Gary wasn’t telling her something, that much was clear. He thought she hadn’t noticed, but observing the details of every situation was something Maggie was very adept at. Ever since her brother’s death, she had made it a priority to never miss anything again, and what Gary was keeping from her was troubling.
Twice in the past week, he had essentially canceled on her. He was supposed to take her to a hockey game, to show her this sport he loved so much, but at the last minute he’d told her he needed to help Rome with something important. The next day they were supposed to go to Regina’s restaurant, but again something had come up and she had gone alone.
“We haven’t seen Gary very much recently,” Delilah had observed to her. “Is he okay?”
Maggie had smiled. “He’s great,” she’d said, but inside she knew she was lying for him.
On the days that she had seen him, he’d seemed distracted and on edge. They fought over stupid things — the side of the bed they each always slept on and whether the glare from the window was too much on the television.
But when Maggie woke up in the middle of the night to find Gary gone from his spot next to her, her heart sank down into her toes.
She blinked into the darkness before seeing a crack of light coming from under the bathroom door on the other side of the room. Quickly, but quietly, she pushed back the covers and sat up, searching with her toys to find the slippers she had left there earlier and then sliding them on to her feet.
She stood up, shivering softly in the cold night air, and made her way almost noiselessly toward the light.
The door was cracked, not closed, and Maggie pressed her hand against it, letting it open just a touch. Gary was standing in front of the mirror, shirt off, staring at the scar on his chest that he had only let her see one time before. His fingers were tracing, and he seemed to be not really there, lost in some other place or time.
And then her eyes lifted to his face, and she saw it and instantly she knew. A single drop of liquid, halfway down his cheek.
She pushed the door open all the way, moving seamlessly into the bathroom. Gary didn’t seem to notice, not until she pressed her front against his back and then slid her arms around his waist, standing on her toes so she could place her chin on his shoulder. He started softly, either at her presence or the cold of her fingers or something else, and then his body tensed.
“It’s back, isn’t it?” she asked him softly, her voice almost echoing around the small bathroom. “That’s what they told you at your appointment the other day. They didn’t say it was all fine.”
She felt Gary tense even more beneath her, and she braced herself for him to pull away, but instead he almost seemed to sag back against her, and she saw more tears appear on his face.
“I can’t go through this again,” he whispered miserably, and Maggie’s heart broke at how broken he sounded. “I can’t.”
Maggie used her hands on his shoulders to turn him around, and then she took him into her arms, trying to wrap him up with her body as much as she could. She stroked his hair and his back as she felt him shudder against her.
She didn’t say any of the usual platitudes that people always said when they heard someone mention their diagnosis: I’m sorry, it will all be okay, you’re so strong you’ll get through this. Instead she just held him, letting him feel whatever he was feeling.
When he finally pulled back, moments later or maybe hours, and looked at her, his eyes full of fear and pain, she smiled at him, with tears in her own eyes and pressed her hand against his cheek, letting him feel her there with him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she told him. “Whatever you decide.”
They had finally left the bathroom to go back to bed, but they had both known sleep was not coming for either of them, so instead they were perched on stools in Maggie’s kitchen, drinking glasses of apple juice. Gary had picked up the one picture of the two of them she’d had printed a few weeks before but had still not yet gotten around to putting it in a frame.
“What did the doctor say?” she asked him, as he traced over her cheekbones in the photo in his hand.
Gary shrugged. “Eight rounds of chemo. A good chance that it can go back into remission.” He snorted at that, a sad bitter sound that Maggie had to try hard not to react to. “Same thing they said last time.”
She nodded, her hands wrapped around her juice glass and waited for him to continue.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “The nausea. The vomiting. Having people laugh when I tell them I have breast cancer.”
“People who laugh when you tell them you have breast cancer are assholes not worth anyone’s time,” Maggie said immediately.
“They still say it.” Gary put the photo in his hand down and looked up at her. All traces of the tears were gone, but everything about him — his expression, his posture — screamed out in misery. “I don’t know how I can do this again.”
Maggie thought. She wanted to tell him she needed him to do this again — she had just found him, they were finally in a comfortable routine, her heart was growing more attached to him by the day and if she had to watch someone else die … but this wasn’t about her and it was selfish to make it about her — so instead she just said, “I think you’re pretty much the strongest person I know, and if you want to do this again, then you aren’t going to be doing it alone. I happen to know some great games to play and some stellar shows on Netflix we can watch that our perfect when you feel like you have to puke.”
Gary’s face almost twitched up at that. “You do?”
“Not to brag or anything,” Maggie said, “but I was sort of known as the life of the party — pun completely intended, by the way — in my chemo group.”
“Yeah?” Gary said. This time there really was the hint of a smile, and Maggie felt her heart inch up just a tad inside her body, heading on a course back to its normal spot.
“Yeah,” she said.
Gary sighed. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said, and his voice was back to the broken sound it had been in the bathroom. “We’re supposed to get to be happy. Maybe get married. Have babies.”
Maggie blinked at him. “You want to get married and have babies?”
Gary shrugged. “I did.”
“We could still get married and have kids.”
“And have me die on you?”
“Who says you’re dying on me? I’m not going to let that happen.”
They stared at each other, neither one breaking their gaze. And then she reached for his hand, and her heart lifted another notch when he let her take it.
“Whatever you decide,” she said. “I will be there. If you decide you don’t want to do this, my heart will hurt and I will cry in the bathroom when you’re sleeping, but I will understand and I will support you. And if you decide you do want to do this, I will be by your side every step of the way. And if you decide you want to get married and have babies, well,” Maggie shrugged at him. “It’s not really the marriage proposal I ever imagined, but yeah, maybe we can get married and have babies.”
Gary looked at her, before letting his tongue wet his bottom lift.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You don’t have to decide now,” Maggie said. “There’s time.” Not much, she knew, but at least there was a little.
They cried when he told them. They had talked about how they would. Maggie watched Gary as Delilah and Regina and even Katherine hugged him, all of them murmuring apologies and how sorry they were and how strong he was and how he would get through this.
Rome and Eddie clapped him on the shoulder and told him whatever he needed, they already had, and reminded him how he totally had this.
Maggie made an excuse about them running late to an appointment so they could escape. She pulled over once they had made it a few blocks away from Delilah’s house, where there was no chance any of their friends would find them.
She turned to him as she stopped the car.
“They’re just trying to show they care,” she said.
“I know.” He was staring straight ahead out the window. Maggie reached over and took his hand.
“Whatever you need,” she told him, the same thing she had been telling him since she found him in the bathroom that night.
“I just need to sit here for a few minutes,” he said.
“We can sit here for as long as you need,” she said, and to emphasize her point, she leaned her chair back, turned the radio up a notch and pressed her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes, letting Gary take all the time in the world.
“Thank you,” he said ten minutes later, and she opened her eyes, smiled at him, her heart soaring just a tad as he smiled back at her, the first real smile she had seen in days, and adjusted her seat back to its original position and turned the car back on.
“Where to?” she asked.
“How do you feel about Chinese food?” It was the first time he had suggested something other than her apartment (since Eddie was still living in his).
“I feel like Chinese food is perfect,” she answered, and pointed the car in the direction of the best restaurant she knew.
The treatment room at Boston General was as warm and inviting as something like that could be. The chairs stretched six per row, facing brightly colored photos of Boston Harbor and other attractions around the city handing on the wall.
There was one other lady, an older woman with gray hair and a kindly smile, at the far corner of the back row, almost directly opposite of where Gary was sitting in the front row at the other end. Maggie sat on a stool beside him, digging in her bag for the old-school car games she had dug out of the unpacked boxes still in the back of her closet.
“Here we have some Battleship,” she told him, placing in on the table beside them both. “Some Tic-Tac-Toe. A little Connect Four. And, of course,” she pulled out the last game and placed it on top of the others, “Scrabble.”
“Scrabble,” Gary said. “The game of geniuses everywhere.”
“So I assume that’s what you want to play then?”
Gary made a face. “Of course not,” he said. “I want to sink your battleship, Maggie Bloom.”
“I look forward to you trying — and failing.”
“You have not seen me play.”
“And you, my dear, have not seen me play.”
The smile faded from Gary’s face as he glanced between the IV dripping poison into his veins and the old travel games and Maggie’s face.
“What?” Maggie said quietly, because she could see something going on behind that look.
Gary shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “Just …”
“Just thank you. You know, for doing this.”
“For bringing games to play?”
Maggie reached out and took Gary’s hand. “You don’t have to thank me for anything else,” she said. Gary opened his mouth to protest but she shook her head. “You don’t,” she repeated. “So don’t.”
Gary seemed to be contemplating something. But then he smiled, a real smile, and nodded.
“Okay, then,” he said. “G2, Miss Smarty Pants.”
Maggie grinned. “That’s a miss. You’re no where near my battleship!” And she laughed at the crestfallen expression on Gary’s face.