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Below his admission of love, he had written more.

I hope you feel the same.

He wanted to know if I loved him, too. And I did. Oh, I did.

Can I see you tonight?


P.S. And as for the other night . . . there are no words, Avery. No words.

I couldn’t contain my grin.

When I realized I was still in the nearly empty lobby, I headed back to my unit to pack up, give my report, and head home.

But before I did, I was going to march straight into Mrs. Jackson’s room to show her that I finally got my flowers, and then tease her about showing up Mr. Jackson’s bouquet today. As soon as I stepped through the automatic double doors, I noticed that the front desk was empty.

And then I heard the low hum. The one that signified a code blue in the unit. It meant the code blue team was gathered in the room of the resident who was experiencing distress.

I’d been through my share of code blues, but this time felt different. I couldn’t get my feet unstuck from the floor. I gripped the flower vase so it wouldn’t slip through my fingers and crash into a million little shards.

Like my heart was doing right now.

I knew with every fiber of my being who the resident having trouble was. And damn it, she’d waited until I was out of the unit to leave without saying good-bye.

That thought alone drove me to action. No way was she going to die while I was off duty. I hastily placed the flowers on the desk and headed toward her room. My footsteps were hollow and tinny against the cold linoleum floor, echoing the beats of my plunging heart.

But as I neared her door, the code blue team of nurses and doctors were already headed out, heads hanging low.

And I knew she was already gone.

My fingers splayed against the wall as I tried to keep all the pieces of myself together. I had never cried for a resident before, outside of my first month, when I was new and green.

But this was no ordinary resident. She meant something more to me. Much more.

My feet were like lead as Lillian rounded the corner from Mrs. Jackson’s room. “I think this was the big one. Took her immediately. They called time of death already.”

I shut my eyes against her words and then felt her cold fingers on my arm. “I’m sorry.”

I waited until the space had cleared before I gathered enough courage to step inside. There were certain procedures that needed to be followed after a death, and a nurse was left in the room to carry them out.

When I rounded the white curtain to her bed, it felt surreal to see her so lifeless. So spiritless. So still.

Her eyes were closed, her arms tucked beneath the sheets, already in prep mode. Her face was free of worry and pain. Almost peaceful. Almost.

I noticed a person slumped in a chair, clutching a bouquet of tulips. Mr. Jackson. I’d forgotten he was still here. He must have alerted them to the emergency.

I sat down beside him in the cream plastic chair, and he took a deep shuddering breath.

At first I didn’t know what to say to him. What could I possibly articulate when the woman he had spent his life with was lying dead before him?

“She loved you fiercely, you know.” My voice sounded vacant and small. “She . . . she was the best kind of person. I’m grateful to have known her.”

A sob escaped his lips, and it reverberated in my chest, creating a gaping hole.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.”

The air whooshed right out of me.

Was this the flip side to love?

You created a life with someone—shared your whole heart, your whole soul—and then one day, they left you. It was a harsh and brutal kind of reality.

And I wasn’t convinced it was worth it.

To open yourself up to someone, only to be left with a cavernous wound.

Mr. Jackson cleared his throat and looked at his wife. His eyes were red, his brown skin splotchy, but his voice was strong. “But I wouldn’t take back one day of our forty years together. Not one damn day. Do you hear me, Louise?”

He was no longer talking to me, and I was glued to my seat, entranced by his words. “You made my life worth living. You made it matter. You made it infinitely better.” His voice cracked on those last words, and he tucked his head into his hand.

I waited next to him as he sobbed into his fingers and then wiped his cheeks with a Kleenex. The nurse cleared the room, allowing for privacy. She patted my shoulder on her way out.

Mr. Jackson stood up and inched toward his wife. Placing the tulips on the pillow above her, he kissed her forehead. “I know I’ll see you again. I have to believe that. God wouldn’t be that cruel, to take you from me without the hope of our reunion.”

I pinched my eyes closed as a tear escaped.

I already knew what it felt like to be without Bennett. But that paled in comparison to what Mr.

Jackson was going through. And now I’d be without Mrs. Jackson, too. Coming to work would be difficult for a long damn time, like having a cloud hovering over my head, raining sadness over me.

But I could hear her voice in my head, urging me to move on, to live my life, to stop being so damn sad.

Just then Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s children burst into the room and gathered around their father.

Tears and hugs, grief and love. All combined in a circle of limbs and heads and hearts.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Backing out of Mrs. Jackson’s room, I recited my own silent and painful good-bye.

I gathered my flowers and coat and walked home in a numb fog.

I considered Mr. Jackson’s words. Making a life with someone was all-encompassing.

You either took a chance or put up road blocks.

Whichever way, you were taking a risk, gambling with fate.

Toying with your own happiness.

My phone buzzed with a text. Ella: What’s new?

Me: Mrs. Jackson died today. I can’t believe she’s gone. On my way home now.

Ella: I’m so sorry. I’ll meet you at your place.

Ella came bearing Chinese food. She let me cry on her shoulder over a bottle of wine. She knew how fond I’d grown of Mrs. Jackson and how the lady had slowly infiltrated my life. Mrs. Jackson made me question my ideals, as if she were a reflection of the person I hoped to become, despite my upbringing, my hardened heart, and my meaningless flings.

We ate ice cream and watched bad TV, and I told her everything.

About my tattoo, making up with Bennett, making love, feeling love.

And it felt good. To let someone in.

“For whatever it’s worth, I’m proud of you, bitch,” Ella said, throwing away our empty food containers. “For what?” I asked before taking the final sip from my wineglass.

“I’ve known you a long-ass time,” she said, topping off our glasses and then sitting back down.

“Your life can be divided into a before and after period.”

I kept my mouth shut, reflecting on her words.

“The Avery before Tim was fun, optimistic even, despite your mother not really acting like much of a parent most of the time. Even after your grandma died, you still seemed to have hope about the future.”

I did. I missed my grandma desperately, but she made me want something better for myself.

“The Avery after Tim was hardened, broken, and closed off. And I got it. God, I so got it.” She adjusted herself on the couch in order to face me better. “Despite all of that, you still tried to have some fun. It’s just . . . the fun was different.”

“Different how?”

“Like you were just filling a need, taking care of business.”

I nodded because she was right. So right. About all of it. I had just been going through the motions, except when it came to school, my job, and Adam.

“First,” I said, “I hate that you just marked my life with that bastard’s name.”

“Why not say his name out loud?” she asked. “You want him to remain anonymous? Let’s out that ass**le! Tim! Tim! Tim! The f**king bastard!”

I laughed while taking another sip and almost choked on my wine.

“Second,” I said, after clearing my throat several times, “your life could be marked by a before and after, too, my dear bitch-ass friend.”

Ella’s eyes darkened at the reminder of her brother’s death, and I grabbed for her hand.

“But shit, I admire how you handled it, Ella. I wish I’d been more like you. You got help and never changed who you were,” I said. “I mean, I saw how you were different, because I’ve known you for so long, but you didn’t let it . . . take you down.” “I love you, asshead.” Ella grabbed me for a tight hug. “Thank you for finally letting me in.

Promise you won’t shut me out again. Or Bennett. Or anybody.”

She was right. I had closed myself off in ways even I hadn’t realized.

“Promise,” I said, but still I hoped I could hold up my end of the bargain.

Besides, if I hadn’t promised Mrs. Jackson might’ve kicked my ass the next time she got ahold of me.

When I next looked at the time it was already nine o’clock. I realized Bennett would’ve been home for a couple of hours by now.

And I had never called him.

I never responded to his flowers and note.

I never invited him over.

Looked like I f**ked up again.

I put my head in my hands, my brain abuzz with worry.

All at once there was knock on my door. My stomach bunched into a hard ball. I was afraid it was Bennett coming over to give me a piece of his mind.

To tell me I’d hurt him again.

Ella answered the door and let him inside. My heart strained against my rib cage. I wanted to race into his arms and push him away at the same time. My emotions were all over the map.

I wanted him so badly that it terrified the hell out of me.

“Hey.” He stood in front of me, and my fingers tangled in the afghan draped across my legs. I couldn’t look at him. If I saw his eyes I’d find hurt, pain, anger.

But if I looked deeply enough, I’d also find love. The flip side of fear, Mrs. Jackson had said.

Bennett knelt down and lifted my chin with his thumb.

My gaze slid up to meet his. His eyes were soft and concerned, not angry.

“Bennett, I’m sorry, I . . .” “I’m here to relieve Ella,” he said. “She called and told me what happened. We agreed to do a shift change at nine o’clock.”

I stared at Ella, confusion in my eyes.

“That’s right, dill weed,” Ella said, her voice smug. “Now make room for him and let him feed you some more ice cream.”

I looked between Bennett and Ella, my heart swelling tenfold.

She grabbed her coat, kissed my cheek, and headed for the door. “You’re in good hands now.” And then she was gone.

Bennett immediately wrapped me up in a hug. “I’m so sorry you lost your friend. I want to be here for you tonight.”

I was so relieved that he wasn’t mad or hurt.

He wasn’t pushing me to think or talk about anything that happened today or yesterday.

He understood that I was grieving and left it at that.

“Bennett, I wanted to call you, tell you those flowers were amazing, and invite you over.”

“Shhhh . . .” he said, wrapping us in the blanket. “We have plenty of time to talk about all of that.

For now, let’s just be together.”

We lay on the couch, staring into each other’s eyes, saying nothing and everything all at once.

I told him stories about Mrs. Jackson, and how she was a pain in the ass, but also pushed me to be a better person. Kind of like Bennett had been doing. Without him even realizing it. He was just being him. Loving me purely. Easily. Incredibly.

Later, we retreated to my bedroom to watch bad reality TV, and he held me all night.

Before we drifted off to sleep, he whispered in my ear, “Avery, I want us to work through the sad and hard parts together. To always find our way back to each other.”

*** The next morning I woke with the initial shock and sting of losing someone.

But underneath the surface of my raw emotions were the underpinnings of truth.

Of love. Of friendship. Of hope.

As I lay awake in Bennett’s arms and listened to his soft breaths, my eyes focused in on his drawing across the room. I considered his bedtime confession and wondered if in fact we had weeded through all that baggage in our paths and finally found a way to each other.

We both had class that morning, but agreed to meet back at my place in the afternoon. Neither of us was scheduled to work, and we wanted desperately to spend the day together.

I called my supervisor to ask if she’d heard about any of the funeral arrangements for Mrs. Jackson and whether I could have the time off to attend. She assured me that I could.

Before we hung up, she said, “You know, every one of us has had a Mrs. Jackson in our lives. A person we’ve grown close to, despite trying not to. And it’s a good thing. In fact, it’s a necessary part of life. It means we’re human, Avery.”

Bennett and I went out for a late lunch and then tooled around the local art museum together. He showed me his favorite artists and helped me appreciate some of their earlier works.

It was comforting to be with him. To do normal things with him. To start folding him in to my life.

We made love that night on my terms. I was on top, and it was fast and frantic, soft and sexy, and everything in between. Afterward, we lay wrapped up in each other’s arms.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of this,” Bennett said, still winded. His hand skated over my br**sts, to my stomach, to my thighs, making me quiver with need again.

And for the first time in years, I felt a flicker of joy.

Incandescent. Radiating inside me and through me.

His fingers reached for my face, and he kissed me slow and melting, his tongue tangling with mine in a way that felt so private. So profound. So right.