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It had been weeks since her last checkup. Six months since the tests started. She had thought that she was getting better, until last night. Sitting weakly in the hard plastic waiting room chair and leaning heavily against her husband, she stared at her fingers. They looked so much smaller than they once had. The muscles she’d formed from so many years of use... the last thing she’d been able to do before all of this hit her was plant the garden in their yard. She was glad she’d been able to finish. Since then, though, the illness had left her looking anemic and emaciated.
Her husband looked down on her worriedly as his mind flashed over the events that took place the night before. He’d had to work late at his office. A new firm had launched quickly and viciously in their small town, and he was one of the few willing to fight, trying without ease to keep what clients they had left. A pang hit him now as he wished for the thousandth time that he’d gone home earlier. By the time he could escape from under the piles of paperwork and the deafening ring of a frantically screaming telephone, he’d found her passed out in an overflowing tub.
He reached out to brush her tumbling hair away from her cheek now as an excuse to touch her, and reassure himself that he hadn’t lost her just yet. She smiled weakly as she brought her head up to look at him.
“Hi,” he whispered, as if they’d been apart for so many years. She leaned her head to his broad shoulder in response and let herself be held closer for a moment.
“Missus Stone,” came a scratchy drawl from the doorway. The pair looked up, and the plump nurse indicated that they follow her. Slowly, he helped his wife stand and couldn’t help but smile as she snapped at his offer to carry her. Instead, he settled for walking slowly beside her, letting her lean heavily on his arm for balance, and his heart dropped a beat over the fact that she needed to. The nurse led them patiently into a small room around two corners and shoved a step ladder up to the side of the tidy bed, helping and guiding her up to sit.
Another ten minutes went quietly by after the nurse left them. Finally, a young-looking man with a shock of prematurely white hair came whisking through the door wearing a cheerful grin.
“Penny! Ben! My two fav’rite people! Come to finish payin’ off my student loans? So soon?” His eyes flickered from Ben Stone’s full, tanned face to the saddened look in his eyes and looked intently at the much smaller, paler frame of Penny Stone, and his smile faltered.
“Sorry,” he murmured as he settled his clip board on the foot of the bed and flopped back into a chair. “That was in poor taste.”
“No, that’s alright Doctor Balsamo,” Penny said in vague amusement, using her vocal chords for the first time in days. “It was probably true.” A grin crossed the young doctors features again, but this time managed to come across more sympathetic than good-natured.
“How many times do I hafta tell you, darlin’, call me Doc Amazing.” His grin widened into a more genuine smile as the sad couple both seemed to lighten a bit with his prodding. “Seriously though, call me Dave. You’ve known me far too long for them foolish formalities.
“Yessir, Mr. Dave, sir,” Ben muttered, quietly finishing their greeting.
“So tell me, what brings y’all to me this painfully bright Tuesdie morn?” he asked, his sharply Italian features thrown off by his southern accent. Slowly, Ben helped his wife explain what had happened that night, taking over after she finished telling as much as she remembered. All the while, Dr. Balsamo never made a move to write a word of it down, watching them with too-intense eyes as if he could see into their mind’s eye and watch the scene play out.
She’d been in the room that held her artwork, going through her memories that came with each sculpture, remembering every whispered sound her paintbrushes made as they smoothed over the canvases she’d made herself when the pain hit her so suddenly she was knocked back into a stool by her sketching desk. The throbbing was so severe she had to limp back into the bedroom.
Not bothering to close the door, her eyes blurred as she stumbled into the bathroom and dug through the medicine cabinet in search of the prescription that Balsamo had written her two months previous. She always tried to avoid using it, but this time it was too much. After managing to break open the cap and shakily raising one of the pills that had spilled onto the counter, she fell against the closed toilet seat. Shivering and breathing heavily, she turned on the water to the oversized tub as hot as she could stand, and gingerly divested herself. Pain had slashed through her head like a scythe as she slid into the rising water, causing her to wince and put her hands to her forehead. She knew it would take fifteen minutes before the pill would take effect, but the slashes only increased until the pain behind her eyes was so intense her brain had to shut down in defense and she collapsed into darkness.
Ben came home eleven minutes later, looking worriedly around their bedroom after she hadn’t answered the phone calls he’d made on his way home. He raced toward the bathroom door in alarm when his eyes fell on the slow waves of water starting to spill over the threshold and onto the carpet. Crying out her name, he dove his arms into the water and pulled her out, and settled her gently to the wet tiled floor. His heart thudded fiercely in his chest as he felt for her faint but steady pulse and tried to shake her wearily back to consciousness. With a sudden cough, Penny let out a groan and curled her knees up to her chest in an attempt to break herself from the shivering cold that gripped her body.
Ben forced himself to breathe and be calm, reaching up to turn off the running water and lifted his frail wife into his arms to carry her back into the bedroom. He settled her onto the bed, wrapping her tightly in her robe and laying the sheets over her to contra her shivers and went back to the bathroom to drain the tub, finally noticing the spilled brown prescription bottle. The sight brought a sigh of relief, thankful that she’d been able to do that much for herself, and secretly glad he wouldn’t have to give her a shot.
Quietly, he went back to the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed next to Penny, brushing strands of thick dark hair out of her face and kissed her forehead before letting himself out into the living room to place a call to the doctor’s office. He left a message, the hour far too late for anyone to still be there, and explained that they would be there first thing in the morning, leaving his name and number with a vague explanation of why.
Throughout the relay of events, Ben stood closely to Penny with his arms wrapped around her waist, afraid to let her go. Balsamo stayed back, understanding the need for contact and finally nodded his steady gaze away from them.
“Well,” he said conclusively after appearing to stare into space. “I could always suggest more tests... I could schedule you for another MRI, another CAT scan, PET scan, or some other three-lettered abbreviation of words too long to bother sayin’, but I don’t think it’d do anything more’n annoy your insurance company and help reach your deductible for the fifth time this year. But I’m afraid that’s about all I’m able to do at this point, darlin’. You’ve been in a pretty solid remission the last month’r so, but the cancer’s still growin’.
The doctor continued to talk quietly for a while, managing to tell them not to get their hopes up for a cure anytime soon and soothe their nerves at the same time. Soon, he sent them on their way, suggesting fluids and bed rest, writing a new prescription for a stronger dose of pain killers, and wishing them the best of luck.
Ben drove toward home, stopping at the drug store to drop off the prescription request while Penny waited in the car. The drive was solemnly quiet until Penny announced that it was 11:11am, causing a broad smile to cross Ben’s lips.
“I love you, too,” he said, enjoying the memory of their game from the years they’d dated. It had always seemed silly to other people, but they had decided that 11:11 was their time. Everyone else shared a song, or a book, or a movie. They shared a repetition of numbers, and chose it as a way to remind each other that they were ridiculously foolish and loved one another for it anyway.
Penny closed her eyes to the sudden sting of water that filled them at the memory and the pang that thudded in her heart that had nothing to do with her cancer, and more to do with a fear that she might lose that love so much sooner than she’d planned. Ben reached out and squeezed her hands reassuringly, choking back his own fear with both fists as he pulled into the driveway.
Grudgingly, Penny let him carry her into their house and set her on the bed they had shared for the past three years. Kicking off her boots and tucking her thin legs into the ruffled sheets, she curled her arm around her pillow and faced her husband’s side of the bed. Without word, he climbed in beside her and held her to him, kissing her hair and whispering to her, loving her with all his heart and praying to a deity who wouldn’t answer that there were more he could do for her. Penny just closed her eyes and let herself frown in his comforting until exhaustion grabbed hold of her, ripping her heavily away from consciousness, and she dreamed.
The world swirled around her, spinning faster as she seemed to fall dizzily into nothing, until she landed in a memory. Or maybe it was a lot of memories mixed together, she couldn’t tell. First she saw her eighth birthday party, where her entire third grade class had come to her house to eat her food and play in her pool. She saw her parents pull her aside quietly to tell her that her pet bunny rabbit had been left in the sun by accident and had died of a heat stroke. The world spun faster, and she was fourteen, on her first date. She watched as the first boy she’d crushed on hard enough to doodle his name in hearts all over her class notes tried to feel her up in a dark theater that was showing an old western she had complained that she didn’t want to see. He obviously hadn’t wanted to, either.
The memory blurred, and she was graduating college with honors, her boyfriend grinning at her as he watched her march proudly across the stage to take her diploma just as he’d done a year before. Blur, and it was their wedding day nearly two years later, vowing to love him forever. Then they were at the doctors office, six months ago, being informed that the reason their child miscarried was because they had found a cancer that was spreading angrily throughout her body that they couldn’t cure so late after it had started, and her uterus couldn’t sustain the pressure of a baby, much less nourish it to strength on its own.
Then suddenly, she could see the future, or what looked like a possibility for what could happen for them. She watched herself in a paradise, celebrating twenty-five years of blissful marriage to Ben, smiling with healthy eyes and basking in the glow of the sunset in his arms. Thirty years later, and she was laughing as he tried to cheer her up after a fight she’d had with their only daughter by dancing around the kitchen like a fool, only ending up hunched over with a hand to his back and complaining that he was too old for that kind of thing anymore.
Time spun in all directions and more years skipped forward and back, pausing to see the birth of her second grandchild through a hospital room window, and slowing when time as she knew it was coming to a close on her deathbed, her husband’s tanned face, wrinkled by age and sun, smiled through the pain in his eyes. The clock clicked later, until finally she closed her eyes for the last time with a smile on her lips.
As her dream self died in a breath, she opened her eyes to meet her husband’s still young face. Penny smiled and caressed her fingertips over the bristles he’d neglected to shave on his jaw and kissed him gently. His eyes eased open and he smiled wearily, gazing adoringly into the only eyes he’d ever loved as deeply as he did for her.
“Hi,” she whispered hoarsely. He pressed his lips to her forehead.
“Hi,” he replied, hugging her gingerly. “Did you sleep well?” His voice sounded road-weary with the stress he’d carried on his shoulders in the past months.
Nodding vaguely, her eyes flickered down to stare into another world, she mumbled between steady breaths. “I dreamt. It was nice. There were some memories... some good... most bad... An’ I saw the future.” She smiled at the thought and sucked in a racked breath before continuing.
“We get to grow old together, Ben. We’ll spend our 25th anniversary in Cancun, and we’ll have a daughter, who’ll give us two beautiful grandchildren. She and I’ll fight sometimes... we’ll be too much alike, her and I... but you’ll always be there to cheer me up after. You’ll get to see me when I’m old and wrinkly and fat, and you’ll be a bronzed god with wrinkles.”
Ben laughed at that and squeezed her. “Sounds blissful,” he replied, catching her gaze and holding it.
“I love you, Ben,” she whispered, almost out of breath from the exertion it took to speak.
“I love you too, Penny. Ben and Pen forever, right?” he said, reminding her of the joke their friends had made.
“Right,” she mumbled, closing her eyes.
“It’s eleven-eleven, Penny,” Ben said quietly, his lips brushing over her eyelids as he spoke, unable to hold back the pain in his voice. “Don’t forget me, okay?”
Her voice fell to a barely audible whisper. “I could never forget you, Ben. There’s too much to do to forget you now.” Slowly, her mind tugged at her, pulling her back into darkness. Contented, as though she’d already lived the life she’d seen in her dreams, she let herself slip away, only vaguely aware of the love of her life whispering to her. Calmly, Penny Stone breathed in the sweetest air she’d ever tasted and let it go for the last time on a sigh.