Prologue

Friday, November 9th—One year ago

“I MADE YOU SOME eggs. Now, I want no arguing, Sylvie. You need to eat them and then I’ll… Sylvie?”

Rick Stamford placed the tray on the empty bed and went to their master bath in search of his wife. He tapped on the door. “Sylvie?”

His heart hammered against his chest when silence confronted him. He called her a third time, but this time his words were a whisper. Rick took a deep breath and pushed the door open, closing his eyes in fear of what he might find.

“Sylvie, honey. You okay?”

The stark white bathroom was cold and clinical. Heaps of medications littered the countertop, support rails surrounded the toilet, and all the other medical supplies dominated the once serene space, making it more like a hospital than their master bath.  It took only a glance to see his wife wasn’t there, and Rick released a long slow breath of relief.

Except if she wasn’t there, where the fuck was she? 

Sylvie hadn't been out of bed without his help for weeks. Her last round of chemo and all the other shitty drugs she took, left her body weak and lethargic. At first, Rick carried her downstairs every day and made her comfortable on the couch, but she often lay there dozing, exhausted by being moved. Some days, Sylvie didn’t even have enough energy for conversation, though the change of scene seemed to lift her spirits. One day that became too much, and she stayed in bed for a day. One day became two, then three, and now she only left their bedroom to visit the hospital.

Fear ripped through Rick as he ran downstairs. Where was she? Sylvie had little strength; she couldn’t have gone far. He tore through room after room, his voice more frantic as he found each one empty.

He glanced out the kitchen window. “Fuck.”

Rick flew into the yard, his fingers punching the numbers on his phone. As he reached her, Sylvie slumped against their patio table, its leg acting as a support. He shoved his phone in his pocket so he could wrap his arm around her waist.

“Sylvie, are you okay, sweetheart?”

Her reactions were slow. She struggled to raise her head and turned to look at him. Tears slid down her cheeks. Her cotton nightgown dragged across the paving stones, its hem wet and soiled from a puddle.

“I wanted to see Chop Suey.” Her pale white hand grabbed the tabletop, and she swayed as she tried to stand.

“Wait. Let me, darling.” Rick swept her up into his arms.

It required less and less energy these days to pick her up. He was saddened by how thin she was. In his arms, she weighed no more than a child. The bones of her hips jutted into his hands, emphasizing her fragility.

“Why didn’t you call me? I’d have brought you down?”

She linked her hands around his neck and rested her head against his chest. Pain lanced through his heart. Once, her long chestnut hair would have covered his chest. It had been soft and lustrous, falling to her waist in a heavy cascade. Now, she wore a patterned scarf tied behind her head, keeping her warm but doing a piss-poor job of hiding her hair loss.

When he reached the sapling dogwood tree in the corner of the yard, she asked him to put her down. Fearful of her ability to stand, Rick wrapped his arm around her waist, and she leaned against him. They’d planted the tree in memory of their dog about six months ago. Its sapling branches were bare and unimpressive at the moment, but in the spring, Chop Suey would be surrounded by delicate blossoms.

Rick’s breath caught in his throat. Shit, he hoped to God Sylvie would survive this latest treatment and be around to see the pink buds open. Not just next spring but in ten years when the tree matured.

Shivers took hold of Sylvie, her sallow skin goose bumping, her fingers turning blue. Rick pulled off his sweatshirt. A job that wasn’t easy to do as he didn’t dare let go of her in case she fell. With some difficulty, he pulled it over her head and laughed as it hung from her arms and she disappeared inside it.

But the shivers didn’t stop. “We should go inside. I need to get you warm.”

Sylvie didn’t resist as he picked her back up. On their way to the house, she clung to him. “Will you take me to the hospital, Rick?”

He stopped and frowned at her. “You okay? Do you need your painkillers?”

She shook her head. Her voice was thin, her breath uneven. “I think it's time.”

“No.” He shook his head. They’d only just started this new round of treatment. “It’s just the chemo. It makes you sick for a few days.”

“No, it’s not that, Rick. It’s time. Take me in.”

He stumbled toward the house, his eyes blurred by tears. Rick’s mind raced through all the information the doctors had given him, searching for another explanation. Sylvie’s body sagged against his, her breathing labored as he made her comfortable on the couch. “I’ll pack your meds. Two minutes, Sylvie, I’ll be back in two minutes.”

He hesitated, not wanting to be apart from her for the brief time it would take to run upstairs and gather the items. Her hand found his, and she clung to his fingers. “I love you, Rick. From the day you walked into my office, I knew you were the one for me.”

He kissed her, running his hand over her sunken cheeks. “I love you too, Sylvie.”

Her fingers fell away from his, and her eyes flickered closed. Her breathing became so shallow, Rick thought it’d stopped. She fought to open her eyelids, and the effort exhausted her.

“Shit. I’ll text Lisa to bring your bag later. Let’s go to the hospital. The doctors will make you feel better. Your meds might need adjusting.”

With effort, she opened her eyes again. The whites had yellowed, and the sparkle they used to hold had long since dimmed.

“It’s not the meds,” she rasped. Rick lowered his ear to her lips to hear her. “I…just want you to know how much I love being your wife, how happy you make me.” She gulped in a rattling breath, and her face scrunched up in pain. “When I’m gone…don't wait too long…before the year’s out, Rick, you have to move on.” She coughed and spluttered, her hand going to her chest as she fought to get her breath back.

Rick pulled her back into his arms, shaking his head. “No, it’s not time, Sylvie. I don’t want to think about living without you.”

“You promised me, Rick. Please.” She gripped his shirt in distress. Tears streamed down her face as she struggled to catch her breath.

“Okay, I promise. But this isn’t the end, sweetheart.” In thirty seconds, Rick had her in the car. Since she was unable to sit, he laid her along the backseat.

The journey to the hospital was agonizingly slow, although the speedometer said otherwise. He abandoned the car—doors wide open—and ran with her in his arms into the ER. Staff came from all directions. A rolling bed appeared and whisked Sylvie away. In the chaos, Rick found himself in a wide room watching white coats and blue scrubs swarming around Sylvie’s prone form.

At some point, he handed over his car keys to a guy wearing a valet’s uniform. Rick thrust the white ticket the man gave him into his trouser pocket, not taking his eyes off his wife. The next few hours were a blur. The echoing footsteps and constant beeping of machines and monitors filled his head. Only when all these sounds disappeared, and the crowds of medical staff thinned did Rick realized she was gone.

Silence filled his ears, and the world slipped into pause. From where he stood, Rick had a direct view of his wife’s body lying on the bed. Lifeless, her skin was already gray and an eerie stillness engulfed her. A nurse removed the tubes and pushed the machines back against the walls. Then it was just Sylvie and the thin sheet covering her emaciated frame.

Rick didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye. The quiet, peaceful passing they’d expected never manifested. Instead, clutter, chaos, and noise filled Sylvie’s last minutes.

A hand touched his arm, guiding him to a chair by the door. A kind voice asked if they should call someone for him. Rick shook his head, unable to take his eyes off his wife.

“Take as long as you like.” The voice disappeared behind the click of a door, leaving Rick alone with his wife’s empty shell.

Then it hit him.

Sylvie was dead.

Rick turned away from her; this shouldn't be the last memory of the woman he adored. Unable to move closer to her, he sagged against the chair and put his head in his hands, blocking out the horror in front of him.

Some time later, a knock disturbed Rick. The doctor asked if he was ready, and he got to his feet and followed them through the echoing maze of corridors. He reached the waiting room where the ER bustled. Relatives gossiped in garish chairs as they waited for their loved ones.

A dark-haired woman caught his eye, making him think of Lisa. Shit. He hadn’t told their best friend that Sylvie was in the hospital.

Rick pulled out his phone and slumped into a convenient chair. He stared at the screen, wondering what to say. As hard as he tried, Rick couldn’t bring himself to call and speak to their friend. If he opened his mouth, he feared he'd lose control. He stabbed at the keyboard, cobbling together a clumsy text message. Even as he pressed send, Rick was aware it was the coward’s way out, but he didn’t have the strength to do more.

Outside, the world was muffled. A dense fog descended upon him. Shapes blurred past as he stumbled toward the valet station where he rummaged through his pockets, searching for his ticket. After he had handed it over, he leaned against the wall to wait for his car.

Rick had no recollection of driving home. At the house, the silence followed him around. The weak late autumn sun seemed too bright for the room, so he closed the drapes. Once he shut one set, he found he couldn't stop. In a frenzy, he ran from room to room tugging drapes and lowering blinds until the whole house was dark.

In the gloom, his body grew heavy. His limbs ached, and total exhaustion overtook him. A strange numbness settled into every cell of his body and with it, an overwhelming urge to sleep.

Rick’s eyelids closed, his thoughts cleared, and he drifted off into a black void where he no longer needed to think, no longer had to process what happened. A place where he could forget for a few minutes, or hours, that he had just lost his beloved Sylvie.

Lemon Drops And Love

Ice Cold Mint Juleps

Dark 'N' Stormy

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