Her brother, on the other hand, looked bigger and more vital. Gareth had nearly shaved off his hair, and his throat, shoulders, and chest had swollen up, the breadth of him not only so much greater than she recalled, but so much greater than his clothes could handle. His Michigan sweatshirt was stretching at the seams, and his jeans, though loose at his waist, seemed to be having trouble with the girth of his thighs and then his calves.
He had obviously been angry and had taken his emotions out in the gym. And he was obviously still angry. As he stared down at the female in the bed, his eyes were narrowed, his brows tight. The expression seemed like a permanent part of him, something he had been born with—except she knew that not to be true. He had been happy when she had known him. The life of the party. An older brother who had acted like a younger one.
Now… he was fully adult. There was no sign of the bluster and the fun to him, and as she replayed that voice mail he’d left for her in her head, she had a feeling this was not just because of the dire situation with their mahmen here in this hospital.
She had done this to him. She had done this… to all of them.
Staring through the glass, she felt a sinking feeling in her gut. The true depths of one’s selfishness could not be assessed properly in the heat of the moment. Lost to emotion, to anger and retribution, you could be blinded to the effect you were having on those around you.
It was only from a distance, after a separation and recalibration, that you could see what you had done—and she knew that her absence had changed them, perhaps irrevocably.
And in the saddest of ways, it was proof of the very thing she had questioned, the very thing she had rejected so harshly.
They loved her. And they had mourned their loss.
As the conviction struck Therese, both father and son jerked to attention… and looked over at her.
Therese couldn’t breathe as she put her hand on the lever to open the glass door to the room. She hesitated because she wasn’t sure whether she would be told to go. Whether her brother would throw her out of the ICU as a whole. Whether her father would shun her.
But when neither of them moved, as if her presence was the last thing they had expected, she pushed her way into the—
The scents were the same. Dearest Virgin Scribe… their scents were the same. Beneath the acrid sting of bleach and antiseptic wash, she scented them all, even her mahmen.
As she entered, her father shot to his feet, his chair squeaking on the floor. “Therese…?”
“Dad,” she whispered as her eyes filled with fresh tears.
She didn’t know who moved first. She just knew that between one heartbeat and the next, she was hugging her father and shaking and crying.
“Oh, you came,” he said roughly. “Thank God, you’re here. I think she’s been waiting for you before she…”
Therese pulled back. “What happened? What’s going on with her?”
In the corner of her eye, she noted that her brother had stayed seated—and obviously had no intention of going vertical anytime soon. He was leaning back in the hard chair, his arms crossed over his chest and his jaw rigid, like he was gritting his molars.
“It’s the myopathy,” her father said. “Her heart muscle is just not strong—”
Gareth cut in without looking over. “And stress is so great for her condition—”
“Gareth,” her father interrupted. “Now is not the time.”
“You got that right. She’s too fucking late.”
Gareth got up and strode out before anyone could say anything else. And as the door eased shut behind him, her father closed his eyes.
“Let’s just focus on your being here, yes?” he said in his Old Country accent.
“Yes,” Therese agreed. “There’s time to talk… later.”
Approaching the bed, she had to cover her mouth again to keep her emotions in check. Guilt sickened her stomach, freezing that Raisin Bran she’d eaten in its tracks, and before her legs gave up on their job, she sat down in the plastic chair her brother had been warming. Reaching out, she took her mahmen’s hand, and she was horrified at the bones: Beneath the paper-thin skin, there was no cushion in the anatomy at all. It was as if she were holding on to a skeleton.
“Mah-mah,” she whispered. “I’m here. I’m so sorry… I should have…”
There was no response, of course. Then again, the female was intubated, a machine breathing for her.
“When did this all happen?” Therese asked. Even though she could guess.
Probably right around the first time her brother had left her a message. So about a week after she had left.
Her father sat back down. “Her condition has been a challenge for… a little while.”
“After I left, right.” She glanced up at her father. “You can say it. You can be honest.”
“She was upset. It’s true.”
“I am so sorry.”
“You’re here now. That’s what I really care about.”
“I put her here—”
As Therese started to get emotional again, her father shook his head. “No, you did not. We’ve known all along that at some point she would transition into an acute period. It’s the way her kind of heart disease works. This has been inevitable since she contracted that virus back in the seventies.”
“I didn’t help. I should have handled… everything… better.”
“Well, none of us helped, either.” He rubbed his face. “I don’t want to go into it now, but… we all should have handled everything differently. Starting a long time ago.”
While her father fell silent, Therese refocused on her mahmen’s frail face, the closed eyes, the veins that were showing under the skin. As she considered her righteous anger, she saw a truth that, like her selfishness, she had been blinded to.
She’d thought she had endless time with them. In spite of the fact that she had known about her mahmen’s heart condition and the reason why her parents were moving somewhere warmer, she had never considered the possibility that she wouldn’t be able to talk to her mahmen again. Never, not once. And as a result of there being an infinite opportunity to fix things, she had been totally inclined to let the situation fester.
Which was ridiculous.
Yet there had been no pressure to fix the rift. No super ordinal to wipe away the hurt and betrayal to reveal the love underneath. She had assumed she could dwell forever in the state of separation that she had created, justified in her hurt and anger—and in doing so, she had squandered a gift she hadn’t realized she’d been given.
And now, as she sat at the bedside of her dying mahmen, the anger she had felt toward her parents and her brother was transmuted… and placed upon herself.
“I am so sorry,” she said as she looked at her mahmen’s hollow face.
“You’re here now,” her father repeated for the third time. “That is all that matters.”
Okay, that was so untrue.
She had learned her lesson, however. There was still time to make amends.
It would be an imperfect attempt, however, as who knew whether her mahmen could hear.
Oh, and then there was Gareth. She wasn’t sure how much she had to work with when it came to him.
No, that was a lie.
Given where he was at, she had less than nothing to go on with her brother.
* * *
Sitting in the waiting room, Trez hit up Xhex’s cell and put his phone to his ear. One ringy-dingy. Two ringy-dingies. Three—
Down at the far end of the hall, a big male walked out of one of the patient rooms with an expression on his face like someone had just taken a hammer to the hood of his car. He was a sweatshirt-and-jeans kind of guy, and when he took a pack of Marlboros out of the back pocket of said Levi’s, somehow it wasn’t a surprise.
He looked like he could use a cigarette.
Or several hundred.
—four ringy-dingies. Five—
The male stopped in front of the nurse. “I need to have a smoke. There has to be somewhere in here that I can light up.”
The female behind the counter opened her mouth like she was going to out-of-the-question, against-regulations the guy. Except then she seemed to take pity on him.
“Just go out in the hall and down to the right,” she said. “No one should bother you. But take this.”
She handed him over a soda bottle with a screw top. “Do not ash on the linoleum. And if anyone asks you, do not tell them I said you could.”
“Thank God,” the male said with relief. Then he leaned in. “How long have you been trying to quit?”
“Three years, seven months, four nights…” She checked her watch and tacked on dryly, “and twenty-three minutes. And yes, I’ve done the patches and the gum, and nothing beats the real thing.”
As the male left, Xhex’s voice mail kicked in. Which was to say an automated voice announced her number and instructed any callers to leave a message.
Trez killed the connection and stared at his phone. For no good reason, he thought about how much he hated people who didn’t personalize their answering message. It made him feel like he was tossing whatever he wanted to leave on there into a trash can, never to be retrieved or replied to. At least his head of security had a reason to keep her ID on lockdown. But still.
Although even if she had recorded some kind of Hey, this is Xhex, leave a message, he didn’t know what he would have said.
And actually, Xhex would be more likely to put out something like, “This is Xhex, I’m not going to tell you to leave a goddamn message. What the hell do you think this is for, asshat. Christ on a crutch, if I have to tell you what to do here you got more problems than me not answering your stupid call.”
As he debated whether to try again—and found progress in the fact that at least he was not trying to phone his symphath friend just to be reassured about a fallacy he had created—he was also tempted to call iAm. Even though, as with whatever he was going to say to Xhex, he didn’t have anything worked out in his head. The urge to hit them up was more a reflex born out of him feeling so adrift. But this was what people did, right? When things got off track, they called their nearest and dearest.