Then, Now, Forever
Giuseppe sat on the curb staring at his injured knee. It was bleeding and it hurt. He knew it had to be both cleaned and bandaged, but didn't dare go home. It was his fault for not paying attention and falling. He just had to find a way to fix the wound before his dad saw it.
“Hey. Why are you bleeding?” A girl flopped down onto the curb beside him peering at his knee, her brows furrowed.
Giuseppe quickly swept his gaze over the pretty girl and then back down.
“I fell,” mumbled Giuseppe, more than a bit embarrassed that the girl would think he was a klutz.
“I don’t know you. Do you live around here?” asked the girl, her huge hazel eyes staring at him.
“We moved in a few days ago. Over there,” he pointed out a house to their left.
“Oh, we live two houses down the road from you.” The girl pointed to her house in turn, before settling her concerned eyes on his wound again. “Isn’t your mum home? You should get that cleaned up.”
“Yeah, she’s home. My dad, too. They are going to be really mad that I fell down and made a mess.” Giuseppe met the girl’s eyes, blushing. He wasn't sure why he had admitted that to this girl he didn't even know.
He’d never told anyone how his dad treated him. Or how his mum stood by and watched, never intervening.
“Stay here. I’ll bring you a plaster.” Without waiting for an answer, she jumped up and ran towards her house. Giuseppe had thought she might laugh in his face or, even worse, look at him with pity and confusion. But she didn't.
Returning, she reached for his knee.
“Here. Let me clean it.” She’d brought a plastic cup full of water, some cotton balls and a plaster. The girl started cleaning out the dirt and small stones embedded in the wound.
“What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Giuseppe. I’m Gianna. You can call me Gia.” She paused. “I think I’ll call you Beppe. I like it better.” Gia gave him a smile, flashing dimples.
He returned her smile shyly.
“OK.” He liked it better, too. Nobody else had ever called him Beppe.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“I’m eight.” Gia continued cleaning the wound. “My brother Max is six. You have to meet him. If you just moved here that means you don’t have many friends, do you?”
“No.” He’d never had many friends, but she didn’t need to know that.
“OK, all done,” Gia said as she carefully placed the plaster over the scrape. It was pink with orange dots.
“Your shorts come just below the knee, don’t they?”
Giuseppe nodded and stood up. The shorts covered the plaster and with all the blood now cleaned up, nobody would notice his injured knee. He glanced towards his house.
He imagined what he’d find inside if he went home right now – his dad slumped on the sofa, his empty beer bottles littering the coffee table; his mum napping in her room.
Gia must have sensed his reluctance to go home, because she said,
“You wanna come to my house for dinner? You can also meet Max.”
He didn’t need to be asked twice.
Nine years later
It was a lovely day for a funeral.
The sun was shining and there was a light breeze, just enough to keep the worst of the heat away, but not so strong as to make the people attending Luca Selvaggio’s funeral too uncomfortable. The trees, flowers and shrubs were blooming profusely in the early May spring. The heavy scent of freshly cut grass and blooms clung to Gia, suffocating her. She was unable to smell or feel anything else. Just the damn flowers! They were everywhere! She wasn't sure how much longer she could take it.
The priest was still rambling on about what a good, honorable man her dad had been.
He’d died so young; he’d left his family behind; he’d be missed every single day. Blah, blah, blah. What the hell was the point of all this?!? Her dad was dead. Gone forever. Why did they all have to sit here and suffer while people talked about him? Watch helplessly as his coffin was being lowered into the deep, dark hole and buried under a pile of dirt? Her dad was not in that coffin. Just his useless, weak, cancerous body. The man Luca Selvaggio had been was long gone. He was gone long before he died.
And now Gia had to sit here, listening to the priest talk, look at all the people crying and sniffling and blowing their noses, and smell the fucking flowers. What was the point? Saying goodbye? Bullshit! How can you say goodbye to a lifeless body? She, her mum and Max had said their goodbyes before her dad had died in Max’s arms. When he’d still been clinging to life, barely. When he could still talk and tell them how much he loved them and when they could still hug his warm body and whisper kind words in return. Not now. Not like this.
Now was for everyone else. Her mum shouldn't have to sit through this, and neither should Gia or Max. They were all trying to be strong for their friends and family when all they wanted to do was curl up in a ball and cry till there was nothing left. Yet, it was expected that everyone would return to their house for food and drinks, as if this was some kind of a party. Her mum would have to sit through it as well, greeting people, thanking them for coming and offering them refreshments.
Max shifted ever so slightly next to Gia and startled her out of her thoughts.
He hadn’t moved once since they’d sat down. Not even a slight twitch of his fingers. Her fifteen year old brother was staring straight ahead, seeing nothing. Gia wondered if his thoughts were drifting in the same direction as hers. Did he hate being here? Did he realise their dad was long gone and there was no point in this? Could he smell the damn flowers? Looking closely, Gia noticed how ghostly pale Max’s skin was. His lips were bloodless, pulled taut against his teeth.
Her brother had been the one taking care of their father over the past year when Luca could no longer do for himself. Max had been barely fourteen when he took a year off school to provide the much needed round the clock care for their dad. Their mum had worked nonstop to support them financially and had been gone for days on end, while Gia had run away, shutting out everyone. She hid behind her need for good grades so she could get into the Institute of Culinary Arts, so she wouldn't have to face the pain. Max had never complained, never accused Gia of not helping, never sought an explanation from either of them. He knew there was nothing he could do to stop the inevitable. Their dad was dying of leukemia. There was no way to save him. So, Max did what he could to make sure Luca was comfortable and loved.
It had been a hard thing to accept, especially for someone like Max. Not being able to do anything to save and protect the people he loved, even at that tender age, almost killed him.
Gia knew this. But, she still couldn’t deal with the responsibility and the pain. Luca had been such a strong, powerful man. Always full of life and charisma. The fucking cancer had reduced him to a mere shadow of his former self. Every damn time Gia saw him she had wanted to cry and scream and hit something.
Why? Why him?
Life wasn’t fair, that’s why. If it was, Luca Selvaggio would have lived a long, happy life, because there was no other person on earth who deserved it more.
Next to her Max shivered. It was such a warm day and he was wearing a suit, so she knew he couldn’t be cold. Gia turned to look at her brother once again and noticed the skin on his face was damp and if possible even paler than before. He must be going into shock or something. Gia placed her hand over his and squeezed lightly to get his attention. He turned his head to look at her and she gasped involuntarily. His usually expressive hazel eyes were dark with grief.
He looked like a fucking zombie.
“Max,” she whispered, “you don’t look good. Let’s get out of here.”
Max shook his head ever so slightly and turned his attention back to the priest. Gia knew she wouldn’t be able to make him leave even if she tried. They’d end up causing a scene and upsetting their mum even more. She sighed.
Whatever. It was his choice. If he wanted to sit here and listen to this crap – fine. But she couldn’t take it a second longer.
Gia stood, and without an apology or even a glance at her mum, stormed away from the graveyard.
Beppe, sitting a few rows behind Gia, watched her stand and bolt. Of course he’d noticed how angry and unsettled she’d been, even though she’d tried to suppress it. Gia had never been good at hiding her emotions.
Beppe rose, trying to attract as little attention as possible, but still earning a disapproving look from his father, and stalked after her. He’d pay for this later, he was well aware of that. But now, right now, Gia needed him and he sure as hell wouldn’t let her down.
He caught up to her just as she hid behind a black Toyota Prius and slumped to the ground, burying her face in her hands. A tortured sob escaped her lips, muffled by her hands but still loud enough to break Beppe’s heart. Even though Gia had seen him cry countless times, so many that he wasn’t even ashamed of it anymore, she had never cried in front of him. Beppe knew she hid in the bathroom and cried when the sight of his battered body proved too much for her – he’d seen her red rimmed eyes one too many times. But she’d never broken down in front of him and to see her fall apart now was excruciating.
He slid to the ground next to her and circled her shoulders with his arm. Gia stiffened for a moment until she recognised it was Beppe. The raw pain in her eyes would have made him slump to the ground if he hadn’t already been sitting. He needed to be strong for her. Just once he needed to be strong for her.
“It’s OK. I’m here,” he whispered and she buried her wet face in his shoulder, crying quietly.
Beppe knew Gia had run away from the funeral because she didn’t want to fall apart in front of everyone. He knew no one would think any less of her if she cried at her father’s funeral, but Gia wouldn't do it. Often her pride made her appear selfish, uncompassionate and tough.
But, Beppe knew better. He knew the real Gia behind the fortress she’d built around her soul.
His Gia had let him into her life so easily, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. His Gia had held him when he’d been hurt so badly he’d thought he might die. His Gia had talked him down when he’d been so angry he’d considered doing something he’d regret for the rest of his life.
His Gia had saved his life.
“Let’s get out of here,” Beppe whispered against her hair as he turned and kissed the top of her head. She nodded and allowed him to help her up. Handing her a tissue he fished out of his pocket, he waited while she blew her nose and dried her tears. Beppe sent a text to Max to let him know he’d take care of his sister – one less thing for his friend to worry about today. Beppe briefly considered asking Max to come with them, but he knew Max would never leave his mum alone through all this, even if it killed him. He would stand with her, accept condolences, offer well-wishers refreshments, see everyone out, help his mum to bed and hold her until she fell into an exhausted sleep. Then, and only then he’d fall apart in his own room.
Sighing and putting his phone back in his pocket, Beppe took Gia’s hand and led her to his Vespa, offering her the extra helmet. She took it and put it on, without the usual bitching about ruining her hair. Sitting behind Beppe, she encircled his waist with her arms and rested her cheek between his shoulders blades, holding on for dear life as they sped away.
As usual, it took them about half an hour to get there. Beppe was certain Gia knew where he was taking her and accepted her lack of protest as agreement.
Two years ago, before Luca Selvaggio was diagnosed with leukemia he’d invited Beppe’s family to a day out at Parco delle Mura. Elsa and Luca had no idea that Beppe’s father, respected accountant Marco Orsino, turned into a monster behind closed doors. Like everyone else they were charmed by his easy going demeanor and absorbing conversation manner. They settled for a picnic after a long walk and soon after they’d eaten, Beppe grew restless. Gia and Max felt it immediately, because they knew how uncomfortable Beppe was, even when Marco was pretending to be a normal human being.
Max had suggested the three of them take a walk around while the adults rested after their lunch. Beppe had jumped at the chance to get away from his family. That was how they had found the small clearing, hidden in the middle of the fir forest. It had a fire pit and an alcove which looked like they had been unused for years. Gia had immediately fallen in love with the place and with its privacy. It had become their place and they went there whenever they needed to get away for a while. No one else ever appeared to come here, and they always found everything exactly as they’d left it.
The bench in the alcove was hollow underneath and they had begun to use it as storage. Max and Beppe had made a door for it out of some plywood so that their things wouldn’t get ruined by the weather or some wild animals looking for food.
Beppe parked the Vespa behind the alcove and helped Gia down. He left her to remove her helmet, and most likely fix her hair, and went to the storage under the bench to get some blankets and a bottle of water. Spreading the blankets down on the grass, Beppe beckoned Gia to join him on the soft, overgrown grass in silence.
The sun was shining mercilessly, but while it had been scorching hot in the city, here in the mountains the air was fresh and pleasantly warm. Beppe inhaled the intoxicating aroma of grass and fir trees, and for the first time that day, felt his body relax.
“I hate the smell of flowers,” said Gia, her voice small and quiet.
“Since today. All I could smell was flowers.”
Beppe turned his head to look at her, unsure of what she was talking about, because it wasn’t really making any sense. Gia was staring at the sky with unblinking eyes and a tear rolled down her cheek. Turning her head to face him, she whispered,
“Please, don’t ever give me flowers.”
Her huge hazel eyes looked green under her tears, like seaweed underwater.
Beppe could never, would never, say ‘no’ to these eyes.
He gathered her into his arms and lay back. Gia burrowed her face in the crook of his neck and shortly her breathing evened as she fell into an exhausted sleep.