At any turn, p.28
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       At Any Turn, p.28

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
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  The doorknob clicked and I quietly turned it, slowly pushing open the door. Emilia was inside the bathtub with only a bathrobe cinched around her. All across the counter, a multitude of pregnancy tests were lined up. All different brands, colors and shapes—she must have spent hundreds of dollars on them all. Every single one of them was used. They all showed the exact same result in different ways; some had pink lines, some had blue, some had a red “plus” sign and some just said the word “pregnant” on mini digital screens. Well, that answered that question. She must have been up half the night peeing on them.

  And from the look of her, she hadn’t slept since the last time I’d seen her. I went to sit on the edge of the bathtub and she looked up at me with pathetic, red-rimmed eyes. “Emilia, you need to sleep. ”

  Heath walked in, looked at the counter and his jaw dropped. He shot a death look at Emilia. “What the fuck is this?”

  Emilia didn’t move, just pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes. I turned to Heath. “Hey, man, I got this. Do you mind—?”

  And that’s when he grabbed me by the shirt, pulled me up and shoved me back against the wall.

  “Did you do this to her?” he said, getting in my face. I pushed him off of me. Heath was a big guy and easily had twenty or more pounds on me. It wouldn’t go well for either of us in a fight and I sure as hell wasn’t in the mood for this bullshit now.

  “Get the fuck off of me—”

  “What the fuck did you do, man? Did you get her pregnant?” Heath’s face, only inches from my own, was murderous.

  Emilia was now standing in the tub. She reached over and grabbed Heath’s shoulder. “Heath, get off of him!”

  Page 107

  The next thing I felt was the sucker punch to my gut. Fire blossomed in my lower abdomen. I shoved Heath back while fighting for my next breath. He went flying backward into the sink and knocked the army of pee sticks off the counter. I backed out of the bathroom, putting my arms up.

  “Calm down, Heath. ”

  Emilia was shouting at the same time. “Heath! I have this handled, all right? Knock it off!”

  Heath pivoted from me and turned his wrath on Emilia. “You’ve got this handled? You’ve got this fucking handled? You have chemo next week. How the fuck do you think that’s going to happen now?”

  Chemo? That word hit me like a second punch to my gut. Emilia was saying something to Heath in a low voice, but he was red-faced and furious. He stepped back into the bathroom. “No, no. I’m not going to ‘shut the fuck up,’ all right? You should have told him weeks ago. You should have told them all weeks ago. Maybe then he wouldn’t have fucked you and handed you your death sentence. ”

  I stepped back, stunned. From my angle, I couldn’t see either of them, but I could see the counter behind the sink and now, beyond the plethora of scattered pregnancy tests, I noticed an entire lineup of prescription bottles. The realization hit me then, like a Mack truck driving straight through my chest.

  Emilia had cancer.

  And she was pregnant.

  And she needed chemotherapy.

  I turned and staggered down the hall, trying to catch my breath, running my hand through my hair. Heath came down the hall after me. I spun.

  He looked exactly like he was going to take another swing at me. “You fucked it up again, man. You fucked it up good—literally. ”

  I could feel the blood draining out of my face. I almost stepped forward and purposely left myself open for another punch. It would have felt better than the utter terror coursing through my veins at this moment. I could hardly even think.

  “She has stage two HER2-positive breast cancer,” he choked out, appearing as near to losing it as I felt. “It’s extremely dangerous—extremely aggressive. When she was in Maryland, she had a chunk of her breast removed and she’d been taking drugs that fucked up her hormones. She was also on painkillers for a little while—those syringes you found in her bag. She’d just finished radiation therapy before the Con. And she was supposed to start chemo next week, but they won’t do it now if she’s pregnant so fuck you very much for that. ”

  I turned away from him, put my face in my hands. I didn’t even care if he came at me. Oh, God. This got worse and worse with each minute that passed. I longed to go back to yesterday when the worst problem I thought we were facing was what we were going to do about her pregnancy. But this was making me wish the ground would open up under my feet and swallow me whole.

  There was silence between us and I could tell Heath was trying to figure out what to do or say. That made two of us. I was reeling, like the room spinning around me. I closed my eyes, squeezed them shut. My heart was still racing.

  When Heath finally spoke, it was in a voice thick with emotion. “I fucked up, too. Because I should have told you, even if she would have disowned me. She’s shut everyone out and I’ve been the one carrying the football for this whole thing. ”

  I blinked, looked down, hardly trusted myself to speak, glad he couldn’t see my face. “Thanks for taking care of her. I—” My voice shook and I cut myself off, shaking my head. My throat stung and I couldn’t think.

  I heard Heath come up behind me slowly. “You should talk to her, man. ”

  I fought for breath, and even that simple act was painful. “I have no idea what we have to say to each other. ”

  Heath came closer and I tensed. He hooked a hand onto my shoulder. “You need to talk to her. You know what she needs to do and she’s not going to listen to me. ”

  “She’s not going to listen to me either. ”

  “Adam,” Heath said, his voice hardening. “Man up, okay? Look past your own hurt feelings. If she doesn’t do what we both know she has to, she could die. ”

  I shrugged off his hand, turned from him and rubbed the morning beard on my chin, knowing he was right. I nodded.

  Heath sighed heavily. “I’m gonna get dressed and get out of here for a few hours. Let you two talk. ”

  I nodded again, still unable to look at him or focus on anything. He turned and walked out. I sat on the couch and stared down the hall for a long time after Heath ducked his head into the guestroom where Emilia was staying and told her he was leaving her with me. I pulled out my smart phone and did a search for stage two HER2-positive breast cancer. I added pregnancy into the search. I skimmed as fast as I could to glean as much information as possible. The cold fear was fading into the background and now hard, rational problem-solving was stepping in to take its place. This I was comfortable with. This I knew…As I gathered the information I’d need, my mind was working constantly to find a way through this puzzle.

  Page 108

  I waited for her to come out, bent over the tiny screen, my elbows on my knees, my face in one hand. Finally, after over half an hour, I heard her step down the hall. I slipped my phone back into my pocket.

  She wore those same baggy jeans from yesterday and had pulled on a bright pink T-shirt, just as baggy. I didn’t move, didn’t look up until I felt her sink down on the couch next to me, curling her legs underneath her.

  I stood up. “You need breakfast,” I said.

  She looked away from my gaze. “Not feeling real hungry right now. ”

  I ignored her, went into the kitchen, stuck a piece of bread in the toaster, scraped a small bit of butter across it, the way I knew she liked it, and brought it back to her, holding it in front of her. “Eat,” I ordered.

  With a distinct sigh she pulled it off the plate and took a tiny bite, then pulled it away from her face, taking forever to chew it. I continued to watch her and when she swallowed the first bite I raised my brows at her expectantly. She grimaced and took another bite, tearing it off reluctantly and chewing.

  When I was satisfied that she would continue, I sat down on the same spot beside her. She only finished half the toast before she set it on the plate. I didn’t protest. It was better than nothing.

  “Heath told
me that you know everything,” she finally said in a shaky voice.

  I cocked my head toward her, trying to ignore the ice-cold boulder of panic forming at the center of my being. But it wasn’t just panic. It was betrayal. Hurt. Helplessness. God, it was like Bree all over again only ten times worse.

  “Do I?” I finally asked in a tight voice.

  She blinked. “I was going to tell you right from the start but—” She cut off at my look of disbelief. “I was. That night we hung out at Dale and Boomers…I was going in for the biopsy the next day and I was going to tell you, but…you were stressed and upset about the lawsuit and I didn’t even know if this was going to turn out to be anything so I didn’t say anything. ”

  I continued to stare at her without responding, with the hope that this would draw out more details. “Adam, it’s been a shitty few months for you and I didn’t want to make it worse. But when the test came up positive…I came over to your house to tell you. ”

  I blinked and looked away. The day she’d found out about the PI.

  “And yeah, I got pissed off because you were trying to take over and take control instead of letting me come to you. I was so angry and I felt betrayed. So I didn’t want to tell you for a while. After that you were pissed because I went to Baltimore and then you started dating other people so I thought it was over—” Her voice trembled and cut off at a sob. She put the back of her hand to her mouth as if to smother it.

  I closed my eyes, utterly horrified at what she’d gone through alone—and then thinking I’d moved on with someone else. “One person. One time. And only because…because I thought your going to Maryland meant that you’d decided to move on without me. ” I reached out and took her hand in mine. It felt limp, cold. Like death. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

  Her fingers returned the pressure, but she didn’t look at me. “There were so many times when I wanted to tell you—when I almost told you. But something always stopped me. Or maybe it was just my own cowardice. ”

  That frustration rose up inside, me, tightened in my chest. “I could have helped you. I would have taken care of you. Fuck, I’d walk through Hell barefoot for you if necessary. ”

  “You would have taken over. ”

  I was silent for a long moment, scrubbing a hand over my face. “And my not having any control at all has turned out so well,” I said dryly.


  “You remember when you said I was like a storm blowing you this way and that? And I told you that the storm was life and I was the anchor holding you down. I could have been, for this. I would have been here for you, if you had let me. ”

  She tilted her face down so I couldn’t see when I glanced at her, but she sniffed a little and swept a tear away with the back of her hand. Long silence stretched between us, thick, solid. I felt lightheaded, disoriented.

  “What happens now?” I asked.

  She opened her mouth to reply and then shut it. “I—I haven’t thought that far ahead. ”

  Of course she hadn’t. Neither of us had. But Heath’s words were still fresh in my mind. You know what she has to do. I did know. And I had no idea what her reaction would be.

  “Well, you should see your doctor first thing on Monday. You’re seeing an oncologist?”

  Page 109

  She nodded.

  “A good one?”

  She cleared her throat. “The day after the diagnosis, I went to see Dr. Martin—the oncologist I did my undergraduate research under. He’s the one who sponsored my application to Hopkins. He got on the phone with a colleague who specializes in breast cancer oncology here and then set up my consultation and surgery in Maryland. ”

  My mouth dropped open. “How did you afford all that?”

  She took a deep breath and shot me a fearful look. “Um. Credit card and…the engagement ring. ”

  I looked away, and wildly, a chuckle rose in my throat. A strange orphan of a creature, this cynical, dry laugh. It was born from the bizarre irony we found ourselves in. That ring—that symbol of my trying to take control of a situation quickly slipping away from me, used instead by her to assert her independence, so she wouldn’t have to come to me for financial help.

  I pulled my hand away from hers. It probably should have hurt my feelings more than it did but at this point I was starting to feel dead inside.

  “You need a second opinion. I’m going to find out who the best is and you are going to see him or her. ”

  She stiffened next to me. “I have my treatment plan in place. I’m already—”

  My voice rose. “Oh really? What part of your plan involved getting pregnant?”

  She blinked. I instantly felt like a dick for blurting it out. I reached out and took her hand again. “I’m sorry. I know it wasn’t what you planned. I’m just…” and I let my voice die out.

  “Scared?” she said.

  Fucking utterly pit-in-my-stomach terrified was more like it. I looked away, nodded. My hand tightened around hers. Was Heath right? Was getting her pregnant like handing her a death sentence?

  “I’ll find a good clinic, too. I’m sure there’s something fantastic up in LA where we can have it done quickly. ”

  She frowned. “Have what done?”

  “The abortion. ”

  She sat back, pulling her hand away from mine. “I haven’t made that decision yet. ”

  I turned on the couch so that I was fully facing her. “The decision has been made for you. You have cancer. You need chemotherapy. You can’t have that and be pregnant. And who knows what damage the radiation has done…”

  She shook her head. “I finished that before I conceived. There’s no risk after the fact. ” Her eyes drifted to the window, her head tilted, thinking. “As for the chemo, I could delay it. ”

  My fist closed on the couch beside my thigh. “No, you can’t. You have no time. You need to fight this shit now. ”

  Her gaze returned to mine. “There are some forms of chemo that are safe for a fetus in the second trimester. ”

  Yeah, I’d just read that. But it wasn’t the type of chemo she needed and the second trimester was at least two months away. “You don’t have that kind of time. I’ve been sitting here reading about this and it’s worse than most other types of breast cancer and—”

  She put her hand out to stop me. “Please. I know and I don’t need to hear this right now. ”

  “But maybe you need to be reminded that your type of cancer is particularly sensitive to hormones. That’s why you had to stop taking the pill, right?”

  She nodded.

  “And what do you think the pregnancy hormones are going to do to you? What do you really think your oncologist is going to say?”

  She slumped back, rubbing her forehead. “Please tell me you aren’t saying all this because you don’t want this. ”

  “What I want doesn’t even belong in this conversation, besides the fact that I want you to have the best chance to fight this. To live. ”

  “Where would I be if my mother had made the choice to abort her pregnancy?” she said in a quiet voice. “She had the choice and she chose not to. ”

  Ah fuck. Fuck. She was actually considering this lunacy. “Her circumstances were different. If she were here right now she’d tell you that exact same thing. ”

  She turned to me, paling. “Please don’t tell her. She’ll get worried. She might get sick again—Please, Adam!”

  That was an argument for another day. I wouldn’t make that promise. If I determined that Kim was the only one who could talk sense into her daughter, then I sure as hell was going to tell her. And for fuck’s sake, there’d been more than enough secrecy about this already.

  “You can’t go through with this. ”

  “My father wanted my mother to get an abortion,” she said in a raspy voice, glaring at me.

  Page 110

  Great. Now she was comparing me to that bastard. Why did it
always come down to this? “Emilia, you can have other children, when you are healthy again. ”

  “If chemo doesn’t destroy my fertility like it could. This might be my only chance. ”

  I clenched my teeth. “This is no chance, for you or a baby. If the cancer becomes metastatic during the pregnancy, then it’s all over and that child has no mother to grow up with. ”

  “He’d have a father,” she said.

  I blew out a tight breath and looked away. After a minute I shook my head. “Please tell me you aren’t seriously considering this—”

  “I’m saying I have a choice and I need to think about—”

  “No!” I nearly shouted, causing her to jump. Then I cleared my throat and took a breath to calm the fuck down. “No, there is nothing to think about. There is the choice of life or death. ”

  “No, it’s life or life. My life or the baby’s life. And terminating the pregnancy does not guarantee I’ll be healthy anyway. ”

  I ran my hand into my hair, curling my fingers so that it pulled at the roots. I would have happily yanked it out if doing so could solve this issue. I shot up off the couch, bubbling over with restless energy. I started pacing, like I was thinking through a programming snarl or working out a development issue, my mind racing over every eventuality.

  In every one of them except Emilia getting the abortion, I saw her dying. Either next year or five years from now.

  She watched me, her eyes glued to my every movement. “I don’t expect you to understand—”

  I shook my head furiously. “No. No, I don’t understand. It’s like you’re giving up. Like you don’t give a shit about your own life. ” I stopped and faced her. “Well, what about my life? What about what this does to me if you have the kid and then you die?”

  She took in a shaky breath. “Don’t take over for me. Don’t railroad my decisions, my fight, my struggle. This is partly the reason I didn’t tell you in the first place. Because I knew how this would be. You’d step in—you’d ‘handle’ it. It’s my life—”

  “It’s our life, Emilia. But you haven’t ever wanted to think of anything as us. Ever. That’s been our problem all along. ”

  She shot up from her seat, her face flushed with anger. “I was thinking about you, Adam. I was. Don’t you pull that shit on me. Who’s the one who flipped out when you thought I was going to Hopkins? Were you thinking about ‘us’ then or yourself? What about when you hired that PI to stalk me and tell you everything? Or going through my bag. Or—fuck does it ever end? So don’t you dare pull that ‘I’m the only one thinking about us. ’ Because I call absolute bullshit on that!”

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