We continued walking slowly in silence for a while until we were deeper into the woods. The mid-afternoon sunlight streamed through the trees, making patterns on the ground. The leaves on the trees were budding fresh for springtime, and there was a chill in the air. It almost reminded me of the area around Lake Teewee where I had first met Hunter.
He looked over at me and smiled sadly. His lips parted as if to say something, but he shook his head and looked away. It was stupid, but my eyes immediately flicked to his lips, wanting to feel them on mine again. I blinked away the stinging in my eyes.
It broke my heart to have him treat me so well after how things between us had ended. I wanted him to yell at me, to blame me, to hate me. At least that would have been easier to understand.
We finally stopped at a clearing. Hunter let go of my hand and sat down on a small rock. I sat down on the larger one opposite him. Our knees were only inches apart, and the slight warmth of his legs against mine made me anxious.
“Gary said you came to the fight,” he said. “I guess you saw everything, huh?”
Thinking about the fight was painful. Images of Hunter’s broken body falling to the mat flashed through my mind. I closed my eyes and sucked in a deep breath, refusing to let myself cry. “I saw the end of it. Why did you take that fight last minute? Gary said it was my fault.”
A tortured mix of emotions contorted his face. “No, it was my fault. I thought I’d lost you and needed to take out my anger. I thought I could take the guy and didn’t really care if I couldn’t. I wanted to try. Needed to.”
My vision blurred as fresh tears came to my eyes. I blinked them away. “I’m sorry I left, Hunter, but I—I just couldn’t stay in Studsen anymore.”
“I don’t blame you for leaving the way you did. After the dumbass way I handled things, I don’t blame you at all.”
I didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t blame me, but I was at least partially responsible. I let out a deep breath and the air fogged lightly in front of me. Hunter didn’t say anything, but I didn’t know what else to say either. My fingers tingled with anxiety. I knew he didn’t drive to Indiana to take a walk with me. We sat in silence, listening to the sporadic chirping of birds.
After a while he exhaled sharply and shifted on the rock he was perched on. “Listen Lorrie, that day when you saw Ada and I coming outta the hospital, I wasn’t trying to avoid you.”
I looked away from him, remembering the frustration I had felt that day. “I waited at your place for hours, Hunter.”
When I turned back to him, his face looked pained. “I went to look for you and I couldn’t find you, so I freaked out,” he said, his eyes searching mine. “Then I went over to Gary’s to talk about what to do, and we ended up getting wasted.”
I shook my head in disbelief. It was so stupid. I was waiting in his apartment for him and he was out looking for me everywhere else. Then, rather than come home, he got drunk with his friend. “Okay, fine, but why were you in the hospital with Ada in the first place? Did something happen to you? Are you—are you okay?”
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine.” Hunter’s grey eyes darted to me and then away. His shoulders were tense as he took a deep breath and bent over to pick up a thin twig from the ground. “I mean . . . well, no. Not exactly.”
My throat thickened. Not exactly? What did that mean? Hunter played with the twig, drawing lines in the soft peat, still avoiding eye contact. I waited patiently, watching him, while my mind raced through thousands of improbable scenarios.
Hunter snapped the twig in his hand.
“Lorrie, I have MS. Multiple sclerosis. It’s a disease . . . It’s not curable, but it can be treated, only . . . ” he trailed off, a pained grimace on his face.
Ice gripped my stomach and my head felt like it was about to float away. I watched him carefully, waiting for him to say more. My hands involuntarily rose to my mouth. MS? Multiple sclerosis?
Hunter hadn’t changed his posture, but suddenly he looked different. I always took comfort in the size of his body, feeling safe in his presence. Now I saw the worry etched on his face, the tired slump in his shoulders and the pain in his eyes. Tattoos and Muscles. Tim. “The Hammer.” An MS patient.
Sharp spikes of pain lanced through my chest and I felt my heart breaking for him. This wasn’t fair. Hunter didn’t deserve this.
“I had no idea,” I choked out, hot tears springing uncontrollably from my eyes.
“Hey, don’t cry Lorrie. I’m the one who’s dying,” he said, a lopsided smile trembling on his lips. Typical Hunter. Even now, he had to tell his stupid jokes.
“That’s not funny,” I shot at him. The smile faded from his face, leaving only the sadness in his eyes.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Bad joke.”
Other than the injuries from his fight, he looked mostly in good health, but how long would it last? I didn’t know much, but I was pretty sure multiple sclerosis could be debilitating. It was one of those diseases like Parkinson’s that you really didn’t want to have. When did he find out? Why hadn’t he told me earlier?
“That day you ran into us outside the hospital, I had just gotten discharged. I had a flare-up, but I’m fine now.”
It was another revelation that felt like a slap to the face. That was why he had been in the hospital. Waves of guilt washed over me. Hunter had been hospitalized while I was trying to recover from the shock of receiving Marco’s letter. I had been upset at Hunter because he wasn’t there for me, when in reality, he was struggling with something worse. I swallowed thickly, feeling nauseated.
“When did you get diagnosed?” I asked, wiping the tears that kept falling from my face.
“And Ada knows about it?”
He sighed. “Yeah, we were dating when I found out.”
A fresh pang of pain clutched around my heart. He hadn’t trusted me enough to tell me, so much that he went to his ex for help. Who else knew about it? Was I the only one in the dark? Is that why everyone else seemed to know what was going on except for me?
“Who else knows?”
I pursed my lips. So Gary had been hiding it from me too. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have gone to the hospital with you!”
“I was afraid—” he paused to take several deep breaths and then started over, “This disease has taken away everything from me and when I thought there was nothing left for it to take . . .”