With Your Last Heartbeat
"350, not a penny more, not a penny less," Jairo was telling me as he paid me for my third month of work.
"Thank you very much"
It had been almost three months since I had been working at Café Alba, and a little more than two months since Clara's birthday. I was becoming more and more proficient with my tasks, while becoming closer with Sofia, Hikaru and the manager. And, as we had agreed, I was getting my pay a few days earlier than required by the lab to send the money.
"Hey, Leo, guess who came to visit you?"
Sofia's sentence found me walking out into the main hall, with my bag over my shoulder, and coincided with the moment I saw Sofia and Clara talking at the counter, while Hikaru waited on a table.
"Leo!" exclaimed Clara as she ran up to me.
"Oh, Clara. What a nice surprise!"
I approached her, who stood in front of me with her hands behind her back.
"I thought I'd come visit you again. I wanted to be with you for a while."
"Huh? That's okay. You come here a lot lately, though."
That was true. Ever since that time when we celebrated her birthday, Clara started coming by quite often around closing time. Even if it's just to say hi to me or walk home together. The reality was, because of work and college, I hadn't been able to hang out with her outside of those opportunities.
"Well, then let's sit down."
It was precisely the instant she finished speaking when her phone rang. Clara pulled it out and read what it said on the screen.
"Oh? It's Edu," she said before picking up, "Hi, Edu. What's up?"
"I need to talk to you... can you come here for a second?"
Something in his voice, which I could hear because the cell phone was on high volume, seemed out of place. He sounded more fragile than usual.
"Sure...we'll be right there. See you."
Clara cut the call, a little quizzical.
"That's strange... Edu asked me to go see him now."
"Huh? And I wanted to have coffee with you, Clarichi, " Sofia lamented.
"Well, then I must go, will you come with me, Leo?"
"Oh, all right. Let's go," I said accepting.
So, our plan to share some time with them was interrupted, and before long we were at the central hospital, arriving at the door of Doctor Talos' office.
"Edu! Good morning," Clara entered with her typical cheerfulness.
"Excuse me, good morning Doctor," I said entering behind her.
Talos, who was sitting at his desk, saw us enter instantly, impatient.
"Clari, Leo, welcome," he said to us.
The doctor today didn't look focused as he usually did, but much more worried and uneasy. When someone like him changed his face, it was an easy thing to see.
"Edu, just today we got half of this month's medications. This Leo boy is quite a genius," Clara was saying after gently punching my arm.
"I see. Thanks again, Leo. Sorry for the inconvenience."
"Oh, no worries," I said as I smiled.
Talos was already aware of what I was doing for Clara's medication. Rather, he had known about it before Clara herself, when I came to the hospital one day to tell him, for which he agreed after objecting a bit.
"Anyway, I have something serious to talk to you about, Clara."
The angel I was with was clearly concerned, although she seemed to have already been expecting something like this.
"It's about my health, isn't it?"
The atmosphere had quickly become tense. And hearing this, I felt it was my cue to leave.
"Well, then I'll wait outside. I'll leave you alo-"
I was starting to walk away when I felt Clara hold me back. She wrapped her arms around my left arm, resting her head against the side of my shoulder, wanting me to stay with her.
"Tell me, please," she asked Talos.
"Well... the thing is, I was looking at your results from last week. And... the pictures aren't encouraging."
I felt Clara's grip get a little tighter.
"What does that mean?"
"Look at this."
What Talos was showing were several CT images, all focused on Clara's heart. There were noticeable differences between them, especially in one area where the spot became very dark.
"This is how your heart has been progressing over the last few weeks. It looks like the new medication is preventing you from having incidents, but it can't stop the muscle deterioration. Things are not going as we expected," he expressed in a tragic voice.
Clara froze in that instant. That news fell like a bucket of cold water on her.
"But... what does that mean," she asked upset.
"It means that... we have a little less than a month, so receiving a donated heart is no longer an option. I'm sorry."
It felt like time stood still in the room. After finding solutions, after all she had been through, there was only a month left. Also, unfortunately, despite her wish, a donation could not be achieved. Clara seemed not to fall into reality.
Feeling that her voice was breaking, I took one of the hands she was hugging me with, and squeezed it tightly.
"I'm sorry, Clara... but the only alternative is-"
Clara tried to speak forcefully and ended up screaming impulsively. Her hand trembled clutching mine, but she showed determination despite her fear. She had forced herself back to reality.
Before Talos could say anything else, she kept speaking.
"I already know I don't have a choice...and that's okay. I've been thinking about it, really. You've all been trying so hard to take care of me to fulfill my wish. Mom, Dad, Edu...
Clara squeezed my hand a little and turned to look at me, as her little eyes sparkled.
...Leo," she said before looking at Eduardo again, "That's why I don't want my whim to make you suffer anymore. I want to end this. Please."
Finally, Clara seemed to have decided on the artificial heart. It could be dangerous, but besides being the only possible alternative to save her life, it was now something Clara wasn't afraid of, or didn't want to be afraid of. At this, Talos smiled.
"I see," concluded Talos, who looked at the desk for a few seconds and continued, "But the problem is not only that..."
As if that wasn't enough, Talos seemed to feel worse now than when he said the above. He was afraid of what might happen.
"What do you mean," I asked.
"As soon as I heard about this, I called Corskie-Braun Laboratories asking them to send it as soon as possible, but apparently the artificial heart is still under review. Although they assure that it works properly, in our country it would not be in a position to get it approved. For that, they would have to carry out an exhaustive test in some domestic scientific center in the next few weeks."
Once again, the multitude of bureaucratic problems only hindered Clara's recovery. This generated in me a helplessness of gigantic proportions.
"Huh? And isn't it possible," I asked.
"It is possible. Rather, they could do it in any of the next few weeks, as it won't take long. But... it's very expensive. Much more than this medication."
Everyone in the room was starting to get upset. Talos looked full of rage, clenching his fist against the desk. Clara saw a new financial complication for her life and a new hindrance for her loved ones. And I was already completely baffled.
"Wait, wait, wait, didn't you say they were going to cover all the costs," I asked, remembering her own words.
"Yes, of the heart and its application. But this was outside of their plans. Ordinary tests are part of the cost they would have covered. However, in our country, a laboratory cannot pay for an emergency approval test of one of their products to give to a patient. This is because it could be considered that they are paying a certain laboratory to facilitate the approval, which would be fraudulent. Normally, it's the social security company who pays for it, but once again, they do not want to take charge of it, excusing itself with a potential donation. We are up against the wall”
I couldn't believe it. I felt like setting fire to all the offices of the social security company. I was so angry that so many people were against saving a life and possibly many more in the future. It felt horrible.
"...How much would it cost," Clara asked fearfully.
"Twenty thousand dollars."
This was insane. If getting $750 a month was already a huge job, getting $20,000 was almost impossible. I couldn't think of any way we could get it without some credit or mortgage, if they could get it at all, which given the economic situation, would be really complicated.
"I see... okay," Clara said while I was still knocked out.
"Also, I'm sorry, but it would be convenient if as of tomorrow at midnight you were hospitalized again. B-believe me this doesn't look good at all."
Dr. Talos, after his tone faltered more and more during the conversation, now had tears in his eyes. His hands were shaking, though he tried to keep them still to no avail.
"I'm sorry. If I could have seen this before..."
Talos, that strong and protective man I had seen so many times, was now about to cry. It was there when Clara let go of my hand to move upfront and hold his.
"Don't be silly, Edu. You know it's not your fault. Thank you for always taking care of me."
I noticed some melancholy in her tone, too. Clara knew her situation was bad, but she was trying to make him feel good anyway. Kind of like she did with me.
"I'll be here tomorrow after midnight... with you," she said smiling again at her guardian.
The next day, just hours before she was to be hospitalized again, Clara came back to visit me at the café. Near closing time, after Clara had recounted everything that had happened, the place was quieter than ever. Everyone's spirits seemed to have sunk to the basement.
"God... I'm so sorry, Clari. Don't worry, it's going to be all right," Sofia was saying, sprawled across the counter as if it were the school desk.
"Thank you, I hope so," she said almost cheerlessly, but smiling.
"If we can help you with anything, we'll do our best to make it happen. We don't have much, but we'll see what we can do," Hikaru offered, also concerned.
"Thanks too, Hikaru," Clara said offhandedly.
"Excuse me, I have to go to the restroom for a second," the owner's grandson added before entering the men's restroom for customers.
The atmosphere did not lend itself to much more conversation. However, there were several things going around in my mind.
"What's wrong, Leo," Clarita asked me noticing that I wasn't raising my head.
"Nothing... I'm just thinking about what we could do to get the money."
"Huh? Stop it please, Leo. It's a lot of money. We'll figure something out with my parents."
"I know, but just for that-"
The bell on the door interrupted any further attempts to think of a solution. Through the door entered two girls in their early twenties.
"Hi, can we place an order? We'd like two teas to go, please," one of them said.
"Oh, sorry, just a second," I said as I stood up from the table and headed to the counter, "Sofia, can you make the tea while Hikaru is in the bathroom?"
We both started going about our tasks with heaviness. We couldn't concentrate much on what we were doing, and it showed. Especially by Sofia, who seemed to be completely distressed. She was pouting with wet eyes, breathing very shakily, and suddenly wanted to say something, just after she started pouring the hot water into the kettle.
"Hey, Clara, I was thinking that I could-"
Sofia spun awkwardly, something rare for her, and knocked the ceramic cup to the floor, breaking it into several pieces. She quickly realized her mistake.
"Ah, sorry, ouch!"
Wanting to start picking up the cup, which had landed on the floor almost at his feet, she again clumsily slammed his elbow into the espresso machine, which was pouring the pressurized heated water into a metal cup. The blow caused the cup to start spinning uncontrollably on the table, on the verge of falling right on top of Sofia. I noticed it instantly from the counter.
"Watch out, the water!"
Like the reflex action of a goalkeeper, I dove for it just as it started to fall. Before the water reached Sofia, and while she watched skeptically, I managed to deflect the jug by pushing it against the machine. However, the lid popped open as it was upside down, and much of the water fell on my right hand. I felt it instantly.
"Ah! Ah! God! Ah!"
My cries of pain quickly alerted everyone near me.
"Ah, Leo," worried Sofia, who was next to me still on the floor.
In the midst of all the shock and pain, I heard the terrified scream of Clara, who quickly tried to move closer to where I was. As I tried to see what had happened to me, I felt her also grunt from the pain and lean roughly against something. I had no way of confirming it in the midst of the confusion and madness.
"Take it easy, Leo! Y-you're going to be okay, y-you're going to be okay," Sofia was trying to calm me down without being calm herself.
"L-Leo..." Clara was saying in a slightly clipped voice.
"Hey, what's going on," Hikaru wondered as he came back from the bathroom, before realizing the problem, "Oh my god!"
That black short-haired boy ran with speed towards my position, dodging Sofia and standing next to me.
"Come here, stand up."
Hikaru made me stand up to cuddle up to the faucet, where he instantly applied cold water to me. I felt my whole hand prickle mercilessly.
"Sofia, the first-aid kit, quick!" he asked her companion, who seemed to unblock herself with that command.
Sofia did as Hikaru asked, and after many minutes with my hand under cold water, he applied a solution with aloe vera, followed by a wet bandage to bring down the swelling. He worked so quickly that in just five minutes, the room was quiet again, with the clients taken care of and the panic having passed.
"There you go. This should do the trick. Does it hurt much?" he asked.
As I moved my hand, I felt my skin prick again, and quickly relaxed my fingers again.
"Quite a bit less, but yes."
"Well, in a few days you'll be better. Just don't move it too much."
"It's fine. Thank you, Hikaru."
"You're welcome. After all, I'm trained to respond to much bigger emergencies," he said referring to his studies to become a paramedic.
As that small talk ended, I began to feel a little more relieved from the pain, noticing that, if I didn't move my hand, it was almost minimal.
"Sorry... if I hadn't been so clumsy..."
Almost inaudibly, to my left, Sofia was trying to apologize, very pained.
"I'm sorry. I was thinking of something else. I wanted... Clara to have part of my salary too. It's not much, but... anyway... after all, I ended up hurting someone else."
Clara, who was behind her, watched the situation moved by Sofia's desire. Before I could say anything myself, she anticipated me as I hugged her from behind.
"Silly...I don't need you to do that. I know you need the money badly too. What you did for me since I met you is worth more than anything. Thank you, Sofia."
As she was moved to tears, I decided to move forward myself as well.
"You don't have to apologize. I could have hurt you many times, and despite everything you kept teaching me and supporting me. These are accidents, it can happen to anyone," I said with a smile.
"Alright... thanks, guys," she said barely relieved.
"By the way, Clara...are you okay?"
My question was on the basis of what I had heard moments before, when I was lying on the floor. I had heard Clara moaning about something, followed by a thump.
"Oh... don't worry, I'm fine. Just... another little scare," she said somewhat sadly, still smiling optimistically.
"Huh? Well, I'm glad you're okay, Clarichi. And don't worry, it's going to be all right," Sofia said as she broke free from Clara's embrace to look at her.
"Yeah, don't worry," Hikaru was saying from his place, "By the way, you're going to accompany her today, right Leo?"
"Oh, yes, I'll stay the first night with her."
At Clara's own request, that first night I was going to stay with her at the hospital, at least until the morning where I would have to leave to do my student duties. I understood how important it was to accompany her, so I didn't even hesitate.
"Okay, but we'll come visit you the rest of the days, okay? I want to have a sleepover with you too, Clarichi."
The cheerful Sofia again tried to change Clara's mood, taking her hands excitedly.
"Alright. You guys can come over anytime you want. Really, thank you all."
Although she was always suffering, Clara was permanently trying to put the rest of them in a good mood. And that undoubtedly made the others want to cheer her up when it was the other way around. That back and forth was undoubtedly a beautiful thing.
In the evening, I followed Clara to the hospital. We had met Eduardo, who had directed Clara to one of the rooms in the hospital wing, very similar to the one where I had seen her when I met her. They fed her, made her dress in hospital clothes, and then let her rest for a while, while I never left her side.
"Are your parents coming," I asked as I sat in a chair to her right.
"They are both very busy today. My mother has to supervise the construction of a ship at the shipyard, and my father has the night shift at the police station," she told me, already lying on her bed and with the vital sign monitors on.
"Huh? Your dad's a cop?"
"Yes. He's the neighborhood deputy commissioner. He usually works all day, but today he has to cover the night shift too. A lot of times he comes in really tired, but he says he loves his job. He's really great."
"Huh? I see...
Knowing Clara, I had no doubt that her father was an honest man, but I already understood his attitude towards me from that day. Which, by the way, had been the last time I had seen him.
... well, then I guess it's my turn to keep you company today, Clara."
"Yes. Thank you for coming, really."
"Also... I brought cards again. Today I promise I'm going to beat you," I said laughing.
"Ha... okay, let's play."
That was the general theme of the evening. The first few hours of her new internship flew by as we had fun playing games just like that summer evening a while back. I don't deny that, in the midst of that memory, I thought about how my life had changed so much in just a few weeks. Just as Clara was experiencing new things, I was also doing it my way.
"God, I lost again!"
My streak against Clara extended to an impressive zero to every match we had played. I couldn't stand up to her in anything.
"Hahaha, again I beat you again, silly. You can't defeat me," Clara flourished.
In the midst of her triumphant celebration, Clara noticed something particular behind my back.
"Huh? What's that you brought, Leo?"
I looked back and found what she was looking for. She was focusing her gaze on a black-colored briefcase, which I had brought with me in addition to my purse.
"Ah, it's my laptop. I was supposed to be doing some work for tomorrow, but with everything that happened things got complicated."
"Do you have to turn it in tomorrow," she asked me.
"Oh, then get started on it. I don't mind you working here."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I am. After all you don't have time because you're working. Besides, you being with me here is already more than enough company."
Clara's smile, again, seemed capable of melting anything with how radiant it was.
"All right. Then, excuse me."
I pulled out the computer, turned it on, and within seconds I was doing my homework, this time on numbers in binary format. I was thinking of one of the first answers when Clara realized something, after leaving the cards on the table.
"Let me type for you."
Looking to the side, I noticed Clara's concern, offering me her help.
"You can't type with your hand like that. Let me help you."
That was true, but still, she shouldn't have been working while hospitalized.
"Don't worry, I really can-"
Clara walked over to the side of the bed where I lay, looking at me earnestly.
"I want to be able to support you when you can't do it. I… just want to help you, that's all”
I understood perfectly. I realized what I had told her so many times I couldn't even remember it anymore. Just as I wanted her to be able to count on me... she felt that way about me too. A look of happiness came over my face.
"Okay. Will you make a little room for me?"
Clara moved to the other end of the bed, giving me room to get in. I took off my shoes and settled in next to her, covering myself with the sheet and lying down on the long pillow, very close to her. Finally, I set the computer on her lap.
"Okay, so write down what I'm going to tell you, okay?"
"Yes. Let's go."
"Okay. 1010 plus 0010... that's the same as thinking of it as 10 plus 2, so that's 12, so write down, '1100'.
"1100... okay," she wrote with more ease than I would have had.
"Okay, now the next one..."
For a long while, probably an hour or more we kept going through these exercises, with me doing the thinking and her doing the writing, until there was only part of them left. But a new problem appeared as my eyes were beginning to close involuntarily.
"Mmm... 00... 01 more..."
"Huh? Leo, are you sleepy?"
"No... agh, I just have to keep going a little longer."
You could easily see that sleep was winning me over, as I yawned and spoke in a tired voice. As we played and worked, time flew by.
"You should get some rest. Since everything that happened today, you must be exhausted."
"It's fine. So, 0001... more..."
As I tried to think, I looked at Clara out of the corner of my eye, and noticed that after a few seconds she smiled. In an instant, she slipped her left arm behind me and draped it over my own left arm, as she pulled toward her own body. Unresisting from sleep, I leaned into her and my head rested on her shoulder.
"Shh. Rest for a while, okay? You've done so much already," she was telling me almost whispering.
"But... still... I'm still..."
I couldn't take it anymore. My energy was at its lowest, and my body was shutting down. In those last moments, I felt Clara gently caress my arm, then she released me from her embrace and began typing on the computer, with my head still resting on her shoulder.
"Rest Leo, because..."
After listening to that with my last energies, I fell fast asleep.
... today I'm going to help you"