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Forbidden
Author: Karla Sorensen

Prologue

 

 

Aiden

 

 

Two and a half years earlier

 

 

* * *

 

“Does this mean I’ll get a new mommy?”

Amazing how kids could say the most innocent things and make you feel like you’d just taken a knife to the gut.

Shielding my eyes from the California sun, I glanced up at Anya, sitting at the perch of her slide. When I could breathe enough to form words, I tried to keep my face even. “Why would you get a new mom?”

She kicked her legs, staring at the bank of windows where Beth’s hospital bed was set up—at her request—so she could watch Anya play. “If Mommy is going to heaven soon, does that mean I’ll get a new one?”

I’d learned how to explain a lot to a five-year-old in the past few months.

Cancer.

Why Beth had decided against chemo.

Hospice.

Heaven.

But this … this was new. And I had to pinch my eyes shut to fight the brutal wave of fresh grief as it hit me.

Every day was a new one, despite the reality that we’d been living in for ninety-two days since her diagnosis. And I was convinced every wave was the worst, and the next one might not knock me to my knees until moments like this.

Beth’s cancer had forced me to discover a side of myself I’d never known. A wellspring of patience, of acceptance, of realizing that everything I’d dedicated my life to didn’t really matter very much in the grand scheme of things. Being good at something didn’t automatically make it vital.

Fighting used to be everything. And now, it was simply something I used to do, and in no way did it prepare me to bury my wife before we both turned thirty-five.

Nor did it help me when my daughter asked about a new mommy.

“Maybe we can talk about this later, okay?” I said wearily. Sleep was scarce for me even though Beth was doing more and more of it. Her nurse couldn’t give me an exact timeline, but as her appetite waned and her energy decreased, we knew we were down to weeks. Maybe days.

“Okay, Daddy.” She swooshed down the slide, running back around to the ladder. Instead of stopping on the platform, she hopped nimbly up to the beam stretching across the top of the swing set. “Look!”

I shook my head. “Anya, you know you can’t be up that high.”

My fearless girl, she giggled, moving to stand on the beam. I was on my feet in the next breath, holding my arms out. “Come on, big jump and I’ll catch you.”

If I freaked out, she’d do something even crazier, like trying to land on her feet, and yes, I’d learned that the hard way too. This was the same child who, at the age of three, was found swinging from the dining room light fixture after climbing up on the table.

Anya stood carefully, arms out, tongue trapped between her teeth. “I hope Mommy can see this. I know it’ll make her feel better,” she said.

I smiled. Another knife. Another knock to my lungs. “I’m sure it will, gingersnap.”

“Ready?”

I nodded.

She jumped, and I caught her, swinging her down toward the ground, then back up into the air as she squealed happily.

“You’re so good at that, daddysnap.” She was a little unsteady on her feet when I set her down, and her tipsy expression had me smiling.

“Glad I’m good at something.”

Anya crouched by the grass and plucked a small weed that resembled a white flower. “I’m gonna go bring this to Mommy!” she yelled, hair flying out behind her as she ran into the house.

I sighed heavily, swiping a hand over my mouth as I tried to get my bearings. The nurse aide was still at the house, so I stayed outside doing yard work, letting my muscles heat, my blood flow into something productive. Something I could control. By the time Anya ran back outside, clutching a paper in her hand, I wasn’t even sure how much time had passed.

“Look! I got a list!” She held the paper out to me, beaming excitedly.

“What’s the list for?” My hands were sweaty and dirty, and I showed her. “I don’t think I should mess up your pretty drawing.”

She dropped to the grass and laid the paper out carefully. I tilted my head and tried to make sense of what she’d written. Kindergartners were not known for their spelling skills.

But I could see a cookie.

Flowers.

A woman with long yellow hair and a big red mouth. She was either screaming or laughing, I wasn’t entirely sure. I scratched my head.

“Why don’t you explain it to me, gingersnap?”

Please, dear Lord, explain it.

“I asked Mommy about my new mommy someday.” She grinned up at me. My heart stopped. Just stopped. No beating. So did my lungs. Anya started pointing at the paper while I simply tried to breathe. “She told me that she’d be sweet and funny and make you laugh.” She tapped the paper. “See? She’s laughing.”

Her finger moved to the cookie.

“And she’d make really good cookies, just like Mommy, because Mommy said you suck at measuring and will need someone to do it.”

My eyes blurred, and I crouched carefully next to my daughter, laying my hand on her back as I stared at the horrifying picture that she worked so hard on. I wanted to rip it up. I wanted to burn it.

Anya pointed at the stick figure. “And Mommy said she’d be soft where you’re hard, and I didn’t know how to draw that, but anyone who’d be a good mommy might already have kids and know how to hold me when I’m scared and sing me to sleep. And I just added the flower because I like drawing them.”

I rubbed the back of my hand over my cheek so Anya didn’t see. “You did really good on your picture, gingersnap,” I said in a choked voice.

She ran her fingers over the jumbled letters that must’ve made sense to her. “I didn’t want to forget. This way you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.” Then Anya carefully folded the paper and handed it to me. “You can keep it, Daddy. So you’ll know who to look for.”

I licked my lips, taking the piece of paper like it was a bomb set to explode. But I smiled at my daughter. “Thank you.”

She flung herself at me in a tight hug, and I stared up at the sky.

When Anya ran back into the house, I stood slowly, paper in hand, and made my way to Beth’s bed.

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