First let me apologize for the long delay in submitting this chapter. Real life obligations have kept me very busy, leaving little to no time for thought or work on this story. It has, however, calmed down and I am now able to dedicate most of my free time to it, and as such I sincerely hope to have the next (and possibly last?) chapter written, edited and uploaded within two weeks.
Secondly, a big thank you to all of you faithful few who have continued to return, read, rate and review. Your ongoing encouragement certainly goes a long way to sustain my efforts to pen these stories.
Thank you to AlreadyTaken, my ever-faithful editor for yet another valuable edit and suggestions. And a new thank you to another editor, who, alas has not given me her Member name. You know who you are :)
"Go and find the right one to save
I'd rather find my own self for you to slay
Causing my own rough way to calm
Screaming no I've found the love that's been lost
I've been walking on a tight rope falling
And I've been looking for a lifeboat for you
I been looking for a light left in your eye
I've been walking a a tight rope feeling
And I've been looking for a lifeboat for you"
"Lifeboat" Early Morning Rebel"Looking for a pace to live."
He looked at her in sharp confusion. "What?"
"Mr. Cho's son is selling the house. I think it'll be on the market by the first of the new year, less than four weeks away. My contract won't extend to the new owners, so, even if they allow me to stay, it won't be at my current rate. Anyway, I don't know if I could live there, not with new people weeding his garden and trimming his hedges." She teared up, much to her annoyance. Clearing her throat and tossing the apple core away, she went on. "So, I think it's just best if I find a new apartment somewhere."
"Live with me."
Alessa looked up sharply at Denny to find him gazing at her intently, something fierce in his eyes. Denny hadn't meant to blurt out his first thought, but he didn't regret it either. Instinctively he knew this was the next step they needed and instantly wanted nothing more than to wake up next to her every morning.
For the rest of his life.
"Move in with me," he repeated, softer this time, the sharp intensity placed with honest longing.
"Denny, I'm not sure—"
"What new thing have you ever been sure about?" he asked gently, coming to sit across from her at the small table, his boiling water long forgotten. "What have I ever suggested that you didn't first want to refuse? But hasn't everything turned out fine? Better than fine?"
She regarded him, half want, half fearful uncertainty.
"And what happens in a year?"
The shift in his expression was miniscule, but to Alessa, it spoke everything. The idea that she still behaved as if this arrangement-their relationship-was only an experiment, that their time together was only finite, no matter how exquisite, upset him immeasurably. And yet, she knew the near-imperceptible tightening of his features was his attempt at restraining such frustration with her.
"You really think I'll be over you in a year? That this will die that quickly? If at all?" he asked evenly, daring her to contradict the strength of his feeling. The depth of hers.
'But if not a year, when?' She didn't want to live in that uncertainty. But how could she avoid it?
"I need to think about this, Denny. I'm not saying no, just...it's not prudent to rush headlong into something like this," she argued.
Denny was silent as he considered her reasoning. He nodded in acceptance. "Very well, but will you promise to discuss this with me before you make your decisions? Allow me to argue my case?" He gave her a soft smile of encouragement as he continued to study her.
Alessa's expression remained solemn, but she nodded. "Of course. If I want to say no, I'll give you a chance to convince me," she replied, though she knew she really wasn't likely to raise any objections. The only reason she had to reject the offer was based on her fear that it would all end badly, that he would eventually stop loving her as he claimed and move on to someone else. And what could he say in defense of that? He would promise that it wouldn't happen, or as Lou claimed, sometimes messy, heart wrenching break ups did occur, but that the joy experienced before then was always worth the risk. And what sort of reassurance were any of those answers?
But it was the call she received on the following Monday that forced her hand. It took her a moment to realize it was Hyun-Joong's voice on the other end. He was calling from Seoul and had been thinking about her. "Have you now? And what were you thinking?" she asked smiling, reclining back in her chair, happy to be distracted from the contract before her.
"How badly the team here needs you."
"You mean at the Seoul office?"
"Yes. Right now the two lawyers Denny has assigned to handling the day-to-day, well one of them is alright, but the other, just a tourist!" he laughed miserably. "He has no idea about any cultural implications of some of his decisions. The man's a moron."
Alessa frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that. Maybe I could say something to Denny about it. Which lawyer?"
"The only thing I want you speaking to Denny about regarding Seoul is that you've decided to leave him for me," he chuckled. "So, what do you say? Seoul? Come over here and soak up the Korean lifestyle?" he begged prettily.
Alessa giggled, but then sighed. "Can't."
"And why is that? What's so great about San Francisco? Or is it that your work is everything you dreamed of?"
There was a pause as she debated admitting Denny anchored her more than anything else, but Hyun-Joong beat her to it. "Or is it a who?" he asked knowingly. "You'd really give up your career for some casual relationship?"
Alessa sighed. "It's a little more serious than casual, I'm afraid," she admitted, ironically feigning gravity to hide just how serious her feelings were.
Again another pause. "How serious?"
"Well, we've met each other's families; we spend the majority of our free time together; he told me he loves me; and now," she took a deep breath, "he's asked me to move in with him."
At first, the silence on the other end lasted so long Alessa thought they'd lost the connection, but when she asked if he was still there, he spoke.
"No, I'm still here. Alessa, I'm sorry, I didn't realize things had gotten so serious. Congratulations, I guess," he answered in a voice not as merry as his words, before bucking up and laughing. "Well, to the best man go the spoils I suppose. But if you ever change your mind, I'd like you to sincerely consider coming to Seoul, all flirting aside. Even if for just a year assignment. You'd be invaluable and it would be the experience of a lifetime."
Alessa nodded softly, though he couldn't see her. "Sure, if something here changes, I'll be sure to keep you in mind."
After another minute of catching up, they said their goodbyes, and when Alessa hung up, she studied the computer in front of her for only a moment before standing up and striding purposefully to Denny's office. Clare waved her on through with a smile. Alessa knocked softly on the door before stepping in and shutting it behind her.
Though both of her feet were solidly planted on the carpeted floor before his desk, she felt as if she were at the end of the plank, about to step off to either plunge into shark infested waters or fly with fairy dust.
"Okay. I've thought about it and, provided all the particulars are worked out, I have decided to move in."
Denny's pleasure was immediate but measured. "Glad to hear it. And what terms do we need to work out?"
"Bill payment, primarily, though logistics of furniture meshing are also essential. Closet space."
"You don't really have a lot of furniture," he pointed out, a ghost of a smile playing at his lips.
"That's not to say that I don't want to feel at home in my surroundings. While your furniture is...nice, it's yours. If I couldn't change anything then I would feel like little more than an extended weekend guest."
He nodded. "And what pieces did you have in mind?"
She opened her mouth and then shut it, thinking rapidly for an answer. "Well, perhaps furniture isn't the issue, but the few decorative items I have that I wouldn't want to be without. Like my Ryman print."
Denny's brow furrowed. "You mean your white painting?"
Her head cocked to the side just a little, a trace of stubborn defensiveness at her chin. "What do you mean? There's some blue-gray in it," she muttered before adding, "And just because it seems mostly white doesn't mean there isn't something to it. The original is priceless. It's an excellent example of reductive art."
"The white painting," he repeated and then gave a shrug. "Sure, it's a nice piece. And clearly you like it. I see no problem with it. What else?"
"Well, I don't know off the top of my head," she said in slight exasperation, not having intended to be put through the third degree. "But when I have to box things up for storage, I'm sure I'll wanna keep some things with me."
Denny had stood during her answer and walked around to the front of his desk to lean against it, a true smile at last breaking his slightly antagonistic expression. He cocked back his head, inviting her nearer. When she was within reach, his arms wrapped around her waist pulling her intimately against his body. Her hands went to his chest as her face angled up.
Cupping her cheek he murmured, "Sweetheart, I'd let you bring a circus with you if it meant I'd fall asleep with you in my arms every night." And then he swept his lips over hers in a sweet caress only meant as thanks, but which grew into something so much more fevered and needy.
The buzzing of his phone finally pried them apart, Alessa smiling warmly as she wiped her mouth dry. Unfortunately the call was one he had to take. Looking at her apologetically, he mouthed that they could discuss it that evening. She nodded in understanding and departed his, her skin humming with electric tingles of excitement and dread.
Alessa postponed her nightly run in order to push through the last of the work before her and be free by seven or so to eat dinner with Denny and discuss logistics. She went to the break room to retrieve her dinner and found Denny had food in there as well. And though others still milled around working, the unease that they might begin to catch on to her and Denny's relationship seemed diminished somehow. She therefore carried her and Denny's food to his office without much thought to who noticed.
Standing in his doorway, she took a moment to smile at his appeal. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to reveal his muscular forearms as he leaned on them reading the paperwork before him. His suspenders that day were black and were nicely balanced with the pale blue shirt and white collar.
"Good evening," she demurred silkily and walked in after shutting the door. "I brought food."
Denny sat back in his chair, stretching his arms high and back to stretch his tired body. "You are a goddess."
"I don't know about all that."
"A good bar wench at the very least, then."
That made her laugh. She had begun to dig out their food from their respective bags, putting them on the plates she had brought. "And just what are the duties of a bar wench?"
He watched her smiling mouth, images flashing in his mind of just what a bar wench would do if paid. "I'm sure you can use your imagination."
As she handed him his plate her eyes flicked up to him. "Maybe. Alas, this establishment doesn't allow sheep," she deadpanned.
Denny burst into laughter. It took him a moment to recover before he was able to take a bite. Once they had settled into their food, he began the conversation.
"Okay, so how should we do this?"
Alessa looked up from her turkey and cranberry sandwich. She gave a delicate shrug of her shoulder. "I don't know, how have you done it in the past?"
Denny's mouth twisted in half smile. "I haven't," he confessed.
"You haven't? You mean you've never lived with someone?"
"Nope. You'll be my first," he said softly.
How he made her face flush hot even after all their time together, she'd never know. "Oh, well, I guess we'll just go about it systematically." She cleared her throat picking up a pen. "Well, first is rent. Oh, but it's a condo, right? You're buying it?"
He nodded. They were silent as they studied each other, their legally-trained minds going down the very same path of thought. "You know," Denny started preemptively, "we could draw up a cohab agreement, stating that you could have a return on the equity you contribute to if ever...we no longer lived together."
She thought a moment, her gaze steady though her heart beat rapidly. "Maybe let's see how the first month pans out before we make this too complicated. After all, I plan on paying rent at the moment, not buying property, regardless if I live with you or not. We can consider my contribution just that. At least for now."
When Denny only nodded, she continued on. She suggested a joint account to which they would contribute an equal amount to pay all their bills from. Denny shrugged and said it was very logical.
With that arranged, she began to make a list of things she would need to do in order to get everything moved. "It's only Monday," she thought out loud. He looked up, catching her eyes. "I could get everything packed by this weekend...well, at least things I'd want to take with me. I could be ready by Friday," she said slowly, gauging his reaction. "How 'bout you? Can you clean out half of your closet?" she tried to smile playfully.
"To make room for you? Absolutely."
Again she was blushing, and so she cleared her throat and looked down at the paper she was making notes on. "Okay, if you can work on getting all your hard bills listed this week and then this weekend we can sit down and make a budget for other things, such as groceries and whatnot." She scribbled some notes, using work as a distraction from the rising and falling of her stomach that was not ready for this ride. Once there was nothing personal left to discuss and delegate, she turned her attention back to her food.
Denny had finished his own dinner and was back to writing on his laptop. "And what are you working on?" she asked.
"I'm making a pitch to that new communications technology start-up I told you about, the one that spun off from SRL. They're in the market for a strategic planner, and I think they could be big."
"So you're going after them?"
"That's right. I have a meeting set up for Wednesday."
"Good. Very good."
"Well, I'd wish you luck, but I doubt you need it." He finally looked up at her and smiled. There was a moment of silence before she sighed and gathered her things. "I'll leave you to it then. Besides, I should probably go start packing." She couldn't contain the smile of excitement. "See you tomorrow."
Denny was equally pleased, again cocking his head at her from across the desk. Knowingly, she placed her hands on it and leaned over to kiss him goodbye. The rest of the week continued on in an exhausting and busy cycle of work and packing. Alessa cut down her time at the office to only twelve hours and returned home every evening by eight to pack a few more things and clean.
Conversely, Denny stayed at the office later and later working on his proposal. And when he met with the two-man team on Wednesday, the excitement in their young faces guaranteed him he'd just gained another quality client, though they had forty-eight hours to give him their official decision. When their call late Thursday morning confirmed it, he made arrangements to meet them Friday afternoon with all the requisite paperwork and tentative plans for their next steps.
Between the few suitcases full of her clothing and three boxes that held her books and more personal items, Alessa hadn't brought much with her. After work on Friday, she returned to her apartment and loaded her little car. In the end, she had decided to keep none of her furniture or small appliances, and the Cho family had agreed she could put whatever she wished in with their estate sale. As she had been more interested in getting rid of it all than in making money from the small amount of stuff she'd collected since college, she'd priced everything ridiculously low the night before.
Alessa stood at her front door, taking one last look around the small flat cast in the white light of the December moon. Nostalgia arose, soft like a ghost off the white surfaces, wrapping itself around her, lacing its fingers through her chest to tug at her heart. But it was for the lonely life she finally had the courage to leave behind, and so she took a deep breath and forced a smile. She walked out the door and locked it, hoping everything sold so she wouldn't have to return.
When Alessa arrived at Denny's, she'd hope to find him in his condo waiting for her. But as she unlocked the door and flipped on the lights, she realized despite the late hour he wasn't home. Just as she thought to call him, her phone chimed. It was a text from him to inform her a few of the partners had taken him out to celebrate his newest client, and they'd dragged him off to one of their favorite bars afterwards. He wrote that he'd try to be home before midnight.
Alessa chuckled morosely as she realized their first night together would be that of the stereotypical professional couple who had little time for each other. She sighed as she went into the kitchen for some wine, telling herself to stop being melodramatic.
She spent the rest of the late evening going through his closet, smiling because she found it exactly half empty. When she went into his guest room, she found the second half of his wardrobe hung in that closet, though there would still be room for more of her clothes as well. She put all her in-season clothing in the master closet and the off season clothing in the other. There was also an equal amount of space in the dresser, and as he was a man with simple needs, there was plenty of space in the bathroom for all her toiletries.
Alessa was seated before his bookshelf with a few candles flickering and half a bottle of wine as she glanced through a few of her favorite titles before placing them on the shelves she'd managed to make space on. She was absorbed in an old copy of The Ship of Theseus when Denny came home a quarter after twelve.
Though it was more common than not to spend Friday nights together, the thought that she was now home, that her home was his home, made something tingle along his spine and dance in his gut.
"'Ev'ning, Sweetheart," he greeted warmly, dropping his coat and briefcase down where he stood as he gazed at her sitting on the floor.
"Don't you mean 'good morning', handsome?"
"About fifteen minutes ago."
"Then why don't we go into the bedroom and celebrate the first day together?"
Her smile was interrupted by a yawn. "I don't know if I can. It's been a pretty long day and I'm beat."
"Oh, no no no, Sweetheart," he said, offering out his hand. "Moments like this deserve a christening."
"Do they?" she questioned, accepting his hand.
Pulling her up to him, he remained adamant. "They demand it."
"Well then, perhaps I can muster the energy. Just this once."
He kissed her nose before sweeping her giggling up into his arms. He didn't bother blowing out the few candles as he carried her to their bed to make playful, ecstatic love to her.
The following morning over breakfast Denny detailed his latest triumph and shared his plans for the new technology company. Not only were there a charter to finalize and a corporation status to file, but there were also a number of patents to file. He was going to be swamped for the foreseeable future.
After breakfast they went Christmas shopping, much to Alessa's discomfort. She hated shopping for gifts, always at a loss for what to buy or riddled with guilt that she was giving something the person didn't want or need but now had to pretend to be thankful for. In a moment of introspection, however, she recalled her inspired shirt and tie purchase and the following presentation over dinner and her most recent purchase at the Cal Academy, and wondered if there was something special about Denny that turned her into such a creative gift giver.
Denny, conversely, loved the hunt of matching someone with the perfect gift. His philosophy in general was that a gift should be something useful or wanted, but slightly out-of-the-box so the receiver wouldn't think to buy it for himself. He had always loved solving the mystery of gift buying and the anticipation as he sat and watched the person open his present. More often than not, his choices were a success, and he always felt a ripple of pleasure unmatched by anything else.
The remainder of the weekend was spent eating and working on their separate caseloads, and as Denny held her as they went to sleep late Sunday night, Alessa felt a wave of relief relax the tightness in her stomach. Whatever she had been anxious about, hadn't happened. Quite the contrary, she realized; staying with Denny, the knowledge that she was home had felt natural. Right. She sighed and snuggled a bit deeper into him, content for the moment. Happily expectant of the future.
Over the next week and a half, Denny and Alessa did the best they could to see each other as much as possible. With the increase in his work load, it wasn't easy. However, when they were free, they ate dinner together at the office while he worked to get the new company off the ground. And though they were often tired when they got home, they made the effort to connect physically, whether it was to shower together, give the other a massage, although any attempt to just kiss and cuddle typically grew beyond those simple touches until they were consumed in orgasmic bliss, wrapped desperately in the limbs of the other.
Denny didn't sacrifice his early morning workouts, and Alessa watched as his routine began to take its toll on him. Though the awareness of her feelings was slow in coming, she began to make the effort to care for him. If they were lounging on the couch reading, she would mindlessly stroke the knots from his neck, bring him his afternoon tea, or offer to perform lesser tasks to ease his workload, and she always made his lunch and dinner. In a way it was just easier to make a double portion of whatever she made for herself, but it sprung from a deep place that wanted to see him cared for.
It took ten days of living together, caring for one another, that Alessa felt compelled to confess her own feelings, to reveal that, yes, she did in fact love him. On Tuesday, she made him promise to be home by eight on Wednesday as she had something special planned for him. Denny, always grateful whenever Alessa displayed the smallest bit of initiative in their relationship, simply smiled and agreed. She would prepare a nice meal, steak as it was his favorite—maybe broiled, maybe a garlic butter sauce—wear the racy, low v-cut black strappy dress she'd never had the courage to wear, and give him the geode she'd bought.
Wednesday morning, she got up with Denny, but as he went to workout, she got ready for work. Though it was a cold December morning, she wanted to tease him until he was eaten with anticipation, and so she wore her form fitting claret dress with ruffled cap sleeves. Her nude heels made her legs go on forever, and as she was reaching for her overcoat, Denny walked back into the flat, sweaty and still breathing hard.
He stopped midstride as he took in her alluring form. "Heading out early?" he asked as his hot gaze slid up her body.
Alessa felt the heat rushing up her face. "Yes," she managed to say in a strong voice. "Busy day, and I want to come back after my run at six, so I should get started." She slipped her camel coat on and picked up her bag. "See you there," she said as she kissed his cheek and slipped out before he could grab her.
Alessa had just stepped off the bus near the office when her phone rang. Before answering, she checked the caller ID. It was Bill, her stepfather. Her stomach instantly sank. She hit the ignore button and slipped the phone back into her pocket. He called around ten, which she again ignored. When he called at two, he left a voicemail, but she didn't want to hear his voice, didn't want to have that dampen her day. The voicemail could wait.
As anticipated, her tight, wine-colored dress did the trick to draw Denny's eye. Whenever he had occasion to talk to her, she caught his eyes wandering over her possessively, thrilling her, spurring her to be coyly flirtatious. And for her actions, she was caught off guard once again in the copy room of the library late that afternoon.
"Hasn't anyone told you there are consequences for flirting?" he asked in a husky voice as he pinned her to the wall. His mouth was dangerously close to hers, and she was mesmerized by the sensual curve of his upper lip, unable to think of anything but the smooth glide of it over hers.
"Flirting? Who me?" she whispered. "Who was I flirting with? I promise, when I laugh at his jokes, it's just to be polite," she teased breathlessly, her body suddenly very ready to come undone in his hands.
Denny gave an annoyed growl at the suggestion that she had flirted with another man and crushed his mouth against hers. For a moment, Alessa opened herself to be ravished, finding that her flirting had done more than arouse just him, that it had also aroused herself. Her fingers were in his hair and her hips were curving around his thigh until voices from somewhere in the library pulled her from the magic of his embrace and into reality. She pulled back and licked his lips once to tantalize him further, though she had every intention of leaving him unsatisfied.
"Now, now, Mr. Ashbury, behave yourself. Or did you forget we are in a place of business?" she reprimanded as she slipped from between the hard wall and his warm body. "I have to get this finished before I leave, or we won't be having my little surprise later," she declared looking over her shoulder at him as she hit the start button, the machine humming to life as a band of light hypnotically slid across her face before quickly returning to the other side.
Denny was getting hard, and he could only think of getting off at the moment. "Fuck," he muttered, though he couldn't keep from smiling, if not a little devilishly, at being had. "Very well, Ms. Allen. Then I'll see you at home." He turned to leave. "And not before," he stated pointedly, warning her that anymore attempts at distracting him would not be welcome.
She raised an eyebrow before nodding. "Very well. At home, then." Alessa didn't even wait for six o'clock before she closed everything down and headed to her gym for a run. She ran faster than was her typical pace, an eager excitement energizing her to perform better. She picked up the last of the ingredients on the way home, and after a quick rinse off in the shower, she dressed in the slinky black dress and set about making a delicious dinner.
She was just pulling out the broiled steaks when her phone rang again. Unsurprisingly, it was her stepfather. She tried to ignore it, but when a text came through, her heart stopped. He wrote that her mother had been taken to the hospital early that morning. It didn't look good. In a flurry of action, Alessa changed out of her provocative dress into jeans and a sweater while texting Denny that dinner was cancelled; her mother was in the hospital. She blew out the candles and left the intended gift sitting at his spot at the table. She hopped in her little car and sped to the Oakland hospital where her mother had been transferred.
Thankfully by the time Alessa arrived, it was late enough in the evening that the parking lot wasn't overrun with cars and she was able to find a close spot without having to navigate the confusing, desolate underground hallways. She found the directions to the ICU waiting room, and though the hospital had done a commendable job of remodeling the former white, sterile spaces into something mimicking wood and the warmth of home, the frantic pain in her heart wasn't fooled into believing anything but the worst.
"Bill, what's going on?" she asked quickly when she saw him sitting slumped in a large maroon leather chair, ubiquitous of waiting rooms everywhere.
When he looked up, she saw the red eyes and tears. He looked awful. "Baby, it isn't good," he answered. She ignored the crawl of her skin and focused on finding out information.
"I found her this morning," he trembled as he remembered. "She wouldn't wake up. That's when I notice-" he took a shaky breath, tears repooling in his eyes, "her bottle of Tramadol."
"What about it?" her voice questioned, low and hard.
"It was empty. We'd just gotten it refilled yesterday. A month's worth. Ninety of them. Gone."
She couldn't stop the tears immediately springing in her eyes. "What are you saying? She...took them? On purpose? Why? Why would she do that? Why?" she asked, a frantic quality growing in her voice.
He was crying now as he shook his head and stared blindly at his hands. "She didn't want to do it anymore. She wouldn't get a new liver and she didn't want to be sick anymore," he managed to say between his sobs.
"What about her liver?"
"The Lupus, baby, it was killing her liver. There wasn't anything they could do. They couldn't give her a new one because her disease would just kill it, too."
Alessa stood and backed away, feeling suddenly more betrayed than ever. "She knew this? You knew? Why didn't she say anything?"
He lifted his pitiful face, tears soaking his fat cheeks. "She didn't want you to worry, baby." Her skin crawled and her stomach lurched.
"I want to see her. I want to see her, now," she stated firmly.
He took a shaky breath before standing up and wiping his cheeks. He went through a door that marked the entrance to the ICU. In a short minute, he was back with a young woman in scrubs. "She'll take you back. Since you're here, baby, I'm going to go to the diner and get something to eat. Haven't eaten all day. Be back." And with that, he trudged away, his sniffles still audible even after he had rounded the corner and was out of sight.
The young nurse led Alessa through a wide, circular central area with individual rooms around the perimeter. The walls were sliding glass doors so the sleeping patients were visible to the nursing staff. Her mother was on the far side.
Alessa eyes swept around the small cubical. "What is all this stuff?" Her tone emotionless.
"Well, she wasn't breathing on her own when she arrived, so they intubated her," she explained.
Despite the faux wood paneling and soft green curtains, the shrill beep beep beep of the machines, the flashing green and red lights on the monitors, and the whoosh of the respirator machine all kept Alessa rawly rooted to reality.
"Can she hear me?"
The nurse said nothing at first, before responding with a well-trained smile, "If she can, I'm sure it would do her good to hear your voice." There was another pause as Alessa stared at her mother in the white gown with small blue designs. Her hands were lying cadaverously on top of the white blankets. The only proof that she still live was the stark fact that they were connected to IVs and oximeters. Her mouth was agape, and taped to her lips was a large, invasive plastic tube that ran down her throat.
"I'll leave you alone with her."
Alessa was vaguely aware that the sliding glass door didn't close completely when the nurse left. She stood in the middle of the small space for an unknown length of time, waiting for something to remove the surreal cruelty of it all. And then she was moved by the need for comfort, her mother's comfort.
"Mom," she whispered as she took a desperate step forward and then another until she was sitting down next to her, her face leaning closer as if to scrutinize the shut eyes, to compel them open. "Mom," and then she shuddered at the pathos heavy in her voice. She reached to take her hand, but paused as she took in the small clip attached to the end of her mother's index finger. Deciding it was harmless, she held her hand, noting how cold it was. It wasn't the lights, she knew, that made her mother appear so yellow. How had she not realized, not put together the last time she saw her how sick she was becoming?
Because she hadn't wanted to face it. Hadn't wanted to accept the possibility. The mortality. The loss. "Mom," she pleaded, suddenly needing nothing more than her mother's smooth hands on her cheeks. She placed her cool hand against her wet face, pressed it against her, but it wasn't the same. It was just a hand. It wasn't full of her mom's love, of her mom.
It was all so unfair, Alessa thought, a desperate helplessness and anger boiling in her chest. The feelings burned her, both warring for the uppermost place in her consciousness. And when the vacillating pull of anger and despair became more than she could handle, she gave up and wept, her head buried against her mother's stomach, her lifeless hand limp against her cheek. She wasn't allowed to sob long, as the young nurse had returned, bringing a box of tissues for her tears and a gentle hand on her shoulder to lead her out. She sat with her in the waiting area while Alessa did her best to stem her tears as-despite the enormity of pain and anger-she didn't feel comfortable enough to blubber in front of a stranger.
When she seemed somewhat together, the young woman smiled at her, patted her shoulder and left. But Alessa heart was far from calm, a growing fury raising with each broken beat. And the more she thought about the unfairness of her mother's life, the more the blackness churned and rose until hot tears once again flowed from her eyes. She had drawn her feet up to the seat, her forehead resting against her knees while she wrapped her arms around her legs.
Her eyes snapped open.
"Dad? What are you doing here?"
"Bill called me this afternoon. He was worried because he couldn't get ahold of you. He told me what happened," Alex explained, coming to sit next to her.
Whatever had been brewing inside of her sent electric currents out to surround her, charging the air with the tension in her heart. She sat up, stiff, her feet dropping to the floor. She nodded, trying to engage, not yet aware of her strained response to her father's presence.
"How's she doing?" he asked, placing his arm around her.
She barely shook her head. "Don't know. Not good."
"How are you doing?"
Again the minute shake of her head. "I'm surprised to see you here," she blurted.
"Well, of course. I care about you and your mom."
Her brow wrinkled in disbelieving confusion. "You care about my mom?"
Alex didn't hear the note incredulity in her voice. "Of course. We were married."
"Yeah, but you're not any more. In fact, you did the exact opposite thing you should have done if you had cared about her."
Alex frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"You left her. You left us."
Alex face softened as he lifted his shoulders up in a gentle shrug, his palms turning face up. "But that doesn't mean I stopped caring."
Alessa stood suddenly, spinning round to stand in front of him, her fists forceful at her sides. "How can you say that? How could you have hurt her so horribly and still claim you care about her? You have no idea how miserable her life is and all because you left us!" the hot, furious tears were back. They blurred her vision, and in her ire she swiped angrily at them. At seeing her distress, Alex stood as well, reaching her for her futilely. "No!" she said, pushing his hands away and taking a step back. She clutched her own arms around her middle now, tears refusing to stop pouring down her cheek. "My mother's life has been hell because of your selfishness. My life has been hell because of you! Don't you see that? Don't you get that?"
"Why has your life been so bad?" he asked, saddened and perplexed.
"How can you ask that? Have you no idea how heinous your wife is to me? Don't you see how Shelly treats me? She hates me! She's always hated me and treated me just like the unwanted stepchild. And yet, never, in all these years have you once stood up for me. Once told her that her words were mean and inappropriate."
"Don't you dare fucking deny it!" she hissed, refusing to allow him to avoid seeing the truth. "Every damn thing she says is a caustic, disparaging remark. She either alludes that I'm dumb or not pretty or not good enough to fucking breathe. And the fact that you are so oblivious to it makes me wonder if you don't somehow agree!" she ranted, finally voicing her deep-seated fears.
"Alessa, I know how brilliant—"
"Stop ignoring it! Stop ignoring how she treats me! Stop being so oblivious to how your selfish behavior has hurt me. If you hadn't left, my mom never would have married Bill—" but here she stopped, her arms tightening around her even more as she turned from her father. Alessa's lips were pursed together to keep from saying anything more. Her eyes were closed to shut out the world.
"Alessa, sweetie, talk to me," Alex pleaded.
She only vehemently shook her head, wishing her denial could eradicate reality. She drew in a shaky breath, suddenly even more raw at having torn at her father. "No," she said, shaking her head again. "I don't want to talk about any of that right now." She didn't turn around, but knew she'd have to resolve the matter at hand, if only temporarily. "I don't want you here. I don't need you here. Please, please just go and we can talk about it later. Right now," another shaky, resigning breath, "right now it doesn't matter. I just need to focus on my mom. I'm sorry I brought it up."
Alex was silent before he complied. "Alright, I'll go. But I do want to finish this discussion, to say whatever there is to be said. I hope your mother pulls through," he offered sadly. "At least...at least give me an update? If anything changes?" He waited the several seconds it took for her to nod in agreement. Before he turned to leave, he reached out his hand for her, but it fell away as he simply said, "I love you, Alessa."
Reluctantly, Alex left her, the weight of the pain of his child finally registering and settling deep inside his gut like cold stones. As he headed down the hall and turned the corner to the elevator, he stopped short, suddenly surprised by Denny who had arrived in the middle of their argument and chosen to stay quiet in the shadows. The two men exchange stern expressions, each somehow warning the other to not hurt her before Alex continued on his way.
When Denny heard the ding of the elevator and the swooshing of its doors, he emerged from his hidden position around the corner and slowly walked to her, knowing a hurt animal was a wary and dangerous thing. "Sweetheart," he whispered a moment before he slipped his gentle arms around her. Surprisingly, she didn't push him away, but instantly turned to him, burying her wet face against his chest. He held her while she poured a lifetime of her pain out onto him. He sat with her quietly as she explained through tears all that had happened with her mother and her fears of the worst and how somehow her interaction with her father had diverged into the painful episode he had just witnessed. Denny was patient and tender as he held her, guiding her to the chairs so they could sit and wiping her tears with his thumbs.
Eventually Bill returned and Denny introduced himself to the stepfather whose deeds he knew were responsible for so much of his damaged girl's mentality. It was all he could do to restrain himself to not punch the creep in the face.
As there would be no news from any doctor for quite some time and her mother appeared stable, Denny took Alessa home. Wordlessly, she undressed and went to bed, while Denny looked around the kitchen. She had planned such a nice evening, but the steaks were cold now, as were the potatoes. He sighed and got busy putting the food into the fridge. Walking through the dining room to join her in bed, he spotted the gift at his place at the table. Denny sat down and eyed it thoughtfully. He gave pause before reaching for it, wondering if he should wait for her to be present. He looked at the tag attached to the pretty silver ribbon.
Because you see me
He opened it slowly, his curiosity now piqued. Denny was surprised to find the breathtaking geode, mesmerized by both its beauty and meaning. He slowly turned it over in his hands, revealing the inner qualities that sparkled dazzlingly even in the dim light. He smiled softly as he sat it down, and then with a weariness born of so many more things than the commonplace life, he went to bed, carefully drawing the sleeping woman into his arms.
May 12, 2018 in romance