This is the sixth installment in TMN staff writer Allison Maschhoff’s serialized fiction series, The Curse of Briar Michaels. You can read part six here.
Death did not show its face that first day. Well, correction. It did not come for Mallory that first day. Death passed plenty of time inside the hospital’s walls. Those first six days, Aislinn, Dushan, and Asuka suffered the effects of fourteen deaths. Briar sat quietly next to Mallory and watched their pain. Mallory did not understand what was wrong.
Then, on the seventh day in the middle of the afternoon, Asuka pulled Aislinn aside and whispered, “The smell just got stronger.”
Aislinn nodded and positioned herself so that she was facing the open door to Mallory’s room. She watched nurses and doctors and family members walk through the hallway, some with quick, purposeful strides and others with tired, stumbling steps. She watched until the grotesque creature appeared in the doorway, but it kept slogging down the hall.
A few moments later, Dushan covered his ears and then suddenly the wails of family members poured into the hallway. The next time a nurse came to check on Mallory, they learned that it had been a 32-year-old man. His wife had been the one screaming. His 7-year-old daughter had been holding his hand.
Aislinn shook with grief. Dushan pulled her into a hug. Mallory asked Briar if Aislinn had known the man. Briar shook his head and then turned questioning eyes on Aislinn. He watched the tears stream down her face.
It was at that moment that Aislinn truly understood the problem with what Briar was asking her to do. If she failed, if Mallory died, she was going to blame herself. And if she succeeded, what would she do? Go back to her normal routine? Feel burdened with a duty to help others? If she did try to help others, where did it end? Everyone had to die at some point. It’s the circle of life; it’s part of the deal. She couldn’t save everyone.
She didn’t even know if she could save anyone.
She went out to sit in the hall for awhile. To her surprise, Briar joined her. He glanced over his shoulder into Mallory’s room before whispering to Aislinn, “Thank you again. For doing this. For continuing to come back.”
She didn’t want his gratitude. Not at that moment, anyway. “What does Mallory think of all of this? Does she think it will work?”
Briar swallowed. “Mallory doesn’t know.”
“She doesn’t know? About the plan?”
Aislinn’s eyebrows came together in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“She doesn’t know about the plan or the curses —” His eyes dropped to the floor, “or us. She thinks you’re all old friends of mine who want to help. She thinks you’re here for morale. She probably thinks you all wanted to meet her before it was too late.”
“You’ve just been pretending this whole time that none of this is real? That nothing makes you different from anybody else?”
For a moment, he looked almost guilty. But then he got defensive. “Why should she know? My ability doesn’t even affect my life.” There was a note of resentment that Aislinn didn’t appreciate when he added, “You made sure of that.”
“It’s now my fault that your relationship is built on lies?”
He looked like he wanted to shout, but he whispered back, “I’m just saying you have no right to judge, Aislinn. By the time I met Mallory, none of you were speaking to me. Why bother bringing it all up? These curses had already ripped away the last family I had found.”
Aislinn thought, Maybe because it’s a part of you. Maybe because it’s something you clearly weren’t ready to leave in the past considering this crazy plan.
But she didn’t say those things. Instead, she whispered, “Promise me you won’t blame me if she dies.”
“What? Are you giving up?”
“No! But it’s not completely in my control whether she —”
He cut her off with a cruel response: “Aislinn, all I’m asking is that you point it out. How hard is that? You did it without any trouble three years ago.”
“That’s not fair!”
“If you didn’t want to do this, then you shouldn’t have come back.”
Aislinn was on the verge of tears. “You knew that wasn’t a real choice. You knew I’d want to help you.”
Briar had known that. He had bet on Aislinn still having a spot for him in her heart. But he was too scared and angry to let guilt stop him. “Well then help me.” He got up to leave. He suddenly couldn’t stand to be away from Mallory.
“I would do anything for you,” he heard Aislinn whisper.
He paused in the doorway and looked at her. “Anything but stay.”
Then Aislinn surprised them both by looking up at him and saying, “Says the one who wouldn’t chase me.”
“How was I supposed to do that?”
Aislinn stood up. All of the things she had never had the chance to say, all the things she had been afraid to feel suddenly came pouring out of her. “I don’t know, Briar! I don’t have a damn clue! But you were supposed to do more than bang on the door for a few days and then give up because it got harder!” She took a steadying breath, remembering she was in a public space. “But I don’t know why I’m telling you this now. You found someone new. Someone worth chasing me down for. So I guess, in the end, you knew how to find me.”
She turned around and left before he could respond. And that was the moment in which Aislinn stopped believing that she and Briar Michaels could have had a chance. Clearly, he had given up on them a long time ago.
Briar went back into Mallory’s room unsure if he’d ever see Aislinn again. He exhaled heavily as he took his seat next to Mallory’s bed. She watched him for a few moments and said, “You look tired. Go home and get some rest. I’ll be fine.”
Finally, guilt wormed its way into Briar Michaels’ heart. Here was this wonderful woman, lying on her deathbed, still concerned with his well-being. And there he was, distracted with thoughts of a redheaded girl who had just said words that had torn a hole inside him that no doctor could patch up.
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “Okay.”