Souls Collide by Cynthia A. Rodriguez

In the beginning, I was a boy given a chance. I thought I knew what I wanted, and I thought I knew what it would take. I begged for the very situation I was sitting in and I wanted to laugh, but I was still too shocked to do anything but pace outside of this door, my drying dress shoes squeaking against the linoleum. I shucked my jacket somewhere but details like that didn’t matter. I hated the way my shirt felt against my skin, crusted with the river’s dirt and salt, but I remembered what jumping in had meant at that moment. I looked at the door in front of me, it’s unremarkable oak mocking me. Behind that door was my future.
Souls Collide
Souls Collide by Cynthia A. Rodriguez
I didn’t like hospitals. Every memory I had involving them was sour. I thought back to the days Noa and I would volunteer and, although those memories had been sweet, they were now filled with regret that was triggered every time I thought of her. And I thought of her more often than I would have liked to admit. I loitered, knowing full well she wouldn’t see me but hanging around in case she changed her mind. Or on the off chance she’d walk out of there and be all right. It wasn’t fair, but I hoped if Noa saw me, she’d give in. I just wanted to know she was all right. I wanted to…I didn’t know what I wanted anymore. “What are you doing here, Mr. Andrews?” I heard the female clipped tone, and I turned knowing I’d meet those pursed lips and eyes that were always evaluating. “I can’t leave, Miranda. You know I can’t do that.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “You’ve done it before. Why switch your routine now?” She lifted a brow, daring me to deny it. Miranda knew about us; the tragic saga of Noa and Dexter. She knew the shitty way I’d handled things. Noa had played a part in all of this. But I hadn’t done right by her. Not the first time, not the second time. I likely would never be just right, but I only needed one more chance. Was I ready? I couldn’t be certain. “You think I don’t know that I have rights?” I turned my head to watch her eyes widen. “That’s my child in there.” My hand was up and my finger jabbed toward the door that I so badly wanted to enter. Her face remained tight and unmoving, but her eyes swirled with disdain. She held the Styrofoam coffee cup in her hands and, I had to give it to her, she didn’t shake or spill any of it. Part of me was afraid she’d toss it on me. But I’d take a second-degree burn if it meant I got to see Noa. “You have no idea what you’ve done to her, Mr. Andrews. But don’t worry, I can fill you in. I met Noa Cruz when she was eighteen, selling her paintings on the street for not even a fraction of their worth. I found her and I saved her. And when we found out she was pregnant, we were ecstatic. Then, through no fault of her own, Anna…” her eyes watered, “she didn’t come. We have dealt with that tragedy. Was she wrong for not telling you? Yes. But you’ve always been the bad guy, Mr. Andrews, because you’re the fool who left a woman who loved you more than her own life. Twice.” She left the seating area without another word and when she stepped into the room I was desperate to be in, I felt that sad tickle of envy. It was hard to hear; even harder than the items I’d seen in the box. Miranda had been there, not me. It made me angry. I hadn’t been given the chance to prove myself. But like circles, round and round we went. Our mistakes had a tragic domino effect, toppling tiles until we changed. We loved each other so much that we hated each other. How was it that all of my love and all of my hate lived inside of one being? My dreams and nightmares, wrapped in a beautiful package. I still remembered the fresh heat of anger as it coursed through me the day I found out about Anna. I left Noa’s apartment and ran into Miranda downstairs. It seemed she’d been waiting for the explosion. She pleaded with me but I was unmoved. The only thing I was concerned with was where Anna had been buried. When she finally told me, I stormed off. My car was waiting just outside and I climbed in. There were very few times in my life that I could say knocked me flat on my ass. But finding out that all along Noa was the truest deceiver of all definitely did. The ride to the cemetery wasn’t long and when I found her little headstone, I kneeled in the snow and cried. I must’ve been there for a long time because when I got up, I was covered in snow. I got to Everett and I was cold and ill-tempered. Even Phoebe noticed. In a fit of rage I smashed my phone, causing her to cry. Rachel gathered Phoebe in her arms with her stern eyes on mine and told me to get my act together. I locked myself away, ignoring Tammy’s visits and pleas to come back to the office. I didn’t get another phone. I didn’t bother with life. I hadn’t had the chance to mourn Anna. I was mourning her. After two and a half weeks, I went back to work, my new phone in hand. I didn’t speak to Noa at all. I couldn’t. I was so disappointed in her and in myself. I thought I’d only left Noa with a broken heart, but it was deeper than that. Noa’s heartbreak couldn’t be easily fixed. And I didn’t know when I would be able to start healing her when I was just as broken as her. I figured I had time before I had to contact her, before I had to start forgiving her. If I ever contacted her again. But I was kidding myself. I couldn’t be without her. My heart was never mine to give away. From the moment I was tossed back in the stratosphere, it was half held in the grasp of a young woman with hair like a summer day’s sky. Once our eyes met, she tightened that grip fiercely and without mercy until all of it belonged to her. I still loved her through my silence. I yearned for her, for my match. While part of me called for her, another part of me stopped myself from reaching out to her. Because I both loved and hated the woman who was the mate of my soul. I stood and looked in the direction of Noa’s room. She wouldn’t let me in there. Certainly not today. But there was always tomorrow. For now, I had something that needed to be handled. Chapter Two DEXTER I was in my senior year of college when I went home to visit Molly and Tracey for winter break. I’d gotten a call a few days earlier from Greg Sr. telling me Molly had been diagnosed with leukemia. On my way back to Tracey’s from their place, I stopped at the coffee shop. It was the only place that didn’t outright remind me of Noa. I needed time to myself to digest the news that Molly might not be able to fight this thing. It was while I was mulling over my warm mug that I noticed Rachel sitting across the room, mulling over her own beverage. Except she was crying. I hadn’t seen her since graduation and I was genuinely concerned. We’d always been nothing more than acquaintances, but it felt wrong to leave her to her tears. So I got up and walked over to her. She only noticed me once I spoke, seeming startled. Though her smile was genuine, a fresh batch of tears slid from her eyes. It only took me sitting across from her to coax the story from her. She told me about her boyfriend who’d belatedly been diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. That by the time it was found, it was already too late. He died a few weeks prior. And she’d found out she was carrying his child. It was terrible to think it but it was nice to hear someone else’s tragedy. It took my mind off of mine. Between Noa being gone and Molly being sick, I was feeling so alone. Friendship with Rachel came easily. She was sweet and the larger her belly grew, the more hopeful I felt for a life after Noa. After Phoebe was born, I’d been there. When Rachel fretted over Phoebe not having a father, I stood in, vowing to be that and more for the baby. After all, Phoebe brought me back to life. My love for her filled a lot of the emptiness inside of me. When, on Phoebe’s first birthday, Rachel asked me out to dinner, I agreed, thinking it was the natural next step for us. It had only taken a few months for me to end it with her. Though I was respectful and promised it wouldn’t affect our co-parenting, I didn’t miss the way she looked at me or the way her fingers gripped my arms, willing me to stay. But I still left. I wasn’t supposed to be with her and I was a fool to think I could’ve been. Thankfully, she never made it difficult for me to see Phoebe or spend time with her. All through these major life events, Noa was there. When I woke up, when I went to sleep, when I was happy, when I was sad. She lived and breathed, if only in my memories. I wanted her to know Phoebe, to experience the joys of parenthood. With me. Her ghost was more real to me than anything Rachel and I experienced in our short-lived romance. Chapter Three DEXTER I didn’t know what I was going to say as I pulled into Rachel’s parents’ driveway. Phoebe was riding her tricycle and I greeted her with a smile and a kiss. Rachel’s mother stood from watering her plants and I asked where Rachel was. She nodded toward the house with kind eyes and I walked in. Rachel was at the sink washing dishes. When I called her name lightly, she dropped the plate she’d been working on, shattering it. “Did you cut yourself?” I peered into the sink, watching as she reached for the pieces with a nervous laugh. Sure enough, red liquid made its way down the drain. “It’s nothing,” she said as she dumped the ceramic remains into the trash. She grabbed a rag and covered her hand before leaning over to turn off the water. When she faced me, she looked weary. She knew why I was there. She had to have known this day would come. I’d been dealing with Rachel long enough to notice the calculation in her eyes. She was sweet. But she was the kind of sweetness that rotted you, like sugar did teeth. There was always something underneath her that made it impossible to know what she was thinking. I’d avoided this conversation for so long because I’d never fallen victim to her manipulative ways. But she deliberately lied to Noa. I didn’t have the full story, but with Rachel it didn’t matter. “So you told Noa I asked you to marry me.” I sat at the kitchen table and she opened her mouth. “That wasn’t a question, Rachel.” She closed her mouth quickly, looking taken aback. “Why’d you do it?” She clenched her cloth-covered hand and eyed the window where Phoebe was playing just outside. Her eyes flicked back to mine. I was growing impatient. “That was a question.” “I can’t do this, Dex. I can’t talk about this with you right now.” She looked at the floor and moved to return to the dishes. “You can’t talk to me? You owe it to me, Rachel,” I bit out. How could she have done this to me? “I don’t owe you anything, you selfish bastard. I’ve waited. I’ve been good to you. I gave you a child, something that woman couldn’t do. Yeah, I heard about the baby she lost. I overheard Tracey talking about it. But I guess that doesn’t matter since she’s pregnant now, huh?” She was holding her injured hand against her chest, which was expanding and retracting with her frustration. I was out of my seat and in her space before she could finish her question, my arms keeping her against the sink. I noticed the way her skin flushed but I ignored it. “Watch what you say. Especially when you have no idea what you’re talking about.” I clenched my fists. I would never hit Rachel. I cared about her. But this wasn’t the woman I’d learned to care for. Callous remarks tossed out so carelessly…she’d never spoken to me like that before. “Yeah? Why’d you guys break up? I heard you talking to Tracey, Dex. She hid a child’s existence from you! And…we have a family! How could you not have a ring for me?” Her eyes were shiny and her quivering lips pinched together after a moment. But I knew we’d been down this road before. “I already told you, Rachel—” She began talking over me and I raised my voice, wishing she could just understand. But she couldn’t. Life didn’t teach us, didn’t prepare us for having one love and one love only. “You’ll change your mind, Dex. You’ll learn to love me that way—” “No, I won’t. I won’t because you aren’t her, damn it Rachel!” I paused, calming myself down. “Listen to me. I love Phoebe. And I care for you. But when it comes to Noa, don’t get in my way.” I pinned her with my eyes as her tears fell. I strode out of the house, gathering Phoebe in a tight hug and ignoring her grandmother’s questioning eyes. I set my daughter down and got in my car, slamming the door with more force than necessary. I was stuck. I wanted to fight for Noa, to earn her again, but I wasn’t ready to yet. I was still so pissed at her. I was stuck knowing she was everything I wanted, but I wasn’t ready to face her deception. It was tough enough being in love, but being in love with someone who shattered my world, how could I move forward? I headed back to the hospital, ready to loiter again until there was any word on our baby. For now, my job back in Everett—my life back there—would have to wait. Chapter Four DEXTER I thumbed the box I held in my hand, just as I always did when I worked late. It sat inside my desk during the day. I didn’t dare bring it home where I’d be alone with the consequences of my teenage impulses. I had the job. I had the ring. But I didn’t have the girl. So I kept the ring in my office to keep hope alive. And to keep me from feeling like my life was over. The Angel of Death had been right. Life without her was empty. Forever searching…. Where was Noa? Was she alive? Was she happy? Was she as tired of being without me as I was of being without her? “Still here?” Tammy asked as she poked her head in. When I nodded silently, she sighed and walked in, sitting in front of my desk. “You’ve got that sad look in your eyes and that box in your hand. Ever going to tell me about it?” I’d been working at the tech company for about two years, almost three. Tammy knew something. She was a woman. Didn’t they all? I didn’t give in and tell her about Noa like I wanted to. I’d usually say enough to get her off my case. But, sitting there…it felt like I should tell someone. Noa was gone. She wasn’t coming back to me. There was no divine intervention that would force us together again. And if I told someone, if I remembered Noa, I might feel connected to her in some small way. I might feel something. My heart might fucking beat again. I dusted off the memories and as I spoke, I relived. Every moment. They flashed in millisecond revolutions, making it hard to speak. “Her name was—is—Noa. I met her when we were in high school.” The Angel of Death had a sense of humor, linking the boy who came back for love to the girl who couldn’t accept it. I exhaled and continued. “Typical love story. Until it ended.” I shoved the ring box back in my desk and looked up at Tammy, who was shaking her head. Turned out, I couldn’t talk about Noa. It hurt too much to relive. But Tammy knew, just like I did, that it was more than typical. What she didn’t know, what she couldn’t fathom, was what kept me from revealing it all. That there was even an Angel of Death I hadn’t heard from him in years…it was discouraging. “There’s gotta be more to that story.” I shrugged as she sat back in the chair and crossed her legs. “Do you want there to be more to that story?” I frowned. “What do you mean?” “My brother’s a private investigator. He could find her.” She threw her hand up like it was such an easy solution. I’d thought about it many times before. Even wanted to search for her on the Internet but…. “I don’t think she wants to be found,” I said, knowing that I sounded afraid. Because I was. Sure, maybe she didn’t want to be found. But what if I did find her? Then what? “Oh, bullshit. You’re scared.” She set her elbows on the arms of the chair. “But here’s the thing, Dex. If you don’t try, you’re gonna regret it.” Her New York accent tended to come out when she got riled up, and I shook my head with a small smirk at the sound of it. “You don’t know what happened,” I tried to reason. She scoffed. “I know that aside from your baby mama, you haven’t been seeing anyone. Not because the women in this office aren’t all in lust with you. Or the women who stare when we go to lunch. Or the ones when we meet clients. Your eyes are on the stars. That ring there isn’t for Rachel. How do I know? Because those stars in your eyes are never directed toward her. Only for the ring and for what the ring means.” She rapped her knuckles against my desk like she solved a tricky equation, triumph in her eyes. “How’d you—” “Don’t insult me. I’m not blind,” she said with a laugh. “If you need someone to find her, let me know. You don’t have to do anything with the information. Just find out where she is and decide from there.” I dug the box out again and nodded after holding it for a moment. “Find her,” I whispered. “I’ll provide whatever information he needs.” She smiled, standing and walking over to me. When she sat on my desk, I opened the box and she whistled. We stared at the ring together. She leaned back, her palm against the empty space of desk behind her, and swung her foot with a grin. “You make sure, before you even think to find that woman, that you’re ready for her. The worst thing to do would be to find her when you aren’t ready. And I know,” she held up her hand, telling me not to interrupt her before continuing, “I know she’s who you want. But that means nothing if you don’t know what to do with her. She sounds like forever and forever isn’t something to take lightly.” A few days later, Tammy entered my office and closed the door. “It took a simple search on the Internet to find her. Honestly, Dex, you didn’t even try.” I stopped my typing and looked up at her. “I was hoping it’d be a little harder so you didn’t have to know how much of a coward I am.” She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the wall. “What are you so afraid of?” My fingertips drummed on the desk before I pushed my chair away and stood. “Maybe the same thing she was. That big love. And maybe of history repeating itself.” Maybe of not being able to save her…being helpless to her demons. I was afraid that she couldn’t forgive me for leaving her the way I did. How could she? Tammy shook her head in disbelief. “I’ve got my brother keeping an eye on her right now. You gotta see her. This is the most romantic thing I’ve ever witnessed, and it can’t end with you never seeing her again.” I closed my eyes, envious that right now her brother was near her, watching her. Did she still have the blue hair? God, I hoped so. Either way, she’d still be Blue. But I’d have to face her hate to see for myself. Chapter Five DEXTER “I told myself I wouldn’t step in again.” I looked up from my current position, hunched over on the floor just beside Noa’s hospital room door. Doctors and nurses walked past as I looked at the old man seated in the chair like any other person would. Except he wasn’t a person. The Angel of Death might’ve looked like an old man to the untrained eye. But after being caught in his web, dealing with him for years, I could tell he wasn’t of this world. Those wrinkles, the innocence in his eyes, they were all a façade. “Can they see you?” I asked. When a passerby looked at me and the space where I was focused on, I knew they couldn’t. Still, he shook his head with a small smile. “Don’t make me regret this, Dexter Andrews.” “What the hell am I supposed to do?” “What would you do if I told you I was taking you tonight? If you had no more days left on Earth?” He sat back with a twinkle in his eye. I knew he could but…. We both knew that if I was living my last day, I’d find Noa. The door opened and Miranda nearly stumbled over me. I looked over at the old man, who was invisible to the rest of the world, and he nodded. I shoved past Miranda and walked into the room, my heart heavy as I took in a very tired and very pregnant Noa. She opened her eyes and when she saw me, her face immediately crumpled with sadness. She put her hands over her eyes, but I marched up to her and pulled them away from her face. I wanted to see her sadness. I wanted to see it all. And I needed to see it in order to forgive her. “Mr. Andrews. Mr. Andrews!” Miranda was just behind me and I ignored her, placing my hand on Noa’s belly. When I felt movement beneath my palm, I leaned my forehead against hers. “I’m sorry, Blue. Believe me when I tell you it will never happen again. I’ll never leave you alone again.” My eyes began to sting and just as I felt her hang onto me, I was being pulled away. As quickly as it happened, it was gone and she was looking away from me, blinking back her tears. “Is the baby okay? Just—let go of me,” I shouted as a security guard grabbed at me again. “Tell me our baby is going to be all right.” “The baby is fine,” Miranda answered, standing in front of me so I could no longer see Noa. “Not that you’re helping, giving her added stress. Please go, Mr. Andrews. If anything changes, we’ll give you a call.” “Miranda, please,” I whispered. Her eyes softened. “She doesn’t want to see you right now, Dex. Please respect that.” “Why am I the only one who has to pay for shit? Why is it always me?” I shoved the security guard and turned to walk out. “Because you’re only looking at it from your point of view,” the old man called out from his seat, his face partially covered by a dog-eared magazine. I continued all the way to the elevator but when I pressed the button with the arrow facing down, I noticed a familiar face. There was a picture on the wall and the face beneath the glass made me blink a few times. It’d been years since I saw her. Sessie? In memory of… I couldn’t read the rest, my eyes blurring and a lump forming in my throat. For a short amount of time, Secilia had been something like a guardian angel. But, as I’d come to learn, not even angels were safe from death. * * * ●●● * * * Weeks turned to a month and a half. I never got a call. It infuriated me that I wasn’t there for Noa when she needed me. I wasn’t there for our baby. I had enough time to realize that I probably should’ve called her after she told me about Anna. I should’ve been available to her because it was clear she came looking for me. Likely to tell me she was pregnant. I knew I’d always come back to Noa. I was powerless against her. She called to my soul and I had no say in the matter. Still, I stubbornly fought it. My pride and hurt got in the way and I’d regret it for the rest of my numbered days. But I took my time, letting my feelings stew. I thought about all of the times we made love, me taking her without protection like some sort of barbarian. Like she was my property, without a care for her life or her body. She’d said she was on birth control, but I hadn’t done my part to make sure she was all right. It made our lovemaking seem cheap. Like some kind of fuck. While we’d gone rough and fast at times, it meant something. Each touch meant everything. I put my head down on my desk. I had to come back home to Everett. After the stunt I pulled when finding out about Anna, it was a miracle I still had a job to come back to. Tammy walked into my office without knocking. “Pull yourself together, Dex.” She took a seat in one of the leather chairs in front of me and crossed her legs. “I can’t watch you break down again. Twice in one year is going to kill me.” “How do you think I feel?” “Have you talked to Rachel since?” I shook my head and immediately felt like shit. I never went this long without at least calling Phoebe. “The women in my life are bound and determined to run me into an early grave.” “Not all of them,” she said as she sat up straighter. “And I told you Rachel was a little…batshit crazy. I’m sure she was convinced I wanted you or something.” She held up her left hand, her wedding rings glittering impressively. Tammy was right. It hadn’t taken Rachel long to start sniffing around after hearing that my partner was a woman. She’d make little remarks after she met Tammy; mentioning her good looks, her nice clothes in a way that was laced with accusations. But Rachel and I weren’t together at the time. Just co-parenting. “It isn’t like I hadn’t noticed it. I just didn’t think it affected me. I wasn’t sleeping with her at the time, I wasn’t involved with her in that way.” Hell, the few months I gave us a shot, we were rarely physical. It just wasn’t…right. Not like Noa. I couldn’t keep my hands off of Noa. The image of her body, pliant and smooth beneath me had my breath caught in my chest. Teenage Noa had been the stuff of my dreams. In my car when I’d gotten a taste of heaven under her shirt. Supple against me that night at the lake house. Or anytime I saw her. Anytime I touched her. But Noa as a woman, the way we loved one another years later. Just the thought had me pausing and my gut clenching. The way we used each other up, the way she took what I gave her, in whatever way, whatever position, her eagerness spurring me on, her nails at my skin. Shit. I shuffled some papers around, feeling like I couldn’t get a grip on what was in front of me. Sex with Noa was all-consuming. Which was likely why I’d been moronic enough to never question protection on my end. Maybe she wanted another child after losing Anna. Maybe…she was just as caught up in the moment as I was. Maybe her birth control failed. But how was I to know? “So what now?” I dropped the façade and looked at Tammy. “I don’t know. I usually have a plan but…I’ve got nothing. Noa won’t see me, Rachel is delusional, I don’t know anything. And my hands are tied because I’m here. On top of all of that, I’m still dealing with my own shit. Molly dying and finding out about Anna.” I pounded my fist on the smooth cherry wood before running my hands over my face. I wasn’t used to being vocal about my feelings. The only person I’d ever confided in was Ralph and even talking to him, we didn’t hit on the heavy things. I missed companionship. Tammy had a great ear and even greater advice at the ready. “I don’t mind picking up the slack, Dex. But you have to promise you won’t go AWOL again.” She stood and walked over to me, placing her hand on the clear space on the desk beside me and leaning against it. “I can’t have you do that again,” I said as I shook my head. “No offense, but you’re really of no use to me here in the state you’re in. Take a few days, figure things out, and come back.” When I remained silent, she knocked her knuckles against my desk. “I’ll see you in a few days, Dex.” * * * ●●● * * * I woke the next morning to someone pounding on my door. With a groan, I rolled out of bed and ambled toward the incessant sound. I had to blink past the brightness to focus on Tracey standing on my doorstep, a frown on her face and her hands on her hips. I hadn’t known she was in town, but I was too tired to look surprised. “Don’t tell me you’re upset with me too,” I said. My voice was deep from sleep and I wanted to head right back to bed. So I did. She closed the door behind her and followed me, throwing her keys at me when I climbed under the covers. “Dexter Andrews.” I peeked up at her. “Yes,” I answered, willing her to get on with whatever tirade she was bringing to my front door and into my bedroom. “Rachel called me. She’s hysterical, you know.” I groaned and ducked under the covers. “Stop answering her calls, Aunt Tracey.” “She’s Phoebe’s mother. You vowed to help her raise that child. You can’t just walk away from that.” She grabbed her keys from the floor where they’d slid. “Damn it, I’m not!” I whipped the covers off and glared at the woman in front of me. “I’m not wrong here. She lied to Noa. She told her we were getting married. Noa came to tell me she was pregnant and Rachel chased her away.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “You think Rachel ran her off? You did when you left her! Rachel just made it easier for her to stay away. It gave her a reason. But you, you gave her will to. You’re the one who made her leave. If you hadn’t left her the way you did, both times, she would’ve stuck around and fought for you. And don’t you ever raise your goddamn voice at me again!” She stomped out of my room and a few moments later, I heard my front door slam. I flopped back on the bed. Tracey cared. She was always trying to keep the peace. But if she flew out here just to tell me something was wrong, I had to recognize the truth in her words. I picked my cell off of the nightstand and saw that I had a few missed calls. All from Rachel. I pressed the ‘call’ button and on the third ring, she answered. “Dex?” Nothing. I didn’t feel anything. Recognition. But nothing close to the way I was affected when Noa said my name. Dexter. I sighed. “You back home?” “Uh, yeah. We got in last week. Phoebe’s been asking about you.” That made me feel something. “Can I pick her up? I have to go out of town tomorrow, and I feel like shit for not seeing her these last few days.” Silence followed. I heard the slight static of our connection, so I knew she hadn’t hung up on me. “Rachel?” “You’re going to go see Noa?” I blinked at the sound of her name. Rachel was going to make this difficult. “I don’t see how that concerns you,” I said, willing her to drop it. “It concerns our daughter. I won’t have her around an alcoholic.” She wasn’t going to make this difficult. She was going to make this a nightmare. “Rachel. You know she hasn’t had a drink in years. She’s been around Phoebe already.” “Yes, well, I’m her mother, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to have her hanging around someone who flits in and out of your life as she sees fit.” I heard Phoebe cry in the background. “But you were perfectly fine before.” “I just don’t think it’s in Phoebe’s best interest.” “Liar,” I bite out. “We both know what this is about.” The burn of rejection. “I have no reason to lie,” she said loudly. “You never needed a reason. I’ll swing by around three to pick Phoebe up.” I quickly disconnected the phone and set it down on my nightstand before I did something stupid like chuck it across the room again. Chapter Six DEXTER It had been too soon. There was no way Noa would agree to it. But even as I stood on the threshold of her apartment, nervous because she hadn’t answered my calls all afternoon, I felt so sure. Why waste time when it was inevitable? Noa was going to be my wife. For me, this was going to happen whether we waited five minutes or seven more years. I smiled to myself as I knocked, telling myself to get on with it. No answer. A few moments later, the elevator stopped on her floor and I turned to see her carrying a white box, heartbreak written all over her face. What’s wrong? I wanted to just flat out ask, but I still held out hope that this would go perfectly. She’d see me and smile. She’d walk inside, tell me what happened, and we’d get her over it together. And when she finally smiled…I’d ask her. She saw me. There was no happiness. Immediately her companion was on the defense. I hadn’t heard her angry words, my focus solely on Noa. Who still hadn’t smiled at me. She said a few words, her gaze no longer on mine but not on her friend’s either. The woman beside her, who I knew was the owner of the art gallery that showcased Noa’s work, left us. I noticed the flicker of regret in Noa’s eyes just before she let us in. That box in her hands, she held onto it like it was a fucking life preserver. It unnerved me. I walked in behind her, watching as she sat down on the couch, the box still in her hands, propped on her lap. “I had no idea you’d be in town.” “Probably because you haven’t been answering my calls for the last hour. You’ve been crying. Why?” Fuck finesse. I wanted to know what was wrong. My hands were in my pockets, my right hand fondling the wooden box that held the ring I’d had made especially for Noa with my first few months’ pay at my job. That was what love did. It made you unreasonable, a romantic with a target pointed right at your heart. Even three years ago, I had it all planned out. But I could feel in my gut that this was about to go terribly wrong. From the moment Noa stepped off the elevator, she wasn’t someone I knew. And I didn’t know how to maneuver with this person. “Just a tough day,” she said and I knew, just as she did, that she was lying. So I asked the next question on the tip of my tongue. “What’s in the box? You’ve been holding onto it for dear life since you got here.” She looked down and whispered, “This box will kill us.” The room started spinning. In my mind, nothing could kill us. We defied death; we were transcendent. But Noa was scaring me. I went to her, squatting in front of her, asking her what she was talking about. I ran my fingers along the edge of it, touching it, knowing nothing in there could damage what we shared. If I could touch it, it couldn’t kill us. “I’ve hidden something from you and it will destroy us,” she sobbed out. And I knew that feeling that she’d been hiding something…I should’ve listened to it. I gave her so much credit, reasonably thinking that she was honest, that she would share on her own, when she was ready. “Is…is it someone else? I don’t care. I can forgive you,” I said in a panic, my hands fumbling for the ring in my pocket, ready to show her how little I cared about anyone else. That I was hers and that meant she was mine. Didn’t it? That was what I was reduced to. Forgiving, forgetting, putting myself out there like some chump. But I couldn’t bother regretting it. I never would. She got up before I could show her, her back to me. When she told me to open the white box, I pulled my empty hands from my pockets and lifted the lid. At first I didn’t understand the things I was seeing. Until I saw her name: Anna Cruz-Andrews. The day that I was meant to offer my world to Noa, she set flames to it. Chapter Seven DEXTER My phone vibrated against my nightstand, snapping me from my daydream. I glanced at the screen. Unsaved number with a Seattle area code. “Hello?” I stood, stretching. “Dexter? It’s me.” I braced myself on my nightstand at the sound of her voice. It sounded strained and I hated it. “Is everything all right? I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry Blue, I don’t—” “There’s no time. The baby is coming.” My mind blanked. “Is it…are you—wait, is this for real?” I heard shuffling on the other end. “Dex, we’re at Northwest in Seattle. Get your ass here now,” Miranda said before she hung up the phone. I dropped the phone and scrambled around the room, putting on whatever I could find that resembled an outfit. As I got myself together, shoving a toothbrush smothered in toothpaste in my mouth, I wondered when Noa got to Seattle. I was annoyed that I’d been kept in the dark on the entire matter. I spit the minty froth and regarded myself in the mirror as I splashed water on my face. When it came to that baby, I had to put him or her first. I had to let Noa know that I was sticking around, whether or not we were together. But I wanted us together. That was my endgame in all of this. I grabbed my keys and headed out of my house. I had a good thirty minutes of driving to get through before I was even in Seattle if traffic wasn’t bad, which was never the case. I sent Rachel a text, telling her I’d be tied up today, before starting the car. I had to be there for Noa and our baby. I’d already missed too much. As I drove, I thought about everything. About how I felt knowing I was about to experience something that I couldn’t even comprehend. I loved Phoebe. But I wasn’t in love with Rachel. I hadn’t witnessed Phoebe’s birth. I could only imagine how hard it must’ve been. To see Noa in that position? To know what she was bringing into the world was a result of our love, it made me press harder on the gas. I thought about Noa. I thought about the way Noa looked when she painted. And I wondered if I’d ever feel that way about something. Painting was Noa’s passion. She expected programming to be mine, but it was just something I was good at. Something I liked to do. Noa was my passion. She was what made me extraordinary. I made it to the exit in thirty minutes. Everything after that was a blur. I pulled into a parking spot, not caring that I nearly sideswiped the car beside me and ran inside. I looked at the directions and headed up to Labor & Delivery. When the nurses let me in, I gave them Noa’s name. “Has she started pushing yet?” The nurse told me she didn’t know but pointed me in the direction of Noa’s room. I jogged to the door and flung it open, expecting a scene but uncertain of what exactly I’d see. “Thank God,” Miranda said as she walked over to me. I looked past her to see a very flushed Noa. She squeezed her eyes shut and a tiny sound of pain pushed past her pressed lip. I bypassed Miranda and went right to her, grabbing her hand and pushing her hair from her forehead. “Tell me what you need. I’m here. Tell me,” I said, ready to take on the world. “Stay.” Her face pinched and for a few moments, I wasn’t sure she was breathing. Then it all stopped and she relaxed. And I wasn’t angry. I didn’t care that I hadn’t been there for her. That I hadn’t known she was in Seattle. That we had no plans for a name and I didn’t know how we’d divvy up the child’s time or where we stood. I just wanted to be there for her and for our baby. “Do we know what the sex of the baby is?” I asked. My free hand ran over her belly. Her eyes closed. She looked so tired. She shook her head. “We’ll find out soon enough,” she whispered. “Sounds good. Names?” Miranda snorted from her position at the foot of the bed and I caught Noa’s grimace. “Shush,” she told Miranda before turning to me. “I’m so unprepared. I mean, I’ve had more time to think about this baby than you have and you’re fucking calm and I have no idea what we’re gonna do.” She took a deep breath and wiped at the tears that made their way down her face before I grabbed her hands. “I didn’t want to hope. I didn’t want to face that again.” I nodded in understanding, wishing I could take her pain away. “While we’re here, let’s think of some names. And as we go along, the other stuff will come to us.” I kissed her hands. “I’m just happy to be here.” She burst into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. I—” She lost her breath and her eyes squinted before shutting. I looked at Miranda. “Contraction,” she answered. “I should get the doctor. They’re getting closer and closer and these assholes aren’t doing a thing.” Miranda left and I turned to Noa, who looked like the pain was fading. “Okay. Girl names?” “God, I don’t want a girl,” she said with a short laugh. “I love Emily. It’s such a sweet name.” I nodded. “Emily Andrews. Solid name.” She was breathless when she asked, “What about her middle name?” I shrugged. A, B, C…names starting with A. “Um…Amanda?” She smiled and shook her head. Then she said it aloud. “Emily Amanda Andrews.” She paused. “I like it. Sure.” “Boy?” The doctor came in, followed by Miranda. He sat in front of her spread ankles and peeked under the white sheet spread across her. Then he looked up. “Ready to push?” She nodded with a tearful laugh. Miranda stood on her other side and there was a blur of activity. Nurses coming in and out as the doctor prepared for our baby to meet us. Within a few minutes, it was time to push. In between each push, Noa and I talked names. Rather, I made suggestions and Noa nodded or shook her head. “What about Leo?” I asked, waiting for her signal. She nodded her head and held her breath as she pushed. I winced as she squeezed my hand. “Come on, sweetie. You’ve done this. But this time will be different,” Miranda said over Noa’s grunts. The hurt in my heart was momentary but I still felt it. I hadn’t been given a choice, but I had one now. After a few more pushes, the world stopped. “It’s a boy,” the doctor announced as he held up our son. “He’s alive,” Noa whispered in wonder, tears in her eyes, as I snipped his umbilical cord. “Dear God, he’s alive.” The small wail that filled the sterile room also filled my heart. I saw him and I loved him. I saw him and I loved his mother more than I thought possible. I saw him and I had the hope Noa tried so hard to avoid. Dylan Leo Andrews. He was our miracle and I planned on cherishing him the way I should’ve cherished Noa. Her eyes were full and when I kissed her, the tears spilled onto her pink skin. She’d been brave and brought Dylan to life. And she didn’t know it yet, but she brought us back to life. I entered the room, balloons and flowers in my hands, my smile ready. Noa was sitting up with Dylan in her arms. The door shut quietly behind me and she looked up. She smiled sweetly, love in her eyes. “Look. It’s daddy,” she whispered, and I set the flowers and balloons down before looking over her shoulder at our sleeping boy. “How’s he been?” She smiled back up at me. “Alive. Beautiful. I feel like I’m dreaming. Did we really make him?” I nodded with pride. They looked like everything I’d ever hoped for. I felt like I was the one dreaming. “Today was a big day for him.” “Yeah, he’s sleepy. I can’t put him down for the life of me. I just want to stare at him.” She groaned and laid her head on my shoulder. “I’ll ruin him, but I’m so scared I’ll wake up and this will all be a lie.” “He isn’t going anywhere. Neither am I,” I kissed her forehead and she sat up. “Put him in his crib, please.” I grabbed the bundle from her carefully and looked at him for a moment before setting him in the rolling crib the hospital provided. After making sure he was sleeping, I turned to Noa, who was looking awfully serious for such a joyous occasion. “We’re parents now. We have to talk about what that means,” she said, her eyes on mine. “Don’t you mean you have to tell me what that means? This entire time, you’ve been calling the shots. Is that honestly going to change?” I set my feet apart and crossed my arms over my chest. “I don’t want to argue. I just…we aren’t together. And maybe that’s for the best.” “The best for you?” She shook her head. “The best for him.” I glanced at the sleeping baby. “How is us being apart better for him? Shouldn’t we be a family?” “You can honestly move forward with me without any anger? Without any grudges? Because I’m not sure I can, Dexter. And Dylan doesn’t deserve that. He deserves to know happiness.” I opened my mouth and shut it, thinking it best not to say what I wanted to. She could be angry that I left. But my anger certainly felt more justified. Instead, I offered a peace treaty. “I never asked Rachel to marry me.” She smiled and shrugged. “Does it even matter anymore?” It did. It did to me. Chapter Eight DEXTER Noa was released a few days later, and though I followed her home to make sure she didn’t need anything, after a while it was evident I didn’t belong there. Dylan was safe and taken care of, and though I promised to head back the next day, I wanted nothing more than to climb into bed with her, to fall asleep as my son did and wake up when he did. It bothered me that she’d have to deal with his feeding and changing alone. It bothered me that she didn’t want me there, holding her as she slept. She didn’t want me there to help her at all. When I voiced my concerns she shook her head, telling me it was okay. So life went on. I went back to work. I pretended I was happy, and though Tammy grilled me for updates on Dylan and Noa, I brushed her off in a way I hadn’t before. My alarm clock went off but I’d been up for hours, and when I reached over to shut it off, I realized how quiet my house was. It didn’t always bother me. Not until I realized what noise it could’ve been filled with. Noa’s voice, Dylan’s cries, and Phoebe’s laughter. That’s what my perfect world could’ve sounded like. I got in the shower and tried not to think about it as I scrubbed my skin and washed the hair I’d have to pull back today. It was getting too long to wear down. The absence of the hot water when I turned the shower off had me reaching for my towel quickly. I wiped the fog from the mirror, my eyes immediately drawn to the words in my skin. My mind was already Noa’s, but now she owned my body and she’d always own my soul. Every time I saw the tattoo, it was like a portal straight to Memory Land where Noa was the ruler. The sweetest hell. It was no wonder she could so easily forget. I’d been the fool to get a tattoo as a reminder of her ownership of me right where I could see it every day. She’d been the smarter of the two of us to get it somewhere she didn’t have to see it. But did anyone else ever see it and ask her what it meant? And if they did, what did she say? What did she feel in that split moment when she allowed herself to remember that night when we ventured out into the world after hours of lovemaking and marked each other in a way the world couldn’t ignore? Did I own her in that moment? My chest constricted at the thought. Even if she was mine for only that moment, I’d take it. Moments strung together like Christmas lights were enough to make the world just a little brighter. I didn’t wipe the mirror when my image began to cloud with steam again. The dark smudge of the words in my skin were still visible. I remembered those four words and what they meant to me. She only seems free. She no longer seemed free. She was free. Noa was free of me. I dressed with care, as I usually did. Having a put-together appearance usually kept people off my back. If I looked like I had it all, no one would doubt it. I was grabbing my favorite pair of dress shoes when my hand brushed against something. I closed my eyes momentarily before grabbing it and straightening. My camera. The one Noa had gotten me for Christmas. What Noa didn’t know was that this device, built with plastics and metals and glass had moments of ours trapped inside. I turned it on, ignoring the flicker indicating a low battery. A few button presses later and there she was. The smooth expanse of naked skin, her hair piled on top of her head, her fresh tattoo, the bubbles surrounding her. I caught her before I started cooking dinner. Pressing the button with the arrow pointed right, it was like watching her come to life in slow motion. Each inhale, exhale, and inhale…as if she were taking deep calming breaths. If I listened close enough, I could hear the sound of the water filling the tub. The camera’s screen shut off, and just like in real life, I hadn’t experienced her nearly enough. A story without a conclusion, a movie cut off nowhere near the end credits. I shoved the camera back where it was hidden. I wouldn’t charge it. I hadn’t touched it since the day Noa gave it to me. As I turned off the light in the closet, I shook my head. I’d likely charge it as soon as I got home from work. Each memory was a hit of emotion. It reminded me that I was living and breathing. In time, Noa and I created a pattern and though I tried so hard to show her that I wasn’t going anywhere, she still closed the door every night when I lingered with love in my eyes. It was hard for me to leave them, but I did it because she needed that. And I was still going to be the man to give her whatever she needed from now on. Dylan grew and grew under the unconditional love Noa gave him. She was exhausted and I always offered to stay over to watch him, but she’d just tell me it was fine as her own career suffered. Whenever I enquired about her finances or offered to take care of something, she just shook her head. There was never a fight, and that scared me because Noa was a fighter. She was the kind that’d tell me where to shove my money, but the fact that she wouldn’t curse or raise her voice—hell even talk sometimes—it felt like here was no hope. So when Ralph called to tell me he was in town, I invited him out for dinner. I’d squeezed in a visit with Dylan that afternoon after his six-month check-up, and he was crankier than usual, only wanting Noa, which she blamed on his shots. I pulled into the restaurant parking lot, happy to see it wasn’t packed. I didn’t mind driving to Seattle because the food was a lot better than in Everett and the scene was more Ralph’s tempo. I was a little early so when I was seated, I pulled out my phone to call Noa and check in on Dylan but it went straight to voicemail. When Ralph appeared beside me, his hair thinning a bit already at the top of his head, I grinned. It wasn’t often that I got to spend time with Ralph, certainly not time when it was just the two of us, without the baggage of adulthood. While part of me yearned for the days when responsibilities weren’t knocking on my door, I knew better than to dwell on it. It was a miracle I’d even been able to experience those moments. “So, what’s new?” He slid in the booth across from me and when the waitress appeared, he ordered two beers with a wink. Some things would never change. “How’s Nina?” He shrugged before settling in further. “How’s Noa?” “Touché,” I said as he grinned at me. “I railed on you so hard for Becca, and I ended up with an exact replica. All plastic and no heart.” When his phone rang, he looked at it before silencing and ignoring it. “Nina’s not that bad, Ralph. I can’t speak on Becca because I don’t know what our relationship was like. But Nina doesn’t…she doesn’t sleep around, right?” He shook his head slowly. “You know, I was affected by you.” I frowned. “What are you talking about?” I smiled at the waitress when she set down the glasses in front of us. “Two steaks. Ribeye. Medium rare.” She walked away, and I waited for him to pick the conversation back up. “Look, what happened between you and Noa…that shit was crazy. And then finding out about Molly and Greg, and fuck, man. The things you told me, the shit I saw for myself. That soul mate stuff is no joke. And not something I’m really cut out for. But when I see you guys together, it’s just…right. I don’t know what I’m saying, and I sound like a sappy little shit but I got scared. I want nothing to do with the soul mate business. But is it easier for me to be with Nina and feel like I’m missing out, or wait for the odds that I actually have a soul mate and it just be too fucking hard to even get it right?” He looked down as his fingers toyed with the metal utensils on the table. When he looked back up at me, his eyes were misty. “I’ve never been that lucky a guy, Dex.” I sipped my beer and looked out of the window as I thought about what to say. “Being with or being without. Which is worse?” Ralph nodded. “I’ll tell you this: I feel more at peace struggling with Noa than being content on my own or with anyone else. I would take our tumultuous relationship, five minutes with her, than a whole life of contentment. I know there are people who would think that sounds insane, and you’re included in that number. There are people who will look at my life, my financial stability, the work I do and tell me that is enough. And for some, it is. I applaud them. But that isn’t my story. I’m not meant to just have gone to school, go to work and be a successful and educated man. Those are perks. My story, my reason, is Noa.” “Even though you guys aren’t together?” I nodded. “Even still.” “Even if she’s seeing someone else?” I stilled. My blood turned cold. “Even still.” I wanted to sound certain but even to my ears, I heard the angry fear. It was then that I noticed Ralph’s eyes were looking past me. I turned and just before I saw her, the hair on the back of my neck prickled, the way it always did when she was around. At the sight of a man leading her to a table with his hand on the small of her back and then pulling out a chair for her, the room got hot. Or maybe my face did. When, after a few minutes, the waiter came back with a bottle of wine and Noa politely refused, her cheeks pinking with that unnecessary embarrassment, I stood. She looked right at me. I hadn’t expected her stare, but I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen her. She excused herself and made her way to me. I met her halfway, just beside the hostess’ podium. “Hello, Dexter.” So formal, so polite. So unlike her. “Hey, Bl—Noa.” She winced at my correction and I instantly wanted to start over, wanting to go back to the moment I noticed her and grab her, throw her over my shoulder and make her listen to me, but that wasn’t my style anymore. That would never work for Noa now that she was convinced being apart was best for Dylan. I was the stone, unmoved, steady for her. But she was the water that shaped me. And try as we might, we could never quite capture water with our bare hands. Certainly not if we tried to squeeze it in our fists. She leaned a little to see behind me and offered Ralph a small wave. I envied the smile he got when all I was given was an awkward approach. “Where’s Dylan?” I asked, wishing we weren’t experiencing this strange moment. I didn’t ask because I was concerned for him. She’d never leave him with someone she didn’t trust. I just knew he was a neutral topic for us. A safe zone. “He’s with Miranda. He’s feeling better and she loves him so much.” She smiled and just as her nerves started to settle, she looked back at her table. “Um…I should probably get back to—” “Your date?” There. I said it. There was no denying it, not after she confirmed it with a short nod. “This doesn’t make you uncomfortable, does it? I mean, if it bothers you, we can leave….” She gestured back to her table, and I bit the inside of my cheek. We. Them, they, those people. I was no longer part of her team. “Don’t be silly. Stay. Eat. No big deal.” She smiled and turned. Halfway to her table, she looked back at me. Those soulful eyes. I could see her. I would always see her. In a way that no other man ever would. “No big deal,” I whispered. “Just watching my soul mate walk away.” Chapter Nine DEXTER Noa had been dating Theo for three months now. She moved into a nice house in Everett in an effort to make it easier for me to see Dylan. But the hope that move had given me was snuffed right out when I noticed how often I was seeing Theo. I tried to give them space, to pretend I was happy for her as I picked up our son for the weekend because they were going on a trip. I tried not to wonder how he’s touched her, if he’s touched her, but there was this look that passed between them that told me he knew what it was like to have her beneath him. I tried not to think about that as the weekend went on, but when it came time to drop him off Sunday afternoon, I had to brace myself. I had to see the woman I love with another man. It didn’t cease to gut me as time went on. It was just a wound that reopened with every display of affection. I smiled as she opened her front door and reached for Dylan. He cried as I handed him over, and I nearly offered to come in as I noticed the beginnings of a tantrum but stopped when Theo came to the door and held his hands out to Dylan. I ignored the unreasonable anger I felt when my son went to him and Noa shot Theo a grateful smile. Was this something that Theo always did? They kissed and I was more an outsider than anything. It fucking sucked. So after I dropped Dylan off, I didn’t go home. I was a little too on edge to be left to my own corner of hell where the walls were closing in on me. I found myself at a bar with a shot of Patrón between my palms. I didn’t normally drink, let alone tequila, but it would provide a burn to compete with how I felt inside when I touched her. Four shots later, someone sat beside me. Only when she spoke did I glance her way. “Give me two of whatever he’s having and keep them coming.” Her voice was a little raspy but breathy and sexy and when I looked up, there was a dare in her eyes. Maybe I was imagining it, but they were speaking to me. They told me to forget fate for a night. They said that if I couldn’t experience love, experience her. It wasn’t until we were an hour into vague conversation and four more shots into liquid courage that I accepted the challenge. Somehow I was in the bathroom and she was on her knees. All I managed to think about as I ran my fingers through her dark hair was how dirty the floor was, and though it should’ve turned me off, my orgasm hit hard. I didn’t remember how I got home. I didn’t remember bringing her into my room and screwing like animals. I didn’t remember passing out with the condom still on. All of those things I didn’t remember until I woke up and staggered to the bathroom. Vomit hit porcelain as my doorbell rang. I glanced at the sleeping woman in my bed before slipping clothes on and heading to my front door. This wasn’t the first one-night stand I’d taken part in. I’d had a few in college before I linked up with Rachel. The guilt I felt then was nothing compared to how I felt when I opened the front door and came face-to-face with my fate. “Hey!” Her voice was cheerful but it didn’t quite reach her eyes as she looked me over. “You look like shit.” I tried to laugh but could only muster up a small smile. I ran my hands over my face, wishing I could somehow change this situation. “What’s up? Is Dylan okay?” She nodded quickly before clasping her hands together and looking past me. “Yeah, I just think you have his hippo. I called a bunch of times and stopped by last night but you weren’t here. I ended up having to drive around all night just to get him to calm down.” It was then that I noticed the slight darkness under her eyes. I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell Theo had done to help. Probably nothing. Shit, I thought to myself. The one time she needed me…. “Sorry. I’ll go grab it.” I turned and headed for Dylan’s room, leaving the door open and her on my front steps. When I checked his crib, I didn’t see it. Despite the wave of nausea that hit, I crawled on the floor to see if he dropped it over the edge. I checked his closet before remembering that he’d been playing with it in the living room as I got ready to bring him to Noa’s. I found it just under the couch and when I rushed back to the front door, my body hated me. I slowed as I saw that Noa stepped inside. Her eyes seemed so tired and defeated and I immediately wanted to hold her and say that it would be okay, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch her after being with another woman. It felt wrong. I glanced up the stairs and back at Noa, and she caught the flicker of regret even if she didn’t know what it was. “Thanks,” she said as she pulled the hippo from my grip. I let out a relieved sigh as she headed toward the door. I didn’t want Noa to know about my nameless visitor. It would kill any chance I had of winning her back from Theo. She was on my front step when she turned, bumping into me. She stepped back a little and held the hippo to her chest. “Sorry, I just didn’t realize you had company. I won’t show up unannounced anymore.” Her words were said in a rush, the way she usually said things that bothered her and she wasn’t sure how to proceed. I turned to look inside but no one was behind me. I was left confused in her wake until I heard her car start. Then I headed inside and upstairs. My bed was empty. The house was empty, I realized as I checked all of the rooms. There was no note. Nothing. She must’ve dashed out when I went to get that fucking hippo. The hell I attempted to evade last night refused to let up, and those walls that were closing in pushed all of the hope from the room. Chapter Ten DEXTER The water was so high. But it wasn’t high enough for me to reach her. Every time I touched the tips of her fingers, her hand slipped out of my grasp. Her eyes held panic that confirmed what I thought all along. Noa never wanted to die. Even when she thought it’d be easier. Even when her heart was broken. Even when she wasn’t winning her war. When I saw her face settle with peace just before her hand slipped from her grip on the broken wood, I knew she wasn’t giving up. She just didn’t know how to fight anymore. So I fought for her and jumped in. I didn’t know if either of us would make it, but she deserved a fighting chance. As did the baby she was carrying. Our baby. It was like déjà vu when I jumped in, searching for her, but this time, the water was much more violent. As rain pelted down, I tried to look for her. A few yards away, I saw the fabric of her black dress. I pushed my body against the water, ignoring the burn of my muscles. Once she was within reach, I grabbed her, keeping her head above the surface, and we made our way down the river together until we reached calmer waters. I carried her to the water’s edge and checked her pulse. She looked like she was just sleeping, her breathing shallow but steady. I picked her up and carried her to the nearest building, a house that looked worse for wear. When an elderly woman opened the door, I yelled to call an ambulance. While we waited, I couldn’t not touch her, not rub my hands on her stomach, not pray to the old man that if he gave us another chance I’d do better. It was selfish to ask, I knew. I’d been given nothing but chances all along. Only once the paramedics took over did I let her go. I’d always fight for Noa. Even if it killed me. Even when I hated her. Even when she was a liar, a heartbreaker, and a villain. Even when she took the soul I offered and ripped it from my outstretched hands. Yeah, I saved her. Until I drowned. Quote As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge, Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time: You become an image of what is remembered forever. —Rabindranath Tagore, “Unending Love” Chapter Eleven NOA “Fuck you,” I spat at Tim. He looked at me with his sad glassy eyes, and I wanted to hit him until he couldn’t see anymore. Who was he to look at me that way? We were equally screwed; two sides of a dirty penny. Worthless and covered in the grime handed down to us from our parents who never cared to look back. “I just want you to be better than me,” he shouted. I ignored the slur of his words. I was accustomed to it. My brother, the somewhat functioning alcoholic, was speaking to me, his seventeen-year-old sister who was following in his footsteps. His slur matched mine. He’d caught me in his liquor cabinet again. And it was likely he’d catch me in it again and again until I was old enough to buy my own. I didn’t want to be better than Tim. I wanted to be the broken and sullen teen. I wanted to hurt anyone who put their faith in me. I knew pain. It was easier to dish out what I felt. “Whatever,” I said as I pushed past him. But my mind was fuzzy and my body couldn’t quite follow commands. So instead I fell, narrowly missing bashing my head against the edge of the wall. I laid there, content not to do anything. I was a mess. I’d probably die sooner than any of my classmates. But it was fitting. Trash taken out before the stench of it ruined the rest of the world. That was my final thought before the blackness that I craved started to take over just as bile began to fill my esophagus. I felt my throat seize and heard Tim stumbling around, trying and failing to help me, and I knew that I wasn’t going to make it. This was it. And despite it all, I tried to fight it. I want to live. Chapter Twelve NOA I unlocked the front door and walked over to the kitchen, setting everything I had in my hands on the table. My kitchen table was a mess. Always. It was my sanctuary. All things I walked into my house with ended up on that table. I looked around. My space was different now that I had an eighteen-month-old baby. I hated that I couldn’t just say he was a year and a half. I used to roll my eyes at the women who spoke the way I did now. I had less time to clean and more people to clean up after. I missed being alone, sure. But I loved Dylan with pieces of myself that I never knew I had. Pieces that soothed the spots of my heart that Dexter had killed. Dylan brought those pieces back to life. It still hurt. But it was bearable with that little boy. “Sweetheart?” I turned at the sound of someone coming down the steps. Theo. The man I was in a relationship with who lived in my house and added to my mess. Sure, half of the bills were taken care of. And he was a doctor; a surgeon. But he called me sweetheart and, despite myself, I knew I was just trying to find the calm after the Dexter storm. Theo was that calm. He was predictable and reliable. He wasn’t too much. I was the only one who tended to be a little much from time to time, which he took with grace. It was strange. “Did you put the clothes in the dryer?” I asked as I watched him begin to put away the things I’d set out on the kitchen table. Okay. Maybe he didn’t add to the mess. “Mhm.” He leaned close and kissed my lips. Don’t do it. A kiss is a kiss. I was lying. A kiss wasn’t just a kiss. It was a reminder of everything I was doing wrong. And I did it anyway. I thought of Dexter. Every time. I couldn’t help it. Dexter was what I knew. He was my baseline. And, man, did he set the standard pretty fucking high. Didn’t matter that I’d been with Theo for over a year and that he’d moved in a few months ago. Didn’t matter that I had sex with him regularly. It didn’t matter. I was the world’s biggest liar. I could fool everyone except myself. I wondered if our relationship would have a better chance if Dexter weren’t around, but the mere thought of not seeing him made my stomach sink. I couldn’t fathom a world without him in it, even if he was no good for my sanity. “Thanks.” I sighed and sat at the now-clean table. His hands spread on my shoulders and he began massaging, much to my delight. “No problem. Dylan’s asleep upstairs. Dexter dropped him off while you were gone.” I stiffened slightly under his touch. Part of me was sad that I missed seeing Dexter. But it was what was best. I usually made sure I wasn’t present for the handing over of the kid. The first few months of Dylan’s life had been hard enough, seeing him, knowing what we both wanted. Each other. But I wouldn’t do that to myself anymore. Not with Dylan to think about. I had to be responsible for him. I couldn’t give everything to Dexter anymore because I had someone who needed me more. And Dexter, when he had me, had tossed me aside like I was nothing. To Dylan, I was everything. “I’ve got to head to the hospital. Don’t wait up.” He kissed the top of my head and I sat at the table, still watching the wall in front of me as I heard him leave. My world had gone from one of color and passion to me staring at a slate grey wall. I knew it was slate grey because Theo had insisted on it for the kitchen. The grey that reminded me of Dexter’s bedroom; the one I spent my teenage nights in. I was obsessed, making connections to that boy and that time. The doorbell rang and I got up to answer it, a small frown on my face. It couldn’t be Theo. I heard him grab his keys…. I pulled the door open and blinked. Hair still longer than acceptable, smile still sinful, eyes still sweet. Dexter Andrews stood on my front step, his arms crossed over his chest easily. He’d chucked his suit jacket somewhere and I could only stare at the sight of him in his white dress shirt, its collar open and tie loose. “I was hoping I’d catch you, Blue.” He’d catch me all right. If he kept looking at me that way, he’d catch me right before I hit the floor. Yes, Dexter Andrews was swoon-worthy. The smile that stretched my features wide as I leaned my head against the door was involuntary, and I let it drop the moment I realized how inappropriate it might seem. I walked back inside, leaving the door open for him to come in if he wanted. I was sure it looked like I wasn’t affected by him. That was what I was aiming for, after all. If only he knew I walked away to avoid facing the scent of him. “What’s up?” I grabbed a can of ginger ale from the fridge and faced him. He didn’t speak at first, his eyes taking their time, perusing my features. He wasn’t standing close to me, something I appreciated but also hated more than I would have liked to admit. The charge that I felt whenever he was near hadn’t faded through the years. If anything, it increased. Like my body was telling me, you idiot…he’s here. He opened his mouth to speak and was interrupted by a wail. My eyes went to the baby monitor, and I set the can down and walked quickly toward the stairs. “I’ve got it,” Dexter said as he touched my arm to keep me from continuing. I was branded. That’s what his touch felt like. It lit me up and burned me alive. When I was sure he was out of sight, I let out a hiss of air. He had to leave. I straightened when I heard him coming down the steps slowly. I turned, faced with an image that melted the bits of my heart that felt more and more like ice. Dylan was wiping at his sleepy eyes, his puffs of hair sticking up. Dexter was looking at him with adoration, and I knew I was in dangerous territory. If Dexter’s touching me was weakening me, seeing him with our child knocked me flat. “Mama,” Dylan whimpered, holding his little arms out to me. In that moment, I was his favorite. It was subject to change, dealing with toddlers, but it felt nice. I took him in my arms, kissing the top of his head and remaining silent as he battled his sleepiness. “He looks more and more like you every time I see him,” Dexter said from his position against the wall behind us. I tried to set the baby down, only for him to scrunch up his face and cling to me. Well, there go my arms. I looked down at him. It was true. Dylan looked like me. The dark wisps of hair, the complexion, and his lips. He looked just like his mama. But those peepers? His eyes were all Dexter. They were unnerving. Sometimes I’d catch him looking at me and I’d have to fight the flashbacks. Dexter’s eyes were probably my favorite part of his face. All of that sparkly blue. Dangerous, despite my knowing the depth of his love. The danger wasn’t necessarily Dexter’s fault. It was the way he was. All or nothing. Intense emotion that made you forget yourself. And Dylan couldn’t suffer that obsessive love we shared. “OK, papa. Let’s see what I can put together with you in my arms.” I rifled through the cupboards, pulling out the ingredients for dinner. Midway through my preparations, Dylan squirmed out of my grip, content to scoot around, despite having the ability to walk. My crazy boy, I thought as I grabbed the chicken I’d defrosted. Dexter stood there the entire time, keeping me fidgety. “You’re different,” he said with his head slightly tilted the way I always did. They say people tend to pick up the same habits as the people they love. I picked up his thoughtful silence and it screamed of my love for him. Did that gentle tipping of his head mean the same thing? I shrugged. “I mean, I kind of had to be, with Dylan. I needed you to accept me the way I was back then. It was just what I needed. But now Dylan needs me to be better.” I looked away and started cutting potatoes. When I looked over again to check on Dylan, I noticed Dexter sitting with him on the floor, playing with him. “Staying for dinner?” I asked. “If Theo doesn’t mind.” He didn’t look up from Dylan’s toys. “He’s working.” So awkward. “And it’s not like he hates you. You’re Dylan’s father.” “Ah, yes. But he and I both know that isn’t all I am,” he murmured. “I’m a little excited. I’ve never had your cooking before.” I clenched the knife tightly in my hand. I chose to ignore him and seasoned the food before preheating the oven. I swore I heard him laugh but when I turned, he was looking at Dylan’s blocks, stacking them with determination. “What are you doing?” I asked, trying not to smile at the sight. Dylan noticed his father playing with his blocks and brought his attention to them, smashing what Dexter had created. “Oh, man,” Dexter exclaimed before grabbing Dylan and tickling him. My little boy’s laughter made my heart constrict. Our little boy, I thought to myself. When Dylan reached for me to save him, I washed my hands and headed toward the chaos on my kitchen floor. By the time I wrestled Dylan from Dexter’s clutches, the oven dinged, indicating that it was preheated. I got up and put the chicken in the oven. “Come here, Blue. I need your expertise.” I straightened, only losing half of my breath over the name Dexter used to always call me. “What do you need?” I squatted down, making myself eye level to Dylan, who sat quietly as Dexter built the blocks up again. When Dylan seemed content to move on to his other toys, I faced his father. “I’m the architect. But I need a designer.” His eyes that were once focused intently on the matter at hand moved to me. The crystal clear blue dominated my thoughts, but even my memories couldn’t do them justice. He smiled and I blinked away. Dylan was none the wiser, playing with a toy car beside us. “How does it look?” Dexter asked me. Red, yellow, blue, and green blocks made up the towering building, in no specific order. But because I didn’t want to sit there and stare at Dexter all night, I reached for the uppermost block, blue, that happened to be on top of another blue. “Too much of one color isn’t a good thing,” I whispered as I moved to set the block down. He grabbed my hand, stopping me. My lips parted as he took the piece of smoothed wood from my hold and put it right back on top. “No such thing as too much blue.” His hand was still holding mine and the more I remained still, the more he corrected himself until his palm was against mine. Pulse against pulse. Both of ours beat strongly against each other. The same way our love did; beating and battering each other near death. But it felt fucking amazing to touch him and to be touched by him. He filled me with such life. Hell, he reminded me I was alive, in a more potent way than breathing ever could. He was a reminder to my heart, my head, and my hormones. My defenses were lowering, each of them falling like the tower of blocks Dylan had smashed a few minutes ago, when the sound of keys pushing into the lock had me jumping back. In an effort to remove my hand from Dexter’s I hit the blocks and they hit the floor. Theo looked up at us as he removed his key from the door. Why was he back so soon? “Hey, my meeting got can—Oh, hey, Dex,” he said, making his way to us and dropping to kiss my forehead. I noticed the bouquet of red roses in his hand and I smiled. I was in such a confusing place, so I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to see Dexter’s face. It felt like a betrayal to Theo to look at the man who’d been the only one to have me, the only one to kiss my forehead before him. But I turned his way anyway. Because seeing him would set me free of him, wouldn’t it? He was already standing when I gathered the nerve to open my eyes. “Theo,” he nodded and picked Dylan up from the floor. “I’ve got to head out, little guy, but I’ll see you tomorrow.” He kissed the top of his head and set him back down. I moved to walk him out and he urged me not to. “You sure?” I asked, ignoring Theo who’d set down the roses and was clamoring around the kitchen. “Yeah. I know my way out.” He turned and left. It was only when the door shut behind him that I realized he never told me the reason for his visit. “Let’s put the baby to bed early tonight,” Theo suggested as he came up behind me. I glanced at the bouquet and leaned my head back against his chest. Red was the wrong color. But red was spending the night making love with Theo, which was exactly what happened. Chapter Thirteen NOA I looked over at eighteen-year-old Dexter who was gripping the ‘oh shit’ bar above the passenger side window, his eyes on the road with a mild look of panic. I chuckled and he told me to watch where I was going. “Nervous, Dexter?” I asked, facing the windshield again. It wasn’t like I hadn’t driven before. But he wasn’t used to going this fast. He was very careful, always going the limit. I pushed the limit like following the rules was against my religion. “No,” he said before swallowing. I laughed and pulled over, kicking up dirt and rocks in the process. We were on the quiet side of town and even if it weren’t dusk, I wouldn’t care. I unbuckled my seatbelt and leaned over to unbuckle his while smiling into his neck. I felt his pulse hammer against my lips. “I’m not afraid to go a little fast,” I whispered, licking my lips. When my lips pressed wet against his skin, he stiffened. I leaned back, worried it was too much. He exhaled before grabbing me. His fingers shoved into my hair and his other hand gripped my face before his lips took mine. He had me. And I loved it. Dexter got to second base that night. And I got to know Dexter in a way that made my thighs clench. They could call us crazy kids and maybe we were crazy. But it wouldn’t have been right to call us kids. There were lifetimes between us. And each time he kissed me, it was like remembering them all. Every touch was a reminder. Feel that? Remember? We were ageless. Chapter Fourteen NOA Phoebe’s birthday party invitation sat on my kitchen table beside her present. Of course. And I was rushing, running late with Dylan on my hip. He tugged at my shirt, and I removed his tight grip and set him on the floor. He proceeded to wail while I groaned. “Come on, papa. Mommy has to do a few things and then we’ll be on our way.” I grabbed a pen from the junk drawer and signed the birthday card. Before I could think better of it, I set the card down with some crayons in front of my screaming baby. It took him a moment to settle down and begin to draw, but I figured it bought me a few minutes. It was moments like these that I realized how much I relied on Theo to keep an eye on Dylan while I scrambled with last-minute details. But he was at the hospital, probably saving someone’s life. Some things took precedence over your frazzled girlfriend. I checked and double checked his diaper bag, made sure the gift was presentable in its party bag surrounded by colorful tissue paper because I was terrible at wrapping and didn’t have the time to even try. I ran to the bathroom and checked my appearance. I wasn’t hot. I wasn’t even sure I was related to the girl who’d been bold enough to rock blue hair and red lipstick. But my earrings were still in, and I managed to pull off a denim-on-denim ensemble without looking too much like a mom. I ran ChapStick over my lips before I heard Dylan’s unsteady steps as he looked for me. “Ready?” I asked him, walking out of the bathroom with a grin, as if he’d answer me. I gathered him, his diaper bag, and the present in my arms. We made our way outside and I was fortunate enough to have just missed the rain, only having to deal with the muggy aftermath. I locked the door and headed toward my car. The first car I’d ever owned. The sedan wasn’t fancy. I just needed something that would take Dylan and me whereever we needed to be. Something reliable that made me feel more like an adult. Like a mother. I buckled him in, and when I turned the car on, I was instantly assailed by the sounds of Dylan’s music. Loud and obnoxious. “Not today,” I said under my breath, hitting the button that would sync my car’s system to my phone’s music. If I had to entertain other children and spend my afternoon listening to crying and cleaning off sticky fingers, Dylan could deal with grown-up music for a while. We were halfway there when I realized I’d forgotten the birthday card on the kitchen floor. Someone like me, someone who was overwhelmed by minor details, had learned to let go and accept the fact that I’d always be twenty minutes late with my toddler intact and life would go on. I parked across the street from the neat house that looked like the others that surrounded it. The only thing different was the sad little balloon on the mailbox. Rain wasn’t good for balloons, I guessed. I unlocked the doors and as I reached for Dylan, I heard someone call out my name. Dexter ran across the street, his dark jeans and black shirt making my heart pound a little faster. I loved him that way. Dressed casually. I looked away and grabbed Dylan, who was in a much better mood. He smiled and babbled and when he saw Dexter, he kicked and wiggled and reached for him. I let Dexter take him and I placed the diaper bag’s strap on my shoulder, Phoebe’s gift in hand. “Everything all right?” he asked, and I had to look down at my appearance before I shrugged. “Why? Does it look like something’s wrong?” I asked in return, nervous. Did I have something in my teeth? Or worse, a booger. Dear God. I wiped at my nose in case. I ran my tongue over my teeth for extra measure, and we headed toward the house. I was happy that I’d tied my hair up. The moisture in the air would’ve made it a frizzy mess. “No. You just look a little tired.” I tried not to frown. That wasn’t what a woman wanted to hear. “I could use a nap. Or a full night’s sleep.” I winced at the edge in my tone. It was my fault I wasn’t getting a full night’s sleep. I’d been the one to insist that Dexter and I not be together. And Theo didn’t get up for Dylan the nights that he was home. Granted, I didn’t work regular hours but I was still drained. “I can take him for a few hours tonight.” He ran his hand over Dylan’s hair and my heart smiled. “Go take a nap. Or visit Miranda. I’ll drop him off around nine tonight. Sound good?” I nodded and looked at him as we stood on the front steps. I had no idea why we stopped walking but I felt like with everything going on, I hadn’t gotten a good look at him in a long time. There was a part of me that wished if I was going to raise Dylan as a single parent, Dexter would be out of the picture. If I had another man in my bed, I had to get away from Dexter. But Dylan kept us tethered to one another. And my dealing with Dexter was sweet pain. The kind that I ached to experience. I reveled in my broken heart. I picked up the pieces and handed them over to Dexter every time I saw him. And every time he left, he smashed them right back on the ground. But I didn’t bother regretting the fact that my heart was his. And it was his to do with what he saw fit. Sweet, sweet pain. I loved that I didn’t love Theo violently. My love for him was a lull. It was being able to catch your breath after a run. It didn’t consume me, and I liked that as much as I hated it. I was being pulled a million different ways. But I didn’t want to change it. If I didn’t have Dexter, I’d take the split seconds, the time we spent with Dylan, the late nights rocking my baby to sleep alone, the awkward moments when Theo didn’t realize it was him who was the odd man out. Because even if I loved the lull, I still craved the excitement, despite myself. All of these thoughts banged around in my head as Dexter stared at me with a happy Dylan in his arms. The front door opened, breaking the moment, and Rachel blinked before offering me a smile. She waved at Dylan, cooing at him, and I resisted the urge to take him in my arms. When she reached for him, I handed her Phoebe’s gift instead. After all of this time, I still didn’t trust Rachel. My crazy recognized hers, and I knew she wasn’t finished. It was a matter of time before she was acting out again, despite Dexter’s assurances. He had about as much control over that woman as I did. Phoebe ran to the door and I smiled. She was growing into a beautiful young lady. We made our way inside, Dylan still in Dexter’s arms, Phoebe chatting excitedly in her princess costume. I spared a glance at Rachel who looked at Phoebe the way I looked at Dylan. If there was anything I was sure about when it came to Rachel, it was that she loved her daughter. But she was still a crazy bitch. Dexter took Dylan toward the other kids and my eyes followed. I was still stuck in that new-ish mom paranoia stage, even if I’d gotten better about not sweating things like being late. When he touched something dirty, I fought the urge to wash his hands. When he fell, I wanted to cry for him and keep him safe from the world. And when I heard his shriek, my heart would stop, the world pausing until I knew whether it was borne of pain or happiness. “Thank you for coming,” Rachel said from behind me. I nodded, not bothering to turn. I didn’t want to be a bitch, but it was my involuntary reaction to her. I’d seen her around since the day she lied about Dexter proposing. She was considered family, after all. And though she made a point to try to be cordial, I couldn’t be bothered. I’d seen her without her mask of kindness. “Dylan hasn’t seen his sister in a while,” I replied and shifted a bit away from her when she came to stand beside me. “You know you can bring him by whenever.” That involuntary reaction came swift, and I had to swallow down the insults that threatened to erupt. “Rachel, you and I both know that isn’t happening.” I faced her. “Be happy that I’m even here.” I adjusted the strap of the baby bag and glanced back at the party. Phoebe ran up to us and hugged her mother’s legs. She picked her daughter up and held her on her hip. “Well, I’m glad you could make it,” she said before walking away. I wanted to go after her and apologize, but it only took remembering the look on her face when she told me Dexter proposed to keep me rooted to the ground. I remained there long after Rachel reassumed her hostess role. I stood outside of interaction, watching the mothers and their children. There were cries and laughter and the air was filled with the scent of dessert. Kids ran past me, some fell, and I was overwhelmed by the chaos of it all. Eventually my eyes found Dexter, who’d been watching me. I wondered what he was thinking. Was he happy not to be saddled with the outcast? I sent him a weak smile and he waved me over. I shook my head, still smiling. He picked up Dylan and made his way toward me, taking my hand and leading me toward the rest of the party. It reminded me of what he’d done to teenage Noa. What he’d done to Blue. He brought me to life. He made me experience with him. He wasn’t afraid of what people thought. He was determined to have me live. Beside him. I sat on the ground beside Dylan and Dexter, and it was filled with the oddest sensation of belonging. Dexter went and got a cupcake, and I grinned as I fed Dylan some of the frosting. “He can only have a little,” I told Dexter, who mock saluted me. I elbowed him with a laugh and though Dylan cried when I shoved the cupcake in my mouth, he settled down when Dexter showed him the toys strewn across the floor. We were playing with Dylan when I looked up and saw Rachel watching us. I had to stamp down the way I’d almost pitied her. The look in her eyes, the sadness that lurked behind them. It was those emotions that led her to lie to me. So I turned away and continued to play with my family, even if Dexter wasn’t really mine. Chapter Fifteen NOA “Call Dexter,” I yelled as I gritted my teeth in pain. “He needs to be here.” I ignored the surprise in Miranda’s eyes as she grabbed my phone from my purse and dialed his number. The pain of the contraction ebbed as I heard the phone ring and reached out my hand. Miranda pressed the phone to my ear and when I heard his voice, I blinked back tears. “Dexter? It’s me,” I said, feeling stupid. What else could I say? Could I apologize for not finding him and telling him? For not keeping him in the loop once he knew? It was too late for that. When he started saying all of things that made my heart break all over again, another contraction started in and I interrupted him, the pain reminding me of the matter at hand. “There’s no time. The baby is coming.” I sat back in pain, bracing myself as Miranda took the phone that slipped to the leather seat of her usual car. She hung up and told me he was on his way as she rubbed my back. The next hour went by slowly, only the contractions signaling the passing of time. My baby would be here soon. The baby I made with Dexter, I thought as he walked in. I never thought, throughout the months as my pregnancy progressed, that I’d be giving birth to my baby with Dexter holding my hand. As impossible as it seemed, I felt like I was falling in love with him all over again. Maybe it was the way he took hold of the situation and calmed my nerves. Or maybe the way he offered me baby names like he was just as in love with the idea of our baby as I was. I was looking right in his blue irises when he said, “Dylan.” Yes. I nodded and bore down again, ready for my breathing baby to enter the world. It was pain and such hard work, but I didn’t complain because I knew what it felt like to push for a baby that would never come. They laid Dylan, a sweet screaming mess, on my chest. I looked at Dexter in wonder. We’d created something through the chaos of us. And he lived. He was perfect. Dexter leaned down and kissed my lips and, for that moment, I pretended everything was perfect. That was the last time I kissed Dexter Andrews. Chapter Sixteen NOA “Poor thing,” Miranda murmured, her eyes on the television at the bar behind me. I turned in my seat to see a pop star with her face free of emotion, walking toward a vehicle, ignoring the paparazzi. The latest gossip claimed she’d been dumped by her ex-fiancée. “I met her at that wedding I went to last week in New York. She was sweet. The media can be ruthless.” I watched the woman, feeling a sort of kinship to her. We were both just trying to make it through the fucking day. “If women that look like her are being dumped…” I said and turned before smiling at the waitress who set my dessert in front of me. “He wasn’t the one, then.” It was that simple to Miranda. And I wondered when she’d decided “the one” existed. Probably the day she met her new husband, Quinton. Miranda married for opportunity her first marriage. I couldn’t fault her for it. She’d loved him but she hadn’t ended up a successful and very rich widow coincidentally. No one predicted her first husband’s death and she’d mourned him. But now? This relationship was for love. She’d spent the time between her late husband’s death and now filling her need for lust. This time, it was her need for trusted companionship and love that caused her to settle down. “So, how’s Dex?” She sipped her white wine and I fiddled with my spoon. “Good. He has Dylan tonight.” Ever since Phoebe’s birthday, he’d begun taking Dylan on weeknights. I knew he had to work in the morning, but he brushed it off as if there was nothing else he’d rather do with his time. She smiled. “And Theo?” “Good. He’s very good to me and to Dylan.” She set down her glass and began turning it with her fingertips, her hands flat against the tabletop. I watched and wondered what had her fidgeting. The large diamond on her wedding ring glimmered under the muted restaurant lights. Suddenly she stopped and my eyes went to hers. “Noa,” she started, and I knew what she wanted to talk about. I shook my head. “No.” “Listen to me,” she snapped. “I don’t preach often but when I decide to, it’s usually for your own good. Trust my wrinkles, darling. Though a large percentage of them are from dealing with my clients, some of them came from laughter. And all of them came with a dose of wisdom.” I scooped up some of the crème brûlée and didn’t look at her as I ate, waiting for her to get on with it. “You know, I used to give you a hard time about Dex. I’m sure he’s not a huge fan of mine. At the time, I thought I was protecting you from him. But I see now, the only thing you need protecting from is yourself.” I dropped my spoon and frowned at her. “That’s not true.” “Listen to the wrinkles,” she said, raising her voice and her fingers to her forehead where her skin was bunching in frustration. “Listen to what I’m telling you because I don’t like to repeat myself.” I met her eyes with a wariness that made me feel physically tired. That flutter low in my belly was coming up. Those butterflies whenever I talked about Dexter or talked to him…they stretched and joined our conversation. Miranda didn’t know what she was doing to me, bringing him up. Thinking of him this way, as the boy I fell in love with and then the man I fell deep into lust with…it wasn’t good for me. It unsettled me and Dylan couldn’t suffer that. “You don’t love Theo the way you love Dex. There’s no way you can stay with him just because you’re scared of the decisions you and Dex made.” I scoffed because it was all I could do. What, was I supposed to lie to this woman who was the closest thing I had to family left in this world? Besides Dylan, of course. “Theo’s a good man,” I told her to which she nodded quickly a few times before opening her mouth to call me out on my shit. “Absolutely. No one can fault him for falling in love with a woman he has no future with. So I guess that makes you the asshole.” She pursed her lips. I eyed the liquid in Miranda’s glass, wishing I could snatch it up and drown away my feelings. As if she could read my mind, she finished it and set the empty glass down, its sound snapping me from my thoughts. You will find your end at the bottom of your drinking glass. Not today. “Well, I suppose I’ve stirred enough shit for a night.” Miranda placed a few hundreds on the table before standing. When she pulled me into a hug, I squeezed her hard. Her heart was in the right place, even if I would become obsessed with Dexter with every second that ticked by. She had to know she was sending me home to one man with another man in my soul. But that wasn’t her fault. I wasn’t going to pin that on her. But I’d been doing a decent job pretending and the jig was up tonight. I only hoped Theo would be at work or if he was home, Dexter had already dropped Dylan off. If the universe was favoring me, everyone would be sleeping and I’d be able to have my emotional breakdown without an audience. I just hoped there wasn’t any alcohol in the house. * * * ●●● * * * I pulled into my driveway and turned off the car. With the windshield wipers off, the rain slid down the glass with ease. When I reached for the handle, my hand dropped onto my lap. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t do anything. I was paralyzed, my emotions smothering me. I inhaled deeply, thinking the air to my lungs and brain would give me the push I needed to make it inside. It was in that moment that I realized how much power Dexter had over me. Yes, love had already given him a power that no one else would ever get. Because he loved me first, before I’d even completely loved myself, he got that pure, unadulterated, undiluted love. The kind that scared us because we were kids. I sat there, the rain pattering onto the roof of my car. I couldn’t cry. Because when life finally hit me, it was too sad, too much of a devastation to shed tears over. I would be living my life, waiting for the next contact, the next collision. Dexter Andrews was all I wanted. Without him, I could not be soothed. Without him, I could not be complete. I leaned forward and reached for the handle again, swallowing my feelings whole and dragging myself into the house. I slipped off my shoes and was hanging up my coat when I heard Theo come down the stairs. I blinked slowly before turning to face him. “Have a good time?” I was so tired all of a sudden. I nodded and moved to walk up the stairs. When he grabbed my arm lightly before kissing me, I wanted to run out of the house and never look back. Theo was good. He’d given me all I could ask for. But if it wasn’t Dexter, it wasn’t right. He ran his hands up until they were cupping my face. I was robotic, simply moving along as he pulled off my shirt. His hands on my breasts felt like a betrayal and I pulled away. His eyes looked into mine and I shook my head, sobbing before running out. I’d forgotten it was raining and when I ran through the wet grass, I reveled in it. It was dark and I couldn’t see anything other than what was directly in front of me. I collapsed and just existed as the rain met my skin a million times over and again. Theo would think I was crazy. But Theo had no fucking idea how crazy I could get. Chapter Seventeen NOA “Do you love him?” Tim asked me one night as I served him dinner. I shrugged because I didn’t know. I had no idea what he even meant. But it weighed on my mind from that moment forward. One time I looked up the definition of love. Verb; feel deep affection or sexual love for (someone). I wondered if I loved Dexter. Was there going to be a moment, an ‘aha’ moment when I knew that I loved him? Deep affection, that was certainly there. Sexual love? Absolutely. Although we hadn’t gotten to sex yet, I knew it would happen. And something told me it’d be life-altering. The chemistry was overwhelming. But love? Did I dare question my feelings for him? And if I did, would I like the answer? The next day, Dexter and I were watching a movie, some flick that would fade into the background of what actually made the day important. When looking back, I would only remember the smile. That one-of-a-kind Dexter smile that made me believe we would be all right. We would live in that altruistic adoration that he constantly showered me with. When he smiled, tucking my hair behind my ear before leaning in to kiss me, I knew that love and Dexter were synonymous. I could look up the definition all day long. I could see what love meant to other people, but all that mattered was what I thought of love. And Dexter Andrews was love. Every time I said his name, from that day forward, it was me telling him so. I didn’t dare tell him that I loved him, truly. Instead, I said his name. He was none the wiser but that was okay. Dexter Andrews was my definition of love. Chapter Eighteen NOA I didn’t know how long it had been, but eventually Theo stopped calling for me and went back inside. By then the rain had stopped, but the air was muggy with the promise of more. I stood, realizing I was only wearing jeans and my bra. I was about to walk toward the house when I heard a car pull up. Dylan’s sweet voice babbled and I stopped. I sat in the grass, hoping Dylan wouldn’t see me. I didn’t know how I would explain this to him, even if he was too young to understand. I promised I’d be better for him and here I was, half-naked, hiding from the world. When they walked down from the car to the door, both of them didn’t think to look over in my direction. Dylan started crying when Theo opened the door and reached for him. He wailed and reached for his daddy, and I sniffled before ducking my head lower. Theo asked Dexter if he had seen me as Dylan’s sobs grew quieter. They talked for a little longer and Dexter walked away after kissing the sleepy baby. “How long do you plan on staying out here, Blue?” He strayed from the path and walked up before sitting beside me. It wasn’t raining anymore, but I knew he’d ruined his suit sitting in the damp grass. I marked it as one more thing I’d ruined in his life as I laid down. My life, his life, Dylan’s life, Theo’s life, Rachel’s and Phoebe’s. Anna’s. And now his suit. “Forever?” I sat up and set my head on my knees and looked at him. “And Dylan?” His eyes were on the night sky and I was grateful. “He has you,” I whispered, pathetic woman that I was. I knew I’d never abandon that boy. Judging by the way Dexter only gave a slight shake of his head, he knew it too. “But he needs you, too.” We sat silently and I wondered if he knew that this was about him. That everything was always about him. “When did it get so hard?” I scooted closer and he flinched as I leaned into him. He exhaled slowly and I stared straight ahead. I didn’t want to see the blow as it came. I’d done that before and it sucked. “When we ruined each other. See, you thought you were going to be the only one messed up by this, Noa. But that just isn’t true.” He leaned into me in return and I felt the blue flames lick at my soul. They roared to life as I felt his body heat. What once consumed me with fear when he was near, that fire, was now what I craved. Whatever he said, I counted on his actions. He touched me with a sense of distance. No lingering grazes of skin on skin, no fingerprints left on my body. People always said that actions spoke louder than words. But most people required both. Both could be false, still. While his words spoke to my ears, his touch spoke to my soul. “I want a do over.” I tasted my tears as they slid down my lips. I felt him shake his head. The stars twinkled and I focused on a bright one. It had to be us. It was too bright, too large to be anything else. “Me too,” he said. “Me too.” I leaned back on the grass and Dexter turned to look at me. “You should probably get inside. You’re not wearing much and it’s wet out here.” This was where we were. I was in my bra and Dexter was telling me to go away. I sighed and sat back up. He stood and reached out for me, helping me up. “You’re going to freak Dylan out if he sees you like that.” Not Dylan. Maybe Theo. Without another word, he removed his suit jacket and placed it over my bare skin as it began to rain again. We couldn’t time us. But he could time the rain. He kissed my forehead and nudged me toward the house. When I looked back, he was already walking toward his car. “Goodnight, Dexter,” I whispered. I lifted my chin, my eyes looking for that bright star again. I couldn’t find it. There was a silent suffering I carried with me everywhere. I kept it so quiet, it rattled my bones. It made my teeth chatter with its needed to be let out; to rip from my lips and wrap around the stars. Like an engine grumbling as it gained speed. All the while, I kept it quiet. If ever it were let out, the sound would be deafening. But the sound of Dexter’s car backing out of my driveway nearly broke me open. * * * ●●● * * * It was two o’ clock in the morning and I was no nearer to sleep than when I first laid down, so I donned my robe and headed up to the attic. When I’d bought the house, I knew I’d need a place in this house to paint. A place far enough away that I could work in peace but close enough that I could be there if Dylan needed me. I couldn’t disappear into my art anymore, so the attic would have to do. As I gathered my favorite brushes together, I prepared myself to repent my sins; to cut my marginally healed wounds and bleed my blue freely. I’d only chosen the colors I’d be using, loving the way the paint stained my skin when I opened the bottle, but I could feel tears forming. As I spread color, I thought back to when I walked back inside and Theo frowned, asking me what was wrong with me. He eyed the jacket that covered me, and his mild annoyance turned to anger. I apologized, explaining—lying—telling him I’d felt sick and needed fresh air. I ran into Dexter on my way back in and as the lies forced their way past my lips, the doctor in Theo started asking questions and I walked away, feigning a headache. I let him dote on me and kiss me goodnight. Though he slept peacefully beside me, on my side of the bed there was no peace. Would there ever be peace? You’ll find your end at the bottom of a drinking glass. I knew there was a bottle of brandy downstairs. It was in the room Theo often called his office. If I only took a sip…just one. I shook my head and stepped back as I heard the creaking sound of someone walking up the steps to the attic. I turn to see a fully dressed Theo come in, my cell phone in his hand. “Feeling better?” he asked as he walked over to me to kiss my forehead. My eyes studied his neatly tied tie. I nodded and he handed me my phone. “It’s Tracey.” “What time is it?” I asked, my voice raspy under the emotions I’d quickly shoved away. I cleared my throat as he told me it was seven in the morning. It was then that I looked in his eyes and saw that he was looking at my painting. I wanted to turn it away from his questioning gaze because what he was looking at told more about me than I ever could put into words. But as I grabbed my phone, I figured he’d had enough crazy last night. “Miranda will be happy you’re working again.” I smiled and pressed the phone to my chest as I asked if Dylan was up. He shook his head and then walked out, no doubt to get the coffeemaker ready. “Hello?” I asked as I smoothed my hair from my face. My hands and lower arms were covered in paint and I could only guess how I looked. I’d even gotten some on my robe, though I’d rolled up the sleeves. “Hi, honey! I’m in town. Wanted to see what you and Dylan were up to today.” “And you didn’t let me know ahead of time?” I asked loudly before laughing and confirming plans for lunch and shopping. When I hung up with her, I glanced around the room and took a deep breath. Tracey Andrews was like a shot of sanity just when I needed it. Then again, she had a track record when it came to saving my ass. I smiled and cleaned up before heading down to get Dylan and me ready for our day. Chapter Nineteen NOA I wiped the sweat from my brow and ran my hand through the blue strands of my hair as I entered the grocery store. I hated walking on hot days but the store’s air conditioning was a blessing. I grabbed a cart and walked through each aisle, my envious eyes on all of the things I wished I could afford. The cakes and cookies, even the soda. But I knew I could only get what we needed. Once I filled the cart with the cheapest items I could find, I went to check out, happy that the line was short. When it was my turn to set my items on the conveyor belt, I did so in a rush, ready to start heading back home already. The walk back with the bags would be a pain in the ass. Item after item, I watched the dollar amount climb. Every so often, my eyes would shift to the stoic cashier’s face, her steady hands sliding the food, the tampons, the detergent down the line. Twenty dollars. That was all I had in my pocket. Fucking Tim. The deal was he worked and I took care of the house. I cleaned, I cooked, I did laundry, and I managed to get above average grades. There was no room for me to get a job. But he’d been too drunk last night for me to get anything out of him, so I sifted through his dirty jeans and that was all I’d managed to find. “Thirty-six dollars and seventeen cents.” I blinked up at the cashier, my face getting hot. Immediately, I shuffled through my pockets, pulling out the wrinkled twenty and patting my other pockets, knowing full well that was all I had. But it was all about the show, wasn’t it? “I’m so sorry,” I said, willing myself not to look at the people behind me. I didn’t need to see the annoyance on their faces. Or worse, their pity. I needed everything I’d planned to purchase. That was the worst part. I wasn’t frivolously spending, but I’d have to do without. “If you could just take some off the—” A hand came from behind me, holding up a card. Another hand shoved my crumpled twenty back toward me. “I’ve got it, Noa.” At the sound of Tracey’s voice, my eyes watered. My items were already bagged, and Tracey handled the transaction as I gathered my purchases. When the register printed the receipt, I took off. As soon as I stepped out of the cool grocery store and hit the muggy heat, I stopped, inhaling as much air as I could. My bags felt so heavy in my hands. “Noa!” Tracey came up behind me. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” “I’m so fucking embarrassed,” I yelled at no one, not facing her. “I’m so tired of living this way.” She gathered me in her arms and I held onto her, my tears moistening her shirt. After a few moments, she led me to her car. She drove me home without saying a word. There were people who were genuinely kind. These people walked with arms extended, not looking for something to take but someone to help. Tracey was one of those people. She thought I was worth her trouble. And I wanted to be. I needed to feel like I was worth her effort and Dexter’s love. Because for so long I’d lived as though I wasn’t. We never spoke of that day. Chapter Twenty NOA At the sound of Dylan’s whimpering, I sat up and looked at the baby monitor on my nightstand. Dylan wasn’t usually fussy at night. Our days were filled with laughter, tantrums, sticky little fingers, colors, and sounds and by the time it was time for bed, he’d go easily. But tonight he cried and it didn’t take me long to sit up with a groan, thankful that Theo had decided to stay in Seattle since he had an early meeting. I walked to Dylan’s room, rubbing the sleep from my eyes with the heels of my palms. I pushed the door open and my baby boy was standing in his crib, his tears shining from the soft light of his nightlight. When he saw me, his hands went up. And when his fingers opened and closed, grabbing at the air, my heart gave a little sigh. To be wanted so much by one person, to be his whole world…it was a beautiful feeling. I grabbed him and he laid his head on my shoulder. I sat us on the rocking chair in the corner. “Want me to sing, papa?” I asked. His head remained on my shoulder and I smiled. In so many ways, I felt like I was failing Dylan. I didn’t get things right the first time. Sometimes I spaced out or fell asleep. And God…the first few times I had to let him scream were a nightmare. I co-parented with Dexter and I was sure he experienced a lot of these things on his own. But we were supposed to have experienced it together. That was where I felt I failed Dylan most. Taking away his opportunity to grow up in one home. I started rocking and ran my fingertips over his back. His skin was warm from working himself up and he hiccupped over his next breath, finally calming down enough to even out his breathing. It started out as a hum. And then I was singing and they were the words I’d sang through a crowd of teenagers to a pair of blue eyes. By the end of the song, Dylan was asleep and I was too melancholy to go to bed alone. So I stood and walked us to my room. When I laid him on the bed beside me, he only shifted a little before falling asleep again. I stared up at the ceiling. There were moments when I knew I was a good mother. Moments where my love toward Dylan would feel so foreign yet big to me, I’d wonder if it would make me burst. And I knew…it was because my mother had never given hers to me. * * * ●●● * * * The next morning, I woke up to Dylan squirming before poking me in the eye. I groaned and rolled over, opening one eye to see Theo standing in the doorway. “Morning,” I said, my voice gritty. “Morning,” he whispered with a smile. He walked in the room and began taking off his clothes from the night before. “He really shouldn’t sleep in bed with you.” I glanced over at Dylan and when I ran my hands over his hair, he scooted to sit on me. I didn’t pay attention to Theo as he walked in the bathroom to shower. Theo didn’t have kids and he certainly didn’t know how it felt to lose one. I’m sure he knew that if it were him and Dylan, I’d pick Dylan each and every time. So his weak arguments fell on deaf ears. Besides, it wasn’t like Dylan slept with me every night. I was about to head out the room to feed Dylan when Theo called out from the shower. I leaned against the door’s frame as he poked his head around the shower curtain. “Don’t forget lunch tomorrow.” I frowned. Lunch? “You know. For your birthday.” I nodded before turning to tote Dylan downstairs on my hip. Twenty-seven was almost here. Not one to stray from my routine, I immediately thought to myself, I met Dexter almost ten years ago. Rather than dwell on it the way I did when I was single and unattached, I did what was expected of me. I fed my son and I smiled and pretended that Dexter Andrews was the furthest thing from my mind. It wasn’t until hours later, when I was walking slowly with Dylan’s hand in mine, Theo leading us inside the indoor water park, that I was reminded how pointless it is to pretend. I couldn’t pretend when Dexter was off to the side, helping Phoebe step out of her dress and looking at her in a way that squeezed my heart. I glanced over and saw Rachel at the nearest table, watching them too. As if she felt my eyes on her, she looked up. I didn’t know what it was, but in that moment, we were just two women who happened to love the same man. But Rachel had something I didn’t. Courage. When she glanced at Theo with a smile, I was reminded that I have something she didn’t either; a boyfriend. She got up and walked to Dexter and Phoebe and I looked away from where she’d headed because whatever they shared, I had no right to feel the anger that still bubbled in me. “I’ll get the rest of the stuff out of the car,” Theo told me before kissing my cheek and I nodded, distracted by my attempts to avoid looking in Dexter’s direction. I wiped some crumbs from Dylan’s face and he squirmed away, running right to his daddy who swooped him up with a huge smile. “Well, hello,” he said as he walked over to me and I tried not to eye the way his muscles flexed to hold our son. “You sound surprised to see us. As if I hadn’t told you last week we’d be here today.” I was rummaging through my bag for God knew what when I swear I heard him smile. “You did mention that, huh? I figured why not give Phoebe some time with her brother.” I looked at Phoebe, who was playing with Dylan’s feet, and Dylan was squirming in his dad’s arms to get down. “Put his floaties on for me? I’m sure Phoebe will want to take her brother to the water,” I said, grabbing them from my bag. When he took them from me, his touch lingered and I looked up at him, wondering if I was imagining it. There was a small smile there that convinced me I wasn’t. A hand on my shoulder made me jump. “Nice to see you again, Dex,” Theo said before running his hand down my back and ending up on my hip. His fingertips squeezed a little and I forced a small smile. I needed to remind myself that Theo was the one who belonged here. He wasn’t the one interrupting because he’s the one I actually invited. I stepped away and ignored Rachel’s presence altogether. Maybe we had a moment but I still didn’t trust her, and as Dylan played, I kept my eyes on him. It wasn’t as awkward as I thought it’d be, spending the day together. Mostly, I used Dylan as a buffer whenever I was uncomfortable. And I ignored Dexter’s smiles. Theo played with the kids and walked them to get ice cream cones. I took a trip to the restroom to avoid being in Dexter’s company. We were getting along too well, and it wasn’t good for what I shared with Theo. I was surprised as we got ready to leave when Theo asked Dexter and Rachel to my birthday lunch the next day. “Her birthday isn’t until Wednesday,” was the first thing out of Dexter’s mouth, and I ducked to hide my smile. Of course he remembered. When I reached down to pick up Dylan, I felt his eyes on mine but I just kissed my baby’s soft, sticky skin and turned away. Dexter was making it too hard to do the right thing. “Yes, well, my schedule Wednesday is a little packed,” I heard Theo explain, and I had to hide another smile. I set Dylan down as I gathered our things and when I heard him stumble, I turned as he started to sob. I set my bag down and when Dexter started to make a noise, I shushed him. “Don’t react. It’ll only freak him out.” I picked Dylan up and his skinned knee made me frown. Dexter was already grabbing the bag I’d set down while Theo walked toward us for a closer inspection. “A bandage and some antiseptic should take care of that.” Well, no shit, I thought to myself. But I didn’t say it out loud because I didn’t want to embarrass Theo and I didn’t want to have to deal with talking about it later. Theo was trying to be helpful. It wasn’t his fault I was an asshole. Once Dylan was all cleaned up and Dexter had wiped away his tears, I was more than ready to go home. Dylan needed a nap and I needed some quiet. “So I’ll see you tomorrow, then?” Dexter asked as he handed me Dylan, whose eyes were beginning to droop. I nodded and Theo took the diaper bag from me. When he reached for my free hand, I only hesitated for a moment before taking it. The three of us walked out together, even as Dylan picked his head up and whimpered for Dexter. Chapter Twenty-One NOA I pinched at the fabric of the dress I was wearing, wishing I could put my boyfriend jeans back on but Theo frowned when I’d slipped them on, suggesting the dress he’d bought me last week, so I changed. I didn’t know what was so different about today, other than the fact that Theo insisted on paying for a babysitter for Dylan. I didn’t like it. I didn’t know her and Dylan cried so hard when we walked out the front door. “I don’t want to stay too long,” I said as I got in the car, my eyes on my screaming baby who was standing in the living room window with the sitter behind him, her eyes panicky. “Come on,” Theo climbed in the driver’s seat, “enjoy yourself. It’s not often we get to do this.” “You work long hours. I understand.” Theo clutched the car keys in his fist and looked over at me. There was something in his eyes and I didn’t know if I liked it. It was like he was worried about something. “What’s wrong?” He shook his head and stuck the keys in the ignition. “I could ask you the same thing,” he said and I pinched my lips together. “There’s nothing wrong. We’re great.” I placed my hand over his for emphasis. “I do love you, Noa. I would do anything to keep you.” I tried to ignore the way he’d arranged the words. I knew what he meant but I didn’t want to be kept. I wasn’t for keeping, displaying, discarding when through. But I remained silent. The more time that went on, the more I interacted with Dexter, the more obvious it became that Theo and I were not a perfect match. And wasn’t that what everyone wanted? A perfect match? We only drove for maybe fifteen minutes when Theo pulled into a restaurant parking lot. I thought back on my days in Seattle, when I went to one restaurant and they knew me and what I liked. It was at that restaurant that I’d seen Dexter again. I got out of the car and took a deep breath. Maybe this restaurant would replace my memory with something I could bear to think of. As I looked around, I noticed Dexter’s car in the lot, not too far from Theo’s and I bit my lip. Probably not. We got inside and I didn’t have to look to know Dexter was sitting on a bench near the hostess’ podium. His head was ducked down and there was a box in his hands. I saw this all through my peripheral because I didn’t allow my eyes to fly to him the way they wanted to. I practiced such discipline and waited until he noticed us and walked toward us. I did this and every moment killed until brown met blue and the butterflies in my belly fluttered to life. “Happy early birthday, Blue,” he whispered as he leaned in and kissed my cheek. When he shoved a square box in my hand I glanced at Theo, who smiled tightly and gestured for me to open it. I shook my head and put the gift in my purse. “Thank you. I’ll open it later.” I leaned in to kiss his cheek and his exhale grazed my skin in a warm wave. I missed his touch, his love, his breathing. I missed it all. But then I heard Miranda and the moment was gone. “Noa Cruz is nearly thirty,” she announced as she walked up with her new husband trailing behind her. “I’m not the old one anymore.” “You’ll always be older than I am,” I said with a laugh as she hugged me. “You don’t get to stay forty just so I can catch up.” “Darling, I ought to wash your mouth out with soap,” she playfully scolded. “Such filthy words.” She glanced behind me. “Hello, Theo. Dexter!” She walked around me to embrace him and I hugged her husband. A few of Theo’s coworkers showed up and then we were seated. All through the meal, I thought back to the birthday that started it all. My eighteenth birthday was the first that I could remember loving and that was all thanks to the man who sat a few chairs down from me. He chatted with Miranda and Quinton and when I glanced over, caught up in the rapture of our memories, I felt Theo’s hand squeeze mine, bringing me back down. I looked around the table and wondered why Rachel hadn’t accompanied Dexter, remembering Theo’s invitation. But if I were invited to her birthday celebration, I wouldn’t have attended either. Still, she was missing out on another opportunity to spend time with Dexter while my relationship status was shoved in his face. I couldn’t deny that I worried that one day he’d find solace in her arms. That day would kill me. “Want to try some of my salmon?” Theo whispered the question in my ear, as if it were personal and when I glanced back at Dexter, he was watching us. I shook my head and speared a shrimp before eating it. I watched Dexter’s back as he stood up and walked to the bathroom. The glasses around the table were filled with wine, and I thought about the fact that Theo didn’t know I had a problem with alcohol. He didn’t know a lot of things about me. Maybe I was just a crazy artist to him. Maybe he told himself that so that he didn’t look so deeply into what exactly made me crazy. I stared at his wine. He’d probably be surprised if I took a sip, but now would be the time. Dexter was in the restroom and Miranda was focused on something Quinton was saying. Now would be the perfect time. You’ll find your end at the bottom of a drinking glass. It was a curious thing, knowing one decision could end your life. Before I could ponder the thought, Theo was standing and I was looking at him in confusion. Was he toasting? Seriously? “I want to thank everyone for coming to celebrate Noa’s twenty-seventh birthday.” He picked up his glass, and I looked around at everyone before picking up my water to sip. “And to Noa, a spirited woman who brought vibrancy back into my life.” I set my water down and looked up at him curiously. “I felt that it was best to do this with all of our friends here.” Our friends? He didn’t bother to know Miranda, and his friends were boring old farts. I pressed my lips together to keep myself from pointing these facts out, something the old Noa would’ve gladly done. “Do what, Theo?” I asked after a moment. He set his glass down and pulled something from his pocket. A small box. The kind that you’d find a ring inside of. Oh fuck. Oh…fuck. I expected him to get down on one knee but he didn’t. He stepped closer, only crouching a little so he could look into the eyes I’d tried to hide from him. “Marry me. Please.” He was crowding me, trying to keep my eyes on his. My eyes that would look up, just past his shoulder. I was looking for those blue eyes and he knew it, but as he bent farther to kiss my hands, I saw Dexter anyway. He was making his way through the restaurant, toward us. There was that blue…the shade that both steadied me and rocked my foundation. I never noticed how important it was to look at the people you loved when you made the biggest decisions of your life. If you took a moment before taking the leap, the ones who knew you best would wordlessly tell you what you needed to know. Both sets of eyes that’d seen me at my worst looked the same. They were panicky and wide, matching mine. One word was on the tip of our tongues: No. But when I tried to say it, nothing came out. I was stuck and Dexter was coming closer and closer. It was so hard to breathe. “Yes,” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear. Dexter stopped. I inhaled. Though Theo squeezed my hand so I would focus on him again, I could still see his eyes, the same ones I’d looked for only moments ago. Only now, they grabbed the remains of me and twisted, wringing what I might’ve had left of my heart. They still clouded my vision. Even when I was sure he’d left, they were still there, staring at me with the greatest sadness I’d ever witnessed. And when Theo slipped the diamond on my finger, I realized he was the only person in the room who had a right to be sad. After all, I’d just promised to ruin him for the rest of our lives. Like I had the habit of doing with anything good in my life. I was finally starting to realize what was so attractive about me. People loved my doom. They loved to love the broken pieces of me, as if they could put me back together. But that would never be the case because I’d always be a little bit ruined. If they were lucky, they’d hear the click before the boom. If they were lucky, they’d make it out of their love alive. Chapter Twenty-Two NOA I registered the beep of the machine next to me and, through my tears, I saw the fluorescent lights above me. It had been hours since the moment Dexter walked away from me with his head hanging. As if he were hurt. I was the one hurting. Physically and emotionally. I love you. I’ll never stop. And I’ll never forget you. Those words should’ve killed me. I’d told myself millions of times not to rely on him, not to love him, and not to pretend that I deserved him. But those things happened, regardless of myself. Because Dexter hadn’t taken ‘no’ for an answer. Instead, he made himself impossible to forget. But he didn’t know, nor would he ever, that it wasn’t the day I bumped into him that I began picturing myself in his life. It was before then. Before Becca. Before my parents left, before his parents died. Before the alcohol took over. Before he left me like I knew he would. Before we both came back to life. Tim entered the hospital room quietly. Although my back was turned to him, I knew it was him. By now, Dexter was back home. And the sad resolution in his eyes was something I’d never forget. I sniffled as fresh tears dripped down. My cheeks were tender from having rubbed them over and over. I felt the heat, the slight sting of my tears as they slid down my face. “Se fue. Yo sabía que lo haría,” he whispered. Tim and I were so alike. Because it was exactly what I’d been telling myself. “You aren’t the only one who knew he’d leave.” I shifted so I was on my back. “Are you happy now?” He sat on the edge of my bed and pulled me into his arms. “No, Noa. I’m never happy if you’re sad.” “Then what are you if I’m absolutely destroyed?” My face was contorted with sadness. I tucked my head into his chest. He ran his hands down my back. “I’m the one who’ll help you pick yourself up and move on. Us fuck-ups gotta stick together.” Chapter Twenty-Three NOA It was so easy to hold onto the way Dexter had hurt me. The pain that I’d felt by his hand wasn’t tangible. But if it were, it’d be my heart, smothered in black blood, warm to the touch but cold to the core. The disappointment festered until I was standing in front of everyone, agreeing to marry a man I had no business being with. I was eager to leave after all of the well wishes and congratulatory hugs. Theo was more than okay with heading home. The clouds were rolling in and I knew the rain was coming as the wind pushed at me, chasing away the day’s warmth. I shouldn’t have worn the fucking dress, I thought as I tugged it toward my body. I got in the car and waited as he waved goodbye, his hand on the driver’s side door handle. I closed my eyes as he got in and shut the door. He didn’t buckle himself in or start the car and I glanced over at him. Taking that as a lead, he grabbed my hands and kissed them. I offered a smile. It was a weak one but it was all I could give. “I’m so happy, Noa.” My head nodded but my dirty little heart screamed. As he started the car, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I sat up and pulled it out. And when I saw the name on the screen, I turned it on its face, letting it go to voicemail. Theo stopped at the gas station, mumbling about filling up the tank. When I saw he was inside, I turned the phone back over. The missed call was staring at me. The worst of it was, Theo could look at my phone and think nothing of it. He’d see that Dylan’s father called me. But…the voicemail. Silent tears poured as I pressed play and held the phone to my ear, ready to hear every word. To understand his hate, his hurt, his regret. Ready for any reaction other than the one I heard. “You can’t marry him, Blue. You’re supposed to—” I’d lied to myself again. I wasn’t ready to hear it. I deleted the voicemail before the blue flames threatened to spark again. When I got home, I snuck to the attic and opened Dexter’s gift with tears in my eyes. There were two hammered silver cuffs with words carved into the metal: One read: If I had to remember to breathe… The second read: I’d die for all I think of you. * * * ●●● * * * The next morning, I couldn’t sit still. I pulled on my running shoes, needing to do something other than stew. I ran and ran. I pushed myself harder than I ever had and when I made it back to my street, I couldn’t tell if the reason I felt shaky was because of that or because Dexter was sitting on my porch. As I jogged up, I couldn’t help my relief at having left my ring inside. It was gaudy and all wrong. Nothing I’d pick for myself. But having to wear something you usually wouldn’t was a chance you took when you decided to marry someone who didn’t carry the biggest piece of your soul in theirs. I knew he was there to pick up Dylan. I also knew that I’d forgotten to tell him that Miranda took him last night. My brain was frazzled and all I wanted was an afternoon with paint. In my panties and a T-shirt. Giving my grief to my passion. Letting something else carry my emotional weight, even if only for a few hours. “Dylan’s with Miranda. He should be back tonight,” I said, trying not to sound winded and unsure and failing at both. “I know. Miranda called.” He hadn’t gotten up from the stoop, and he angled his head to stare up at me. The morning sun blasted behind me despite the crisp morning and one of his eyes was closed. The other was squinting, but the blue of his iris looked more like a gem. Stone. So cold. I nodded and brought my hand up to wipe the sweat from my brow. He caught the action in his stare and blinked away. I glanced down and realized I’d used my left hand. He’d been looking for my absent ring. “Do you…want to—” I gestured toward the house and he nodded before standing. He was too close as I fumbled with the key I tucked in the small waistband pocket of my running capris. I unlocked the door and shoved at it, heading straight to the fridge for water. He was right behind me. “Are we going to talk about the message?” “It’s seven in the morning. You want to do this now?” Sweat ran down my back and I took a gulp of water. “I’ll take what I can get. Time isn’t what’s important here.” He leaned against the counter across from me. “Isn’t it always?” I was skirting the issue. Something I never used to do. Something I hated other people doing. “Fucking stop already, Noa. Talk to me,” he snapped. “I’m not mentally prepared to talk about the things that came out of your mouth. Especially when I know you likely didn’t even mean them.” I pulled off my running shoes and kicked them under the kitchen table before grabbing a hand towel to wipe off my sweat. All the while Dexter watched me. When I went to walk past him, he grabbed the towel and yanked me to him. “If you can’t handle me, that’s fine. But don’t brush off the things I say to you. Just because you’ve moved on, doesn’t mean I have,” he whispered before letting me go and walking out, shutting the door firmly behind him. I was alone when I finally said out loud what I would’ve said in response to his voicemail. Had we been face-to-face. Had it been our time. “I’m sorry that I can’t help but ruin you for anyone else. I’m sorry that I always fuck everything up!” I grabbed an empty vase from the table and chucked it across the room. It shattered against the slate grey wall. Chapter Twenty-Four NOA “I have to leave, Tim,” I said as I placed the dirty frying pan in the sink. “I can’t stay here anymore.” “Don’t leave because of him.” He set his fork down and wiped his mouth with a napkin. I didn’t bother to deny it. I’d lied to Tim about many things, but I promised myself I would never do it again. He was all I had now. “If I stay, I’ll end up like ma. You know it.” I turned with the dish towel in my hands. “I need a chance to see what I can do…outside of this shit hole.” He pushed his plate away and dropped his head in his hands. “I know I wasn’t always a good role model. I fucked up a lot. I made life a hell of a lot harder. Sometimes I forgot to love you…treated you like a burden.” I sat across from him. “That isn’t what this is about.” “Yeah, but I have to say it. Lo siento.” We looked at each other, our eyes unflinching. “Where will I even go?” I whispered, a tear sliding down my cheek. He scooted his chair back, and I grimaced at the sound it made against the floor. He walked into my room ,and I heard some shuffling before he emerged with a key and placed it on the table. He then went into his room and lifted a floorboard. I knew our floors were shit but I didn’t think they were that bad. He came back to the table with a tin box. He slid it my way and I reached for the key with shaking hands. “I always thought this was going to be my way out of here. But…I don’t know what I was expecting. To leave you and pursue baseball again?” He shook his head. I unlocked the tin and gasped at its contents. Twenties, fifties, hundreds, all stuffed in there like afterthoughts. “I can’t….” “Take it. If you don’t, it’ll just stay here collecting dust. I don’t need that shit.” I took a few out, to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. How…? “You want to know how I managed to save it? I always kept the key in your room. And I vowed to never enter that room drunk. That was your sanctuary. Sober, I can deal. But it was when I was drunk that I really had to fight the urge to spend it all.” More tears came. Tim fought back. For me. “So I guess the question isn’t where will you go, but where do you wanna go,” he said as he sipped his black coffee. Chapter Twenty-Five NOA At the sound of the banging on my front door, I jolted awake. The sound made my heart race and for a moment, I worried Dylan would wake up until I remembered Dexter had picked him up. I raced down the steps toward the front door as more pounding vibrated against the thick wood. I opened the door, surprised to see Dexter. “Dylan? What’s wrong?” My heart dropped but something in his eyes made me pause. I stepped back once as he stalked toward me. And then we were crashing. His mouth took mine like it belonged to him; like only he knew what to do with it. It wasn’t long until his mouth sought out my skin and my world tilted as he maneuvered us toward the stairs, only to lay me on the steps. He tugged his shirt off and lifted my long T-shirt over my panties. I opened my mouth in a silent plea. Please…. Please do anything you want to me. Please burn me. Please set fire to my body until the memory of him fades. Until the flames between us is all that I remember. As he reached for me, my world tilted again and I found myself alone in my bed, with not even Theo’s warmth to keep the lonesome waves at bay. He’d spent the night in Seattle again. But it wasn’t Theo I craved. I didn’t know that it ever would be. In my empty bed with only my broken heart to keep me company, I decided I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t drag him into our battle anymore. I glanced down at my ring and pulled it over my knuckle before setting it on the nightstand and turning to try to sleep again. I’d never be anything other than Noa. But I could start being fucking honest with myself. * * * ●●● * * * Later that afternoon, I’d called Theo a dozen times with no answer. I even called the hospital, only for them to tell me he’d gotten off shift yesterday afternoon. I called his place in Seattle. Nothing. I wondered if anything had happened to him so I turned on the news, just in case. My cell phone rang and I answered quickly, wondering if Miranda had any answers. Unlikely, but still. “Noa, honey,” Miranda greeted me. “Have you seen or heard from Theo?” I asked, cutting right to the chase. “Funny, I’m calling you about him.” I sat down as she continued. “Quinton and I were at dinner last night and I saw him there. At first, I couldn’t see who he was with but when they got up to leave, I recognized Rachel.” Rachel? I frowned, not understanding why they’d be having dinner together. Or why he hadn’t been answering my calls. “Anyway, I decided not to call you last night but I slept on it and I feel like this isn’t innocent. I’ve been around the block enough to know what an affair looks like and the way they were acting; it didn’t seem casual. You’re looking for Theo? I’m sure you’ll know where to find him.” I stammered but our relationship came back to me. The late nights, the times he never came home at all…the times where I probably should’ve gotten mad, but I was happy enough to find a man who didn’t give me a hard time about loving someone else. After a few more minutes of Miranda telling me where exactly she’d been and every detail down to Rachel’s dress, we hung up and I sprang into action. I grabbed whatever I could. Clothes, shoes, his fucking pillow. Anything that was his. The strangest part was I was embarrassed. I wasn’t hurt. I was just embarrassed. Who was I kidding? I was in a relationship where we both were cheaters. And with Rachel? The woman who’d spent years of her life pledging herself to Dexter. She was simply out to ruin me, and she hit me where she thought it would hurt. I stuffed his shit in my car and peeled off, my embarrassment fueling me as I sped toward Rachel’s. I couldn’t thank Dexter more for having Dylan over at his place. I pulled into the driveway and opened my car door, leaving it running. This would be quick. I started pulling everything out, unsure of what I’d do with them. I wanted the both of them out of my life. The anger I felt toward Rachel was now bleeding into whatever episode I was having and I knew, if I could, I would’ve lit all of it on fire. The car in front of her house caught Rachel’s attention apparently, because she walked outside, her silk robe wrapped around her thin body and her hair a mess. Theo liked hair. Especially during sex. She leaned against her doorframe, her face wearing the same smug happiness she’d showcased the day she claimed Dexter proposed to her. The same expression that I wanted to slap right off. Instead, I gathered his things and dropped them right in front of her. When I turned to leave, she cleared her throat. “I can either leave quietly and this can be a transaction or I can embarrass you in front of your neighbors and Theo. Your choice.” I didn’t turn and when she remained quiet, I continued to head to my car. “Rachel, what’s…?” I looked over my shoulder at the sound of Theo’s voice. “Noa?” His eyes went to the pile of clothes in front of him and they widened. I hopped in my car and locked the doors. He ran out and knocked on my window, trying to open the door. I reversed quickly, causing him to stumble and fall. When I was about to drive away, I stopped and rolled down my window. “Hey, Rachel? How does it feel to watch him run away from you and after me?” I placed my sunglasses over my eyes and smiled, pressing on the gas. It was no fucking wonder she didn’t show up at my birthday lunch. I wish I’d lit his things on fire. Rachel too. They both deserved to burn together. Chapter Twenty-Six NOA I figured Theo would head back to the house quickly but he took his time. Good. I gathered the rest of his things and placed them in the living room. I wanted every trace of him gone. He’d been a pawn in this sick little game Rachel insisted on playing. When I heard the door open and shut, I didn’t move from where I was standing in the kitchen, my back facing where I was sure he’d be standing. “I’m sorry,” he whispered and I shook my head. “Don’t bother, Theo.” I shrugged and pressed my lips together to keep from telling him things that would hurt him. I didn’t want to hurt him. I wanted to stop living a lie. “So that’s it, then?” he asked. I finally turned and walked past him to the living room. “I suppose so. All your things are here.” “After all of this time, you aren’t even sad to see me go. Did I mean that little to you?” That made me laugh. “Come on, Theo. You know what we had.” Lies. All lies. The silence stretched between us and then he started gathering his things. I hoped he’d remain silent but that hope died when he started in again. “I guess it hurts to know that I never had a chance.” “You had your chance,” I yelled. I looked down at the ring on top of his gym bag. I knew I was lying because if I was being completely honest, Theo was never going to be Dexter and that made him impossible to be with. “You’re such a liar,” he said as his face contorted and I snorted at the irony. “Do you even know how to tell the truth anymore?” “That’s rich, coming from you.” I pointed at him and backed up, ready to leave. “Look around! He’s everywhere and I never stood a chance,” Theo yelled, his arms spread. “Take a good look around this house and tell me if there’s anywhere here that he isn’t. For God’s sake, he’s in bed with us when I touch you.” I glanced around and only then did I notice the little bits of blue all over the place. Little knickknacks that were glaringly obvious now. “I asked you to paint the kitchen grey and even that reminds you of him. You look at it with more love than you could ever muster for me. Do you even care why it was Rachel? Because we both know how it feels to love people who don’t give a shit about us. It just so happened that we were both victims of the same screwed up relationship. You pushed me into Rachel’s arms, even after I proposed. You should’ve just said no, Noa. I’m sure you’re happy you don’t have to end it now. You’re so happy that I fucked up and now you don’t have to end it. I can be the bad guy now.” I opened my mouth to argue but he shook his head. “Spare me.” He placed his hands on his hips. “I could’ve been good to you, Noa. Had you given me the chance to.” He went back to gathering the little things he left behind during our time together and I was saddened by it because there I went again, burning bridges. I ruined all of the love I’d ever been given. I was a bad person. Regardless of what I used to think of myself, I knew that I was a bad person. I chose the safer option, a man who could never burn me the way my love for Dexter had. At the very least, the blue fire between us was natural, something that couldn’t be helped. Instead, I took the safer route and with every step, I dripped gasoline until I lit a match and burned his love down. What was safe wasn’t always safe. And not all that is safe is good. Fire followed me everywhere I went. Even Tim was proof of that. Theo grabbed his things and stopped in front of me. I could smell his aftershave that was always a little too strong for my liking. “Do us all a favor and…tell him you love him already. Put him out of his fucking misery for the love of all that is holy.” He adjusted his grip on his gym bag, and it was only once I heard the door slam that I started to cry. * * * ●●● * * * Hours later, Dexter was on my doorstep, a sleeping Dylan in his arms. I told him to put the baby upstairs and geared myself for whatever he might’ve already heard. The sound of his even steps headed toward me caused me to wipe my palms against my jeans. “Rachel called. Said you were acting like a psycho again,” Dexter said easily as he leaned against the counter. Like he belonged in my house. Because we both knew he did. “Did she tell you the part where she was fucking Theo?” “What?” I glanced over and watched him work his jaw. It probably wasn’t best to tell him that way but I was still simmering. I made a pot of coffee, letting him sit in the silence between us. As I poured two cups, I started talking again. He took a seat at the table. “I dropped his things off on her doorstep.” I reached in the cookie jar and grabbed a few, tossing one to Dexter and putting one in my mouth. “Just tell me the police won’t come knocking on your door any minute now.” I chuckled as I finished chewing. “You wouldn’t bail me out?” “Like that’s even a question.” He smiled before asking, “You all right?” I ate another cookie thoughtfully. “I think so. It’s for the best. But I’m a little shocked Rachel had the balls to pull that off. It doesn’t make sense since she’s been pining for you since the get-go.” Dexter shrugged. “Maybe it wasn’t always about me. I don’t pretend to understand her.” I nibbled on the last cookie. “You understand me.” “Sometimes I wish I didn’t.” I didn’t want to hear the confusion in his voice. I didn’t want to have this awkwardness between us, so I attempted to steer the conversation to what I thought was a better topic. “You seeing anyone, Dexter Andrews?” I remembered being face-to-face with a woman he’d spent the night with and I often wondered if he was secretly dating someone. The mere thought of it made my heart ache. I heard the screech of the chair being pushed back and Dexter grabbed his suit jacket before rounding the table and heading toward the door. I barely had time to register the change in pace. “What are you doing?” I asked, grabbing his arm. “Don’t fucking play with me, Noa. And don’t ever treat me like second best.” He yanked his arm back and opened the door. When I thought he’d leave, he surprised me by slamming the door and facing me again. “You aren’t second anything, Dexter,” I whispered, wishing he could read my mind and see how much he owned me. Maybe Theo had owned me in the most basic sense, but I’d given myself to Dexter and never gotten me back. I wasn’t supposed to be anyone else’s. “Then why not me?” He dropped his jacket and his hands reached to cradle my face. “Why not us?” “Because it was too much. Loving you was killing me.” I tried to step away from him but he held on, his eyes on mine. The first time I loved him, I almost died. The second time I loved him, both Dylan and I almost died. At that rate, the next time I let myself love him, it’d cause an apocalyptic disaster. “Why do you want to know if I’m seeing anyone?” He was taking something that I’d tried to be flippant about and dragged me, kicking and screaming, toward the truth. If Dexter were a truth serum, he’d be the most potent. Still I tried to brush it off. “It’s not important,” I said, shrugging. He shook his head and I knew it wasn’t going to work. “For once, tell me how you feel.” I pushed him away, my hands that wished to hold onto him, making room for the hurt that was big enough to fill every open space in this house. I prided myself in always telling Dexter how I felt. Sure, in the bigger scheme of things I hadn’t. But he didn’t know that. He couldn’t…. “What do you want me to say? You want me to tell you that now that I’m single, I want to try again? No thanks.” The hurt flashed in his eyes and I wanted to grab the words, each syllable and hateful inflection, and shove them back in my mouth. Stupid pride. It wasn’t that I had just realized I wanted him now that my relationship was over. I’d wanted him all along. But to face that would mean facing the fact that I’d lied to him; the person I’d always wanted to be honest with. And wherever Dexter and I were involved, disaster struck. “You know, one day I’m going to get really sick of your shit.” I spread my arms. Instead of backing down, I got more defensive. Really stupid pride. “Aren’t you sick yet? No? Well, how about I lost a child? How about I lost my brother? My parents? How about I fought alcohol addiction at an age when girls were packing for college? What…what the hell have you lost, Dexter?” I wiped at the tears that fell from my eyes. I was fighting dirty, as usual. “I lost a child, too. And I lost you. Which trumps anything you’ve ever encountered.” He swung the door open so hard it bounced off my wall, and he walked out. I looked toward the stairs to make sure Dylan hadn’t woken up. Mom instincts never died. I sank to the floor, praying he’d never come back. I loved him but it hurt. Dexter was my truth. And I wasn’t ready to face him yet. I didn’t think I’d ever be ready. Chapter Twenty-Seven NOA My first day back at school wasn’t monumental. I didn’t have anyone waiting for me, no one other than the teachers even acknowledged my absence. With my head down, I heard their whispers and curiosity were geared toward Dexter Andrews. He’d been back almost a month already. And while they all had their opinions of him, it seemed the verdict was still out. Some said he’d been the one to jump in front of the car. Others said the car hit him as he strolled innocently across. The one thing that couldn’t be ignored was the fact that he’d inadvertently killed one of his best friends. There were more whispers that questioned the validity of his amnesia. But all I knew was that, despite my own demons, I was happy not to be in his shoes. I almost died the same day he had and no one noticed. I spent weeks in therapy and these students, these judgmental teenagers, were none the wiser. I clutched my books to my chest, hoping that I would never be their topic of conversation. I was almost there, the door in front of me when I was pushed from behind. “Move it,” a female voice hissed. Becca Hamilton. Bitch beyond compare. “‘Excuse me’ is the term you’re looking for,” I said as I gathered myself, pushing into her to walk ahead of her. “Whatever.” I heard the word curl from her snarl and I shrugged. Such a shame that was all she had. How dare she act like I was nobody? How dare they all act like I was nobody? Sure, it didn’t help that I refused to socialize and I reveled in the idea of being alone forever. But I was different now. I was starting over. And damn it, I wasn’t going to be ignored anymore. The crowd parted and it was a sign. Or maybe it was the weeks of therapy giving me forced optimism. Because I saw him and I was a different person. At least, I wanted to be. I’d been infatuated with Dexter Andrews since the first day of second grade when he walked into my class. He was one of those guys who existed off of his own rules. While I went through my own rocky period of puberty, Dexter remained beautiful, not a pimple on his face, not a hair out of place. It was unfair. And while he had many admirers, he couldn’t be bothered. He was bored, his blue eyes always skimming past and onto a new idea or adventure. The only one who’d been able to keep his attention had been Becca Hamilton. Until now. Now I was going to get his attention, one way or another. If he brushed me off, fine. But I wasn’t going to let myself sink into the background anymore. If nothing happened, it would be no fault of mine, for once. He wasn’t paying attention, as usual, so I placed myself strategically in line with him, walking in front of him and waiting for the collision. His eyes were on the ground, and I got the air that he was melancholy over something. I stopped, realizing how stupid I was being. Instead of moving to the side, too transfixed on the way his bright eyes looked cast downward, I remained there, stuck. He bumped into me and I dropped my books, overwhelmed by years of pent-up fascination and finally being touched by the one person I’d dreamed of. He stared at me as if he was shocked that I even existed. Great. I gathered my things in a hurry, my embarrassment fueling my annoyance. Over the rush of blood moving toward my heated cheeks, I realized he still hadn’t said a word to me. “Excuse me,” I said as I started to walk away from him. Pointless. It was a waste of time to have thought Dexter would even care. No one ever did. “Wait. Hey, wait up,” I heard him say behind me. My heart started beating fast. Not what I was expecting. I shut down the pity party and aimed to look unaffected. I tossed him a look over my shoulder. “Are you going to apologize or…” I was good. I was smooth. I wasn’t crazy anymore. He finally apologized. I took it he had nothing else to say to me so I told him it was fine, desperate to be done with this conversation. If I was in his presence long enough, he’d start to see me. And once he got a good look, he’d be long gone. I knew I’d been the cause of our interaction, but I couldn’t tell up from down and I’d forgotten who Dexter was and who I was. “Can I make it up to you?” That stopped me. It stopped my heart. It stopped the world as I knew it. I turned, a silly grin on my face. So much for cool, I thought to myself as I processed what he said. “What?” I asked, afraid that he hadn’t actually said it. I had to shut my brain up and focus on his lips, which wasn’t hard to do. “Uh, I didn’t mean to bump into you. I had a pretty terrible day, wasn’t looking where I was going. And judging by your reaction, you weren’t having the best day either. It couldn’t hurt to stop somewhere, get something to eat and maybe turn our luck around?” He brought his hand up over the slight scruff on his chin and if I didn’t know better, I’d think he was…nervous? I smiled harder at the obscenity of that idea. Right. He’s nervous around me. Pfft. If he wanted to play this game, I was fine with that. I’d end up losing anyway. “Yeah, sure. Make it up to me.” I started walking away again. He didn’t know my name. He didn’t have any way to contact me. But I wasn’t going to worry about that. If he wanted me, he’d find a way. I heard his steps behind me and I wanted to laugh. This guy did not quit. “Wait—I don’t know your name…or how to get ahold of you.” There was a flash of fear at the sound of his voice. The sincerity it held, it was like hearing from an old friend…an old lover. So much transferred from his words to my mind and I doubted he even understood that. It made me want to run away from him and never look back. Something about that connection frightened me. Instead, I spoke again, remaining aloof. He wouldn’t call me. I would never hear from him again. So what was the danger in this? I walked away from Dexter Andrews with a pit in my stomach that I tried to shake off. I’d gone out of my way, something I never did, and it didn’t go as planned. But it didn’t mean that my life would change overnight. It didn’t mean that Dexter would fall in love with me or that I wouldn’t be alone anymore. Despite my hopes lifting higher and higher, I tried to act like what had happened wouldn’t change anything. But the lightning bolt of nostalgia that zapped through me made me think otherwise. His words touched me like he knew me. And worse, I felt like I did know him. Not possible. I was an ant and he was a giant. I was the background and he was front and center. Before today, we’d never spoken. But still. Maybe it was the blue. I touched my fingers to the light blue strands of my hair, thankful that Tim had agreed to it, signifying my new life. A better life with a better attitude. I would even try not to swear as much. Tim said it made me sound like I was an idiot, which we both knew I wasn’t. I didn’t know if I’d changed just because I realized, at the last minute, that I didn’t want to die. I didn’t know anything except that I was…different. I didn’t want to hate my parents anymore. I didn’t want to only exist. I wanted to live and I wanted to find something worth living for. I pondered this as I climbed the steps of the bus and sat three rows from the front. The rowdier kids always took the back seats, and I didn’t want to have to clamber over them to get off at my stop. I looked out of the dirty window, my eyes skating over the muddy snow until I stopped at the large guy next to Dexter. His hair was that faded red that looked blonde some days and ginger others. His cheeks were pink from the cold as he got into the passenger seat. My eyes went to Dexter’s, which were thoughtful. He started the car and pulled off and I wondered, with a hated weight in my belly, if I’d ever interact with him again. Chapter Twenty-Eight NOA I was still sitting against the wall when I heard a soft knock on the door. A few seconds later, it opened and Dexter walked in and sat beside me quietly. I wanted to lean against him, but I didn’t know why he was here or what mood he was in. So we remained silent beside one another. My eyelids grew heavier and as I was about to fall asleep, I heard the sound of his voice. “There has never been a moment in my life that I didn’t love you. If we’re talking after the amnesia, I loved you before I even knew you. Because I felt your force and I knew you were out there. I just knew I had to find you.” He drew my hand in his, and I kept my eyes on the wall in front of us. “I had to force you to see me,” I whispered. “What do you mean?” I sighed and looked up at the ceiling. Was it really fate if I’d played a part? If I hadn’t stopped Dexter that day, he would’ve walked right past me like he had a hundred times before, and I wouldn’t be the poison that refused to be sucked out. “That day in the hall. I saw you coming. I wanted you to notice me. So I stood in your way and let you bump into me. It wasn’t fate, Dexter. It was me wanting to be seen.” When he let go of my hand, I placed it in my lap, still not looking at him. “I feel like you’re trying to cheapen what we have….” I finally looked at him. “What do we have, Dexter? A son and a broken home. You watched me be with someone else. Why are you still here?” I shivered. I’d asked him that question once, a long time ago. “Because I can’t be this for anyone else but you, Noa. Watching you with him killed me a little every day. But I left you. That was my fault.” Silence stretched on between us, and this time I imagined a slinky. Because the further it stretched, the more I wanted it to snap back and have that time again. To fill it with words I should’ve said. The next five minutes weren’t promised. The next five years or decades. I had no idea how much time I had left. Or how much time he had. And damn it, I just wanted to love him. To love loving him. To live for loving him. “Isn’t it funny that all this time we wanted to be in each other’s heads and not our hearts? I mean, sure, our brains are to blame for our emotions but traditionally speaking, our heads are where our logic rules and our hearts hold our emotional ties.” I touched him and the blue fire was no longer my burden. It swallowed us whole as I laced my fingers through his. “What we have defies logic. You breathed life into me. You could open up any part of me and they’d find pieces of you in there. We had it right the first time, Blue. Open up my head, because that’s where you live. Open up my heart if you want, my arms, my spleen. I’m alive because of you. Because I loved you so much, I couldn’t think of ever even forgetting you.” I swallowed. If we were being honest, I had to tell him. We had to go through the pain together. And hopefully make it to the other side together; the healing side. “I want you to know everything,” I whispered. Chapter Twenty-Nine NOA “What do you mean?” I sat up, gripping the edge of the bed to help me. The crackle of the paper beneath me annoyed me. I wanted to rip it off. The nurse shook her head, her eyes not meeting mine and before I could question her, she was out the door. My eyes flew to Miranda’s as they filled and she became distorted. My baby. “I…I—” Miranda was at my side, pulling me to her. When the doctor came in, a steely look on his face, I waited until he began his search for a heartbeat. After a few minutes, I started babbling. Asking him what was happening. He set down the instrument and stared me square in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t…don’t say it….” I shook my head and let my chin hit my chest until the tears came. And then I screamed. I ripped the paper. I hit Miranda in the chest as she held me against her. The doctor attempted to soothe me, but I heard him utter the words “fetal demise” and I shuddered. The only demise we were witnessing was mine. He explained to Miranda that I’d have to head to Labor & Delivery and push the baby out. I’d have to push out my dead baby and they had no idea how long she’d been gone. They induced my labor and…. I longed for Dexter. My soul looked for his. My hands searched for his, my eyes for any sign of him. When I knew he wouldn’t be there, the emotional pain was paralyzing. And then came the physical pain. I pushed, ignoring the pings of light behind my eyes as my body went through the hardest obstacle it’d ever faced. Miranda wiped away my sweat and my tears as I sobbed and bore down. “I don’t want her to be dead,” I cried out mid-push, clinging to Miranda. When she came out, silent and still, my chest felt tight. They cleaned her up and handed her to me and I experienced a potent cocktail of physical and emotional pain. My tears hit my lips as I spoke to her. Sweet words she couldn’t hear. Dexter would never see it for himself but he was in her. His features stamped on her perfect little face. They gave me time with Anna. They took pictures. They were patient. And then they started discussing options. When I handed Anna back to Miranda, I turned away from the world. I knew there had to be a higher power. Someone was watching me. Because He saw my muddy mind, my questionable morals, the stains of my soul, and He knew better than to give me an innocent child. He knew that I’d done wrong. He knew I kept the baby from Dexter. That I hated my mother. That in the back of my mind, I hated myself. I was waiting for a reason to live. And He made me pay. He took away my reason and made me keep going. Chapter Thirty NOA I turned to faced Dexter as a tear slid down his cheek. I caught it with my thumb before it dropped from his chin. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For what?” I shook my head and pulled him to me. “It wasn’t your fault. And I’m starting to understand that it wasn’t my fault either.” He shook as he held me back, and I reflected back on the words I said to him after Dylan was born. How I’d been so against us. I’d seen the hope in his eyes then. Didn’t he know how dangerous that could be? So I’d used his anger against him because I was afraid. But I wasn’t afraid anymore. I pulled back and looked into his eyes. And then he kissed me and it felt like I was being ripped apart and put back together. I felt my cheeks wet with love’s relief and I pulled back. “What are we doing?” “I’m loving you, Noa. Can’t you tell?” He grabbed my face with one hand and kissed me hard. He kissed me until I felt more like an entity than a person. I was a combined effort of everything we’d gone through and these particles, these events, they brought Noa Cruz together. I was a pixilated mass, synthesizing the sounds of our hearts, our lips, his voice. Our love. “Love me back,” he said in response to the way I clenched, prepared for something to stop his kisses. But it was only me holding us back. “If I give you myself, what then?” He was running his fingers through my hair with one hand. The other dropped to my waist, gripping it tightly. All I knew was how good it felt to stop fighting. Damn the scars, damn the battles and the people who’d been caught in the crossfire throughout the war of us. When we came together, none of it mattered. “If you give me you,” he whispered in my ear, “I give you me. And then neither of us are empty-handed.” “For how long?” I asked. I didn’t let myself take back the unfair question. I’d done it too many times before. “Forever.” I gripped the back of his neck, bringing his lips to mine. He could promise me the world. But nothing made me believe him more than when his body was one with mine. I clawed at his clothes, anxious to feel that spark of kismet. No other force on Earth could bring me to my knees the way Dexter Andrews could. I’d been afraid of that, but I was more afraid of living the rest of my life wanting him from afar. I could lie to myself. It would soothe the wounds momentarily, like a distraction. But in the long haul, I would, as the Angel of Death said, be forever searching and never finding. I wanted to find Dexter. More than I wanted to be found. I gasped when his teeth grazed my skin. “I never stopped loving you,” I said, tears falling. “I know.” He continued to kiss a path down my skin, lifting my shirt over my head. “How?” My hands were on the sides of his face, bringing his gaze to mine. “You just needed to find yourself, Noa. Then, when you were ready, you’d let me find you again.” “Forever searching and never finding….” I whispered the words against his skin and when I looked up at him, his eyes were closed. He pulled me back and then drew me close again, our foreheads touching. “You talked to him?” I nodded, not sure how he would take the news. “The day of Tim’s service. He sat beside me on the swings. Told me you were my soul mate, said that if I drank again, it would be my last. He…remembered taking Anna.” Dexter’s grip on me tightened and when I felt moisture hit my skin, I realized he was crying silently. “Shh. Don’t.” I grabbed at him, bringing any part of him to my lips. “All this time and you knew?” I nodded, afraid to speak. I was afraid he’d find another broken piece of me to hate. But no one would hate me the way I had these last few years. I used to ponder if I could bear the brunt of his hate and mine. But Dexter’s love always succeeded his hate. His light drowned out the dark, and though there were shadows full of whispers of anger, there was more light than there was anything else. And I envied it. My hate was what I was more afraid of. If Dexter walked away again, I wouldn’t make it. It would consume me and I wouldn’t be able to fight it. I wouldn’t be able to be what Dylan needed. I’d split myself wide open for this man all over again. The stitches that held me together had been ripped apart, and I would never pretend to be whole again without him. I would never attempt to fit someone in his place again. I would never know the power he held over me in anyone else. “Why can’t you just let us be?” he asked, and I realized I had more tears spilling onto my cheeks. “I was too afraid.” He sat back against the wall. I watched him with wide eyes, not sure what would come next. “Do you want this?” His eyes were on his hands and when he looked up at me, I was tempted to look away. He was looking at me like I was everything. And to be looked at like that, with my track record…. “More than anything.” He nodded and stood and I didn’t understand what was going on. He leaned down and kissed my forehead. “You need time. After Theo, you need to be sure.” I opened my mouth to interrupt and he placed his fingers on my lips. “And I need it, too.” I wanted to say more but he lifted my chin and kissed me. “Don’t worry. I can’t stay away for too long, Blue. I love you too much.” When he walked away and shut the front door behind him, I wished to have gotten a peek inside his head. To feel what he felt when it was his turn to walk away. And to no longer wonder if and when he’d come back. Chapter Thirty-One NOA Dexter did stay away. He continued to keep our Dylan schedule and when he picked him up or dropped him off, it was always the same. He’d smile, lean in and kiss my cheek. I’d inhale him momentarily and sigh. He’d tell me to call him if I needed him and then he’d leave. But didn’t he know I needed him now? I wondered how many of his fingerprints I wore on my skin. And I wondered how many of his words lived in my head. Mostly, I wondered when he’d come back to me to collect them; to reclaim them. Or me. When would I experience him again? As the days turned to weeks, I tried to keep busy. I painted, I watched Dylan learn more and more words. He formed sentences, and he kept me grounded and focused on life. But every time I saw Dexter, I threatened to float free. I wrote him little love letters in my mind. Ones that I imagined would make him smile. That slow spread of pleasure. I wanted so badly to be the curve behind his lips. Then one day, Dexter came inside. I was in the middle of making dinner, Salsa music blaring in my kitchen when he decided to step inside, a smile on his face. I ran to turn the speaker down. When I looked up, he was right in front of me. “I like you like this,” he said as he reached up to tuck a loose strand behind my ear. “I never knew you listened to this music.” I snorted. “How could I not love Hector Lavoe?” He raised his brows and I shook my head, hoping he’d tell me why he was here. Hoping he was ready to finally be with me. He sat at my kitchen table and I didn’t know how to react as I checked on the rice I’d been cooking. “You know Dylan’s with Miranda, right?” I asked as I placed the lid back on the pot and looked at him. He nodded and I asked him outright what he was doing here to which he chuckled. “How’s Phoebe?” I asked him. I did miss seeing her. I hadn’t heard from Rachel. Dexter didn’t bring her up in the few minutes I’d see him, which made me happy. She was the last person I wanted to hear about. “She’s good. I…think Rachel is having a hard time. Every time I see her, she looks like she hasn’t showered or slept.” I wanted to roll my eyes but if Rachel wasn’t doing well, by default, neither was Phoebe. “Are you worried?” He shrugged. “What can I do about it? I can’t take Phoebe away just because her mom has a few bad hair days. Besides, Phoebe is all she has.” “Maybe that’s why she goes around sleeping with unavailable men.” “He was available, Noa. I won’t say whose fault that is, but any man who sleeps around doesn’t belong to anyone.” The silence between us was awkward and I wanted to kiss him. I just wanted to touch him because it’d been too long. “I want to kiss you,” I told him. He only smiled but he doesn’t know that made it harder for me to stand where I was. “What are you doing Friday night?” he asked. “Depends.” “On what?” He leaned forward, his blue eyes sparkling. He’d gotten a haircut since I last saw him but it was still in a bun, though smaller, which I loved. “If you’re asking me out. Then I’m doing whatever you’re doing.” He smiled and licked his bottom lip, which of course turned me to putty. “I like your answer. There’s a charity event I was invited to, and I added you as my plus one.” He stood and I frowned a little. “Leaving already?” He nodded as he brushed the front of his suit jacket. “I have to get back to work. But I’ll pick you up on Friday around seven.” He left me standing in my kitchen, wondering what the hell this meant. ●●● * * * By Friday night, I was a nervous wreck. Miranda was zipping up my dress and kissing my cheek as the doorbell rang. She told me to wait there as she got the door and a few moments later, I was walking down the steps, the snug bodice of my blue dress holding me so tightly, I knew I couldn’t fall apart. When Dexter looked up at me, he stopped mid-sentence, his eyes warming me from the inside out. “Blue….” He walked toward me and my breath caught in my throat. I was no longer a twenty-seven-year-old woman with a child and a mortgage. I was a seventeen-year-old girl wishing he would finally see me. And he did. Goddamn it, he saw me. “You look like a dream,” I told him right before he kissed my cheek and I was stuck breathing him in. He smelled like one, too. I had to be careful because this felt a lot like a new beginning. “Ready?” he asked, and I nodded before turning to say goodbye to Miranda. Dexter and I took turns giving Dylan bedtime kisses, mine leaving red stains on his little cheeks. When we walked outside, I gasped at the limo waiting for us. “Dexter,” I whispered as I placed my hand over my mouth. “We never went to prom. I may as well treat this the way I would’ve then.” I couldn’t help the way my eyes filled. We hadn’t gone to prom because I told Dexter I couldn’t afford a dress. He offered to purchase one, but I’d made him promise not to. How beautiful was it that I could afford hundreds and now…here we were. “You are amazing,” I told him before pressing my lips to his quickly. When he didn’t wipe the lipstick away immediately, I laughed. We climbed in the limo and for the first few minutes, I was wide-eyed and excited. Before I could simmer down, Dexter was taking my hands in his. I focused on him, a huge smile on my face. “You must be wondering what tonight means,” he started, and I pressed my fingers into his palm. “Of course you are.” He glanced down at my hands and stopped, his eyes on the bracelets I was wearing. Did he not know I felt the same way? To choose between breathing and loving him would be impossible. Before the conversation could go further, the limo stopped and the door opened. His eyes lingered on mine before he climbed out, and I tried not to get nervous when I heard the voices outside. But when I saw Dexter’s hand held out for mine, waiting for me to join him, I took a deep breath and stepped out. I wasn’t going to ever leave him alone again. No matter what. We got inside and people greeted Dexter. When he introduced me, they all smiled warmly but I noticed they only ever offered a few words, as if this was the Dexter they knew. One who didn’t relish in small talk. I smiled at him. “You don’t talk to these people?” He shook his head with a grin. “Only about work.” “Why?” I asked as I tilted my head. “I think they wouldn’t care about what I say, and I know I wouldn’t care about what they say.” “But you talk to me.” He chuckled. “Is this your backwards way of asking if I care?” When I only offered him my eyes, he stood, holding his hand out again. “Dance with me.” It was more command than question but I still nodded. To be in his arms in front of everyone here wasn’t something I’d say no to. When he turned me into his embrace, I smiled. His hand held mine and his other hand was against my spine, high enough to seem more friendly than anything. “I’ve missed you.” I couldn’t hold the truth back anymore. He didn’t say anything, just held me a fraction closer. My eyes fluttered at the feel of his breath on my bare shoulder. “I know what it’s like to pretend you aren’t the one. And I know what it’s like to know you’re the one and to do nothing about it.” When he pressed his hand lower, on the small of my back, I jolted a bit. Surprised by his touch. Who were we? Except deifiers of nature. I love…I loved to love from afar. There’s a sweet pain in missing. A force that makes the yearning romantic. It’s bittersweet, wrapping your arms around a ghost. Dexter was a ghost no longer. The warmth of his palm chased the thought away. “You aren’t the only one,” I told him as I moved closer to him, until my chin hit his shoulder and his cheek pressed to mine. “We both know this is it.” I could feel his cheek moving and I imagined what his smile would look like. Happy? Relieved? “Remember when we went to dinner all those years ago? And you’d never been to a fancy restaurant before.” I replied with a laugh. “You completely opened up to me. You told me everything, dumped your heart on the table to me, and gave me an indescribable feeling. Where I wanted to just hold you in my arms and never let you go.” “Then never let me go,” I said as I leaned back to look him in the eyes. The song bled into another and Dexter made good on his word. He never let me go. We were into the fourth song when the words bubbled from my lips. “My heart has gone cold without the fire,” I whispered. The spaces between our moments of contact were filled with drafty silence, despite my filling them with any type of superficial heat I could find. There was a part of me that would always be cold without him, barren and unable to move on. “You can’t be cold, Blue. You’re the warmest color.” He stepped back and cupped my hands in his and kissed them, his beautiful eyes on mine. “Let’s get out of here.” Though it was colder out, the late fall chill wrapping itself between the layers of my dress, I didn’t mind because Dexter held me close. “Where are we going?” I asked, glancing up at the night sky. Were our stars twinkling down on us? He pulled me closer until I was flush against him. “I booked us a room but we don’t have to go there. You say the word and I’ll take you home.” “Never let me go,” I said against his neck before I pulled away. I kicked off my shoes, grabbing them before running through the grass. It felt like I’d been here before. Running barefoot away from Dexter. This time, though…this time was different. We were rewriting our past. Replacing it with moments that caused our heartbeats to trip over themselves. The satin of the dress was gliding against my skin and I grabbed at the extra material, intent to make him follow me through the darkness, the way I’d followed him. “You always were a challenge, Blue,” he said, and I thought it was unfair that I couldn’t detect a hint of fatigue in his words. I ran often, especially to work off the baby weight Dylan had blessed me with. But even I was tired. Maybe it was the bodice of the dress, making it near impossible to take a deep breath. I slowed and not a second passed when he grabbed my arm and pulled me against him again, where I’d started. “No more running.” His mouth settled beside my ear and I shivered over the whisper. “Unless it’s to our hotel room.” I nodded and shrieked when he scooped me up in his arms. Chapter Thirty-Two NOA We made it to our room in record time, my bare feet in the air as he held me the entire way up. “You can let me down, Dexter.” “Don’t stop saying my name,” he said as he ran his lips over the sensitive skin between my neck and shoulder. “Dexter, Dexter, Dexter,” I sighed as the elevator opened, and he somehow managed to pull out the keycard and open the door. He carried me to the bed and dropped me on it, making me laugh. “I’ve dreamed of this,” I told him, my eyes still holding onto my mirth. “Not as much as I have.” He turned me over on my stomach, and I sighed again when he unzipped my dress and bared more skin to his touch. He ran his fingertips over where I knew the ink was in my skin. It was gentler than any kiss he’d ever given me. He touched me everywhere, as if he thought I’d disappear without the press of his fingerprints on my body. And then I was naked and he was untucking his shirt. I laid on the bed in front of him, rubbing my legs together to soothe the ache that was building inside of me. His eyes were on me as I dragged my hands up until I felt the cool metal of the headboard against my palms and held on. Legs spread, I felt him touching me. The brush of his hair against my inner thighs caused me to bite my lip. His beard chafed at my sensitive skin until I was covered in goosebumps. His lips, his tongue, his teeth bringing me up, letting me float back down and bringing me higher still. He climbed up the length of me to kiss my lips and when our bodies took over, knowing exactly what to do, I cried out. Still, I held on. It wasn’t until Dexter let go that I let my hands go. I lay there for a moment, breathless, before I sat astride his hips to do it over again. It was only after hours and hours of making up for the years of denying ourselves that we lay beside one another, our hands holding onto one another. “I love you,” I told him, the words so easy to say. It was something I always used to do. Back when we were young, before we went to sleep each night, I told him I loved him. It was a side effect of acknowledging our mortality. If we didn’t rise with the morning sun, we’d hear our love last. Chapter Thirty-Three NOA I always had this fear of love and of living. I was afraid to get too invested, to get too close to Dexter at first. My brush with death was frightening, and I knew we both had come so close to our ends. It intimidated me; the idea of loving Dexter and losing him in a way that we could never come back from. Because once death had him, there was nothing in my power that would bring him back to me. And after standing for so long in the sun, no one wanted to know darkness again. Some nights, I couldn’t sleep for fear of it. I hid my paranoia from Dexter, always waking in the middle of the night and staring at the grey walls in his room, listening to his deep breathing, thinking about how lucky I was. And just how frightening that was. One night, while he slept peacefully beside me in his bedroom, the crickets chirping under the cool summer moon, I turned to him. My shifting caused his breathing pattern to change. When his eyes opened, I stared at him. “I never want to sleep again,” I whispered. Rather than ask me what I meant, he took my hand between us and kissed my knuckles. We laid there whispering to one another and after a few hours, I fell asleep. When I woke up, Dexter was lying exactly where he’d been, still watching me. We never wanted to miss a moment. It took years of me being alone in Seattle to kick that habit. Chapter Thirty-Four NOA I wished for time to stand still but as the sun began to peek through the curtains, I rolled over with a sigh. “Blue,” I heard Dexter say as he sank further into his pillow, a small twitch of pleasure crossing his lips. I smiled and sat up, letting the sheet pool at my hips. My body was sore and I was sure I’d find marks from our lovemaking, but I would never regret the things we said and did. We talked for hours and those beautiful words made me hug myself. I’d die for you, I told him. I’d rather you live for me, he’d said in response, as if I wanted to do anything other than that. I touched my lips, feeling them as they remained smiling. Was I crazy? Was this entire story of ours pure insanity? Would it end well? I shook my head. It was too late for that. There was no going back; we were in too deep. I snuck into the bathroom to call Miranda, ignoring her pesky sex questions and asking how Dylan was. “He’s fine. We’re going to the aquarium today so be sure to get plenty of orgasms in, dear.” “Miran—” “Dylan needs me. See you tomorrow!” She hung up and I glanced at my reflection. My eyes were shiny and wide and full of a happiness I hadn’t seen in so long. I clutched my phone in my hand and took a deep breath before walking back out into the hotel room. “Morning,” Dexter said, his voice cutting through the room that seemed a lot darker after standing in the bright bathroom. “Morning.” I was never one to cover my body but I suddenly had the urge to. I was different after Dylan. Softer. I didn’t have enough time to take care of myself the way I used to. I was pretty sure I needed to trim my split ends and I was sporting a few stretch marks that I’d usually wear with pride. After all, my body carried Dylan and brought him into the world. Alive. But as my eyes adjusted to the dark room, I noticed the way Dexter stared at me. It was the way he always did. Like I was everything. Like he could want for no more. It was terrifying. “Perfect,” he murmured as he turned over onto his stomach and held his hand out. I shook my head. “I’m not getting back in that bed because then I’ll never leave and I’m hungry.” Dexter groaned and turned to sit up. “I guess that’s a good enough reason to get up.” He ran his fingers through his disheveled hair. “It’s been a while since I took you on a date anyway.” “Last night wasn’t a date?” I asked as I picked up my ball gown and twirled with it, as if I were Sandra Dee. “Not to me it wasn’t,” he said as he stretched up toward the hotel’s speckled ceiling. He stood with a small grunt and scratched his stomach. “I can do better than that.” “Better than the limo?” I asked. “Mmhmm,” he answered easily as he stepped toward me. The butterflies in my stomach seemed to have descended with each second that passed. He smiled and moved around, walking into the bathroom. I exhaled. “Better than the dancing?” “Mmhmm.” He pulled two toothbrushes from the toiletry bag he’d packed in a suitcase that’d been waiting in the room when we checked in. Both toothbrushes were blue; he set one down on the bathroom counter before meeting my gaze with a nod. I waited until he spread a generous amount of toothpaste on his brush and opened his mouth before opening my mouth to speak: “Better than the sex?” Mid-scrub, he paused and looked at me again, grinning around the brush and foam. When he didn’t answer, only stared at me, it was my turn to slip around him and into the shower. I slid the glass door open and stepped in before turning on the water. I wasn’t worried about split ends or stretch marks or whatever made me different from the hundreds of women he could’ve had instead. I’d carried his child. If he didn’t like how that had physically changed me, he’d have to just deal with it. But all through my shower, he didn’t look away. Not after he continued to brush, not when he’d spat out the minty froth, and not after he’d dried his face. He simply turned and continued to watch. And when I stepped out after wringing out my hair, he grabbed the towel and wrapped me in it. “Still want to go out on that date?” He asked, his voice husky. I shook my head and laughed when he scooped me in his arms. ●●● * * * The next day, Dexter and I faced the morning together. We packed up, checked out, and headed home, our fingers entwined like we were in high school again. We picked up Dylan and spent hours as a family at my house, the way I always wanted it to be. “Ralph called. Said he’s in Seattle. Do you mind if he comes over?” Dexter asked that afternoon as he leaned down to kiss my forehead and muss Dylan’s hair. “Of course not.” Nearly an hour later, someone banged on the front door and Dylan started crying, the noise startling him. I laughed as Ralph entered and picked up my crying boy, holding him close. “I’m sorry, little buddy,” he said as he leaned down to pinch my cheek. I served sandwiches for lunch and as I was about to lay Dylan down for a nap, Dexter’s phone rang. “Hello?” Even if I didn’t register the concern in his eyes, the voice on the other end sounded frantic, though I couldn’t understand what was said. “Rachel? Calm down.” At the sound of her name, my insides clenched. I moved to stand closer to Dexter, my hand on his arm. It was so easy to forget she was forever linked to us. Dexter hung up and sprang into action, rushing to grab his jacket and telling us Phoebe was unconscious and Rachel had no idea what was wrong. “Did she call for an ambulance?” I gathered Dylan in my arms and grabbed our jackets. “I’m coming with you.” “You don’t have to.” He told me as I zipped Dylan’s jacket and set him down to put mine on. “Of course I do,” I said, moving to stand directly in front of him. “This is our life now. I go where you go.” Ralph helped me get Dylan’s bag ready and then we got in my car and headed for Rachel’s. I expected to hear sirens and see chaos around her house but it was eerily quiet. Nothing to tell us anyone was home other than the sway of the curtain, as if someone had been watching us from inside. I got a chill, wondering what was going on. If Dylan were unconscious, I’d have the neighbors and the police in here, as loud and frantic as I would be. “Dexter…” I placed my hand on his arm when he unbuckled his seatbelt. “I don’t like this.” Didn’t he think this was strange too? “I have to go inside, Blue.” He looked at me and kissed me hard before getting out. I leaned across the driver’s seat to see him as he made his way toward the front door. I straightened with determination. “Fine. I’m going, too.” But Ralph held me back. I saw him shake his head through the rearview mirror as he got out. When I looked at Dylan, who fell asleep on the way over, I tried to reason that it was better that Ralph go. “Stay,” Ralph said. “I’ll make sure he’s okay.” He got out before I could tell him anything else and as I watched him disappear into the house, I wondered what would await them on the other side of that door. The minutes crawled by and I got more and more nervous. If something were wrong with Phoebe, why isn’t the ambulance here? Why are they still inside? A few minutes later and I wasn’t going to sit around and wait anymore. It went against my instinct to remove Dylan from his car seat and tuck him against me as I headed toward the front door. It was cracked open, and I could hear voices but nothing clearly. I walked inside and the scene inside made me pull Dylan even closer. “Good,” Rachel said, her eyes excited. “Our guest of honor is here.” She glanced at Dexter. “I thought you’d have to call her to come in.” She turned to me again and my blood ran cold. Cupped in both of her hands, now aimed at me and Dylan, was a gun. “Put Dylan in Phoebe’s room. Now.” I tried to breathe easy knowing she wouldn’t involve my baby, but I still wanted to kick her fucking ass for even aiming the gun at him. While I headed to the room, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911. I set him down beside a sleeping Phoebe. I couldn’t tell but it didn’t seem like anything was wrong with her. Just as I finished reciting the address, praying that the operator got it down, Rachel called out. “Come on, Noa. I don’t have all day!” Dylan stirred and I felt my nostrils flare in anger as I set the phone down with the dispatcher still speaking. If he woke up, I’d take a fucking bullet before I left him out here. He relaxed back into sleep and pressed my phone into Phoebe’s hand. If she woke up and something was wrong, I hoped she knew how to dial 911. I closed the door, not knowing if I’d ever see the children again but not letting tears fall. Not in front of Rachel. “Stand over there, next to Ralph,” Rachel ordered when she saw I was headed toward Dexter. Her hands were shaking, and I couldn’t bring myself to look in her eyes. I didn’t want to relate to her or pity her right now. Not if we weren’t going to make it out alive. “I’m happy to have everyone’s attention. For once, I feel like the most important person in the room.” She laughed nervously and aimed at Dexter, her hand shaking before straightening. “That’s not fair, Rach,” Dexter said. “You were always important. Especially to Phoebe.” She lifted a brow at her daughter’s name. I thought it’d be enough to snap her out of it but she shrugged and continued. “Yeah? I know what everyone called me. Mouse. A goddamned mouse!” She looked at Ralph before glaring at Dexter and righting her aim once more. My heart stopped with every fidget. “You don’t even know what I’ve done for you. For us.” “You’ve got the floor. Here’s your chance to tell me.” Dexter appeared calm and it made me angry. We were standing at gunpoint. This crazy bitch was going to kill us all and my fucking son was in the next room. He wanted her to talk to us like this was a fucking confessional when it looked more like a massacre waiting to happen. Part of me wanted to bide our time while we waited for the authorities, but I couldn’t chance it with my son in the house. I moved to lunge and Dexter stretched his arm out to keep me from attacking her. He ended up right beside me and it was hard not to hold onto him. The muzzle was instantly aimed at me and my gaze went to her eyes. “Just fucking shoot me. Because if you don’t, as soon as I have the opportunity, I won’t show you the same kindness,” I yelled. Dexter held his hand out to Rachel and though her hand continued to shake, rage in her eyes, he faced me and cupped my face in his hands. “Listen to me: I don’t need Dylan to grow up without both of his parents. You need to survive. For him,” he whispered before he pressed his lips to my forehead. “Live for me, remember?” “But I—” I started before Rachel interrupted me. “Get away from him,” she screamed, gesturing with her gun to the other side of the room. But I want to live with you, I tried to tell Dexter with my eyes as he stepped back. I walked, staring at her with hatred the entire way. “I wasn’t always this way, Dex.” Her voice was shaky and it sounded like she was trying to reason with him, make it so he saw the good she was referring to. “I—I used to be a nice person. But your love…or lack of love, I should say…it changed me. I loved you for so long. Since I saw you, really. More than once, I thought I might have a chance but every time, you turned me away. Always for her.” By the end, her voice was filled with bitterness. “Where’s Phoebe?” he asked, and I wanted to tell him she was with Dylan, but Ralph moved closer to Rachel and she flipped the safety off. That click of metal made the room still. “I don’t want to have to shoot you but I will,” she said, her voice low. She looked at Dexter. “She’s fine. A little chloroform, nothing life-threatening.” My jaw dropped. Rachel had us all fooled. Her crazy was nothing like mine. I was impatient to see Dylan. I didn’t know how, as a woman and mother, she would be all right with this. With innocent children in the house. It showed just how far gone she was. “Why didn’t you tell me you needed help, Rachel?” Dexter asked, and I balled my hands into fists. Nothing would help her. “Secrets, secrets.” She laughed. “Turns out Noa wasn’t the only one with secrets. Did you know that Phoebe’s father didn’t die? He’s somewhere with his wife and children. I was crying that day because I was pregnant and my professor wasn’t going to support us. And when you came up to me, it was like a higher power placed you in my path. I figured, after time and friendship, you’d step up. Because you were that type of man. And if a baby could make you stay, you could love me. Phoebe was…a pawn at first. I hadn’t planned to love her but I did. When we finally got together, I was happy.” I wanted to cover my ears with my hands. I didn’t want to know what Dexter had been like with Rachel because it was going against the higher power that she had thought was on her side. “Even though I gave you a child and loved you more than anything, you still decided to be without me. To be alone. And then you found her and she was back, and I had to pretend like I wasn’t dying inside. If it weren’t for Phoebe, I’d have nothing. Even then, seeing her face reminded me of her piece of shit biological father and her disappointing adoptive father.” “Where does Theo fit into all of this?” I asked, confused. She laughed, licked her lips. “That was just because I could. I admit that I wanted Dexter all along, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hurt you in the process.” I rolled my eyes. Crazy bitch. Dexter spoke, stepping a little more toward Rachel. Though her eyes shot down to his feet, she remained where she stood. “That Phoebe’s biological father is alive changes nothing. I’m her father because I chose to be. I’ll always be her father, no matter what.” She groaned with frustration, covering her face. The gun slid against her cheek. I looked at Ralph for guidance and he shook his head. “You’re a good man. I don’t want to have to kill any of you.” She turned to face me. “I know this’ll hurt, Dex. But you’ll get over Noa’s death. We can raise Dylan and Phoebe together and everything—” Ralph slammed into her and a gunshot went off and then another. I watched the scene unfold and there was blood smearing the floor where they struggled. I didn’t know who it was coming from. Ralph was on top of Rachel, pulling the gun from her grip before tossing it aside. I couldn’t tell who was shot and when I looked over at Dexter, I screamed. He was clutching his abdomen, blood on his hands when he pulled them away from his body. He staggered a little. “Dexter, Dexter, no.” I rushed toward him and he shook his head. “I’ll be fine. Where are the kids?” “In Phoebe’s room. Dexter, you have to apply pressure.” I started crying and when I moved to touch him, he pushed me away. “Stay here. I need to see my kids.” He turned away and leaned against the wall as he headed to Phoebe’s room. I looked over my shoulder and saw Ralph squeezing Rachel’s neck. After a few moments, she went still and Ralph gasped, rolling onto his back. I saw the blood pouring from his thigh and I knew he wouldn’t make it. He was bleeding so much that I knew the bullet had gotten his femoral artery. I cried harder as I ran over and laid his head in my lap, taking off my jacket and pressing it into his wound. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, hugging him close with one arm. Ralph shivered in my arms and I yelled for Dexter, unwilling to believe that this sweet man was dying in my arms. Rachel’s dead body was in the corner, and I wondered if the Angel of Death knew from the day they met each other that they would be each other’s ends. “Dexter!” I cried for him. “Dexter, I’m losing him!” I could feel death in the room. And when I looked up, there was the old man, leaning over Rachel. Then he came to where I was seated, ignoring me entirely before leaning over Ralph. I felt Ralph leave his body. His last sigh was ragged and then he was gone. I heard Dylan crying in the next room and I sobbed, not knowing what to do. I wiped away at the tears mingled with the mess of my nose, only to belatedly remember I was covered in Ralph’s blood. Dexter didn’t answer and I laid Ralph gingerly on the floor. The Angel of Death turned toward Phoebe’s room and I became frantic as I ran past him and toward the room. Dylan’s cries were a steady wail and when I opened the door, I saw why. He was tugging on Dexter’s sweater, but Dexter looked like he was sleeping. Had I not seen the spread of dark liquid on his shirt, I might’ve believed he was asleep. Phoebe still wasn’t awake and getting paler and paler. I grabbed the blanket on the bed. I took Dylan into my arms and held him close, tucking his head into my neck while reaching down to press the blanket where the blood was oozing. When the Angel of Death entered the room, I covered Dexter’s body with mine. “You can’t have him! You can’t!” I felt his hand on my shoulder and I looked up. He shook his head and I pulled a crying Dylan in closer, refusing to get off of Dexter. I heard the sirens in the distance and I felt that dangerous hope I’d always been afraid of. “They’re coming to save your daddy,” I whispered into our son’s hair, fighting the urge to set him down and check Dexter’s pulse. I had faith that he wasn’t ready to die just as much as I wasn’t ready to let him go. Chapter Thirty-Five NOA I didn’t know if I wanted to be cremated or buried. It felt like talking about those things meant speaking them into existence. I wasn’t ready to come to terms with my end but death had come to my doorstep, whether I was ready or not. In the last few weeks, I’d spent more time discussing the dead than I wanted to. Whether I was talking to the police or to the therapist I’d started seeing, I wasn’t ready to do what I was about to, but he deserved for me to say goodbye. I’d missed his funeral. He would’ve called me an asshole for it. I walked up to his grave as my phone rang. “How’re you feeling?” I asked, eyeing Ralph’s tombstone nervously, as if something beneath me would reach up and grab me. “Better.” Dexter was silent for a moment. “Tell my brother I said goodbye.” I nodded, tears in my eyes. It had been a week and a half, but it was still hard to believe we’d never see him again. He was laid into the foundation of the story of Dexter and me. “I’ll tell him you love him, too.” I let my tear slide down my face as I stared at the fresh dirt. Dexter chuckled and stopped short. His stitches probably ached. He’d lost so much blood that he’d had to take it easy since the…accident. I didn’t know what else to call it. “Don’t. He’d find some way to make fun of me for it.” I sighed and walked closer to the grave, running my fingers over the headstone. “First chance I get, I’ll bring you here. You just have to worry about getting better, okay?” “Okay, Blue.” When we hung up, I sat on the cold ground and talked to Ralph, telling him all about the Angel of Death and life and love. I told him that I was finally finding my way and that Tracey still cries every time she talks about him. I told him that I was adopting Phoebe and that Dylan loved following his sister around. I told him everything I knew he would’ve wanted for us. To some, our story would be a sad one; full of heartbreak and missed opportunities. Maybe Dexter and I made a lot of mistakes, but this was our love story. I wouldn’t take back the tears I’d shed over him, the moments when I wondered how I would go on without him. The moments when we nearly missed each other. Because we hadn’t. We hadn’t missed each other. Millions of people do every day, but Dexter and I had been right on time. There were billions of people in the world, but I’d found my person. One day, I’d come back and live another adventure. My end would likely bring sorrow, but I would have another turn. I’d find him again. I would have another chance, and I only hoped to be even better next time. My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs, That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms, In life after life, in age after age, forever. —Rabindranath Tagore, “Unending Love” Epilogue DEXTER Everyone likes to warn you about time passing. They like to tell you to live in the moment and fill your heart with fear because not a moment is guaranteed. I chose to live differently. And I chose to help Noa live differently. She deserved more than to tell me she loved me with nearly every breath because she was unsure of her next. She deserved to only know happiness. With every day that passed, I made Noa surer of our love until I recognized peace in her eyes. Gone was the quick flicker to the nearest exit. Because I learned that Noa would always want to leave me before I left her. We watched Dylan and Phoebe grow. We gave them another sister and a brother. We watched them have their own children and create their own love stories. And every step of the way, we reminded them that love could heal all. They say that right before you die your life flashes before your eyes. They’re wrong. In that moment, I didn’t see it coming. I stood still in shock, waiting. But instead of the impending doom, I saw Noa. Every time, in every life, I’d see her. Annabelle in Greg’s life, Noa in Dexter’s. It was all the same. We were always supposed to come back. I knew, no matter what, I would come back and find her. Because her heart housed the very best pieces of me. Noa was my heaven on Earth; my nirvana. And I wasn’t afraid. “It’s so very good to see you, old friend,” the Angel of Death said. I smiled, not minding the loss of most senses. I was missing her already. But this time, I let her fade. Because she deserved to be won, again and again, in each life, forever. Acknowledgments It took me a while to write this book. I kept writing and then stepping back and doubting myself. Some people loved Crashing Souls. Some people hated it (that f*cking ending!). But it was a personal battle, writing this book. I left so much of myself between these pages. Sometimes we’re plagued with wondering what people would think, but I was plagued with the idea of not doing my characters justice. I like to think I did. So, if you loved Crashing Souls, this is for you! I don’t write characters that you’ll want to be like. I don’t aspire to. I write characters that I’m like and that other real women are like. No one is perfect. Thank you to the ever wonderful Rosemi Mederos for editing this beauty and for calling me out on my B.S. You are an amazing editor. Amazing. Don’t doubt that, my dear. Thank you to Amanda. Without your nursing expertise, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten a certain scene right. *bawls eyes out* To the Sayers: It’s been a long time coming. A lot of you have been with me since Crashing Souls released. Some even before then! You are all my little treasures. Thanks for letting me say random sh*t and taking me in stride. Hayley, you are sometimes the insanity I need. Thanks for the laughs along the way. You are honestly a hilarious woman with such a great heart, and I love our love story. Jessica, you are epic. Epic writer, epic woman, epic friend. Everything that comes out of your mouth is gold. Everything your fingertips touch is platinum. I’ll continue to annoyingly cheer you on so you reach your word count, and I hope that never changes. Thank you for your help with this project. Shari, you are my angel! I loved working with you. I look forward to booking you again and again, and our interaction makes me so happy. You are so talented, and your work is above and beyond what I could’ve ever dreamed. Thank you for everything. Yashira, Michelle, Anna, MG, and Cheryl, thank you for your passion with this project. The way you ladies love Dexter and Noa made it that much more important to write this story honestly. I can’t thank you enough, but I’ll continue to try! Mr. Rodriguez, thank you for being my best friend. If you’ve ever given me your love, there are pieces of you in this book. And in every book I ever write. Love is too great a gift not to share with the world. Live forever. Lastly, to the music. It can set you free.

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