This story is by Juliana Durso and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The smell of cinnamon filled the air of the small kitchen, blending itself with the fresh coffee aroma. Florence opened the stove, checking the sweet toasts she had just baked when she heard footsteps down the stair. Her lips stretched into a smile at the sight of her son.
“Morning, Ma! Hum, this smells great,” Oliver said. “I love those sugar toasts of yours! Wish you could bake them every day!”
Florence pulled the tray from the stove. “My, my, never seen you so happy about my toasts before! What got you into such a good mood?”
Oliver laughed. He sat at the table and poured himself a glass of cranberry juice. “One week from now is my birthday, and you know what that means. Can’t blame me for being excited!”
Florence chuckled. It seemed like yesterday he was still that little kid playing around the house, pretending to be a pirate. It was hard to believe he was finally turning 18 and making his own dreams come true.
Ever since her husband died, many years ago, he became the sole purpose of her life. Her grief only lasted a couple of days back them. That was the most she could afford, Oliver being only a toddler at the time. So she wiped her tears and carried on with her life. That was the right thing to do.
“Can’t believe I’m finally leaving this Island,” Oliver said. He stuffed a toast in his mouth and pointed at the plate. “You know, I should pack some of these for the trip. I’m sure gonna miss your food!”
“Don’t be silly, Ollie! I bet they have way better food at the Land. And you can handle yourself pretty well. You know I just keep baking those toasts as a weekend treat,” Florence said. She walked to the counter and poured a mug of coffee. “Actually, you’ll be glad to never eat my food again,” she laughed.
He laughed too, briefly. Then the sound faded and left them in the silence for a while, with only the crunching of their mouths filling the room.
“I wish I could take you with me,” Oliver then said, in a much deeper tone. He had his eyes down to his plate, nipping the half-eaten toast with his fork.
“You always knew it was going to be like that, Ollie,” she said. Florence reached her son and caressed his arm. “You know we’re only allowed to leave the Island on our 18th birthday, that’s just how things are. And this is your only chance, so don’t be such a fool.”
Florence knew how much her son wanted to leave the Island they lived in. He had that strong will since he found out about that old rule regarding people’s 18th birthday. And when Oliver heard about the Land, it became an utter obsession for him, a plan he took his whole life to prepare for. Visit the Land was his ultimate goal.
“Stupid rule,” Oliver mumbled. He filled his mouth with the juice.
“Stupid or not, it’s the rule. It’s been like that since the beginning of time, and you know the Island’s been fine so far. No point in arguing about something you can’t change,” Florence replied.
“I guess…,” he said. For a second, Florence thought she saw a twitch in his eyes, but the feeling went away a second later, when he swallowed another piece of toast and went on about the plans for the week.
Florence smiled in silence. She was sure he was going to have a wonderful life at the Land. When she turned 18, Florence decided to stay on the Island, and whoever stayed could never have the opportunity to leave again. Those who left, though, could never come back. That was the rule of the Island. Strict, but functional for their way of life. One day to choose the rest of your life. No second chances.
Florence was happy that Oliver figured out what he wanted so early in his life. She never tried to change his mind or talk him out of it. If his happiness was in the Land, then be it.
He never needed to know about her sickness.
Florence did her best to keep Oliver excited for the next few days. Not that it needed much effort on her behalf; Oliver couldn’t stop talking about it. He packed his belongs five days in advance and let everybody knew those were his last days on the Island.
Florence was glad to see her son with such joy. And most of all, she was glad he had no clue that his mother was dying.
It started a month ago. After three days in a row with an annoying headache and a fever that kept her awake the whole night, Florence suspected something might be wrong.
She paid the hospital a visit the very next day and went back home with some aspirins and a note to rest. And so she did, but the pain wouldn’t go away. So she went back. Did some blood work, x-rays and all that. It was only a few days ago that they finally figure out.
She had meningitis. Not the common type, but a fungal variety. It was so rare that none of the doctors in the Island had ever treated that. Still, she spent the whole week visiting the hospital. Florence knew, though, that the so-called treatment was just a palliative. She was never going to be cured. She was going to die.
But worst of all was the way she felt. She felt weak. Alone.
Still, Florence never told her son about it. It would be selfish of her. No point in ruining his dream of a lifetime. There was nothing he could do, and stay in the Island would only make things worst.
She was sure of that.
Florence woke up early on her son’s birthday. Not early enough, though. When she walked down the stairs, she found Oliver already by the kitchen counter, adding some whipped eggs to a heated pan on the stove. “It’s your birthday! How come I’m the one being pampered?” she laughed, kissing him on the cheek. “Happy birthday, my son,” she added.
He kissed her back on the forehead. “Go sit down, I’m almost done,” he said, scrambling the eggs with a wooden spatula. Florence grabbed a cup and filled it with the hot coffee Oliver brewed. “So, big day, huh? I bet you didn’t sleep tonight,” she said, noticing the dark circles under his reddish eyes.
“You should be excited too,” he said, with a vague smile. “You’ll finally get some rest after I’m gone.”
“Well, I have to agree with that,” Florence said. Oliver brought the eggs to the table and served them both. They ate together the last breakfast they would ever share.
The ship sailed at 10 am sharp. Florence went to the Port and waved happily to her son until he was out of sight. The pain in her neck was killing her, but she wouldn’t miss that moment for anything in the world.
She rushed back home as soon as the ship disappeared into the horizon. She felt dizzy, maybe a bit nauseated. Even the pale sun seemed too bright that morning to her sensible eyes.
It got worse in the evening. She had to be taken to a hospital and spend the night there, with tubes all through her body.
Florence died three days later.
Florence never knew, but Oliver was well aware of her sickness. He saw her coming from the doctor. He found the diagnosis, the pills.
It crushed his spirit and, for a while, he actually thought about giving it all up. Stay on the Island, take care of his mother. Bury her, if needed. It was a hard decision for an 18-year old, but Oliver was tougher than that.
Then he realized it.
That was not was his mother wanted. She was happy to see him leave. She was glad he was following his dream. She smiled every single day that week.
Oliver cried in his room the night before the departure. He just couldn’t sleep.
So he woke up early and prepared her breakfast and made sure to spend as much time as he could with her. And by 10 am, Florence was the happiest person in that pier, waving frantically at him.
The tears came down his cheeks the moment he departed. He always knew he was never going to see his mother again — even if she had no sickness at all. Still, Oliver found his heart heavier than normal that day.
When the sun set that evening, after hours of sailing through the ocean, the Land was finally there.
Oliver looked at it, with less admiration than he thought he would feel.
But he wiped his tears and carried on with his luggage.
That was the right thing to do.