16 Years

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When my daughter slams the door to our brownstone, I instantly know what — who — has angered her. I’d like to say it’s solely because she is my daughter, and that’s certainly part of it. I’ve watched her grow from a feisty toddler with fiery red hair and a lisp to a quirky and passionate young woman who feels everything a little too much. In truth, these are the things she and I have in common as well. I recall being her age, feeling things more deeply than my friends — the death of a celebrity, the lyrics to a song, the ending to a good book — and wondering why these things had to end, why they couldn’t go on for all eternity. I could recall the pure bliss I felt at the beginning of summer, the excitement I felt when fall came around, the giddiness of the spring when the robins started chirping, and the sadness as the daylights grew shorter and the nights stretched on.

I could recall even more clearly the person who held me close as those nights stretched on — the boy who felt those things right along with me, matched my passion with his own and made me feel less alone in a world that didn’t feel enough.

My girl has already flopped herself on her bed when I come into the room. She holds her pillow tightly to her chest. Her tears are seeping into the fabric, leaving dark tracks on light pink. She flashes her hazel eyes to me and looks away quickly. “I’m fine,” she mutters, turning her other cheek to the pillow, refusing to look my way.

I take a seat beside her on the bed, stroking her hair gently. She sobs with such fervor a part of me wants to tell her to calm down, but I know better. Experience has taught me that my daughter does not take kindly to those kinds of suggestions.

“You want to talk about it, baby girl?” I ask softly.

She heaves a sigh, refusing to meet my eyes. She’s so much like her namesake, her godmother, my best friend in the entire world. She’s stubborn and bratty and dramatic.

But she is also like her mother. She needs to talk to make sense of what is happening inside of her head. She needs to get it out, because if she doesn’t, then she’ll be like her father and let it fester until she has a meltdown over something insignificant — like a paper cut or a burnt piece of toast. I stifle the giggle at the memory of my first fight with her father, when he sliced his finger on an envelope and proceeded to yell at me for not giving him a letter opener, only to finally admit his reason for being so angry.

I shudder as the memory comes back in full, and thank my stars that my daughter is still looking in the other direction. I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and watch as she props herself up on an elbow, leaning far over to her nightstand to turn on her radio. I hold my breath, waiting to see what she chooses to soothe her. That alone will give me an answer — or at least confirm my suspicions — of what has her so riled up. When Tom Petty’s voice fills the room, I release a breath I didn’t even realize I was holding.

I was right. I’d like to say it’s solely because I know my girl, but it’s also because there’s something else she and I share outside of our noses and tendency to feel things too deeply. Heartache recognizes heartache.

And misery loves company.

“He said he thinks it’s best if we just keep things low-key until after winter formal,” she says on a heavy sigh. “He does this every year.”

She doesn’t necessarily need to tell me these things. I know what’s going on in my daughter’s life. I’ve watched for the past two years as she’s thrown herself at this one boy, fallen so head over heels in love with him that she’s forgotten which way is up. Then I’ve watched him toss her aside, walk away from her, completely eviscerate her heart and her mind by saying that he needs time. Once he’s had his time, he calls — he always calls — and explains that he needs her. And she comes running.

She always comes running.

I inhale, bracing myself. “Baby, you have to stop letting him—”

“What do you even know about it, mom?” She whips her head in my direction, her eyes on fire and her cheeks red. Her anger is palpable, even as Tom Petty plays on — a voice she and I usually find soothing. “Do you even know what it’s like? To love someone so much it hurts? So much it kills you?”

Any other parent would scoff. My parents did at one point. My mother didn’t believe me when I said the words, when I tried to explain to her that he was in my bones, that losing him was like losing a part of my soul.

But I know better than to scoff, to roll my eyes, to tell my girl that she’s being dramatic. Maybe she is just being dramatic, but isn’t that the point of being a teenager? To fall deeply in love once or twice or three times? Or to love one person with so much of your being that you don’t know where you end and where they begin? I can’t fault her for feeling, not when I have had those exact feelings, have shed the same tears, bled out for someone else because I cared more about them than I did myself.

Which is why I know that now is the time to have this conversation with her. She’s barely seventeen years old, her entire world has been perfect up to this point. Her father and I have laughed and danced in the kitchen and given her something to aspire to.

But her father is not the only man who holds my heart — something he has had to come to grips with throughout the course of our relationship. He’s not done it willingly, and at times I’ve watched him war with himself, with his emotions and his head and his heart, but he always comes back to me. I love him for a billion reasons, and I love him even more for coming back to me time and again.

He saved me.

“Do you know your daddy is only the second boy I ever kissed?” I ask her. I brace myself for her reaction, but she says nothing. Her eyes are inquisitive like her father’s. Her frown line across her forehead is so much like his. She’s the best and worst parts of both of us, and I am so honored to be her mother.

“You’re, like…” she pauses, chewing her top lip, just like her dad when he’s confused. “You’re beautiful, mom. How is that even possible?”

I huff out a laugh. “Oh, Darcy, baby… looks have nothing to do with it.” I pause. Feelings hit me all at once, the same ones he used to make me feel when he walked away, when he told me he needed time to think or room to breathe. My heart squeezes instinctively, the way it used to when he was near, across a crowded room staring at me, setting my world on fire.

Darcy twists and sits up, the way her godmother used to, and huddles next to me, our knees touching. She laces her fingers through mine, and I take an inventory of us both. She’s so tiny and delicate, so full of emotions and fire. I’m calmer now, though the song playing now has sparked something within me — the way he used to, when he knew I was nearby. I take a deep breathe and study my girl’s black nail polish and the scar on her index finger from the time she tried to bake Christmas cookies and burnt it on the stove. Even the way she scars is long-lasting, a testament to the fact that she is a unique, old soul, full of so much hurt and heart that any person who meets her is instantly affected, caught in her storm.

“Mom?” She says it tentatively. She knows me so well, understands my feelings and emotions in a way that only three other people have ever understood me. She’s my daughter, of course, and we understand the intricacies of our relationship. But she is also my best friend, much like her godmother. She is me, and I am her. “You don’t have to talk about it,” she tells me, her voice soft and understanding, the way I knew it would sound when she saw the mess I became even at the memory of the boy who stole a piece of my soul and never gave it back.

“I have to talk about it, baby girl,” I tell her with a sad smile. I give her hand a reassuring squeeze. “You have to know you’re not the only one to bleed for a boy who plays on your heartstrings.”

She studies me even more intently at that, looking for the slightest hint of what I may mean. She doesn’t know, though, because I’ve never told her. The only people who know about this story are the ones who lived it — me, of course, and her father, her godmother, and the boy who started it all.

The boy who stole pieces of me, and took the ones I offered to him willingly, hoarding them and guarding them from me, refusing to give them back.

“Once upon a time I thought a boy held the answers to all of my questions,” I tell her. “I was… well, I was actually fourteen at the time, so a little younger than you.” I wet my lips. I can feel my throat trying to dry and close up, the words trying to stay bottled up within me, fearing their escape. She needs to know, my heart whispers. She needs to know so she can let go.

“What happened?” She asks.

A million memories flash through my mind at her question — memories I’ve kept buried for so long. I recall them instantly, with clarity, in this moment. I recall them the way I would recall the words to my favorite song, right down to the bridge and the way the track skips on the CD I keep in my bedroom closet. It all comes back to me as if it happened yesterday, and not…

“Sixteen years ago, I thought a boy held the answer to all of my questions,” I answer her. I feel a tear slip down my cheek and swipe it away quickly. “I was in love with a boy who didn’t love me back, and it nearly killed me. I nearly let him kill me.”

“This story doesn’t have a happy ending, does it?” She asks me. “At least, not for you and whoever it is you’re talking about.”

I stare outside her window at the city, contemplating all the roads that brought me here, all the unconventional life events that ordered my steps and my path. Would I do it all again, if it brought me here, to this moment with my daughter and the steady voice of Tom Petty fueling me?

Damn straight.

I shake my head, another tear falling down my cheek. I raise the bottom of my left pants’ leg, to the answer to her question, to the best way I can explain what I am about to tell her.

Veni vidi amavi, it reads. We came, we saw, we loved. My best friend has an identical one on her left ankle.

And so does the boy who broke my heart.

“It doesn’t,” I finally answer her, smiling sadly as I stare at the words on my ankle. “But there was never a happy ending for us.”

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Ian. Axel. Artisan.

Ian

My phone rings at half past two. Her name flashes on my screen and my heart nearly bursts right out of my chest. “Hello?” I say, trying act like I didn’t just drop everything I was doing to talk to her.

“Well, it’s storming,” she announces by way of greeting.

She’s not wrong. Right on schedule, Hurricane Josefina is here. Rain is coming down in buckets outside my window. The lights flicker, bringing me back to the present — to the girl on the phone. The girl I can’t say no to.

“Yeah,” I tell her. “I think we might lose power.”

She sighs. “Yeah.” She pauses for a beat. “So, I know our therapist—”

Your therapist,” I say. “I’m not paying that woman two grand a week to shrink my brain.”

I can almost see her roll her eyes when she groans. “Dr. Foster,” she amends, her voice raising slightly. “She says we shouldn’t see each other.”

“But…” I say, trying to drag it out of her — whatever it is this request is.

“But…” She blows out a breath. In my mind’s eye I can see her running a hand through her hair. I’m astonished at how much I know about this girl in spite of her unwillingness to open up to me. “I don’t really want to be alone right now,” she finally says, as if it causes her physical pain to admit to wanting to see me. My heart lurches as it always does when it comes to this girl and her feelings — or lack thereof — for me.

That doesn’t stop me from leaping into action instinctively, though. She needs me, and for whatever reason, I can’t say no to her. I grab my keys from my dresser and make my way out of the apartment and up the stairs to her place, taking them two at a time until I reach the top floor. She lets me in before I even knock, almost as if she, too, can sense me before I arrive. The thought warms my heart as she flashes me a grateful smile.

“Quick trip?” She asks, raising an eyebrow at me.

I smirk. “It should be abundantly clear by now that I can’t say no to you.”

And that’s all it takes. Her happy grin is gone, replaced by some melancholy emotion I can’t place coupled with a smile that doesn’t meet her eyes. She sinks down to the floor, her gaze already averted there the second the words leave my mouth. I follow her lead, taking a seat on the floor next to her, resting my back against her couch. She keeps a safe distance between us, making sure not to be close enough to touch me or for me to touch her.

“I don’t want to be awful to you,” she tells me. “Please just… remember that.”

“Then don’t be,” I respond. “Don’t be awful to me if you don’t want to be.”

The solution seems simple. But this is Artisan Miller, the girl with a closet full of skeletons and a heart that’s still in pieces from the last guy she let in.

Her breaths steal me away from my thoughts. They come heavily, and I look to see she has a tear slipping down her cheek. “Every time you say shit like that, though, it just kills me,” she manages to say. She takes another deep breath and a deep gulp, trying to suppress her emotions. “I hate that you can’t say no to me, that you want me so much. I hate that I can’t do the same for you.”

I wonder for about the thousandth time what it is that he did to her, this man she only refers to as Axel — this person who seems to have stolen all of her light. She’s never told me, and I’ve never pushed, but I wonder if perhaps I should.

“Why can’t you? What did he do to you?” I finally ask. It’s not a push — more of a gentle nudge — but it’s a start, I hope. It’s something to hopefully make her want to open up to me.

The emotions that cross her face let me know that this question is one she’s heard often. That my exasperation has been mirrored in others — perhaps even other men — an endless loop of questions and frustration and sadness.

She’s silent. It’s an unexpected response. She stares out the window at the rain, at the dark sky, at our silent city. She draws her knees to her chest and bites her lip — it’s a coping mechanism of hers, I’ve come to realize. She shuts herself off from the world, doesn’t allow the world to see her pain or her tears or the devastation that’s ever-present in her soul. I watch her with sadness and aching. I long to comfort her, but I haven’t the slightest idea how to go about doing that. Rather than push her, I avert my gaze to the window as well.

“What’s your favorite song?” She asks me, breaking the silence that has descended upon us. I can’t tell how long we were silent for, but it seems as though the storm has worsened. The rain continues to pour, and is now coupled with thunder and lightning. I wonder why she stayed put, why she opted to ride out the storm. It’s not like I hadn’t done the same thing, but I’d been in New York long enough to know which storms required my evacuation, and which ones were safe enough to stay for. She was new to the city, though, had never faced nature’s wrath like this.

A small part of me wonders if she stayed because I did, too.

Her eyes are still on me, awaiting my answer. I take a second to think before answering. “Fields of Gold by Sting.”

She giggles and, though I know she’s laughing at me, the sound nonetheless warms my heart. “Sting?” She asks me. “Seriously?”

I roll my eyes, turning toward her. She’s inching ever so slowly to me, too, and I think she might be finally letting her walls down, if only marginally. “Well, okay, music snob, what’s your favorite song?”

She hesitates, and I fear for a second that I may have ruined the moment, but quickly recovers, moving closer to me. Our hands touch, and I hear her take an audible breath in, bracing herself for whatever it is she feels when her skin meets mine. I can see she’s thinking, weighing her options. Will it be fight or flight? Run? Hide? I can’t say for certain, and her eyes, as usual, hold no answers for me.

She stands, and I fear for a second she has chosen to run, but she leans over to her coffee table to grab her phone instead, and sits back down next to me. She opens up the music app and presses the screen a few times before turning up the volume as familiar chords being to play. “This one,” she says, before leaning back on her hands and closing her eyes. She lets the music envelop her, lets me absorb it, lets the words fill up this nearly empty apartment — her choosing, she says, but I think it’s got everything to do with him.

It’s an older song, one I’d heard a few years ago at a club when the band invited me to hear it. It’s not bad at all — I quite like it — but it’s not something I pegged as her taste. “This?” I ask her, a sly grin creeping up on my face. “And you judge me for Sting?”

She smiles sadly, and I know that this, too, has everything to do with him — Axel. He is everywhere when it comes to her. All the things I hate — and even the things I love — about this girl have been shaped by him. It’s honestly not surprising to me at all that this song is tied to him. Everything else about her is.

We grow silent again, and the song starts to play again. I move to pause it, but her hand stops mine, and I see her brace herself yet again, fighting against her feelings as she touches my hand. I look to her, and see she’s finally studying me for once, gauging my mood based on this confession. I try to put on a brave face, but I know I’m failing miserably. I offer her a sad smile, which seems to pacify her, and we fall back into a companionable silence as the song plays for a third, fourth, and fifth time. We are silent even when the power finally, predictably goes out, lighting candles throughout her apartment as the song plays for a sixth and seventh time, the beat of the song now lost behind the words.

“Do you want to dance?” She finally asks me when we sit back down on the floor, her apartment only illuminated by candles now that the sun has set. I look up, a question in my eyes now. Dancing at a time like this? I should be surprised, really, but nothing about this girl has surprised me since the moment I met her, really. She shrugs in response to my silent question. “I’m told it’s good for your soul.”

I stare at her for only half a second more before pulling myself up and offering my hand out to her. I see her hesitate to accept it, but she takes my hand and braces herself yet again, fighting her feelings again. She’s going to have a lot more overload to deal with, I realize, as I pull her close to me and slide my hand around her waist. She blows out a loud breath, steadying herself, then places her hand on my shoulder and her other in my free hand. Her eyes are lighter now, perhaps free of whatever guilt she initially felt about touching me, but I still see a hint of hesitation.

Rather than address the Axel-sized elephant in the room, I glide us across the floor in time to the rhythm of the song. She follows, a giggle escaping past her lips. She seems surprised by this reaction, but quickly recovers. I smirk, giving her a twirl. She giggles again, and this time it seems more natural — like she’s replacing those pieces of herself that were broken with new ones to make her whole again.

I twirl her once more before she disentangles herself from me, then throws both hands into the air and tosses her head back, her long hair fanning over her shoulders. She shakes her hips, bumping mine with one of hers. I chuckle, letting her take the lead now. When I shake my hips in time with hers, a hearty laugh escapes from her and she doesn’t hesitate, allowing happiness to sink into her bones and her skin and her soul. I smile in spite of myself as I watch this scarred, damaged, beautiful girl lose herself in the moment with me, finally letting the weight of Axel lift from off her chest.

She places both hands on my hips as the song winds down, and I see her begin to sober and fear that I’m losing her again. She shakes her head, as if reading my mind and the silent  question I was asking yet again, and laces my fingers with hers.

“I have to tell you a story.”

*******

Axl

“What song is this?”

I’m sprawled across her bed, pillow under my chin as I stare out the window as the rain falls. Just another stormy day in Emerton, another night chockfull of nightmares, and another afternoon in Artisan’s tiny house right along the river, trying to convince myself that there’s something in this world worth living for.

I wish I were brave enough to live.

“It’s something by OneRepublic,” she tells me. “My stepsister sent it to me.”

I nod absentmindedly. I’ve met Simone on only a handful of occasions, but if there’s someone who knows music, it’s her. I know that much. I close my eyes, listening to the words, letting them wash over me. I needed to hear these words. Artisan knew that.

She knows everything. She makes it all better.

I peek out from under my eyelid and see her sitting in her desk chair watching me. She never hovers, never smothers me. She just waits, ready if I need her. I always do.

I always will.

“Care to join me?” I ask, rolling over and stretching an arm out to her.

She hesitates for only a second before standing to make her way over to me. She snuggles in close to me, her hand landing on my chest, tapping out the beat of the song beneath her tiny, fragile fingers. This girl has seen so much hell, and I’ve gone and dragged her into mine, but she never questions it, never leaves. She’s much stronger than me. I should let her go, but the thought of doing that sickens me.

“I like it,” I tell her. “The song. Can we play it again?”

She nods, turning over to put it on repeat, then placing her music player on her windowsill. The loss of contact with her makes my throat constrict, but she’s back in an instant, and I recover so quickly I wonder why I was anxious in the first place.

“It’s kind of like us,” I murmur, and she shoots me a questioning gaze. “Like what we have.”

She offers me a small, tentative smile. “You think so?” I nod in response. “Well, maybe this can be our song,” she suggests.

I chuckle. “I think that’s a great idea. There’s just one problem.” I frown, and her eyes are on me quickly, her body reacting to what she thinks may be a panic attack or a flashback. God, do I love this girl and how attuned she is to me, how ready she is to fight my battles and face my demons.

“What’s the problem?” She asks me as she sits up.

I move off of her bed and kneel in front of her, lacing our fingers together. “We have to actually dance together for it to be our song.” I see relief wash over her and she smiles gratefully at me. “Them’s the rules, Miller. Besides, it’s good for your soul.” I smirk. “So, may I have this dance?”

I hold my hand out to her, and she takes it readily. “I thought you’d never ask, Mr. Fletcher.”

I wrap an arm around her waist and her hands come up to my shoulders before lacing at the base of my neck. She drags her fingernails against the nape of my neck and sways along to the song with me, neither of us caring that we aren’t moving along with the rhythm of the song. It’s a perfect moment — made even more perfect by the girl in my arms, this strong and courageous woman who loves me so much that she wakes up at midnight to check on me; who has tried every type of therapy to try and calm my anxiety; who finds music to soothe me; who slow dances with me in the middle of her bedroom and holds on tight to me because she needs me as much as I need her.

The girl who makes me want to live.

I am shocked to my core by the words, and my fingers flex against her waist. She hugs me tighter, either because she thinks I need it (I do) or because she wants to hold to me as tightly as I hold on to her. Like a life raft.

Like my own personal life raft.

“Artisan,” I finally choke out as the song plays again. She looks up at me, her eyes never judging me or pitying me, but offering me hope, and a safe haven in my own personal storms.

“Yeah?” Her voice is fire and ice all at once. It makes me want to keep going, but also makes me want to stop — right here and right now — and just lie with her.

I grab her hand and drag her outside, in the middle of the rain storm, and twirl her once, twice, and a third time. She giggles, and the sound warms my heart. This girl who has given so much for me, who has faced my battles head-on, still laughs because of me. I’ve caused her pain, but I’ve also given her happiness.

“What is it, Axel?” She asks me, the rain washing over us, washing away all of my old fears and replacing them with hope, chasing away my darkness and replacing it with light.

I hesitate for a second. My throat constricts for a half-second, the demons trying to overtake me, to make me second-guess this. But I won’t let them. Not with this girl and her light. Not today.

Not ever again.

“You…” I blow out a breath. She waits. She always waits, lets me set the pace. God, I hope she knows how much I love her; how thankful I am that she found me, that she saved me. “You make me want to live,” I finally say, and I swear I can hear her gasp over the rain.

She wraps her arms around me and holds me tight, a form of therapy we’d learned together. It’s just a hug, but it holds so much promise, so much relief. I can feel the relief pulsing through her veins. This wall we’ve breached did not come easily. This battle was hard-won. But this girl, and that song, and the moments with her have all been worth it.

She makes me want to live again.

“You saved me,” I tell her, breathing against her hair, taking in the open air and the scent of the rain and this girl — lavender and honey and rain, my new favorite scent. “I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “I love you, Arty. I do. I promise. I’m not going anywhere.”

The words pour out of me like a prayer, and she just accepts them, letting me talk, letting me tell her what she’s done — what flip she’s switched. I never want to live a day without her. I never want her to live a day without me. I don’t want to hurt her. I can’t hurt her. Not after what she’s done for me.

She silences me with a kiss as the rain starts to lighten up. I can hear the song still playing from the windowsill, and I smile against her lips. This girl has brought me so much, has taken on so much for me. I’ll never be able to repay her, to thank her enough. So I’ll do the one thing I know I’m capable of doing.

I’ll live for her.

*******

Artisan

“And then what happened?”

Ian is seated across from me on the floor again, his back against the couch. The glass door to my patio is against my back, cool against the heat I feel from revealing this part of my story to another human — to a man who just wants to love me and be loved in return. It’s a small request, really, but in light of what has happened to me it seems so grand a gesture. How do I explain to him what happened? How do I reveal this darkest part of me — this part of me that will forever and always be shaped by Axel Fletcher?

I purse my lips, looking down at the floor. The song is playing again for perhaps the thousandth time, ripping my heart to shreds again, reminding me of how broken and defeated I am, how Axel’s demons are still haunting me even in his absence.

Ian’s kind eyes are still on me, perhaps waiting for me to tell him some sordid story of how Axel broke my heart and left me. In a way, it’s true. He did leave me. He did break my heart. But it’s also so much more than that.

I couldn’t save him.

“Artisan?” Ian asks.

I look up at him and shrug, bracing myself to say the words I’d only said to three other people — one of whom was my therapist, who swore that none of it was my fault. That never took the guilt away, though — it didn’t take away the pain of having to remember what happened to Axel.

What happened to me.

“Axel killed himself four days later,” I finally say, and I can feel a weight simultaneously being lifted off my chest and also landing hard on my heart, reminding me again of how I failed him, how he broke me, and how in turn I was now failing and breaking Ian.

He doesn’t say anything, but his eyes tell me to go on. I’m not sure what else to say, how to explain this to him any further, but I recall once upon a time a story I told Simone when she asked me why I couldn’t love, why I couldn’t be in a relationship again, why I couldn’t open my heart to someone else.

“You know how when you’re little and your mom says if you just try this one thing she’ll never make you eat it again?” I ask. His eyes are unsure of where I’m going with this, but he stays silent, allowing me to continue. “I mean… broccoli, spinach, lima beans. It could be anything. She says if you try it, you never have to try it again.” He nods in understanding. I shrug and release a shaky breath, willing myself not to cry, and internally cursing myself as the tears fall to spite me. “I tried a relationship once. I loved someone so much it hurt.”

“And?” Ian asks, though I think he already knows the answer.

“And…” I sigh, closing my eyes and opening them, steadying myself even though I’m seated. This is what Axel still does to me, the hold that the memories of our time together still have. “And I don’t want to do it again,” I finally say.

Ian studies me for a few minutes more as the song plays yet again, gutting me, taunting me with the memories from my favorite and last memory with Axel. What did he feel in his final moments? Relief? Sadness? I couldn’t say. I would never know. I failed him, and he broke me. It was an even trade, really — except to the man sitting across from me.

The man who stands to his feet as the song plays again.

The man who kneels in front of me and places a kiss on my cheek where a batch of fresh tears have fallen.

The man who stands again, casting one longing, lonely glance in my direction, before walking out the door to my apartment and six floors down to his own.

The man who understands that Josefina isn’t the only hurricane in New York right now.

Finley and Sebastian

Finley Rhodes sat silently at the water tower, her feet dangling over the edge as she stared down at the tiny town. It was all hers — from the vine-covered church to the new park. Once upon a time it had been his town, too.

But once upon a time she had also been his.

“You okay?”

Her friend Amelia’s voice rang out, jarring her from her thoughts. She was suddenly back at the top of the tower, no longer holding his hand as they jumped off the bridge at the edge of town, promising to always be this crazy and in love. She was sitting with her best friend. He wasn’t there.

“I’m fine,” she muttered, but she wasn’t fine. She felt the way her heart clenched as she said the words, reminding her of the dull ache that for the briefest of moments had been dormant. She rubbed her chest, sure that if she did it enough times her heart would settle. It wouldn’t be broken anymore. She just needed to remind it to keep beating.

But that was a difficult feat.

“How are you really?” Amelia asked.

Finley looked up at her friend — Amelia stood in the shadows, but she knew her friend was decked head to toe in designer brand names that most people couldn’t afford to even think about, much less buy. Her friend stepped forward, her Tori Burch flats the most noticeable because of their golden hue.

“Really, I’m fine,” Finley finally said. “Can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t be. Life is grand.”

Her voice — monotone and dull — even gave her away. She rubbed her chest again where she was sure her heart was located. It still beat, but she wasn’t sure how that was possible.

Not when the very life had been sucked out of her just eight hours before.

“We’ve been friends since before we could spell the word,” Amelia said, her perfectly manicured nails glistening under the bright light of the moon. She stretched her arm over Finley’s shoulders, hugging her friend close. “How are you, really?”

Finley didn’t know how to answer her friend without completely breaking down, sure that the slightest inkling of feelings would send her over the edge. She needed to keep herself composed, to not think about why her heart had ceased to beat wildly against her chest. She rubbed her chest again, a small shiny object catching her eye as she looked down at her chest, where she supposed her heart was lying inside, waiting to beat again.

“Do you know I met Sebastian on this tower?” Finley said, finding something she could talk about. Her memories of him hadn’t faded in the slightest. She remembered the first time she spotted him at the water tower, smirking down at her as she made her way from church to the corner store.

“The view from up here is fantastic.”

Seven words, and he’d hooked her. She found herself climbing the tower as well, breathless when she finally reached the top. But the view had been worth it — and so had her company.

“He was standing up here like he owned the place,” Finley continued. “Like he was king.”

“He kind of was,” Amelia told her.

Finley could only nod in agreement. Sebastian Graham was king of the town, the guy every other guy in town wanted to be friends with, and the guy every girl wanted to be with.

And he’d chosen her.

“He took me here the night we broke up the first time,” Finley told Amelia. Amelia felt her friend stiffen beneath her arm and instead clasped her friend’s hand tightly. Finley didn’t cry, though. “He said it was better if we just… went back to how things were. Stop driving each other crazy, stop thinking this was going to be some grand love story. He was about… six months too late though.” Finley laughed bitterly, but still she didn’t cry.

“Yeah, Fin, but he didn’t date anyone after you,” Amelia said. “He stayed here, just waiting for you to come back.”

Finley nodded in agreement. Sebastian had told her once, nearly two years after their break-up, when she was dating someone new, that he had been waiting for her. She’d yelled at him, told him she hated him, flat out screamed in his face that he was the worst person ever. Twenty days later, though, she’d ended her relationship with someone new.

But she didn’t come home.

“Do you know I saw him a few months ago?” Finley said. She finally felt her heart flutter, and she had to stop and look down at the necklace she was wearing again.

“It suits you.”

“In New York?” Amelia asked.

Finley nodded in response. “It was like, the most cliche thing in the entire world. He actually came into the studio, looking for one of my paintings that he didn’t realize was one of my paintings.”

Amelia could only laugh, knowing too well that if there were something that could bring Finley and Sebastian together again, it would be the universe, and it would be in the most obvious way.

A tear pricked at the corner of her eye and Finley hesitated. You can do this, a small voice inside her head reminded her. She could do this. She could relive that night. She could have relived that night a million more times and never tire of it.

“He was as dumbfounded as I was. Of all the gin joints, you know?” She peeked at Amelia in her peripheral, who could only nod in response.

“He laughed, you know,” Finley continued. “He looked me and burst into that loud, boisterous laugh of his. My agent actually had to walk out of her office to see what was going on. She thought someone was dying.” She paused. “No, it was just Sebastian, and that laugh of his that got us in trouble in high school.”

Six months she had been with him, toward the end of their senior year. But it had been long enough for him to engrave his fingerprints all over her — from her heart to her mind to places no other man had touched since him. His voice was one that would constantly haunt her — in her dreams and when she was awake. On more than one occasion she swore she’d heard him, but had just been her imagination playing tricks on her. For the briefest of moments she swore he’d been a mirage that day in the studio, until he’d laughed.

Amelia sat with her friend, listening to all the things Finley said aloud, and the things she left unspoken. Their hands sat clasped between them. Amelia was certain her dress was getting dirty, but for the moment she didn’t care. Finley needed her now more than ever.

“It was truly the best day,” Finley finally said, and Amelia perked up, focusing her attention on her friend. Finley rubbed at her chest again, unsure if the fluttering she’d felt earlier had been a figment of her imagination. It still hurt. But it was still beating, determined to continue fighting even when she didn’t want to.

“What did you do?” Amelia asked, equal parts trying not to pry while also wondering what could possibly have happened to make her friend so distraught at this moment.

A tear spilled down her cheek and Finley knew that this story would be her undoing. And yet it was the one she wanted most to tell. Everyone knew how she met Sebastian, when he’d called to her from atop the water tower. Everyone knew how she’d fallen in love with him in spite of her better judgment warning her not to get mixed up with the playboy extraordinaire. Everyone knew how she’d run from their town to get away from him and the promise he’d made to wait for her.

But no one knew this story — the last time they were truly happy. The last time she saw him alive.

“Everything,” Finley said, and she felt the lump rise to her throat. It hadn’t been there moments before, popping up to surprise her as she told her saddest story.

“We got frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity,” she said, remembering how Sebastian had been so hesitant to even try it, then ended up drinking the whole thing.

“This is delicious. You don’t mind if I drink it?”

She didn’t mind.

“We went to the roof of my apartment building and danced,” she said, remembering how she’d taken him by the hand and dragged him to the edge of the building nearest night club that blasted music until the wee morning hours.

“I don’t dance.”

But he’d danced with her anyway, laughing with her and twirling her around their small dance space.

“And we got tattoos,” she muttered, feeling her voice crack under the pressure of all the memories that had suddenly flooded her.

Amelia raised an eyebrow at her friend, feeling not for the first time as though she were somehow intruding. She had to remind herself, though, that Sebastian was not there. It was just Amelia and Finley. Sebastian’s absence, though, was everywhere.

Finley raised the sleeve of her up to her wrist, revealing the initials S.G.

“Sure you’re not going to regret this?”

She could never regret him. “He got my initials on his wrist,” she explained to Amelia, but the fair-haired girl needed no explanation from her friend. Some things didn’t need an explanation. Over the years, she’d learned that Sebastian and Finley were one of those things.

“We went to the very top of the Empire State Building.” Finley felt her heart lurch at the memory, reminding her that it was still there. It ached so much to remember how she felt standing at the top of the tall building, looking out at the city. She rubbed her chest, willing the pain away.

“The view from up here is fantastic.”

She reminded him of what he’d said the first time he saw her, and he laughed out loud, his voice carrying out all around them.

It all came crashing down on her then, all of the memories of that night, and she heard a bone-chilling cry, felt it envelope her as she sat at the top of the water tower with her best friend. Amelia pulled her friend in close and held her as tightly as possible. She’d read once that compression sometimes worked on animals when they were anxious; perhaps it could help the dark-haired girl sitting next to her in a shirt that was much too big for her and jeans that looked like they hadn’t been washed in a week. Amelia had seen Finley in clothes like this before, but her attire paired with her cries told Amelia that this was different. Long gone was the southern belle who paraded around in pearls and her nicest dresses. This new girl, with paint-splattered pants and the sweatshirt of the boy she loved had taken her place.

Finley composed herself long enough to catch a breath, and her heart ached again. She rubbed her chest, looking down again at the necklace as the moon caught it and made it shine under its light.

“He got this out of one of those lame claw games,” Finley said, looking down at the cheaply made necklace that she hadn’t had the heart to take off since he gave it to her.

“It suits you.”

His words still rang in her head. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself not to cry as she closed out this story — the saddest story she’d ever told.

“He gave me the necklace,” Finley said, composing herself, trying to catch her breath. “And before I knew what was happening, it was time for him to go. The sun was coming up. We’d stayed awake all night in the city that never sleeps, doing things I never thought I’d do with anyone, never even imagined I would have the chance of doing with him.”

“I’ll see you soon.”

He’d said the words so easily, with a smile that lit up his freckled face and made his blue eyes dance. He’d looked every bit the red-haired boy she met one January night at the top of the water tower.

“I’ll see you soon.”

But he didn’t.

She hadn’t been expecting a phone call from her best friend. She and Amelia had a standing Tuesday phone date where they chatted and filled one another in on their lives. Every month Amelia would come to New York City, knowing too well how Finley felt about coming back to their town. But on a Thursday morning, Amelia had received the worst possible news, and knew better than to let anyone else tell her best friend what had happened to the boy she loved.

GRAHAM DIES A HERO

The headline had been enough to make her sick, his death being exploited by the gossip mill who ran the local newspaper. But as ill as it made her, it was also true. Sebastian had always been the knight in shining armor. His father owned everything in their town, ran the local government (had been mayor for the last decade), and had made his own fair share of enemies. And one of those enemies had started a fire in the vine-covered church where Sebastian’s grandfather preached, and Sebastian was determined to get everyone out — his own welfare be damned.

Finley and Amelia both directed their attention to the church, vines still covering its south wall where the flames hadn’t touched it. Caution tape had joined the vines in wrapping around the church. Finley felt fresh tears spill down her cheeks as she stared at the lone cross at the entrance to the church. The white cross paled against the charred black front door of the church, much the same way Sebastian used to stand out in a crowd to her.

“I don’t know what to do now,” Finley said.

It was the first time she’d said the words aloud. Her mother and father had peppered her with questions, hovering the second she’d come back to town. Amelia had hovered as well, but knew better than to pester her friend. Their friendship had lasted as long as they’d been alive, it felt like, and Amelia understood Finley’s need for solitude.

Until she didn’t need that solitude anymore, as she sat at the water tower, looking out over the town that had once been theirs.

“You don’t need to know,” Amelia said. “Don’t pressure yourself to get your life in order right this second. It’s not the time.”

Finley could only nod. Amelia knew her better than most, she could acknowledge that fact. The only person who knew her better than Amelia was long gone, a memory now, but one that she knew she’d carry with her long after she left town again, never to return.

She grasped tightly to the necklace Sebastian had given her. She closed her eyes and leaned into her best friend, who in turn wrapped an arm around her. She clung tightly to one memory that she hadn’t shared with her friend, one that she’d wanted to keep as hers alone — hers and Sebastian’s.

As they’d stood at the train station waiting for his train to come in, Sebastian had laced his fingers through hers. They stood in a comfortable silence, both finally feeling the effects of an all-nighter crashing down on them. Sebastian yawned, and in turn Finley had as well. She smiled as she thought of the way they tried to cover their fatigue.

“Get home. I can catch my train back on my own.”

But she stayed until it came, holding tightly to his hand, wondering why she’d run from her hometown, from the man standing next to her, when all he’d ever wanted to do was love her.

And before she knew what she was doing, she’d kissed him, feeling her defenses falling down around her, pooling at her feet. She clung to his shoulders as he kissed her back, feelings she’d long buried coming alive again as they stood in the train station.

It was over before it began, his lips leaving hers first. She felt the absence the instant it happened, the very second he’d pulled away. He’d smiled, though, and kissed her quickly once more before boarding his train.

“I’ll see you soon.”

He’d said it with such confidence, such happiness that she felt herself getting caught up in it, too, even as he was walking away from her, creating a distance she desperately wanted to bridge. Even then, he still loved her, still waited. A love that powerful could surely survive a thing like death.

She was sure of it.

“What are you thinking about?” Amelia asked her, breaking her from her reverie.

Finley could only shrug. Her thoughts were focused solely on seeing Sebastian again, on how much their love could take. She pursed her lips as the sun climbed a little higher, and looped her arm through Amelia’s.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said.

Amelia nodded, pushing herself up and following her friend to the ladder-like steps that led to the ground. Finley stopped a moment, taking off her necklace as she neared the steps. She hooked the necklace to the first rung.

“He should get to see the sunrise, too,” she explained.

Amelia accepted her friend’s explanation, following her down the steps to the ground.

At the top of the water tower, the necklace sparkled in the sun, almost dancing beneath its light.

ten.

Dear Mom,

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.

I don’t say this to be morbid (no need to call the suicide hotline).  Rather, I say this in a reflective sort of way.  To the unsaved masses, death is such a permanent sort of thing.  You’re gone.  You’re done.  You might get to come back as a ghost who haunts your friends and pulls some pranks or, if you’re in a Hallmark movie, you get to set your exboyfriend up with the girl of his dreams.  But outside of that bubble, you don’t get to see your loved ones again.  That’s the end of the story — death is permanent to those who have no hope.

And, for a long time, I was one of those.  I admit it freely, and openly.  I thought for the longest time that you were just gone.  I  wouldn’t get to hear your voice again or see your face.  That night in April 2007 was the end of it all.  It was the end of your story.

Oh, me of little faith.

I wrestled a lot with God over the last decade.  It’s so weird saying that, isn’t it?  I haven’t seen you in a decade.  When I was little, ten years seemed like such a long time.  Even back then, when you first left us, it seemed like a long time.  Like forever, really.  Another lifetime entirely.  Like that song — you know, the one I listen to every year.  In the song, it’s four years, but no matter the span of time it will always feel like another world… a lifetime ago.

But I’m getting sidetracked.  You know how easily that happens to me.  My thoughts are scattered.  I have so many of them, so many things I want to say and feelings I want to communicate.  It’s easy to lose track of them all — especially lately, when it seems like I’m happy one minute and sad the next.  I think that’s a side effect of your absence, though — one that rears its ugly head around this time every year.  And it’s been ten years of feeling like this.

Ten years.  Forever.

For a time, I questioned God’s providence.  His sovereignty over the situation.  I wondered what good it did me to serve Him when all it got me was heartache, when He’d taken you from me.  But of course, that did me no good either.  Who am I to question Him?  Who am I to second-guess the same God who saved me when I was little, and you prayed in spite of the odds that were stacked against me — and, later on, the same God you clung to when you knew that the end was near?

The short answer is… I’m no one.  In this grand scheme of things, this life that I have been given, this universe that I inhabit, I am no one.  I am a speck.  You were a speck, too.  Not to me, of course.  To me, you were the center of the universe.  You were mom, the healer of boo-boos and the ever-knowledgeable boy whisperer.  But in this grand universe, you were a speck.

A speck that God needed more than I did.

I suppose that’s why I’m writing this, mom.  Not to reminisce — though I’ve done that on more than one occasion lately, remembering you with Christa and Betty and MomMom, and talking to Artie about you — but to let you know that I know.  I know you’re not gone. I know you’re still alive.  You’re just not alive here.  I may never know why He needed you more than I did, but I know that He had His reasons.  And I know that those reasons, mysterious as they may be, are okay.

Because I’m okay.

I say this about once a year (the 15th of every April, to be precise) but this year, I’m not sure if it’s the fact that it’s been ten years, or maybe it’s just finally true, but I’m okay.  I miss you more than I could ever fully articulate.  My heart aches knowing that you won’t be there on my wedding day, and won’t be around to meet your grandbabies, whenever I get around to having them… but in that heartache, I’m okay.  Not because of my new workout regimen or the fact that I stopped drinking (though I suppose that did help things), but because I finally realized that holding onto my heartache was what was making me not okay.  God told me one day that I just needed to give it to him… so that’s what I did.  And ever since then, I’ve been… okay.

Even when I’m at my lowest, when I’m crying my eyes out and I feel like the tears will never cease, I know I’m going to be okay.  Because my heartache is with Him.  And you are with Him.  And you don’t hurt anymore.  You aren’t waking up in the middle of the night wondering when it will finally all be over, or scooting closer to me so that you can warm your feet, or wondering where you are because you’ve forgotten again.  You’re okay (for lack of a better word), and you have been for ten years now.

So… I guess that’s really the point of this letter.  This last letter, I think — because I can talk to you any time I want, really, and though I love a good letter as much as the next person, I think you’re a little busy up there.  The point is that I’m okay.  And the reason I’m okay is because you’re okay.  And the reason you’re okay is because you didn’t really die.  Yes, you left your earthly body — the one that was riddled with cancer and aches and scars — but you, the fiercest, bravest woman I ever knew, you’re still you.  You’re alive.  You’re just not alive here.  And there’s a hope in that, a peace that I have in knowing that I’m going to get to see you again one day.

It hasn’t been easy getting here — as I’m sure you know — but this road that I’ve traveled… I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  You’ve sent me songs over the years that have helped me to cope in losing you.  You’ve sent me people who have loved me so fiercely that it almost felt like you were still here with me.  You’ve whispered in my ear, and shown up in my dreams when I needed you most.  And I thank God every day that He let me see you when I needed you most.  But I finally got to the point that I was meant to get to all along.  I finally came to terms with what happened to you, and stopped questioning it.

Because I think the thing I was supposed to learn from this was not that you died, not that you suffered, not that you had cancer.  I think what I was supposed to learn was that when life and God hand you lemons, you make the best damn lemonade you can.  You have a luau for Valentine’s Day.  You climb on the back of your brother’s motorcycle and flip off the camera.  You tell your niece’s annoying friend that she’s really annoying.

You love your daughter with everything you have and tell her that everything’s going to be okay.  And though it may take some time, she believes you.  Because the beauty of life is not in how many friends we have or how much money we make.  It’s not in our earthly accomplishments.

It’s in how we live, and how we continue to live even after we leave this earth.  And I have no doubt that that’s exactly what you’re doing today, ten years after you had to leave me.  Ten years after you had to tell us good-bye.  Ten years after you took your last breath here.

You lived.  You didn’t get to do it here, with me and MomMom and Honey and Artie.  But you lived, in a new body without scars and pain and cancer.  And that, more than anything, is the best lesson I could have learned over these last ten years.

I suppose I’ll let you go now.  I’m sure you’ve got some more pink dolphins and pink moons to send us.  I’m sure you’ve got your hands full with all sorts of activities, with Easter this weekend.  I imagine Easter in Heaven is another affair entirely.  But I just had to let you know, mama, that I get it now.  I understand it — I mean, I don’t… but I do.  As much as I can.  And I’m okay.  And you’re okay.  You didn’t leave us forever.  The door didn’t shut on your story.  It opened.  You didn’t die.

You lived.

I love you so, so much.  I’ll see you again.

 

Ashley

 

say you won’t let go

When you looked over your shoulder

For a moment I forget that I’m older

She dances when she thinks I’m not looking.  It’s like there’s a beat in her head that no one else can hear.  I watch her smile to herself, her hair cascading over her shoulders even as she throws her hands up in the air, shaking her head.  Her dark hair is everywhere, a shock against her pale skin.

But she doesn’t care.

I think back to that first morning when we met.  I thought she was just an angry kid.  I still consider her a kid, still think of her as something of a china doll — breakable and frail.  I have to remind myself of what she’s been through — remind myself that she’s been through hell, and withstood her fair share of adversaries.  She’s not a doll.  She’s a woman.  She’s a true force.

She’s a hurricane.

“Whatcha thinking?”

I look up at her.  She smirks and shakes her hips, throwing her head back and giggling.  She holds her hands out to me, and I take them.

I would follow her anywhere.

The thought occurs to me then that I really have followed her anywhere.  I have gone to the ends of the earth for this girl — this woman.  I have uprooted my entire existence to follow her.  And she has done the same for me.  We’ve sacrificed so much — more than we surely thought we ever would sacrifice for another person.

But it was those sacrifices that brought us closer to one another.  It was those sacrifices that brought us here.  It’s been two years.  Surely at this point no one is looking for us anymore.  If they are, they’d never find us.  We’ve been kept safely hidden, away from the rest of the world.

Just how we always wanted it.

I’m so in love with you

And I hope you know

Darling your love is more than worth its weight in gold

I turn the music down and slow our rhythm.  “Do you remember the day we met?”  I ask the question already knowing what she’ll say, how she’ll react.

She blushes and bites her lip, running a hand nervously through her hair.  “It was the best morning of my life,” she says.  “You were so mad.”

“You were so obnoxious,” I tell her.

She shrugs, lacing our fingers together as we stand in the kitchen of our two bedroom apartment.  She meets my eyes and smiles, her cheeks still stained pink.

“I was trying to come off mature,” she admits.  “I kind of had a thing for you even then.”

“You barely knew me,” I say.  I say this every time we talk about that first time we met, now five years beyond us.  And every time she says the same thing.

“I knew I loved you then,” she says with a toss of her hair.  She reaches over and turns the music back up, taking my hands and whisking me across the floor.  I follow her lead, as always, and breathe her in when she pulls me close.  She still smells of coconut and honey, a combination of her shampoo and her lotion.  She reminds me of a warm summer’s day.

She reminds me of forever.

“There was a point to my question,” I tell her as the song plays out.  She pauses the next song and stares at me expectantly.  She always looks at me as if I hold the answers to every single one of her questions.  It both excites me and scares me.  I’m so scared of disappointing her, of making her leave.

But I know she’d never leave.  And neither will I.

I’m gonna love you ’til

My lungs give out

“I loved you then, too,” I tell her, shoving my hands in my pocket.  I feel the velvet under my fingertips and take a deep breath.  It’s now or never, Jude

I’ve been prepping myself for days, wondering just when I’d have the nerve to ask her.  It made the most sense to do it today — on the anniversary of the day we met.  I wouldn’t kiss her for another four months, and even then, it would take two months after that for her to wear me down.  From there, it would be hell trying to make it work.

We’d walked through hell together.  And here we were, finally, on the other side.

“And I know… I know I say a lot of the wrong things,” I continue.  “I do the wrong things sometimes, too—“

“Jude, it’s not about what you do,” she tells me, interrupting me as she always does.  “It’s about how you make me feel.  You… you understand me.  All of my quirks and my oddities.  You don’t care.  You—“

“Love you so very much, Shiloh,” I say, taking her left hand in mine.  “And if you could stop interrupting me for ten minutes, I would like to ask you to spend the rest of your life with me.”

I show her the box, and she grabs it out of my hands to open it.  Her eyes widen and she smiles.  “Will you put it on?”  She asks me, holding out her hand.  She places the velvet box back in my hand, her brown eyes sparkling.  I see her hands are shaking, but it’s not nerves.

“Can I take this as a yes?”  I ask her, sliding the ring onto her finger.

She wraps her arms around me, hugging me close to her.  “You can take this as a hell yes, Fischer.”

I don’t have a response, a retort, a quip to throw back at her.  She’s just agreed to be mine forever.  Even in my wildest dreams, I never thought it would be possible.

“You know you’re never getting rid of me now, right?”  She asks me as she tangles her fingers in my hair.  I tighten my grip on her and chuckle.  I feel her chest rumble against mine as she giggles, and I lean back to meet her eyes.

“Good,” I say.  “Because I have no intention of doing that… ever.”

‘Cause now it’s just you and me ’til we’re gray and old

Just say you won’t let go

devin

I think about him a lot.

I go on a date, or I have a disastrous experience with a member of the opposite sex, or I hear my friends talking about how in love they are with their significant other, and my mind wanders.

It was around this time last year that Devin and I started talking again.  I’m not naïve enough to think I was the only girl on his mind, nor am I foolish enough to think that his intentions were completely honorable.  This is not a means to speak ill of him.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Devin and I had one of those relationships where we didn’t know what we wanted from one another, but we knew we wanted to be together – and talk to other people in case this fell through (which it always, always, always did).

But I think about him… all the time.  I think about where we’d be if he were still here, what we’d be doing if I hadn’t been so stubborn that day and just gone to see him like I wanted.  I was proud, though, and I knew in my heart of hearts that if I went to see him, I’d fall all over again.  He would be it for me, which wasn’t a bad idea; but I wasn’t ready to be someone’s forever.

But my goodness do I wish sometimes that he could have been mine.  I wish that it were his lips on mine again, and not someone else’s.  I wish it were him texting me a ‘sweet dreams’ or ‘good morning dear.’  I wish I could snuggle up with him and watch some obscure movie on Netflix and talk to him about my newest book idea.  My heart aches with this desire, this wish that will never come to fruition.

There’s a song that says “I never thought we’d have a last kiss.”  I listen to it a lot these days, thinking about how completely and utterly topsy-turvy my life has been since June, since I found out he was gone.  I never thought it would be the end of us.  I really thought that eventually we’d settle down, or at least make peace and stop messing with one another’s heads.  But I certainly never thought the last time was the last time, that I wouldn’t be able to call him one day, or kiss him again.

But alas, here I am, sitting on my couch with a cup of coffee and a tear-stained face, thinking about that day, about our conversation, and all the things we did and said.  How he kissed me, and I listened to Dashboard Confessional’s “Hands Down” on the way home and didn’t stop smiling for the next few weeks.  I’m thinking about how a few weeks after that we fought, and how a few months after that… he was gone.  I’m thinking about how all these events happened so slowly, and yet how it all seems like a whirlwind since I got the text from my friend that he was gone, how she eased me into it – asking about work and my book, and then, finally, reluctantly, telling me that the boy I loved was gone.

I know that he’s not going to magically appear and ask me to write my name on his “Hello, my name is…” tattoo on his chest.  I know he’s gone, and eventually I’m going to have to move on with my life and stop using him as my excuse for not getting back out there.  No one is ever going to measure up to him; but I can’t measure people to him for the rest of my life.  He wouldn’t want that (or maybe he would want me to just pine for him the rest of my life – it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility or the Devin I knew).  No one will ever measure up, because he was Devin and he was a force of nature all on his own.  I still remember how he kissed me on my 28th birthday as we stood under a big light in the parking lot of a bar in Martinsburg.  I remember how he asked me to go out after, and how I continually rebuffed him, and then one day decided it would be fun to edit my book while he watched a movie.  And I remember that that was the last time I kissed him, sitting in his room with my laptop in my lap, having just played him the song that inspired my book.

Maybe one day I’ll stop comparing the men in my life to him.  I’ll stop thinking about how he would have kissed me differently, or held my hand, or told me something else.  I’ll stop wondering what he would have said in a given situation.  Maybe one day I’ll get past this (though in the interest of full disclosure I am not confident in this statement).

But in the interim, maybe I’ll just sit here and contemplate the words to that song, and how completely appropriate they are for the boy I wish could be mine.

Ellis and Asher

I stared out at the sunset across the open field, the orange ball of fire making its descent beneath the horizon.  I used to love watching the sunset as a kid, sitting on the back porch with Marnie and Darcy until the sky grew dark.

“Reminds me of when we were kids.”

I nodded at my companion as he said the words.  He wrapped an arm around my shoulder like he did when we were kids, when I was new at the house and scared of my new siblings, when I was a scared little kid who didn’t know what was going on in my life.

Tyson was always there.

“Marnie used to tell me that was her favorite picture in the entire world,” I said to him, resting my head on his broad shoulder.

Tyson was always good at the comforting part.

“So are you going to say it, or am I?”

I looked to him then, and saw the questions in his eyes.  He wanted to know everything, my entire life story, or at least what I’d been doing since I left.  Namely, he wanted to know about the man I’d brought along with me.

I got lost somewhere between my first year out of Marnie’s and my first year in college.  He was my English Lit professor, and then my mentor, and as the days turned into weeks turned into months, he became my boyfriend – or something like that.

He didn’t like labels, and told me as much the first time he kissed me outside of the ballet.  I was drawn to him instantly, though – to his worldliness and his salt and pepper hair and his positively crystal clear blue eyes.  He took me on a new kind of journey, one away from my tortured past and into a new future.

And when I announced that I was going home for Marnie’s funeral, he was there at the airport with me, arranging for a TA to take over his class for the next two weeks while I booked our seats and made sure he had a window seat near the front because he hated being at the back of the plane.

I understood him – all of his little ticks and nuances, and he… well, he got me.

At least, what I would show him.

“It’s complicated,” I said to Tyson, watching as he and Darcy attempted to set up a net for night volleyball.  She would get tangled in the strings, and I could see the vein in his forehead pop out, his telltale sign of being frustrated.  He didn’t suffer fools lightly, and though my friend was no fool, she did tend to be a little too ditzy.  He was losing his patience.

I knew everything about him, and we had more or less moved in together, but we were still a strictly “no labels” couple, two peas in separate pods, individuals who happened to spend time with one another on more than one night a week.

“Asher,” I called out, standing up from my seat on the back porch.  He looked to me, pleading for me to come help him with his eyes.

“I got this, Ellis!” Darcy called out.  “We just can’t find the… oh!  There’s the stake!”

My friend tied one string to the stake, and placed it in the ground.  Asher rolled his eyes, unnoticeable to everyone but me.

“He’s a little impatient, isn’t he?”

Or so I thought.

“He’s just a perfectionist,” I said, taking a seat next to Tyson.  “Our place is immaculate.  He even has his books organized by the Dewey Decimal System.”

“Sounds like a drag.”

My breath caught in my throat upon hearing the familiar voice.  He jumped off the porch from the top step and ran out to help Asher and Darcy, not giving me a second look.  He took the net from Asher, and pointed to the box of spotlights.  Asher picked up the box, seemingly relieved at being taken off net duty.  I watched him, his dress shirt perfectly pressed and buttoned.  He was out of place in his Italian leather shoes and designer jeans, but he took it all in stride.

“He’s not wrong,” Tyson told me.

I shrugged, watching him place the spotlights at different corners of the makeshift court we’d put together.  “You don’t know him like I know him.”

Tyson waited, allowing me to continue speaking, knowing I had more to say.

“He put me back together,” I explained.  “After leaving home, and Anders, and the book… he made it all make sense again.  He made me make sense again.”

“He doesn’t even call you his girlfriend,” Tyson stated matter-of-factly.  “He says you’re his companion.”

“I am,” I said.

We were silent, watching Anders and Darcy set up the net, and Asher place the spotlights on the ground.  He winked at me as he placed the last one, before reporting to Anders for his next task.

“He’s old enough to be your dad,” Tyson pointed out.

“He’s mature,” I countered.

“He hates us.”

“He’s just impatient.”

“Is he wearing Italian leather?”

“He likes nice things.”

“He doesn’t even call you his girlfriend,” Tyson said again, his tone of voice changing, fighting me.

I opened my mouth to respond, to come up with a retort, but there was none.  I had nothing.

He didn’t even call me his girlfriend.

“What happened to you, Ellis?”  Tyson asked me.

I ran a hand through my hair – my perfectly groomed hair with my perfectly manicured fingernails – and blew out a breath.  There was no answer I could give him that wouldn’t hurt, no words I could offer that would make him understand.  All I could give him was the truth.

So I did.

“After Anders left it felt like I couldn’t breathe,” I said.  “Asher… he put me back together.”

“But he—“

“He doesn’t call me his girlfriend,” I interjected.  “And I realize how problematic that is.  It hurts sometimes.  I live with the man and he refuses to call me his girlfriend.  I’m his companion, like I’m supposed to tend to his every need or something.”

I watched as Anders found the volleyball and hit it over the net to Asher.  He returned it easily, and Darcy jumped in and hit it back.  He returned it.

He was outnumbered, and he was even handling that with ease.

“What happened?”

I knew the answer.  I didn’t want to tell him, but I had to.

“He happened,” I said, my eyes on Anders as he hit the ball back over the net to Asher.  He jumped, his shirt rising to show a sliver of skin.  I felt the heat rising to my face, felt my heart rate increase.

Five years later, and he still got to me.

“He broke my heart into a million pieces, Tyson.  And I didn’t think I’d ever breathe again, and then one day I did, and it was because of Asher.  Maybe he doesn’t call me his girlfriend.  Maybe he needs everything to be perfect and cleans the apartment every day because he can’t stand dirt, but he pieced me back together, and sometimes loving someone means putting up with the parts of them you can’t stand.”

I stared out at the field, at Asher and Anders and Darcy as they played, hoping to have put an end to the conversation.  I heard Tyson clear his throat beside me, finally silenced.

Only he wasn’t.

“And he’s said he loves you?”

And finally, I didn’t have an answer.