“What’s going on?” I whispered, startled in the darkness.
“I’m holding you,” Christian explained evenly.
Though he was familiar, the feeling of his arms around me was not. He lifted me clean off the bed as if I weighed nothing. In the rocking chair, he settled my head into the space between his chin and his shoulder. His breath feathered down my nose to settle on the moist curves of my lips.
I had to remain calm. If I showed I was excited, even with my heartbeat, the monitors would show it, the nurses would come in and the moment would be lost. I had to stay steady, pretend his warmth, his shape and his closeness meant nothing.
“Why would you do that?” I asked. Though I had never been given this much of him, already I wanted more—his voice. “Did the doctor tell you something about my surgery that he didn’t tell me?”
“No,” Christian said, brushing my hair away from my face.
It was the blackest blue in the hospital room, but there were dashes of light everywhere: my monitors blinking my condition, the lights from the building across the courtyard, and the strip of yellow light under the door. We swayed in a waltzing rhythm in the rocking chair, almost like we were dancing. The chair was in the room because I was still young enough to be in the pediatric wing of the hospital. When I looked at it, I tried not to think about all the dead children who had been rocked, and felt their last moment of comfort, before they took those fateful steps into the world of spirits. I thought about the bodies they left behind and wondered how long children had continued to be rocked, even after they had left their fragile bodies behind.
Christian, my would-be guardian angel, held me like a princess in that chair, close to my monitors. He had never rocked me before, and certainly never visited me in the middle of the night. He should not have been there outside visiting hours, but he was there—the greatest gift I had ever been given. Nights alone in the hospital were the hardest. How many times had I dreamed someone was there with me, holding me? I shivered in my happiness. He pulled a blanket over my body and tucked me in like a little girl, except I was being tucked into his arms—enjoying every moment. He smelled expensive and like the grown-up man he was.
He was not holding me because of my girlish dreams. He simply didn’t have the heart to stay away. Teenage girls dying of heart disease were irresistible, in that they couldn’t be left alone. His feelings for me could not be what I wished. He sat in the chair and held me, a girl so perfectly on the cusp of womanhood, and rocked me as if to lull me to sleep.
If I had been dying under ordinary circumstances, perhaps he would not have visited me after midnight. My tragedy was deeper than the death that loomed ahead of me. Three months before, my parents had both been killed in a car crash. It was a thoughtless accident. My mother had been driving my father on a slick rainy night and while applying her lipstick, she slammed into the support beams of a bridge. She killed them both instantly.
The wreck never seemed real to me.
The problem was that I had never had much to do with my incredibly rich parents. I was always away from them, with nannies or tutors who tried to teach me ballet and how to play the piano. I was only mediocre at any of these paid-for activities. My mother wasn’t good at anything, except looking pretty, which she was skilled at beyond belief. Sadly, I contrived to look nothing like her.
The closest I had ever been to my parents was when they first found out I was sick and that my life was in danger. They pawed over me and petted me, making a fuss. It didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Not only were children incredibly boring company for socialites, but the gloom that came with the frequent hospital stays took an incredible toll on them. They couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t getting better and my decline was not fast enough to be a source of drama meaty enough to feed them.
That was when my father gave me a gift. He didn’t understand much about me or my specific needs, but he understood that I shouldn’t be alone. He asked an acquaintance who worked near the hospital, Christian Henderson, to look out for me. Dad needed my companion to assume guardianship since neither of my parents lived in Edmonton, where I was receiving my treatment. He needed someone he could understand, so he didn’t get another nanny. He gave me Christian.
And Christian was glorious. He was patient, thoughtful, bright, so charming and heart winning, it was impossible to explain. I liked him better than all the doctors. He was a young man, not yet thirty. He wore button-down vests that suggested lean muscles underneath and had a habit of turning his entire body into nothing but angles. He would rest his elbow on his knee and place his forefinger on his temple to make triangles and diamonds of his limbs. Speaking through breaks in his fingers, his words always sounded better. Sometimes he’d place one finger on his nose bridge and the other between his eyebrows and look at me through the angle of his fingers like he was looking at me through glass that helped him see better. Truthfully, I realized that until he looked at me that way, I had never been seen. When my eyes shly met his, I thought that neither my parents nor I were off to a terrible place in the hereafter. After all, there had to be a heaven since there was a Christian.
He took the news of my parents’ passing hard. I knew that was why he had snuck in that night. I had surgery coming up in a few days and there was a very real possibility that I might not wake up from it. He held me and I couldn’t feel alone, because he was there.
I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and said to him softly, “You don’t have to worry about me this much. It doesn’t matter.”
His eyes flicked toward me.
“It doesn’t,” I said, continuing listlessly. “I’m going to die soon. You know the odds I’ll live through my next operation aren’t good. That was why my parents weren’t here. My mother couldn’t stand to watch me die, and now she won’t. Like the little match girl, there will be plenty of people to greet me when I slip out of this world. It doesn’t matter, because I was hardly even here.” I hoped my words would ease some of the pressure he felt, but I was only fourteen and didn’t know how to spin it to make him feel the relief I wanted for him.
Christian looked at me and his eyes were all compassion and personal unrest. “And what if I was your fairy godfather and could twirl you around and make one final wish come true?”
I scowled. “The last thing I want is for you to be my father.” My chest hurt and I put a hand to it.
Christian lifted my free hand and took my heart rate. He never paid attention to the monitors and insisted on feeling my heart for himself. My body betrayed me by showing my enthusiasm. Christian could feel the difference. He didn’t like the result and reached for the call button.
“Stop it,” I said, putting a hand to his chest. “Can’t I have a different heart rate when you offer me a wish? What’s your heart rate?”
He laughed slightly and offered me his wrist.
“Can I listen to your heart instead?” I whispered.
“Is that your wish?”
I nodded solemnly.
He smoothed out his shirt over his heart and allowed me to hear it. Listening to the soft pounding made my insides melt, but then another sharp pain flared in my chest.
I gasped and curled myself into a ball.
“Are you all right?”
“It’s passing,” I gasped, rubbing my chest. “It’s passing. It’s okay.”
He put a hand to his forehead and tried to smooth out his concern. I had pains in my chest so often, and the small ones didn’t mean much. “I’m sorry, Beth. When your father asked me to watch over you, I hoped I’d bring you flowers once a week, along with some contraband, and we’d laugh a bit.”
“This level of tragedy was not what you expected?”
“No,” he breathed. “This is exactly what I expected. Exactly what I’ve already gone through many, many, times. Only this time, it feels worse. Like you’re mine and I should be able to save you. Like I should be able to stand as a fortress between you and death, and I can’t. I can’t do anything.”
I had to think of something for him to do that would comfort him, and make him feel like he had done something for me. My brain settled on a thought I had every time I closed my eyes for a procedure. “If I can have one more wish. There is something I want. Something you can do.”
Christian’s fingers ran in little patterns down my arm. “Tell me.”
“You could kiss me.”
“I can’t,” he said, his voice clipped in the darkness.
“It’s the middle of the night. No one would know. I would carry it to my grave. I don’t want to die without being kissed and there is nothing else I want.”
It was silent as I waited for his answer. Finally, he said, “If I do this, you can never tell anyone.”
I gave my promise.
He shook his head slightly like he didn’t want to before he turned, bent his head, and touched his lips against mine. At first, he stayed perfectly still with his lips sealed shut and the slight fluttering of our breath intermingling. Then ever so slowly, he began moving his lips, and it was completely wonderful. He understood! I didn’t want a little girl kiss like a peck on the forehead. I wanted a full-blown, romantic kiss that would leave me windblown long after it was finished. I responded by kissing him the way he kissed me. It was only seconds before he had taken it too far and my heart was hammering out of control. My monitors began beeping wildly and Christian suddenly let go of me.
He looked at my flushed cheeks and the smile on my face.
“This is wrong,” he said defiantly.
“I won’t tell anyone,” I reassured him and tried to think of something to say that would make him kiss me again.
Before I could say another word, I was neatly deposited back in my bed, Christian had flicked my bed lamp on and a nurse had entered the room to check on me.
“I’m going to be moving Beth to a different hospital,” he informed her curtly.
“You can’t,” she stuttered. She had been my nurse for a long time. “She can only be moved by her legal guardian.”
“That’s me. I’ll be removing her tonight.”
The nurse was appalled but took him to the front desk to make the necessary arrangements. There was a lot of work to do to get me transferred to a different hospital.
Something inside Christian had snapped. I had never seen him like that before. He had always been friendly. When my parents died, he had been both crestfallen and charming to make my pain less, but in those moments after he kissed me, he had changed completely to a man I didn’t know. The boyish charm was gone in a single breath. Suddenly, he had become someone who knew all about action and even how to change the entire world.
My head was spinning as I was detached from my machines and bundled into the backseat of his car, where he had set up a bed for me. He buckled my seatbelt and closed the door. I pulled a gray wool blanket over my legs and gazed at him as he got behind the wheel. I had never felt so safe in my whole life. Then we were on the road with the stars being the only things moving as quickly as we were. Where we were going, I didn’t know. Why he thought a different hospital would be better didn’t make sense to me. I was already at a better hospital, which was why I wasn’t near my family in Toronto, but in Edmonton.
It didn’t matter.
What happened next has always been a blur in my mind. I don’t even remember getting out of the car. I remember green walls and the operating room lights in my eyes. Then, nothing. In my haze, I knew they were going to cut me and I didn’t know if I would wake up again. I looked around for Christian, but I didn’t see anyone. There seemed to be no one there but the doctor. Then the anesthetic kicked in and there was blackness.
That was my last operation. I had another scar down the center of my chest to add to my collection, but I never closed my eyes on an anesthetic again. My recovery felt slow, but was fast according to the new doctors in Mexico when I awoke. To my astonishment, I was recovering at a private hospital in a tiny village on the coast and spent most of my days lounging on the beach and sipping something cold.
What treatment did these doctors have that the doctors in Edmonton didn’t? Aside from my scars, I felt perfect.
The whole while, Christian was there, reading to me, then diving into the water for a quick stretch. He needed a lot of quick stretches.
I asked him questions in those days. What happened? How was I healed? He always pretended he didn’t hear me and if I pressed the question, he would walk away, promising to be back soon. I was too weak to hound him and eventually I understood that he would never tell me what happened, or what he had done.
In his silence, I finally understood that he had done something unthinkable, possibly criminal, something he did not believe he could do to stand as a fortress between me and death. It was a secret. He would look at me across a room and I could feel secrets simmering between us, secrets we had together and secrets we kept from each other.
My secret was the love I felt for him because my feelings for him had to be caged. We couldn’t be lovers. He was a man thirteen years older than me, and he had become my legal guardian. The reality of that fact meant that everyone believed that our relationship resembled parent and child, even if he was not my biological father. How unsavory it would be if the people around us got an inkling of my feverish longing. It had to be hidden from everyone: from him, from the world, and sometimes from myself.
Alone, I could acknowledge my true feelings. I loved him completely. I dreamed of the day when the secrets that stood between us would crumble to dust and only we would be left._________________