Isabel leaned her forehead down on the windowpane and sighed deeply. The icy glass seared her burning flesh and sent a rattling shiver down her spine that reverberated to her fingertips. She peered into the room almost longingly. The first thing that caught her eye was the crackling fire dancing in the old, brick fireplace. The light from the fire flickered on the walls, illuminating and casting shadows all at once on the black and white photographs that hung all around the room. The pictures were vibrant and full of life, even when devoid of colour. They were snapshots of the best moments in life; Andy’s life. He was there. Sitting on that thick, creamy carpet, in the midst of all his toys and playmates, right in front of the fireplace. They were flanked by two huge armchairs lined with large cushions and fluffy throw rugs. Nearby was a solid wooden table, remnants of a recent meal still lying on it. There were rows and rows of books lined up in the low cabinets, books filled with colour and pictures and laughter. How Isabel longed to read those books.
She sighed once more, her breath momentarily fogging up the window.
A small smile crept onto her face when Andy laughed out loud, a look of pure joy etched on his face.
Isabel suddenly decided that she didn’t mind the cold or the loneliness, as long as Andy was happy.
Before Isabel could finish thinking that thought, like magic, Andy turned towards her and smiled lovingly.
Her heart gave a little jump. She watched, almost in a trance as he got up from his place and left his friends. Before she could respond, he was standing in front of her, one hand on the doorknob and the other outstretched to her. He was smiling down apologetically on her, almost as if he was asking for her forgiveness. She smiled unsurely at him and tentatively took his outstretched hand. His warm fingers curled around her frostbitten ones and he pulled her into his warm, gentle embrace. For a moment, the rest of the world melted away and Andy became Isabel’s world.
They settled down on the doorstep, Isabel comfortably encased in Andy’s arms. For hours they sat, leisurely talking about everything and anything and nothing. The outside world seemed so far away from the both of them. Their world was each other and nothing else could infiltrate into that world. It was for this few hours that Isabel looked forward to, each day of her life ever since she met Andy. Without fail, every single day, for a few precious moments, he would come to her, whisper sweet nothings into her ear and tell her how beautiful and important she was to him.
“You’re my treasure…” he would whisper.
And every time in response, Isabel would smile, give Andy a gentle squeeze and a peck on the cheek. Words were hardly necessary as a response. In fact, Isabel could hardly speak each time she heard those words from Andy’s lips. Her heart swelled so awfully much with happiness that it blocked her throat with a lump of tears.
This day, it was no different.
He said it, she smiled, squeezed him lovingly and kissed him on the cheek.
Then usually, he would always leave. Mission accomplished for the day.
But as Isabel loosened her grip on Andy, she noted with some amount of curiousity and surprise that Andy showed no sign of letting go. He even tightened his arm around her waist. She peered at his face with a questioning look.
“I don’t want to leave you…” he mouthed out urgently, clasping his hands around hers.
Isabel tried her best not to look too startled or pleased, when in truth, she was estatic. But there was something amiss. Lowering her eyes from his face to her own feet, she let her wrists slacken. Through veiled eyelashes, she watched him closely.
If she had blinked, she would have missed it. So slight, so quick, so well-hidden, yet so painfully obvious. When he thought she wasn’t looking, he had glanced back longingly at the fireplace where his friends were happily chatting away and laughing, playing make believe with their toy figurines. It was a quick glance but Isabel saw it.
“Go on,” she urged him, “Go have fun.”
“But I’d rather be with you…” he whispered back.
She smiled as cheerfully as she could at him. “I’ll always be here with you.”
He smiled brilliantly at her words. “I’ll go on one condition.”
She frowned slightly. “What is it?”
He grasped her hand and looked at her pleadingly. “Come with me.”
Her eyes widened with shock. Without waiting for her answer, he pulled her up onto her feet and guided her into the warmth of the room, into the company of his friends. They greeted her warmly, making space for her on the carpet. They noted with their watchful eyes, how tightly Andy clasped Isabel’s hand in his and each vowed silently to be nice to Isabel.
But strangers remain strangers.
Soon, the number of pleasantries ran out and the group lasped into an uncomfortable silence. Isabel gave them an akward smile and they returned the smile equally as akward. Finally, a plump, rather over-excited boy pointed to a photograph hanging nearby on the wall and burst into uproarious laughter. In between guffaws, he reminded the rest of them of that particular moment they had together in Andy’s life. Soon, they were all rolling around in an outburst of good nature and good memories.
All but one.
Isabel smiled politely as they clutched their bellies in laughter. She glanced at the picture and gave a light chuckle. Then she glanced around at the other pictures. All equally memorable and nostalgic.
But she wasn’t there in any of them.
A hand rested lightly on her shoulder and Isabel turned back around to look into Andy’s shining face. As he wiped tears of mirth from his eyes, he smiled at her a little guiltily and pointed to a corner of a cabinet where the books were kept. A smart little silver box with a white bow sat there. She looked at him for an answer.
“Our pictures, dear. I just haven’t had the time to put them up.”
She crooked the corner of her lips up in a pathetic smile and he shrugged apologetically. The rest of the group eventually quieted and a deafening akwardness settled among them once more. Everyone tried so hard but everyone could not help but notice that there was an outsider in their midst.
Isabel swallowed the lump in her throat. She suddenly missed the numbness of the cruel winter wind. Anything but this awful discomfort. Isabel clumsily clambered to her feet. Andy looked up at her in surprise.
“I’m sorry. I have to go now,” she said quietly to the whole group. “It was nice meeting all of you.”
They murmured their replies in return and Isabel walked towards the door. She stepped out into the cold and turned around to face Andy who had followed her to the door. Her heart hurt to see the deep puzzlement and sadness on his face.
“Do you really have to go?” he asked her without asking her.
She sighed inwardly and touched his cheek with a tender hand. He caught her hand in his.
“I will see you tomorrow?” he asked hopefully.
Slowly, she nodded her head, not trusting herself to speak. A smile crept onto his face and he kissed her hand gallantly. She pulled away as quickly as she could, lest she started to beg him to stay with her.
He bowed low to her in a playful manner. “Until tomorrow, my darling.”
The door shut.
Isabel stood frozen at her spot for a long moment. The warmth of Andy’s hold lingered on her fingers. But it was slowly dissipating. Her fingers were starting to feel the icy nip of the wind again. Her eyes blurred with tears but she could not bring herself to cry. She did not want to walk away but she could not turn back to look into the room once more.
Suddenly, a soft, warm hand circled around Isabel’s hands lovingly, protecting her from the chill of the winter. Isabel looked up in surprise.
Warm and loving brown eyes stared back at her, smiling unknowingly.
Isabel could hear the crackle of the fire and the merry laughter floating from the room.
Her shoulders sagged with a sadness she could not explain and she crumpled into her sister’s arms.
“I’m his treasure…”she whispered.