I challenged my friends to “send me a one word or first line prompt and I will write a story about it.” My Facebook friend and fellow North Kitsap graduate, Kate, suggested both “Even if it breaks your heart” and “believe in love,” which I have utilized in this story. Here you go, Kate. I realized while I was writing this that I don’t often write happy stories. That thought in and of itself made me sad. Thanks for making me tread on new territory. I hope you enjoy.
Even If It Breaks Your Heart
By Joy Bernardo
He watched her from afar. It was the only thing that he could bear to do. As close as they were, he knew her well enough to know that if he overstepped any boundaries, she would dissolve their friendship in a heartbeat. She was sick of heartache of all forms and refused to take another chance at love, especially if it risked a loss of her best friend.
“Eli?” she asked. “Eli, are you okay?”
Eli was suddenly brought back to the real world. He patted her hand. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine.” He smiled at her and brushed her curly, auburn hair away from her face. “You’re awake.”
“Gawd, I probably look like a train wreck, huh?” she jeered. She tried desperately to fix her hair.
“You look beautiful, Ashley,” he said.
“You are a horrible liar,” she retorted. She sighed. “I hate hospitals. They make me feel like I’m sicker than I really am.”
“You are si…” Eli couldn’t bear to finish the sentence.
“Oh no you don’t.” She grasped his hand. “You’re my rock, Eli. You’re what keeps me strong. You’re not allowed to break down.” She looked straight into his sorrowful eyes. “Stop it, I’m fine.”
He smiled. “I’ve got to head to work in a couple hours. I should probably go home and shower.”
“What time is it?” she asked. She looked at the clock. “Seven? I thought they didn’t allow visitors until 9 unless… Where you here all night?” she sputtered.
He laughed nervously. “Well, yeah.” She smiled and got that look in her eyes like she was going to pat his head. “Well, who else is going to put videos of you snoring up on YouTube.”
“You’re an idiot,” she laughed. “Go home and shower. You smell like as bad as I look.”
He laughed again. “The doctors said that they are going to release you today. Your mom’s going to take you home. I’ll swing by after work to see how you’re doing,” he said, getting up from his chair. He stretched and cracked his neck.
“I’m so lucky,” she said to him. His eyes glazed over as he felt a grin creep across his face. He took her hand. “I can’t believe that they found a donor that fast.” His grin faded.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s pretty awesome, isn’t it? Talk about fate.” He smile returned. “I gotta get to work. I’ll see you later.” He quickly turned around and saw Ashley’s mom standing in the doorway. She smiled sweetly at him.
“Hey, Mrs. B. I was just headed to work.” He coughed nervously and shuffled his way past her.
“That Eli is such a wonderful boy.”
“Aw, Mom, not again.” Ashley rolled her eyes. “He’s just my friend.”
“Do you ever think about being more than friends?” her mom asked.
“With Eli? That’s like dating your brother.”
“With Eli? That’s like dating your brother.”
Her mom rolled her eyes. She sat down in the warm chair next to her hospital bed. The one that Eli had been sitting in all night. “The things that he’s done for you.”
“Did you stay last night too?” Ashley asked.
“Of course. We haven’t left your side since the procedure.”
Ashley laid her head back on the pillow and thought of the sacrifices that her best friend had been putting himself through.
“He won’t stop,” her mom replied to her thoughts. “No matter what you tell him.”
“Won’t stop going holding my hand through the procedures?” Ashley asked with a grin.
“He won’t stop loving you,” her mom replied.
Those words echoed through her mind all day: through the car ride home, through her mom’s doting, through the silent house. She used the stillness of the moment to rehearse her speech as she laid in her bed. She should have known that as soon as she saw his face all of her practice would be for nothing.
The front door creaked open. Ashley sat up in her bed.
“Hello?” Eli called from the front door.
“Come on in!” she called back. She heard him stumble through the door and make his way up the steps to her bedroom. His sweet, smiling face was a refreshing break from counting the bumps on the ceiling.
“You okay?” he asked, setting down a duffel bag.
“What’s the bag for?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Your mom said that she’s gonna be out of town for tonight and asked if I could stay on the couch tonight. That’s okay with you, right?”
“Of course.” She shrugged.
“You okay?” he asked again, taking a seat on the edge of her bed. He brushed her hair away from her face.
“You’re killing yourself for me,” Ashley sputtered. Well, that wasn’t the way that she wanted to start the conversation at all. She rolled her eyes at herself, for being a horrible conversationalist and for harboring feelings for him all along. “I know it was you. The bone marrow donor.”
“What?” The look on her face made him realize just how serious she was. “I’m trying to keep you alive. I love you.”.
“I love you too,” she said. The words came out unexpectedly, freezing time for a split second. Ashley shook free of the trance. “That’s why I can’t let you do this,” she finished.
“No, it’s…” his voice trailed off. “I’m in love with you.”
She shook her head. “I can’t afford to be in love.”
He cocked his head to side. “Why can’t you be in love with me?”
“Not just you. I can’t fall in love at all,” she explained.
“You’re not incapable of it. No one is incapable of it.” He swallowed hard, trying not to burst into tears.
“I didn’t say that I was. I’m just…I can’t fall in love because I’m dying.”
Eli was speechless. The room went silent as he watched her eyes drop. She tried to hold back tears.
“I’m dying,” she said again. “And I don’t want to fall in love with you because when I do die… I just…I don’t want to hurt you like that.”
“Newsflash, Ash. When you die, I’m going to be heartbroken whether say that you’re in love with me or not. Let me just…” He took a deep breath. “Let me just make the last years of your life the best that I can.”
Tears streamed down her face. She had never said those words before. “I’m dying…” she repeated. Eli’s heart sank. He wrapped his arms around her.
“Shh, shh…” He tried to comfort her. “You know what’d make you feel better?” he asked. He felt her head tilt back as she looked up at his face. He looked down at her and smiled. “I’m going to take you to Disneyland tomorrow.” She laughed. “All you have to do is get dressed and…”
“And just believe in love…” she added.
“Just believe in love,” Eli whispered into the mic. “That’s what she taught me with her life.” He took a deep breath. “Well, that and that you shouldn’t have four corn dogs before you go on any roller coasters,” he added. He clicked the remote in his hand. The overhead picture changed to Eli standing next to Ashley’s wheelchair; her arms held high in triumph as he pointed to the “You must be this tall to ride” sign that pointed to her cheekbones as she sat in her chair.