Saving forever, p.5
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       Saving Forever, p.5

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder
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  It was an odd angle, and my instinct was to just pick it up. My brain wanted me to be normal, but my body simply wouldn't respond. I blew out a frustrated breath, and then focused on the words, despite the awkward angle.

  Ever,

  My love. It seems like it's been forever since I wrote you like this. Since I sat down with pen and paper and expressed my thoughts to you. So much has changed since then.

  Everything has changed. I don't even know where to start. We met IRL (I didn't know what that phrase meant, way back when you first used it, you know), and we fell in love and we got married. God, all that seems like a lifetime ago. I don't know who that was, that Cade who was with you back then. I'm someone else now. This...hole in the world, man-shaped. Me-shaped. A vacancy.

  I can't pretend like you're going to read this, like you're going to write back. I'm sorry, but I just can't. You're in a coma, and you might never wake up, and I'm alone. You promised, Ever. You promised you'd never leave me. I know you didn't want to, you didn't mean to. But you still did, and I'm back to being numb and floating through life, through every day.

  Except now I don't even have you, just your letters to keep me tied to the earth.

  I couldn't read anymore. My head flopped back against the wall, thumping painfully. Tears slid down my cheeks, a flood of grief for my poor husband. I felt a small hand wipe across my cheek. Lucy, literally wiping my tears away.

  "He loves you something fierce, Caden does." Lucy wiped my other cheek. "I've worked in nursing homes for going on twenty-five years, Ever. I've seen a lot in those years. A lot of patients have come through these doors. They go, too. Nature of the business, and it never gets easier. But that boy of yours. God, he was so devoted to you. Your sister, too. She brought him every day until he could bring himself. You're lucky, Ever. You have the love of a good man. Not everyone finds that. He stuck by you."

  Oh, I knew. I knew so well.

  I turned my attention back to the letter.

  It's been six months. It's summer, and it was the day before Christmas the last time I heard your voice. The last time I saw your smile and your eyes.

  I have to make some decisions now. Finish school? Keep the condo? Do I pack your things away? Do I hang up the sweater you left draped over the kitchen chair? I haven't yet. Do I put away your shoes that are by the door? Do I put all of your stuff in a box like you've died?

  I can't. I know I should. Seeing your stuff just like you left it on December 23rd, it hurts. Every day I see it all there, just like you left it. But I can't bear to act like you're never coming back. I have to hope that you will. Because you will, right? You'll wake up. You'll come back to me. You love me, and you're just...lost. Somewhere out there, trying to come back. Like Odysseus fighting to get back to Penelope.

  I don't know how to live without you, but I have to try. Don't I? If you were to wake up and I've given up, just stopped living, you'd be so mad. You'd kick my ass. So I have to keep going. I have to pick myself up, and live. I don't know how I'll do it, but I will. For you. For US.

  I love you, forever and always.

  Cade

  Tear sluiced down my face faster than Lucy could wipe them away. I sniffed, and Lucy dabbed at my face with a Kleenex. She slid the letter back in the envelope, and took out another one.

  Ever,

  Some days it's easier to write you like this than others. Some days, my thoughts just flow out like water, and I fill a page or two without trying. Other days, it's hard to get a single paragraph. Today is one of those days. The hard to write days. I don't know what to say. What to write. I don't even know what I think. Except I miss you. So much. So, so much.

  I couldn't read anymore. I leaned my head back and tried to breathe through the tears. He'd suffered so much, my poor Caden.

  "Enough. For now," I said.

  Lucy nodded and put the letters away. She patted me on the shoulder. "You'll walk out of here on your own two feet, Ever. I know it. Won't be long."

  I hoped so.

  For my sake, but most of all, for Cade.

  questions without answers

  I had a new goal. Regain enough mobility and fine motor control to read the letters by myself. I wasn't sure how long I'd have to stay here in the nursing home, but I knew I'd need to be able to do things on my own when I did finally go home. Caden shouldn't have to babysit me, take care of me like I was an invalid. So, to that end, I worked harder than ever. Pushed myself harder and harder, longer and longer, until I was crying with pain and exhaustion. I mastered the tennis ball. I could hold it in my fist and not let go. The next goal was to isolate my fingers, touch the tennis ball with each finger. Just touch it. We take things for granted in life. Big things, like loved ones and kisses and the ability to hug. And little things, like being able to extend your index finger by itself.

  Days passed. Turned to weeks.

  Tests revealed, according to my team of doctors led by Dr. Overton, that my brain patterns were completely normal. It was kind of miraculous, they said. There was no lasting damage to my brain. I'd suffered a minor stroke apparently, which was common in cases like mine. Many brain injuries that resulted in a coma would see the patient left paralyzed on one side from the stroke. I'd come through mostly fine. The right side of my mouth drooped a tiny bit, but it was barely noticeable. My right hand was slightly weaker than my right, and it was a harder process to get my right hand to do what I wanted, but I would regain use of it in time, the doctors said. I was a very lucky woman, they said.

  Caden continued to come see me every day, staying as long as he could. He'd kiss me hello and goodbye, but once again they were chaste, empty kisses. He was holding back. Holding out. As if he didn't want me anymore. I had to remind myself that he'd been through hell, and I had to tell myself that things would go back to normal eventually. He loved me. He wanted me. He was just...confused. And lost. Maybe he didn't want to push me.

  Or maybe there was something else, something dark and horrible. Some secret that was eating away at him like a cancer. Day by day, I saw him withering and shrinking, even as I got stronger and stronger.

  With every day that passed, I regained more and more ability to do things for myself. I could almost pull the letter from the envelope now. I could almost dress myself, as long as I was sitting down. Darrel had begun working with me on standing up, but I was still months away from being able to walk.

  In the meantime, Dr. Overton had told Caden and I that I would be able to go home soon. My speech patterns were still off, but I could make myself understood now. Weeks of work had seen a huge amount of progress, but any pride or sense of accomplishment I might have felt was eclipsed by my worry for Cade. He seemed like a shadow of himself, a ghost of the man I'd known, and was unresponsive to my attempts to draw him out on the subject. He would say that my coma had been really hard on him, but that he was glad I was up and he was fine.

  He wasn't fine.

  I read his letters. Two or three at a time, then I'd take a break, and read more. The grief, sorrow, and despair were agonizing to read. The desperation he felt was palpable in each letter, worse in each one. The closer the dates of the letters got to the day I woke up, the more difficult they were to read.

  When I read things like this, I would weep for hours:

  I never understood how much I loved you. I didn't. You know how we talked about our love, how it was this thing that was EVERYTHING to us? It was everything to me, Ever, every last goddamned motherfucking thing, and it's gone. You're gone. And I needed it even more than I knew then, when I had you.

  Will you know me if you wake up? Will you love me?

  I was spiraling emotionally. Reading the letters made me cry, and watching Cade suffer made it only worse. I wasn't sure if he knew I knew about the letters.

  Finally, one afternoon, I broached the subject. We were on the bed together, my head on his chest. It was a familiar, comforting embrace, but it wasn't what I wanted. I knew we had zero privacy in the nursing home, b
ut I still wanted to feel as if he wanted me. I wanted him to try to touch me, to kiss me, to act as if he was drowning without my kisses, like he once had. Yet, always, he only ever held me platonically.

  "Cade?" I asked.

  "Hmmm?" His voice was a rumble against my head.

  "I've been reading your letters." I still had to think about what I said, and work to make my speech sound normal. "I found them in the side table."

  "Yeah?" He was trying to sound casual.

  "Are you sure you're okay?" It felt like a lie, asking him that. I knew he wasn't. I could see it. No one could write what he'd written and be okay.

  "Those letters were the only way I knew how to deal with how I felt."

  "And now?"

  "Now you're awake. And getting better."

  "If there was something wrong, something bad, would you tell me?"

  He hesitated. "You need to focus on getting better. That's all that matters."

  Slowly, and with great effort, I pulled away from him, turned, met his eyes. His amber gaze was raw and conflicted. "Don't ever lie to me, Cade." I kept my eyes on him. "I'd rather know the truth, the hard, painful truth, than live with a lie."

  "Ever--" He closed his eyes, squeezed them tight, and drew in a harsh breath.

  "Do you love me?"

  His eyes flew open, and for once his gaze blazed. "Yes! Of course I do. How could you ask me that?"

  "Sometimes I just...I feel like you're not...telling me everything. Maybe not lying, but...hiding. Something." I reached out, touched his knee. "And...I need you. Like things were. I want our life back. I want us back. I want...I need...love. Our love. The way it was."

  He sighed, and took my hand in his. I could see him thinking, making an effort. "Ever, babe. I know I'm--I know I've been...off lately, but...I'm trying."

  "Trying what?"

  He shifted as if the question made him uncomfortable. "Honest to god, I don't even know. I just don't know. I'm a mess, Ev. You're awake, you're getting better. I don't know what's wrong with me."

  That sounded to me like an evasion. Maybe even a flat-out lie. Why would Cade lie to me?

  I sighed, realizing I wasn't going to get anything else out of him. I felt lost dealing with this new and different Cade. It was like...like I didn't know him. Like I'd woken up and the Cade who visited me, hugged me, kissed me...that was a Cade I'd never met, a Cade who had taken the place of the one I'd known before the accident.

  I felt the tear fall, and I didn't bother wiping it away. I didn't bother stopping the rest, either.

  "Ev? What's wrong?"

  How could he ask me that? "What's--what's wrong? God, Cade. Everything. You're not...I don't know you. You're not the same. I'm trying, Cade. I'm working as hard as I can to...to get better for you. To be the woman you knew. I'm sorry I'm not there yet, but I will be. I'll be there for you. I'm here. And I need you, but you're not...I feel like I can't reach you."

  He choked and slid off the bed, crossed the room and pulled the door open, paused, turned to look at me. "I'm sorry, Ever. I'm--just...I'm sorry." And then he was gone.

  I'd read all the letters. I'd stayed up all night, reading. Hoping for a clue as to what had happened to my Cade. The letters didn't provide any direct answers, but they hinted, in a very oblique sort of way, that something had happened to him, and now the Cade who used to be was gone. Ruined somehow. Wrecked. Maybe it had just been too much. Losing his mom, then his dad, then me, then his grandparents. It was too much for anyone to endure, yet it had happened to him, and how could he not lose himself? How could he not show the effects of such suffering?

  It only reaffirmed how much I needed to get him home and be his wife, his best friend. His family. Support him. No matter how lost I felt myself, I had to be there for him. He needed me. I felt cold without him. Alone.

  I missed Eden. I'd borrowed Cade's phone and called her. The voice mailbox of the person you are trying to reach is full. Please try again later. Where was she? What was she doing? Why had she left?

  So many questions, and no answers.

  The last line of the last letter Cade had written haunted me:

  No matter what, I love you. I'll never stop loving you. I don't know if you'll love me when you wake up. If you'll be able to. But even if you don't, I'll love you. Forever, and after forever. Even if I don't deserve your love.

  Why wouldn't he deserve my love? I didn't get it. Couldn't hope to understand. I loved him. Completely. I needed him. I trusted him. I wanted him. I wanted him to kiss me like he meant it. I wanted him to kiss me, and for his kisses to grow impatient, to become demanding. And yet, when he did kiss me, his lips barely touched mine, and then he moved away. A chaste, impossible brush of his lips, and then it was over. No heat, no passion.

  What had I done to lose his desire? Was I no longer beautiful to him? Had the coma changed me in some way? I'd seen myself in the mirror. I looked pretty much the same. Thinner, yes. My boobs had shrunk with the rest of me, but as I got healthier that would change. My hips were slimmer, but that, too, would change. My eyes were the same shade of green. My skin was paler than usual, sure, but I could tan a little, if he wanted me to. My hair had been shaved for surgery, I'd been told, but it had grown back. It was brushing my shoulders already, and would get longer. It had dead ends that needed trimming, maybe, and it hadn't been getting the kind of regular brushing I usually gave it, so it wasn't quite as shiny or lustrous as usual, but that, too, would change with time.

  Why didn't he want me?

  Why didn't he think he deserved my love? I could only guess. Notions flitted through my head, but I forcefully dismissed them all before they could take hold. I couldn't bear to doubt him. I couldn't bear to doubt our love, because it was the only thing holding me together.

  But my marriage to Caden seemed to be crumbling before my eyes.

  After a year and a half in a coma, and two months of recovery and therapy in the nursing home, I was finally going home. Cade had brought me a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and a pair of sandals. I'd dressed myself, sitting on the hospital bed. I was going through the motions, but part of me didn't really believe that I was going home. I felt like I'd always been in the hospital. In terms of time elapsed, to me, I'd only been here for two months. But in reality, it had been almost two years. I'd lost two years of my life.

  That was almost irrelevant, though. It felt like I'd lost Cade, and I had lost Eden. I didn't even know why. Why would Eden abandon me when I needed her the most? Now, in all my life, I needed her more than ever, and she'd vanished into thin air. Caden was wasting away, seemed to be literally dying before my eyes, and my connection to him, which had once seemed unbreakable and inviolable, was severed, fading, crumbling along with the man I'd known and loved.

  Suddenly I was sobbing. Sitting on my hospital bed for the last time, I found myself bawling uncontrollably, shuddering and gasping and choking, unable to breathe or to slow the tears.

  "Ev?" The door opened and Cade came in, sitting on the bed beside me.

  I couldn't answer. I could only turn into him and bury my face against his chest and wish he was who I needed him to be. His arm went around me, holding me.

  "What's wrong, babe?" His voice was soft, hesitant.

  "Everything, Cade. Me. My life. Us. You. It's all...wrong. You're...different. Something happened while I was in a coma, and you're not the same anymore. It feels like...like you don't love me anymore. Not the way you did. You barely even kiss me. I know I've changed from being in the coma, but...I didn't think that would matter to you. I thought you'd--you'd want me. But you don't. And I don't know how to get that back. How to get--you. You back." The more upset I got, the harder it was to make sense, to get the words out in the right order. I'd worked my ass off to be able to speak normally, to use my hands normally. I was working my ass off to be able to walk normally. But sometimes, it was just too hard. "I'm sorry, Cade. I'm sorry."

  "Jesus, Ev. There's nothing for you to be sorry for."

>   "Then what's wrong with you? I know you've been through hell. I know you've lost...everyone. But I'm here. I'm back. And I love you. I need you. Even when you're physically here with me, it feels like you're...a million miles away. I don't know what I did, or what happened. And I don't care. I just need you now, more than ever."

  Cade had gone still as stone, and just as cold. "Ever...while you were in the coma, I--"

  I put my hand over his mouth. "Don't. Just stop. I can't handle anything else. I don't care. Maybe I should. Maybe I will someday. But right now, I just need you. I need you to love me. I need you to tell me it's going to be okay. Lie to me if you have to, and tell me everything will be okay. I'm lost, Cade. And you're the only north I have."

  Cade shook, shuddered. "Ever, god. Fuck. I've failed you. I'm falling apart, right when you need me most."

  "So be there for me." I clung to his neck. I put my lips to the warm hollow behind his ear. "Pull it together, Cade. For me. Please."

  "I'll try. I do love you. I never stopped loving you. I just...got lost. For a while." He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as me. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. I'll be what you need me to be. I promise I will."

  I didn't let him go. I whispered in his ear, "I need to know...that you're still my husband. Not just my best friend, my supporter. Not just a caretaker. I need to know you're the man I married. I need to know...that you want me. I can't live without that."

  He inhaled deeply, his chest swelling against me. He let out the breath and cupped my cheek with his big, rough hand. His eyes were liquid amber, damp with tears I didn't understand, tears he fought away. I watched him strengthen as he gazed at me. Watched the guilt and turmoil subside. Buried, perhaps, but gone for now.

 
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