Prompt request from ozzlover on Tumblr: "Come cuddle"
Laura's trail of belongings betrayed the type of day she'd had. On days when her students behaved, abstained from SparkNotes, and wrote like AP English students, everything had a place. Her tote bag hung on the olive green wall next to the door, her heels hid primly under the key table, and her blazer lay over the back of the couch. However, more often than not, only half her students behaved, too many didn't quite finish their assigned reading, and even more write like accelerated English students. Those days called for toppled heels just inside the door, blazer still on her shoulders, tote bag tossed next to her desk, and Laura hunched over a pile of ungraded papers. On the remaining Bad Days, her blazer hung where the tote bag should be, the bag was stuffed under the key table, and at least one shoe was near the wine cabinet.
Today, Bill tripped over the tote, shoes, and blazer before he'd taken two steps into their condo.
"In bed." Laura's voice barely carried down the hall. As he moseyed toward their bedroom, he noticed the closed door, with no light seeping through the cracks. He refused to give paranoia about the cancer's resurgence any credence, but his fortitude wavered when he saw Laura.
It took him a moment to find her under the blanket of golden fur that was their dog, Prima. Curled on what remained of her side of the bed, Laura had discarded all her clothes in favor of Bill's old Air Force hoodie.
She lifted her head so that he could see her face over the massive fluff of golden retriever. "Sorry Prima wasn't there to greet you. I never understood the concept of emotional support animals before we got him. You're welcome to come cuddle with us."
Bill dropped the armload of her belongings onto the bench in front of their bed. "I suppose cuddling will make up for almost killing me with the obstacle course you left at the front door."
Her laughter permeated the darkness. "I'm sorry about that. Come to bed, and I'll explain everything."
Usually, Bill would have made a show of putting his shoes in the closet where they belonged and tossing his clothes in the hamper like an adult, but today, he shucked everything but his dog tags, boxers, and uniform tank to the floor and climbed into bed on the other side of Prima. Either too lazy or too comfortable to move, Prima merely craned his neck to cover half of Bill's face with his tongue.
Bill's hands vanished in the fur behind Prima's ears. "Yeah, yeah, I know. It's been a lifetime since you last saw me. Good boy." Propped on one elbow this close to Laura, he could see her puffy eyes and pink cheeks, and suddenly the problem wasn't as important as finding a solution. "Bad day?"
Laura studied Prima rather than meet Bill's gaze. "Not particularly. In fact, I had a pretty great day. Karl Agathon turned in his literary analysis, and from what little I read, he's improved exponentially since we started in September. He's a smart kid, but you know he always struggled to organize his thoughts coherently. I got a list of potential freshman from Tory over at the intermediate school, and it's a small group, just the way I like. Principal Adar canceled our meeting today, so I actually got to be productive during my planning period."
Bill reached over Prima and brushed Laura's red curls behind her ears. "You don't sound too happy about those things."
Two tears stained Laura's blue, satin pillowcase. "Don't you hate it when you have a perfectly good day, but all you can focus on is the two minutes that frakked you?"
He thought of all the times he'd seen someone who looked like Zak on the hanger deck, or watched Lee's son playing with one of Zak's old toys, or had been walking down the street when he remembered that when he was five, Zak's favorite color was purple.
"I do." As much as he wanted to wipe her tears away, she preferred to feel her pain before moving on from it.
"We were discussing symbolism. And don't ask me why I didn't pick an example from the text, because I have no frakking idea. The kids we're bored with the text…just one of those days, I guess, so I…" Laura huffed and rolled onto her back. "When I glanced down at my notes, I saw my bracelet, and the kids had already noticed the look on my face. I told them about the accident, about finding the bracelet in my baby sister's personal effects. Did I ever tell you it was the only thing in all three bags without any blood on it?"
She had not.
"Of course, to avoid breaking down in front of my entire class, I dissociated, used the experience as an teaching moment. The bracelet remaining untainted by the tragedy was symbolic of three lives full of memories that can stand apart from their deaths, or some such bullshit. And you know, Bill, I was fine until I finished, and the kids didn't say a word. This…reverent silence took over, and these teenagers respected me enough to absorb this calamity I forced on them."
"No, Laura. You've known those kids since they were freshmen. They love you. You didn't force anything on them. They're old enough to understand."
Swiping angrily at her tears, Laura sat up in bed, as if she was too restless to stay still but too exhausted to walk. "Old enough to understand my hypocrisy. Thirty years of life and happiness, and I can't think about them without crying."
"That's not true." Expelling an embarrassing amount of effort, Bill sat up. "I don't have to tell you that some days are worse than others."
Her gaze focused on the drawn blackout curtains, Laura snickered. "I'm focusing on the negative today, remember?"
Bill thought that with her hunched shoulders and bedhead, she couldn't look any more dejected. Then Laura flopped back onto the bed and flung one arm over her eyes.
"I hate feeling like this and knowing all I can do is sleep it off and hope everything is better in the morning. But when I close my eyes…"
The steadiness of her voice indicated the resignation and emptiness that on even the most excruciating days of treatment, she could always suppress. Bill's intimate knowledge of those feelings did not make them any less unsettling to see in her.
As usual, Prima jerked them out of the moment's solemnity. Muffled barking sent him leaping off the bed toward the living room, where his view of the "intruder" would be unencumbered. Bill cursed under his breath before rolling closer to Laura, who had propped herself up on her elbows. Her eyes, puffy but dry, reflected her musings, and Bill couldn't stop looking for a solution, in the face of her acceptance that there was none.
His apology startled Laura out of her trance. Shifting her weight to one elbow, she stroked Bill's cheek, and he saw light flicker in the bleakness in her eyes. "Just because you can't always pull me out of my morbid introspection doesn't mean you have to apologize." Bill tried to protest, but she covered his lips with her fingers. "Never doubt that you make it easier to be grateful for every day."
Then he was back at that night under the stars, only a month after the cancer had vaporized like an unsettling dream. With her wind-blown hair tickling his nose and her arm over his middle, the future was irrelevant in the face of the perfect present.
Maybe we should embrace it—the life that we've got while we've got it.
The memory of her words whispered in his ear, and he embraced her, needing to feel her breath—real, present life—on his cheek.