Racing toward the next neighborhood, my feet carried me with a grace and speed I didn't recognize. Normally, I'd already have tripped and skinned my knees on the uneven ground, loose dirt and tree roots, but sheer need and determination kept me nimble and upright. Unscathed, I arrived at the address I wished I didn't know so well.
I caught my breath before ascending the steps to the front door. Though I meant to knock on the door, adrenaline led me to pound instead. The portly senior who owned the house pulled open his door to answer the interruption of his evening. When he saw me, his face fell, erasing the smile that was there a moment before. He moved to speak, but I cut him off before he could begin.
"Dr. Gerandy, please...you have to come over—he can't breathe." I could barely breathe myself as I begged the doctor to attend to my dying father. I had run from my house to the good doctor's, hoping he would make a house call on a Sunday.
He ran a hand through his thick, white wavy hair, sighing as he asked. "Is it that time?" I couldn't say the words out loud, instead giving him a quick nod. "Of course, Bella—let me retrieve my bag and I'll drive us to your house." I stood in the doorway wringing my hands impatiently while I waited; not wanting to leave my father alone if he didn't have much time left.
Mrs. Gerandy came to me, taking my hands into her own worn palms. "Bella, I'm so sorry. If you need anything, please make sure to come see me."
"Yes, Mrs. Gerandy, I will." When her husband reemerged, I gently pulled my hands from hers and walked down the steps of the porch.
Turning my head back to the house, I watched the doctor give his wife a kiss. I stood in the walkway to wait for him. When he approached me, he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and guided me toward the well-kept whippet sedan parked on the street. He opened the passenger door for me before walking around to situate himself in the driver's side. We made the short trip in silence, Dr. Gerandy concentrating on the street, me tugging at the strings on the frayed sleeve of my cotton blouse.
I knew Father was beyond saving; he was set to die, and though I had come to terms with the loss of him, but I couldn't stand the horrific pain he was in. He wouldn't let on how much he suffered, I could see it in his eyes and in the way his frail body shook with every cough. His body was so pale it was almost translucent and he seemed to waste away more with every droplet of sweat. I hoped the doctor understood what I needed him to do. Charlie needed peace.
Dad's illness had taken hold of him three months ago. It began with a persistent cough that turned to unending fever and severe weakness, eventually leaving him bedridden. I had cared for him throughout the entire ordeal, watching this tall, muscular man who raised me wither away into a shell of his former self. Now, his body was consuming him, attacking him from the inside out. His breath came in the faintest of whispers, even the slightest movements causing him to wince in pain.
Through it all, he still asked if I was eating enough, if any boys had caught my eye and if there was anything I needed. I wasn't eating enough—I couldn't—but told him that I was. There weren't any boys, and Dad just said no one would be good enough, anyway. What I needed was for him to get better, but as time wore on, I knew that hope was fruitless.
Soon I would be alone, I thought.
The doctor parked in front of our modest house. I flew from the car, not having the patience to wait for the him to display his manners by opening my door. He followed closely behind me as I hurried into the house, making for the back bedroom my father occupied. Before entering the room, we each donned one of the paper masks that hung limply from a simple nail on the hallway wall.
"Hey Dad," I spoke through the mask, "I brought the doctor to see you." It took all my willpower to hold back the tears that threatened to escape. My father could barely open his eyes to look at me, let alone turn his head in my direction, but he still made the attempt. Seeing that broke my heart even more.
"Bells," he croaked, "you didn't need to bother the doctor." He braced himself for the impending cough that would punish him for daring to speak. Fortunately, the thick, wet fit was short.
"Dad." I sat down in the stool next to his bed, took his hand in mine and laid my other hand on his unshaven, sweaty cheek. "Please don't waste your energy—Dr. Gerandy is here to assess your needs."
"Bella, how about you get your dad a fresh glass of water," the doctor spoke up.
"Okay, I'll be right back."
The doctor took my place in the stool and began to check Charlie's vital signs as I left the room.
I walked to the kitchen and gripped the counters for support and focused on the air that moved in and out of my lungs with ease. It wasn't right; my dad should be inhaling and exhaling with the same lack of difficulty as we ate Sunday dinner together. Instead the most selfless man I knew was suffering terribly. I tried to mentally prepare myself, knowing this night would be both the shortest and longest of my life.
Tonight I would lose my father.
Several minutes later the doctor walked into the kitchen. He took off his mask and started to explain my father's situation. "Bella... he is in an immense amount of pain. The gurgling noise in his voice and breath is his lungs filled with fluid and blood."
The corners of my eyes were wet and my face tightened as I listened. "Is there anything I can do?" I knew there wasn't, but I still had to ask.
"Bella, he won't make it through the night. The morphine should kick in soon. He won't be suffering much longer—I suggest you say your goodbyes now."
I nodded my head and rubbed the heel of my hand against my cheek to wipe away the escaped tears.
"I'll return in the morning to take care of the arrangements. I'm very sorry; your father is a good man."
"Thank you for everything." I whispered, the lump in my throat making it painful to speak, then walked him to the front door.
Shutting the heavy wooden door, I leaned against it to try to calm myself. I couldn't go back into that room with tears on my face. I needed to display strength and courage; I needed my dad to know I would be okay, that he could go in peace, without worry. I knew he'd held on this long—suffering—just for me. When I was calm again, I went back to the kitchen to retrieve the glass of water I had originally gone to get.
I straightened my back and held my chin up as I reentered the room, taking my place at my father's side. I thought he might already be asleep, but instead he turned his head toward me with half-open eyes.
"Dad, you should be sleeping." I said, proud that I kept my voice from trembling.
"Bella," he was barely audible, "I'm so sorry."
"This isn't your fault, Daddy—please don't apologize."
"You're a good girl and I have always loved you, even before you were born. No matter what anyone says, you are my little girl, always." With that, a tear slipped down his cheek and mingled with the perspiration. If he cried, I couldn't hold it together, so I rushed to reassure him.
"Of course I am, Dad, always. No daughter could have asked for a better father." I lay my head down on his shoulder, crying silently as I listened to his shallow breathing as he fell asleep.
The air was too thick, and after several minutes passed, I had to leave the room. I stood outside his doorway, watching the slow rise and fall of his chest. Eventually, I slumped down against the wall and cried myself to sleep on the hallway floor.
My father died in his sleep that night. Dr. Gerandy held true to his word, arriving the next morning with an ambulance to take care of my father's remains. Charlie had already made most of the arrangements, leaving me little to do but grieve for him.
Only a few days later, I found myself standing in front of my father's casket, surrounded by off-duty cops, the doctor, his wife and my friend Michael. Though I was there to watch my father be buried and to accept the condolences of the men he'd worked with, I couldn't focus on anything but the incongruity in front of me. The cemetery held so much death, yet teemed with life. The grass was green and lush; the birds flitted about and chittered away in the trees, and the squirrels scurried by, their cheeks fat with seed. Eventually, the guests nodded their goodbyes, except Michael, who stayed by my side.
When the gravediggers began to work, I couldn't ignore the scene in front of me any longer. It was time to leave.
"Thank you for coming, Michael—it meant a lot to me." He was sweet, and always a good friend who never treated me as the employee I was.
Michael's dad owned Newton's Diner on Lake Avenue. It was one of the few eating establishments that had been relatively unaffected by the economic downturn. I worked as a waitress to make some money before I started at City College. When I turned eighteen, I'd insisted on finding a job, much to my father's chagrin. He had been good friends with Mr. Newton and arranged the part-time job and regular shifts I enjoyed.
Michael also worked at the diner during the summer and other short breaks from USC. We went out on a few dates before he left for college. I liked him, but wasn't in love, so my heart wasn't broken when he told me he had met a girl, Jessica, and fell for her. I was a bit hurt, but was glad we had remained friends.
Michael reached for my hand. I knew he was trying to offer comfort, but it only felt awkward. "I'll give you a ride home."
"I'd prefer to walk."
"Walk?" he scoffed. "That will take hours."
"I know—I just need to clear my head, I don't want to go home just yet."
"Are you sure?"
"I am, but I'll see you tomorrow."
"We aren't expecting you back until Monday."
"No." I shook my head. "No, I need to get back to normal; I can't sit in that empty house."
"We hired a new girl to replace me when I head back to school," he said. "She was glad to take the extra shifts for you. She started the other day, real nice although a bit quirky, buzzed around the diner like a bee."
"All right, I guess I could use the extra days off to take care of some household issues. Please tell her I said thank you and that I look forward to meeting her."
I walked with Michael to his parked car, giving his hand one last squeeze in silent thanks.
"Are you sure you don't want a ride?"
"I'll be fine."
I watched him drive away and fade into the distance before I started my journey back to Pasadena. Michael was correct; the walk from Glendale would take hours.
I wanted to use the time to focus on my path both, figuratively and literally. Dad had fallen ill during my last month of high school. He was proud of my educational accomplishments and supported my desire to continue my education, making sure I registered for college and insisting on paying my first-semester fees. He knew I would worry about finances and focus on work instead. If I didn't continue with school, he would have been terribly upset. I wasn't looking for a husband; I wanted to pursue my life's work in the peaceful setting of a library, not in the hustle and bustle of a diner.
As much as I tried to remember that I was young and had a long future ahead of me, I couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling of loneliness. My mother left a few years back; I was an only child and I didn't have any close friends.
Thinking of my mother reminded me that I needed to write and inform her of Charlie's fate. I didn't know if a simple letter was in order, or if I should explain to her in detail about his suffering and pain–how he called for her in his sleep, how I could have used someone to lean on.
Maybe I could travel to Arizona and face her instead, to throw in her face that she'd broken his heart and every one of her vows to him, that she'd broken the unspoken promise a parent makes to their child not to abandon them. I knew myself, though; I would rein it in and be kind. I wouldn't let her know how hurt and wronged I felt. A plain, straightforward letter was in order.
Almost three hours had gone by and my feet ached. I should have taken the direct route down Holly Street, but instead I found myself detouring to the Colorado Street Bridge. Halfway across the curved piece of architecture, I looked down into the Arroyo Seco. Charlie wasn't the only one who lost his soul that night; I'd felt hollow ever since I woke in the hallway the next morning. I didn't know how I would ever recover.
I leaned over the concrete railing, wondering how many people found solace in the depths below. There wasn't a month that went by without a report in The Tribune of a body recovered under the aptly nicknamed "Suicide Bridge." Had those people felt as lost and lonely as I did? I stood next to one of the lamps that lined the road and stared down, peering through the trees as cars stuttered past. Would the impact hurt? Would I die the instant I hit the stones that lined the cavern? The same smooth, oval stones that I would crash down on also decorated the columns on the sleeper porch of my house; Charlie had quarried them himself. He would be so disappointed in me if I gave up.
Death was peaceful, easy; living was harder. My father had struggled to stay alive for me; I couldn't bring myself to let him down. I had to live, for him.
I made it across he bridge and went home.
A/N Thank you to my editor wickedcicada. She has guided me, encouraged me and has become a wonderful friend. Thank you for everything.