Meg ran a bony hand through the vivid strands of her hair, pushing stray streaks of orange and red out of her field of vision. Each footstep that landed on the linoleum tiled floor was silent but heavy all the same, the soles of her soft shoes threatening to squeak just as her tears threatened to fall.
She wanted to weep, really she did. She needed to, in fact, but every fibre of her being burned with resolve not to shed a tear as she heard the shuddering sobs of two of her younger sisters from inside the hospital room, accompanied by the rattling wheezing of the ventilator and a cacophony of other beeping, bleeping machines.
Padding into the room as steadily as she could manage, Meg rested a hand on her sisters’ shoulders, squeezing gently as she passed. Placing a feather-light kiss on Beth’s pale forehead, she muttered something unintelligible to excuse herself before striding swiftly out of the room.
There was too much darkness in that room not filled with Beth’s light.
If anything, Meg could seem calm. Digging the edges of her fingernails into her palms, she schooled her expression as her feet carried her out of the hospital at an increasingly harried pace.
She needed to find a place where she could pull herself back together.
Slipping through the glass doors of the hospital, Meg found herself swaying on her feet as she paced the length of the outside wall, each step less sure than the last. She ambled closer to the wall sluggishly. Clenching her fists tightly, she curled in on herself to curb the swaying, the grey cardigan she wore flapping listlessly in the growing wind.
The vein on her forehead throbbed visibly as she muffled the screams that tempted to escape her lips with the tense palm of her left hand.
To think, Meg mourned as heavy, stinging raindrops began to pummel down on her head and the rest of her quaking figure, to think I had been so, so painfully happy just days ago.
All that is left is pain.
She could not bring herself to move. To find shelter from the storm rather than solace in the rain. And so there she stood, the rain soaking through her grey cardigan and moss green shirt, darkening the red of her hair and mixing with the saltwater that had begun to leak from her eyes.
Just as her legs began to give out beneath her, a wiry arm wrapped around her and the rain stopped assaulting every inch it could get to.
The arm pulled her close, holding her away from the pouring rain and closer to some semblance of steady ground.
“Meg,” Joan murmured against the temple of Meg’s lowered head, her lips soft and breath warm against the frigid alabaster of Meg’s skin, “Oh, Meg.”
Meg allowed her shoulders to drop from their tensed height, leaning the juncture between her nose and forehead against Joan’s cheekbone. Joan’s free hand reached up to brush Meg’s hair out of her face, coming back to cup her pale cheek gently.
“I’m tired, Joan,” Meg sighed breathlessly, “So, so tired. There are only so many times I can assure Amy that I won’t let anything happen to Beth, or how many times I can look Jo in the eye and put her broken spirits back together again, or how many times I can sing a song or read a poem or hold Beth’s hand in mine as I crochet her another set of gloves or a blanket or anything, because none of this is making an actual difference! I can’t keep holding my sisters together when I’m already coming apart at the seams.”
Joan wrapped her arm more securely around Meg’s slight shoulders, guiding her back towards the entrance of the hospital. Holding her close, Joan shut the umbrella with one hand as they stepped back into the stark building, quietly reassuring Meg as she manoeuvred her towards a chair.
Motioning to one of the nurses she knew better in this hospital from her numerous trips through the place during her time in the foster system, Joan acquired a dry towel and a paper cup full of hot cocoa for Meg.
As Meg held the steaming cup in her hands, Joan set to drying her darkened hair after removing the soaking cardigan.
“You don’t have to hold them together on your own, Meg,” Her hands busied themselves with gently easing the rainwater out of red hair as she spoke lowly, “That’s too much for even you to bear. There’s always your mother, and Laurie, and Mr. Laurence. Meg, I’m always here for you as well. All of you.”
“Thank you,” Meg rasped in the smallest voice that Joan had ever heard her use, her legs curling up to meet her chest at the knees.
A dark curl fell out of its place and brushed Meg’s brow as Joan leaned down to kiss her lightly on the forehead.
Meg shook slightly where she sat, arms wrapped tightly around her torso. The smallest of smiles dared inch its way onto her cracked lips.
Shrugging her pastel blazer off her shoulders, Joan lay the clothing around Meg’s damp shoulders, putting her arm around her shivering frame.
“Do you want to talk about Beth?” Joan ventured, her hand squeezing Meg’s shoulder briefly, “Or anything else? I hate to see you like this, keeping everything inside because you don’t want to worry your sisters or your mother. Talk to me, at the very least, please Meg.”
Joan’s hands put the damp towel aside now that Meg’s hair was dry, pulling a hair elastic she had grown used to carrying around for Meg out of her pocket. Her hands worked their way through the red strands, weaving them into a neat, loose french braid as Meg struggled to stop the quaking of her shoulders. Once the end had been bound by the dark green elastic, Joan sat herself down next to Meg, offering her hand for Meg to hold.
Grasping Joan’s ever-warm hand like a lifeline, Meg scrubbed her free hand over her face before she parted her lips to speak, “Why Beth? Amy and Jo can’t stop asking me that, and every single time I close my eyes I see her moving around the house picking up after Amy and hear her singing her songs — the one she’s written but hasn’t yet shown Marmee, among others — and then everything ends in her collapsing again, and again, and again, that trial of bright red splitting the lower half of her face haphazardly in two, her face so, so pale. I just—”
Joan’s thumb rubbed soothing circles over her own, her voice steady as she spoke, “Beth is one of the best people I’ve ever known. If anything, she’ll pull through because every single one of those people whose lives she has touched is going to come all the way here, and try to give her their blood or bone marrow or whatever it takes to keep her going, simply because she has touched so many and so much in her quiet way.”
“Ready?” Joan murmured against Meg’s collarbone where her head rested.
Reaching up to brush a finger over Joan’s cheekbone, Meg sighed, “As I’ll ever be. Come on, I’m sure all three of them will want to see you.”
With that Joan got to her feet, offering her hand gallantly for Meg and helping her up, the blazer still around her shoulders. A hand on the small of Meg’s back and the other gripping the small umbrella that they had used previously, Joan strode down the length of the hospital corridors. Too many memories, this place held. Even so, she promised she’d always be there, no matter what, and for Meg, she would.