Authors: Sofie Hartwell
Copyright @2015 Sofie Hartwell
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Any and all product names referenced within this book are the trademarks of their respective owners. None of these owners have sponsored, authorized, endorsed, or approved this book.
To V, because you believed even when I did not and you inspired when I was ready to give up.
To J, because you encouraged me and lightened the load with humor.
To J, because you patiently read my draft and gave helpful critique and insights.
Eventually all things fall into place.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I whisper. I feel a sharp pain in my chest and my heart is racing. I struggle to control the overwhelming feeling of nausea. I can feel the world spinning and I’m afraid I’m about to faint, so I grasp his hand with my clammy one. He steadies me firmly by putting his arm around me. I look around and I see a few faces smiling at us. They’re probably thinking we’re the perfect couple and I want to laugh hysterically.
“Emma, we can leave now, if you want to,” he says without acrimony.
“I’m sorry.” I don’t know what else to say. I’m aware that I’m acting like a child but I’m also unable to control what I feel.
“C’mon, let’s go outside and talk,” he gently prods. We both slowly get up from the wooden bench and leave through the side exit of the crowded office. Thankfully, we find ourselves alone in what’s normally a designated smokers’ area. I’m certainly glad that, at this moment, we can have some privacy in a building that’s always teeming with men and women who have business with the record-registrar’s office.
Ten minutes in the open air has a placating effect on me. Somehow, I am breathing more regularly now. Even my heart isn’t beating so fast. Perhaps I was just feeling claustrophobic in the sea of people back there? It has to be just nerves. I can’t be having second thoughts now.
I shouldn’t be having second thoughts now.
It’s an unusually breezy day and I have to hold on to the scalloped hem of my dress to stop it from flying up. But my outfit giving everyone an eyeful is the least of my worries right now.
I do my best to smile and I turn to him, questioningly. Do you think he was right?” I ask in a low voice.
Please tell me he was right
He shrugs. His face gives nothing away. “He loved you and wanted only the best for you. Your dream was his dream. He wanted to go, knowing that you’d be okay.” He sighs. “We’ve been over this before, Em,” he now says with slight impatience.
“I know, Jake, but you must understand that this is a big step for me.”
He looks at me with his piercing Nordic blue eyes and nods. “Not just for you, Emma.”
I get that. He does have a lot more at stake than I do. I acknowledge that he’s the provider and I’m the charity case.
I speak again in a somewhat pleading voice that I can’t help. “And that’s what’s putting so much pressure on me. I’m nineteen and I don’t know what I’m doing. But, you’re so much older and you should have known better than to say yes to my bully of a brother. How could he have put us both in this situation? Arghhh!” I’m at a loss for words.
He gives an amused laugh and says, “First of all, I’m only eight years older than you are. Secondly, I did know what I was doing when I agreed to Charlie’s plan. You’re family, Emma. I want to help. I want to be there for you.” He shakes his head and chuckles slightly. “Besides, I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re an adult and you should know by now what you’re getting into.”
“Oh, c’mon, you’re twisting my words. You know exactly what I mean.”
“It’s a simple thing, Emma. Either you want to go ahead with this or you don’t. Your brother, wherever he may be, will know that you have to do what’s right for you. Not him. You,” he states unflinchingly.
I unconsciously trace the pattern of the lace on my dress while I remain deep in thought. “I guess you’re right. It’s just that this is so unconventional,” I finally say. I’m half-way resigned to my fate.
“I never thought you were so traditional.” A thoughtful smile curves his mouth.
“Well, that just proves that you don’t know me very well. Maybe that’s why this arrangement won’t work,” I say defiantly, even though I can see he knows it’s all bravado on my part.
Can we really make this work?
He’s quiet for some time while he considers my statement, his thoughts most likely returning instinctively to the last meeting he had with my brother.
“Tell me what you’re thinking, Jake.”
He shakes his head and gives a slight smile, his eyes telling me everything I needed to know. “I was upset with Charlie when he first talked to me about his plan. I thought it was some impulsive, last-minute thing. But, dammit, I couldn’t say no to him, Emma. No matter what arguments I brought up, he had a ready response for each one. He cared so much about what would happen to you.”
I know how obstinate my brother could be. And when he found out he was dying, he resolved to put all his remaining strength toward securing my future.
“You were supposed to enlighten him. Instead, you got on board with his insane idea,” I say accusingly.
“It’s really not so crazy when you look at the big picture. Charlie wanted you to have the freedom to pursue your interests. He didn’t want you to have to worry about money or anything else that might distract you from achieving your dream. He was ensuring your future. He wanted me to step in and protect you the way he had.” He speaks in a serious tone, his face a study in detachment.
“Okay, but, what about you? What do you get out of this?” I ask, carefully examining his face as I await his response. His demeanor is devoid of expression.
“Sometimes, it’s not about what we get. I’m doing this because of my long-standing friendship with your brother. I’m not out to get anything. I don’t need anything. I just want to honor my promise to a friend,” he tells me in a subdued tone.
I look at him with doubt in my eyes. “I get to live in your fabulous home, have your financial support for school and everything else, and pretty much do anything I want. You honestly don’t care that I have an unfair advantage over you in this deal?” I ask once again, my voice louder than usual.
Am I missing something?
“I’m sorry, but it’s not right that everything is so one-sided. There must be something I can do. Like I can work at your office or, if you don’t want that, get a job somewhere else. ” His eyebrows raise at my statement, but I’m undeterred. “Jake, this isn’t fair to you at all.” I am so humiliated that my own brother had to demand that his friend take responsibility over my life. I have literally become Jake’s burden.
“Emma, please believe me when I say you shouldn’t worry about me. I gave my word to your brother and I will keep it. I can understand that you’re conflicted. If you don’t want to go through with this, I’ll understand. After all, it’s your call. You can do whatever you wish, but I will not go back on my word to Charlie. So, the decision is in your hands.” He has a stony expression that’s unfamiliar and I feel a flicker of concern.
I don’t want to anger or annoy him further, so I say nothing. I want to figure out once again how everything has come to this point. I close my eyes and find myself in the middle of the hospital room where Charlie was confined in the last months of his life.
“Are you mental?” I lash out at Charlie, momentarily forgetting his condition. I also don’t care that the nurse who has come to bring his medication is now eyeing me with concern, like I should know better than to talk to a sick man this way.
“Emma, I’m too weak to slug it out with you. Can you please, just for once, stop being so stubborn?” Charlie asks in an exasperated whisper.
To the nurse, he jokes softly, “Don’t worry. Her bark is worse than her bite.”
We figuratively circle each other like dogs, waiting for the nurse to leave. As soon as the door closes on her back, we simultaneously start to talk again.
“How could you, Charlie?!” I feel hot in the face and my hands are trembling. For the first time in my life, I want to physically attack my brother until he sees sense.
“How could I what? Love you? Care about your future?” Charlie counters heatedly. The weakness has momentarily fled his body, his inner resolve taking over.
“How exactly is your plan caring about me or my future? Do you even know what I want to do with my life?” My voice is an octave higher than usual. “You can’t plan my life for me. You won’t be here, so you don’t get to have a say in anything.”
“Are you finished?” he asks, fighting for control as a wave of pain hits him.
I observe his distress, but resist the urge to comfort him. Still, I speak in a softer, more agreeable tone. “No, I’m not finished. Charlie. You’re the kind of guy who believes in marrying for love. So I don’t understand why you would like me to marry someone I’m not in love with.”
He looks deeply into my eyes for a long time. “Em, love comes in many forms. Jake has never been anything but loving and kind to both of us. He’s more than family, for God’s sake. You’ve known him since you were in diapers.”
“Aaaahh!” I scream in frustration, loud all over. “I know he’s been a part of our lives for a long time now. I know how he has helped us cope with the bills and the hospitalization. I know he’s a good man. But it’s not fair to ask this of him! And it’s not fair for me to get tied to a man who’s not in love with me.”
Charlie looks at me with tortured eyes. “There’s nothing left, Em. Jake has taken over the hospital bills completely. There is no money for you to continue college. I won’t be able to rest in peace if I know that you won’t achieve your dream of becoming a doctor. This is the best solution. I don’t even understand why you’re arguing with me.”
“Have we no shame? He’s taking care of our bills, paying for our food and rent, and now you want him to take care of me for the rest of my life?”
He shakes his head slowly. “I have no shame where your future is concerned. I’ve been taking care of you since our parents died. And Jake has been there for both of us all this time. He’s a good man, Emma. He understands what I’m asking. He knows I need him to have your back, to do whatever he can to guarantee you complete medical school.”
I turn beet red but refuse to back down. “You just can’t saddle a man with me because you’re afraid I can’t make it on my own. Do you even understand how humiliating this is for me?”
He says nothing for what seems like a very long time. He feebly points to a drawer on his left side and asks, “Can you please get the box inside? I need to give you something.” I pull the drawer open and reach out for a long, brown box, which I hand over to Charlie.
“I don’t know if you remember, but Dad gave this to me on my eighteenth birthday,” he says as he takes out the watch from the box. It’s an antique Patek Philippe with a rose gold face and a black leather strap. “It’s the only thing of value I have left in this world, and when Dad and Mom died and we literally had no money to pay the bills, I was sorely tempted to sell it. Jake stopped me and, of course, he was right. It was Dad’s, and I now I want you to have it.” He hands the watch to me and tears start to stream down my cheeks.
“I can’t take this,” I shake my head in denial. But he takes my hand and slowly fastens the watch on my wrist. I can no longer refuse.
“Emma, time is the only limited resource. Look at me. There is no time left for me and I torture myself, thinking of all the things that I should have done – the time I wasted. I didn’t know any better.” He ceases to talk as he gathers his thoughts.
“You’re my sister. I want you to live your life to the fullest. I want you to make every minute count. With Jake as your husband, you will want for nothing. You can continue with your college education. You can become a doctor – something you’ve always wanted to be. He will be there for you. You can’t do it on your own, Em. Be realistic. Do you honestly want to be paying for student loans all your life? Mind you, those loans won’t even be enough. Where are you going to live? How will you even manage to study and work at the same time? Med school means grueling hours.” He pauses. “I only wish…” In his eyes I can see the genuine sorrow of knowing that the end is near.
He’s right, of course. It would take a miracle for me to finish school and become a doctor without Jake’s help. Our parents didn’t have siblings, so there are no aunts, uncles, or cousins on either side. Charlie is the only family I have left. And now, there’s Jake.