“Thou shalt be a benevolent ruler of the human race. Thou shalt not forget thy place, nor that of thy weaker subjects. Except through the Blood Contract, with Consent, or through the Deliverance of Justice, the taking of human blood and souls is forbidden.”
—Excerpt from the Dark Laws, verse ten of the Ecliptic Scrolls
Present day. New York, NY.
“Mr. D’Angelo, you may come in now,” the nurse said as she exited the hospice room, pushing a rolling laundry basket of used bed linen and towels.
Gabriel quietly thanked the nurse, his shaggy dark hair shielding his expression, his head and eyes slightly lowered, further hiding his face.
Though he knew that he was being rude, he was unable to reciprocate her small smile of encouragement he caught through the filter of his lashes. Instead, he acknowledged her sympathy with a barely perceptible nod and shuffled into the dimly-lit sterilized room after she passed by, closing the door behind him.
As if the click of the shutting door sent a buzz of electricity through his body, turning him on, Gabriel abruptly raised his head and greeted the woman in the mechanical twin bed with a beaming smile.
“Hey beautiful,” he said as he moved closer to sit in the deep-seated armchair by her side. “You’re looking better today.”
“Hey yourself, handsome,” the woman bantered back, her eyes sparkling with happiness at the sight of him. Though her voice was barely a whisper, her tone vibrated with good humor.
As if she weren’t dying of cancer.
Gabriel determinedly tucked away the dark thought in a remote corner of his mind. He pulled out a folded piece of paper from the inner pocket of his jacket and revealed colorful scribbles before her eyes.
“A gift from Benji,” he explained, helping her to raise her head a little bit from the stack of pillows, his warm palm cradling the back of her head with care.
Had her skull always been so small, so fragile? Like egg shells.
The images and colors blurred together in front of her eyes, no longer able to see with clarity, only recognizing light and shadows.
Nevertheless, she proudly proclaimed, “Another masterpiece. Our little man is an artistic genius. I always knew he would take after you.”
“It’s heaven,” Gabriel interpreted the drawing for her so she could picture it in her still vivid imagination.
“There’s a red brick house with a chimney and smoke coming out of it in puffs as big as clouds. A snowman with the scarf you gave me wrapped snugly around his neck. You’re kneeling down in front pinning the carrot nose on his face. I’m standing on your right side not offering much help. Benji’s on your left holding three sticks of marshmallows. He told me to tell you that this is the house he built for you in heaven.”
Having painstakingly related the message from their five-year-old son, Gabriel exhaled deeply, silently, as if releasing a great burden that had been suffocating his lungs. He hoped she didn’t notice how his hands shook, how his voice grew deeper with barely contained anguish.
“He built me a house,” she mused, using what little strength she had to lift her hand an inch to smooth her thumb over a corner of the drawing. “How did I get so lucky? To be sandwiched between the two most wonderful men in the world? Benji has indeed depicted the heaven within my heart.”
She turned slightly toward him, he helped her the rest of the way until she could look upon him fully.
After a long silence, he teased, “Do I have mustard on my face? I ate a Crif Dog on my way here.”
Self-consciously, he swiped at his lips and chin, trying to avoid her penetrating gaze.
“Don’t hide,” she said softly. “Let me look at you. One of my biggest regrets is that I haven’t gotten a real good look at you in all the years we’ve known each other. And now my eyesight is misbehaving and I have to concentrate extra hard to see and memorize everything I’ve…”
“Don’t,” he interrupted when he saw the sheen of tears in her eyes.
He didn’t want to hear about her regrets. He didn’t want her to blame herself for a past that could not be changed.
But she took a deep breath and stubbornly pushed on.
“Everything I’ve stupidly taken for granted for so long.”
She wiggled a finger and he was instantly there, holding her hand in both of his, ever in tune with her needs.
But alas, she had never tended to his needs, never considered his feelings and desires.
Until it was too late.
Selfishness was yet another regret in the long list of sins for which she wished she had the time to atone.
“Have I ever told you that you are the most beautiful man I have ever known?” she told him with a slight curl at the corners of her lips.
When she’d been well, this would have been her most charming, most saucy, most flirtatious come-hither smile. Now it was a mere shadow of a thought of a smile.
“You don’t have to say that,” he returned, shaking his head a little with disbelief.
He didn’t know how much more of her revelations he could take. It was all he could do to hold back the grief, to pull a mask of hope and cheerfulness over his countenance when, inside, he was frozen with despair.
“There are many things I must say before I go,” she insisted, her voice surprisingly firm despite the raspy belabored edge. “You must hear them.”
When he started to shake his head again, she said, “No. Please let me say them. There isn’t much time.”
“You’re tired,” he said, switching topics desperately. “It’s time to rest.”
She whimpered in distress when he tried to pull away, a tear leaking out of the corner of her eye.
“Don’t go. I can’t… sleep in peace if I don’t tell you.” Desperately, she clung to his hand with her last bit of strength, her breathing becoming more ragged from the exertion.
“I’m here,” he assured her, relenting to her request, infusing warmth into her icy-cold hand by enfolding it completely within both of his. “I won’t leave you.”
She took a shuddering breath, and her eyes shut immediately, as if she were preserving her energy to speak and keeping them open would have cost too much.
“I love you,” she stated clearly, her voice full and resounding in the silent room. In that moment while she spoke, even the persistent whirring from the radiator by the window could no longer be heard.
Time stood still.