The Coda to the Coda….BEAT

The Coda to the Coda….BEAT

This story is from the 2018 edition of Complete Submission.


BEAT

By

CD Reiss

 

© 2018 Flip City Media Inc.

A version of some scenes were published in the Cocky Collective.

I changed stuff. Moved conversations around, etc. Two people can remember the same conversation very differently. I’ve always played with that idea and I’m not stopping now.

As far as the episode in the vineyard is concerned, I’m sticking by the following: the whole thing with Antonio’s father’s estate actually happened, but because it doesn’t serve the themes of this story, I left it out.

It is unedited.

BEAT

NAPOLI – ITALIA

MONICA

“Are you nervous?” Theresa asked. I bounced Gabby on my knee. She was fourteen months old and hadn’t started walking yet, preferring a bear crawl instead. She’d been born with the Drazen ginger hair and the Faulkner stubbornness.

“About?” Her question had thrown me. We’d told them we were in Italy on vacation, but Theresa had a way of finding things out. When her husband’s father died and Jonathan found out she was going to Naples, he insisted on a meeting, “just in case.”

I didn’t ask which case he was justing about. I didn’t have to. It would not be spoken aloud.

The waiter took our plates. Antonio and Jonathan had retired to the restaurant patio before coffee. I thought they were just going to get some fresh air, but no. Antonio was smoking and Jonathan was sitting upwind as if anything about that was okay.

“I can tell him to put it out,” Theresa added.

That would go over well. Theresa running to the patio like a harridan on my behalf, knocking the lit cigarette out of her husband’s hand on my behalf. That would be just great. And then, to top it all off, Jonathan would get frustrated with me because, “It doesn’t even matter any more.”

Which it did. It sure as fuck mattered.

“It’s fine.”

“Here.” Theresa held her arms out for Gabrielle. “In case you want to dive through the window.”

I passed the baby over. “He’s so cocky about that heart.” I slid the board book Gabrielle was looking at over to her, but the baby twisted and rested her head on Theresa’s shoulder. “He thinks he’s freaking invincible.”

Theresa laid her hand on my daughter’s back.

“Maybe you’re the one who’s nervous,” she said, more rightly than she could even imagine.

“About Jonathan? I’m always nervous.”

We hadn’t told his family. They’d all fly out to be with us. We wanted to do this alone, but somehow I felt like Theresa knew. There was something about his family that tied them so tightly secrets became impossible.

***

JONATHAN

“How do you like it?” Antonio asked, releasing a plume of smoke toward the sea. Antonio stood by the railing, upwind, mindful of my transplanted heart.

“It’s like Los Angeles twenty years ago,” I said. “Same weather. Smells like shit.”

“But the people are better.”

“Truth.” I tipped my wine to him and sipped. One glass was all I was supposed to drink, and I savored every drop.

I could get used to southern Italy, except the cigarettes. Every time we walked down the street, someone was smoking. And every time, like goddamn clockwork, Monica pulled me away like a mother hen.

I counted the times. Twelve times yesterday got her twelve swats with my belt last night. My guess? She did it because she liked the punishment. In a few days it wasn’t going to matter.

I glanced through the restaurant’s patio doors. She was watching me. Five times I checked, five times she was watching me and not the baby. That would be five strokes with my hand plus seven with the belt for pulling me away from smoke during the day. She handed the baby to my sister, but she’d still get swatted if she didn’t keep her concern to herself.

I loved my wife’s concern more than I loved punishing her for it.

A waitress brought espresso and Sambuca with curls of lemon peel on the rim.

With the last drag, Antonio stamped the cigarette out and sat across from me. He spoke in Italian, but a little more slowly than normal. I was capable of speaking a few languages, but my fluency wasn’t as good as a native.

“Your daughter is beautiful,” he said, rubbing the lemon on the edge of his cup and dropping it in the saucer. “She’s losing the red hair.”

“If we’re lucky she’ll look like her mother.” He dropped a bit of Sambuca in his cup.

Salud to that.” He tilted the cup toward me.

“Maybe you’ll have a bunch of redheads.”

He shook his head. “She didn’t tell you?”

“I don’t know what I don’t know, brother.”

“No kids.” He tipped his espresso down, finishing in one gulp.

I was surprised. Theresa had always wanted children. I couldn’t believe she’d marry a man who didn’t.

“I’m not supposed to ask why.”

“Why not?”

“It’s rude.”

“Fucking Americans.”

“Well, we’re in Italy, so I’m asking. Why won’t you let her have kids?”

I tried not to sound angry, but maybe I did.

“Me?” He tented his fingers over his chest. “It’s not me.”

“Then?” I prepared my espresso. “What did you do?”

“Now I know why Americans don’t ask.” He crossed his legs and leaned deep in his chair. “You’re pushy.”

“That’s why we rule the world.”

A shot of a laugh escaped his lungs.

Mio Dio. Asshole. I should blow smoke at your face just to watch your wife take you out of here by your ear.” He fingered his Zippo as he looked over the railing to the sea, but didn’t light a cigarette. “It was the accident.”

The accident.

My sister had fallen off a second story veranda with an infamous mob boss. Antonio had taken the blame for the boss’s death, but when mafia soldiers started secretly paying tribute to her in the hospital, we all suspected Theresa had done the deed.

Antonio put Sambuca in his espresso cup and drained it.

“She can’t have children,” he said. “A shard of hip bone punctured her…” he paused, pointing to his own stomach. “You know.”

“Uterus?”

“Fucking Americans. Yes.” He poured more Sambuca. Between the sugar and the alcohol content, he was going to pickle his brain. “They took it out.” I hailed the waitress.

“Can you get this guy an aperitif?”

Limoncello,” he cut in. “And Pellegrino for the American.”

When the waitress was gone I leaned forward, putting my elbows on my knees.

“You could—”

Basta. I don’t want to adopt. No surrogates. It’s children as God intended or nothing. I give my life to my Theresa. That’s the end of it. Let’s talk about calcio or something normal.”

Calico was futbol and I wasn’t interested. I looked through the patio doors at Monica and Theresa. Gabby slept on my sister’s shoulder as Monica handed her a napkin to wipe away tears. My sister had always wanted children, and here we were with our beautiful daughter. Life was a cruel master, spitefully giving the right gifts to the wrong people.

Like me.

I’d been given a family I was probably going to have to leave, while Antonio and Theresa would spend their lives without.

Fuck life.

 

 

***

Gabby was sleeping across the hotel hall with her nanny.

I was naked from the waist up.

My wife was naked with a belt in her teeth, bent over the footboard with her wrists tied to the rails and her ankles tied to the bed’s legs. She had a pillow under her abdomen so the bar didn’t dig into her. The only discomfort she should feel should come from me.

The red patches on her ass were hot to the touch. She’d taken the swats from my hand like a champ, and when I slid my fingers into her seam she was soaking wet.

“Now,” I said. “You pulled me away from cigarette smoke seven times and reminded me to take my meds an hour before I was supposed to. That’s eight.”

She looked around and grunted an objection. The belt in her teeth was wet with spit. I took it out.

“That’s totally not fair! There was a time change from Prague.”

“Nine, then.”

She rolled her eyes at me. I never punished her for that because it didn’t bother me. But she was getting used to pain, and nine would barely make a dent in her defenses.

“You know what?” I said, tapping her red bottom gently with the loop of the belt. “Let’s make it an even dozen. Count.”

I brought the belt down on the soft, raw skin of her ass. When she buckled, my balls throbbed.

“One,” she said.

Damn, she was perfect. She fit right into my life. I hit her in the back of the thighs.

“Two.” She was trying to sound bored, but a hot pink mark rose where the belt had been.

“Oh, Goddess, you’re such a brat.” Across the ass, where her cunt was blossoming, I tried to hurt her free of boredom.

“Three.” Clenched teeth. Another across the same spot. “Four,” she grunted. I stroked her ass, feeling the rising swells of skin, then slid two fingers deep inside her.

“Italy agrees with you.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Eight more.”

She counted three strokes as they came in fast succession, yelping “seven.”

“Why was my sister crying?”

She paused for too long, so I gave her one on the back of her thighs.

“Eight. There were two kids squatting in Antonio’s dad’s place. She was sad.”

Coupled with the conversation I’d had with Antonio, I could imagine she was. I could get the rest of the story later.

Swat.

“Nine.” Her tone was almost relieved, as if she’d arrived at a destination. But I hadn’t. My breathing was labored and my arm was weak. Fuck this arm. Fuck the enervation that gripped me when I gave my wife what she needed.

Swat.

“Ten.”

“These next two are coming hard, Goddess.”

“Okay.”

I never knew if she forgot out of brattiness or if she was so deep in subspace she had limited syllables.

“Okay, what?” I touched her sore, friction-heated skin and she jumped.

“Okay, Sir.”

Pulling her cheek away, I inspected the tight pucker of her ass.

“Three more. A baker’s dozen.”

I brought the belt down and she counted to thirteen.

Leaning close to her, I kissed a tear from her cheek.

“You are absolutely perfect.”

She smiled and mouthed, “so are you.”

“Do you want to use your safeword?”

“No, thank you.”

Standing behind her, I ran my hand over her back, assessing what I could do and what my body would refuse. Fuck this shit.

“I’m going to take your ass. Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

I put the belt by her lips. “Open.”

She opened her mouth and clamped onto the leather.

Behind her, I ran my fingers over her cunt, gathering moisture to spread over her ass, tucking a finger inside to stretch her.

I wet my cock on her seam, and she groaned when I pushed in for a single stroke. I pinched her clit between thumb and crooked finger.

“You ready?”

She nodded.

Slowly, gently, I pressed my cock to her anus, watching it give for me. Changing from a peck on the cheek to a gaping, open mouth. I knew her. I knew how slow to go. I knew how to minimize the pain and maximize the pleasure. How she liked her clit touched, how powerful her orgasms were when I was in her ass, and how it pulsed around me when she came.

I left everything inside her.

“Jesus Christ,” I said into her back. “This never gets old.”

She made a mm sound, and I took the belt from her teeth. “Hang on.”

I untied her. She was like jelly in my arms. Droopy in subspace. I laid her on her stomach and kissed her everywhere before rooting around in my bag for lotion.

“How are you doing?” I asked, soothing her welted skin. I was tired, but I had a lot to do and this was my last chance to push it.

“Thank you.” She spoke in barely a whisper.

“You’re a good wife to put up with me.” I soothed her welted ass. She’d be like new in the morning. Fully markable and tender.

“I know.”

“I’m going to ask you a question it’s not fair to ask when you’re in subspace, because you can’t lie.” I snapped the lotion cap closed and tossed it across the room, making it right into my open bag.

“I hate you.”

Maybe she could lie.

“Did you tell Theresa why we were here?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Mm-hm.”

I decided to believe her because, in the end, it wouldn’t matter.

***

MONICA – two months before

Jonathan got a battery of tests every month and every month he got a stamp of approval. Between his diet, exercise, and medications, he was conscientious to fault. He only bent the rules when our daughter was sick, and went in to the immunologist when she was well again, just to check.

So, fuck anyone who blamed me for being surprised when his kidneys started failing.

“No,” I said after he told me. We were in the shady spot by the pool. Gabby was splashing around with Martha, floating with the help of some apparatus meant to get her walking. I was just back from a meeting about some opportunity I’d forgotten.

“We knew this was going to happen.” He opened his book and placed the bookmark on the table, next to his Perrier. Then, like whatever-not-a-big-deal, he started reading.

Reading. As if the people in his fucking book about some shit about business were even relevant.

“No!” I stamped my foot.

“Mama!” Gabby cried from the pool.

“See,” he said, turning a page (turning a fucking page). “You’re going to upset the baby.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“It’s fine. I’ll make some changes.”

“Is it because of your heart or the immunosuppressants?”

“Whoa, the doctor is in.” He didn’t take his eyes off the Goddamned book, and I was starting to think that was intentional.

“Which is it?”

“Both, obviously. ”

“Jonathan.”

He turned a page. “Monica.”

I snapped the book away because he was being a fucking asshole.

He didn’t look mad. No. Jonathan didn’t really get mad. He looked put upon. Irritated. Pushed a little too far.

And me? What did I look like?

I was sure I looked terrified.

“Wipe that look off your face, goddess, before our daughter sees.”

Sure enough, Gabrielle had her hands and balls of her feet on the tiles, crawling to me with straight knees and a big smile.

“Sweet heart!” Tucking his book under my arm, I picked her up and situated her at my hip.

“This isn’t finished,” I handed him back his book.

“Indeed.” He opened it and started reading again.

***

“How is it not a big deal.”

As soon as I’d gotten Gabby down for a nap, I called the doctor.

“I never said it wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “Not with the creatinine count. Did he not show you the test results?”

If I said no, the doctor would clam up. I sank into our red bedroom chair and lied watching Jonathan read a book by the pool.

“Yes, but I want to hear it from you.”

“Do you want to come in?”

“Now. I want to hear it now.”

“A small percentage of heart recipients present with renal failure after five years. That failure starts with a non-symptomatic condition called renal insufficiency.”

God damn her. I knew this from the fucking internet.

“Change his medication,” I barked.

“We don’t have any more options. The problem is the heart. It’s not delivering enough oxygen. Add the calcineurin-inhibitors, and the decline in function is irreversible.”

Below me, my husband put his book to the side and finished his water.

“He’s fine,” I said, contradicting my previous insistence that everything was shit. “Everything’s fine.”

“He may be asymptomatic for awhile.”

Jonathan stretched and stood, collecting his bottle and glass.

“What are our options?”

He crossed the yard and stopped, looking up at me from below. He was tall and straight-shouldered, with a simple grace and power that harmonized the space around him.

“Enjoy the time you have.”

When my husband’s eyes met mine, I shuddered.

He was—as always—every inch a king.

 

***

I didn’t bother him about it. What was the point? There was nothing anyone could do.

Right?

I was going to be mature and reasonable.

That lasted a few days.

Three, to be exact.

We were in the back of the car, facing each other while Lil drove us into Beverly Hills for an event. I never saw a man look as comfortable in a tux as he did. I touched up my lipstick and put my compact back in my bag.

“What?” I asked when I caught him staring.

“The lipstick didn’t need fixing.”

“It’s this new stuff. Lasts eight hours no matter what.”

“Speaking of things that last—”

“Oh?” I made a point of glancing at his crotch.

“I heard from Erik,” he said.

My arms broke out in goosebumps. I was as fearful for a Dutch man’s health as my own husband’s.

“How is he?”

“Great, apparently.”

“No rejection?”

“Not even a little.”

Nothing turned me on a like functioning artificial heart. I slipped my foot out of my shoe and ran it up his leg.

“Jonathan.” I slid down in my seat until my toes reached his forming erection, bracing my other foot against his seat.

“Monica.” He took both my knees and opened them. “Is there something on your mind?”

“Your cock.”

“Show me. Wrinkle your dress.”

The hem reached my knees and flowed easily. All I had to do was pull it up to show him my satin garter and stockings. He pushed my knees away and I held them close, bent and wide. He reached forward and easily unsnapped the crotch of the panties, then leaned back, observing my erotic degradation.

“Remember the first time Lil and I dropped you off at your house?”

“The night you went to see your ex wife?”

He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.

“The night you comported yourself like a woman in control.”

With a brush of his middle finger off his thumb, he flicked my clit. I nearly exploded.

“I remember.”

“I wanted you to fail.” He flicked me again. “I knew I could love you and I didn’t want to.” Flick. “I was the one who failed.”

“You suck at not falling in love with me.”

He laughed and sat back, looking out the window as he undid his belt.

“We have a few minutes.” Cock out, he fisted it like a threat. “Let’s see what that lipstick’s made of.”

I kneeled between his legs and took him in my mouth. He touched my shoulder gently. Usually, he’d take me by the back of the head and drive me down, but he read my mind. The up-do I’d gotten for the evening would never go back into place.

“All of it, goddess. Take all of it.” I took him down my throat until my lipstick touched his balls. I came up for air with spit on my chin.

“How’s it look?”

“Worth every penny.” He snapped a linen handkerchief out of his pocket. “Get up here and ride me.”

We moved our clothes out of the way and I straddled him as he wiped my chin.

“You feel so good,” I whispered.

“When I come inside you, don’t clean up.” He pushed my hips down hard. “I want it dripping down your leg while you’re sipping champagne with that perfect lipstick.”

He jerked up as he pushed me down.

“Yes, sir. Can I come?”

“No.”

His movements were quick and hard. He dominated me even as I rode him, controlling the rhythm with his thrusts. I was blinded by the orgasm I had to hold back.

“Please,” I whined into his neck. “Please. I can’t hold it.”

“Not yet.”

He fucked me so hard I couldn’t think about music, baseball, or algebra.

“Please.” It was barely an entire word. Just a vowel sound after the pop of the p.

“Come with me.”

His permission smashed the dam and a wall of pleasure poured out. I pulsed on him, my senses going dark as the climax took over.

When I opened my eyes, we were a block from the event, and as I smoothed my skirt over a dripping cunt, Jonathan wiped his forehead.

He was sweating. Breathing harder than usual.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” He got his dick in his pants. “I prefer it when you leave a little lipstick behind.”

The car stopped at the crown of the circular driveway. The front door thupped as Lil got out.

“Jonathan.”

“What?” he snapped.

“I think we have to talk about going to Switzerland.”

“I’m not dead yet.”

“Don’t even say that.”

Lil knocked before opening the door. Jonathan knocked back.

“I’m fine.”

He got out when Lil opened up, and stood with his hand out for me as if I needed help getting out of the car.

MONICA – two months later

We’d just gotten to Zurich from Italy and Jonathan’s medical team had started the tour right away. Their plans to open-source the design per their agreement. The success of the artificial heart. The technology they could upgrade non-invasively, the prep they’d done on their second build.

Jonathan’s build.

Erik swam as if he still had all the parts he was born with sixty seven years before. Seventeenth lap in an Olympic half size. He wasn’t fast, but he was steady, arm over arm.

“He’s going to die of something and that heart is still going to beat,” Dr. VanDerWaal said in his tweedy jacket and blue jeans. His wire rimmed glasses had dots of water on them from dense condensation of the indoor pool. “We’re going to have to take it out and shut it off.”

“How long are we going to watch this?” Jonathan asked, putting Gabby down. He couldn’t hold his daughter as long as he used to, but wouldn’t admit it. She still wasn’t walking, so she couldn’t go far. She stood by him with an arm around his leg, bouncing and pointing at the water lapping over the pool ledge.

“He insisted,” Dr. VanDerWaal said, beaming proudly. “He wanted to show you how well it was working.”

Jonathan watched the test subject of the artificial heart he was funding.

He couldn’t swim like that. Not any more. In the two months since the doctors had found his kidneys failing, he’d been a grouch.

“I think we should do it,” I said. “Now.”

“It’s ready,” VanDerWaal said. “Right size and shape.”

“I thought you wanted to wait five years,” Jonathan grumbled more to me than the doctor.

“We got three and a little bit,” VanDerWaal shrugged with a smile. “If you want to…you can.”

Erik stepped out of the pool and slid his goggles up. He gave us a thumbs up, then a fist of power, before diving back in.

I watched my husband’s face to see if there was any hope he’d say yes eventually, because he was sure to say no by the pool. But his face didn’t change from denial to hope to the word no. It went from denial right to shock then directly to speeding past me so fast I didn’t have time to move.

He was in the water so quickly I didn’t know if he was trying to kill himself or out-swim Erik. I went to pick up Gabby, who had been clinging to the leg that had just landed in the water, and came up empty.

“Gabby!”

It all came together in the split second it took me to call her name. The way her bear-crawl had made her soundlessly sploosh into the water. Jonathan’s leap. Erik’s dive back into the pool.

Jonathan came up with our daughter just as Erik made it there and I was just standing like an open-mouthed fly-catching-dumbass.

That all happened in a hundredth of a second.

The doctor lifted Gabby out of her father’s arms. She cried and vomited pool water. I cried watching him pat her hard back to empty her lungs before putting her in my arms soaking wet. She cried as I kissed her and cooed.

She was as scared as her mother. Otherwise, she’d be fine.

But Jonathan?

He was out of breath, not quite strong enough to lift himself out of the pool on the first try.

***

That was that, really.

It was one thing to not be able to fuck me as hard as he wanted as many times as he wanted. It was a different thing to not be able to lift his baby daughter out of a pool to save her life. He didn’t even try to argue that he’d done it once so he could do it again. He knew he might not make it the second time.

***

Jonathan’s shirt was open two buttons, sitting on the floor, holding a hand out to Gabby. She tapped the underside and he flipped it, clapping his other hand with a slap. She laughed, delighted as he put his hand out again.

“We have to go,” I said. “They’re waiting.”

They repeated the game for the thousandth time. Martha and Lil would wait in the front of the little house in Zurich for as long as we needed. The surgical team wouldn’t.

Jonathan purposely missed his other hand and Gabby broke out in a high peal of laughter.

“Daddy!” she cried when he moved his hand just enough for her to miss.

“Okay, try again.”

Slap.

“Jonathan.”

“One minute.”

“Please.”

Slap.

“Please. We have to—”

“I said one minute!”

His tone broke the idyll between him and his daughter. He never yelled in front of her, and her face fell from laughter to tears in a hot second. I picked her up.

“What’s your problem?”

He sat cross-legged on the rug, fists balled tight enough to hold and hide whatever scared him.

He was going to the hospital in a foreign nation to have his heart removed and I was snapping at him like a harridan who wanted the lawn mowed and the garage cleaned out.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He got up and plucked his jacket off the back of a chair.

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not. I guess I’m nervous too.”

“I’m not nervous.”

“You shouldn’t be. You have to see her first steps, right?”

Gabby put her arms out and leaned for her father in the perfect transfer dance between two parents and child. He took her.

“If I didn’t trust these doctors I wouldn’t be doing this.”

“Then what is it?” I had to hear the lies he told himself.

He pushed his face into Gabby’s cheek and made loud kissing sounds. Tears forgotten, she laughed and pushed him away. I didn’t move toward the door. I waited for him.

“I love this little girl so much,” he said. “As much as I love her mother.”

That didn’t feel like a final statement to be punctuated by my own sentiment, so I waited.

“All my heart.” He tapped Gabby’s nose and addressed her. “Daddy’s going to be part robot.”

“Jonathan…”

She didn’t understand, so she tapped his nose back.

“Daddy’s going to love you with a plastic heart.”

“Please,” I pleaded. “Don’t.”

She squeezed his cheeks toward the center of his face.

“Dada.” She kissed his puckered lips. “Mah!”

His smile broke the pucker, looking at his daughter with adoration. I rested my hand on his arm and he put it around me, squeezing us into a triad.

“Promise me something,” he said.

“Anything.”

“If I don’t love you enough after this…” He broke off, unable to finish.

“You will.”

“If I don’t…you deserve more.”

He wouldn’t say it. He’d never tell me to leave him or find what I needed outside our relationship because it was ridiculous. The whole idea. A part of him knew it and another part needed to know I’d be happy if this succeeded but his love failed.

“I promise you,” I said. “There will never be anyone else. Never. Half your love is more than anyone else has to give.”

He squeezed me and hugged Gabby so tightly she squirmed.

“We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”

***

I had to look at him through a window for a week. I’d forgotten what it meant to remove a man’s heart and put in another one. I knew the facts. I remembered the bags of blood and the medically-induced coma. I remembered the dozens of doctors whose names I’d never use consistently. They told me how he was doing, but I needed to hear it from Jonathan’s mouth, in his commanding voice. Stats and reassurances from anyone else were hollow.

On day seven, they let me in the room, but I couldn’t touch him. I watched his unconscious body rise and fall with the rhythm of the machines that kept him alive.

I’d forgotten the fog of despair and the core of hope. I’d forgotten how, when he looked too weak to live, that I felt the sea rend from the sky. No matter how well the doctors said it was going, the horizon was pulled taut at the seam.

“He’s up,” Dr. VanDerWaal said on the ninth day, meeting me at the entrance to the cardiac unit. It was Martha’s day off, so I’d come with Gabby, not expecting such good news, nor expecting that it would come with practical entanglements. Like a mother who suddenly wasn’t a celebrity billionaire, I had child care issues.

“Can I bring the baby in? Should I?”

“As long as she doesn’t play with the equipment.”

“She won’t.”

“And no touching. Not yet.” He high-fived my daughter. “Children are made of germs, aren’t they, little one?”

She leaned her head on my shoulder.

“Okay,” I said. “No touching.”

Gut, you might change her first.”

“Right.”

“There’s a counter in the nursing room.”

God bless Northern Europe, where every consideration was made. I went through a door with a graphic of a baby on it. The light was soft and the walls were a welcoming shade of pale green. The carpet dulled the hard clops of heels. The countertop had an easily-wipable cushion, and a door led to another room with a rocking chair and pillows.

“Isn’t this nice?” I said, putting Gabby down onto the changing table. The shelves had plastic and cloth diapers, wipes, and sealable bags for cloth dirties. I got my own diaper out of the bag, kissing and cooing to my beautiful daughter as I changed her.

“We’re going to see daddy.”

“Daddeeee.” She reached for the diaper bag. Motherhood made me psychic. I knew what she wanted, plucking a bottle of watered-down juice from the side pocket and handing it to her. She sucked on the plastic spout.

His heart’s made of the same stuff.

Love wasn’t in the heart any more than the liver or the spleen. The idea was ridiculous, yet for the first time, I wondered if he’d love us differently. More sensibly. Would his love turn cold and dispassionate, yet become unbreakable? Would his love turn indestructible? Surviving the end of humanity, living fifty thousand years, long after our hearts had disintegrated into dust?

“Daddy is going to be lying down,” I said to Gabby as I changed her. “He’s going to look sick. But he’s not sick. He just had a new piece put in so he can live a long time.” Her eyes started drooping as she sucked. Was it naptime? I’d lost track of everything in the past week. I kissed her feet. The big toe and ball of her foot were hardening from the bear-crawling. “Daddy’s in a special place where we have to be very careful of him. Just for a little while. You’re going to want to touch him and give him high-fives. You can’t. That’s going to really bother you. You’re going to want to kiss his face and tell him it’s going to be all right. I’m just warning you before we go in. You just keep loving him as much as you do now and he’s going to be fine. He’s going to live a long, long time.” Tucking her wet diaper into the pail, I put her clothes back on. “He’s going to see you take your first steps and hear you make your first sentence. He’s going to be there when you go to kindergarten, and if you cry, he’s going to kiss your tears and tell you how wonderful school is. He’s going to disapprove of your friends, and let you have them anyway. He’s going to catch you when you fall, and when you’re ready, he’s going to let you go.”

A teardrop fell on my sleeping daughter’s shirt.

“God, get it together, Faulkner.”

I cradled my daughter and headed out of the sweet little room.

***

Jonathan was in a normal room, lying flat so the blood the heart pumped didn’t have to fight gravity just yet. They’d closed his chest for the second time in his life, and hopefully the last.

“Hey,” I said when the nurse closed the door behind me. He turned his face to us.

“Is she sleeping?”

“Like a Faulkner.”

I sat on the little couch on the other side of the room and laid Gabby out. Without waking, she tucked her knees under her in the face-down fetal position she preferred.

“You look good,” I said.

“I’m sick of looking at the damn ceiling.”

“Now you know how I feel.”

He laughed as much as he could, turning his head to me. “When I’m out of here you’re going to be blindfolded so much you’re going to beg for the ceiling.”

He was still Jonathan. I didn’t know what else I expected.

“Does it feel okay?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Well, do you still love me?” I joked.

Slowly, he closed his eyes.

What a stupid question.

Stupid, insensitive, unfunny question.

I got up and walked to him, standing at the edge of the bed with my hands behind my back so I wouldn’t be tempted to reach for him.

“Jonathan.”

He opened his green eyes. They were lit from within by the fire of uncertainty.

“You know you love me.”

“Don’t suggest otherwise ever again.”

“I’m sorry.”

“When I get out of this fucking bed…the things I’m going to do to you.”

“Tell me.” I leaned down so the baby wouldn’t hear. My hair fell over my shoulder and onto the sheets. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I wasn’t supposed to be this close. I started to stand straight but he reached up more quickly than expected and took the hair in his fist.

“Jonathan,” I said through a shot of arousal so surprising it hurt.

“I’m going to tie your elbows to your knees, like our first night together.”

“You’re not supposed to touch me.”

But he didn’t let go, continuing in a husky whisper, and my eyes fluttered closed as every word took hold of my body.

“I’m going to light a candle and put it between your breasts. The wax is going to drip on you, hotter and hotter while I finger your ass and cunt. You’re going to beg me to let you come, but I won’t. I’m going to move the candle over your hard little nipples. I’ll let it drip between your legs. I’m going to fuck your mouth so you stop begging. When the candle burns out, I’ll fuck you until you come for me.”

“Yes. God, yes.”

“I am so in love with you,” he said with the same hard growl he’d used to describe the power of his desire. “You’re everything, Monica. Don’t you ever, ever forget it.”

I opened my eyes. His love was as present as it had ever been, hard with ardor and tender with adoration.

“I love you.” My words seemed insufficiently poetic. “I love you so much. And I want to kiss you but I shouldn’t.”

He spread his hand over my neck, exerting a slight pressure toward him. He wanted that kiss. I wanted that kiss. That exchange of sensation in the most sensitive parts of our body.

“Daddy!”

I spun around. Gabby was in bear crawl position. Hands on the floor, knees straight, feet leveraged on the linoleum floor.

“Gabby! Stop!”

I went for her but a single syllable from Jonathan held me.

“Wait!” He barked in a fragile voice that hadn’t sounded as brittle a second before. I looked back at him. What his voice couldn’t impart, his raised hand did. “Just wait.”

Gabby’s hands left the floor and she stood as she always did. She wouldn’t be crawling over to us. That was good.

“Wait,” Jonathan said again as if he knew. As if his heart could see into his daughter’s intentions.

She moved one foot forward tenuously. I gasped.

Arms out, she took another step.

“Daddy!” She waved to him with her fat little fingers. Another step. More confident.

I crouched down and held my arms out.

“Come on,” I said.

She took another, picking her foot up a little more. Looking up at her father to make sure she was okay. Another step. So close.

“One more,” Jonathan said. “Go ahead, little girl.”

One more turned into two and she fell into my arms.

The cheer from the three of us brought the doctors and nurses in like an invading army.

I didn’t try to hide his proximity to his daughter. Instead, I leaned down so he could give her the high-five she so richly deserved.

I never doubted he could love us with an artificial heart, but seeing his face as he touched his daughter’s hand, I knew he didn’t doubt it either. He’d love us as much as he ever did for the rest of his long, long life.

***

My name is Monica Faulkner-Drazen.

I am an artist.

I will make music until my heart is empty, then I will fill it again. To do any less is to cheat myself and my family of my full humanity.

I am mother to my child.

I will protect her from harm. I will nurture her to womanhood. She will be resilient and tender. Compassionate and strong. She will know her worth and demand that everyone around her be worth the same. She will be a warrior because I am a warrior.

I am Jonathan’s mate.

I will protect him from harm. I will give him everything he needs and more. I will submit to him and partner with him. Care for him and let him care for me. I will speak my mind and listen to him with an open heart because to do any less is to cheat him of my own love. I will accept his love for the prize it is, never take it for granted, never reject it or find it insufficient.

My name is Monica Faulkner-Drazen.

I stand nearly six feet tall in bare feet, but with my family, I can reach the clouds.

Jonathan is the sky. I am the sea. Our daughter is the horizon that cements us together.


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