At any moment, p.2
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       At Any Moment, p.2

         Part #3 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey  

  I played a game on my phone to avoid having to sit and think about everything that was happening. I’d done too much thinking throughout the weekend and was starting to get exhausted and nauseated by it.

  Page 5

  But the game was interrupted when Heath, my roommate and best friend, texted me.

  Hey, did you make it to your dr. appointment okay?

  I typed out my reply:

  Yes. On way to 2nd appt.


  No. A is with me.

  Ok. I’ll be home when you get here.

  Just as he’d promised and in spite of my fears to the contrary, Adam returned about a quarter of an hour later with his laptop case slung over his sturdy shoulder. The second doctor was in some super fancy medical building in Newport Beach right next to Hoag Hospital (half country club, half medical response to the rich and sometimes famous). Adam’s search for “the best” in OC must have led him there.

  After taking twenty minutes to page through my tests and charts from the flash drive, she looked up at me, grim-faced. Her numbers were not as good as Dr. Metcalfe’s.

  Less than fifty percent if I went through with the pregnancy. She was dead serious and adamant that I not pursue this course.

  “I strongly recommend termination and immediate rounds of chemotherapy. ”

  And that’s when, slumped on her fancy exam table, I felt the tears filling my eyes. I met Adam’s gaze through my hazy vision. His face was cold, impassive. I imagined him telling me, “I told you so. ” I looked away and blinked, unable to breathe.

  The whole world around me felt like it was sinking.

  Chapter Two


  I watched Emilia closely as the doctor delivered her prognosis numbers. She bravely tried to hide the emotional reaction that I knew was near the surface. The doctor excused herself and I stood, approaching her as she sat on the exam table. She didn’t look up or move at all, her eyes fixed on some point in the middle distance, her mind far away from this point in time.

  I swallowed, feeling the same old guilt almost suffocate me. But by necessity, I shoved it aside. I couldn’t let emotions get in the way, not now. This was a critical time and we had to act fast. My sole concern was Emilia’s health and survival. Everything else could be taken care of later, when she was healthy again. Hopefully by then there would be enough pieces of us to pick up and put back together.

  I prayed to a God I didn’t really believe in that she listened to what the doctors had told her today. Since I’d had the time to recover from the shock of discovering that not only was she pregnant but she also had cancer, I’d taken the time to analyze the way I’d handled it. And determined that I should have done everything in the opposite way of what I’d done.

  So I’d spent the whole weekend strategizing and coming up with a plan. These doctor visits were part of that plan. I hoped, rather than knew, that she would follow the medical advice. Emilia was a very smart woman but at this point she was being driven by pure emotion. Since we’d argued on Saturday morning about her need to terminate the pregnancy, and faced with her adamant refusal to do it, I’d decided to back off and be there for her. We hadn’t mentioned the subject again because I feared that the more she fought me over it, the deeper she would dig in her heels.

  I hoped that she’d listen to the medical advice, but if she wouldn’t, I wasn’t going to give up—I’d find something or someone she would listen to. For this reason, I had set about up a back-up plan.

  Emilia was quiet the entire walk down to the parking structure. I opened the car door for her and she slid inside, her shoulders rounded. When I sank into the driver’s seat, she was staring straight ahead. I reached over and took one of her hands in mine. It was cold and lifeless, and she didn’t return the pressure when I folded her hand inside mine.

  “Mia,” I said quietly. “Are you okay?”

  She blinked. “What do you think?”

  “I’m sorry. ”

  “It’s not your fault. ” She buried her face in her hands and laughed bitterly. “I bet you wish you’d gotten laid with that model of Jordan’s instead of hopping into the sack with me. ”

  I pulled her into my arms. She laid her head on my shoulder. “Now you are just being silly. ”

  She grabbed my shoulders, holding me against her. “Adam, I’m sorry. ”

  “I don’t want you to apologize. All I want is for you to have the best chance possible. ”

  After holding each other in long silence, she quietly said, “Can you take me home now?”

  I hesitated. Home. For me, her home was my house, where we’d lived together until our breakup two months before. And it hurt when I realized that her reference to “home” meant Heath’s condo. I turned and gave her a quick peck on the cheek, then pulled away.

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  I started the car, on the way to set up my back-up plan, but it didn’t involve taking her to Heath’s place.

  By the time I got on the freeway, she was dozing in the seat next to me—thankfully. I knew she was exhausted. I’d kept the top up to minimize the wind inside the car so it wouldn’t keep her awake. She hadn’t slept enough lately. Her head lolled forward and all I could see was that ridiculous white fluff of hair that she had recently bleached white and dyed in rainbow colors to match her fairy costume for the company costume party at our convention in Las Vegas. The hair coloring had been permanent—presumably because she’d anticipated it would soon be falling out from the chemotherapy she was supposed to start this week. She looked like a faded punk rock star from the ’90s.

  I took the long route, so she didn’t start to stir until I exited the freeway. Rather than head straight up Chapman Avenue to Heath’s house, I turned right, toward North Tustin and my uncle’s house instead.

  She blinked, coming awake, groggily asking, “Why are we going to Peter’s house?”

  When I didn’t answer, she glared at me, realization dawning. She straightened in her seat. “Adam, stop the car. ”

  Instead I shifted, pressed the gas and headed up the hill toward the high school.

  “Adam,” she said between clenched teeth.

  “You need to tell her sooner or later. ”

  She hissed through her teeth like I’d just punched her in the stomach. “Stop. The. Fucking. Car. ”

  We were about two blocks away from Peter’s house. I pulled over to the nearest curb and turned off the ignition. I hesitated, staring out the window in front of me, gripping the wheel. Emilia sat stiffly beside me, fuming. I’d been willing to risk her anger because if Kim was the only one who could talk sense into her, then she was my secret weapon. At this point, I was willing to do whatever needed to be done. I was that desperate.

  I waited for her to catch her breath, her cheeks even paler than normal, her hands white-knuckling the edges of her bucket seat.

  I took my hands off the steering wheel and watched her carefully.

  “Mia…She’s your mom. You have to tell her. ”

  She pressed the heel of her shaking hand to her forehead. “I don’t have to do anything. ”

  I took a deep, calming breath, staring out the windshield, trying to collect myself.

  She fidgeted in her seat next to me. “Take me back to Heath’s, please. ”

  After a long pause, she turned to stare at me expectantly.

  “I’ll take you back to Heath’s under one condition. You hear me out first. ”

  Her jaw tightened and then relaxed and finally she nodded, her eyes avoiding mine.

  “When we were just online friends, I recall sitting up with you all night online until six a. m. the night you found out about your mom’s cancer. Do you remember that?”

  She bit her lip. “Of course. ”

  “I know how painful that was for you. I also know you are trying to protect her now—”

  “Don’t make this about me. You are angry with me becau
se I didn’t tell any of you, but what you need to understand—”

  I held up a hand to cut her off. “We’re not talking about me right now, Mia. We’re talking about your mom. She has a right to know. She has a right to be the strong one for you, to help you. You’re going to need people. That’s probably harder than hell for you to admit. ”

  She rubbed her forehead with a shaky hand. “I know I need—but—I—God, I remember how I felt when she told me. I remember how it felt to be the helpless one standing by, not able to do a single goddamn thing. It was the worst thing I’ve ever gone through in my life and I wanted to spare her”—she looked at me—“and you…”

  I bit my tongue to keep the irritated reply where it belonged—unspoken in my mouth. Because finding out the way I did was so much better than your not telling me.

  Her eyes widened in reaction. Apparently she saw what I was thinking and I cursed myself for not hiding my thoughts better. I used to be so good at that.

  She took a deep breath. “I know it was my own cowardice, too. I can’t explain what was going through my head because it sounds so ridiculous. It started out just a small thing. First a suspicion, a biopsy. But then the diagnosis came and I…It was like getting cancer was somehow letting you all down. There were all these problems between us before and then this…I thought it would finish us. I was like damaged goods. ”

  I exhaled in surprise but didn’t say anything. She swallowed, casting a nervous glance at me before continuing.

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  “I know these sound like silly excuses. ”

  “Yes, they’re excuses,” I replied quietly. “There’s never a good time to have something shitty happen to you. But to lock everyone out? That’s how you make it worse for everyone else—and for yourself. Because by doing that, you made us more than helpless. And whether you’d want to admit it or not—You. Need. Our. Help. ”

  She sighed. “I thought it would be a quick surgery and some radiation. So I didn’t think it really necessary to bother anyone with it—”

  I scowled. I couldn’t help it. Fucking cancer and she didn’t want to “bother” us with it.

  “Let’s not worry about the past, okay? It’s done. Let’s talk about today. Now. Your mom needs to know. She deserves to know. And she deserves to hear it from you. ” The same way I deserved to hear it…

  She shook her head. “Don’t force this on me. ”

  “I won’t. But…think of it like this. What if she had never told you about her cancer? You were away at school. She could have kept it from you for months without a problem. How would you have felt after finding out that she’d gone through all that alone? She will find out, eventually. You can’t hide this from her forever. Please, Mia. ”

  She pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes and began to sob, her entire body shaking. “I’m scared, Adam! Okay? I don’t know which I’m more scared to tell her about, the cancer or the pregnancy. ”

  I reached out and pulled one of her palms away from her face, took her hand in my own. My fingers closed around hers. “I’ll be there. I’ll help you. ”

  She was still and silent for a long moment. Took a deep breath and, with her head bowed, finally nodded. “Okay,” she whispered, and her hand tightened around mine.

  After a long pause, I slowly removed my hand from hers and turned to start the car again. A few minutes later, I was pulling into Peter’s driveway. Kim had stayed over another day when I’d contacted her yesterday, asking her to. Heath would be here shortly, too. This was Emilia’s intervention.

  Chapter Three


  I slowly got out of the car, my muscles stiff with annoyance. Adam had been prepared to handle this in the same high-handed fashion he handled most things—until he’d heeded my pleas to pull over. But I hadn’t been prepared for his calm, cool reasoning. His gentle pleas. That was different…

  I took a deep breath, my heartbeat racing. Adam hesitated, hovering nearby. I stared at the red-trimmed front door to Peter’s house, knowing my mom was in there, knowing I was about to drop a bomb right into the middle of her life when she had just found a new love and things were starting to look up for her in her life. “Give me a minute,” I muttered.

  He didn’t move, looking away and putting his hands in his pockets. “Take the time you need. ”

  Adam did have a point—it was time to tell Mom. I’d been wondering when I could tell her and I’d kept putting it off. Might as well get it over with in one quick and painful blow.

  A weight sank in my stomach and everything tightened in my chest as I nodded and he turned for the front door. I numbly followed him up the porch steps. He opened the door without knocking, like he always did and called inside. “Hey, we’re here. ”

  Mom was the first person I saw and Adam stepped aside so that she could greet me, throwing a hug around my neck. I could tell by her face that she didn’t know. Her features were clouded with uncertain worry. I’d like to think I’d know what her face would look like if she knew about the diagnosis. I’d seen that face a thousand times when I’d imagined telling her. In my own thoughts I never got past the first word or two before utterly breaking down at the thought of having to destroy her like this.

  I knew how that had felt two years before when she’d gotten her diagnosis. It had gutted me, and Mom was only very recently cancer-free herself. What if the stress of my diagnosis made her sick again?

  I pulled away from Mom, unable to meet her eyes. She put her hands on either side of my cheeks. “Mia,” she said quietly. “Whatever it is, we’ll get through it, okay? I’m here for you. ”

  I looked into her brown eyes, so much like my own, and I couldn’t keep it inside anymore. I started sobbing. Again.

  Her arms wrapped around me. We stood in the kitchen alone. Adam had already stepped away. I tilted my face into my mom’s shoulder and muffled my crying as best I could but I was shaking so hard I couldn’t even gather a thought, much less collect myself.

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  “Shhh,” she said, smoothing my hair like she used to do when I was a little girl.

  She guided me into the living room where Adam and Peter sat in chairs across from us. Mom guided me to sit down next to her on the couch. Somehow the presence of others forced me to try to pull myself together and stop bawling like a baby. Adam got up, fetched a box of tissues and set them on the coffee table in front of me. I grabbed a handful of them and mopped my face.

  “Adam, maybe we should step out,” Peter said quietly.

  “No,” I said finally in a shaky voice. “It’s okay. You should be here for her. ”

  I turned to my mom, who’d raised her brows at my words. I put a hand on each shoulder, sniffed and squared my own shoulders, trying to find the strength to say those horrid words. “I—uh—” I began in a shaky voice. I cleared my throat. “I have cancer, Mom. ”

  Mom didn’t react at first. Then, after about a three-second delay, she looked like someone had stomped on her feet with steel sole boots and she was trying not to show a reaction.

  So I took a deep breath and kept talking. “It’s, um, it’s a carcinoma, stage two, in my left breast. I had a lumpectomy in October and hormone therapy and, uh, I need to start chemo. ”

  My mom’s lips disappeared into her mouth and I could tell she was trying her hardest not to cry. She was trying to do that thing I’d done when she’d told me about her diagnosis.

  Finally, after a minute of trying to contain it, she broke down. “Oh God, baby,” she said, taking me in her arms, pulling me close. No one understood the road ahead of a cancer patient like a cancer survivor. My mom knew intimately every torture in store for me.

  Almost every torture.

  “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said tightly.

  “I didn’t tell anyone. ”

  “Not even Adam?” she said, pulling away and looking at him.

  And that was when I finally felt like di
rt for the first time. I’d thought I was being strong for them. I’d thought I was choosing to brave my battle—a battle that only I could fight—without burdening them.

  This was the first moment I realized how selfish I’d been.

  I sat back and looked at Adam. His face was blank but his eyes were heavy with accusations and hurt. I looked back at my mom. “I only told Heath. ”

  My mom shook her head, clearly not understanding. A million excuses jumped into my head. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. I was confused. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to fight the cancer on my terms.

  But every excuse was all dust and ashes. Meaningless to the people who loved me.

  “So you made Heath keep this from us? Oh, Mia, that was so unfair to him. But—” She put her hand on my arm, shaking my shoulder so that I’d look at her again. “Now is not the time to discuss how you’ve handled it. Now, we talk about what comes next. When do you start chemo? And where?”

  I straightened, pulling away from her. I kept my eyes fixed on her. I couldn’t meet the gaze pinning me down from across the room. This was what he’d counted on. He knew that it would rip my heart out to tell my mother that I was going to deny chemo. I clenched my teeth, trying to swallow that bitter pill.

  “Kim, there’s a complication,” Adam spoke up in a quiet voice. “Mia can’t start chemo this week because she’s pregnant. ” I closed my eyes—mostly to block out my mom’s reaction. But I was such a coward because of the relief I felt that Adam had told her for me. I felt like falling at his feet in gratitude.

  My mom jerked her gaze back to stare at me. She opened her mouth to say something, but, apparently unable to find the words, she shut her mouth again. Her face went white as the wall behind her.

  The doorbell rang and Adam stood up to get it, walking quickly down the hall. Peter leaned forward, “Kim, can I get you some water or something?”

  At her vigorous head shake, he leaned back, watching her carefully. Mom turned to me again, her jaw slack again, gaping like a fish.

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