“And now she’s ready.”

I nodded numbly. My hands were shaking.

“Are you?”

The air around us seemed unnaturally heavy for September. When I focused on James again, racking my brain for something to say that would make him leave before I started crying, I realized that nearly all of the other cars had left.

James reached around me and opened the door. “Are you all right to drive home?”

Was I? “Yeah.”

He waited as I climbed into the car, and he gently closed the door behind me. I rolled my window down as soon as I started the engine.

“Do you want a ride?”

He smiled, tilting his head as if I’d said something remarkable. “I’ve walked home every single day of high school so far, in the rain, snow, sleet, hail, doesn’t matter. You’re the first person to ever offer to drive me home.”

I blushed. “It’s not a big deal. Offer stands, if you want.”

James stared at me for a moment, as if he were making some sort of decision about me. “No, it’s all right, I’ll walk. Thanks though.”

I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or to feel guilty for wanting to feel relieved. “See you tomorrow then.”

He nodded, and I put the car into reverse. Right before I took my foot off the brake, James was next to the window again.

“Hey, Kate? Maybe she’ll hang on a little longer.”

I said nothing, not trusting myself to keep my composure. He watched as I backed out of the space, and when I turned onto the main road, I caught a glimpse of him walking through the parking lot. He’d put his massive headphones on again.

Halfway home, I had to pull over and give myself time to cry.

Mom spent most of that night hunched over a basin retching, and I spent most of it holding her hair back. By the time morning came and Sofia, the day nurse, showed up, my mother barely had enough energy to call in, excusing me from my classes, and we both slept the day away.

After another round of chilling nightmares, I woke up shortly after four, my heart pounding and my blood cold in my veins. I could still feel the water fill my lungs as I struggled to take a breath, could still see the dark swirls of blood that surrounded me as the current pulled me under, and the more I struggled, the deeper I sank. It took me several minutes to calm myself down, and once I could breathe steadily again, I dabbed a bit of concealer underneath my eyes to hide the dark circles. The last thing I wanted was my mother to worry about me as well.

When I went to check on her, Sofia sat in a chair outside her door, humming softly to herself as she knit what looked like half a puce sweater. She looked so cheerful that you would’ve never known my mother was dying on the other side of the door.

“Is she awake?” I said, and Sofia shook her head. “Did you attach her medication to her IV?”

“Of course, dear,” she said kindly, and I slumped my shoulders. “Are you going to the party tonight?”

“How do you know about that?”

“Your mother mentioned it,” she said. “Is that what you’re wearing?”

I looked down at my pajamas. “I’m not going.” It was an hour with my mother that I would never get back, and we didn’t have many of those left together. Sofia clucked disapprovingly, and I gave her a dirty look. “Wouldn’t you do the same if she was your mother? I’d rather spend tonight with her.”

“Is that what she would want you to do?” said Sofia as she set down her knitting. “For you to put your life on hold while you wait for her to die? Do you think that’s what would make her happy?”

I looked away. “She’s sick.”

“She was sick yesterday, and she’ll still be sick tomorrow,” said Sofia gently. I felt her warm hand in mine, and I pulled away, crossing my arms tightly over my chest. “She’d want you to have a night to yourself.”

“You don’t know that,” I snapped, my voice quavering with emotion that refused to stay buried. “You don’t know her, so stop acting like you do.”

Sofia stood and carefully arranged her knitting on the chair. “I do know that all she talks about is you.” She gave me a sad smile I couldn’t bear to see, so I looked at the carpet instead. “She wants nothing more than to know that you’ll be happy and okay without her. Don’t you think an hour or two of your time might be worth giving her a little peace and reassurance?”

I gritted my teeth. “Of course, but—”

“But nothing.” She squared her shoulders, and even though she was my height, she suddenly looked much taller. “She wants you to be happy, and you can give her that much by going out tonight and making friends. I’ll stay and make sure she’s taken care of, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

I said nothing, glaring at Sofia as my face burned with anger and frustration. She stared back, not giving an inch, and finally I had to look away. She didn’t know how precious each minute was to me, and there was no way to make her understand, but she was right about my mother. If it would make her happy, I would do it.

“Fine.” I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. “But if something happens to her while I’m gone—”

“It won’t,” said Sofia, the warmth back in her voice. “I promise it won’t. She may not even notice you’re gone, and when you get back, you’ll have a story to tell, won’t you?”

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