I jerk from sleep clutching my chest, my lungs taking in rapid gasps of cool night air. Panic attacks and nightmares are a way of life for me. The panic is a parting gift from my father for never being good enough for him. The nightmares began nesting in my brain the year I gave my son away and lost the only man I’d ever loved. Every night, as I reluctantly slide into the cold sheets the dream perches on the edge of my sleep, waiting to descend upon my subconscious like a vulture onto a carcass.
The dream is a cornacopia of my regrets and fears,the shrill screams of the baby, the hard look in Declan’s eyes, the widening hole in my chest where my heart once beat, I always wake sweating, sometimes screaming and forever feeling empty and alone, sobbing into my pillow, “forgive me, please just forgive me”.
Tonight the dream is interrupted, left incomplete by the braying of my cell phone. Groggily, sleep still fogging my mind and eyes I reach over and push the button.
“Hello?” My tongue is thick against my teeth.
“Ms. Coven?” The tight voice sounds warning bells in the back of my mind. I clench the sheets with my free hand, trying to hold on, fighting for that one second, the miniscule reprieve when the familiar voice takes a breath, because I know it will be the last painless moment I have for a long time.
The day it began I sat fidgeting on a stool in bio-lab. The door opened and the rest of my life came walking through. Tall, dark haired, muscular, he was a fallen angel in jeans and a denim jacket. His smile shook the room, pulling the air from my lungs. If we’d been in a movie he would have been a vampire or a bad ass zombie killing ninja, but this was 11th grade small town USA so he was just a boy, but good lord what a boy!
Mr. Rolla waved him past the desk motioning to any of the empty seats. My hand fluttered knocking my bag to the ground loudly. The entire room stifled a laugh. I froze cheeks burning, my heart beating a hole in my chest as he bent and scooped up my things with one hand, dropping his book next to me on the table. My eyes stuck to his face, even with my cheeks on fire I couldn’t look away. He didn’t seem to mind.
Rolla cleared his throat loudly pulling the class’s attention back to him. For the next forty minutes he droned endlessly on, the words fell against my ears never actually making it to my brain. I snuck looks to the right as much as I dared; he was looking at me as much as I was trying to look at him. Thus was the beginning of the end for me. School became an occupational hazard from day to day. I came, I sat, I hopelessly lusted, and above all else I tried to avoid. In the world of small town USA I was a girl without a click, a lone wolf, a loser. I dodged and weaved my way through the halls better than any running back. Declan on the other hand was a one boy show. People congregated wherever he went. I wouldn’t doubt it if they followed him to the bathroom, that’s how bad it was. Girls and boys fawned over him, and unlike the dicks that prowled the top of the high school food chain, Declan didn’t use his charm to make people feel small. Everywhere I went his laugh echoed down the hallways, followed quickly by a high pitched flirtatious, “Oh Declan you’re so funny….smart……strong…insert shallow compliment here”. As much as I hated them I wanted to be the one chirping away brainlessly at his side, but instead we sat….silently. Twenty-two and a half inches apart, body heat meeting in the middle, cologne, perfume intermixing, but our mouths never moving.
Some days I cherished the closeness even in the silence, others I wished he was a million miles away. Days when the panic would nestle down in my chest spreading cold sweat like wildfire across my skin, those days I wished he were never born. The panic and I were old friends, going back to preschool days when teachers and even my parents thought I was just an over dramatic fit thrower. Years and many doctors later it was shown to be anxiety attacks. My father scoffed as he looked down his nose at me.
“What does a spoilt little girl have to be anxious about? Maybe God is punishing you for not reading your bible the way you should.”
Mother ignored it, because that was the best way to be ignored by my father.
Those days, the panicked filled ones, I would sit, knuckles white as my fingers bit into the lab table and pray to God not to let me pass out in front of Declan. The thought alone would often make the panic worse, but as the days past it changed into more of a calming effect. Don’t panic, don’t pass out, Declan’s right here, and that was all I needed, Declan right here with me to make me feel safe and calm.
We sat silently for weeks watching one another in class, he seemed so confident when other girls spoke to him in the hall, the cafeteria, class; you could bet if Declan was somewhere girls were talking to him, and he would smile and flirt, girls falling over themselves and his mild Irish lilt. But sitting next to me in class he was a stone. My stomach fluttered in anticipation, wanting, needing internally begging him to speak to me, to just hear his lips form my name would have been enough. I instantly loved every little detail that made up this strange boy. His half smile, his dimple, his beautiful sea green eyes that laughed even when his mouth refused. The cocky way he spoke to Hilary Eastman, the prettiest most popular girl in school. The annoying way he sat next to me every day, so close I could feel the heat coming from him but never making a sound. In his defense I didn’t speak either, as much as I hated the silence I was afraid to break it, afraid once it was gone there would be nothing clinging around us, holding us together, or as together as two people can be that don’t speak.
The silence was torn down not by a word but by a touch, a simple one in a million right place right time moment that would change everything. The bell was aching to ring as I darted up the stairs to my English class, praying to the tardy Gods to let me make it in time. Instead of a free pass they must have thought it was far funnier to give me an amazing excuse to be late, because Troy Mallard came barreling down the stairs at me, laughing with one of his football buddies and tossing a ball back and forth. I saw it almost before it happened, his fat fingers fumbled against the leather and laces, sending the pigskin towards the railing where a straight drop to the main hall awaited. He lunged, I stutter stepped, my feet fighting gravity and fate and losing, my books flew like angry birds through the air as Troy and I collided. The railing moaned but held as he fell against it, my arms cart wheeled my fingers grasping in vain at the air as I fell backwards. Before I could fall to my death, Declan’s arms closed around me, my back falling against the warm solidity of his muscular chest. My heart choked me, hiding in my throat and although I had not fallen even one single step my entire body quaked with adrenaline and fear. One arm still holding me up, he ran a hand through my hair, his lips so close to my ear I could almost hear his thoughts before he said them.
“There now I have ya. I won’t be letting you fall and ruin those gorgeous legs of yours.” I smiled through the tears, but couldn’t find the strength to move away from him, I never wanted him to let go.
“Cassandra, are you ok?”
I lose my moment of Zen to the hunger of the present. My breathing becomes choppy and ragged as I put the name to the voice and pray it’s all a dream.
“Yeah, how can I help you Janice?” the tangled bed sheets pull at me as I fight to turn on the bedside lamp and sit up.
“Cass we need to meet, something has happened.” Her voice is different than I remember, it sounds small and weak, not at all how I recall. Janice Penbroke was my lawyer years ago, before the nightmare, before Declan walked out of that room and my life forever. The bedside clock shines up at me, 5:00A.M., but there is no choice, if Janice needs to see me this early it must be important.
“Ok, I’ll meet you at the diner on 10th. Gimme a few to get dressed.” My heart triple beats and I nearly drop the phone. My brain shakes free from the fog of sleep it’s been hiding in.
“Janice! Is Connor ok?” My chest tightens, my heart rattles against my ribs.
“Everything’s ok right now, I’ll see you there in 5.” Without another word the line dies in my hand. The phone clatters to the floor and, I‘m in the car and on the road before I remember shoes, but I can’t even think about turning around. As I speed towards an unknown future an unforgettable past nips at my heels.
The diner parking lot is a ghost town as I pull in. The bar crowd having driven sloppily home after hours of merriment, drinking and the neon promise of hot coffee and greasy eggs.
Janice leans nonchalantly against the trunk of her maroon caddie. She looks exactly the same as she did 5 years ago standing tall and strong enough for both of us in the court room, shielding me from Declan’s icy glare. Her eyes slip down taking in my bare feet, a smile pulls at her lips but the burden of whatever news she has beats it back down.
“Hey Cass. Wanna try and slip inside or do you just want to sit out here?” I think on it a moment, the lines and dark circles around her eyes scream to me that I need the strength of a booth beneath me before I listen to her. I follow behind her trying to hide the nakedness of my feet; we slide into a blue booth in the far back where I tuck my feet under me. Criss cross apple sauce my mom use to say.
“Ok Janice, just spill it, I haven’t heard from you in years and now you call me up in the middle of the night and drag me to this 24 hour diner hell, for what? If everything’s ok what could we possibly need to talk about?” My entire body tingles as if my soul had fallen asleep and is just beginning to shake off the deep slumber. The sadness in her eyes washes over me; I sit in its wake and wait for the rest of the flood.
“Cass I don’t know how to tell you this, but Connor’s very sick.” She pauses letting the words fall on me like hail. My eyes blink slowly thinking of Connor and the Eliots.
I fell in love with Mrs. Eliot the first time I saw her. She stood before me, not intimidating or forceful, instead she looked scared and shy. At 16 I couldn’t fathom how I could scare anyone.
“Hello Cassie, can I call you Cassie?” her slender fingers trembled as she held out her hand.
“Yeah, um I guess, sure call me Cassie.” I took her hand, felt it shake in my grip. No one called me Cassie except Declan, but once he found out I was here he would be calling me something completely different. My hands went automatically to my swollen belly, rubbing and soothing the mistake it held.
“Cassie I am so glad you’ve given us the chance to meet you and to talk about this.” Her eyes brimmed with tears; she fought to look me in the eyes but hers endlessly wandered down to the swell beneath my shirt. Twice I caught her hand twitching as if trying to reach out and touch me. My heart beat faster, causing a kick fit inside. Without thinking I grabbed her hand and held it a little to the left of my belly button. The maternal dam inside of her broke as she sobbed. Mr. Eliot whispered in her ear and looked at me with hope and suspicion. I placed his hand next to hers as the kicking became a long stretch, pushing outwards as if trying to make more room inside me. His face broke but went hard before tears could form in his steel gray eyes. He stood abruptly jerking his hand from my stomach as if it were on fire.
“No, no we won’t do this again. Come on honey.”
“What?” we spoke in unison, the same tone of shock and anger coating the word.
“Sarah,” he pleaded, “we’ve been through this before. She’ll change her mind! She’ll take him back and where will we be? Heartbroken and childless same as before.” He began gathering his things, but she remained next to me.
“The last girl changed her mind, decided to keep the baby after she held her at the hospital, we...we had everything ready at home. I spent all week painting the nursery pink and finding the perfect bed sheets, light pink and soft as clouds, I painted her name on the wall above the crib.” Her lips barely moved as she recounted the pain.
“Emma.” She whispered.
“That’s a beautiful name.” I swallowed; these were the people I wanted. They had so much love pouring from them. So much want, and need and they had the money and the years to do this right, they had everything I did not, except for a baby, and that I would gladly give them.
A tear falls cold onto my hand and I stare at it perplexed. Janice touches my hand pulling me back to the diner.
“I’m sorry Cass. When was the last time you spoke to them?”
“I, I don’t remember. Years. Sarah writes me every few months, without fail. She sends pictures and copies of report cards, even after I stopped responding there’s new pictures of Connor and even sometimes a drawing he did.” The sob crawls up my throat, choking the words. Janice clasps my hand patting it for good measure.
“I’m so sorry Cass; I know this must be hard.”
“How did you find out? When did this happen? What happened?” I cradle my chipped coffee mug, cringing at the acrid cold taste, I drink it anyway.
“I got the call earlier; I’ve been at the hospital waiting to find out more. He’s been sick for a few months now but late last night they rushed him to the E.R.” I shift uncomfortably on the vinyl seat, cold sweat washing over me like a tidal wave.
“So how sick? Like the chicken pox? What exactly are we talking about here Janice?” I can hear my mouth machine gunning the questions into the air but I can’t stop it, even though I don’t want to know the answers.
“It’s leukemia. They’ve been treating him but so far it’s not working as well as they would like.”Tears threaten to break through her eyeliner and pull rivers of charcoal black down her cheeks. I can’t breathe. Leukemia…no they’re wrong. Leukemia ? The more my mind mulls the word the less it feels real, I try wrapping my lips around it but it still doesn’t fit.
“Leukemia.” My eyes travel the table top and up to Janice’s, there nestled in her dark round pupils is the truth. LEUKEMIA.