She paused at the door, keys in hand, and simply stared back at the kitchen where her few non-perishable groceries sat haphazardly on the counter, exactly where they had been when she’d snatched the phone off the hook, interrupting Barky’s message on her answering machine.
What he’d said was just starting to sink in and she could feel nausea in the pit of her stomach, a tightening in her chest and throat. She’d never been very good at accepting loss in any form -- even her current estrangement from her father was categorized as “temporary” in her mind. Just as soon as they both came to their senses, it would be over and they’d be father and daughter again.
Give anything enough time and it would work out.
But Wace was running out of time. Barky had said it; they were losing him for real. It wasn’t just the rift that had grown between them for months until they’d finally snapped apart; she couldn’t look at the situation and remind herself of Trunny’s optimism that they would all eventually come through this. She couldn’t console herself with the possibility that maybe Wace would somehow manage to free himself from his father’s emotional tyranny and she’d be able to forgive his treatment of her and they could pick up where they’d left off.
It wasn’t an intermission anymore -- it was a curtain call.
When Barky first came into the room, he noticed the empty chair sitting outside the privacy curtain that had been pulled around Wace’s bed and thought that Jen had finally gone home. She’d been there since the night before and had barely left the room. In fact, he couldn’t remember ever seeing her out of the room except to use the toilet down the hall. He and Trunny had brought her food, and Coppa had stopped by once and offered to get her coffee (she’d refused).
A nurse had tried to eject her from the room after normal visiting hours (“Immediate family, only, I’m afraid, miss.”) and the look on her face had been so belligerent that Barky had stepped in quickly, stammering, “She’s - uh - she’s ‘is... ‘is sister.”
He wasn’t sure which was the most scalding - the look Jen gave him, or the look the nurse shot his way, but either way, the staff had relented and no one tried to kick her out again.
So now, though surprised, he was a little relieved to see that she’d gone home for some much-needed rest. She’d been exhausted last time he’d seen her, only a couple of short hours before, dark circles standing out prominently beneath her eyes. He’d been working out some of the endless paperwork with the hospital staff -- it seemed the insurance company was giving them some hassles -- and then had gone down to the cafeteria for a couple of cups of coffee to wake himself up.
He slipped into the room quietly, cautious of awakening the two other patients who had been brought in to the room, and pulled the chair inside the curtain of Wace’s partition. He sat down and slumped over for a moment, rolling his head to get the kinks of out of his neck, and when he finally looked up at the stark white bed, what he saw there made him smile and frown at the same time.
Lying stiffly on her side, underneath a precarious arrangement of tubes and wiring, her arms crossed over her chest to keep her from touching the unconscious man next to her, was Jen. Her mouth was slack and her breathing was deep and even, and Barky could only assume that she’d crawled up there and accidentally fallen asleep sometime in the hour and a half he’d been gone.
Sighing, he debated over whether or not to wake her, but then decided that if the nurse found her on the bed, it could cause more trouble than any of them wanted to deal with at the moment, and he walked over to her, gently shaking her shoulder.
She whimpered in her sleep, frowning, and murmured plaintively, “C’mon, baby, just a few more minutes... don’t go.”
His chest constricted and he felt a light blush in his cheeks at this accidental glimpse into his brother’s private life. Apparently it was a common thing for Wace to get up and leave -- or at least try to leave -- before Jen wanted him out of her bed, and that was just more information than he’d ever wanted to know, but he found the situation sadly ironic, especially for her.
“Jen,” he said quietly. “Jen, it’s Bark. Wake up.”
With a startled sound, she jerked awake suddenly and Barky kept his hand on her shoulder to prevent her from sitting up and yanking those delicate tubes around.
“Wha--wh--” she started, then her eyes opened and fixed on the figure next to her, and silent tears spilled down her cheeks.
“Jen, c’mon, you need to go home,” Barky said quietly. “It’s three in the morning. Don’t you have to go back to the school tomorrow?”
School was coming back into session quickly, and Jen had a teacher’s planning day to attend, or so she’d told him.
“Yeah, but,” she protested, one of her hands stealing out to rest lightly on Wace’s abdomen, barely brushing the fabric of his hospital gown. “I can stay here. For a little while longer, at least.”
“Jen,” Barky sighed, and she frowned fiercely, her fingers skimming up over her former lover’s bruised and broken sternum, careful not to actually touch, until they came to hover mere millimeters above his battered chin.
“I can’t leave him, Barky,” she said quietly, though there was steel in her tone. “Don’t ask me to.”
“Jen, you can’t stay in the bed with him. The nurses are gonna -- “
“The nurses can go ta hell,” she hissed, and he flinched in surprise at her unexpected vehemence. He’d never seen her like this in their years of acquaintance. “I can’t... Barky, I can’t...”
She paused, and he got the impression she was searching for words.
“I’ve woken up in this man’s arms more times than I can count over the last four years. I don’t sleep well when he’s not with me, which is quite a lot, especially recently. He’s the last person I’d ever want to lose and I’m losing him for the second time. He’s... he’s just slipping right through my fingers like... like sand on the beach, Barky. Again. I can’t hold on to him.”
Her eyes and nose were beginning to turn red, and he could tell she was on the verge of crying again.
“But I have to try.”
“Jen,” Barky said softly, his hand resting gently, soothingly on her arm, “You can’t do it all by yourself. You can’t bring him back. You need to get some rest, look after yourself for a while.”
She laughed bitterly, and he read something dark in her eyes as she murmured, “Tha’s almost exactly wha’ I told him. I never did understand why ‘e couldn’t just leave, come home ev’ry now an’ then.”
Her fingers rested gently on Wace’s lips for a brief moment and her eyes fluttered closed. “Figures I’d ‘ave to learn the hard way jus’ what he was goin’ through.”
Seeing that she wasn’t going to move anytime soon, Barky started trying to maneuver the tubes to give him an easier access to her. As much as he sympathized with her, she had to get off that bed.
“Jen, come on,” he insisted, reaching under a couple of wires to place an insistent hand on her arm. “If the nurses find you on this bed, they’ll kick you out of the room for good. You know they don’t b’lieve that shit about you bein’ his sister.”
She sighed in frustration but complied, delicately twisting so that she slid off the bed without disturbing the wiring or the sheets. Her knees gave slightly as she tried to stand, and Barky reached out to grab her, supporting her.
“You need to get some sleep,” he said firmly, and she frowned at him, glancing over her shoulder at Wace’s still form.
“I think he’s gettin’ enough for both of us,” she sighed, allowing Barky to deposit her in the chair at the end of the bed. She sat there motionless for a moment before she finally dropped her head and muttered, “All right. You’re right; you win. I hafta go home.”
She looked up at him and the defeat he read in her eyes frightened him. “But call me if anythin’ changes. I mean it. No matter what -- even if ... even if...”
She couldn’t make herself say it, but he knew what she meant and nodded his consent.
“I promise,” he told her sincerely, and she pushed herself to weary feet, taking one last longing look at Wace before she slipped silently from the room and down the hall.
The ringing of the phone by her elbow snapped her out of her daze and she jumped, her heart pounding violently.
“Shit,” she swore softly, slipping a bookmark between the pages of the book she hadn’t been reading anyway. She looked at the phone as it continued to ring, staring at its cool plastic surface as if it were coated with poison.
She slipped her thumb into the corner of her mouth, nervously chewing on the nail. She just knew it was Barky on the other end, and her stomach twisted violently.
He’s dead, her mind tormented her, and she shuddered, feeling bile rise in her throat. God, no, she cried out mentally. I take it back - I don’t want him to die, even if he’s never like he was, I can’t... no, I can’t... I’m sorry, I’m sorry if it’s selfish, if he’d rather die...
Of course he’d rather die, a darker voice in her head said clearly. He fuckin’ tried to make it happen.
She whimpered, throwing back the covers on her bed and dashing down the hall to the bathroom. She barely had the presence of mind to pull her long hair back in one hand before she emptied the contents of her stomach into the toilet bowl, tears running down her face from the strain of her abdominal muscles. As she rested her face against the cool porcelain, tremors running through her body, the phone stopped ringing.
The sudden silence in the house was deafening, and she felt a clammy kind of weakness come over her at the thought that it would always be that way. Even if Wace wasn’t dead, didn’t die - even if he made a miraculous recovery - they’d been broken up before this. It wasn’t like she’d be getting her lover back; he’d already been gone.
She sucked in a deep breath as she rose shakily, running cool water over a washcloth and pressing the damp cloth to her face, wiping away the tears and the traces of sickness that remained. She reached out with a trembling hand to flush the toilet, then sank back to the tile floor, leaning her head against the wall as sorrow laced through her and she finally allowed herself to regret the end of the relationship, finally let the honesty of her emotion wash through her without hiding behind the walls of anger and wounded pride.
Clutching the rag in her hand, barely conscious of the cool drops of water that dripped onto her thigh, she cried silently for what she’d lost and what she was losing still.
When the spasms had finally faded, she sighed and closed her eyes, folding the washcloth so that a clean surface faced her, and dabbed her flushed face with its soothing coolness.
“God,” she prayed awkwardly, aloud. “I dunno... dunno if You can hear me, or ... or if You care much, but... please let ‘im live. Even if I never get ‘im back... just, don’t let ‘im die like this, okay? Not like this...”
She hiccuped, adding softly, “Please. Amen.”
Jen couldn’t get over the guilty feeling that settled over her as she hung up the phone. Barky had just called to say that Wace was doing better, talking now, and had asked her to come see him. She didn’t think she could explain to anyone how everything in her had simply frozen at that moment -- apprehension sweeping over her and making her skin go suddenly clammy.
She’d just last night come to terms with everything, and now it had all changed again. All except one thing: she still wasn’t Wace’s girlfriend anymore. She’d thought about it in the clear light of day and realized that all the time she had been spending at the hospital, keeping a vigil that wasn’t hers to keep, had absolutely undone any progress she’d made in letting go of him. She’d never be able to walk away from it all -- which was what he apparently wanted -- if she kept putting herself in situations where her emotions were vulnerable to him.
She shivered slightly at the memory of him nuzzling sweetly into her palm, like a puppy seeking affection or a child craving tender peace in his sleep. It had nearly undone her, that unguarded, unconscious response to her touch, and she was afraid that if she went back, now that he was more awake and coherent, that he would remember everything. The familiarity of nearly four years of being lovers would be crushed under the weight of his resentment toward her, and she didn’t think she could handle being rejected by him twice.
No, better to keep the memory of his automatic reaction to her as her last memory of him, a balm to soothe the wound of his vehemence the last time she’d seen him. She could still hear his voice, cold and brittle, telling her to leave him alone, that she didn’t know him, that she never had. She closed her eyes and shook her head, forcing the moment out of her mind, replacing it with the tactile memory of the roughness of his stubble against her fingers, the way he’d calmed instantly at the sound of her voice, his convulsions ending as suddenly as they’d begun.
She let her mind’s eye focus on the pink scar high on his forehead from the surgery the doctors had performed, the way he’d moaned softly when she’d spoken, as if he were trying to respond to her. And in her mind, she trailed her fingertips softly across his lips and leaned over to kiss them, whispering a soft ”Goodbye,” against his skin.
She opened her eyes and let the vision fade. She took a deep breath, steeled herself, and finally released the tethers that tied them together, letting them slip through her mental fingers like slippery pearls.
Wace was going to live; she would have to get used to the fact that he had chosen to live without her.
- Razor's Edge - 30