With a world-weary sigh and an aching heart, Red collapses heavily into the leather armchair in his study, mentally exhausted and completely guilt-ridden. He has no right to be tired.
Lizzie is the one that’s suffering.
It’s been one month since she awoke from her coma and she’s struggling.
Red leans forward to put his elbows on his knees, close his eyes, and drop his head in his hands. The scene from earlier today, painfully reminiscent of every single day before it, flashes behind his eyelids.
Lizzie sits in her wheelchair, struggling to lift a one-pound weight in her left arm, her physical therapist on one side and Red on the other, murmuring fierce encouragements. She manages to hold it aloft for five long seconds, her entire arm trembling, before it collapses back to her lap without her permission.
Lizzie lets the weight roll to the floor and speaks in a monotone that easily cuts through Red’s cries of celebration and brooks no argument.
“I’m done for the day.”
She speaks without looking at Red or her therapist, her stare glassy and straight ahead out the open window. Red and her therapist exchange a glance and Red just nods, signaling the woman to retrieve the hand weight from the floor and leave the room. Red sneaks a subtle glance at his watch.
Lizzie says nothing to him, allowing him to stay through her silence, sitting motionless in her wheelchair. His heart aches to see her like this, so sad and still. He waits a while before he speaks, quietly so as not to startle her.
“You did very well today, Lizzie.”
She takes a long time to respond, shaking her head slowly, before finally whispering four gutting words, almost more to herself than to him.
“I’m not strong enough.”
And a single tear slips down her cheek, glittering in the afternoon sun shining through the open window.
Red goes to her immediately, his own eyes welling with tears for her, his throat constricting, and comforts her in the best way he can, holding her while she cries, all the while knowing it will take more than a simple hug to help her heal.
Red returns to the present, rubbing his burning eyes. Lizzie is hurting and he’s just so desperate to help her.
So, he’s started working on something.
Red reaches to the side now, towards the small table by his chair where he last left his little project. He picks up the block of wood and knife to get back to work. He’ll try to finish it now, while she’s sleeping. Red blinks a few times in quick succession, trying to rid his eyes of the stinging of fatigue.
He can sleep later.
He’s still hard at work the next morning, sitting at the kitchen table in the safe house where Lizzie is recovering, ignoring his breakfast of fruit and coffee in favor of working. Lizzie is still asleep, so exhausted from her physical therapy sessions that she usually doesn’t wake until the sun is high in the sky, leaving Red to start his mornings alone.
(And if the feeling wasn’t so familiar, Red thinks he might be rather lonely.)
The only sound in the kitchen is the quiet, repetitive scrape of his knife against wood.
Until the door opens and the best part of his day skips in.
At the sound of her excited little voice, Red immediately puts down his project and turns to her, his face breaking into a beaming smile.
“Good morning, Agnes!” he cries as she stops beside his chair, raising her arms up towards him in a universal sign.
(His heart never fails to thrill at the cherished sight of her little face. Lizzie’s child, his joy. Agnes.)
He lifts her up and onto his lap with ease so she can wrap her little arms around his neck in a tight hug. He returns the embrace happily, pressing a loving kiss to the top of her head before pulling back to look at her.
“And how are you this morning, sweetheart?”
“Good!” she chirps, reaching up and pat his cheek with her little hand.
(He couldn’t possibly adore her more.)
“And what’ll it be for breakfast today, my dear?”
She furrows her tiny brow in adorably serious thought. There are a few moments of tense deliberation before the final verdict.
“Waffles!” she finally declares loudly.
“Excellent choice!” he cries in response, poking her on the nose to make her giggle.
(And Agnes’s laugh is one of the few precious sounds that kept Red going through Lizzie’s long, long sleep.)
So, Red sets about making a big, fluffy Belgian waffle - no boxed, frozen things for his little princess – and cuts it up into Agnes-sized pieces, pretending not to notice as she pours entirely too much syrup onto her plate. He sets a glass of orange juice next to her plate before returning to his seat next to her.
Red eats as well, now that she’s here, sipping his still-warm coffee and picking at his fruit, doing his best to set a good example, even if he’s not particularly hungry.
(Agnes was his only reason to take care of himself during Lizzie’s coma and, even though she’s awake now, not much has changed in that regard.)
As Agnes eats, she chatters about the wild adventures of her stuffed bear and Red listens attentively, nodding as she talks. He gently corrects her when she mispronounces a word and asks questions, taking pleasure in fostering her imagination. He makes sure to “oooh” and “aaah” in all the right places, thrilled to see her so talkative and enthusiastic.
“–and he went on a trip–”
“Where did he go?”
“–to Africa! On a sa-sarrafi–”
“A saffari, sweetheart.”
“–a saffari, and he saw a monkey and – and a cheetah!”
(He gives her his absolute undivided attention and devotion. She already has his heart.)
When she’s eaten her waffle, drunk her juice, and is surreptitiously licking any remaining syrup off her fingers, Red washes up her plate and glass, along with his own breakfast dishes, before returning to his seat at the table and facing her expectantly.
“All full?” he asks, and she nods happily in response. “Good. What’s next?”
“Coloring!” she crows, and Red smiles.
“Coloring it is! Go and get your things!”
Agnes takes off, hurrying to fetch her favorite coloring book and crayons from her playroom, while Red picks up his wood and knife once again. He should be able continue working while she colors next to him.
(After all, she’s such a well-behaved girl.)
Agnes comes scurrying back into the room moments later to climb back into her chair beside him, scattering her crayons messily across the table and opening her book to a page with a cartoon owl. She sets to work bringing him to life, giving him pink and purple feathers and a green beak, while Red returns to his project.
And for quite a few minutes there’s only the scrape of wood and the scratch of Agnes’s crayons.
(She is adorably dedicated to her arts and crafts.)
But it isn’t long before Red hears Agnes go quiet and still next to him, and he can feel her curious gaze. He waits patiently.
“Wed?” he hears finally.
“What are you do-wing?”
Red smiles to himself.
“Well, I’m making a present for your mommy.”
“Oh,” she murmurs, and Red knows she’s not finished. After a moment, she speaks again.
Red suppresses a chuckle.
“Because she’s sad and she needs cheering up.”
“Oh,” she mutters again, and Red can practically hear the wheels turning in her cute little head.
“Can I make Mommy a pwes-ent too?”
Red’s eyebrows raise at that, and he turns to look at her innocent face.
(Rather like her mother, Agnes has a habit of surprising him.)
“That’s very thoughtful of you, Agnes. I think your mother would like that very much.”
Agnes’s smile lights up her face, and Red is filled with a surge of love for her and her pure heart.
“What would you like to make Mommy?” he asks her.
“Like yours!” she cries immediately, and Red is taken rather off guard.
(He is floored every day by how much Agnes looks up to him, how she follows and copies, and he never thought he’d be lucky enough to have another little girl to be a daddy to.)
“Well, you can’t do one exactly like mine, but how about I get you some wood and you paint a pretty picture on it for Mommy?”
“Okay!” she chirps, agreeable as always.
So, Red fetches another few blocks of wood like the one he’s working on and then dutifully follows Agnes as she skips to her playroom to retrieve her paints.
They end up back in the kitchen, seated with their new respective crafts and Agnes - with the addition of one of his oversized aprons to protect her pretty clothes - painting enthusiastically. They sit for most of the morning, Agnes chattering to Red and Red telling Agnes stories, while he scrapes away and she paints adorable stick figures and a sun with a smiley face, until Dembe leans into the kitchen.
“Elizabeth is awake.”
And so they begin again.
It’s the next day after breakfast when Red’s present is finally done, and Agnes has carefully painted the last few orange and blue flowers on hers. Once Lizzie is awake, they go in to see her.
“Mommy, Wed and I made you pwes-ents!” Agnes announces, running to her bedside.
“You did?” Lizzie exclaims. “That’s so sweet of you, baby, thank you!”
Red picks Agnes up and plops her on Lizzie’s bed, watching as Lizzie coos over Agnes’s gift, listening as she explains every color and shape painted on the small block of wood.
(If there’s one thing that Lizzie has the energy for right now, it is always Agnes, reaffirming the one fact Red has always known to be true:
Lizzie is a wonderful mother.)
“I painted all of us!” Agnes tells her, pointing at each stick figure in turn. “Thewe’s Mommy, and me, and Wed!”
And Red’s heart skips a beat at the realization that Agnes has included him in her little painted family portrait. He sneaks an apprehensive glance at Lizzie’s face, looking for any irritation or anger, but she just smiles, nods, and points at a fourth painted stick figure off to the side of their little trio.
“And who’s this?”
And the man himself chooses that moment to pop his head into the room, asking Agnes if she’s ready for their daily trip to the park. She nearly vibrates with excitement, already looking forward to feeding the ducks she and Dembe found on yesterday’s trip.
“Yes! Can I go, Mommy?”
Lizzie just smiles and makes a show of positioning Agnes’s gift on her bedside table before giving her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Have fun at the park with Uncle Dembe, sweetie!”
Dembe smiles at Liz and Red as Agnes skips to his side, taking his hand and all but dragging him out the door.
Lizzie is still laughing softly as the door shuts behind them and Red steps forward and eases into the chair at her bedside.
“Thank you for helping her paint,” she murmurs, turning to him with a faint smile still on her face.
“I had very little to do with it actually,” Red corrects her happily. “I was mostly in charge of cleaning.”
Lizzie chuckles at that.
“What gave her the idea?”
She turns to look at him, brow furrowed.
“She saw me making you this.”
And Red places his gift in her hand.
(His heart is clenched tight, nervous with the desperate hope that she’ll like it.)
Lizzie raises the small wooden thing up to eye level and her mouth falls open as she takes it in.
It’s a small wooden tiger, intricate and detailed, down to the delicate whiskers and elegant stripes. Red took great pains in whittling the tiny thing, wanting it to be small enough that Lizzie could hold it but detailed enough that it was more than just a piece of wood.
Lizzie continues to stare at it, looking somewhat awestruck.
“It’s a Siberian tiger,” Red explains quietly to her. “They’re native to your homeland of Russia, surviving in the intensely cold temperatures, beautiful predators in the snow...”
“A tiger...” Lizzie breathes.
“I wanted you to have a reminder of how strong you are,” Red murmurs. “Siberian tigers face one of the harshest climates in the world, with impossibly difficult circumstances, and yet they still manage to survive as the strongest predator.”
Lizzie finally breaks her gaze away from the small whittled tiger to look Red in the eyes.
“You are just as strong as these majestic creatures, Lizzie. You are a survivor. And you can do this.”
Tears slip down her cheeks and he reaches out to take her hand, tiger and all.
“Lizzie, you are strong enough.”
(And he truly hopes this does it, that this is the thing that gives her back her confidence, instills in her what she needs to move forward. Reminds her of what he’s always known she’s had inside. Perseverance. Determination.
She squeezes his hand.
The next day, Lizzie takes a walk outside for the first time since she woke, gently declining Red and Agnes’s company in favor of just her physical therapist.
But Red has a feeling that’s not a bad thing.
Because in one pocket she carries Agnes’s painted block and in the other…