14. The Lonely Feast

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Elle's entire family gathered in the lazy afternoon at her parent's place. Her uncle and aunts, Chloe and Peter, Ethan and his girlfriend, and Blake's family, they were all there.

The children had disappeared upstairs as they normally did, while the men watched cricket on the big screen in the lounge. The women hung by the pool, their feet dipped into the warm water as the evening slowly blanketed the sky. Flies buzzed around their heads in the heat and they swatted them away. In fact, her mother had a bug repellent she kept spraying at them in glee.

When the timer went off for the turkey, all the food was brought out, more beers were chucked into the cold eskies, and chairs scraped the grass as a conversation started around the long table. Elle sat at one end of it and from her seat, she could see everyone. Blake's parents had only arrived a few minutes before the turkey was taken out of the oven.

Bert sat at the other end, flanked by Trish and Maya. Other couples sat opposite one another along the table; Blake's folks Fifi and Charles, Harry and James, Chloe and Peter, Ethan and his girl, whose name she had already forgotten. Aside from Elle, Mitchell was the only other person without a date, and he was only an 11-year-old kid. Elle smiled at him, her mind dwelling on the fact that until last year Blake was sitting opposite her at the table, all smiles and his eager feet tickling hers.

The toast was made, the food was passed; the turkey carved and shared, while wine glasses were filled and clinked; beer bottles clanged; juice poured and spilled. It was a beautiful gathering but to Elle, it was just short of torture. She could have been tied to a medieval torture table and stretched out for she could tell. She was missing Blake too much, especially knowing that besides her and the children, everyone was going home with someone special tonight. While Elle would only have Blake's fading memories, his long-forgotten kiss, his touch, and that smile that all lit up his beautiful eyes. Gone.

"To a happy and healthy family," her dad raised his glass and the others followed.

"Aunty Elle," Mitchell whispered and prodded her leg with his under the table.

Jostled out of her thoughts into the bright gathering, Elle lifted her half emptied wine glass and chinked it with Mitchell's glass of juice. He smiled and rose from his seat to whisper in her ear. "Don't worry, Uncle Blake is always here," Mitchell said softly, pressing something into her hand. "Don't be sad anymore. I'm here. I'll take care of you."

Elle fought back tears. She smiled for the first time that day. She kissed Mitchell's cheek and returned the squeeze of his hand. "Thank you."

Once the loud chatter had begun again, Elle uncurled her fingers to see what Mitchell had placed in her hand. A small photograph of Blake, younger, around the time she'd first met him. His playful smile was there, that laughing glint in his eyes, those soft dimples that appeared on his face sometimes. Elle sighed. Mitchell had given her Blake. It was a perfect gift. She placed the photo gently on her lap and started eating, for once not feeling alone. He was there, even if it was only a photo, Blake was there.

"There is so much food left, Trish," Blake's mother, Fifi, said as she placed the half-full casserole dish on the bench-top.

"It'll be our breakfast tomorrow morning then," Bert laughed all the way into the lounge, where everyone had retired while Elle busied herself making cups of tea.

Some Christmas movie was on and they found nooks and crannies to fit into. Elle sighed, hearing bursts of laughter rolling out as she stared into the darkening sky. Her first Christmas without Blake. The day was coming to an end and soon, after coffee and tea, her in-laws would leave and the rest of her own family would make beds and turn in for the night. She hadn't once broken down in front of anyone. She could feel the weight and shape of Blake's photo in her pocket and could hardly wait to be alone. She couldn't last much longer with all the happy people and pretending she was fine.

She took the tray of tea and coffee into the lounge and placed it on the coffee table without being noticed. All eyes were glued to a re-run of Home Alone II. Elle walked out of the room, her heart aching as she too longed to be lean against Blake as her mother doing with her father, or be engulfed in Blake's arms like Chloe in Peter's, or forever stealing kisses as Ethan was with his girl. Or even be obliviously happy as the children.

She left the happy and content family behind and went up to her room. She could barely breathe as she closed the door. In that moment realising that everything she knew in life, everyone she knew, every place she'd been to, everywhere she'd lived had Blake in it. She couldn't to get over the pain and heal if everything kept reminding her of what she had lost. She just couldn't.

She had to leave. It was that simple. She could no longer stay with her parents, or in that town, just as she'd no longer be able to stay in Sydney after the incident. Elle walked to her wardrobe, flung it open and started pulling out clothes, throwing them on the bed. She had to pack. God, there was so much to pack.

"What are you doing, Ellie?" Ethan stood in the doorway with Maya draped over his shoulder, fast asleep.

"Packing."

"Why exactly are you packing?"

Elle shrugged. "I've got to go."

"Go where?" he stepped into the room, cleared a space on Elle's bed, and tucked Maya int. He stoked her hair when she stirred. "And what about her?"

Elle shook her head. She had only decided she needed to leave, but that was as far as she'd gotten with her plans. "She goes where I go."

"And where is it that you will go?"

"I don't know. Somewhere where I can get away from Blake."

"Blake's nowhere, Elle."

Without warning, Elle sobbed. Ethan took her in his arms. "Is running away really going to help?"

Elle shook her head, her face buried in his chest. "I'll go crazy here. Every corner I turn I feel like I'll see him there. Everyone I talk to, I feel like he'll be by my side soon. I can't do it anymore, Ethan. I just can't!"

Ethan stroked her hair. "The pain will ease one day. It won't always be like this."

"I won't heal here," she muttered. "I won't heal here."

Ethan held her for what felt like ages. "If that is what you want I'll help you, but can it wait until the morning?" Elle nodded. "Just for tonight, pretend this is home."

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