MAYA. Vanessa rushed into the cafe, stress written all over her face. I didn’t miss that look. For a second I thought I could actually see the shackles on her ankles as she joined me at the table. I’d never been so happy to be a free bird.
I rose and she gave me a firm hug.
“How are you doing?” The question was rhetorical. I knew Reilly was definitely still making her daily life pure hell.
She sighed and dropped into the chair. “I miss you like crazy, Maya. I’m so happy you’ve moved on, but I also kind of hate you, you know?”
I laughed. “Sorry. I’ll try to get down here more often for lunch.”
“Are you job hunting?”
“I’m seeing what’s out there, but I haven’t applied anywhere. I’ve been helping Cameron out with some business stuff at the gym. Otherwise just kind of taking a break. Trying to figure out where to go from here.”
“I’m sure Cameron is psyched to be able to spend more time with you.”
I stalled, unsure of where to start. I didn’t really want to get into where things stood with Cameron right now, but I’d have to eventually. Thankfully the server came and took our orders. I hoped that would distract her, but her focus was fully trained on me, a concerned look in her eye.
Vanessa must have read the hesitation on my face. “Are you two still together? What did I miss?”
“We’re kind of taking a break.”
“Was that your decision?”
“What did he do? Was he a jerk to you?”
I laughed. “Twenty questions, Vanessa.”
She threw her hands up. “I’m out of the loop. Seriously, fill me in. Fast. Who knows when I’ll be beckoned again?”
I sighed. “He wasn’t a jerk.” Far from it. He’d been sweet and poured his heart out to me.
“Well, what happened? For fuck’s sake, spill it.”
“He kind of proposed.”
A deep groove marked her brow. “How does one ‘kind of propose’?”
“I guess you get about half way there before the person you’re proposing to gets that deer-in-headlights look and stops you before you can get down on one knee.”
“What? You stopped him? Why?”
I thought back to that moment. I’d stopped him in his tracks. I hadn’t wanted to hurt him, to play out the old memory that had ended terribly for us both. My anxiety that night had reminded me of the certain misery I would face if I said no, yet I was gripped with what it meant to say yes.
“Vanessa, I lost my job, his mom basically told me outright I was trash, and I’m trying this new thing where I don’t drown my problems in booze. It was too much. If I’d put one more emotionally intense situation on my plate, I was going to snap.”
“So you told him no?”
“I told him I needed time. I didn’t say yes or no. I mean, we talk and we’ve seen each other a few times, but the break has been good for me. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and sort of get balanced again. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt this...I don’t know, stable, I guess.”
“But you haven’t addressed the proposal at all since then?”
“No. In fact we haven’t addressed much of anything. He’s been kind of distant the past couple times I’ve been by.”
She laughed. “No shit.”
“I think if I proposed to a guy, which by the way will never happen, and he didn’t give me the answer I wanted, I wouldn’t be throwing myself at him afterwards.”
“Thanks.” I rolled my eyes.
“I’m not trying to make you feel bad, but have you thought about what he’s going through? You’ve been dying over this guy for years. Yet you’ve shot him down twice, and he’s still in this. That’s nothing short of a miracle.”
“I don’t want to rush into something that emotionally I can’t see through. I’m being responsible for once.”
“Maya, listen to me.” She leaned forward, her eyes gentler. “You love Cameron. I can see that. I’m pretty sure someone would need to be legally blind not to see what you two have. But I’m not you. I don’t know what it must be like to live in that hurricane of emotion, and I sure as hell can’t tell you when to take that leap. I just want you to be happy, and I don’t want to see the person who makes you happy walk because you can’t bite the bullet. ”
The server brought our food, briefly interrupting Vanessa’s rant. I felt sick suddenly. Vanessa’s reaction made all my self-assurances these past few weeks seem shallow and absurd. My eyes welled up with thick tears. I blinked them away before they could fall.
“He does make me happy,” I whispered. “Like I never knew what being happy truly meant until he found me.”
“Stop fighting it then. Be happy. You deserve happiness, and Jesus, so does he. He’s so crazy in love with you, Maya.”
“I just wanted to have a chance to be better for him, for both of us, you know?”
Her lips curved into a sympathetic smile. “Honey, I think all he probably wants is you. Just the way you are.”
Vanessa’s eyes glistened, and my heart twisted more. I was grateful she cared as much as she did. Her phone lit up a second later. She groaned before answering it with a forced smile. After a few terse words, she hung up.
“Reilly is calling me back. I have to go. Are you okay, hon?”
I nodded quickly. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Go.” I waved her off. “The boss needs you. I’ll figure this out, I promise.”
“Keep me posted. I need updates. We can’t go this long without getting together.”
I agreed and gave her a hug goodbye. She lingered, hugging me tightly. I was going to start crying if she didn’t let go, so I was relieved when she finally left me alone with my untouched lunch. My thoughts all swirled around Cameron now.
I texted him on the way home.
M: Dinner tonight?
C: Sure. What time?
M: Pick me up at 6?
C: It’s a date.
I smiled at the reference. We’d gone so far past my juvenile relationship limitations. Making plans to see each other and talk sent a rush of anticipation through me, but Vanessa was right. I’d had some time to sort myself out and I was stalling at this point. Avoiding my deeper relationship with Cameron meant sidestepping the emotional albatross of his proposal. I couldn’t lose him, and I only hoped I hadn’t pushed him too far away.
Just inside the stairwell leading up to the apartment, my phone began to ring. Not recognizing the number, I answered tentatively.
A man’s deep voice greeted me. “Is this Maya Jacobs?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, Ms. Jacobs. My name is Officer Ray Stevens. I’m with the Greene County Police Department.”
My heart fell into my stomach. I sat down on a step immediately. “Is it my mom? Lynne Jacobs? Is she okay?”
He cleared his throat, drawing out the silence long enough that I nearly interrupted him before he began again.
“I’m very sorry to tell you, Miss Jacobs, but your mother has passed away.”
"She was found this morning. It appears she overdosed. We were able to track you down as her next of kin.”
“No.” Everything around me spun. This couldn’t be. No, no, no. God, no.
His voice was lower, muted by the thundering sound of my heart and the screaming denial of my mind.
“I understand if you need some time. Maybe I could call back a little later to discuss your plans for arrangements.”
I shook my head. She wasn’t gone. This couldn’t be happening.
I took a sharp breath. “Yes, later. I can’t talk now.”
That was all I could manage before lowering the phone. I dropped my head in my hands. My thoughts spun, the beginning of a never-ending search for answers I’d never have. For all my focus these past couple weeks, nothing made sense now. Nothing could, because I’d been in the dark for too long. Our lives hadn’t intersected for years. I had no information, and I likely never would. The puzzle pieces would never fit together.
She was gone. Irrevocably lost. All the guilt, worry, and regret I’d tried so valiantly to put away all crushed down on me at once. I was buried in it.
I dragged myself up the stairs to the apartment and headed straight for my room. I wanted to fall onto the bed and cry until my tears ran dry. I wanted to upend my dresser, break everything, scream, and cry some more. But for the life of me, I couldn’t find that person. I couldn’t find the tears that had come so freely lately.
Maybe this was shock, but I knew none of that would quell this kind of pain.
I turned and headed into the kitchen, past Eli, whose gaze was fixed on the television. I found a glass and contemplated the faucet. Water wouldn’t relieve this thirst. The dull craving I’d been getting good at ignoring no longer pulled. It didn’t ask or beg. It screamed, like a ravenous hunger that compounded my pain like nothing ever had. It demanded relief.
With trembling hands, I reached for the cupboard and pulled out the whiskey we saved for pregame shots and really bad days. I poured several ounces worth into my glass, not bothering with ice. This wasn’t about savoring anything. This was about making the hurt go away as fast as humanly possible. I lifted the glass to my lips. I inhaled on instinct and released an audible sigh with the sheer anticipation of it.
Eli’s voice startled me, and I dropped the glass. It shattered in an instant, the contents splashing everywhere. The sharp smell of whiskey covered me. The liquor was wet on my hands and saturated my shirt. My stomach turned. As desperately as I’d wanted it in me, I suddenly wanted all traces of it off of me.
“Shit. Are you okay?” Eli rushed to me, grabbing a towel.
I shook my head violently as I stepped back from the mess I’d made.
“Maya, talk to me. What’s going on?”
“Eli.” My voice was barely a whisper, the words lodged in my throat. A slow tremble took over, my shoulders shaking with the effort to hold myself together. “Eli, she’s gone.”
My eyes filled with unshed tears, confirming the truth we both knew could be a real possibility, even if we’d never downright said it. I dropped to my knees, narrowly missing the shards of glass that had scattered across the linoleum.
Eli knelt down, clearing a path with the towel so he could come closer. He caught my hands. “What happened?”
“Overdose. She…she overdosed, and they found her this morning.”
Someone else was saying the words, I thought, because I still couldn’t believe this was happening. Hot burning tears streamed down my face.
“Honey, I’m so sorry.” Eli came closer and pulled me into a fiercely tight embrace. I hugged him back, letting my tears fall free onto his shoulder.
“I couldn’t save her. Eli, why? Why wouldn’t she let me help her? She didn’t have to go through this alone.”
Eli’s chest expanded with a sigh. “Maybe she was trying to protect you. This kind of thing…it can destroy people’s lives, not just the people using. She probably wanted to keep you as far away from it as possible. Did you ever think of that?”
I shook my head. Could she have been trying to protect me all this time? Maybe, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d failed her, like she knew I couldn’t be the one to help her. Because what kind of person had I become in her absence? How could I have given her what she needed when I was barely living myself? Still, I couldn’t let go of the belief that I could have changed her course if she’d given me that chance.
“She never gave me a chance. All those years…waiting to make it right for us, to make the kind of life we’d planned for. Everything I worked for. Now…”
A relentless, searing pain twisted in my gut. I wanted her back, to see her smile or hear her laugh, to feel her touch, to relax into the kind of healing embrace only a mother could give. Just one more day, one last glimmer of her love.
But I’d never have it again. My body quaked with the force of my sobs.
Eli hushed me. “It’s going to be okay, Maya. She’s not hurting anymore.”
“No.” My voice was a wail.
Her memory was everywhere then, saturating every cell. My skin hurt, everything hurt. The reality that she was forever lost swallowed up any sense my or Eli’s words could make.
Tears crashed over me, wave after wave of a deep drowning sadness. Hard as I grasped for her, to keep her with me in this world of the living, I could feel her slipping away, slow like the tide until I was too weak to cry, too tired to hurt.
CAMERON. Eli buzzed me in, and I bound up the steps to Maya’s apartment. My brain was a cloud of what ifs since she’d texted me earlier. Texts could be vague but the tone sounded hopeful. One way or the other, we needed to talk.
When I walked in, Eli met me with a concerned look.
“Hey, Eli. What’s up?”
“Did Maya call you?” His voice was quiet, almost a whisper.
“No, we were going to have dinner. Is she here? Is everything okay?”
He shook his head, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. My heart dropped. Visions of her blacked out, in danger somehow, gripped me.
“Where is she?” My muscles tensed, ready to spring me in whatever direction she might need me.
I relaxed slightly, but something was definitely wrong.
“Cameron, her mom died of an overdose. The police called her a few hours ago with the news.”
“Jesus Christ. Is she all right?”
“She’s upset. I mean, she was ready to drink a fifth of whiskey but she kind of broke down instead. Thank God I was here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone cry that hard for that long. She finally passed out about an hour ago.” Eli bit his lip.
“She must be destroyed.” My mind was still catching up to the magnitude of this news.
“Did you know she’d been missing?”
I nodded. “She finally told me, yeah. I can’t imagine what she must be going through. Can I see her, I mean... Is it okay?”
He nodded, motioning toward the bedroom.
I crept in quietly. A soft amber glow lit the horizon of the sky through her window and darkness was closing in fast. Maya was curled in a ball on the bed, surrounded by tissues and pillows. I sat on the edge of the bed next to her. I watched her slow breathing, in awe as ever of her beauty and all the strength she carried inside of her. Even in the peace of sleep, her eyebrows pulled together. Her face was pink, the skin around her eyes puffy from all the tears she’d cried. I wanted to touch her, hold her. I fisted my hands in restraint. She needed to rest. I moved to leave and her eyes fluttered open.
“Cam.” Her voice was hoarse.
“I’m here, baby. I’m right here.” I sat back down, relieved that I could touch her. I ran my hand down her arm. Her skin was cold. I was about to reach for the blanket to cover her when she sat up abruptly.
Fisting her hands into my shirt, she levered herself up to her knees and threw her arms around my neck. She said my name again, a watery sob. Silent tremors rocked her frame, and I knew she was crying again. I held her close, but we couldn’t get any closer. She was wrapped around me like a vise, as if either of us let go, we’d fall to our deaths.
She murmured something between shuddery breaths, but I couldn’t make it out. I hushed her, stroking down her back and over her shoulders. God, I wanted to take her pain away. All I could do was try to comfort her, be a rock for her while she weathered the storm. Her sobs slowed, and her breathing evened out.
She sat back. Her hands went to my arms, her grip still bordering on frantic. I caught her hands in mine, rubbing the backs gently so she’d know we were still connected. I wasn’t letting her go.
She looked up into my eyes, seriousness taking the place of her sadness.
“I have to tell you something.”
MAYA. A new wave of sadness hit me when I saw the confusion in his eyes. I had to wash that away. Immediately.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Why are you sorry, Maya? My God, your mother died. Why are you apologizing to me?”
“Because I pushed you away, and I shouldn’t have. I’ve been so caught up with everything, but I never thought about how much I was hurting you. And I’ve hurt you enough. God, I’ve hurt us both…so much.” I bit my lip, nearly piercing the flesh.
“Shh, baby, let’s not talk about this right now. You need to rest.”
“No. I need to say this. I—” I fought the urge to go to him again. I wanted to disappear in his warmth. I squeezed his hands tightly in my own. I wanted to breakdown, to let the sobs I held back pour out of me. I looked into his eyes like he was the only man on earth, because for me, he was.
“Marry me, Cam.”
His lips parted and shut again. His expression was frozen, filling me with an empty fear. Suddenly I worried that this was the worst possible time to say these things. But I needed him now, more than ever. And I couldn’t let another day pass without him knowing how I felt.
My stomach was a hard knot as I waited for him to say something, anything. It was as if my heart had left my body. Vulnerable and exposed, I realized then what it’d taken for him to say those words to me before. He could put my broken soul back together right now or wound my heart so badly I’d never be able to give it to another person. He held my fate with a word.
Had he felt this way? Had I done this to him?
“You don’t have to do this, Maya. We don’t have to.”
“I want to,” I rushed. “I can make you happy, the way you make me happy. I know I can, if you just give me a chance. If it’s not too late.”
“Because…” I swallowed hard, pushing the flood of tears down so I could say what I needed to say. “Because I’ve spent years waiting, trying to control pieces of my life that were beyond my control. Because I’m so goddamn stubborn I couldn’t see what I was giving up when you asked me the first time. I see it now, more clearly than I’ve ever seen anything. I shouldn’t have pushed you away then, the same way I shouldn’t have pushed you away this time. I hate myself for it. Because you’re the only one I’ll ever want, Cam, and we’ve been through enough. I don’t want to fight it anymore. I just want to be with you. I want to be your wife. If you’ll have me.”
His breath rushed out. He stared at me for a long moment. Before the tears caught up with me again, he caught my mouth, kissing me tenderly.
“Cam?” I looked into his eyes, my question lingering between us. “Will you?”
“Of course. I can’t breathe without you. I waited five years, I’d wait a lifetime for you.” He cradled me against him, keeping us close. The promise that I would always have his love filled me. My heart pulsed to life, a healing energy radiated across my chest and tingled down to my limbs.
For the first time in my life, I saw love for what it was supposed to be, for what it always should have been. I let it rush in and chase away the pain. I let it soar, nourishing it with every secret hope and dream I’d held for our future.
I laced my fingers with his, holding his hand close to my heart so he might feel it beat for him, for us. If our bodies were two halves once broken, together we were whole again. And I swore then that nothing would break us again.