terrible accident. Please, Mum, don’t. I don’t want you to die.” Cassie was sobbing by the end of it, which only made their mother embarrassed.
“For pity’s sake, Cass, pull yourself together. I know how to drive, I won’t get in any accidents. Now stop being so childish and go and get dressed!”
Cassie started to shake, and her breathing was short and laboured. If Helena didn’t act now there’d be a full blown panic-attack, which would set their mother off into another rant. Talented and successful as their mother was, empathy wasn’t one of her strong points.
Helena drummed her fingers lightly on her mug as her mind raced to come up with something. An advert on her tablet sparked an idea, and she forced down a smile.
“Hey, mum?” she said, trying to sound as carefree as she could. The other two were still too pre-occupied to notice anything wrong though.
Her mother leapt on the chance to ignore Cassie. “Yes, dear.”
“There’s an ad her for free coffee, from that new bistro that opened up just off the market.”
“That’s nice dear.”
Helena made a point of staring at the clock. “Well, it would save you having to wait at the café outside your office. That place is always packed, isn’t it?” Helena watched as the idea started to percolate through her mother’s brain.
“True. But going via the market takes longer than the ring road. It’s fine, I can call up from the café and start work then.”
“If you went via the market though, you’d have a chance to set up your hands-free kit. Then you could start working even earlier.” No matter how late their mother was, she’d never take the extra minute outside their house to set her hands-free. ‘No time to waste’, said the woman who hit snooze for half an hour each day.
“Ooh, there’s a thought. That would really put the wind up them. The new bistro?”
Cassie started up again. “But Mum–”
“No, Cass.” Fully dressed and fed, their mother leant over and kissed Helena on the head again. “Thanks hun.” She leant down a little further and whispered. “Keep an eye on your sister today, will you? Call in sick if you have to.” That was the closest their mother ever got to admitting Cassie had serious problems.
“Will do, Mum. Have a good day.” Helena gave her mother a light peck on the cheek as well, before getting whipped by her hair as she spun away.
“Bye, Cassie.” Planting her fingers over Cassie’s mouth, their mother gave her youngest a kiss on the cheek as she marched out the room and down the hall.
“No, wait!” Cassie cried and tried to follow, but Helena dashed over and grabbed her arm.
“Cassie, it’s okay.”
“No, it isn’t. The accident–”
“Sshh, Cass, listen–”
At that moment the front door slammed shut, and Cassie burst into tears again. Helena hugged her and rubbed her back until she was calm again.
“Cassie, listen. Mum isn’t going to go via the ring road. She’s going to be okay.” There was only garbled babbling from her sister, so Helena carried on. “That story I sold her about the free coffee will keep her off the ring road. You know what Mum’s like with her coffee. There’s no way she’d skip out on the good stuff, especially if she can get one up in the office as well.”
It took a few moments for the words to get through to Cassie. “Wait,” she said into Helena’s shoulder. “You made that story up?”
“Yeah. You can’t tell Mum what to do, but you can trick her into doing it.”
“But what happens when she gets there and there isn’t free coffee?”
“Well, either Mum will batter them into submission and get a free one anyway, or she’ll be too distracted by work to notice she had to pay for it.” Helena pushed her sister away a little to get a good look at her. Some colour had returned to her face, but the bags under her eyes were still vivid and she was still shaking. “Come on, let’s watch TV. I’ll call the school and tell them we’re ill.”
Cassie nodded, then gave her sister another hug before heading to the living room.
The pair of them spent the day watching TV and talking about nothing. When the news of the pile-up on the ring-road made the nine o’clock news, Helena sent their mother a text to let her know they were off school.
OK xx, their mother texted back a second later.
Helena showed Cassie the text, but said nothing else.