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Bettter Late Than Never

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Ellen jerked awake her heart beating a mile a minute. She sucked in a ragged breath as she frantically tried to start up her brain. The sound that had obviously woke her came again. A constant rat-tat-tat knocking on her front door. It was both sharp and insistent. Someone was beating on her door at gone three in the morning. She swung her legs to the floor and hastily grabbed her robe from the back of the bedroom door. As she swung it open she was greeted by the form of her four year old daughter looking wide eyed and frightened on the small landing.

“Someone’s banging on the door Mom, it woke me up.”

“I know sweetie, go on back in bed. It’s late, I’ll see who’s there.”

“Can I see?”

Sophie’s natural curiosity came to the fore as she headed for the stairway only to be held back by an increasingly anxious Ellen. The knocking came again, urgent and forceful. Who ever it was seemed to determined to gain entry.

“Sophie back in bed. I mean it, stay there till I come back ok?”

She ushered the child back into her room and shut the door. As she flicked the switch to illuminate the stairway the knocking ceased. The sudden silence was as unnerving as the noise. Ellen’s heart thudded in alarm as she made her way to the front door, her mind hurriedly running through the possibilities. A neighbour’s emergency? The police with awful news about Chris or one of her family? Surely they would announce themselves. It was still silent. She approached the door and pressed the external light switch that illuminated the small porch at the front of the house. Ellen could make out a large, shadowy figure, their frame pressed close to the door as if to peer through the frosted glass panel.

“Ellen, is that you? Open up, it’s Kate, Kate Franklyn.”

“Oh my god....” further words failed Ellen as she yanked open the door to get her first look at the woman in almost five years. Kate simply strode through the entry and filled the small hallway with her Amazonian frame.

“I’m sorry to turn up like this but you’ve changed your cell number...”

“Years ago. What’s......?”

“Mom, who’s there?” Came an urgent whisper.

Both pairs of eyes turned to regard the small form peering through the banister on the upstairs landing. Sophie now looked wide awake. Her short brown hair was tousled and sticking up at all angles. Her large brown eyes were alive with interest.

“Good Lord when did she get so big?”

“I’m four” Sophie supplied helpfully. “Who are you?”

Ellen sighed tiredly and waved Kate through to the small family room off the hallway.

“The kitchens through there, put some coffee on, I’ll go and settle her down.”

Ellen trudged up the stairs and spent ten minutes answering assorted questions and settling her daughter back into bed. She told Sophie a mixture of evasions and half truths while passing off their late night visitor as an ‘old friend of mommy’s.’ During this time a sickly feeling of rising panic began gnawing away at Ellen’s guts. If Kate Franklyn was pounding on her door in the early hours of the morning it couldn’t be with good news and it would certainly concern the only person they had in common. She gave her daughter a kiss to the forehead and a final, gentle admonishment to stay put and go back to sleep before she headed, with some trepidation, for the stairs.

Ellen found Kate stood leaning against the counter in her somewhat untidy kitchen. Lit by the harsh fluorescent strip light Ellen noticed Kate’s dishevelled state for the first time. Her hair hung limply, framing a face that was drawn and grey with fatigue, but her eyes were the biggest give away. The blue eyes which Ellen always remembered as warm and inviting were bloodshot, red rimmed and puffy with recently shed tears. Kate’s large hands trembled as she busied them preparing coffee in cheery mugs printed with daisies. Ellen took all this in in the few seconds it took her to cross the kitchen. She felt nauseous and disoriented due to the shock and early hour. So many thoughts and scenarios were crowding her brain it took a moment to get her mouth to work.

“Tell me. Is she...has she....” But Ellen couldn’t get the words out. Her breath hitched, her face began to crumple. The dam holding back years of repressed feelings was threatening to burst wide open.

“No, no. Ellen she’s not dead, listen to me. She’s still with us but its bad. Really bad. She suffered a massive heart attack yesterday morning. Thank god she was at work and they got her help straight away. The doctors said if she had been alone she wouldn’t have stood a chance. The EMT’s saved her life, they had to shock her back several times but she clung on till they got her to the hospital. She had emergency open heart surgery. A triple by-pass. Her arteries were completely shot. It’s a miracle she survived the procedure. They’ve sedated her to give her a fighting chance but its touch and go Ellen. I don’t think they expect her to make it.”

“Oh my god Kate, I’m so sorry. Jesus, what about Catherine?”

“Catherine is with my husband, she’s staying with us until...until.”

“She won’t die Kate, she won’t. We both know how strong she is..”

“I wish I shared that certainty. She was awake before they took her into surgery. She was barely conscious. They asked her if she wanted a priest. I looked into her eyes, she looked terrified but she shook her head. She stared right at me and said your name. She asked for you Ellen.”

“What?”

“She was clear. She spoke your name. She wanted you, to see you. I don’t know.”

Kate exhaled wearily and swept a hand through her hair. The coffee mugs stood untouched on the counter.

Ellen blinked in disbelief as Kate just stood gazing at her with an expectant look on her face. She shook her head attempting to clear it. Kate rambled on looking increasingly desperate.

“My sister has never asked me for anything. Never, until yesterday when she was laying on what could be her death bed. She asked for you and I’m not going to fail her. I’m asking you to go to the hospital...actually I’m not asking. You have to go, there may not be another chance...”

“What, now? I can’t just drop everything. Sophie’s upstairs..”

“Where’s her father?”

“Long gone, last I heard he was in Washington.”

“Your parents? Can your mother take her for a day or two?”

“A day or two? Are you nuts? Look maybe you’ve got it wrong. In any case when she comes to she’s going to need to be calm and quiet. No stress. You know our history, can you see that happening?”

“If. If she comes to. Are you willing to risk it? There might not be another chance.”

“Look, I know you’re upset but that sort of emotional blackmail isn’t fair....”

“None of this is fair Ellen. She’s only sixty six, she’s the sole parent to a nine year old. Whatever she’s done in the past and believe me I know she’s no saint, she doesn’t deserve this.”

There was a silent stand off as the past ran through Ellen’s head like a flickering movie. A dizzying sequence of images, faces and lifeless bodies with Patty at the centre of it all. Patty who’s rampant ambition and towering ego steam rolled over everything and everyone in its path. Patty laughingly handing her a glass of bourbon as she manipulated Ellen into taking a job. Patty smiling as she handed over the keys to a new apartment. Patty charming her clients and eviscerating her opponents. Patty offering her hand as they gazed out over the water and Patty silhouetted against angry grey clouds, broken by the loss of her son. Patty who lied and lied and lied.

“I can’t Kate, I’m sorry but I can’t put myself back there. I’ve come too far, I have a different life with Sophie, a good life. I’m not that person anymore. Whatever she’s got to say, I don’t want to hear it. I can’t be around her again.”

Kate blew out her cheeks and made a visible effort to control herself and consider her response. Ellen was a strong woman, she always had been. She was quick to temper and slow to forgive. Almost everything she had endured throughout her adult life could be laid at Patty’s door and Kate knew the woman in front of her owed her sister nothing.

“We’ve got closer over the past few years. After Michael, well, I think she realised she needed somebody. I don’t kid myself it has anything to do with family loyalty. I was just there, I was willing to help....She was drinking heavily, drowning in guilt. For a long time I wondered if she was giving up. She withdrew from Catherine, barely went into the office. She spent her days drinking in hotel bars and nights sitting in that godforsaken apartment just staring into space. I wouldn’t leave her alone. I grew worried about Catherine and eventually threatened her with Children’s Services.”

“Jesus I bet that went down well.”

“I was done dancing around her. We had an almighty argument, Catherine woke up in the middle of it. She came downstairs and begged to come home with me. She was five years old.....”

“Anyway.” Kate flapped a hand and took a sip of coffee. “It was a turning point. She got hold of herself, got some proper help, therapy and fought her way back. She barely drinks these days, she does yoga, she really looks after herself and now this.
The past two years I’d say we’re close. We take Catherine out to the beach house. They come over for dinner, she’s got to know my family at last. It’s been good, I’ve finally got a sister. Best of all we talk, we really talk.”

Ellen’s face hardened.

“She’s played you the same way she plays everybody.”

Surprisingly Kate let out a rueful laugh.

“At first yes, she probably did. She was a mess and she knew she had to cling onto someone. I’m glad it was me.”

The older woman shrugged and smiled sadly.

“You know I was fourteen before I even knew I had a sister. All my life I’ve wanted what we have now. I based my career on trying to impress her only to face her scorn and derision when I chose family and motherhood over ambition. She virtually ignored me for years. She hated the fact I maintained a relationship with our father. It was only after he died I got to know the extent of his abuse. We’re all shaped by our upbringing, perhaps Patty more so than most of us.”

“You know I saw her a while back, about a year ago. We looked right at each other and walked away without a word. If she had something to say to me she should have done it then.”

“Yes she told me. She drank herself into a stupor that night for the first time in a long time. You haunt her Ellen. You’re her living ghost. If she could go back...”

Ellen threw her hands up impatiently.

“There’s no going back. She hired a man to kill me. I don’t doubt she’s sorry now. That’s Patty all over, but sorry doesn’t really cover it.”

“No ones asking you to forgive and forget. I’m asking you to help me. To help me give my sister the one thing she wants.”

Kate blinked backed tears and visibly gathered herself before carrying on.

When our father was dying Patty repeatedly turned down the chance to see him. She said she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction but just before the end she did go. She went to look him in the eye and tell him just how much she hated him. How she would never forgive him and how she hoped he was going to rot in hell.
If you do the same thing, I won’t blame you. I doubt if she will either. If you don’t go and she dies...I believe you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

Ellen moved forward and wrapped her arms around the trembling figure. She hugged tightly. Kate was a good woman, she was a friend and provided a strong shoulder during the turmoil of the McClaren case before it descended into the unholy hell that seemed to trail in the wake of Patty Hewes. Ellen was still reeling from finding out she was pregnant when the truth of the events from years before was finally unravelled. Before she had the chance to confront Patty and blow her life apart her son was murdered by the same man she had hired to silence Ellen years before. Patty had paid the ultimate price for her actions, she lost her only child. There was nothing left. Nothing Ellen could do would cause more pain than Patty was already suffering. Ellen walked away from all of it. From her fledgling firm, from the law and from Patty.
It took four years to virtually reinvent herself. Her relationship with Sophie’s father didn’t survive past her third birthday during which time Ellen used the last of her savings to retrain as a teacher and secure a small run down house in the suburbs of the city. They were settled, Sophie was thriving. She was renovating at her own pace and learning new skills in the process. Ellen finally felt she had put the nightmares of the past behind her. Was she willing to rake it all up again? Was she strong enough to face down her own personal demon. Her inner musing was interrupted by the strident tones of Kate’s cell phone. She fumbled it from her pocket, her movements panicked and uncoordinated.

“Jesus, it’s the hospital.”

“Yes, it’s Kate. Yes I understand, I’ll be there within the hour.”

She ended the call and made no attempt to stop the tears that spilled down her cheeks.

“They’ve told me to come...they say she’s fading, there may not be long left. This could be your last chance Ellen, come with me please.”

Ellen blew out her cheeks as the last of her resistance crumbled.

“Alright. I’ll get dressed and drop Sophia with my neighbour. I’ll follow behind you. Presbyterian right? I’ll be as quick as I can.”