Most people hate the smell of hospitals. Sterile, sad, cold. But as I walk through the halls of the fourth floor toward my mom’s room, listening to the sound of respiratory machines and constant beeping, I know it’s better than the alternative.
My heart pounds in my chest and my lungs squeeze so tight with emotions that I wonder how I’m able to take in any air.
I can’t lose my mom.
No, I don’t hate the smell of hospitals, because I know here she can live. What I hate is disease. Sickness. Death.
I swipe away the tears that burn my eyes and cheeks and take a steadying breath before I enter the room, not knowing what I’ll find. It took me two days to get home. Even with the money my roommate Daphne gave me, I couldn’t book a flight. Everything is so much more expensive this time of the year. So after sitting in the airport for almost twenty-four hours, hoping to get a cheap fare on a last minute cancellation, I finally gave up and booked a bus from New Jersey to Michigan.
It was a long, miserable ride, which I spent most of praying that I wouldn’t be too late. I’ve never been very religious, but I prayed to any god or higher power that would listen for a Christmas miracle.
I’d give up everything to have my mom better.
But there’s no cure for Multiple Sclerosis, and even if she is able to fight the pneumonia, the illness has taken so much of her already.
“Hey baby girl,” my dad says, standing from his spot by my mom’s bed when I walk in and wrapping his arms around me in a tight hug.
My dad has always been my rock. Stable. Strong. But I can feel that strength slipping as he holds me. Emotions wrap around me, making it difficult to breathe.
“How is she?” I manage to choke out, finally getting a glimpse of the beautiful, broken woman on the bed.
She’s lost more weight since I saw her at Thanksgiving. Her eyes are closed, the dark circles beneath them making her look older than her fifty years. It’s not the first time I’ve seen her hooked up to a ventilator, an endotracheal tube down her throat helping her breathe, but it’s the first time I’ve really seen true fear in my father’s eyes.
“She’s stable right now.” My dad squeezes my shoulder and swallows hard. “I’m glad you came. She’ll be happy to see you when she wakes up. She was asking...” He chokes on the words, and I feel so helpless. So damn small.
It isn’t fair. Any of this.
I hug my dad again, taking in the day’s worth of scruff and his disheveled appearance. “Have you been home at all?”
He shakes his head. “I couldn’t...”
“Go. I’ll sit with her.”
“I shouldn’t leave.”
“You said she’s stable. Go home, have a shower.”
He rubs the back of his neck, dark eyes focusing on my mom. There’s so much love there. Even after all these years, she’s still the love of his life. I don’t know how he’ll survive if he ever loses her.
When he loses her, my brain reminds me, even though my heart protests that it’s not true. My mom is a fighter, but she’s been fighting this disease for years. And recently the disease has been eating away at more than just her myelin sheath, it’s taken her strength as well.
I’ve seen it despite how hard she’s tried to keep it from me.
“I should check on a few things at the shop,” my dad finally says, worry making his words come out shaky. “I won’t be long.” He mumbles the last words as he leans over and kisses my mom’s forehead, hovering over her for a few long moments, like he’s memorizing every detail of her face.
I blink away tears before he can see them. I need to be strong for him, for both of them. The last thing he needs is to worry about me too. Which is why I’ve kept the fact that I lost my job from them for the past several weeks.
My parents were already struggling with previous hospital bills, the cost of my mom’s medication. I can’t imagine how much another visit like this will cost. Thousands, I’m sure. They already re-mortgaged the house last fall. And I know my dad’s mechanic shop has been struggling with all the time he’s had to take off to take care of my mom.
Anger and frustration stir inside of me at the unfairness of it all.
“I wish I could do something,” I say.
A sad smile tugs at his lips. “You’re here now, kiddo, that’s all you can do.”
But it’s not enough.
When my dad is gone, I sit down beside my mom and take her hand in mine. Her skin seems almost translucent, the veins dark blue against her pale skin.
Careful not to touch the IV, I press her hand to my lips. “Hey Mom, I’m here.”
Her chest rises and falls as the machine breathes for her, but she doesn’t wake up. I didn’t realize until now how much I need to talk to her, to share everything that’s been going on with school and Spencer. I’ve always told her everything. Maybe it’s weird, but my parents have always been more than just mom and dad, they’re my best friends.
I don’t know what I’ll do without her.
“You need to get better, okay?” I say, stroking her hair back from her forehead. “It’s almost Christmas, and we still have to decorate the tree, and make our traditional gingerbread house...” I know she can’t hear me, but I need to talk to her. “Lots of things have happened since Thanksgiving. Things I wanted to tell you, but...” I chew on my bottom lip, thinking about Spencer. About the way I left things. About his texts and calls that I haven’t answered. My thoughts and emotions a jumbled mess.
My Princeton Charming. Cocky, arrogant, and...everything.
“I met someone...” A smile tugs at my lips thinking about him. Those dimples, that smile, those eyes that can make my core clench with one smoldering look. “He’s...well, he’s gorgeous and sweet, and...” I sigh. “And he’s completely out of my league.”
I know what my mom would say to that. She’d reprimand me about not letting anyone’s social standing make me think more or less of them, that it’s what’s inside a person’s heart, and their actions that matter. She’d be right. But knowing the truth and living it, especially when you’re face to face with Ivy League royalty is a whole other thing.
“I really like him.” Too much. “And I know he’s going to break my heart.”
Because he’s Princeton Charming and I’m...well, I’m just plain ol’ Charlotte Hayes.
Sure, Cinderella got her happily ever after, but this is real life. My life, which is completely different from the world Spencer Beckett grew up in. A life where medical bills, sick parents, student loans, and lost jobs can crush a person’s spirit.
But I shouldn’t be thinking about Spencer Beckett at all. Or the multiple texts and voice messages he’s sent me. Not when my mom is lying in a hospital bed fighting for her life.
As if on cue, my phone buzzes in my pocket and I pull it out and scroll through the unanswered texts.
Spencer: Call me.
Spencer: Everything okay?
Spencer: Getting worried about you. Text me back.
Spencer: Where are you? You didn’t show up for class.
And the most recent one.
Spencer: I know you’re pissed at me, but I need to know you’re all right. Call me back or I’m coming to your dorm.
I let out a shaky breath, my thumb hovering over the messages before deleting all of them. Whatever I had with Spencer Beckett is over. It has to be. Because I honestly don’t even know at this point if I’m going back to school after Christmas break.
My mom needs me here.
I need to be here.
My phone starts to play “God Is A Woman” by Ariana Grande - Jill’s ringtone. I stand and take the call out in the hallway.
“I’ve been so worried,” Jill says when I answer. “How are you?”
“Better now that I’m finally here.”
“And your mom?” There’s real concern in her voice, and I know she understands the pain I’m going through since she lost her own mom two years ago to breast cancer.
I lean against the cold concrete wall. “She’s stable for now.”
Silence stretches between us. Not awkward silence like it would be with most people, just acceptance of what it is. She’s one of the few people that I’ve met on campus who I truly trust, and I know doesn’t have an agenda.
My roommate Daphne is great. But she’s a lot to handle. Drama constantly follows her, and even though I’m so grateful for the money she lent me to get home, I know it comes with strings.
I could have asked Spencer for the money, but the last thing I want is for him to feel like I’m using him. Our relationship, if you can even call it that, was already rocky.
It was just sex. That’s all. Nothing else.
Yeah, right, my heart protests. You’re falling in love with him.
But it just confirms why I have to put an end to it.
Kissing Princeton Charming was one thing, but dating him would bring a whole other set of complications.
“So...” Jill says, pausing before continuing. “I saw Spencer.”
My heart speeds up, and my palms go sweaty at just the mention of his name. Yeah, I’m in way too deep.
“He was asking about you. Seemed really worried.”
I swallow over the new lump that’s formed in my throat. “What did you tell him?”
“Just that you were home taking care of your mom. I hope it wasn’t supposed to be a secret.”
“No.” I sigh. “I just...I’m not sure what’s going on with us. He’s been calling...but...”
“You’re not answering him?”
“I guess. But not because I’m trying to ignore him. I just don’t know what to say.”
She pauses before sighing, “You really like him, huh?”
“I do, but the whole thing is impossible. We’re impossible.”
“Because he’s Princeton freaking Charming and I’m...”
“You’re Charlotte Hayes. One of the sweetest, kindest, hardest working people I know. If he’s making you feel like you’re anything less, than you’re right, he’s not worth it.”
“It’s not him...” I chew on my thumbnail and let the past few weeks roll through my mind. There are so many outside forces that are against us. And it’s not just because I have a chip on my shoulder about the haves and have nots.
At least not completely.
“What is it then?” Jill pushes. “’Cause the Charlie I know is confident, and wouldn’t let a little hurdle stand in the way of what she wants. Is it because of those pictures?”
I cringe inwardly remembering the photos of Spencer with Winslow Harrington wrapped around him. How intimate they looked. Spencer was adamant that they were taken out of context, but he was still at the casino with her.
And if I’m honest with myself, they looked like they belonged together.
Both perfect, posh, refined...true Ivy league royalty.
And me? I’m more than happy with my Old Navy jeans and H&M hoodies.
Jill’s right, I am a confident person. But Winslow is...Winslow. Not only does she look like she belongs on the cover of Cosmopolitan with her long legs and perfect bone structure, but she’s also a blue blood through and through.
And then there’s the daunting fact that her family are friends with the Becketts, and she and Spencer have been practically betrothed to each other since they were in diapers. She was his first kiss, his first everything. And it’s obvious that she still wants him. Or at least doesn’t want me with him.
How am I supposed to compete with that?
“It’s a lot of things,” I finally admit.
Like Spencer’s arrogant best friend Prescott, who’s taken every opportunity to make sure I know that I don’t belong in their world. Or at least not for anything more than spreading my legs. I try not to dislike people, but if I’m honest with myself I kind of hate Prescott. A man who’s been Spencer’s best friend since they were kids.
If those things weren’t enough, the random, almost threatening notes I’ve found in my room warning me off Spencer, would probably have most people running.
But I don’t run. Not from my problems and not from Spencer Beckett. That’s not what I’m doing here or why I’m not returning his calls.
“I’d fight if I thought it was worth it,” I tell Jill.
“So you don’t think Spencer is worth it?” There’s a bit of a challenge in her tone, and I realize my friend knows me too well.
I sigh. “I don’t know. I just know that I have more important things to worry about.” I glance back into the room where my mom still sleeps, the machine breathing for her.
She’s what’s important.
“I’m not even sure how long I’ll be here for. If...” My voice cracks with all the ifs that are possible. And none of them have a happy ending.
“You’re not really serious about dropping out, are you? You only have one semester left.”
“I don’t know. I have to see how my mom is.”
“Charlie, you can’t—”
“I know all your arguments. And I’m so grateful that you care, Jill. But I have to be here. You of all people should know that.”
She lets out a long breath. “Yeah, I know. I wish I could help somehow.”
“I know. Thank you. Just say a prayer. I need a little Christmas miracle or a fairy godmother right now.”
Jill chuckles. “Well, you are Cinderella.”
I groan at the nickname that’s going around campus. It was cute when it was just between Spencer and me, but now...
“I always thought I was more a Belle than Cinderella.”
“Well, you have the bookish thing down.” She laughs. “But Spencer doesn’t seem like much of a beast. Tatum, on the other hand—”
“Don’t even start.”
“What? He’s cute, and he definitely has a thing for you.”
“We’re just friends.”
“So you haven’t thought about sleeping with him?”
“No,” I say a little too forcefully.
“Then you wouldn’t mind if I hooked up with him?”
“What? I...uh...” The thought shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Only because they’re my two best friends and it would be weird. At least that’s what I tell myself. “Yeah, sure.”
She laughs again. “I’m just teasing. Tatum is hot, but I couldn’t date a guy who’s obsessed with one of my best friends.”
“He’s not obsessed, he’s just—”
“A friend. Right. I know.” Although I hear the sarcasm in her tone.
“I should go. My dad left and I don’t want my mom waking up and being alone.”
“Okay, just call me and keep me updated. And Merry Christmas, Charlie.”
“Merry Christmas,” I mumble, not feeling very festive at the moment.
I hang up and I go back to my mom’s room. When I sit down in the chair next to her, I take her hand in my own, wishing that she was awake. I need her mom advice right now, and maybe it’s selfish thinking about that when she is lying on a hospital bed, but that is what my mom has always been for me. My comfort. My shoulder to cry on. And she would want to know every detail about Spencer Beckett.
“I love you, Mom. I wish...” I close my eyes, emotions pressing on my chest.
I wish life really was a fairy tale. That there were miracles and happily ever afters.
But the reality is that one day, maybe soon, I’m going to lose my mom.
It’s scary to even imagine. So I don’t. Instead, I picture her healthy, whole, at the house on Christmas morning. And as I sit there, holding her hand, I begin to tell her all about Princeton Charming.
Yes, he is out of my league. Yes, he’s going to break my heart. And yes, there’s no future in which Spencer Beckett and Charlotte Hayes end up together. But he makes me smile nonetheless.
And right now? I need a reason to smile.