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If only, p.22

If Only..., page 22


If Only...

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  “I’m scared,” I confess with a whisper.

  He nods. “I know. Me too.”

  I want to tell him he doesn’t love Lucca like I love him. I want to tell him that he can’t be as scared as I am because he doesn’t know him. Cole doesn’t know that having any sort of illness scares Lucca. He doesn’t know that Lucca is allergic to penicillin, or that he hates carrots but loves peas.

  Before the doors slide open, everything is quiet. Then I take a step out. As soon as my feet hit the corridor, I hear a deep, guttural howl coming from somewhere around the corner. It’s a human noise, but it sounds wolf-like. I shudder.

  “It’s this way,” he says, nodding over my head.

  We start to walk, but as the realisation of our situation crashes down on top of us, so does the urgency and we break into a run. We round one corner, and the howling becomes a bellow and then a cry. It’s a man and he’s crying, hurting, grieving, and screaming the word ‘no’ over and over again.

  “Where are we going, Cole?” I ask frantically.

  “Keep going,” he urges.

  We’re getting closer to the man. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want him to see us, running past him with hope still in our eyes when his has been ripped away from him.

  We turn another corner and then my world falls apart in an instant. Sprawled on the floor, screaming, crying and thumping the wall is . . . Fabio.

  “NO!” I scream. I sprint towards him. “NO! NO! NO!”

  He turns his tear-streaked face towards me and sobs.

  “NO!” I shout again, skidding across the floor to him. I pound on his chest. “Tell me he’s okay, Fabio. TELL ME!” I scream.

  Fabio covers his face with his arm and cries like a baby.

  “NO!” I scream again. I kick at the floor as tears burst from my eyes. I want to rip out my heart because it’s hurting so much. I yank on Fabio’s clothes and grab his chin, forcing him to look at me. “What happened?”

  “He kept complaining that he had a headache.”

  “What happened?” I repeat. “Why isn’t my son in Spain playing football like he should be? What the fuck happened, Fabio?!”

  I know it’s not his fault, but he’s the only one here who has any answers for me.

  “What the fuck did we do wrong, Evie? Why do we keep getting dealt the shitty hand?”

  Another wave of indescribable sadness crashes over me, knocking me off balance. I slump to the floor, my face colliding with the cold linoleum, and with tears streaming down my face, I open my mouth and scream. I scream over and over again until my voice box stops working. I don’t say any words; it’s just a noise—an awful sound that echoes all around me.

  “Pouvons-nous voir notre fils?”

  My eyes snap open at the sound of Cole’s deep voice. I’d completely forgotten he was here. “What did you just say to them?” I demand. “What did you ask?”

  He turns his grief-stricken face towards me and blinks, forcing tears to push out from his eyes. “I asked them if we could see our son.”

  Fabio flips over and pushes himself to standing. “What the fuck is that murdering bastard doing here?”

  A doctor steps between Cole and Fabio in that moment and looks down at me. “You can see Lucca now, Mrs Romano.”

  It wasn’t just Lucca’s head. It was his heart. His blood. It was everything all at once.

  My heart drops to the floor when I step into his room. He’s lying as still as a statue on the bed with wires after wires coming out of him. He’s asleep—well, he’s in a coma, but he looks like he’s asleep. My throat feels dry and raw, and I desperately try to swallow the lump down that’s gotten stuck in it.

  “Lucca,” Cole whispers at the side of me.

  I thought my son was dead, and even though I know we’re going to be facing the mother of all battles, I’m so thankful that he’s alive right now that I could cry with joy. Lucca, my beautiful, energetic little footballer, had a small bleed on the brain, which caused him to have a seizure on the airplane. When he arrived at the hospital, they scanned his brain and immediately operated on him to try and reduce the swelling. Apparently, he nearly died in theatre—or so they tell me—because his little heart just gave up for a few seconds. But he’s a fighter, and after all of that, they put him in a medically induced coma.

  “How bad is it?” I ask.

  The doctor is French, but he speaks extremely good English. “I have to be honest with you, Mrs Romano,” he says.

  I look up at him, feeling my lips tremble as Cole’s arm snakes around my shoulder.

  “It’s quite bad,” he continues. “The bleed to the brain was severe, and the cardiac arrest he suffered in theatre lasted for longer than we’d have liked. It took so long to get his heart going again that we can’t be sure if his brain was starved of oxygen.”

  My legs go. I fold into Cole’s arms as he bears my weight.

  “Are you saying he has brain damage?” Cole asks. His voice sounds calm and controlled, but I can feel him shaking.

  “At this moment, we’re just taking every hour as it is,” the doctor says quietly. “If your son wakes up, we’ll scan his brain again to assess the situation.”

  If he wakes up? “He still might die?”

  The doctor nods. “The machine is keeping him alive at the moment. We’re hoping that Lucca finds the strength to come back to us.”

  “Oh, God,” I say, sobbing.

  “I’ll leave the three of you alone for a moment,” the doctor says as he starts to walk away from us. “Would you like me to let Lucca’s uncle know?”

  I can’t speak.

  “Yes, please,” answers Cole.

  The moment the doctor is out the door, I go straight to Lucca’s bed. I squeeze his little hand in mine and brush my fingers over his silky-soft forehead.

  “It’s me, Lucca,” I whisper, my voice still hoarse from screaming. “It’s mum. Everything is going to be okay. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there with you. I love you so much.” I bend down and place a gentle kiss on his forehead. More tears fall down my cheeks and plop onto the pillow beside his head as Cole guides me towards a plastic chair that’s right next to the bed.

  “He’s in the best place, Evie,” he tells me gently. “They’ll be doing everything they possibly can.”

  I sniff and rub my nose with the back of my hand.

  “I love him.”

  I slowly turn to Cole and blink at him through my bleary eyes. “What?”

  He leans forward and places his hand on the top of my hand. “I already love him,” he whispers, “and it’s ripping my heart to shreds seeing him like this. This isn’t how I’ve been imagining our first meeting.”

  I don’t know what to say, but I turn my hand over, interlock our fingers and squeeze. My eyes move from Cole to Lucca and back again. They look so much alike that it causes more tears to fall. I squeeze my eyes shut and lean my head against Cole’s shoulder.

  I think about all the years I’ve had with Lucca and the ones we might lose. “Oh, Cole,” I cry. “He can’t die on us. He’s just a little boy. A lovely, clever, beautiful little boy. And he’s my baby . . . my everything.” My sobs turn into body-shaking, guilt-filled heaves. Cole holds me tight, never letting go.

  Come back, Lucca. Please come back to me.

  “He’ll come back,” he tells me as if he could hear my thoughts. “I know he will.”


  Present Day

  I pull some money out of my wallet and hand it over to the woman behind the till that’s served me for the last four days. I keep my eyes down, trying to avoid making eye contact because I know she’ll be smiling. It’ll be the same smile I’m sure she gives everyone that comes in here, but I don’t want to see it. Not today.

  I don’t want to see it because I won’t be able to smile back. I don’t want to see it because, even though I’m sure it’s purely from kindness or empathy or even just plain-old good customer service, I won’t think that. I’ll think she’s
smiling at me in pity. And I don’t want anyone’s fucking pity.

  Give it to someone who truly needs it. Give it to someone who’ll swallow it up and smother themselves in it. Give it to the people that huff and sigh and walk around just waiting for someone to ask them how they’re feeling so they can spill their guts. Just don’t fucking give it to me.

  Yes, the world seems like a shitty place right now. Yes, I’ve questioned whether or not there really is a God and if he’s done giving me crap for the rest of my life, but there’s a part of me—a much bigger part of me—that’s grateful right now.

  I have a son. And while he might be poorly and not in the best shape right now, he’s alive, and there’s hope that he’ll get back to normal one day. I’m thankful I’m able to have any hope at all because, as my eyes roam around the canteen looking for an empty table, I know that there are people in here that would give up all of their limbs to be able to have that kind of hope.

  Those sorts of people have children that aren’t waking up from their comas. They have children who have terminal cancer or deteriorating diseases. The parents of those children don’t have hope in their hearts like I do. Their futures aren’t full of the possibilities of football matches and birthday parties and holidays like mine. Instead, their futures are destined to include funerals and grief and a blackness that must seem so vast and endless that I wonder how they have any energy to carry on at all.

  My eyes burn just thinking about how hard it must be for them. My heart breaks every time I see their faces and how, just like me, they avoid other people’s eyes.

  “You can sit here.”

  I look down to see a man hunched over his empty cup. I nod and sit. “Thank you.”

  “I’m going now anyway,” he says, squashing the polystyrene cup in his hand. “You’d think they’d make better coffee, wouldn’t you?”

  I place my cup on the table and look at him. “I guess.” He’s wearing a distressed-looking leather jacket and he smells like old tobacco.

  “It’s my wife, before you ask.”

  I wasn’t going to ask. “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be,” he says with a huff. He pushes some of his greasy hair back over his balding head. “She wanted this, and I don’t bloody blame her one tiny little bit.”

  I frown at him. “I don’t understand.”

  “Back pain, it was. They did every test known to man, but they never had an answer. She was in so much pain,” he breathes. I notice him quickly wiping a tear away with his hand. “So much pain . . . every single day, and there was nothing anyone could do. She was on the strongest painkillers allowed. She had numbing injections that paralysed half of her body for days at a time, but it wasn’t enough. Nothing was enough. ”

  “I’m sorry to hear that,” I whisper.

  He sighs. “Thirty-four years we were married. I wasted fifteen years before that being a dickhead, and that’s all I can think about now. I could have been with her all that time. Could have made fifteen more years’ worth of memories with her, but I was stupid.” His head suddenly snaps up, and I notice his eyes glance down at my hand. “You married?”

  I shake my head. “No.”

  “Is there a woman you love enough to want to spend the rest of your life with?”

  “Yes,” I say without hesitation.

  “Then marry her, for Christ’s sake,” he tells me. “Marry her and make love to her every single day, because when you’re here in my position, you don’t want to be as full of regret as I am. Trust me.”

  I’m already full of regret. I swallow and watch as he stands up. “Is she going to be okay? Your wife?”

  He shakes his head. “The pain got to be too much. She tried to kill herself by jumping from a multi-story car park, but the jump wasn’t enough. She’s broken nearly every bone in her body and she’s in a coma, but she’s not dead. As good as, but her heart is still thumping, so they’ve got to keep her in here. And this ain’t no life for anyone.”

  I shake my head at how sad his story his. “I don’t know what to say,” I confess. “I can’t even imagine—”

  “You don’t have to say anything,” he says, and then he sighs heavily. “Words don’t help.”

  I nod in understanding.

  “Why are you here?” he asks.

  I think about not telling him. Saying it out loud makes it seem all the more real, and I hate the heaviness that hovers in my heart for hours afterwards. “It’s my son. He had a bleed on the brain four days ago, and they had to operate to release some of the pressure. They put him in a coma afterwards.”

  “That’s shit,” he says, shaking his head. “Is he going to be okay?”

  “Yes,” I answer. “I think so. I hope so.”

  He nods. “Good. You just having a break, then?”

  I shake my head. I don’t need a break. I’m just here because I have nowhere else to be. “They’ve taken him for another scan. They said they’d be an hour, at least.”

  Evie chooses that moment to walk into the canteen. I look up and wave while I examine her face for any signs of concern. She smiles. It’s not a real smile, like the ear-to-ear ones she used to give me, but it’s a smile. She starts to weave between the tables to make her way over to me.

  The stranger nudges my arm. “That her?”

  “Yeah,” I tell him, “that’s Evie.”

  He takes a deep breath. “Don’t waste any more years,” he advises. “Seize the day. As soon as your son is better, make sure you love her like you’ll never love again and live each day with your little family as if it’s your last. I know that’s cliché, but it’s true.”

  “I will,” I promise.

  I stare at Evie as she walks towards me. “Hey,” she says. She pulls the chair out and sits down beside me. I look around, realising I didn’t even hear the man leave.

  “Hi,” I whisper. I lean over and kiss her cheek. “What did Fabio want?”

  She rolls her eyes and pulls my coffee towards her. “He was having a bit of a panic attack, I think.”

  The day we arrived, Fabio didn’t wait for us to come back out of Lucca’s room. He listened to what the doctor told him and then stormed off. This is the first time he’s been at the hospital since then, but he’s been texting and calling Evie all day every day. When I asked her why he was keeping his distance, she said it was because of me.

  “What’s that all about?”

  She sips the coffee and then screws her face up. “That stuff is crap. You’d think they’d make more of an effort.”

  “Yeah,” I say as she pushes the cup back over to me. My eyes flick over to the stranger as he exits the canteen. “What caused the panic?”

  “Fabio walked back into the room and Lucca wasn’t there,” she says. “He thought he’d died so he lost it.”

  I would have too.

  Evie pulls her phone out of her bag and starts to scroll through her messages instead of looking at me. I’ve noticed she does this a lot, as if it’s some kind of distraction for her.

  “Evie . . .” I say.

  She shakes her head. “I’m fine, Cole. I’m fine.” She sighs and wipes her face with her hands. “He just wasn’t expecting to see an empty room, and I can imagine that was quite a shock for him.”

  I nod and place my hand on her thigh just as Fabio slides into a seat opposite us.

  I tense and inadvertently pinch Evie’s thigh. “Ouch,” she mutters. “It’s okay, Cole, he knows. I told him when we were upstairs just now. He’s not going to cause a scene.”

  I didn’t realise I had been holding my breath, but I feel my chest and shoulders sag in relief. My eyes find Fabio’s chocolate brown ones, and I cringe at how much they remind me of Nico.

  “Why would you do that?” he asks as he stares right at me.

  I take a sip of my coffee. I can’t believe we’re doing this right here, right now. I glance at Evie, but she’s looking at me just as eagerly as Fabio, despite the fact that we’ve already discussed this.
  I take a deep breath and put my cup down. “Because I loved Evie. Because I loved your mum like she was my own. Because I loved Nico. And because I thought he was going to have a child walking around the earth thinking that his or her dad was the best thing since sliced bread.” I sigh and look down at the table, feeling a wave of sadness crash down on top of me. I don’t think I grieved for Nico properly. I was too upset about losing Evie—and my freedom—for that, and too angry with Nico to actually miss him. “He deserved to be thought of like that.”

  I glance up to see shock slither across Fabio’s face. “But you spent six years of your life in that shithole . . . for nothing.”

  I shrug. “I didn’t know it was for nothing back then. I honestly thought that the papers would have printed the fact that Amy was pregnant and then everyone would know.”

  “But Amy died,” Fabio says, shaking his head. “And you knew that.”

  I sigh, feeling the awkwardness of our conversation finally settle into my bones. “I didn’t want you or Evie, and especially not your mum, knowing that he had killed himself, his girlfriend and their unborn baby. I wanted you all to remember the Nico that you knew. He was a good guy.”

  Fabio huffs and pushes his fingers through his hair. “But he wasn’t a good guy at the end, was he?”

  I wince at Fabio’s words and I see Evie flinch too. Fabio turns his gaze to her. “He wasn’t, Evie. He couldn’t have been to do what Cole says he did, and for what he said to you. You saw it, I saw it and even mum saw through his façade at the end.”

  I look away. I don’t want to think about Nico like that. It’s true that he was snappy and short-tempered in the last few months before his death, but he was stressed and over-worked. It wasn’t the real Nico.

  “I guess we did,” Evie finally whispers.

  “So,” Fabio says with a sigh, “you got out, and what? Looked for Evie for two years until you found her?”

  I frown and shake my head. “No. Actually, bumping into Evie again was a complete coincidence.”

  “So how’re you two here together?”

  “Fate,” I say without hesitation.

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