“Tell Harry I miss him and thank him for taking care of my babies.” I release him and fish my apartment keys from my purse, setting them in Flint’s hand. I force my head up to meet his gaze.
“I’ll see you both soon, no matter what.” I know it could be for a final goodbye, but I don’t want to say the words quite yet. “Thank you, Flint Hopkins. Safe travels home.”
His face wrinkles in pain just before he kisses me one more time. It’s hard and painful, and then it’s over as quickly as it began. Without looking back, he grabs his jacket and the door closes behind him.
The next morning I sip my coffee, waiting for the doctor to arrive, waiting for my dad to wake. With nothing better to do, I reminisce about my youth. There was a day when I lived in the moment and planned my life no further than the next great adventure with Alex. We’d hop in the car on a moment’s notice with wadded clothes stuffed in a big bag, enough to get us by for a long weekend of climbing, biking, or surfing.
We slept in our little Subaru Outback almost as much as we slept in our bed. Our parents were happy and healthy. No one depended on us. We got by with working just enough to have money for play—and play we did.
You only live once.
Seize the moment.
Those were our mottos.
But accidents happen. Jobs turn into professions. Life starts to demand responsibility.
“Good morning.” The doctor brings me back to reality.
“Good morning.” I fake a smile, the one that says I’m good with being thirty-two and responsible.
He performs an exam and runs through some tests. I watch, feeling numb at the moment. Until … my dad stirs and opens his eyes.
“Dad!” I get in his line of vision, not caring if I’m in the way of the doctor or nurse.
Jumbled sounds fall from his lips. He flinches in frustration.
I squeeze his hand, and he gives me a faint squeeze back which is good—really good. “Don’t worry.” I smile. “We’ll find your words.”
His head moves slightly in a small nod.
I step back again to let the doctor finish his exam. His words echo like I’m hearing them from the opposite end of a tunnel. I knew they were coming, but I couldn’t fully imagine the anguish in my dad’s eyes as he tries to process everything.
Speech and comprehension issues.
But … here it comes …
I smile at the doctor, but really, I’m laughing at him. The word good doesn’t fit after that list of possible post-stroke conditions.
“Thank you,” I say to the doctor, maintaining my smile as he nods politely before leaving the room. This painful smile is the only thing that’s keeping me from falling to a million unrepairable pieces.
My dad’s blue eyes focus on me. I don’t know how well he’s processing this. It might be a small blessing if he doesn’t fully understand the possible challenges ahead of him.
I move to the side of his bed, sitting on the edge while taking his hand in mine and bringing it to my lips. “We’ve got this,” I whisper.
“Glad you made it safely home.” Amanda greets me with a smile.
I nod. “Thanks.” I shrug off my overcoat. “How’s Harrison?”
“Fine. I’m sure he’ll be happy about going back home after school. He’s such a creature of habit.”
I chuckle. “Yes, he is. Thank you for taking care of him and Ellen’s—”
“Rats! Oh my gosh …” She shoots up from her desk chair, following me into my office. “At first I was like, no way am I getting near five rats, but they are so cute and smart. They play basketball. Have you seen that?”
I roll my eyes, unable to hide my grin. This conversation would bring a big smile to Ellen’s face. “I haven’t had much interaction with them, but they’ve become Harrison’s new obsession. It’s all he wants for Christmas.”
Amanda’s smile fades. “How’s Elle’s dad?”
“He’s alive. I’m not sure what his physical or mental state will be in the coming weeks. I think he’s going to require a lot of therapy and extra care.” I open my computer and click on my email.
“You like her.”
“We’re not talking about this.”
“Harrison likes her.”
“Harrison doesn’t like her with me.” I give her a look that she needs to read as a we’re-done-talking-about-this look.
“You haven’t tried—”
“Amanda, I’m not discussing this with you. Ellen will most likely be moving to Cape Cod to take care of her dad. In case you’re not good with measurements, that’s over fifteen hundred miles from Minneapolis.”
I don’t need her pity look, so I wait for her to give up. After a few seconds, she goes back to her desk.
A few hours later, Harrison arrives, plopping his bag on my desk. I set it on the floor.
“Where’s Elle?” he asks.
“Nice to see you too, Harrison.”
“Where is she?”
“Did her dad die?”
“No.” I type up my notes for tomorrow’s deposition.
“Then why didn’t she come home with you?”
“He’s in the hospital. He had a stroke. She could be gone for a while.”
“Are you taking me to feed her rats?”
“When is she coming home?”
I blow a controlled breath out of my nose. “I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you ask her?”
“Because she doesn’t know the answer to that. It depends on her dad’s recovery. Recovering from a stroke can be a slow process.”
“How am I supposed to play guitar with her if she’s not here?”
Pinching the bridge of my nose, I shake my head. “Maybe you can use the app she showed you.”
“I don’t know the name of the app. I’ll call her.” He pulls out his phone.
“Don’t. She’s most likely at the hospital. This isn’t an emergency. It can wait, Harrison.”
“Wait until when? Later tonight? Tomorrow? Next week?”
“I’m sorry …” I run my hands through my hair. “I’m tired. You’re asking me questions I don’t have the answers to. Let’s…” I grab my coat “…go home.”
“I have stuff at Amanda’s.”
I rest my hand on the back of his neck, guiding him out of my office. “We’ll stop and get it after we go feed the rats.”
After two hours in my greenhouse and another hour helping Harrison with his homework, I grab a shower and settle into my office for another hour of work.
ELLEN: Are you asleep?
I grin at my phone screen.
ELLEN: What side of the bed do you sleep on?
ME: The middle
ELLEN: What! Nobody sleeps right in the middle.
ME: Looks like I’m nobody
ELLEN: How are my babies?
ME: How is your dad?
ELLEN: Partial paralysis that’s hopefully temporary – incontinence, speech issues … and the list goes on.
I dig my teeth into my lower lip, staring at her text. What’s the proper response to that?
ME: I’m sorry
A shitty, generic reply, but I don’t know what to say.
ELLEN: It’s all common, we should/could see vast physical improvements in the coming weeks. Cognition, speech, and emotional healing can take much longer.
ME: How are you holding up?
ELLEN: OK, my grandparents are here for the emotional support I need, but they are old and slow and I love them to death. BUT their little poodle, Bungie, keeps pissing everywhere! And it takes them twenty minutes to retrieve paper towels to clean it up, so I’ve been doing it, I’m not too excited about taking care of my dad AND Bungie.
ME: There’s a reason I don’t have pets
ELLEN: I know, you’re a control freak.
ELLEN: That’s what I said.
ME: Harrison wants the name of that music app you showed him
ELLEN: Shouldn’t he be in bed?
ME: He is. He wanted it earlier and I said he couldn’t message or call you.
ELLEN: He can call or message me ANYTIME but I’ll tell him that myself when I gift him the app so you don’t misquote me ; )
Rubbing the back of my neck, I reread her message several times. I wasn’t looking for her, but I found the perfect woman to be in my son’s life. But it’s not going to happen. Ellen Rodgers is a missed opportunity. A close call. A what if.
ME: Do you need anything?
Three little dots appear. Disappear. Appear again. Disappear. But no message pops up on the screen. Maybe she’s typing a long message. Maybe she keeps changing her response.
ELLEN: Nothing that I can have.
ME: You’ll have to elaborate.
ELLEN: Go back to sleep, thank you for everything. XO
ELLEN: Sleep tight.