First chapter of Puzzle Pieces #1

(La Trattoria Di Amore)

Chapter One

 

Richie

 

Richie pushed aside the massive pile of ever-growing unpaid bills and the bank statements that dashed his hopes of getting through the month. He went back to searching through the want ads, reading the requirements he, again, didn’t meet. His stomach dropped in despair, and he raked his hands through his toffee-brown hair. What am I gonna do?

“Richie. Richie, are you there? I need to use the commode.”

A look of disgust was cast at the paper on the old table as he stood. Childhood memories flooded his mind when his hand skimmed the scarred and battered wood. Those happy times were now nothing but a distant memory. When had the universe decided he didn’t need any more joy in his life?

Shaking off the self-pity, he jogged out of the kitchen to answer the barely heard shout. The last thing his mother needed was him with a hangdog face. He skidded to a stop outside the lounge door, making sure to mask the worry he felt. He didn’t want his mother getting distressed. With everything she was dealing with, he knew he had to shoulder the financial burden they were now under. Alone.

He took a breath and stepped into the room. “You yelled, your highness,” he quipped and gave her a quick smile he didn’t feel as he bent to pull back the light blanket covering his mother’s disease-wasted body. The weight loss left her no more than a bag of bones.

Teeth sunk into his bottom lip when she winced at the movement. “Have you taken your pain meds? You were due to take them half an hour ago.”

When she didn’t make eye contact with him and shook her head slowly, Richie sighed in frustration. “Why didn’t you take them? You know they help keep the pain down to at least bearable, most of the time.” He hated the edge his voice carried, but he couldn’t stand to see her in pain.

“They make me loopy if I take too many. You know this. You try seeing large blue imaginary spiders crawling across your living room carpet. It makes it a hard call on which is worse: the pain or the hallucinations.”

Her breathing became laboured. The strain and effort it took to talk were telling, and she hadn’t even moved. The doctors at the hospital had warned this would happen as the cancer spread, but he’d not listened. The one word no one ever wanted to hear associated with one of their own family. The devastation left no room in your head for anything else. It was as if that one word dropped into the conversation created a crater so deep and so wide he didn’t think he’d ever be able to climb back out.

A routine check-up was all it was supposed to be. Having turned fifty last year, his mother got a letter to go for the mandatory mammogram, as all women of that age got. He could remember his father ribbing his mother, telling her she was showing her age at now having to go for routine tests for people over fifty. The ribbing hadn’t lasted very long when the letter arrived two weeks later saying she needed to go back for further tests. His father was away on a business trip, so he’d taken the day off university as moral support. The whole time he’d been sure they’d say it was a benign lump. Something he’d googled when preparing to go to the appointment, only it wasn’t.

The doctor had thrown lots of words around, and they’d both struggled to get the gist of what he was trying to explain. The shadows on both breasts required biopsies for a full picture—staging he’d called it—to find out how serious the cancer was. His mother also needed a body scan to look to see if there were any other issues. The questions about pain or weight loss, neither of which his mother had, gave them hope it was all a big mistake until the results of the tests came back. Stage four breast cancer, with spread to the lymph glands.

Google had not been his friend when he’d looked up what that meant. He could barely recall the weeks after. He’d failed one of his exams, and then the unthinkable had happened. His father had fucked off with his secretary, leaving him and his mother to flounder, drowning in the double misery.

That had been eight months ago. It turned out his father had been an unfaithful bastard for years, and his mother’s diagnosis had given him the push to go. The irony of the situation was not lost on either his mother or him. But he took his hat off to her; she let go of the anger, said she needed to concentrate on staying well. He, on the other hand, wanted to cut his father’s balls off and shove them where the sun did not shine. He’d learnt to keep his anger to himself, talking about it with his girlfriend and Adam when his mother wasn’t in earshot.

After some serious thought, he’d decided to give up his course to stay home and help, stepping up to the plate in the absence of his father and supporting her through each step. Over the following months, they’d carried out a double mastectomy and given her several cycles of chemo.

None of it worked, he could see she was a shell of the woman she had once been. Even though he knew this deep down, he was still shocked when they’d attended the oncology clinic last week and heard words like disease progression and lack of treatment options. The insidious bastard was winning. When they’d told her there was nothing more they could do except keep her comfortable. What the fuck did that mean?

But like a grown-up, he’d sucked it up, making sure not to lose it in front of the doctors or his mother. They’d discussed all the options open to them, and when she’d said she wanted to die at home surrounded by her things and not in some place that was cold and sterile, he was lost under such want. Most of the time, he was clueless and beyond mortified at helping with her hygiene. And though he thought he’d cried it all out, he found it a battle to keep it together as he watched her fight to keep going through the pain every day. Never mind nausea or the infections she seemed to pick up at the drop of a hat.

There were Macmillan nurses who came daily to help with some of the nursing aspects and sort out the syringe driver pumping her with a mix of medications to help with the pain and sickness. Though the medication he’d noticed the last few days they weren’t as effective. It didn’t help that his mother was stubborn and refused to take the medication for breakthrough pain.

He worried his lower lip between his teeth and considered how much he could push her.

“Are you going to help me, or are you just going to chew your lip raw.” The amusement sparkling in her eyes took the sting out of her words.

“Hey, don’t you get lippy with me. I’ll cut off your supply of ice lollies.” He raised his brow in mock threat and then chuckled when she batted her lashes at him.

“Oh no, please, sir, not that.” She giggled.

His chin wobbled, and he had to look away for a moment. Gathering himself, he fussed with the blanket. He got down on his knees next to the bed and slowly slid her legs off the mattress, doing his best not to let the small whimpers upset him. No matter how many times a day they did this, he still struggled to stop the tears from welling in his eyes. His mind searched for something to talk about and distract them both as he blinked back the tears.

“Milly said she’d come and see you tonight.” The moment he spoke, he knew he’d made a mistake when his mum huffed. The scent of pear drops ghosted over his face a second before he felt her hand touch his shoulder.

“Is she really?” The bite of anger in his mother’s tone made him avert his eyes. There would be nothing to see only her disappointment. It was a bone of contention between them. His mother had accidentally heard him and his girlfriend arguing. When she’d come to his home, he’d mistakenly told Milly he was deferring for a year to care for his mum. Milly had been so outraged that she was going to finish her final year without him she’d shouted. Explaining in no uncertain terms what a disappointment he was to her and that she would need to consider if she wanted a dropout, jobless prick—her words—for a boyfriend. The words stung, and with his mother within earshot, it only added to the misery.

After Milly had left, his mother all but insisted he shouldn’t defer and she would go into hospital when the time came. He’d been adamant that he was postponing no matter what. The very next day he’d gone to the university to discuss it with the head of the faculty. The paperwork had been submitted, and Richie had left at the end of Easter. That had been a month ago, and even though Milly was still more than a little frosty towards him, he couldn’t find it in him to care. Not when his mother couldn’t hide the look of relief on her face when he’d told her what he’d done.

Now he was left with Milly, or as his mother referred to her, Miss Frosty the snowwoman, continually referring to how brilliant Deke, one of the guys on their BA Business Management course, was. He didn’t have the energy or the motivation to find the jealousy he was sure he should be feeling.

Because he had dropped out of uni, the aspirations of them opening a joint consultancy firm when they completed their degrees had fallen by the wayside. But he realised they’d been all her ideas for their future, not his. He’d gone along with it to keep her happy.

A future I’d derailed by wanting to take time to care for my dying mum.

Something Milly was not averse to telling him, frequently. And it was starting to leave a nasty taste in his mouth.

Why couldn’t she see how important this was to me or that my mum would have no one to help her if I’d continued with the course?

He kept the sigh inside. Just. He didn’t get it. Milly had been there when his dad had left, and okay, the support she’d offered him had been minimal. Nonetheless, at the time, she’d seemed to understand he’d need to be there for his mum.

He shook off the thought that it only seemed to apply when it didn’t affect her directly.

Easing his mother to the commode chair, he held her under the arms gently. He let her lower her lilac fleecy pyjama bottoms. He turned his head away at the sight of the unbelievably thin legs. The paper-thin skin appeared blue with all the veins showing.

As not to jiggle her too much he waited till she indicated she was ready to sit. Then he helped her onto the chair. He pursed his lips. The low groan was more than he could bear.

The moment she was settled, he grabbed the oromorph off the side, poured twenty MLS into a tiny measuring cup, and held it out to her.

When she crossed her arms, tucking her hands under her armpits, his brow rose. Like a defiant child, she glared up at him. “It won’t work, Mum. I’m not six anymore and frightened of your stern face. I have one of my own, and I learnt from the best. Now take this and drink it, or I’m going tell on you.” The statement was so ridiculous, but somehow it worked and she snatched the cup holding the drug from him.

After drinking it all, she gave him back the empty cup with a furrowed brow. He caught the spark of humour in her hazel eyes. Eyes, which were identical to his own and were the colour of a tiger when angered. His dad was broad, tall with blond hair and blue eyes, whereas he was short at five foot five, slender, with hazel eyes and toffee-brown hair. When he’d been a child, he’d looked up to his father and often wished to be more like him. Now, he was pleased that he took after his mother’s side of the family.

Once she finished, he settled her back in bed, happy to note the whimpers were hardly noticeable. He plumped up her pillows and asked, “You want an ice lolly?” Giving a cheeky grin, he added, “You good little girl.”

“Ha, ha, ha, you’re bloody funny and yes, please. That medication leaves a crappy taste in my mouth.” Her breathless response made him ruminate. Should they be using the bedpan the nurses had left? It was a touchy subject for his mother.

His eyes narrowed. Maybe Irene could discuss it with his mum. The Macmillan nurse would be coming later to relieve him. He decided to insist Irene broach the subject with his mum, no matter how much of a coward it made him.

He went to the kitchen for the ice lolly. His eyes caught the newspaper he’d been reading before leaving to help his mum. He groaned. He’d forgotten for a moment about their financial situation.

The house was mortgage-free, but last year, before her diagnosis, his mother had bought a new car with a loan. At the time, she had the funds to afford the payments over a planned two-year period. The monthly fee was seven hundred pounds, and it was crippling them. There were several payments left, and his mum was insistent that they keep the car, though God knows why. He didn’t need an Audi TT any more than she did. His mum’s disability allowance and work pension covered some of the expenses, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

Then to top it off, there were the lawyer’s fees for the divorce. Only this morning he’d found out they would be due when the divorce became final in a few weeks.

He’d done everything he could think of. He’d even siphoned off all the money from his college fund; not that there’d been much left. He tugged on his hair. “How am I going to find the money to pay it with no job?” he whispered to the empty room.