Minnie was dying. This had become increasingly obvious to Roman over the past week or so. Everything about her was slowing down. She moved slower, she talked slower. She was still coherent, but slept for much longer periods of time and only nibbled at the pizzas Roman brought.
But there was still no sign of a cure for the curse. Roman sat in the rocking chair Minnie usually sat in, gazing blankly out the window. He could hear the uneven sound of her breathing behind him as he tried to stay awake.
He’d tried everything he could think of. Every spell Iris had come across, even if they weren’t completely prepared for it. He would either do it with them or try it alone late at night. He’d been at the town line every single night for weeks now, repeating spells with bigger offerings, bigger sacrifices. But each time, he slammed solidly into that invisible wall again.
Sitting here now, Roman was lightheaded from the lack of sleep. He’d been averaging maybe two to three hours each night. Celine didn’t know, or at least he was pretty sure she didn’t. He would come home late and go to bed with her, but then shortly afterwards he would be up, scouring increasingly esoteric journals and emailing every professor Jennings had sent him emails for. If they wouldn’t help him, maybe they’d do it for the sweet old lady who was actively dying and wanted to see the ocean one more time before she did.
“You need sleep.”
Roman jolted backwards, almost tipping the rocking chair over. He looked over at the bed where Minnie was watching him. She was lying flat, only her head turned toward him. But her eyes were clear and unimpressed.
“Minnie,” he said, standing up and trying to shake off the head rush that accompanied the movement. “How are you feeling? Can I get you some water?”
“I’m alright,” Minnie said. “But you need to go home and get some sleep.”
Roman shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said.
She raised an eyebrow. “I mean it,” she said, her voice faint. “Go sleep. Janet’s here.”
“I’ll sleep when I’ve broken the curse.”
Minnie closed her eyes and for a second, he thought she had fallen asleep. But then she opened them and glared at him.
“Young man, is that what this has been about?” she asked, her voice now surprisingly strong. “Roman, I’ve had a good life here. It’s not what I planned, but I had Jim and I’ve had you and your beautiful children. And sweetheart, even if the curse broke today, I can’t travel.”
His stomach sank as she said that. She was right. He should have solved this far earlier, when she was still capable of riding in a car. That was his fault.
She slid her hand across the top of her blanket toward him. He picked it up in his own, trying not to think about how delicate she felt. “I’m sorry,” he said, throat tight.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “It’s not either of our faults.”
She squeezed his hand, but it was so light he could barely feel it. “I’m going to rest now,” Minnie said. “I mean it, Roman. Go home and sleep. I’ll tell Janet to kick you out if you stay.”
He laughed through the tears now in his eyes. “Fine,” he choked out.
“I love you,” Minnie said, her voice fading.
“I love you too.”
He leaned over and softly kissed her cheek as she closed her eyes. Then he got up and walked out of the room.
It was still somewhat light outside when he got home. Celine was getting the kids dinner and their laughter greeted him as he stepped into the house.
“Hey,” Celine said softly as he stepped into the kitchen.
He kissed the two little ones on the top of the head. “Where’s Jamie?”
“Downstairs. His first week’s homework is a little intense, so he wants to finish before he eats.”
Roman nodded. “We’ll just make sure he remembers to eat.”
“Like you should talk.”
There was no heat in the words, but Roman flinched anyway. Celine set down the bowls of pasta in front of Aidan and Abby, who were both gazing up at him. Then she took Roman by the hand and led him over to the living room couch.
“Talk to me,” she said.
Roman sighed. “I failed,” he said.
At Celine’s confused expression, he elaborated. “I was trying to break the curse so that Minnie could leave before she died. It’s not going to happen. She’s going to die here.”
She was still holding his hand and as she squeezed it he was reminded of Minnie’s birdlike hand in his earlier.
“Rome,” Celine said softly. “Babe.”
Her words faltered, but she held onto him. “You did what you could,” she said after a moment. “Nobody is expecting miracles and none of us want you to hurt yourself to do it. Especially Minnie. She’s right, she’s too sick to travel now anyway. And if you keep up this pace, you’re going to make yourself sick too. You understand?”
He nodded, the exhaustion that he’d been pushing back for weeks now tumbling over him. Celine squeezed his hand one more time, then kissed him on the temple. “I’ve got a whole lot of pasta in there,” she said. “Give me a minute, I’ll get you some supper. We can eat it in here while the kids demolish that table in there.”
He chuckled softly as Abby called “Uh oh!” seconds later. Celine laughed too, then stood up.
As she walked away, Roman closed his eyes. He’d just doze for a minute until she got back. Then he’d eat, shower, and go to bed.
When he woke again, it was two in the morning and his phone was ringing in his pocket.