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I'm sorry, Anna, but there is no cure."
Anna Seville sat in a chair facing her doctor and friend, Mary St. Augustine, and waited for the punch line. But there wasn't one. Mary was known for her stoic disposition. In fact, since high school, Anna had never seen Mary cry. But her eyes were welling with tears now, and that only added credence to the impossible pronouncement. But all Anna's brain kept repeating was that this just couldn't be right.
"There's a mistake somewhere, Mary, there has to be. I'm not I can't be dying." Saying the word, though it had emerged only as a whisper, seemed to make it more real. Dying. Ending. Leaving. Her life was over.
Suddenly Anna felt cold, and her focus seemed to turn inward, searching for logic or reason somewhere. Anywhere. But Mary's words had just taken it all away.
So she sought for rational reasons why it couldn't possibly be true. "I haven't even been all that sick. Just you know, tired. Worn out. Lethargic."
"I know. That's one of the main symptoms of this condition."
"But I don't have a condition. I've been fine my whole life, and now you're telling I was born with some sort of flaw that"
"If you'd come to me sooner, I'd have told you sooner. But you've spent your whole adult life dodging health care at every possible opportunity."
"Yeah, and look what happens the first time I give in to the nagging and come in for a checkup. A death sentence."
Mary lowered her head. "Maybe on some level you knew."
Anna sighed. "My mom did, I think. Probably why she was always running me to doctors and being so overprotective when I was a kid. God, why didn't she tell me?"
"I imagine she intended to, when she thought you were old enough. It's not as if she planned to have a heart attack at thirty-nine."
And now it didn't look as if her eldest daughter would outlive her by much, Anna thought sadly.
"What is it, Mary? What's killing me?" she asked, ready, she thought, to hear the truth.
Mary shook her head. "You were born with a rare blood antigen known as Belladonna. It was never detected until now because you've never been a donor or needed a transfusion, or had any major surgeries."
"And if I had been?" Anna asked, instantly ready to blame herself for not being generous and donating blood like any decent citizen would do. She'd always meant to, she'd just been so busy with other things. Her job and all her causes, and her sister's, Lauren's, kidsuntil they'd turned on her, anyway.
After their mother had died unexpectedly, Anna had become Lauren's caretaker. Her enabler, actually. Lauren had drifted into addiction prescription drugs, mostly, at the beginning, but that soon degenerated into anything she could get her hands on. She'd had two babies in a row, Nate and Cindi, with no father in sight for either of them. And hell, someone had to make sure the kids had a roof over their heads.
Anna realized that Mary had been talking and she'd been oblivious. She fixed her eyes on her friend and said, "Sorry, I drifted. Would you start over?"
Mary nodded. "The Belladonna antigen is rare. Few people have it. Those who do tend to bleed very easily. Almost like a hemophiliac would. Your mother probably knew this, and that's why she was so worried about every little cut and scrape you got as a kid."
"Makes sense. Okay, what else? Has anyone ever beaten this?"
Mary shook her head. "Everyone with this condition experiences the same symptoms you've been describing. Onset occurs in the mid-thirties, on average."
She was speaking in sound bites, Anna realized. Uttering a fact or two, then pausing to be sure Anna had heard and understood before moving on. She was watching Anna's face now, waiting for a signal.
"Okay. So far I'm just like everyone else who has this condition. So what happens next?" She blinked, then focused on Mary's eyes. "Tell me the truth. How bad will it be?"
"It's a very easy, gentle process, Anna. And that's the truth. There's no pain. You'll just keep feeling weaker, more lethargic. You'll begin sleeping more and more. Patients often find that daylight becomes harsh and unbearable, so they tend to become a bit nocturnal toward the end. Eventually you'll just fall asleep and won't wake up again."
Anna nodded slowly.
"Anna, it's usually less than a year from the onset of symptoms to the end. And you've been feeling them for what? A couple of months now?"
She thought back. "It's hard to say. It was so subtle at first, you know? I just thought I needed iron or more vitamins or something. It's been three months since they got to the point where I was worried." She thinned her lips. "But I knew you'd ask, so I got out my journal. And the first time I made a note about feeling as if I were tiring more easily than I should was six months before that."
Mary's eyes widened just a little. "And yet you didn't come in sooner?"
"I kept hoping it would pass on its own." Anna held Mary's eyes. "And you said it wouldn't have made any difference."
"It wouldn't. Just would have given you more time to"
"Time. God, time." Suddenly she was eager to get out of the chair, get busy, get moving. If she only had three months to live "I've got so much to get done! I'll have to put my house on the market, make arrangements for the money to go to Nate and Cindiand the car, what am I going to do about the car?" She was moving around Mary's office as she spoke, looking for her jacket, that was on a coatrack near the door. Long and deep green, a trench-style coat for the spring rains. "I don't even have a will. I'll need to write one immediately. Where did I put my purse? Oh, God, work. What about work? I have to help them find a replacement for me. And there's that big fundraiser we're doing for the SPCA! It's six months away, and I might not even be here to"
The firm, clipped nature of Mary's tone reached her. She stopped talking, stopped moving, right there in front of the desk.
"Please sit down. Just for five more minutes. Just sit down and listen, okay?"
Frowning, Anna sat, noticing that her purse was on the floor beside her chair. How had she not seen it right there?
Mary got up and came around her desk. She pulled a vacant chair around to face Anna, then sat down, leaning forward, her arms resting on her legs. "I'm talking to you as your friend now, not as your doctor, okay?"
"This is your life we're talking about. Three months, give or takethey're all you've got left. Do you understand that?"
"Of course I do. You just told me."
"And your response was to list all the stuff you have to do for other people. Your sister turned on you when her kids were finally on their own, and you told her you wouldn't keep helping her pay her bills unless she gave up her drug habit. Hell, the kids turned on you, too, after you practically raised them and put them through college, when you refused to bail their mother out of jail last year. They haven't spoken to you since, have they?" Anna lowered her eyes, shook her head. It was true. Nate and Cindi had vowed never to speak to her again for letting their mother rot in a cell. She'd been out in a month and using again, anyway.
"You have time now," Mary went on. "And fairly decent health for a while yet, too. I'm telling you to stop thinking about everyone else and figure out what you want to do. What do you want to experience that you never have? How do you want to spend the last days of your life? Figure that out, Anna, and once you do, say 'to hell with everyone else.' And just go do it. They'll all figure things out when it's over."
Anna sat there, blinking. "But if I don't take care of things, then who will?"
Mary shrugged. "Go on a dream vacation. Write a will while you're there. Pick someone you trust to name as your executor. Mail it to them, and they'll see to it that everything gets handled. They'll sell your house and give the money to whoever you name. They'll see to everything you want just the way you want it. You don't need to do it now. I can't bear to see you wasting what's left of your life taking care of everyone but yourself."
Anna lowered her head, blinking slowly. "But.that's what I've always done."
"I know it is, hon. I know. And you've earned your place in heavenas well as the right to be just a little bit selfish now that you know your time is limited."
Anna released a pent-up breath. "I'm not sure I even know how. I don't even know what to do."
"Think on it. Don't think about death or dying, or your sister or her kids. Think about what you would do if you could do anything you wanted. Anything at all. What would it be? What would you see, where would you go, what would you wear?"
Anna nodded, her gaze again turning inward as Mary's words stirred visions and dreams she'd left along the roadsides of her life. Her short, empty life. Dreams of sailing. Of the ocean. Of tropical islands. And of a dark-eyed man who loved her with the kind of passion she'd read about in romance novels all her life. The one she'd longed for, dreamed about, fantasized, and sensed was out there somewhere. She'd always thought he would be waiting when she got around to searching for him.
But she'd never gotten around to it, had she?
"Will you do that for me, Anna?" Mary was asking.
Anna nodded. "I I will." She nodded harder as she got up from her chair. "Yes. Thank you, Mary. I'm going to think about this. About what you've said. About what.I.want."
Mary stood, looking at her. "Promise?"
Mary wrapped her in a delicate hug, and Anna knew her friend was crying, felt it in the way her body trembled ever so slightly from trying to hold it inside. "I love you, you know," Mary said, her voice deeper than before. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Anna told her. Then she broke the embrace. "I'll let you know what what I decide."
"Thank you. I'd love that, but don't feel obligated. From this moment on, Anna, your life is about you. About you doing what you feel like doing. Period. Okay?"
"Okay." She stood, too, facing her friend, blinking through tears that matched the ones dampening Mary's lashes. "Thank you," she said softly.
Mary nodded and kissed her cheek.
Turning toward the office door, Anna drew a deep breath and then went through it, not looking back. She didn't slow or think or pause until she was sitting behind the wheel of her car, and about to turn the key.
But she couldn't. She looked around her at all the people passing by, and she wondered how they could all seem so ordinary. How were they just going about their everyday lives as if the entire world hadn't just turned upside down?
She laid her head on the steering wheel and cried.