I nod as she returns her attention to me. She gives Morgan a half smile and hugs her before pressing her lips to my cheek, letting them linger for a few long seconds.
My eyes close.
“Safe travels,” she whispers over my cheek. Stepping back, she wipes her eyes and finds a bigger smile. “It still sucks that you’re not taking me with you.”
I chuckle. “And you still haven’t found a better word than sucks.”
She shrugs. “Bye.”
Two months later
“Tomorrow is your last day?” Dr. Albright asks.
It’s been forever since I’ve seen her in person. Once I stopped feeling like a failure for giving up on remembering the past, I decided it was time for one last face-to-face conversation, not as doctor and patient but as friends.
“Yeah. It’s bittersweet. Right now it feels more bitter than sweet. Nate and Morgan are family. I love them deeply. Like … I wonder if I’ll love my own child as much as I love her.” I chuckle. “That’s stupid, right? Of course I would. It’s just hard to imagine right now because she’s my—everything.”
“I’m sure you’ll still get to see her.”
I smile past the desolation. “Actually, I’m leaving.”
“Oh? By any chance …” She gives me a hopeful smile.
“No. I moved out of the house last month. I’ve been staying with my mom. I haven’t talked to his family for quite some time. My mom still has lunch with Sherri, but we don’t talk about it. To my knowledge, my mom still doesn’t know where he’s living. Sherri and Scott have been very respectful of his wishes. I think they know telling my mom would be like telling me. And over the past five and a half months, there have been many times I’ve wanted to get in my car and just … go to him.”
I rub my hand over my chest, not aware that I’m doing it until Dr. Albright’s gaze shifts to my hand. It’s possible I always do it when thinking about Griffin. My heart refuses to let him go. For the rest of my life, I could possibly have to massage this ache.
“I hope he’s happy. I really do.”
I rub my chest a little more. What we had was explosive and a whirlwind of mad love. Of course a part of him will always feel like a piece of shrapnel lodged into my heart.
“You’ve grown, Swayze. So much in such a short amount of time. You’ve reconciled your past. You’ve accepted the things you can’t change. And you’ve done it with grace.”
“Ha! I don’t know about that.” She doesn’t know that I went to Doug Mann’s apartment with a bottle of sedatives she prescribed me and a knife. She doesn’t know about the fit of jealousy I had over Apple sitting on my bucket. “But thank you. It means a lot coming from you. I admire you immensely.”
“Thank you, dear. So … where are you off to?”
“I don’t know.” I laugh. “I’ll know when I get there. Crazy?”
Her Cheshire cat grin makes me feel an odd sense of empowerment. “I think crazy is exactly what you need. Send me a postcard.”
I stand and we hug. “I will.”
Morgan Daisy Gallagher
Beloved Daughter and Friend
I sit cross-legged on the ground over the grave, picking at the green grass. “This is it. This is where I leave you … for now. In case he forgets to tell you, Nate kinda dibbed the next time around. So pencil him in for a century from now as your real boyfriend. I think he’ll be a good one.”
Drawing in a long breath, I hold it for a few seconds and let it out slowly along with a rebel tear or two. “You really did a number on my life this past year. I’m not mad. I get it … Doug needed to die and Nate needed closure. Wish I would have figured that out from the beginning. Maybe I could have saved what I had with a certain guy from the grocery store. Maybe not.” I shrug.
“I thought I wanted completely in your head and heart. But I’m glad it didn’t work out that way. I think it would have made it harder to find myself. Not that I’ve really managed to do that yet. Wandering seems like the best thing for now since I’m not sure what exactly it is I’m looking for. A new place. A new job. New everything. Hell, I might even get a new name. Shh … don’t tell my mom.”
I reach into my pocket and pull out the wrinkled picture of Nate that I salvaged from the garage floor after Griffin rode off. “Here. He’s all yours.” I wedge the bottom of the photo between the ground and the headstone.
“You burying me?”
I jump as my hand flies to my chest. “Nate?”
He hunches down next to me and pulls the photo of Daisy from his wallet. “Maybe you’re right. It’s time to let them go.” He slides the photo of her next to the one of him.
“Why are you here?”
“Yesterday was your last day. You said you’d come by to say goodbye before leaving town, but the hugs you gave to me and Morgan felt like the goodbye.” He shrugs. “I get it. Nobody likes to say goodbye.”
I nod slowly. It was goodbye. My heart couldn’t take making it official.
“I thought you might stop by here. Of course I didn’t know for sure. I didn’t know when. But … here we are, unknowingly bending to fate.”
I stare at the letters on the headstone. “Fate …”
“But here’s the thing … I need a real goodbye. One that’s by choice.”
“Griffin just left. He didn’t say goodbye.” I continue to keep my gaze straight ahead.
“And every day you feel cheated.”
“Then don’t cheat me.”
Inching my head toward him, I surrender a smile. He stands, holding out his hand. I take it and let him pull me up. My arms immediately go around him.
“I love you.” I let my emotions out. It’s true. I love him.
Not like a lover.
Not like a best friend—I don’t remember us that way.
Not like a father.
It’s hard to describe. I simply love him like Nate. And maybe the best way to describe it is to say that I love him like a piece of myself.
“I love you too. So much.” He hugs me tightly, his voice thick with emotion. “Thank you for finding me. Thank you for giving me back what I’d been missing for so long.”
“Me.” He presses his lips to my neck, just below my ear. It’s soft, so soft. Like twenty-two years ago kind of soft.
I slide my fingers through his hair, fisting it to hold him to my neck as silent sobs rack my body.
Yeah, goodbyes suck.
I let Griffin go and regret tore me apart. Now I’m letting Nate go, and my heart hates me. It doesn’t understand. It’s not its job. So I just let it feel.
“Let me know you’re alive. Okay?”
I nod, sucking back the uncontrolled emotions.
“Send me pictures of Morgan.”
I wipe my eyes as he releases me.
“Find a real boyfriend. Okay?”
A laugh escapes past my labored breaths, still fighting to deal with all the emotions. “I’ll try.”
Nate smiles. It’s beautiful. I wish I had this picture of him. “I’ll see ya around.” He takes a step backwards and then another, looking handsome and too dang flirty for his own good.
“Ya think?” I grin, trapping my lower lip between my teeth.
He shrugs, taking another backwards step. “I do. We’re timeless.”
More tears blur my vision before I blink them away, my smile growing with each step he takes. Then he turns and continues toward his vehicle, every few seconds glancing back at me. Our eyes meet again when he gets in the driver’s seat. He pulls out, waving like a goofball.
It’s the perfect goodbye.
“Spare battery to charge your phone?”
“Yes, Mom.” I load the final few boxes into my trunk.
“And you promise to pull over for the night as soon as you’re even a little tired?”
“Yes, Mom.” I shut the trunk.
“And you have no idea where you’re headed?”
With her arms crossed over her chest, she bites her thumbnail. “I’m envious of you doing this. And I’m scared to death too. I’m proud of you. But yes … I’m scared to death too.”
I laugh, giving her a big hug. “You could come with me.”
“No.” She releases me. “This is your journey. Make it magical. Be daring … but safe.”
I chuckle. “Daring but safe. Got it.”
“Sunblock and bug spray?”
“Yep.” I open the driver’s door.
“Condoms and lube?” She smirks.
“I’ll pick some up along the way. I think for now, my vibrator will do just fine.”
“Oh. Do you have bat—”
“Yes, Mom. I have batteries for my vibrator.” I slide into the seat and fasten my seatbelt.
She laughs. “Okay. But in all seriousness, take lots of pictures along the way.”
I hold my hand out. She takes it and gives mine one last squeeze.