Page 72 of The Protege

I shake my head, not understanding, wondering what I’ve done that’s so terrible. “No, you didn’t hear me. I love you.”

In the ringing silence that follows I realize that he did hear me, perfectly. And he’s not saying it back. It’s the night of my eighteenth birthday all over again, me thinking that my feelings will be welcomed by him and Laszlo meeting them with horror.

“I…”

My heart leaps and I anticipate the words. Say it. Say it, please.

“I need you to go, baby.”

Hope comes crashing down. I’ve ruined everything again, except this time I don’t understand what I’ve done.

“Please, sweetheart,” he whispers. I pull away, hoping he’ll stop me, but his hands fall to his sides. I take another step and he watches me go, his eyes bleak. He’s not going to do anything. He’s not going to stop me.

Anger rises up and I rush at him, screaming, “Tell me what’s wrong. Don’t do this again.”

His arms come around me as I slam a fist into his chest. He holds me, gently but firmly, as I do my best to hurt him. “Laszlo, tell me what it is.”

Somewhere over my head his voice is fierce and bleak. “I can’t, baby. It’s not your fault, but I can’t. Not right now. There are things—”

Can’t, or won’t? He wouldn’t tell me all those years ago that he wanted me and there’s something he’s not telling me now. I wrench myself out of his arms.

He watches helplessly, speaking quietly but breathing as hard as I am. “You need to go now and see your father or you will regret it. That’s what is important now, and I’ll be with you very soon. I need you to trust me on this, baby. Will you trust me, please?”

I don’t understand any of this. What is Laszlo not telling me? He thinks he has to protect me from everything, against my will. “How can I when you won’t talk to me? I don’t think you understand how much you’re hurting me. Hurting us.”

But he doesn’t say anything and he’s not going to change his mind. This is the Laszlo that everyone else sees. Cool. Remote. Unreadable. And the most painful thing about this is that I never thought he would turn this blank face on me.

I rake my hands through my hair, wanting to scream again. I feel like a piano that someone’s hidden a bomb inside, and striking one more chord will set me off. I need to pull myself together through all the pain like I did that night and just go. Go to London. See my father. That’s what’s important now, my duty to him, not Laszlo and his distance.

I look at him one last time, giving him another chance to explain, but he just stands there silently, and I run from the room.

Later, when I emerge with my suitcase and cello, he’s there and he takes them from me. We walk downstairs in brittle silence, suddenly strangers again. He hugs me before I get into the waiting taxi but my arms are too heavy to hold him back.

As I get into the car I feel the weight that started falling when Laszlo told me my father was dying. It’s still in freefall, plummeting down and down, and I don’t know if it will ever stop falling.

Seventeen hours later I arrive at the hospice, straight from the airport. The flight passed in a blur of restless thoughts and knots in my stomach. I think I forgot to drink any water and I know I didn’t sleep.

When I tell the nurse on duty who I am a doctor takes me into a private room.

“Your father is in the latter stages of liver failure,” she tells me when we’re sitting down, her manner matter-of-fact but gentle, as if she’s used to doing this sort of thing. Which I suppose she is. Who decides they want to become a doctor in a hospice, shepherding people into the next life, knowing there’s nothing you can actually do to heal them? Or is it more something you fall into, by seeing an ad or being referred by a friend?

I realize my mind is wandering and I make myself listen to the doctor. The jetlag must be clogging up my brain.

The doctor tells me that many years of using street heroin cut with all sorts of chemicals damaged the blood vessels in his liver. The damage has progressed slowly over many years but, because of his addiction, he wasn’t a viable candidate for a transplant.

Anger rolls through me. He put this poison into his body day after day and he never tried to get better.

“I’ll take you to see your father. He might be confused or incoherent at times,” she warns me gently. “As his liver is failing it’s causing electrolytes to build up which hinder brain function.”

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