Tina and I stride into the Planet together holding hands, Angie tucked up on my hip. We’ve been trying to give her a brother or sister for three months now with no success. I met with Doctor Wilson two days ago and she put me on a fertility drug called Clomid. It’s supposed to increase certain hormone levels needed for pregnancy. She assures me that while my age makes me high risk, my body is fully capable of handling a pregnancy, just reluctant to become pregnant. I can’t help but feel a little nervous. Maybe I am just too late in figuring out how much I wanted this.
I look to Tina to see her smiling at me. We tried again this morning. Even if it doesn’t result in pregnancy, it was a resounding success. I can’t help but smile back at her. “There’s my baby girl!”
Kit comes from one of the tables she just served and takes Angie from my hip. “Good to see you too, Kit.”
She smiles in greeting but otherwise ignores us. Tina grins at me and we both shake our heads. We can’t really begrudge everyone’s love for Angie. She’s certainly the best of both of us. Kit points at the girl behind the counter who’s already begun to put together out order. We follow Kit to the table towards the back to see it full of most of the usual suspects.
So much has changed in the last year for everyone. It’s been three and a half months since Dana left Alice. Yes, you heard me right. Dana left Alice about two and a half months ago without a word, and no one can get Dana to answer her phone or her door. She had her locks changed and Alice has been an absolute fucking wreck. Not that I can blame her. I would be too. Even now, she’s sipping her coffee and staring at her phone, far too quiet for someone so bubbly.
Shane has completely withdrawn into herself since our discussion at the hospital. She’d never admit that she’s spiraling. Even now, she’s casually sipping espresso and intently reading her usual LAWEEKLY, giving off the air that ‘everything’s peachy,’ but I’m no fool. I just have no idea how to help her, and she doesn’t accept that there’s a problem, let alone any well-meaning offers of help. It’s almost as if she said everything she could at the hospital. She emptied it out and shut down completely. She has managed to overcome her need for sex. From my understanding, she’s still under a forced celibacy, but even if it weren’t forced, she seems to not rely on it as much anymore. So far, that’s the only good thing to come of all this nonsense, at least from my perspective.
Helena and Dylan are probably about as disgustingly happy as me and Tina, but there is trouble in paradise. Dylan wants to get married, and Helena is completely opposed to the idea. Tina believes that she’s just scared and I have to agree with her. Helena loves Dylan, but she just can’t seem to trust anyone, not fully. It’s frustratingly sad but truly understandable. She’s just like me in so many ways. If she doesn’t open herself, especially to the love of her life, she may wind up stumbling down the same terrible path I did. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, not even my worst enemy, not even Candace.
I look to the end of the table as we approach and see Malcolm and Ming. Such a strange pairing, but we saw her at the hospital when we brought Angie in with a fever about seven months ago. I still don’t know how I got the thermometer to read 104 when her temperature was 99.5. Anyway, Malcolm came with us and met Ming, and I swear I saw sparks fly. They’ve been relaxed and easy about their relationship for about six months now and somehow, our group got its first truly straight couple. They’ve assimilated well, for the enemy.
Tom’s sitting next to Malcolm and while he seems genuinely fulfilled in his location, career, and sense of self, I can tell he’s missing that integral piece. I feel sorry for him. He’s been playing the field but nothing has stuck. When he’s not working he spends most of his time with Angie and he and Tina have become very close. I can tell that she’s still hurt by what happened years ago, but she’s Tina. Her heart is wide open and kind, and I can actually see the healing that having him in her life has fostered. I know she loves our family more than anything, but there is something to be said for blood ties. I couldn’t imagine my life without Kit or Malcolm at this point. I’m thankful for them every day, and in the same way, I’m thankful that Tom is again in Tina’s life.
And then there’s Carmen and Papi. That didn’t last long. Shocking, I know. Since the breakup Papi has been more relaxed and more on the periphery of our group, and her OurChart count has grown to nearly three thousand. There’s even a link to Alice. Well, there was about a month ago, but it magically disappeared. Alice will neither confirm nor deny, but the general consensus is that Alice and Papi did the deed.
Carmen was patient for about six months as she waited for Shane to care, but that could only go so far. She has seemed to move on from the idea of Shane, outwardly at least. And while I know Shane does for a fact care, she would never let Carmen know that. Shane treats them both mostly as furniture. Carmen still sometimes comes to see Tina from time to time for encouragement and support, and, of course, Tina gives it freely. I turn to look at my wonderful wife and smile adoringly. She is the most incredible woman I’ll ever know. Despite everything that’s happened, fate – nature, life, what have you -has been exceedingly kind to me, to us. We’re here, healthy, together, and expanding our family.
We have a new addition to our group as well. Next to Papi, whose head is buried in what seems to be continuous texting, is Tasha, the same cop that helped bust Kelly and Leo. It turns out she’s a good friend of Papi’s, and while she’s shy and reserved, she seems like a very decent person. She comes mostly every morning, even when Papi’s not here. She and Alice have become good friends and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say she’s interested in Alice, though it’s an insane pairing by my estimation. And given what a wreck Alice is, she must be a very patient soul.
We take our seats across from Alice to a mixed bag of indifferent and happy greetings from around the table. Kit hands Tina the baby as our food arrives and smiles apologetically as she goes to tend to the morning rush.
Alice reaches into her purse and pulls out a bottle of pills, popping two with a deep swig of her cappuccino and shuddering. I lean back in my chair and eye her speculatively for several long moments, eating most of my pastry throughout the deathly silence that’s descended around the table before cautiously asking, “What are you on now?”
Alice doesn’t meet my eyes but quickly says, “Methylphenidate.” She sets her coffee down and releases a heavy sigh, leaning her elbow on the table and resting her head against her fist. Her face becomes stretched and lopsided as she finally looks towards the three of us. Her face is incredibly sad as Tina holds up Angie and jiggles her in the air, adopting a playful tone of voice as she says, “Oh, baby, say hello to Auntie Alice! Say hello! Say hello!”
Angie’s wide innocent eyes meet Alice’s as she says, “Hi,” in her sweet, innocent voice before looking back to Tina with an incredulous expression of, ‘why did I just do that?’ Everyone laughs at our condescending daughter and even Alice smiles before releasing another sigh, this one accompanied by a frown.
Tina urges me with her eyes and I sigh as I turn to Alice. “Al, I’ll stop by Dana’s on the way home and see what I can find out, okay?”
She seems to brighten a bit before breaking down in tears. It goes on for a long moment before Helena steps in. “Saturday, there’s a fuse event at Falcon. You should come with us.”
Alice sniffs and looks to Helena with a dejected and tear-streaked expression. “Helena, I can’t even remember how to say hello to a girl at a bar.”
Helena leans forward and says, “I’ll help you. Tasha can come as well. We’ll scope the place out. You see anybody you like and-”
Alice interrupts her almost angrily. “You know, my life is shit, Helena, okay? I mean, look at me.” Alice gestures to herself. “I’m good for five minutes on these meds and then it–”
Helena interrupts. “And then it wears off. That’s the trouble with medication. Maybe you should just st–”
Alice starts digging around in her bag to again pull out a white prescription bottle. “I should take more. I should take a higher dose.” She looks to Helena with desperate gratitude. “Yes, of course.” She starts to fumble with the child proof cap. “It’s… I just, it’s very not precise…” The cap comes off with a jerk and flies to her left where Malcolm snatches it out of the air. We all look to him and he smiles. “…this pill-popping business, you know?” Malcolm places the cap back in front of Alice as she holds the bottle up to her mouth as if it’s a drink and starts rattling pills onto her tongue. “I’m sorry, you guys.” The words are muffled by the pills until she swallows and immediately slams her head into the table repeatedly as she starts crying again.
Shane leans over to cushion Alice’s head and we all stare at her. Even Papi breaks away from her texting to look at Alice like she’s… well, obviously not forgotten her meds, but maybe overdosed. This goes on several long moments and Alice can’t seem to get it under control. I look around to notice the others in the café are looking at our table with their own worried expressions. Helena and Dylan stand. “Well, we should probably get to work. See you all tomorrow morning.” Tina stands as well and kisses me sweetly, then Angie as she loads up her things. I hold on to her hand until the last second and watch her walk away with Dylan and Helena.
I turn back to see Malcolm and Ming standing. Malcolm makes three different attempts to say something, but it’s all just stuttered breaths. He finally just gives up with a murmured “Bloody hell…” Ming just smiles at me and takes his hand, pulling him away from the table.
I look to Tom who grins sadly as he stands and squeezes Alice’s shoulder. He comes around to kiss Angie before leaving as well. Carmen looks to me and Shane before sighing, rolling her eyes, and taking Papi’s phone from her hands. “Hey, come on, cariño! Don’t be like that!” Carmen strides away with the phone and Papi darts away to catch up to her. Tasha looks to Alice worriedly for a moment but maintains a blank expression before excusing herself and following Papi. I watch them leave and turn back to meet Shane’s eyes. Finally, it’s just the three of us. We’re all family, but the three of us have known each other the longest. We’re the core, and it appears that we need to run an intervention of sorts.
Shane reads my expression and knowingly asks, “How are we going to do it?”
Alice looks up at Shane confused and I elaborate. “Dana changed her locks?”
Alice’s eyes light with long absent mischief as she leans back with a nod of her head. “And she won’t answer her phone. I know things weren’t perfect but… what did I do to deserve this?”
Shane rubs Alice’s shoulder, jostling her from side to side a little. “Al, we don’t have an answer to that question, but…” I stand and settle Angie on my hip and grab my purse. “…I say we find out.”
Shane stands and Alice just looks up to me. “Bette, she won’t answer her door if she knows it’s us.”
I shrug my shoulder and smirk. “Then she won’t. Now come on.” Alice stands wearily and the four of us leave to pile into my car for the fifteen minute trip to Dana’s.
“Okay, that’s him.” The flower delivery man rings the doorbell and waits. This happens three times over several long minutes as we wait quietly in the bushes.
Just as he’s about to turn and leave we all hear a muffled, lowly garbled voice ask, “Who is it?”
The delivery man says, “1-800-Flowers ma’am. I have a delivery for…” He looks down at his clipboard. “…Dana Fairbanks.”
We hear the click of the deadbolt and I hiss out, “GO!”
We rush the delivery man, Alice in the lead as she pushes past him, nearly causing him to fall backwards down the steps, and wedges herself in the door. Shane follows right behind her and I’m a little slower since I have Angie. They finally break inside and I stop to take the bouquet from the delivery man and thank him before I head inside and shut the door. It’s very dark in the muted grey light as I set Angie down and turn to the table against the hallway wall, placing the bouquet on the mail cluttered surface. I turn, and what I see not only frightens me, it breaks my heart as the startling image of one of my dearest friends etches into my mind and heart to haunt me for the rest of my life. “Dana…?”
Alice is in shock and Shane is looking away with her hands in her pockets. I can’t help but stare. She’s rail thin, gaunt, her skin is pasty and thin with a slight sheen of cold sweat, and I can actually see the bones of her face standing out beneath it. Her eyes are sunken with heavy bags beneath them and she’s so weak she’s shaking just from the short trek to the door. She wearing thick sweats, another sweater over that, a scarf, and a beanie. And by the looks of it, her hair is gone, all of it, even her eyebrows.
Dana won’t meet our faces and Alice finally regains her composure. She reaches out hesitantly to touch Dana’s arm but she pulls away. I can actually see the anger pouring off of her as she finally looks at Alice malevolently and snarls, “What are you doing here?” Alice tries again to touch her but Dana weakly pushes her off. It wouldn’t have worked if Alice hadn’t allowed it. “You need to leave, all of you.”
She braces herself against the wall and starts to walk toward the door to kick us out. Alice stops her and Dana starts yelling, “Leave! Fuck! I don’t want you here!” No one moves as she looks from face to face. “LEAVE!”
The last of her anger takes so much out of her that she starts to sway. Alice reaches for her again and she tries to struggle, but she just doesn’t have it in her. She starts pleading, “Please… Al… just go… please…” Alice gets her arms around Dana’s waist and holds her as she starts to break into shuddering sobs against Alice’s shoulder. “Ple… ase…” She’s crying so hard now that it starts to break some of the shock and I pick up Angie. I can tell she’s scared; I am too, but this is Dana. She’s family, and from the looks her, it’s canc– I shake my head. I can’t even finish that thought.
I bring us closer and I reach out to touch Dana’s back, stroking soothing circles as Angie buries her head in my shoulder and Alice meets my eyes over her shoulder. Even through the pill-induced fog and shock, I can see an angry fire burn in her eyes. I give her a reproving look as several long minutes pass, and I can tell that Dana is utterly exhausted. “Come on. Let’s get you back in bed.” She’s too weak to fight as Shane and Alice help get her through the dark and utterly destroyed house to her room.
They get her snuggled up under her covers and Angie struggles to be placed on the bed. I set her down next to Dana and she crawls over to her, placing her hand on Dana’s outside of the covers. She looks Dana in the eye and I can tell Dana’s unsettled by her as she says, “Miss you…”
Tears well in Dana’s eyes as she squeezes Angie’s hand and says, “I missed you too, Angie.” She looks to all of us and says, “You guys shouldn’t be here.”
Alice snorts and crosses her arms over her chest. “You’re joking, right?” Dana looks to her with pathetic eyes but Alice doesn’t soften. “Obviously, you need us now more than ever. What were you thinking shutting us out now? I mean…” She gestures to Dana hesitantly and I can see the fear settle into her heart. “…what is this, Dana?”
Dana closes her eyes and releases a deep breath. Her voice is weary and bitter as she replies, “I finally had a biopsy done on that lump. You remember?”
Alice nods her head and I can hear the anger and hurt in her voice as she says, “The one that I had been begging you to get checked out for months?” Her voice turns mocking. “The same one you said was nothing, just very sexy, sinewy, fibrous breasts?”
Dana closes her eyes and nods her head. “Yes. Well… it’s… um… I was wrong, okay? I should have listened to you.” Her eyes glaze over and the darkness I see in them sends a shiver down my spine. “I just should have listened to you…”
We’re all staggered to hear her confirm it. We see it; we saw it when we walked in, but to know it’s not just speculation sends a knife through my heart. Dana’s voice breaks all of us out of our thoughts. “I waited too long to have it looked at, and it spread… rapidly. They removed it, but it had already progressed too far. I’ve been doing chemotherapy for the last two months to stop it, but they’ll probably have to remove the other breast, and even then, it might not be enough…”
That was it. Shane leans back against the doorframe with her head down. I sit on the foot of the bed dazed and Alice breaks out into quiet tears as she comes forward and kneels by the bed, putting her head against Dana’s chest as she lets it out. Tears leak from Dana’s own eyes as she releases Angie’s hand to hold Alice. I take Angie in my arms and she looks at me worriedly. Kids may not be able to fully formulate coherent thoughts or understand certain concepts like… death… but she certainly knows something’s very wrong as she puts her tiny arms around my neck and holds on as tightly as she can manage.
Long moments of uncomfortable silence pass before Alice becomes unnaturally calm and pulls back to look into Dana’s eyes. “Is this why you left without a word?” Dana nods and Alice seems almost relieved to know that it was extenuating circumstances and not just because Dana wanted to. “Okay, are you done hiding now so we can get back to normal?”
Dana glares at her incredulously. “Al, I’m dying–”
Alice glares back at her. “No, you’re not. So save your breath. You have me and I’m going to make sure that you get through this, that we get through this. We can fight this Dana. We’re going to fight this.”
Dana sighs. “Al…” She looks to all of us. “…all of you should just go. None of you can help with this. It’s… it doesn’t look good, you guys. I don’t want you to get hurt in any of this…”
Alice snorts and glares at Dana again. “Get hurt? Get hurt?! You take off without a word, ignore and avoid us all for months, and you think that you were sparing us pain?!” She laughs incredulously. “You could have died and we wouldn’t have even known!” Dana goes to interrupt but Alice cuts her off. “You can shut the fuck up right now. I’m so angry at you… you’re lucky I don’t smother you with your pillow.” Dana’s eyes get round. “No, I won’t let you push me away, Dana. We’re your family. You’re my fucking girlfriend. Sick or not, that won’t change. Now you suck it up. You’re fucking stuck with me…” Alice gestures to me and Shane. “…with us. Deal with it.”
We are all staring at Alice incredulously. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so… alpha. It’s a little scary. Dana isn’t fazed at all. Her voice is bitter as she says, “Al, don’t you get it? I’m dying! I’m not your girlfriend. I’m not anything anymore… to anyone. You need to just let me go and move on with your life. I don’t have any left in me.”
Alice’s jaw drops open as she glowers at Dana. “Fine. You’re not my girlfriend.” Alice swallows hard and lets it go, her face hardening. “Fuck, Dana. Which of us is supposed to be the blonde? Seriously, if you think breaking up with me means I’m going to walk away from you, especially now…”
“Al, it’s not about you walking away from me. I’m the one leaving, especially now…”
Alice scoffs. “You aren’t dead yet! Fight, damn it! Let us help you!” Dana sighs and shakes her head wearily. Alice waits for her to open her eyes and meets her gaze. “You can’t keep me or any of us away, Dana. You don’t really get a choice–”
Dana gets angry, so angry her body can’t physically withstand it. She starts to shake. “Why? So you can watch me die? So you can pity me and placate me with hope that isn’t actually available to me?”
Alice rolls her eyes. “Oh no, you’re pitying yourself enough for the both of us. I don’t pity you, Dana. I’m pissed at you, but I don’t pity you.” Alice stands and goes to the windows, opening the blackout curtains and lifting the window to let the stale air out and the fresh air in.
The room already feels less stifling and I smile at Alice. Her words aren’t necessarily kind, but maybe that’s just what Dana needs to get through this, someone who won’t tolerate wallowing. I’m guilty of it as much as the next person, but Alice isn’t going to let Dana push her away like I did. And I’m not going to let her either. I have nothing but time and a baby on my hands, and I’ll be here every day if at all possible.
I stand and meet Alice as she comes back around the bed and meet her gaze. She smiles sadly at me and I know that this is going to be hard, but I know that love can heal anything, even when the hurt never fully goes away. Her smile becomes more genuine as I say, “Okay, first things first, we need to clean this place up, sterilize it just like we did for this one.” I look to Angie and smile reassuringly at her. She seems to relax and I kiss her cheek before continuing. “And then…” I look to Dana. “…we need to know everything you do: what you need, how you need it, etcetera.” Dana sighs but she knows she’s too weak to fight us, and if she’s honest with herself, she doesn’t want to be alone, especially if she… No, I won’t even think it. She’s the healthiest person I know. If anyone can get through this, it’s Dana Fairbanks. She just has to remember who she is…
I walked to Tina’s office and peered inside the open door. She was moving about and talking into her earpiece. Her professional, almost severe tone of voice and busy shuffling through the items in front of her coupled with the way her feminine power suit hugged and flared in all the right places as she moved and twisted, sent a jolt of arousal down my spine, as if a glowing ember fell into the back of my collar and raced down my length.
I could hear the tennis match taking place on the monitor in front of her and smiled as I realized she was grinning at me now aware. She motioned for me to enter and I walked in, setting our lunch from the Planet down on the desk. I set about quietly laying the spread out in front of us while she finished her call. She took the earpiece off as I pulled one of the chairs in front of the desk behind so I could sit next to her and watch Dana kick Daniella Azoulay’s ass. She not only won a spot in that match that she had been training so hard for in the previous months, she was about to destroy her opponent.
“I’m so glad to see you. It’s been a nightmare today.” Tina put her arms around my waist and tucked her head beneath my chin, breathing deeply. “And thank you for bringing lunch.”
I kissed her head. “If I didn’t you’d most likely starve.” We both chuckle and look to the screen as the commenters interrupt our moment.
Commenter #1: “…has really worked on that approach.”
Commenter #2: “She’s got a great coach.”
Commenter #1: “Looks like Dana is about to serve.”
Tina kissed me quickly before releasing me and we both took our seats to eat and watch. Dana and her opponent traded the ball back and forth at high speeds, both barely able to reach them in time. It was nerve-wracking and inspiring all at once. She missed the last return and the crowd let out a roar of disappointment just like I did. “Oh, come on, Dana.”
Tina eyed me and took another bite of her salad as she smirked at me. I noticed out of the corner of my eye but sat forward on the edge of my chair as Dana readied to serve again. “Come on, Dana. You can do it.” Dana served the ball with blinding speed. It zoomed right over the net and just past her opponent. I threw my hands up and said, “Whoo, she did it.”
I sat back and smiled in a satisfied manner, drinking some of my tea. Tina was giving me a look that was dripping with undisguised lust and I eyed her curiously. I don’t much care for watching sports, but playing, being competitive, surely these traits aren’t news to her. I winked at her and marveled at her raised eyebrow. This woman, my wife, this multifaceted conundrum of incredible thoughts and open feelings, as complicatedly fashioned and rare as the Hope Diamond but even more beautiful, is quite possibly the most amazing creature I’ll ever encounter, here or in the beyond.
Commenter #2: “Her serve is definitely one of her strong points.”
I turned my attention back to the screen and continued to eat. Dana bounced the ball a few times and threw it in the air, only to stop at the last moment and wipe at her face. The crowd let out a disappointed groan and I furrowed my brows at her image on the screen. She seemed to be struggling, probably because of the Floridian heat. Tina said, “Fuck, it looks like she’s hurting.”
I looked to her and sighed before looking back to the screen. Dana staggered a little bit and put her hands on her knees, bending at the waist to catch her breath. I called out to her to give her some strength. It was hot, she was tired, but she could do this. “Come on, Dana. Get up. Let’s go.”
Announcer: “Time violation warning, Miss Fairbanks.”
Dana wiped at her face again and I could see the vibrant light of determination set in as she nodded her head and it made me smile ferally. That’s it, Dana. Fight it out.
Commenter #1: “She might be penalized for this, which would be just tragic.”
Dana took a stance to ready her next serve. After a moment’s pause, she threw the ball up and powered it over the net and right out of reach of her opponent. “Ooh! Yeah!” I couldn’t help but pump my fist and Tina started to chuckle. I met her gaze and we both laughed together. Dana was going to win. It was obvious. Her strength, her determination, her physical prowess, all were palpable even from the other side of the continent. It was a good feeling to see her so alive, glowing with a slight sheen of sweat, and plowing through her competition with athletic grace. I’d have expected no less.
Commenter #2: “A hell of a serve once again for Dana Fairbanks.”
Commenter #1: “Exactly, and if she needs it, she digs deep and finds it.”
Dana took her stance and served with power. The ball was returned but she was there to meet it. I leaned forward, eyes fully glued to the screen. “Come on, Dana. You can do it. Come on.” The ball whizzed back to Dana and she knocked it back with a low save. The ball came back to her and it seemed to have heat guided positioning because it came straight for Dana. There was a slight moment of gleaming knowledge in Dana’s eyes as she slammed the ball back. Her opponent reached but fell just short as the ball bounced just outside of her racket, ending the match and securing Dana’s victory.
The crowd stood and went wild, cheering out for her.
Dana started jumping and pumping her fist with excitement for long moments. Tina and I both whooped out for her and she finally regained her composure enough to walk to the net to shake her opponent’s hand, and then the announcer’s. She practically danced over to the sidelines as a new car was rolled up behind her on the court. Tina and I both laughed as she took Alice in her arms and kissed her passionately, as only a conqueror could.
Announcer: “And there you have it! Dana Fairbanks is the Mercedes-Benz challenge champion! An absolutely brilliant performance in the final from a somewhat fatigued Dana Fairbanks.” She kept kissing Alice and Tina and I looked to each other with warm smiles that reached our eyes as the screen faded out to a commercial. Tina turned it off and I leaned over to kiss her just like Dana and Alice were at that very moment. It was a passionate kiss, as only a conqueror could.
I let go of my thoughts to return to the moment where the same woman, the same conqueror, my friend, my family, is lying weak and physically destroyed in her bed. And the difference in her is so marked that it makes me sick. She’s the healthiest person I know. It’s entirely unfair. But I’ve seen her will and determination first-hand. She will get through this. She is a conqueror. Nothing will take her down. Alice claps her hands together, startling everyone in the room before she says, “Okay then, let’s get started…”