This story is by Kristin Martiniello and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sun was blazing, and its warmth coupled with my nerves raised sweat on my brow. I wiped it away impatiently, my other hand fiddling with the velvet box in my pocket.
I glanced at my phone. Her son had texted nineteen minutes ago when they parked. The trail was an easy one only taking about twenty twenty-five minutes to reach the waterfall. They’d be here soon.
Anxious – completely terrified, if I was honest – I walked over to the tripod and camcorder to triple-check it was ready then hit record. I could edit it later, or, more aptly, beg my best friend and the camera’s owner, Wyatt, to edit it later. I didn’t want to miss even a second.
We had so little time left together.
Twelve months. Twelve months the doctors told us. Maybe more if we were lucky.
God, please let us be lucky.
I moved to the picnic blanket and readjusted the bottle of Bollinger in its bed of ice. That had been a feat to figure out how to keep cold all the way out here in the middle of June in North Carolina. That and the strawberries and cheese and petit four. But I wanted this to be like something out of the fairytales she loved so much – something she would cherish. My Elizabeth was passionate about romance and folklore.
So I made it happen. Besides, celebrations called for champagne, and I was determined to be optimistic about her answer. She wasn’t going to turn me down a second time.
I swallowed convulsively, and bile burned my throat.
Okay. It’s okay. Think positively. She’s going to be thrilled.
I was insensitive about the timing when I asked before. She probably thought I made the offer out of duty. Panicking and testing out how she felt about the idea on the drive back from the hospital wasn’t a smart move. I knew this woman: she’d turned down a marriage proposal from Mark’s father after they learned she was pregnant.
What she didn’t know was that I had been planning on asking for a while. That I’d carried the ring everywhere with me for two weeks before the diagnosis.
We’d been dating for twenty-six months; I’d moved in with her and Mark eight months ago. But I’d known she was the one three months after I met her. I’d brought her here, to my favorite place. It had been colder then, the first of March, and we’d been wrapped around each other as we stood at the foot of the waterfall, our combined body heat pushing back the chill.
I remember watching our reflection in the churning pool, blond hair resting against black, emerald eyes gazing into hazel as water pounded down from the falls, its cool spray distorting our image. I’d never felt so at peace, so happy. I wanted time to stand still. But I also wanted it to move forward, to face life’s adventures, good and bad, with this woman at my side.
Voices came from the trail. I could hear Mark’s gentle tone then Liz guffawing. A smile pulled at my lips. She hated her laugh, but I loved it. Like with everything else, she did it whole-heartedly, nothing held back.
I strode forward, nerves battling my joy at seeing them. Mark was as much a part of the life I wanted as Liz. That I had his approval, and, especially, his help now, gave me the courage that otherwise I wasn’t sure I would have.
I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. This time I’d make sure she knew how much this – she means to me.
I could see when she caught sight of me. She startled, then smiled warm and welcoming, her eyes crinkling at the corners.
How could I not know she loved me when her whole face lit up at seeing me?
“David! Mark didn’t tell me we’d be meeting you here!”
The pleasure was obvious in her tone, and I let it wash over me, taking a deep steadying breath. Already she was looking around, and I could see her taking in my preparations. She opened her mouth to say something, but I clasped her hands in mine and spoke before she could.
“Lizzy, my heart –”
“I asked Mark to bring you out here. I have a question for you, but I need to say some things first.”
I swallowed, nerves closing my throat and forcing me to cough several times to clear it.
“I know I did this all wrong the first time. I panicked when we got the diagnosis and reacted instead of thinking, and I hurt you because of it.”
“You didn’t – ”
“Yes. I did. I made you think I was acting out of obligation, and that is unacceptable. I have never thought of you – or Mark – as obligations but as privileges. I am and always will be honored that both of you let me into your lives. You’ve brought me so much joy – sometimes it scares me. That’s how much you mean to me. I am so sorry I ever made you think anything different.”
She was crying, silent tears that made me cry, and my voice wavered, nearly breaking, as I tried to fight the tears back.
“I want to spend the rest of our lives together. I want to be a family.”
She was blurring, and I blinked hard to clear my vision.
“As far as I am concerned, we already are, but I want the world to know that you are mine and I am yours. I want to legally claim Mark as my son and you as my wife. I want to brag about being the husband to the smartest professor at UNC.”
She laughed, and my smile was reflexive. I slipped my hand into my pocket, going to one knee as I pulled it out and opened the little velvet box.
“Elizabeth Marie Bellogio, my heart, my love. Will you marry me?”
She had to have known what was coming, but she gasped all the same, one hand covering her mouth while the other wrapped around her chest.
My heart was in my throat, and each second that passed my confidence fell. She stood silent and unmoving except for the tears flowing more freely than before. Her face was scrunched up, and she didn’t look happy. She looked heartbroken.
I looked at Mark in panic. His eyes grew wider as the silence stretched, and his face paled as he looked back at me. He shook his head, as unsure of what was wrong as I was.
“Lizzy, angel? Did I say something wrong?”
She shook her head, mouth opening and closing as she struggled to speak. I stood up quickly and crossed the few feet between us, reaching for her shoulders and drawing her to my chest as I held her.
“David. I’m so sorry.” She barely got the words out between broken sobs.
“Sh, it’s okay love. It’s okay. I’m sorry I hurt you. Tell me what I did. I won’t ever do it again.”
“Y-you didn’t – didn’t do anything wrong.” She hiccup-laughed between tears. It was a bitter sound, and it hurt my heart to hear.
“You deserve so much more. You deserve someone who isn’t a walking dead-man.”
I tried to soften my voice, take the harshness out of it.
“Don’t say that about yourself. And I deserve – hope I am deserving of – you. You’re all I want. Whatever time we have together is a blessing, and my life is so much richer for you and Mark in it. I don’t want someone else. I want you.”
I didn’t think it was possible for her to cry harder, but she was. She shook in my arms as I comforted her, and it was several minutes before the sobs stilled, and she caught her breath. She pulled back from me just far enough to see my face.
“I love you, too, David Elliot Michaels, and I would be honored to be your wife.”
I heard Mark laughing, but everything faded to the background as she kissed me. Our arms wrapped around each other, and I held on with everything in my power. I would fight anything that tried to take her from me. Even death.
The sun was blazing, but it had nothing on the heat of the warmth in my heart.