JULIE LA TIMMER Five Days Left

ISBN 13: 9780099588849

Five Days Left

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9780099588849: Five Days Left

“A beautifully drawn study of what is at risk when you lose control of your own life. Unique, gripping, and viscerally moving—this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer.”  —Jodi Picoult, New York Times–bestselling author of Leaving Time

Destined to be a book club favorite, a heart-wrenching debut about two people who must decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice for love.

Mara Nichols is a successful lawyer, devoted wife, and adoptive mother who has received a life-shattering diagnosis. Scott Coffman, a middle school teacher, has been fostering an eight-year-old boy while the boy’s mother serves a jail sentence. Scott and Mara both have five days left until they must say good-bye to the ones they love the most.
 

Through their stories, Julie Lawson Timmer explores the individual limits of human endurance and the power of relationships, and shows that sometimes loving someone means holding on, and sometimes it means letting go.  

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About the Author:

Julie Lawson Timmer grew up in Canada and earned a bachelor’s degree from McMaster University and a law degree from Southern Methodist University. She lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and children and is a lawyer. This is her first novel; she is currently at work on her second.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Julie Lawson Ti


PART 1
Tuesday, April 5



Five Days Left


1.

Mara


Mara had chosen the method long ago: pills, vodka and carbon monoxide. A “garage cocktail,” she called it. The name sounded almost elegant, and sometimes, when she said it out loud, she could make herself believe it wasn’t horrifying.

It would still be horrific for Tom, though, and she hated herself for that. She would rather do it without leaving a body for him. But as much as she’d love to spare him from being the one to discover her, she knew not letting him find her would be worse. And at least this was the tidiest option. He could have someone come and take her car away. Fill her side of the garage with something else, to block the image. Bikes, maybe. Gardening supplies.

A second car for himself. Maybe she should arrange to have one delivered after. Would that be too weird, though? A gift from your dead wife. She should have given him one years ago. For their anniversary, or to celebrate bringing baby Lakshmi home. Or just because. She should have done so many things.

Mara frowned. How could it be that she had spent almost four years ticking off all those items on her long list of things to do before she died, yet here she was, five days from it and still thinking of things she should have done?

Ah, but that was the trick of it. Tell yourself you’ll wait until you’ve
accomplished every last thing and you’d keep putting it off. Because there would always be one last thing. Which might be fine for someone who had the luxury of delaying a few more weeks, or months, or years even, until they were finally out of excuses and ready to go through with it.

Mara didn’t have that luxury. In less than four years, Huntington’s disease, the mother of all brain cell destroyers, had already done more damage than she and Tom could have ever prepared for. She had the severance papers from the law firm to prove it. The once graceful, athletic body that was now slow to react, reluctant to cooperate.

If she allowed herself to experience that one more moment with her husband and daughter, to travel to that one last must-see destination, she might wake the next morning to find it was too late, and Huntington’s was in control. And she would be trapped in the terrifying in-between of not being able to end her life on her own, and not truly living, either.

Time was against her. She couldn’t risk waiting any longer. She could make it to Sunday, as she had planned. But she couldn’t wait past then.

Mara took a long swallow of water from the glass on her bedside table and stood. Inhaling deeply, she reached to the ceiling with both hands and focused on the bathroom door across the room. It was tempting to cast her eyes up toward her hands, the way the move was supposed to be executed, but she had gotten cocky before and the hardwoods always won. She counted to five, exhaled and tilted forward slightly, pressing her hands toward the floor for another count of five. A Sun Salutation modified beyond recognition, but enough to clear the fog from her brain.

The hiss of the shower stopped and Tom emerged from the bathroom, toweling his dark hair. “Good morning,” she said, eyeing his bare torso. “You’re wearing my favorite outfit, I see.”

He laughed and kissed her. “You were out cold when I got up. I was planning on asking your parents to come over and get Laks on the bus.” He tilted his head toward the bed. “I can still call them, if you want to catch a few more hours.”

Laks. Mara’s throat closed. She reached the dresser and put a hand on it to steady herself. Turning away from her husband, she pretended to fuss over some spare change and loose earrings on the dresser. She swallowed hard and coaxed her throat into releasing some words.

“Thanks, no,” she said. “I’m up. I’ll put her on the bus. I need to get moving myself. I’ve got errands to run.”

“You don’t have to run errands. Why don’t you write out a list and I’ll get anything you need on my way home.”

He walked to the closet, pulled on dress pants, reached for a button-down. She made a furtive wish for him to choose blue but his hand found green. She would try to remember to position a few of his blue shirts in front so he would reach for one before the end of the week and his cobalt eyes would flash one more time.

“I’m capable of running a few errands, darling,” she said.

“Of course you are. Just don’t push it.” He tried to sound stern, but his expression showed he knew she would take orders from no one.

He put on his belt—third hole—and she shook her head. He hadn’t gained a pound in twenty years. If anything, he was in better shape, logging more miles in his forties than he had in his twenties, a marathon a year for the past ten. She supposed she could take some credit for it, since these days he ran partly to manage stress.

She walked to the door, lightly touching his shoulder as she passed him. “Coffee?”

“Can’t. Patients in twenty.”

A few minutes later, she felt him wrap his arms around her from behind as she stood at the kitchen counter, inserting a premeasured coffee pack into the coffeemaker. Loose grounds tended to end up on the counter or floor rather than in the filter these days.

Tom kissed the back of her neck. “Don’t do too much today. In fact, don’t do anything at all. Stay home, take it easy.” He turned her around to face him and smiled in defeat. “Don’t do too much.”

Mara watched him disappear into the garage. She willed her breathing to slow and her eyes to stop burning. Turning to the coffeemaker, she made herself focus on the plip, plip of the coffee as it dripped into the pot, the scent of hazelnut, the steam rising from the machine. She set a cup on the counter, filled it halfway and gazed at it longingly. As tempted as she was to take a sip, she had learned to let it cool. Her hands couldn’t be trusted to stay steady, and it was better to have only a stain to clean than a burn to soothe. Calmer, she made her way down the hall to her daughter’s room and peeked in the doorway. A small head lifted drowsily from the pillow and a wide grin, gaping in the middle where four teeth had recently gone missing, greeted her. “Mama.”

Mara sat on the bed, spreading her arms wide, and the girl climbed into her lap, pressing her body close and gripping tightly around her mother’s neck.

“Mmmm, you smell so good.” Mara buried her face in her daughter’s hair, freshly clean from last night’s bath. “Ready to take on another day of kindergarten?”

“I want to stay with you today.” The little arms clutched tighter. “Not letting go. Not ever.”

“Not even if I . . . tickle . . . right . . . here?”

The small body collapsed in a fit of giggles and the arms loosened their grip, allowing Mara to wriggle away. She stood, took a few steps toward the door and, calling forth her best “Mommy means business” look, pointed to the school clothes laid out on the glider chair in the corner of the room.

“All right, sleepyhead. Get dressed and brush your hair, then meet me in the kitchen. Bus comes in thirty minutes. Daddy let you sleep late.”

“Oh . . . kay.” The child stood, stepped out of her pajamas and walked to the chair.

Mara propped herself against the door frame, pretending to supervise so she could steal a few precious seconds watching the waif whose skinny, olive-colored frame still took her breath away.

As she dressed, Laks sang one of her rambling songs, a play-by-play of what she was doing, set to her own meandering tune. “Sprite music,” Mara and Tom called it.

 

“Then, I put my jeans on,

with the flowers on the pockets,

and a pink shirt,

that is so pretty.”

She stepped away from the chair and did a pirouette, arms raised above her head, hands in “fancy position,” as she had seen the big girls do at ballet school. Striking a final pose, she looked at her mother and smiled triumphantly. Mara forced her trembling lips into a smile and, not trusting her voice, held up a hand, fingers spread wide, indicating the number of minutes the girl had to make her way to the kitchen.

2.

Mara


Lying in bed on the night of her diagnosis almost four years ago, Mara had stared into the darkness while Tom, heartbroken beside her, slept fitfully. Long before the first gray streaks of dawn pushed away the inky black night, Mara made herself a promise: she would choose a date and not waver from it. No second-guessing, no excuses.

She would live like hell until that date arrived, as much in control of her remaining days as she could be. Give Huntington’s a run for its money before she finally flipped it the bird, swallowed her cocktail and exited the world the same way she had lived in it—on her own terms. She wouldn’t give the sonofabitch disease the satisfaction of taking that from her.

Choosing a date was easy: April 10, her birthday. She knew Tom and her parents would mourn her on that date no matter what, and it didn’t seem fair to give them a second day to feel so sad. But which April 10, which birthday? Not the first one after her diagnosis, she decided— surely she had at least one good, full year left before the disease moved into the next stage. The second seemed too soon as well. But the fifth could be too late.

By the time the Texas sun had cast its earliest rays through the spaces in the blinds, turning their bedroom ceiling from light gray to white, Mara had concluded the safest plan was to choose a symptom that signaled the beginning of the end, a warning that the disease had moved out of its early stages and into the more advanced. Once that symptom occurred, she would give herself until the next April 10, and then she would lower the curtain.

As she waited in the kitchen for Laks, a sudden wave of nausea hit her and she gripped the side of the counter, hoping the feeling would pass before her daughter appeared. She squeezed her eyes tight but there was no escaping yesterday, and her queasiness only worsened as the previous morning replayed itself on the inside of her eyelids.

She had been standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. A small boy stood several feet away, a chubby hand resting on his mother’s hip as she bent to retrieve something from a low shelf. The boy smiled shyly at Mara and she smiled back.

He raised a hand and she was waving in return when, without warning, she felt the overpowering need to go to the bathroom. She tried to recall where the store’s restroom was and wondered why her body was acting so impatient. Before she could come up with either answer, it was too late. Slowly, she tilted her head to inspect her light gray yoga pants, now showing a large wet patch at the crotch. A thin, dark line trailed down the inside of her right leg. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “Oh no.”

She put a hand in front of the biggest part of the stain, trying to hide it. But the boy had already seen, and his mouth formed a surprised “O.” Mara tried to smile at him again, to reassure him there was nothing to be upset about—and nothing to tell his mother. Her mouth wouldn’t cooperate, though, so she raised a finger to her lips. But the boy’s mother straightened then, and he tugged on her wrist with one hand and pointed at Mara with the other. “Mommy! That lady didn’t get to the potty on time!”

Mara’s face caught fire. She reached for the jacket she always carried in her shopping cart to ward off the store’s high-powered air-conditioning, but it wasn’t there. She had forgotten it in her car. Frantically, she searched for something she could cover herself with.

The boy’s mother, her face impassive in the studied manner of someone trying not to react, grabbed a package of paper towels from her cart and ripped them open as she walked toward Mara, her son in tow. “Don’t stare,” the woman whispered.

But the child’s eyes remained fixed on Mara’s wet pants. As they got closer, he pinched his nose with a tiny thumb and finger. “Ewww.”

This brought a reprimanding hiss from his mother. “Brian!” Reaching Mara, the woman held out a ream of paper towels. “Maybe if you pat it?” Despite her neutral expression, her face was bright red and her nose twitched almost imperceptibly. “I could get a blanket from my car but,” the woman said, nodding toward her son, “by the time I get him all the way there and back . . .”

Thank you,” Mara whispered, reaching for the paper towels. “This has never happened before.” She blotted at her pants while Brian pulled on his mother’s wrist. After a minute, Mara lifted wet, shame-filled eyes to the woman’s soft, sympathetic ones. “You don’t have to stay. I don’t want to upset your son.”

“He’s fine,” the woman said, tearing off more paper towels and handing them over. Mara searched for somewhere to put the used sheets, finally shoving them into her purse. This earned a gasp from the boy, who renewed his efforts to pull his mother down the aisle. The woman tugged the wriggling child to her side and put a flat hand on his head, anchoring him in place. Bending so her lips were beside his ear, she whispered, “This nice lady needs our help, and we’re going to give it.”

“But—”

“Shh! Not one more word.”

Mara stopped working on her pants and raised her head, parting her mouth to speak. She’d had too much coffee, she wanted to tell them. Not to mention all the water she had to drink to get the pills down. And the protein shake Tom insisted she drink every morning to keep weight on. Also, she’d been distracted by the long list of errands she had to run. She hadn’t taken time to go to the restroom in the past few hours.

She closed her mouth. She wouldn’t burden someone else with her story. Lowering her head, she dabbed more frantically but it was no use. The pants were too light, the stain too dark. And now she had white flecks all over from the paper towels. “I don’t think it’s working,” she said to the woman, and a jagged shard of humiliation shot through her as she heard her frustration come out in a high-pitched whine. She stared at the wet paper towels in her fist. She would need a long, soapy shower to remove the stench.

Mara glanced at the boy again, disgust evident in the curl of his lip, and thanked God she was here alone with only strangers as witnesses. What if Laks had been with her? Or Tom? The thought drained the blood from her head and she put a hand on her cart to steady herself. “I’m so sorry about this,” she said, looking from mother to son.

“What’s wrong with her?” Brian whispered, and his mother and Mara locked eyes briefly, a wordless agreement they would both ignore the boy’s question.

“He’s darling,” Mara said, not wanting the woman to be upset with her son for his reaction. Who could blame him? “I hate to do this, but I’m going to leave my cart right here and make a run for my car.”

“I can reshelve your things,” the woman said. Gesturing to Mara’s pants, she said, “It’s a little better, actually.”

But her smile was plastic, and Mara felt like a child being told her self-cut hair looked “fine.”

“Thank you for your kindness,” Mara said quietly. “Please know how sorry I am.”

“No...

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