Nicole stopped clinging to him after a few weeks, after he’d reassured her that he wasn’t going to disappear overnight, after doctors had confirmed that they still had time. Limited, but it was better than what most people got after a diagnosis like Bill’s.
Fetal Fatal Insomnia.
Only 40 families in the world carried the mutation.
It had started fairly innocently; a few less hours of sleep here and there, a little fatigue, but nothing Bill was concerned with. As far as he knew a little insomnia never hurt anyone. But after a few weeks, on his 5th day of being awake and then literally passing out, Nicole had insisted they see a doctor. Something was wrong. Even if he’d just get some medication prescribed, she wanted someone to care as much as she did. Bill could see she was worried, and he agreed to a time.
At first, the doctor they spoke to was very unconcerned. He asked a lot of questions, many of which Bill had anticipated. In the end the doctor had suggested Bill see a therapist or something similar, to figure out what exactly was keeping him awake. Bill and Nicole had frowned at the suggestion but eventually scheduled a meeting with a local therapist.
“Nothing’s bothering me. I just can’t fall asleep,” Bill insisted.
“I see. How does Nicole feel about it?”
Bill wanted to scream.
No one understood. Nicole tried, and he sang her praises to all who would listen, including the therapist.
“She’s concerned. She’s scared that I’m sick,” Bill replied.
“Do you think you are?”
“The insomnia didn’t bother me at first, but it’s just… It’s getting worse, and after I passed out Nicole is afraid to leave me alone. I try to exhaust myself, and some days it works. But mostly, I will go 4 days without sleep easily. I’m tired, all the time. But I can’t sleep,” Bill ran a hand through his hair.
“How long have you and Nicole been together?”
Bill didn’t really know why that was important, but humored the therapist anyway, “3 years, and a few months I think. I don’t- I mean, I’m tired, I don’t remember exactly…” He cut himself off, a cold sensation in his stomach as he realized that he couldn’t remember. He was good with dates, why couldn’t he remember?
If the therapist noticed his discomfort then he didn’t show it.
“Do you feel anything else, other than tired?” the therapist asked.
Bill shrugged, “I’m just… tired, I’m dizzy sometimes and I… I sometimes, it’s hard to concentrate and I, I forget things. And I drop things, like, my hands twitch and I drop stuff. And that makes Nicole worry even more, and I don’t want to worry her.”
“Hmm. Do you know how long you’ve been awake currently?”
Bill looked up at the clock, “I guess a little over 80 hours. Why?”
“I’m guessing you’re tired right now?”
Bill laughed bitterly, “Recently, I’m always tired.”
The therapist nodded, “If you want, I can recommend your doctor do some more extensive testing. I'm not sure this is something I can help you with, of course assuming you've been honest with me."
"Of course I have," Bill frowned.
The therapist held up his hand, "Sometimes it takes several months for a patient to open up. Especially if it's something they're ashamed of. This doesn't appear to be the case with you. Based on what you've told me, I can't imagine what's keeping you up and running."
"At this point, I don't think I care. I just want to know so I can make it stop," Bill replied.
The therapist smiled, “Do you want me to make the call to the hospital?”
“Sure, I don’t… I’ll just have to coordinate with Nicole. I’m not sure I can drive safely anymore,” Bill said, mumbling his way through the last sentence. It still stung, but he didn’t want to fall asleep behind the wheel randomly, and he was sure his insomnia was affecting his concentration enough to make him make mistakes in traffic.
The meeting ended a few minutes later, and Bill took the bus home.
The testing began 3 days later, and Bill still hadn’t slept.
Nicole was driving.
She held his hand on the way in.
Bill still cringed as his last name was spoken out loud. Nicole smirked, elbowing him in the side. On the way down one of the hallways, Bill felt the room tilt. He grabbed Nicole’s hand tighter, and she noticed he was swaying. She put her arm around his waist, but she was hardly strong enough to keep his much taller frame from tilting. Bill caught himself on the wall with hand, but the room was swimming. A nurse asked him if he was alright, and Nicole pressed herself close, helping him detach from the wall as he pushed off, declaring that he was just dizzy.
He was in a room. Electrodes.
Another room. More electrodes.
Another room. Needles.
Headaches. Pills that didn’t work. Injections that didn’t work.
Nicole was crying.
“But you’re not.”
After almost two weeks, they finally had an answer.
Nicole was crying again.
Bill just felt numb. He just wanted to sleep. Some days he could nap, some days he couldn’t. He couldn’t take medication; doctors had told him medication would only aggravate it. He had maybe two years at most left to live. Nicole’s parents came to visit from Ohio. It didn’t hit Bill that he was dying before Nicole’s mother was crying in the living room. She’d apologized profusely and tried to smile, but even her husband’s face was tight with emotions.
Bill didn’t cry until his brother came to visit two days later, flying in from Washington D.C. He didn’t realize he was panicking until his brother was holding him, shushing him and telling him to breathe slowly.
He just wanted to sleep.
His brother had stayed in the guest room for a few days, to help sort out some legal things that Bill never thought he’d write this early. Last Will and things like that. Nicole held his hand.
They made a bucket list.
Mostly for show, but watching Nicole laugh with the ridiculous things he came up with was worth it. Some of the things were even within reason, and Nicole started setting money aside for a few of the things on the list even though Bill told her not to take it that seriously. She didn’t have to set them aside for his sake. She’d slapped him upside the head and loudly declared that where he went, she went. They’d do this together.
Bill realized how much he loved her.
The weeks that came after went quickly. The days getting longer, summer approaching in Texas.
They were walking downtown when they came across the buskers. A decently sized crowd had already gathered, listening to the three people play with smiles on their faces. Nicole grabbed his hand, “Dance with me?”
Oh, he was weak in the knees already but how could he deny her?
“I’m not a good dancer,” he reminded her.
She just laughed and pulled him along, holding up his hand to twirl underneath his arm and the buskers lit up. She moved slowly; he hadn’t slept in 5 days and his coordination wasn’t the best. She held his hand.
More people from the crowd joined them, mostly swaying in rhythm like Bill and Nicole.
The next song was faster, and Nicole laughed.
Shut Up And Dance With Me.
Nicole looked at the buskers knowingly. The vocalist winked at her and continued singing. Bill didn’t know what to think really, he was too focused on Nicole’s smile and her eyes sparkling with mischief for the first time in months.
More people joined them.
Her face became almost serene as most of their recent worries melted away. She put her head against his chest, him being much taller than her, and he put his arms around her. The song almost became white noise after a while.
“Something on your mind?” he asked innocently at some point.
She looked up at him, “Marry me?”
Bill didn’t have to be sick to sway at the suggestion, but Nicole grabbed his forearms to keep him grounded and her eyes were certain and her jaw set. The song had ended. “What?” he wasn’t sure he was understanding this-
“Marry me, Bill? I love you, and I know that- I know you don’t… that time is limited for you and you… But I love you and I know you love me. So I’m asking you to marry me?” Nicole’s voice wavered only a little.
Bill licked his lips, “Nicole, we’ll only have a year at most. I’m sick, I only have…”
She shook her head, “I don’t care. I love you.”
Time might as well have stopped.
Bill nodded, “I love you; of course, I’ll marry you.”
An applause broke out but Nicole dragged him down for a kiss and he forgot to care.
He soon came back and reality punched them both in the face as his vision blurred and his arm cramped up. His arm around Nicole twitched and she quickly zoned in on his distress, “Bill? You need to sit down?” He blinked several times, her question coming to him accompanied by a low white noise and he was angling his head down, trying to breathe through the disorientation. “Bill, are you going to pass out?” she asked, zoning in on the fact that he’d been awake for 5 days and he was slipping.
“I don’t…” words failed him and he leaned forward, leaned into her and he realized too late that he was losing it. He practically fell onto her, but she was prepared and it had happened before and she caught him, setting him down gently, to his knees, leaning him back so they were sitting on the ground, her gentle arms around him, petting his hair as he let his head fall to her shoulder.
“Hey, you two need a hand?” a man from the crowd asked. He was tall, a nicotine patch on his arm, and concern written all over his face. Nicole looked up and gave what Bill knew at this point was a sad smile.
“It’s okay. My… he’s very sick,” she said, her default reply to strangers who asked questions. They didn’t need their sob story, they didn’t need their pity. But it would be stupid to not inform them that yes, something was wrong, but they were dealing with it.
“Do you need me to call someone?” the stranger asked, now kneeling down out of arms reach of them. He didn’t appear intrusive and Bill was thankful for that. Nicole shook her head.
“No. I just need to get him home. The parking lot’s not far away,” she said, and let Bill move, let him sit up a bit more straight as his vision cleared a little. He was still swaying, and he put a hand down on the pavement to steady himself. His arm was shaking visibly and he knew he was taking too shallow breaths.
“The least I can do is help you to your car,” the stranger continued and though Bill hated it, he knew the guy was making an offer they couldn’t refuse. “I’m Ellis, by the way,” he continued, moving closer as Nicole caught Bill’s eye. He just nodded, the fatigue bearing down on him heavily as he remained sitting and the cold from the stone beneath him was seeping into his joints, making any movement painful.
“Okay, I’m Nicole. This is Bill,” she swallowed, tightening her hold around him momentarily as Ellis came up beside her.
Ellis nodded to her, then looked to Bill, “I’m going to put your arm over my shoulder so we can get you up a bit easier, okay?”
Bill coughed, the action rattling his body, “Y-yeah.”
“Tell me if it hurts,” Ellis said quietly.
Bill just breathed out slowly as Ellis maneuvered him, letting the white noise cloud his senses for a brief moment and then Nicole’s warmth slipped away and he tried to keep the panicked noise inside but it escaped anyway. Then she was back, her hands pulling him forward, and Ellis helped him stand. His legs felt wobbly. The crowd of people around them were reduced to a mass of colors, and his willed his vision to focus on the two people touching him, guiding him away.
He looked down at Nicole, “I’m sorry.”
She smiled up at him, but her voice was thick, “Don’t be sorry, silly goose. Nothing to be sorry for.”
They walked a bit more, away from the crowd, away from a million pairs of eyes.
It was easier to breathe here.
“Can I wear casual clothes at the wedding?” Nicole asked.
Bill grinned, “I think you can wear whatever you want.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s just… I don’t think I’m cut out for the whole big white wedding thing, you know?” Nicole continued, squeezing his arm. “I’m thinking it should be something more simple.”
“I don’t care, as long as you’re happy,” Bill said honestly. “Just- we need to remember to invite your parents. They’re going to kill me ahead of schedule if they find out we got married without them.”
Nicole giggled, “We’ll remember.”
Ellis chimed in, “Congratulations on the engagement by the way.”
“Thanks,” Bill replied, clarity returning to him gradually. His steps were a bit more confident, his hands weren’t shaking so badly now.
“We’re parked right over there,” Nicole pointed and Ellis helped them cross the street. Soon enough Bill was leaning against the car, Nicole still pressed to his side and Ellis stepped back. “Thank you for helping out,” Nicole said, holding out her hand to shake his.
Ellis accepted the hand, “The least I could do. Good luck with the married life.”
Nicole bit her lip, “Yes, thank you… And thanks, again, for helping.”
Ellis nodded and left.
Bill sagged, and Nicole quickly unlocked the car and pushed him inside. It didn’t take long for them to get buckled up and Nicole sped away. “Nicole,” Bill’s voice was quiet.
Nicole didn’t say anything, but her grip on the wheel was turning her knuckles white.
“Nicole,” he tried again, a little louder and she glanced at him sharply. He tried to smile, “I’m okay. Are you okay?”
Nicole reached out and grabbed his hand, lacing their fingers together, “I’m… I’m okay, I just need- you know I get, I get worried.”
Nicole stroked the back of his hand with her thumb, “As long as we’re together.”
“When we get home, we can call those that need to know, and then when you’re up for it we can start planning.”
Nicole laughed, “Just wait until my mom’s screaming at us both for not telling her sooner.”
“Trust me, she’ll scream. But let’s wait and see if you can get a little rest first, okay?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”