“Oh fuck! Denny, get up!” I shout in a panic when I see the time on the alarm clock next to my bed. “Denny?” I repeat when I don’t hear any movement.
I pull on the pair of leggings I discarded before falling into bed last night, and grab a hoodie from the chair.
“Denny,” I shout again as I wrestle with my hoodie and burst into his room. Because it’s so bloody late, his room is light, and I see confusion in his eyes.
“We’re late. Get dressed, I’ll make your breakfast.”
I throw his uniform at him and run down to the kitchen. I knew I shouldn’t have accepted the contract for a nationwide store, but the thought of having my jewellery in shops across the country was too big an opportunity to turn down. I think I eventually got into bed sometime after four this morning.
I yawn as I butter Denny’s toast.
“Okay, here,” I say, shoving the toast towards him. “Have you got your PE kit?”
We both run towards the car. Denny stuffs toast into his mouth and I try to keep hold of his school bag and PE kit as I find the right key.
He looks over at me when he’s finished his breakfast, his face sleepy and sad.
“I’m sorry, baby.”
He shrugs at me and I instantly feel awful. He’s my number one priority, he has been since the day I found out I was pregnant, but lately everything is getting on top of me. I know I only have myself to blame.
I wave him off as he runs through the playground at just gone nine. If I wasn’t so angry with myself for making him late, I’d be proud of the fact we went from sleeping to school in just under forty minutes.
I climb in the car and rest my head back. Alex is already annoyed I’m working so much, and now it’s affecting Denny’s education. I hate to even consider it but I’m going to have to ask if the delivery deadline can be pushed back.
Pulling the sun visor down, I stare at my tired eyes, yesterday’s lingering make up only making them worse. I wipe at my skin to try to tidy it up but it has little effect. Nor does running my fingers through my hair, which looks like there should be a bird nesting in it.
I blow out a long breath before deciding to stop at the coffee shop around the corner. I need caffeine—and now. I hate spending money on takeout coffee since Alex convinced me to buy insanely expensive machines for both home and shop, but today’s an emergency.
I just about hold my body upright as I wait in line to be served. Maybe I was wrong; going straight back home would’ve got me caffeine quicker.
I’m eventually served and waiting for the largest cappuccino they can give me when I get the weirdest feeling. I tell myself it’s just sleep deprivation, but the nagging that I need to turn around won’t budge.
Giving in, I glance over my shoulder. There doesn’t seem to be anything exciting going on; everyone’s drinking their coffee and reading the papers. I go to turn back around when a figure in the corner catches my eye. His head’s down, but I don’t need to see any more.
My body knows instantly.
That weird connection, one I remember all too well, slams into me. I stumble back, bumping into another customer and causing them to tip their drink down themselves. I mumble my apologies and run out of the coffee shop. I hear the barista calling after me that my coffee’s ready, but I don’t stop. I can’t. Instead, I run. I run until my legs burn and my heart pounds. I crash into the shop door and the wind chime Frankie insists on having above clatters with my force.
The shop is empty but it’s only a second before my best friend pops her head around the corner. Her eyes widen as she sees the state of me.
“Erin? What is it? Is Denny okay?”
I bend over and brace my hands on my knees as I try to catch my breath. I go to pull a stray piece of hair from my face to find it’s stuck down by the tears I didn’t realise I was crying.
“Erin?” Frankie asks again, her tone a warning.
“He’s fine, Denny’s fine,” I whisper to put her mind at rest.
“I saw him,” I say when I’ve somewhat got my breath back.
“Him,” I repeat, but it’s clear from her drawn eyebrows she hasn’t got the foggiest what I’m talking about. “Jay.”
“What?” she screeches. “You couldn’t have.”
I think after Jay didn’t come back, I was the only one who believed he was still alive. To this day I can’t explain it, but I had this feeling deep down that he was out there somewhere, and that his untimely death wasn’t his reason for not coming back to me. I explained my theory to a couple of people who thought I was crazy, so I buried it down and went along with everyone else. I had too much going on with the death of my mum and Denny’s premature arrival to deal with that too.
“Here,” Frankie says, handing me a pack of wipes from her handbag. “You look like shit.”
I take them and attempt to do something with my face as Frankie makes us both coffees.
I sit myself behind the counter and tip my head back as I run through the events of my morning.
“Go on then,” Frankie encourages as she places a steaming cappuccino in front of me.
I tell her all about being late for school, and the whole time she gives me the evil eye. She’s been lecturing me about how many hours I’ve been working for weeks. I’ve got everything under control but Frankie’s obsessed I’m going to work myself into the ground just like Mum did.
“He was just there, sat in the corner with his head down.”
“How did you know it was him if you couldn’t see his face?”
“I didn’t need to see his face to know it was him, Kiki. I felt it.”
“You felt it?” she repeats sceptically.
I know it sounds nuts, and if someone was telling me this story I’d probably have the same reaction, but that’s how it was.
“What did you do?”
“You ran all the way here? It’s like, three miles.”
“I had to get away. I wasn’t ever meant to see him again, Frankie. I prayed for months that one day I would open my front door to find him stood there. Fuck, I even dreamt it a few times and woke up at the fucking front door. He didn’t come back for me that day. He didn’t want me,” I manage to get out through my sobs.
I drop my head into my hands and break down. Frankie wraps both her arms around my shoulders and holds me while I cry. The pain of that day washes through me once again. The utter devastation I felt, knowing he didn’t come back for me when I was pregnant with his child. Everyone told me he was killed and it wasn’t his fault, but I knew differently. I knew he hadn’t chosen me.
“Don’t shout at me, but are you 100% sure it was him? It wasn’t your mind playing tricks on you? It wouldn’t be the first time,” Frankie asks when I’ve calmed down.
She’s right, of course. For almost a year after that day, I thought I saw him everywhere. I stopped so many guys with dark shaved hair in the street I lost count, and every time I realised it wasn’t them, the pain of losing him would engulf me once again.
“You haven’t been sleeping properly. How many hours did you get last night?” she asks to prove her point. I don’t answer; she doesn’t need me to. My tale from this morning and the bags under my eyes are evidence enough. “Exactly. What are the chances after all these years of you just bumping into him?”
She’s got a point, and although I’m convinced I saw him today, her words do make me question myself.
“Take the weekend off. Get some sleep, recharge your batteries, and see how you feel about it all then. If you really think he’s here, you have to decide what you want to do about it. Go find him, or leave it buried in the past.”
* * *
I spend the rest of the morning with Frankie before she locks up and takes me back to the coffee shop to collect my abandoned car.
“Do you want to come in and get some lunch?” she asks when she pulls up directly in front of the one place I certainly do not want to go in.
“I’m good, thanks.”
“You sure? You look like you could do with a salted caramel muffin,” she says, trying to tempt me with my favourite.
“I need to get home.”
She gives me a long hug before I start towards my car. I feel her watching me and I know she’s worried, but I’m fine. Everything is fine.
Once I’ve showered, I feel a little more human again. Frankie never commented on the fact I’d clearly fallen into the first items of clothing I could find this morning, and I was grateful. It was bad enough looking at her preened to perfection; I didn’t need it pointing out.
I grab my phone and diary and make the call I’ve been hoping to avoid.
* * *
Twenty minutes and a lot of grovelling later, I just about manage to add another month to my deadline. She wasn’t impressed as it’s going to be cutting it fine to get my range into their stores for a spring launch, but it was that or nothing. I’d hate to cancel, but at the end of the day, Denny comes first, and I seem to have lost sight of that the last few weeks.
I spend the afternoon taking stock of where I’m at. I write myself a new to do list and schedule with my extended deadline, and by the time I need to leave to pick Denny up from school, I’m feeling a little better about everything. Well, everything apart from him, of course. I have absolutely no clue about what to do about that, and I’m pretty sure I never will.
In only two weeks, Jay changed my life in ways I could never have imagined, and I will be forever thankful for what he gave me. But at the same time, I don’t think I’ll be able to forgive him for what he took away from me. Him.
* * *
Denny’s face lights up when he sees me stood at the school gates. I’ve been late more times than I want to admit recently, and I hate myself for it.
I desperately want to make it up to him, so instead of heading straight home like he’s expecting, I drive us into town so he can spend his pocket money before a very rare visit to McDonalds.
The joy on his face warms my heart, and for an hour or two it pushes aside everything I’ve been battling with today. This little man is everything. He doesn’t care if I have jewellery in one or a million stores. All he needs is me, and I feel like I’ve let him down.
“Don’t forget Dawn’s looking after you tonight,” I remind him on the way home.
“Yes, I can show her my new racetrack,” he says excitedly, clutching the box I’ve told him he can’t open until he gets home.
It’s Alex’s weekend off. He runs a nightclub in town, and he’s lucky at the moment if he gets more than one weekend off a month. When he is off, he insists on taking me out and spoiling me.
The last year with him has been incredible. He’s been the family both Denny and I were missing. He helped me to see it’s okay to be me as well as a mum, and he’s helped bring joy and laughter back into the house. But above all else he’s been there every time I needed a shoulder to cry on, or to cuddle me after a long day. He’s been hinting about us taking our relationship to the next step recently, but I’m not sure I’m ready for him to move in just yet.
“You look pretty, Mummy,” Denny says when I find him and Dawn, Alex’s mum, sat on the living room floor playing.
“Thank you, baby. Are you going to be good for Dawn?”
He smiles and nods before going back to his beloved trains.
“Thank you,” I say to Dawn.
“You’re welcome,” she says tightly.
Alex pulls up out the front right on cue. I grab my coat and bag before repeating my warning about being good to Denny as I step out into the cold.
“Hey, baby,” Alex says softly as I get in his car. I lean into him and give him a quick kiss. “I’ve missed you.”
“Me too,” I mumble against his lips.
Seeing and hearing him brings everything that happened this morning right back to the front of my mind.
“Where are we going?” I ask when Alex pulls off in an attempt to distract myself from my thoughts.
“We’ve got a table booked at Chiquito’s, then tickets for Thor.”
I put everything I have into looking excited but I fear I fall a little far from the mark.
“I thought you wanted to see it?”
“I do,” I lie. Honestly, I have no interest in watching Thor; I only made it look that way because he wanted to.
* * *
“What’s wrong?” Alex asks as we wait for our dessert. I should have known he’d notice my despondence; he’s too attentive not to.
“Don’t give me that. It’s like you’re not even here.” Hearing his concerned voice doesn’t help. I think I’d prefer if he were angry with me.
“I’m sorry. I worked so late last night that I didn’t get up in time to get Denny to school this morning. I rang Stella and insisted she put my deadline back,” I admit.
“At bloody last. I’ve been telling you to do that for weeks.” He reaches over and squeezes my hand.
“I know,” I whisper.
“Don’t you feel better now? Like a weight has been lifted?”
“I guess.” He’s right, and if it wasn’t for everything else that’s happened today, I’m sure I would be relieved, but all I feel right now is sick and confused.
Frankie can tell me all she wants that it was my imagination, but I know it was him. Every fibre of my being knew it was him sat in that dark corner.
Thankfully, Alex changes the subject to his hunt for a new assistant manager. I do my best to agree and nod in the right places, but fuck knows if I was successful.
The film passes me by in a blur. If Alex questions me about it later I’m fucked because I didn’t watch a second of it. The whole time, thoughts of Jay floated around my head. Our time together played out like my own personal movie as I wondered what to do. Just ignore it and try to get on with my life knowing he’s here? Or do I try to find him?
Was he just visiting Bristol, or does he live here? Was he on leave? Has he met someone else? And then the question that’s been in the back of my mind for years…why didn’t he come back that day?”
By the time I make it into my en suite to take off tonight’s make up, I’m utterly exhausted. I left Alex downstairs to say goodbye to his mum in favour of getting into bed. I feel awful even thinking it, but if I can pretend to be asleep, maybe he won’t touch me. I’ve never once even considered getting out of having sex with Alex before. Usually his moves work wonders, and by this time on our dates he’s got me right where he wants me.
Not tonight, though.
Tonight, I have another man taking up space in my head. One I should have forgotten about years ago.