In her eyes.
In her fucking soul.
Her fists slammed into my chest with a hard thud, but I barely wavered. I’d take every blow, every yell, every single goddamn thing she delivered.
Her desire to let go and just be.
It was all clear as day, glaring right at me.
The fear in my mind grew at a rapid speed, corrupting the only vacant spaces left of my being. The unease festering inside me was far greater than anything I’d ever known or felt.
It took over as I stepped toward her, instantly blocked by an imaginary wall she had built so high, it would simply crush her the moment I tried to knock it down.
Caving us both in.
“Get away from me! Just get away from me!”
She was slipping further away from the life we fought so hard for.
Everything we wanted.
Everything we needed.
Everything we prayed for time and time again was disappearing like a thief in the night.
Willingly taking the love of my life with it.
“Bailey … please … please don’t say that. I’m begging you…” I extended my hand, but she immediately pulled away as if the words she spewed were in fact our reality.
Leaving me far behind.
I ran my hands through my disheveled hair, yearning to rip it out of my head. “Bailey, ple—”
“No! No! No! No!” she wholeheartedly repeated, placing her hands over her ears. Backing into the wall with nothing but her sobs and desperate pleas filling the small space between us.
Wrecking the fuck out of me.
“I don’t want you anywhere near me! Go away! Just go away!”
I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t fucking breathe.
“Bailey, just calm down! Calm the fuck down and let me—”
“I don’t want you near me! I don’t need you! I want nothing from you but for you to leave me alone!”
“Bay, you know I can’t do that,” I strongly conveyed, trying to steady my tone. Compose myself, catch my bearings, knowing it would help bring her back to me in the end. “Beauty—”
“Stop calling me that! That’s not my name!” She reached for the first thing in sight and chucked it at me. Her rage completely taking over.
I let the glass hit my shoulder, hoping it would help her find truth through the lies.
“I don’t know you anymore! Why can’t you understand that I don’t want anything to do with you! Nothing!”
“Don’t push me, Bay. You don’t mean that. You don’t fucking mean that. Please, baby … don’t do this … don’t fucking do this to us…” I pleaded with my hands steepled out in front me.
My white flag was up. My goddamn flag was raised up high, flowing adamantly through the storm.
“Just stay away from me,” she murmured so low, I could barely hear her. Narrowing her gorgeous eyes at me with an endless stream of questions splitting through her unsettled gaze. Making it difficult for her to focus solely on me.
On my voice.
On my presence.
“Please don’t leave me, Beauty. Please…”
I took an agonizing step toward her. “I.” Two more slow steps. “Love.” Another two brought me inches away from her mouth. I resisted the desire to claim her lips like I’d done hundreds, thousands, millions of times before.
A lifetime of kisses.
I love you’s.
Instead, my eyes stayed fixated on her face. My core seized tighter, my knees got weaker, my body ached, remembering the reassuring symmetry of her heart beating against mine.
“You, Bailey Ashlyn Pierce. My girl, my wife, my best friend, my whole fucking heart.” Grabbing her face in between my hands, I yearned for her to feel me.
To see me.
To love me.
The man who would die for her.
It didn’t take long for our bodies to close the emotional and physical distance between us. From her mind to her heart, to every goddamn bone in her body, I knew she felt it. There was no way in hell she couldn’t sense the effect I always had on her.
The effect she’d always have on me.
“You’re all the same. Don’t you get it? You’re one of them. You’re just one of them to me, Aiden. That’s all that’s left. Don’t you see?”
I gripped onto her face. “To Hell with that, Bay. I’m your one and only. I’m your home.”
“There’s no peace for me in that house.”
“I know, you took it all with you.”
Her body trembled, her strong, hardened composure weakened with each word that escaped from her mouth. “Why do you keep hurting me?”
I grimaced as if the wind had been knocked right out of me. “I would never hurt you. Never. I’m here, Bailey.” My grip shifted toward the nook of her neck, tugging her toward me, bringing her heart against mine. “I’m right here.”
She hadn’t let me feel her warmth, her security, her heart in what felt like an eternity.
“This is where I belong. Where I’ve always been since we were seven-years-old. I’m a part of you. I need you to hear me screaming out for you. I still need you, Beauty. I’m lost without you.” Pulling her hair away from her face to look deep into her eyes, I said the only thing that was true.
The only truth I ever knew.
“I choose us, Bailey Pierce. I will always choose us. No matter what. I. Choose. Us.”
She consciously jerked back from the weight of my words.
My girl was at a loss, and I had nothing left to lose.
“It’s you and me against the world, baby. It’s always been you and me against the world. You know that, Bay. You do. Just come back to me … please. I can’t live, I can’t breathe… I can’t go on without you.”
She didn’t say a word, not one fucking word. She just stood there, looking at me. Searching for the man she once knew. Her resolve was slowly breaking, but I couldn’t take it anymore.
I broke down. I bawled, pulling her back toward me, and to my surprise she let me.
“If I did anything right in my life, it was loving you. Do you understand me? You were the beginning of everything for me. You will forever be my always, Bay, I only need two things in this world. You and us. Just you and us, Bailey.” I leaned forward, setting my forehead against hers, taking a deep breath, trying to gather my thoughts.
My fucking memories.
“I’m trying, Bay. I don’t know what else I can do. Please don’t give up on me. On us.”
“Aiden … please.”
I peered up at her as tears started spilling down the sides of her beautiful face, one right after the other. She didn’t even try to hide them, she let her emotions flow freely. Wanting me to see the part inside of her she thought died long ago.
“Just take me back, baby. Please… God, just take me back to the night we first met,” I faintly uttered near her ear, hanging on by a thread.
Hoping she realized the significance in what I just said.
As soon as her eyes filled with fresh tears, I wiped them all away. Not knowing where to go from here. She held my gaze until the sensations became too much for her. Lowering herself onto the edge of the bed as her chest heaved for her next breath.
In one swift movement, I fell to my knees in front of her and clung onto the back of her neck. There was no way in hell she could keep me away. Before she even realized what was happening, I was holding her delicate frame in my strong and steady arms. Kissing away the tears on her face as they fell to the floor between us. She stirred beneath my lips, her body shuddered under my touch.
Giving me hope, strength, the reassurance I needed to go on.
“Aiden, please…” Her mouth quivered. “Just let me go.”
“I won’t lose you,” I breathed out against her lips. “I have seen you in so many different ways, and I have loved you in each one of them. For better or for worse, Bay … for better or for worse, I will love you.”
She sucked in a breath, and our mouths parted in sync with one another.
“You’re my answered prayer, Bailey. I will love you until I stop breathing, until the last seconds of my heart beating, because you are my beginning and my end.”
“Aiden,” she rasped an eerie tone, causing shivers to course down my spine as I knelt before her.
I ignored the looming essence that wrapped around my neck like a noose. Simply sucking the life out of me. Shutting my eyes, I softly kissed the corner of her mouth.
Recalling every memory.
Every sentiment she ever lured out of me.
Every instance I fought for what was mine.
What do you do when you meet your soulmate at seven-years-old?
And you love…
Until you hear the words, “I just don’t love you anymore.”
Putting an end to us.
For now and forever.
“Baby,” Momma whispered like it hurt her to speak.
I sat on the edge of her hospital bed and grabbed her hand, holding it as tight as I could. My warmth comforting her cold, clammy skin just like I knew it would. She loved when I did that, giving her a little squeeze so she’d know I was there. So she’d know she wasn’t alone.
Momma didn’t like being alone.
“I love you so much, Aiden. Do you have any idea how much Momma loves you?”
I smiled, laying my head on her tummy. Cuddling closer, listening to the soft thumps of her heartbeat. “I know, Momma. I know,” I calmed her, knowing she loved hearing that too.
She looked so tired. She always looked so tired now. Spending more time sleeping than awake every day. Sometimes she had good days where she’d laugh and ask how my day was, but I couldn’t remember the last time she was awake enough to say anything to me. Making me super sad and lonely.
I really missed those days and couldn’t wait for them to come back again. To have my momma back like she used to be before she got sick. I hated seeing her sick, I hated it so much. Every night and sometimes during the day, when the sun was shining bright, I would pray to God to help her feel better, so I could have my momma back. Playing with me, talking to me, paying attention to me like she always had.
“Momma! Momma! Momma! You have to chase me!” I shouted, trying to get her to run after me faster.
“I am chasing you, Aiden! And as soon as I get you, you’re done for, Little Man!”
I laughed, throwing my head back. Almost tripping over my own two feet.
“Gotcha!” She giggled, tackling me to the ground.
I threw my body around as soon as her fingers started tickling under my chin. I hated getting tickled there the most.
“Who’s your favorite girl?”
“You, Momma, you!”
“Good, remember that when girls start coming around.”
“I hate girls!”
She stopped tickling me, smiling and laughing. Finally letting me catch my breath.
“Well, baby, girls are going to love you, and I’m not ready for any of that. You can never leave me, okay? You stay Momma’s Little Man for life, alright?”
I nodded, sitting up. “I won’t leave you, ever. I swear with my whole heart. But you won’t leave me either, right, Momma?”
“Mommas don’t leave, Aiden. Mommas never leave,” she replied, brushing the hair away from my eyes with a sad smile on her face.
“So then only dads leave?”
“Oh, Little Man … dads aren’t supposed to leave either.”
“But you said my daddy left.”
We never really talked about him. I never met him, she said he left before I was born.
The troubled look on her face made my chest hurt. It was one of the reasons we didn’t talk about the man that much.
“I’m sorry, Momma, I don’t want to make you sad.” I gave her a hug, wanting to make her feel better. She always said my hugs were the best and the cure to anything in this world.
“I don’t need a daddy, Momma. I have you. You’re all I need, I promise.”
“I’m sorry you don’t have a daddy, Aiden. I never wanted you not to have a daddy. But don’t you worry, Little Man, moms don’t leave. They never leave. I promise you, I’ll be with you forever, Aiden. It’s you and me against the world,” she repeated for what felt like the hundredth time. “Just me and you against the world, Little Man.”
The words played out in my head again and again, remembering the last happy memory I had of her before she got sick. I didn’t mind taking care of her, though. It’s what you did for the people you loved. You took care of them.
No matter what.
“Momma, when are you going to feel better, so we can play? Do you think you’ll feel better next week? Joey, Felix, and Tyler’s parents won’t let them play with me anymore, cause you’re never around to watch us. They won’t even let me play with them at their houses where their parents can watch us. Something about me not thinking or acting like a seven-year-old boy should, cause I’m always taking care of myself. And you’re making me grow up too fast.” I rolled my eyes. “Whatever that means.”
“It’s okay, Momma.” I shrugged. “I didn’t want to tell you, but I’m really missing my friends. So do you think you might feel better by next week?”
“Oh, Aiden…” she repeated, looking up at the ceiling with tears in her eyes.
“Please don’t cry. I don’t like it when you cry.”
It was what I hated the most about telling her what people were saying. My teachers at school were always asking me questions about my home life. All sorts of questions that had nothing to do with them. Most of the time I just lied to keep them from asking me again, but it never worked. Sometimes the principal would even call me into his office with the guidance counselor, and that always made me really nervous.
They said everyone was just looking out for me because they were concerned. I guess all eyes were on me since they found out I was walking to and from the bus stop by myself. The walk wasn’t even that far, not as far as the small grocery store on Rubles Road.
Now that was a very long walk, and the lady behind the counter always had the saddest eyes when she saw me. Kind of like Momma’s right now. I didn’t like it when anyone was sad, especially when I was the cause.
It was the worst feeling in the world.
Maybe I did grow up faster than the other kids in my class, but who wanted to be a little boy anyway?
I was Momma’s Little Man, and I took my job of being the man of the house very seriously. Besides, it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t have a bedtime, I ate when and what I wanted, and I didn’t have to answer to anyone like my friends did with their moms and dads. Sure, sometimes it sucked having to take care of myself, but Momma needed me, and that was just the way things had to be.
But it was being alone that got to me the most, especially now that my friends were taken away from me too.
“Momma, it’s not a big deal. I’m sorry I made it sound bigger than it was. I guess … I just miss you, that’s all. I don’t like not having anyone to talk to or to play with. It’s not fair I’m being pushed away for having to take care of us. Ya know?”
“I know, baby. You’re such a good boy. You’ve always been my good boy. You know that too, right? Please, tell me you know that, Aiden.”
I nodded, hating the sound of her voice when she was sad. “Of course, I know, Momma. I’m your Little Man. I’ll always take care of you. So please don’t cry anymore. You know how much I hate it.”
“But, baby … I’m sick—”
“That’s why you’re here at the hospital,” I reminded, smiling big and wide for her. “To get better. The doctors and nurses are gonna make you all better, so you can be my momma again. As soon as you are out, we have to go to our favorite ice cream shop. Go for walks in the park, watch movies in your bed with the popcorn you love just like we used to. Do you remember, Momma? All the fun things we used to do before you got sick? I can’t wait.” I nodded, smiling even wider. “I’ve been praying really hard too. Really, really hard, just like you showed me.”
As soon as I finished talking, she jerked back and shut her eyes. More tears fell down the sides of her face, only making the pain in my chest worse. I wanted that feeling to end, to finally be gone and never come back again.
I reached up and wiped away her tears, careful not to move any of the tubes coming out of her nose like the doctors said. Except she wouldn’t stop crying. She’d never cried this much before, and my heart had never hurt this bad before. It wasn’t easy seeing and feeling her this upset, unable to do anything for her. Unable to stop the pain that always took her away from me.
“Momma, don’t cry. Please … everything is going to be alright, you’ll see. I promise. I’ll protect you. I won’t let anything happen to you. Your Little Man is here with you.”
I spent day and night by her side these past few days, even though I wasn’t allowed to sleep at the hospital. The nurses knew I had nowhere else to go, so they let me stay.
“Baby, more often than not when people get sick, it’s because God has other plans for them.”
“What kind of plans?”
“Plans you won’t understand because you’re just a little boy.”
“I’m a Little Man, Momma. I’m your Little Man.”
“I know, baby, I know.” She slowly placed her arm around me, and I snuggled closer to her cold body. Her skin felt frozen like ice, not like the warm, soft heat I was used to every night.
With a huge, deep breath that I felt in my tummy, she added, “But even my Little Man won’t understand this. Because, Aiden, I barely understand it, and I’m not seven-years-old.”
“I’m almost eight,” I reminded, smiling through the pain. “My birthday is coming up, and all I want is for you to get better. That’s all I’m wishing for, Momma. Nothing else.”
“Aiden … I need you to listen to me. I need to have faith that you’ll be okay without me. Because this is all I have left to give you, baby.”
“Without you?” I frowned, looking up at her. “Where you going?”
“I’m going to Heaven, baby. And one day we’ll be reunited. I promise, Aiden. I promise you’ll see me again. I swear it.”
My heart sank. Tears started forming in my eyes. “But I don’t want you to go to Heaven. Stay with me, Momma. Just stay with me. I don’t care if you’re sick. I’ll take care of you like always,” I cried right along with her, unable to control the feelings I’d never felt before. My whole body hurt so bad.
“I love you so much, baby. Don’t ever forget that. Not for one day.”
Why did it feel like she was saying goodbye?
“Then I’ll come with you to Heaven. If that’s where you’re going, then that’s where I’m going too. We’ll go to Heaven together.”
“Baby, as much as I love you … you can’t come with me.”
“Why not? I wanna go to Heaven with you, Momma. Just take me with you … please…” I bawled, feeling like my heart was exploding in my body like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Except this wasn’t fun.
I couldn’t control my tears, and I didn’t want to. She had to understand I needed to go with her.
She couldn’t leave me behind.
I’d be all by myself with no one to love me.
“I promise I’ll take care of you in Heaven, Momma. I’ll be your Little Man anywhere we go. As long as we stick together, everything will be fine. You and me against the world, remember?”
She caressed my cheek. “You can’t come with me, baby.”
I pulled away suddenly angry, snapping, “You can’t leave me, Momma! That’s not what mommas do! You said that at the park! You said mommas don’t leave like dads do! That’s what you said! Remember? That’s what you told me!”
“Aiden, please calm down.”
“No! You can’t leave me! It’s you and me against the world! That’s what you’ve always said to me! Remember?! That’s what you’ve always said!”
“I will never leave you,” she choked out, coughing over and over again.
I threw my arms around her neck, holding onto her as tight as I could. Showing her, she wasn’t leaving me. I wouldn’t let her, she’d just have to take me with her.
Momma, you’re all I have.
You’re all I’ve ever had.
Her breathing came out in quick, short puffs, like she couldn’t catch her breath. Whispering, “I will always…” she gasped for air. “Be here for you… Just because.” She started coughing, gasping for more and more air. “You can’t … see me, doesn’t mean … I’m not here.”
“It’s not fair. It’s not fair that this is happening,” I rasped, fresh tears soaking her green hospital gown. Struggling for my next breath, I asked, “Who’s going to tell you everything is going to be okay, Momma? Who’s going to tell me? Who’s going to cover my eyes during the scary parts of movies? Who’s going to tell me they love me? I don’t have a daddy! Or an aunt or a grandma! I don’t have anyone but you! Who’s going to help me back to sleep when I have a bad dream? Who’s going to be there for me when I get home from school? Who, Momma, who if not you? Don’t you see? Don’t you get it? You’re all I have! You’re all I’ve ever had! There’s no one else but you! So either you take me with you, or you stay with me! You stay with me, Momma, because that’s what you said, that’s what you promised! Mommas don’t leave! You have to remember! Please, you have to stay with me!”
My body fell onto hers. Crying for what seemed like hours, just lying there. She tried everything to calm me down. Weakly humming “Smile”, like she had since the day I was born.
Smile, though your heart is aching.
Nothing could make me smile, laugh, or be happy. I’d be nothing without her.
“Everything is going to be okay, baby.” She rubbed my back, holding me close, as close as possible. “I love you more than anything in this world. I have loved you since before I even met you, my beautiful boy. With those bright blue eyes that have always been able to see inside my soul. What we share, the love, the bond, the connection between us … it can never be broken, Aiden. No matter where I am, no matter who you’re with, we’re together in here.” She placed her hand over my fast-beating heart. “You’ll find someone who will always be there for you.”
“Yes, I swear it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because, Aiden. I’ll personally send her your way. I promise.”
All I could do was nod because I couldn’t find the words to tell her how much I loved her.
How much I needed her.
How sad and alone I would be without her.
What’s going to happen to me?
It wasn’t until she placed her hands on the sides of my face that it felt like I was dying too. “Listen to me, Aiden Hazel Pierce, because I will only be able to say this once. I need you to remember you can be anything you want to be. Do you hear me? You do not let what happens next in your life define who you are. Do you understand me? You make your own path, baby. Your own path and bright future that I know you’re capable of. I need you to promise me you will do something amazing in this world. You will make something of yourself that will have me so damn proud of the man you’ve become. Because I’ll be right here, baby.” She nodded to my heart. “Watching, listening, cheering for you until the day we can be reunited again. I’ll be waiting for you with open arms, my beautiful boy. Now prom—”
“Momma.” I tried to pull my face away, but she held me as tight as she could.
Even though I didn’t want to, I nodded. My eyes dropping to the ground as I did.
“Let me hear you say the words.”
“I need you to mean it, Aiden. Please, for me. Mean it for me.”
“Okay.” I looked up at her. “I’ll do it for you, Momma. I promise, I’ll do it for you.”
She smiled through the tears, and before I knew what was happening, the machines around her started going off. “I. Love. You, babyyyy—”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeeeeep.
I shouted, “Somebody help! Somebody please help her! Don’t leave me, Momma! Please don’t leave me!”
“Get him out of here!” one of the nurses ordered, rushing into the room.
“No!” Hands immediately touched me everywhere, carrying me out into the hallway. “Take me with you, Momma! Please just take me with you!” I screamed as loud as I could.
Fighting for her life.
Fighting for mine too.
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