Authors: Stephanie Erickson
By: Stephanie Erickson
Copyright © 2015 Stephanie Erickson
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof.
This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For Grandma Joyce.
Hopefully you can finish this one,
since there probably aren’t any
interruptions in heaven. We miss you.
Table of Contents
I cursed myself every day for my innate instinct to breathe in and out. Because if I stopped, maybe the pain would stop too.
Life without my best friend Maddie was a living nightmare. My rock, my one constant, was gone. How could the sea be expected to keep the tides without the moon there to guide her? And yet, I stubbornly continued to exist, aimless and without direction.
I was not allowed to attend her funeral. David said it would be too dangerous, not only for me, but for Maddie’s family. My father, it seemed, was taking his protective role seriously. So instead of saying goodbye, I spent my days in my new room with the lights off, willing the world around me to disappear.
Owen had risked making a single trip to my old apartment to get some of my things—my keyboard and my guitar, most of my clothes, the sheets off my bed, as well as a few personal belongings. Even if David had allowed me to go back, I wouldn’t have had the heart to dismantle the space that Maddie had decorated.
In an attempt to cheer me up, Owen had even set up my things. When I opened my eyes long enough to see what he’d accomplished, it wasn’t a bad attempt.
He’d arranged my twin bed in the corner on the far side of the room and hung an abstract picture of a piano from my apartment behind it to serve as an artsy headboard. But my old bed had been a double, so my black-and-red comforter slumped to the ground on two sides. The TV sat across from the bed, on top of a five-drawer dresser provided by the Unseen, the mind-reading organization I’d sacrificed everything to join. The dresser offered more than enough space for all of my clothes, but I preferred a closet. It was another adjustment I couldn’t wrap my head around at the moment. My guitar and keyboard were set up on the far end of the small, narrow room, and that was that. It was functional and had some elements of home, but it just wasn’t how Maddie would’ve done it.
What’s worse, I had no idea how Maddie would’ve organized the space. I never learned her secret—but all she’d needed was a few hours to transform any room or apartment into a homey, uncluttered, and functional haven. The sparsely decorated room felt unoccupied, despite a few touches from home. But, if I was honest with myself, I didn’t really occupy the space at all. I was buried beneath a haze of grief.
In one fell swoop, I’d lost everything. The path I’d been walking on for years had been erased—both by the choices I’d consciously made and the ones that had been made for me—yet, in my grief, I couldn’t see the path that now lay before me. With no direction and nothing to lead me but my sorrow, I spent my days and nights buried beneath ill-fitting covers in a strange bed, in a life I no longer recognized.
I closed my eyes, praying for sleep to claim me, but all I could see was her face. Her clear blue eyes sparkled at me as she smiled, and her red hair spilled all around her face, framing it perfectly. But then I opened them again and she was gone, making the pain worse than ever.
Owen tried to help. He brought me meals that largely went untouched and forced me to drink water. That just made me angry, because it meant I’d have to leave my sanctuary and trudge to the bathroom, where I was exposed to the real world. Life went on in that world. Things like going to the bathroom, taking showers, and eating meals went on with or without Maddie. People laughed and cried and watched TV and talked about other things. I couldn’t comprehend that.
Oddly, Mitchell was one of my biggest advocates. Owen’s best friend was quiet—incredibly so—but somehow, his silent companionship was more comforting than any advice and encouragement the others offered me. When he was around, I felt… understood. He didn’t want me to feel anything except what I was feeling. Most of the time, he would come by with Owen, but occasionally, he’d visit alone.
Once, I heard him and Owen whispering near the door of my room.
“Just give her time,” Mitchell said. “She’ll come through it eventually.”
“How much longer until eventually happens, Mitch?” he asked.
I didn’t hear the answer. Instead, I snuggled down deeper into the covers.
David came to see me once or twice, but seeing as our relationship was relatively new, he never quite found the words to say. He would just stand near the edge of my bed, opening and closing his mouth, as if about to speak, and then change his mind. Once, while I was pretending to sleep, I saw him reach out for me, but he must have thought better of it because he turned to leave instead.
Tracy only stopped in once.
“I’m sorry for your loss. Let me know when you’re ready to work.” Her words were brief and stern, but oddly, full of sympathy. I wasn’t ready for them, so I kept my back to her and stared at the wall, following the cracks in the paint with my eyes.
Finally, about ten days after Maddie’s death, Owen reached his breaking point. “You have got to get up,” he said simply.
I didn’t respond. His words barely even penetrated my grief, so rather than acknowledge them, I continued to stare at the changing images on the TV.
He jerked the comforter off me and tossed it into a heap on the floor. My pajama bottoms were hiked up to my knees from all my thrashing around. The T-shirt I had on was stained and probably smelled from being worn for days on end. My brown, curly hair had turned into a ratty mass that dominated the space above my shoulders, barely leaving my face visible. I preferred it that way. Because if he could see my face, he’d know how broken I felt.
I curled into a ball and turned my back to him, shielding myself from the outside world, the one that didn’t have my Maddie in it anymore. But the outside world was through with letting me ignore it.
He scooped me out of bed, ignoring my whines of protest. “Come on. I have a surprise for you. But you have to get up to get it.”
After carrying me down the hall and into the bathroom, he opened one of the stall doors and unceremoniously plopped me onto one of the toilets. Thankfully, no one else seemed to be in the bathroom at the time, although I didn’t pick my head up long enough to do a thorough scan. Based on the awful TV programming Owen had torn me away from, I estimated it to be midday, which would explain the absence of people. Most likely, they were all either on the work floor researching their next targets or out on assignments, tracking down potential threats to society with their abilities. Silently, I thanked him for choosing this time to drag me back into the world of the living. That way, no one else had to see what I’d become, at least not yet.
He knelt down in front of me and placed his hands on my knees. I didn’t look at him, hiding instead behind my mop of hair. He reached up and tried to tuck some of it behind my ear, but he only managed to get his hand tangled in the mess. After a few minutes of struggling, tugging, and painful pulling, he was free.
“Well, now that I’ve thoroughly ruined the moment, please get yourself showered. I’m going to wait here for you. You can talk to me if you want… or not. Just know that I am here.”
I didn’t nod or acknowledge that he’d spoken in any way. I just stared down at the floor of the bathroom. There were precisely fourteen small, yellow tiles in my view. I counted them again.
“I can stand here all day, Mac. David’s given me some time off, in light of your… condition,” Owen said as he leaned against the wall opposite me.
Finally, I tore my eyes away from the fourteen tiles at my feet and looked up at him. It was the first time I’d done so in days. How was it that he hadn’t changed at all? My world had collapsed in on me, and yet, he knelt in front of me, perfectly put together in a clean T-shirt and cargo shorts. His black waves had recently been combed, and despite everything I’d become, his gorgeous, dark eyes did not look away from me. There was no judgment or expectation in his expression, only hope, and maybe a little sadness. It made my chin quiver.
He sighed. “Mac, I’m sorry.” It wasn’t much, but it was enough. He held his arms out to me, and I climbed into them. His clean scent enveloped me, bringing the comfort only he could give. Although I’d cried in his arms a lot over the last several days, this time felt different, like it was washing away some of the haze that cocooned me. Not all of it, but some.
I wasn’t sure how long he let me cry, but eventually, I took a breath and sat back to look at him. I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. Not yet.
He gazed deep into my swollen eyes. “You’re welcome.” He paused, and then wiped one side of my soaked face. “Now, quit your blubbering and take a shower. You’re a snotty mess.”
The old me would’ve laughed and swatted at him. But that girl was gone. There was no trace of her anywhere. And this new girl I’d become didn’t know who she was… or how to laugh. So I just stared blankly at him.
He chuckled awkwardly. “All right, Mac. Go get in the shower. I’ll be right here when you’re done.”
At his prompting, my body stood, as if by its own will, and went into the nearest stall. They were all divided into two sections. An outer curtain concealed a small space equipped with a bench for your clothing, and then the actual shower stall was behind a glass door. I was grateful these showers had doors. Shower curtains were useless—if there was any kind of gentle breeze, they ended up getting stuck to your wet skin.
The water came on hot, and steam soon engulfed the stall and fogged up the door. I stood watching it for a moment, numb to everything.
Slowly and methodically, I peeled my days’ old clothing away from my skin, threw them on the bench, and stepped into the steaming water, shutting the door behind me. At first, I just stood there, letting the water fall on me, willing it to wash the memories away. When it didn’t, I sighed and actually started washing. Each stall was equipped with men and women’s toiletries, organized in small cabinets built into the wall of the stall. They were well stocked and typically had a variety of shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, and soaps.
My hair was very nearly a lost cause, and I seriously considered shaving my head for a moment. I searched the cabinet for a comb, but I came up empty. After using about half a bottle of conditioner, I gave up and decided to get out.
With one towel wrapped around my rat’s nest and a second around my body, I exited the stall. True to his word, Owen was waiting for me where I’d left him. “Ah. Good. You’re still alive. You just about steamed me out.”
I stood looking at him, waiting for my next directive. “I didn’t bring you any clothes, so you’ll have to get dressed in your room.” He held out his arm, pointing in the direction he wanted me to go, and I silently went. After stopping to scoop up my dirty clothes from the bathroom floor, he followed close behind me.
Once in my room, I picked out a T-shirt and a pair of knit shorts while he waited outside for me. I didn’t bother to make sure my outfit matched. In fact, I couldn’t stop looking at my bed. The comforter was still on the floor where Owen had left it, but I could easily remedy that. It looked so inviting, in a rumpled sort of way.
Before my train of thought could get much farther out of the station, Owen knocked. When I didn’t respond, he came in. “Hey, don’t go getting any ideas,” he said, clearly noticing the way I was lusting after my bed.
He pulled my rolling stool out from under my keyboard and sat me on it, sitting across from me on the bed. “Thought the bed might be too tempting for you.”
Of course, he was right.
“So, listen. I told you I have a surprise for you, and I do. This thing called Coda is coming to town.”
That caught my attention. Coda had been a big deal in my former community. Orchestras from all over the world came together to perform in a three-day music festival. As much as I’d always wanted to go, it had never been a realistic consideration. For one thing, it was always held in another state or even another country. For another, I never had the money for traveling, let alone for tickets to the event. One year, I had actually summoned the courage to ask the woman I’d believed to be my aunt to lend me the money. Needless to say, I didn’t end up going that year either.
So it had seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when I found out it would be held in town this year. I had even called Maddie about it, and we daydreamed about going together.
But my bestie wasn’t around to go with me anymore. It hadn’t occurred to me that Owen might want to go in her stead.
Owen smiled at my obvious interest in his topic of choice, pulling a folded brochure out of his back pocket. It was wrinkled from the steam in the bathroom, but still legible. It boasted the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the LA Philharmonic. But their featured orchestra was the Royal Concertgebouw—the best one in the world. I gasped when I saw their name. They had never performed in Florida before.
The old me tugged at the pieces of my heart desperately, not wanting to miss this opportunity. I traced the bold, yellow letters of THE ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW with my finger.
“I thought you might like to go,” Owen said quietly, resting his hand on my knee.
I looked up at him, torn between knowing he was right and wrong. He’d been watching me, searching for some sign of life.
Gazing into his beautiful, brown eyes so full of hope, it was hard to deny him. But could I really go without Maddie, knowing it was something we’d intended to experience together?
Trying to rescue me from my floundering, Owen spoke up again. “I thought I might like to go with you. Maybe brush up on my Gasbag de la noot?” It was a special joke between us—his purposeful mispronunciation of the piece I dreamed of mastering on the piano. He paused for a moment. “Especially since I haven’t heard you play it for a while.”