Authors: Emma Nichols
For Danielle, Tammy, and Steph:
Thank you for making this book possible by questioning, pushing, arguing, and forcing me to be better, more creative, and true to my characters.
So much love for you!
Copyright © 2015 by emma nichols
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover by Marisa Shor of Cover Me, Darling
Formatting by: Affordable Formatting
College was supposed to be this awesome experience, but as I ended my first semester freshmen year, I remained unconvinced and completely uninspired. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it. Sebastian thrived in his art and business courses, which made sense as he could put everything to immediate use. Gabriel was all nose to the grindstone in his business courses when he wasn’t serial dating. Matt had soccer and his sports medicine classes to keep himself busy. Ian surprised us with an interest in theology, but we didn’t judge. Why was it such a struggle for me?
Though I didn’t have an appointment with my advisor, I knew he had office hours now and I needed his help with picking my courses for the spring semester. After parking the Porsche Panamera in the student lot, I rushed across campus toward Professor Morceau’s second floor office. With my bag slung over my shoulder, I took the stairs by two and was disappointed to see his door almost completely closed, which suggested someone had beat me to him. As I sat in the chair nearest the door, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation taking place within.
“I don’t know what to do.” The girl sniffled loudly and I could hear tissues being pulled from the box the professor kept on the corner of his desk.
“Here,” Professor Morceau murmured.
“Thanks.” There was a pause in the conversation as she blew her nose. A moment later she spoke. “He knew I was pregnant. We talked about it. Then I went to work the overnight shift at the diner. It was slow and I decided to surprise him.” She sobbed. “Sorry. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off and I could almost picture her struggling to pull herself together. My heart hurt for her. “There was a girl walking out of his dorm room. She had…these hickeys on her neck.” She hiccupped as she tried to control her emotions.
“She could’ve been visiting his roommate,” Professor Morceau suggested kindly.
“He doesn’t have a roommate,” the girl cried.
Something in her voice spoke to me. Even though I had all these doubts about my future, she suddenly inspired me. A former English teacher always claimed everyone had a story. While I didn’t really enjoy writing, never truly finding a talent for it, I could capture people on film. Still photos weren’t enough. I wanted to make movies, or documentaries maybe. While she talked, I reached into my bag and pulled out a pen and a notebook. I started jotting down ideas, what I could do, how I would accomplish it.
I’d heard about this guy in New York City who had started a project to tell the stories of those he happened upon in the city. He took stills and wrote up interviews. He had a blog,
Humans of New York
. It was amazing. Maybe I could do something similar, only with videos. Maybe in the process of finding others, I could find myself.
The idea stole most of my focus. I barely heard the rest of the conversation, but I noticed the sudden quiet. Leaning toward the door, I continued to scribble on my pad as the door finally flew open and the girl stormed out into the hall, startling me. I jumped and dropped my pen. As I began to lean over to pick it up, she squatted and snatched it from the floor between her feet.
She glanced at my pad and must’ve seen a few words. Clearly, she knew I had been listening. Staring at me a moment, I could see her eyes filling with tears once more. I felt completely bewildered, but as I met her gorgeous green eyes rimmed with wet lashes, I was struck by how badly I wanted to ease her sorrow. I reached in my coat pocket, hoping I had something to offer her to dry her eyes. Instead, I found lint and a box of Tic Tacs.
Passing me the pen, she nodded at my paper. “Did you get all that?” Her eyebrow rose in challenge. Before I could put together a response, she had stood suddenly and strode angrily away.
“You inspire me,” I spluttered. I watched, hoping she’d turn around, but instead, she broke out into a full sprint. My shoulders drooped. When I looked up, Professor Morceau leaned in the doorway studying me.
“I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop.” I struggled to explain.
His mouth made a grim line. “I never suggested you were. Come in.”
This was the first time I sat down with him, and the day I found the girl who changed everything for me. Though I looked for her everywhere, we didn’t meet again for three years until I prepared to graduate from college and needed to decide what to do next.
Again, she beat me to my advisor’s office, my crying girl. I heard the sniffling as I sat in the chair outside the door.
“You could’ve called,” Professor Morceau suggested.
“You refuse to get a cell phone. I think we both know why a call wasn’t possible.” She released a mirthless laugh. I heard shoes padding back and forth across the floor.
“Sit down at least. It can’t be that bad.”
“I can’t sit. I can’t stay. I have to get back before Ollie wakes.” She sighed heavily. “We have to meet the doctor in a few hours for the test results. If they can’t tell you over the phone, it’s bad.” She hiccupped.
“Does ‘we’ mean you finally reconciled with the father?” Professor Morceau’s voice sounded flat.
is me and Ollie, same as always. Us against the world.” She released a mirthless laugh.
“I don’t know what to say.” Professor Morceau sighed.
“You never know what to say. Words were never your thing.” She sounded angry and frustrated. “I’ve gotta go. I don’t even know why I came here.” Then the door flew open again. This time, I was prepared.
Standing, I held out a handkerchief. I’d started carrying them with me after the first time I met her. “Here. Take it.”
She stared at me a moment. This time the tears spilled over her cheeks and rushed down her face. Reaching out, she held the soft linen in her hands a moment, then she fell into my arms. I held her close while I murmured in her hair. “I don’t know why you’re crying,” I whispered. “All I know is I wish I could take your pain away.” It wasn’t much, but it was the truth. My heart had ached for her since our first meeting. The pain was both real and acute.
For several minutes, we stood there with her face buried in my chest. Professor Morceau looked at us thoughtfully, then backed away and disappeared inside his office once more. When she finally stopped crying, she gazed up at me sadly. “For some reason, I believe you.” Then she wrapped her hands around my neck, forcing my head toward hers. Her eyelids shut, but mine never did as she leaned in and touched her lips to mine. A warmth spread through me, building like a wildfire, sparked from a simple kiss. As quickly as she had burst through the door, she backed away and rushed down the hall, taking my handkerchief with her.
From then on, the crying girl was forever in my heart and thoughts. I never told anyone about her. There was nothing to tell, really. I didn’t even speak about it with Professor Morceau, since it seemed rather personal to him. Over time, as the years passed, I gave up and decided I’d never see her again.
Alone in the dark, I sighed as the wedding video I’d made for Sebastian and Marisa ended. After I pulled it out of the computer drive and stuck the DVD into the case, I leaned back in my chair and stared out the window into the quiet cold Saturday night. My growling stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten. Without thinking, I picked up my cell from the desk, planning on calling the guys. Though my finger hovered over my contacts, I realized I had no one to call. Everyone but me seemed to have paired up nicely. Okay, not Ian, but since he’d joined the military after college, he also was otherwise occupied.
Opening my emails, I checked for some evidence I still had a life. Judging by my inbox, I didn’t have much of one. Although, there was one email marked as urgent from my advisor. Strange that Professor Morceau would send me anything over the weekend. Opening it, I scanned quickly and covered my face with my hands. Apparently, I was at risk to not graduate.
Though I could’ve replied by email, I took a chance and called him. After all, this seemed like an emergency. After three rings, he answered.
“It’s Ben. I read your email. Surely, there’s something I can do. After all, this is a Master’s Program.” In the seconds it had taken me to act, I hadn’t had time to formulate an argument.
Through the phone, I could hear him sigh, then there was a tapping sound I imagined to be him tapping the temple of his glasses against his front tooth. It was a thinking posture I’d noticed during our few brief encounters. “There’s one thing.”
“Anything. Seriously. I’ll do it.” I leaned forward at my desk, my chin propped on my fist. Though I wasn’t on a time schedule, I felt ready to be done with my education, and eager to start my life…whatever it might entail.
“It’s a tough project. I couldn’t trust it to just anyone.” It sounded like he was biting on his glasses now. “I’ll email you the details now. Think about it. This is…serious and important.”
“Okay, thank you, Professor Morceau.” I ended the call then and waited. For several minutes I kept refreshing my inbox, hoping to see the promised information. After twelve minutes, I stood and walked away from the laptop while rubbing the back of my neck in frustration. Then I heard the chime from my phone telling me an email had arrived. Inhaling deeply, I sat down in my leather wheeled desk chair and started to read through what I’d received. My brow furrowed as I processed the words. The Make a Wish Foundation needed someone to teach a little girl the ins and outs of the filmmaking industry. Leaving a movie behind for her mother was this child’s dying wish.
I swallowed hard. Over the last few years, my website had thrived as I told the stories of people I met on the streets of Montreal, or on my travels with my friends. I focused on the happy I couldn’t always find in my own life. It helped me stay as positive as possible in a world that often had me down. Shutting the laptop, I pushed away from the desk and stared out the glass doors of the pool house to the main house where my parents lived. The place was dark and I suspected they were out at some social gathering.
Closing my eyes shut, I tried to imagine what my life would look like if I took this assignment. On the one hand, I’d graduate. The ‘rents would be proud. The friends would rejoice. I’d be free to go live my life, travel the world for a bit, living the digital life I’d created for myself. I needed space from everything and everyone I knew. It felt like I was suffocating here, drowning in the happiness my friends had found that seemed to elude me. Oh, but the challenges of working with this kid. I loved kids. Ask Gabe and Bella. Better still, ask her kids...or was it their kids? It was death I had a problem with.
My eyes flew open and my heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t have to do this. What was one more semester? It’s not like I was on a time schedule.
Then the outside lights flickered on around the patio and my step-mother came rushing out, stark naked, my father, though nearly thirty years her senior, chased after her wearing nothing but a smile. Then they hopped in the hot tub, less than ten feet from my door while Mandy stared brazenly my direction. They claimed to be in love. They were, but not necessarily with each other. Mandy loved money and hated the idea of working for it. My father loved the sex and hated being alone. I guess they were happy enough with the arrangement, the marriage, and the iron-clad pre-nup. Shaking my head, I raised my eyes to the ceiling. There were no easy choices in this situation. I was picking my poison.
Picking up my cell, I called Professor Morceau back. “I don’t think I can do this,” I mumbled into the phone the second he answered. “I’m honored you thought I could manage the project, but if you’ve seen any of my films, I document happiness. It’s right there in my blog name: Happy Hearts Productions.” I shrugged, even though he couldn’t see it. There was nothing left to say.
He was silent a moment. “Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?” Professor Morceau’s voice cracked as he spoke.
I thought for a moment. “Nothing I can think of. I’m sorry.” My phone chimed in my ear and I pulled it away to see the notification.
“Check your email,” he suggested hoarsely.
Opening my laptop once more, I sighed as I logged in. It felt like we were merely prolonging the inevitable. After I made a decision, I rarely changed my mind. This time, the email from him had an attachment. When I clicked, a picture filled my screen. It was the Crying Girl. “I don’t understand.” My throat constricted as I stared into her sad eyes. She was sitting on a couch, her arms wrapped around a little girl with a bald head who smiled jubilantly at the camera.
“Not even for her?” In the background, his chair squeaked then I heard a woman’s voice.
“Charles, who are you talking to?”
There was a low growl in his throat. “Just a student, Marguerite.” Then he addressed me once more. “Ben, I have to let you go. Come to my office Monday morning, nine. We’ll finish this discussion then.”
“Okay.” The call ended and I wondered what I had agreed to. This was a wrinkle for sure, but it didn’t mean I’d changed my mind, did it? As I sat there, numb to the world, staring at the Crying Girl, I feared somehow I had.
Drawing my knees closer to my chest, I curled into the tiniest ball possible on the corner of her mattress. If I disturbed Ollie, she’d kick me out again and I needed to stay. Listening to her breathe had become part of my nightly ritual, the one act which soothed me enough to allow me some sleep, even if it didn’t feel restful. Why would it? After all, lately the minute I closed my eyes, I’d be tormented with horrible dreams of Ollie’s death, or Ollie’s funeral, or life without Ollie, which was no life at all. If the doctors were right, her time was limited and mine was too. I’d die without her. Sometimes, I felt like I already was. Food had lost all flavor. I’d stopped singing and dancing and playing, all the things we used to do together when she had the energy. Now I was a shell of my former self.
I watched as her hand reached out from under her chin, her fingers skating across the sheet, searching in growing arcs until finally, Ollie found my hand. A tear slid down my cheek as she laid her palm in mine and squeezed. Quickly, I brushed it away with the back of my free hand and tried not to sniffle and wake her.
Ollie sighed. “There you are, Mama.” She held onto me tighter than before.
“Did I wake you?” My voice was scarcely louder than a whisper.
“No, I was only sleeping a little.” She opened her big blue eyes and stared at me. Without hair on her head, framing her face, her eyes now seemed larger.
“You should rest. You need your strength. Only two more sleeps before we meet with the doctor again.” I leaned closer and kissed her forehead. It was a gesture designed to offer her comfort and love while hiding my face so she couldn’t read my fear, see my sorrow.
“I don’t want to go, Mama.” Her voice was quiet, yet surprising firm. “I’m tired, a tired sleep can’t fix.” Ollie yanked her hand back and rolled away from me. “No more doctors.
I closed my eyes and struggled to hold in the tears. I knew what she meant. We were both worn out. Still, I was determined to find something for her to look forward to, always a new project, new place, or some new activity to provide hope. “We have the bunny tomorrow. Don’t forget. We have to be there at ten in the morning. Rest.”
As I rolled off the mattress and walked around to her side of the bed, I could see a smile. “You’re excited about the Easter bunny?”
“Yeah,” she murmured. “And pictures for you…”
I laid a finger over her lips so she couldn’t complete her thought. I knew what she’d say. She’d been saying for a couple of months now. Every time I thought I was giving her purpose, Ollie treated it like a memory for me to have after she passed. Every time she’d say ‘for you to remember me,’ my heart broke a little more. How could I ever forget her? She was my whole life, my whole world, and had been since her conception six years ago.
Even then, I had chosen her. I picked her above my family, who wrote me off when I refused to consider even adoption, and her father, who cheated on me when I refused to have an abortion. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d choose her still.
Slowly, I leaned down and kissed her on her temple. “We’ll have a nice day. See you in the morning.” Then I backed out of the room. I needed something bigger than the bunny.
Walking over to the desk, I opened my million-year-old dinosaur of a laptop. The Acer had been a graduation gift meant for college. Though I’d never finished my degree, the machine still served me well, providing my only income since Ollie was diagnosed with leukemia. Working outside of the home had proven impossible. I needed to be with her at the hospital, and all the doctor appointments. There was no one else.
Finally, the screen flickered on and I checked my email. No response yet from Make a Wish. I’d check in with my father directly. Though my mother and I hadn’t spoken since before Ollie was born, I talked to my father on rare occasions, but he had yet to meet his grandbaby. To my surprise, he appeared to be online. I sent him a message.
me: Any luck yet?
The wait, though only a few seconds, seemed interminable.
Maybe. I’ll let you know on Monday.
me: Good enough.
I worked online for a few more minutes, but I couldn’t concentrate. Thankfully no more work had come in. My heart wasn’t into it. I had started a blog when I first moved out on my own, some place to record my thoughts and feelings. I’d never expected much from it, but soon it evolved and even allowed me the opportunity to earn some money. Not a ton, but enough. The power was on, there was food in the fridge, and my car had gas in it. What more could I ask for?
I wanted a cure. I dreamed of a cure. I wished, more than anything, there would be some way to save my daughter.