Fraser happened to be standing by Ray's desk when he got the call, saw his body curling into a question mark as he hunched over, and knew something had gone terribly wrong even before Ray hung up the phone and said the awful words.
"My mum's got cancer."
"Dear God, Ray," was all Fraser could muster.
Ray looked utterly devastated, his face an etched mask, his arms wrapped tightly around his stomach. Fraser started to put his hand on Ray's shoulder, but Ray turned away, the tension in his body warning Fraser off. Fraser sat next to the desk instead and waited, suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of helpless despair and sadness that he easily recognized. It made his heart dip alarmingly.
"I have to go up there," Ray said after the long, sickly silence.
Fraser found his mouth strangely locked. He should offer to go with him. But Fraser didn't want to—God, he did not want this, did not want to have to watch Ray go through even a part of this.
"Will you come with me?" Ray finally asked, his head down, his voice rough and hesitant.
"Yes, of course," Fraser forced himself to say, hiding his reluctance.
"Good. That's good."
"You don't think they would mind having me there?"
"Nah, they like you." Ray shrugged. "They think you’re a freak, of course."
Fraser offered the small smile Ray seemed to be expecting.
"So, we'll go. I just have to tell Welsh."
In the car, Ray was silent, only the agitated tap of his fingers on the steering wheel betraying what he was feeling. His face looked oddly blank—odd in a man such as Ray, who wore his emotions so easily on his sleeve. Fraser had often envied him that ability, but now he wondered if Ray were more capable of hiding his deeper emotions than Fraser had realized.
"This is going to be bad, isn't it?" Ray burst out suddenly. "Cancer—they can cure a lot of them now, but sure not all of them. My dad says it's lymphoma, which is usually the bad kind, isn't it?"
"Ray, don't jump to conclusions. Right now you don't know enough to assume the worst."
"Yeah." Ray's voice sounded choked. Fraser didn't know what to say—was afraid, really, to say anything at all.
They drove in silence to Skokie, and without any distractions, Fraser lost the battle with his memories.
Benton was twenty when his grandmother died. She was sick beforehand for a very long time, and finally Benton took leave to help care for her. After a while he couldn't even remember anymore what she had looked like before the illness started, what she had acted like before she became this new person.
Her face grew cadaverously thin, changing the shape of her eyes and mouth. After they'd given up hope for a cure, the drugs Doc Flint put her on made her wistful and oddly amenable, no longer the critical, strong-willed, staid woman who had raised him. And when the cancer reached her brain, she became a mute and anxious stranger, hardly recognizable at all.
She needed care every moment of the day, and the indignities he had to subject her to made him cringe inwardly each time, although the first was by far the worst.
His grandfather left most of the intimate tasks to Benton. Some small part of him resented his grandfather's retreat from all the more discomfiting chores—lifting her onto the portable toilet, helping her bathe, cutting her toenails.
At the same time, he recognized the deep grief in his grandfather's craggy features that spoke of final endurance. The man couldn't take much more, and Fraser couldn't begrudge him his withdrawal.
"We need more supplies," Benton would say, and his grandfather would leap at the offered diversion. He would bring back far more than they required, along with a useless gift—a large-print book, a deck of cards—that he would offer hopefully to Martha; a gift that she, too weak and nearly blind at that point, could do nothing more than hold in her lap and thank him for plaintively.
Fraser wasn't sure which was worse—the ordeal of dying, or the agony of watching someone you love decline so slowly, like an accident in slow motion, approaching inevitably to the mortal collision.
Or maybe worse was knowing your loved ones were watching you become not-yourself, become needy and weak and incapable of handling your own bodily functions. Become dull-minded and helpless and confused.
He decided then he would never let that happen to him. He would go out onto the ice and let the weather take him. And if he could at all, he would avoid the emotional attachments that led to this kind of suffering.
They never spoke of her impending death. She would, when it came up for practical reasons, give a resigned sigh and say, "What can you do?"—her same response to overlong winter storms or broken bones—acknowledging that life was hard, and death no more difficult.
His grandfather refused to speak of it at all.
Whenever Benton's emotions threatened to overwhelm him, he would go out and chop wood. Over and over he sharpened his axe and attacked the neighboring trees. One day he had stacked at least two cords by the barn, and was still going at it, dressed only in jeans and an undershirt in deference to the autumn sun, when he heard his grandfather calling out strangely, panic in his voice.
His grandfather never panicked. It was all the sign Benton needed that something had gone terribly wrong. Or terribly right, for that matter—there could be no stopping this end.
Benton took a frozen moment to blot his face with the bottom of his shirt, and then he went slowly back into the house. His grandfather was kneeling over Martha's bed and holding one of her hands.
"She won't wake up," he said, his voice sounding thin and confused.
"She's alive! But she won't open her eyes. We have to do something—" George said, as if the doctor hadn't told them to expect this; as if it weren't the outcome they'd been anticipating.
"It's all right. We knew this would happen." And how strange it was to be the strong one now, to quell his own shock and just do what needed to be done. Not that there was anything much to do—he simply called Doc Flint and gave him the news.
Fraser had thought he'd known what to expect; he'd thought he even looked forward to it, in a shameful way, because at last this painful, exhausting ordeal would be drawing to an end.
But she was gone. His grandmother was gone, yet still alive. He bent over her and kissed her cool, dry cheek. He had never touched her much before she became ill, but now it felt right to offer the simple caress. It felt like this was goodbye.
It wasn't, though. It took five long days for his grandmother to die; on the second day without food or water she began breathing in an agitated fashion, almost as if she were asleep and dreaming of horrible things. Sometimes she even moaned as if she were in pain.
No matter how much the doctor insisted it was merely reflexive, that she was in a coma and truly not suffering, the raw sounds tore at Benton's insides. His grandfather disappeared for long stretches and ended up sleeping in the barn at night, leaving Benton alone with his grandmother's laboring breaths. Finally, on Benton's almost hysterical insistence, the doctor agreed he could raise the dosage of her morphine, and her breathing eased and the moaning stopped.
Every night Benton dreamed, and in each of his dreams she awoke suddenly to stare at him with betrayed eyes for having given up on her. As if there were something he could do, something he should have done. He would awaken with his heart pounding, trembling with horrified guilt.
On the fifth day, just after breakfast, she took a few short, stuttering breaths interspersed with stillness. Benton found himself holding his own breath, waiting for the next. And then the stillness went on and on, until at long last he realized she wouldn't taking another breath. Not ever again. It was over.
His grandfather found him still sitting there, and gently pushed Benton out of the way so he could move closer. It was he who took her hands and folded them over her chest, who traced a cross on her forehead before pulling the sheet over her face, while Benton stood to the side, his hands clasped behind him.
It seemed as though now, at last, his grandfather could attend to her in a way he couldn't bear to while she was still alive.
Doc Flint came and wrote the death certificate. The funeral was the next day, her death being so long anticipated that all the details were already in place. Robert Fraser appeared, and at some point gave Benton a clap on the back. Whether it was in sympathy, or in gratitude that Benton had shouldered the duty he was unable to, Benton didn't ask. His father had visited only a few times during her illness, no more or less often than he had when Benton was a child. Surely the pained grimace his father gave him now indicated grief, but as always, Benton found it difficult to tell.
Benton stood beside her grave and tried to remember the last words she had spoken to him. Something about the oatmeal being too salty, perhaps—her sense of taste had been distorted in the last days. Or maybe it had been her sandy thanks when he'd finished reading to her from the local newspaper.
He couldn't remember.
Two days later, he was back on duty and headed far north.
The Kowalskis greeted them both outside the trailer. Barbara Kowalski looked hale—Fraser could detect no obvious signs of illness.
Ray was swept into their arms and their energy, while Fraser hung back and watched, awed a little by their open grief and well-voiced panic.
"Mum. Mum," Ray kept saying, hugging her then releasing her just to hug her again. She accepted his kisses with tears in her eyes, and Damon put a hand on each of their shoulders.
"She'll be all right, son. Her doctor—"
"A woman," Barbara interrupted, "she must be very smart—"
"You know Doc Emerson wouldn't have pointed us to her if she weren't the best," Damon said gruffly. "She's on top of things."
"I'm sure she is, Mum. She'll fix you right up," Ray said, touching Barbara's arm again. He didn't seem to want to let more than a foot of space between them, and followed closely as they all went up into the trailer.
At dinner, Ray was superb—gently smiling, making easy jokes, giving his mother small pats when she brought the food. He disappeared with his father afterward, and Fraser could hear them speaking in gruff tones outside by the GTO.
Mrs. Kowalski washed the dishes while Fraser, after much insisting, was allowed to dry. When they finished, she turned toward him and squeezed his hand with her damp one.
"This is going to be very difficult for my Stanley, Constable. You'll take good care of him?"
"Of course I will," Fraser said. "To the best of my abilities, ma'am. You can be sure of it."
He spared her from knowing how shaky he deemed his abilities in that regard—that his own bleak experience made him ill equipped to offer reassurances.
He only hoped the Kowalskis' story would end better.
"She looked okay, didn't she?" Ray said on the drive back. "I can't believe she's sick. I can't believe it."
"Your father seemed very confident in her doctor," Fraser said awkwardly.
Ray didn't respond.
Ray started leaving work early to help his parents out—driving to Skokie to take his mother to chemotherapy when his father asked, or going on grocery runs. Sometimes he cooked for them, and would tell Fraser humorous stories about his disasters in their tiny trailer kitchen.
But most of the time Ray didn't mention the axe looming, didn't seem to want to talk about it at all. On a few occasions Fraser mustered himself to ask—"How is she this week?" or, "Only four rounds left, yes?"—but Ray's answers were always short and to the point.
Once, Fraser went hunting through the station to find Ray standing alone in the supply closet.
Ray had his hands braced on the back wall, his shoulders tight. Fraser closed the door behind himself and waited.
"She's so thin," Ray whispered. "She jokes about our bad cooking like she's trying to make us feel better."
Fraser couldn't think of a single encouraging thing to say.
Ray's eyes were looking bruised, and Fraser started to grow concerned about his health. Distraction was the key, Fraser decided, and started cajoling Ray into taking him out for meals. They tried every new restaurant in town, with Ray writing amusing reviews in his notebook for future reference.
Fraser tried various other distractions as well, some of which involved strange casework that seemed to bring Ray no end of amused frustration. At night, they usually watched rented movies. Ray seemed to be cycling back through the films of his childhood. Since Fraser had never watched television or movies growing up, they were all new to him, and mostly incomprehensible, which seemed to delight Ray to no end.
But in spite of the diversions, Ray grew increasingly withdrawn and terse at work. He stopped inviting Fraser over after their shift. And he started responding testily to his co-workers when they offered him their sympathies. One day, when Francesca brought him a cup of hot chocolate he hadn't asked for, Ray lost his temper completely.
"I'm not sick, Frannie. Unless there's whisky in that there hot cocoa you can stuff it up your—"
"Okay, sheesh! Try doing something nice for a guy!" Francesca made a gesture Fraser didn't recognize, and muttered an insult in Italian before stomped off.
Ray dropped his head onto his hand and rubbed his forehead. "I'm such an asshole." He looked up. "You wanna get out of here?"
"All right, Ray."
"I hate it," Ray said, breaking his long silence as they neared his apartment. "I feel all the time like I'm going to explode."
"What do you hate?" Fraser asked carefully.
"The sympathy. The bullshit. The way they ask questions as if they really want to hear the answer. The easy stuff they say like they think that will make it better. And then there's the ones who are afraid to say anything at all." Ray cranked the foot brake and popped out of the car. Fraser let Dief out and followed more slowly, wondering if Ray were speaking of him.
Ray unlocked the door and shoved it open with a shoulder. His keys clattered onto the kitchen cutout, next to a pile of papers and a stack of old pizza boxes.
The entire apartment was a mess. Fraser hadn't been over in weeks, and was appalled by the state of the place.
"Maybe they wish to say something but are afraid they'll put their foot in it, as it were." Fraser said, doggedly continuing the conversation as he opened a window to let in some nominally fresher air.
"Yeah, well, they're right." Ray joined him at the window with a beer in his hand. "Because I hate it when they try that plat-platitude shit. 'Things will get better.' 'I'm sure she'll be fine.'"
"Oh, God, Ray—"
"Or like Sheila Gibson said, 'I know how you feel, Ray'. But she doesn't. None of them do; they can't have any idea what it's like. I feel like I'm living on the moon or something. I'm all alone out here."
Fraser held his breath, then let it out. "You're not. I'm here and...I do understand, Ray." He paused, then said hesitantly, "My grandmother—"
Ray cocked his head. Go on, his eyes said, but Fraser feared making things worse. His story wasn't a happy one. Ray still needed hope, and Fraser had none whatsoever to offer.
But that wasn't perhaps as important as the truth: Ray needed to know he wasn't alone.
"My grandmother was sick for a very long time," Fraser said finally, hoping he wasn't making a terrible mistake. "It took her two years to die."
Ray's eyes widened, and he nodded slowly.
"Are you sure you want to hear this? I can't imagine—"
"Please." Ray never said please, and the break in his voice prompted Fraser to speak.
"She had cancer. This was—you have to realize this was years ago, Ray, long before they had the treatments they have now. She—I had to take care of her. My grandfather couldn't, he—" Fraser stopped for a moment when his voice failed him. "I know what it's like, Ray," he whispered finally.
"Sounds like maybe you do," Ray said. "What happened?"
So, Fraser told him, all the while feeling Ray's eyes burning on him, drawing him on. Fraser nudged Ray over to the sofa, and they sat down, canted slightly toward each other but looking away. He told Ray about the surgery and the radiation and the chemotherapy, the gradual tearing down of a strong woman. And how her bravery broke his heart.
"Jesus," Ray said, and "that's it. That's it, exactly."
Fraser's voice shook a little when relating the final return of the cancer, and the long, ugly months that followed, the limbo of waiting without hope, of waiting for the pain to stop and the ending to come. The rollercoaster of bad days and worse days, dipping lower toward that point that needed to be reached—that he shamefully began to crave. He spoke of his grandfather, George, and how he brought her little gifts, useless things.
"My dad keeps buying her soup," Ray said, and his voice was rough with pain. "It's like he thinks if he can just find the right kind she'll be able to eat it without throwing up. There must be like a hundred different cans of it in the pantry."
"I tried to find a pillow that wouldn't hurt her head," Fraser said. "Near the end she had terrible headaches. I tried goose feathers and nylon and wool batting. Ice packs and heat packs and acupressure."
Ray rubbed his eyes. "Her mouth gets these sores. I got her like three different kinds of ointment and none of them worked. And her skin is too dry and it hurts her, but the cream I got gave her a rash. I fucked up."
"No, Ray. You couldn't have known." Fraser ran a palm over his own cheek, surprised to discover it was wet. "Every night I woke up from a nightmare that I was forgetting to do something to make it stop."
"Nothing you can do," Ray said, "Nothing you can do." And he looked relieved, so relieved, not at all as if Fraser had added to his burden by relating his own grief.
"You know it's not your fault, but it still feels as if it is," Fraser whispered.
Ray let out a shudder of breath and then keeled, leaning his forehead against Fraser's shoulder. Ray was shaking a little, but it felt like a release, and not a binding of further tension. Fraser put his hand on the back of Ray's head and pressed him closer, the heat of his breath dampening Fraser's skin.
"I understand, Ray. I do."
Fraser held him as he shook. And thought to himself how wrong he had been, before. He'd been afraid to try, because he'd thought he needed to do the impossible—to make things all right somehow—but that wasn't needed at all. All Ray needed was to be heard, to be understood.
Finally Ray pulled back and scrubbed at his face.
"Now tell me how she's really doing," Fraser said.
"Are you sure you want to hear it? Because I'm scared once I start I'll never shut up." Ray's voice was low and hesitant.
"I'm sure, Ray. Tell me. I want...I want to hear it."
Ray smiled briefly, his blue eyes glimmering behind wet lashes. "She's...doing okay." He bit his lip and shook his head. "She's brave like you wouldn't believe, and she's got a real black sense of humor about the whole thing. Dad doesn't think her jokes are funny, but I do. And, anyway, we only have two rounds left, and the doc seemed, you know, positive about how the test results are coming..."
Fraser nodded encouragingly, and settled back to listen.