October 16, 2008
The unknown shattered my reality. Before entering hospital room 339, I rapped my knuckles on the doorframe. A gentle tap, tap, tap so I wouldn’t startle my husband. “Pup, it’s me.” Deep inhale, and I pushed open the door, with Noah straddled on my hip.
My heart collided with my ribcage.
Niko lay in the hospital bed, the sheet coin-tight across his chest. Clear tubing ran to intravenous medication, hanging from a metal pole, to clear bags secured to the bed frame, below the thin mattress. Five or six tubes in total. His pallid color worsened when he reached for me, his strong fingers grasping air, urging us closer. The fingers which soothed my pain with one touch, the hand I held as we recited our wedding vows—twice. Those very fingers weaved with mine for the last two decades, through agony, through despair, through sorrow, through excitement, through endless days and passion-filled nights. The man in that bed possessed the ability to wash away my darkest fears. Yet, in this moment, the hand that reached for me did not look like Niko’s. Its skin mottled, gray, ill.
Frozen in place, I gaped at his suffering.
“This is not your fault,” he claimed. “Please don’t blame yourself, babe.” Balls of white cornered his dry, colorless lips. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Tears flooded my eyes, my vision clouding more and more with each soul-crushing second that crawled by. “What’re you saying? I don’t understand.”
“Don’t let our son forget me. Promise me.”
“Don’t talk like that.” I rushed to his side, pressed my lips to his forehead, sheathed in sweat. “You’re gonna be fine, pup. You’re the strongest man I know.”
“I love you, Sage Quintano. From the first day you strutted into the Hilltop Steakhouse, wavy hair cascading down your back, to this moment right here, right now, I’ve been helplessly, desperately, in love with you. Always remember that, remember me.”
“Pup, I don’t understand.” I cried harder, my chest heaving so heavily I struggled for each and every breath. Noah wailed, too. At twenty-months old, he was too young to grasp the severity of Niko’s words, but he sure sensed something wasn’t right. “Talk to me. Please,” I begged. “Tell me how and why you’re here. Who did this to you?”
“You’ll find love again, as much as it pains me to say. Consider this my blessing to move forward. I can’t bear to think of you, Noah, and the kids living alone in that big house.”
“Stop talking like this. I don’t want another love. I want you, pup.”
A slight grin arched beneath his straggly goatee. Glints of silver more prominent in his dark hair than ever before. “I know you do, babe.”
When he forced the second grin, albeit weaker, the charade did not fool me. My husband feared the worst. What happened in the hours after he dropped me off? If Paradox was responsible for Niko’s grave condition, maybe there’s a riddle that points to a clue to reverse the effect.
“This can’t be the end; it just can’t be. I’ll never make it without you. Hang on. Please, pup.”
“That might be out of my control,” he countered. “Remember how deeply I love you guys. You’re my whole world, my everything. Thank you for so many blissful years together, years I didn’t always deserve. I haven’t always been the best husband, especially when it came to recognizing your fears. Why didn’t I listen?” His warm, caramel-colored eyes rolled closed. From under his thick lashes, tears trickled down to the pillow. “I’m… so… tired.”
“Pup?” By the shoulder, I shook him. “Pup?” My gaze shot to Noah, still bundled in my arms, and I fell to my knees, hands held in prayer around our son. “Dear God, no. You can’t take my husband. Not now. We’ve just begun this beautiful new chapter. It can’t end yet. Please, I’ll do anything.” Noah bawled with me as I rose. To my husband’s chest, I pressed an open hand. “Fight harder. Don’t you dare give up. Fight for us.” Sweeping my hair around one ear, I lowered my cheek to his heart.
Thump… thump… thump.
Dr. Rollinsford strode up behind me and rested a supportive hand on my back. “Mrs. Quintano, may we talk?”
Without turning around, I said, “Only if you’ll give us hope. Otherwise, save your bullshit condolences for someone else. We don’t need ‘em.” I whirled around. “How did he wind up here? He was fine earlier. Maybe a little run down, but nothing to indicate his life was in danger. Was he poisoned? Shot? Stabbed? I can’t tell what’s wrong with all these tubes.”
“Let’s go back to my office so Sheriff Quintano can rest.”
“No, dammit.” I stomped my foot. “I’m not leaving him. Whatever you need to tell me you can say right here.”
With the saddest eyes I’ve ever had the misfortune of witnessing, he started slow. “Your husband ran into trouble earlier today when…” His words trailed off, his voice muffled by my devastation. The doctor’s lips moved, but I was trapped inside my own head, silently pleading with God, begging for mercy. If my husband died, I’d never recover. Not ever.