This story is by Paula Ayala and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I can sense the tremors running through the woman’s body as she waits for her doctor to speak. Her frail fingers tighten their grip on the fabric of her skirt, which covers her pale legs in a shade of rosy pink. Her husband sits to her right with a hand on her knee. He squeezes it and tries to conceal his own shakes. I watch from the sidelines, per usual.
“This type of news is never easy to deliver, Mr. and Mrs. Bermudez—” That is enough to evoke a strong reaction from the couple. The woman feels her heart shrivel in her chest. The man feels everything in his world go dark. They both wonder how they’ll tell the kids. This was never a situation they had prepared for. I know. I see it all the time.
The man holds onto the woman tighter, knowing his time with her will be limited. I look at the doctor, already knowing the words that are meant to escape his mouth. Terminal. Three months left. I am deeply sorry.
Humans tend to adore me or despise me. In-between’s are rare. I’m either loved because their needs and wants are fulfilled, because they live happily ever after, or I’m hated for stealing, taking and destroying. I do none of these things, though, even if most would disagree. I do not take. I do not destroy. I do not kill. I find displeasure in these things. But I’m not the one in control. I am the henchman of control. My role is to make sure balance is forever maintained, even if I’m not the one who dictates it. Chaos, war, peace, love, heartbreak, opportunities, betrayals—these are not my doing. They are cemented in time and space, and it is up to me to make sure it stays that way.
Sometimes it’s tedious to live in submission. That’s what my purpose essentially comes to; an eternity under constant commands from a higher force. And perhaps it’s to maintain order in an ever-chaotic world. Perhaps war, anger, death, and betrayal are all a twisted method that keeps the Earth up and running.
Perhaps there is another way.
The doctor beams. “—but it sure is wonderful to say. Congratulations, Mrs. Bermudez, you are free of cancer.” A surprised sob breaks through. Mrs. Bermudez hunches over in her seat and covers her face with her hands. Another cry wracks her petite form and her husband joins her, his arms enveloping her. This time he holds her like he has forever to roll his eyes at her jokes, to fall in love with her laugh every time he hears it, to comment on the crease between her brows whenever she gets mad, to get lost in the crevices and curves and in-between’s of her body in the rare moments they get to be alone.
I look at the grins that cover their tear-soaked faces and my being feels warm and light and loose and everything akin to happiness. I was always told this was wrong, but it’s hard for me to think of it as such. I wonder if this is what control feels like.
I keep close watch over her. By now, she would have had two months left to live. She owns a flower shop downtown, and she welcomes every customer with an energy she had tried so hard to maintain since she was diagnosed, but which now radiated naturally from her. Mr. Bermudez organizes merchandise in the back. Their children, two twelve-year-old girls, help make flower arrangements—with their mother’s help here and there. Color has begun to bloom in her skin and her hair has begun to grow once again, unevenly bald head now covered with short curls that sometimes bounce into her lively eyes.
I don’t understand how this was something that couldn’t happen, that I couldn’t change. Her tragedy had been embedded into existence, yet here she was. She was fine, her family was fine, they were happy. Looking at them go about their lives, no worries intact, it was almost unbearably normal. Who said I couldn’t have control?
It would have been thirty-five days now. A scream echoes throughout the shop when they’re closing. Mr. Bermudez hurried footsteps echo along the shop as he runs towards the back. He finds his wife on the ground, clutching her right arm. Her face is contorted in pain, and a heavy box of supplies rests on the ground beside her. “I- I think it’s twisted or broken or—I don’t know, it hurts so much.” She gasps and whimpers, pressing her lips together as silent tears trickle from her eyes. It takes him no time to react. He helps her up and guides her to the car, murmuring words of comfort in her ear. The girls watch from the backseat, their hands linked with one another’s the moment their crying mother is in the passenger seat. They take the all-too familiar route to the ER.
Time is eternal. You feel invincible, like the world is full of horror but not for you; you are a being apart from that. But it has a way of making you feel like everything is too much, there’s not enough time, you need more time. It gets swept from under your feet and you don’t notice until it’s too late, it’s too late, it’s too late—
Amidst x-rays and varying tests, they find out a few cancer cells had gone unnoticed, festering and growing and travelling. The cancer had traveled to her brain. An aunt had picked the girls up, so it’s only the husband and wife who are there to break. They break silently, however. No trembling, no tears, no holding each other too tight. Just a heavy silence. I watch from the sidelines, per usual. But tonight, I join in their mourning, in the realization of an inescapable reality I thought I could change. Of a countdown I thought I could reset. Everything within me feels empty. I leave before they do, and I carry the silence with me.
There are things even I am not meant to control.
There are twenty days left, and she is already weakened. She’s a ghost with her once again pale complexion and the hospital gown that hangs loosely from her frame. She struggles to move, clinging to nurses who guide her to the bathroom and help her wash herself.
At fifteen days, she can’t stand for more than a few minutes. She’s given diapers, and her sister stays with her during the day while her husband sleeps on the makeshift bed he has made with two plastic chairs and a comforter he brought from home during the nights. The girls want to see her, but she tells her husband to make up excuses. She doesn’t want them to see her like this. She thinks it’ll break them and she can’t handle that, not right now. She cries thinking about it, and Mr. Bermudez holds her hand and rubs his thumb over her knuckles and reminds her how beautiful she is, how bright she is, how her light will continue to shine. She tells him she loves him every night. She writes letters to her children. A few of them she gives to her sister to give to them, a few she gives to him, specifying when to hand out each one.
At ten days, she smiles. She cracks jokes and laughs weakly, she tells the nurses how she’s gotten so used to hospital food that it tastes like a gourmet restaurant by now. She reminisces on that one summer she and her sister bought tickets to Europe and left without telling their parents (they got lost the first night and were sure it was the end of them). She remembers teasing her husband endlessly during their first date because he was so nervous, and she found it cute. She giggles as she looks through a photo album her sister brought her and sees her two babies with food all over their faces, grinning toothless grins into the camera.
There’s one day left, and she thanks the universe for giving her a fruitful life, for giving her happiness and pain. She thanks time for giving her enough to love, cry, discover, grow. She thanks control, for planning out the life she lived for as long as she lived it.
And she asks destiny for a promise: to make her girls strong, make them appreciate every second of life they are granted; to give her husband enough strength to fight through the mourning, enough patience for the days he’ll wish she was there to talk to the girls when he doesn’t know what to say. To make sure they remember the endless love she has for them during their hardest days.
I keep her promise.