At any turn, p.29
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       At Any Turn, p.29

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
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  During her tirade, her pale features had grown flushed. I opened my mouth to respond but she waved me off with a cutting gesture.

  “You don’t understand. You could never understand. You refuse to understand. I have life and death growing inside my body right now. I choose life. ” She turned and left the room.

  I stood, stunned, watching her go. She disappeared into her room and I could hear her rifling through the drawers in her dresser. I knew what that meant. I burst through her door when her backpack was half-packed.

  “Oh, no you fucking don’t,” I said, upending the backpack and emptying it onto the bed. “You are not running away again. ”

  “Stop it! I need to get away and clear my head. I’m going up to Anza for a couple days. ”

  “Does that mean you are going to talk to your mom?”

  She glanced at me as she grabbed fistfuls of her things and shoved them back in her bag. “She’s staying over with Peter this weekend. They were trying to convince me to go out to dinner with them tonight. She won’t be in Anza. ”

  “So you are going up there all alone?”

  She raised her brow. “I’m a big girl. ”

  “You had better have your ass in that doctor’s office on Monday morning. ”


  “Or I’ll come get you and drag you there. ”

  She frowned, shaking her head. “This isn’t one of those problems you solve by pulling out your wallet, writing your check, or where you puzzle it out with your think tank. There is no one right answer and you think you can force your answer down my throat. This is why I couldn’t trust you. ”

  That sucker punch that Heath had thrown into my gut an hour before? Yeah, that hurt less than her words had. This is why I couldn’t trust you.

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  “Emilia—” I took her arm as she moved around me, with her repacked bag.

  She shrugged it away. I grabbed her again and she turned and slapped me on the face, then backed away. The tears were coming now and she was shaking.

  “No! You need to understand something. This is my body and I haven’t had full control over what’s happened to it for months. I’ve been poked and cut into and irradiated. Now they want to pump toxins through me to root the cancer out. But this I have control over and no one, not you, not anyone can take it away from me. ”

  I struggled to draw in a breath. That fear was back. Bree, shouting at me to get back on the bus, throwing my backpack at me. My vision blurred for a split second.

  “You can’t leave. ” But she was already turning, already out the bedroom door. I spun and followed her. But all I could see was my dying sister on the curb, staring at the bus as it pulled away. I’d cranked my head around, my wet, sticky face pressed to the glass. I’d watched her until she disappeared from my sight. Forever.

  Sometimes you had to concede—call a draw to end the long struggle.

  Her hand was on the doorknob and I wanted to bar her way, shove my weight against the door, forcibly prevent her from leaving. But I couldn’t. She was right. It was her choice.

  But now that I knew her secret, it was time she knew mine. “I love you,” I said hoarsely as she turned the knob. She froze.

  Then, she took a deep breath, pulling the door open. Barely above a whisper she said, “I know. ”

  “No, you don’t know. There’s so much you don’t know because—because I could never tell you. Because it hurt too much. If you walk out that door it will be just like what Bree did that night she left and never came back. ”

  Quietly Emilia closed the door again and removed her hand from the knob, but she didn’t turn to face me, waiting for me to continue, presumably.

  “She tucked me in every night. After I changed and she checked to make sure I’d brushed my teeth. She did it every night. Made me open my mouth so she’d know I wasn’t lying, because I hated brushing my teeth. ” My voice shook and I was feeling pretty goddamn unmanly at the moment, but I couldn’t stop myself from talking. Emilia tipped her head forward and rested it on the door, listening.

  “But that night was different because she didn’t change into her pajamas. She stayed dressed in her clothes and her duffel bag was packed. She told me she was going to stay over at Christina’s for a while. But I knew it was a lie because Christina hadn’t been allowed to see her for months since Bree had stolen her mom’s meds and her mom had found out about it. ” I was babbling like an idiot, I knew. The odds were that Emilia had no idea what I was talking about.

  “So that night she sat me down before I went to bed and she told me she loved me and she’d always watch out for me. She wasn’t going to see me for a while because Mom wouldn’t stop beating her up and she had to go. I did exactly what I want to do to you right now—I threw myself in her way, barred the door. Because I knew that she wasn’t coming back…how could she just leave like that?” My voice faded away. Emilia’s shoulders shook as if she was crying.

  I cleared my throat and waited a moment for when I could trust myself to speak. “She was a good kid. Smart. She wanted to be a journalist someday and travel the world. She never got further than the skuzziest part of Seattle. She was fucked up. But she was a mom to me. My little mom, I used to call her. She told me stories and made sure I had clean clothes in my drawer. When she left, I had to start doing that all for myself. I was eight goddamn years old and the only person who’d ever loved me—who I’d ever loved—was leaving me and I was utterly powerless to help her. I couldn’t do a fucking goddamn thing and she died, and I will always blame myself for not being able to save her. ”

  I rubbed the back of my neck and caught my breath. “I’m sorry I’ve fucked this up with us so badly. I wish I could explain to you how goddamn terrified I am inside—all the time—of losing you just like I lost her. That fear is the voice inside my head that tells me I have to move in and take control. If I don’t, I’ll lose everything. But it’s so fucked up because that fear is what caused me to push you away—”

  I stopped when she spun to face me, leaning back against the door. Her face was wet with tears and her eyes red from exhaustion. I wanted to cry just to see her like this. The emotion stung in my throat, the backs of my eyes like thousands of tiny needles. But I swallowed. I couldn’t lose it. Not here, not in front of her.

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  “Why are you telling me all this now?” she finally squeaked. “Why didn’t you tell me months ago?”

  I shook my head, scrubbed a hand over my face. “I should have done everything the opposite of what I did. I know that’s small comfort now. I can’t get Heath’s words out of my mind—that I’ve handed you a death sentence…” My voice cut out, the words dropping like rocks in my throat.

  She pushed off from the door, and came to me, crying again. She placed a hand on both cheeks and pulled my face down to look into hers. “You are not to blame for this. Okay? I should have told you about the diagnosis. I should have been more flexible—about everything. But I was scared, too. Of losing myself in you. That if I gave up completely on the goals I’d had before us, I was somehow betraying the person I was before. But you are right. We were an ‘us. ’ It was no longer just about ‘me. ’”

  I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her to me. “I promise you can go anywhere you want to for school. I won’t say a word about it. Even if you want to go to Germany, I’ll follow you there—or anywhere. I’d freeze my ass off in Alaska or bake in the Sahara or wherever. I will be wherever you go. But you have to promise me that you’ll fight this, goddamn it. ”

  “I’m so lost, Adam. I don’t know what to do. ”

  That made two of us. Her head fell against my chest and she was crying again, into my shirt. I kissed her hair, swallowed that emotion that was rising up again. “The first thing you have to do is sleep, because you haven’t had any in a long time. ”

  The minutes stretched out until she gained some composure, then slowly I slipp
ed her backpack off her shoulders. She didn’t resist, leaning heavily against me. “Come on…”

  “I couldn’t sleep all night. ”

  “I’m here now. You can sleep, okay? I’ll even hold you as tight as you want. ”

  We went back into her room and I quickly cleared the bed of things she’d left there in her frenzy of packing. She slipped off her shoes and her jeans and all but collapsed into the bed. I pulled her comforter over her and smoothed her hair back from her face. “Why the white hair?”

  She blinked lazily. “I figured it was all going to fall out anyway, so I wanted to see what I’d look like as a blonde first. ”

  A fist of emotion gripped me at the thought of her going through chemotherapy. I looked away, blinking. Was it going to happen now? This decision was completely out of my hands. It was her body. But I was terrified she was going to make the choice I couldn’t bear for her to make.

  I bent down and kissed her brow. “You’d look amazing with green hair, or yellow or purple. But I like the original color best,” I said.

  She smiled. “Hmm. That’s an idea…maybe green next week. ”

  “One day at a time, okay? Get some sleep. I’ll stay here with you if you want. ”

  She rolled over on her side facing the wall, just as she’d done that night after Heath and I had come home from the pub. I climbed onto her narrow twin bed, gathered her in my arms and held her tight. “You were in so much pain and I never knew. And I bitched about a couple fucking headaches. ”

  She reached up and put a hand on my cheek. “Shh. Let’s make each other a promise okay? No recriminations, self or otherwise. We’ve both made a lot of mistakes. But we’re smart people. We’ll learn from them. ”

  God, I hoped so.

  She was quiet for a long moment, then she took a deep breath. “Tighter,” she whispered and she pressed her back and legs flush up against me. “I love you,” she breathed.

  “I know,” I answered, wrapping her in my arms and squeezing tight.

  “Your arms around me…the prescription for all that ails me. ”

  God, how I wished that was the case.

  “They’ll always be here whenever you need them,” I whispered.

  She relaxed in my arms. “I’ve been scared constantly, every single day since this happened. The only times I wasn’t were the times when you held me. It was the only time I felt like everything would be all right. ”

  I pressed my lips to her temple. “Sleep, my sweet Mia. I’ll be here to hold you. ”

  My heartbeat drummed against her back. With each thud, I heard the question, what the hell are we going to do? What in God’s name were we going to do? The question spread over me, like a thick blanket, threatening to suffocate me. I could feel the panic rising again inside of me. I had no control and I despised this feeling.

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  All I knew was that I couldn’t lose her. I couldn’t. I listened to her breathing slow as she drifted off into sleep. She felt thinner in my arms. I pressed my cheek against hers, thinking about the tough road she had ahead of her. It would be months and months yet of grueling medical treatments. And this was in addition to the added complication of her pregnancy.

  What if she didn’t make it? The numbers were not nearly as good for her type of cancer as for other types of breast cancer. And the younger a patient was, the more dangerous the cancer could be.

  Last year this time, just before New Year’s, Emilia was just my online friend, the one whose company I’d so enjoyed, whose blog I loved to read. The one who caused me to find excuses to log on and play with the group. I enjoyed the others, but Emilia was the one who’d kept me coming back again and again.

  I could never, ever have imagined how my life would change the day I’d decided to win her auction. I thought that we’d have that trip to Amsterdam, the failed attempt to go through with the auction terms, and then I’d fade back out of her life again. But once I’d spent that time in her presence, I couldn’t let it go. Couldn’t let her go. Much as I would have never admitted it to myself at the time, I’d fallen hard and fast. My life was forever changed for the better since she had come into it.

  But would she leave me nearly as quickly?

  After an hour of these panicked thoughts racing through my mind and my inability to even breathe, I pulled myself away from her and kissed her before adjusting her blinds to keep the room dim. Then I went into the kitchen to grab a bottle of one of Heath’s microbrewery beers. Opening it, I sat down at Emilia’s rig in the alcove to continue with my initial research. I’d spend the rest of the weekend lining up everything we should be doing on Monday—emergency consultation with her doctor, mandatory second opinion, perhaps a third opinion if necessary. And hopefully, if I could convince her, a meeting with her mom.

  I jiggled her mouse to wake up her computer. The log-in music to Dragon Epoch was playing—presumably she’d left it on all night. It was at the log-in screen, like Heath had complained about. I went to exit her account from the game when my hand froze.

  She’d been playing on a different server and she had a completely new character in the loading screen, a level-four assassin. I blinked and through inexplicable blurring and thick emotion rising in my throat, I read the character’s name. MisterRogers.

  She’d unlocked the secret quest. Fitting, since she’d also traveled the impossible labyrinth to firmly implant herself in my heart. She’d stripped me bare of all the secrets I’d cloaked myself in. I was raw and honest and no longer hidden.

  Did she have any idea of her power over me? Of what she had done? I was a new man. Emilia had offered me my own red pill and I’d taken it. That red pill was the choice to embrace reality’s painful truth. But as the proverb went, that truth had set me free. It was an unburdening. It was freedom.

  I buried my face in my hands and allowed myself that moment of agony that I’d been holding off since I’d first found out about her illness. The tears finally came. They felt like thumbtacks poking the backs of my eyes, my throat. I couldn’t lose her. Not her, too.

  My fists clamped into balls of impotent rage, pressing against my leaking eyes. I wanted to throw something. My vision blurred, my mind blurred. How could I think when she was every other thought? How could I breathe without her when she was my breath? How could I live without her when she was my life?

  This life. Unpredictable. More puzzling than any game could simulate. One minute you’re at your highest high, only to be sent screaming to your lowest depths. At any turn, it shifts, it changes. And what once was normal is now forever lost in the past.

  So I allowed myself five minutes to let it all out and cry like a toddler for the first time since I was a boy watching his dying sister from the bus window. But I couldn’t allow more. I had to be here, be her rock. Be strong for her. For us.

  I had a lot to atone for.

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