Cape Town – Three Year Ago
The unexpected ringing of my cell phone is a little jarring in the quiet of my office as I work on troubleshooting issues with a current project. It’s buried somewhere in the chaos of papers on my desk. Cursing, I scramble through the mess and hope whoever it is doesn’t hang up before I find it. After a bit of a rummage, I triumphantly haul it out, noticing time has gotten away from me. Again. My online meeting with my attorney and ex-wife is now less than a half hour away.
“Hey. I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time. You got a sec?”
“Sure, I’ve got one or two. What’s up?” I ask.
“I got an interesting email last night about some investment opportunities, and I really think we should look at them.”
“Ah. Sounds intriguing, but that sounds like a conversation that needs more time that I have right now. I have a video conference with Noah and Felicia shortly, but I can call you back.” My dad recommended Graham Morgan’s company to me when I made my first million dollars. I’ve been with Morgan Financial Holdings for years and trust Graham implicitly when it comes to my investments, but right this minute I need to deal with Felicia. “It sounds promising, and I’d like to hear more about it. What time works for you?”
“Yeah, of course. I’ve got a couple meetings a little later myself, so probably any time this evening. Work for you?”
“Yep. Say hi to Soraya and hug the kids for me. Chat later.”
Hanging up, I take a deep, bolstering breath noticing, for the millionth time, that time has simply flown by, and it’s now time for my call with my ex-wife. I open the video call app on my laptop and brace for whatever fresh drama Felicia’s cooked up for today. As always, Noah’s punctual, and my laptop signals the incoming video call.
“Noah, hey. How’s it going?”
“Yeah, good. You?”
“I’d be better if we weren’t doing this.” I grimace, hoping Felicia isn’t close by. If she hears me, it will just piss her off. And a pissed off Felicia is never a good thing. Noah chortles, highly amused with my comment. “Yeah, laugh it up, smart ass. At least I’m not the one stuck in a room with her.”
This time it’s his turn to grimace. “This is true.” Something about the way he says it has me frowning, but I have no chance to ask as he gets to his feet, saying, “Speaking of, Felicia’s waiting in the boardroom, so I’ll just take the laptop through there, and we can get this meeting started.”
I sigh, really not in the mood for this meeting. But it’s been a long time coming, so best to just get it over with. If it means I can get this damn woman out of my hair once and for all, I’m all for it. I’m truly hoping it will bring the dysfunctional relationship Felicia and I have shared for the past three years to an end, allowing each of us to finally move on with our lives.
It saddens me that she and I have reached this point when we’d started out as friends. I guess we should have remained such. We got married for all the wrong reasons. As a child, she’d lived a nomadic lifestyle with her parents and craved the stability of a home. I wanted a family to call my own.
It was one-sided from the outset.
While I brought the much-needed steadiness to the itinerant lifestyle her parents had forced on her, she had never intended on giving me the family I so desperately sought. She simply neglected to share that little nugget of information before we said “I do”.
By the time we called it quits, we were arguing all the time, going out of our way to hurt each other in anger and frustration. I’m not proud of my part in it all. In the end, I couldn’t wait to be out of it; to say our divorce was acrimonious is a gross understatement. Angry at me for forcing the issue, Felicia was loath to surrender her marital status along with the stability it brought. That’s when things got really ugly.
Now here we are, poor Noah once again squarely in the middle of all the ugliness. Thank God for Noah and our lifelong friendship. Hopefully, today would mark the end of years of fighting.
As Noah sets the laptop down on his boardroom table, the first thing I immediately notice is that Felicia is there on her own. The second thing I notice is that she smiles at Noah. An uncertain one, but a smile nonetheless. At best, the two of them tolerated each other in the past, despite the three of us growing up together.
“Ah, there he is.” As she’s sitting back from the camera of the laptop, I can see Felicia smooth her skirt over her knees, a sure sign of nerves, before she offers me a timid smile. “Hi, Heath,” she says softly.
“Hi,” I return her greeting, wondering what today’s ploy is.
“Alrighty folks, I know you’re both busy, so shall we get this meeting underway?” Noah asks awkwardly.
“Sure,” I reply.
“Yes,” Felicia says, almost at the same time.
Nodding again, Noah turns to her and continues, “Felicia, you called this meeting. Would you like to open?”
I’m a little taken aback by the nervous look that crosses her face at his question. Felicia may be a lot of things, but she rarely suffers an attack of nerves, and is even less likely to show it when she does. Today just seems to be get weirder by the minute.
She wets her lips, clears her throat, looks at me, but is unable to hold my gaze. What the hell? My gut tightens, and I prepare for her to turn my world on its head. Again. Over these past few years, her shenanigans have proved her to be a master at creating unending drama to get own her way.
“I’m sorry, Bear,” she says so quietly I almost don’t hear it.
“I beg your pardon?” I ask, a little dazed at her words, sure I’d misheard her.
She clears her throat again, taking a sip of water. “I’m sorry, Bear. More than I will ever be able to tell you. For everything I’ve put you through in the past few years.” Her eyes flood with tears. “For everything, in general. More than you’ll ever know.”
A tear trembles on her lashes for a moment before tracking down her face. A rather pale face, now that I’m actually studying her, trying to figure out her endgame. “I was furious with you for wanting a divorce, and I behaved appallingly, making things as difficult as possible.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
There’s a beat of silence at my words, a look of devastation crossing Felicia’s face.
“Heath, I know you and Felicia haven’t seen eye to eye for a long time now, but I encourage you to hear her out today,” Noah says unexpectedly.
While he’s always been polite to Felicia and treated her respectfully, I’ve always known he wasn’t her biggest fan. So for him to plead her case is highly out of character. I nod but say nothing, waiting for her to continue.
Felicia pushes the glass of water she has her hands cupped around back and forth between them over the glossy surface of the conference table for a moment. When she lifts her head and looks me in the eye, I see tears tracking down her cheeks.
“I fired my attorney. I’m dropping this stupid suit for more alimony.” Her bottom lip trembles, and she clamps it between her teeth.
“Why?” The single word comes out far harsher than intended I’m so taken aback by her words.
“I…” Her words fade, a sob breaking free as she breaks down.
I look at Noah at a loss. What the fuck? I mouth at him. He gestures for me to be patient, going over to pat her shoulder awkwardly. After long, uncomfortable minutes, the tears finally slow, and she rummages around in her purse for a Kleenex. She mops her face and blows her nose before straightening in her chair. I watch as she composes herself, then turns her attention back to me.
A quick sip of water, and she proceeds to drop her bomb. “There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it.” Her breath hitches, and I expect another bout of tears, but she gets herself under control and continues, tearing my guts out with one simple sentence. “The doctors tell me I’m dying.”
I stare at Felicia like she’s lost her mind.
After long moments of silence so absolute I could hear the sounds of Noah’s offices beyond his boardroom as if the door were open, she finally breaks it, clearly unable to take the silence any longer.
Shaking myself out of my stupor, I hear myself say, “I’m sorry. I could have sworn you said you’re dying.” The words come out sounding like I’m chewing on broken glass.
She nods. “Yes, that’s what they say.”
Once again, I look at Noah, and by the expression on his face, her news doesn’t come as a surprise. “You knew?”
He nods, looking apprehensive.
“You knew, and you never said a word? You left me to be blindsided by this? What kind of a friend does that, Noah?” I can feel the heat rise in my face as anger floods my veins.
“Dude, come on. That’s not fair. This is not my story to share.”
I rub the back of my neck, trying to ease the tension that’s been building since the start of this conversation. “Shit.” Heaving a heartfelt sigh, I continue, “You’re right. That was out of line. I’m sorry.”
Turning back to Felicia, I cock an eyebrow and wait for her to say more, but that’s all she says. “I’m going to need more than that, Fee.”
Watching her like a bug under a microscope, I see Felicia take a deep breath. “About four months ago, I began experiencing severe headaches. At first, I put it down to stress and poor sleep. I went to the doctor, and he gave me something to deal with it. But when the headaches continued to worsen instead of improving, I went back to him. He sent me for a host of tests.”
I wait, still not saying anything. I’m not sure I’m capable of it right this second. I may have wanted out of the marriage that turned into a sham, but we’d started out as friends. Despite the acrimony of the past few years, which I now realise was her way of hitting back at me for leaving her, I continue to care about her in my own way. I would never wish her ill.
“They found a tumour on my brain. Just behind my left ear. There’s nothing they can do. The best we can hope for is slowing its growth. But it will continue to grow and, eventually, it will reach a point where all life-sustaining function will be compromised, then cease.”
Her words strike me as cold. As if this is happening to someone else. “That’s an interesting choice of words. Rather clinical.”
For the first time since she broke the news of her ill health, I see a spark of animation – a flare of irritation in her eyes. That’s more like it. I hate seeing the devastation in them.
“What exactly is it you’d like me to say, Heath? Would it make you feel better if I said that the tumour will continue to grow until it kills me as my brain is squashed like a helpless bug between my skull and the mass? Does that satisfy your need for a less ‘clinical’ approach?”
Each harsh word is like a blow, highlighting the stark reality she faces. And instead of understanding her situation, I behaved like a dick. Pushing her. So typical of the way things have become between us since I asked for the divorce.
“Jesus.” Scrubbing a hand over my face, I shake my head. “I’m sorry,” I repeat in the space of a couple minutes. “That was insensitive of me. I’m kinda on the back foot here. That, however, doesn’t excuse being an ass. So, I repeat, I’m sorry.”
Astonishment flashes across her face, but she doesn’t say a word.
Getting to my feet, I pace away to the opposite side of the room and back. As I scramble for something to say, I stare at my feet as if the answer I seek is in the shiny patent leather of my shoes. Being at a loss here pisses me off. Control is essential to my equilibrium. Without it – well, let’s just say it’s a place I’d rather not go.
“So where does that leave us? Where to from here?”
Grief replaces the irritation in her eyes. “At the risk of sounding dramatic, today is goodbye for you and me, Bear.” I feel the slice of emotional pain at her use of the childhood nickname she gave me so many years ago. “My doctor has given me the name of a facility in Switzerland that can give me the treatment I need to slow the tumour’s growth. It’ll buy me a little extra time to put my affairs in order and make peace with my situation as best I can. So I’m relocating there. I leave for Lausanne in a week.”
“Fee –” The lump in my throat prevents me from saying more. I clear it and try again. “I– surely you’re not going on your own?”
She shakes her head. “No, my sister’s going with me. She’ll stay with me until…”
Jesus. How did we go from fighting every time we’re in the same space to this– this… I don’t have words for what this is. My heart aches, but I need to put it away. I have a million things to do and, if I’m being brutally honest, I’d rather not deal with this right now. Yes, that makes me a selfish bastard, but I struggle with emotion. Or, more specifically, dealing with emotion.
At the thoughts that riot through my mind, I’m ashamed of myself, knowing Felicia doesn’t have the luxury of “dealing with this later”. This is her reality. One she now lives with daily. A desperate need to get the hell off this call crashes over me, and I tug at my shirt collar, which suddenly seems too tight.
“I have to go,” I blurt. I reach out to disconnect the call, but at the last second a thought pops into my mind. “I’d like to see you, if you’re willing?”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
“Okay, good. Great. I’ll, er– I’ll call you to make arrangements before I fly out.” Turning to Noah, I say, “I’ll be in touch.”
Not looking at either of them again, I disconnect the video call. Reeling at Felicia’s news, I’m uncertain as to what to do. I abhor feeling helpless or out of control. It makes me want to throw something. Anything. God, I need to get out of here.
Reaching into my pocket for my cell phone, I dial Kieran’s number as I dash out of my office. Thankfully my executive assistant, Rebecca, is away from her desk. I wave a hand in the air in acknowledgement of the receptionist’s goodbye as I dash down the hall, not stopping until I reach the bank of elevators.
“Heath?” Kieran answers my call.
“Where are you?”
There’s a beat of silence before he replies, “I’m downstairs, three bays down, to the left of the front door.”
That silence tells me Kieran has tuned into the fact that something is wrong. He’s far too perceptive for comfort. But I guess that’s what makes him so incredibly good at his job as my bodyguard, driver and long-time friend. And after working together, first in the military and now in the private sector, there are days I swear the man knows me better than I know myself.
I push impatiently at the elevator call button, cursing it for being so slow. Feeling like my collar is chocking me, I yank my tie down and undo the top button. As I reach to punch the button yet again, the car arrives with a muted ding.