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Steady as the Snow Falls(10)

By:Lindy Zart



"I could have lied about having money, about needing someone to write my  story. I could have been any kind of monster, and you willingly stepped  into my lair." Harrison's chest raggedly lifted and lowered, belying  the calm he'd strived to exude, but his eyes were unwavering from hers.  Drinking in her unease, sinking into her soul. His look demanded an  answer.

"You're right. It was stupid of me," she said quietly.

He expelled noisily, swiping a hand across his mouth. "Not stupid. Desperate. Hopeful. I understand them both."

Beth looked into his deep eyes, the disquiet fading from her bearing as  she did. He looked harmless, a shell of the man from the pictures. She  tried to put herself in his place, but her brain refused. It was too  close; he was too close. A sick man stood before her, talking to her,  his breaths already counted beforehand by some invisible plague. A man  who couldn't fight fate. It was messed up, and wrong.

Strangest of all, she wanted to touch his face, wipe the hidden pain  from it. Beth clenched her fingers, then locked them before her, making  sure she didn't reach for him. She couldn't stand others hurting. It  made her heart cry. And Harrison would probably deny it until he no  longer could, but there was a crack in him, and it was full of an  unhealable ache. She felt it, in the air, in his words. It reached for  something, anything, to ease it, and there was Beth. Standing so close,  feeling more than she should.

He dropped his gaze. "I hired you to write a book. My health should have nothing to do with that."

Beth straightened. "What do you want me to write about then?"

Harrison lifted his eyes to hers, and they were laced with emotion, dark  and light and raw. "Me. I want you to write about me. I am not what's  destroying me. I am me."

Beth's shoulders slumped. Never had she heard truer, rawer words. He'd  opened his chest and given her a tiny chunk of his heart in telling her  that. The book-he'd told her to read his favorite book because she  couldn't write about him if she didn't know him. Him. He showed her the  trophies because he'd earned them. Harrison Caldwell. There were hints  of the man before her, shown in the emptiness of rooms, and broadcasted  in others.

Guilt crawled up her throat, heated her face. She was as bad as every  gossip in town, basing opinions on some truths, but not all, and not the  important ones, the ones that should matter. She was prejudiced like  all the others she told herself she was different from. Beth knew what  it was like to have lies told about her, misconceptions that hurt. In  every tragic tale of her and Ozzy spewed about around town, she was the  villain.

Look at the man, she told herself, and when she did, she had to look  away. His expression was calm, but his eyes were stricken. She couldn't  bear to see it, and Beth wasn't ready to wonder why.

"You would think, with how long this has been around, that people would  be more open-minded about it, or at least act accordingly. This isn't  the eighties or nineties anymore, and yet, not much has changed as far  as preconceptions. I've hired others who'd known, before I moved to the  area. Many refused, some wouldn't come to my house, others would, but  they didn't last long. The few who actually agreed wanted to turn the  book into the disease."

He made a sound of frustration, swiping fingers through his hair. "They  wanted the story of my life to be about something I might eventually die  from. What kind of a book is that? That isn't what I want. I had years  and years of life before I was diagnosed. I want to be remembered for  what I was, who I was, before."

Harrison swallowed and shifted his eyes to her. "Can you do that for me? Will you write my story?"

"Do I have a choice?"

He fisted his hands at his sides as he angled his head away from hers.  He seemed to fight to speak, his voice rough and graceless when he  finally did. "If I tell you that you do, what will be your answer?"

Beth's breaths came faster. "Are you saying you'll let me out of the contract?"

"Yes. Today." He looked at her, and she swore his eyes were painted in  sadness. It humanized him, turned him from an arrogant man to one with  vulnerabilities. It made her see him clearer, and that made him more  dangerous.

Look away, Beth.

"Today is your one chance to rip up the contract without fear of  retaliation. Walk away now, if that's what you want." Harrison angled  his face away, but not before she saw his jaw harden. "I'll be in the  reading room."

Beth watched him leave the entryway, a seemingly invincible man brought  down by an unseen adversary. The reading room. He'd named the welcoming  room full of his books the reading room. His sanctuary. The one place in  the house that she knew had the care it took to make a room more than  walls and space, to make it a haven.         



His footsteps were measured, his trek stable. It was a façade. His  personality demanded action, not the slowness with which he moved. Did  he hide how tired he was? Did the side effects of medicine, if he took  it, cause his muscles and joints to ache? Did he take medicine? How far  had it progressed since he was diagnosed? Was it still in the beginning  stages, or much worse?

Beth had endless questions, and she didn't know how to ask a single one.

The door was right there, a reachable escape. Two steps and she could  open it and go. She would be free of any obligation to him. And what  would Harrison do? He would sit in a structure full of lost hopes and  dreams, alone, his story untold. It wasn't her problem, and yet empathy  kept her where she was. Empathy, yes, but what else?

She lowered her head and covered her face with her hands, her eyes  tightly shut. She tried to breathe normally, but her breaths came out  shallow, raspy. If she stayed, she was agreeing to submerge herself in a  reality she didn't know, didn't understand. If she left, she would feel  like she'd abandoned him to his undesired fate. He had a story to tell,  and he was asking her to tell it. Maybe this was her chance to do  something meaningful, no matter how altered she became in the process.

Because Beth didn't think she could write his story and not be affected by it.

With a sigh of resignation, Beth dropped her hands. She couldn't do it.  She couldn't go. Beth lifted her head and pulled back her shoulders,  turning new eyes on the situation. Her decision was made, and  determination stiffened her spine. Once Beth committed to something,  there was no giving up. His story was worth something, and she would  write it. Beth would not give up on this, on Harrison. It seemed  interlocked with her writing dream, a quest that, if accepted, would  change her world. Beth was ready for a change.


TODAY SHE DIDN'T bring her laptop, knowing there was three-quarters of a  book waiting for her to read it. The story of a boy losing his mother  at the age of seven took on a different meaning. It became real, formed  depth. And Beth knew when she picked up that book again, she would read  words different from the ones she'd read yesterday. The story changed  because the person reading it altered the way they saw it. Perception  was a powerful tool.

Harrison stood with his back to her, looking outside much like she did  the previous day upon first entering the room. "It's snowing again."

She was surprised by the comment. He didn't seem the type for idle  conversation. Neither was she. She wanted to know about a person's  childhood, what scared them, what is was about the first person they  fell in love that made them do so. If they preferred candy to chocolate,  or the opposite, and why. Beth wanted to know what made a person the  way they were, what gave them their individualism, what scars they  carried, what life was to them. What dreams they had.

In Harrison's case, what was it like to have a countdown to his mortality?

And yet, she replied, "It's supposed to snow all week."

He turned then, his expression giving away nothing of his thoughts. "You stayed."

"I stayed."

"The disease is not to be discussed." When she opened her mouth to  protest, he added, "Unless there is crucial information you should  know."

Beth shifted her feet, her jaw tight. Sighing, she nodded. "Fine."

Harrison nodded to the stand beside the couch. "You have a book to read."

She moved to the couch, her eyes not leaving his. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to go for a walk."

"In the snow?"

One pale eyebrow tipped up. "Is that not permissible?"

"Well, yeah, you can do whatever you want, but … " Beth trailed off, not  wanting to ask if she could come along to keep an eye on him. What if he  got too cold and couldn't make it back? What if he fainted? She grabbed  the book and turned it over and over, needing to keep her hands  occupied. What if something happened to him out there in the middle of  nowhere and he was all alone?

Harrison's expression darkened. "Help yourself to refreshments. If you get hungry, there are snacks in the kitchen."