I saw him again today.
It was at the mall this time.
He was wearing a grey suit and it was just seconds this time before he disappeared around a corner and my life returned to normal once more.
It had been two years and yet I still saw him. Everywhere.
The day after that fateful night, I saw him in our neighborhood walking a dog. Months later, he was next to me at a stoplight when I went out for groceries. Two weeks ago when Ryan got down on one knee and placed a dazzling diamond ring on my left hand, I swear I saw his face the minute I said yes.
He was like a ghost—my own personal poltergeist.
I knew it wasn’t really him. My therapist had reminded me of that simple fact over a thousand times, but that didn’t stop my heart from skipping a beat or my lungs deflating of air every time I saw someone that looked like him pass in my direction.
It could be the color of a person’s hair or the way someone laughed that set my body on edge.
Today, it was simply a suit.
Tailored, dark grey with a small pinstripe. The style had been his favorite, and even though the man who wore it looked nothing like him, I still found myself frozen in the middle of the food court.
Still as ice, unable to move.
Because life really didn’t move on from a person such as August Kincaid.
No, you simply learned to adapt and above all, you survived.
And that was what I had been doing for the last two years.
“Hey, you went blank again. Are you okay?” Sarah asked.
I looked around, and the world suddenly shifted back into focus. Children cried and
begged for ice cream, teenagers laughed and flirted as they walked by us. The smell of cinnamon rolls and cheap Chinese food mixed and mingled, as people pushed and shoved their way around to get in ridiculously long lines. Life went on around me as I returned to the land of the living.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I assured her. Concern was written all over her beautiful, trim face. Her hand lifted briefly as if she were going to offer a hug, but quickly decided against it.
“Okay,” she answered, defeat clearly written all over her face. She knew I wouldn’t talk about it.
I never did.
There were certain things that just didn’t need to be shared.
Specific memories of my past were one of them.
She already knew I was a nutcase yet for some reason became my friend despite this. I guess we had that specific trait in common. We’d met in the waiting room at my therapist’s office. She was a recovering purger, or at least that’s what she called it. Since the time Sarah was barely old enough to vote, she’d been suffering from a variety of eating disorders. She attributed her illnesses to a dance mentor who’d never thought she was thin enough to be a ballerina.
“When all you want to do is be the Swan Princess in Swan Lake, you make sacrifices,” she’d told me that day in the office very matter-of-factly. Sarah was at peace with her issues. She’d gone through years of counseling and this year would finally be the swan princess she always dreamed of being—fully in control of what she considered her “livable flaws.”
Well, I guess we all had issues that lingered. Some had visible flaws they could see in the mirror, touch with their hands…measure on a scale. Others, like me, had memories that woke us from sleep and haunted our waking hours, making normal, well—different.
I doubted there would ever be any glorious end of the rainbow moment that would somehow magically cure me of all my flaws.
But, I was working on it and Ryan had made a world of difference in my once bleak outlook on life. Now I saw possibilities where there once was only darkness. He brought hope to my sadness and light to my life. There wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t thankful for his persistence in seeking me out.
I’d been a hard one to nail down, or so he told me.
“So, are you ready?” she asked, grabbing my hand and moving away from the frozen yogurt and fried food.
“As I’ll ever be,” I sighed, taking one last longing look at the exit.
“Oh come on. Most girls are excited to do this. Hell, I’ve been excited for this day for weeks!”
“Then say you’re me,” I begged, as we turned the corner and my eyes spotted the brightly lit sign at the end of the walkway. I could feel the groan already forming, the deep rumbling sound vibrating through my lungs as it made its way up to express my displeasure.
“Everly Adams. You will not ruin this for me! This is your day and you will enjoy it!” “I thought my day was several months from now,” I joked.
“As the blushing bride-to-be, you will have lots of days between now and then. Get used
to the attention.”
I groaned again, looking at the floor-to-ceiling windows that displayed more tulle and
sequins than I’d seen in my entire life. “We should have eloped.”
“This is horrid, Sarah,” I whined, shuffling out of the dressing room in a gown that could only be described as a cross between the Little Mermaid and that scary Alfred Hitchcock movie with all the birds.
“It’s beautiful! And so fashion forward,” she practically squealed, clapping her hands together like a happy toddler who had just been given a lollipop for supper. “Look at the way the fabric gathers together, making it look like tiny feathers at the bottom of the skirt. So dramatic.”
“That,” I said, pointing to my calves,” is also where my legs are supposed to be able to move back and forth. It’s called walking. I look ridiculous!”
“Walking is so overrated. Besides, how much walking are you planning to do in this thing?” She rolled her eyes, kneeling down to play with the skirt some more. It resulted in the tulle or whatever the puffy stuff was called doubling in size.
“I’m not wearing this,” I said firmly, trying to look anywhere but at the three different mirrors all reflecting my ridiculous reflection. “Pick another one. And for the love of God, pick something less…well, less you!”
I once again attempted to walk back into the dressing room, doing more of a waddle than a walk. Once there, I was joined by an attendant to assist me. There was no way I could get out of this monstrosity by myself.
“Your tattoo is lovely. Quite unique,” the bridal attendant said, as she stood behind me and removed the clamps that held the dress in place. My thin, boy-like frame never did fit into sample sizes well. The lack of hips and boobs kept me in sizes most women would die to wear, but the lack of aforementioned body parts sometimes sucked. A lot.
Especially when trying on wedding dresses. Or anything remotely feminine. I felt more like a pre-pubescent boy trying on drag than a beautiful, curvy woman.
“Thank you,” I answered awkwardly, as my hand instinctively reached behind my shoulder to touch the piece of me that I rarely shared with others. The walls of mirrors put my body completely on display, highlighting every rough curve and jutted angle, exposing the harsh black lines of the branch as it wove up my back and around my shoulder.
“Why doesn’t the bird fly away? She’s free,” she said absently, her head cocked to the side as she stared at the birdcage etched on my right shoulder. It was intricate and beautiful as it hung on the barren branch, the door swung wide open for the world to peer in on the tiny bird inside.
“Maybe she’s not ready yet,” I answered quietly, looking away.
“Okay, I’ve got another one, Everly! And I promise, you’re going to love it!” Sarah’s singsong voice seemed to break the spell hovering above us, giving us both a startle. The attendant straightened, turning quickly as I retreated into the corner to grab the satin robe. I’d just fastened it around my waist when she opened the door to let Sarah in.
“Tell me you love me,” Sarah said as she waltzed into the room, holding up a simple ivory colored empire waist gown with a small amount of beading around the neckline and not a single bit of organza or tulle in sight.
“I think I love you,” I said, as my eyes widened at the understated elegance of the dress. Simple and understated. Everything I wanted to be.
“Let’s try it on,” she suggested, handing it to the attendant who motioned for me to come forward.
Nodding, I agreed, knowing it was unnecessary.
It was perfect and as I glanced around the room, I caught a glimpse of that tiny bird on my shoulder. The one too afraid to jump out of her cage and discover the world outside.
Soon, I would be perfect, too.
Or as close as I could be to the word.
“You are mine, Everly,” he whispered. “Mine and mine alone. I own every part of you, every inch of your body…every breath in your lungs. You. Belong. To. Me.”
“Everly,” another voice murmured. “Everly, wake up. You fell asleep right at the good part again,” Ryan laughed.
My eyes cracked open as the glow of the TV made me turn my head toward the comfort of his warm chest.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” he said, pulling me tight against his body. “You’ll never know who the winter soldier is now,” he joked, his head leaning forward just close enough that I felt the heat of his breath against my neck.
“I saw that plot twist ages ago,” I answered, covering a quiet yawn with my palm as I stretched in his arms.
“You always do.”
“I can’t help it. The story lines are always so obvious.”
“And if you had written the story,” he said, pulling back slightly with a boyish grin
lighting up his face, “What would you have done differently?”
“I don’t know—I’m not a scriptwriter,” I answered with a shrug.
“Maybe you should be.” His brow arched, challenging me to answer.
“Who’s being the obvious one now, Ryan?” I asked with a huff, rising from my
comfortable spot on the couch in order to create some much needed distance. “And seriously? Scriptwriting? Pick something a little less insane next time. When have you ever seen me pick up a pen? Or sit in front of a computer?”
Whenever the subject of where I was going with my life came up, I needed space.
Unfortunately our apartment was only so big, and right now a football field or two didn’t seem large enough.
“I don’t want to start an argument, Ev, but I just want you to think about it.”
“I have been thinking about it,” I answered, stepping into the kitchen as the lights flickered on. I pulled open the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. Roughly twisting the cap off, I upturned the bottle and chugged half the contents in one gulp. Water was definitely not my first beverage of choice, but right now I didn’t have the patience for anything else.
“And what have you decided?” he asked cautiously, rising from the couch to take a seat at the kitchen island across from me.
“That I’m still deciding.” I held my head high, avoiding his eye contact.
I was not in the wrong here.
He sighed long and slow, and I let the silence settle between us, setting the half-empty
bottle down on the counter in front of me. A quick glint of light caught my attention as I turned my head and I swiveled back around toward my left hand, noticing the way the overhead lights reflected on the small diamond centered in the middle of the thin gold band.
Three weeks ago he’d asked me to marry him and I’d said yes.
Despite everything I’d put him through—the cold indifference and the numerous rebuttals to his advances, he’d loved me. When I’d told him there would always be a part of me unavailable…that I just couldn’t share, he’d accepted me. For who I was.
And what I was willing to give him.
“I’ll look at the brochures again,” I said, offering up an olive branch as I stepped forward and held out the rest of my water bottle. His warm smile returned as his fingers encased mine around the plastic.
“I just want to see you succeed. In whatever you chose, Ev. Hell, you can major in basket weaving for all I care. I just want you to feel like you have a purpose in life beyond working at that coffee shop you refuse to quit.”
“I know, and I love you for it,” I replied, feeling the deep gaze of his eyes settle on mine. Needing to be closer to him, I walked out of the kitchen and walked into his arms at the counter where he sat.
He pulled me into his large frame, where the world felt safe and measurable again.
“I do make a mean cup of coffee,” I said, my lips curving into a smile.
His fingers cupped my chin, tilting it toward his dark brown eyes.
“I know. Why do you think I kept coming back every damn day? It wasn’t your charming personality.”
“I thought it was my ass,” I laughed, shaking it as his hands closed around each cheek and squeezed.
“Ah yes. The ass of a porn star and the mouth of a mime. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get you to talk to me.”
“Such a sweet talker, and besides—I was told to never speak to strange men,” I said, quickly hating myself for saying it. My face slipped slightly as my stomach turned, rolling and churning as my mind replayed unwanted memories from my past.
I never, ever want to see you speaking to another man again. Do you understand me, Everly?
The words rolled around in my head as I tried to shake them out. In the last two years of my life, I’d had a thousand moments like this. A glance, a turn of phrase—anything could bring them on. I’d learned to recognize the symptoms and process the reaction quickly.
So quickly that Ryan didn’t even seem to notice anymore.
“Well,” he said, grinning, his hands slipping underneath my shirt, “I finally did wear you down. And now you’re mine.”
A weak smile spread across my lips, seconds before his mouth touched mine. No matter how much he loved me.
No matter how much I loved him in return.
I would never, ever belong to another person.
For as long as I lived.
The movie had been long forgotten, as had our clothes.
They were strung out all over the apartment, leaving a trail toward the bedroom. Little breadcrumbs of debauchery.
“Hey, it’s still early; do you want to order a pizza?” Ryan yelled from the shower as I took a long breath and snuggled deeper into the covers on our bed.
“Does it require me to get out of this bed?” I whined, moving my legs back and forth against the smooth sheets. Ryan always said it looked like I was swimming in bed when I did this.
Growing up, I never had nice sheets. Hell, sometimes there were foster homes that didn’t even give me sheets—just a blanket and a dirty bare mattress.
Luxuries like Egyptian cotton sheets were things I would never grow accustomed to, no matter how many times my legs touched them. Every night, I’d sink into bed and run my legs back and forth against the smoothness, loving the way it felt against my skin.
Like Ryan, it brought me peace and made me feel safe—two things I’d struggled with the majority of my life.
“Please, babe. I’m hungry. So very, very hungry,” he said, sticking his head out the door of the bathroom. His lips turned downward, making him look years younger. I laughed, unable to resist his boyish charm.
“Okay, okay,” I said, stretching one last time, before I rose to grab my robe.
“On second thought, I might need to work off a few more calories first,” he said, stepping out of the bathroom in just a towel. His tanned skin was slick and wet from the shower, and I couldn’t help but lick my lips as I watched a tiny drop of water skate down his chiseled chest.
Who knew nerds could be so hot?
His gaze turned heated as he stalked forward and I watched the towel drop to the floor. I stepped backward, feeling the edge of the bed hit the backs of my knees.
Our bodies met once more as his hand cupped the back of my head, tilting it upward. “I love you, Everly. I love you so much,” he whispered, touching his lips to mine. I moaned into the kiss, feeling every hard inch of him press into me.
Always aware of my needs, he was gentle as he lowered me to the bed. As my head touched the pillow, I heard the sounds of a cell phone ringing throughout the apartment.
Ryan’s head dipped forward, shaking back and forth.
“Just ignore it,” he said.
I was already pushing at his shoulders, begging him to let me answer it.
“It can’t be that important, Ev,” he said, his eyes dancing with amusement. “I’m right here.”
I rolled my eyes, grabbing my robe as I raced to the living room.
“It could be Sarah,” I said. “She had her first rehearsal tonight.”
I picked up the phone, not recognizing the number, and paused.
“Babe,” Ryan said, standing in the doorway of our room. “Come back to bed. Whatever it is can wait.”
I didn’t listen. Instead, I answered and heard the words I had begged God to never allow to come true.
“Miss Adams?” a woman said on the other end.
“Yes,” I answered.
“This is Doctor Lawrence from St. Marcus Hospital.”
My heart began to beat frantically as my hand sought out something solid to hold me up.
I knew it was coming. Like a freight train in the middle of the night, I could see the light off in the distance…I knew what was coming.
Who was coming.
The phone hit the floor seconds before I did, and then the world went black.