“Candy?” A groggy voice called her and she jumped at the sudden call out. Her glistening eyes took in the image of her ill-looking boyfriend and more tears welled in them. The doctors had shaven Matt’s head for the surgery the day before and his bald look made him almost unrecognizable. His baggy eyes looked tiredly at her, hardly opened at that moment while gazing at her and his face was pale.
Candes had to bite her lip to stop herself from breaking down again. She had done that quite frequently for the past two days, from the time Mr. and Mrs. Rivera had filled her in with what had been happening during the last month with Matt. “Hey pup.” She managed to say and smiled slightly.
“Hey baby.” Matt smiled back lazily. “Don’t cry please. I am fine here, am not I? You are not getting rid of me so soon.” He teased her.
That got a laugh out of her and she nodded. “I know. Nothing is going to happen to you.” She gripped his right hand more firmly than before as if it would help him to survive through this. Candes noticed the grey eyes staring keenly at her and confusedly exclaimed, “What?!”
Her brown-haired boyfriend grinned very cutely at her and despite how ill he was, Candes couldn’t help but think of him as the most handsome guy on this earth. “For a moment there, I thought I was dreaming of you being here with me.” Matt let his hand loose from the grip only to intervene his fingers with hers. “But I am glad this is not just a dream.” They shared a smile and their eyes talked in the silence for some time. Then he turned serious and asked. “Who told you?”
The question, however, brought back the anger she had felt and she snapped at him, “What difference does it make? The only thing that matters in all of this is that you deliberately kept me in the dark.”
“Only to protect you baby.” Matt countered. “You were going through so much already, at school, and the complications in your pregnancy… I didn’t want to add more stress for you.”
“I know all that.” Matt’s parents had told her the same thing, but it didn’t alleviate her anger. She sobbed, “But it doesn’t help you know… I don’t know what I would have done if something happened to you.” She wiped away her tears and looked angrily at him, “You didn’t even tell your mom and dad … what the hell? They could have helped you get better sooner than this.”
“I don’t know…” Matt mumbled feeling guilty. It was true that he hadn’t told them for a long time. It was when they had brought him and Candes to the hospital last month that they found out about this from Dr. Hughes. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“But you did something for sure… I remember how you used to push me away every time I came to help you. Damn… it actually all makes sense now.”She looked at him in disbelief and hurt “Why Matt?”
“I was afraid I was dying Candy, and I could see no way of getting everything back to normal. I was struggling … to keep myself alive, praying that every breath that I took wasn’t the last one. But I definitely didn’t want you to suffer under this horrible truth. It was not your burden to bear. It was mine, but if you think I was wrong to think that …” Matt shed a tear, looking utterly guilty for his actions. “I am sorry … that’s all I can say.”
And every last remnant of Candes’ anger was discarded seeing him so vulnerable. She couldn’t hold herself back and leaned over the bed to kiss him. “Matthew Edwin Rivera …” she palmed his right cheek, looking deep into his eyes. “I am so in love with you,” she confessed smilingly while her eyes dampened. “And I know you love me too. We are connected, like it or not and that makes every burden of yours mine too. If you haven’t understood that by now, you better get it cleared in that cute head of yours.” She said, half-teasing.
Matt chuckled. “You mean this bald head of mine?”
She twittered. “Hey bald or not, you are the most handsome man on this earth to me.” She said and leaned to share another sweet kiss.
Lily and Emma were in the kitchen making dinner, when they heard a knock on the door. They weren’t expecting anyone so they shared a puzzled look. Everyone else was at home – Holden was resting upstairs and the girls were busy playing with Ethan in their rooms.
“I’ll get the door.” Lily said and walked out of the kitchen wiping her hands. A big smile grew on her face in an instant when she saw her baby peeping through the side window, waving at her excitedly. She ran over to get to the door and quickly opened it. “LUKE!” She squealed his name out as her son threw his arms around her giving her a tight hug. “Oh my God!”
“I missed you mom.” Luke smiled and kissed her cheek.
“I missed you too honey.” She said releasing him from the hug and looked behind him. A strange, yet somewhat familiar man stepped inside the house following Luke. A sweet smile played on his handsome face. Lily smiled back at him. “You must be Noah.” Luke stepped aside, grinning and looking between his mother and his boyfriend.
“Yes, ma’am.” Noah nodded, throwing a glance at Luke.
“It’s so nice to finally meet the special man in my Luke’s life.” Lily hugged him too, making him feel at home. He had missed getting motherly hugs since his mom had passed away.
After she let him go, Noah had a huge grin on his face. “Thank you Mrs. Snyder. It’s a pleasure to meet you too.”
She was about to ask him to call her by her name Lily, but she was interrupted by the sweet voice of Emma, “Gentleman, we in the Snyder family call each one by our first names.”
“Grandma!” Luke screeched and sprinted to fit in her open arms.
Emma laughed in happiness. “Oh sweetheart! You kept your old grandmother here waiting for too long, don’t you think?”
Luke blushed looking at her. “I am here now.”
Emma smiled and stroked his bicep with affection. “You look so skinny dear. I should start stuffing you with heavy meals now that you are here.”
“Mmm … thinking of your home-cooked meals makes me drool already. Is the dinner ready?”
Everyone in the room laughed. “No, but it’s almost done.” Emma replied and regarded Noah. “It’s good to see you again, Noah. The last time you came over claiming to be Luke’s teacher, but the worry I saw on your face then told me a different story.” Noah turned red at the memory of the last time he was there.
“Grandma? I didn’t know you have met him before?” Luke was confused.
“Uhm … Luke, I did come over to check on you once. You didn’t turn up at school for a few days and I was worried something happened to you.” Noah elaborated.
Emma nodded, “Yes, and don’t get me wrong Noah; it was a really kind thing that you did. You must love my grandson very much, I guess.” She looked at him as he smilingly nodded, then looked back at Luke whose face had lit up like a Christmas tree.
“I knew something very exciting was happening down here.” Holden said walking down the stairs and grinning at everyone.
“Our son is back, Holden.” Lily happily said rubbing Luke’s back.
“I see that.”
“Hey dad,” Luke grinned at him.
“Hello son,” Holden nodded and went to stand beside Noah. Patting his back, he greeted him warmly too “Noah! How are you?”
“I am good, Mr. Snyder…” He heard Emma coughing. “Uhm … Holden.” Noah blushed and Holden chuckled looking at his mother.
“Noah, why don’t you have a seat? The dinner will take no more than half an hour to be served.” Emma said.
“Oh no, Emma. Thank you, but I was just here to drop Luke off.” Noah replied. “I am planning to head over to my apartment now.”
“And what about your dinner?” Lily asked.
“Uh … I will grab something to eat at Al’s.”
“It’s decided – you are staying over and joining us for dinner. No junk food is better than a homemade supper.” Emma said in a dismissive tone.
“Really Emma, it is fine. Luke just got here; you might need some family time together. I don’t want …”
“You are a family too, Noah.” Emma said in a stern voice yet her face never dropped the smile it had. “Why do you think I allow you to call me by my first name? And as far as the dinner is concerned, you are eating it with us and this – I am not telling you. It’s an order. So, stay.”
Luke chuckled. “I told you she wouldn’t let you go.” He said hugging his grandma from behind.
“Yes Noah. Mama is right” Holden agreed. “I would love for you to dine with us. This way, we get to know you better too.”
Everyone insisted, so how could he say no? “Okay.” He smilingly gave into their request. Not long after, a parade of three little kids came down to the living room, jumping and shouting in glee seeing their big brother back home, and Noah didn’t know how the time flew talking and playing with them, because before he knew it, Emma came out to call them for dinner.
Emma wasn’t kidding about the food-stuffing at all. Noah was bombarded with all the food that was served to him. Luke’s grandmother, in her excitement of seeing her grandson again, had cooked a lot of items for dinner. It was yummy and yes, Noah was hungry too when they had arrived, but it had been too much.
After dinner, he felt the need to get some fresh air. Emma and Lily were busy clearing the table and doing the dishes. Luke had gone upstairs to make quick calls to his friends, and Holden took the kids into the living room to put on their favorite show to watch before their bedtime. So he stepped out alone and leaned over the railings, watching the surroundings of the farm.
It was so peaceful out there and so beautiful all around him. He wished he had a place like this to live in. He could see a barn in the distance and he was reminded of Luke mentioning the horses that his family owned. He made a mental note to ask Luke to show him the barn before he left.
He heard the door behind him open and smiled at Holden who came out to join him. “Everything alright Noah?”
“Sure. I was here to get some fresh air. It’s nice out here.” Noah told.
Holden nodded and leaned over the railings beside Noah. “That it is.” He agreed. “I hope you enjoyed the dinner with all of us.”
“Family meals are something I’d die to have. And seriously, the food was amazing. Luke wasn’t overreacting when he used to talk about Emma’s cooking. I loved it. Actually I think I ate so much that I feel stuffed now.”
Luke’s dad joined him in the laughter. “That’s a good thing, I’d say. Gives a great compliment to the cook.” He said. A comfortable silent moment passed between them when he suddenly brought it up, “So Luke was telling me you have a good job in Ohio?”
Noah was caught off-guard. He knew Luke had told Holden about their plans after next month, but he wasn’t expecting the subject to come up so soon. He stammered, “I … uh, yes… I got appointed as a history teacher at Bloomfield High.”
“That’s great.” Holden said, “And Luke plans to enroll at the same school?”
“Holden, I … I know what you are thinking, but we have really talked it out. I made sure what happened here doesn’t happen over there.” Noah explained. “Luke doesn’t plan on taking history as his subject for his senior year. Plus, I am not supposed to teach the seniors – only sophomores and juniors. So it’s cool.”
“But you still are termed to be a teacher at the same school Luke will go.” Holden pointed out.
“I know, but we agreed to keep our relationship out of the school campus. We have learnt our lessons, Holden. Really… and anyway, I don’t think we would have any time to even see each other while we would be in school. I’m sure between me teaching and grading papers and Luke’s classes, we won’t see much of each other.” Noah said. “And I don’t think it’s anyone’s business what we are outside of school.”
Holden considered it, thinking deeply for some time and then nodded. “I think you are right.”
Noah dreaded to ask him the question arising in his mind. So he took some moments and let a minute pass before he carefully dropped the question, “How do you feel about this – about Luke moving with me to Ohio? Do you have a problem with that?”
The man frowned for a second and then sighed before replying, “Of course I do, if you want me to be honest. Luke is my son and his moving out at such a tender age obviously hurts me.” He took a breather before continuing, “But he is eighteen now and I understand he has every right to make his own decisions. I believe he is making the right choices, if not … I can only hope he would not be too heartbroken to stand up on his own feet again.” That was a mild fatherly warning directed at Noah which he could understand.
“Don’t worry Holden. I will take good care of him.” He assured.
Holden scanned his eyes over Noah before his face broke into a smile. “I know you will. But still I will be watching your every move for the whole month before you move out of this town, and if at any point in time I find that you are not capable of taking care of my son, I won’t allow Luke to go with you.” He said half-joking.
“That time will never come; I can assure you of that.”
The door behind them opened again and Luke walked out joining the duo, looking a bit worried about something. “Noah, I need to tell you something.”
“Ehm… I think the girls and Ethan must be wondering where I am. I better go inside.” Holden said, intending to leave both of them alone.
When he left Noah quickly enquired, “Now tell me, what is it Luke?”
“I just called Mercedes and she had terrible news to tell me.” He shook his head thinking about it.
“Luke, you’re freaking me out. What happened?” Noah asked, holding a trembling Luke by his shoulders.
The blonde looked forlorn. “It’s Matt. He’s in the hospital.”
“He has a malignant tumor in his brain. He has brain cancer. He has been going through surgeries and therapies, but the doctors say his status is still very critical.”
“No! Fuck!” Noah was shell-shocked. “This can’t be true… no!” Matt was his best friend – the first guy he talked to when he moved to Oakdale. He still remembered his first day in town and the time when he sat at a table at Java looking lost. But the friendly looking barista over there helped him calm his nerves, even showed him around and soon they were best of friends sharing every secret with each other. Even during the time when he had to undergo the court case, Matt had helped him stay sane and figure things out with a calm mind. However, he had failed to keep in contact with him after they moved to Branson, except for the few times they spoke to one another, but things seemed normal then.
He felt horrible for not keeping up with his friend’s life. Had he known this earlier, he would have been able to help him … somehow.
“I thought the same thing, so I called up Gust and asked him about it. Unfortunately, it’s true.” Luke sadly told him. “But it hurts so much. He has been like an older brother to me; always looking out for me. He actually helped me through my coming out, you know?”
“He is a great guy.” Noah seconded his thoughts. “I don’t understand why something so awful could happen to him.”
Luke noticed how broken his boyfriend looked at that moment. He knew how much Matt meant to him as well, being best friends. He took him in his warm embrace trying to sooth his sorrow.
Gust was giving his brother a sponge bath in his hospital bed. Luke and Noah had stopped by an hour ago and the sweet aroma of the flowers they’d brought lingered through the room. Gust glanced at his brother. He looked better today and much happier after seeing his best friend and Luke after so long. It pleased his heart seeing Matt like that.
He went back to wiping Matt’s hand. He put the used washcloth away and took a new one before moving to his body.
At some point in time, he felt eyes on him and he looked up catching Matt staring at him weirdly. “What?” Gust asked him.
“Would you do me a favor Gust?” Matt asked in his weakened voice.
“Anything for you, bro” Gust smiled. “What do you need?”
He gazed at him, “I want you to promise me to take good care of mom and dad and always look out for Candy, if anything happens to me.”
Gust dropped his hands and angrily cut him off. “Shut up!” Thinking of what Matt had said made him shiver with an unknown fear. “I don’t want you to say anything of that sort ever again. Nothing is going to happen to you. You will take care of mom and dad and you will look out for Candy. You will be here to do all that. There’s no need to ask me.”
“You can’t turn away from the facts Gust. Let’s just face it – we can’t say if the treatment will work or not. I am not saying that something is going to happen to me. I don’t want that, Gust. I want to live my life … with Candes, with all of you.” Matt said, his voice cracking with every word he uttered. “But just in case, I want to make sure everyone remains happy and safe.”
“Don’t say that.” Gust couldn’t hold the soft sob leaving his mouth and wiped away the tears forming in his eyes. “You are asking me to take care of everyone but what about me bro? Who will take care of me? I need you for that.”
Matt smiled through his tears and sniffed. “I don’t worry about you, because I know you have an awesome boyfriend to take care of you. I trust Joe more than myself.”
“You say that… but he can never take your place in my life.” Gust countered.
“Oh no! He can never do that, and I better not be replaced even after I am gone.” He teased. “I am your brother and I will always be your brother.” He wiped his tears with the only hand free from the wires and asked again, “So will you do that favor for me?”
Gust nodded, but doing so broke his heart into million pieces.
“Joe… wait” Gust stopped him. “Your tie.”
“What?” He asked confused.
“Wait, let me do it.” Gust stepped near and began to properly the knot the tie. Joe brought his hand up to help but Gust slapped it away. “Stand still, you dork.”
Joe chuckled. “If you get any closer, I swear something else is gonna stand still for ya.”(lol)
“Then I better step back.” Gust teasingly smiled and did as he said, only after fixing the tie.
However, Joe pouted and pulled him closer. “We look better in each other’s arms, don’t you think?”
Gust giggled. “That I do, but you might not want to walk around the auditorium with a huge tent in your pants.”
“Oh, I have you to take care of that.” He said getting a laugh out of his boyfriend and quickly gave him a peck. Moving his finger over his jaw line Joe stared at Gust lovingly. “You didn’t have to be here, you know.”
“Why not? It’s my boyfriend’s convocation ceremony.” Gust grinned. “You have graduated and I want to be a part of your happiness. I want to cheer for you from the crowd when your name is called on stage. I want to show you how fucking proud I am of you.”
“I know that already.” Joe smiled sadly, “But I think you are needed more at the hospital. At this very moment, the doctors might be operating on your brother. He is having his final surgery after three months of treatments, and I think you should be there with your mom, dad and Candes. They need you.”
“I know, but you need me as well.”
“Of course I do … but not as much as they do.”
“They will be fine I think… and even your mom is over there to make sure of that, when actually she should be here.” Gust countered.
“She is only doing what is right. I don’t care about this convocation at all right now; all I want is for Matt to get better. I wish I could be there now, not here in this fucking auditorium, celebrating.”
“I wish the same.” Gust sighed.
Joe caressed his cheek, “Then why aren’t you over there?”
“Because I made this promise to Matt that I will be here for you; be happy seeing you graduate from high school.”
Joe shook his head. “It is so hard to see him suffering and still caring about all of us so much.”
“He is just like that – always thinking about others before himself.” Gust lowered his head to hide the tears forming in his eyes.
Joe noticed them though. “Hey, everything will be alright, ok?” He said lifting Gust’s chin up and kissed him tenderly.
“Brannan,” Joe’s classmate called him out, “The ceremony is starting. Come on man, get in.”
“Coming!” Joe called back before the guy disappeared into the auditorium and turned to Gust, “Let’s go?”
“Yeah.” Gust took Joe’s hand in his and walked with him inside. But as they were about to enter, his phone went off. He quickly took the call seeing the ID flashing ‘mom’. Joe watched him curiously as his boyfriend silently listened to what his mother had to say. When the call ended in less than a minute, Gust looked panicked into Joe’s worried eyes and exclaimed, “It’s Candes!”
Candes looked across the lobby at Dafna. Matt’s mother was sobbing slightly with thoughts of her son and saying silent prayers. Ben was sitting beside her trying to calm her down, but the anxiety of thinking what’s going to happen was clearly seen on his face. Even Marie, who sat next to her, was worried for Matt.
But Candes … she felt totally numb. They were all sitting in the waiting room, outside the operating room, hoping for some news from the doctor. After all, it was going to be Matt’s final surgery and a team of the best doctors in the state were brought in to carry out this surgery. This was Matt’s last chance; either the surgery would be a success and Matt would stay alive, or…
Sitting in the waiting room, all Candes could think about was the last conversation that she had with Matt just before he was taken in for surgery. She dreaded – tried not to think about it, but she just couldn’t stop it from coming back to her again and again.
“I don’t want to die Candes.” He had cried in her arms. “I want to live, I want to be there when you give birth to your child; I want to see the face of your baby, take it in my arms. I want to love him or her like a father… and I want to see him or her grow and I want to grow old with you and love you even more than I love you today.”
She had assured him he would live and he would still have the chance to do all he wanted. But he had said the most terrible thing and it somewhat disheartened her, “I don’t want to think this. Shit! But I fucking feel like this is the last day of my life; like I won’t be able to see you again after I go through those doors.” He had cried like a baby and then composing himself, he had said with all seriousness, “If I die, I want you to move on and be happy. You are an amazing girl Candes and I actually feel contented that I was so lucky to have you as my girlfriend.”
And his last words just before they took him away – “Don’t ever forget me Candy. Don’t forget there was this ordinary guy who fell in love with a beautiful girl like you.” This kept repeating itself in her mind and her heart kept aching with the memories.
She saw motion from the corner of her eyes and turned to look in that direction. The surgery room door had opened and Ben and Dafna had surrounded the doctor who had first come out. From where Candes sat, she couldn’t really hear what they were saying, but doctor looked serious – dejected about something, and then it happened.
Dafna collapsed, crying out loud and Candes gasped audibly. Marie quickly turned to her. “What is it, sweetie?”
Candes stayed numb for awhile, immobile before she declared, “I think my water just broke.” She breathed out. A sharp pain passed through her and she screamed in agony.