Lost Keys and Waning Light.
Warnings and Disclaimer: This story deals with terminal illness.
All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. No copyright infringement is intended.
It started with lost keys.
How many thousands of sets of keys are misplaced at any given moment? Absentmindedness. Light-fingered toddlers. The general busyness of life. They're so easy to misplace—despite the baubles we hang from them, the hooks we install, the bowls we set on our benches and sideboards—those rings of metal that unlock every aspect of our lives have a way of disappearing when we need them most.
My Bella was always worse than most when it came to keys—and cell phones, wallets, coins, et cetera—her clever brain too occupied with complex equations to remember where she'd set her things down.
It was a set of lost keys that brought her into my life, and it would be lost keys that would signal her fading from it.
Dark hair blowing in the wind, her face pale in the waning afternoon light—I recognized the girl as one of the tutors in my statistics class.
She couldn't have been much older than me, but she was clearly some kind of mathematical genius, flying through college courses at an amazing rate. I'd never had cause to ask for her assistance, but a thrill shot through me whenever one of my peers beckoned her over to ask her a question.
I loved to listen to her voice as she talked a student through a problem—so gentle and patient, deeper than one would expect from such a slight-framed woman. I'd close my eyes and let her softly spoken words wrap around me. It didn't matter that she was talking about paired t-tests or linear regression or confidence intervals—I could hear the kindness of her soul infused in her jazz-lounge voice.
She was standing in the parking lot, well after classes had finished for the day. I watched as she searched through the bag at her hip, shaking her head. I could see her pretty pink lips vibrating with speech, but the wind stole her words before they reached my ears.
I almost chuckled as she upended her bag all over the hood of her car. Her fingers moving rapidly, she combed through the pile of pens and calculators and lip-gloss she'd created. Her eyes turned skyward, her fingers pushing her wind-tangled hair from her face.
I couldn't help myself when I saw the corners of her mouth turn down, her hands finding her temples and rubbing circles of distress.
She jumped like my voice had grabbed her by the shoulders and shaken. I lifted my hands, waving my well meaning.
"Are you all right?"
Her dark eyes were damp with the tears she was fighting, her voice wavering like the wind. "I've lost my keys again."
We scoured the lecture theatres and tutorial rooms, as well as the office she shared with a few other tutors, eventually locating her car keys in her desk drawer, buried beneath the papers she had spent the afternoon grading. Her house keys turned up in the pocket of the cardigan that she'd left on the passenger seat of her hatchback.
That semester, I helped Isabella locate her keys more than a dozen times—no matter what system she devised to try to keep track of them, they would find a way to thwart her.
A jar on her desk? We'd find them—still in the jar—in the fridge in her office.
A lanyard around her neck? We'd find them swinging on the back of the door in a stall in the ladies' room.
The pocket of her cardigan? We'd find them underneath the chair in the courtyard where she'd eaten her lunch in the sunshine.
We joked that Isabella clearly had some kind of metal deflecting compound flowing through her veins, causing keys—and pens, ID tags, and cell phones—to fling themselves into all sorts of bizarre locations in order to escape her.
It took me months to work up the nerve to ask her out, but a chance presented itself the following semester, once I was no longer a student of statistics—I found a familiar bundle of metal on the cafeteria counter one morning. I left her office with both her gratitude, and a date for the following evening.
Silver streaks her hair now. It started at her temples and twined its way through chestnut and mahogany, fading the rich colors as it went. Like winter spreading across the fertile earth, age and illness are fading my wife. Time hasn't stolen its satin-suppleness though, her hair is still as soft as it was the first time I ran my fingers through it. It still smells like jasmine, too—I still wash it with the same brand of shampoo she's used for the eighteen years I've known her.
Lost keys aren't a problem for my Bella, now. The rigidity in her muscles has stolen her dexterity, she can't slide keys into their locks—or hold a pen, or a knife. She can't play the piano, or even twine her fingers with mine. Her slender fingers, once so delicate and gentle—are clawed and stiff. I hold them still, press the same kisses to them every morning, rubbing them gently to warm them.
On a good day, when her joints aren't quite as stiff, I can bring her palm to my cheek and cup it there, remembering the thousands of times she held me this way, before this disease began to steal her away. And as her cool hand rests against my whiskered cheek, though she can only rarely manage to force her face to wear a smile, I see the gratitude in her deep, dark eyes.
It's in her eyes that I see her—my Bella. She's still with me, she always has been. Even as her body, and her mind, let her down time and again; even as speech became difficult; even as swallowing food became a struggle; even when she couldn't remember what we did yesterday—she always was, always will be, my Bella.
Eating—swallowing—takes muscle control that she no longer possesses. Nutrients are pumped straight into her stomach now, via a tube they poked through her belly.
She can no longer walk, no longer use the bathroom, she can't write, and most days she can't talk. But she's still my Bella.
The nurses know the end is close, so they let me lift her into a wheelchair and take her into the gardens to enjoy the last of the summer sunshine. She won't see this season again.
We sit under the branches of an old tree, its trunk is gnarled but it stands tall and proud. Its branches spread across the sky, a leafy umbrella that dapples the light as it falls down from the sky.
Some of the rays that filter through the leaves land on Bella's hair, bouncing off again with red and silver sparks.
I squat down in front of her, ignoring the ache in my knees. "I love you, Bella."
Her dark eyes tell me she loves me, too.
Moving to the bench beside her, I take her hand and flip open the book I brought with me. I pick up where I left off yesterday, reading until my voice starts to scratch against my throat.
"Anyway Patrick started driving really fast, and just before we got to the tunnel. Sam stood up, and the wind turned her dress into ocean waves. When we hit the tunnel, all the sound got scooped up into a vacuum, and it was replaced by a song on the tape player. A beautiful song called "Landslide." When we got out of the tunnel, Sam screamed this really fun scream, and there it was. Downtown. Lights on buildings and everything that makes you wonder. Sam sat down and started laughing. Patrick started laughing. I started laughing.
And in that moment, I swear we were infinite."
I fold the corner of the page. Set the book down. I hold my wife's fingers like they're the most fragile porcelain.
I give thanks for one more day.
Bella stood in the center of the kitchen, her back to me, her hands at her temples.
I chuckled as I kicked off my shoes. "What have you lost, love?"
The smile died on my lips as she turned to face me. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, wide with panic.
I dropped the stack of textbooks I was carrying, moving to her side, pulling her close.
"What's wrong? Bella? What's going on?"
I took her hands, pulled them away from her temples gently, linked my fingers through hers.
"I think—" She swallowed hard, and shook her head like she was trying to reorganize the thoughts inside it, "—I might have a b-brain tumor or something."
She looked up at me, cringing, like she was expecting me to tell her she was ridiculous. I wanted to tell her she was being silly, but my girl wasn't prone to hypochondria. She rarely complained. Even when she contracted a nasty virus that kept her confined to bed for over a week last year, she didn't fuss.
I spoke slowly. "What … what makes you think … that?"
She sagged against me, perhaps relieved I hadn't dismissed her concerns. My arms wrapped instinctively around her waist.
Reaching behind me, I untucked a chair from under the breakfast table. I sat and pulled Bella onto my lap so she straddled me, so her eyes were level with mine.
My palms against her cheeks, I asked, "What's going on?"
She sighed, her eyes closing as she spoke. "I'm getting worse. My memory, I mean. Not just with little things, like where my keys went this time—though they seem to flee from me even more, now."
The corner of my mouth twitched, she always insisted it was the keys disappearing on her.
"I can't … I couldn't remember where we went yesterday. Like, really. I had to look in my diary. And I remember most of it now. But it says we went to your parents' place, and that, I don't remember."
The level of worry pooling in my belly started rising rapidly, and I swallowed hard, trying to keep it hidden, trying to keep it from overflowing out of me. Bella and my Mom had spent an hour chatting in the kitchen before dinner—that she couldn't remember that … Panic ratcheted inside me.
"It's not just that, either. My hands, they jerk sometimes, my feet, too. They'll like … just kick out for no reason. I'm getting clumsy, I knock over things—like I reach for a glass and my hand doesn't go where I'm telling it to, and my fingers don't close around it, they just push it over."
I told her it was probably nothing, that maybe it was just fatigue and stress as our wedding drew close. I told her that she should have it checked out—just to be sure, to set her mind at ease.
The GP asked a few questions, frowned a lot, and sent her off to a neurologist.
The neurologist asked a bunch more questions, and frowned a whole lot more. He sent her for an MRI and a blood test, unwilling to offer any insight just yet, into what he thought might be going on inside Bella's brain.
They told us they'd call us as soon as they had the results.
"Bella! Come on, love. We're going to be late."
"I'm sorry, I'm coming." Her voice was muffled, distress adding a quaver to it.
I walked back into the bedroom. I couldn't see her, but I could hear her digging through her clothes, the coat hangers sliding with protesting screeches as she pushed them aside.
I flipped the closet light on, and stepped in behind her. She was clad in only her underwear, and a pair of very sexy, cherry-colored high heels. Her hair was shiny and piled on her head, random curls coiling down to her shoulders. So beautiful.
"Which dress are you looking for?"
She paused. "I don't remember." I heard her tears forming.
I took her hand and tugged on it until she turned around. "Don't cry, love. All that time you spent doing your make-up." I pressed a kiss to her forehead.
She gave me half a smile and a sniffle. "The time you spent doing it, you mean. You just don't want me to turn your mad mascara application into panda eyes."
I winked at her—I had developed pretty epic mascara application skills. Though she could usually still manage it herself, she insisted on teaching me, knowing it was only a matter of time before I would need to do all her make-up for her. I tried to argue—I told her she was beautiful without cosmetic assistance. She countered, said this disease would steal enough of her dignity, that she wanted to be able to feel as normal as possible for as long as she could. I couldn't argue with her.
And, truthfully, as much as I hated the disease that necessitated my learning these skills, I did love the intimate moments it created: her perched on the bathroom counter, me between her legs, carefully swiping the brush across the fine hairs that framed the eyes that owned every single beat of my heart.
Keeping my left hand laced with hers, I pulled a dark blue dress from the rack. "This one?"
She frowned, looked at the ground. She shook her head. "No, it doesn't go with my shoes."
I followed her gaze, trying to remember which dress she wore last time I saw her in those shoes. A series of images flashed through my mind—Bella naked but for those shoes. My mouth on her neck. Her hands in my hair. Lemon-colored silk sliding to the floor.
I pushed a few more garments aside, pulling the dress in my memory from the rack. It was still wrapped in the clingy plastic the drycleaner used.
Bella smiled with relief, but I could feel her hand trembling inside mine. "Thank you."
I walked her out on the closet, laid the dress across the bed. Bella reached for it, but I pulled her into me. My other hand moved to her chin, traced her jaw, tucked a curl behind her ear.
"Are you okay, sweetheart?"
She nodded, her eyes filled with a sadness I hated to see. "I'm sorry."
"No, love. You don't need to apologize. Not for this. Never."
She sighed as I pulled the plastic away from her dress and removed it from the hanger. She stepped into it and I slid the zipper up, careful not to let her hair catch in its teeth—I'd done that before, and I felt pretty freaking wretched. Once she was enclosed in the pretty yellow fabric, hair unharmed, I pressed a kiss to her shoulder.
I pressed a kiss to her other shoulder. Already my fingers itched to slide the zipper back down, to run my hands, and my mouth, across every inch of her suntanned skin.
"Anytime." I cleared my throat of the huskiness that had lodged there. "We should go, love. Before I pull that zipper back down and keep you here all night."
She laughed, and everything was good.
She had been wearing the same shade of yellow—sunshine bright—the day, six months earlier, when the neurologist dropped a bomb into our laps and detonated our lives.
I sat in the eye of a hurricane of words that spun my world into chaos. Defective gene. Gradual destruction of neurons. Memory loss. Clumsiness. Involuntary movements. Difficulty swallowing. Impulsiveness. Loss of inhibitions. Difficulty writing. Difficulty walking, talking. Personality changes.
He smiled sadly as he told us her life would be cut short. Ten years, twenty if we were lucky. She wouldn't see forty-five: the earlier the diagnosis, the faster this disease seems to claim its victim. There is no cure—they don't even know how to slow its destructive march.
He saved the blow that would crush her for last.
"There's a fifty-fifty chance any children you have would inherit the gene."
I looked up and caught the terror that contorted my fiancée's face, the panic in her eyes, the tears wet against her cheeks, her lips parted in a gasp that never came—and my own fear fled.
She's my Bella. Nothing would change that.
We were to make that vow in less than a month's time. "In sickness and in health, for better for worse." I'd already made those promises in my head—they would just be tested earlier than we could ever have known.
My hand found hers, squeezed her fingers gently. I love you.
She squeezed back. I know.
No illness or disease, not even death itself could make that come untrue.
Our first date was a beautiful disaster.
The daffodils in my hand were fluttering, their bowed heads swayed on their stems as the nervousness in the bottom of my stomach spread its way into bouncing knees and shaking hands.
I checked my watch again—redundantly. I knew she was even later than she was the last time I looked at it.
The middle-aged woman at the hostess' stand smiled at me, her eyes sympathetic. Poor kid's been stood up. My stomach had bottomed out about ten minutes ago, when Bella's cell sent me through to voicemail for the third time.
I fiddled with my phone, trying not to look at the door every thirty seconds, trying to pretend my pulse didn't race every time I saw a head of dark brown hair walk through the door.
"I'm really sorry, honey." The hostess' voice, hushed with her secondhand embarrassment, startled me. "If she's not here in five minutes, I'm going to have to give your table to someone else."
I swallowed down the lump in my throat. "Yeah, okay." She was forty-five minutes late—they couldn't hold the table indefinitely, I understood that.
Five minutes later, I walked out of the restaurant, the yellow flowers facing the ground. I was debating whether to wait out front, or just head home, when I heard her.
"Edward!" And there she was, all pink cheeks and wild hair, a pair of black stilettos clutched in her hands.
She stopped in front of me, her chest heaving, her eyes wide. "I'm so sorry," she said between gasps. "I got … caught up marking … And then … I couldn't find my keys … And I don't know where I put my cell phone."
And as I looked down at her, her feet red and blistered, her big toe bleeding slightly, sweat beading on her temples, my heart squeezed tight then started to inflate, pushing a smile across my lips. "It's fine, really."
And it was.
We went to a greasy diner, Bella carrying her daffodils and a delighted smile.
"They're my favorite!" she said when I handed them to her. "How did you know?"
I had to admit I didn't. "But the color reminded me of you."
She blushed rose-pink.
Over fries, and burgers that just wouldn't stay together, spilling their contents all over the bench, we laughed and swapped stories until the staff kicked us out, wanting to close the doors and go home to their beds.
My internal pep talk started as we walked out the door, and lasted the entire way back to her car. When she unlocked the door, I steadied myself, pulled her close and kissed her cheek.
When I pulled back, I couldn't read her expression. My stomach twisted, and then she laughed.
"You missed," she said. "You're supposed to put your lips here." She touched her own.
She didn't need to tell me twice.
Against her car I kissed her once, and then again. And then I kissed her until neither of us could breathe, and we pulled away, shaking our heads like people who had spent too long under water.
"Next time," I told her, "I'm picking you up."
Then I kissed her once more.
"Edward. I'm telling you, you'll regret this."
I shook my head. I couldn't have this conversation again. "Mom –"
"So, what? You're going to marry her. And then—what? She lives for ten years and you're a widower before your thirty-fifth birthday?"
"I love her, Mom."
She sighed, taking the seat beside me on her soft leather couch. "I know you love her. But sometimes love isn't enough."
"She's everything." I felt the tears collecting, pooling in the corners of my eyes.
Mom picked up my hand, but I snatched it away. I didn't want her comfort.
"The thing is, Edward. She's not. Sweetheart … I'm begging you, please think about it. I don't want to see you hurting, and there's no way that girl won't break your heart into a million pieces."
My teeth gritted, I refused to meet my mother's eyes.
"Just … for me, Edward. Please, spare yourself the pain. Walk away now. For your sake, for your father's and my sake."
I stood. I had to put some distance between us. I moved to the window, ice in my veins.
"She can't give you children, Edward. They would have a fifty percent chance of inheriting that gene from her." I cringed, not against the truth, but against my mother's inflection—like my fiancée was somehow sub-human—imperfect, and therefore disposable. "It would be reprehensible for the two of you to even consider passing this condition—this disease—on."
"We know that." The words slid from between my teeth. I had to keep them clenched tight for fear I might vomit up my heart.
"So you're giving up everything for her? Independence, financial security, a family, your career—your entire future?"
I turned to face her, her usually kind hazel eyes were as hard and unyielding as steel.
I gave her the only reason I had—the only truth that had kept me afloat in the two weeks since Bella was diagnosed. "She is my future. None of the other stuff matters to me. I love her."
I knew my mother's anger was borne of her desire to protect me, but it didn't make her cruel words hurt any less. "Well, don't plan on any assistance from your father and I. When you have to give up your career to become her full-time nurse, don't ask us for help. When she embarrasses you, when people think your wife is drunk or … or … retarded, don't look to us for understanding. And when you have to shower her, feed her, wipe the drool from her mouth and the shit from her backside, don't look to us for sympathy."
I nodded, curt. My hands fisted in my pockets to stop me punching them through the window.
I slammed the door behind me.
We'd been dating for two months, and I knew I was falling hard and fast. Bella occupied most of my waking thoughts, and most of my sleeping ones, too.
I called her half an hour before I was due to pick her up.
"I'm already ready," she said as soon as the call connected, her voice teasing.
I chuckled. "Excellent."
"I appreciate the call, though," she added. "Thank you."
I heard something in her voice I didn't quite understand. "I don't mind."
"I know," she said, her voice breaking. "That's why I said thank you. Because you don't mind. Because you call to remind me, instead of bitching at me when I'm late. Because you accommodate me, instead of chastising me. Because you don't make it seem like a chore—because you just … because you're just … wonderful."
When the breath returned to my lungs, the first words that came to my mind slipped out of my mouth. "I love you, Bella."
"Come over, now. Please."
I grabbed my shoes and slid into my car. It was only a five-minute drive, but I spent the entire time willing my stomach not to empty its contents all over my lap.
By the time my knuckles met the wood of the door to the apartment Bella shared with her friends Rose and Leah, my mind had spun a hundred different possibilities, each of them ending with Bella slamming the door in my face.
I'm such a flipping idiot. This wasn't how I wanted to give her those words. I wanted to give them to her when she was ready, when I knew she would say them back, in a way that she would remember.
The door swung open. Bella was almost vibrating on the spot, her eyes flashing fierce.
My voice creaked out. "Bella. I'm—I'm –"
My back was against the wall in the hallway in a flash. Though she would easily fit under my chin, Bella was stronger than she looked. Her hands were fisted in my shirt, and I knew she could feel the runaway train that had replaced my heartbeat.
Before I could figure out a single thing to say that would somehow remedy the situation, Bella's mouth was on mine. Her kiss was hard, demanding, and I was drunk on it.
Just before I ran out of air, she pulled back, her chest rising and falling rapidly. "I love you, too."
Bella, thankfully, had the presence of mind to kick the front door shut and flick the lock as we tumbled into the apartment, mouths fused together, hands scrabbling at buttons, groans and grunts punctuating the air.
Somehow, we made it to the couch in her living room.
She shook her head, pressing her hips up against me, only her satin and my cotton separating us. "No."
"Wait," I said, again.
Picking her up, her legs wrapped around my waist, I stumbled us into her bedroom. She giggled as I tossed her onto her comforter. I shut the door, locking it, not caring when she insisted her roommates would not be coming home tonight. I would take no chances on being interrupted.
I peeled her panties down her legs and unclasped her bra, my eyes locked with hers. As beautiful as she was, as addictive as the feel of her naked skin was under my fingertips, as overwhelming as it was to move inside her, it was the shine of love and trust in her deep brown eyes that stole my breath away and pulled tears to the corners of my eyes.
"I love you, Bella."
She let out a shaky laugh-sob, her hands against my cheeks. "I didn't think … I mean, it's even more amazing … being able to see your face when you say it."
Eight months after we were married, I came home to find her sitting at the kitchen table. Her laptop was open, but her fingers were curled around a ballpoint pen.
I kissed her forehead, her nose, her lips. She smiled up at me and my heart took flight.
"What are you doing, love?"
"Making a list."
I moved behind her, looking over her shoulder. Her handwriting, once so neat and precise, had turned loopy and scrawling in the last two months. My fingers curled into her hair, playing with the long curls that tumbled down her back.
"A list of books?"
She nodded, tipping her head back to look up at me. "All the books I want to read."
The words stuck in my throat, but Bella saw them in my eyes.
"It's okay, honey," she said. "I'm okay. No changes. I just wanted to write them down now, while I remember."
I kissed her upside down. "Anything good on that list of yours?"
She kissed me again, then looked back down at her paper. I moved my hands to her neck, my fingers kneading her muscles. "I have about two hundred listed so far."
She was happy about this—proud of herself.
"Everything from all those big books that intimidated me, to children's books I never got to read. Anna Karenina to Charlotte's Web."
I looked down at the list she'd scrawled, noticing the way her handwriting had deteriorated between the first entry, Pride and Prejudice, and number two hundred and seven, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
I had purchased her a program she could dictate notes to, but she wouldn't use it. Not yet, she had said. She insisted that sticking to pen and paper for as long as possible was important to her. I didn't argue.
"Some of these would be on my list, too," I told her.
She looked excited by this. "Yeah?"
I pointed at a few. "Moby Dick. Always wanted to read it, but it's just so freaking long, it scared me away. The Time Traveler's Wife. The idea seemed so cool—but I dunno, I thought it was like a chicks' book. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Kite Runner. Wait—Bella, you've already read the Harry Potter books."
She looked up at me, and paused. My heart stuttered as her smile slipped down.
I was on my knees beside her immediately. "What's wrong?"
Her mouth moved, her hands shook a little. Eventually she got the words out. "I can't—I couldn't wink."
I didn't know what to say. What could I tell her? What could make this okay?
I cupped her face in my hands, brought my lips to her eyelids, kissing one then the other.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
I kissed them once more, left first, then her right—the eye she always winked with. Then I trailed my lips down her cheek, to her mouth, kissing her deeply.
When I pulled away to let her breathe, her smile was back. She's so damn strong, I thought.
"Edward? When … when I can't, will you read them to me? Please?"
My heart thumped harder for a few beats. "Of course. Every single one of them. Even—" I scanned her list, "—even Bridget Jones' Diary. Even Twilight."
She laughed as I scrunched my nose, putting her hands over her heart and grinning goofy at me. "You do love me!"
I picked her up, threw her over my shoulder, grinning as she squealed, her legs kicking wildly. "I can think of a much better way to show you how much I love you."
"You better be taking me to bed."
Two weeks after Bella was diagnosed, I received a strange dinner invitation. My soon-to-be-ex-roommate Jasper, called to invite me to his mother's place for dinner. He said it was important, so I went, feeling kind of weird about it—I'd only met Mrs. Whitlock on a handful of occasions.
As soon as we sat down to eat, she got right to the point.
"Edward, Jasper told me about Bella's diagnosis."
The green beans got stuck halfway down my throat, and I coughed and spluttered until Jasper slammed his hand between my shoulder blades.
"I'm so sorry, dear." Mrs. Whitlock sighed. "I suppose there's no easy way to start a conversation like this."
"It's fine," I muttered. "I was just surprised."
"Has Jasper told you much about his father's illness?"
I frowned, my mind already racing ahead of me—if this was another lecture like my mother's … "He, uh, he passed away when Jasper was a kid, right? Uh, prostate cancer."
Mrs. Whitlock nodded. "Yes, that's right."
She smiled at me. "Thank you, dear. It was a long time ago."
I shoveled some mashed potato into my mouth because I didn't know what else to say.
She looked at me over the top of her glasses, her sharp grey eyes piercing right through me, like she knew what I was expecting her to say. "I'm not going to tell you to walk away from her, Edward."
I swallowed down the food, and took a sip of water. "Did Jasper …" I shook my head. No, he couldn't have, I hadn't told him about my mother.
"The thing is Edward—everyone thinks they'll have forever. But really, none of us do. Every one of us—all of our days are numbered. Most of us just don't know the number. Bella does, though. You know how long you will have with her."
I reminded myself to breath. In. Out. In. Out.
"Sweetheart, I just wanted to tell you to make every day you have with her count."
She sipped her wine, but I suspected she was just giving me time to let her words sink in.
"When Peter was ill, I worked for too long." She sighed, and her face started to crumple in on itself, grief and regret lining her features. "I was in denial about it, you know? Thought if we just kept pretending everything was okay, then it would be. Think positive and all that. I worked right up until he entered palliative care—I put Jasper in daycare, and just … kept on working."
Jasper took his mother's hand, squeezing it gently.
"I told myself I'd quit in time, that we'd have time to take that trip through Europe, that we'd have time to walk on the beach and watch the sunset, that we'd have time to take Jasper to the playground and watch him laugh and play. But I left it too late—and Peter got sicker so much faster than the doctors expected."
She wiped at the tears that were trailing down her cheeks.
"I invited you over, because … Just … Don't make that mistake, Edward. Don't make my mistake. Realize that her days are numbered, and do what you can to make sure that you spend them with her. When she's … when she's gone, you're not going to be wishing that you were more financially secure, or that you lived in a bigger house, or that you drove a nicer car. You'll be wishing you had more days with her, that you saw more of the world with her, that you saw her smile more."
Jasper's hand on my shoulder startled me, the tissue he handed me confused me. And then I felt the sticky tears that had pooled under my chin. I closed my eyes, wiped my face, tried to get myself under control.
Looking back at Mrs. Whitlock, I couldn't force a smile, but the words came right from the center of my heart. "Thank you."
When the flu knocked me on my ass, I insisted Bella go without me to Rosalie's party. It was Rose's thirtieth birthday, after all, and Bella hadn't seen much of her girlfriends in the last few years with all the travelling that we'd been doing.
Leah had come over to help her get dressed and put on some makeup, and given her a lift to the party. I had retreated to bed to nurse a bad headache and an upset stomach.
My cell phone ringing pulled me out of a fevered sleep.
"Edward. You, uh, you need to get here now." Leah.
I sat up, my head spinning. "Is Bella okay? What's going on? "
"She's not hurt, but you need to get here—now."
"Lea –" The line was already dead.
I grabbed the clothes I'd shucked off earlier and threw them on in a hurry, tripping over my jeans as I tried to pull them on and walk towards the front door at the same time. My shirt reeked of sweat and sickness, but I couldn't have cared less, my only concern was getting to my wife as quickly as possible.
The seven-minute drive gave me far too long to worry, far too long to wonder what I would find. I stopped the car in the driveway, not caring whether I had parked someone in, or whether I locked the doors.
Heavy bass beats were throbbing through the house, and the babble and laughter of intoxicated guests spilled out onto the street. Panic lodged in my throat, I jogged across the front lawn as fast as my flu-heavy legs would carry me.
I found her in the living room, surrounded by catcalls and whistles—and panic turned to disgust and burning rage.
My Bella, my wife, was dancing, her hands in the air, her smile huge. Topless. A group of guys surrounded her—some of them shirtless, too—cheering obnoxiously as she swayed and jerked to the music's pulse.
"Edward, I'm sorry. She got upset, tried to push me away when I tried to stop her." I spared Leah only the briefest nod before I was pushing my way through heavy, sweaty bodies.
Bella's smile widened when she saw me, and even as undiluted anger shook me from head to toe, my stomach turned a somersault—only I could make her eyes spark like that, make her lips stretch that wide.
I swallowed down the anger to let the words out. "Bella, honey. What's happening?"
I pulled her close to me, covering her from the greedy eyes of the men who booed and complained. My hands formed fists behind her back.
"I'm dancing," she said, still smiling up at me.
"I can see that. Love, where's your shirt, and your bra?"
She looked down at her bare chest, her forehead creasing. "I don't remember."
I bit down on my tongue, closed my eyes. "Okay."
Leah appeared over her shoulder, and passed me a bathrobe, as well as the clothes Bella was missing. I nodded my thanks, wrapping the robe around Bella, covering her nakedness.
"Bella, love. Why did you take your shirt off? Have you had a lot to drink?"
She shook her head. "No, I don't drink, you know that. We were all going to take our shirts off 'cause it was so hot."
"Really?" My eyes skimmed the dispersing crowd around us. "Whose idea was that?"
"Um, Paul's, I think. No. No, it was Jacob's."
My fists tightened, but I kept my voice gentle—it took a lot of effort. "Can you remember what happened?"
She chewed on her lip, her eyes squinting like she was looking through murky water to find the memory. "We were dancing, and it was hot. And sweaty—gross, huh? And Paul took his shirt off, and Jacob did, too, and he said all the girls should take theirs off, too. Jacob helped me undo it. I couldn't get it off."
Her bra. She could no longer manage the clasp with the stiffness in her fingers and wrists.
I sighed, leaning my forehead against hers, trying to will my frustration away.
When the neurologist told us that inappropriate behaviors were a symptom of the disease, that sometimes the awareness of social conventions waned in the HD sufferer, I never really believed it. The slipping muscle control, the forgetfulness, the depression—those things I could deal with, could understand. But to know my wife—my sweet, shy wife—would no longer be able to feel fear, embarrassment and shame? It just didn't seem possible.
And yet, she was wrapped in a borrowed bathrobe, her breasts bare beneath it.
Bella pulled back, her eyes filled with concern as she studied me.
"Edward? You're crying. Honey, are you okay?"
I nodded, grinding my teeth together for fear I would unleash my anger on her.
"Love, can you go with Leah for me? Get your clothes back on?"
She nodded, her eyes wide. Her hand reached up to cup my cheek. Her little fingers were stiff but her palm was warm. "Did I—I did something wrong, didn't I?"
I placed my hand over hers, pulled it to my lips. "Go with Leah, okay? Get dressed."
"You." My finger was stabbing at Jacob's thick chest the second Bella was out of sight.
"What, dude? What's your problem? Your hot little wife is a slut. Leave me the fuck alone, and go get up in her face."
My fist connected with his jaw, fire shooting through my knuckles on impact.
Hands tugged at me, tangled my fists behind my back. "Edward, come on, man."
Jasper. I sagged against him, the fight draining from me, replaced by exhaustion and a hollow sadness.
Bella and Leah came back out of the bathroom, and I shrugged Jasper off, needing to have my wife in my arms.
"I love you," I told her. Through the anger, the frustration, the deep hurt at seeing a new symptom manifest—this was always true. She was my Bella, and I loved her.
"I love you, too." Her eyes searched mine. "I did something to upset you, didn't I?"
I took her hand and walked us into the empty kitchen. "Bella, listen to me, okay? This is important."
She nodded. "Okay."
"Love, you can't take your clothes off. Not in public, all right? At home, it's fine. When you're alone, or when it's just me, it's fine—it's great, fantastic, even. But not anywhere else, okay?"
I watched her struggle with the idea. Watched her put what I was saying together with what I wasn't saying. I saw it come together, saw her face crumple and tears start to pool.
I tucked her close, weaving us through the crowd. I could feel her sobs against my chest as we ducked out the door. I helped her into the car, watching sadly as she fumbled with the seatbelt buckle. I leaned across and clasped it for her.
"I hate it," she said as I stopped the car outside our home. "I hate it so fucking much. This disease. It's stealing me. Stealing who I am."
I hate not being able to stop it from stealing you, I thought.
When Bella drifted off to sleep, I crept down into the basement and unleashed my fury on the punching bag her dad and I had hung down there. We had known these days would come.
The day I took my first teaching job—teaching Math and Physics in a local high school—was the day I started planning how I would propose to Bella.
We'd been dating for just over two years, and I didn't want to wait any longer.
I must have come up with a hundred different ideas, only to discard each of them just as quickly. I wanted to come up with something that conveyed just how much I loved her, just how delighted I would be to call her my wife, to have her know how excited I was to bind our lives together, officially.
It hadn't taken me long to find a ring. I knew exactly what I was looking for—something unusual, unique and bright. The yellow sapphire set on diamond-studded twists of white gold was perfect for Bella.
The day I picked it up, Bella and I were supposed to go see a movie. I planned on dropping the ring off at home, showering, then heading to pick her up. On my way, I called her to give her the usual half-hour reminder.
"I'm already ready, Edward," she told me, her voice adorned with giggles.
All my careful plans flew right out the rolled down window by my elbow, and I quickly made a right turn, heading towards her apartment, rather than my own.
"Will you marry me, Bella?"
Silence. My heart sped, just like it had two years ago. This time though, my stomach tumble-turned with anticipation, not fear.
"Edward—" She let out this funny laugh-sob, "—stop doing this. Stop being amazing when I can't see your face."
It delighted me that she didn't question me, didn't ask if I was serious.
I pulled on the handbrake and jumped out of the car.
"Is that a yes?" I teased.
"Of course, it's a yes." The words came out cracked. "Yes. Edward. Yes, I want to marry you. But this isn't fair. You can't –"
My knuckles found her front door.
It swung open and I found myself against the hallway wall once again, Bella's lips hard and hungry against mine. When she finally pulled away, gasping, I grabbed her hand and tugged her into the apartment, my other hand trying to extract the little box from my pocket.
I dropped to my knees, smiling as Bella shook her head at me.
Wordlessly, I opened the little box and took her hand. She smiled through red eyes and salty-wet cheeks—I didn't think she could ever be more beautiful than she was in that moment.
"I love you," I told her, as I slipped the daffodil-yellow stone onto her finger. "I'll always love you."
She dropped to her knees, not even glancing at the ring—her eyes didn't leave mine. "I'll always love you, too."
Clothes were peeled away, skin exposed to match our bared hearts.
We made love on the floor of her living room, giggling and awkward, a cushion tucked under Bella's head, the carpet burning my knees. The ecstasy pulsing through us crested to its high and we came apart in each other's arms. Something shifted in that moment, for when, sleepy-sated, we drifted back to earth, the pieces had been put back together in a new way, reconstructing us—no longer two but one.
On Bella's 27th birthday, her parents pulled me outside while Bella giggled with Leah and Rosalie over a slice of chocolate cake.
"What's going on?"
Charlie sighed, his hands stuffed in his pockets. "We, uh … we wanted to talk to you about something."
"Is everything okay? Bella –"
Renée rolled her eyes at me. "Edward, dear. Do you really think we'd know something before you, when it's related to Bella?"
I frowned. "I'm sorry. I, uh –"
She reached out, squeezed my elbow. "Don't be silly. I wasn't criticizing. I just meant that you care for her so deeply, you watch her so closely. You love her so well."
"Son, you probably notice the changes in her before she does," Charlie added.
"I, uh –" My hand went to the back of my neck, kneading at the tight muscles there.
"Listen, son. We wanted to talk to you about money."
I looked at him blankly.
"Both Ren and I have inheritances our parents left us when they passed away. It's, well, it's a sizeable amount of money." He squinted down at his toes, his boot kicked at the grass. "We used some of it to pay off our mortgage a few years ago, but the rest of it, well, we've had it invested in a bunch of things. And it's done well."
I didn't say anything—I couldn't begin to comprehend why he was telling me this.
"Sweetie, we want to give it all to you and Bella," Renée interjected.
I shook my head. "No, no, no. You can't. You guys need that, you know, when you retire and stuff. We couldn't—we can't … Bella wouldn't –"
Charlie looked at Renée, his eyebrow raised as if to say I told you so.
"Edward," he said. "Just take the money, please. Take it, and take her to see the world. Quit your job. Use this money so you don't have to work. Go travelling, have fun. And do it now while she's still mostly healthy. Do everything you can—everything she wants to do—in the time you've got left."
How could I say no to that? How could I say no to being able to do what I had longed to—to give Bella the world, every experience she could dream of?
There were no words I could say to convey my gratitude. As I hugged them, as my tears soaked through their shirts, I think they understood.
Bella found me half an hour later, sitting cross-legged in the grass.
"Baby, are you okay?" She sat down beside me, her hand reaching for mine.
I told her about her parents' gift. She crawled into my lap and we cried together.
"Mr. Cullen, you do know there are options available to you? You could move Isabella into a nursing home. That might be easier on you. You could visit her—well, as often as you wanted—but there are highly trained carers who can provide her with exemplary, around the clock care. Perhaps, for your own health, for your own well-being, this might be something you want to consider."
I looked at my hands. "No."
"Mr. Cullen, please know I'm not suggesting that you're not doing a good enough job at caring for her. This isn't a criticism, or a reflection on the care you've been providing for her. I just want you to know that there is help available to you—you don't have to do this alone."
"I'm not alone," I tell him. "Bella's parents are huge help, so are Bella's girlfriends. And my friends … I have good friends who are very supportive."
The doctor regarded me over the top of his glasses, his thin lips pursed, his hands clasped under his chin. "And that is excellent. You're very lucky. Many full-time carers don't have that support system."
"I'm not her carer," I told him, my spine pressed straight against the chair back, trying to put as much distance as I could between myself and his words. "I'm her husband. She is my wife, not my patient. I look after her, not because I think it's a duty or an obligation I have—I care for her because I love her."
He sighed, shaking his head. He set his palms flat against his desk.
"Mr. Cullen –"
"Can you just call me Edward?" My tone was probably sharper than it needed to be. I didn't care.
"Edward. I'm going to be frank with you. The fact is, Isabella was diagnosed eleven years ago now. You know that the younger the age of HD onset, the more quickly it progresses. You know that you can expect her to start deteriorating rapidly—and soon. Walking is becoming a problem for her, as her feet and ankles become more rigid. She can no longer use her hands, and because of that, she won't be able to use a walking frame. She will need a wheelchair—probably within six months."
I nodded, he wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know, or hadn't already guessed.
"Before long, she may well lose the ability to speak. She also won't be able to swallow. She will need to be fed via a tube. She will need more care than you can give her."
"I know. We've talked about it." My fingers tugged the cuffs of my sweater down, hiding my hands inside them. "Look, Dr. Denali, if you think I'm not aware of exactly how difficult life is going to become for Bella, you're mistaken. I'm not in denial about that. I know this illness will take her life—we know this. And we know she's already exceeded the time the doctors thought we'd have when she was first diagnosed. We're … well, we're as prepared as we possibly can be."
I paused to swallow down the lump in my throat, my sleeve-covered hand rubbing at my chest.
"They said ten years, twenty if we were lucky. We knew that was unlikely though, because Bella was diagnosed so young. We know she's living on borrowed time. But while she's still reasonably healthy, while I can take care of her—I will. I know there will come a point where she needs to be hospitalized—she knows it, too. Until then, though—until a feeding tube is necessary, or, or … in the event she gets sick, like an infection or something … I mean … She wants to stay at home for as long as possible, and I will do everything I can to ensure that happens."
Two days after Bella and I came home from our honeymoon, Charlie and Renée came over for lunch. Bella made these delicious Italian pastry things—calzones, I think they were called. We drank Chianti, showed them all the photos we took in Hawaii, and by unspoken agreement, didn't talk about the time bomb lodged in her genes.
After dessert, Charlie asked me to take a drive with him. I looked at Bella, who shrugged and flapped her hands at us. "Go!"
When we pulled up at the shooting range, I was confused.
"This, well … this is how I clear my head," he said, his hands still on the steering wheel. "I don't know if it will work for you, but I thought, maybe you might need to unleash some anger."
He nodded, dark eyes fathomless. "Yes. Anger. Come on, then."
Firing a gun didn't make me feel any better. It actually kind of made me feel worse. I didn't want to be angry with a weapon in my hands. It felt wrong.
"That's fine." Charlie nodded his understanding when I explained my hesitation to him. "It probably doesn't help everyone."
I was startled to see the tears in his eyes when he finished up and lead me back outside.
"Renée and I got tested. For Huntington's." He added, like I might not know what he was referring to. "It-it's me. I'm carrying the gene."
"I'm sixty-five, Edward. It's only a matter of time. Hell, it's well past my time."
I nodded. I knew full well that most people showed the first symptoms between the ages of thirty and fifty. "That's … well, that's good, right?"
He shrugged, like he didn't know, didn't care.
"My parents were killed in their late forties. One of them carried it, too. This gene. Died before they had a chance to develop any symptoms. I had no … I had no idea. And it's … it's not fucking fair." His voice rose, startling me. I'd never heard Charlie Swan curse, never heard him yell. "It should be me."
His voice was cracking like dry earth. "It should be me, son. I should be sick. I'm old, my body's on the way out anyway. It's not … it's not fair. Why her? Why my baby girl?"
I had no answer. I watched the tears roll down his strong face, watched the strongest man I ever knew break down and weep for the defective gene his body had bequeathed to his daughter.
"I got this fifteen fucking years of extra time—maybe I'll get more. There's no evidence of chorea, my memory's good … But Bella, Bella got it too fucking early and it's stealing her life and it's just—it's just not fair."
I wiped my face, unsurprised that I was crying, too. "You know sh-she'd never look at it that way."
He shook his head, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "Of course she wouldn't. She's Bella. She'd … she'd probably say that she was glad it was her and not me."
I nodded. "She would. She'd rather suffer herself than watch anyone she loves suffer."
Putting that into words, articulating what we both knew about Bella, her selflessness, her compassion—the fact she accepted her diagnosis without complaining—I could feel the anger start to collect in my belly, burning like acid.
Oh, she wept. She wept for the future she was losing, the children she would never have, the old age we would never share, the body that would fail on her, the mind that would let her down. She wept for the people she would leave behind. I held her through the nights when she sobbed until my shirt was sticky-wet and her eyes were swollen and red.
But not once—not once—did she ask, why me?
But I was sure as fuck asking it. Why Bella? Why her?
I knew there was no answer, no explanation, and that made me even angrier. My head became a dizzy place full of silent screams and too-loud pain.
I was bewildered and hurting when Charlie's arms contained me like a vice, his deep voice trying to soothe. My hands stung, my knuckles ached. I looked at them, saw the redness dripping from deep scratches. Saw my blood graffitying the tree beside his car.
Charlie held me tight, my bloody hands fisted in the back of his plaid shirt, his hand thumping hard on my back like he was reminding my heart to keep beating.
I don't know how long we stood like that, grieving, coming to terms—again—with Bella's illness.
"We should get home," I muttered over his shoulder. I needed to hold Bella.
When he stopped his car at a mall, I frowned. He hated shopping malls more than I did.
He cleared his throat. "I reckon we might get you a punching bag. We'll hang it in your basement."
No measure of time with Bella would ever have been enough—I could never have had my fill of her, even if I could have had all of eternity with her.
But our time together was limited, the sands were trickling steadily from the hourglass of Bella's life, and knowing this, every touch, every kiss, every time we made love was something I treasured. Every single day I had with her was a blessing that I would not take for granted.
The last time we made love, we knew it would be the last. I was thankful for that—thankful I would never have to curse myself for missed opportunities, to long for one more time to show my wife, with my body, just how deeply I loved her.
I resisted at first, when she asked me to make love to her. Her arms and legs had stiffened so much—she could no longer walk, could no longer embrace me.
"Love, are you sure?"
Tears slipped down her face. "It's okay, if you … if you don't want me … like that, anymore," she whispered. Her speech had started to slur as her body continued to attack her neurons. "I understand. I know I'm not –"
"Bella, I want you." I kissed her hand, her forehead, her mouth. "I love you. I'll always want you. I'm just …"
I shook my head, my hands moving roughly through my hair. "I'm scared, love. I'm scared of hurting you."
"You won't. Please, Edward, please."
How could I say no? How could I deny her this?
Wordlessly, I lifted her carefully from the armchair, trying not to notice how feather-light she was.
In our bedroom, I set her on the mattress carefully. My kisses were gentle, mindful of the difficulty she had in responding to my lips on hers.
My eyes never left hers as I undressed her. My fingers caressing every inch of her skin as it was bared to me.
I made love to her slowly, our bodies dancing their last farewell.
We didn't weep as pleasure washed over us, or as I carefully rolled us to cradle her head against my chest.
My fingers trailed through her hair, my other hand stroking slow circles across her back.
"I love you," she mumbled, her eyes heavy as she drew closer to sleep.
"I love you, too."
While she slept, the punching bag swayed heavy under my fists, until sweat and tears mingled on my skin, until I sank to my knees and shook under the crushing weight of grief—again.
Mercifully, Bella's last days are not drawn out.
She is hospitalized when even liquids became impossible for her to swallow.
The nurses claim she doesn't complain because she can no longer form the words. I know better. My Bella doesn't complain because she truly believes she has nothing to complain about—her time may have been short, but her days have been rich and full.
When she contracts pneumonia, they tell me there is no time left, the last few grains of sand have been swept away. Her heart won't be able to continue its steady march much longer.
I spend every moment by her side, reading to her, stroking her hair, whispering words of love. I want her to leave this world knowing just how loved she is, just how beautiful she is, just how much I have cherished every single moment with her.
We sit outside under the old, strong tree; reading, being, loving.
My father comes to visit a few days before Bella passes. He wants to apologize, tell me how much he regrets not standing up to my mother. I tell him to leave. Maybe I'll fix things up with him eventually, but it can wait. Bella is all that matters to me—treasuring the last time I will read to her, that last time I will wash her hair, the last time she speaks.
A couple of days later, her parents come to say their last goodbye. Charlie's hands shake a little. He's nearly eighty, his Huntington's gene has only started making its presence known in the last two years. He uses a walking frame, his hands are still dexterous enough to grip it. To anyone else, he just looks old.
They kiss Bella, talk to her about the things they've been doing, hold her hands, stroke her hair from her face.
And then they leave—gifting us with privacy, gifting me with her last few hours.
Her eyes flutter open, and there she is. My love. My Bella.
"I love you," I tell her, my thumb stroking the back of her hand.
I see it written in the depths of her eyes, I love you, too.
She gives me one last gift. Her lips tremble. The effort is enormous. "I … love … you … too."
I climb into bed beside her, and I hold her close until we fall asleep. I know I will wake up without her.
We sat on the edge of some cliffs—back far enough to keep us safe—looking out over the ocean.
The sea pounded below, hurling itself against the rocks below, grey-green waves exploding into plumes of white spray.
I tightened my arm around Bella, pressed a kiss to her neck. I took her hand, rubbing gently, feeling the stiffness that had moved past her wrists. Her head jerked occasionally, the chorea a reminder of the sword poised above us. I ignored it.
I focused on the soft skin of her wrists, the sparks in her deep brown eyes, the jasmine-smell of her shampoo, the way the wind swirled her hair around me, tangling me in its curling fingers.
"I love you so much," she said. And then those fingers were tangling around my heart.
"I love you, too."
"This could be the top of the world," she said. "I mean, I know it's not. I know it's like, just a little hill compared to the biggest mountains. But it could be."
"Uh, okay." I tilted my head, bemused, but enjoying her happiness.
She giggled at my confusion. "I just mean, like, right now. This feeling. I could be right up at the top. Right on top of the world."
She snuggled against my side. Real. Alive. Shivering but somehow warm.
Me, too, I thought. Me, too.
A/N: I need to say a huge thank you to everyone who voted in the Season of Our Discontent Anonymous Angst contest. Unbelievably, this story placed second in the public voting, and was also Tkegl and Feisty Y. Beden's judge's pick. I'm completely blown away.
Of course, the hugest of thanks go to BelieveItOrNot, who spends so much time helping me improve my writing. Thanks, bb.
Also, you should go read her entries, The Inside Garden and Missing Pieces. The Inside Garden won the Judges' Vote, and is breath-stealing-away brilliant.