This is the sixth installment in TMN staff writer Allison Maschhoff’s serialized fiction series, The Curse of Briar Michaels. You can read part five here.
After exactly one minute of silence (Aislinn was counting the seconds to distract herself) Briar began to speak. His voice started out loud, louder than necessary in the quiet room. It gradually quieted as he shared the story. Aislinn kept her face blank as he explained that about a year and a half prior, he had met a woman named Mallory. He called her the light of his life. He said they were going to get married.
He told her, “Mallory got sick about six months ago. She’s been hospitalized for two months now. The doctors say that it’d be a miracle if she lived another next two weeks, but if she does survive this next bit, she’ll most likely recover. She just needs Death to stay away for two weeks.”
Aislinn was not sure if he’d said death or Death. Not that it really mattered.
Briar continued, “So I was thinking that maybe we could keep it away. Maybe we could give her the two weeks. If you can let me know when Death is approaching, I can get in front of Mallory. Maybe I could protect her and push it away.”
First, Aislinn realized he had been speaking of Death. Capitalized. Then she came to the conclusion that Dushan and Asuka had been right; she should never have come back for Briar.
She was shaking. She had not known what to expect, but she had never thought that Briar would ask her for this, for the very thing she had left to avoid. Yet here he was, asking her not only to show him Death, but to do so in order to save the woman he’d replaced her with.
“Aislinn,” Briar began, but then he stopped. He could see her shaking and there was a part of him that ached to comfort her as if it were three years prior. As if there were no Mallory lying in a hospital bed. Just a redheaded girl with porcelain skin dotted with freckles and a smile that he had loved more than anything in the world. For the first time in a month, perhaps even in three years, Briar remembered that Aislinn’s horror was not all on his behalf; she didn’t hate her curse simply because it might hurt him. She also had to see something so dreadful she dared not explain it in too great of detail. In that moment, his hands began to shake as well, but it wasn’t out of guilt. He was terrified that she was going to tell him no.
But the truth of the matter was that Aislinn had a weakness for Briar Michaels. And if he needed her, she would do anything to help him.
She supposed that was what love was.
“Okay,” she said softly. Weakly. “I will do my best. But I can’t make any promises. Death has no reason to take note of me.”
Briar’s body relaxed, but with the distraction of his fear of rejection now gone, the guilt was beginning to claw at him and he could not look Aislinn in the eye when he said, “Thank you.”
When it was clear she wasn’t going to respond, he stood up and left. As soon as the door shut behind him, his knees buckled and tears began to run down his cheeks. He stayed in the hallway for a while, weighed down by relief and guilt and terror and helplessness.
As soon as the door shut behind him, Aislinn fell onto her side on the couch and cried.
The next morning, Aislinn, Asuka and Dushan walked through the front doors of the St. Mark’s Hospital and found Briar waiting in the lobby. He led them up three flights of stairs and then through a maze of hallways until they came to room 4750. Briar walked in without bothering to knock.
“Hey, Mal! How you feeling?” He kneeled next to the bed and kissed the patient’s hand.
Mallory was thin, with bronze skin and thoughtful, tired eyes. Her head was covered in cornrows of black hair with caramel highlights. She looked at the three strangers, her eyes landing on Aislinn, completely unaware of who she was. “Hello,” she said pleasantly. “Are you friends with Briar?”
Dushan cleared his throat.
Asuka looked down.
Aislinn bit her lower lip. She wanted to break Mallory’s eye contact, but her head could not move. She felt caught by a seemingly friendly predator, like the snake from “The Jungle Book.” Mallory’s honey-colored eyes stared at her until Briar said, “From a long time ago, yes.”
Mallory looked at him and smiled before looking back at the three people in front of her. Her gaze was not so specifically placed this time. Aislinn released a shaky breath.
Just as Mallory did not press her gaze on Aislinn any further, she did not press for more information. She did not ask why these three people were standing in front of her, each of them noticeably uncomfortable. She did not ask what a long time meant. And Mallory deliberately did not ask why Briar wouldn’t look the redheaded girl in the eyes.
Aislinn read this as trust. She read this as love.
They all introduced themselves and the group stumbled into an uneasy conversation. Mallory asked questions about each of them; she smiled at anything anybody said. She was the cheeriest dying person any of them had ever met. Meanwhile, Dushan and Asuka answered her questions politely and hugged the wall across from Mallory’s hospital bed. It was impossible for them to not feel like they were intruding. They didn’t know Briar anymore; they had no reason to sit there and entertain his dying fiancée.
Aislinn did not feel as though she knew Briar anymore either, but she did not feel like an intruder. Aislinn watched Briar hold onto Mallory and felt betrayed. She watched Mallory smile at Briar with trusting, caring eyes and she felt replaced. She felt as though she was watching a life that had been stolen from her.
She had expected to find Mallory sad and close to death. But this girl was filled with joy and life. Maybe she wasn’t really dying. Maybe this was all some cruel trick. Maybe this was Briar’s revenge on her for leaving him.
Eventually, Aislinn excused herself. She went out into the hall and slid down the wall until she was sitting on the cold tile floor. She placed her head in her hands and told herself to breathe, told herself she wasn’t allowed to cry in the hospital. After a few moments, she steadied herself, looked up at the people walking past her and began to watch. She began waiting for Death.