At any moment, p.27
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       At Any Moment, p.27
 

         Part #3 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey

  “Then why aren’t you down there going to counseling with him? A good couples’ counselor—”

  “That’s not Adam’s style. He’s going to find his own way to deal with his shit. And I’m finding a way to deal with mine. ”

  “That’s the problem. You aren’t dealing with it together. ”

  “Hmm. Maybe it’s not time for us to do that yet. Maybe in order to be a healthy couple, we need to be healthy individuals first. ” I said the words and this time, I believed them, though I’d doubted the wisdom in them before, when Adam had said them to me.

  He was silent so I went to the stall where Whiskey was poking his head out, eyeing me expectantly. I scratched his head under his forelock. “Who’s my good boy?” I slipped a halter over his head and pulled him out of his stall. “You’re going to be a good boy for Heath, aren’t you?”

  “Yeah, or Heath’s going to kick your ass. Ask your buddy Tate,” Heath said. He turned back to me. “This was his idea, wasn’t it? For you to separate, to come back here. ”

  I didn’t answer, bending over to use the hoof pick to clean out Whiskey’s hooves.

  “That’s what I thought. ”

  I straightened and blew out a breath. “I’m not going to judge him for how he’s dealing with this. He needs time alone. I’m going to give it to him. I’d be hypocrite to judge him when I didn’t exactly handle things the best way possible between us last time. ”

  Heath looked away. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You are only human. ” He sighed. “This relationship shit is so hard. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth it. ”

  Page 104

  I grabbed the currycomb to give Whiskey a quick once-over on his dusty coat. “Things okay with you and Connor?”

  “Better than with you and Adam,” he replied.

  “That’s not saying much. ”

  “Can I go talk to him, at least?”

  My hand froze. Heath was one of precious few people who knew all that Adam and I had endured. Maybe it would help him to have a sympathetic ear…If, indeed, Heath’s ear was sympathetic.

  “He’ll think I sent you to talk to him. ”

  “You just said yourself that he’s my friend, too. And who else is he going to talk to about the—about everything. ”

  I swallowed, focusing on the dust I was stirring up on the surface of Whiskey’s coat. “You can say it, you know. You don’t have to spare my feelings. ”

  Heath sighed. “This is, woefully, reminding me of that shit that happened to you in high school, and that thought is making me physically ill. ”

  My brush froze in midstroke but I didn’t look at Heath.

  I knew exactly what he was referring to—that night that Zack, my high school boyfriend, had gotten drunk and assaulted me.

  “You blamed yourself for that shit, too, or have you forgotten?”

  I flung the brush into the tote and both horses jerked their heads up, startled. I quieted them by reassuring them and stroking their necks.

  Heath came up to stand beside me, took the arm that I was using to stroke Whiskey’s neck. “Don’t be pissed at me, Mia. But I’m calling you on this bullshit. What happened to you—getting cancer, getting pregnant, losing the baby—was no more your fault than that bullshit in high school was. It happened to you. Don’t punish yourself for it. ”

  Tears started to sting my throat and I blinked, gently pulling out of his hold. I cleared my throat furiously, blinked again and looked away.

  “Does he blame you? Is that what all this is about?”

  I waved him off. “Put the boxing gloves away, Sugar Ray. He doesn’t blame me. He says he can’t deal with how much I’m blaming myself. ”

  Heath folded his brawny arms across his chest. “Well, that makes two of us. I can’t deal with it, either. I see it in your eyes all the time. I saw what that innocent comment from Alex did to you…”

  I curled in on myself, putting my forehead in my hands. Tears were threatening again. I turned and tilted away from him but he grabbed me up and hugged me. “Shh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. ”

  His arms were comforting but they weren’t the arms I wanted around me.

  ***

  “So…to repeat your words back to you…you believe that if you let him see your scars, that will cause him to stop loving you?” Dr. Marbrow said, leaning forward.

  I shifted against the sleek couch in her office, the leather squeaking underneath my fidgeting. “It sounds ridiculous coming out of your mouth but makes perfect sense in here,” I said, pointing to my head.

  She tilted her head, a smile hinting at her lips. “That voice in there may be the most illogical thing you’ll ever hear but it will always sound right to you. It’s human nature. We give that voice a lot of power. Thus, sometimes the solution is to change that voice, change what it is saying to us. ”

  I shook inside. “I don’t want to. I mean…that voice is making me miserable inside but I don’t want to let it go. ”

  “Of course not,” she leaned back and crossed her legs. “How else would you torment yourself if that voice was gone?”

  Suddenly it was hard to breathe. I fiddled with my hands in my lap, staring at them. The backs of my legs were sweating and, since I was wearing shorts, sticking to the leather couch. I had no reply to that. I had been tormenting myself. Because everything in me believed that I deserved it. Dr. Marbrow noted something on the legal pad in front of her and then watched me before determining that I wasn’t going to answer her.

  She tucked a long strand of blonde hair behind her ear and began in a quiet voice. “Will the scars on your chest truly cause him to leave?”

  I shook my head slowly.

  “But you do fear you’ll lose him. ”

  If I hadn’t already. I closed my eyes and nodded.

  “What will make him leave, do you think?”

  I inhaled sharply through my nose and exhaled shakily.

  “It’s what the scars represent…” My voice faded and I cleared my throat, placing a hand over my heart. “The scars in here. The ones that make me feel so ugly on the inside. ”

  Page 105

  She nodded. “That’s the definition of love, you know. That the person is with you and stays by your side in spite of the ugliness—and that you do the same. He’s not perfect, either, as I’m sure you are well aware. ”

  I shook my head. “I did terrible things to him. ”

  “Such as…?” she raised her brow.

  My breath faltered. “I left him. I was angry—I—I didn’t know how to deal with how he was acting. So I didn’t tell him about the cancer—I thought I was protecting him but it was just easier that way. Easier for me to stay inside myself, to not have to rely on anyone. ”

  “But you can’t be sick and not rely on those closest to you. You had to accept help. ”

  I rubbed my temples. “The craziest part is that I had to force myself—even at my sickest. I have all these people around me who love me, who want to help me, and yet I refuse to let them. And because of that…”

  “You made some bad choices. So did he. ”

  I put my face in my hands. “But it’s all my fault. ”

  “You see what you are doing there, don’t you? You won’t even let people in on their share of the blame. It’s rather narcissistic when you think about it, to assume that all that has happened to you was caused by your actions alone. But that’s human nature, too. Because to seek out the blame for the chaotic events in our lives, we hope that it’s because we have some modicum of control over things we just don’t have control over. ”

  “I haven’t had control—” My words cut off in a sob.

  “It’s no wonder that Heath compared your reaction to this to what happened to you in high school. That was another instance where you had no control over what was happening to your body. Now this, the cancer, the chemo, the pregnancy, the abortion…”

>   My breath left me and I sat back, dazed. “I had a choice. I ended it. ”

  “Was it really a choice, though? You did what you had to do to survive. ”

  I shook. “I don’t think our relationship can withstand something like this. ” There was a long pause while she just looked at me, expected me to go on. I took a deep breath. “I don’t understand how he could love me anymore,” I said in a tiny voice.

  “He loves you because he doesn’t blame you. ”

  “He said he’s afraid to touch me. ”

  She nodded. “Sounds like he’s indulging in his share of the blame game, too. And your job is going to be to help him understand that…once you get over your own guilt. ”

  I looked at her through a shaky, tear-stained smile. “Can I put you in my pocket and keep you with me for a while?”

  She smiled. “What you can do is bring him up to meet me some day. If he’s okay with that. ”

  ***

  Days later, out in the paddock, I had my own sort of epiphany as I watched Rusty with her three-month-old colt, Silver. I studied them together. Trotting around, side by side. Sometimes he’d dart out in front of her, head high and proud of his independence but always casting an eye back at his mama. And Rusty never let him get too far, sometimes scolding him with a light nip or flick of her tail.

  My throat tightened up as I watched them and I let myself feel what I hadn’t allowed myself to feel in months—the mourning, the loss, what could have been. The tears came and I didn’t stop them. Not this time. I couldn’t shove those feelings away any longer.

  I wrote in my journal every day. I poured out every thought, every emotion. More often than not, I wrote in it more than once a day, going back to it when a stray thought flitted through my mind. It felt freeing to let out everything that I’d been keeping inside.

  I also Skyped with my friends. Jenna and Alex filled me in on the goings-on from the South Coast. Heath called me every few days to check up on me and I had a chance to videoconference with Kat.

  “So we all went out for pizza the other night…”

  “Really? Did you have fun?”

  “Hmm. Well, it was a big group. Most of us had fun. Jenna and William were at each other’s throats again about some obscure game I’d never even heard of before. Those two just need to fuck and get it over with. And then Heath and Adam wandered off somewhere for an hour. ”

  I tensed at the mention of Adam and she noticed. “Oh—yeah, sorry I forgot to tell you that. Heath and I twisted his arm to come out with us. We had to go get him at his office and force him under threat of exposing game secrets to the world. ”

  “You didn’t! You held the secret quest hostage?”

  Page 106

  Her smile grew devious. “I know how to get what I want. He wasn’t budging so I threatened. ”

  I paused for a minute, looked away from the screen and fiddled with some things on my desk. “How is he?”

  She knew I wasn’t asking about Heath.

  She nodded. “He’s fine. He’s his typical grim, intense self. ”

  I laughed. “He’s not always that way. ”

  She gave me a weird look. “Fallen has been intense for as long as I’ve known him. I just never knew why until now. But now that I know his real self, it’s understandable. He’s just that type of guy. ” She threw me a mischievous look. “It’s a good thing he’s so pretty to make up for it. ”

  I rolled my eyes and then laughed, quickly changing the subject. She groused about my lack of playing time and I didn’t want to tell her that the thought of playing the game right now was a little too painful…between all that was—or wasn’t—going on between Adam and me and the increasing conflict I was feeling over blogging on the subject of the secret quest, I felt torn about DE. I missed it but I knew I needed a break from it as well.

  Every day, I hiked to my special spot up on the valley rim near my mom’s house. I would arrive just at sunset, when the early summer evenings were painted in oranges and deep, deep purple. Where the heat of the sunbaked rocks seeped through my clothing, where the dry smells of white desert sage and the sound of cricket chirps assailed my senses.

  I took this time to close my eyes, to think, to breathe in the ways that Dr. Marbrow had showed me. I focused on color and light and tried to think about all that I had to be thankful for. I’d seen a lot of heartache in my short twenty-three years of life, but the things I’d done, the places I’d been, the people I’d known. The love I’d felt…

  All those had made the pain worth it. And just a little bit more each day, I began to realize that.

  On one of my last nights in Anza, I was outside at night enjoying the darkness and the primal beauty of the dome of stars above my head. There were few night lights up here and no light pollution, unlike down on the coast around the big cities.

  Like every other evening, I found my eyes wandering up toward the constellation Draco while fingering the ever-present compass around my neck. It’s always there, he’d said, no matter what time of night, no matter what season.

  I was now familiar with the main points in this long, snake-like configuration of stars. My eyes traced the outline of it in the sky. True north. What was that? How could I find the direction? I thought of the figurines William had made for me, the Guide, like a compass, to show me the way in troubled times.

  If these weren’t troubled times, I didn’t know what were. I stared long and hard at those stars, fixed right between the Big and Little Dippers. And after a long stretch of nothing but the quiet sounds of night in my ears, a streak of fire appeared from nowhere and cut its way directly across Draco.

  Wish on a falling star. It had been noted in that now dubious bucket list that I’d wanted to wish on a falling star. I’d seen a lot of them, growing up here, but had never had the occasion to have a wish that I’d wanted so much I’d wish it on a meteor.

  But tonight I did. I closed my eyes and pictured my arms around Adam, his arms around me. I wished us together. I wished us happy. I wished us strong enough to fight our way through our own messed-up emotions and doubtful thoughts to be together again. Each beat of my heart thrummed through my chest and it hurt. I swallowed and instead of suppressing the tears, I let them flow down my cheeks. There was no one here to reprimand me, no one here for me to reprimand. There was no reason to keep the tears at bay.

  It felt good to let them out. But they weren’t just tears of sadness or loss, tears of loneliness; they were also tears of gratitude. I silently thanked the Universe for all that I had to be thankful for: my health, my future, the fact that I had known true love. It didn’t matter what the future held, because those short moments of love that I’d experienced had taught me that, thorns and all, life was worth it. And that for me, happiness was a choice.

  And that night, my face wet, my eyes sore, my heart full, I made that choice.

  ***

  I maintained the blog, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I’d already resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to continue it. With Adam and me together, the blog was going to come between us eventually. Either I’d solve the quest and feel obligated to pass those clues on to the readership, or Draco Multimedia would implement some game change that would irk me and I’d need to rant about it. Or…and my stomach dropped to contemplate that possibility…Adam and I would have broken up and it would hurt too much to continue playing Dragon Epoch.

  Page 107

  Whatever the reason, the possibility of beginning medical school in a few short months dictated that I was going to have different priorities on my time. So I spent days drafting long emails…one to Johns Hopkins University’s Dean of the College of Medicine, some to other schools, some to my key readers and contacts in the blog world and to the original company that had made an offer on my blog.

  Because I had a plan.

  About a week before the wedding, we drove down to Orange County
to pick up Mom’s dress for the final fitting. The wedding was not going to be a gala affair. The bride and groom had invited family only and they’d chosen to tie the knot at one of their favorite places, the beach at Crystal Cove State Park.

  But I had other errands to run while we were there. I borrowed the car from my mom and told her I’d be back in a few hours, after dropping her at Peter’s. Mom assumed it meant I didn’t want to chance running into Adam there. I figured that was as good an excuse as any. But I had other business to attend to.

  And then, there was a week left and as my mom’s giddiness grew, there were feelings bubbling inside me too. I couldn’t wait to see Adam again. It had been over two months. I wondered how his journey had gone. Had he made any interesting self-discoveries? Had he found he couldn’t live without me or did he think it best we walked away while our souls were still intact?

  I had no idea.

  And the waiting was starting to kill me.

  I had my bags packed two full days before the wedding. When the happy couple and their children and close friends gathered at a dinner the night before the wedding day, I paced the entire day, chose and then discarded no less than five different outfits. Could not sit still more than five minutes to the point where my ever-patient mother had ordered me out of the room to go for a walk.

  Because in just a few minutes, I’d see Adam again. And sometime in the next twenty-four hours, I’d know if there was hope for us to move forward together. Or if that hope was lost forever.

  Chapter Forty

  Adam

  I dreamt about her every night she was gone. Since I’d loaded her bags up in the Tesla and watched her pull away, my thoughts were not far from her. She’d texted me a few hours later when she arrived at her mom’s house and that was it. Radio silence.

  It was better that way. This would be my forty days of trial in the desert. A long stretch of time without her where I figured out what the hell was going on in my own brain. Since that horrible string of days where we’d found out about the pregnancy and her cancer, I’d barely had time to think about anything else but the one prime imperative—her survival.

  I spent long days working, of course. It was always my primary method of coping. I spent my nights in solitude—running along the beach at Newport, mostly. Or just spending long periods sitting on the sandy beach, watching the relentless tide come in, the thunder of the waves sounding over and over again—a rhythm so ancient and primal—until it meshed with the beating of my heart. My mind was always working, always trying to find ways around the problems that cropped up. I was by nature a problem solver. So to spend long periods just losing myself in the beat of the waves on the shore with no thought to anything else was like meditation.

 
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