My Friend April
Beautiful, that was the only way to describe it. I don't recall ever seeing the sun so bright; hanging in a dizzying expanse of blue with the occasional wisp of pure white. The grass was a vibrant green carpet, cool against the soles of my feet, sloping gently away from the line of trees that crested the hill, adding their own darker green to the kaleidoscope of colours that threatened to overwhelm my senses.
I could hear their leaves rustling from where I stood, whispering softly as they were playfully teased by the same gentle breeze that caught the folds of my cotton dress, rearranging the patterns whilst tousling my hair.
I was happy and at peace.
I didn't know why I had come to this place, and to be honest, I didn't care. I was just happy to be here. Everything was so alive, you could almost see the glow radiating up from the rich earth.
I took another step down the gentle slope, and held out my arms to the gentle caress of the wind.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Turning at the sound of an unfamiliar voice, I saw a woman standing behind me, dressed as I was in a simple cotton dress.
Lowering my arms, I offered her a shy smile, nodding in agreement.
I guessed that she was about my age, in her early thirties, but she could've been younger. With some people, it's hard to tell. She had long dark eyelashes that in another world would've made me green with envy. But, I felt no jealousy here. I sensed that such thoughts were not welcome in this peaceful garden.
I also noticed the small, criss-crossing lines that framed her eyes, betraying a hard life. They made her appear older than perhaps she was. Beneath the happiness reflected in the pools of her dark eyes, there was a hint of something else, a deep sadness. If she noticed my scrutiny, she gave no sign. She just continued staring towards the horizon.
We sat together, there on the gentle slope, with our backs to the trees and our faces to the wind, silently sharing the experience.
I took a deep breath, inhaling the heady cocktail of life that pervaded the air, a myriad of scents subtly mixing to form a unique perfume that was as intoxicating as it was fragrant.
On the periphery of my vision, something moved. Turning slightly, I noticed the figure of a third woman. The white of her dress was in sharp contrast to the carpet of green and I wondered why I hadn't spotted her earlier. She was stood some distance away, too far away to make out any details. I raised my hand to my head, shading my eyes from the bright sun.
"She's waiting for her husband."
I turned to look at my companion, who nodded in the direction of the distant woman, "Her name's Mary," She added, "It was her idea that I came over to speak with you." She smiled again, "I'm April."
"I'm Cathy," I answered, suddenly at a loss for words. I could see that look in her eyes again, the look that told more than words ever could about the struggle she had lived. I looked away guiltily. Mine had not been a hard life. Born to a good family, to me struggle and hardship had always been abstract concepts, something other, less fortunate people suffered, concepts for which I had sympathy but no understanding. Feeling a pang of guilt, I mentally compared my lifestyle to what I imagined hers to be. But looking back into her eyes, I could see there was no accusation or bitterness there.
"How long have you been here?" I asked at last. She lowered her eyes but could not hide the troubled expression that swept over her face.
After a long moment of silence, she answered.
"Not long, I've been waiting for my daughter to arrive. She shouldn't be long now." She looked up at me. "Do you have children?" her expression turned radiant again. I shook my head. "I guess I've just never been ready for them until now. My career always came first."
She nodded in understanding, but my excuse sounded hollow to my ears. I realised that at this moment, I wanted a child more than anything else. My career was unimportant here, and I couldn't help wondering how important it was in the other world.
"I'm ready now though," I added at last. Again I was treated to that radiant smile.
"Every woman should have a child," She said wistfully, "our children are the only things that really matter in this life."
"How many do you have?" I asked, eager to escape the direction my thoughts were turning to.
"Only the one," She answered, "My daughter." The sadness crept back into her eyes, "There were complications with the birth, and," She closed her eyes and shook her head, " But I still have my angel."
I found myself once again contemplating the idea of motherhood, and found I liked the idea.
"What's it like being a mother?" I asked shyly.
"It's hard work," She answered honestly, "But it's the most beautiful experience in the world. Even this place pales in comparison. Every age they reach is a joy."
"How old is your daughter?"
"She just turned five in September." She smiled and shook her head, "You should've seen her face. Mark, my husband, and I arranged a surprise party. We pretended that we'd forgotten all about her birthday. Oh, I feel so guilty about it now. She was nearly in tears coming home from school. My heart ached just watching her, but she wouldn't say anything. She's always been strong has my little Caroline, and when the door opened and all the family yelled, ‘Surprise', she actually cried. I felt awful."
"Poor girl." I found myself grinning, able to visualise the little girl opening the door. We both burst out laughing and I was amazed how good it felt.
"You know," April began after the giggles had subsided, "I didn't think that I'd take to you at first, but I like you."
I agreed. My friends were usually little more than contacts. I realised how long it had been since I had just sat and talked to someone, just for the sheer pleasure of doing so. There was something about this woman that was a joy to be near. I chided myself, then rashly extended my hand.
"Let's be friends," I said before I could stop myself. Giggling, she accepted.
"I can't help wondering about this place," I shook my head, trying to assemble my chaotic thoughts into a single, coherent sentence, "Is any of it real? Are you real?"
She focused her eyes upon mine.
"You want to know if you are dreaming?"
I began to nod, and then changed my mind.
"I don't know." I shrugged, "Maybe I don't want to spoil the illusion if it is a dream, and yet a part of me wants to believe that it's all real, that grass really does grow this green, that I really do have a friend, a real friend." I closed my eyes and began to tell her about my life, my real life. I can't remember much of what I said, but at some point I began to cry. I realised that beneath the surface, I wasn't happy with my life, and that now there was much that I wanted to change.
Sometime after the tears dried, I laid back on the grass, suddenly tired.
"It's alright," She said, placing a cool hand upon my forehead, "This place can be a little much at first."
"It's strange," I murmured, "I felt so alive earlier, and now I'm so tired."
"It's alright," She repeated, "just close your eyes and have a rest. I'll stay with you."
The heaviness in my eyelids was too much, and I found myself drifting towards sleep.
"Thank you," I said as the outside world faded, and for the last time, I heard her soothing voice.
"I'm a part of you now. Rest my friend." Then my awareness faded
"Cathy?" The voice was disturbing in its persistence.
"Cathy, It's me, Keith." I opened my eyes to see a bleary image of my husband before me. I felt a sudden pressure on my neck and my husband's warm breath in my ear.
"Cathy, I'm so glad. I thought that …I was so worried about you."
I opened my eyes, seeing the nylon tubes and becoming aware of an electronic chirping.
"Where am I?" I managed to ask.
"At the hospital, don't you remember? They found a donor."
My throat was dry and my chest was sore, but as I concentrated, his words began to make sense. I remembered.
"Who?" I croaked, "Who was the donor?"
"It doesn't matter," Keith replied, "a car crash. I've got you back. That's all that matters."
"Mr Tomkins, your wife needs rest."
I tried looking up to locate the other presence in the room.
"You can visit her later."
The pressure on my neck released its hold.
"Doctor?" I asked.
"Rest now Mrs Tomkins," He insisted.
"Please Doctor. Tell me, who was the donor?"
"I can't tell you. I'm sorry."
"Please doctor?" I begged.
After a moments pause, he answered.
"A young woman was fatally injured in a car accident this morning. Her daughter is in intensive care at the moment, but we don't think she'll last the night. Luckily for you the woman was carrying her donor card."
I leaned back into my bed, suddenly inconsolable. I heard the Doctor leave
with my husband, and filtered through closed eyelids, saw the lights go
The Doctor came to see me the next morning. Turning the lights up, he announced his presence in the room by coughing.
"How is Caroline?" I asked. He shook his head.
"I'm sorry," He said, "She died in the early hours of this morning."
I closed my eyes, wishing that I could trade places with the girl.
"It's ok," I whispered to the girl's departed spirit, "Your mother's waiting for you."
"Just a minute, I never told you the little girl's name."
I opened my eyes and looked at him.
"No Doctor, you didn't." I replied, "Her mother did. My friend, April." I laid back and closed my eyes, feeling the new heart beating within my chest, and dreamt of a little girl and her mother, reunited again on a carpet of vibrant green.
Paul Stevenson is an electrical engineer from Yorkshire, and father of two monsters, with daytime jobs as normal kids. "My Friend April" is his first publication, and is followed closely by a story accepted for Wicked Hollow #9, due out September.
Published by permission of the author.