Sophie wakes across from a too-empty pillow for the 366th day in a row. She blinks across at the empty space as if this time, this time, sleep will have wrought a miracle and she’ll find sleep-messed curls and blue eyes smiling back at her.
The pillow is smooth. Crisp. Un-slept on.
The weight behind her heart settles in again, along with an aching head that could be grief, or wine, or both.
She goes through the morning motions, blankly, automatically. Dressing gown, belt cinched. Face wash, moisturiser, clean teeth. Rings on, rubbing her fingertips over the engraved date. She puts on the fur slippers that Nate always made fun of, and is halfway down the stairs before she registers the noise. Hushed conversations from the kitchen, the rattle of pans, the bubbling of the kettle and the clink of a spoon against china.
“How are you all awake?” She asks. It had been a late night. The three of them crowd around one end of her kitchen, in varying states of alertness. Hardison has his head on the table, pillowed on his hands. Parker lists against him, one of Sophie’s Royal Doulton bowls in front of her, half filled with oatmeal and berries. Eliot, as always, has commandeered the stove. He folds an omelette in half with practiced skill.
“I only sleep five hours a night.” Eliot says.
“I thought it was four,” she says. She sits down at the table. Parker pours her a cup of tea, precise as only a pickpocket can be, and adds the milk in a steady stream.
“Got more reason to stay in bed now.” Eliot nods to Parker and Hardison. He nudges Hardison until he lifts his head from his hands, and then slides the omelette in front of him. “Lightweight,” he says fondly, and kisses the top of Hardison’s head, then does the same to Parker. They fit and flow together with the ease of long familiarity and Sophie aches with loss.
She buries her face in her teacup, breathing in the steam, and takes a sip. It’s the Queen Anne blend, her favourite, but she’d definitely run out a fortnight ago and hadn’t felt up to importing more.
“How?” She asks. Parker produces the duck-egg blue tin from thin air.
“Eliot and I were in London last week and I took a walk through the food hall. There’s more in your cupboards.”
“There’s also now food in your cupboards.” Eliot says, aggrievedly drizzling icing over something. “Sophie, all you had was instant oatmeal and delivery menus.”
“Fancy delivery menus,” Hardison continues, the omelette clearly having revived him, “our Sophie’s still living in style, but those were some depressed cupboards.”
“I haven’t felt like cooking,” she says. It’s never been something she enjoys, and Nate used to do a lot of it. Now, when there’s no one across the table from her, it seems even more pointless, each neat portion feels like a condemnation, a single, sad, lonely indication of what the rest of her life holds, parcelled out for one, just one.
“Hey,” Eliot says, pushing a plate in front of her. “Come on, eat.” Scents of orange and cinnamon rise in the air, and the sense memory rolls over her.
“Is this...” she begins.
“From the bakery next to your old theatre. Got the recipe for you specially, and let me tell you, the owner drove a hard bargain.”
“Three hours. Three goddamn hours it took me to teach the owner’s grandma to programme that coffee maker. I’m Alec Hardison and I’ve seen nuclear deterrents that were less complex.” Hardison sets his fork down and takes a sip of orange juice, then picks up his phone.
“Started the dough last night and got up to finish it this morning.” Eliot says. “Go ahead. Eat.”
“Also, that HOA guy that keeps giving you shit about the colour of your back door?” Hardison says, tapping away. “Never getting approved for a credit card again.” He pours her more tea and nudges the cup across. Parker adds the milk.
Sophie breathes in the scent of warm bread and orange, the edge of caramelisation and the whisper of cinnamon. It had been her favourite breakfast in Portland. Nate would queue early to get the buns fresh out of the oven, and bring them back to bed. She tears off a corner and chews, and suddenly her eyes are damp, tears dripping down her cheeks.
“You’ll get your bun wet.” Parker says. She scoots over to press her shoulder to Sophie’s and moves the bun out of the way.
“I know,” Sophie sniffs, dashing the tears away with the edge of her hand. It’s been so long since she’s cried and meant it. “It’s just, so much.”
“Eliot’s food makes you feel things,” Parker nods.
“Sometimes, you gotta feel the bad as well as the good.” Hardison leans against her other side, tall and warm.
“We were worried about you.” Eliot says, chewing his own bun.
“So you flew all this way to make me breakfast?” She asks, trying to be stern.
“It’s not just breakfast. You know that.” Eliot says.
And at the table, surrounded by her family, Sophie lets the tears flow.