A/N: I feel as if Jordan and Woody have become my own virtual "worry dolls." When things are going wrong, or I'm sorting through personal stuff, I take them out, tell them my troubles and fanfic seems to result. (See for example, "On Faith" or "We'll Meet Again.") We're dealing with a terminal illness right now in my family, and this story is a result of that. I warn you – it's dark (even for me), but ultimately hopeful. I think this is probably a one shot. It's been good catharsis, and hey…it's cheaper than a therapy!
My body is numb, as if it has been shot full of novacaine. It's an odd, floaty sensation that might be strangely pleasant under other circumstances. The doctor's lips are moving soundlessly, and I try to nod at what I imagine are the appropriate times, but there's no sound. I haven't heard anything since she said the word.
She is still speaking with that concerned doctor's look, her hands folded and resting on top of my medical file. I know I should be listening, but my mind is reeling backward in time from this moment to the one just a week or so ago – it seems like an eternity – in this same doctor's office.
It's that moment, always slightly embarrassing, when you lie with your hands behind your head, and the doctor begins to chatter mindlessly about the weather or the latest flick as she unties your shapeless gown and her fingers glide over you. No matter how gentle or expert the hand, you can't help but feel vulnerable and, well…naked.
But it's usually over quickly, you tell yourself, and she laces you back up and there is more cheery chit-chat as she makes some notes on your folder and reminds you to make next year's appointment on your way out.
Not this time.
It was the same as it had always been, down to the breezy banter about the cold snap and the looming Nor'Easter, and we groaned together in sympathy. Then she frowned as her trained fingers ran over my left breast, and I knew with a doctor's instinct that there was something wrong. I wondered if that would forever be the moment I marked as the end of my old life and the beginning of this new life.
I wondered how long my forever would be.
There were more tests, more appointments, more consultations, finally a needle biopsy, but it was inevitable, leading to this: sitting here in this ridiculously uncomfortable chair hearing that word.
Could I have caught this earlier? Why didn't I spot this in my monthly self-exams? I didn't pay attention. I should have paid attention. Why me? I don't smoke. That's not it. The pill. I've been on the pill for years. I didn't need to do that. Why did I do that?
"Are there any questions?" she asks me, and I'm pulled sharply back into reality.
I have to peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth. "But there's nobody…my mother, my grandmothers, aunts. No one had breast cancer. I don't have a family history." I say it in some vain hope that the doctor will grin and say Oh, well, in that case we've made a huge mistake! But she doesn't, and I know she won't. She just shakes her head.
"Most women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, Jordan." I nod, and she smiles back at me weakly. "There is a 92 percent 5-year survival rate for Stage IIA breast cancer. This is very, very treatable. Your odds are excellent."
"Ninety-two," I repeat and smile back for her benefit.
She pats my hand reassuringly, and then it's back to the technical jargon. There will be surgery, just a lumpectomy. I probably won't need chemo or radiation, but they won't know until after the surgery. I nod numbly again, only getting half of what she tells me, and then she hands me some paperwork, and I'm dismissed.
There is an endless round of stops I need to make. There's the lab where my arm is poked and prodded for a vein by a trainee until I'm black and blue. "Just give me the damn thing! I'll do it!" I snap and reach out for the syringe. He looks at me, wide-eyed, and almost hands it to me before his manager pushes him aside and quickly and quietly draws several vials of blood. "She's an oncology patient," the manager whispers flatly, and the trainee nods nervously in comprehension.
Then there is admissions, where I make an appointment for what the desk clerk gently refers to as my "procedure." When I leave, she gives me that same half-smile, half-frown that I have already seen ten times today.
I sit behind the wheel for a long moment in the empty parking garage before I slip the key into the ignition. It's cold enough that I can see my breath in big puffs, but I don't care. At least I can feel. I reach my hand up under my coat and against the warm skin of my left breast. It suddenly feels like this alien thing that doesn't belong to me anymore.
I drive on. I won't wallow in self-pity. I literally look death in the eye every day. I've been kidnapped, drugged. I've stared down the barrel of more than one gun, and I've stood my ground with serial killers and psychopaths. I'm not going to let this thing – less than 2 centimetres – flatten me. I always, always beat the odds. Damn straight.
"Hey, Garret. " I casually stick my head into his office when I return to the morgue. "I'm going to need a couple of days off next week. Is that a problem?"
"I don't think so. Be my guest," he mutters and finally looks up from his computer. "Wow. This is the first time you've actually asked for a vacation instead of just taking off without telling anyone where the hell you're going. Must be serious." He leans back in his chair and laughs. He's joking, of course, and he must imagine I'm escaping the rotten Boston winter with some last minute Priceline fare.
"Well, you know…" I mumble awkwardly and begin to back out of the office.
"Enjoy the time off. You deserve it. I hope you come back with one hell of a tan."
"Actually…it's no big deal." I wave my hand. "Just…"
His forehead wrinkles and he leans forward with his elbows on the desk. "Everything okay, Jordan?"
"No. Well, yeah. It's fine. Really. I've just got to have this little procedure." I gesture vaguely toward my chest.
"Remember that dentist appointment I said I had last week? I had a fine needle aspiration. They found something," I say quietly and then add, "It's really not a big deal. I'll be in and out."
He's standing now, crossing to me, and I immediately regret telling him. I can feel tears prick at the back of my eyes. I should have just told him I'd be sure and pack my SPF 45.
"Jordan…" He touches my arm, and I go rigid. His voice has that sympathetic, authoritarian tone I always hear him take with the families here as he delivers bad news. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. They caught it early. I'll be fine."
He shakes his head as the news sinks in. I know the feeling. "When? I mean, when did you find out?"
"The doctor found something at my annual a couple of weeks ago, but I just came from the hospital. Talk about bombshell." I laugh. "Look, it's okay."
"I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
You can stop treating me like I'm broken.
"No, really, Garret. It's fine. I just don't want to make a big thing about this, okay?
"Sure. Right. Why don't you…take the rest of the day off. Bug can manage." He has me by the elbow, and he's guiding me back out toward the lobby and the elevator. He means well. I know he does.
"Garret, I'm fine," I repeat for what -- the fifth time? "I just want to work and get on with my life. Okay? Please."
I pull my arm away, and he nods numbly. "Of course. Don't be afraid to speak up if you need anything. Will you promise me that, Jordan?"
"I will. Promise."
He hugs me then. I let him, for a moment. When I pull away I flash him a smile. "I'm too damn stubborn to get sick. You know that."
He chuckles self-comfortingly. "Yeah, I've seen you drag yourself in here half-delirious with fever."
"It'll be fine."
"Right. Now get to work, Jordan."
I hide in autopsy all afternoon. There is work, and plenty of it, to keep me busy, and I'm grateful for it. It's long past dark when I pitch my scrubs and leave the locker room, feeling half-human again in fresh clothes.
I pass a technician in the hallway, a newbie whose name escapes me. We've never spoken, so I nod politely.
"Good night, Dr. Cavanaugh," he says, his voice heavy with a detached sorrow.
I mumble something in return and jump into the elevator, which has mercifully opened its doors onto an empty car. My cheeks burn. Garret told them. He told them. I never said it was a secret, but I thought it was implied.
That technician's voice – all pity and concern. Who else knows? The janitor? The UPS guy? This is exactly what I didn't want. I'm still me. I'm not this thing,and it's not me. I feel as if I've had a scarlet letter "C" branded on my chest.
I can't really blame Garret, though. He's my friend, and I know he must be afraid for me.
I take deep steadying breaths to keep from crying. I won't do it. I ride home, the radio turned up, repeating over and over. "Ninety-two percent…ninety-two percent."
I'm good at hiding.
I know all the best places to hide at the morgue. There's a small research library in a forgotten corner of the building that smells like mildew. No one uses it, especially not with everything being online these days. I spend a lot of tome here now, going through files, away from well-meaning stares.
I know they're all trying to treat me as normally as possible. Garret, Bug, Nigel. But I can see it in their eyes – the pity, the fear, the relief. I know what they're really thinking: Thank God it's not me.
One of the file clerks informs me that she is organizing a "food chain," and I can expect several nights next week of home-baked dinners delivered to my door. I thank her and tell her that I'll be perfectly capable of ordering take-out or even cooking for myself. But she's insistent, and I can now look forward to a week's worth of tater tot casseroles.
Lily has been on vacation, and I dread her return. She is like that sister you don't feel particularly close to. I'd do anything for her. She's family. I love her, I do. But I don't necessarily like her. I don't really do warm and fuzzy.
She finds me just as my nostrils have begun to get used to the wet, musty smell of the library.
"Jordan!" She clasps her hands to her chest. She looks as if she is about to burst into tears. "I just heard. I'm so sorry."
"Good news travels fast." I mutter and drop my pencil onto my legal pad.
"What can I do? Is there anything I can do?"
"It's not that big a deal, Lily. Really. They caught it early, so it's very treatable. I'm not even sweating this."
I rise from the table and slide some research journals back onto their little cardboard holders.
"Not that big a deal? But, Jordan it's…" I watch as her mouth falls open. She can't even say the word. It's just a word. What are people so afraid of?
"I've got cancer, Lily." She winces slightly. "It's all right. You can say it. I'm okay with it."
"Oh, Jordan…" Her eyes well up, and her voice cracks. "If there's anything I can do..."
Well, I don't need any casseroles, thanks.
"I just want people to treat me like they always do. You don't have to walk on eggshells around me. You don't have to constantly ask me how I am and if you can do anything for me," I snap. It comes out sharper than I had intended. I've been working so hard, I'm light-headed from lack of food and sleep.
I start to jam textbooks randomly back into the shelves, hoping she will take the hint and leave, but Lily being Lily, she doesn't. Instead, she reaches out and strokes my forearm.
"It's natural to feel that way, Jordan. You're in denial right now." Her voice is calm and soothing, but it has the opposite effect on me. I want to scream. "It's difficult to admit to yourself, but you're scared."
It's all I can take. Words erupt out of me like molten lava. "Don't tell me how I feel. Don't you dare tell me how to feel! You think I'm in denial? Is that what you think? Well, at least I can say the goddamn word. I don't need your pity or your sympathy. I just want you all to leave me the hell alone."
She jumps back and blinks in shock. I should apologize but I don't. She presses her lips into a thin, colorless line and nods in understanding.
"I'm sorry, Jordan. I didn't mean to upset you. If you ever want to talk…"
I only nod, and she scurries out of the library wringing her hands. I suppose a different person would go after her, but I won't. I'm tired of being everyone's pity project. All the offers of help, the worried looks. They're doing it for themselves, not for me.
I try to work after that, hidden away in the back room going through some old files. An hour passes, and I realize I've been staring at the same page since Lily left. The thick air suddenly feels stifling.
I leave, just taking the time to grab my coat and purse. They won't miss me. I think most of them are trying to avoid me, anyway. There's a liquor store on the way home, and the car pulls over to the curb as if on automatic pilot.
I uncork a bottle before I even take my coat off inside the apartment. I drop everything – keys, mail, bag – and my hands are shaking as I pour myself a glass. I can see the calendar on the kitchen wall. The date of the surgery is circled in red and looming ever closer.
I drain the glass, and I can immediately feel its warmth in my fingers and toes. It's wonderful. So, I drain another glass, and I can't feel anything. There is a moment of euphoria. I'm happy. I'm all right. Life will go on.
Somewhere after the fourth glass, I hit the invisible brick wall. I have somehow ended up on the kitchen floor. The half-emptied bottle has fallen over and is emptying its contents on the floor.
I'm sick. It's not all right. I feel fine. Why am I not fine?
I'm not even forty. This doesn't happen to people my age, does it? The contents of my life seem to spill out in front of me like the bottle of merlot. There's too much I haven't done. Have I wasted it all?
I never traveled to Europe they way I always said I would. I wanted to do the Boston Marathon.
My mother is gone. My damaged brother is gone. Maybe I could have saved them both. My relationship with my father seems beyond repair. I don't even know where he is.
All I wanted to do when I grew up was to be a doctor. I thought I'd be a surgeon or a cardiologist or a pediatrician, but instead I cut up dead people, and I come home at night smelling of formaldehyde.
My job is important. I help put bad guys away. I give comfort to grieving families. It is important. It is. But it's not enough. There is a huge hole in me. Sitting here at night in duckie pajamas drinking red wine and watching Turner Classics isn't enough. It's not.
I've never been in love. No, not really. You can scale Everest, and I don't think it really matters in the end if you've never given yourself completely to someone. I've never allowed that for myself, and suddenly any of my other accomplishments seem dim in comparison.
No, I've never been in love. Or maybe I've never let myself be in love. There's a difference. Not Tom Crane or Jay Meyers or Tyler…Damn. I can't even remember his last name. I tried with poor, doomed J.D. I really did. I might have loved him, but I would never be in love with him. He deserved more than I could give him.
And then there's Woody. Woody, who was my friend and was my lover once. Now he's neither. I loved him. I don't know when it happened. Was it when we kissed in California? Was it on the tenth or twentieth time he chased me cross-country on some mad spree? It was long before he gave me that damn ring. That ring. Long before he got shot and I made a fool of myself. I need you. Don't leave me.
I was falling, and I didn't even care that there was nothing there to break the fall. I've had sex. Oh, plenty of it. But I don't think I ever really made love until that night at the Lucy Carver Inn, and afterwards he held me and whispered to me until I drifted off. I was falling. Then we went back to Boston, he moved on without me, and I landed. Hard.
The alcohol is now having an undesirable effect. I can feel the bitterness rise in the back of my throat, and I make it into the bathroom just in time to spill the contents of the bottle of merlot back out into the toilet bowl.
I'm weak afterwards. I haven't eaten much for days, and what I did manage to force down my throat is now heading down the drain in a sickly magenta swirl.
And then I allow myself the tears I've been keeping back for days. I don't have the strength to hold them in right now. I don't know how long I sit there on the fluffy blue bathroom rug, knees pulled to my chest. I don't know how much times passes before the doorbell rings. Minutes? Hours?
For a moment, I decide to ignore whoever it is, but then I know he or she must have heard me wretching and sobbing here in the bathroom. I'm home. Obviously.
I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I pull myself to my feet. My hair is in a tangle, eyes are red-rimmed. I splash cold water on my face. I don't know why people do that. I don't feel any better. Just cold and wet.
As I shuffle into the other room, the knocking comes again, and then the voice.
"Jordan? Are you there? It's me."
Shit. He knows I'm here. Emails or phone calls, I could have ignored, but he knows I'm here. He's the last person I want to see me like this, but something makes me slide the chain off the lock and open the door.
"Jordan…" His voice is hoarse. "Can I come in?"
I nod and he moves past me inside. He turns and reaches out to touch my face. I brush him away. "I just came from the morgue Jordan, why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you call?"
"Oh, look he's hurt. I didn't call him, so he doesn't get to ride to the rescue. This isn't about you Woody."
"That's not…" He waves his hand in front of him as if he is erasing a blackboard. "That's not what I meant. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said it that way. I just…"
He stops and gives a helpless shrug. There's real pain in his eyes. I don't know why I'm surprised to see it there. We're friends, after all. But it's more than that. More than just a friend's reaction to another friend's bad news, and for a moment, I forget to breathe.
"This is exactly why I didn't tell you, Woody. Because I don't want people treating me like this. It's really not that big a deal. Really."
He cocks his head and looks at me through narrowed-eyes. I look terrible and probably smell of sick. He's not buying it. I don't want him here. I don't want any of his Midwestern gee-whiz platitudes. I want to punch him. I want to break every dish in the house.
"When's the surgery?" he asks.
"Day after tomorrow."
"I can drive you to the hospital if you haven't already made arrangements."
I haven't. I hadn't really thought about it. "No, I don't want to trouble you."
"It's no trouble, Jordan. Really. I want to do this for you. If you'll let me."
It occurs to me that there really isn't anyone else I would want to do it. Not even Garret. I can't really speak, but I nod in return and sink down into the sofa. After a moment, he sits down gently next to me.
"What did the doctor say? What stage are you? Can I ask?"
"Stage IIA," I say, blotting my face on the sleeve of my sweater.
"IIA. That's great, Jordan." His voice sounds suddenly upbeat. "That's around a 90 percent survival rate, right?"
I look at him curiously. How does he know this? He seems to read the puzzlement on my face and looks away.
"I try and keep up with the latest. Because of my mom." Of course. His mother.
"Ninety-two percent," I tell him, and he smiles.
"That's terrific. Really. Really. You're going to make it. You're going to beat this. You are." He seems genuinely pleased, and for a moment, I think he might cry.
"Eight percent don't make it. Your mother. She didn't make it."
"That was almost thirty years ago, Jordan. A lot has changed since then. New treatments, better drugs, earlier detection." His hands reach over for me again, but I don't brush him away this time. He turns my face toward his. "You're going to be okay. You've got to believe that."
His arm slips around me, and I let myself fall against his shoulder. I don't want to be strong anymore. I don't want to do it by myself. I could do it, make no mistake. I single-handedly can take on whatever gets thrown at me. But I don't want to. Not anymore. I don't care what happened in the past with us. There will be time to sort that out. We have time. Plenty of it. I only care that he's here now.
I cry again, as hard and long as my body will let me. I can hear him, whispering to me, his hands stroking my hair.
I'm aware that he is moving me to the bed. He sits me there, slips off my shoes, eases me onto the pillow. I can feel the springs creak under his weight. There is the soft thud of his own shoes onto the floor, and he curls himself around me.
His hand runs down the length of my hair and back again, softly and soothingly.
"Will you stay with me?" I don't mean for an hour or the night. I don't want to know if he will stay until I fall asleep or stay until morning when he will stumble awkwardly home, and we will pretend, like so much of our lives together, that Today never happened. That's not what I mean, but I don't have to say it.
There isn't even a beat before he speaks.
It's the last thing I hear before I drift off.