Jack slid into the chair, phone cradled loosely against his ear. No point in standing for this one.
"I'm sick, Jackie—" Her voice broke.
"Chelsea, it's just a bug. You're not going to die."
God, she could be melodramatic when she'd had a few. He shifted the phone to his other ear. "I'm here."
"It's not a bug. I just got back from the hospital. It's cancer."
Jack blinked. He'd misunderstood. For the two short years of their marriage she'd been a hypochondriac; the lasting cry throughout the separation and divorce had been, You never took care of me when I was sick. And she was always sick. But now…he'd misunderstood, plain and simple.
He swallowed. "What did you say?"
"You heard me."
Fuck. "I…Chelsea, are they sure?"
She sucked back a shuddery sob. "Yeah. They're so sure they didn't want me to leave."
"Then why did you?"
"Come over, Jack, please?"
"Chels, you should be at the hospital. I'll come pick you up and take you back."
"No. Please. Just come be with me. I don't wanna die alone."
* * *
"I made myself some tea. Would you like a cup?"
Jack nodded, watched her as she lifted the kettle and poured the boiling water into a China cup, part of a set they'd received as a wedding gift. She didn't look sick, and that alone was enough to make Jack believe. When in the throes of some imagined infirmity she looked drawn, frail, barely able to take the next breath. Contrived, carefully calculated illness. Now she simply seemed resigned.
She placed the cup in front of him, matching saucer, delicate silver spoon. "Give it a minute, it's hot." She sipped at the cup in front of her, then tossed it back and added more water from the kettle.
"I'm sorry, Chels. I…I'm so sorry."
Their divorce had been brutal; ugly, prolonged and vicious. Now all he could do was watch her quiet elegance in the face of the ultimate fear.
She shrugged. "It's done. They say the cancer has metastasized beyond…" She smiled softly. "Well, suffice to say I'm done. I could stay in the hospital, but to what good? Drugs to dull my mind so that I forget I'm dying for an hour or two? No. If I'm going to die, I'm going to die at home, my way, on my terms."
"How long did they say?"
She shook her head. "Doesn't matter."
"It does, baby. We can look at alternative cures or something. Or at least make the most of whatever time you have left." She suddenly looked tired, about to fall asleep, but with a quizzical grin flittering on her lips. Jack frowned. "What?"
"You called me baby." Her voice was soft, the words slightly slurred like she'd had a little too much to drink.
"Did I?" Jack blew on his tea, took a small sip to test the temperature, then, though it was still too hot, drained the rest to have something to do while he tried to remember if he'd actually said the word. That word that had been his favorite endearment before things went south.
She nodded. "Yes, you did. And…" Her eyes fluttered and her lips twitched in a crooked grin. "And it wuzzlovely." She seemed to be drifting away.
He placed his hand on hers. "Chels? Baby, are you okay?"
Her eyes cleared slightly. "Thank you for coming, Jackie. I wanted you to be here. I really didn't want to die alone." She smiled again, then frowned as a sudden spasm shuddered through her. She gestured with her teacup. "It hurts some, but at least it will be short-lived, won't it, sweetie?"
Jack watched her trembling hand attempt to lift the teacup. Just come be with me. I don't wanna die alone. Her head slumped forward.
"Oh, baby, what did you do?" He watched her go. She hadn't wanted to be alone, and she wasn't. She stiffened, her body spasming again, clenching and releasing, clenching and releasing. Finally the muscles relaxed completely and he smelled her bowels let go as rigid fingers uncurled from the handle of the cup. Her breath slowed, paused, and it was over.
He should call someone, someone that could take care of her now that she was gone, take care of her like he never had. But he couldn't think who to call, or what to say if he did call. And he wanted to hold her hand resting so lightly next to her teacup. His hand stretched toward hers but seemed to take forever to reach across the table. He knocked over his own cup, watched the dregs stain the tablecloth, watched the cup roll off the table and heard no sound as it floated away into the darkness under the table. From far away inside himself he felt a contraction, a tightening sensation as something rebelled against whatever he'd ingested, then icy hands began to slowly squeeze his lungs. His fingers finally reached Chelsea's, so soft and still. He was glad to be sitting across from her and glad he'd been here because…
"Baby," he whispered."
…she didn't want to die alone.