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.

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it’s not easy breaking your heart

“It certainly wasn’t easy breaking your heart.”

The room was small, and it smelled awful – like a campfire, so smoky.  I coughed, trying to clear my lungs and my nose of the smell, but it was no use.  I would smell like burnt wood for days.

I stared out the window at the town that was once ours – all lit up with twinkle lights for the yearly end of summer festival.  We were Anders and Ellis, two of Marnie’s worst cases.  We were madly in love, so blissed out on one another that the world outside didn’t exist.  We thought we were invincible, thought nothing could touch us.

“We were just two dumb kids.”

No one ever thought we’d make it out of this town alive, and now here we were: standing in an old dusty room in the back of the old church finally talking about what broke us, what made us no longer invincible, what finally touched us.

I stared at the boy I once loved, now a man who I still loved more than words could describe.  So much had changed about him – his once lanky frame now muscled and bulky – and yet so much hadn’t changed – his black hair still pulled back from his face, his corkscrew curls looking more like dreads because they were so thick.  He was still Anders.  He was still that boy, but he’d grown.  And I was still Ellis.

But I’d grown too.

He sat down on the floor, stretching his legs in front of him.  “We’re going to be here awhile,” he said to me, patting the space next to him.

I stared at the door that had shut and locked behind us and sighed.  I folded my arms over my chest.  “I’d rather stand.”

“Still the same Ellis.”

“Still the same Anders.”

He rolled his eyes at me and directed his attention to the scene outside.  The town was deserted, and neither of us had the presence of mind to bring our phones with us to the room that held the sparklers for the Firefly Ceremony.  We really weren’t getting out of here.  I could have relented and been nice to him.

But I really was still the same Ellis.

“It wasn’t easy breaking your heart.”

“You said that already,” I told him.

“I thought it needed to be said again,” he responded, his voice low and husky, that same timbre that used to sing me to sleep when we were on opposite ends of the continent, exploring our respective dreams – dreams that we’d eventually achieved.

Dreams that eventually broke us.

“We were two dumb kids.”

“You said that already,” he told me, his voice mocking, issuing a challenge.

“I thought it needed to be said again,” I told him, arching an eyebrow at him.

He smirked.  I smirked.  He looked at me.  I looked at him.  It was a game of ‘blink’ and I was going to win.

He blinked.

I won.

He shook his head.  “You could look for the sparklers while you’re up there.”

“You could have looked for the sparklers before you sat down.”

“Are you going to try and clap back at me every time I speak?”

“Are you going to try and tell me what I should be doing?”  I asked.  “You lost that right a long time ago.”

“I thought I apologized for that,” he said, running his hand over the back of his neck, refusing to look me in the eye.

“You said it wasn’t easy breaking my heart, Anders,” I told him. “That’s not an apology.  It’s an explanation.”

“What do you want me to say, Ellis?”

I shook my head.  “Nothing.” A pause.  “I’m going to look for the sparklers.”

I stepped over him, making my way to the filing cabinet in the corner.  I had no idea what purpose it served, since it had no drawers.  There was a box at the bottom, and I squatted down to look inside.  It was filled with boxes of sparklers.

“That was fast,” I said.

“Find them?”

He was so close, his voice enveloping me.  I stopped, frozen in place.  He was right behind me, but he was all over me.  He was suddenly in everything again, the same way he was in high school, when I was just a girl madly in love with a boy who was just as broken as me.

“Ye—“ I cleared my throat.  “Yeah,” I said.  I took a deep breath and stood slowly.  I turned, holding out the box of sparklers to him.  “Right here.”

“Right,” he said, studying me.  His eyes bore into me, that same icy blue that I could get lost in.  He took the box from me and looked away, ending whatever moment we’d been having.  He walked away from me and I took a deep breath, hoping to rid myself of whatever feelings I was having, but all I got was smoky burnt wood.

I preferred the smell of him.

“I’m sorry.”

I looked at him, his back to me as he stared out at the town, the bright light of the moon drenching him in white.

I leaned against the wall.  “For?”

He turned, and that was the first time I saw it – regret, or hurt, or some combination of the two.  It was a new look on him, the boy with the stiff upper lip and the man with the Cheshire cat grin.  He looked down, inhaling a shaky breath.

I pushed myself off the wall and tentatively took a step towards him.  He looked up.  “Elle?”

“What are you sorry for?” I asked again.

He hesitated, looking between me and the door behind me, still locked, still taunting us, making us share this cramped, suffocating space.  I cast a glance behind me at the door, then looked at him again.  He took a step forward, and so did I.  I took a step forward, and so did he.  It was a dance of sorts, but neither of us knew the steps.

“What are you sorry for?”

“Everything,” he said then, and he closed the distance between us and melded his lips to mine.

So many memories flashed through my head.  I saw us kissing for the first time in this very spot when we were just fourteen – two scared kids who didn’t know the first thing about love.  I saw us sitting on the bench outside of the church holding hands and talking about the future.  I saw us saying good-bye at the airport, all tears and blotched faces, promising we’d love each other forever.

And I saw him saying good-bye to me, late one night on a sidewalk in New York City, telling me that our lives were too different, and that he couldn’t love me the way I needed to be loved.

I pushed him away, taking several deep breaths.  All I could smell was the smoke from the charred wall from the fire that I’d started when I was twelve and my mom left home again, left me wondering if anyone would ever love me enough not to leave me.  It had been over a decade and they still hadn’t replaced that wall, likely wanting it to serve as a bitter reminder for me that I was a screwed up person with a screwed up life.

“I can’t,” I finally said, my heart thumping in my ears.  I closed my eyes, tried to silence it, tried to calm myself down, but it was no use.

“I’m so—“

“Hey!”

We jumped apart then as Darcy threw the door to the room open.  “You guys like, disappeared, and…” She stopped, looking between us.  “What happened?”

I froze again, unsure what to say, how to explain what really happened here, in this room that held so much of my own story.  Did I tell her?  She was my best friend, she knew about my story with Anders.  She knew everything about us.

Which told me she wouldn’t react well if I told her what had happened just two minutes before she’d opened the door.

“We came in here to look for sparklers,” Anders said, his voice booming, so loud that I flinched.  “Forgot our phones out there, the door got stuck so we’ve been waiting for someone to realize we were gone.”

“Oh, we noticed,” Tyson said as he poked his head inside the room.

Here we were again: Marnie’s kids.  The ones who’d made it, made something of ourselves.  The silence was deafening – her absence again falling over us like a heavy blanket.  I was suffocating.

“We should get out of here,” I finally said.  I pointed to the box under the window sill.  “Sparklers are there.  They’re too heavy.  I can’t carry them.”

“I’ll get them,” Anders said, his voice dismissive, detached again.  I recognized it from the night he walked away.

“Let’s go Ellis,” Darcy said, holding her hand out to me.  I took it willingly and followed her, grabbing my phone off of the pew at the front as we made our way outside.  The town was still lit up, all twinkly and calm – a stark contrast to the room I’d just been in.

“Hey.”

Darcy and I stopped outside of the church as Anders and Tyson caught up to us.  “I need to talk to Ellis.”

Darcy looked between the two of us, presumably looking for approval from me.  I shrugged, but secretly hoped she’d stay.

“Alright, Tyson, let’s give these two a minute.”  Darcy looped her arm through Tyson’s and dragged him to the gazebo where people were finally gathering.  I watched them twirl around in the middle of the street, still the same two carefree souls I’d met on a cold April day when Marnie took me in.

I felt my heart lurch at the thought of her, at the thought of that day, when I first met Anders, too, and how much had changed in the ten years since.

“I’m sorry.”

I bristled at the words, finally looking up at Anders.  “What are you sorry for, Anders?  And don’t give me that ‘everything’ nonsense again.  Tell me, specifically, what you are apologizing for.”

He stared out at the gazebo, at our adopted siblings still dancing in the middle of the street, at the town as they gathered underneath the twinkle lights, at the big bright moon above us.  I looked out at all of it with him, waiting for his response, sure he’d write me off again, try and get a pass with a vague answer.

He took a deep breath, and I waited.  I waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

“For not loving you,” he said, finally.  “For not telling you sooner that I didn’t love you.”

His words, when he finally spoke them, cut me to the core, made me wish I’d never asked him to explain.  They cut me so deep that I could feel them in my soul, right in my heart, slashing it to pieces the same way he did that night.

“For breaking your heart.”

And I felt my heart break all over again.

honoring the fallen

What have I given,
Bold sailor on the sea,
In earth or heaven,
That you should die for me?

What can I give,
O soldier, leal and brave,
Long as I live,
To pay the life you gave?

What tithe or part
Can I return to thee,
O stricken heart,
That thou shouldst break for me?

The wind of Death
For you has slain life’s flowers,
It withereth
(God grant) all weeds in ours.

F.W. Bourdillon

 

I have not always understood the true purpose of Memorial Day.  That is not to say that I take for granted the purpose of this holiday; rather, I was one who wished people a “Happy Memorial Day” and thanked veterans for their service.  And that is not to say that I am not thankful; rather, I was missing the point – Memorial Day is for the fallen, those who we must remember, those whose memory we must keep alive, even though they are not.

And yet my mind still goes to the living – those soldiers who came home from war alive.  I’ve always heard that war changes you, and I do not take those words lightly.  I’ve met countless veterans over the years whose families say that the way they are now is not the way they’ve always been.  I’ve met veterans themselves who have said that the wars they fought changed them on the outside and the inside.

I wholly agree that Memorial Day is for the fallen, and do not wish to debate this.  But I would also submit to you that perhaps Memorial Day is also for the living who did not come back in one piece.  Perhaps they left an arm or a leg on foreign soil; or perhaps they left a happy and carefree person, and have come back unsure, scared, and feeling alone.  No matter the change, there is a piece of that person that was left on the battlefield.  There is a piece of that person missing, a piece of that person has died.

I will spend this day reflecting as I always have – honoring the fallen, thanking them silently for their sacrifice, and bearing a sadness I cannot describe that it is only one day a year we have set aside to do this.  I will reflect on poems as that one above, thankful for the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their life so that I can sit here and write this.

And yet a part of me will also mourn those who are still living, those who have lost pieces of themselves – physical and mental pieces – to wars that they fought on my behalf.  I will silently thank those brave souls as well for doing what I could never do.  I will silently mourn the losses they have suffered.  Because Memorial Day is for the fallen, and yet the fallen are not all deceased.

The fallen is the veteran who can’t go to a fireworks show because the sound is too much for him to bear.  The fallen is the veteran who lost an arm because they encountered a roadside bomb.  The fallen is the veteran who shoots straight up in the middle of the night covered in sweat and tears, because the nightmares are just so real.  The fallen is the (more than) 22 veterans a day who end their lives because they no longer see hope in their situations.

I will remember all of our nation’s fallen, and continue to be grateful for the sacrifices they made.  I will reflect on the love these men and women had for their country – a love so great they were willing to die.  This holiday, for me, will always be about honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice; but this year, I will also remember those who have made various other sacrifices, lost parts of themselves, and have been completely and utterly changed by the wars they fought.

With a heavy, and grateful, heart.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Without Reason contest/giveaway!

I promised myself that if I didn’t find an agent by the end of the year, I was going to self-publish in 2016.  With that in mind, I am now hosting a contest/giveaway for my newest book, Without Reason!

The rules are fairly simple.  I have four options for the cover art for the book.  I want YOUR (yes, all of you!) help picking the one you like the best.  The one with the most votes wins.  AND, from all of the people who take the time to vote, I am picking one person to win a free signed copy.

A brief synopsis can be found below the pictures.  To vote, just put in the comments section your choice — cover one, cover two, cover three, or cover four.

Thanks for your help, writing community!

Cover 2Cover 1Cover 4Cover 3

Synopsis:

It came as no surprise to Simone Perrier that she fell madly in love with Jacob Wessner. The summer before college felt different, like something big was about to happen. Just hours before she was set to move across the country, she spotted him in a crowded bar. She wasn’t looking for love, but it certainly found her, and the next ten years of Simone’s life were nothing short of a roller coaster.

WITHOUT REASON details from Simone’s point of view the highest and lowest points of her decade-long love story with Jacob, providing unique insight into a relationship between two people who just can’t seem to get it right. Simone speaks to her own indecisiveness, trying to choose between her life with Jacob, the fatally flawed man who loved her more, and Ian Colston, the man who seemed to calm the chaos Jacob caused. In the end, Simone is left with a choice between the two, but she realizes even the simplest of answers can cause the greatest heartache.

better place

“I never knew things could be so bright.”

I turned to look at her.  She was standing at a spot in the Space Needle where the sun was brightly shining through.  She looked like an angel.  I forced myself to not think about the terrible, awful things I’d done to her.  She was beautiful, untouched.

Not even by me.

“You made everything bright again for me,” she said.  “You made my life a better place, Jake.  I can’t… it’s crazy, right?  Our relationship is so dysfunctional.  But… you made everything better.”

“I could say the same thing for you,” I told her.

“Yeah, well, you don’t say it often enough.”  I stood beside her as she looked out at Seattle.  It was an unusually sunny day in the city, but I wasn’t complaining.  It gave me a chance to take my girl out, see the sights.  We hadn’t had much time to ourselves.

I sighed.  That was my fault.

“Don’t do that.”  Her eyes never left the view.  Even without looking at me, she knew I was beating myself up.  “Don’t hate yourself because you have a job and you’re busy.”

“I heard that inflection,” I told her.  “You can get a job, Simone.  It’s not like—“

“It’s not like we’re moving back to New York in a month?”  She asked.  “What would be the point of taking a job when this is temporary?”

“We can stay out here,” I said.

She shook her head.  “I want to go home, Jake.  I miss my friends.  I miss my family.”  I saw her lips pout as she stared out at the view.  “I miss us.”

“We’re still the same people, Simone,” I said.  “We haven’t changed.  You’re still the girl I fell in love with one summer.  I’m still the—“

“The guy who put my heart back together and broke it all over again?”

“Are we having a fight?”  I asked.  “Is that what you want to do?  We can have a fight, but I’d prefer if we weren’t in public.”

“I’d prefer if I were back home, but alas, we can’t always get what we want.”

“You moved to Seattle with me, Simone,” I told her.  “I didn’t force you to come.  I told you that you could stay home and I’d be back.”

“We did the long distance thing already, Jake,” she said.  “We broke up twice.”

“Once,” I countered.

“So the day you slept with the TA for my history class was what, a break?”  She sighed.  “We aren’t Ross and Rachel.”

“I would hope not,” I said, remembering the episodes of Friends we watched together over the years.  “I don’t have the energy to chase you all the way to Paris.”

“She got off the plane,” Simone deadpanned.  “Granted, you haven’t had a movie night with me in forever, so you haven’t seen that episode recently.”

“Do you want to have it out here?”  I asked.  “I’m trying, Simone.  I’m really, really trying, and all you seem to want to do is argue.”

“I don’t want to argue, Jake,” she said sadly.  She finally turned to meet my eyes.  “I just… I wanted to tell you how much better things are with you, but this really is the most dysfunctional relationship I’ve ever been in, and yet it’s the best relationship I’ve ever been in.”  She leaned against me, resting her head on my chest.  I wrapped my arms around her, sheltering her as best I could – though as of late I hadn’t been doing a good job of that.  “You’re my one in ten million, and yet I can’t help but feel like you’re still looking for that.  Like I’m not enough, even though I moved out here, even though I put grad school on hold so we could be together out here.”

“I’m not,” I said firmly.  “I’m not looking for anything, Simone, outside of you.  Look, I’m sorry I keep fucking up.  I’m sorry I keep sleeping with anything in a dress.”  I chuckled bitterly.  “And I’m sorry I forced your hand to move out here, but I promise you, things are going to be different.  Things are going to be better when we move home.  You’re going to go to grad school and I’m going to be a hot detective and we’re going to rule the world together.”

She laughed.  “You sound awful sure of yourself.”

“Yeah, well…” I trailed off, searching for the right words.  “I can do anything with you.”

“Ditto,” she said.  “But… can you do me a favor and start telling me these things without me having to almost start an all-out brawl in public?”

I smiled at her.  “Why don’t you tell me?”

“No girl wants to tell her boyfriend that she wants to be appreciated,” she said.  “I just… I want you to think of you, Jake.  I want you to do what’s necessary so you can get ahead, but I want you to think of me, too.  Of us.”

I kissed her forehead, hugging her tight to me.  I remembered in the early days of our relationship when I was so scared of crushing her – how tiny she was, how fragile she looked.  But she was stronger now, full of sugar and spice and piss and vinegar.  I’d put her through hell, but she stuck by me in spite of it.  I shoved my hand in my pocket, felt the velvet box that I’d been holding for a year.  I was waiting for the right moment, wanted to do things right by her, make up for all the shit I put her through.  Now seemed as good a time as any…

“Oh!”  She squealed, releasing me.  I dropped the box, my hand flying out of my pocket.  “Can we get sushi and red vines and binge watch that new fairytale TV show?  Hadley says it’s super complex and you have to watch everything together.”

I smiled.  There would be a better moment, less public, when I could finally ask her to spend the rest of her life with me.  “Yeah, let’s get out of here.  Want to pick up sushi on the way home or have it delivered?”

She shrugged, looping her arm through mine.  “I don’t care.  Though the sushi place that delivers has those spring rolls you really like.  Hey, Hads said that Cinderella makes an appearance, too…”

I smiled as she chatted away about the new show and all the characters she was excited to see.  She was a simple girl – woman, really.  She’d grown so much since that first night on the beach, and I’d had the privilege of watching her grow.  She was beautiful then, but now… she was even more radiant, bright, full of life.

And it didn’t matter if it happened tonight or another eight years from now, I knew I would be spending forever with her.

prologue – fairytale tragedy

Crisp autumn leaves littered the ground as I made my way down the familiar driveway.

“I’m pulling in now.”

“See you soon?”

I hesitated, my breath catching in my throat when I heard the words.  “See you soon.”

I ended the call, placing my phone in the cupholder, where it’d been for the duration of my three hour drive.  I kept it on silent, much to the dismay of my colleagues, supervisor, and close friends.  I never heard it ring unless it was directly next to me, the incessant buzzing forcing me to take the call.

I lived a non-stop life, going a mile a minute.  I’d been like this for years, pushing myself to the brink of exhaustion, only to take a day or two off before going at it full speed again.  I drove the people in my life crazy, but I thrived off of the frenetic energy in my life.  I wasn’t happy unless I was throwing myself headfirst into something – a work project, a personal project…

A relationship.

My breath hitched again as the thought crossed my mind.  I focused on driving, though I only had a few more feet before I would be forced to park, get out of the car, and finally confront the one thing – the one person – I’d been avoiding for years.  I knew how long it’d been, how long I’d been dodging calls and ignoring the emails.

But I wasn’t about to admit that to myself.

The garage door was shut, just as he’d told me it would be in his most recent email.  I parked outside of it, looking around to see if he’d shown up yet.

And of course, he hadn’t.  He’d just finished telling me that he’d be a few minutes late, caught up with some last minute work business.  He was always true to his word – even if all he was doing was telling me he’d be a few minutes late.  It would be no more than five minutes, and I knew I would see him.

For the first time in a decade.

I pulled my bottom lip into my mouth, worrying it until it started bleeding.  I tasted the tangy copper in my mouth, knew that if I kept it up my lips would be chapped.  I hadn’t packed lip gloss for this weekend, didn’t even know if I’d be around the whole weekend to really need lip gloss.  Nevertheless, I quit chewing, pursing my lips instead.

I could do this.

I opened my car door and stepped out into the cool autumn air.  More leaves rustled as the wind picked up, chilling me to the core.  I tried to ignore it, that nervous feeling in my chest.  My heart was beating rapidly, my breaths were becoming shorter…

I was panicking.

Of all the things I could do, losing my composure was not one of them.  I tried desperately to get my breaths under control, to calm myself down.  I tried to think of something – anything – else, but it was no use.  Our two minute conversation was already replaying in my mind, and thoughts of what would happen over the course of the next few hours – or weekend, I had chosen to take a few days off – clouded my mind.

I slammed my car door shut and made my way up the walk, pausing only to grab the key from underneath the ficus plant that sat outside the front door.  He told me it would be there and, true to his word, there it was.  I would eventually learn to stop doubting him.

But then again, my reservations were not without basis.  I had history to back me up.

Feelings of nostalgia hit me like a ton of feathers as I walked inside.  No, they weren’t bricks.  These memories were not rough, not hard, not cold.  They were soft, pleasant to the touch, but weighed me down nonetheless.  They sat on top of my heart, crushing me, reminding me of a time in my life that, in hindsight, was certainly not better, but simpler.

The feathers tickled my nose, reminding me of the smell of brownies wafting through the house.  They curled around me, like the red blanket that was still draped across the back of the couch.  They surrounded me, floating through the air like the snow that fell the last time I was here.

I moved to the kitchen, taking a trip down memory lane – allowing myself one weakness, finally, after ten years of pushing weakness as far away as possible.  I felt it all coming back to me at once, those feathers pelting me.  They didn’t hurt though – a pleasant surprise.  I anticipated the bricks, anticipated having the wind knocked out of me.

But it wasn’t like that at all.

          And there’s where you danced with him in the kitchen, the voice in my head reminded me.  I saw us glide across the floor, felt his hand at the small of my back, leading me, showing me the way.

          There’s where you had a flour fight.  I smiled at the words, remembering the flour from the cookies I was trying to bake ending up everywhere but in the bowl.  I remembered my hair being coated, my face white as a sheet from the flour, but my cheeks bright and red from laughing so hard.

I moved through the kitchen to the stairs, walking up them until I got to the next floor.  There’s where he told you he loved you, the voice said.  I remembered him sitting with me in the middle of the floor outside of the bathroom, fresh from a shower but nonetheless determined to tell me how he felt – a first for him, he claimed.  That was something I actually believed, even a decade and a dozen lies later.

          There’s where his parents slept.  My chest tightened as I felt that familiar tug.  His mother loved me like one of her own.  I hadn’t been around when she died, showing up only for her funeral before hightailing it back home.  I couldn’t risk seeing him, being alone with him.  I allowed my bitterness toward him taint the relationship I had with his mom.

I wiped away a stray tear as I continued my trek, knowing where I was going but nonetheless feeling the butterflies all over again as my feet carried me forward.

          And that’s where you told him you loved him, the voice reminded me.  It was nearly a month after he’d uttered the words, so many days afterward when I’d finally confronted my feelings for him.  I’d been scared, afraid of what saying those words out loud would mean.  I didn’t want to get hurt, didn’t want to have my heart broken.

And in the end, that’s exactly what happened.

I stared at the perfectly-made bed in the center of his room.  The walls were the same color blue they’d been the last time I was here.  The comforter was still black, the floor still white carpet, save for the stain I spied by his night stand, where I spilled my red nail polish the day of prom.

There were so many memories, but they didn’t hurt, didn’t make me feel like I was going to die from the pain.  It hurt to breathe.  I felt myself gasping for air as I turned and made my way back down the stairs, my trip down memory lane finished for the time being.  There would be a new set of memories that I knew I would have to deal with when he arrived.

          Here is where you said good-bye.  I stopped at the bottom of the stairs, taking a seat in front of the door to the study – his father’s study, the same study where I found out the truth about everything.  I remembered my words to him clear as day as I sat there, taking in my surroundings.  On the wall opposite the stairs, near the kitchen, was a growth chart.  His height throughout the years.  I studied the pink crayon mark more than five feet up the wall, where his mother measured me on my first visit.

I studied the place where our feet stood ten years before, where he told me the truth about everything, and I ran away from him, telling him I never wanted to see him again.

And then bright and early one morning, I received an email from him.  In a moment of weakness, I responded, extending an olive branch.  We made peace via email.  And now, he wanted to make peace with me face to face.

I hoped.

I shivered involuntarily, pulling my coat tighter as I stood.  I stared out the window, trying to keep warm by folding my arms around me.  Like that’ll do you any good, the voice inside my head said.  It sounded like another version of me – a me who was older, more aware of her surroundings, someone who would certainly never have come here.

“I shouldn’t have come,” I said quietly.

“I’m glad you did.”

I whirled around, taken aback by how different, and yet how familiar the voice was.

He studied me intently, looking me up and down.  I did the same, my eyes scanning down the body I once knew like the back of my hand.  I called him my map once, covered with freckles, places I longed to discover.  He loved me so completely, and I shared his passion.

And now… we were strangers.  It amazed me how quickly it’d happened.

Once upon a time we were strangers, people who didn’t understand one another.  Time went on, though, and we fell into a pattern.  I learned his habits.  He learned my quirks.  We studied each other, fell harder for each other and allowed ourselves to get caught up in it all.  We went from strangers to lovers – people who at one point did not know one another suddenly knew each other completely, inside and out.  He was my fortune teller and my fortune.  He was the sun, and I was drawn to him, caught in his warmth.  I was his captive audience of one.

I was his everything – literally, everything.  I didn’t understand until much, much later just what everything encompassed; but when I did, I flipped the switch.  My sun became my night, a darkness I could not escape fast enough.  He went from being my safe haven to being my worst nightmare.

And just like that, the two people who knew one another inside and out became two people who knew nothing of each other.

I lived that life for ten years, pretending he didn’t exist, pretending that I didn’t care.  I took care of only me, looked out for only me.  And in a moment of weakness, the ten years of care I took with myself were ruined completely.

I realized all of this as I studied him, and a thought came unbidden into my mind that I could not erase, could not walk away from.  Yet it was true – the truest thought I’d had in a decade, and brought on by him.  The irony was not lost on me.  The liar became the beacon of truth.  My darkness became my light.

I could not outrun him.  I could not live a life where he did not exist.  The years I spent running from him were useless.  He would always find me, and I him.  There was not a place in the world that existed where we could be without one another.

My carefully laid plans were ruined, and it was all because of him.  But I couldn’t fault him that.  It was to be expected.  He’d ruined my plans once, long ago.  He had an aura about him that demanded attention, and I knew this would be no different.

I thought back to the first time I saw him, the first time I talked to him, and smiled.  It would go without saying that the boy who came into my life with a crash and the loudest of noises would re-enter it in the same fashion.

“Hi.”

thank you

I’ve had these words swimming around my head for a few days.  But as with all of my thoughts, I couldn’t organize them.  I needed to make sure that what I was thinking was, well, what I was thinking.

People give me grief for still living at home.  I live with my grandparents, and my uncle Artie, and a little puppy named Ira who makes me crazier and yet more understanding with each passing day.

They all have that effect on me, though.  My grandma reminds me daily that I need to make sure I’m not eating or drinking anything that will make me sick – like chocolate and wine and certain coffee, for instance.  My grandpa gives me trouble for having too many tattoos and piercings.  Artie asks a lot of questions.  At the end of the day, I catch myself wondering what my life would be like if they weren’t in it.  I tell myself if I can just get completely out of debt and settled into a real career I can move out and that’ll be the end of it.  Ira and I can move into a little one bedroom apartment and live out our days with chocolate and wine and my favorite coffee and each other.

But I know it won’t be that easy.

See, last week I had a reaction to said coffee – I can only assume it was that, as it was the most recent thing introduced that would have caused such a reaction.  It really isn’t of any consequence what caused the reaction, just that it was caused.  I had a headache, I was paralyzed from the pain.  I was swollen and my eyes couldn’t open.  I was in pain.

I needed an EpiPen.  Those of you that know me know that I have several tattoos.  I can handle pain.  I don’t mind it.  But if you know anything about EpiPens, you know that there is an instant shock when the needle pierces your skin.  I can’t handle that surprise shock.  I don’t like knowing it’s coming and shooting myself with it.  I hate the noise the most, I think.

My grandfather, ever the understanding, caring man that he is, stepped up to the task.  When I couldn’t give myself the medicine, he did it for me.  He ran through the process with me to make sure he knew what needed to be done, and he did it – no questions asked.

But you see, not only was I having a reaction to my coffee or chocolate or wine or whatever it was – once my grandpa administered the EpiPen, I was instantly lightheaded.  To be honest, I knew that part was coming, but I’m never really ready for it.  I hate when it shows up because I’m helpless.  I have to lay down and wait for it to pass.

Only this day, it wasn’t passing.  Soon I grew short of breath, and my headache returned full force.  I was certain I needed to go to the emergency room.  I asked my grandma to take me, told her that I needed to go because I couldn’t breathe.

“Come here,” she said to me.  I made my way over to the couch, collapsing onto it when I reached her.  And my grandma took one of my hands in hers, placed her other hand on my head, and sat there with me.  “Let’s give it a second.  Calm down.  I’m here.  Let’s just give it a little bit.”

She sat with her hand on my head for 30 minutes.  Finally, the feeling passed.  I was still “woozy,” so to speak, but I could breathe again.  My headache dulled.  No, I wasn’t instantly better because of my grandma’s touch, but it was a vast improvement.  Later that evening, as I sat on the couch and watched a movie with my grandparents and Artie, a new thought came to my mind.

Where would I be without them?

October was a particularly hard month for my family.  Breast Cancer Awareness ads filled our TV screen.  People proclaimed from the rooftops that they’d beaten cancer, or that they were going to win their fight.  I watched my grandmother chew her lip in anxiety as mothers announced that they got to keep their daughters.  I heard the hitch in my grandpa’s breath as fathers beamed proudly as they looked upon their daughters, victorious in their fight.

I wanted to write about it, to share their pain.  But it’s not mine to share.  My pain is separate from theirs.  And as the days passed, I felt less inclined to shed light on their stories, if only to spare them the additional hurt that may have arisen from seeing my words.

But that afternoon, as my grandma sat with her hand on my forehead, I wondered how many times she did that for mama, as my mom’s fight drew to an end.  I wondered how many times my grandpa tried to find something on TV for mom to watch, to distract her from her pain.  I wondered how many times Artie circled the S’s in his word search book, showing them to his sister.  I knew that though they were all pained in one way or another over the loss of mom, they were also pressing forward.  They had no choice.  As my grandma recently told me, “I promised her I’d look after you.”  My grandfather echoed her sentiments, albeit in his own way – with a smile, and a nod, and a pat on the back.

I didn’t have the opportunity to write anything for Breast Cancer Awareness, and I refuse to take part in the “30 Days of Thankful” on Facebook.  Instead, I’m combining the two.  I am writing about my family – dysfunctional as we may be, and not always in agreement.  I am writing not about my grandparents’ pain, but their fight.  I’m writing about their selflessness.  I’m using this as my “I am Thankful” statement – for not only Thanksgiving, but every single day of the year.

I am thankful that my grandmother keeps an eye on me.  I am thankful that she reminds me to probably not eat that, and maybe don’t drink that – because she knows how I react to certain things.  I will likely not be able to eat and drink various foods and drinks for the rest of my life.  I’m sad to say that my grandma will not be around to warn me ahead of time for the rest of my life, though.  I am coming to grips with it, and trying to take more time to listen to her instead of reacting to her.  I’m trying to take more time to hug her, to sing her silly songs in the car, to go on three hour shopping trips for two pairs of pants.  Yes, MomMom, those really are a size six!

I’m trying to take time to listen to my grandpa, even though we certainly don’t agree on everything.  I’m listening when I can, and debating with him when the opportunity presents itself.  I’m watching the news with him, talking to him about work (when I can), and telling him new stories that I hear about the Marine Corps.  For me, he has always embodied the words “Semper Fidelis.”  He is always faithful, always true.  He has been there for me every step of the way through this crazy game of life, and I will never forget him holding me close the night mama left, telling me that eventually things would be okay.  Guess what, Honey?  You were right!  I’m sure you’re not surprised.

I’m also taking as much time as I can to spend with Artie – buying him word search books so he can show me when he’s circled all the S’s, playing him old country songs, and having dance parties in the car to Taylor Swift.  He is always going to be my big brother, even if he is my uncle.  No matter where I go in life, I know he will be in the back of my mind always, making sure he’s okay, making sure he’s taken care of.  I promise to get you a “’ccino” again soon, bub!

There will come a day when my grandmother’s voice will not carry through the house, asking me if she can borrow a pair of my jeans or a blouse she likes.  One day, she won’t be there to encourage me to go talk to the cute guy at the farmers’ market.  There will come a day when my grandpa won’t be around to tell me I have too many tattoos.  I will have to inject my own EpiPen one day, without him there to hold my hand and ask if he has all the steps down right.  There will also come a day when Artie won’t be around to go run errands with me, to giggle as I come up with crazy dance moves while I’m driving.  These thoughts terrify me, but I refuse to stew on them.  I can’t worry about what’s coming.  I can only focus on now.

And now, I’m going to go spend a little more time in this crazy house with my favorite people in the entire world.  I’m so thankful for them.  I’m thankful for their guidance, their constant presence, their voices that fill my heart until it’s almost full.  I’m thankful for their example, for their love.  And I’m thankful that no matter where I go in life, they will always have my back.

I love you all so, so much.  Thank you for loving me back.