“I had my heart set on you.”

       “Can we talk?”

       I turn, willing myself to not seem so eager. It’s a game of give and take between us, though; more often than not, he is the one taking. I am the one who gives.

       “About what?” I ask, clenching my fists – anything to keep my mind preoccupied.

       “Us,” he asks, waving his hand around.

       I hope he doesn’t think that this entire room could hold all the issues he and I share. They seem to encompass so much more than this building, even. I sigh, closing my eyes once, twice, three times to make sure that I can handle talking to him at this point.

       “What do you want, Justin?” I ask calmly, hoping my voice doesn’t give away the fear I have of being in such close proximity to him.

       “I want to find out why you’re here,” he says to me, making a move in my direction. I step back, hoping that deters him.

       It does not. He is directly in front of me in under a second, and it’s all I can do to not grab hold of his hands, his arms – anything to steady myself. I take a deep breath. I can handle being this close to him. I just can’t look into his eyes.

       He hooks a finger under my chin, dashing those hopes as well. I look anywhere I can – until I’m forced to look at him. The look in his eyes is enough to break me. It’s enough to make me grab his free hand and lace our fingers together.

       “Why are you here, Ella?” He asks, searching my face for any sign that my eyes will give me away. There’s no chance of that happening, though; his leaving taught me to guard myself. My guard is up even now, as he questions my reasoning for being here.

       “Ella,” he whispers, his voice so low. I steel myself as he searches again for answers I refuse to give away.

       “I had a job offer and I took it,” I say. “No more, no less. No use in reading into it when there isn’t anything there for you to find, Justin.”

       I unlace our fingers, ignoring the protest in my heart from losing contact with him. I hate that I’ve let myself get so close to him once more. This brief contact was not enough – though I have the briefest of thoughts that I will never have enough. Nothing, no amount of time spent with him or contact with him will ever be enough.

       Because he’ll never have me again.

       I sigh, stepping back from him, immediately missing his warmth. I miss being so close to him and all I want to do is feel his hands again. Instead, I force myself to look him in the eye and square my shoulders.

       “You couldn’t have thought I was here for you,” I say.

       He shrugs. “A small part of me thought that maybe you’d come back to… to fight for us, maybe? Is that crazy?”

       No. “Yeah, it is. What we had was great, but it was a long time ago, and we’ve both grown a lot since then,” I tell him.

       He nods, seemingly accepting my answer. “Yeah, you’re right.”

       “I am,” I tell him. Grabbing my bag, I turn on my heel. My head is still spinning from being so close to him, and I am not certain how I will be able to walk out that door and away from him again. The circumstances are much different than the last time I was forced to walk away, but it hurts nonetheless.

       I grab the door handle, opening it quietly. If Kelly were anywhere close, I knew he’d be panicking about me coming out of a locked room with one of his friends.

       “Ella.”

       I stop, releasing the door handle. I direct my attention to him, keeping my gaze level and my posture relaxed. I take a few slow steps back toward him, not wanting our voices to carry.

       “Yeah, Justin?”

       He shrugs, sitting at the desk and grabbing my paperweight. He shifts it between his hands before placing it back down on the desk. “Never mind, don’t worry about it.”

       I offer him a small smile. “Okay. See you around.”

       He doesn’t say anything, and I turn around once more. I make it to the door again, and brace myself before I open it. I do hope Kelly isn’t out there…

       “I had my heart set on you,” Justin says then, just as I’m about to open the door, and I stop myself.

       I turn slowly, and the sight of him sitting there, unsure and scared, breaks my heart. What can I say to that? How do I respond?

       “You were the one who broke us,” I say, keeping my voice level.

       He sighs, burying his head in his hands. “I wish you would have understood.”

       “I did,” I respond. “I understood, and I accepted it. But that doesn’t change anything, Justin. I’m with Kelly now, and no matter what I wanted for us, it’s history. You didn’t think I was worth the wait, and quite frankly, you did me a favor.”

       I give him time to answer – mentally beg him to answer me, even – but he says nothing. I walk back to the door, turning once more to look at this boy – no, this man. This broken man in front of me bears no resemblance to the one I met nearly five years ago – but I know his scars have multiplied since then, and I know nothing about them.

       I take a deep breath, and allow myself this one moment of weakness. I’ll regret it shortly, of that I am sure, but I need to get this out. I refuse to go another day without at least letting him know what’s on my mind.

       “Justin…” I begin, but trail off, unsure of how to word my thoughts.

       He looks up at me, and I know he’s attempting to memorize this moment. The look on his face now is not unlike the ones he used to have whenever he was capturing a moment in his mind. He’s watching me walk away for the last time, and I know it must be killing him – it’s killing me.

       I take a deep breath, knowing it’s now or never. I collect my thoughts. He’s waiting for me to say something, and while it’s not much, this is the best I can come up with.

       “I had my heart set on you, too,” I tell him.

       And with that, I open the door and leave the office. I leave the boy who held my heart for so long. I leave the memories that have haunted me since the day he wrote me the letter that ended our fairytale.

       I search the halls for any sign of Kelly, and inwardly heave a sigh of relief when I see him at the end of the hallway. He laces our fingers together and we walk outside into the bright North Carolina sun.

       And for the briefest of moments, I wish his hands were a bit more calloused, rough – perhaps even bigger. But I dismiss that thought quickly, and allow him to lead me down this road – no matter where it goes.

Rehtom — the first chapter

 Prologue

Do not stand at my grave and weep; I am not there, I do not sleep.”

–Irish proverb

                There are few things I can recall as clearly as the night she inspired my book.

                I can say this with confidence, because it’s now nearly ten years later, and I remember it as though it were yesterday.  I recall everything about it – her hair, her smile, her voice, the way the streetlights made her seem brighter, happier. 

                There are some moments, I suppose, I can recall better than others.

                We had stopped at Borders on our way back to the apartment.  I was itching for a new book; mom wanted to divert a little bit, take some time before going back to the apartment and vegging out in front of the TV for two whole days.  I was fine with whatever she wanted – that was usually the case, especially when it involved me getting a new book.

                My mom was suffering from a broken heart, and so was I.  We were trying to not be so attached, so pathetic (her words), and our remedy for that was to go to the bookstore.

                We’d made our purchases – I’d gone ahead and bought the second season of Grey’s Anatomy for mom.  Money was tight.  Mom was trying to make it on her own, and living in the city was not cheap.  I was happy to buy it for her.  I would have bought her everything in the bookstore if she’d let me, and I think she knew that (as an aside, that season of Grey’s is the only one still sitting in my makeshift DVD cabinet).

                As we walked out to the car that night, gabbing about our TV show and book, I revealed to her I was going to write a book.

                “You’ll call it Rehtom!” She proclaimed loudly.

                I eyed her with caution, knowing she had something up her sleeve.  “Because I’m on crack?”

                “No!  Because Rehtom is Mother spelled backwards!”

                She lost herself in a fit of giggles then, getting into the car.  I rolled my eyes, following suit.  Only my mom could come up with something like that – I’d told her as much.  She probably told me she knew – she was the only person with a mind that creative, or something along those lines.

                And we went back to her apartment, attempting to mend our broken hearts with ice cream and McDreamy.  It’s been almost eight years since that night; it’s been almost eight years since I spent my Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights in an apartment in Ashburn, Virginia, and yet I remember those days with ease. 

                I remember going to work, and coming home, and ordering pizza and staying up late.  I remember a fat cat named Mr. Big and a puppy named Gabi who was jealous of said cat.  I remember drinking wine and watching Gilmore Girls on Tuesday nights, talking about how when it was finally legal for me to drink we’d go to Vegas and order strippers and room service and have a party I was sure to never remember.  I remember setting off the smoke alarm because neither of us were particularly domestically inclined. 

                I remember small things, too, like how the fat cat liked to climb on top of mama’s chest and sleep there at night; or how she only liked to drink mocha fraps from Starbuck’s.  I remember the look she got on her face whenever J would call; and the heartache she felt whenever he didn’t.  I remember our shared heartache – and how we were there for each other when the men in our life weren’t.

                I remember it all.

                But most of all, I remember the night she inspired my book, and how she encouraged me to write it.  I remember her asking me all about it – what kind of book it was going to be (Young Adult, in the style of Sarah Dessen or Ann Brashares), what it would be about (a girl’s journey of discovery, with a love story thrown in for good measure), and the names of the characters (which will not be divulged, on the off chance I do decide to write it one day).

                All of that changed one January afternoon, though, when the snow outside had melted, but the ice in my heart had only just begun to form – but I don’t want to give away the story before it’s even begun.  My mother would chastise me for that – she used to get so mad when I gave away the whole story before it had even started.  So… I’ll save the details – except for that one.

                My mom inspired much of what I do, and the only way I could think to honor her – honor her memory and her smile and the way her eyes lit up when she got excited about something – was to write this book, and I had to give this book the title my mom picked out.  I don’t think she’d let me live it down if I didn’t do it.  Besides, this is her story I’m about to tell… and mine.

                This is as much my story as it is my mom’s.  I was only 19 years of my mom’s life, but she was (and still is) my entire life.  Her story is my story – her heartaches were my heartaches.  I don’t think there’s been one moment of my life that I have not shared with her in some capacity.

                So, readers, thank you for indulging me.  Thank you for wanting to know more about the woman who shaped every single day of my 19 years, three months, four weeks, and one day that I got to spend with her.  I hope you find it worthwhile.  I hope you find her journey as inspiring as I still do.  I hope you find her story as awe-inspiring as I do.

                And, mama, thank you for inspiring me.  I’m finally doing it.  I’m finally putting pen to paper (or… fingers to keyboard) and writing your story.  I’m sorry it took me so long.