"I'm not getting better."
"I should just go home."
"There's no point. I'm wasting your resources."
I gave Avery the flattest look I could manage. "What did I tell you? I'm not giving up."
He sighed, as if he was frustrated by my persistence but enjoyed the fact that I wasn't budging. I guess he appreciated having somebody around to support him through his ordeal, someone who wasn't going to leave him on a whim like everyone else in his life had.
On the outside, yes I was one of his doctors and it was my job to be here to the bitter end. But I couldn't lie to myself. I cared about him.
"Okay, we've been monitoring your symptoms since you were readmitted and so far, the only issue you seem to have is breathing."
"And I'm weak."
"Yes. All we can do about your muscle weakness is prescribe medication and keep you on a diet rich in potassium, and vitamin B12. The supplemental oxygen is helping, so it's likely you'll need to use portable oxygen when you're discharged."
"Don't be discouraged. The mind is a powerful weapon against cancer. And... well, if you need extra care—you know, therapy or anything of the sort, I'd love for you to simply ask."
He smiled appreciatively, and it was worth everything to see him genuinely happy for even a moment. "I don't think I'm there yet," he joked. "What about you? In need of some 'extra care' lately?"
I moved to take a seat beside his bed. "I know you too well, Avery, to believe that that's not a sexual innuendo."
He shrugged a shoulder with that mischievous smirk, not even denying it. He openly ran his gaze down my body. "You said it first, Doc; I'm only redirecting the question."
Unable to help myself, I laughed freely. "No. No extra care for me."
He sat up a little, readjusting positions. "But are you okay though? Since we've known each other, you've experienced how many deaths now? I can't even fathom the fact that you've been dealing with years' worth of it."
I sighed. "I just... Try to learn from it and show up to do better. I'm fine, Avery, really. It's a wake-up call each time, but it lights a fire under me that keeps me fighting for every patient I have."
"No wonder you're persistent." I could tell his smile was an effort to make me feel better, and it worked.
But there was something in his eyes, this look of sorrow or regret, that stunned me. "You look apologetic. What is it?" I asked.
"What?" He snapped out of it, but I wouldn't let him off the hook.
"My husband's a psychologist, so I've picked up a thing or two about reading people. You look like you're a split second away from apologizing to me."
"I..." His mouth stayed open in uncertainty.
"You have nothing to be sorry for."
"Except I do. You told me I remind you of him, the man you love. Your soulmate. We can stop pretending I'm not on my way to absolute, certain death with no hope for the future."
My face practically sagged at his bluntness. "Well, that's just morbid."
"Casper, I am sorry. I'm not gonna make it—"
"Not with that attitude."
He held up his hands defensively. "The last thing I want is to cause you more pain. If I remind you of him and then I die..."
I stood up, gazing right into his eyes. "You're wrong, you know? About not needing extra care."
"You aren't hearing me."
"I am. Though, you sound a little suicidal. I can have a therapist here within the hour; it's really no trouble at all."
He resisted the sudden urge to smile before rolling his eyes. "The Nile River is quaking."
My jaw dropped. "I'm not in denial!"
"Yeah, sure. Look, no therapy. I'm sure my medical bills are taller than Mount Everest by now. What you can do for me is call Dr. Naiman. Please? I wanna talk about my options."
I straightened up and nodded approvingly. "That I can do. See? You gotta have hope. I believe in you, Avery." I backed out of his room, still facing him as I grinned.
"Yes, and if all else fails, we can pray away the tumor."
"And risk your bisexuality in the process?" I finally got a laugh out of him, deciding that was enough to leave him with until my return.
Three hours and one thrombectomy later, I went to hide away in the skills lab. Lyanna's patients were stable, so she came to join me.
"You okay?" was the first thing she asked, always concerned for my well-being.
"As can be," I answered. "You?"
"Well, no one's died on my watch today."
"That's a victory. I just got out of a thrombectomy procedure."
"In other words, you've had more fun than me. I haven't operated in days."
"I'd hardly call removing a fat blood clot from a squishy brain fun." I paused, blinking twice. "Actually, yeah, it was fun. I killed it in that OR."
She laughed, watching as I practiced different sutures. "Damn, how bored are you? You wanna take a couple patients off my hands?"
I softly smiled. "I'm good," I said with a chuckle. "I'm just keeping my hands busy. I keep thinking about..."
I sighed, shaking my head. "You'll just judge me."
"Casper, when have I ever judged you?"
I looked down at my lambdoid stitch. "Maybe not out loud. And the others definitely do."
"You mean Lorenzo." She rolled her eyes. "Why are we friends with him again?" She joked, nudging my arm playfully.
"He's always nagging me as if I'm twelve."
"He's intimidated by you, Cas. And with good reason. You're the youngest one of us and you became chief resident. Not to mention, neuro is tougher than his field."
I shrugged one shoulder. "I dunno, cracking bones for a living seems pretty tough to me."
We shared a laugh.
"So what is it?" she asked. "What's bothering you?"
I pouted my lips. "Patient in room 307..."
"Ah. I see. Is it true?"
My eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "Is what true?"
"Uh, hello? I've been trying to defuse the rumors, but the hot gossip is that you have a thing for him."
"Ugh." My shoulders fell. Just great.
"You're not denying it..." she sang, a teasing twinkle in her eye. "Look, it happens to the best of us, trust me. If I had a dollar for every patient I've crushed on, I'd be able to afford your gigantic house."
"Did any of those crushes have a fatal brain tumor they won't recover from and remind you of your husband who, also, once had a tumor which was the scariest thing you ever had to go through?"
She was rendered silent. I almost felt guilty as her cheeks pinked up.
"You... have a point there. Jesus, Casper... This is the last thing you need. After what happened with Elena?"
"Yeah, I know. The whole thing is just complicated and terrifying and I... I don't know. I wish I could talk to my husband about it but how do I tell him I'm emotionally attached to someone?"
"From what I know, he'd understand."
"He would," I agreed. "But I don't deserve his understanding. And Avery is just counting his days, which scares me. He's going to be discharged soon; we can't keep him here if his symptoms aren't escalating. But it's not like he's going to get better. He's given up mentally, so it's just a matter of time—" I was cut off by the sound of my own voice breaking. Lyanna was giving me this 'poor baby' look and I couldn't stand it.
But what could I do?
"He has no other options?"
"We can't operate; we'd kill him instantly. All we can do is treat his symptoms and send him on his way. Which would be fine if, you know, he had people to go home to. Someone to look after him."
"I get it." She nodded. "I get why this matters to you. I get why he matters to you. Casper," Lyanna placed a hand over mine. "To hell with the prying eyes. I know you're itching to be at his side; you don't need to hide away in here just so the idiots won't gossip about you. Let them think what they want. I've got you."
I felt tears rising, but I pushed them back and smiled sadly.
"Go," she said gently, gesturing toward the stitches I was working on. "I'll clean up. It's okay."
I drew in a deep breath and steadily rose from the table. "Thank you."
Little had I known that a lot could change in the three hours since I'd last seen Avery. Just outside his room, I walked up to the nurse station and grabbed a tablet.
"Are you checking on 307?" One of the nurses, Eve, inquired. Without looking up at her, I responded,
"His name is Avery. And yes. Were his vitals checked recently?"
"He's the one who seized a couple hours ago."
I snapped my head up, blinking at her. "What do you mean he seized?"
"He suffered a grand mal. It only lasted about a minute, so he's fine."
Fine? He was only fine until the next one. "Why wasn't I paged?" I glanced down at his charts as she rattled off some excuse that Dr. Naiman was there to handle the situation; I was too shocked to even hear her. "And why did nobody order an EEG or head CT? The man had a seizure, damn it." I didn't wait for her to answer, I whirled around on my heels and rushed to Avery's room.
He didn't seem like anyone who'd had a seizure, but I supposed you could never tell just by looking at someone. Right now, what scared me were his tired eyes and dulling complexion.
"I take it you've heard?" His weak voice piped up when he saw the ache in my eyes.
"I wish someone paged me to come help. Goodness, Avery, are you alright?"
"So-so." He exhaled. "I was close to being outta here and then that happened."
"We need to get you up for a scan as soon as possible and see if—"
"That's not necessary," he disagreed, not meeting my eyes. Guilt crossed his features, and he was looking anywhere but at me.
I walked closer, setting the tablet down on the table of his bed. "Not necessary?"
"I'm guessing nobody told you the other thing?"
Was he kidding me? "There's another thing?" I picked up the tablet again and dug through his charts, only for it to become glaringly obvious. I scoffed, feeling like he stabbed me directly in the chest. "That's why you asked for Dr. Naiman... That's why they didn't bother to page me." I shook my head, grasping the device so tightly I thought it might crack. I didn't know there were tears in my eyes until I turned my gaze to him, only to find him blurry.
"I asked you not to give up. I-I said I'd do everything it took..."
He finally had the decency to look back at me, and I squeezed my eyes shut for a second to suppress the tears. "And I cherish you for it, Casper. I really do. You stuck by me; that's something I've never had. Listen, I've talked it over with Dr. Naiman. If I had any real options, I'd take them. But my cancer is aggressive, it's destroying perfectly good tissue that I need to survive—to breathe, to have a regular heartbeat—and it's spreading to other parts of my body."
"You do have real options, Avery," I whispered sadly, my breath hitching. "But this? End-of-life care? That's not the answer."
"It's my decision, and I've made it. I got him to approve my DNR order too, so when I go... that's it. I don't wanna be brought back, I don't want any surgery, no CPR, no defibrillator. Nothing."
My tears fell in earnest after that, and I didn't even bother to stop them. "Y-you tricked me."
"No. I'm your doctor, your support system."
"I didn't want this to hurt you," he explained. "You told me I reminded you of your husband."
"Yes. And? Why do you keep bringing that up?"
"Because, don't you get it? I'm not trying to flatter myself, but are you seriously saying you can think rationally about this? Of course I couldn't ask you to sign my life away."
"You still could've talked to me about it. I'm a surgeon, I know how to make unbiased decisions. I just... sometimes choose not to. And this is me choosing not to. I can't watch you die, Avery. I can't lose you."
The faintest smile formed on his face. "See? You're attached to me. And, hell, I'm attached to you. I hate this. I hate that I'm sick. I hate that you're..." I watched his eyes creep down to the wedding ring on my finger before he shook his head. "Doesn't matter. Things don't work out the way we want them to and it sucks, but it is what it is."
"No, you're right." I swallowed. "I'm attached, and I shouldn't be. I never should've been in the first place. Everybody can see it; everyone mocks me for it." I wiped my eyes, attempting to stand taller. "I think... I can't be your doctor, Avery, and we both know it." I could see the question written all over him, but I pressed on. "You've made your choice, and I can't sit around and watch you die. So I quit, as your doctor. Who knows? Maybe you would've had a chance if it had never been me."
"Casper, don't say that."
I ignored him. "And I think you should call your brother. Nobody deserves to die alone." I started to leave.
"So that's it? You're abandoning me?"
I bit my lip, turning to glare at him as best as I could through my tears. "You're abandoning me." I didn't give him a chance to respond. I was out of his room within a second.
I was on auto-pilot for the rest of the day, and the second my shift was over, I knew I wasn't sticking around for Avery the way I used to.
I heard the familiar bustling of voices as I trudged through the atrium of the hospital. "Oh, Caaasper."
I rolled my eyes when I heard Kamele and Zara calling me like a ghost. "Doesn't that ever get old for you two?" I asked, letting all my friends catch up to me. Lyanna tossed an arm around my shoulder. Lorenzo was quiet for once, so I just ignored him. "You guys are going to get drinks?" I asked.
"Yup, wanna come?" Zara had this funny, hopeful smile on her face.
"Why bother? You know he'll just say no," Lorenzo teased. Guess I spoke too soon.
"Actually," I said matter-of-factly, "I'm joining you guys tonight."
"Finally!" Kamele cheered.
Zara practically jumped up and down as we all made our way into the lot. "You sure Hubby won't mind?"
"Well, he'd kill me if I came home drunk so maybe just a glass of something light. Anything to get this day out of my mind."
"Oh, no. What happened?" Lyanna queried.
"Avery happened," I mumbled. "He requested a DNR. I don't wanna talk about it."
My friend pouted. "I'm so sorry. Come on, let's get your mind off of it."
I held her hand, not missing the stony expression on Lorenzo's face.
I led Josephine to the front door to see her off, my face still red and my under-eyes puffy.
"You really opened up to me today," she said with a nod. "I appreciate that."
"You made me angry the first time and now you've made me cry. What's next? Will I be jumping through the walls, cured of my depression? Hiding behind the couch in fear?"
The corner of my lips lifted in amusement. "Hardly. I'm going to leave you with an assignment in the meantime. Remember, there are things you'll never be able to control. But you can grab the reins in other areas of your life."
"Okay..." I eyed her warily.
"I want you to be honest with your husband. That's something you can control, yes?"
I shifted my feet. What was she getting at? "Yes, it is."
"Okay. I suggest you start with the truth about how you feel being a neurosurgeon."
"I told you, I can't do that. He's done everything to get me to where I am. I can't just say hey, I know you spent thousands of dollars and put your career on hold for years so I could be a surgeon, but I think I'll just flip burgers for a living now."
"I can't tell you how he'll react to the news, but you're not doing yourself any favors by being dishonest. And you're not doing right by him either. At least give him the chance to support your desire to quit. Then you can thank me when I come back." She winked at me.
She chuckled. "Good day, sir."
I sighed. "Yes, ma'am. You too." I closed and locked the door after she walked out, taking a second to pause and contemplate my life.
David returned home a couple hours later from seeing clients. After he took a shower and changed into something more comfortable, we got in his car and went to pick up our babies from school.
I kept thinking about Josie's assignment for me.
Just... tell my husband that all his time, effort, and money amounted to nothing in the end. And all my hard work through the years? Trash.
Yes, this should be fun.
"So, I was thinking..." He began, saving me from having to start that dreadful conversation in the car. Always my hero. "You've been going through a lot lately, so I called someone who never fails to cheer you up. He's visiting tomorrow and promised to stay through the week."
"Someone who never fails to cheer me up..." I repeated, running through a list in my head. David watched me, laughing.
"Your brother, silly," he reminded.
I gasped, facepalming. "Ohh! Duh! But Dawson has college."
My brother was my best friend, and it was rare to see him in a genuinely sour mood. I hoped his good energy would rub off on me.
"Oh, angel, you know he skips his classes all the time. At least now it'll be for a good reason."
"I can't believe you endorse this, Mr. Former-Professor. That's just shameful."
"He's coming to cheer up my most prized possession. I can let this one slide." David laced his fingers with mine and kissed the back of my hand.
I just giggled, feeling special as his soft lips touched my skin. "Ooh, and he'll definitely keep the kids busy. I can't wait to see him."
He laughed. "See? Win-win."
My phone buzzed twice and I glanced down at the screen. My breath halted and David squeezed my hand to bring me back to earth.
I cleared my throat. "It's... an email. From my job."
"Oh, dear. Okay, are we happy or are we sad?"
"We're scared... They want me to come back."