A loud buzzing brought Melissa to a groggy consciousness. She reached over and slammed her hand down on the alarm clock’s snooze button. The periodic buzzing, however, continued. Waking up enough to realize it was her phone, she fumbled for it, but the phone went silent before she could answer it.
With a groan she flopped back down again, deciding it was fine to let her voice mail take a message. She hadn’t got much sleep for the last couple of nights. Her paper on Assyrian agricultural practices had taken much longer to write than she thought it would.
Still awake, she peeked at her clock. It was just past midnight.
She debated looking at her ‘missed call’ screen to see if she needed to return the call. Her phone started buzzing again, and she snatched it up, worried that someone really needed her. The screen identified the caller as Serena.
Melissa tapped to answer, sitting up in her narrow bed.
Serena’s voice asked, “Hey, Mel?”
“Yeah, what’s up Serena?”
“I’m at the hospital. Erik’s here.”
“Oh shit, is he okay?” Melissa’s mind spun off into a half dozen different fearful possibilities. She knew that Erik had been working too hard and not taking care of himself.
“It Erik’s uncle, Jacob. He’s had a massive heart attack. Erik’s in his room now. Before he went in, the doctors were saying it doesn’t look good. I called Michael and Deborah. They’re coming in. Erik’s in a bad way.”
“What hospital? Do you think it’s okay if I come too?”
“Bartholomew Central. I think you should come. We’re in the Four West waiting room.”
“Bart Central, Four West. I’m on my way.”
* * *
When the elevator doors opened, Melissa saw Serena, Michael, and Deborah sitting together. Deborah was dressed in business clothes, with makeup still on. Melissa suddenly felt self-conscious about wearing the day-old jeans and sweatshirt she had grabbed off the floor. She was relieved that Serena and Michael looked like they’d also quickly thrown on clothes after being woken up.
Serena hopped up from her chair and hugged her. Michael and Deborah followed suit, although Deborah was a bit more wary. Melissa realized she needed to apologize to Deborah for being standoffish.
Serena said, “Erik’s still in there with his uncle. Erik’s just standing beside the bed. I don’t think Jacob’s conscious.”
Melissa nodded, “What happened?”
Serena looked over at Michael, who answered, “Jacob has had horrible problems with his cholesterol all his life. It’s a family genetic thing. Thank God that Erik didn’t get it. Anyway, Jacob’s had a couple of minor heart attacks before, but this one was huge. The doctors have him maxed out blood thinners, but they said that so much damage has already been done, he probably won’t make it. They’re worried he’s going to go into arrhythmia or have another heart attack. At this point, having anything more go wrong will be too much for him.
Serena closed her eyes, trying to take in the devastating news. “I didn’t know about his heart. I only met him once. He was, is, such a gentle soul. Oh my God, he’s the only family Erik has left. How is Erik taking it?”
Michael shrugged. “Hard to tell – it’s Erik. And he was just in the hospital himself.”
Serena and Deborah looked at Michael in shock. Michael explained, “He didn’t want to worry everyone. It was pneumonia. He’s been working himself to death. He collapsed in the office about a month ago and got taken to a hospital in an ambulance. Then, between Glanox being shut down and Chin Ho going out of business…”
Melissa asked, “What?”
Michael looked puzzled, “He didn’t tell you?”
“I haven’t even gotten an e-mail in over a month.”
Michael nodded slowly, “He’s okay now. He was finally healthy enough to come back here this week. But a month ago, that’s about when everything came unstuck. After he was in the hospital… well, it turns out that the two private equity firms that owned Glanox had already decided to shut the company down for tax purposes, even before they brought Erik in, but nobody told him. One of the firms was mainly responsible for bringing Erik in because they would get a larger piece of the write-off if he could clean things up before they pulled the plug.
“He did a lot better than they expected. Hell, I think he could have had Glanox making money by next spring. But once he was out of the office because of pneumonia – bang – they paid him his termination fee and shut it all down. Over a thousand jobs and some promising new pharmaceuticals… flushed down the toilet. What a waste. On the other hand, Erik’s fees were a lot bigger because he was so successful in turning things around. Except… you know how much of himself he puts into saving these companies.”
Michael grimaced, then continued, “And Sunstone… so Erik bought the company outright back in August. He had to pay a premium, although thankfully not what Chin Ho had been willing to pay back in June. By August, Chin Ho refused to do any deal at all, even though Helen went back and tried to suck them in.
“Then last month, we found out why. Chin Ho’s bank had cut them off – part of the huge bank reform effort going on in China right now. Thousands of marginal companies are going under. As soon as Chin Ho went out of business, Sunstone’s market went crazy. Chin Ho had over half the market, so when they suddenly went belly-up… it was total chaos. Over the last month, Erik has poured a lot of his Glanox termination money into buying new machines for Sunstone and hiring new workers.
“I had to step in to run Sunstone while he was in the hospital. What a fucking nightmare. Trying to ramp up production that fast is insane.”
Michael, paused, seeming to realize that he had monopolized the conversation for awhile. He apologized, “Sorry, when I get nervous, I rattle on, especially about business stuff. You probably just wanted to know that he got over his pneumonia okay.”
Melissa gave him a quick smile, “No, I’m glad to know everything that happened. Like I said, I hadn’t heard anything.”
Michael winced, “I know. Erik didn’t want me to tell any of you that he was in the hospital with pneumonia. He didn’t want you to feel like you had come see him, just because he was sick.”
Serena snorted, “Sure sounds like the pigheaded asshole we know and love.”
Deborah agreed, “Yep, that’s our boy.”
Serena drew in a deep breath and asked Melissa, “So, are you going to go in there?”
Melissa stammered, “But, but you guys got here first…”
Serena said, “I never met his uncle.”
Michael shrugged, “Me neither. I just know what Erik told me about him.”
Melissa looked over to Deborah, who said, “I only bumped into Jacob that one time, and Erik couldn’t get us out of there fast enough. You’re the only one Erik brought home to the family for approval.”
Melissa wasn’t sure if Deborah’s comment was meant as a jab or not, but it certainly was true that Erik had shared a part of his life with her that he hadn’t with his other friends.
While Melissa stood pondering what to do, Serena poked her in the ribs and pointed down the hallway. “Mel. Third door. On the right. Go.”
Serena gave her a little push and Melissa dutifully headed down the hallway. As she walked, her mind was in turmoil. What could she say to Erik? What did she want to say? How could she comfort him without risking falling in love with him all over again?
She almost walked past the door, distracted by all her worries. Taking a half-step backward, she turned and walked into the room, then stopped short. Erik was standing beside the bed, with his back to the door. Even from behind, he looked gaunt. To Melissa’s eyes, it looked as though he had lost at least twenty pounds.
He turned around. As soon as Melissa saw his eyes, she realized that she had never stopped loving him. Before she was even aware of consciously moving, she was in his arms, hugging him, grateful to be hugged back.
She said, “I’m so sorry.”
Erik hugged her for a long time, without saying anything. Finally, he said, “Jacob always knew it would end like this. He told me a long time ago about his heart. He wanted to live long enough to be at my wedding, maybe even to be there for the bris of my first son.”
Erik’s voice broke. Among silent sobs, he said, “That’s not going to happen.” He stepped away a little, to wipe his eyes.
Melissa looked down at Jacob, trying to give Erik some privacy. She was certain that he didn’t want anyone to see him cry.
Jacob looked small and frail as he lay motionless in the hospital bed. Tubes and wires ran back and forth between him and a half dozen machines. His chest barely pressed against the sheets as he breathed.
Erik looked down at his uncle with her. “He was still conscious when he came in. They told me he was adamant: no intubation, no resuscitation, no extraordinary procedures. He lost consciousness soon after that. They wanted to verify his DNR request with me. I keep a copy of his Advance Directive on my phone, so I e-mailed it to them.”
He laughed bitterly, “They needed it for the paperwork.” Looking back at his uncle, Erik said, “He knew they would, so he made sure I had it. Even dying, he didn’t want to be a bother.”
Melissa asked, “Is it certain, that he’s…?”
“The cardiologist said there’s always a chance, but he didn’t think it was very likely.”
“Oh God, I wish I had more time to know him better.”
“Me too. Mel, I screwed up. I shouldn’t have taken the Glanox job. I should have stayed with you. Being with you… is more important than running off to try and save Glanox, or any other company.”
“Michael told me what happened with the owners shutting down Glanox while you were in the hospital, but he said Sunstone is doing better.”
“I should have stayed here, with you, and done a better job of running Sunstone. Michael had to step in while I was…”
“He told us.”
Erik nodded. “I didn’t call you… I was afraid I had already screwed up your life, that I’d blown my chance with you. It didn’t seem right to…”
“You didn’t screw up my life!” She whispered fiercely. “Never, ever, think that. You showed me so much about myself – things I had been trying to understand for years. Then, the first chance I had, I ran away. That’s my fault, not yours. I was afraid.”
“But I was the one who ran off to the other side of the country. I was afraid too. Terrified. I am desperately in love with you, and it scares the hell out of me.
She put her hand on his, on top of the bedrail. “I love you too. I probably have loved you from the first time we met – I don’t know. But I do know that trying to run away didn’t work. I don’t love you any less.”
“I’m going to stop running too.” He snorted a rueful laugh. For the next couple of years, anyway, I’ll be busy growing Sunstone. No more hurrying off to save another company. It’s like what Michael said: it’s time I learn how to stay with one thing for awhile, and grow it.”
Melissa was startled to feel another hand, with papery skin, resting on top of hers. She looked down and saw Jacobs hand on top of both of theirs.
Jacob’s eyes fluttered open. He saw both of them; then his eyes fluttered closed again. In a soft, halting voice, he said, “Erik. Don’t be afraid. To be happy. I was. All my life. Fear. Of being happy. My mistake. Every year. Said I would change. Now. No more years. Left.”
Erik leaned over and hugged his uncle as gently as he could. Tears streamed from his eyes, falling down onto his uncle’s face and pillow.
Melissa stood quietly beside Erik, softly rubbing his back, silently sobbing along with him.