Barbetti Whitney - Into The Tomorrows (Broken Heart #1) - - PDF Free Download (2024)

INTO THE TOMORROWS Bleeding Hearts Book One

WHITNEY BARBETTI

CONTENTS Copyright Note to Readers Dedication Epigraph Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Back to Yesterday Chapter One Acknowledgments Also by Whitney Barbetti About Whitney Barbetti

Copyright 2016 by Whitney Barbetti

All Rights Reserved First Edition

Cover design by Najla Qamber, Najla Qamber Designs Interior design by The Write Assistants Editing by N. Josephs Proofreading by Alexis Durbin, Indie Girl Proofs Proofreading by Ginelle Blanch

Epigraph quote used with permission of Tyler Kent White

The Presence of Trees, a poem by Michael S. Glaser used with permission of Michael S Glaser

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The use of any real company and/or product names is for literary effect only. All other trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.

Note to Readers Please be aware that Into the Tomorrows is not a standalone romance and as such, this story is not concluded in this novel. Its sequel, Back to Yesterday, is being published in late summer / early fall. If you would like to be notified as soon as it releases, please subscribe to Whitney Barbetti’s newsletter at http://www.whitneybarbetti.com/signup/ Thank you for reading!

I’ve never had a dedication this long, but if weren’t for these four women, no one would read these words. Each of you supported me in your own way—a way that I desperately needed. Thanks for supporting me, even when I’m a royal pain in the ass.

To Jade Eby, who saved me.

To Jena Campbell, who encouraged me.

To Karla Sorensen, who *kindly* (and repeatedly) told me to shut up and write.

To Whitney Belisle, who essentially gave birth to #tentguy.

happiness is a heartbeat

home is a pair of hands to hold.

-Tyler Kent White

Chapter One 2008

I came into the world on a cold night, a wet night, a most unremarkable night. A night that would echo my life. I was tiny, just a few pounds, skin stretched over bone and mouth open in a silent wail. The nurse had placed me into my mother’s arms, and she looked me over for a few minutes, feeling the buildup of nine months of anguish in a real, tangible way. My mother stared at me, taking in my bald head and blue eyes. “Trista,” she said. The nurse leaned over and slid a baby hat on my head. “That’s different,” she commented. Her fingers traced my lips, her bitten down nails leaving a small scratch, and said, “It’s Italian.” Her fingers traced my features still, an echo of a love that had only brought her stretch marks, solo doctor appointments, and another mouth to feed. A love that made her blind to the love it had created, once he’d left her. “Here, you can take her,” my mother said, picking me up and handing me to the nurse with arms that couldn’t bear the weight of my five pounds. The nurse looked confused, but quickly took me from my mother and placed me in the bassinet beside her bed. My mother rolled over and stared at the wall, wishing he would come find her, wishing for a love that could last, her chest hollow of any deep and maternal love for me. “And that’s how we began,” my mother explained, nineteen years later, emptying a bottle of wine into her glass. “You’re just like him, you see.” She took a large sip, set her glass down harder than necessary and stared at me with chocolate brown eyes circled by a deep brown exhaustion. “Thanks for story time, mom.” I sat up straighter, looked at her directly. It was a story she’d told me before, though with fewer pretty words. I looked her over and played that game I shouldn’t play: the game of comparison. My stringy, dishwater blonde hair hung straight, such a contrast from her dark brown curls. When I turned my head to look at the clock, my hair clung to

my clammy face, still wet from my shower. “But you loved him.” “Love isn’t worth the heartache it leaves behind. Don’t fall in love. You’ll lose all your happiness.” She stared into her glass, swirled around what little remained. Lifting her gaze, she pinned me in place. “You are a product of loss, Trista.” But I’d been made from love, I told myself. She’d loved him. I couldn’t tell her this, lest she whip things around the table in anger. “What happened to him?” My mother was the most honest when she was drunk, which was often. “He found out you were inside me and he left me.” Left us, I thought, the bitterness slicing down my chest. But once again, it was the vague answer she always gave me when I asked, the one meant to hurt me. You caused this, she said. I lost him when I gained you. She hiccupped. “But you can understand, right? Why I named you Trista?” In a wooden voice, I said, “It means ‘sad.’” It wasn’t the first time she’d told me. It wasn’t the first time she’d made me feel that my name was more than just its six letters; it was what awaited me. She nodded, holding up her glass as her eyes glazed over. “Sad. Because that’s what I felt when I saw you. That’s how I felt while you grew inside me. When they placed you in my arms, I struggled to feel anything other than sadness.” She tossed back the last of the wine, pushed the glass away after shaking the now-empty bottle. “I do love you. Of course I do.” But she said it as if she was convincing herself, eyes narrowed as she stared at the table, rubbing her burnt fingers into the wood. “But when I look at you, I see him. And he made me sad.” She laughed, humorlessly. “The sadness, it’s probably your destiny. You’re like me, you’ll lose everyone you love.” I heard everything she didn’t say in that—not because she was protecting me, no. She’d told me more than once. That the love she’d shared with him, the love that had produced a child, wasn’t worth anything to her. With my blonde hair and blue eyes, I was a walking reminder of the love that left her. My mother rose from her seat at the counter and stretched her back. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” she asked, as if she suddenly realized how infrequently I was around her. It was amazing how lucid she seemed when it came to the matter of me leaving her presence. “I’m going to a party,” I said. With a glance at the clock, I knew I was running late. Mommy-daughter bonding time was done. “With who?” She hiccuped and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. I grabbed my purse on the counter, shaking my head. She’d had me sit so she could tell me the story of how she abandoned me the first time. “It’s a little late for you to be worrying about who I’m spending my time with.” I slung the purse over my shoulder and grabbed my cell off the counter. “Bye,” I said without a backward glance as I stepped out into the dying evening sun. I turned my phone on and checked my texts. One came, from my boyfriend of nearly three years, Colin Marks. Colin: Are you coming?

I tapped out my reply quickly, Just gotta get Ellie. See you soon. Ellie lived five minutes away from me, in a cul-de-sac that was miles better than the trailer park I lived in. Her yard had grass instead of overgrown weeds, and her windows cleanly reflected the afternoon sun. I popped the visor down, honked my horn twice, and reapplied my lip gloss. My hands shook. It’d been five months since I’d seen Colin at Christmas, when he’d tried once again to convince me to move in with him when the semester was over. Nuzzling his head into my neck, he’d breathed, “Trista, come to Colorado.” He’d been asking since I graduated high school the previous year, but Ellie and I had made a pact—two years in local community college and then we’d transfer to Colorado. I wasn’t old fashioned, but I also wasn’t stupid. Colin was the boy I’d met on accident in school, a boy who was far more popular than me, a boy who was friends with everyone, a boy with money—something I was lacking. If I was being honest with myself, the biggest reason I hadn’t moved in with him was that I was still on a mission to see who I was as just Trista. In high school, I was —in one breath—Ellie’s friend. Then I was Colin’s girlfriend. Like, “Invite Colin and his girlfriend.” Or “invite Ellie and her friend,” never “Colin and Trista” or “Ellie and Trista.” I had long, dirty blonde-slash-brown hair and blue eyes that Colin described as “sad.” My body was not thin but it wasn’t fat. I wasn’t shy, but I wasn’t out-going either. I could never seem to be just one thing; my identity was lost in the inbetweens. So I stayed in Wyoming, going to a local community college while Colin went to a Colorado university. I worked at a pet store while Colin lived off his parents. The front door opened and Ellie’s mom, her curtain of black hair hovering just above her shoulders, leaned out. She waved to me, “She’ll be out in just a sec, babe.” I waved back and smiled. Ellie’s mom was cool. Not like let-you-smoke-in-herbasem*nt cool. More like rub-my-expensive-French-perfume-on-your-wrists cool and let-me-French-braid-your-hair cool. I wondered what it was like to have a mom as stylish as her, a mom as giving of her time and attention. I brushed the thoughts aside as I checked my phone, pulling up Facebook and Colin’s profile. His photo showed him in sunglasses, looking off into the distance, that brilliant smile lighting up his face. His face was angled so that the shadows dipped into his dimples, making them the one thing I focused on. It reminded me of how I’d met him. He’d seen me in the halls—and I didn’t say that lightly. In all my high school years, I’d been Ellie’s friend and, if anyone paid attention, the girl who’d lend you sh*t. When Colin stopped me in the hallway of our high school, he’d been paying attention. A senior brushed past me, his hockey sticks knocking into the back of my knees and forcing me to fall and he kept going. My books flew across the floor, my pens

clattered around my knees. “Hey!” a voice called. I tucked my hair behind my ear and shook my head, wincing as I crawled on the floor to pick up my books. “You should apologize,” the voice said. I paid no mind to the guys talking ahead of me, just shoved my pens into my worn backpack. “Sorry,” the senior said and I rolled my eyes, not even bothering to look up to acknowledge the half-assed apology. A pair of feet stopped in front of me. “You.” I lifted my head, met his eyes. He reached a hand down to me, to pull me to standing. “Hi,” he’d said, as if we were familiar and not new. “Are you okay?” It was a moment seared in my memory, a memory that echoed our relationship. Everything with Colin was fun, exciting. Ellie loved him, and repeatedly told me that he was good for me. “He lightens your load,” she often told me. My mother, being that load. “Hey, daydreamer,” Ellie’s loud voice shook me from the memory as she slid into my car, causing the car to bounce with the movement. She laughed as she leaned way out of the car to shut the door, her beautiful black hair sliding off her shoulders. She straightened the headband that held back her bangs and turned to me. “Are you so excited?” “Remember, I’m blowing off studying for this.” I tilted my head, giving her that look. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see my boyfriend—I desperately did. But college was expensive, and I was determined to get the best grades as possible before we transferred. She rolled her eyes. “Come on, T. You’re going to ace your exams. I don’t know why you’re worried.” “You know why. We have another year and then we’ll both have saved up enough to transfer.” As she buckled I added, “And all my hard work won’t be a waste.” I took in her outfit, black pencil jeans and an oversized white button-down shirt. Her black hair was curled and hung halfway down her back, with a narrow white headband adorned with daisies—her favorite—holding her hair back from her face. Ellie had an effortlessness about her, from the way she dressed and the way she wore her hair, to how easily she fit in with everyone. It was the reason we were friends, because she was so easy-going. She didn’t see the boundaries that others saw, between jocks and band geeks or rich kids and welfare kids. I’d hated her when I’d first met her. Seeing her flit between the groups, dating stoners or the mayor’s son or the lead trumpet player. But one day she picked me first for her basketball team in gym, and we’d been friends ever since. Which was probably why she liked Colin, because he was the same way. I once joked that they should just date each other—since they were so similar. But Colin had shaken his head. “You’re mine,” he told me, his blue-green eyes fierce. “You

keep me grounded. You’re protective and guarded. I need that. I need you.” “Besides,” Ellie had added, “Colin and I together? We’d probably get arrested.” I laughed now, thinking of it. We were a unit, we three together. I couldn’t imagine my life any other way. But when I stood next to her, I couldn’t help but compare myself to her. She was model thin and tall, and she held herself with a grace she didn’t know she possessed. I was clunky, like a kid with braces and co*ke-rimmed glasses, except my awkwardness was innate, something ingrained in my DNA. I was aware of every step I made, of every sound I made—my breathing was too loud, my walk shook the furniture around me. I wanted to be like her—to hold my head high, to smile naturally. Instead, I followed behind her, always in her shadow as Ellie’s friend. Which I was content with, because I favored books to people most days. “Dude, where are you tonight?” I shook my head and looked at Ellie sheepishly. “In my head, apparently. Ready?” Ellie nodded, slumped in her seat. “Where’s the party at?” “East of Denver. Not at Colin’s fraternity—some other guy’s rental.” “Where are we staying?” “Colin used his dad’s credit card to secure a hotel room.” She waggled her eyebrows at me. “Don’t do it in the bed next to me tonight.” Shuddering from the thought, I pulled away from the curb and started down the street. “No way.”

Chapter Two

The party was rocking when we arrived four hours later, just outside of Denver. In true Colin fashion, there was an assimilation of loners, druggies, athletes, thespians, and various other labels. Colin and Ellie seemed to share a mind when it came to seeing past the costumes we wore. Ellie took off toward the living room when she saw someone she knew and I craned my neck, searching over dozens of people for his beautiful head. I heard laughter and looked around, through the curls of cigarette smoke, into the dining room. I found Colin in the back of the house, surrounded by a sort of Noah’s ark of the world’s cliques. His arm was around the shoulder of a girl I recognized from Facebook photos—the soccer player—but he was talking to a boy whose eyes were rimmed with black liner who wore chains and a trench coat. He raised one arm and tossed the tiny white ball across the wooden door that was laid flat, a makeshift beer pong table. The ball bounced once before landing in a red cup. Cheers erupted from the opposing team, and one of his opponents saluted him with the cup before downing its contents and grimacing. “Trista!” Colin said, his voice booming over everyone else. I smiled, feeling that tickle in my stomach I always felt when I saw him. He stepped away from the soccer girl, toward me, and I watched in slow-motion as he moved among dancing bodies, in between conversations, until he was in front of me. “You made it,” he said, his lips split in a grin. I was suddenly overcome with relief in seeing him. Five months was like an eternity when you were separated from the person you loved with your whole heart. His arms came around me and he yanked me roughly against his body. “I missed you,” he breathed into my neck. The scent of his cologne surrounded me and I settled against him. “I missed you too.” His lips were on mine a second later, soft, teasing. I pushed against them, wanting the roughness he’d promised when he tugged me to him. He pulled back, ran his hands over the hair on either side of my head. “You look different,” he said. It wasn’t true. He tugged on one frizzy lock of hair.

“You look the same,” I replied. Because he did. He always looked … I wasn’t sure how to describe it. Clean. Put together. “I’m glad you’re here.” He wrapped an arm around me and led me to the back patio, separating us from the noise of the house with a thick glass door. He let go of me to light the candle on the worn railing. “Stand over here; fewer bugs.” I stepped close to the candle and he gently bumped into me. “Nice party.” I raised an eyebrow and bumped hips with him. “Surprised?” I looked over my shoulder at the people on the other side of the door. The bass from the stereo thumped gently against the glass. “Not really. All the people … it’s you. You don’t belong to any one clique.” “I don’t believe in limiting myself,” he said, turning to face me as he leaned on the railing. “You know that.” He gave me that warm smile, putting his hand at the back of my head and pulling me to him. “God, I missed you,” he said again. I melted under his hand. It’d been a long few months without him and I was looking forward to spending the night with him. Even just one night. “It feels like it’s been forever since I saw you.” He kissed me three times, humming against my mouth. “f*cking distance,” he said. “The fraternity sh*t has kept me from you.” He kissed me twice more. “And you need a better car.” “I know,” I said in between kisses. It was so easy to be with him, to hold him, to love him. “I can’t wait until Ellie and I transfer here in a year.” He sighed and pulled me close. “Me too.” His arm rubbed up and down my back and I closed my eyes, just enjoying being in his arms. “You should come now.” “You know I can’t afford it.” I turned my head, kissed his shoulder. “I wish I could.” “I can wait another year for this to be perfect.” He pulled away, pressed a long kiss to my mouth. “Can you?” I nodded and then the door behind us opened. “Yo, Colin. Got any more beer?” Someone leaned out the door, his eyes hopeful. “Yeah, I’ll grab some.” Colin turned to me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders again, pulling me close. He pressed a kiss to the top of my head. “Go on inside and play some beer pong, I’ll catch up with you.”

*** By the time I found Ellie on a couch passing around a joint, we’d been at the party for nearly a half hour. Ellie saw me and scooted a few people aside to make room for me beside her.

I sat between Ellie and a guy with a beard long enough to braid. When he handed me the joint, I shook my head no and passed it to Ellie. There were five people passing the joint around the circle of the couch and loveseat directly across the coffee table, and I suddenly felt all their eyes on me. I had nothing against smoking a little pot now and then, but I wasn’t in the business of getting the munchies and adding to my ever-growing waist, especially since I’d developed a lovely little roll around my midsection. Ellie leaned into me and yelled in my ear, “Having fun?” I flinched and turned up my nose at her breath. “Can I have some of your beer?” I asked, pointing at her cup. She handed it over as the joint came around to her again, and I wiped the ashes away from the inside of the cup before downing it. The warm beer hit my throat and my stomach turned, but I swallowed it and set the cup down on the table. Ellie handed me the joint and I passed it along to the bearded man without a single puff. “That’s the good sh*t, right there.” I looked to the man across the table from me. With his Basset Hound eyes and greasy bun on top of his head, he looked confused and sad. He nodded at the joint I’d passed along. “Oh,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m asthmatic.” It was a lie, but it was easier than gesturing to my stomach and saying that I didn’t want to gain weight. I didn’t want to invite anyone to notice my flaws, as I felt they were so very apparent. This was especially true when I sat next to Ellie. “Ah,” he nodded, took the joint as it was passed to him. “Pills?” I knew Ellie had dabbled with pills, but I was too afraid to try them. I shook my head again. “I’m just here to party.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it.” His accent was thick, southern, but he delivered his words soothingly. “It’s good.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I left the couch to get away from their eyes and the stench. Making my way to the kitchen proved a feat in and of itself, as the room was packed with so many bodies that I couldn’t see a clear path to the sink. Colin was back in the dining room, playing another round of beer pong with the soccer girl lurking. Feeling a hand touch my back, I turned around to see Ellie. “Whatcha doing?” she asked, eyes heavy-lidded and an easy smile on her lips. “I need some water,” I said. Inadvertently, I looked to where I could see Colin through the doorway, and Ellie followed my gaze. “Go join him,” she said. “You came all this way for him.” “He’s so busy all the time,” I said, not begrudging his popularity, but making an observation. “I can’t be like that—be like you guys.” Linking her arm with mine, she whispered in my ear, “Here’s a secret, we like you the way you are. Besides, you know Colin and I have social ADD.” “Social ADD?” She looked toward the dining room again before turning back to me. “We love

being around people—we’re not solitary in the least.” She co*cked her head to the side and gave me a sympathetic smile. “But Colin loves you. I can tell. He’s good for you.” I glanced at him again, saw how intently he was speaking with another girl, his eyes focused. Less than ten seconds later, he’d turned his attention to someone else. He wasn’t unkind about it; but he definitely seemed to dole out attention in equal measure. “I know he does,” I smiled at Ellie. “I just forget, when we’re apart as much as we are.” Seeing a chance to squirm my way to the sink, I grabbed Ellie’s arm and tugged her with me. We grabbed red plastic cups and filled them, both of us hydrating in anticipation for the alcohol we’d likely consume. After Ellie’s third cupful, I asked, “Thirsty much?” She paused at the sink and turned her head to me. “Yeah. The smoke made my throat hurt.” She downed three more cups of water. “What should we do?” I asked, not wanting to play beer pong and deal with the looks from the girls that hung around Colin. Ellie smiled a dreamy, eyes-half-closed kind of smile. “Let’s dance.” I looked around us—no one was dancing. “El, I love you. But no freaking way.” Ellie looked around. “Come on. What’s that saying? Dance like no one’s watching!” “Whoever said that was probably talking about people with some kind of coordination. I don’t feel like looking like I’m having a seizure while you dance as if you were born for it.” She laughed and drank another cup of water. An arm came around my shoulders from behind and his voice was at my neck. “What’s so funny?” I turned into Colin, pointed at Ellie. “She thinks we should dance.” He stared at me, unblinking. “Why is that so funny?” “My point exactly,” Ellie said, wrapping an arm around Colin’s shoulders. “She’s too uptight. We gotta loosen” —she wiggled her body like a worm— “her up a little.” She raised an eyebrow. “Let’s dance, Tristaaaa.” When she dragged the last letter of my name out, all guttural and gross-sounding, I couldn’t help but laugh. “No one is dancing,” I said, laughing still. I motioned with my hands at all the people leaning against walls and tables and counters. “I don’t want to put on a show.” “A show? Trista, my dear, I hate to burst your bubble but your dancing isn’t much to brag about.” Colin squeezed my shoulder despite his light teasing. “But you’re right. I don’t want anyone ogling my girlfriend, even if she does look like she’s having an epileptic seizure while she’s dancing.” I playfully punched him in the shoulder. “Which is precisely why I can’t subject myself to what will be a complete sh*t show.” “Don’t be a wet blanket, Tristaaaa,” Ellie whined, dragging the ‘a’ out again.

“Come on.” She reached forward and grabbed my hand. “Colin, get people to dance.” Asking anyone else would not have guaranteed the results that Colin could produce. He turned around and rotated a finger at the guy manning the stereo. The current song was too loud for him to have been heard over the noise, but the guy nodded in return, sliding his finger across his iPod. As soon as the drums kicked on, I looked at Colin. “Really?” I mouthed. He held out his hands as if he was innocent as the lyrics blasted and Katy Perry boasted about kissing a girl and liking it. “No,” I mouthed to Colin. He yelled, “It was worth a shot!” Ellie squealed behind me, hands on my shoulders as she steered-slash-pushed me to a spot that wasn’t dominated by fifteen people. She started jumping up and down, which seemed to pull a few people in to dance with her. She screamed along with the song, bobbing her shoulders to the beat, her hair bouncing around her. Ellie had a natural charisma; she was gravity, pulling the world to her. I was always in awe of her, because she radiated life. She pointed toward me with a finger and then curled it up, calling me to her. And I couldn’t resist, her energy was infectious. I found myself dancing with her, and the people around us were dancing too, so I was able to forget about people watching, and I could enjoy time with my best friend. One song burned into another and into another. Sweat poured down my face as we laughed at our moves, spinning around and jumping and clapping to the various beats. “Tristaaaa,” she yelled over the music, “gotta pee!” Once she left the dance floor, I was suddenly aware of my surroundings and the strangers that occupied them. I pushed my way from the circle to find Colin, who was sitting on the stairs with a joint in his hands. “Trista.” He looked at the joint and looked at me, as if he expected me to object. But I was in too good of a mood from the dancing to worry about it and shrugged. “Wanna sit?” I glanced between him and the guy who was beside him. His head was down, so all I could see was the paint-splattered Rockies emblem on his cap as his long fingers traced the edge of the cup in his hand. “No, I’m okay.” I fanned my face with my hand. The sweat dripping from my hairline was cooling and I could finally breathe. “I just needed a break.” Colin sucked on the joint and coughed his exhale. “Where’s Ellie?” “Bathroom,” I said, pointing my thumb back to the chaos I’d escaped from. “Do you really know all these people?” I glanced around us, taking in the different people milling about. “As well as I know anyone,” he said. His whole face took on a contented look and he leaned against the stair at his back. “Having fun?” I smiled, because I was. “I am. I’m sorry I haven’t come down more.”

He shrugged, offering me the joint. When I shook my head, he sucked on it and looked at me from under heavy-lidded eyes. The side of his mouth kicked up in a sexy smile and I suddenly couldn’t wait until it was just us. “Boo!” Ellie shouted from behind me, pulling me from my thoughts. She plopped between Colin and the guy with the Rockies cap and leaned into Colin. “You’re so great,” she said, her eyes closed and her lips turned up in a euphoric smile. Colin passed her the joint and she sucked on it before handing it back. “You gotta take care of my girl, Colin.” He looked at me, eyebrows drawn in concern, silently asking if something was going on. When I shook my head he said, “I’m trying.” “I know, I know,” Ellie said encouragingly. They both looked at me. “But she needs you, make sure you’re paying attention to her.” Colin looked confused, tilting his head as he looked at me. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Ellie interrupted. “Just watch out for her—she deserves to be happy.” “I will,” Colin promised her as she rubbed his head and then jumped up from her seat, grabbing my hand and pulling me away. “Let’s go back and dance!” I looked to Colin again, but his focus was on the ceiling as he took a long pull on the joint. I let Ellie pull me back into the throng of people and quickly lost myself to the beat.

Chapter Three

To my surprise, Colin joined us several songs in, bouncing and dancing and having an impromptu karaoke contest with Ellie. She was so animated, her face all scrunched up in agony as she sang along to a ballad about bleeding love. She clutched a hand to her chest, thrust her other arm in the air as if she was singing to heaven. It was so very theatrical, so Ellie, that I had a pinch in my heart I felt whenever I realized how lucky I was to be her friend. When the next song came on, Colin took turns spinning Ellie and me in circles. I was living in the moment with my best friend and my boyfriend, so happy with life at that moment, that it took me several seconds to register what happened midspin. Ellie was on the ground, her hands clenched into the carpet, knuckles white. “Are you okay?” I yelled over the music as I crouched beside her. “I think I’m going to be sick.” Colin squatted down beside us. “What’s wrong?” “Ellie’s sick.” “Probably all the spinning,” Colin said. “Let’s get her to a bathroom.” She grasped our hands as we pulled her to standing and led her to the powder room just off the kitchen. She immediately fell to her knees in front of the toilet and emptied her stomach. “sh*t,” Colin said, stepping out of the powder room and into the hall. “There’s not really room for all of us in there.” “Go ahead,” I said. “I got this.” After pressing a kiss to my cheek, he gave me a good luck look and disappeared back into the party. I slid down beside Ellie and rubbed her back as she kept puking, over and over. Her whole body convulsed with each heave and I was helpless to do anything for her. When it finally stopped, she leaned her head on the seat and wrapped her arms around the basin. “Can I get you anything?” It was a while before she spoke, but when she did her voice sounded so incredibly weak. “I need Tylenol. My head’s killing me. More water too.” I strode into the kitchen and filled up a new cup with water. After returning and

placing it beside her, I went on the hunt for Tylenol. The cabinets in the kitchen proved to be barren, such was the house of a couple college kids. I searched the bathrooms downstairs and upstairs, before deciding to find Colin and ask him. The house seemed even more packed than it had been when we’d arrived, which made looking for Colin all the more difficult. I pushed and shoved to get around people, jumping up to see over their heads. I yelled his name several times before I came upon the guy who had asked me earlier what kind of drugs I wanted. His greasy bun reflected the light above his head. “Have you seen Colin?” I asked above the music. He pursed his lips and shook his head, his face blank. “Who’s that?” “Ugh,” I growled. “You’re no help.” As I turned to walk away, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back. “Whatcha need? I bet I have it.” I didn’t miss his flirtatious undertones, but ignored them as I replied, “Tylenol. You have that?” Again, he pursed his lips and shook his head. Every movement seemed to be in slow-motion, as if he couldn’t be bothered to hurry up for anyone. “Nah, but I got percs.” “I don’t need pain killers, I need Tylenol,” I said impatiently. “Ellie is sick and has a headache.” His eyes changed then, squinting just a little as if he seemed to know the cause of her headache. “What is it?” I asked, my heart skidding to a stop in my chest. Something wasn’t right. “She was fine a few hours ago when she took it.” His words were lazy, drawled. “Took what?” I demanded. “E. She asked for it.” He crossed his arms over his chest, as if he expected me to fight him. “No refunds.” “Shut up!” His insinuation that my concern was getting her money back tested the limits of my patience. “I don’t care about that, she’s sick. She took it a few hours ago?” “Yeah, yeah.” He dropped the joint he was holding into his cup. “She was fine. Guess she’s not now. It happens.” He shrugged. “Don’t have any Tylenol though, sorry.” Except he didn’t sound sorry. I pushed past him and resumed my search for Colin. I tried calling him from my cell, but it rang and rang before going to voicemail. I returned to the bathroom, and Ellie looked even worse. Her face was devoid of color and her eyes were bloodshot and droopy. “I can’t find Colin, I’m sorry. And I can’t find Tylenol.” She closed her eyes, and her head tilted like she was asleep. “’S okay,” she slurred. “I wouldn’t be able to keep it down anyway.” Her words ran together, making it sound like she was speaking in a weird accent. “What can I do?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but then violently vomited again. It looked like she was just puking water at this point. I wet a washcloth and wiped her face with it. She leaned her head against the rim as her body contracted again. “Let me look for him again,” I said, entirely helpless as to how to help her. The moan she made after puking made me quicken my pace from the bathroom. “Colin!” I yelled. I asked a number of people if they’d seen him, but no one had. I walked out front, ran up and down the street, before moving inside the house again. My desperation to find him was a tangible thing, a drumbeat in my blood. As I was passing through the dining room again, I spotted several figures out on the deck and in the yard. Finally, I thought, as I pulled open the door. I was hit with a wave of very strong pot and I immediately blanched, feeling queasy. “Colin?” I called out. “Yeah?” Relief pulsed through me and I stood up on my tiptoes in search of him. He moved through the tall grass, a little uneasy on his feet. When he stumbled, a guy in a Broncos jersey reached down and picked him up, both of them laughing as they clung to each other. “Ellie’s really sick,” I said on his approach. “She won’t stop puking.” When Colin reached the stairs to the deck, he held onto the railing. “She’ll be fine. Just needs to get the liquor out of her.” “She hasn’t had any alcohol for hours. Someone gave her ecstasy and now she can’t even keep water down.” Colin sighed and closed his eyes. “Are you drunk?” I asked. He opened his eyes and looked at me through bleary blue-green irises. “I’m high as f*ck.” “Okay, well I’m going to go see if someone knows where the Tylenol is,” I said, annoyed. “Enjoy your high.” I never spoke to Colin with attitude, because I’d never needed to. He was always thoughtful. And as I stalked back into the house, I had a thought to cut him some slack—he was just a college student, a little high at a party. But as I turned into the kitchen, taking in the now-empty dining room and the crowd gathering in the doorway to the kitchen, I forgot everything except Ellie. Panic pushed me to move faster into the kitchen, because I knew with a heavy feeling that something was wrong. The silence among them was deafening. I shoved my way through a group of people and fell to my knees upon seeing Ellie flat on her back on the kitchen floor, her eyes closed and her body unmoving. I ran my fingers over her throat. “What happened?” I asked, not taking my eyes off of her. Someone behind me said, “She stumbled into the kitchen and then fell.” “You’re okay,” I whispered to myself, feeling the low beat of a pulse in her neck.

I gripped her chin in my hand and squeezed hard enough to hurt, hoping the pain would rouse her. But she remained still. I pressed a hand to my pants, looking for a phone that wasn’t there. I couldn’t remember where I’d set it down. “Someone call 911,” I said, putting a hand over her nose and mouth. I felt the lightest warmth blowing across my fingers and hot relief shot through my chest. “Ellie,” I said, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her. “Wake up.” I shook her harder, but her hair just spread out around her and she remained still. I brushed the back of my hand down the side of her face, willed her to open her eyes, but she was completely still. I didn’t stop touching her face, touching her hair, talking to her. I was helpless, but desperate for her to wake up. To see her brown eyes assuring me she was okay. I heard a voice murmuring behind me, speaking an address into the phone. I was wracked with guilt, for bringing Ellie to this party, and not keeping an eye on her or what she was doing. This was all my fault. “An ambulance is coming,” someone said. “Did she say anything?” I asked, touching her temple. Her skin was clammy, peppered with sweat. There was a murmur of conversation around me, but I couldn’t focus on anything but Ellie. I felt for her pulse again, but it was much fainter. My hands shook as I pulled them away and I pressed my hands to her cheekbones—pressing hard against her, as if my hands could revive her alone. Her lips appeared to be darker, her face colorless. When I held my hand over her mouth and nose, I felt absolutely nothing. No warm air. Not even the slightest breath. Cold terror flooded my veins. “Ellie,” I said. I pushed a hand to her chest, waiting for it to thump. I waited for too long. This was all my fault. “She’s not breathing!” I shouted. My face suddenly went hot and I pressed her chest, wishing to hell I knew CPR. “She needs CPR, I … I…” my voice fumbled as shock hit me in a solid wave. “She’s not breathing!” I was squeezing her shoulders, shaking her as her head lolled back. “Help!” My voice broke, my breathing ended with a scream, my voice tortured by grief. Footsteps came running and I was pushed out of the way right before someone began doing chest compressions. I watched his hands as he pumped her, his head down. My eyes crossed and the paint-splattered Rockies emblem on his hat bounced in my line of sight, blurring and focusing, blurring and focusing. Purple. The hat was purple. Ellie’s favorite color. I looked back at Ellie, her eyes closed and her skin sallow. “No,” I shook my head. This wasn’t happening. “She was puking. She was sick.” I shook my head again, harder, faster. “She was sick.” I kept repeating it. I couldn’t reconcile this

image—Ellie, on the floor, lifeless, her body limp as a doll. Beside her was her headband, the daisies forgotten in her fall to the floor. As if in a trance, I picked it up and held it in both hands before looping it around my wrist. My eyes searched her body, while the man pumped her chest and intermittently blew into her mouth. It was if I was having an out of body experience, watching her lie there, unmoving, on the floor. My hope withered right before me, causing all of my limbs to tremble. This isn’t happening, I whispered to myself. I closed my eyes, willing the nightmare away. This isn’t real. I opened my eyes but Ellie’s were still closed. In the distance, I heard the sirens. Overwhelmed by helplessness, shock, and grief, I lay on the floor beside her, my face against the cold tile and my hand in hers, squeezing it as he pumped her chest, over and over. “I’m here, Ellie,” I whispered, my voice cracking. “I love you.” My eyes slid down her arm, to my hand gripping hers. The daisies wrapped tightly around my wrist, cutting off circulation and turning my hand red—a stark contrast to the white of her skin. I thought of her smile, her face lit up and flooded in color. And as I took in her skin, its bluish tint replacing the blush I knew she had, I said a hundred prayers, as the reality of what was coming hit me. Keep her with me. This will kill me. I stared at her face as it moved up and down from the chest compressions, tears slipping from my eyes one after the other. I made a hundred promises to be a better person, to be a better friend. To be whatever it took if it meant she woke up. I dug my nails into the cold tile, needing to stop the shock that wracked my body. Ellie remained still, except from the chest compressions. For some reason, my mother’s words from earlier came back to me. You’re like me, you’ll lose everyone you love. “Trista.” Colin’s voice. I didn’t bother turning, not wanting to take my eyes off of her. “Trista,” he repeated, his voice more urgent than before. His arms came around me, pulling me away as the paramedics rushed into the kitchen and pushed everyone back. “No!” I shouted, clawing against his hands. I couldn’t leave her, I couldn’t. But her body was moved seconds later as a man wearing gloves pumped her chest and removed her from the house. Colin’s arms were around me, tight, and the wave of despair was so powerful, I was surprised it didn’t knock me from my feet. I rubbed the fabric of his shirt between my fingertips, as tears slipped down my face. Six days later, Colin held me on grass soaked by rain. My heels sunk into the dirt, slowly, as if my body wouldn’t let me leave her alone. Alone like I was.

I placed two white daisies on her mahogany casket as it lowered into the earth, to my best friend’s final resting place. My goodbye was silent, because I was too afraid to speak it. Around my wrist was her daisy headband. In my heart was her smile, her laugh, her goodness. I wanted to believe she was leaving those pieces of herself with me, entrusting me to take care of them. Of her. She couldn’t be gone forever, not really. We were Ellie and Trista. I didn’t know how to not be a conjunction.

Chapter Four 2011

“He doesn’t love you.” She sat in the worn leather chair, reeking of cigarettes and dollar store perfume. Her hair was lifeless and limp, a sharp contrast to how she’d looked when I’d last seen her a year earlier. I chose to ignore what she said and sat on the plaid sofa across from her. My grandfather was taking his afternoon nap, which was good because I’d need to wipe down his chair and then air out the house. Too bad I wouldn’t be able to remove her as easily as I would her stench. “What’s wrong, Mom? Joey leave you?” My words were placid, my posture unaffected as I lounged on the couch, angling my body away from hers. “Is that why you’re here?” She sniffed and I imagined a faint dusting of powder around her nostrils, an image I’d seen in real life too many times to count. “Joey is a nobody,” she said, as if she was trying to convince us both of that fact. “Do you know he hasn’t paid my rent for the last two months?” She wasn’t even easing it into the conversation this time—her need for money was quick and angled in a way so that I’d feel pity for her. But twenty-two years of her excuses, her mistakes, had sewn themselves to my bones, hardening my spine and my resolve when I said, “You’re not bumming money from Grandpa again.” She sneered at me, a curl of her smeared purple lips. The cracks in her face were more pronounced when she did that, from her lips and the lines around her eyes. Life had been hard on my mom—but my mom had been hard on life, too. “You can’t tell him what to do with his money. I’ve got every right to it, more than you.” “I never said I had any right to it. I pay for rent here,” I said, gesturing my hand to the tiny trailer. She rolled her eyes; her lashes a hundred spider legs, lumped together and scraping her blue eyeshadow. “I just need my money and then I’m out of your way, dear daughter.” Her tone was layered in acid, a product of years of pushing everyone away and then blaming it on them when they stopped resisting.

“Grandpa leaves tomorrow. He doesn’t have time to entertain you.” I glanced at the clock that ticked above her head, mentally calculating how long we had until he woke up. “I know he sold the house—don’t bullsh*t me. He’s got money.” “That he needs to support himself in the assisted living home.” I wouldn’t let her leave with a lick of grandpa’s money. He’d give in, he always did for his wayward only child. “They’re going to bulldoze this place and make way for something else on his land.” Finally, I saw a flicker of something in her eyes. They darted around the room, no doubt taking in the mementos along the walls. Did she feel anything beneath her faded leather jacket, beneath the name tattooed on her chest, her boyfriend before Joey’s name in proud black ink? I often wondered if her heart was made of something else, if it skipped a beat here or there, and in those missing beats were the affections that she should have held for her only child and only living parent. But as usual, I didn’t give into the thought for too long. It was useless, with her. She’d never change. “Did you hear what I said?” she asked. I stood up and moved away, wanting away from the cloud of cheap perfume. “I probably did,” I said noncommittally as I unloaded the dishwasher and placed the cups in the boxes sitting on the counter. The house was a mess of boxes and trash bags. Most of what would go with my grandfather when he was moved to the home was already there, apart from the chair my mother was currently offending with her stench. “I said he doesn’t love you.” My hands paused, holding a baby blue teacup that had been my grandmother’s. I asked, mostly to make her repeat herself, “Who doesn’t love me?” But I already knew the answer. “That boyfriend of yours. Colin. The skinny dipsh*t with the curly black hair.” My fingers tightened on the delicate handle of the teacup for a moment before I relaxed them, not dignifying my mother’s ranting with even a look in her direction. “You’ve been around him less than a handful of times, Mom.” It might have been true, but I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of being right. “You’re just like me,” she continued, her voice taking on a darkness I knew to be her introspective voice. “Men can’t love you for long, they’ll only leave you.” She stood up, walked into the kitchen and picked up the blue teacup out of the box on the counter. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I kept loading the box. “I’m not like you.” I said it quietly, but loud enough for her to hear. Internally, I screamed it. “You are. You’re just like me.” She leaned over, twirling the tea cup with her hands. I watched her tremble, waited for her to drop it. “That was Gram’s cup,” I said. No one drank from it. It sat in the cupboards,

only being washed to clean the dust. She held it up to her face and squinted. “Well, no need for relics.” I knew she was about to drop it, just because she wanted to, and I placed my hand on the cup, stopping her. There was a panic in my voice thinking of it—of my grandpa’s heartache not having that blue cup in the cupboard beside his white one every morning in the assisted living facility. “Don’t,” I said, a tremble in my voice giving away my vulnerability. My mother was a leech for vulnerability. When she found it, she latched on— sucked it dry. And I knew, from the way her eyebrows raised as she gave me a speculative gaze, that she had found my weakness and would exploit it. “Just give me five hundred.” I had little more than that in my bank account as it was. “No.” “He doesn’t love you,” she repeated, waiting to see if her words would hit their mark. But I stayed emotionless and idly wondered what that made me. I was more upset about her breaking a teacup than her stating what was very likely the truth— that Colin didn’t love me. “Why do you care?” “Why don’t you?” I sucked in a breath through my nose and parted my lips for it to leave, wishing it would carry away the anger building up inside of me. “You’re weak.” She was trying to wound me, but she wasn’t succeeding. The truth didn’t hurt—her complete lack of care for her own mother did. She wrenched the cup away from my hands. Her eyes glittered under the yellow kitchen light. “Four hundred.” I reached for the cup and she held it up, poking me painfully in the chest with one curved fingernail. “You’re just like me—you just don’t see it. Better not to let yourself feel for him, Trista.” Her eyes still glittered and her lips curved, so proud she was, for helping harden her daughter to love. “Because he’s going to leave you. They always do.” Her finger moved down and poked me in the stomach. “Just make sure he doesn’t knock you up, like your daddy did to me. Because then you’re only continuing the curse. I named you for it, Trista. Sorrow. It’s your destiny.” “Give me the cup,” I said, not letting her words lash at me. “Three hundred and fifty.” She held it up higher in her skeletal fingers. I knew it was only a matter of seconds before she accidentally dropped it, forcing her to forfeit the money and leaving me as the one to explain why my grandfather would never be able to touch her cup again. “Three fifty,” I agreed, pushing my hand toward her for the cup. “Write me a check.” “I have cash,” I said, stalking across the room and into my bedroom. On the bed was my knapsack, and inside was all the cash I had left—cash I was going to use to go to Colorado, to see the boyfriend who probably didn’t love me like he should. I counted out the bills, smoothing the crumpled twenties, and carried them to

the living room. “Here,” I said, thrusting them at her and yanking the cup from her grasp. She counted the money quickly, licking her finger as she thumbed through the bills individually. I held the cup, smoothing my thumb over the lip and along the curve of the handle, grateful that my grandfather wasn’t losing it. It was the most expensive cup I’d ever purchased, but also the most important. When I looked up, my mom was already walking out the door. The squeak of the screen was loud enough to wake my grandfather and the ensuing slam against its metal frame ensured that no one would still be asleep. I wrapped the teacup in a towel and placed it in the box, all the more worried that since I’d just gotten it back from her hands that it would disappear. After loading the dishes, I walked to my wood-paneled bedroom and finished the packing I’d started before my mother had arrived.

Chapter Five

Three years and fifteen days had passed since Ellie had died. It felt like an eternity. I placed the sole framed photo I owned into a box and looked at the picture of Ellie and me mid-laugh. My fingers traced her face over the glass and I allowed myself that moment to remember who she was. The thought was better than the one I plagued myself with: who she could have been. I placed her daisy headband on top of the frame and then covered both with packing paper. The box was the size of a microwave, but it held just about all my personal possessions apart from my clothing. A couple yearbooks, some movie and concert tickets, her lotion and the frame and headband. The fact that all I had of her was this box made me angry. The five stages of grief had been just three, over and over. Rewind, play, rewind, play, rewind, play. Three years later and I was still trying to pretend it hadn’t happened. Three years and I was still so angry, with myself, with Colin. I’d skipped bargaining altogether. There was nothing of me to offer. So now I lived in a perpetual depression, accented only when the wheel of grief rolled around to denial and anger again. A therapist had told me acceptance would come someday, but I didn’t want to accept that this was my reality, even three years later. I lived with the ache like it was another limb, because I lost so much of myself when Ellie died that the only thing I had left in its place was the constant aching. Colin had told me more than once that I was slipping away. He didn’t say what he meant, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out he meant many things: slipping from him, slipping from me. Three years later, I was still with Colin, but the word with was merely a fourletter word, because I wasn’t with him, not physically or mentally. Every day, I was with my grief. About a year after Ellie died, I’d begun writing little poems here and there, nothing noteworthy or even profound. The college counselor I’d seen when I’d requested to withdraw from my classes the following year had encouraged me to express myself, instead of letting everything I was feeling die inside of me.

Grief is carving a hole from your heart and looking in all the wrong places to fill it up again. From the bottom of a bottle, to the top of a building; I can’t find her anywhere. It wasn’t Dickinson, but it was a small relief for me. After Ellie had died, I’d failed my finals—that’s what happens when you don’t show up for them. My mother kicked me out and I’d moved in with my grandfather. And I’d turned off everything that reminded me of what had happened. The news, social media, all flooded with the death of a Wyoming student at a party near a Colorado campus had caused quite the sensation, including special segments on the dangers of drugs and underage drinking. Ellie’s death was used to teach lessons, as if her earthly purpose was reduced to a photo of her with “Student dies from drug abuse.” High school acquaintances lamented her death, changing their social media photos to her face for a week or two before reverting back to their usual: photos of themselves with a giant bottle of vodka, or with a bunch of random people they met at a party. Her death hadn’t meant anything to them, not really, but meanwhile I was mourning the loss of the first person who’d made a choice to be in my life. The one person who had chosen me. But her death didn’t teach me a single f*cking lesson—except that I didn’t know who I was without the Ellie and in front of my name. And now I was packing up my possessions and loading up my car to hit the road. “Come to Colorado,” Colin had urged. “Let’s fix this, fix us. We can’t fix our relationship in opposite states.” It had taken months before I’d agreed, and even then I’d acquiesced because my grandfather was selling his home and moving into an assisted living facility. Living with him for the last three years, I’d learned that dying was a slow, defeating business. My grandfather choosing to move into assisted living had been his first acknowledgement of what was coming, the first step to death. My throat tightened at the thought. And as if his ears were burning, I heard him call my name. As I left my room, I heard his cough before he said my name, indicating he was in the back of the trailer, sitting at his table in front of the bay window. His hair was slightly greasy, matted to his head. As I walked past his favorite plaid recliner and into the rooster-filled kitchen, I sensed that he was worse than he let on. “You should’ve told me you were awake, Gramps.” The hiss of his oxygen machine had been the sound of my home after Ellie had died. I’d moved in under the guise of helping him out as his health took a dive. I’m not sure that I helped him as much as he helped me, however, and now he would be

alone again, his wheezing and whistling breaths his only company apart from nurses and other dying people. “Gramps,” I said as I bent down to kiss his cheek. His cheek was paper-thin and wrinkled. I pulled a sunflower-cushioned chair from the table and sat beside him, pushing away the cigar box he’d placed at the table. “I hope you’re not thinking of smoking these,” I lightly scolded. He shook his head and coughed into his fist. Then he pulled his button-up shirt away from his body and shook it. His air conditioning had broken a few days before the home inspection, a fact that the new buyer used to leverage a lower sale price. It made me angry just thinking of it. “Of course not. I just like to smell them.” I pointed fingers to my nostrils and then to him. “I’m surprised you can smell anything with those tubes up your nose.” “It’s not a smell that can be dulled by oxygen,” he said, his voice holding the sound of a cold on the horizon. “Up for a cup of coffee?” “I’ll get it,” I replied, patting his hand and standing. Once I started brewing a pot, I turned to my grandpa and leaned my lower back against the counter. “Your mom was here.” I stopped for a second, hands gripping the counter. “She was.” “I knew she was coming. Just not when. I’m sorry you had to deal with her.” “She told you she’d come around?” He stared at the table before looking at me, his eyes saying everything I already suspected. This wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks she’d been around. It was just the first time that I’d been home when it had happened. “f*cking typical,” I muttered with a roll of my eyes. I reached into the box of mugs and pulled out two, leaving the baby blue one aside. “Your mother loves you, just not the way you want her to.” This was not a speech I needed right now. “Gramps, we’re talking about you, not me.” “I know she wasn’t who you needed her to be,” he began. I heard him sniff, taking a second before speaking again. “And I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you more. I should have been.” I sighed, shaking my head. My grandpa felt guilt himself, I knew, for not being able to take care of me as his age caught up with him, when my mother would forget about my needs. He was always compensating for her mistakes, as if he’d cosigned the debt she owed to society for procreating. “You were there when I needed someone, gramps.” I poured the coffee into the mugs and grabbed milk from the fridge. “I want you to borrow this,” he said from behind me. I stirred the sugar into mugs as I thought of what he could be offering me. Turning around, I saw his hand resting on his cigar box. “No,” I said with a shake of my head. I handed him his cup before sitting in my seat. “I don’t smoke cigars.”

“It’s not cigars.” He pushed the box to me with one wrinkled, bony hand. He lifted the lid, washing my face with the scent of sweet tobacco. Inside the box were three neat stacks of twenty dollar bills. I looked at my grandpa with a question in my eyes. “There’s five thousand dollars in this box.” “Gramps…” I looked from him to the box, felt that clawing sense of wanting to grab the box, but knowing I shouldn’t. The need rose in my throat when I kept my hands still. All I could think about was the fact that I’d just given over half of my money to my mom. “I can’t.” “You can.” He waved a hand to his living room. “Notice anything?” Sweeping my gaze over his living room, I took stock of what was missing: all the collector plates that he and grandma had picked up over the years. “Yeah, I noticed last week. I thought you packed them up for storage.” “Most of them were junk—the ones I’d picked up, of course.” He laughed and then coughed. “But your grandma had an eye for treasure. I sold them a month ago. I need to downsize.” He didn’t say anything further, because we both knew why he wanted to downsize: to leave as little for my mother and I to go through upon his death. A morbid thing, to be preparing so far—I hoped at least—in advance of your death. “Save the money, Gramps, I’m okay.” He shook his head. “Your car is in bad shape. And look at you,” he said with a nod of his head. “Well gee, thanks.” I glanced down at myself. I’d lost a handful of pounds over the last few years, but nothing drastic. “Your clothes have holes in them, your shirts have stains.” “The holes are intentional,” I said with a laugh. “And the shirt’s stained from work. I don’t need five thousand for clothes.” “You don’t work anymore.” My cheeks colored at that. I’d recently quit my job at the pet store. I knew I was a sh*tty employee and the boss only kept me on because he felt badly for me. I had enough pity, I didn’t need it from my job too. “I don’t need clothes,” I finally said. “Then don’t use it for clothes. Fix your car. Get ahead on some bills. Go back to school.” I whipped my head up at those words. I couldn’t go back to school—no way— and he knew why. I hadn’t gone back since Ellie died, not ready to face a future we’d planned together, a future that died with her on that cold kitchen floor. “Go on an adventure then. Do something to make yourself happy.” “I am happy,” I told him, with an assurance I didn’t feel. “Money won’t change that.” “Maybe not directly, but the money could buy experience that would make you happy. Life’s too God damn short to be living so sad.” His voice had taken on an edge of impatience and he coughed again into his hand. “Live for tomorrow.” “Sometimes, there is no tomorrow.” I thought of Ellie, how I’d prayed to wake

up from what I assumed was a nightmare. For the tomorrow to carry me from the nightmare. “Which is why you should live for it. Nothing is promised to you, Trista. Nothing. The world won’t give you the happiness you desire; you must take it for yourself.” He coughed hard once again and I rubbed his back as his eyebrows drew together. When he’d calmed down, he looked at me with tired eyes. “You know, your mom used to study myths.” I looked at him with a question in my eyes. “Random change of topic…” He adjusted in his seat, leaning forward across the table to me, and pinned me with his cornflower irises. “You think she named you Trista because she was sad,” he explained. “But I don’t believe that.” I thought of the story my mother had told me, of lying in the hospital, her body emptied of the love that had turned her bitter. “She’s told me herself. She named me Trista because she was sad.” “Have you heard the legend of Tristan and Iseult?” “I saw the movie with James Franco.” He laughed. “Ah, so you’re familiar with one version of the legend. It is, at its core, a love triangle more complicated than most. Tristan fell in love with his uncle’s bride, and in most versions it’s caused by ingesting a potion that Iseult was directed to give to her husband, but gave to Tristan instead. And as their affair blossoms, they’re all hurting. Tristan, who loves and respects his uncle Mark, is irrevocably in love with his uncle’s wife; Mark, who loves Tristan like a son and loves Iseult as his wife; and Iseult, who has love for both of them, though her heart belongs to Tristan.” I knew the story, so I just nodded along with him as he mused on about the legend. “The ending is different in every version, but each one that I know of leaves Tristan an honorable man. He was in a position no man would want, torn between his sense of duty and his love for a woman he wasn’t supposed to have feelings for. I think your mother named you for Tristan, a character complex, but good—deep down.” His hand cupped my chin. “Because that’s what you are, Trista. You’re good, where it matters. But you’re stuck; you don’t know what you need to make you smile.” He looked out the window, his eyes lost to memory. “Go see what’s out there for you—find your happy spot. You’re not Trista the sad; you’re Trista the unknown.” I listened to him for a while, not disagreeing with him. And then I asked, “What if I don’t know what makes me happy?” “You shouldn’t know. The best kind of happiness is the kind you unexpectedly find.” He coughed harder this time and my heart clenched a little, thinking of leaving him in a place that wasn’t home. “I have something else, a small something else.” He pulled down a jar that sat in his window sill and poured its contents onto the table. A couple dozen foil wrapped chocolates spilled across the table, their foil

wrapping looking gold under the table’s light. “Remember when you were little, and I’d send you home with a bunch of these?” I nodded, picked one up, and looked at him. “You and Gram used to give these to me every time I had to go back to mom’s.” “And each time you missed us, you were allowed to have one of these.” He rubbed his chest, giving me a little prick of panic. But then he smiled and his eyes crinkled. “So you’ll have one of these, each time you miss me.” “There aren’t enough here. I’ll miss you more than this.” “Then you’ll have to come back and visit so I can give you more.” I hugged him hard, feeling his spine press into my fingers. The following day, after getting him settled in his new home, I’d returned to my car and left for Colorado with his cigar box on my passenger seat and popped a chocolate in my mouth.

Chapter Six

As usual, my mom’s words repeated in my ears. I was never silent, never far from her. He doesn’t love you. She might have been right. But I owed it to him, to us, to see for sure. A few months after Ellie died, Colin held me on my bed in my grandfather’s house. “She loved you, Trista. She’d want you to be happy.” I hadn’t acknowledged his words, just faced the wood-paneled wall and counted the rings in the life of the tree—fake or real—that spanned across the paneling. A year after Ellie died, Colin tried coaxing me to come to Colorado. But I had put it off. I wasn’t ready, to make a step that I had planned to take with Ellie. Two years after Ellie died, Colin moved an hour farther south, which meant we were now a five-hour drive apart. When that happened, I stopped making trips to Colorado. It was all unfairly on Colin’s shoulders to visit, but between my unreliable car and my growing emotional distance from Colin, I had resigned myself to the fact that we’d probably never be who we were. But now, three years after she died, I agreed. I wasn’t sure if we could really fix the things that caused us to separate from each other. But on the last night of her life, Ellie had told me Colin was good for me and I finally felt like I needed to see if she was right. Maybe it was a pathetic reason to hold on to him still, but Ellie was the most important person in my life, the one who knew me better than anyone else. And by holding onto Colin, I felt like I was holding onto Ellie in a way. Their personalities were so similar that I could nearly fool myself into thinking nothing had changed. If my mother had asked me why I didn’t dump him, I wouldn’t have told her. But one of the other reasons I stayed with him was always that Colin was safe. Safe couldn’t turn me into my mother. Love lasts only as long as you want it to. And I didn’t think it would last long with Colin. I’d embraced the way the love I’d had for him had softened, how it had begun slipping right from my heart, in the months after Ellie died. I was content being his girlfriend and not being passionately in love. I wasn’t ready for another person I loved desperately to leave me, emotionally as my mother had, or

physically as Ellie had. It was as if we’d been audience members, viewing our relationship’s demise with a detached sort of interest. “I want to make you smile again,” Colin had told me the night before I’d climbed into my car. It seemed funny to me, because I wasn’t a smiley person. And funnier still, that he thought he could. He moved into an apartment complex that he said was halfway between the best climbing spots and Denver—so he could experience both in equal measure. I didn’t care one way or another, but he was the only person I knew in Colorado, and there was nothing—no one—waiting for me in Wyoming. So I parked in front of the café down the road from his apartment, wanting to meet on somewhat-neutral territory first. He was already waiting when I entered the café, which I took as a good omen. He didn’t see me when I walked in the door, so I waited a second longer, just watching him. His black hair was a little longer, taking on a wave. He wore a few weeks’ worth of facial hair and was tapping his fingers on the table. When he turned and saw me, his mouth split wide open, dimples tucking into his cheeks. And I waited for the rush of feeling that didn’t come. And felt a sick kind of pleasure when my heart kept beating steadily. He rose to standing and took wide steps to me, pulling me against him immediately, arms around my waist, in my hair, lips against lips and a “You’re here” spoken into my mouth. “You always say that like you’re surprised,” I returned, pulling my head back because I was suffocating. “Because I keep waiting for you to slip between my fingers,” he said, eyes earnest. He touched my hair. “You bleached it.” “A few months ago.” We’d last seen each other at Christmas, five months earlier. We were both silent for a moment before he led me to the table he was occupying. “I still can’t believe you’re here,” he said as he slid back into his seat. This was wrong. He shouldn’t be surprised his girlfriend of almost six years was actually here. And his girlfriend of almost six years should feel elation. There was a mirror of who we should be, but our reflections didn’t match. I smiled back at him. I loved Colin in a way, but not in a way that put me at risk. It was safer that way, kissing his lips but keeping my heart miles from his grasp. I wasn’t a good person. I never claimed to be. But spreading my lips in a lie that didn’t sit comfortably into my cheeks was the only way I knew to make him happy. “How was the drive?” This didn’t just feel wrong; it was wrong. These were questions you asked an acquaintance as you established a dialogue. But I didn’t want to change us. I liked the ice that had formed in the cracks between us. “It was fine.”

“What do you want?” Colin asked, hurriedly standing and pulling out his wallet. I wanted to stop lying, I told myself. Ultimately, I knew it was selfish to stay with Colin and not feel the love for him that I should. I was constantly at war with myself, to stay in the shallow end of my love for him or to stop lying and let him go. But I suspected he kept me too, at arm’s-length, and so I didn’t let the guilt swallow me whole. “Green tea,” I said, watching him walk away like he couldn’t wait to escape our new-but-old dynamic. Ellie hadn’t died yesterday. She’d died three years ago. But I still remembered the feel of her hand in mine like it was yesterday. And I still remembered the way he’d been gone when I’d needed him. I felt his absence stronger than his presence. I’d spent the first week after she died in bed with the covers over my head. The next week, after my mother had booted my ass out of her home, I’d wrapped my lips around the top of a bottle of cheap bourbon and smoked through four packs of cigarettes in a stale motel room off of the highway. One night, I wandered on the roof. My therapist had said, “Trista, I cannot help you fight the enemy if you don’t tell me who they are.” In the end, I’d pressed the tip of my cigarette to my skin, daring myself to handle that pain before seeing what happened if I just … tripped over the side of the building … and I couldn’t. I’d told my therapist this and she’d told me that it was because the parts of me that hurt needed healing, not killing. It was my last session with her. When my money had run out for booze, cigarettes, and the motel, I’d found myself on Grandpa’s doorstep. After the first month, the resentment I held for Colin was as real and tangible as a permanent compression on my chest. And yet, I hadn’t yelled or kicked or sobbed like I’d wanted to. I hadn’t broken things off with Colin either. It wasn’t rational, but I reminded myself that Ellie had loved Colin, loved him for me. So much had changed in my life that the only constant had been Colin, even if we were about as emotionally connected as a fish to a bird. And over time, I began to realize that my disconnect was a gift in a way. Colin couldn’t hurt me. I was already hurting. I watched as he started up a conversation with the barista and felt a strange kind of comfort from seeing him so animated with her. Colin had said a couple very basic sentences to me and now he was fully engaged in a conversation about hiking with the barista. It was so very Colin. I was never constant in my desires—wavering back and forth between running away from Colin and from staying put. In the end, staying put always won because it was safe. Safe, safe, safe. I should tattoo the word over my heart, as my mother had with an ex-boyfriend’s name. When he returned with our drinks, he set a piece of cheesecake in front of me.

I stared at it for a moment before looking at him. “You love cheesecake,” he said easily, as if reminding me of the things I enjoyed was part of his job. I placed my fingers on the edge of the plate, ready to push it from me and toward him. Ellie loved cheesecake. She’d loved it so much she’d dressed as a slice of cheesecake for junior year Halloween. It was a piece she left me with—Ellie and her cheesecake. And Colin had given me a literal piece of it, not realizing how tied to grief it was. With my fingers poised on the plate, I looked at Colin. He was already peeling the wrapper from his muffin, oblivious to the turbulence within me. I nearly told him Ellie loved cheesecake, but saying it in the past tense aloud was something I didn’t want to commit to. So instead, I picked up the fork and dug into the slice, placing it on my tongue and letting it dissolve. I didn’t hate cheesecake; it was just another dessert. But I’d never claimed to love it. And the fact that Colin had purchased it for me thinking it was me who loved it made me think, at least he’s trying. After two bites, I couldn’t do it anymore. I pushed the plate to Colin and he raised his eyebrows. “Not hungry?” I was full of feelings. “No. Eat it.” I looked out the window as he ate, regretting coming to Colorado. My face warmed from the stress of that moment and I pressed my tongue hard against the roof of my mouth as I tried to suppress the tears. “What is it?” I shook my head, refused to look at him. “Come on, Trista.” I turned my head, looked at his now empty plate. “Can we go for a walk?” His eyes changed once I said that. There was a distinct shift in their color, as if he’d dimmed the light behind them. “Sure.” I grasped the cup of tea, holding it tight, as we walked out the front door and along the sidewalk. Just past the café there was a man-made lake, and we stopped at the railing over it. “What’s wrong?” I closed my eyes and let the sun warm my face. “You say that like it’s one thing.” “It’s more?” I opened my eyes and turned to him. “Yes.” His face was emotionless, as if he’d just put up a wall to keep me from hurting him. The fact that he thought I could was a surprise. “Start with the smallest thing.” “Why the smallest?” “Easier to handle.” He shrugged. Colin was afraid, I knew. Small things could be big, too.

I thought of everything that was wrong. How could I put the way I felt into words? “I don’t even know, Colin. I don’t know how to do this.” The words rushed from my mouth before I could anchor them to my throat. It was the most honest I’d been with Colin, and I ached from the lies I’d told him until this moment. “Do what?” I pointed to him and then to me. “Us. How do we do you and me?” “We just love each other.” I swallowed. “Maybe love isn’t enough. God, Colin. We haven’t seen each other in five months and I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t all that sad about it.” The words kept tumbling from my lips. I could let him go—I’d still be safe. But if I let him go, who would I be? I’d lost Ellie, my home and, on occasion, my mind. If I lost Colin, I’d lose myself completely. I curled my hands around the railing, squeezed, and said the truth. “I should be sad. I should be missing you so much that coming here would be a relief. But it isn’t.” He made a noise and his pain echoed in me. It was a terrible truth, but I didn’t want to lie about it. I looked at him and he blinked, turning. He looked out at the sun and I watched as it reflected off his hair. “What does it feel like?” “It feels like two strangers meeting except they share this horrible, traumatic memory and they don’t know how to deal with it.” It was exactly how I felt. Ellie’s death had stained us, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I wanted to live with the stain and he did not. He wanted to move on, and I was firmly stuck in yesterday. “I don’t know how to deal with it,” he said softly. “I never have. But Ellie would have wanted us to figure it out.” I hated, hated, hated that he said that. I wanted to take my fists and hit his chest with his would haves. He had no right to guess her future wants; no one did. “Don’t say that.” I’d directed all my aching at the projection of my voice but it had poured from my mouth with insignificance. “You don’t know that. You don’t get to say that.” We were both silent as we stared out over the water, the sounds of the night coming in around us. I waited for him to say something profound and healing. And he didn’t. “I should go back to Wyoming.” Finally, he spoke. “Why? There’s nothing there for you.” “And there is, here?” I turned to look at him and he mirrored my movements. “There is.” He said it with eyes so honest that I felt guilt for even bringing it up. What had we lost between us? What had brought us together only to disintegrate years later? “Why did we stay together? After all of it, I mean. Why didn’t we break up?” In asking this, I was asking why he hadn’t broken up with me—because whatever my long list of faults in our relationship were, his distance was on him.

“You’re really asking?” For the first time, he looked hurt, vulnerable. I nodded. “I don’t know why.” He rubbed his head. “Because I love you.” I didn’t need to ask myself if I loved him, because I knew I did. But the love I felt was residual of a much greater kind of love. “I know you, Trista. I know what you need.” He thought I loved cheesecake. He was surprised I’d come after saying I would. He didn’t know me, not as he claimed. But could I deny him this time to figure out why he was staying with me? I wasn’t sure. We were both lying to each other, and our secrets weren’t meant to be shared. He sighed. “Look, I don’t know what I need to say to convince you to stay, to give me—us—a shot at fixing whatever broke between us. But I love you. I do. It’s been a long time since I’ve been as happy as I was when you walked into the café.” The brick in my stomach rolled around in guilt. Because I couldn’t echo his feelings. He turned from the railing, facing me. “And that means something to me. I’m not about to toss six years of us into this f*cking lake because you’re not sure why we stayed together.” I took in what he was saying, let it fill me up. I loved Colin—that wasn’t a question in my head. I didn’t fill up with all that love while just looking at him, but it was there, nonetheless. It wasn’t romantic, but it held a tenuous grip on me all the same. Because I may have been heartless when it came to my relationship, but I had once held real, deep feelings for Colin. And while I knew I’d cling to my safety sooner than I’d cling to a reconciliation—I wanted to give him a chance so he wouldn’t have regret. I’d taken six years of his life. I could give him a few weeks to see the reality of our situation. Ellie’s death was more than a lesson against drugs or a moment of breaking for my relationship, I told myself. So I nodded to Colin and he held me as the sun fell over the mountains, kissing me hard, as if he was trying to prove his determination with a press of his lips. We kissed for several minutes and his hands roamed my body and my hair, touching me everywhere. I didn’t feel it where I should. But, God, I wanted to. For his sake. Not for mine. Because I needed safe.

***

When we arrived to his apartment, Colin hauled in my suitcase as I carried the box of Ellie. His apartment was at the base of a steep hill that was stacked in front of a much larger mountain. Colin pointed to the first door in the hallway. “That’s Jude’s room.” I hadn’t met him, but I knew him to be one of Colin’s roommates for the last couple years. The last two years that I hadn’t traveled to Colorado had meant not seeing Colin, but also not meeting the people in his life. As he moved down the hallway, he placed his hand on another door. “This is Mila’s room.” He paused and gave me a smile before he pushed open the door at the end of the hallway, bringing me into his bedroom. I plopped my box on the bed and looked around the room, sparsely decorated apart from the large black headboard and TV stand against the opposite wall. “Don’t worry, we’re all three very neat.” He said it as if I’d been thinking it, but I hadn’t. I just nodded and offered a small smile, wrapping my arms around my waist. “Wanna watch a movie?” There was a weird turmoil in my head, asking me to humor him even though I didn’t care. But as he’d kissed me against the sunset, I’d made a silent promise to give him a chance to fix us. And I’d see it through, right until the end, before I packed up my things and hit the road. I told myself that as I watched him rifle through his DVD stack by the TV. He was asleep ten minutes into the first movie, leaving me blissfully alone to shut my brain off. It wasn’t until then that I realized I’d been schooling my features to keep him from seeing my melancholy. Slipping from the bed quietly, I walked back to the living room where my laptop was and curled up on the couch with it. Yesterday I loved you, today I said I did still. But I wonder how much of it is lingering from yesterday and how much of it will stay with me tomorrow. Most of all I wonder if you’ll taste the lie when it comes from my lips in the tomorrow when I no longer love you but still say I do. I shook when I closed my laptop.

I crawled into the bed quietly, hoping not to wake him from sleep. Colin had always been a deep sleeper—so deep that more than once I’d pinched his nose to see if he was even breathing. It’d been a game back then, me pinching his nose to wake him up. Back then, he’d initially been annoyed with me before saying something about how it was my fault he was awake, and I’d need to make him tired again. I’d always rolled my eyes when he said that, even as he’d rolled over and on top of me, arms gripping my forearms as he stared at me intently. So now, this was new. Not having him to roll to. Part of me wanted to slip between the cool sheets quietly, pulling the blanket up to my chin. But another part of me craved to feel something. “Are you awake?” I asked. “No, I sleep with my eyes open.” “I can’t see them.” I was afraid of his body, in a way, but I wanted to be soothed by it. I rolled to my side, facing him. I touched his shoulder and pushed gently. “Are you giving me a massage?” “No.” My hand slid down his chest, over the lightly toned muscles before his hand stopped me. He laughed and shook his head. I watched the dark curls jiggle from the movement, sliding across his pillow. “I’m tired.” I couldn’t help but feel a little hurt from that. He’d never said that to me, especially after we’d been apart for so long. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said, letting a small, sleeping sigh escape his lips. “Talk to me.” I hadn’t meant to command him, but I wanted to know what he was thinking. “How’s your grandfather?” As I thought of how to answer, Colin pushed me off of him. “What’s wrong?” “I said I’m tired, Trista.” I touched his chest again. It was a little desperate, but I needed connection. His hand came to mine again and I waited once again, for him to push me away. Instead, he sighed, sounding resigned. His fingers moved down my arm, came to rest at the crease where my arm was bent. “Your skin is so soft.” “Come here,” I whispered. He rolled onto his side, but looked as though he was talking himself into it. His hand brushed the hair away from my face and I closed my eyes, remembering how he’d done it a thousand times; the movement itself was so practiced that my face curved into his touch and reacted the same way it always had. “You’re so pretty, Trista,” he said, speaking the words he always used. Colin was the only person I’d ever been with, but I guessed that most men had a playbook of things to do and say when it came to sex. The same words and same moves all

guaranteed the same outcome. I was an actress sometimes, remembering my lines and my movements I sat up and pulled him with me, so we were sitting up on his bed facing each other. His eyes were on me and I hoped he wasn’t waiting for me to meet his gaze. I grabbed the hem of my tank and lifted it up and over my head, tossing it across the room with barely any effort. I shivered. Colin always kept his room cold, at least ten degrees cooler at night. And sitting up, half naked, in fifty-seven degrees made my skin pebble and my arms fight to cross over my chest. But I stayed completely still, even as he ran a finger up my arm. “Soft,” he repeated. Needing warmth, I pulled his shirt up and over his head. My fingers found his shoulders and I squeezed, encouraging him to come closer. Hands moved up and over the muscles of his arms and shoulders before I brought my hands down his chest and over the faded scar that ran several inches below his neck downward. He’d told me once that he’d needed surgery for an accident, but never elaborated on it. And against his pale skin, the scar had a pearl-like quality about it. The new skin shimmered and I touched it softly. His hand gripped mine and I looked up at him. “Lay back,” he said in whisper. I felt the tingle then. I lowered myself to the pillows, keeping my eyes on him, as my blood simmered. This was the Colin I missed. Whatever was absent from my heart, I still found him desirable. “Just like that,” he whispered, watching me as I leaned back. He climbed over me slowly and I couldn’t look away from his face as he lowered until he was horizontal over me, hands braced by my shoulders. His mouth lowered and he pressed his lips to me. I surprised myself by angling my head up to press more firmly into his kiss. He was always kissing me like that, lightly, as he was afraid to put too much pressure on me. “Mmm,” he murmured against my mouth. My hands came up to his chest, gripping the sides of his body. The muscles under my fingers clenched and he lowered himself closer, until we were just inches apart. His head moved down my body, planting kisses down the center of my chest, between my breasts and all the way past my belly button. He gripped my hips and kissed the skin between my belly button and the hem of my panties. The ache between my legs was strong, thrumming like a heartbeat. I nearly crossed them, to give myself some relief, but then Colin grabbed the edges of my panties and pulled them down. I lifted my lower body, giving him a chance to remove them. He dragged them down my legs slowly, before climbing off of the bed and removing his pajama pants. I turned my head to look at the clock as he fumbled in his nightstand drawer. It was two-sixteen in the morning, and I wasn’t nearly tired yet. The bed dipped as he climbed back onto the bed and my body rolled with it. He placed a hand on my bare hip and gestured for me to turn onto my stomach. I rolled, my breasts flattening against the mattress, as his weight came down on

me. A hand snaked between my legs, flicking my cl*t and then quickly dipping inside of me before pulling out. I groaned quietly, not wanting to be teased. And as the groan died on my lips, he was inside of me. He grunted and his hand moved up under me, encouraging me to raise up off the bed. He palmed one of my breasts as he thrusted against me. I felt my thoughts escaping this—and I couldn’t explain it. I should be in the moment with Colin. Each time he thrust, my back arched instinctively, but my mind was already thinking about how it was good that we weren’t face to face. Because I wasn’t sure what my face would tell him. Over and over, he slid into me. His movements increased and while I knew my body was climbing toward a release, I couldn’t stay mentally with Colin. It was like my thoughts were in a fishbowl, and I was plucking them out one by one. The disconnect from him was so significant that my body began to backtrack its climb. I squeezed my eyes tight and grabbed the hand he had cupped to my breast, covering it with my fingers as I encouraged him to hold me a little tighter. I’m slipping away, I thought. Let me go. But just moments later, he stilled, his fingers flexing into my hips as he released. And moments after that, he climbed off of me and walked into the adjoining bathroom. I heard the toilet flush and the faucet turn on before I let myself roll onto my back. My fingers trembled. I’d been close initially, but then my mind had taken over, pulling me further from Colin and further into myself. The disconnect between us was deep enough to drown me. I watched the light from the bathroom door, only partly closed. I listened as he brushed his teeth, the whirr of the mechanical toothbrush and then his spitting. And when the light flicked off, I closed my eyes and waited silently as he returned. The bed dipped when he climbed into it and I kept my breathing even, my body still. But I didn’t need to pretend to be asleep for long, because seconds later I heard his light snoring. After opening my eyes slowly, I immediately looked to the clock. Two-twentytwo. Six minutes. I listened to his breathing, to the sound of the breeze outside the window. To the creaks in the bed when Colin rolled over. I heard my heart beat; steady, easy. I wanted something that made my heart pick up, thunder in a storm. But my heart stayed calm, beating a different rhythm from his breaths. I wondered if Colin’s efforts to reconnect with me would mean I’d start to fill up what was empty within me. That this would backfire and instead of giving him the chance for him to finally see we were nothing but shells, I’d fall for him all over again. The last time I looked at the clock before I fell asleep, the time said three-thirty-

one. And I’d felt no deeper attachment to Colin. I was still safe.

Chapter Seven

I woke up first, so conditioned to waking up before my grandfather to prepare his breakfast and set out his meds. Colin and I had moved to opposite sides of the king-size bed during the night and I tried not to analyze that so much as I pulled on a sweater and exited the bedroom. I smelled bacon as I padded down the hallway and quickened my steps to find a very tall, deeply tan man in the kitchen. At first I just stared. His back was to me, so I took the opportunity to take in all his muscles and the ink that hinted on his left arm, spanning across his back, as he worked over the stove. He was wearing gray flannel pajama bottoms and no shirt. I must have made a noise because he turned around quickly, spotting me on the other side of the breakfast bar. “Oh, hello,” he said. His voice was warm, a little husky. My gaze skipped nervously over the ink I saw on his chest—but gave little attention to—and moved up his neck to a jaw that was covered in a short, groomed beard. I kept moving up, over full lips and defined cheekbones and brown irises. I was speechless for a moment, and quickly looked away from his eyes. He had long lashes, heavy lids. If I had to describe his eyes, I would have said they looked soulful, sleepy. And that sounded embarrassingly silly to me. His gaze was on me while the bacon popped in the pan. The longer we stood there, with his eyes on me and my eyes on the wall, the longer I felt supremely uncomfortable. “What are you staring at?” I asked, finally looking at him again. He sniffed and his eyes narrowed slightly. It seemed like a hundred years before he spoke. “Just waiting for you to say hi back.” I ground my teeth. “Hi back,” I managed, though my tongue was thick and heavy in my mouth. Virile. That’s what he was. From the rounded biceps, the tight lines in his stomach to the short beard and the very singular gaze he was returning. Had a man ever looked at me like that? So entirely focused? He looked down for a moment, long black lashes brushing the skin under his eyes. And when he looked up, he nodded at me once before turning back to the pan. “Hungry?” he asked.

Frowning, I took a seat at the breakfast bar. “You’re offering me food and you don’t even know who I am?” I hesitated only a moment. “I’m Trista.” “I figured you were. Either that or a terrible burglar.” He looked over his shoulder at me, his features relaxing into an easy smile. “I’m Jude.” “I figured you were Jude,” I said, repeating him. “Or Colin’s live-in cook.” “Well, I’m pretty much that too,” he said with a laugh as he used tongs to pull the bacon off the skillet and onto a waiting plate lined with paper towels. “Are you hungry?” I wasn’t until I’d smelled the bacon. “Yeah.” “Yum!” The voice came from behind me and I spun around, startled, met a pair of golden brown eyes. The woman behind them smiled. “You’re Trista.” I nodded once, watched as she walked into the kitchen and patted Jude’s back. Her hair was long, straight, black like Ellie’s. With her tanned skin and dark hair, she reminded me so much of my best friend that the ache was like a dagger dipped in acid, plunged into my belly. My hands clutched the granite countertop, trying to keep my heart from pouring out of my mouth. “Hello,” she smiled at Jude, and then I noticed her accent. She reached for the bacon and managed to snag a piece before he gave her a steely glare. She leaned over the counter, elbows resting on the granite, staring at me. “I’m Mila,” she said, pronouncing it mee-LAH, with an accent I decided sounded Australian, accentuating the “lah” of her name. “One of the roomies.” “Oh, hi. I like your accent,” I said and Jude looked at me over her head and rolled his eyes dramatically. I was confused by his reaction. “Yup,” she replied, grinning as she chomped through her slice of bacon. Her teeth were shiny and white, her lips a pretty pink color. She looked like she belonged on some tropical island, climbing palm trees and throwing spears into schools of fish. When Jude turned around and pushed her away from facing me, he said, “You’ll have to excuse the animal. She hasn’t managed to grasp the concept of manners just yet.” Mila and Jude exchanged a look and I was even more confused. “Are you” —I pointed a finger between them— “together?” I was confused by their dynamic, by the way Mila tried unsuccessfully shoving Jude aside so that she was directly in front of me. “Oh, gross,” Mila said with a very pronounced curl of her lip. “He’s my brother.” She jerked a thumb at Jude and swiped another piece of bacon before dancing away. “Oh.” But I was even more confused. “And you’re Australian?” I asked, looking at Mila. Jude sighed, leaned on the counter so he was considerably closer to me. “No, Mila’s a voice actress. She likes to try out her accents on unsuspecting people, to see if they believe it.” Mila’s eyes glittered with humor and she pumped a fist into the air. “And I did it!” She pushed Jude completely out of the way so she was facing me again, leaning

on the counter across from me. “So how long are you here for?” It was then that I saw the similarities between Jude and Mila, with her tanned skin, long black lashes and full lips. “Not sure.” I glanced at Jude as he turned and resumed flipping bacon on the skillet. “For a while, at least.” Nothing to go back to in Wyoming. “Cool.” Mila pushed off the counter. “Well, I’ve got sh*t to do today.” She reached around for another slice of bacon, but Jude snapped the tongs at her and she jumped back. “Fine. But save me some, pretty please, dear older brother.” “I’ll think about it.” When she was out of hearing distance, he asked me, “Are you a vegetarian?” I laughed. “No way.” “Good, because I’m not sure my heart could handle this much bacon myself and I want to make sure it’s all gone before she demands more.” He gave me another smile over his shoulder. “Sleep well?” I nodded, not wanting to say anything else as he stared at me like that, so focused, as if he was listening to my words but monitoring my face for my expression too. It was easier to lie with your lips than your eyes, and I wondered if that was something he knew too. I kicked myself for not even checking my reflection in the mirror. And I mentally kicked myself again for thinking that, because I shouldn’t be worried about my looks around Jude when I was dating his roommate. Jude turned back to the stove and I relaxed. “Is Colin still asleep?” “He is.” “Are you going camping with us this weekend?” Whoa, change of subject. “Uh…I…” “Did he not tell you about it?” Jude turned completely around to face me. I averted my gaze to the counter top so I didn’t linger too long on his chest. “No.” “Well, a bunch of us are going up for a three-day hike. It’s fun. You should come.” With that, I met his eyes again. “You don’t even know me; why do you think I should come?” “Are you allergic to fun?” I raised an eyebrow, feeling my hormones finally chilling out. “Of course not,” I said, but I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t remember the last thing I did for fun. “Then,” he said, holding a hand out as if it was that easy, “come.” “Come to what?” a voice asked from behind me. I turned around to see Colin standing in the doorway from the hall. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he approached us, nodded at Jude before reaching down and giving me a kiss. I reminded myself that Colin was my boyfriend and I was here to fix us as I leaned into the kiss, closing my eyes and letting the warmth from his touch cover me. But still, I knew I was overcompensating. I told myself I wasn’t attracted to Jude.

I told myself a lot of things that weren’t true. “Camping,” Jude said, holding the plate of bacon out to us. I picked up a slice and held it pinched between my forefinger and thumb. “She’s coming, yeah?” I looked up to Colin because it was better than staring at Jude’s chest. “Camping?” Colin held Jude’s stare for a minute before looking down to me. “I don’t think you’d enjoy it.” I maintained eye contact with Colin to the point where it was almost uncomfortable. “Why not?” “It’s outside.” I gave him a look that held annoyance, because he didn’t know me well enough to decide I didn’t like being outside. “Is Mila going?” I asked. “No.” I blinked, waiting for him to continue. “Have you ever gone camping before?” he asked, a hint of exasperation in his voice. I hadn’t, and I wasn’t sure if Colin knew that or not. Before I could speak, Jude interrupted. “When was the first time you’d gone camping, Colin?” Colin’s eyebrows drew together in thought. “I was probably ten or so.” Jude held a hand out again, like he was offering something to Colin. “You didn’t know whether or not you’d enjoy it until you went for the first time, correct?” I watched the veins in Colin’s neck strain against his skin. “I suppose not.” “Then how can you know she wouldn’t enjoy it if she hasn’t experienced it?” Colin turned to me and seemed almost reluctant in his invitation. “Come camping with us.” It certainly didn’t have the same effect that it had when Jude had said it. I took a bite of the bacon, chewed thoughtfully. “Well, I might as well.” I swallowed and looked him in the eyes. “Since I just came all this way for you.” Colin turned away from me then, his absence replaced the arm he’d had around my shoulders and I suddenly wondered if I’d agreed to go camping in haste. In the six years since Colin and I had started dating, we’d never actually lived together or done any kind of activities for an extended period of time. Going camping meant twenty-four-seven time with one another. It would be the first test of whether or not we could fix us. Which was probably why Colin hesitated inviting me.

*** Colin took me shopping, having me try on gear and feel sleeping bags and even though we were inches apart the entire time, I could feel the frigid blast from the emotional distance he’d put between us. Somewhere between canteens and bug

spray, I put my hand on his arm. “Did you not want me to come?” He looked at my arm and sighed. I swore I felt his arm relax under my fingers. “What if you’re miserable?” “Well, what did you expect me to do for three days while you were gone?” He shrugged. “I figured you’d get a much-needed break from me.” “Break? I’ve been here a whole day.” “We haven’t spent any considerable amount of time together since high school. You might get sick of me.” He turned to me and looked genuinely worried. “What if you hate camping?” “Then I go home.” He raised an eyebrow. “Home?” I knew he was asking where was home for me now that I was more or less a vagabond at the moment. I shrugged. “I don’t know where home is yet.” Colin threw a handful of things into the cart and continued on. “Mila seems cool,” I casually said. He looked at me, searching my face as if he anticipated something else. “Yeah, she is.” He looked down at the flashlight he held, reading its packaging. “But she’s too busy working to go camping this weekend.” “Does she go a lot? With you guys, I mean?” Colin didn’t look up from the flashlight, just grabbed batteries from beside it and checked the packaging again. “I guess. Usually.” “You’re preoccupied.” It was an observation, not a question, but he answered it anyway. “I love camping,” he burst out, dropping the flashlight and batteries into the cart. “Okay…?” “And if you hate it…” his voice trailed off and he ran a hand through his hair. “Well. If you hate it, we’ll figure it out.” He steered the cart toward the front of the store. “Maybe you have some adventurer in you. Regardless, if you come up the mountain with me, you won’t be able to say you don’t know me well.” I didn’t know him well now. So I hoped he was right. “And if I don’t like what I see?” He seemed genuinely perturbed by the idea, his blue-green eyes dulling in their brightness. “Then we’ll figure it out, like I said.” But that’s not what he’d wanted to say, I knew. He wanted to tell me that we wouldn’t work, which wasn’t surprising to me at the moment. So much was wrong between us that I couldn’t see what was right. “We can always be friends,” I said softly. He wouldn’t look at me then, just quietly led me to checkout and swiped his card before I could pull out cash for my purchases. It wasn’t until he was loading his Jeep with our purchases that he said, “Friends aren’t in love with one another.” I nodded, but said nothing. What could I say?

If Ellie hadn’t died, would we have stayed together? If you could go back in time, would you have chosen me again? And, the question that plagued me the most: What if you find out, that while I love you, I’m not in love with you? The questions would remain unanswered, because he’d never hear them from my lips.

Chapter Eight

I found myself two days later standing next to Colin as he packed up his car. “It’ll be fine,” he insisted, double-tying my shoelaces before turning away to load the gear. I wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince. I watched as he secured a pack to the roof of his Jeep next, his arms long, wrapped with lean muscle. “Hi,” a voice spoke beside me. I jumped, surprised by the closeness of Jude, before peeking up at him. Because I hadn’t been this close to him when we’d met, I hadn’t realized just how tall he was, looming way over my five feet and four inches. He stared at me with that intense focus again, and I was compelled to not continue the eye contact. It was strangely uncomfortable to have someone stare at you so intently. His soft, toffee-colored eyes narrowed when I didn’t say anything again. “Hi.” This time, he smiled, revealing a line of pearly white, straight teeth. If anything, him showing his teeth unnerved me even more. I found myself watching how smiling transformed his face, creating deep creases in his cheeks and small lines around his eyes. He stretched his arms up, flexing all those muscles right in front of my face. “Ready for this?” Swallowing, I nodded. “You’ll want to put your hair up; you’ll get hot.” His arms came down and his gaze traced my hair. “You seem to be an expert on hair,” I returned with a small nod back at him. “Since you have so much.” He ran his hand over his scalp. His hair had been buzzed so short that I could barely tell his hair was brown. If it wasn’t for the brown in his beard, I wouldn’t have been sure. “Yeah, I had a ponytail a couple weeks ago,” he said, “but it became too much maintenance.” Giving him the side eye, I said, “Um… okay.” Because imagining him with a ponytail was hot and I didn’t need to be thinking that when I was dating the guy

just a few feet from us. With that, I turned away from Jude and closed my eyes briefly, willing myself to stop thinking about mountain man Jude and his beard and his tattoos and start thinking about Colin. I shouldn’t have to remind myself of Colin, I knew. But I thought of what Ellie had said about him, how his attention was always changing, how he didn’t give anyone that type of singular focus. So it was natural to be put off by Jude and all his intense masculinity. Colin didn’t give anyone the limelight in his life. We climbed into the Jeep, Colin driving with me shotgun, and headed up to the trailhead where we would meet another five guys for the hike. As we headed up to the trailhead, Jude began prodding me with question after question. “How do you know one another?” I asked after a while, in attempt to get him to talk about himself. Colin spoke first. “Our moms are friends. They kind of organized our group of friends, actually.” I raised an eyebrow. “Like, playdates?” Jude laughed and it warmed my chest. “No. Our moms met and introduced us is all,” Colin said. Jude added, “A bunch of the guys you’ll meet, they’re in our little group.” “Oh.” I looked out the window, passed dozens and dozens of trees. The further we drove, the fewer signs of human life I saw. There was something meaningful about escaping the world that humans created and venturing into a world that grew naturally from the earth, uninhabited by people. When Colin pulled the Jeep into the parking lot at the trailhead, I felt the nerves. I’d grown up with one friend really; a group of people was something foreign to me. But I watched as Colin and Jude hopped out and embraced several of the other guys with smiles and dude hugs before I worked up enough courage to climb out of the car myself. I stared up at the trail we were to take and wondered how this would go for me. Colin, who claimed to know me, didn’t. I didn’t know me. I wasn’t sure I would know who I really was until I’d spent a few days on this mountain. The one person I believed knew me was dead, I reminded myself. Oh how I wished I’d asked her who she saw when she looked at me. Colin came back and wrapped an arm around me as he introduced me to the handful of guys who’d be joining us for the three-day hike. I smiled politely, awkwardly, and then watched as everyone pulled on their packs and applied sunscreen. They were all fit and tanned and I was neither. I wondered what they thought of me, my bright, bleached hair and pale skin. I looked down at my brand-new hiking boots, my socks scrunched at the tops. I wore leggings that Colin had said would help wick the moisture from my body. I wore shorts over them, a tank made of the same material as the leggings, and a lightweight jacket. All of my limbs were

covered and still, I was naked in my inexperience. Colin helped strap me into my pack and then placed his hands on either side of my face. “You good?” I nodded. “Definitely,” not, I added. I looked towards the trail and gulped. There was one path cutting through rock and brush as it wrapped around a large rock formation. Colin took the lead with a guy I knew to be Teddy and the rest fell in line, two-by-two. “It’s not that bad,” Jude said, as if he sensed my apprehension, lifting his pack up higher on his back. “Just one or two dozen miles.” Just a couple dozen miles. My stomach dropped so fast that I was sure it had dislodged a ball of vomit because I clamped a hand over my mouth before I spewed it all over the person in front of me. That would certainly make an impression … just not the one I was going for. “You okay?” I nodded and clamped my lips tighter as I removed my hand. “Yeah. Just not used to the altitude.” A lie. “Where are you from again?” Jude flanked my right as we moved up the trail, stayed just a foot or two behind me. He was bringing up the rear, and I knew he was making sure my slow pace wouldn’t leave me behind everyone else. “Wyoming.” “And you came all this way for Colin?” The way he said it made my skin prickle. Did he know we weren’t okay? Could he see my lies more clearly than Colin could? “Why don’t you ask me why I left?” He stopped short behind me so I turned to face him. He blinked once, twice, and then asked, “Okay, why’d you leave?” The answer came quickly and slipped through my lips with the honesty I had, “There was nothing to leave.” He was silent a long while after that.

Chapter Nine

We managed seven miles the first day, setting up camp in a small clearing in the middle of the woods. I struggled with my tent, cursing myself as I tried to set the poles together. Probably should have practiced setting this bad boy up, Trista, I thought with mild annoyance. Colin had taken off to fetch sticks for a fire. When I’d looked between him and the tent bag with significance, he’d smiled. “I know you can do it.” But you don’t, Colin, I’d thought. You don’t know anything about the girl you say you’re in love with. And I knew this to be true ten minutes and four F words into setting up the tent. As I struggled with the tent, I regretted coming on the trip to begin with. My feet were aching so badly that I wasn’t completely sure they would remain attached to my legs. The sweat around my head had cooled in the evening temperatures, making me wish for a warm hat. And Colin hadn’t spoken to me the entire hike except to ask how I was doing once, before quickly engaging in conversation with someone else. “Need some help with that?” Jude asked, his boots crunching the pine needles as he approached. I looked up at him in between strands of sweat-soaked hair hanging in front of my face, loose from my ponytail. “Well?” Jude lifted an eyebrow, holding out his hands for help. I was reminded in that moment of his sheer size—at least ten inches taller than me. In addition to his height, I couldn’t help but smell him. He smelled, for lack of a better word, woodsy. Warm. Spicy. Like juniper. I wasn’t sure what kind of cologne he wore, but the bottle probably said, “Sex in the Mountains: Guaranteed.” “Yeah,” I said, brushing the back of my hand over my forehead. I wiped the sweat on my leggings and winced as I bent to pick up the tent poles again, my muscles exhausted. I rubbed at my lower back, where my pack had dug into skin and felt the sting of skin rubbed raw. A laugh from behind me alerted me to my boyfriend’s return. I turned, seeing Colin come through the trees, his face lit up from the fire that Teddy had started. Colin’s voice was warm, welcoming as I was feeling the first twinges of regret. I waited for him to help us set up the tent, but he began tinkering with his portable stove and I gritted my teeth.

“He’s, like, a pro at setting up tents.” Colin pointed at Jude. “Yeah,” Teddy said with a laugh. “Sommers is the tent guy.” Giving up on Colin helping, I turned to Jude. “Sommers? Tent guy?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “Sommers is my last name. Teddy thinks we’re still in high school sometimes.” Jude shook his head. Laughter ensued and Jude gently took the poles from my hands. “Work with one pole at a time,” he said. I looked up just in time to see lips quirk up in amusem*nt. “I usually do,” I muttered, walking around the other side of the tent. Jude slid the pole through the pocket in my direction, at the opposite corner of him. “Stick it in that metal piece at the bottom – the bar.” “’Kay,” I said, pushing it into the metal piece. We spent the next few minutes putting the tent together under Jude’s patient direction. When he hammered in the stakes at the corners, I sat back and looked at Colin, who was intently listening to the guy who had taken lead with him on the trip. “Thanks,” I said to Jude. I whipped open the collapsible chair and plopped into it. “Ah,” I murmured, letting my head fall back. “Are those boots new?” I opened one eye to look at Jude. “Yeah. Never been camping, remember?” “How do your feet feel?” I took a long sip of the water and then capped it. “f*cking phenomenal.” “Thought so,” Jude said, clearly seeing through my sarcasm. “Yo, Colin.” I looked across the fire at Colin as Jude spoke to him. “Are you going to take care of her feet before she bleeds through her boots?” Everyone turned to me and I imagined myself sinking further into the seat so they wouldn’t keep staring at me. My inexperience was like a tattoo; an embarrassing reminder how I didn’t fit in with everyone else. Colin stood up and motioned for me to follow him. “Got any tape?” he asked Jude. I heard the roll of duct tape whistle through the air before Colin caught it and led me down the hill to the stream below, arm around my shoulders. I shrugged out of Colin’s arm even though I enjoyed having him pay me some direct attention. “I can take care of myself.” But I didn’t even know what I should be doing. “What’s the tape for?” “We need to wash your feet and then cover the hot spots with the duct tape, or else your feet will be covered with blisters.” “Oh.” I hated the fact that I needed to be cared for. “Go back up, I can do this.” “I’m sure you can, but I should stick close in case there are bears.” I hardly suppressed a shudder at the thought. “Great.” Putting my feet in the cool stream did a lot to settle my nerves as well as to alleviate some of the pain I was feeling. It was particularly cold on the backs of my heels, which was how I knew exactly where to apply the tape after pulling my

numbed feet from the water. Colin crouched nearby, waving his hand through the grass. Night was falling around us quickly, and if it wasn’t for the moon, I wouldn’t be able to see how pensive he was. After I’d put on my socks and boots, I stood up and stretched my sore back muscles. “Do you regret bringing me along?” I asked when he wordlessly joined me and we ascended the hill again. “Do you regret coming along?” “Not sure yet.” And I wasn’t just talking about camping. He stopped us just outside of the camp, where the fire flickering through the trees was only slightly louder than the voices surrounding it. “I didn’t think you’d like it,” he said, making me feel like a child. “I didn’t think you’d ignore me,” I returned. “I’m not ignoring you.” His voice grew frustrated. “We’re hiking. That’s why I didn’t think you should come along. This isn’t a time for romance.” “I wasn’t asking for romance, Colin.” I sighed, feeling the exhaustion of the day calling to me. I thought of all the times Colin would give me a tiny bit of attention before focusing somewhere else. “It would be nice if you’d remembered who I was from time to time.” Even if I didn’t want romance, I could stand for a little acknowledgement that we were still—at the very least—friends. “I know who you are,” he said. I thought of the cheesecake. “You’re right.”

*** As the dark came closer, I was the first person to bow out for the night. I’d shared a can of soup that Colin had warmed on his mini stove, but I’d lost my appetite shortly after Colin had made a point to sit far away from me around the fire. I climbed into my sleeping bag and—childishly, I knew—scooted it to the other side of the tent, far from Colin’s. I hoped he’d take the hint, because I didn’t need his body that close to mine, reminding me just how far he was from me in reality. I’d spent the last three years being alone, but I’d never been lonely until my boyfriend had taken me camping and promptly ignored me. It was a tough pill to swallow, another reminder of the love that didn’t exist despite Colin’s insistence. It was easier in Wyoming, when we were far from one another. I never got jealous, even when girls would tag him in photos from parties he attended. His arms around their waists and their eyes locked. He looked happy. And I never wanted to take that from him, even if it meant he wasn’t being entirely faithful. I’d never asked him, of course. Not because I was afraid of what his answer might be, but because if he had, I wouldn’t have been all that upset. And I should

be, as his girlfriend. But since I didn’t, I just played ignorant. So why the hell was I sleeping in my boyfriend’s tent without my boyfriend, listening to him laugh harder with them than he ever had with me? All around me, I heard the sounds of the evening: between the unknown insect noises, the pitter of pine needles falling from the trees above and onto my tent. I pulled the top of the sleeping bag up to my chin as the cold crept in and I told myself that the mountains would be good—I’d figure out what I needed. Maybe I’d learn a little bit about who I was. When Colin unzipped the tent and climbed in, I pretended to be asleep. “Trista?” he whispered. But I remained still. I wasn’t sure if sex in tents was a thing, but I was too cold and too sore and too bereft of feeling to want that kind of touch. The sound of a sleeping bag swishing along the tent floor startled me and I blinked before shutting my eyes and feigning sleep again. I felt his warmth at my back as he cuddled against me with his sleeping bag. I don’t know how long I lay there awake, but I knew he was awake too. I knew it was going to be a very cold, very long, very lonely night.

Chapter Ten

I woke to the sounds of birds and men and a tent empty of Colin. The rustling of plastic, the murmur of conversation—both reminded me that I needed to get out of the tent and catch up to everyone else. “Good morning,” Jude’s voice greeted me as I stepped out of the tent. I managed a nod of acknowledgement, but kept my eyes averted. There was something about him that made me feel naked. I was wearing a turtleneck, another pair of the same tights, and a vest. But under his gaze, I was transparent; my clothes were brand new, unmarred by experience and his were holey and ripped at the tense spots, clearly broken in. I wore a costume and he wore himself. If he was wondering what Colin saw in me, he could get in line—right behind me. “Did you sleep well?” Jude asked, as if I’d invited this kind of conversation. I thought of my sleep, how I’d been too afraid to move with each noise I heard throughout the evening. How I’d imagined a bear clawing its way into my tent, a fear perpetuated from reading too many horror stories in my grandfather’s old Readers Digests. “I could have slept better,” I answered. My eyes met Colin’s across the camp and we both averted our gazes a second later. “It was cold.” “You’ll have that.” I grabbed my pack from the tent and secured my rolled up sleeping bag to it. “Let me help you take down your tent,” he said, zipping my tent up behind me. I was equal parts ashamed of being someone who needed so much help and relieved he’d offered. “Thanks.” I offered a small smile and set my pack down before walking around the tent. His eyes met mine over the top of the tent and he said, “Ready?” The single word scraped down my chest, as startling as a fork on fine china. It was as if something was unlocking within me. I had a distinct, prophetic revelation that I would meet his eyes and hear that word from his lips again, in a different context. And the thought froze me to the spot. For the longest time, when I thought of Ellie, I thought of my past. She wasn’t here for me to imagine the future. But the way Jude had said one simple, five-letter word, I’d thought of a tomorrow that didn’t exist yet.

I stared into his eyes and watched as they changed too, but he didn’t look away. His mouth opened just slightly and then he swallowed. “Trista.” It was the first time he’d said my name. I knew, because I’d never heard anyone say those two syllables that way before. Once the word left his lips, it came to lie upon my skin, imbedding itself into my flesh. As if in reaction to the way he spoke, I shivered. What was this reaction? Why did he do this, cause this? Hearing him say my name felt serious, like he’d unwillingly taken a tiny piece of me. A morsel, maybe. It was insane, to be obsessing over this, to be thinking these thoughts. The guilt came in, guilt for the unreal attraction I felt for Jude when I was supposed to be focused on Colin, focused on the erosion that had carved a distinct divide between us. I had an alarmingly strong feeling that Jude would be a part of one of my tomorrows in some way. But today, today he was as much a stranger as Colin was. “Trista,” he repeated. I shook my head, yanking it away to stare at a tree. “Yeah?” I asked, avoiding his eyes altogether. “Sorry.” I leaned down and unhooked the pole from the metal bar it was secured in and helped him take down the tent, careful to keep from looking at his eyes again. I wished to close my ears to his words too, and it was all that I thought about as we sat around and waited for the others to finish. Once we were packed, we had a breakfast of granola bars and bananas before setting off again. Despite doing my best to apply duct tape to my feet before they blistered, I knew just twenty minutes into the hike that I hadn’t taken care of my feet soon enough. The ache against my skin was almost unbearable and I wished to hell that someone would ask to rest so I wouldn’t be the person holding us back. Being needy wasn’t what I wanted to add to my resume of hiking mistakes. Jude was beside me again, and I did everything I could to keep myself from thinking about that too much. Colin, I reminded myself. You are on this mountain, bearing pain, for Colin. “How are your feet?” Stop talking, I thought. I can’t listen to your voice and not break out in a sweat. I swallowed, told myself to stop obsessing over the way he said things. “Um,” I said as I grabbed a nearby tree for balance, my fingers clinging to the bark for help as I made my way over a tree that had fallen and blocked our path. Jude stepped over the tree and held a hand for me, a dark tattoo peeking under his long sleeve. “It’s best to step over or go around things that block your path,” his eyebrows lifted, and he nodded for me to grab his hand. “Stepping up onto them will drain your energy more quickly.” “My legs are short,” I muttered as my hand left the bark and clasped his. It was warm, solid, and he helped me bring my other leg over the tree patiently, easily. When he let go, my palm was sticky. “Sap,” he explained with a nod to the tree I’d been holding. “Here.” He pulled a bottle of hand sanitizer from his pack and poured some into my palms. “This’ll

help.” I rubbed my hands, feeling the sap mostly disintegrate from the sanitizer. “You’re a boy scout, aren’t you?” He laughed, and I felt that same little shiver from earlier, when he’d said my name. “Not a boy scout.” He closed his eyes briefly and I watched as he breathed in the air. A smile curved his lips softly and I stared, mesmerized by how quickly he transformed into someone who looked like he belonged. “I’ve just spent a lot of time in these woods. Mila and I practically grew up with the trees.” “She seems like a lively spirit.” He laughed, and it echoed around the valley. “Great way to describe her. I think of her as this unending supply of intense energy.” We resumed the hike, silently and simultaneously increasing our pace to catch up with everyone. “You must get along well, if she lives with you.” Since I was an only child myself, I didn’t have any grasp on what a sibling dynamic must be like, but I imagined living with siblings was similar to living with your parents after reaching adulthood. “We do. We’re twins.” “She called you her older brother,” I replied, remembering. “Because I am, by a whole seven minutes.” “You seem older, too.” I didn’t know how old he was, but he seemed older than my twenty-two years. “We’ll be twenty-five in the fall, but you’re right.” He paused a moment and I stopped too, waiting while he uncapped his water and took a long sip. “We’ve lived different lives.” He studied me as he said that, as if he was waiting for me to add or ask something. “I can tell.” Something about Jude made me think he was more serious, more reserved. It was clear that he was in his element in these trees, taking his time to appreciate the sights and sounds and smells. More than once, I’d caught him pulling a leaf off a bush or pulling down a branch and touching it gently. He picked up a rock or two so far on the hike, rubbing the dirt off of it before putting it in his pocket. He lived differently, he appreciated the world, in a way I hadn’t seen before. “She’s come with me for a few work trips, but she’s just too go-go-go for me. We have to go to Yellowstone in a couple weeks, but I know she doesn’t want to tag along this time.” He held a hand out, gesturing for us to continue on. “Why not?” He shrugged. “She’s got auditions lined up all summer—it’s when she’s busiest. Summer travel really cuts down on the time she has for jobs.” “What do you do for work?” “I’m a travel blogger, working for companies and small businesses, mostly.” “You can make money doing that?” “You can make money doing just about anything, if you think outside the box.” “Interesting.”

“What do you do for work?” “Nothing, at the moment.” I swatted a bug away from my leg and pushed the hair from my forehead. “I used to work in a pet supply store.” “But you went to college,” he said, encouraging me to continue. “I don’t know if going for a year counts as ‘going to college.’” He didn’t validate my response, just continued with his questions. “What did you study?” “I was going to study English and web design.” “Why?” “English, because it’s a language I can speak, might as well write it well. Web design because it’s obvious that we’ll always need web designers and job security is important.” “That’s honest.” “I don’t know how to be anything other than honest.” The fact that the very statement was a lie made me want to laugh maniacally. I felt him looking at me as I was several feet ahead and thought of how I should have this conversation with Colin, not with his roommate. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” I swatted another bug from my face, blew a breath that moved my bangs from my eyes. “Well, not everyone likes to hear the truth.” Which was why I was lying to my boyfriend. “That’s true, even for me. I endeavor to always be honest, but I’m not forthcoming—not usually.” It made me wonder what he wasn’t forthcoming about, but I barely knew him— and I definitely didn’t know him well enough to press. And besides, something on the trail caught my eye and I stopped in my tracks, completely oblivious to Jude and anyone else. Crouching carefully beside it was a feat itself, because my muscles were so sore, but I did anyway, and gently touched the petals of the daisies that grew beside a few rocks. “Daisies?” I nodded, still marveling at them. The purple petals were bright beside the rocks, and made me think of my best friend. I stood, smiled to myself because they were such a happy color. An Ellie color. I thought of explaining it to him, but stopped, wanting to hold onto the thought myself. But a noise from behind us had me spinning around, bumping into Jude as my eyes frantically searched our surroundings. But all I heard was Jude’s even breathing and my agitated breathing. “So, tent guy,” I began, and Jude’s eyes smiled, “in all your years in the woods, have you seen any bears?” “Sure,” he said as if I’d asked him if he’d ever seen a cloud. “All the time.” I swallowed and looked quickly left and right into the woods around us. “I’m sure you know what to do if a bear approaches?” I asked hopefully.

He pointed to the can hanging on the side of his pack. “Bear spray.” “I’m not sure if that makes me relieved or more nervous,” I admitted. “I was expecting you to tell me you’ve wrestled bears before.” “Only on the weekends,” he laughed. “Good thing it’s Saturday.” The smile was stubborn and I conceded, letting it spread and warm my cheeks. “Good thing,” he agreed.

*** We stopped for lunch in an area where a bunch of trees had fallen from a recent storm. It was jerky and granola bars again, but Colin’s hiking companion Teddy had a few MREs that we passed along to share. I started in on my second bottle of water for the day when it occurred to me that I hadn’t packed nearly enough water. When I mentioned it to Colin, he shook his head. “We’ll be near some streams tonight and you can refill there.” “You’ll want to purify it though; did you bring a filter?” Jude asked I shook my head, looked at Colin. “I don’t think so?” Colin shrugged. “The water’s fine to drink right from the source.” Jude laughed, but it sounded humorless. “You don’t know what might be in the water upstream. Best to purify.” “I’ve never gotten sick,” Colin said, seeming a little agitated. “You also take a lot of unnecessary risks,” Jude countered. Jude and Colin stared at one another for several seconds, the tension creating a lot of confusion for me. Finally, Jude broke the stare to turn to me. “I have a water bottle with a filter. I can share.” And then he stood up and put his pack back on. “Are we ready to go?” We resumed the hike, stopping only occasionally for a water break or to take in the view. On our ascent the day before, I could still turn around and see the city in the distance, but now we were so deep that I could see nothing for miles apart from trees and rocks and cornflower blue sky. The hike was hard because it was uphill and because I was so inexperienced, but Jude never made me feel bad when I walked a little slower than everyone else, he just adjusted his pace to match mine. At one point he said, “Colin should have had you lead with him.” “But I’m slow.” He turned to me, smiling. “You are.” “Thanks,” I replied drily. “I’m slowing you down.” “Exactly. We should have the slower people in front, so everyone only goes as fast as the slowest people.”

He held up a branch for me to duck under as I said, “So why didn’t he?” “Because he didn’t want to make you feel bad for going slower than he’s used to.” It made me uncomfortable, not because Jude was trying to hurt my feelings—he wasn’t—but because he was being completely honest. And it made sense. Colin hadn’t spoken to me much during the hike and hadn’t seemed bothered that I was in the back. Maybe he felt better knowing that I wasn’t up front, slowing everyone down, hindering him with my inexperience. “But you’re doing a great job keeping up, for your first hike.” I blew out a breath. “I feel like a child.” “You’ll get used to this. I’m sure it won’t be your last hike. Besides, tomorrow we’re going to see some pretty incredible ridges.” “Is that on our way back?” I asked somewhat hopefully. “Yeah.” He grabbed my hand again to step over a rock that was lodged in our path. “We’re going around the top of our loop right now, so tomorrow we’ll be halfway down.” He squeezed my hand when I slipped a little, pulling me straight to standing again. When he let go of my hand, I missed it immediately, stupidly. My hand hadn’t been cold until he wasn’t holding it.

Chapter Eleven

When we reached the streams Jude had talked about, Colin drank right from the source, filling up four water bottles with the stream water. He looked at me expectantly, like he expected me to copy him. But I’d watched enough nature shows late at night when I couldn’t sleep to be afraid of water direct from the source, so I accepted Jude’s offer, filling up my bottles with the water poured from his filtered water bottles. Colin didn’t say anything to me, and I knew I’d angered him. I thought about our shopping trip. Once he’d realized I was planning to come with him, he’d assured me that I’d know no one better than him once we got up on this mountain and I couldn’t help but realize, with a disappointed sense of wonder, that he was right. Colin was concerned with being fast, even at the expense of me falling behind. But somehow, I ended day two of hiking feeling better than I had after day one. After re-bandaging my feet and setting up our tent without help this time, I crawled into it feeling more confident in my ability to adapt to my surroundings. I once again pushed my sleeping bag to the opposite side of the tent and placed my pack between my bag and his to deter him from being close. As I fell asleep, I thought of how camping wasn’t as awful as I’d expected it to be. The following morning, however, I awoke feeling stiff as a slab of marble. My muscles were in protest from the last two days of hard climbing, all the way from my feet to my neck. As I rolled in my sack, I felt the sharp pain on my upper and lower back, pain I knew was thanks to my pack, chafing against skin. I pulled down part of my tank, exposing my shoulders and chest. And admired, with a kind of horrified wonder, the twin burns from my shoulders down my chest to the top of my sports bra. My pack was lighter than the others’, but my skin wasn’t used to the weight, and now I had bright red sores on my skin that matched my pack’s straps. I exited my tent with a lot more struggle than I had entering it the night before, and winced as I crouched to relieve myself behind a bush. I was sure that I would fall from my squat and roll right down the hill below me, but miraculously I didn’t. As everyone else took down their tents, I poured a bottle of water over my head and worked it through to my scalp. After, I applied nearly an entire stick of

deodorant to my body in all the places I didn’t know you could sweat. When I went to put the pack on, I dropped it almost immediately, the brush against my chafed skin shocking me with pain. sh*t. “What’s wrong?” Jude asked, coming toward me with a mug of coffee. I debated not telling him, not wanting to feel, once again, like a child who was out of her league. But the thought of putting on my pack without any potential relief caused me to speak. “I have some chafing,” I said, awkwardly pointing to my shoulders. He walked closer, eyebrows knit together, and handed me his mug. “Let me see,” he said. He looked at me as if he wanted my permission and I could do nothing but nod under his golden brown gaze. One hand came to the right side of my neck, holding me in place as he used his other hand to tug the shirt over my left shoulder. I should have been thinking about the burn on my chest, but all I could think about was his warm, heavy hands on my skin, his eyes on my chest, and the way he smelled so damn good that all I could breathe was his scent. “Well, that’s a good one,” he said lightly. He switched hands so he cradled the left side of my neck as he pulled the right shoulder of the shirt down. “You must feel so accomplished.” I smiled at the thought. “Yes, burns on my feet, heels, back and shoulders. I gave it my all.” “If you weren’t so bony, it wouldn’t have happened.” I tilted my head to the side, the side where he cradled my neck. “No one has accused me of being bony.” He blinked and then narrowed his eyes. He poked my collarbone with his forefinger and I winced from the pain. “They weren’t looking at you then.” I didn’t know what to say to that, so I turned away. Anything to keep me from staring too long at his eyes. One smooth, warm hand squeezed my bare shoulder before he let go. “Let’s see about putting some salve on those burns.” I merely nodded, willing to do whatever the boy scout slash tent guy told me to do. When he returned with the ointment, I was still holding his cup of coffee. I thrust it toward him and took the tube from his hands, not wanting to feel him rubbing it into my skin. “Thanks,” I said, popping it open and squeezing the clear goo from it. I rubbed it into each burn and while I didn’t feel instantly better, my skin felt protected. As I passed him the tube, he asked, “You mentioned your back had burns too?” My hand froze in midair, his hand on mine as if he would take the tube back. Again, all I could do was nod. “Want me to get those?” Again, dumbly, I nodded in response. He motioned with his finger for me to turn around, so I did and lifted up my

shirt. The burns were right where my shirt met my leggings, so I tugged my leggings down just an inch, but it made me feel a hundred times more exposed. His warm hand closed on the curve of my waist to steady me as he gently rubbed the ointment into the burn. I wondered if he could feel the way my heart beat rapidly against its cage from his touch. “Trista,” he said, his breath on my back. I resisted the urge to arch my spine. “Yeah?” “I’m going to bandage this back here. It’s worse than your shoulders and I hate to think of how it might look after another day rubbing against it.” “Okay.” He was gone for a second as he grabbed bandages from his pack and I took the opportunity to let out the breath I’d held captive in my chest as he’d touched me. When he returned, I gave him a weak smile. “When you get home tonight, make sure you clean these,” he said as he applied the first bandage. “Trust me, when I get home I’m taking a four-hour shower.” “Four hours sounds a bit excessive,” he said as he placed the second bandage. “You don’t smell that bad.” I turned around when his hands left my back and narrowed my eyes. “Thanks,” I said, my voice flat. He smiled mischievously as he rubbed his hands together, then massaged his knuckles with the leftover ointment. “It’s a joke, Trista.” He tossed the ointment to me. “Apply this after your shower.” When I still said nothing, he added, “By the way, you smell good. Not sure what it is,” his throat moved as he swallowed hard, “but it’s good.” I nearly dropped the tube at that, feeling my cheeks flush. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just stared at him as he let that sink in before he turned around and headed back to the camp.

*** Jude was right, the ridges we came upon were breathtaking. Sharply, they rose from the earth and pierced the sky, gold and orange and yellow. In many places, it looked like someone had taken a giant fork and stabbed them before pulling away, leaving narrow slats of rock jutting out from the otherwise smooth wall. We walked along one ridge before taking a rest at a scenic overlook to eat lunch. This time, we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we assembled right on our laps, passing the sticky jar of jelly between us all. It felt good to sit under the hot sun, on a hot rock, with my pack set aside. As if he was feeling warmer toward me, Colin sat beside me and made small talk,

asking me about the hike and how I was feeling. Something about our exchange made me think Colin was surprised I’d made the journey without much complaint. You and me both, I thought. More than once, I found my eyes meeting Jude’s as Colin talked to me. Each time, I quickly looked away, the intensity of his stare too much for me to deal with. I tried to give my attention to Colin because I felt strangely guilty for having given so much attention to Jude. But when Colin hadn’t come to my aid, Jude had. And what was I supposed to do, ignore his help? But Jude seemed onto me trying to ignore him, and he did his best to pepper the conversation with questions directed at me. I answered all of them, but was flustered by the way he cut through Colin’s questions. Colin would ask, “Isn’t it beautiful?” And Jude would ask, “What’s been your favorite part of the hike so far?” And I shouldn’t have compared them, I knew that. And yet I did, every time. Colin asked me questions that required very little of me apart from a “yes” or “no” answer. And Jude asked for more. After finishing my sandwich, I walked a little ways away from the group to sit by myself over the edge. As I looked out over the world around me, I let every emotion I’d been feeling come to the surface. I was overwhelmed; by my surroundings, by Jude, by how much my body ached and protested from the pain I’d put it through. But I also indulged in relief for having made it this far, for hiking what Jude called a solid twenty-two miles in three days. Yes, my body had discovered muscles I didn’t know I had—they were all singing their pain like instruments in a goddamn orchestra—but my body had pushed through the pain, delivering us to the climax of the hike: these ridges that would follow us down to the end of the hike, back to the trailhead. I debated removing my shoes to give my feet some much-needed air but after looking back at the guys I noticed they were already cleaning up from lunch. Jude and Colin walked toward me, looking out at the same view. “It’s sure something,” Colin said. “There’s not a lot that can make a human feel as small as this can,” Jude added. Why did I dissect these things so much? I took in the rolling mountains in the distance and could make out the sunlight reflecting off of buildings on the other side of the furthest mountain. “We don’t have much more to go, right?” “A little more than a mile down this ridge and it’ll be all flat trail back to the trailhead.” Thank you, baby Jesus. “Wow, already?” Jude hiked his pack up, tightened the strap around his lower waist. “Yep. Come on,” he said, reaching a hand down to help me up from my sitting spot. Three things happened in less than two seconds: 1. I grabbed Jude’s hand.

2. I pressed my hiking boot against a rock jutting out from the ledge to give me leverage. 3. The rock crumbled beneath my boot, sending me sliding over the ledge. I couldn’t help the scream that tore from my throat as my body slid at least a foot down the rock. I heard a grunt behind me and then the sound of someone falling to the ledge, and Jude’s hand squeezed mine painfully, keeping me from sliding all the way down the cliff. Immediately, Jude stretched his other arm out to me. “Grab it now, both hands,” he said urgently. His face was prickled with sweat, and I saw a certain fear around his eyes. I did as he instructed and his other arm went limp against the rock. “Help!” he yelled. I let out a whimper of fear, tried fruitlessly to push up on the rock around my feet, but all that did was twist me in his grasp. “Hold on,” he said firmly as my body spun from the force of my spin, sending my face into the rock that had been behind me. An unintelligible sound came from my mouth then, from the pain of my face crushing rock and my arm being stretched to the point of pain. My legs couldn’t gain purchase on any of the other rock ledges, so I thrashed wildly, fear reminding me how easily I could slip from his grasp and fall to my death. Desperately, I reached my other arm up and gripped his forearm. But sweat had prickled my palms and I slipped, my hand sliding off of his arm. As if he’d been frozen, Colin quickly moved into action, dropping to his belly beside Jude as he hung over the ledge. He reached an arm down and clamped a hand on my forearm. “Colin,” Jude said, exchanging glances with him. “Pull.” Together, they pulled me up the wall and I dug my toes into the rock to give me leverage. Teddy was at their sides in a second, reaching down and grabbing my other forearm. The moment was over in a few seconds; they pulled me back up to the ledge and far away as if they worried I’d slip over. Jude flopped onto his back and heaved several breaths. “Teddy, I need your help.” Adrenaline was coursing through my veins like boiling water, but I was frozen to the spot as I watched Teddy walk to Jude and say, “sh*t, Sommers.” “What?” I asked, pushing myself up onto my elbows. “His shoulder is dislocated,” Colin said, standing over Jude and looking down sideways at his arm. “f*ck.” “Oh, no,” I said, though the words paled in comparison to the guilt and fear that climbed over me. I’d caused that. I pushed myself to standing and wanted to vomit when I saw how contorted Jude’s arm was. “Oh my god,” I said, looking away. “Teddy, lift my arm. Don’t shove it in, I wanna see if it’ll go back in by itself.” I had to walk a few steps away when Teddy picked up his left arm, knowing if I watched I’d pass out or puke. Or both. A few seconds later, I heard Jude say, “Good

as new.” I turned around, saw him staring at his fist as he clenched it. “Are you okay?” I asked, though it felt completely inadequate for the situation. Jude looked up at me, his face dripping with sweat. His eyes looked pinched, but he said, “I’ll be fine. Are you okay?” “I’m fine.” “You’re bleeding,” he said, taking a step forward. He pointed a finger to his eyebrow and I lifted a hand to my face. I felt the sting and pulled my hand away, coming away with more blood than I’d expected. “That’s a lot of blood,” I said, feeling woozy from the adrenaline leaving my body. My legs suddenly seemed to be made of Jell-O. “It’s a head injury,” Colin said, “they bleed a lot.” “You must have hit your face pretty hard. Sorry.” Jude actually looked sorry and I shook my head in disbelief. “You’re sorry? Really?” I squeezed my jaw hard, feeling the tears coming to the surface. “I just f*cking slipped over the edge and you dislocated your shoulder pulling me up and you’re sorry?” I was going to go into hysterics, I knew it. The gravity of what had just happened hit me like a stack of bricks to the chest and I bent over, breathing in deeply to gain my bearings. When I straightened, I pushed the hair away from my face. Forget my few minor missteps so far on this hike. At the top of my list of hiking failures were two things: slipping over an edge and dislocating the shoulder of my savior. Way to go, Trista. Jude didn’t seem oblivious to the turmoil in my head, but just nodded as he kept clenching his fists. Colin interrupted our silent exchange. “We should hasten our pace out of here, so Jude can get to a doctor.” “I don’t need a doctor,” Jude argued. “You do. You probably need a sling too,” Teddy chimed in. “And how many times have you done this now? Four? Time to think seriously about surgery, bro.” “You’ll need surgery?” I asked, as everyone around us grabbed their packs and readied themselves for the hike out of the ridge. Jude said nothing, just looked at me with eyes filled with things he wanted to say, but didn’t. “Oh, he’ll need surgery,” Colin said encouragingly, as if he thought it would console me. Jude broke our gaze first, grabbing his pack and slinging it over his good arm and getting help from Teddy securing it around his waist. Way to f*cking go, Trista.

Chapter Twelve

When we’d made it back to Colin and Jude’s apartment, it was dark. The entire ride, I’d heard Jude shift in the back seat, and I had turned and watched as he rolled his shoulder only for his jaw to clench immediately after. He needed to see a doctor, I knew that. So when we climbed out of the Jeep, I walked over to my car and motioned for Jude to get in. “What?” “Get in. I’m taking you to the hospital.” He laughed and took a step toward me. “I’m going to take a long shower and then I’m going to bed.” The way he said it, so close to me, made me swallow nervously. “After you go to the hospital.” He shook his head and opened his lips to say something, but I interrupted him. “No, you’re going. If nothing other than to ease my guilt.” I gestured for him to get in the passenger seat when Colin came around the Jeep. “I can take him, Trista, if you want to go inside.” “No, I caused this, I’ll take him.” Jude watched me for a moment as he seemed to make a decision. Finally, he turned around and set his pack back inside the Jeep and walked over to me again. “Wouldn’t want guilt to eat you up.” After he was inside the car and I had shut the door, Colin approached me. “Do you even know where the hospital is?” The street lamp cast a reflection off of his glossy black curls and I wondered how he’d stayed so clean looking when I was sure you could scrape a film of dirt off of my face with a fingernail. “I’m sure Jude knows.” I wasn’t sure. “I’ll call you if I get lost.” As soon as I said it, I wanted to reel it back into my mouth and keep it firmly inside my brain, because I didn’t know where Colin and I stood after this hike. I knew where I stood, which was on Indecisive Island. “Yeah, okay,” he said, already walking backward to the Jeep. “Let me know if you need me to pick him up.” “Sure.” I climbed into my rundown hatchback and shut the door before immediately rolling the window down. I did not need to be trapped with his woodsy

scent burying itself in my nostrils. “This car is a coffin,” Jude said after giving me directions toward the hospital. I raised an eyebrow as I glanced at him, knees hunched up and seeming entirely too large for the sh*tty bucket seat. “It’s not made for tall people.” “It’s not made for people,” he corrected. “If you got into a head-on crash,” he clapped once for effect, “boom—sardines. They’d have to bury you in this car, hence: coffin.” “That’s a little morbid, and a lot dramatic.” I took the exit Jude pointed to. “We could have taken your car.” “Don’t have one. I bike everywhere.” “Of course you do.” It fit him, and I chanced a glance at him, left arm braced on the center console. My eyes traveled the length of his arm, from the tattoos that began at his wrist and moved up his arm. “What’s that around your arm?” I asked, my eyes gliding back from biceps and triceps and whatever other ‘ceps he had down to rest at his wrist. I turned back to the road but saw him attempt to rotate his arm in my periphery though he winced. “It’s a forest wrapped around my wrist.” “You like trees.” How very profound, Trista. “My home.” He stared out the window, the lights from buildings and occasional streetlights casting a glow over his face. His lips opened as if he had words for me, but he closed them and turned to me, offering a weak smile. “Are you in pain?” He shook his head. “No.” I pulled into the parking lot of the emergency room and he was out of the car before I could help him. “It’s a waste of time.” I gave him a look of impatience as we walked through the automatic doors, but said nothing. I flipped through the magazine selection as he checked in, and then we waited in silence for twenty minutes before a nurse called his name. He stood up and I paused, not sure of what to do myself. “Are you coming with me?” he asked, hand extended and eyes half-closed. I debated it for a moment before putting my magazine down and standing. I didn’t grab his hand, because the last time I had, I’d fallen off a cliff—causing the injury that brought us here. Also, I avoided his hand because touching him made me prickly, hyper-aware of the fact that he was a man and I was a woman and he was attractive and I had a boyfriend who I was supposed to be thinking about. We followed the nurse to a curtained room and she took his vitals and made little clucking sounds in the back of her throat. As she undid the Velcro of the blood pressure cuff and folded it up, the noise made me shift in my seat, remembering when I’d last been in a hospital for an emergency. The nurse asked him about the reason for his visit, asked him to rate his pain on

a scale of one to ten. When the nurse asked him about his medical history, I reached into my purse and grabbed a few dollar bills, waving them at Jude, hoping he’d read my mind and know I was going to the vending machine. Once I was in the hallway, I inhaled quickly. Three times, in and out, clutching to the sides of the chips and candy vending machine. I smelled plastic and disinfectant and I was immediately transported to the Colorado hospital Ellie had been airlifted to.

A doctor with heavy bags under her eyes tucked her hands into her coat pockets as she approached Ellie’s parents, who were clinging to one another like they were all they had in the world. With a sickening lurch of my stomach, I realized that was true. “Hyponatremia,” they said to Ellie’s mother, in a muted gray hallway under dim lights. “It’s likely that she felt ill from the drug she took and tried to make herself feel better by drinking water, which caused an imbalance in her sodium levels.” I listened as they explained why their daughter was now in a vegetative state, her brain swollen and unresponsive. I zoned out as they explained options. I was huddled across the hall and down a few doors, just steps from the waiting room where I’d been sequestered while they’d worked on her. “Come on,” Colin said, placing his hands on my shoulders. “They need time.” I let him lead me away, to sit in a wooden chair that made me feel cold. And then I said what I hadn’t realized until that moment. “Where were you?” I’d intended to speak it loud, but my voice was ragged from screams and it came out in a tortured whisper. “What?” he asked. He’d removed his hands once I’d sat, and now I was even more alone in my grief. “When I was in the bathroom with her. When I wandered around the house.” I stared at my hands, wringing them together, watching the whites and reds color my skin from the pressure I was applying. I raised my head, met his eyes. “Where were you?” His eyes darted right and he said nothing. My jaw hurt from the grinding of my teeth and I remembered how he’d been high. He sighed, ran a hand over his jaw. His eyes were clear, his face tanned, healthy. And I resented him so much in that moment, for choosing to get high over choosing to help me and Ellie. For being alive while she was nearly dead. Thirty minutes. That’s all it had taken from the moment I’d started looking for him to help us. Thirty minutes spent in and outside the house while Ellie lay on the kitchen floor, unconscious. It was hours ago, but it felt like decades ago. My memory repeated over and over, a blurry, discombobulated loop. I’d been so focused on Ellie that I hadn’t realized until now that Colin wasn’t even there until the end. If you asked me the color of the bathroom or the kitchen, I couldn’t tell you—such was my focus on Ellie at the time.

“She was sick,” he said, as if that excused his absence. “I gave you space.” I dropped my head. “I needed you,” I whispered. “I’m sorry.” It took an hour for me to realize he had left the hospital.

I came from the memory with acid on my tongue. My fingers curled into a fist and I banged it lightly, in slow-motion, on the vending machine. I didn’t indulge in memories of the night she died for good reason. Everything was so blurred now, years later, that the only thing I remembered was Colin’s f*cking absence. And there I was, three years after Colin had abandoned me, abandoned us, in Colorado. For him. I sighed, my chest deflating. And then, with fingers that shook, I tried to jam a dollar bill into the machine. “Take my f*cking money,” I growled under my breath. When it finally did, I pounded in the code for the bag of Cheetos and then moved onto the water bottle machine. When I returned to Jude’s room and handed him the water bottle, I noticed a dozen wires snaking out of the hospital gown he now wore as he lay in the bed. “You okay?” I asked, uncapping his bottle. He took a deep pull from the bottle and made one of those little “ahh” sounds after swallowing. “Yeah, this is routine.” He gestured to the wires and let his head fall back to the pillow. “Thanks for the water.” “Well, thanks for saving my life.” I nervously twisted the lid of my own bottle. “Kinda forgot to say that until now, which makes me an asshole.” He pursed his lips and his eyes traced my face. I wondered if he saw my mini mental breakdown written across my forehead. “Yeah, you kind of are. Pretty inconsiderate of you to fall off that cliff.” The laugh bubbled from my throat and my eyes stung. “You shouldn’t be making me laugh,” I managed between laughing. “I should be making you laugh.” He gestured to the wires sticking out of him. “Then this sh*t would go haywire and I’d be here even longer. And considering you were rude enough to force me here in the first place … that would make you a giant asshole.” I couldn’t help it, I made eye contact with him again after doing my best to avoid it entirely. His eyes were half open, rimmed by those thick dark lashes. And the wrinkles at the corners told me he was trying not to laugh himself. His face was kind, and he was kind and he stared back at me with a question on his face. I broke eye contact to stare at the wall. I couldn’t keep admiring him like this. It wasn’t until I had been at the vending machines that I realized why it was so easy for me to forget about having a boyfriend. Because I’d forgotten about him as I’d been on the kitchen floor with Ellie. Because for three years after that moment, I’d been perfectly happy being alone in Wyoming. Colin had been my boyfriend, sure,

but its significance had boiled down to our Facebook relationship statuses, because we hadn’t been together, together. But I was a terrible person, I knew. Because I couldn’t help it; my eyes traveled over Jude’s body again, down the arm with the tattoos and further. From the waist down, he was covered in a waffle-knit white hospital blanket. “This isn’t my color, is it?” I snapped my gaze up to his, a wry smile on his lips as he tugged on the hospital gown covering his chest. “Not really.” His smile spread a fraction wider, his full lips smooth. “You’re repulsed by me.” I couldn’t help but return his smile. “Definitely,” I said, not, I added to myself. I should be. Needing to distract myself, I stood and walked to the machine that was printing out squiggly lines across metered paper. Short lines jutted up and down before a larger one spiked upwards and abruptly came down again. I picked up some of the paper that had printed and held it, looking over the spikes and dips. “That’s my heart,” Jude said. My fingers grazed the taller spikes and I turned to him. I looked back down at the paper. “It’s amazing,” I said. Because it was. It was a heartbeat, translated onto paper. “I don’t know what to say,” I swallowed. “But seeing it is surreal. The pattern; it’s beautiful.” He was looking at me, but I didn’t turn—because it felt too intimate. I’d called his heartbeat beautiful. When the nurse came back into the room with the physician, they brought him up to a sitting position. As they pulled the hospital gown down his front, my eyes followed the many inches of skin that were revealed, taking in all kinds of ink splattered across well-defined muscles. Jude lifted his head, caught me watching, and it was several seconds later before I excused myself into the hall, to give them privacy.

Chapter Thirteen

Jude was discharged with a sling, a script for pain meds and a muscle relaxer, with a follow up for an orthopedic surgeon a few days later. After dropping off the prescriptions at the twenty-four-hour pharmacy, I turned to him. “It’s midnight and we have thirty minutes to wait.” “Tacos it is.” I co*cked my head to the side. “Tacos?” I glanced at the clock. “Yeah.” He raised an eyebrow. “Taco Bell. Let’s go.” “Okay…” I started the car. “You’re going to have to give me directions again.” And he did, and twenty minutes later we had parked the car under the lights of the pharmacy, the car smelling like tacos and Jude. I handed him his tacos and grabbed mine, but before I could eat, I watched in horror as he pulled his arm from the sling. “What are you doing?” He paused his movement, like he’d been caught misbehaving. “I can’t eat it one handed. It’ll make a mess.” I reached over and pulled the sling down. “Then eat the mess with a spoon afterwards.” I patted the sling gently. “You just got this thing. Don’t bust out so soon.” He harrumphed but listened, bringing his taco up to his mouth for one loud crunch. “So,” he said after we’d both polished off a taco, “what’s going on with you and Colin?” My fingers played with the corner of the taco wrapper. “We’re figuring things out.” “What’s there to figure out? You’re dating right?” “Well, yeah. But it’s complicated.” “Everyone says that.” I gave him a look. “But I mean it. We have … a lot of history between us. A lot of things that never got fixed and the sh*t just piled on.” “It’s worth it,” he said softly, “to fight for it.” “Is it?” The question left my mouth before I could stop the thought. “If you have to ask, you should already know the answer.”

I shook my head, picked up the soda and took a long sip. “But I don’t. I don’t know why I’m here. Why I went hiking. Why I’m half-assing this attempt to fix a six-year relationship that died a long time ago.” And then I bit my lip, regret filling me from the neck up. “I shouldn’t have said that,” I told him. “Why not?” “Because I don’t know you.” I met his eyes and let him hear the frustration in my voice. “Because it’s not really any of your business. And because I should tell Colin this.” Jude was silent for a while as he opened his next taco. “Do you think Colin already knows?” “In some way, yes. Wait,” I paused, glaring at him, “why am I telling you this?” “Because I asked you.” He took a bite, chewed it as he stared out the windshield. “Does Colin ask you how you feel?” “He doesn’t ask me anything.” And then, I gave him another glare. “Stop asking me questions about my relationship, Oprah,” I said, enunciating each syllable in ‘relationship.’ “Stop answering them, then.” He raised an eyebrow and looked at me sideways. “I figure no one asks you these things, which is why you’re answering me.” He shrugged, balled up the wrapper. “But you’re right—you do need to tell Colin how you feel.” “Why do you care?” He sipped his soda. “I saw you two while we were hiking. Or, rather, I saw him and I saw you, but never together.” He leaned his head against the headrest. “I didn’t see five or six years between you—only distance.” “Aren’t you supposed to be looking out for him? He’s your roommate and your parents are friends.” “Who says I’m not?” he challenged gently. “Colin doesn’t talk to me about you. He’s not an emotional guy. Sports, camping, books—sure.” “Well, he doesn’t talk to me about anything, so you’ve just one-upped me.” I leaned my head against the headrest, mirroring him, and sighed loudly. I turned so that my cheek rested against the scratchy upholstery as I faced his profile. “Do you have a girlfriend or something? Is that why you’re so in touch with your feelings?” I tried not to say that second sentence super snidely, but I couldn’t help it. “I don’t have a girlfriend. But I do have eyes.” He turned his head so that he looked at me and I regretted a million things, but most of all the fact that we were alone. “You should see if your prescription is ready,” I said softly, before turning my head to stare out the windshield. After we returned to the apartment and all was quiet, I hid in the bathroom until Jude went to bed and then carried my laptop to the couch, opening it up and writing the first poem for Jude.

You should not plan to like me. So please do not make me like you too. I don’t have answers for the questions you’re asking. My tongue is twisted my eyes are open, and I’m very much afraid of you.

*** I woke the next morning, in Colin’s bed, alone. As I lay under the covers, I thought about Colin, my boyfriend, and my confusion. When we’d returned from the pharmacy, Colin was already asleep. I debated reclining on the living room couch, but ultimately I decided to crawl in beside him, listening to his deep, even breaths for a long time until I fell asleep. I knew, in my heart, that I should break things off with him. I knew that it wasn’t fair to either of us to pretend we were the people we were when we first started dating. The problem with Colin and me was that we didn’t match. His dark, curly hair and a smile that delivered dimples in his tanned skin. My pale skin, thick stomach, and bleached blonde hair and lips unsmiling. His charisma and my awkward bones. He was happy, always happy. And I was not. I was a girl with a mom who taught me more about loss than love. A mom who forgot to brush my hair for school growing up, her neglect morphing into forgetting to pick me up from school more often than not. My tennis shoes were worn from my mile-long walks home, their neglect a direct reflection of my mother. When Colin and I had started dating, I was enamored. I had butterflies. I wrote him notes and I whispered into the phone about him with Ellie. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was, that Colin had chosen me. The first time Colin and I had sex, he’d been so gentle—so kind. He’d kissed my neck, and my chest, and had made sure I was ready before he took my virginity. It was hard to reconcile that Colin with the Colin now, a Colin who pretended I didn’t exist most of the time. After Ellie died, I felt like I’d lost both of them. I was grieving for Ellie and grieving for Colin and too afraid to tell him, so I kept it to myself. I let it fester, like a wound that I picked at, until it seeped into my blood stream and turned me bitter. I fought harder to get over that ledge on the mountain than I did to keep Colin as

my boyfriend. I pulled some clothes on and brushed my teeth and hair before venturing out of the bedroom. Colin was in the kitchen, face glued to his phone as he ate a bowl of cereal. “Hey,” I said, walking into the kitchen and pouring a cup of coffee. “Hey,” he returned, with a quick glance up from his phone. After doctoring my coffee, I looked at him over the rim of the mug. His black locks were hanging over his forehead, a sure sign that he needed a haircut. His eyebrows were drawn together and he was concentrating on his phone as his thumb moved across the screen. “How’s Jude?” he asked, without looking up. I leaned against the counter at my back. “He has to see a surgeon tomorrow.” Colin nodded. “Good. I should go with him.” We lapsed into silence. Colin was preoccupied with his phone and I was preoccupied with my thoughts and you would have thought there was a third person in our relationship, an awkward, uncomfortably silent person who stood between us. I couldn’t reach him when he was living in his phone. The life he portrayed on social media was just a whisper of who he was. I wanted to ask him if he truly wanted to be with me, but if his answer was yes I had a supplemental question: why? I looked down at myself, at the stubborn roll that made my stomach more round than flat, the nearly-flat chest and arms too long for my height. The bleached ends of my hair came into my view and I set my cup down, pulling the locks into an awkward bun on top of my head. “What’s the plan for today?” I asked. When he looked up at me, eyes searching, I nodded. I wasn’t going to bring up a breakup today. Not because I believed we could figure us out, but because I wanted to try. I wanted to love him the way I had after he’d stopped me in a hallway in high school, the deep, clawing feeling of a first love. I wanted a love that had permanence; love had grown once between us and maybe it was still there, dormant, waiting for us to nourish it with time. He cleared his throat, and I knew he hadn’t expected me to ask that. I watched as he placed his phone on the counter. “Want to go to the zoo?” “Okay.” Relief blew into me. He smiled, his dimples cutting into flesh. “Leave in an hour?” I nodded, drained my coffee. “I’ll just go take a shower.” As I walked down the hallway, the door to Jude’s room opened and he bumped into me. “Good morning.” I backed up against the wall. “Good morning,” I replied. “How’s your shoulder?” He was wearing a shirt—thank God—but not his sling. “Where’s your sling?” He shrugged his one good shoulder. “I’m fine.” I raised an eyebrow, skeptical. I wasn’t a doctor, but from what Jude had said, I

knew it wasn’t his first dislocation, and the ER doctor had explained that his ligaments needed tightening. “You should probably wear it until you talk to your doctor tomorrow.” “I’m fine,” he repeated, brushing past me into the living room. I stood there a moment, wondering at his brusqueness. But then I retreated to the bathroom, telling myself that Jude wasn’t my concern.

Chapter Fourteen

“Thanks for taking Jude to the ER, by the way.” I nodded, taking the sandwich Colin offered me. “I did cause the injury; it was the least I could do.” Colin peeled away the cling wrap as we sat on a bench across from the zebras and balled the wrap in his hand. “Yeah, but I should’ve taken him. I brought you along on the trip.” I heard what he didn’t say, which was that he took partial blame when I slipped over and he didn’t immediately reach for me. I should be upset by that fact, but the truth was that I hadn’t expected him to reach down and save me. He’d let me down with Ellie and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t harbor any upset over that. “The zoo is nice,” I said, making small talk. “Yeah, I come every couple weeks, usually.” He took a large bite of sandwich and then unscrewed the cap on his water bottle. “By yourself?” He paused mid-chew, swallowed some water. “Sometimes. Or with friends. Mila volunteers here sometimes.” “She seems nice,” I said, because it was true and the only thing I could think to say about her. “Really busy.” “Yeah, she’s a little worker bee.” He said it with admiration and a small smile on his lips, as if he had a memory in his head. “I actually met her before I met Jude.” “Oh?” He took another bite, nodded. After swallowing he said, “Yeah. Our parents put together a brunch,” Colin rolled his eyes because his parents had money and doing things like brunch was apparently embarrassing, “and she showed up and started speaking with an Irish accent. I thought she was the help.” As Colin laughed, I chewed my sandwich in silence. I grew up mostly poor and despite the cigar box burning with cash, I still considered myself poor. Which reminded me. “I need to get a job soon.” “You don’t need to.” I shook my head. “Not all of us can afford to live as easily as you. I have bills to pay. And if I’m going to stay with you for any length of time, I need to start

contributing to household expenses.” “Does that mean you’re going to stay?” His green eyes lit up and I wished I could reel back the last ten seconds and never say that again. “I don’t know.” He deflated beside me. “I mean, I’m already here. I might as well see how things go.” “Give me six months, Trista. I can make us happy, fix our mistakes, mend our wrongs.” I handed him my cling wrap ball and watched as he walked to the metal trash can under the tree, squatting to eye level with a male peaco*ck a few feet away. Colin’s eyes were smiling, his hand stretched forward, as if he expected the peaco*ck to let him touch it. That was Colin summed up in a picture. Reaching for the next thing, a smile on his face and his girlfriend behind him. He was always forgetting me. It wasn’t new, but it was quite surprising to see him stand up and instead of turning back to me, walking toward the peaco*ck. And then somewhere along the way, he detoured for the crowd around another peaco*ck, pulling out his phone and taking photos, while I ate my stale sandwich on the cold metal bench, a light breeze fluttering the hair around my face. He engaged in conversation with the group, laughing and chatting loud enough for me to hear but still quiet enough that I couldn’t make out the sounds. The one question I asked myself over and over was why Colin wanted me still. Was it because I was familiar now, someone who understood his tendency to forget the ones around him as he focused on something else? Was it born of guilt, from not saving Ellie, not helping me through my darkest hour? Maybe having me move here and having him promise to work on us was his way of atoning for his guilt. Or maybe he really loved me, but it was hard to believe that when he didn’t even know who I was. I stood up and capped my water bottle, tucking it into my cross-body bag as I turned around to revisit the zebras. When Colin joined me twenty minutes later, he didn’t apologize for being absent because that would acknowledge that he knew, deep down, that he’d forgotten about me. But he didn’t apologize because he didn’t see anything wrong with wandering away from me. “What else do you want to do today?” I turned, shielding my face from the sun. “I’m not sure,” I said honestly. “Come,” he said. “Let me show you the elephants.”

*** “Did you know,” Colin said, leaning over a railing as we looked out over the elephants that played near a water’s edge, “that elephants are the only mammals

that can’t jump?” I shook my head, shaking the hair from my face as the wind picked up. I watched one elephant swing its trunk back and forth. “One of the smartest animals on the planet,” he added. I just nodded, watched as one elephant approached the other and both flapped their ears. “They’re beautiful.” But I couldn’t help but be sad to see them inside a cage, even if it was beautiful, and clean. “It feels a little wrong to see them here.” “Well, think about it. Humans keep invading their lands, building things and ripping up the ground. At least here they’re safe from development and poaching.” I could see his point, even if it still made me feel conflicted. Colin leaned against me, so our upper arms brushed one another. “When one of their loved ones die, they honor their life and will gently touch their skull and tusks with their trunks and feet. They’re very sensitive animals and they have incredibly good memories. Probably better than we do as humans.” I was in my own world as we viewed the exhibit, thinking of Ellie and how much she’d loved elephants. When people would ask her what “Ellie” was short for, she often said, “Elephant.” “Ellie was going to get an elephant tattoo,” I said, “for her twentieth birthday.” “Oh?” Colin asked. “Did she like them?” I closed my eyes. She loved them, I thought. Though Colin and I had dated through the last two years of high school, I’d been a package deal with Ellie. Ellie hung around us a lot; going to prom, homecoming, the movies, and all of the football games with us. Sure, Colin and I had time to ourselves, but Ellie was the person who made me feel comfortable with myself, something I had never felt with Colin. I opened my eyes and turned to look at him, really look at him. “Yes, Colin. Ellie loved them.” Saying it was like a cleaver down my chest. “I thought you did.” Again, I thought of the f*cking cheesecake. “I love them too.” I said, though I couldn’t say for certain what I loved, when I was questioning what the love I had for Colin even meant. “Are there any animals here that you want to see?” I stared at the elephant as it lifted dirt with its trunk, tossing the dirt all over its body. “No, I’m ready to leave.” I turned around, saw him holding his hand out for me, his eyes open wide, encouragingly. With a tentative hand, I grasped his. Intimacy wasn’t something I was used to, with Colin. He squeezed and smiled at me and I smiled back and told myself if I turned off my brain, I could find the love we shared years ago, the love that made me weak in the knees and breathless when he smiled at me, instead of confused and anxious. On our first date our junior year, Colin took me to the movies—a typical date in high school—but he’d let me pick the movie. As I’d perused the boards above our heads, my gaze fell upon Pride and Prejudice, the one with Keira Knightley. I’d

looked at him and chewed on my lip, trying to decide which to watch.

“Go ahead,” he said with a nod to the monitors above his head. “Pick.” “But what if what I want to watch is a chick flick?” “I’ll suffer through it.” He smiled at me, the one that carved those irresistible dimples into his cheeks. “Okay.” I shifted on my feet, deciding, before I spit it out. To my surprise, he shrugged like it was no bother for him and paid for tickets, popcorn and soda before leading us to our seats. “I’ll totally go to an action flick with you after this,” I said encouragingly, before immediately realizing that I was assuming there’d be another date. “Okay.” He smiled, eliminating my fears. Near the end of the movie, my pulse quickened when Mr. Darcy strode through a field at dawn toward his Elizabeth. It was almost unbearably romantic and I tightened my grip on Colin’s fingers beside me thinking what I knew was a silly wish: to have my heart quicken like that, to have a man look at me like he looked at her. Once we left the movies and Colin was completely silent, I told myself that if real life was like the movies, no one would need the movies. I had a great first date with a guy who liked me and that was enough. After the movies we went for ice cream and walked around the park beside the shop, talking until it was way past curfew and I forgot my silly wish.

“Where’s your head at?” Colin asked me, as we took our seats at the bar he’d chosen for our early dinner. I told him half of the truth. “I was thinking about our first date.” He narrowed his eyes as he peered at me above his menu. I could tell he was trying to remember it himself. “The movies?” “Yeah, and ice cream.” “Right.” He returned his attention to the menu and I looked at it, uninterested, before looking out the window to our left. The music was humming something slow and bluesy and the air was cool, causing me to shiver slightly. When the waitress brought our drink orders, I couldn’t help but notice Colin was drinking water. “Don’t you like beer?” He twisted his glass on the cork coaster. “I don’t drink anymore.” “Oh.” Add that to the list of things about Colin I did not know. I wanted to ask why, but since Colin didn’t elaborate, I stayed silent. “Do you smoke still?” He raised an eyebrow. “No.” “Because of Ellie?” It came out before I could stop it, because I’d always associated Colin’s smoking with Ellie’s death. Even when he had showed up at the

hospital, he’d reeked of pot. He opened his mouth and then closed it. The silence between us was full of everything he didn’t want to tell me. Silence with Colin meant secrets. But he surprised me by answering, “No.” And he said it sharply enough that I knew he was done talking about Ellie. When the waitress returned with our food, Colin asked me, “What do you want to do this week?” I picked up my fork, pushed some wilted lettuce around my plate. “I don’t know. I know nothing about this area and you’re the only person I know.” “Maybe you should make plans with Mila.” He took a large sip of his water, wiped his mouth with his napkin. “It’d be good for you to make friends here besides me.” For some reason, it felt more like he was telling me this to get me to spend time apart from him—which, at this point, was not exactly difficult for me. We were separated by three feet of lacquered wood but it might as well have been another state for how connected I was to him. “Maybe I should,” I agreed. “I’ll text her for you.” I resisted rolling my eyes, because it felt like I was a child and he was arranging my own play dates. I ate my salad in silence as his fingers slid over the keyboard and a small smile formed his lips. After several minutes I asked, “So?” He held up a finger to me, “One sec, babe.” I scrunched my eyebrows together. Babe? When had he ever called me that? “Okay, well I’m here to have lunch with you, but it seems like you’re having a date with your phone instead.” He gave me a look, one black eyebrow raised up in question. But he didn’t acknowledge me, turning his attention back to his phone a minute later. I rarely ever spoke up so harshly, especially not with Colin. I didn’t exactly let him bulldoze me but I made little protest either. For so long, I’d wanted to please him and keep him happy, telling myself that doing so would mean he’d stay with me when he could have anyone else. But now as I sat across from him, watching him scroll through his phone and tap the glass screen, I wondered what he was giving me that caused me to give up so much of myself, in the beginning.

*** When we got back to the apartment, Colin took a nap. I noticed he did that often, retreating to his room and shutting the door—effectively closing me out. For someone who had wanted me here, he seemed to spend a lot of time keeping us

apart. I sat on the couch, flipping through channels, waiting for something to grab my attention. When nothing did, I made a pot of coffee and pulled up my laptop to write for Colin. Did I remember a different you? A you who made sense, who fit beside me, who fought for me, as much as I fought for you? I want what you gave me yesterday to live in my bones, so that tomorrow I never have to remind myself to love you. “Hey.” I slammed my laptop closed, startled by Jude’s voice. I cleared the guilt from my face and turned my head. “Hey.” “Whatcha doing?” I waited two heartbeats. “Investment banking.” He pursed his lips, nodding. “That’s what I thought.” He walked slowly toward the table, holding a coffee cup. “Mind if I join you?” I gestured to the open chair beside me. “It’s your apartment.” “Ah,” he said. “But you live here too. If you need space, you can tell me to get lost.” He hesitated by the chair, waiting for me to tell him yes. I only nodded. “Where’s your sling?” “You sound like my mom,” he said, pulling the chair back so that it scraped the tile floor beneath its legs. “Good.” I placed a protective hand on my laptop, not wanting him to ask about it. My words were private, sacred things. “Your mom must be smart.” He gave me a crooked smile. “Annoyingly smart, in fact.” He sipped his coffee and set it on the table. “Where’s Colin?” “Sleeping.” “Ah,” he said again. “You want to see something cool? Or has investment banking gotten more exciting than I remembered?” “I mean, it’s pretty much the time of my life, but I can take a short break away for something cool.” He smiled in response, and a little glow bloomed in my chest. Conversation with Jude was often easy, even though his presence alone made my skin tighten and my eyes betray my brain when I firmly told myself not to look into his eyes too long.

“Come on then,” he said, immediately standing. He left his cup on the table and walked to the sliding glass door off of the dining area, to a small porch. “There,” he said, pointing with his good arm to the sun moving down the sky, so close to sliding behind the mountains just beyond the parking lot. The sky was a mix of blues and pinks, like paint colors that had spilled and mingled. The sun itself was orange, like the wick of a candle right as its embers cooled. “It’s beautiful,” I admitted, closing the glass door behind me. “It is. But this isn’t even the best view.” “It isn’t?” “Come on,” he said again. He pushed one of the bar top chairs against the siding of the apartment building. “What are you doing?” “Going up on the roof,” he said nonchalantly, like it was obvious. I made the mistake of leaning over the railing just to confirm that we were three stories up. “No freaking way.” “Yes way.” With his one good arm he reached up onto the tiles and pulled himself upward. Once he was on the slight slant of the roof, he reached his arm down to me. “Come on up.” “I’m not grabbing your arm,” I said with a shake of my head, but climbed up on the bar height chair anyway. While holding its arms, I placed my feet on the seat and gripped the back of the chair as I pulled myself to standing. I wasn’t expecting the wobble, so my hands reached for the roof tiles immediately, and I was sure he could see the panic in my eyes. “I won’t let you fall, don’t worry.” He placed one warm hand on my forearm. “Pull yourself up here.” I closed my eyes a second, breathed in through my nose for courage. And then I hauled myself up onto the roof. “Good job. Now scoot up here.” I did, bringing us several feet up the roof to nearly its center. He was right; the view was even better from this height. “Look.” Jude drew my attention to the city behind us and we watched as the dark chased the sun’s descent, the darkness falling and drawing closer to us. “This is my second favorite time of the day,” he whispered. “Look at the sun.” I turned my head back as the sun fell behind the mountain. “You can feel the light run across your body,” he said, and I could. As it slipped further behind the mountain, the light left my head, then my chest, and then I watched as the darkness flowed down my bare legs and slipped off the roof as the sun fell completely quiet. “Second favorite time of day?” I asked as we stayed on the roof in a comfortable silence. “Dawn, of course.” I watched as he closed his eyes and smiled just enough that his lips curved. “Seeing a new day, a new path of light following the dark—that’s

what I live for.” Jude was deeper than I was, but when he spoke, I could clearly see what he meant. “You look forward to the future.” His eyes opened and he stared at me, those milky brown irises warm, soft. “Of course I do.” He didn’t push me to say the same, and I was grateful. The only time I’d wished for a tomorrow was when I’d held Ellie’s hand in mine on the kitchen floor—but I’d prayed for a tomorrow that wouldn’t exist. I looked away because his focus was unnerving. Even though the sun had set, there was still a little bit of light left and I wished none of that light was on my face when he was looking. “Mila said you went to the zoo with Colin today.” “Yeah, we did.” “And she said she’s taking you to the mall tomorrow.” Colin, once he’d put his phone down during dinner, had told me that too. “Yep.” “Excited?” “Immensely.” I said it about as monotone as I could manage. Mila seemed great, but the mall just wasn’t my scene, especially when I had to be careful with what money I did have. “Mila is a force to be reckoned with. She’ll wear you out.” “That wouldn’t be terrible. I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep since I got here.” Jude nodded, smiled gently. “The mountains don’t have anything on a memory foam mattress.” I shrugged. “But they’re nice in other ways. I liked it more than I thought I would.” “Colin must be happy to hear that.” “Maybe, but he hasn’t asked me.” Once again, I was annoyed for speaking so freely with Jude, as if he was privy to my relationship and its faults. “I shouldn’t talk to you about Colin.” “Okay.” And once again, he didn’t push me. “No offense,” I said, feeling like I needed to explain myself. “But I barely know you.” “I get it, Trista.” There he went saying my name again. I shivered and, thankfully, Jude mistook that for me being cold now that the sun was gone. “Want to go back inside?” “Not yet.” I picked at my shirt, pulling off lint. “Can I ask you a question?” When he nodded, I asked, “Why are you friends with Colin?” He blinked. “His parents are friends with mine and” —he stopped himself and scratched his arm— “we get along easily enough.” He paused, stared at the roof tiles between us. “We have a lot of history, and he’s a good friend when you need one.” “Like how?” “You really want an example?”

“Yes, I do. We’ve lived apart for four out of the nearly six years we’ve been together. I want to know the Colin you know, as his friend.” “You think there is more than one Colin?” Absolutely I did. He was a chameleon, changing himself depending on the company. But I raised an eyebrow, encouraging Jude to explain. “Colin likes taking risks.” He was resting his arms on his knees, looking relaxed and at home on the roof. “He introduces himself to everyone at a party. He refills their drinks, offers them food—he’s the ultimate host.” I stared out at the mess of trees just beyond the parking lot, watched them sway in the breeze as if they were moving to a waltz. “He gives a lot, more than he should.” Jude leaned back on his one good forearm. “And he cares about people, if maybe not always enough.” Instantly, his eyes shuttered and he looked beyond us too. “I think we know the same Colin.” He was a perfect host, I knew. He was kind, never making anyone feel like they were left out—unless you were his girlfriend. I pulled my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around my legs. “You know, when I first saw him in high school, I wondered what he saw in me.” I remembered how he’d seen me in the hall. I’d been so starved for attention that once he gave me some, I couldn’t get enough. Maybe I’d leeched onto him too firmly. “What do you think he sees in you?” “Maybe he likes blondes.” “Maybe. But what is it about you that he likes over all the other blondes in the world?” I looked at him out the corner of my eye. “When you figure it out, let me know.” “You’re beautiful.” I shook my head when he said that, not ready for him to say that. “You are. You look like Old Hollywood—like Grace Kelly. But your eyes are sad.” “What?” I turned my head in his direction and the breeze pulled hair across my face. “I’m just tired,” I said as I removed the strands. “No, I mean. They’re always that way.” “You’re not making this better.” Tension stiffened my shoulders and I pulled my legs to my chest tighter. “I don’t have sad eyes.” “I’ve looked at you, Trista. And let me tell you, your eyes tell a story.” I was so unused to having anyone analyze me like this that I snapped, “What’s that story?” “You tell me.” Jude didn’t move from his spot at all; no, I was the uncomfortable one here. “But I think that’s what Colin sees in you.” His chest moved down under his shirt in time with an exhale. “Why would Colin like me because I look sad?” “Maybe he wants to be the person to make you happy. I think,” he paused, “that everyone has a mission, and his is to make people happy.” His eyes were soft, his mouth unsmiling, his jaw clenched. His stare was so heavy that a part of me wanted to be crushed under his gaze. I looked away, but didn’t move away and leaned back

against the tiles. What felt like twenty minutes later, Jude asked, “Do you know much about constellations?” “Hmm?” I turned my head, having relaxed in the quiet beside him. “Constellations.” He tipped his head up above us and I followed his gaze. “I know about the Big Dipper.” The moon had risen and provided us enough light to see one another as he shook his head. “The Big Dipper isn’t a constellation.” “Yes it is.” My eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “It’s actually part of a constellation, the Great Bear.” He pointed above us and I found myself leaning in to stay in the line of sight of his hand. “There’s the handle,” he said as he moved his fingers along three stars in a curve, “and there’s the cup part.” “Huh. I had no idea.” “And between the two dippers,” he moved his hand up, tracing an almost backward five in the sky, “is Draco.” His fingers stopped and he gestured a circle, “there’s its head.” “Draco.” My eyes traced its curve over and over, enough that I couldn’t not notice it. “The only Draco I know is from Harry Potter.” “And that’s his namesake.” I watched as his full lips stretched over his teeth, indicating he was pleased with me. “There’s another constellation, Scorpio. Draco had a son he named Scorpio.” “You know a lot about Harry Potter.” “I know a lot about constellations and Harry Potter.” “What’s the story behind Draco?” I asked, gesturing toward the sky. “Well, the name itself means dragon or snake, which isn’t surprising given what you know of Draco from the world J.K. Rowling created. And, at least according to Greek and Roman mythology, Draco was a dragon killed by the goddess of wisdom…” he smiled like he was about to let me in on a secret, “Minerva.” “Another Harry Potter name.” “J.K. Rowling christened many of her characters with very appropriate names.” I thought of what my mother had named me. “What does your name mean?” “Depends on what you believe.” “What does that mean?” He smiled. “Names don’t have just one meaning,” he said. “Depending on what you want to believe, I’m either named for the patron saint of lost causes or,” he tilted his head, met me head on, “Judas Iscariot, the traitor.” I searched his face as I thought about what he said. I licked my lips. “I don’t know you well enough to know which of those you are.” I swallowed, my hands breaking out in a sweat at his close proximity. “I’m definitely not a saint.” His eyelids lowered and I had the distinct feeling he was looking at my mouth. My breath was held captive in my chest as I waited for his eyes to meet mine. “Let’s play twenty questions.”

My gut twisted and a whisper in my head said it was a bad idea. But I wanted to know who he was probably as much as he wanted to know who I was, even if it didn’t make sense. “You first,” I invited, pulling away slightly from him now that we were no longer staring at the night sky. “What did you want to be when you grew up?” Happy. It was the first thing I thought. It wasn’t that I was necessarily unhappy, but I always wanted one perfect, blindingly happy moment. “I used to want to be a mom.” “Why?” “To see if I’d be better at it than my mom.” I blinked, avoiding looking at him. “Your turn.” I was sure the sigh of relief that left my body was visible, but I shifted my legs to hide the movement. “I used to want to be a wrestler. Like the ones you see on television—the fake wrestling.” “Why?” “Because they were strong.” For some reason, I wanted to press, to ask why. But because he hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t push him. “Who is your favorite person in the world?” As if the question caused him to manifest beside me, I had the distinct whiff of sweet tobacco as I thought of him. “My grandfather. He and my grandmother used to send me home from their house, my pockets laden with foil-wrapped chocolates, telling me to eat one when I missed them.” I laughed a little from the memory. “That’s probably how I began putting on the pounds, because I missed them all the time.” I heard Jude open his mouth, but he said nothing to that, letting me have my memory without challenging me. “Your turn.” “Mila.” He said it without hesitation. “Not just because we came into the world together, but because she knows me better than anyone.” He pulled a pocket knife from his pocket and flicked it open. I watched as he grabbed a loose thread on the hem of his tee and ran the knife over it, removing the thread and abruptly snapping the knife closed. “When someone knows you that well, you have to keep them close. To remind you, when you feel things spinning out of control, of who you are.” Wondering what could possibly make him lose control, I asked, “And who are you?” He smiled, ran his fingers over his four-days-past-five o’clock shadow and then he grabbed a mini flashlight out of his pocket. He rotated his left arm and winced from the pain he obviously felt. He rested his arm on his leg and clicked the light, letting me see the script along his arm there. “Always do what you are afraid to do,” he said as my eyes traced each curve of the

letters as he moved the flashlight across the words. He turned off the light and I blinked, adjusting to the dark. “I’m a person who does the wrong thing, who says the wrong thing, because ultimately, no matter how afraid I am, I believe in being honest.” I lifted my face and a tingle flowed like cool water down my neck when our eyes locked and held. He looked only at me for several seconds and, for a moment, I forgot where I was. Who I was. I thought of Colin, the person I should have been thinking about when I was staring into Jude’s eyes. I thought of how conflicted I felt for Colin. “What if the truth is dirty?” I followed it with a nervous swallow, watched as his gaze shifted for a second to my throat before meeting my eyes again. “Then I appreciate it even more. Let me be stained with truth. I’ll take a dirty truth over a pretty lie any day.” His voice was low and whispered along an invisible string right to my chest. My lungs ached as I held my breath from being so close to him, from hearing how much he preferred the truth while he was sitting next to a liar. I wanted to be stained with truth, but all I was stained with was Ellie. “Tell me a lie,” he challenged me in that same low whisper. I should move away, I thought. I should pull back. My heart was roaring and my brain was echoing ‘Colin,’ but I took the bait. “I love Brussels sprouts.” It took just a second for his lips to transform from their natural pout to a full blown smile and then a second later he was laughing so hard that I joined in too. It was the relief I needed from the heavy, and I laughed so hard that my cheeks hurt. The movement of our laughter caused me to start sliding and I pushed my hands on the roof to keep me in place. But I wasn’t scared, and only laughed harder. Jude laughed and said, “Don’t slide off the roof, Trista. I saved you once, but I’m out of commission now.” “Is this a good time to tell you I’m a bit clumsy?” “I think I figured that out when you damn near slipped off a five-hundred-foot mountain.” “Five-hundred?” I pressed a hand to my chest. “More of a hill, really.” I laughed, pushed him gently. “Come on. I wouldn’t have been able to walk up that thing. It was not a hill.” “I could’ve done it.” He raised an eyebrow, the side of his mouth lifted up. “Yeah, well you’re ridiculous.” “If you want to see a mountain, I should take you up Mount Sneffels. It’s a fourteener, but I’ve taken beginners up there before.” The fact that he’d said he should take me up a mountain wasn’t lost on me, but I acted like I hadn’t noticed. “I’m afraid to ask what a fourteener is. Fourteen thousand feet?” “Yup.” As I blanched, he smiled wider. “But it’s amazing. The road getting up

there is crazy—carved right into the mountain, so you’re driving with rocks above your roof. And the road is only wide enough for one vehicle, because you’re right next to the ledge.” He wasn’t selling me on this. “Sounds great.” “You’re not a good liar.” “I’m not trying to be a good liar.” He narrowed his eyes, but continued. “There’s all kinds of wildflowers and old mines in the basin; it looks like something out of The Sound of Music. The scenery, it’s just out of this world. And the summit.” He smiled, fondly, as if he was lost in a memory. “I’ll just have to take you up there to see it. You’re surrounded by the mountain range, with the clouds closer than you can even imagine. And as far as you can see is all this beauty that’s been unaffected by humans for longer than we can fathom.” He paused. “Well. It’s special.” It sounded special coming from him and I could see it in my mind’s eye. “But I barely made it out alive from our little backpack trip into the mountain. I don’t see how I could climb a fourteener.” He shrugged. “Okay, sure. You need more practice. But it’s worth it for the view, trust me.” “You wouldn’t lie.” He shook his head solemnly. “No, I wouldn’t.” He stared at me just a little too long and I turned away, finally feeling the chill of the evening air. “I should probably get back inside.” “Me too,” he said. “Let me help you down.” He braced his good hand on the tile and scooted carefully until he slid off the lip of the roof and onto the porch. I descended the roof much slower, scooting inches at a time until I could see the chair for me to stand on. When I looked over the edge of the roof at the ground below us, my stomach clenched. “It’s only fifty feet, Trista. You handled five-hundred just fine, remember?” He extended his arm for me and I stared at it. “Grab it, and I’ll help you the rest of the way.” I did, lacing my fingers with his as I stepped onto the seat of the chair. When it wobbled beneath me, I sucked in a breath. Hurrying, I practically jumped off the chair to the porch floor, still holding his hand. He waited a moment longer than he should have, rubbed his thumb over my knuckles, and then let go. But in that moment, my indefinites transformed into something solid, real. Something I shouldn’t want, shouldn’t need. And yet ... I did.

Chapter Fifteen

“Do you need a new bra?” “What?” I didn’t have hearing problems, but considering she asked it so abruptly, interrupting our awkward silence, I stared at her. Mila stopped in the mall, pointed to the giant pink lingerie store. “Bras. Y’know,” she cupped her hands under her breasts. “Boobie baskets.” “Um.” I stared up at the silver lettering of the store. I didn’t own fancy lingerie because I wasn’t having sex all that often. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to look.” Practically dragging me into the store, Mila’s face was so lively that I couldn’t deny her anyway. “I’ve gained some weight,” she explained, “and most of it went to the ta-tas, so I need something to,” she curved her hands and gestured to her rack again—as if to remind me of just how ample her chest was, “keep these bad boys contained.” “Ah.” We were two hours into shopping and I was still getting used to Mila’s personality. Not that she was unlikable or anything—she was just a firecracker. Where I moseyed, she marched. I fumbled over my words and she spoke so succinctly that it was as if she’d rehearsed anything she wanted to say. “Well, not that I knew what you looked like before, but you look thin.” I envied her for her height and the fact that she was thin all over. “It’s the tan. Jude and I went to Hawaii last month and I lived on the beach the whole time.” “Lucky you.” I gave everything on the rack we were looking at a cursory glance, because I just didn’t care. “Jude worked really hard to have this as a paid gig,” Mila said, holding a bra up and fingering all the lace on the cups. “And as his sister, I get to reap the benefits.” “Have you been to a lot of places with him?” Mila didn’t break her concentration as she spoke, didn’t seem as guarded as I was at all. “Hawaii, New Zealand, Germany, Canada, and Portugal so far.” It sounded so glamorous, jetting to foreign countries and lying on the beach. “I’ve only ever been to Wyoming and Colorado.” I felt frumpy and plain next to her, with her long and shiny black hair, tanned skin, tiny body. My hair was practically the texture of straw after my shady dye job. “You should see more. There’s a lot of world out there.”

I only nodded, because what could I say? I didn’t have a job so the money my grandfather had given me would need to last a while. “You like Jude, right?” The question caught me off-guard and I paused for a moment, my fingers sliding down the silk of a camisole strap. Looking over at her, I felt an immediate relief in seeing that she wasn’t looking at me for a reaction. She held a bra up to her chest, pushing it against the milky white blouse she wore. “He’s very easy to talk to,” I said, which didn’t really answer her question at all. “You should go with him on his next trip.” My hand fell on one side of the hanger, causing the camisole to fall to the ground. Embarrassed, I ducked down and snatched it up, fumbling as I tried to put it back on the hanger casually. “No way.” “Yes way.” She put the bra back and grabbed another, holding it up to her chest like she could visualize herself wearing it. “He has to go to Yellowstone next week. I might have a commercial by then if I nail my audition this week.” She pursed her lips as she decided on the hot pink, silk bra. “I can’t just go to Yellowstone with your brother,” I said, if only to tell the nerves lighting up my skin with little pops of heat to calm the hell down. “Sure you can. He can’t go by himself, since he screwed up his shoulder. It’s as simple as me changing the name on the ticket.” It sounded simple when she said it like that, which meant I absolutely could not do it. Nope. No f*cking way. “Have you been to Yellowstone?” I shook my head, averted my eyes to the rack in front of us as I tugged on another camisole, testing its stretch. “I’ve lived in Wyoming, but I haven’t traveled that far north or west.” “Perfect—you can babysit my clumsy big brother and see more of the world.” I thought of Colin and despite feeling tempted to go along with Mila’s plan, I knew I couldn’t tell Colin and expect him to say yes. “I don’t know if Colin would be okay with that.” At that moment, I met Mila’s eyes. There was something there, a flicker of something. It appeared and disappeared as quick as a flash of lightning; blink and you’ll miss it. But I hadn’t missed it, whatever it was. “Maybe you could ask him.” She looked away for a moment and put the bra back on the rack. “I don’t like the idea of Jude going alone with his shoulder how it is.” “I’ll think about it,” I said, because it was true—it was all I would think about. “Great,” Mila said, whipping her hair over her shoulder before grabbing another bra. I picked at my hair, running my finger over the ends. I envied her ease, her looks —it was all so natural to her. I struggled to figure my own self out and dyed my hair colors that looked cheap and everything about her was pure. “You need a haircut?” My automatic answer was no, but then I figured it was a small way I could treat

myself, so I just nodded. “Probably a better dye job too.” She nodded. “I know a girl. She does mine.” She set the bra down and looped an arm through mine as she steered me out of the store. “Wait, if you want that bra, we can do my hair later,” I said, turning and pointing behind us. She shook her head. “Nah. I didn’t want the bra.” Once we were outside of the mall and in the parking lot, she smiled kindly at me. “We wandered that place for two hours and I was waiting to find out what it was you wanted. I didn’t really need a bra—a little bra spillage won’t end me—but you? You’re … secret.” She nodded, as if she’d tested the word and liked it for me. “And if it’s hair you want, well, let’s do hair.” I couldn’t argue with that, so I climbed into the passenger seat of her car and buckled up as she tore out of the parking lot. Mila drove her car like she stole it and it was another one of the things I was still getting used to. “Think you’ll be here long term?” she asked as we whipped around a corner and she accelerated. I gripped hard onto the armrest. “Not sure yet. I don’t really have anywhere else to go.” “Then I suppose here is as good as anywhere.” She glanced at me, gave me a smile. “Colin really loves you.” The abrupt change of topic startled me a little. “We’ve been together a long time.” “Mm-hm. I know what happened to your friend. I’m sorry.” And the hits kept on coming. I was taken aback again by the sudden change of topic and I blinked rapidly. “I…” I didn’t know what to say. I always felt thanking someone for feeling sorry for you was strange, but it seemed like the polite thing to do. “Thank you.” It was an automatic response. “I understand, to some extent.” She pulled into a turning lane and flipped a Uturn as soon as the light turned green. “I’ve lost people, too. Good people.” She sped up and took a turn down a small street. “It’s my biggest fear, to lose someone.” Wasn’t that my fear too? Part of the complicated reason I was still with Colin was that I didn’t desire to lose him too. Colin was my last tie to Ellie. “Yeah. It sucks.” Nothing I would ever say about it would actually come close. She nodded and pulled into a parking lot, slamming hard enough on her brakes that I rocked forward while she remained still. “Kelly is great,” Mila said as turned off the ignition and tossed her baseball keychain into her purse. “Why do you have a baseball on your keys?” I asked as I followed her out of the car. “It’s from my first Rockies game. Jude caught it and gave it to me, begrudgingly. So I carry it around as a memento of how I’m wrapped around his little finger.” She gave me a toothy grin. “It also serves as a weapon, should I need to swing at some douche who tries to get too grabby.”

“You’re close,” I said, opening the door of the salon for her. Growing up an only child had been all I’d known, but being with Jude and Mila showed me just how much I missed out on, especially growing up with a mom who was happy to have me out of her sight. “He’s my twin. I don’t think anyone knows me better. Do you have any brothers or sisters?” I shook my head. “Just me.” Mila waved to a woman in the back with shoulder-length red hair, cut asymmetrically, and turned to me. “You’re kind of a loner, huh?” Instantly, my spine prickled on the defense. I wasn’t sure why I needed to feel defensive when she was just being honest. “I suppose I am,” I replied tightly, my palms suddenly sweaty. I wiped them on my jeans and when I looked up at her, she had a kind of sad smile on her face. “I get it. Jude and me, we’re close. But I love people and Jude loves trees and mountains and creeks and grass.” Her sad smile stretched a little, like she wanted to smile wider but paused instead, thinking. The faraway look in her eyes was one that spoke to her confusion for Jude’s love for nature when she preferred people. “What are you going to have her do?” Mila asked, already moving onto the topic at hand. I struggled to switch topics as fast as she had and looked over at the stylist she’d waved at. “That.” My hair was halfway down my back, but I wore it up so much that it might as well have been short. “But I don’t know what color to do.” Mila touched my hair. “What do you want? I know you’re not asking my opinion, but this bleached look isn’t for you.” I couldn’t disagree. “It was something I did a few months ago. I needed a change.” “And you need another one; let’s make it a good one.” Kelly joined us a minute later and led me back to a chair. Mila sat in the empty stylist chair to my left as Kelly assessed my hair. “How do you feel about color? Like … bright color.” I’d never done anything but bleach my hair, so I was ambivalent. “Ooh!” Mila exclaimed, spinning the chair in a circle. “Like a pink!” “Or purple?” Kelly asked. I thought of the daisies I’d seen on the mountain. “Purple sounds fun. But I don’t want my whole head that way.” “No, I don’t think so. Maybe a curtain of it, under the first couple inches of blonde? So it peeks out a little depending on how you wear your hair.” I couldn’t imagine it, but gave Kelly the go-ahead anyway. Two hours later, my hair was swinging around my shoulders, blonde and pale purple blending together so well that it had an instant effect on my mood. “Colin’s going to love it,” Mila assured me as we drove back to the apartment. But the truth was that I didn’t care if he loved it or not, because I’d done it for me. When we walked through the door, Colin was on the couch playing some video

game that boomed with the sounds of gunshots and explosions. “Hey,” he said, looking over the couch at us. He turned back to the TV and I exchanged a look with Mila, embarrassed that he said nothing. But then he turned around again and co*cked his head to the side. “You look different.” I touched my hair, thankful the stylist had managed to turn straw into silk. “I like it,” Colin said, and a little bit of hope bloomed in me at that. “Want to join me on the couch?” “And watch you play video games?” Mila scoffed. “No freaking way, dude. Come on,” she said to me. “Girls’ night in my room.” She grabbed two root beers out of the fridge and then pulled a tub of cookie dough ice cream from the freezer. “You afraid of germs?” I shook my head and watched as she grabbed two spoons from the drawer and popped the lid off the cookie dough, jammed the spoons in it and handed me one of the root beers. “Let’s objectify some men.” I followed her into her bedroom, which was all white apart from the dozen multi-colored throw pillows on her bed. Mila gestured for me to make myself comfortable and popped in a DVD. “This is my favorite thing,” she said as she set the ice cream between us on the bed and dug a spoon in. “You pop a bite of this in your mouth and then immediately take a sip of root beer. It’s like a deconstructed root beer float, but with more ice cream.” I watched as she took a generous bite of ice cream and then brought the root beer to her mouth. “Mmm,” she said, giving me what I assumed was a smile with her full cheeks. “Your turn.” Copying her, I took a sip of root beer as soon as I had a spoonful of ice cream in my mouth. “See what I’m saying?” she asked, nodding encouragingly. “That’s some good sh*t.” She picked up the remote and started the movie she’d put in her DVD player. “No Country for Old Men?” I asked. “Sure. Josh Brolin is a babe, and Javier Bardem as the bad guy? Yes, please, I’ll take both.” As the movie started, I was already nearly finished with my root beer. As I stared into the almost empty can Mila asked, “Need another?” “I shouldn’t.” “Says who?” she asked, surprised. “Says my stomach.” I poked at it and then felt self-conscious for drawing attention to it. I didn’t make a habit of drawing attention to my flaws—I didn’t need to frame the ugly parts of me. “You’re joking, right?” “No. I used to have a lot of issues with my weight growing up, and until…” I paused, “until a few years ago, I hadn’t been able to lose the weight. I’ve lost a little bit, but I still need to lose more.” “You’ve got to be sh*tting me,” Mila said. “Do you even look at yourself in a

mirror?” “No.” I was afflicted with the constant need to compare. Compare myself to other women, compare men to other men. I always found myself lacking, and it wasn’t necessarily a self-esteem issue as much as it was an awareness thing. I wasn’t sad about how I looked—no. I was sad about Ellie and about Colin and about my grandfather who was living in assisted living, and all three of those things were more significant to me than my pointy chin and the extra roll of fat around my stomach. “Come here,” she said, walking around the bed and grabbing my hand. “Look,” she said, yanking me in front of a mirror. She stood beside me so that we could see each other in the reflection. “Do you even see yourself?” It didn’t hurt to look at myself in the mirror, but it was unproductive at its best. I wouldn’t change my mind. “Mila…” I started. “No. Look. You are the same size as me. And I’m sure as sh*t going to have another root beer if I want another damn root beer.” She was several inches taller than me in the mirror, which made me want to shrink in my skin even further. “And you’ve got this kick ass new hair color and style and big, deep blue eyes and a mouth that looks like you’re on the verge of pouting.” I laughed at that. “Really? That doesn’t sound very complimentary.” “Come on, you’ve got all this mystery around you. Your eyes, man, there’s something in them—something that makes you want to hear what you have to say. But then you just don’t say anything. It’s like you’re full of secrets that you can’t speak, but you wear them on your face anyway.” I’d never felt more naked in my life and pulled away from the mirror, looking first at the taupe carpet and then up at Mila. “I don’t have a lot of secrets.” “You have enough to keep people wondering.” A shot rang out on the television and startled us both. “When I first met you in the kitchen last week, I thought…” she paused a moment and seemed to be really careful of what she wanted to say, “I thought you looked hungry.” “Well, Jude was making bacon.” A smile teased one side of my lips and she returned my smile. “That’s not what I meant. But yeah, bacon.” “I’m not sure what you want me to say,” I replied honestly. “You don’t have to. But I think you’re hungry for something … just not sure what that something is just yet.” She opened her bedroom door. “But I’m going to grab me a root beer. You want one?” I waited a second before nodding. I knew Mila was trying to make me see the Trista she saw, but I couldn’t look in a mirror and change my mind based on what someone else said. I climbed back onto the bed and popped another bite of ice cream into my mouth, deciding to, at least tonight, not worry about the calories. A knock on the door had me lifting my head, meeting Jude’s eyes.

“Hey,” he said in his soft voice. “I like your hair.” A blush began warming my face and I self-consciously tucked a piece of hair behind my ear. “Thanks. It’s different.” “But a good different. The purple,” he motioned to his own head in the place that the purple peeked through on mine, “it’s like those flowers.” The fact that he remembered such a blip of a moment in the mountains made my throat go dry. All I could do was nod in return. He opened his mouth to say something else, but Mila pushed past him, interrupting whatever it was. I found myself wishing she’d taken a few seconds longer, just so I could hear what it was he wanted to say. “Hey big brother. What news of the motherland?” She joined me on the bed and handed me a can of root beer. “Mom and dad are good. They want us to visit them soon.” He smiled at me and then turned back to Mila. “I have some things I need you to do for the site.” He gave her the slip of paper. Mila shook open the folded list and scrutinized it. “Jude Isaiah Sommers!” She exclaimed, pointing at the list. “This is going to take me all damn day!” She sighed, folding it back up. “When do you need it by?” Jude looked a little sheepish when he replied, “This week?” “Ugh,” she groaned, dropping the list on the bed. “Eventually, you’re going to have actually hire a website lackey.” “Eventually you’re going to have to earn your keep for all the trips I bring you on.” He smiled at her, because his tone was teasing. “Speaking of which, Trista is going with you to Wyoming next week.” The air was sucked from the room, or maybe just my lungs. It was completely silent for the longest three seconds of my life. I hadn’t talked to Colin. I hadn’t even agreed, really. But I found myself watching Jude’s face for a reaction. He blinked at Mila a few times before he turned to me. “Miss it already?” My throat was drier than the Sahara at the way he said that, all low like a rumble in a storm. “Miss what?” “Wyoming?” Once again, heat climbed my face and I wished for a way to hide my face. “Oh. No. I just…” didn’t know what to say, I said in my head. “Remember that call I told you I signed up for?” Mila barreled on, causing Jude to turn to her again. “I got a call back. And with a smaller production like this one, that’s a good sign.” “Okay…” sh*t. Jude sounded as uncertain as I felt. “It’s okay,” I said, already trying to mentally power walk my way out of the trip. “I haven’t talked to Colin about it and I don’t have to go or anything. I…” I couldn’t seem to finish my damn sentences in my haste to get out of the trip Mila was shoving me into. “I’m sure Colin will be fine,” Mila said with a shrug of her shoulders. “He’ll probably go for a long weekend hike anyway. And he said you didn’t really enjoy

that last time.” Something slithered underneath my skin then, right between my ribs. I had never said that, nor had I felt it. Unwittingly, my eyes found Jude who was watching me closely. Why was Colin telling Mila that? And did Colin actually believe it? Even though the silence stretched long among us, I had thoughts to consider. If anything, Mila telling me that Colin thought I hated hiking with him and his friends only made me more determined to prove him wrong. One trip up the mountain hadn’t made me averse to the idea at all. Which meant the prospect of going to Wyoming, to Yellowstone, all that more appealing. “Let her sleep on it,” Jude said softly, leaving the decision in my hands. “I could use a hand,” he joked, motioning to his bad arm. “If nothing else but to help with my camera gear.” “Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll sleep on it.” Jude smiled reassuringly and I tried not to let that small movement affect me, but it was near impossible. Having someone smile at me like that, paying attention to the little things I felt and thought was unnerving, but in a delicious, addicting way. In a terrible, horrible, selfish way. “But the real reason I came in here is because I need these done,” he said, pointing to the list and turning his attention to Mila. “Can you do them this week?” Mila groaned, popped a bite of ice cream into her mouth and ignored the list. “I have class all week.” “You’re not in class,” Jude reminded her with a slight roll of his eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic.” “Easy for you to say,” Mila grunted around a mouthful of ice cream. “You don’t have to do it.” I almost didn’t say anything, but because I was curious, I spoke up. “I could help you, if you want.” Mila looked at me, then to Jude, and then back at me. “You know how to design a website?” “Well,” I picked up the list, looked through everything. “I studied it a little in college and was eventually going to take a couple classes for it again. And this looks pretty elementary, depending on your host.” I looked between Jude and Mila. “I don’t want to intrude. But if you’re busy,” I said to Mila, “I could see what I could do.” “Consider me busy for the rest of my life,” Mila said with an exaggerated jut of her jaw. “There’s not a whole lot in this world that I hate more than staring at code for hours on end, waiting for all the symbols to make sense.” “If you can help, I can pay you.” Jude shoved his hands in his pockets as he looked at me. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice the way all my senses became hyperaware around him. “You have to pay her in actual money, Jude,” Mila said, slightly admonishingly. “Not pizza or beer.” “Do you like pizza?” he asked, turning from Mila and smiling at me.

Two pairs of identical eyes were on me. “I love pizza.” “What kind of toppings?” Jude asked, and I wondered why he was asking, unless he was really planning on paying me in pizza. “Olives. Just olives.” Mila scrunched up her nose and shook her head. “Gross.” She pointed a finger at Jude, “I’m serious. Pizza and beer works for me, but only because we shared a womb for the better part of eight months.” She hooked a thumb toward me. “But Trista owes you nothing.” “Well, you don’t need to pay me,” I said softly. “Maybe I won’t even do a good job.” “Don’t even try to back out now,” Mila warned, holding a finger up in mock seriousness. “You gave me an out and I’m already halfway down the block.” “I usually pay Mila in trips—” “—and pizza and beer,” Mila butted in. “So how would you like to be reimbursed?” he finished. I wasn’t sure how to answer—because the idea of going to Yellowstone with Jude was an exciting and scary prospect. I wasn’t sure if Colin would even be alright with me going. And, I wasn’t sure how much website managers were paid, so I couldn’t say anything, really. Mila threw out a number that was double what I made hourly at the pet store and Jude nodded right away, as if it was no problem at all. “Seriously, Jude? You wouldn’t pay me that when I asked!” Mila exclaimed. Jude shrugged, looked at me and then looked at the ground. We were both so quiet that I could hear Mila swishing her head back and forth between us. Finally, blessedly, he broke the silence, “We shared a womb, remember?” “I see how it is,” Mila said, her tone accusing. I looked away from Jude to look back at the list. The silence between us all was heavy, and I could feel it pressing in on me, harder and harder. “What did your doctor say?” I asked, wanting to break the tension and change the subject, because it made me feel strange—all prickly and wound up. I lifted my head and looked up at Jude from between the hairs that had fallen over my face. “Oh yeah, it was your appointment today, wasn’t it?” Mila added. Jude braced his hands at the foot of the bed. It was easy to forget he had even had an injury, because he was walking around like nothing pained him. “I’ll need surgery, but we’re going to try physical therapy first—at least for a while.” “More surgery,” Mila said on a sigh that sounded sad. I looked at her quizzically but she didn’t look at me. When I turned back to Jude, he was looking at Mila with what I could only assume was a look meant to communicate something that wasn’t for my ears. “It’s fine,” he said and stood, seeming eager to change the topic. “I just have to take it easy.” Mila snorted. “Yeah, like that’ll ever happen.” Jude’s grin was easy and the tension I’d gotten a glimpse of left his face.

“You’ll forever be a boy who climbs mountains.” Mila sounded mildly exasperated as she used her spoon to dig into the tub of ice cream and blew the bangs from her face as she popped a chunk of ice cream into her mouth. “Yup.” Jude reached forward, grabbed a spoon—my spoon—and dug out a chunk of ice cream. As he put the spoon in his mouth, all I could think was: my spoon, my spoon, my spoon. “That’s Trista’s spoon, you jerk.” She wrenched it from him and handed it to me. All I could do was stare at the smile that formed on his lips—there was more in that smile than just humor. “Then it’s settled,” Jude said, swallowing as he smiled. I couldn’t help smiling back. “Are you busy tomorrow? I can walk you through everything and we can discuss the list?” “Sure,” I said, thinking just how unsure I actually was about spending time with Jude.

Chapter Sixteen

The music was so loud that I was waiting for the neighbors to tattle on us to the landlords. More than once, I’d gritted my teeth and held onto the textured wall, feeling the beat beneath my fingers as it reverberated through the apartment. I’d taken a nap and had shot out of bed at the sound of very loud music and laughter. After stumbling, bleary-eyed, into the living room, I’d nearly fallen over a stranger. “Sorry,” I mumbled, moving my hands to smooth my hair. “No worries,” he’d replied, taking me in a moment before turning from me to the handful of people that surrounded him. I’d blinked, feeling that cloud of sleep still lingering behind my eyes. But I couldn’t see a single face I recognized. I moved between the bodies, my anxiety rising as I tried not to get stuck among the many moving bodies. I had a thought that the floor would open up under all that weight and swallow us. But the bass kept pumping and the laughter ensued and my head pounded loudest of all. After making my way around a makeshift beer pong table set up between the couch and the countertop in the kitchen, I finally saw Colin. He was leaning against a fridge, red cup in one hand and cigarette in the other. I blinked a few times at the sight, trying to reconcile what I was seeing with what I knew about Colin. When he saw me, his eyes lost some of the shine they’d held while talking to the people around him. I watched as he subtly lowered both the cup and cigarette before they disappeared from my sight. I pushed through the throng of people at the opening of the kitchen, until I was right in front of Colin. The thing about cigarette smoke is that it’s not easily hidden when you’re not used to it. And Colin reeked of smoke. “Trista. There’s my girl,” he said with a false sounding happiness to his voice. I raised an eyebrow but was pulled into his side, into the stench of beer and smoke and a Colin I didn’t know. “I was wondering when you’d wake up.” I glanced at the people—a woman and a man—in front of Colin and watched as they took me in, their gazes gliding over my sweats and messy hair. “You’re having a party?” I said to Colin softly, quiet enough that only he could hear. “Yeah, for you. You know, a kind of introduction to Colorado and all. It’s great, right?”

His smile felt strained and his grip was loose around my waist—casual-like and I gave him a questioning look. “Well, if you hadn’t slept so late you could’ve met everyone.” The hand on my waist dropped and I watched as he put the cup in his other hand on top of the fridge and then smiled at the people. I waited for him to say something, to introduce me to the people he was talking to and when he didn’t, I reached my own hand out. “Hi, I’m Trista.” “I know,” the woman said, her blonde hair braided into pigtails. “I’m Becky. This is Jim.” She hooked a thumb at the man beside her. “How do you know Colin?” I laughed, surprising myself. “Colin’s girlfriend.” I gave her a plastic smile and turned to Colin. “What do you have to drink?” I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I knew I’d need to get something in me to calm the anxiety I had. The last time I’d been to a party this large had been on my last night with Ellie. “Beer.” He opened the fridge, pointed to the handful of bottles lined up on the top row. “Perfect.” I swiped one and popped the cap before taking a big swig. Looking over the party, I saw Mila over by the beer pong table, doing a dance in a circle. Without a second word to Colin, I made my way toward her as she twisted and spun. Black hair twirled around her with each spin, and I instantly was reminded of Ellie. “Hey,” I said when I was close enough for her to hear me over the music. “Trista!” She looped an arm around my neck and pulled me close to her. “I’m sorry, I’ve had a lot to drink.” I could tell from how liquidly her body moved, but unlike Colin she didn’t reek of the alcohol. “Are these your friends?” I asked, my head practically pressed against hers so that she could hear me. “No, well, I mean,” she waved a hand around in a loose circle, “they’re Colin’s friends but I know them too. We all run in the same circles, you know?” I nodded, even though I didn’t know. Part of me longed to be as free and confident as Mila was. She wasn’t watching anyone else, gauging their reactions to how she moved so fluid and unashamed to the music. “I didn’t know Colin was throwing a party.” “Neither did he until earlier,” she said, hand clamped on my shoulder and lips on my ear. “But you know how Colin is, he’s pretty spontaneous.” I didn’t know Colin as well as I had. And I wondered if he looked at me the way I looked at him; if he looked at me and saw confusion. “You look like you need a shot,” she said with a press of her finger to my chest. “Whatcha like?” “Anything will do at this point,” I said, and she picked up a blue bottle from the table, pouring it into a new red cup and handing it to me. “Drink it fast—don’t sip.” I tossed it back, feeling like I could breathe fire only a second later. The cool liquid blazed a path all the way to my belly and I resisted coughing in case I started

vomiting. “It’s good, yeah?” I nodded because it was easier than yelling over the music. Someone pushed into me from behind which caused me to fall against Mila, spilling my beer over both of us. “Wow, one shot and you’re already committing alcohol abuse,” she said with a laugh, holding her wet tee away from her body. “Come on, let’s get changed.” Before I could say anything, she was dragging me into her bedroom and slamming the door. “You okay?” she asked, suddenly seeming much more sober than she had out in the living room. Startled, I gripped the hem of my shirt in my hands. “I’m okay.” “Good.” She opened up her closet and threw out a couple shirts. “Here, wear something.” “I have shirts just down the hall…” I pointed toward the door but she shook her head. “You don’t have anything that says ‘I’m here to party.’” “Because I’m not here to party,” I replied with a shrug. “I was napping.” “I know; that’s what your clothes and hair say.” She plucked a navy blue v-neck tank from the pile she’d thrown onto the bed and handed it to me. “Here. This is still casual enough that people won’t notice your sweats.” I wasn’t sure if Mila was insulting me or if she was looking out for my appearance, but I did as she suggested anyway, yanking my shirt up over my head and trying not to feel self-conscious in just my bra and pants. She wasn’t paying attention, however, and was already sliding on a black t-shirt herself. The blue v-neck had braided straps and was clingy in a way that I wasn’t used to. I placed a hand over my stomach and said, “I don’t think I can wear this.” “Trista, you look good.” She pulled my arm away and pushed me in front of her mirror. “Your sweats are fine, but you’re hiding this.” She moved her hand along the side of my body, and I watched her path with my face growing warmer and warmer. For years, I’d worn a variety of elastic-waisted clothing, like sweats and yoga pants, to avoid this kind of clinginess. She smoothed her hands over my hair. “It’s too revealing,” I protested lightly, reaching to tug it off already. “No it’s not!” she exclaimed. She placed her hands on my shoulders, stopping me from ripping it off. “Trista,” she said calmly, “you are beautiful. Stop hiding it.” She pointed outside of her door. “Even with bed head, did you see the way those guys were looking at you?” I thought it odd that she said that, when no, I didn’t notice. “Wake up, girlfriend. You look like Grace Kelly—all feminine and fresh, like you don’t ever need makeup.” “I don’t wear makeup.” “I know. You don’t need to.” She slapped my hands from the hem and pushed me onto her bed behind me, so she could finger-comb my hair. “Colin threw you

this party, impromptu as it was. So go out there and own it. Own you.” I eyed her curiously. Did she really think Colin threw the party for me? Because as far as I could tell, Colin was happier when he didn’t have me at his side. But it seemed important for Mila in some way so I did as she told me, letting her brush at my hair and put a little mascara on my lashes. When I rejoined the party, Colin was taking shots at the dining table and the memory of him telling me he didn’t drink filtered through my thoughts. I walked around the clusters of people, grabbed another beer from the fridge and let it wash down my throat, carrying everything that I wouldn’t say to Colin with it. After my third beer and ten minutes in the corner of the kitchen, the recipient of enough leering looks to make my stomach churn, I decided I needed air. The music was beating harder it seemed, unless that was my imagination. But it was pressing hard against my skull, crushing me with the reminder of that one June night years before. I could feel the memory of holding her hand in mine, laying on the cold floor and staring at her face as tears trickled down my own, pooling beneath my cheek. And I remembered when the paramedics had come and someone had slid me across the floor, pulling me from Ellie, I’d finally opened my mouth in protest. My stomach hurt from that slow motion memory and I pushed out onto the deck and sucked in the air. Surprisingly, I was completely alone on the deck. The sun had long set over the mountain so the sky was bathed in black. Without a second thought, I pushed one of the chairs up against the siding and climbed onto the roof with one hand while my other held my beer. “Hello.” His voice was warm and caused a low flutter in my belly as I climbed the angle to the top where Jude sat, his bad arm in his lap and his other braced behind him. “Hi, Jude.” I plopped next to him and let out a sigh I didn’t know I’d suppressed. “Some party.” He lifted something to his lips, but it was so dark that I couldn’t make out what he was drinking. “I’m surprised the neighbors haven’t called the cops,” I said, remembering all the parties I’d gone to in college, and how at least half of them had been broken up by the police. “Colin usually bribes the neighbors with free beer. This building is mostly college kids anyway.” “Colin isn’t in college anymore.” Jude shook his head. “Do you not enjoy parties?” “No.” I said it more firmly than I’d intended. “They’re not my thing.” “Then why would Colin throw you one?” “Because they’re his thing.” “You didn’t hesitate. You answered that without trying to lie to me first.” My cheeks grew warm. “I don’t lie all the time.” “Just mostly about the important stuff.”

I shrugged, sipped my beer and laid back on the roof. “It’s exhausting to tell the truth all the time.” He was silent, the only sounds our breathing and the music that spilled out onto the deck from the door I’d left open. I rolled my head to the side, feeling looser from the fact that I could finally breathe and that I was feeling a buzz. “What are you drinking?” “Chocolate milk.” “Are you serious?” “As a heart attack.” His voice was dry. I watched him put the cup to his lips and the curve of his throat as he swallowed. “Why no booze?” “I don’t drink. I haven’t in a long time.” “Are you an alcoholic?” He huffed out a laugh. “No. I have a few vices, but none of them are stimulants.” “Why not?” “Because I don’t like feeling out of control.” I nodded, understanding that to some extent. “Why don’t you like parties?” I had a choice here, to tell him the truth or to tell another lie. “Because they’re not my scene.” “Why not?” He was digging. “Because someone I loved died at a party.” “I’m sorry.” He said it quickly, not reactionary like he felt the need to give condolences. “That’s as good as any reason to quit parties.” “Yeah, well,” I said, raising my cup half-heartedly, “not a good enough reason for Colin.” “Why are you dating him, Trista?” And that was my signal to go. I began scooting down the roof toward the deck, because I was absolutely not talking to Jude about my relationship with my boyfriend. Those things were mine, and mine alone. “You don’t have to run away.” “Well, I don’t want to answer that question.” “f*ck, Trista,” he said, and it was the first time I’d heard him raise his voice. “Then say that. Do you really think I’m going to disregard your wishes just for my own selfish need to know?” I was trying to process what he was saying from behind me, because it was more than just one thing. “You want an answer.” “Not if you’re not willing to give it. Come back up here. And we’ll talk about things that don’t cause you to slide clear off the roof.” I scooted back, lifting my butt several feet at a time until I reached where Jude lay. “I don’t want to answer that question,” I said, feeling stupid for even trying to run away.

“Okay. Good. You do know how to use your words.” I narrowed my eyes, but stayed beside him, draining my beer. “I like having secrets.” “I have them too.” I nodded, knowing he did. “Tell me a secret, Jude.” “Will you tell me one?” My stomach tightened. “Can I choose?” “I would think that’s the point. How can I tell you which secret to choose when I don’t even know what your secrets are?” He had a way of reminding me how silly I sounded and it made me want to prove to him that I wasn’t so young and naïve after all. “Okay. So tell me one of yours.” “We have to make a deal,” he said and the heaviness of his words was like stone in my stomach. “That you tell a secret of equal value.” The music stopped for a second, along with my heart. And then I nodded and the music below us resumed, the beat changing. “Okay.” He lifted the cup to his mouth, took a sip and tipped his head back, his lips parted just slightly. I watched, mesmerized, as he looked at the stars above. And when his mouth opened wider, I felt my heart tremble. “I can feel your loneliness, Trista.” He was watching me, the moon reflecting off of his face. “It’s in your eyes, that hunger for something that digs past the superficial. You want someone to know you, but you’re afraid too. And you’re consoling yourself with someone who doesn’t want to know you because you know it’s safe.” He let out a breath, like he was absolving himself of some kind of demon. “And f*ck me if it doesn’t make me want to give you what you need. You’re hungry —you’re starving. And I wish you didn’t make me want to feed you.” A burn began in my chest, spreading like a wildfire across my chest. I knew that in the dark, he couldn’t see just what he was doing to my skin, but I believed, in that moment, that I glowed. The weight of his gaze was heavy and in my head, I screamed the word, “Safe,” but in my heart—well, I felt something else. A kind of delicious ache, something I knew I shouldn’t want, shouldn’t think about, but still I did. An ache that was as unrelenting as it was emphatic. My hand moved slightly, as if to protect the space that reacted to his words. “Jude…” It was all I said, all I could say, with him staring at me like that, his words invading my head and forming a memory already. My lips closed and opened, my breath little spurts of air. “Trista,” he said, leaning closer to me. My heart galloped and my breath caught in anticipation. “Tell me,” he whispered, “your secret.” I licked my dry lips and tried to remember what secret I’d planned to tell him. But his was so monumental that I couldn’t think of anything to compare. So instead, I told him the truth. “My secret is that you’re right.”

Chapter Seventeen

The pause between us was too long, too heavy. The moment was weighted with what he’d said, and heavier still with what I gave back to him. Without conscious volition, I found myself leaning toward Jude, closer and closer in the dark, until I did the unthinkable. It was as if the hands of the inevitable had pressed me to him, finally. I wish I could say that the moment our lips met, I pulled back immediately. That I was awash with shame and frustration and self-loathing. But I couldn’t say that, because the only immediacy of that moment was the way our bodies shifted toward one another, fingers reaching and mouths opening and our breaths mingling in the hollows of our mouths as we kissed for the first time on that roof. His hands cupped my chin and his fingers curled into my face, pressing against bone; it was as if I was being anchored to him; he was holding me and not letting go. My skin tingled and my lips slid against his as if this was something we’d done time and time again. He tasted of chocolate and something dark, and when his tongue swiped against mine, I dissolved into his touch. His scent swallowed me whole and I just sank, deeper and deeper, into the kiss, into him. The sound of clapping caused me to pull away from him abruptly. My first instinct was to look in his eyes, in the dark, and my second was to look where the sound came from. The roof was completely dark, and as my vision sharpened I realized, with a sense of relief, that we were alone on the roof. The clapping continued, the sound carrying from the deck. Someone’s laughter punctuated the air but it felt a hundred miles away from Jude and me. “Trista…” I pressed my lips together to keep from reaching for him again. We were still inches apart, and I could hear his every breath and realized they were in time with mine. “I’m sorry,” I said, though I didn’t know why I was apologizing. My eyelids shut and I swallowed. “That was a mistake.” I burned all over, from my legs to my neck, inside too—where the words were formed and then left my mouth, leaving an acrid trail in their wake.

He didn’t say anything to that, just made some noncommittal noise in his throat. My body was in a tug of war to pull further away or to fall into his touch and give in to the desire that lit me. I couldn’t help but think about how he’d said I was hungry—I’d never thought I was myself, until he’d kissed me and stopped. “We were drunk,” I said, already trying to form an excuse for this moment, a moment that couldn’t happen again. The thought pressed painfully against my chest but I shook my head. “I wasn’t drunk.” His voice was soft, but his tone wasn’t teasing. “Okay, well, I was.” “You weren’t either.” There was nothing I could say to that, because he was right and there were no excuses for kissing my boyfriend’s roommate. I couldn’t pass this off as a drunken mistake. I may have had a slight buzz, but there was no wavering when I’d leaned toward him and kissed him first. And the worst part of it all was that I now knew what it was like. And I wouldn’t be able to not think about it. “I’m sorry,” I said again, because I didn’t know what else to say. Finally, I turned my head away and stared intently at the cup of beer I’d cradled between my legs. “Stop apologizing,” he replied. He wanted to say something else, and for a moment I wished to rewind time five minutes before and stop him from telling me his secret. Because then, maybe, I wouldn’t have kissed him. And then, maybe, I wouldn’t crave what wasn’t safe. Without another word, I slid down the shingles to the deck, sliding off the lip of the roof with a shakiness that had nothing to do with the height of the deck, but everything to do with the man I’d left up on the roof. When I rejoined the party, there seemed to be even more people than before. No one looked at me, which was good. Because I felt like I wore the betrayal all over my skin, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I left the partygoers and moved into the bathroom, turning the shower on hot and stepping in. I didn’t want Jude’s juniper scent to live in my head. I didn’t want his lips to be the last thing to touch my skin for too long. Facing the tile wall of the shower, I placed my palms against it as the water beat down my back. I hardly felt it, I was so absorbed in my thoughts. The memory of Jude’s lips would echo—I knew that. Because even though it had been the first kiss, it had felt familiar. Not comfortable—definitely not that. My fingers curled and I ached to type something for Jude, to get the jumble from my head. I’d tasted longing on his lips, and somehow he’d transferred that to me, too. When I stepped out of the shower, I looked at my reflection. My blonde hair was dark, darker still where the purple was. My blue eyes were dark, and my lashes were dark and all I saw was a girl who kissed a man who wasn’t hers. My lips weren’t red or swollen; the kiss had been far too brief to affect my skin so superficially. No, it all was underneath, where my blood bubbled close to the

surface. After getting dressed, I grabbed my laptop from Colin’s dresser, thankful I hadn’t left it out on the dining table for it to be damaged from the party in some way. I opened up a new post on my blog and wrote. It’s the twilight of my relationship, something I didn’t understand until a man on a roof with words meant to slide into the cracks left from the relationship told me with his lips and his hands and his presence that he was not safe. I closed my laptop after publishing and pulled the blankets up over me. I hoped Colin wouldn’t look for me, hoped he wouldn’t pull back the blankets and see the kiss all over my face. I knew I’d need to tell him, eventually, but at the same time I wondered. If I told Colin and he didn’t care, if he used that to break up with me, I’d be free from him. But then in a way, I’d be free of the girl I was when Ellie was alive, the girl who was dating Colin. And I didn’t know who I’d be without that connection to her, to my past. If I told Colin and he was upset, well, I wasn’t sure how to handle that in a way that wasn’t cold. Because while I knew I loved him in a way, I didn’t love him the way he should be loved as his girlfriend. I knew it was selfish of me, to want to keep it to myself. But that’s who I was. The kiss had been a mistake. I knew that. And even though I couldn’t get the taste of him off of my lips, I knew I couldn’t repeat it. Because as brief as it had been, I’d been filled—stomach to chest—with a range of emotions. As if there’d been a river in my chest, held back by the dam of my ties to Colin. But the tingle from that fullness had lingered long after I’d told him it was a mistake. And now I was obsessing over it—over him. I’d had this feeling about Jude, like he could upend my life without really trying to. That I could fall in love with him without meaning to. That he, unlike Colin, was not safe. My heart would need little or no persuasion to feel things I hadn’t felt in years. But that couldn’t happen. It was just a kiss, I reminded myself. It didn’t—couldn’t—mean a single thing. It was just a kiss.

***

The following morning, I was up before Colin, getting dressed in front of the closet mirror. Colin had come to bed around four in the morning, drunk and reeking of cheap cigarettes and cheaper beer. He’d curled into me for a moment, but for one reason or another he’d rolled back to his back and fell right to sleep. As I snapped my bra straps up on my shoulders, he woke up. His eyes were bleary and his complexion was ruddy as he stared at me. “Good morning,” I said cautiously. I kept waiting for him to tell me he knew— that he’d heard or he’d seen—about the kiss. “Hi.” He sighed and pushed up to sitting. “How do you feel?” I asked, not meeting his eyes as I picked a tank top from the closet. “Like sh*t. I deserve to feel like absolute sh*t.” No, I thought. I do. “Why?” “Because of the party,” he said, rubbing a hand over his face. “It was kind of wild.” I put my head through the hole and pulled my arms through, glancing at him in the mirror. “Yeah, well, I didn’t mean to get so out of control.” I stopped myself for a second after grabbing the yoga pants. “You got out of control?” “Yeah.” He sighed, and I could tell he had something to confess with the way his body slumped and he looked at me from under rueful eyes. I held my breath, waiting. “What?” I heard every beat of my heart in the seconds it took him to finally tell me. “I told you I don’t drink, but I did.” I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. My chest fell, deflated, and I felt a prick of disappointment. “You were smoking too.” “I don’t usually do that.” “And do you usually drink?” I wasn’t upset, but he seemed to take my question as if I was. “Not usually. I shouldn’t drink, but I do sometimes. Especially when I’m around all those people.” I didn’t say anything, just pulled my pants up and smoothed my hand over my shirt. “I feel like we haven’t spent a lot of time together,” Colin said as I gathered my hair into a ponytail. “Because we haven’t,” I answered simply. “You’re … busy. And I’m trying to stay out of your way.” I met his gaze in the mirror before flicking my eyes to the floor. “That’s not fair. I’m not busy when I’m playing video games. If you want to spend time with me, you just have to ask.” “I came all this way because you wanted to spend time with me. I guess I

expected that you’d at least try to spend time with me.” I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and turned to where he lay on the bed. Even as I said it, I knew it was unfair. I’d kissed his roommate. At a party he’d thrown for me. A party that made him forget about me. “I’m sorry, okay? I’ve got a lot on my mind. My mom wants me to visit and Jude is going on a trip and it’s been really stressful.” Colin didn’t have a job, because he was a trust fund kid. I’d known very early on that his parents would support him through everything, at least financially. I’d only met his parents a few times—high school and college graduations and once at one of his birthday parties. Part of me wondered if Colin would ask me to come along, to see his mom with him so that I could finally get to know her. Six years was a long time to date someone and not know their parents well. But there was a much larger part of me that hoped he didn’t ask me to come with him, considering that Colin and I were as emotionally distant as we’d been every day of the last three years. Ellie’s death had caused issues for Colin, since he’d been one of the party’s hosts. I knew, from little things Colin had said, that his mother had called it an immense inconvenience. The words still burned a hole in my throat when I repeated them. “Why does the idea of Jude leaving on a trip stress you out?” I asked, bypassing the talk of his mom altogether. Colin paused and for the second time, I felt like there were secrets in this apartment, secrets I was not privy to; hiding in the corners and sliding away when I approached. “Because his shoulder is bad and he shouldn’t be traveling alone.” I hesitated a moment before running my hands down my tank top. “Mila asked if I would go in her stead.” “Really?” I nodded. “She talked to Jude about it a little while ago.” I didn’t want to ask what he thought, and I didn’t want him to see how much I wanted go now, knowing what he’d told Mila. “Okay,” he said, nodding. “That’s a good idea. It’ll get you out of here for a little bit. Give us some space for a few days.” “I thought you just said we didn’t spend enough time together.” He was giving me serious whiplash. “Maybe the distance will bring us back closer than before. We went from not seeing each other but once every few months to now being together every day. It’s a little overwhelming, and probably why I’ve pulled back.” I frowned. “You’re fine with it? You don’t want to go?” “I shouldn’t really be traveling,” he said and then looked away like he hadn’t meant to say that. “It’s expensive.” The excuse of expense made no sense, knowing that his parents paid for everything, But I didn’t push it. I thought of the money that was in my backpack. But I didn’t offer it up for him, feeling the bitterness of what he’d told Mila seep into my voice. “What will you do if I go?”

“Hiking. A bunch of us will go up again.” I wondered if he’d always planned to go hiking without me. And it reminded me of what had been eating at me. “Why did you tell Mila I hated hiking?” “Because you did.” Knowing I hadn’t said that, or anything like that, I asked, “How did you know?” “I know you, Trista. I could read it on your face that whole weekend.” I thought, from the things Jude had said to me, that I was terrible at hiding my true feelings. Jude made it sound like I wore my fear in my eyes, in the flatness of my lips. But here was Colin, translating my feelings himself. Too bad he was completely wrong. “You do know me,” I lied, reaching down to grab my discarded clothing, and wondering how many times I say that to Colin. “Well, it sounds like you’ll have fun while I’m gone.” “Oh, definitely. We’re going to go longer this time, get up higher. I didn’t want to push you too hard on your first hike.” It sounded as if he’d already planned to go, which meant he’d already planned to leave me behind. “Nice of you,” I said with a concealed venom in my voice. I couldn’t help it—the bitterness was so strong. Colin didn’t know me. And he’d basically just told me that he’d taken me on a baby hike and since I’d be gone, he’d do it for real this time. “Then I guess I’ll be gone for a few days. If you’re fine with it.” “Why wouldn’t I be? Jude will be super busy. You’ll probably be bored out of your mind.” “I’m sure I will be,” I said, agreeing to him even though the anger in my veins wished to lash out at him for making me sound like someone who couldn’t even enjoy themselves. “But why are you worried about Jude leaving, Colin? There’s something else.” Colin pursed his lips as he thought. He opened his mouth once but then snapped it shut. It was fascinating, watching the thought play over his face. “It’s a promise we made to our moms.” “To look out for each other?” He nodded. “You really want to go?” “Yes,” I said and squeezed my hands tight into fists. “It’ll be good for me to get out. You’re right. After going several months not seeing each other and now seeing one another all day every day, we need some time apart.” I wasn’t sure if that’s what we needed, but if Colin was happy not having me around all the time, I would be happier away from him. His eyes stayed on me for a beat as he listened to me. I didn’t want to sound too eager, but I also wanted to make it clear that I wanted to go. And I also didn’t want to analyze exactly why. When his gaze became too heavy, I turned my back to him to look at his closet—to the foot of space he’d made for me. I was a hypocrite, an alien, in my own skin. I was telling my boyfriend I wanted to go on a trip so soon after I’d kind of moved in, a place where he’d made space for my life to meld with his. And the trip would mean more time with another man, a

man who was not mine and it was terrible, horrible, selfish and insane to even want that kind of temptation and yet, here I was—a liar of the worst kind, keeping these thoughts to myself and not telling him a lie for him to at least examine—to determine if I was telling the truth or not. “What are you thinking?” I turned to where he lay on the bed, reclined, his black hair flopping over his forehead. If I stared at him long enough, I could see the boy I’d fallen for six years before, a boy with smiles and a comfortable ease; a boy with a love for everyone around him—not just his girlfriend. But now, when I looked at him I saw the dimples and the gaze of a man who wasn’t sure what to do with me. Quite a place we’d boxed ourselves into. One slice of a razor was all we needed to reveal the mess inside. If I closed my eyes to the Colin in front of me, I could imagine the Colin who’d reached for me—with his hands and lips and his eyes. But it took effort, because the Colin now was like a familiar stranger. Someone you passed by every day, maybe shared a smile in greeting with or a “how are you?” but not someone you could claim to know. He moved off the bed toward me, placed a hand first on my forearm. One black curl formed a nearly complete circle over his lobe. Because that was what I focused on, something minor, when he looked at me like that. Like he wanted to tilt my neck and kiss the crease. Instead, the grip on my forearm eased and I thought for sure he would let go, and resume being feet away on the bed, miles away from my heart. But he didn’t. “Hey,” he said, placing his fingers on my chin and turning my head so that I looked in his eyes. There was a time, years ago, when I’d imagined his eyes as the color of the sky at dawn, the palest blue—sometimes green—as it battled against the dark. But now, everything with Colin was a blur, smeared with wax. “I love you, you know?” He said it as if he was reminding us both and it made my skin tighten. “I love you too,” I said, but the words were opaque. I let go of the mild irritation that had adhered itself to me when he questioned me and gave him a smile that wasn’t a smile at all, just a curving of lips and lies. That seemed to have unlocked something within him, because that time he did lower his lips to my shoulder and just rested his face there. I held my breath—not in anticipation, but with dread. And then I squeezed my eyelids shut. I’d gone so long without this kind of intimacy with my boyfriend that I felt like he was that familiar stranger again. I’d need to get used to the way he touched me. Relearn how to play our music again. His lips pressed a kiss to that spot—his favorite spot—and I wished to be seduced by it or to open my mouth and tell him no. But instead of those things, I just stood there, letting him kiss my skin as I clenched my fists. I felt him sigh against my skin, sending warmth down my back. “You always smell so good,” he said. I softened a little at that, the edges of the Colin I’d fallen in love with pushing

through. “It’s just lotion.” He rubbed his face along my shoulder. “It’s amazing.” And, unwittingly, a picture of Jude slid into my head. Jude, who was articulate and in touch with how I felt. And, still unwittingly, I found myself relaxing against Colin’s touch. And when Colin turned me so his lips could find mine, I did the worst thing I could have done. I imagined it was Jude.

Chapter Eighteen

When I walked into the kitchen, it was after nine and Jude was at the stove, his back to me. He wasn’t wearing a shirt again, and my eyes traveled over the muscles of his back and the ink that wrapped around his body. The heat that filled me annoyed me. I didn’t want to find him as sexy as I did. Because he was—so unbelievably sexy. Everything about him, down to the way he moved his hands illuminated the heat in me. My boyfriend should be causing this reaction. But instead, a man who had kissed me on the roof of the apartment we shared with my boyfriend made my insides melt in a puddle of lust. I wasn’t sure what to say. We’d left things in a weird place the night before, and I didn’t know how to move on from what had happened on the roof. “Good morning,” he said without turning. His good arm picked up a skillet and moved it back and forth. “I’m making eggs, if you want any.” “That’d be great,” I said tentatively, slowly sitting at the counter. He shut off the burner with a click and turned around. I couldn’t look at his face, into his eyes. So my gaze landed on his left arm and traced the trees that grew from his wrist to his elbow. “So. Do you want to talk about it?” Startled, I looked quickly back at the hallway where Colin could come from any second. “No. I don’t.” I saw him nod out of my periphery and couldn’t bring myself to meet his steady gaze. “Do you like ketchup on your eggs?” I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. “No, thanks.” He placed a plate of steaming eggs in front of me. I reached for a fork that wasn’t there, and it was then that I finally looked up at him. He was holding the fork, inches from my face, waiting for me to look at him. “Good morning,” he repeated, now that we were looking right at one another. “Good morning, Jude,” I said, aching to sound unaffected. There was a knowing look in his eyes, something that told me we wouldn’t be able to brush this aside as much as I wanted to. I took the fork from him. “Thank you.”

He braced his hands on the counter and leaned forward, so our faces were only about a foot apart. “That’s…” I said, but the word was sticky in my throat. “That can’t be good for your shoulder.” His eyes were dark, not in anger but from what looked like a lack of sleep. He waited a beat, and then another before he shrugged, not wincing at all. “I do a lot of things that aren’t good for me,” he said, and I remembered immediately how he’d said that to me before. “Did you sleep well?” I asked as if I couldn’t tell from the circles under his eyes. “No.” He remained a foot from me, and though it intimidated me a little, having him so close to me, I refused to let it show. “Did you?” “I slept great.” I poured as much enthusiasm as I could into that sentence, but it sounded fake even to me. Instead of calling me out on it, he said, “Glad to hear it.” He buttered two pieces of toast that popped up behind him and set them on my plate. “You’re still up for talking about the website tonight?” I had a mouth full of egg so I nodded. “And we’ll talk about Yellowstone,” he said, and I felt that familiar leaden brick fall into my stomach. Could I really go to Yellowstone with Jude, knowing that I’d be thinking about how it’d been kissing him? Could I stand to be several days away from Colin, without telling him about the kiss? Jude must have seen the emotions war across my face because one side of his mouth lifted up, and I couldn’t stop staring at the curve. My gaze slid over the short beard he was growing around his mouth and I had a flash of that facial hair scraping along my cheek and my chin as he’d kissed me. I so desperately wanted to touch my face in memory. But then he’d know for sure what I was thinking about. So I shoveled another forkful of egg into my mouth and chewed, keeping my eyes in all the spaces that Jude didn’t occupy. A minute later, Jude disappeared from the kitchen, so I took the opportunity to start doing the dishes and cleanup myself. When Colin came into the kitchen, he put his arm around my waist and kissed my neck. “Hi,” I said, wanting to move from his touch without seeming like I was brushing him off. Was he being more affectionate than usual? Or was I just noticing it more now? I couldn’t be sure. “Is anyone awake yet? “Jude is,” I said, not turning around as I squirted the dishwasher detergent into the machine and snapped it closed. “I don’t know about Mila.” Colin laughed. “Mila will probably sleep past noon—she was up late with me last night, herding the rest of our friends out the door.” I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I started the dishwasher and stepped aside, subtly out of Colin’s arms. “What’s on your agenda today?”

Colin grabbed two mugs from the cupboard above the coffee maker and poured the coffee from the carafe into both. “I’m going to the gym soon. Nothing better for a little alcohol hangover than the gym.” “I always heard a greasy breakfast was good for those.” “Well, maybe for you,” he said lightly as he poured milk into his mug. I watched as he put the milk away without offering me any. And then I berated myself for looking for a fault. Why should Colin know how I take my coffee? I waited until he closed the door on the fridge before I opened it again and poured the milk into my mug. Colin had already moved on to a plate of eggs and paid me no mind as I stirred sugar into my coffee. Was I searching for fault in him? He chewed his eggs as he flipped through an app on his phone, smiling intermittently at whatever was on his screen. I remembered when Colin had given me his first, dazzling smile. We’d been dating a couple weeks by then, when our romance was fresh and not sullied by my indecision or his neglect.

“See you in Chem,” Colin called out to the kid in the backseat, the one he’d told me to pull over for on our way to school. He’d been walking in the rain, puddles splashing around his ankles when Colin had hollered out the window for him to hop in. I ran my hands over the silver emblem on Colin’s steering wheel, both shocked and relieved I hadn’t crashed his car on my drive to school. After the backseat door closed, he said, “Now, put it into gear and back up a few feet.” He placed his hand on mine on the shift and negotiated it to reverse. “Okay.” The car moved slowly and anxiety pricked my arms. “Whoa, stop!” I slammed on the brake with both feet, alarmed. “No,” the voice out my window called, “she’s on my foot now.” “Oh my god,” I squeaked, as the kid we’d given a ride too tapped on the car. “I backed over his foot?” Colin laughed lightly and encouraged me to ease off the brake until the student’s foot was free from the tire. “You okay?” he called out as the freshman maneuvered quickly around the car. He waved to us, though his face was wincing in what I knew to be pain. “Sure. Great.” And then he was off, across the field and toward the west wing of our school. “sh*t,” I whispered again. “I ran someone over.” Colin turned toward me, took in my face, and then his mouth stretched wider than I’d ever seen and he laughed, his eyes crinkled and his body shaking. “You ran someone over. In my car.” Tears formed at the corners of his eyes. He yanked me to him, kissing me firmly on the lips before pulling back and laughing. Brushing the hair from my face, he said, “You make me so freaking

happy, Trista Kohl.” I nuzzled into his neck as his hands became more urgent, running over my body. “We don’t have time,” I whispered. “f*ck class,” he said gruffly, lips hot on my skin. “Let’s ditch.” So we had, driving over to a parking lot across the street, at the back of the church. We laughed together as we took off some of our clothing, peeking out the windows in between the kissing. He made me so happy, feel so alive. And all I could think was that I’d never seen happiness like that—utter joy— directed at me.

“Colin,” I said, softly. He didn’t look away from his phone, only grunted a little in acknowledgement. “Do you remember when I ran over that kid’s foot?” His thumb paused on the screen and I watched his face lose the smile he’d been wearing while looking at his phone. “No.” The smile had been about to curve my lips in response; I’d been so prepared for him to tell me, “Yes, I do,” with a laugh. But he didn’t. It was true that I didn’t have many recent happy memories, but the ones I did were enough. However, if I was the only one who remembered them, did it count? He drank the rest of his coffee noisily and then set it down with a thud. And when he walked back out of the kitchen moments later, I wondered who those people in my memories were. It was as if we now lived our lives parallel, never intersecting.

*** I scrubbed the counter with vigor, my muscles warming with each bend and extend. The counters weren’t dirty—far from it. But my limbs held so much tension that I needed to warm them and then let them relax again. It was like my arms had been asleep and suddenly they were awake and needing to be worked thoroughly. Clutching the sponge in my fingers, I moved down the counter near the fridge. I needed to exert myself a little. If I could just keep pretending that everything was okay, maybe I’d start to believe it. Atrophy may have plagued my heart, but it was easy to hide if the rest of me kept moving. “What are you doing?” I didn’t startle and spin around, but I did pause my movement. “Cleaning.” I pushed harder against the counter, but snuck a surreptitious glance at him, instantly thankful that he was wearing a shirt. “Are we slobs?”

I shook my head, but continued scrubbing. “I just like to clean.” I moved further down the counter so I was next to the fridge and started scrubbing its side. “And since you and Mila are letting me live here, at least temporarily, I’m trying to earn my keep.” “Colin is paying half of the rent for the apartment.” I didn’t want to ponder why that made my neck break out in sweats, but it did nonetheless. “Colin is?” “Well, his parents are.” “Ah.” I still didn’t look at him, just flipped over my sponge and continued moving up the side of the fridge with my scrubbing. “I’m going to just sneak past you,” he said. On instinct, I backed up to move out of the way, but in doing so my back hit his chest and a hand came to my arm, steadying me. I froze, hoping he didn’t feel the gallop of my pulse under his hand. “Whoa,” he said softly. Without immediately removing his hand, he opened the fridge and it hit me with its chill. I held my breath as he reached around me with his other hand and snagged a root beer. His whole body brushed up against my back and I kept myself completely still, with much effort. Three more seconds, he stayed behind me. I felt his breath on my neck but didn’t turn. He made a noise like he was going to say something, but he backed up instead. His hand on my arm squeezed gently once before he let go. I knew immediately when he was gone without turning, such was his presence. When Colin had touched me in the bedroom, I’d been thinking too much—about how foreign it felt until I imagined someone else touching me the same way. When Jude touched me, I didn’t think at all, but when he let go it was like his touch had been a brand. Colin, Colin, Colin. I repeated the word over and over until it started to sound strange, until my tongue grew tired of tapping on the roof of my mouth. I set the sponge down, but my hand felt no lighter. I sat at the table, opened my laptop, and saw first, Facebook. Colin’s face. The photo was of him on the mountain, presumably taken when we’d gone hiking. His smile was wide and his eyes were shining and he had captioned it, “I climb mountains to be seen. When I’m up this high, the whole world can see me.” The initial instinct to roll my eyes was sharp, so fierce that I had to stop myself from doing it. This was my boyfriend, I reminded myself. But why did I need to keep doing that? My grandfather had asked why I stayed with Colin all these years and my answers had varied, but fundamentally they were the same thing: because he was familiar, because he was comfortable, and because I was a coward. A part of me remembered when he’d been the first boy to give me a shiver, to bring a smile to my face, and I knew if I let him go—I’d lose that. I was selfish, I knew that. And I was a coward. But so much of my life had changed since Ellie died and I knew that

letting go of Colin was another step forward in letting her go, as he was my last— my only—remaining tie to her. I pulled up my blog, intending to write something. I coveted its anonymity, how it kept me free to express but protected from being outed. It was titled, “The Void.” I scrolled through the most recent posts, not wanting to reread them just yet, and scrolled down to the first poem I’d written. The reason for the name of my blog site. The greatest thing people can leave someone they loved is a void. A space that can’t be filled by anyone else. Sometimes, the void is a blessing… a reminder of who was there. Other times, it’s a curse… an empty space, carved into the tissue, leaving a permanent impression. A reminder that you’ll never be full because you’ve experienced loss. It was as true then as it was now, but when I tried to think of the void that Colin would leave me, I wasn’t sure that it couldn’t be filled. If my ties to him were partially because he knew Ellie, I already had a tattoo of her scored on my heart. He would have little effect in that regard.

Chapter Nineteen

As I settled on the couch, waiting for Jude that night, I turned on the television, flipped to something harmless: a documentary on Madagascar. As the narrator began listing the number of animals it would talk about, Jude joined me, plopping beside me on the leather couch so dramatically that it caused me to jump. “Whoa,” he said, his palm hovering over my knee. He didn’t touch me, but I felt it all the same. “You okay?” I nodded and looked at the laptop in his hands. It was already pulled up to his website service provider. “Madagascar, huh?” he asked, looking up briefly at the television. “Fascinating place.” “You’ve been there?” “Sure have.” His eyes narrowed as he got a notification that he’d typed the password incorrectly. “Did you know that more than ninety percent of Madagascar’s mammals exist nowhere else on Earth? Pretty incredible.” “I didn’t know that,” I replied lamely. “Did you go there for work?” He shook his head. “I did some forest conservation volunteering, for an organization my family works with.” I turned so he was facing me. “Mostly data collation—not terribly exciting stuff.” He made a noise of triumph when the website finally accepted his password. “It’s where my interest in climbing mountains began.” “It sounds demanding.” “Yeah, it was.” “Ever want to go back?” He looked away from me then, tapped his fingers onto his laptop. “I’d love to, but I can’t.” He picked up the laptop and gestured for me to take it. “So I’ll get you an administrative access login, but I figured you could get a feel for how the website runs.” I noticed that he had answered the question in a very vague way, but since he seemed intent on continuing with our plan for the night, I didn’t press him for answers. Not that it was my business anyway. I took the laptop from him and rolled my finger over the mouse. “This looks pretty user-friendly,” I commented, clicking open the layout and

looking at the template he’d had installed. “Maybe to you.” He leaned over, bringing with him a wall of heat. I tried not to focus on how close he was, but with his scent and the heat radiating off of him, it was hard to pretend. “Mila built this for me about seven times, before she gave up and gave me what she calls preschool design.” “Did you want something more…” I searched for the word, but came up empty, my words just trailing off my tongue into nothingness. “More…chic?” he asked, causing me to laugh. “I’m not a fancy guy, Trista.” There he went, saying my name, giving me a little shiver as if when he said those six letters, my skin crawled closer to him. “Well, I don’t know. Maybe something a little more cutting-edge?” When he didn’t say anything, I turned so I was looking up at him. Our faces were mere inches apart, and the close proximity gave me a chance to look at his irises up close, that creamy kind of coffee somehow mesmerizing. He blinked and time slowed as I watched the descent of his long eyelashes before they lifted again, eyes open and searching. My chest suddenly went tight and I couldn’t look away from how he looked at me, too. I should have felt uncomfortable under his gaze, but I didn’t. It was a longing for something I should not want, but a longing I ached for nonetheless. And what made it more confusing was that I didn’t know what defined the longing itself. “Trista?” he asked, and everything was a hundred times tighter, like my body was a bow, drawn back with an arrow. It quivered, taut with anticipation to let go. And then Colin’s face appeared—but not in my head this time. “Hey.” He stood in the doorway to the hallway and my heart thumped painfully hard in my chest, punishingly. “Hey, Colin,” Jude said easily, easing back from me and turning his head toward the doorway. I looked away from Colin to stare at the back of Jude’s head before I realized that Colin was still staring at me. I turned to the laptop. “I was going to order pizza; do you want some?” “Sure,” I said, not looking up. “Okay. I’m gonna get a meat lovers. What do you like on your pizza?” Something happened in that moment, something that brought to light how very distant Colin and I were. Jude whispered under his breath, loud enough for only me to hear, “Olives.” One word. Jude knew something about me that Colin didn’t, something small— sure. But he remembered, when I’d told him while sitting on Mila’s bed. Which was more than I could say for my boyfriend. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Quickly, I closed my lips, inhaled, and said, “Olives.” My stomach flattened inside of me and I held my breath for no reason at all. “Cool,” Colin said walking away, pulling his phone out of his pocket. I watched as he walked to the fridge to look at the number on the pizza flier there.

And when I turned to focus on the computer again, my eyes met Jude’s. “Six years?” Jude asked, his voice low. I didn’t need him to clarify what he was asking. I nodded. “But that’s not a big deal. It’s just pizza.” “How many times do you tell yourself that? That it’s ‘no big deal,’ the things he doesn’t know about you?” His eyebrows were drawn, taunting almost. It was the most personal question he’d ever asked me. His words struck me like a sucker punch to the stomach. “I don’t think it’s any of your business,” I answered, forcing coldness into my voice. “And I don’t think it’s any of his, either.” He blinked, but his eyes remained unchanged when he opened them again. “Because he isn’t trying to know these things.” We’d gone several minutes not talking about the kiss—things had settled into something easy and smooth. But then he’d gone and forced me to remember what was wrong—as if it was staring me in the face. I put the laptop aside and stood, quickly moving out of the room and out the front door. Down the stairs to the air outside until I could fill my lungs with cold air and breathe, finally. There was no doubt in my mind now. Jude was picking at the fracture of who I was with Colin. Poking the gap with his cutting words, pressing against its frailty as if he had the right to do it. About a year ago, two years after Ellie died, I asked Colin to break up with me. “Why?” he’d asked, his voice a ghost now that it beat against the thoughts of Jude. “We’ve been together for five years.” I always thought it was such an interesting answer, as if the time itself held more weight than who we were together. “Because we never see each other,” I’d said, which was easier than telling him I wasn’t sure what my feelings for him meant. “I’m not throwing away five years,” he’d answered. I’d opened my fridge when he’d said that, picked up the lone block of cheese that sat at the back of the shelf, behind the pot of rice that was a week old and the five bottles of half-used ranch dressing. As I brought it closer and closer for inspection, the dark burst of mold was more and more evident, covering all that had once been good. I wasn’t sure how long I’d had that block of cheese in my fridge, but it didn’t matter anymore; it was no longer good. As I’d thrown it away, I’d thought of how Colin was refusing to throw us away, as if we were still something viable—not rotted from neglect. “You’re in Colorado, a whole state away,” I’d told him. “There are lots of girls in Colorado, I hear.” “But you’re in Wyoming.” “Exactly.” He had gone silent then and for a quick second, I sucked in a breath. I expected him to relent and agree and I was already letting my heart tighten in anticipation of

the blow. Because even though I wanted to let him go, I wasn’t necessarily happy about it. So when I heard his own intake of breath and stood still as his words poured through the phone, I wasn’t expecting what he said instead. “I’m not supposed to let you go yet.” Even now, as I stood under the awning at the entrance of the apartment’s stairwell, I thought of those words and how little I’d understood them. At the time, I’d felt like a fish caught on his line after flailing to the point of exhaustion. At that point, you’re realizing how futile it is and letting yourself accept the fact that this is how things will happen—how it’ll go from now on. And that’s how I was feeling still. I knew Jude didn’t understand why we were together, and I couldn’t explain it. I felt so contradictory in my relationship with Colin. I didn’t want him in a deep place within my heart, but I still worried what would happen if he did let me go. Because I’d moved to Colorado to be with Colin meant little as far as my dedication to our relationship went.

*** One time, Ellie asked me if Colin made room for me in his life. Like I was a piece of furniture, moved around a living room, to make space. And I’d laughed then, because Ellie didn’t really get it—she didn’t understand that for me, the fact that I, Trista Kohl—with the mom everyone whispered about—was dating Colin Marks, someone who was way out of my league with his looks and his smarts and his charisma. Back then, it was enough that he made time for me when it was convenient for him. But six years later, her words rushed back, asking me the same question. “Does he make room for you, Trista?” Her voice was haunting me. After I’d returned to the apartment, Jude was absent and Colin had one chunk of crust stuck in his mouth as he yelled at the television, as if the television would bend to his commands. He hadn’t noticed me come back in, but if he had he didn’t say anything. First, I’d gone into Colin’s room and then felt that familiar suffocation that began every time I realized just how lost I was. Surrounded by his things, the room felt more like a prison cell than a place to relax. And my chest hadn’t let go of that tightness as I’d returned to the kitchen, grabbing a slice of pizza and picking off the pepperoni. Two bites into the pizza, I was struggling to swallow past the tightness in my chest. So I’d climbed onto the roof, though it was way past sunset by then. The stars

were shining bright and the wind was light, just enough to break through some of the heat emanating off of the shingles. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard the sound of the sliding glass door onto the deck. I leaned back, squeezed my eyes shut, as I heard him climb onto the roof and make his approach. “That can’t be good for your shoulder,” I said softly as my body warmed from his nearness. “There are a lot of things that aren’t good for me. I haven’t stopped doing them.” His voice was a very welcome warmth, softening my bones so that the tenseness of the moment was nearly completely eliminated. “I’m sorry for what I said,” he began. “But not for saying it.” “Huh?” I pushed up onto my elbows, the sandpaper like texture of the shingles grazing my elbows. “That doesn’t sound like an actual apology.” “I suppose it doesn’t, because it isn’t.” He sat beside me, stretched back with his good arm behind his head. He turned his head so that he was looking at me. The only light was provided by the moon, so it kept his face shadowed from view. “Then why say it?” “Because I think you need me to apologize to you.” Something about that made me bite down on my tongue. “I don’t need anything from you,” I said. Though my words were biting, my tone was soft. A smile formed on his lips, so that all I saw were bright white teeth and the shadows that crawled into the creases formed from his smile. “You’re a bit prickly, Trista. Like a cactus. But that’s okay.” He turned his face skyward. I leaned back again. “You were quiet when I met you,” I said after a few moments. “I can’t help but be put off by you confronting me.” He was silent for so long after that, I thought he had fallen asleep or had lost his hearing entirely. But when he spoke, my fingers found the grit of the shingles and pressed. “I’m an easy-going guy, Trista.” I kept my face forward, at the sky. “But…” He was again silent for so long, that I couldn’t help but look over at him. When I met his eyes, the instinct to look away immediately thundered through, but I dismissed it. “But?” “I can’t tell you how to live your life,” he said, and I could tell he was really concentrating on how to answer by the way he tightened his jaw, “but I don’t think you’re being fair to yourself.” “Why do you care?” “Because you’re human.” He said that so simply. As if it should make perfect sense for him to care about me, when no one else did—not anymore, at least. “I’m not sure what to say.” “Maybe it’s not about what you say; maybe it’s about what you do.” He turned his head back to the sky.

“I’m not a cactus,” I said belatedly. “You are.” “I’m not prickly.” “Sometimes, you are.” I felt the need to argue with him, but I wasn’t sure why. Not many people told me how they thought of me, of the person I was. And it bothered me that the first person to tell me these things was comparing me to a plant with spikes. “I don’t think that’s a very fair comparison,” I said, throwing his word back at him. “You know what makes the cactus so great?” he asked, completely ignoring what I’d said. “No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me, tent guy.” He smiled a little, but not much. “A cactus can survive in some of the driest places on earth.” He looked at me again. His eyes may have been shadowed, but I could feel his gaze like the touch of his hand. “They can survive in drought. And not many … things … can.” Once again, I felt he was pulling me into the truth he saw so plainly. “When do you want me to start working on your website?” I asked, desperate to change the subject. I couldn’t very well charge off the roof as I’d done when I charged out of the front door of the apartment. You couldn’t see it, but there was a definite shift in Jude from that. “Tomorrow?” “Okay.” Because I didn’t know what else to say, I asked him a question this time. “Why do you know so much about mythology?” I lifted a shoulder. Once again, silence fell over us like a sheet. I waited and as the beats of my heart thumped, I suspected that this would be a question he wouldn’t answer. “When I was little—let’s say preschool to middle school—I spent a lot of time in bed.” His lips flattened out, and I could tell he was trying to figure out how to say this. “Books were my refuge. And so was the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel.” He kept talking, and I took that to mean that he didn’t want to talk about why he needed refuge. “On Mondays, the thrift store near our house had a sale on books. Mila went every Monday, gathered up an armful of books, and carried them home for me.” “What kind of books?” “All kinds. Nonfiction, mythology, crime fiction, cozy mysteries and even a bunch of romances.” I raised an eyebrow. “Romance?” He laughed, and it filled my chest. Instantly, an image of him in full smile lit up my brain. He had the kind of smile that called to you to return it with one of your own. He exuded warmth, and had this thing about him, like he was a home for someone who needed a place to rest. And, damn. Damn, if I didn’t for even a second think maybe I saw him that way because that was what I needed. “Bigfoot romance,” he said, interrupting me from my thoughts.

“Bigfoot romance?” I watched his shadow shrug. “She thought she was funny.” “Well, you do like the mountains.” “And the seas.” “And tents.” “Ah,” he said warmly. “Yes. I love tents.” And the laughter in his voice was like a burst of heat in my chest. Talking with Jude was easy, like there wasn’t expectation. I felt so guarded around most people. All it would take was a twist of my tongue for the truth to spill out. “So what are you doing in Colorado?” And just like that, my guard came back up. I shifted, felt the abrasive shingles scrape the back of my jeans. “I’m here for Colin,” I said, feeling like I’d already said this before. “Why?” My jaw ached with the stretch of opening my mouth to say the words I always said, like I was reciting a carefully constructed script. Because he’s my boyfriend. “I’m trying to make it work between us,” I said. “How many times are you going to ask me?” “As long as it takes until you realize the truth, or until you tell me the truth.” My eyes were adjusting to the dark enough that I could begin to make out the edges and curves of his head. “Tell me about your parents.” “Change of subject...” “I’ve told you some about my life. I think it’s fair for you to tell me something about you.” He was right. But he’d concealed some of the deeper parts. I too could skid past the surface and scoop up some truth. “My dad is a sperm donor. My mom is a bottom feeder. My grandfather can be credited for raising me.” “Tell me about your mom.” I thought for a minute, thinking of a story to tell Jude that would explain who my mother was better than me simply using adjectives would. “When I was in first grade, my snow pants ripped at the knees.” I moved my hands to my knees as I remembered the story. “They were old, something my grandparents had bought me the year before. My grandfather was in the hospital recovering from pneumonia and my mother had a new boyfriend living with her. I came home from school to a home that was dark because she didn’t have money to replace the light bulbs. She’d spent the money on a trip to the casino—gambling was her vice at the time.” I curled my fingers into my jeans, felt my nails slip between the worn threading. “And I showed her my snow pants.” The house had been cold, I remembered that. My mother was bundled up in blankets on the couch, staring off into space at some talk show. I looked at Jude, and even though I couldn’t see him clearly, I knew he was looking at me. “I showed her my snow pants and she ignored me, telling me about the boyfriend who had stolen her money and how sorry I should feel for her, for hooking up with another

loser. I showed her the snow pants again and she asked me if I thought she was fat.” I looked down, because even though I couldn’t see Jude well, I felt like he could see me all too clearly. “I asked her three times. She finally relented to at least look at them and said she’d fix them and have them ready in the morning.” I scooted, needing to move some of the nervous energy I was feeling talking about my mother. “The next morning, my snow pants were folded up on the coffee table. I can’t tell you what that felt like.” My breath hitched as I remembered how it felt, to see that she’d followed through. “I picked them up and put them in my backpack. Hours later at recess, I pulled out my pants to put them on and saw the shiny duct tape over the knees. And along one leg was cigarette burns.” My stomach hurt, remembering the shame that had filled me along with the indecision. Should I wear the snow pants and suffer embarrassment or should I skip recess? “The school had a rule about wearing snow pants outside when the weather dipped below 10 degrees. And so I sat out that day, and every day the rest of the winter.” Jude was quiet. I wanted to scrub at my skin, to remove some of the embarrassment of that moment. I had never told anyone, not even Ellie. “Cigarette burns?” “My mom is chain smoker and a drunk. She probably shook so hard while applying duct tape that she dropped her cigarette and forgot about it long enough for it to burn.” It made sense—my mother had a track record for forgetting her own daughter long after school got out. “That’s stuck with you.” I nodded, not sure if he could even see the movement. “Defining moments like that always do.” “How was that defining for you?” “I realized that my mother didn’t really care about me; whether I’d be embarrassed or not wasn’t her concern.” “You were in first grade. Six or seven?” “Six.” We were silent then. I had dug my nails so hard into the knees of my jeans that I could feel the imprint in my skin underneath the fabric. “Tell me something, Jude.” “What?” “Anything.” Just help me not feel so alone. “Do you know why I love the mountains so much?” “No.” “Life is temporary. The world is not.” I was silent as I thought about it. I knew just how temporary life could be, but because I wasn’t as well traveled as Jude was, I didn’t know a whole lot about the world. “Life really is temporary.” I felt him nod beside me. “Yes, it is. And there’s something comforting knowing that each time I climb the mountain, I’m a little bit lighter. Hard to harbor any

stress when you’re on top of the world, seeing that view.” I thought of Colin’s quote on his Facebook photo, about climbing mountains so the world could see him. And I was sure I asked to only confuse me even more, but the words tumbled from my mouth anyway. “Why do you climb mountains, Jude? Is it so the world can see what you’ve done?” He was silent for a minute and I began to realize that in his silences, he was thinking, feeling what I said. Jude wasn’t one to give me an answer if it didn’t mean something to him. “I climb mountains so that I can see the world. The world doesn’t care what I’ve done.” I waited a beat, as I always did when Jude said something quietly profound. And then I spoke what had been weighing on me. “So, Yellowstone.” “Yellowstone,” Jude repeated. “Let’s go.” I sighed. “Why?” “Because it’s there. Because you’ve never been. Because maybe you need a break. Because you can. Because it’s Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, a wilderness with canyons that will steal your breath and animals that will eat you if you get too close.” I’d fallen under a spell when he spoke, but was quickly removed from it. “Well, you were really selling me on it until that last part.” “Don’t worry, I won’t let you get eaten.” I leaned my head on my shoulder, feeling like I could do this—I could go to Yellowstone with Jude and just enjoy myself. See some of the beauty that Jude was so enthralled by. “You once told me you wrestled bears.” “I’ll wrestle all of the bears,” he promised, and I saw the curve of his lips in the moonlight. “And you can finally say you visited a supervolcano.” He held up a finger. “Even more impressive, it’s the only active supervolcano located beneath land.” “A volcano? Jude, it sounds like you’re talking me out of it.” “Listen, the caldera has erupted three times in the last two million years. It’s safe—depending on who you ask…” when he saw me shift uncomfortably, he continued on. “There are all kinds of wildlife and canyons and the lake. It’s beautiful. And the hike up Mount Washburn is the best, in my humble opinion— you can see everything. The Yellowstone Grand Canyon, the Sugarloaf mountains...” “How long is this hike?” “Six-ish miles. In and out, same day. We’ll go up early so we can take our time and be back well before the sun starts to set.” The idea of a hike with Jude didn’t worry me, knowing how capable he was. And what little views I’d been afforded to on the hike with Colin and his friends, I knew a hike in Yellowstone would be far more majestic. I found myself agreeing easily.

“Okay. Let’s go.” I saw a flash a white with Jude’s smile and found myself returning his smile. Quiet settled over us, until all I heard were the flutters of birds and the chirp of crickets and the beat of my heart, hammering against my chest like it was finally calm for the first time that day.

Chapter Twenty

The next week passed slowly at first, with me doing the tasks Jude had assigned me and sort-of-kind-of avoiding Colin when possible. There was a movement within me, but I couldn’t tell where it was going. Until the day Colin walked around the couch and closed the laptop in my face. “Let’s go on a date,” he said, completely disregarding the sour look I must have worn, knowing he’d closed my computer with lots of work unsaved. “I’m trying to get some work done before I go to Yellowstone.” I flipped the lid of my laptop back up and avoided his hands when I did it. “You have two days.” “I leave the day after tomorrow,” I replied, typing on the keys to wake it back up. “Yeah, two days.” He plopped beside me, causing my papers to scramble in a mess that already began a headache at the back of my skull. I wavered between giving him acid words and continuing to work over acquiescing to his idea. The latter won out, mostly because I’d resolved to try. Even if that meant I was trying my patience in the process. “Okay, Colin.” I clicked save and hoped that the interruption hadn’t caused me to lose my work. “Where are we going?” “The movies?” Instantly, I felt relief. It was getting easier to feel that, when Colin made a suggestion that meant we’d have to talk very little. I may have become accustomed to telling him lies, but that didn’t mean I felt good about it. “Okay. Which movie?” “I was thinking about our first date. How about you pick?” Hope was a tangible thing, blooming in my chest. Hope was a small opening, waiting to be filled with promise, in my chest. “Really?” He frowned a little, giving him that model-esque pout that used to slay me. “You wound me, Trista. Don’t act so surprised that I want you to pick.” I cleared my features of the soft surprise. “Alright.” I pulled up a website for show times and rattled off the names of a few movies. Not a single one was the romantic comedy I’d hope to spring upon him, just to get a reaction. Colin settled on one, a sci-fi set in the late 1970s and after I changed into jeans, we left the apartment.

Colin pulled the top off the Jeep, the sun was so warm that it had heated the seats to an almost-painful warmth. I lifted my legs a few times, separating my skin from the upholstery to give them relief. “The last time we went to the movies was with Ellie,” I said, interrupting the silence that was pressing into me. He didn’t reply to that—just stayed quiet, flipping on the turn signal and moving down the next street as if he hadn’t heard me. “Do you remember what the movie was? Something youngish…” my voice trailed off as I squinted into space, trying to remember what I’d seen with Colin and Ellie so long ago. “Oh,” I said, remembering. “Harry Potter. The fifth one.” I leaned back against the seat. “We went to the dollar theater. It was so packed that we couldn’t get seats together, remember? Ellie was going to sit in the aisle just so she wasn’t forced to sit next to a stranger.” I laughed, remembering the usher telling her it was against fire code. Colin remained silent and I wasn’t sure if he remembered. His memory seemed to be lacking in a big way. “Remember? You finally agreed to sit next to the stranger so Ellie and I could sit together.” “Does everything have to be about Ellie? Haven’t you moved on yet?” The words struck me harder than his fist would have. I felt it in my gut, the clench of my throat as I reacted. “How can you say that?” “It’s been three f*cking years, Trista. Three.” He glanced over, three fingers up in the air. “And you’re still talking about her like it was yesterday. Why can’t you let it go? Let her go?” I felt the unfurling of grief in my belly. It’d held still for the last couple weeks, because I was never without it—but now it was uncoiling, taking up space like it always did—reminding me that I was full of everything. “Why is it so easy for you to let her go?” To let me go? I added silently. “Grief is a deadweight and it’ll drown you faster than anything else.” His words struck me again. Because if anything was pulling me under, it was my apathy for Colin. “Ellie isn’t deadweight. She was my best friend.” “And she’s dead.” Colin had never spoken so bluntly to me, so harsh. And even though what he said wasn’t news to me, it still hurt to hear him brush her aside so effortlessly. “You’re right she is. She’s been dead for three years. And you’ve been absent for even longer.” I turned and faced out the window, hoping he’d say nothing else to me. I wanted that silence again, because the alternative had only rendered me tender to Colin. He’d have hurt me less if he’d said he didn’t love me. Colin drove us to a small town style theater, only two screens. I followed him quietly, grateful he wasn’t making small talk, up to the window. We paid for our own tickets and he paid for our snacks and then he led me to the theater to our right. And the entire time, we didn’t say a single word to one another. When the lights dimmed and his hand brushed mine reaching into the popcorn

container, I waited for him to say something or do something. But he pulled back, politely allowing me to grab a handful of popcorn and waited until my hand was clear for him to go back in. Something so small shouldn’t feel so significant, but it did. He hadn’t smiled at me in response or even kept his hand comfortably beside mine. He’d retracted. As much as I had, at least emotionally, from him. I shouldn’t have been surprised that his bathroom break stretched longer than the five minutes I expected. But when it stretched to ten, and then fifteen, I wondered where he’d gone. And when I’d endured the entire movie, to the credits, completely alone, I was no longer surprised; I was angry. I left the theater and paced the concession and looked out the front of the building for any sign of him. When I came up empty, I called him. His phone went straight to voicemail. My anger was palpable. I could taste it, the acid bubbling in my throat as I ground my teeth together and searched for him. After several minutes searching, I nearly gave up and plopped to a bench before an employee approached, ushering me out. There was no reason for me to stick around, since it was long after all the other patrons had left and close to closing time for the theater. Once I was politely escorted out to the sidewalk, I spotted Colin’s Jeep in the same spot he’d parked it. But still, the man himself was nowhere to be found. Giving up, I pulled up my phone and fired off a text to Mila. Me: Hey, hate to bother you but could you pick me up? I’m at the little theater, in town. Her reply came only seconds later. Mila: Sorry, toots. I’m on a job. I’ll ask Jude to. “No,” I groaned aloud. The last thing I needed was to be around Jude when I was feeling like my boyfriend was really as oblivious as I’d expected he was. But minutes later, Jude rode up in a small white car. “I thought you didn’t have a car?” I asked, desperate for him not to see how embarrassed I was at being left alone. “This,” he said, tapping the hood, “is Betsy, Mila’s car.” He shut the driver’s door and came around. “You okay?” I didn’t want to tell him just yet what had happened, so I merely nodded and accepted the seat he offered when he opened the passenger side door. As Jude rounded the car, I tried to rack my brain over the places Colin could have gone. Whenever I’d gone to the movies with him and Ellie, it had been common for him to disappear from time to time, but I’d been with Ellie. Not alone, holding his drinks and jacket and popcorn.

“What an asshole,” I said, the anger finally too much for me to hold in. “What happened?” I shook my head. “I don’t know. He left halfway through the movie for what I assumed was a bathroom break but then never came back.” Jude zipped out of the parking lot and I afforded one glance back toward Colin’s Jeep. “Hm,” was all Jude said. Thankfully, we were back at the apartment minutes later, but Colin was not. I paced the kitchen, my flip flops making an unending clacking sound. I opened my laptop, pulled up his Facebook and tapped my finger impatiently as the page loaded. Colin documented so much of his life online that it was how I knew what he was doing. That was true for when I lived in Wyoming and when I’d moved in with him. Jude grabbed a root beer from the fridge and waited behind me. When Colin’s page loaded, there was a photo of him and two other girls, his arms around them and a beer in each hand. The image was so shocking that I thought it had to have been from earlier—another party or something. But he was wearing the shirt he’d been wearing on our date and he’d been tagged in it with a location of a bar I’d seen near the theater. My blood boiled close to the surface. He’d ditched me, on a date he’d wanted, to go to a bar and hang with other people. It wasn’t even a jealousy thing—because I wasn’t the least bit jealous of the flirty intentions seen in the photo. It was the fact that I’d been forgotten. Again. By the one person who wasn’t supposed to forget about me. I slammed the lid of my laptop closed and picked it up, my arms tense. I pushed from the table, enough to the shake the glass bottles of salt and pepper that clinked next to one another. I’d known for a while that Colin and I were in the twilight of our relationship; chasing the dusk of us with a slow gait. But until that moment, I hadn’t been fully ready to quit it all. “What are you thinking?” Jude asked from behind me. “I’m thinking that it was stupid to come to Colorado. That it was stupid to drag this out years past its expiration date.” I stood and pushed my chair in harder than I’d intended, and then gripped the top of the chair’s back. My nails pushed into the fabric, the tips bent from pressure. “What can I do?” I closed my eyes, not ready to turn around and look at him. “Tell me what to do.” “I can’t do that.” I knew he couldn’t, wouldn’t. And it both burned and cooled me. “But I can talk with you. Or listen to you.” I let the air pour from my nose. “I don’t want to talk.” “I will then.” His hands touched my shoulders and it was as if he’d pressed a warm compress to my skin with how instantly I reacted. “Let’s sit on the couch.”

I looked at the couch, out the corner of my eye. “Let’s go to the roof.”

*** Despite his weakened arm, Jude had less trouble climbing up onto the roof than I did. Once I’d plopped beside him on the warm shingles, I felt like I could finally breathe, exhale the anger and disgust with myself and suck in the air that blew off the mountains. It was a baptism of sorts, the air cleansing me of my grief. “When I was twelve,” Jude began, his voice that constant warmth that I seemed to crave more and more lately, “I was trying to impress this girl. She was in the same gym class as me, a year ahead, but we’d been lumped in one large class thanks to district-wide budget cuts.” I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around my legs. “What was her name?” “Melody. She had these eyes.” His gaze was on me but I faced forward, sucking in the air and feeling the anger slowly slip away from me. “Her face was strikingly narrow. Cheekbones and chin angled sharply, supporting the saddest blue eyes I’d ever seen.” Pulling my knees tighter to my chest, I remembered Jude had described me the same way. “She had a volume of poetry in her eyes. A hundred stories to tell, but she was so quiet—silent, really. She kept to herself and kept her struggles close. When I saw her, I felt this compelling tug. Like I was called to her for some reason.” I felt him shrug beside me, because I watched him from my periphery. But I didn’t turn my head or allow him to see my face as he told me about Melody. “Anyway, I tried to impress her—like I said. We were all paired up to play softball and she and I were on opposing teams. When it was my chance to pitch to her, I f*cked it up. I nearly hit her. Because I was so distracted by her, she told me to get off the field.” My lips curved, but I didn’t give way to the smile. “She sounds like a smart girl.” “And she was.” Jude shifted so that he was laying on his back and when he didn’t continue, I joined him, but still didn’t look at him. I just lay beside him on the roof, in silence. “What happened?” “Well,” he said with a sigh. “When it was my turn to hit, I knocked the ball completely out of the field and she said, ‘So you can’t pitch, but you can hit?’ before she gave me a smile that sealed our fate. I was only twelve, still a boy of course, but I fell in love with her stormy eyes and her pointy chin.” I felt a pang of jealousy in listening to this story about Melody who’d stolen

Jude’s heart with a single smile. But I remained silent, waiting for him to continue. “When I was thirteen, I told her I loved her. We were sitting on her front porch swing, listening to it creak back and forth with each kick of our feet in the air. She was going to the high school and I still had one year left in middle school. But for some inexplicable reason, I felt like I needed her. And on our first day of school the following year, she kissed me on the corner between our two schools and said goodbye and the goodbye became the beginning of something permanent. The next day she forgot to kiss me and the following week, I found her on her front porch swing, smiling at another boy—an older boy—a boy whose hands didn’t tremble as mine had when I’d held her. A boy with an easy smile and a confidence I didn’t have.” I tried to imagine Jude as a broken hearted thirteen-year-old, but it was hard to imagine anything past the muscles and the facial hair—things that screamed his manliness. But then I imagined his coffee irises and the hurt he must have felt seeing her move on with someone else. “She sounds pretty inconsiderate.” Jude’s head rolled to the side and I felt the need to turn my head too. So I did, looking right at him. “She might’ve been. But I learned something that day. We seek out the people we need, but that doesn’t mean they need us too. I’d been going through some difficult things in my life, and for some reason I thought she could fix them if she’d been mine. And she couldn’t.” “I’m sorry.” “For what?” I shrugged. “That you felt unneeded.” “I’m not.” He smiled, not a full smile, but a slip of his lips and a brief glint of his shiny teeth. “Because she released me.” “I don’t think I like your stories, Jude.” “Why? Because they make you think?” “Yes. Too much.” “I think you’re afraid to look that deep within yourself.” “You barely know me.” He shrugged, and I heard the scrape of his shirt on the shingles. “You learn a lot about someone from action.” He held up a hand and touched his thumb to his forefinger. “For one, you open your mouth like you want to say something to him. But then you close it immediately. As if you’re being obedient for some reason.” He touched his middle finger. “Two, there’s an emptiness within you and you’re trying to fill it the wrong way.” He touched his ring finger. “Three, I don’t think I’ve seen you smile—truly smile—once. You’ve got the same sad eyes as Melody, but Melody was happy on occasion.” He touched his pinky finger. “And four. You spend more time with me than you spend with him.” My initial reaction was to slide down the roof and get away from him and his truths. He wasn’t wrong—not a bit—but the fact that he could see the emptiness within me so clearly scared me. How could he see it and Colin couldn’t? “Because you seem to want to spend time with me,” was how I replied, which

was more a fact than anything introspective. “That’s what humans do. And to some degree, Colin wants to spend time with you, too. But I think where you silently walk away, Colin just dodges you.” He pushed up, wincing as he bore weight on his bad arm. “I shouldn’t say this because Colin has been my friend for years. But Colin is a wanderer with stars in his eyes. He can’t be tethered or steadfast; he’s not built that way. He craves connection, but not with one person in particular. And that makes someone like you, a dreamer who wears grief like a heavy sweater, an anchor for the person who wants to only be free.” “You’re saying Colin doesn’t want to be with me?” “I’m not saying that. I’m telling you who he is, and who you are. And that in all the years I’ve known him, he’s mentioned you very little.” I shouldn’t feel hurt. I shouldn’t feel the pain of that cut me up into tiny pieces. But I did. Because he was right. Colin didn’t know me, that much I knew. But more than that—he didn’t try to know me. He didn’t try to understand who I was and why we should keep forcing ourselves to fit together. “I’ve been with him for so long.” “Time means nothing. Time is disposable. Time is the biggest thief of our lives, but only if we let it steal from us.” “Steal what?” “The moments we waste doing things that don’t make us happy.” His eyes were bright and I had a sudden flash, remembering that we’d kissed on this roof the last time we’d been here. But I wasn’t in the kissing kind of mood, especially not when I was resigned to leave Colin completely. I opened my mouth to say something when I heard the slider onto the deck open and Colin call my name.

Chapter Twenty-One

“How dare you?” I asked, stepping into Colin’s space. He smelled of beer and cigarettes and I couldn’t stop the anger seeping into me knowing that he’d left me for someone else on a night that was supposed to be our date. He swayed on his feet and squinted one eye, giving me a crooked grin. “What? You left. You were gonna drive me home.” “I left?” I stepped closer, swallowed back the bile from the rage that had climbed up my throat. “We were on a date. You went to a bar. To spend time with someone else. And you,” I pushed a finger in his chest, “didn’t tell me.” He rolled his eyes and I couldn’t tell if he was just a completely insincere asshole or drunk, too. “You could’ve called me.” I looked up to the ceiling to help compose myself. And then when I looked at him again, I felt the fire burning at the corners. “I did. It went straight to voicemail. And I walked around, looking for you. We were supposed to be spending time together.” “We could’ve, if you’d gone to the bar.” I threw up my hands, realizing I couldn’t reason with him when he was drunk— as I knew he was. He rubbed a hand over his face, as if he was trying to wake himself up. “How’d you get home?” I asked, the anger now at a simmer since I knew I couldn’t talk to him while he was this drunk. “I dunno.” The thought that he might’ve driven drunk pierced my gut. “Did you drive?” He shrugged, his eyes half-lidded as he leaned against the back of the couch. “Probably.” Jude was waiting on the sidelines and stepped forward then. “Where are your keys, bud?” Colin tried to stick a hand into his jeans, but his fingers were like limp fish and he couldn’t get his flesh to fit. Over and over, I watched him attempt to snake his keys from his jeans until Jude finally reached his hand in and pulled them out himself. I watched as Jude tucked the keys into his pocket, and wondered just how many times he’d done this for Colin. “Does he do this a lot?”

“Define ‘a lot’ for me.” That was all the answer I needed. “Get in bed, Colin,” I said, weary and frustrated. Colin didn’t hear me, he fell against the wall and I winced, the anger I couldn’t release piercing my skull. I closed my eyes and the sounds fell away—leaving me standing with a heart thumping and a headache forming. “He’s already asleep.” I opened my eyes to see Jude leaning in the doorway of the hallway. He was all long limbs and ink, his black t-shirt stretched taut across his chest. “Good.” I pressed my fingertips to my temples. I couldn’t sleep in the same room as him tonight, not when I was feeling the chasm between us filled with more anger than affection. “I hope the couch is comfortable.” Jude tucked his hands in his front pockets. “He should sleep on the couch.” I shook my head. “This is his apartment, that’s his bedroom.” I plopped onto the couch, my anger depleting my energy. “This is probably his couch too.” “You’re in luck,” Jude said, his voice giving a hint of humor. “The couch is mine. Let me get you some pillows.” I shook my head. “It’s okay.” Apparently, he hadn’t heard me because he returned a couple minutes later with three pillows, two sheets and two blankets. When I raised an eyebrow, he motioned me up off of the couch and laid one sheet down first, along the side that held the chaise. “If you’re going to sleep on the couch, I’m going to sleep on the couch too.” That caused a little quiver in my belly. “No, you don’t need to do that,” I said too quickly. “I didn’t say I needed to. But I feel like you could use a friend tonight.” He stood back from laying the sheet down and handed me a pillow and pillowcase. “A friend?” I asked, unable to mask the suspicion in my voice. “That’s it. Friends.” His eyes were honest, his lips in a straight line. “I can be your friend, Trista.” The way he said my name always caused a little ripple of goosebumps along my flesh, and I averted my eyes so he wouldn’t see how affected I was by it. “Okay.” I shoved the pillow into the pillowcase and picked one of the blankets. Jude laid the other sheet along the long side of the sectional before adjusting his pillow. “Want a drink?” “Liquor?” I asked hopefully. I rarely resorted to alcohol when I was upset, but I had a feeling I’d be awake long after I should be, haunted by thoughts and plans and confusion and booze would go a long way to helping me sleep. Jude was already in the kitchen and when he raised an arm over his head to reach into the cupboard where the liquor bottles were kept, his black shirt rose just a bit over his shorts, giving me a glimpse at the smooth skin between his t-shirt and shorts. Once again, I averted my eyes. I didn’t need to be thinking of Jude as anything

other than the friend he promised to be tonight. “We have gin and whiskey.” I scrunched my nose. “I’ll take the gin, please.” “No tonic, but we have some lemon-lime soda in the fridge?” “Sure,” I said gratefully. I sighed loudly, the anger leaving me along with the exhale. I knew the anger would return in the morning, when Colin was lucid and able to explain why he’d left me alone. But part of me didn’t care. Our chance for reconciliation was something we both reached for with slippery fingers and not enough interest. I was finally accepting that we were done. When Jude returned and handed me the cold glass, my fingers brushed his softly. But the feeling that I was left with was strong enough for me to look quickly down at the liquid, as the top of the cup fizzed. The gin was strong, but comforting somehow. Probably because its distinct juniper berry smell reminded me so much of the man who was settling on the other end of the couch, flipping through the channels on the television for something for us to watch. I took a long sip. As the alcohol and soda sloshed around my stomach, I settled back into the cushions, my eyes on the television. “What do you want to watch?” “Anything,” I said. He settled on a show about wilderness survival after getting a nod from me. A few minutes into the show, I asked him, “Have you ever wanted to do that? Go out into the wilderness all alone and try to survive?” The answer was immediate. “Always.” His gaze shifted to me. “The woods are my home.” “Even with the bears?” He lifted his shoulder. “It’s their home too. I can’t begrudge them for wanting to survive themselves.” I sipped the gin again and leaned back. “That’s why you got that too, right?” I asked, pointing to the tattoo on his forearm, the trees that grew from his wrist. He glanced down at the trees. “Yes.” When he lifted his gaze, his expression was soft. “There’s this poem by Michael S. Glaser. The Presence of Trees. I’ve read it a hundred times and it’s the only way I can articulate why the trees call to me.” And so he recited the poem by heart, holding my eyes the whole time. Slowly, I am remembering the language of awe, ​

how to take in, say, ​ the living complexity of a tree

its gnarled trunk, its ragged bark, ​

the way its leafy canopy filters sunlight

down to the brown carpeted ground,

the way the wind bends my heart to the exquisite presence of trees ​

the forest that calls to me as deeply as I breathe,

as though the woods were marrow of my bone as though

I myself were tree, a breathing, reaching arc of the larger canopy

beside a brook bubbling to foam like the one

deep in these woods, that calls

that whispers home. My heart turned over a little—not just because the poem was beautiful, but because I felt an aching. An aching to know what that felt like—the belonging that Jude so clearly felt in the woods, among the trees. What must that be like? To

connect deeply, to understand who you were, without hesitation? I took a deep breath around the burden of knowing that down to my soul, I was lost. I was suddenly just aware of how little I knew myself and of how confusing that was. I’d lived, twenty-two years, in this flesh, knowing this skin and these bones and still—I had nothing worth knowing about myself. If I were to die, my obituary would read, “She was here and then she wasn’t.” “You’re quiet,” Jude said interrupting my thoughts. I’m empty, I thought. “When did you realize the woods were your home?” His answer was immediate. “When I was eight years old, I ran away from home. Our house backed up to these woods and what had begun as a simple five-minute tantrum turned into hours of getting lost among the pine and the dogwood. I’d been scared at first, of course. But realizing that staying put instead of getting lost further in the woods had been instinctual. So I leaned against a tree, with my ear up to the bark, and I fell asleep. When I woke and realized I was still alone, I listened to the birds and found my way back to my house without fear.” He looked down at his arm, one long finger tracing the top of a pine tree. “I had been a slave to fear—the fear of being lost. And when I let go of the fear, I was no longer lost. It sounds simplistic, but it was true for me.” He sat up straighter, dropping a hand from his arm. “Listen. When you slipped over the side of the cliff?” My stomach knotted, remembering. I nodded, encouraging him to continue. “It would have been easy for me to fall into my fear—but I didn’t. I focused on what needed to be done and pulled you over.” I remembered how I’d felt as I’d thrashed around, his hand wrapped around mine. “I couldn’t let go of fear.” “If you can’t let it go, just do it while you’re afraid. It’ll be okay.” He lifted his shirt, showing me the words just under his pectoral. “’Fear is the enemy.’” He dropped his shirt and I hoped my neck wasn’t red from being overly warm at observing his body. “Gandhi said that. It’s not hate—it’s fear.” “I don’t have any tattoos,” I said. “Why not?” “I don’t know. Maybe because I’m too indecisive.” He pursed his lips as he studied me. I shouldn’t hold eye contact with him for so long, but I was compelled to. “I’m a holder,” he said after a moment. “A holder?” “I hold onto things. I can’t let go.” A shiver moved through me at the way he said that. The hair on my arms stood on end. I didn’t know what to say, so I swallowed hard. “That’s why I get things tattooed on my body—so they stay with me.” He closed his eyes for a moment and I wished I could look away, but watching his face smooth and settle into peace was mesmerizing. “If I love something enough that I can’t let it go—I get it tattooed on me so it can’t leave me.” The ache cleaved me in two. I’d never thought of tattoos that way—as something meant to go with you—stay with you—long after the things they

represented left. And the way Jude had described it was so singularly sad that the ache rippled through me. “I want a tattoo.” “Then get one.” I stared at him a beat longer than I should as the liquor warmed my belly before giving him a small smile. “Okay.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

It’s the midnight of us, the beginning of the end. When I’ve accepted that we’ve slid into an abyss from which we won’t return. No sunrise awaits us, with the promise of something new. Just the realization that your absence won’t be a relief or tinged with grief. It’ll be just as it should be with the yesterday “we” becoming the tomorrow “me” I’d written the words early in the morning, after falling into a peaceful sleep on the couch, feet away from Jude. I’d made a cup of coffee and drank it in solace on the deck as I watched the sun come from the east and make the first steps of its journey across the sky. And then I waited for the sound I was expecting, the slider on the glass door signaling Colin’s approach. “Trista,” he said, and I remembered that I’d loved him once—in a desperate way that had consumed me. I turned to look over my shoulder, taking him in. His eyes were surrounded by dark circles, as if he’d been given matching black eyes. His hair stuck up in a hundred directions and the color of his skin was so pale that it looked nearly translucent. “Good morning.” “I wouldn’t go that far,” he said, wincing at the light as he stepped out of the shade. “We need to talk.” I inhaled, telling myself to end it with Colin, here and now. It was long past done, well overdue. Staying with Colin out of indifference had been a mistake—this I knew, and had known, for a while. But we do things that aren’t good for us all the time, convincing

ourselves otherwise. I’d loved Colin once—deeply, though I was beginning to think a lot of my love was born from loneliness. Colin had seen me in a crowd of people and had picked me. And in my gratefulness, I’d clung to him longer than was right for either of us. But what I’d realized over the last few weeks of living with him was that I’d never felt lonelier than when I was with him. In his arms, I felt an emptiness that was so profound that it took shape in the space between us, as if there was someone else holding us apart. I loved him still, but not in the way that I should. And I knew, without a doubt, that he had lost feelings for me, too, somewhere along the way with the distance and Ellie’s life and death creating an ellipsis in between us—an unknown status of where we stood. Truthfully, I felt Colin wanted an out. And he’d chosen a bar over me because he couldn’t say with words how he felt. “Not only did you leave me behind last night, you drove drunk. And I can’t believe you’d do that—you’d risk the lives of others so carelessly.” “I didn’t get into a wreck.” He was the picture of nonchalance, leaning against the railing of the deck, arms across his chest. “Why did you leave me at the movies?” He rubbed a hand over his face, made a noise like he was releasing all the air from his lungs. “Because I was mad at you.” “Why?” “Because you don’t stop talking about Ellie. Because you can’t move on. Because you’re a million miles from me and you’re not trying.” He wasn’t wrong, with any of it. So I couldn’t be upset at the truth. “But why don’t you say that? Why can’t you open your mouth and tell me how you really feel?” “Are you saying how you really feel? I don’t think you are. And your eyes,” he paused, waving a hand in front of my face. “I can see you, when you look at me. You’re finding faults with me and you’re unhappy, disappointed. Do you know what it’s like to be constantly looked at as a disappointment?” I narrowed my eyes, because I knew all too well. “Maybe I do. And maybe I am looking at you like I’m unhappy because I am.” I inhaled a shuddering breath. “I don’t know who I am, Colin. I’ve been your girlfriend; I’ve been Ellie’s friend. I haven’t been me—I haven’t learned who I’m meant to be.” “Ellie’s dead, Trista. What you need, more than anything, is to accept that. And it’s not my fault that you haven’t figured any of that out—I haven’t limited you.” “You’ve kept me, though. You could’ve let me go.” He shook his head. “No, I couldn’t. Not after watching how you fell apart. What kind of person would that make me?” “So you stayed with me out of obligation. Let me relieve you of that right now.” “Don’t go,” he said, as I tried to push around him. “What, Colin?” I said, my voice several octaves higher than it’d been the whole

conversation. “Make up your mind! What do you want? Tell me!” He turned away from me, but still blocked me from leaving the deck. “I don’t know how to handle having you here, Trista.” “Then I’ll leave,” I said quickly. He turned around, his eyes hard. “No. But I can see it in your eyes—everything I’m doing to let you down. And last night, when we fought about Ellie’s death, I saw how you shut down. You stopped talking to me and—f*ck—the silence with you, it’s suffocating.” He was giving me whiplash. “You’re not talking to me, Colin. We’re not communicating. You’re with your friends or you’re playing your video games and I’m here.” I pointed my fingers to the floor underneath our feet. “I’m here—and you’re not here with me.” “Because you’re so f*cking unhappy.” He brought his hands to his head, tugged his hair like he was frustrated with me. And then his hands clasped my upper arms and he held me, shaking me for a second like I was a Magic 8 Ball, and all the answers to his questions were somewhere in my depths. “And I can’t make you happy. I can’t fix what happened between us.” I shoved away from him, because he was telling me he didn’t want me to leave while he was telling me that we were essentially hopeless. Not that I disagreed with him, but the inconsistency was making my head spin. “It’s not your job to make me happy. But you’re not trying to spend time with me. You’re forcing me to spend time with…” I nearly said his name. But the last thing I wanted right now was to tell Colin I’d kissed his roommate, his friend. Not when our relationship was dissolving in our hands, too quick for Colin to catch all the pieces. “With everyone else who isn’t you.” I was feet from him, but he stepped closer to me, his face inches above mine. His hand grasped my chin and he made me look him in the eyes. “Where’d you go in there?” I tried to pull from his grasp but he held me firm. I put my hands on his chest and struggled in vain to gain distance again. “Trista, I can’t reach you—wherever you are inside of yourself. You’re not here —despite what you say.” His eyes were hard, searching, and his grip was tight and I couldn’t stand his hold on me in that moment. “You’re not here,” he repeated. I wrenched my chin from his grasp, the anger now hitting me in waves. “You’re not trying, Colin!” I yelled, my voice projecting all my frustration. “How dare you accuse me of not being present!” He took a step like he was going to touch me and I slapped his hand away. “You don’t care! You’ve moved on. You left me alone to grieve. And that’s all I’ve done, for years! All I’ve done is f*cking grieve.” The hurt from that realization pinched me hard and I rubbed a hand over my chest, as if I could alleviate the pain beneath my ribs. I sucked in a painful breath, fisted my hand over my chest. “You weren’t there—you haven’t been there in years.” Tears burned at the back of my eyes. But everything was pouring out of me without a levee to stop it.

“I came to Colorado, because I wanted the us from before. We were so happy.” My voice broke. “So happy. I moved to be with you hoping to find us again. But you haven’t tried. You don’t care. I’m all alone, whether I’m with you or not.” As the first tear slid over the curve of my cheek, I shouted, “And all I’ve realized since coming to Colorado is that I’ve never been as lonely in my life as I am when I’m with you.” Hell, my chest burned. The hurt and the anger was colliding, clogging my throat. I could hardly breathe through it. My chest heaved with repressed sobs as I glared at him. When he reached for me again, my whole body shook and I backed away from him. “Don’t touch me. I don’t want you to touch me again.” And even though it hurt more than I expected, I said exactly what I needed to. “We’re done.” I steeled myself from the hurt that overcame his face. I’d been hurting for years. The door to the deck opened and Jude stepped out. “Are you okay?” he asked me. His eyes moved between us, to the distance I’d put between Colin and me. “Maybe you both need some space.” I pushed past Jude, into the house and down the hall to Colin’s bedroom where I began to throw my clothes into the one suitcase I brought with me. “What are you doing?” Colin asked from the doorway. “Go away.” My anger, my hurt, was still crashing little waves over me as I tried to focus on the task at hand. “Stop packing.” “No.” I didn’t care if he saw me as a petulant child. I just wanted to be far away from him. The last twenty minutes had taken me on a roller coaster ride and I desperately wanted off. “Leave me alone, Colin.” I felt rather than saw Jude’s presence beside Colin. “Let me take you somewhere,” he said softly. I didn’t spare Colin a glance, just nodded as I slapped the cover of my suitcase closed and zipped it. Thankfully, Colin moved from the doorway as I exited, slinging my suitcase and bumping into the narrow hallway walls. When I was down the stairs, Jude held up my keys and stopped me beside my car. “Trista.” My lungs were burning from my quick pace down the stairs and the suppressed anger. “What?” I snapped, harsher than I meant. But I was too embarrassed to apologize, so I just stared at the ground, my fingers wrapped around the suitcase handle. “Do you still want to go to Yellowstone tomorrow?” I blinked quickly as I thought. I found myself nodding a second later. “My stuff’s already packed. I have nowhere to go. Why not?” I laughed sarcastically at my situation. “But I’m not staying in that apartment.” I pointed upstairs, where I knew Colin was waiting—expecting me to return when I realized I had nowhere to go. “I can take you to a hotel, if you want. And then pick you up tomorrow, for the airport?”

I nodded. “Sure. Whatever.” He unlocked my car but didn’t give me the keys. “Let’s go eat, and then I’ll drop you off at a hotel. I can come back with your car in the morning and we’ll head out.” I slung my suitcase into the backseat and then plopped in the passenger seat, resigning myself to having Jude drive since I was unfamiliar. “Fine.” I seemed to not possess an extensive vocabulary at that moment. Jude drove us to lunch, which he paid for after a lot of resistance from me. We ate cold sandwiches on the deli’s patio, under a bright red umbrella. Pickle juice slid from the bottom of the sandwich wrap and down my palm. As I licked it, I noticed Jude watching me. “What?” He chewed the bite he had in his mouth thoroughly, thoughtfully. “Do you want to talk?” “No, I want to eat. I want to not talk.” I took a big bite as if to illustrate that fact, chewing as slowly as I possibly could. A minute later, Jude walked back into the deli and returned with two drinks. I half-expected mine to be alcoholic. When I peered down into the glass and took in the milky brown color, I looked at him confused. “Chocolate milk?” “Sure. It’s my drink of choice. You can’t be mad and drink chocolate milk.” I let his comment roll off me and set the drink aside, wanting to wallow a little bit in my nervous, angry energy that stayed with me. “When is our flight?” I asked, needing a distraction. “Three in the afternoon.” He sipped his chocolate milk and raised an eyebrow at my own untouched glass. “It’s nonstop, only an hour and a half into Jackson, and then about two hours to Yellowstone itself, where we’re staying.” “We’re camping, right?” “We are. Tents and all.” “And how do you earn money to do this?” He set his sandwich down, brushed the crumbs from his hands. I found myself staring at his hands as he rubbed his fingers over his knuckles. I don’t know why it always surprised me, but the very masculine way he carried himself was so different than anything I knew. I wasn’t sure if it was the tattoos that wrapped along his arm or the stubble on his face, or the way his shirt hugged his chest and arms, molding to each muscle that spoke to his athleticism. I squirmed a little in my seat, embarrassed to be staring at him so plainly, and stared at the sandwich in my hand. “I earn an income from several sources. Sometimes I write travel-related content for websites other than my own. I earn a small commission via affiliate links I share in my posts on my site. I sell advertising on my site, but only with companies I believe in and use myself.” He seemed completely at ease talking about his business, and by the way his eyes warmed, I knew he was proud of the

business he’d built. “I also license my photographs for use in advertising campaigns. I don’t make a fortune, but I also don’t live large either.” He nodded at my car parked on the side of the building. “I don’t own a car—so I don’t have any car-related expenses. I don’t splurge, and most of my gear was given to me in exchange for reviews. It took a long time to get here, though.” He picked up his sandwich. “Just a few years ago, I was eating rice and traveling to sketchy places just to earn a couple bucks.” “I never imagined you could get paid to blog about traveling.” “Neither did I. I recorded my Madagascar trip, along with a few other volunteering trips I was doing. And then I was approached by an organization that wanted to have me document my experience through their agency, and over time it became reliable income.” “I’ve never been on a plane,” I blurted out. He raised an eyebrow and leaned on the table. “Never?” I shook my head vigorously. “I’ve only been to Wyoming and Colorado. I’ve never been anywhere else.” I tugged on the hem of my shirt, anything to keep my eyes from finding his. “My mom didn’t have money, you know. And there was never a reason to go anywhere.” I chanced a glimpse at his face, but he didn’t look like he pitied my inexperience. “Then tomorrow should be interesting.” He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully, staring off into the distance as he thought around whatever was in his head. “It’ll be great.” I hoped so.

Chapter Twenty-Three

When Jude helped me check into a hotel near the airport, he stood, hands stuffed in his pockets, leaning against my car while I stood in the door of my room. I wasn’t sure what to do here, to invite him in—which was obviously a horrible idea—or say goodbye and close the door so there was something more solid keeping us separated. “I’ll pick you up at noon.” I nodded, looking over the muscles of his arms as he pulled his hands out of his pockets and leaned one arm against the car. “It’ll be okay, Trista.” I nodded again, not sure what I was agreeing with or even why I was agreeing. His hands curled around the frame of the car door and he seemed in no hurry to climb in and drive away. I opened my mouth to ask him to come in but shut my lips immediately. It would be a bad idea, I knew. I knew that. And yet, even though I’d see him the following day, I didn’t want him to leave me alone just yet. But instead of saying a single word, I gave him a smile that didn’t reach my eyes, raising a hand in farewell. Still, he didn’t move. He just leaned on the car, looking at the seat before looking at me. The air between us felt thick, heavy. And I wasn’t sure why—not really, at least. Despite the drama of the morning, we’d had an easy afternoon, easy conversation over lunch. Tomorrow, I’d be all alone with Jude, miles away from Colin and the uncertainty that threaded itself around us as a couple. Jude held my gaze, and my stomach felt lighter than air. When he looked at me like that, I couldn’t help but be moved in a way that was unexplainable. He walked over to me, and it was as if it was in slow motion. My heart leapt into my throat. My hands went clammy. When he looked at me, like I was all he could see, I felt it in the pit of my soul. “Trista,” he said, right before his arms slowly came around me. The warmth of his arms was all-encompassing, and I didn’t realize how much I needed the hug. How much I needed him. I tried to calm myself from the tremble that started in my bones. Having Jude hold me made me feel safe, in a way that was different from the safety of Colin. I breathed in his juniper scent, let it soothe me. His arms were wrapped around

my back, and his palms rubbed lightly down my spine. There was a certain kind of peace in his arms. When he pulled back, I didn’t know what to say. I stared at his neck, the lightest stubble that pushed through his skin. I swallowed hard as my cheeks warmed and hoped he didn’t notice my reaction to his touch. “Goodbye,” I said, but it came out like a squeak. I cleared my throat and gave him another smile, taking a step back into my hotel room. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Whatever he’d been thinking, his concentration seemed to break away from it for that moment. “Okay. Sleep well, Trista.” I shut the door before we could keep staring at each other in a way that was more meaningful than I knew how to handle. I dug through my purse, to where I kept the foil-wrapped chocolates my grandfather had given me. I popped one, then two, then three right into my mouth. And then I collapsed on my bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to erase Jude’s milky brown eyes from my memory so that I could concentrate on the enormity of what my next few days would be like.

*** “Here,” Jude said the following afternoon, as he lifted the buckle that must have belonged to me from his seat before sitting down. I took it nervously, nearly dropping it before I could secure it to the other half of my seatbelt. Jude reached a hand between us, his fingers brushing innocently against my thigh as he grasped his seatbelt and I nearly jumped out of my seat. Instead, my left elbow banged into the side of the plane next to me, sending a pain up my arm. A nervous laugh escaped from my mouth as I clutched my joint, biting my lip from the searing pain that tore along my arm. “sh*t,” I said, half laughing and half wanting to cry—anything to release the nervous energy that had erupted the moment we stepped on the plane. “Hit your funny bone?” Jude asked, oblivious to the fact that I’d freaked out when he’d touched my thigh. I nodded, giving him what I assumed was the most pained smile I could manage. Wordlessly, he took my arm in his hands and rubbed around my elbow joint. “Did you know your funny bone isn’t even a bone?” he said, his voice low and soothing as he massaged the pain away. “It’s your ulnar nerve. Runs along your ulna,” his thumbs pressed the underside of my forearm, “to your palm.” The pain was dissipating rapidly, and I knew it had nothing to do with Jude’s gentle massage around my arm and everything to do with the distraction he was providing me by rubbing into my skin.

I felt the top of my chest go warm from his touch and hoped he didn’t see how affected I was by such a simple gesture. “Stupid to call it a funny bone,” I said, giving him a grateful smile. “Well, the nerve runs along your humerus.” His fingers slid up to my upper arm and abruptly ceased movement. He pulled his hands from my arm and I sensed the change in his demeanor immediately. Maybe I wasn’t the only one affected by him touching my skin so gently. A voice came on over the intercom, a flight attendant reminding everyone to secure their seatbelts before they started the safety demonstration. I’d been most afraid of getting through security at the airport, but it had passed smoothly, so smoothly that I’d been on an almost high until we’d lined up to board the plane. Jude had gestured for me to take the window seat. Initially, I’d said no. Probably fifteen times. But he’d insisted, telling me that I’d want to take in the views on my first trip on a plane. But as I looked out the tiny window and heard the sounds of the overhead bins being latched closed, all I could think about was how I’d soon be hurtling through the air at five-hundred miles or so per hour. A fact that Jude had enlightened me to —among other helpful facts. “How many planes have you flown in?” I asked, as the flight attendant walked past our row, checking that our seatbelts were secure. “I’ve probably flown upwards of eighty times.” “That’s a lot,” I said, swallowing the saliva that pooled in my mouth. I was a wretched ball of anxiety—anxiety that caused my foot to intermittently tap to no music, my hand to check and recheck my seatbelt, and my chest to rise and fall in rapid succession as I breathed in like I was running out of air. “Hey,” he said softly, reaching a hand over again. Don’t touch me again, don’t touch me again, don’t touch me again, I repeated in my head. I didn’t think having Jude touch me would calm my nerves. But after just ten seconds of Jude’s hand atop mine on the armrest, I felt a flood of calming warmth run down my arms and chest. “I’m sorry I’m falling apart,” I said, squeezing my eyes tight and letting myself fall into the comfort Jude was offering me. “You’re not falling apart. You’re nervous. You wouldn’t be the first person to get nervous on their first flight.” His hand lay on mine, covering my entire hand. We weren’t clasped together, which seemed to be better at the moment. But it was soothing, the way he settled over me—reminding me I was okay. I watched the safety demonstration but could hardly pay attention with Jude’s palm resting atop my hand. I’d been touched romantically by one person my whole life. I was naïve to many things about physical intimacy, because that had never come naturally to me, but I knew the difference between friendly and something more. And no matter how much I told myself I couldn’t entertain the thought, it existed anyway: Jude was

that something more. I just didn’t know what that meant yet. When the stewardesses had finished and the captain had requested they buckle in their seats, the plane was already on the runway, moving slowly but gaining speed. “Here,” Jude said, holding up a stick of gum. “For your ears. The pressure.” He kept his hand on top of mine as I took the gum from his other hand and popped it in my mouth. My anxiety had picked up again as the plane picked up speed, jumbling us in our seats, causing Jude to knock against me more than once. I dropped my head on the headrest and closed my eyes as my fingers on the armrest curled around it, squeezing. Jude’s hand pressed more firmly on mine, as if he was reminding me that he was still there for me, and as the plane barreled down the runway and began to lift, I turned my hand over so that we were palm to palm, just resting our hands against each other. My heart was beating rapidly, from the ascent into the sky and the way his hand stretched over the length of mine—forming a pocket of warmth between our palms. The plane climbed higher in the sky, but I refused to look out the window. My eyes stayed closed, one hand gripping one armrest and the other resting—aligned —with Jude’s. Once the plane seemed to be leveling out, I let out a sigh. “How are you doing?” I popped one eye open, seeing Jude inches from my face. I swallowed. “Fine. You?” “Oh,” he said, smiling and moving his hand off of mine—finally, and regrettably. “I’m great. I’ve flown so much that I don’t worry about it anymore.” He grabbed the book he’d placed in the pocket in front of his seat. “The hardest part is over,” he said with an easy smile to me as he opened his book. “I don’t know,” I said, flexing my fingers to get the blood moving in them again. “I think climbing the mountain might be harder.” “As long as you don’t try any acrobatic moves over the side of the cliff, we should be fine.”

*** As the plane touched down, I was glued to my window. “Those are the Tetons,” Jude said. The mountains were pointed in places, not sloping like the mountains I was used to. The tips were snow-capped, and the mountain range was so large, and covered in fog, that it had an ethereal quality. I was used to being near the Rocky Mountains, but this part of the Rocky Mountains seemed so different, perhaps

because the land was so flat right before the mountains jutted up to the sky. “Just wait until we’re at the top of Mount Washburn. You’ll be able to see the whole world.” I’d never been outdoorsy. My backyard growing up was a five-by-five foot square of mud and rock—not exactly ideal playing conditions. But it wasn’t hard to see the awe of these mountains. I understood why Jude was so enamored with them, with being out in the wild. Focusing on the grandeur of the mountains as we touched down, I didn’t even pay attention to our landing, slightly bumpy as it was. I had a fleeting, belated thought to hold onto the armrests for dear life, but I didn’t. The airport itself had a lodge feel, with the large fireplaces, wood beams and dim lighting. As I waited for Jude to secure the rental car, I looked over the ceilings and the wooden slats, and the black industrial-looking fixtures of the building. When our baggage rolled on the carousel, I grabbed all of them and secured the heavy pack to my back. This was my job for the trip—to haul the heavy stuff. Despite Jude’s strength, he couldn’t wear a backpack over his bad shoulder until it had healed more. We were in the car shortly thereafter and Jude left the airport like he knew exactly where he was going. After stopping at a small grocery store and grabbing two coolers, we filled them both with ice, water, and various deli-fare. “There’s not a lot as far as food options in Yellowstone,” Jude said as I commented on the number of groceries he’d placed in the trunk. “Unless you want to sit down and eat an expensive meal. Besides, we’ll be on the road or walking so much that we won’t have time to sit down at a restaurant.” “How many times have you gone to Yellowstone?” “Four or five times.” “And you keep coming back?” “Yellowstone is huge—there are dozens of hidden gems that I’ve yet to explore. And it’s close enough to home to make it an easy adventure.” I looked out the window on the way north to the park, taking in the mountains that rose up on the sides of the road, the expanse of land on our left side, with banks of forest in the distance. The road was lonely, two lanes, quiet. The views seemed endless, changing with each curve of the road. Queen sang from the speakers, and I found myself whispering the vocals to “Under Pressure” even as my heart felt completely at ease. “This road is closed from November to May,” Jude explained, “and we’re staying in a campground in Canyon Village.” He lowered the volume of the radio. “I prefer camping in non-commercialized places, but this campground is located close to the mountain we’ll climb in two days.” “We’re not climbing it tomorrow?” “No, I wanted to show you some of Yellowstone first, take you to the Yellowstone Grand Canyon and hike down to the Lower Falls. The hike up the mountain in two days might wear you out, so I figured our third day here, we could

tour the park by car and do some light walking.” I wished I was more experienced and had a higher stamina, but was also grateful that Jude wasn’t going to push me too hard considering I was still so inexperienced. After Jude paid our entry fee into the park, he handed me the brochure and pamphlet provided. It was a cartoon of a bison and a human who’d been thrown in the air by the animal. Warning: Many visitors have been gored by buffalo, it read. “Can you wrestle bison, too?” I asked, holding up the flyer. Jude laughed and I was suddenly aware of how comfortable I was, in many ways, around Jude. When we were just spending time together, it was easy—effortless. As if we’d known each other longer than just a few weeks. The south entrance into the park was unassuming at first. The two-lane road was surrounded on either side by skinny trees that towered above us. When I looked out my window, I saw trees for miles. “Those are lodgepole pines,” Jude said. “They’re shade-intolerant, which is why they’re missing branches along the base of the trunk up to the top.” The trees reminded me of the tree on the cover of The Giving Tree, but narrower and straighter. Indeed, there were no branches below the canopies at the tops of all the trees, making them almost look like they were dying. “See how shaded the road is here?” he asked, and I looked forward at the road. The trees on either side formed a sort of wall, casting a dark shadow over the road. I nodded. “You know a lot about trees.” “I took botany in college.” After he parked, I followed him down a trail toward a large lake. “Yellowstone Lake.” Jude pointed as we walked down a wooden-planked path. I could see puffs of steam rising up ahead and the smell of sulfur pierced my nose just as we moved past enough people to see the geysers that surrounded the shore of the lake. “Holy sh*t,” I said, marveling at the variety of colors and depths of the geysers. “You can see clear down to the bottom.” Their colors ranged from greens to blues, colors that looked like they belonged in the Caribbean and not in the mountains of Wyoming. Across the lake, I could see a mountain range and white, fluffy clouds hanging lower in the sky than seemed possible. The wooden path came down to the water’s edge, where some geysers fed into the lake in a stream of red and orange color. Against the gravel shore, the contrast was sharp. The lake looked undisturbed, completely still. The lakes I’d been to with my grandfather growing up had always had dozens of boats sliding across the water— but this was so serene, so peaceful. The only noise was the low chatter from fellow tourists and the noise of the cameras as they took photos of the geysers and the steam rising up off of them. The geysers looked like little pools of bright color, all surrounded by shrubs and white rock. “Trista,” Jude said beside me. His voice was soft, calm. I’d been so distracted by the colors and the sights around me that I’d nearly forgotten he was near me. I turned. “What?”

His hand came to my waist and my entire body stilled. But his eyes were searching past me. “Look,” he whispered, his lips close to my ear as he used his other hand to turn me toward one geyser in particular. Just on the other side of the geyser furthest from the path was an elk. Female, judging by the lack of antlers. She stood impossibly still, one front leg angled forward as she observed the crowd that had begun to notice her. “Wow,” I whispered. “She’s beautiful.” “She is.” Jude’s eyes scanned the area surrounding her. “What are you looking for?” “Her calf. They’re usually born in the late spring, and if she has a calf near her she might become aggressive.” He looked down the path at the people closer to the elk, watching them closely. “Let’s grab a couple photos and then move on,” he said softly. Out of the camera bag he’d slung over his good shoulder, he pulled his large black camera. I watched as he quickly changed lenses, adjusted the focus through his viewfinder and then aimed the lens at the elk. His hand wrapped around the base of the lens, sliding in and out slowly as I heard the soft click of the shutter. And then he backed up and I found myself in his viewfinder, the elk over my shoulder. “No,” I protested, putting my hand up. “Let me take a photo of you—you’re the blogger after all.” He seemed to ignore me because he didn’t hand his camera over. “Would you mind?” Jude asked, holding up his camera to a stranger who was quietly observing behind us. Before I knew what was happening, Jude stood beside me, his hand on the railing just behind my back. He didn’t wrap his arm around me or lean in—he just stayed next to me as I heard the shutter click with us both in its focus. “Thanks,” Jude said with a smile as he took the camera back. Jude said nothing as we walked back to the car, but he seemed lighter somehow. When we were thirty minutes from the campground, the sun had slipped off the horizon. “Do you think we’ll make it before dark?” Jude nodded. “We’ll want to keep our headlights on while we set up the tents.” The plural ‘tents’ made me equally relieved and nervous. “And how long will it take to set them up?” I’d brought everything I owned with me, after leaving the apartment so abruptly. The only thing I’d left behind had been Ellie’s box, and I knew I’d have to get it back when we returned home. Jude had promised to bring enough supplies for what we’d need as far as tents and sleeping bags went. “I’m the tent guy, remember? It’ll take no time at all.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

True to his word, Jude had our tents set up and sleeping bags rolled out inside of ten minutes before it was too dark to see without artificial light. As he built the fire in the metal ring, I made sandwiches from the deli meat we’d picked up at the grocery store before leaving Jackson. It was the first time that day that I realized Jude and I were alone, miles away from Colin and Mila. We’d never been alone for such an extended amount of time, and while I should have felt awkward, I felt settled instead. Being around Jude was like wrapping in a warm blanket. I hadn’t fully digested all that had happened the day before, with Colin or our breakup. He hadn’t texted me or called me once since I’d left, so it hadn’t been hard to push all of it to the back of my brain. And as I spread the mustard thin on the whole wheat bread, I glanced over at Jude. He was setting up the camp chairs he’d packed in his long duffle, and he’d thrown a thermal, long-sleeved shirt over the tee he’d been wearing most of the day. I placed the sandwiches on two paper plates and grabbed a couple tubes of yogurt before joining Jude by the fire. “Ah,” he said with a grateful smile—his white teeth a flash of light against the fire, “I’ve been wanting a sandwich all day.” He offered me a bottled root beer before taking a bite of his sandwich. I watched as he rolled up the sleeve of one arm, the waffle-knit pattern stretching and settling against the fold. The trees rose up his arm, curving around muscles, but the tops of the trees disappeared under his sleeve. “How many tattoos do you have?” He pulled up the fabric of his pants to make it more comfortable for him to sit and then popped off the lid of his root beer with a quiet hiss. “I don’t know. I haven’t counted.” I chewed a bite of my sandwich, feeling the chill of the mountain air settling over me. “How long have you been getting them?” He slouched back into his seat, but angled his body so he was turned to me. “I started when I was seventeen.” He pulled up one pant leg and pulled his sock down so I could see.

“What is that?” “It was supposed to be a mountain lion, but now it looks like a gecko.” He laughed easily, not the least bit bothered by it. “That sucks,” I said, echoing his laugh. He shrugged, nonchalant. “I got it when I was seventeen, tried to hide it from my mom. Go figure that Mila would be the one to tattle on me.” He dropped the leg of his pants and settled once again into his seat. “But I got it too small—and when it’s that small, it can distort easily, especially in a place that moves a lot—like my ankle.” “Why a mountain lion?” “I went biking with a few friends in Rocky Mountain National Park when I was sixteen. We were a bunch of dumb kids, not keeping an eye on our surroundings or our ears open for animals. So imagine our surprise when a mountain lion crossed our path.” I raised my eyebrows, imagining that sight. And just how stunned I’d be. “One of my horticulture teachers in high school had told me that he crossed bears all the time—but if you crossed a mountain lion, it was probably too late. And that’s all I kept thinking when I saw her—her ears laid back and snarling. It’s too late. It was like an echo, but one that gets louder and stronger. One of my friends fell off his bike in shock and I stopped my bike in front of him. And she approached slowly and I pushed away the voice and did what felt instinctual. I placed my bike between her and me, and then spoke firmly to her to go away. We didn’t have spray or sticks or anything. I kicked at the dirt around me, the little rocks. I told my friends to crowd around me. And then we backed away, slowly, her eyes on us the whole time.” He placed a hand over his chest. “I swear, I thought she could hear my heart. It was so loud that I spoke louder, trying to hear my own words over the beat. And then she began following us. My friend whispered his fear, that she would attack us. But then she left and we got the hell out of there.” “And then you got her tattooed?” “She taught me to trust my instincts. To push away the mind-numbing fear. To fight the ‘it’s too late’ voice that throbbed in my brain.” “Ah,” I said, remembering his tattoo, “you’ve got a thing against fear.” He shook his head, finished chewing the last bite of his sandwich. “I think fear itself is healthy. It’s when you’re drowning in it that it’s not. Fear grounds you, but it can bury you too. Take a little bit, but then push on. And that’s what I did. She was profoundly beautiful and tremendously scary. Which is how every worthwhile thing should be.” “Is it sad that I’m a little jealous of a mountain lion?” I joked, stuffing the sandwich into my mouth in attempt to eat the words I hadn’t meant to say. “You shouldn’t be. That’s who you are, to the people who matter.” The bite got stuck, like a rock, in my throat. And just like that, I thought of Colin. “I don’t know about that.” I said, keeping my eyes to the ring of fire as I winced through the pain of that swallow.

“I do.” My heart stumbled and I chanced a look at him. As I suspected, he was staring at me. The firelight danced in his eyes, casting a riot of shadows over his face. He was so beautiful himself. Not just in the way his skin molded to his muscles and bones. But deep down—the parts that were instinctively him. But when he spoke words that moved my heart to another beat, he scared the living hell out of me. “You saved your friends’ lives, you know.” I didn’t know what else to say. But that was what struck me the most. That Jude had stepped in, taken action. And had walked away thanks to his quick-thinking, despite his fear. “I’d do the same for anybody else.” I inhaled through my nose, the bite of the charred wood reaching the back of my throat. “Anyone?” “Anyone.” His eyes. Good lord, his eyes. He had some kind of power over me with those eyes. I was too afraid to stare, but too afraid to break the stare too. “Stop,” I said breathlessly. “I won’t.” The two words hit me in my chest. “I’m afraid of you,” I whispered, over the crackle of the fire. “Don’t be afraid of me.” “I think,” I said, sucking in a breath and giving into the shudder that rolled across my chest, “that I could very easily drown in the feelings I have … for you.” I couldn’t believe how honest I was being with him. “You won’t drown.” It sounded like a promise. One I was very much afraid to hold on to. I closed my eyes, needing the reprieve from his stare. His words were curling around my heart, gently but firmly. And I wanted to fall into him, to let the inevitable happen. Because that’s what we were: inevitable. But I clung to the fear like it was another limb. “If you were drowning, would Colin save you?” The noise fell to a din and I popped open my eyes to stare into Jude’s. “I’ve been drowning for three years.” And my eyes filled with tears. “I think I need to hug you,” he said, standing and holding a hand out for me. “Can I?” I looked at his hand, at the creases in his palm as the firelight played a dance over them. And then my eyes rose to meet his and I nodded, stood, and let his arms wrap around me. He smelled like fresh air and juniper, and I sank into his chest, feeling the familiarity that he came with. Reveling in it. My lips landed somewhere around his neck, which meant that I was pressed tight—skin to skin—almost kissing him but not. His arms held firm around me, his hands holding open over my back. “Tell me what you’re feeling, Trista.”

How could I explain this? There was something limitless about the way I felt, like that river of emotion I’d felt when we first kissed kept rising with no chance of stopping. I didn’t want to be honest, because I was so scared. Where Jude made me comfortable in his presence, when we were pressed tight like this—with no room to escape, I knew I couldn’t tell a lie to his face. So I said the words I hoped would alleviate the burn in my chest. “I’m not supposed to love you.” There’s a lot of relief in not making eye contact. I didn’t want to see how his eyes changed, because his body was completely unmoving. I almost thought he didn’t hear me until he spoke near my ear. “Why not?” I pulled back, facing him in the dark. I couldn’t see his eyes, just the outline of his face from the fire one campsite away. “Because,” I said, still holding him but remaining still. “It’s been a day, on my own. I left Colin yesterday, moved out immediately.” I looked at his chest, my eyes tracing the mountains of the emblem on his jacket. “Because that’s what I do—I run.” “You’re not running now.” “No, but I want to.” “Trista,” he said, his voice full of warmth when he said it. I lifted my face. We were inches apart, his hands wrapped around my forearms. He said nothing more, just held me in the silence as my heart beat softly, to a beat that was unfamiliar. He leaned in, pressed his lips to my cheek. A hand came to my face, holding me as he rested his lips on my cheek. It was so comforting that warmth flooded my face. And when he pulled his mouth away, I turned my face so that just the tips of our lips touched. A breath shuddered into my mouth from his and it was exactly four heartbeats before I pressed firmer, my hand coming up to his jacket, ensuring he couldn’t pull back. The kiss was soft, brief. His palms came to my neck, holding me in place as he pulled back just a hair, so that our lips still were connected but we could both breathe in the small space. He leaned in again, pressing another soft kiss to my mouth. When he pulled back again, my stomach somersaulted. My fist curled in, holding him closer to me. My heart turned over in my chest with the gentleness of his lips on mine, and I couldn’t bear the thought of us distancing—not yet. Not when I was having the single most romantic kiss of my life. He leaned in again, this time firmer, his lips more demanding. The growing intensity of each kiss he gave me was driving up the need I felt for him stirring in my blood. And when he tilted his head, sliding the tip of his tongue along my bottom lip, I pressed firmer, tighter, wanting no distance between us.

There were places in my heart I didn’t know existed. Places that pulsed when being offered something good, something of sustenance. A shiver and a coil and then the opening and a greedy suckling of the love that filled in the hollows. We’re here, they said. We’ve been waiting all along. I had to stop, pull back, and suck in a breath, to check that my heart was still beating and wasn’t crippling under the weight of what it was being fed. It was never just a kiss with Jude. I knew that now, as he leaned back in, thumbs squeezing my face, and kissing me like it was the last thing he wanted from me. He didn’t hold back—he gave and gave and gave until I thought I was drunk from it. And when I pulled back again, I didn’t let go. I dropped my head to his chest and whispered the words that made my eyes sting. Such a wave of emotion overcame me that it’d leaked from the sides of my eyes. “I can’t, not right now. It’s so much, and I’m not ready for you.” I felt him press a kiss to the top of my head. “I’ll be waiting when you are.” I’m not sure how long he held me, but I knew that he made me feel better in the simplest way and I was so grateful, so comforted and whole that my heart steadied and the tears in my eyes dried and everything, in that moment, was okay. I squeezed him, making the hug last a little longer, just so I could remember how it felt to hold him in my arms. He waited for me to be the first person to pull back and I did so reluctantly. I waited for the awkward to creep in as our bodies separated, but it didn’t. It was just Jude and me and his smile and my gratitude. “Thank you for the hug,” I said as I sat back in my chair. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had offered a hug and I’d wanted it that desperately. The kissing had just been more. And I wasn’t ready to tackle that just yet. “There is a lot of science with hugs, you know.” A smile played on my lips. “Color me unsurprised. Both with the fact that there is and the fact that you know about it.” Jude laughed. “I can be a bit of a nerd, this is true.” “Tell me your science, Jude.” He had been waiting for me to urge him on and gave me a sheepish smile when I did. “Well, it can lower your blood pressure and the stress hormone. A solid hug can be the fastest way to get oxytocin flowing throughout your body, which calms your nerves. And, psychologically, it can establish a sense of belonging.” His face remained calm as he said it, which made me process it as a harmless blip—a sense of belonging was something I both needed but didn’t want. I didn’t want to belong to anyone—because belonging was giving in and my current relationship—if it was still a relationship—was already taking what little of me I could spare. “What about your other tattoos?” I asked, suddenly wanting the stories for all his tattoos. There were many down his arm, across his chest, down his back. And those were just the places I’d seen. “They all tell a story. Even if it’s not profound, it’s a story that means something

to me.” “A singular story?” “Sure. My whole body is a story, and each mark upon it is a page. Sometimes things happen in a story that you don’t want—or don’t expect—because you don’t choose it. And then, some things happen because you’ve chosen them—wanted them. My scars are things I didn’t choose. My tattoos are things I’ve chosen. And all of it is me, my story. It’s the story that sits in my throat, begging to be told. And when you’re too private to tell the story, you wear it instead.” “Wow.” It was all I could say. I watched his arms, what little I could see of them. I had never thought about tattoos as small parts of a story, and maybe it wasn’t true for everyone who got inked—the fact that Jude gave so much meaning to the parts of him he’d chosen made me wonder if he was from another universe entirely. The thought he gave to things was all-encompassing and I wondered how exhaustive it must be, too. “I’ve stunned you to silence.” “I just … love the comparison. I’ve never thought tattoos could tell a story. Never thought about scars that way either, though I don’t have many.” He pulled up one of his pant legs again, showing me a scar that curled around his kneecap in an angry crescent moon shape. “I fell off my bike—down a hill of rocks. Landed on my knee—impaled by a rock. This scar tells the story of the time I was an idiot and a show off. And I’m still an idiot, but I don’t show it off nearly as spectacularly as I did back then.” His lips curved, the dusting of facial hair making him look darker, rogue-like. “I don’t have any as gnarly as that one.” I rolled up the cuff of one of my jeans to my shin. “I tried riding my best friend’s skateboard once.” My finger slid down the straight white scar that dropped from my knee to halfway down my leg. “And I had so much confidence in myself that I thought I’d try to pop it up a ledge.” The painful reminder made me wince. “The only thing that slid across the ledge was my leg.” “Are we trading battle scars?” Jude asked. “Because I’ve got a handful.” “Show me another.” He leaned forward. “It’s hard to see in the dark, but I’ve got a line on my head.” I leaned toward him, tilting my head until I could see it—just a divot near his hairline on the right side of his head. “Right here?” I asked, touching my fingertip to it. He stilled under my finger and I kept the tip there a moment longer, holding the hollow. “Yes,” he said softly, and I felt his breath against my arm. “I was running through the house with Mila chasing me. I’d probably cut off all her Barbie’s hair or committed some other atrocity. And when we looped through the living room, she pushed me hard enough that I hit, face-first, into the coffee table.” “Wow, you played really rough growing up.” I let go of the scar and leaned back, my arm sufficiently warm and tingly. “I always wondered what it’d be like, to have a sibling to tease and torment. To talk to.”

“Mila and I shared a womb for eight months. We’ve shared parents and experiences and friends and I cannot imagine not having her beside me through … everything we’ve shared.” “I don’t know her very well, but I do like her.” “She likes you. And that’s no small feat for Mila.” “Why not?” “She’s protective of the people she loves. She yelled at Colin for nearly an hour after she found out about my shoulder.” We both looked at his shoulder, which seemed to be okay—as I hadn’t witnessed him babying it or complaining about it. “She did?” I asked. “I didn’t hear it.” “She did when you took me to the hospital. Colin told me about it.” “Oh.” I thought it was weird that Colin hadn’t said anything to me, but then again Colin hadn’t done a whole lot of talking when it came to me recently. “When she didn’t see me, she asked Colin if he’d left me on the mountain, finally.” Jude laughed ruefully, ran a hand over his head. “She always jokes that she’s going to leave me one of these days, on a mountain, so I can live out my Tarzan ideal life. And then when Colin told her, well, she blamed him.” “But it was my fault—I fell off the mountain.” “The hill,” Jude teased, correcting me. “And it wasn’t your fault that I reached for you.” I was quiet then, remembering how Jude had said he’d save anyone, if he could. “And it wasn’t Colin’s fault that I did. But she blames him, regardless.” I didn’t know what to say, because I felt so awkward knowing that I’d caused it in the first place. “Well, at least your shoulder seems to be doing okay?” He moved it slowly up and down. “It’s fine. I’ll need physical therapy soon.” “And surgery?” He looked away then, toward the fire that crackled and popped bits of light into the air. “I don’t think I should be considering surgery right now.” “Why not?” “Because.” He smiled slow, placed his hands close to the fire to warm them. “It’s not time yet.” It sounded ominous in a way, but I knew that Jude didn’t desire to explain himself anymore when he said, “Are you looking forward to tomorrow?” “You said something about the Yellowstone Grand Canyon?” He sat back from the fire again. “Yes. We’re close to it now. It’s stunning—a work of art carved into the earth. And then we’ll take the trail down to the base of the lower falls.” “I can’t believe I’m doing all of this. Spending the next few days with you, out in the wilderness.” Jude stood, grabbed our plates and bottles. I watched as he placed the bottles in a paper bag, rolled it up and then stuck it in our car. He folded the plates and stuck them into a small bag along with the yogurt tubes before bagging them up tight and placing them in the trunk of the car. He took the rest of our food and secured it all

in the car before closing the door. “Don’t want to leave the cooler out,” he explained, brushing his hands. He held out hand sanitizer. “Here, to get the smell off your hands.” I squirted a small glob onto my palm and then rubbed them. “We’re in bear country, you know. The mountain we’ll climb in two days is frequented by bears.” He pointed over his shoulder. “There are bear boxes for food, but I’ll keep it in our car so we don’t have to repack it in the morning when we set out.” “Okay,” I agreed. It was times like then that I felt like an amateur all over again. I wasn’t experienced, like Jude was. I probably would’ve left my food out like an idiot, an invite for bears all over to come and have a picnic inches from our tents. The thought had me wrapping my arms around myself as I looked around in the dark. The light murmur of conversation from a nearby campsite settled me a little. Unlike when I’d camped in the mountains with Colin, I was in my own tent. But there was comfort in knowing that there were other people around us; we weren’t alone. “I’m ready for bed.” Jude said, and I tried not to let the way he said it affect me as I stood, stretching my arms above my head. My sweater lifted a few inches from my belly and I reached to tug it down just as Jude’s gaze landed there. “Me too.” He grabbed our chairs, put out the fire and locked the car. When we were at our respective tents, he gave me a small smile. “See you in the morning, Trista.” I nodded curtly and slid inside my tent before I could say something embarrassing or too revealing. And as I lay in my sleeping bag, my hands pressed over my chest, trying to contain it all. For a long time, the love was waning with Colin. I wasn’t sure how to replenish it and I didn’t know if I even wanted to. There was something delicious about the way the love slid from me slowly after rushing in so quickly. I embraced the cold like I’d embraced him, trading one comfort for another. Because there was comfort in the void, a safety that love never gave you. But there I was, my chest split open and my heart flopping around like a fish out of water. I was learning a new language, my body was trying to translate a foreign feeling, and I knew for certain it was something I’d never known before. I’d known for a long time that Colin and I were done. I’d known that we couldn’t recover from the neglect and the death and the distance. I’d gone so long not needing him that I wasn’t sure if I even remembered what that feeling was. Had we been desperate for one another? It was like that time of my life was in shadow— squint and maybe you can see what it was, but chances were good that you were just convincing yourself of what you thought was there because you didn’t know for sure. But with Jude, everything was different. The feelings were deeper; the desperation was as real as anything I’d ever known. The vacancy in my heart had been a secret for years. But Jude had snuck in, under the collapse of my life,

burrowing into the cracks of what was left behind. There was nothing and then there was everything.

*** I awoke overly warm with my hair stuck to my face. The yellow top of my tent was glowing from the sun and the sounds outside my tent made me think I’d slept in very late. Whipping the sleeping bag away from my body gave me instant relief from the oppressive heat. I smelled food and my stomach immediately growled its need in response. After grabbing my shoes and unzipping the sweater, I exited the tent and nearly stumbled over the root that was in my path. “Good morning,” Jude said. He’d said it to me so many times, in the apartment and in the Colorado mountains and now here, in Yellowstone. And each time, I was reminded of how strange it was to hear. I blinked a few times, adjusting to the sun that pierced through the trees around us. I hadn’t gotten a good look at our surroundings when we’d arrived the night before because it had been so dark. But we were surrounded by tall trees, our campsite at the end of a driveway off of the road. There seemed to be a decent amount of distance between us and the nearest campers, which gave a sense of being in the woods without being completely alone. Around my feet were scattered tree roots, all belonging to the tree that Jude had tied my tent to. I stared at the white string around the tree’s base and then looked to Jude for the first time that morning. “You tied my tent to a tree?” “You never know,” he said easily, pushing a spatula across the cast iron pan he had heating over the grate on the fire pit. “You never know what?” “If the wind will pick up, blow you away.” I laughed as I approached the fire. Despite the warmth I’d felt in my tent, it was still a touch chilly. The fire was a welcome heat and I rubbed my hands over it as I eyed the eggs Jude was cooking. “I’m serious,” he said with a raised brow. “When my parents took us camping as kids once, Mila and I were in a tent with the dog. All of a sudden, the wind came on strong and blew us down a hill, the tent rolling over and over. I think the dog’s ass was in my face most of the trip. I couldn’t even remember to be scared though, because I’d just woken up to dog ass.” I laughed again, couldn’t help it. “Oh, Jude.” “Oh, Trista.”

My cheeks warmed and I turned away, wrapping my arms around myself. “As beautiful as this is, I could go for some Starbucks right about now.” “Would you settle for a pot of campground coffee?” He angled his head to the car, with its back door open. Sure enough, there was a kettle sitting on a little wood cutting board. “I wouldn’t call it settling,” I said as I poured my first cup. Jude had set out a tiny bottle of creamer he’d purchased so I poured it in and inhaled the nutty caramel flavor as I made my way to one of the camp chairs Jude had set up beside the fire. “Eggs and coffee,” I said with gratefulness melting my voice. “Yum.” “I don’t have bacon, but I do have some pita bread. Open one of these up and I’ll put some eggs in it so we don’t have to even bother with plates.” He handed me the package of pitas and I ripped one in half, then split both halves open. He handed me the package of sliced cheddar and I stuck a piece in each half. Wordlessly, we filled both pita halves with warm eggs. Immediately, the cheese began to melt and by the time I took my first bite, I was so grateful for food that my stomach made an audible sound. Jude laughed at the noise and I looked him over for a few silent moments. His hair was growing in, but his facial hair was still a little longer. He looked so … rugged. Like a man who belonged in the mountains, cohabitating with the trees. He was wearing a black t-shirt with a flannel button-up over it, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His jeans looked worn and his boots were broken in. Beside his chair was a backpack, already packed up for our trip. “Are we coming back here tonight?” “Yes. We’ll leave our tents, but we can take everything else. I made some more sandwiches for us and I’ve got two thermoses of coffee up front.” “You are a boy scout.” “I’m just prepared.” He winked, which gave my stomach a little twist. “I’ll just need to clean the pan and put out the fire and we can get on the road.” True to his word, twenty minutes later we were on the road, driving slowly out of the campground. All around us, campers were climbing from their tents with a mess of bed head. The thought had me flipping the visor down and examining my own bed head. I hadn’t once thought to be self-conscious of how I looked—but my hair was quite a mess. “You should’ve told me I looked like Night of the Living Dead,” I admonished Jude as I scrambled for my brush in the bottom of my purse. “Eh,” he said with a casual lift of his shoulder. “I thought it was kind of cute.” I brushed the “cute” aside as I ran the brush through my hair. The purple strands had faded considerably, but they still stood out against the blonde. I touched one of the strands and thought of Ellie. Would she have liked Jude? I wondered. And why was I even wondering that? Colin still hadn’t texted or called me. Not a single word. From what I knew of his plans, he was probably in the mountains himself already. But the fact that he hadn’t reached out to me once since we last spoke was louder than any of the words

he could have said. Pushing him from my mind, I grabbed a baby wipe from the travel pack in my purse and rubbed my whole face with it. I hadn’t thought to wash my face when I’d brushed my teeth beside the car with a bottle of water—but I probably should have. I could smell the thin layer of smoke that coated my face and while it was a welcome smell, I imagined that it didn’t need to live on my face. After slicking on some lip balm and a little bit of sunscreen, I closed the visor and finally looked out my window. We were driving over a bridge that stretched across a narrow river. The clouds reflected off the deep blue water, and there were a few rapids rushing over rocks that were set in the middle of the river. He drove until we came to a pull off area. I attributed the many empty parking spaces to the fact that it was just eight in the morning, early for most people. “This is the canyon,” Jude said, parking the car. “We’ll check out the falls and then hike down Uncle Tom’s trail, to the lower falls.” I followed him to a wall of rock, a railing just above it. My eyes widened as they traced the view laid before us. The canyon was wide, filled with trees and rocks in yellows and oranges and pinks. A wall of bright green evergreens lined the top of the opposite side of the canyon, making the lighter of the canyons a sharper contrast. We were silent for what felt like an hour as we looked over the canyon below. When Jude spoke, his voice was a whisper. “’Its beautiful tints were beyond the reach of human art,’” Jude said. “That’s what a painter said when he visited this area. And it’s the only way I can think to describe it.” “He was right.” It looked like someone had just scooped up a jagged line of earth and left it exposed. At the very bottom ran a river, curving around the jagged valley below. My hands curled around the cold metal railing and my stomach went weightless. “Wow,” I said, leaning back a little because my hands trembled. “I shouldn’t lean over.” “No, you shouldn’t. I’m not going over after you—sorry.” I laughed. “You’d be crazy if you did. The sign said this is twelve-hundred feet deep.” “And it’s twenty-miles long. You’ll be able to see it from the top of the mountain tomorrow.” All I could think as I gazed upon the canyon was how magnificent it was. After living in cities my whole life and never being out in the wild, I felt like I was experiencing a sensory overload. “What causes all the colors?” I wondered aloud, understanding Jude’s need to understand, to know, about the places he visited. “Those are mineral stains, from hot springs and steam vents within the walls. The fluids moving upwards through the rock have caused chemical alterations— rusting them.” He swept a hand in front of us. “The yellow is thanks to iron. Well, most of it.” He pointed to a pillar rock near the middle of the canyon, standing high among the rock, and the mess of twigs on top. “Do you see that? It’s an osprey nest.”

“I’ve never seen one before.” “Neither had I, until I came here. They almost exclusively eat fish. It’s pretty incredible to see them living in a canyon.” I turned my head right and saw the waterfall that fed the river below. “Is that the lower falls?” “Yep. And we’re going to hike to the base.” He touched the back of my upper arm. “Ready?” Every time he said that word, I got a little, irrational shiver. I wasn’t sure what it was for. But like the first time he’d said it, as we’d taken down my tent, I got that feeling of knowing something more. I just didn’t know what that more was. I followed him to a brown sign that read “Uncle Tom’s Trail.” Looking at Jude, I asked, “Three-hundred and twenty-eight steps?” He must have sensed my anxiety and he placed a hand on my shoulder. “It’s about five-hundred vertical feet. No sweat. That’s how large the hill you nearly fell off of was.” “Yes, but at least I wouldn’t have had to walk it.” “Yes, true. But this way, there’s no death involved. Which,” he held up his hands, his eyebrows lifted in a comical way, “is a lot more fun, right?” I don’t know why it was so easy to smile around Jude. I did it so often, that I didn’t mentally catalogue it anymore. It just happened, as easily as breathing. The laughter that was born in my lungs was beginning to feel normal, too. “I suppose so.” I read through the rest of the sign, gulping at the parts that cautioned just how difficult and steep this climb would be. “This trip is definitely not recommended for those suffering from heart or breathing problems.” I followed behind him, down a couple switchbacks and then to a steel staircase. The trail was built right into the mountain, descending while surrounded by trees. While the walk down was easy itself, the sense of dropping many feet in just a couple minutes got to my head at one point, causing my stomach to flutter up my chest and my arms to grip the rails. “Hey,” Jude said, grabbing me and pulling me to the side as a handful of people walked up the left side of the staircase. “It’s just a lot,” I said, taking in a breath through my nose and exhaling out of my mouth. “So high up.” “I know. Come on, there’s a bench over here.” I sat on cold metal, but I refused to look out in front of me. I hadn’t expected the descent to affect me this much, rendering me a mess of nerves and shaking hands. The cold metal through my hiking capris was a shock itself, making my face go cold from the riot of sensation. “Drink some water,” Jude offered, handing me his bottle. I just held it in my hands, trying to calm the shaky beat of my heart. A droplet of condensation slid down the bottle, over my knuckles. I watched it intently, watched how it became smaller and smaller until it was nothing. When all it left was a wet path, I looked at Jude who was crouched in front of me.

“Are you scared?” What a weighted question. I nodded. And answered the easy part. “Hiking is still new. And this is such a significant drop. I just need a second.” “If you don’t want to keep going, we can turn around.” “No.” I put the bottle to my lips and took a long sip. “I’ll be okay. I’m sorry.” “If you didn’t have a little bit of fear for something you’re unfamiliar with, I’d be surprised.” He wrapped his hands around mine on the bottle. The juxtaposition of his warm hand and the cold bottle made me shiver. “I’ll be right next to you on the way down.” He tilted his head toward the rest of the stairs. “Going down is easy on the limbs, but heavy on the eyes. Going up is the reverse.” “Okay.” I gently pushed the water bottle toward him, allowing him to drop his hold on me and take the bottle back. Standing up was easier than I expected— without any kind of crippling vertigo. So, I followed. Three-hundred plus steps sounds easy, and I wish I could say I made it the rest of the way to the base of the waterfall with little trouble but more than once I had to pause on the steps to hold onto the metal railing and stare off into the woods. And every single time, Jude put an arm around me, reassuring me without words that he was beside me. Because Jude didn’t need words. He was constant, in action. Words could be pretty and tell lies but action was the ultimate. And Jude was a man of action. More than once, I felt my legs tremble when I looked over the side of the canyon wall we were walking along, seeing just how steep the drop would be if we hadn’t had these stairs under our feet. The stairs curved around the towering rock, and I focused on that—not on the fact that we were walking five hundred feet down a canyon. Or the fact that if I looked down, between the soles of my hiking boots, I’d see the many drainage holes in the stairs and a clear view of my doom should the staircase detach from the canyon wall. No, I didn’t think about that at all. At one point a child ran up past us, toward the top. She cared little that she bumped me hard enough to be shoved into the side of the staircase—but Jude steadied his hands on my shoulders and rubbed a thumb along the column of my neck. I hoped he didn’t see the way my hair stood on end at his touch. But I pushed on, and was rewarded with a view right down the side of the canyon, right by the toppling waterfall. I braced my hand on the rock to my left as I stared at the rainbow that formed just over the mist, across the canyon walls. The roar of the waterfall had been steadily growing in volume, but seeing it up close, the power of it as it spat water over the edge, was truly magnificent. “We’re close to the viewing platform,” Jude assured me, placing a hand on my shoulder and squeezing. And just a few minutes later, the stairs ended at a platform with benches, overlooking the falls as they met the river. Where the mist rose off the water was another rainbow, stretching across the canyon walls.

I pressed a hand to my ribs, feeling my lungs working overtime and my head thumping powerfully inside its cage. “It’s breathtaking.” “It is.” Jude coughed and sat hard on one of the benches, hunching over and putting a hand on his knee. “Are you okay?” He lifted his head, gave me an easy smile. But his face was red, and his chest seemed to be heaving heavily. “I’m just a little winded. Do you mind if we have a snack here before we climb back up?” I shook my head and grabbed the sandwiches out of the side pocket of his oneshoulder pack. We ate slowly, leaning against the railings to look at the view. “Look at that,” Jude said, pointing above the falls. “We walked down that far.” “The walk up is going to be a bitch,” I whispered and we laughed. I found myself standing close to him, our arms aligned and lightly brushing against each other. And the longer we stayed in silence, looking out over the waterfall, the more I longed to lean into him. So I did. Gently. Jude did nothing at first, but didn’t move away. There was something companionable about what we’d just done, and how he’d wordlessly supported me the whole way down. And now that we were two bystanders to the beauty around us, I felt a connection to him that I couldn’t explain except to say that we shared a moment. I forgot about the people around us, clicking their cameras and chatting. Because it was just Jude and me, and the gift he’d given me by bringing me to Yellowstone. Feeling the pressure of his body against mine made me tingly, my heart beat a little faster. My left hand grasped the railing beside his and I stared at our hands, millimeters apart. When he lifted his pinky to graze the back of my hand, I never thought I could be so rattled by such a light touch. And then someone bumped into me from behind, causing me to turn away from Jude—away from our moment. “I should get a few photos,” Jude murmured, pulling his camera out of his pack. “For the blog.” “Right.” I backed up to give him room, but his hands on my shoulders stopped me and he held me still. I met his eyes, and they were steady on me—that’s what Jude was: steady. So very steady. Once again, he needed no words to communicate with me. I found myself reflected in the lens of his camera as I heard it click a couple times. All the while, I stared at him as my lungs expanded in my chest. My eyes traced over his fingers as he twisted the lens and the wind picked up then, sending my hair flying in front of my face. Quickly, I tried to push the strands away but they clung to my face, in my mouth, and I couldn’t help but laugh as I tried to untangle them from my face.

When I finally broke free, Jude was handing his camera to someone and then striding beside me, with the falls at our backs and his hand on the center of my spine. I felt everything then, the way the pads of each finger pressed inward—just slightly. I relaxed into his touch, tried to remember to smile, but I was so focused on the way Jude’s thumb traced a brief line down my spine that I couldn’t remember to do anything but breathe. When the stranger smiled at us and handed the camera back, Jude stepped away from me and began to snap more photos: of the rocks, the waterfall, the people around us and then the rainbow. And still, I just stood there, breathing.

Chapter Twenty-Five

On the way back up, it was Jude who had to stop several times. Each time, his face was bright red, and his lips were stretched in a rueful smile. “Sorry, I’m slowing us down.” “I don’t mind taking breaks,” I reassured him, feeling much more secure now that we were ascending the mountain and I wouldn’t have to watch as the bottom of the canyon came closer and closer. We sat on the bench and smiled at the people who passed. A myriad of languages passed our ears, and I craned to see if I could tell what they were as Jude rested. It became a game for me—was it Italian? Spanish? Portuguese? Jude remained quiet the entire time, just taking small sips of water as he caught his breath. He made an off-hand remark about having asthma as a child, and thinking he’d outgrown it as an adult. “The sign clearly said not to climb this if you have breathing problems, Jude.” He gave me a look, his mouth pinched. “I know.” “But you did it anyway. Are you going to be okay tomorrow?” I asked, remembering the fact that we were going to be climbing a mountain in the morning. “Oh yeah.” Jude waved a hand and then braced both on his knees. “That’s a steady incline. This is like a roller coaster—straight up and straight down.” But I remained unconvinced and wondered if Colin and Mila’s worry about Jude traveling solo was more due to his asthma than his shoulder. “Remember,” Jude asked, “I did just fine when we all went hiking. I can take breaks. And it’s not so steep.” “I’m surprised you’ve stayed in a high altitude environment with your asthma.” “Yeah, well, Mila is in Colorado. My parents too. That’s where my life is. Besides, I’ll always climb mountains. I just need to get used to it.” I nearly snorted. “I’m no doctor, but I can’t imagine any doctor saying that all your asthmatic-afflicted lungs would need is a lot more exertion.” He laughed lightly and then pushed to standing, tucking his water bottle in the side pocket of his one-shoulder backpack. “Yeah, that was a stupid thing to say.” He reached a hand toward me and I placed mine in his without any hesitation. His eyes softened when I did that, and I wondered if he felt it too—this inching

along toward a place we both hadn’t talked about or planned for, but seemed to go along for the ride anyway. As if I was testing him, I kept my hand in his longer than I would have. And with my eyes on his, I kept holding it as we ascended the next section of stairs. His palm was warm, dry, and he cradled my hand in his in the gentlest way. He wasn’t trying to push me into anything more than this—our hands aligned with one another, his callouses pressing against my softer flesh. Once again I experienced a strange tingle that ran like cold water down my spine. We moved out of the way for a couple that was stopped in the middle of some stairs, separating so we didn’t bump into them. Our hands came apart, and I tucked mine into the kangaroo pocket on my thin sweater, to keep it warm. We stopped five more times on our way to the top, but I was ready for breaks then, too. Over three hundred stairs … that had to be, what, thirty-stories? I couldn’t imagine hiking up thirty stories with any kind of quick pace. Once we were to the top, Jude wrapped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer, under the guise of keeping us out of the way for the growing number of tourists that had collected around the viewpoint at the top. But it still warmed me, thinking that maybe he just wanted to be close to me once again. We got back on the road, heading north. The car was silent as he drove, the windows down and the wind whipping through my hair. The scenery changed, revealing a valley and mountains off in the distance. Jude pulled over at a lookout point and when he got out of the car, I followed him. “See that mountain?” he asked, pointing off in the distance. I looked in the direction he pointed, where there were white streaks across the rim of a mountain. It was long—not pointed upwards like the sharp, shark-tooth like Teton mountains were. “That’s our mountain, tomorrow. The one we’re going to conquer. Mount Washburn.” “It looks…big,” I replied lamely. “Well, it is a mountain.” I ignored his smile and stared at the mountain we’d be climbing in the morning. “Do you think it’ll take a while?” “A good chunk of the day. I want to get going early, so that we’re not stuck up there in the dark—you don’t want to be up there in the dark.” He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “And there are afternoon storms, so it’d be great if we were up at the fire station by then.” “Oh, climbing a mountain when there are storms—sounds safe.” “Well, to be honest, you’re probably more likely to be charged by a bear than lightning, so if we want to get technical here,” he paused and cleared his throat, “climbing a mountain that is home to bears—sounds safe.” I rolled my eyes at his high-pitched mimic. “Well, I’m not afraid of bears,” I said, crossing my arms. “You’ve assured me that you can wrestle them.” “Touché.” “So why haven’t we seen any wild animals, besides the elk?”

“Well, I’ve only seen bears further north. And you’re going to see a ton of bison when we venture southeast—they’re especially prevalent near Old Faithful. We might get lucky and see foxes or coyotes, but the only big predator I’ve ever seen in this park are bears. Mountain lions are reclusive, and wolves typically travel in packs so I am not particularly desperate to find myself surrounded by one.” We walked back to the car and he paused just before sliding in. “But if you want, I can get a hold of some of my contacts here, see what they know. A lot of them have passes and come here often enough that they can tell me where we’re most likely to see the animals.” I nodded, feeling a little giddy at the prospect of seeing wildlife so close. “Okay, we’ll do the top loop and then head back to camp for the day.”

*** The rest of the drive was full of spectacular sights. Jude slowed the car as we passed alongside a cliff. There were carvings low, near the road, that looked like perfectly etched rectangles into stone. I peered up through the skylight in the car, at the top of the cliff above and imagined what the view must be like from there. Every few miles, there was a pull off for people to get out and stretch their legs while they took in the view, but Jude and I didn’t stop, by an unspoken agreement. My legs were starting to burn from the hike up the falls and I was content to take in the views from the car. But when we reached the Mammoth Hot Springs, Jude coaxed me out of the car. “Hot springs,” he said. “But these ones are different than the southern ones.” I followed him across a parking lot where we were immediately both stopped by the sight of a handful of elk grazing on the grass. “Holy crap. They’re … right there!” Jude grabbed his camera and snapped a couple photos over my shoulder before pulling me along to what he called the lower terraces, a collection of geysers strewn out over flat land, with a wooden walkway built over top. These geysers looked different than the ones we’d seen the day before. They were white, unlike the riot of colors near the lake. “Pretty cool, right?” I nodded, watched as the elk ate freely on the grass. They didn’t seem the least bit afraid of the people milling around them, just kept eating like we didn’t exist. “Now we can drive around the Upper Terraces, which I think are even more incredible.” He didn’t let go of my hand, just pulled me along with him back to the car. He eased the car onto a one-way side road and then rolled his windows down. Along the mountain were stair-like levels that looked perfectly flat, with water bubbling over their straight edges and steaming up the air around them. “These look different,” I said, acknowledging what Jude had told me earlier.

“They’re not pools, in the ground.” “The hot water flows here through limestone. Pretty wild, right? The pools we saw yesterday were completely different.” It looked like something out of an Ice Age movie, with the white thick rock— that Jude informed me was travertine—and the way it flowed down the mountain. “These hot springs shift so much that every day, the flow changes. See those?” Jude pointed out his window to an area that looked dried up—dead almost. “It flows over there too—but today it’s flowing here. Science is crazy!” I laughed, because Jude was so animated and I couldn’t help but be interested too—in how unique these formations were to the ones we’d seen just the day before. When we left Mammoth Hot Springs, Jude informed me that we were now heading south and we’d cut across to go back to Canyon Village, where our campground was. As we traveled south, the landscape changed. It was more plains, with mountains just off in the distance. Once in a while, a cluster of trees would sprout up along the road. There was something uniquely beautiful about seeing so much unspoiled land. Apart from the road and a few points of interest, the land was free of human interference as far as buildings and power lines went. The air coming through the windows felt fresh, and for miles all we saw were trees, grass, and blue sky. At one point, Jude handed me beef jerky and our hands grazed each other’s, but it didn’t feel strange. It felt fine. Normal. Comforting. In fact, I was so comforted by the drive that I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew, Jude was squeezing my hand and whispering for me to wake up. As my eyes opened, I took in his face. His long, beautiful face. He was inches from mine, his brown eyes nearly honey colored in the dying light of the day. His lashes were long, dark, and his nose was straight and fit perfectly over his lips. I lingered too long on his lips. I knew, because he leaned in. He was close enough to kiss me, but he wasn’t kissing me. He was passing air between our lips, and from my lips to my chin I felt his warmth and wanted more. It would take just a slip of my lips, just an inch, and we’d be kissing. But I’d told him I wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t. So I just stayed still, breathing and exhaling against his mouth. His juniper scent filled the confines of my seat and I waited, my heart like thunder in my head, for Jude to take that extra inch and kiss me. But probably because he remembered what I’d said, he didn’t. He pulled back and ducked his head out of the car, like he was recoiling from the shock of our close proximity. I didn’t understand the sudden change in him, and it took me another few seconds before I could climb out of the car and follow him to the picnic table, where he’d already set the cooler and a bag of the food we’d purchased.

“I was going to cook hot dogs, if that’s okay.” I didn’t say anything, a little shocked by what had almost happened between us. So I assembled a small salad from the greens we’d purchased and watched as he turned the skewers of the hot dogs over the rake on the fire. This time, I fished in the cooler for a root beer and gave one to Jude before I handed him the paper bowl of salad. “Thanks,” he said, putting the root beer into his cup holder and taking a bite of salad. The smell of the hot dogs was permeating the air, making me only slightly concerned that a bear might smell it and come hunting. But Jude assured me once we’d eaten them and the smoke had burned off the scent, a bear was unlikely to come moseying through a campground. “Make sure you drink a lot of water,” Jude reminded me. “I have two clean thermoses; we can fill them with water that way you can drink them in your tent tonight.” “Well, I don’t want to drink too much in case I need to use the bathroom. Because bears.” “Go before you go to bed and you won’t need to as badly. We did a lot of walking today, and your muscles will need all that water anyway. Dehydration can hit you fast, especially when you’re not used to all this activity.” I picked up my root beer and held it up. “Okay. So, cheers to making it down a canyon and not dying?” Jude smiled, but I could barely see it as the sun set down around us, making it all dark and quiet as the other campers settled down. “Cheers,” he said, clinking our bottles together. Once we’d eaten the hot dogs and finished our root beer, we both chugged a bottle of water and played a game of Uno on the picnic table next to the lantern. “You know,” I said as I placed a card down, “I haven’t looked at my phone once today. And I have no desire to.” “Me neither. But even if you did, it’d be surprising if you had great signal out here.” I shrugged. I didn’t feel the need to spoil my trip so far with a possible message from Colin. As far as I felt, Colin and I were done—there was nothing left to say to one another. Nothing left to figure out. Once I returned to Colorado, I’d need to make a new plan—one that didn’t involve living with Colin. Suddenly I realized that leaving Colin meant leaving Jude, and the fact that I was more bothered by leaving Jude than Colin scared me a little. I’d known Colin six years. And I’d known Jude a few weeks. As if he could tell I was lost in thought, Jude flicked at the card I was holding. “Are you going to play that, or what?” I blinked multiple times, and then saw that I couldn’t use it thanks to the card he’d last played. After grabbing a card from the deck, I placed the new one down. “I need to figure my life out.” “You don’t have it figured out yet?” I shook my head. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do when we go back to

Colorado.” “What do you want to do?” I lifted my gaze, met his over the top of the kerosene lantern. He was staring at me intently, as he usually did. “I don’t know. Jude, I’m not sure I even know who I am. I was this whole different person a month ago, and now I’m someone I don’t know—it’s like I’m learning a new language, seeing a new side of myself.” He leaned over the table, his elbows making the wood creak. “That sounds exciting to me—like you’re discovering who you are. Haven’t you always wondered?” Yes, I thought. Of course I’ve always wondered. But I’d always guessed I was Trista, the other half of Ellie and Trista. Or Trista, Colin’s girlfriend. And now I was someone else—not defined by my losses or my gains. I was just me, just the person inside this pale skin, under the blonde hair. “I never knew I liked the outdoors,” I finally said. “Until you. I didn’t know. I thought I was repulsed by bugs and nature. And,” I lifted a shoulder, but it did little to show just how confused I was, “now I’m craving more—more of the sun and the trees and the sounds that I was never exposed to.” “More is good.” He smiled and I was thankful for the kerosene lamp, lighting his features and illuminating his face. “What else?” “I didn’t know I could do it—could climb down the side of that canyon. I had no clue what I was capable of. I wasn’t outdoorsy, or sporty growing up. I lived in a trailer park with a yard the size of a postage stamp.” I looked down at my hands. “I feel a little desperate, to be completely honest. Knowing that all of this was within my reach and that I never took it—I feel like I wasted time figuring out who I was.” “I don’t think you’ll ever ‘figure it out,’ Trista. You’ll always learn new things, surprise yourself with what you can do. That’s life. But you’re finding out things you like, because you’re trying new things and pushing back the fear.” His smile was exultant. “That’s amazing.” It hurt to look at him, because his face was so happy for me that I ached, deep in my chest. I wanted to reach into the spot that throbbed and soothe it, but at the same time I enjoyed the little bit of hurt this experience was giving me. “And the biggest thing I’m realizing is that I want to go back. To yesterday. To earlier today. And I want to go to those moments again, all of them. Not because I want to change them, but because I want to relive them. To remember how it felt.” I shook my head and looked off into the distance. “I want to remember how it felt to feel that peace.” I realized then that Jude didn’t know a lot about Ellie. The little bits and pieces I’d told him hadn’t really explained the depth of how I grieved for her. And so everything tumbled out. “And when she died, I just felt this hollow, right here,” I pointed to where my heart was. “Like she’d always been a part of me somehow, and when she left the earth she took that with her—as cliché as it sounds. And I know it’s cliché. But that’s the best way I can describe how it felt to lose her. I didn’t just lose her—I lost

a part of me too.” “And some of Colin.” “To be honest, I think I’ve been losing Colin ever since I started dating him. It was as if the moment we became boyfriend and girlfriend, our relationship started losing grains of sand—like a vessel that should be continued to be filled just wasn’t. And instead of making progress, we’ve been losing ever since.” I set my cards down, no longer caring about the game. “And I haven’t been fair with him. I haven’t tried to solve our deficits because I just stopped caring about us. When Ellie died, he left for Colorado after the funeral. And so I was alone—which was fine; I’ve been alone most of my life, even with Ellie. But I’d never felt true, gut-wrenching loneliness until my best friend was dead and my boyfriend was miles away.” I took a deep breath, feeling the load of all of me slipping from my chest to the table. I was surprised the tabletop didn’t bow from the burden of it all. “And I moved to Colorado, but I didn’t even know what I wanted. Did I want Colin, really? Did I want to fix us? I couldn’t say for sure—which is horrible. I know that. But I moved to Colorado because I had nowhere else to go, and ever since then I’ve learned so much about myself that I can’t even remember the girl I was when I showed up at Colin’s apartment.” Jude put my cards with his, shuffled the deck back together. “When you first came to Colin’s apartment, I thought you were a ghost. Not because you’re pale, but because you didn’t look like you were here, fully. It was as if you were one step in this universe and another step somewhere else—in another universe.” I was stunned silent by his admission. “And you looked sad. God, Trista. Your eyes. They were so sad. It was all I could do not to ask you where you were hurting, just so I could figure out a way to fix it.” Tentatively, he reached a hand across the table and touched just the tip of his fingers to my knuckles. “I’ve never felt that way before, like I needed to reach inside of someone and find their soul. But when I was hurting, like you were, I found peace and solace in the mountains. I chased the dawn that filtered through the trees and in that light, I found myself.” The tips of his fingers pressed a little firmer, but not uncomfortably so. “And so I brought up the camping trip—even though I knew Colin didn’t want you to go. Because I knew that I didn’t know you well enough to reach inside of you and find where you hurt, but I hoped the fresh air could, in some way.” “You were right.” I thought of the hike and how, though it had been challenging, I’d surprised myself by continuing on, pushing through the pain in my feet and back. “That trip was full of the biggest surprises of my life. Not only that I could do it, but that I’d like it.” “I know. I could see it on your face. And I was pissed that Colin was ignoring you.” He let go of my knuckles and I felt the roar in my head, that we were heading for the direction we’d been headed—but now our path was straight and uninhibited. “Trista, I wanted to punch him. He’s been my friend for four years, but when you were in physical pain and he ignored you, it was all I could do not to clue

him in to the fact that his girlfriend was hurting—on the outside and the inside.” I let out a breath, feeling like I was being hit over and over with a wave of feeling. Jude had cared for me on that hike, when he didn’t have to. He had put salve over my burns, guilted Colin into getting me to wash the sores on my feet. He’d helped me with the tent and explained the sights and kept me company when my boyfriend hadn’t. “Why have you been around all this time? You don’t have to be. You don’t have an obligation to me.” He shook his head, made a sound that was like a laugh but without humor. “First of all, you don’t need to be an obligation for someone to spend time with you.” His eyebrows lowered as he stared at me, making me want to squirm in my seat. “The very fact that you think you’re an obligation to anyone is a damn tragedy, Trista. You’re not an obligation. To anyone.” I thought of my mom, who cared for me despite her hatred of what I represented. And of my grandfather. Though I loved him desperately, I’d grown up thinking that he felt obligated to me for my mother’s missteps in parenting. And while I knew he loved me—that love was familial—something born because I was flesh of his flesh. He loved me more than my mom could, but for him the love was innate. “Colin loved me once,” I said. “I know he did. But I don’t think he does anymore. And if he does, I don’t think he knows how to show it.” I rubbed my knuckles, because I hadn’t realized I’d been clenching my fists. “And I loved him too—because he’d shown me attention when I’d needed it. I’m not sure if my intentions or my love for him was ever pure, because I was so grateful to him that I loved him no matter how he treated me.” I swallowed, feeling my chest getting lighter and lighter. “Not that he treated me horribly, but he just didn’t give me attention when I wanted it. Or love when I needed it. I was as much at fault for the things that happened—or didn’t happen— between us, because I was indifferent. I am sure I didn’t love him the way he needed me to. What does that say about us?” Jude opened his mouth and I watched him struggle with what to say. “I don’t know what to tell you that doesn’t make me sound biased one way or another. But I think it’s impossible that he doesn’t still love you in some way. It’s just a matter of how you feel about him, and what that love means to you both. If it’s a love worth reviving or a love that needs to be shifted, changed. I think that you both need to talk, about the things you haven’t said for three years and the things he’s never said for the whole six.” He took a deep breath. “But ultimately, I think you need to love yourself more—and place that above all the other love that anyone can give you.” I was still rubbing my knuckles, trying to ease the ache that reverberated from my chest into my hands. But the ache was lighter than it had been, like I’d sheathed a burdensome armor from my heart. “Why am I being so honest with you, Jude?” I asked, wonder in my voice.

“Because you needed someone to be honest to. And someone to listen.” His hands came up and he rested his fingertips over my knuckles. “You needed someone to see you were practically throbbing with your aching, and—for some reason—I saw it. Saw you.” “I am grateful to you. For your patience, your wisdom. For your kindness. And I want to make sure I don’t make the same mistake twice. I was grateful to Colin once, but the love waned quickly.” One of my thumbs traced the inside of his palm. “I am still figuring out who I am, on my own. For years I was Ellie’s friend, Colin’s girlfriend. And I want to know who I am without the crutch of someone else holding me.” He nodded. “I can tell you what I know of you.” I swallowed. “Okay.” “You’re stronger than you realize. You’re compassionate. You have a thirst for knowledge, and a patience I can’t comprehend. You’d never been hiking, but you went with a bunch of strangers anyway, to see what it was like. But you’re also trapped—existing within the confines of the walls you’ve built. I didn’t know Ellie like you do, but I can’t imagine she would have wanted you to be so sad. Because you are sad. Even when you’re happy—you’re sad, too. Your eyes are the most honest things I’ve had the privilege of looking into, but they give away everything you’re feeling.” When he touched me so lightly, I felt it like he was gripping me tightly. I was grounded to the earth, to him. “Your eyes,” he whispered, his voice reverent. His bottom lip didn’t quite touch his top lip and I stared at the void between them, waiting for him to open his mouth and say something more. “What?” I asked, stretching my hands under his, so that the tips of my fingers slid across the weathered wood of the table to touch his palm. “Your eyes—the sadness. It’s there, probably always will be, but it’s not so empty now.” Because I didn’t feel empty. The gouge Ellie had left would always be there, whispering to me whenever I saw a daisy or remembered her laugh. But it was a welcome ache, because it was as much a part of me now as she had once been. “I’m tired,” I said suddenly, because I was. Pouring your heart out onto a table was exhausting. He lowered the light on the kerosene lamp, until we were awash with the dark, and then he let go of my hand and we walked side by side to our tents, the sounds of sticks falling from trees and nearby campfires crackling the only noise between us. When we had reached the opening, he turned to me and said, “Goodnight,” before leaning in and wrapping me in his arms. Jude would call it science, the way my heart slowed, the way I felt weightless in his arms. But the way my soul settled, the way my heart thumped with more power than I knew it possessed—that was something else. Something Jude. He let go and stepped away, waiting until I’d climbed into my tent to unzip the

opening to his. And as I lay in my sleeping bag, my eyes dry and my body at ease, I realized that I wasn’t lonely, not anymore.

Chapter Twenty-Six

I awoke to a whisper. “Trista.” My eyes popped open, taking in the dark. “Trista,” the voice said again. I’m not sure why, but my thoughts immediately veered to danger. “Is it a bear?” I asked, fear framing my voice as I sat up, suddenly wide awake. Jude chuckled. “No, I wrestled him back to the woods. He’s good. It’s five-fortyfive. We need to get going.” “Oh.” I put a hand to my face, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “I’ll be out in a sec.” I heard the tent zipper close and I rolled out of my sleeping bag as my body ached from the hard, cold ground. I’d dressed in warm tights and thick socks, so all I had to do was pull on my hiking boots and throw a sweatshirt over my head. I was out of the tent just a moment later and made a quick stop at the bathroom before I climbed into the passenger seat of the car, stifling the yawn that escaped my mouth. “Coffee,” Jude said, handing me a thermos that warmed my fingers. “Oh, thank the Lord baby Jesus,” I whispered, bringing the lid to my mouth and just letting my face be washed with the steam. “I’ve never smelled anything better.” “In that case, you really do need to travel more—see the world. Smell the world. You haven’t smelled the sea breeze, the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the plaster walls and the dead moss in New Orleans, the night-blooming jasmine on a midnight walk in from a Florida beach. Those are some of the best smells in the world.” He smiled, winked, and said, “Those, and bacon.” “Bacon … I smelled it the morning I first met you.” He tapped his fingers along the steering wheel and then gave me a devilish grin. “That was a trick, you know. Sort of Pavlovian, to get you to smell bacon and see me.” “And what did you hope it would accomplish?” “Well, with Pavlov’s dogs, he got them to salivate every time they heard the bell. So maybe…” his voice trailed off and his smile widened and then we were laughing in the car. It was another reminder that Jude made me at ease—from smiling to baring my

soul. He handed me a muffin he’d packed as well as some beef jerky. “Carbs and protein. We’ll have a picnic at the top.” I looked back in the backseat and saw the heavy-looking backpack. “I’m carrying that, right?” “I can,” Jude said easily as the car rose up the hill near the mountain. “But you shouldn’t. I’ll carry it—it’ll be good for me.” “It might be a bigger challenge than you want. You’re already climbing the mountain; you don’t need to haul fifty pounds of gear up when you’re such a tiny thing as it is.” “Tiny?” “You are.” He glanced at me, his eyes sweeping over my body. “I can carry the pack.” “I will,” I said firmly. “And besides, I like the challenge.” Which was, like a million things I was discovering on this trip, new for me. Enjoying a challenge. Pushing through it when I didn’t want to even start it. There were a handful of cars already parked at the Dunraven trail head, but most of the people seemed to be eating breakfast in their cars, taking their time as the sun rose and highlighted the valley below us. “I packed one hundred ounces of water for each of us in the backpack. There’s a bathroom at the top, so as long as you don’t drink all one hundred ounces in the first few minutes, you’ll be fine. And there’s one here.” He pointed out the window. “This is the Dunraven trail head?” I asked. “Why is the parking lot so small?” “There are two popular trails, this one and the Chittenden Road one. But this one is more scenic, in my opinion, and…” he paused, giving me a secretive smile. “I heard back from a buddy of mine that you’re more likely to see bears going up this way.” I was instantly both excited and nervous. While I wanted to see a bear, I very much did not want to become a bear’s meal. And despite Jude’s joking about wrestling them, I was well aware that they were wild and our playground for the day was their home. “I have bear spray, and a walking stick. We’ll be fine. We can follow close to one of the other groups when they go up. Strength in numbers. But regardless, I’ve never been alone for more than fifteen minutes on this hike, because it’s pretty popular this time of year.” He looked out the window as a few more cars pulled in. “We got here early, but we’re going to drink some water and wait until the sun rises a bit higher. It’s just that the parking here fills up fast, so I didn’t want to wait and not get a space.” I nodded and grabbed another piece of jerky, chewing it while drinking the water Jude had handed me. “We’re going to take our time, especially after yesterday. And if we do that, this hike will only take about four to five hours. We don’t need to rush. As long as we’re off the mountain before two-ish, we’re good.”

“Why two-ish?” “The last time I hiked this, I made the mistake of going up at ten and on my way down, I got caught in torrential rain with no rain gear.” He hooked a thumb to the pack in the back. “I have rain gear in there, just in case, but I’d prefer not to get pelted with hail and have low visibility when we’re right in bear country.” “Yeah, I’d prefer that too.” We both ate jerky and drank water as the sun lightened the sky. And when the clock read seven-forty, we set off on the trail, a minute behind two other hikers that had gone first. Jude had tried to take the pack from me when he opened the backseat, but I hauled it on my back before he could and gave him a firm look. I didn’t trust his shoulder yet, that the strain from the backpack wouldn’t be too much for him. The trail seemed to be an old road, with how wide and sloped it was. When I imagined hiking up the mountain, I pictured a one-by-one hike along a narrow trail. But the path we followed seemed wide enough for two cars in some spots, and for some reason, I felt a little safer knowing that we were traveling on a well-worn path. The thought made me laugh at myself, because it wasn’t like a bear would recognize this road and steer clear from it. When Jude asked me why I was laughing, he laughed with me after I explained. “No, I’ve never known a single animal to obey traffic laws. We’ll probably see bighorn sheep near the top since it’s earlier in the summer. And they like to jam the road.” Along the way, Jude stopped several times to pause, catching our breaths as we took in the panoramic views. Ascending the mountain wasn’t nearly as taxing as ascending the falls had been, mostly because the trail wasn’t as steep and looking at the views didn’t give me vertigo. We crossed a magnificent meadow, with wildflowers in purples and yellows, and groups of evergreens clustered together, like they were holding secrets in the center of their clusters. For most of the hike we could see our trail laid out ahead of us. Jude kept scanning along our path and in the woods, when we were near them, and I was grateful that he was paying close attention to our surroundings so that I could take in the sights without fear. During one of our breaks, we were passed by a couple that looked to be in their seventies. Jude and I watched as they smiled the whole time, grinning like they were teenagers. And when they were far enough up the road from us, I turned to Jude. “Kind of embarrassing that we were passed by two people fifty years older than us.” Jude’s face was turned away from me, but I saw the curve of his cheek and knew he smiled. “I don’t know—I think it’s pretty incredible. I want to be in my seventies, passing young people as I climb a mountain.” I watched as they disappeared around a shaded bend and realized that it would be phenomenal, to be that old and still chasing my dreams. But then I was reminded that I didn’t really have dreams. I was learning so much

about myself on this trip, but the one thing that hadn’t changed was my lack of ambition. I had no plans, no future I reached for. I was living in the now, without a single plan for the tomorrow. “What are you thinking about?” “The fact that as much as I’m learning about the person I am, I still have no clue what I want to do with my life.” “Ah.” He placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “I don’t think many people know what they want to do with their lives. They just live it, as best as they can, and follow the adventures that come their way.” “Well, I know that. But I don’t have a direction. A purpose. I dropped out of college. I’m essentially homeless. And I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.” “We’ll be at Old Faithful tomorrow. And we’ll see bison and more elk and enough geysers to tide you over for the rest of your life.” I bumped my shoulder into him. “You know what I mean. If I asked you where you saw yourself in ten years, what would you say?” “Ten years. I’ll be thirty-five, almost.” He brought a hand to his chin and rubbed. “Probably here.” He smiled at me warmly. “Really?” “Why not? I love it here. I love that mountain air—the way my head gets a little dizzy from the altitude. Maybe I won’t be here, in ten years, but maybe I’ll be on a mountain, somewhere. My journeys are far from over, even at thirty-five.” “What about your career?” “I don’t suppose I’ll be able to travel and blog the rest of my life. But I hope that in my thirties, I’ve socked away a decent-sized nest egg, and maybe I’ll live off the land like a crazy mountain man. Or maybe I’ll be in an office, telling people how they should spend their trust fund. Or maybe I’ll be teaching, imparting all the random knowledge I’ve collected over the last twenty-five years onto a bunch of young, impressionable children.” “You make it sound so easy, like you could do anything.” “Newsflash, I can do anything.” He tapped my foot with his walking stick. “And so can you.” “What about five years? Do you have a clearer picture of where you’ll be in five years?” “It’s not any clearer than ten years, but I know I’ll be outside somewhere, exploring the land that calls to me, down in my marrow. I’ll probably have a handful of more tattoos. I can wear the whole world if I want.” When I stayed silent, pondering his answers, he asked me where I’d be in five years. “In five years? Hopefully my grandfather is still living. It’s all I really, really need.” “Will you be in Wyoming? Or somewhere else?” “I’m not sure.” Now that Jude had introduced me to the world outside of cities and smog, I knew there was no way I could go back to the mundane. “Maybe I’ll do

some exploring.” I paused, kicked at a rock that was loosening from its place in the road. “Or maybe I’ll be here.” Jude stomped his boot into the ground, stirring up the dirt around his feet. “June thirtieth, of the year twenty-sixteen. Trista will be here.” I laughed and shoved him lightly with my hand as we resumed our hike. “Why not?” I asked. “This is one of the few places I’ve been that’s never changed.” Further down the road, I said, “Remember last night, when I said I wanted to go back to yesterday morning, and the day before?” Jude nodded. “Not to change the experience, but to relive it.” “Exactly. I can’t tell you how much my city in Wyoming has changed in the last five years, but in the next five years this mountain will still be here. Surrounded by flowers and trees and the wildness that its known for the last, what, million years?” I placed my hands on my hips as I gazed up at the blue sky above us. “So, why not? I can relive today in five years.” “Are you planning on replicating the conditions?” I stopped, struck by what he asked. “Maybe. What are you doing in five years?” He laughed, and I joined in. “Climbing Mount Washburn with you, I suppose.”

*** Two hours later, I could see the fire station at the top. The wind had gradually picked up as we became more exposed to the elements. We’d been shielded from it for the most part as we hiked up, thanks to the trees and shrubs along the route. Near the top, we finally saw our first large wildlife—a group of bighorn sheep who looked at us and then dismissed us immediately. Jude came up behind me as we watched them taking their time crossing our path, in no rush to move aside. “Don’t worry,” Jude reassured me, placing his hands on my shoulders. “They’re not going to come near you.” We moved around them carefully, walking a counterclockwise circle to the summit. I wanted to stop, take a rest, but now that the fire tower was right in front of us, Jude and I wordlessly continued on, My legs were shaking from the last stretch we’d done to the top, but Jude grabbed my hand—no light touch at all—and tugged me over to a sign placed between two stakes. MT WASHBURN ELEV. 10,243 FT ELEV. 3,122 M “Holy sh*t, we just climbed a mountain.”

“What?” Jude said behind me. The wind at the top was strong, loud, and whipping my hair around my face, slapping me repeatedly. I turned to him and pointed at the sign. “We did it!” I said. “We climbed a mountain.” The shock of it hit me then, and I grabbed him for a hug, pulling him close to me and squeezing my arms around him. My face was buried in his neck and he smelled so good that, in the moment, I momentarily forgot where I was and I sighed, right against his skin. His arms folded around me, holding me tight as the wind whipped our clothes and my hair around our heads. “Let’s go inside and get warm for a minute,” Jude said against the shell of my ear. I nodded and he held my hand as he tugged me to the fire station—that Jude informed me was a fire tower. It was a square-shaped, rust colored building with two levels. There was a white building—an addition maybe—that was attached, with all glass windows. Jude pulled me into the viewing room, which was a muchneeded reprieve from the wind that had caused my hair to lash at my skin. After using the restroom, Jude pulled the pack off my back and dug around inside. He handed me a pair of binoculars and encouraged me to check out the view from the windows with them. “We’ll see better back outside, but at least your hair isn’t in your face here.” He also pulled a thin coat out of the backpack and handed it to me. “You’ll need this for the hike back.” “Oh, it’s okay,” I said, trying to hand the coat back to him. “You’re not going to be working your body as hard on the way down, so you’ll be colder. Just trust me.” So I did, sliding my arms into the coat and zipping it up. Jude grabbed a baseball cap from his pack and stuck it on his head. “Ready to go back out into that wind and see more views?” I nodded and followed him back outside. Walking back into the wind felt violent after being inside and I gripped onto Jude to keep me steady. Perhaps because the adrenaline rush I’d felt immediately after climbing the mountain was receding, I felt shakier. Fortunately, Jude seemed to sense what I needed and held my left hand in his as he pulled me against his side, his right arm wrapped around my back to my waist. It was almost like a dance move. He tugged me over to a ledge of rock and kept me close. “Look out there, can you seen the Grand Canyon we visited yesterday?” The wind was whipping my hair in front of my eyes, smacking me so fiercely that it was like hard lashes to my face. I scrambled to keep the strands from my eyes, but it was no use—my hair was too troublesome to take in the views. “I’ve got another hat, if you want it?” Jude asked, leaning down so that I could hear him. At my emphatic nod, he opened the backpack I was wearing and pulled out a cap. He used one hand to pull the hair from my face and held it back as he settled the hat over my head, securing the hair away from my face.

“Thank you,” I said, tucking the loose hairs around my ears. Finally, I could see. And what a sight it was. I must have been able see for nearly a hundred miles. The sky was so clear that I could make out sharp peaks at the edge of the world, lush green forest, snowcapped mountains, a valley of a dozen shades of green, and closer to us, the chasm that separated the canyon walls. “I can see it!” I exclaimed, pointing. “Right there.” “Yes,” Jude said, his lips next to my ear. I felt the heat of him at my back and resisted from stepping back one step, so that we were flush against one another. “And that’s the Hayden Valley, Mount Sheridan,” he said, pointing to the snowcapped mountains. “And that mountain range way far back? That’s the Tetons, the mountains we saw when we flew into Jackson.” “We can see that far?” “We’re on one of the highest points of Yellowstone—so yes, we can.” He smiled warmly at me, and my stomach was a riot of butterflies. He was just so handsome, with the navy blue Broncos hat, his stubble long past the point of calling it stubble. His sleepy, warm honey eyes reflected the clouds around us and I felt that turn in my chest, the slip to a fate that we’d been following for a while. I wrapped my arms around him, just so overwhelmed by the sights and the feelings simmering inside of me. To be here, with Jude, was surreal. “I can’t believe we hiked up a mountain,” I said. “We did it. Do you feel so accomplished? Because you should.” Pulling back, I nodded. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do it—especially not after that hike down to the falls yesterday.” He tugged on my hat, giving me a gentle smile. “That was a sharp incline,” he said. “This took longer, but the walking up was much more gradual.” “Thank you,” I blurted out. “For bringing me here. For showing me the world.” I remembered what Jude had said when I’d asked him why he climbed mountains. So that he could see the world. As I held him and looked out across the rock and forest, I got it. It all made complete sense. “How do you feel?” “Amazing.” “Good.” He tucked me into his chest, and neither of us pulled away for a long while after that. It was if we’d both decided in that moment to give in to the strings pulling us taut to one another. With Jude wrapped around me as we looked out over the mountain, I felt like I was learning as much about myself as I was about him. Approaching hikers caused me and Jude to turn, but we still held on. The hikers looked a little worse for the wear, a little shaken up. But there was no denying the light in their eyes when they walked to where we stood. “Did you see the bear?” one of them asked breathlessly. Jude shook his head and we turned more fully to face them. The guy took a deep breath like he’d just been running. “There was a grizzly—

loping about in the meadow just down the mountain.” Jude and I exchanged a look. “Want to go now?” he asked. I nodded and Jude thanked the man for letting us know. “Let’s get a few photos first,” Jude said, pulling the lens cap off his camera. I watched as he set the shot, even pulling his tripod off of the backpack and setting it up at one point, when he cursed the wind for making it hard to focus. I walked around, looking at the various patterns in the volcanic rock. There were a lot more hikers approaching, all talking about the bear they saw. A few of them seemed nonchalant about it, but others were equal mixtures of terror and glee. “Trista.” I put my hand on the top of the baseball cap when a gust of wind made it feel looser and turned, facing Jude. The camera was up by his face and I heard the shutter click. “Did you just take a photo of me?” He nodded, taking another one. A hundred strands of hair had escaped from under the cap and flew up around my face. “Let me take some of you,” I insisted, grabbing the camera from him. Jude set it to autofocus and then stood where the Tetons were behind him. I took a couple photos, moving from side to side and trying to test the angle of the shot itself. “Come here,” Jude said, low and rumbly. I could barely hear him across the wind, but the voice carried anyway, and I looked up from the viewfinder to see him reaching a hand out for me. Everything inside of me went shivery with the way he looked at me. His sleepy eyes were soft, his lips partly open but unsmiling. Tentatively, I placed my hand on his and he tugged me close, so quickly that I laughed once as I collided with his chest. He took the camera from my hands and checked the focus before turning it around, so it was facing us. As the shutter clicked, one after the other, I leaned in closer and closer. When he pulled the camera down, he wrapped the strap around his neck and turned to me. His mouth was in a grim line, but his eyes were still warm, like there was an ember behind the honey, making them glow against the darkening sky. “Trista,” he said, then shook his head. I waited for him to say something, but instead he placed his hands on my shoulders, squeezing as I faced him. My heart thumped painfully fast in my chest. Slowly, his hands slid across my shoulders to my neck, pausing at the place where shoulder met neck, and then his hands came up the sides of my throat until he was cupping my jaw. One of his thumbs brushed my bottom lip before pulling it downward. I was transfixed by his face; the way his eyes grew darker, the way his mouth opened wider. Every little movement was fascinating. His thumb let go of my bottom lip and then he angled my chin so my mouth rose to meet his.

I didn’t hesitate, going up on my tip toes to make the connection happen even as his mouth descended. He didn’t kiss me slowly—there was nothing slow about the way he kissed me. His teeth tugged on my bottom lip and I opened more, my hands coming to his wrists to keep him holding me—for as long as I could. The weight of Jude was in that kiss—everything he wanted to say with words, he spoke with his lips instead. It was essentially the same thing, just translated in a different way. A way that was born from feeling, which meant more to me than words possibly could. When he said my name against my lips, like it was a sigh, elongating the “s” I thought for sure he was in pain. Because in a way, I was too. There was nothing I wanted more than to keep kissing Jude on that mountain. Not one single thing. The wind swirling around us picked up again, and the hood from my jacket flapped against my face, breaking our moment. But instead of pulling away, Jude twisted my hat backwards and his too—so the brims were no longer right over our faces. He brushed the strands from my forehead before he kissed me there. I closed my eyes once again, committing all of it to memory. Jude was just so beautiful—everything about him, from his kindness and his patience, to his brain and his backbone and way deep down, in his soul. Goodness emanated from him in the same way that sadness probably poured from me. And damn if I didn’t feel like he’d transferred some of that goodness to me when he’d kissed me like a man desperate for more. “Ready?” he asked against the shell of my ear. Every time he asked that, he made me think I wasn’t ready. No, definitely not ready for the havoc Jude would wreak upon my heart. But I nodded, and his arms slid down until we were holding hands. And as we began our descent, all I could think about was how he didn’t let go of me. Not once. He held my hand like it was the most natural thing in the world. Jude was a holder. And I’d never realized until that moment how badly I’d needed to be held. There was no doubt about how I was feeling—even if I didn’t want to think it, to give weight to a word that meant so much. It felt too soon. And if I’d learned anything from Colin, it was not to trust the feelings if I felt them so suddenly. I looked up at Jude once, when he’d stopped to hold onto the walking stick, watched as he looked across the meadows—searching for the elusive bear. And what struck me the most was that Jude was solid. He knew who he was. He knew what he wanted, even if what he wanted was more or less an ambiguous idea of where he’d be five, ten years from now. He was everything Colin was not, and while I hated to compare them, I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. Colin made me placid; Jude made my head spin. Colin was like sand between my fingers and Jude was a brick. But because I was so fresh from Colin, from the undecided place we’d left

ourselves, I knew I couldn’t jump fully in, with two feet, with Jude. I’d been half of Ellie and Trista. I’d been Colin’s girlfriend. And before I could be anything for Jude, I needed to be me. Just Trista.

*** About halfway down the mountain, Jude gave me a look. “I think we missed the bear.” Shrugging, I said, “The bear wasn’t the one who made this special.” He squeezed my hand. “What do you say to s’mores and hot chocolate by the fire tonight?” I squeezed back, smiled as wide as I could. “I say that sounds amazing.” We walked further down, until we could see the parking lot. Though I told Jude that, essentially, I was fine missing out on the bear, I still felt a slight twinge knowing we’d missed it. But when I thought about the way Jude had kissed me on top of the mountain, the bear was easily forgotten. I wondered if I wore the peace on my face. Because that’s how I felt—completely peaceful. Hopeful, even. As we crunched in our boots across the parking lot, someone shouted something that broke the dream-like spell I was under. “Stay in your cars!” I whipped my head around to determine where the voice came from, just as Jude pulled me back behind him. Someone shouted and I heard a succession of car doors slamming before Jude’s hand tightened on mine. “Stay with me. Don’t panic.” “What?” I asked, but obeying his low command. “Bear,” he rasped. My blood ran cold. I’d wanted to see a bear so badly, but had resigned myself to not seeing one as we made it back to our car. Now, faced with the prospect of seeing one, I felt just how real the danger was. His grip on my hand was almost painful, and he moved so that he was more fully in front of me. “Don’t move.” I wasn’t sure I could even breathe. All I could see was Jude’s back as he dug into the front pocket of his jeans, noiselessly pulling out his keys. “We’re going to the car.” My eyes darted right, to our car parked just three spaces away. “Okay,” I whispered. Jude led, his face turned away from me as he kept an eye on the bear that I still could not see. “Go slow. Don’t move until I do. Stay calm.” I nodded as I followed him behind the car next to us. And then another. By the

time we made it to our car, Jude paused. “I’m going to unlock your door first.” I didn’t have a choice anyway, so I just did as he instructed, following him along the side of the car. Quietly, he put the key in the lock and turned, unlocking. I was too afraid by his complete stillness, the rigidity in his shoulders, that I didn’t look away—trusting him to have control of the situation. He leaned in, so his body was covering mine. “Get in. Don’t close the door unless the bear comes close and unlock the doors but not until I’m around the car.” Swallowing, I nodded once. He let go of my hand to brace it on the door before he pulled the handle and opened. “Get in,” he said. I slid in, holding my breath and then pulled the door until it was almost closed. My hand was trembling as I scrambled for the unlock button. It felt like it took Jude less than a second to be on the other side of the car. He slid in. “Close the door.” I did as he instructed and then he locked the doors. We both sat back in the seats and I thought for sure he could hear my heart thundering because it was deafening. I finally got up the courage to look out the windshield and was about to ask Jude where the bear was when I saw him—walking right through the parking lot in front of the car. His dark, marble eyes searched the parking lot, his head swinging back and forth. His snout was long and his fur was a mix of brown and black, matted along the side of his body we could see. He didn’t look particularly drawn to any one thing, lifting his head looking around but not really moving in any specific direction. “It’s a grizzly.” I looked at Jude. “He’s huge.” Jude pulled his camera up to his face, played with the lens and got a few shots of him. “I think that’s Scarface. Look, when he turns his head back around.” Indeed, when the bear turned I saw the significant scarring along the side of his face. His ears appeared misshapen, like there wasn’t much left to them. He looked a bit haggard, but seemed unperturbed by the cars that were starting their engines. His mouth was open a little, like he was breathing through it as he searched the parking lot. He took his time crossing the parking lot, swinging his head from side to side. And when he reached the side of the parking lot, where grass and flowers stretched far up the side of the mountain, he picked up his pace a little to jump up the retaining wall into the field. And then he went on his way, like it was business as usual. “A bear,” I said, dumbfounded. “I’ve heard people have seen him over here, but I’ve never seen him myself.” “He looked old.” “I think he’s around twenty years old, so he’s definitely been around a few times.”

“Why was his face so scarred up?” “Could be a number of things, depending on who you ask. It could be from other bears, incidents with bison while hunting. Or they could be self-inflicted, from him trying to take off the collars they put on him.” “He looked like he wasn’t afraid of people at all.” “He probably isn’t. A lot of animals become accustomed to our presence in the park. That’s why it’s important not to feed them, because once you do they can become dependent on it.” I nodded and we watched the bear climb the hill until he disappeared over the ridge.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

After a dinner of grilled chicken Jude had picked up at the nearby general store, we settled around the fire with chocolate milk Jude had also bought. “You love your chocolate milk, don’t you?” “Sure do. When I was younger, I was a little overweight. That’s what got me active. But I still wanted something sweet right before bed every night, so my mom made chocolate milk with skim milk and Hershey’s syrup and it was a way for me to get my sweet in without eating an entire candy bar every night.” “You were overweight once?” I asked, sizing him up and down. He had an athletic body, one that spoke to his experience in the woods. “Sure was. When I was sick.” He brushed the knees of his pants and then sat back in his chair. “Easy to gain weight when you’re in a bed all the time.” “I’ve always been a little chubby,” I said, feeling like I could admit that to Jude without him judging me for the thing I’d always been the most concerned about, in regards to my looks. He shook his head. “Mila told me you had a distorted view of your body. And after our first camping trip and hearing you say that, I can see what she means.” “I struggled a lot, with my weight, growing up. I’ve tried losing weight, but most of my attempts were half-hearted. I just gave up, and it happened naturally.” “You were never chubby.” My skin prickled and I looked at him. “You’ve only known me for a few weeks. Trust me, I was chubby.” “When?” “Until the last year or so.” “It’s not true.” The prickle in my skin carried into my face. “You haven’t known me,” I repeated. “I was.” Jude was silent and I suddenly felt awkward—the way he was acting was so strange that I couldn’t reconcile it. “Are you tired?” he asked. I shook my head, wondering at the change of topic. “My legs feel a little bit like jelly, but that could be thanks to the bear and not the actual mountain climb.” “If it makes you feel any better, my legs felt like jelly too when I saw him.” His demeanor changed like that—where he had just been a little standoffish with his

insistence that I hadn’t been chubby, he was now amiable Jude. “Can I see your camera?” I asked, wanting to see the bear again. He was still wearing it around his neck, having just come from the thicket of trees beyond us where he’d snapped picture after picture. He pulled it off his neck and passed it to me, but didn’t let go immediately. “I just want to look through the photos,” I said. “Don’t delete any, please.” “Okay.” He was acting really strange. When he finally let go of the camera, my eyes narrowed for a moment as I wondered what was going on in his head. “How do I turn on the gallery?” “Press the button that looks like the ‘play’ button. And then use this,” he reached over, pointed to the arrows just right of the screen, “to navigate through them.” I pressed play and looked at the first several photos of the trees Jude had captured in his lens. It was our last night at the campground, because tomorrow morning, we’d wake early and get on the road to see the rest of Yellowstone before our flight that night. When I reached the bear, I used the little zoom button to see his face more clearly. From this view, he looked little, harmless apart from the obvious scarring on his face. It made me think about how photos couldn’t do justice to reality. I kept scrolling back and out of my periphery, I watched Jude stand and walk to the picnic table. The fire crackled near my feet, but I kept scrolling through the photos of the meadows and the marmots we’d seen on our way down. When I reached the photos from the summit, I paused. My hand came to the top of my head instinctively as I stared at the photo of Jude and me. His arm was wrapped around me, and we were both smiling into the camera. But the smile on my face wasn’t what gave me pause. I was wearing a baseball cap. I’d forgotten about it, because after the bear left Jude had repacked the backpack and taken the hat from my head. But I was wearing it in this photo. And my stomach burned as I stared at it. It was purple. A Rockies baseball cap. And across the Rockies letters was a speckling of white. Paint, perhaps. The hand on my head slid, like deadweight to my lap as I stared at it. The Rockies cap I’d seen the night Ellie died. This Rockies cap. With the paint splatter. The Rockies cap the man who had administered CPR to Ellie was wearing. The emblem that bounced in my head as Ellie’s chest had been pumped, over and over. I felt like I’d lost a grip on the now. My mind flashed to that night, to the person who was sitting beside Colin as Colin lit up a joint. The person who hadn’t spoken to me, who’d remained hidden underneath that baseball hat. The person who had pushed me out of the way to start chest compressions. “Trista.” Jude’s voice lured me back to the now.

I stood, albeit shakily, and walked to him, holding his camera in my hand. As if in a shock, I handed it to him. “This,” I said, my tongue so thick I couldn’t move it around my mouth. “This hat. Your hat?” He took the camera from me and nodded tentatively. “Yes. My hat.” I blinked, trying to reconcile the Jude that was here with me and the Jude that had been there with me. Trying to save her. “You were there.” I swallowed, braced a hand on the picnic table. My legs were trembling under the weight of what I’d just realized. “Yes.” He seemed cautious, as if he was bracing himself for my reaction. I’d just discovered a secret of his. “Ellie,” I said, feeling warmth swamp my chest. The heaviness of it all was reminiscent of the night she’d died. “You did CPR.” “Yes.” “But you didn’t know her.” “I would do the same for anyone.” He placed the camera on the picnic table. “Anyone else would’ve done it too.” “But they didn’t. No one did. But you.” I blew out a breath. “You gave Ellie CPR. You tried to save her.” “I did.” I placed my hands on his chest, pulling myself closer to him. “I don’t know what to say.” “Let me say something then.” His hands were at his sides. “I didn’t mean to keep it from you. But when I met you, you looked so sad. I didn’t want to dredge something like this up, to remind you of that night.” I thought about the first time I’d seen Jude, how I’d just spent a sleepless first night in Colorado. “Please don’t keep anything from me again,” I said. “Okay.” He looked remorseful and maybe a touch sad. “Thank you. For trying.” I curled my fingers into fists so that his shirt was taut in my hands. He kissed my forehead first, but we both knew it was a weak anesthetic for what he was doing to my heart. Realizing that Jude had tried to save her the night she died—it should’ve hurt me. It dredged up the old wounds, the harsh reality of her physical absence from my life. But instead of being hurt, I felt lighter—as if I’d found a communion in Jude. Like I wasn’t completely alone. Suddenly, I was starving for him. As if the kiss on the mountain hadn’t been enough to sustain me. All the voices telling me to slow down were shoved back as I stepped close enough so that my body was completely in line with his. And then I kissed him. Each time we kissed had felt like a test of the waters, to see how we fit, even though each kiss had been better than the last. Like I was constantly telling myself to slow down even when my heart was steps ahead of me, tumbling over itself. My brain had no power over my heart—all its caution fell on deaf ears.

I didn’t have to ask Jude to kiss me back. He did it himself, caressing my skin like it’d been made for his touch. He didn’t hold me gently, he held me like he worried I’d slip from his grasp. One of his hands slipped up my spine, coming to rest at the back of my head. He cradled me, but his fingers dug in. Tilting his head, he sunk in deeper. His tongue lashed against mine and I might have made a sound in the back of my throat, because the feel of his tongue against mine was the first step to my undoing. He pulled back, breathing hoarsely against my mouth. But I didn’t want to stop, not this time. With a boldness I didn’t know I possessed, my hands snaked under the bottom of his shirt, slid across his abdomen. The divots and the rounded fullness of his muscles under my skin made my own body warm like the very center of me was just molten need. His mouth was a centimeter from mine, so all I heard was our harsh breaths and our heartbeats thundering. “Trista.” “Jude,” I said. “Ask me if I’m ready.” He didn’t. Instead, he kissed me again, bruisingly, branding his taste on my lips. This was what I’d been looking for, for so long, that I couldn’t comprehend that it was actually happening. As if my brain just woke up to that fact, my hands became hungry, cruising over his skin and squeezing and nicking him with my nails. “Trista,” he repeated, pulling back again. “Jude.” He made a noise in his throat, something guttural and desperate as he opened my mouth with his again. He was brilliantly untamed in the way he didn’t hold back. His lips absolutely devoured my mouth, like we were two live wires trying to find our way back to each other. My entire body shook, so powerful was my immediate need for Jude. “f*ck,” he said, breathing the syllable on my lips. “Are you ready?” “I’m ready,” I said, before he lifted me into his arms and carried me into his tent.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

The tent was small, which suited me just fine because it left little room for us to be apart. As soon as we were inside the tent, he zipped it closed and turned to me again. I reached my hands up to his neck and he had to duck from the low ceiling anyway. Before I could stop myself, I was unbuttoning his flannel shirt and tugging it off of him. The fitted t-shirt came next. I tore it off and flung it across the tent, which wasn’t far. My hands ran down his chest, over the grooves of muscle until they met the waist of his jeans. Jude grabbed the zipper on my sweater and slowly pulled it down. I wished I could’ve seen his eyes, but I settled for his static breathing and his hands slowly touching every inch of me he could. My shirt came after, but Jude didn’t immediately remove my bra. His finger hooked in the center and he tugged me close to him, holding me just by that small piece of fabric as he dropped a kiss on my lips. “I wish I could see you,” he said against my mouth. “Use your hands,” I said, grasping his wrist and pulling his hand down my torso. “Oh, I’d planned to.” His voice was all rumbly, rolling right over me in the most exhilarating way. My hand slid up his chest, down his muscular arms. His skin was so warm, hard in places from the muscle. Virile. The word slipped in my head again as he stood before me. The first time I’d thought it, I’d just looked at him. And now, I got to touch him. I hooked my hand in the front of his jeans and that’s when the nerves made me shake. I wanted this, wanted him. And the power of my need for Jude was so shocking that I had to catch my breath. “You first,” Jude said, as if he saw how anxious I suddenly was. He lowered in front of me to his knees and kissed the skin under my belly button. “We’re going to have to do this again, in the light, so I can see and touch.” I closed my eyes, because feeling his breath right there was too much to process with just one sense. He brushed his stubble along my skin as his hands glided up the backs of my thighs, squeezing me over the running tights I wore. He was so, so close to touching my skin. Knowing all that separated us was a thin layer of fabric

was overwhelming. His thumbs hooked into my tights from either side of my hips and tugged down. The cool air hit my skin but then was replaced with the warmth of Jude’s hands and I shuddered a breath from the sensory difference. When his hands came back up to my waist while he was still on his knees before me, I couldn’t wait. I dropped to my knees in front of him, wrapped my arms around his neck, and then kissed the hell of out his mouth. His hands came up my back, fingers snaking under the strap of my bra as he touched my skin there. My skin was suddenly too tight, too warm—as if I was burning from the inside out, melting with no escape. His fingers finally undid the clasp on the back of my bra and then he leaned forward, one arm braced around my back and the other under my knees as he laid me on top of the silky-feeling sleeping bag. It was cool against my skin, which was a relief from the heat that Jude was igniting across my every pore. The hand around my back slid out and he climbed over me. My eyes were adjusting to the dark enough that I could make out the curve of his smile as his face came to my chest. He kissed the center of my chest before moving down. His lips chased the burn that his stubble caused, and I was falling apart from the sensory overload when his hand cupped my breast. He squeezed it gently, then rolled a finger over my nipple, pulling it down and letting go. I was completely exposed to him. It may have been dark, but he found every part of my body that required his attention as if his vision was completely clear. I watched as his mouth came down, kissing the underside of my other breast. It caused me to squirm underneath him, and he surprised me when his hand grasped my hip, pausing my movements. His lips dropped open mouth kisses across my breast until his mouth captured my nipple. I felt the slightest tug from his teeth and arched my back under him. From there, his lips moved down my chest until he reached the edge of my underwear. His finger slid down my front, right over my center, causing my eyes to widen from the sensation. The hand that still held my hip let go, the fingers slipping just under the edge of the elastic on my underwear. I wanted to scream at him to take them off of me. I was molten, needing a release, but at the same time I was drowning in the sensations that Jude was giving me, just by the lightest touches of his hands and mouth. His fingers slid out of my underwear and down my center, brushing against the heat. The sensation was so sharp that I bucked. When he moved off of me, I wanted to yell, but my eyes had adjusted just enough to the dark that I could see his hands on his waist, unbuttoning his jeans. My hands reached for him, meeting bare thigh, and slid up until I answered my own question. He wasn’t wearing underwear. The thought made me shiver.

My hands caressed him softly before he wrapped his fingers around my wrist and tugged me to standing. “I want you.” He said it solidly, because that’s how he did everything. “More than this. I want you.” I didn’t know what to say so I kissed him. He pulled back but I didn’t want to stop, didn’t want to talk. Not when I was burning up. He picked me up so I was wrapped around his waist. Our heads met the top of the tent, but feeling his warmth against me was all I could think about. Once again, Jude lowered me to the ground, and tugged my underwear off my legs while he kneeled between them. His hands slid up my inner thighs, spreading me wide, until he was at my center. He paused a minute, brushing against me with his knuckles. Again, I arched my hips. The slightest touch had triggered a reaction, causing me to want to wrap all my limbs around him and hold on as long as I could. I heard the crinkle of foil and then watched the silhouette of his arm move to himself. I wanted to see him, but the touch of him was more than enough at the moment and when he leaned back over me, pressing a kiss to my stomach, my chest, and then my lips—I was bereft of absolutely nothing. He slid inside of me and the shock of it caused me to exhale right into his mouth. My legs went around his hips and we moved to a rhythm that felt natural— neither quick or slow. We moved fluidly together, like everything was as it should be. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled myself. Luckily, he was so in sync with I wanted that he pulled me with him, so he held me and pushed into me as he cradled me on his lap. His hands came to my butt, lifting me in time with his thrusts. My head fell to his shoulder as everything built up inside of me. Each stroke drove me up higher, higher, until I felt like I wasn’t even present anymore—I was somewhere else, watching my body splintering apart in his hands. I bit into his shoulder when the rush flooded—finally—the warmth lasting far longer than I’d ever expected. Seconds later, he was with me, kissing my neck and then grunting against my skin. We held each other like that for several moments until Jude’s hands moved the hair off of my shoulder and he kissed my neck. He turned my face and kissed my mouth too, with a tenderness that equaled the way he’d treated me all along.

*** I must have fallen asleep briefly because when Jude kissed my lips and said my name softly in the dark, I was under the sleeping bag, cocooned in warmth.

“Jude,” I sighed against his mouth and wrapped my arm around his neck. “Where’d you go?” I asked, registering that there couldn’t have been room for both of us inside the sleeping bag. “I put away our food. I think I’ve seen enough of bears for the day.” I laughed, feeling so completely at ease. My fingers made lazy circles on his arm. “Did you put away the stuff for s’mores too?” “I left it out, in case you were up for some still.” “Absolutely.” I sat up to get a shirt and pants on, but Jude stopped me, grabbing my face and kissing me again. He held me so solid, so sure—that I wondered if he could taste my feelings for him, if they echoed in him. I felt the love I had for him rise up to my tongue, but I kept it at bay. It was too soon. Everything with Jude was so much more than I was used to, in all the best ways, but because he was the more, I didn’t want to screw it up. So I kissed him as wholly as I could, hoping he’d feel it by touch. “I brought your bag in here,” he said, sliding it across the tent floor. “Thank you,” I said, cupping his cheek and giving him another kiss. “I’ll be out in a second.” I dressed in fleece leggings, a tank and a sweater before I left the tent. Jude had set up our camp chairs by the fire and was currently using a small knife to shave down the tip of a stick. I plopped in the chair and sighed, feeling all languid and warm. The fire was burning high, little crackles soaring up into the sky with a pop. Jude’s eyebrows were drawn together as he whittled the end of the stick into a point, scraping off the bark. In the cup holder on my chair was a bottle of chocolate milk and I laughed, uncapping it and taking a long pull. “You and your chocolate milk.” “It’s delicious,” he said with a shrug and a grin. When the stick was whittled to his satisfaction, he grabbed a marshmallow from the bag on the cooler between our chairs. He shoved it onto the stick and then looked over at me. “I can cook it for you, if you want?” I nodded, capping the chocolate milk and putting it back in the hole. “Can I ask you a question?” “You just did.” I rolled my eyes at his teasing. “Okay. Not to make this awkward, but where’d you get the condom from?” There was silence for a second before Jude’s laugh lit up our space. “Oh, right.” He rubbed a hand over his head. “Yeah, that probably seems presumptuous, but I assure you I didn’t pack it with any … intentions … in mind.” He gave me an apologetic smile. “I keep it in my wallet. Just in case. Well…” He looked so flustered and it was the first time I’d seen him stumble over his words. I laughed because seeing him avoiding my eyes from light embarrassment was one of the most adorable things I’d ever seen. “It’s okay, Jude. You’re a man, I get it.”

“I just don’t want you to think that I assume anything with you. I don’t—I am pretty much just following your lead here.” I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around my legs. “I don’t want to push you—because I know this happened rather quickly and so soon after…” his voice trailed off and I winced, not wanting to think about Colin right now. “But any clarity from you would be great right about now.” The light illuminated his face, so I could see that his eyes were guarded, uncomfortable. As amazing as the sex had been between us, we hadn’t defined who we were together. “I’ll be honest. As honest as I can be. That, with you, it was…” my stomach was heavy as Jude watched my face for my reaction. “Everything. That’s the best thing I can say. I’m still trying to figure out who I am—when I’m not part of an ‘and’ so please, just be patient.” “I can do that.” He turned the stick over the fire and then looked back at me. “You know you’re everything too, right?” My breath got caught in my throat. “Everything,” he repeated softly, his voice so low that it rumbled. “And when you’re ready, I’ll be ready.”

*** I awoke to a heavy arm across my abdomen, my body overly warm. It was still dark, but a persistent beat was piercing the silence. “Jude,” I whispered. His mouth was right by my neck so when he breathed deeply, I felt it warm my skin. “Hi,” he said. I went gooey. One simple, two-lettered word had reduced to me to goo in his arms. “Your alarm is going off.” “Oh.” He reached behind his head and pulled his phone out. I saw his face illuminated by the blue screen, his sleepy eyes as he tried to turn it off. “Here, let me.” I took the phone from his hands and pressed the button on the screen. “It’s six.” “Yeah,” he said, his voice gravely. “We need to get on the road so we can see the rest of Yellowstone before our flight.” “Okay, well I’m kind of trapped here.” I touched his hand, gave him a smile. This was new for me, waking up with someone wrapped around me—holding me like he was afraid I’d slip right through his fingers. I felt him smile against my skin before he moved his arm off of me, rolling over to grab his pants. In mere seconds he shed the long johns and slid the jeans up over his legs. “Brr,” he said, rubbing his hands on his pants.

I sat up, tugged my long sleeve shirt—Jude’s—down. I put my hair up in a ponytail and grabbed the winter hat Jude handed me. “The heat can be absolutely brutal during the day, but the temperature drops fast at night.” I grabbed my hiking boots just as Jude finished tying his. He leaned in, kissed me, and then said, “I’ll go start the car and take your tent down.” “’Kay,” I said against his lips. He kissed me again, rubbed his thumb along my jawline, and then left the tent. I wanted to sink back to the sleeping bag, to process all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. It was so much—all good—but the sheer enormity of my feelings for Jude and my need to figure myself out caused a complete mess inside my head. I heard the engine start and then a moment later, the crunch of Jude’s boots around the tent as he took down my tent. Wordlessly, we’d agreed to sleep in his tent that night. And we’d both been so tired from the hike and all that had happened that we fell asleep quickly, our sleeping bags beside each other. Jude’s shadow crossed in front of the tent and the sounds of crunching tarp let me know he was about ready to take down the other tent. I shoved my clothes from the night before into the bag and began rolling up our sleeping bags. I unzipped the tent opening so that I could see Jude and to air out the tent a little. The light was pouring in through the trees, so I saw him much more clearly than I had when we woke up. He was neatly packing the back of the car and I was struck by just how capable—how sturdy, steady—he was. He was a constant—the only person in my life I could expect that from. It seemed to be an odd thing to find that attractive, that he was consistent. He was solidly his own person, living the way he wanted to. His cap was pulled down far enough to cover his hair, and his black and blue checked flannel shirt hid most of his body, but the wide breadth of his shoulders and the tightness in the shirt around his arms as he lifted the cooler to put it back in the car made my cheeks warm. It seemed so simple to say he was strong, capable, sexy. But he was, and more. “Hey,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “You ready?” I thought of what awaited me ahead, a drive to Old Faithful and then back to the airport. I was ready for all of that, but I was most certainly not ready for what was to come, after the plane landed in Colorado. I nodded curtly and then averted my eyes, finding the picnic table suddenly very interesting. The crunch of his boots on the ground should’ve caused me to lift my head, but I kept staring, hoping that Jude would walk right past to the tent. But that wasn’t Jude. “Hey,” he said, taking my chin in his hand and lifting my face to his. “What’s wrong?”

“What are we going to do?” I whispered. It’d been fun playing for the last couple days, but Yellowstone didn’t erase the realities that faced us when we went home. “We’re going to figure it out,” he said easily. He placed his hands on my shoulders and squeezed reassuringly. “It’ll be okay, all of it.” “I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “I shouldn’t have…” I pointed to the tent. “Last night…” “Stop.” His voice was steel. His eyes, however, were warm. “I don’t regret a single thing, Trista. You’re who I want. This,” he squeezed my shoulders again. “This is what I want. Everything, okay?” I nodded. “But I told you, and I meant it, that I need to figure out who I am. And take this—us—slow. You’re so solid, so self-assured. And I’m not. My last relationship, well, my current one—it hasn’t been good for a long time. And I don’t want to do that again. To you. To me.” For some reason, my mom’s words filtered through my head. You’re just like me. Men can’t love you for long. They’ll leave you. She was partially true. Colin left me—though not in the way her many boyfriends left her. I didn’t want to be my mom, flitting from place to place, man to man, until the love dried out along with her money. “I just want—need—to take this slow.” “I can wait.” “Are you always this patient?” He smiled, ran his hands down my arms. “I am, when it’s something I want.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Old Faithful was a geyser that erupted every thirty-five to one hundred and twenty minutes, shooting thousands of gallons of water up over a hundred feet. Jude and I sat huddled on an observation bench for forty-five minutes before we were treated to the sight of it shooting straight up in the air. The wind had picked up around us, which created a wall-like stream of water instead of a straight tube up. There were tall trees behind us that bent from the force of the wind. I expected them to fall straight over, which gave Jude and I a reason to get out of there as the eruption ceased. Along the southern part of the park, we saw bison galore—blocking the road and looking like they didn’t care at all. Jude stopped me from getting out of the car when they were in the road, but when we came across a herd of them in a field within a safe distance, we pulled the car over and Jude started taking photos. Some people around us had started walking into the field to take closer photos with the bison and Jude shook his head. “Not everyone reads those handy pamphlets they give you when you enter the park.” He took a few photos of both of us with the bison in the background before we continued on. Near our exit, we saw a handful of cars pulled off the side of the road, something Jude informed me signaled nearby wildlife. We pulled over and Jude made sure I stayed behind him as we approached a crowd overlooking a valley. “Coyotes,” Jude said. “We didn’t get to see any wolves, but look—a little coyote family.” Across the valley, I watched what looked like a sleeker dog, with a narrower muzzle and bushy tail, trot across a meadow. It was followed by two slightly smaller coyotes. “They’re smart animals—not often seen like this.” I waited until Jude had finished taking his photos and we walked back to the car, side by side, as he scrolled through his photos. “So, we saw elk, bighorn sheep, a grizzly, bison and coyotes. That’s more than a lot of people get to see.” I nodded, realizing that we were at the end of this trip. I looped my arm though his, leaning into him. “We can see more.” “We can, if we come back.” I looked over my shoulder, seeing this grand, sweeping, majestic land behind

me. “I want to come back,” I said. I’d learned so much here—about myself, about Jude. From the geysers, to the canyon, the waterfalls, and Mount Washburn, I’d done things I’d never done—things I enjoyed, loved even. And, most significantly, I’d fallen in love. Maybe I’d always been heading there, from the moment he offered me bacon in the kitchen. When we made it back to the car, a silence settled over me. It remained with me until we arrived at the Jackson airport. Jude must have sensed my need to reflect on the past several days because he didn’t say anything but offer his hand as the plane ascended. By the time the plane landed in Denver, I felt a heavy fullness in my chest, not knowing what awaited me.

*** I had rarely checked my phone while we were in Yellowstone. The only person I expected to call me was my grandfather, because Colin’s silence had made his feelings for me completely clear. But Jude got a text as soon as we departed the plane. I carried the walking stick as his fingers flew across the keyboard, his eyes narrowed and his mouth in a thin line. He said nothing as he texted, just followed behind me all the way to baggage claim. Whatever was in the texts had burst the little bubble we existed in the last few days. Jude was focused on what the person was saying, even going so far as to step away from me to make a call as I waited for our bags to roll up on the belt. I had just secured the backpack to me when he returned, grabbing the rolling suitcase and walking stick from my hand. “What is it?” I asked—anything to break the tension that was between us. “Colin. He’s” –he looked at me with eyes that spoke what words couldn’t— “at a hospital. We’ll go there now.” I checked my watch. Five p.m. “What happened?” “I think we should wait until we get there.” The answer was odd, but since Jude seemed more tense than upset, I figured it couldn’t have been too serious. Jude loaded up the car in the parking garage and then headed toward Denver. I texted Mila to see if she could give me some clarity over what was going on. Her reply was abrupt. Mila: He’ll explain when you get here. A sinking feeling of dread wrapped around me then. Whatever it was, Jude and

Mila were both keeping it secret. Jude didn’t look at me once as we drove to hospital, and the entire time the anxiety was growing. So much that when we made it through the hospital to Colin’s room, I opened the door before Jude could and marched in. Colin was hooked up to a few machines, his face pale and his eyes tired. “Trista.” “What happened?” “Nothing,” he said, resignation in his voice. I finally noticed Mila sitting beside him in the bed, her eyes equally tired and her hair looking like it hadn’t been washed in a few days. “It’s not nothing,” she said, leaning against his bed. The way she was leaning looked odd to me, but I couldn’t figure out why. Shaking my head, I approached the bed and took the lone seat beside him. “What are the machines for?” “They’re monitoring my heart.” “Okay. Why?” “I have a heart condition.” He rubbed a hand down his face and I stared at him dumbly. Not comprehending what was happening. “What? What kind of heart condition? Did something happen?” “I haven’t been honest with you.” His gaze darted to Mila and then back to me. “About several things.” “Well, I’m here now. Tell me what’s going on.” “I have a heart condition. It’s called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.” He waved a hand at the wires hooked up to his chest. “My heart becomes abnormally thick and it’s hard for it to pump blood.” “What?” I was dumb struck. I couldn’t process what he was saying, because it didn’t make sense. He pressed the tips of the fingers from one hand against the center of his chest. “I lied to you. This scar is from a surgery I had years ago, before we met.” My stomach tumbled over as I listened to him. Shock flooded in, like ice water. I felt as if I was hearing him speak for the first time, and the words were foreign and uncomfortable. I couldn’t reconcile this news, that he had a heart condition, after knowing him for so many years. I kept shaking my head, trying to process what he was telling me. “I don’t understand.” “I have an obstruction, and the surgery I had removed part of my heart to help the blood flow.” I watched, at a loss for words, as he told me everything that he’d kept from me for years. With each word, his body tightened, as if the weight of telling me was overwhelmingly heavy for him. I shook my head, as if I rattled the words around my head long enough that I’d understand them. “And you still have it, even with the surgery?” He nodded. “It runs in my family—my dad’s side. My uncle died from it,

untreated. Luckily,” he said with a sardonic smile, “the symptoms presented themselves early for me, when I was in middle school. And I had the surgery a year before I met you.” He waved a hand around. “That’s why I came to Colorado after high school—this hospital is much more suited to my particular condition.” I struggled to ask the question that I desperately wanted to, because I felt it sounded selfish. But I said it anyway. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” He sighed, wincing. “I wanted to. I was doing fine after my surgery and before you. It wasn’t until we were in college, when I noticed myself growing more and more tired, that I thought it was important for you to know. But then Ellie died and I saw how you coped and I thought if I told you, you’d fall apart.” His eyes hardened when he said that and I shook my head. “You could’ve told me still. You should’ve told me. It’s your heart, Colin. That has to be pretty serious.” “It is. I haven’t had any major symptoms in the last couple years. After the surgery, I felt a hundred times better. But it’s common to be asymptomatic until…” he paused and I watched his throat move as he swallowed. “Until sudden cardiac arrest.” “What happened then? Why are you here?” “I should refrain from drinking, and, well, you know I haven’t.” He shrugged and then winced. “But I was sober, until you showed up.” “Showed up?” I asked, my voice a little higher than I expected. “You told me to come to Colorado. I didn’t just drop onto your doorstep.” He shifted in the bed, looked defensive. “But that’s how it felt. I wanted to see if we could make us work, but obviously we couldn’t. Do you know how hard it is, sharing a bed with someone you don’t even know anymore?” I gave him a hard look. Heart condition or not, he sounded completely selfcentered at that moment. “I’m pretty sure I can relate to it.” “I didn’t know how to tell you I wasn’t … happy anymore.” “So you started drinking?” I stood, not wanting to be near him at that moment. “That’s a poor excuse, and you can’t blame me. You have a voice. A vocabulary. You can talk to me, tell me how you’re feeling. Instead of keeping me here and not wanting me anymore.” “You can’t tell me you haven’t felt the same way.” “Of course I have!” Mila gave me a look at the volume in my voice, so I lowered my tone and continued. “I have, but you wanted me here. So I came, because you insisted.” I pointed a finger at him. “The day I showed up, I talked about leaving. You talked me out of it. Why did you keep me here if you didn’t want me here?” “Because—you’re fragile.” His eyes were weary, but not from physical exhaustion. Instead, the weariness was weighed down by some kind of disdain he held for me. “You haven’t let go of Ellie and she died three years ago. If I broke up with you, I worried you’d do something reckless.” I thought of how I’d coped—with liquor and contemplating ending my life. He wasn’t wrong there, but I still wanted an answer. “Why would I suddenly be

reckless?” “Because you’d be alone.” Bile rose in my throat but I swallowed it down. “Newsflash, Colin. I’ve been alone for three years since my best friend died. And alone longer than that—longer than I’ve even known you. You’re not the first person to abandon me. But you kept me out of pity.” “If that’s what you want to call it.” Colin dropped the mask he wore over his face, and I saw through all the bullsh*t he’d been wearing. “I needed you, when the symptoms started up. I needed my girlfriend, but you were so depressed—you weren’t there for me.” My heart throbbed. We’d both abandoned each other. “Maybe we should have this conversation alone,” I said, glancing at Mila who was by his side. “There’s nothing left to say—we’re both finally being honest about how long we’ve been lying to each other.” I was struck by his coldness. He looked like I had taken up his last sliver of patience. Mila leaned over the bed, shushing him and settling a hand over his chest. Something clicked in my head then, as his hand came up and laid over hers. I stared long and hard at their hands as I thought about what it could mean. When I raised an eyebrow to Colin, he nearly rolled his eyes. “Yes. We’re together.” “That was fast,” I said, though it was hypocritical of me to say. “No, we’ve been together. More or less. For over a year. Which was why I wasn’t upset when you decided to go to Yellowstone with Jude.” I shouldn’t have felt angry. But I did. It gurgled and popped as I stared at them both, as they watched me. My mind raced, trying to connect the dots. “For over a year?” Mila, to her credit, looked a hell of a lot more apologetic than Colin did. “I didn’t know he had a girlfriend, when I met him. It just happened one night. I’m sorry.” I shook my head. I shouldn’t feel angry. I’d gone off to Yellowstone and slept with Jude. But knowing that this had been going on for a year, and Colin moved me in anyway, pissed me the hell off. “You’re saying you’ve been with her for a year, and you talked me into moving in with you because?” I was working really hard to control my anger, but it burned on my tongue. It was all I could do not to lash out at them. “Because you were my girlfriend. I owed it to you to try.” “No, Colin. What you owed me was the truth.” “You want the truth?” I nodded, my eyes hard. “Yes, the truth.” “The night Ellie died, she made me promise to take care of you.” A fleeting memory of Ellie on the stairs with Colin, sharing a joint and having him making promises, crossed my mind. Awareness settled in. “You felt guilty?” I asked, my anger rising. “She made me promise. And then she died.” Colin sounded angry almost, like it

was my fault. “Why did you move me in? You didn’t have to do that. We could’ve kept the status quo.” I pointed to Mila. “You’ve been with her for a year. A year! You could’ve let me go.” “I couldn’t. Not until I gave it a shot.” I laughed, because the anger needed release. I wanted to hit something suddenly. I wasn’t normally flushed with anger, but knowing that I’d been fooled— that he’d tried to make it work with me to appease his own guilt over words Ellie had said to him three years earlier—made me want to drag my nails down my chest, if only to feel something other than the anger, the hurt, that seeped into me. “Is that what you meant, when you said you weren’t supposed to let me go yet?” My voice had raised, but I controlled it, pulling it back down to a calm level. “I made you promise me six months. Six months living together, spending our days together. I made that promise to myself, that I wouldn’t let you go.” Putting my hands in my hair, I tried to control the burning in the backs of my eyes. “You wasted my time. You wasted yours. All over your guilty conscience?” I swallowed when the tears pricked my throat. “And the worst part of all of this is that you didn’t even try. You brought me here and then left me, like you did when she died.” I turned to Mila. “And you. You…pretended to be my friend? For what reason?” Mila closed her eyes and when she opened them, she looked sadder than I’d seen her look. Her normally effervescent personality was gone, replaced by a woman who looked to be mourning so much. “I didn’t pretend. I wanted to hate you, Trista. But I couldn’t. I wanted to be your friend. I want to be your friend. But…” she looked at Colin. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. Any of it. I’m sorry you’re hurt.” I shook my head, because hurt wasn’t the word I would use to describe how I felt in that moment. Shock, anger, and a little bit of disgust with myself for not seeing it—that would better articulate what I was going through. Suddenly a movement out of the corner of my eye caused me to pause. I turned to Jude, who’d been a silent bystander the whole time. “Did you know?” I asked. His eyes never wavered. “Yes.” “The whole time?” He nodded. “And you didn’t tell me either? What happened to no more secrets?” I asked, reminding him of the promise he’d made in the campground. He stepped forward, directly under a fluorescent light. He looked at Colin first, and the anger was reflected in his eyes. He opened his mouth as if to lash out at Colin, but he turned to me instead. “I’m sorry.” “Why does everyone keep saying that?” I asked, gesturing to him and Mila. “I need air. I need to get some space.” I couldn’t think with three pairs of eyes on me, everyone reeking of secrets they’d kept too long. “And you,” I said pointing to Colin, “don’t blame me for not taking care of

yourself. If you’re not supposed to drink, don’t f*cking drink.” Colin’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you.” “I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You’ve had this heart condition for several years, but lied to me about the scars on your chest. You had six years to tell me the truth. Six years. You cheated on me for a year, but still moved me into your apartment because you felt sorry for me.” “You’re such a hypocrite. Don’t tell me that you and Jude didn’t hook up while camping. You both have been so tempted, for so long. I can see it—I know who you are, I can see your secrets.” It didn’t matter what he said, because he missed the entire point. “You think I like cheesecake. You think I hate the outdoors. You haven’t been paying attention to me, Colin. Not once, over the last six years. I may have fallen in love with you out of gratitude, but that’s long, long gone.” I wrapped my arms around my chest, to warm the chill that had overtaken my heart. “We were done a long time ago, but neither of us had the courage to admit it.” Colin looked unfazed by what I was saying. It hit me, how little he must have cared for me. All the times he’d begged me to stay, to work through our sh*t—had been out of pity. And now that I knew it, he dropped the act. Mila looked miserable, more affected than Colin was by what was happening. “You kept this from me. You didn’t take care of yourself.” I shook my head. “You could’ve ended up in the hospital at any moment—and you didn’t tell me.” “I should take better care of myself.” Colin laughed without humor. “We all do things we shouldn’t do, but just because my vices are less honorable doesn’t make everyone else irreprehensible.” He turned his gaze to Jude. Jude shifted beside me, like he wanted to say something. When he didn’t, I turned to him. “What does he mean?” “You didn’t tell her that either? You’re not better than me.” Colin’s voice was grating now, twisting my nerves. “Tell me what?” My eyes hadn’t left Jude’s. He suddenly looked ten years older, the lines around his eyes reflecting sadness. “He has the same heart condition I have,” Colin spat. His words lanced me, as I stared at Jude. “That’s how we met. That’s why we look out for each other. Why our parents are so keen on us sticking by one another—because we both keep pushing ourselves.” His voice seemed to be drowning among the sounds in my head, as if he was lowering his voice. “It’s why Mila lives with us, to keep us both in check. Why Jude can’t go on strenuous trips alone.” The pages in my head flipped—back to the scar on Colin’s chest. Did Jude have the same scars? Flipped forward to Jude telling me about having an illness when he was younger. To the EKG Jude had in the hospital. To the way he seemed so fit until we ascended the falls. To the sign at the top of that hike, that urged those with heart conditions not attempt the hike. My scars are things I didn’t choose. There are a lot of things that aren’t good for me. I haven’t stopped doing them.

Jude’s words repeated back to me as I stared at him. Colin might have continued talking, but it didn’t matter—not anymore. I needed a break. I needed air. “You kept it from me. Like Colin did.” Jude glanced at Colin, but instead of the anger that I’d seen in Colin’s eyes as he told me about his heart condition, I only saw remorse in Jude’s. “You were so sad when I met you—Colin told me…” He swallowed, choosing his words carefully. “Colin told me you weren’t coping well, which was why he hadn’t told you.” He took a breath, glanced back at Mila and Colin. “Can we talk outside?” My nose burned. The tears were right behind my eyes, because the hurt was worse now. Everything was happening so fast, my head spun. I was already pushing past him, into the hallway. Three doors down from Colin’s room, Jude grabbed me and held me close. He must have sensed the way I was falling apart, the way all the pieces of the things I knew had crumbled. “You didn’t tell me,” I said against his chest. I didn’t hold him, couldn’t hold him. My entire world as I knew it was crumbling around me. “I thought it was best, until we knew each other better.” I pushed off of him. “But you went down that hike, to the falls. Knowing you shouldn’t. The sign said not to hike it if you had breathing or heart problems, and you did anyway.” He rubbed a hand over his neck, down in his chest. “I’ve known I’ve had this condition for years—the time doesn’t make it any easier to accept it.” He took a deep breath. “Have you had surgery, like Colin?” “Nothing as invasive. Small procedures.” I shook my head, put my hands on my hips. “You took me hiking—in high altitudes, knowing your heart could give out. What would I have done? If you’d collapsed? You took a huge risk, and you made me responsible for you. Would Mila have let you do the hike down to the falls?” Jude didn’t need to say anything, because his face gave it away. “So you kept information from me—something that could have killed you a secret—just so you could climb down the falls.” I blinked rapidly. I couldn’t let tears fall in front of him. “I did.” “You touted honesty to me, repeatedly. And while you might not have lied, you kept something very important from me.” I squeezed my eyes shut because the hurt was rising. “You knew Colin and Mila were together, and you didn’t tell me.” He sucked in a breath, pointed to the room. “That’s my sister, Trista. Do you think I approve of them? Half the time, I don’t even like Colin all that much. But she does. And you did. And when you came to Colorado, all I could think of was how much of an asshole he was.” He blew out a breath, his eyes red. “And it killed me, seeing you so sad, knowing that he didn’t care how he should.” His hands came to my shoulders. “I never meant for us to happen, but I wanted you to see him for who he was yourself. If I—” he shook his head and I felt the anger, the frustration, in

his hands. “If I pushed you from him by telling you, you’d think I was selfish.” He squeezed me. “Because I was. f*ck, I wanted you. But I wanted you to want me, not by default.” “I never wanted you by default.” But I couldn’t have him hold me. I shrugged his hands off my shoulders. “I should’ve told you. Everything. Trista, I… I’m just so sorry. For everything.” My feelings for him hadn’t changed, but knowing what I knew and suffering from a crippling, overwhelming need to get major distance from him—from everyone—made me walk away. He stopped me, pulling me tight to him. But I was done. My boyfriend had lied to me, about the most important things. He’d all but pushed me on Jude, to rid himself of the obligation he had to me. The man I’d fallen in love with had kept something important from me, because he saw me as fragile—too afraid to know the truth. He’d had a hundred conversations, a hundred opportunities to tell me all of it, and he didn’t. “You knew how confused I was—that I didn’t know why I stayed with Colin. And yet, the whole time, you knew he was with your sister.” My words were venom. My sadness was fusing with anger, as I thought of all the time I wasted. “You could have told me, given me an out. Saved me from finding out like this—with everyone” –I flung my hand to the hospital room— “watching me find out that my boyfriend had been cheating on me for a year.” He tried to touch me, to pull me to him. I nearly let him, but I couldn’t. Everything was too much, and this time, his touch wouldn’t be enough It was clawing at my neck, this need to escape, to breathe. “I need to be alone right now,” I said, knowing full well that my right now would be longer than his. “Please, leave me be.” His eyes were haunted as he looked at me—like he knew, deep down, that I wouldn’t be coming back. “Goodbye, Jude.” It was painful, walking away from him. My heart beating, my lungs aching. My steps echoing down the beige and blue hallway. There were a thousand conversations in my goodbye, but I only said those two words and didn’t look back. There’d been a weightlessness in my chest the day before—an absence of the heartache that I’d worn for years. But my chest filled, and my mother’s words came back to me once again. Sorrow. It’s your destiny. I stopped at Colin’s apartment, grabbing the box of Ellie. Knowing Jude would be at the hospital a while longer, until Mila would bring him home, I sat on his bed, smoothing my hand across his comforter. I lay back, needing to close my eyes for a moment. I fell asleep to birds singing their night song, music playing in the distance, my heart beating, and a bed empty of him. My eyes were burning from unshed tears, but my heart—my heart was absolutely aching. I was alone. Again. And I loved him still.

I knew in my heart that I couldn’t let him completely go over this. But I couldn’t cope with all that had been withheld from me. In coming to Colorado, I’d found the truth of my boyfriend, the love in another man. But the one thing I hadn’t found was what I set out to find: me. I’d been defined for so long by the people I’d loved that I didn’t know who I was without them. I’d been the other half of Ellie and Trista; I’d been Colin’s girlfriend. I’d been loved by a man who was drawn to my sadness. I had made too many mistakes, fallen in love out of gratitude. I’d hurt and I’d loved in equal measure, but still—I was lost, because I didn’t know who I was, outside of them, outside of the sad. I wasn’t sure how long I slept, but when I woke, I stared at the empty pillow for a long while. I dug in my purse for paper and pen and then wrote Jude a note. I’m not ready for you. I held the note tightly as I lay alone on that bed; birds chirping, music playing, heart beating, heart breaking. And then, I left. Please wait for me, because I will come back for you. On the day I see who I am, without her, without him, without you. I want to be yours when I can be mine first. Because who I am is more than the sorrows that I grieve, that I carry, that follow me into the tomorrows. THE END

Back to Yesterday Bleeding Hearts Book Two

Chapter One I breathed in the gentle wind, let it burn my nostrils. The sun was warm on my skin, bringing with it a memory of one of my yesterdays, of the man who made me look forward to my tomorrows. I closed my eyes, imagined his face. Imagined how I’d touched his skin, how he’d kissed mine. How his words had made me feel loved, needed. It was all I’d ever wanted. One step forward, one breath out. One dream gone, one hope forgotten. A thousand wishes lost once they’d left my lips. He’d been in almost every one. A breeze fluttered my oversized shirt, flapping its frayed edges against my bare legs. My arms rested at my sides, my fingers clenched around my phone. How long had it been since my hands had held his? Since I’d felt the very definition of human connection? Too long. “I miss you,” I heard myself say, but my words were a whisper from cracked lips, a tremble from my feeble jaw. My heart was a drumbeat in my head and I repeated one word in time to each beat: no, no, no. Goosebumps lit my skin as the sounds of my surroundings broke the trance I was in. People laughing, televisions blaring their afternoon Judge Judy as they ate from chipped dollar store china. The world moving around me as I stayed still. Dawn was flooding the horizon, driving away the gray and warming buildings as it made its approach to where I stood. As the sun touched first my toes and then my legs, I took in a deep breath. From my feet to my head, the sun warmed my skin, and I imagined it washing away my sins. A baptism performed on the edge of a building. I loved you, I thought to myself, his many faces like a slide show behind my eyelids. I still do. Bring me back to yesterday, to the man who’d made me feel worth something. I no longer wanted a tomorrow. I wanted him, but he was gone. He was my tomorrow, all of my tomorrows, and he was gone. And as I took another step to the edge, looked down at the cars below me. Trista, his voice whispered. Are you ready? God, his voice. It’d been so long since he’d let his words caress my ear. My knees trembled, their knobby bones the only thing holding me together. I shook my head, willing him away. He was gone. I swallowed the saliva that had pooled in my mouth. How did I go from being someone with a schoolgirl crush to someone standing on the ledge of my sh*tty apartment building, contemplating taking one extra step and falling through the air to what awaited me below?

I’ll wait for you. It hurt, his voice. His memory was an open wound. I had nearly been ready. And here I was, back to who I was before all of it. The phone in my hand rang. The number was unfamiliar—but they all were. My heart was crumbling inside my chest, but I pressed “answer” and waited. There was a rumbling, a cough and a breath. And then, a ghost spoke, giving me the shiver he always did when he said it. “Trista.”

Acknowledgments Welcome to my longest acknowledgements ever. First, I must thank my husband and kids. Writing always puts a certain kind of strain on a family, and this book was no exception. I’m glad cereal dinners are a thing. I dedicated this book to Jade, Jena, Karla, and Whitney—because without these four women, this book wouldn’t have been published. Thank you, Jade, for believing in me and giving me the opportunity you did—rescuing me when I needed it the most. You’re my hero, baby. To Jena, for trying to guilt me into writing this book—and making me laugh in the process. You pushed me when I was stubborn and gave me faith when I didn’t have any. Karla, you read every draft of this book— all eighty of them—and talked me off the ledge more times than any normal person would have the patience for. Basically, you’re not normal, but I like you anyway. And Whitney, who practically gave birth to Tent Guy and who supported me in every way throughout the journey of writing this. Thank you for christening him. To Wilma Bristol, who always supports me even when that support means leaving you in the dust. Not many people are as selfless and generous as you are. Sona Babani, best friends for a billion years! I always feel home when I’m with you. Thank you for giving me bad book ideas, so I can recognize the good stuff. I sprinkled a lot of people I knew into this book, including myself. But one person in particular inspired Colin, so I wanted to thank him. B—thanks for giving me bad inspiration. You were a real asshole. To my trifecta, Lex Martin and KL Grayson—thank you both SO FREAKING MUCH for reading early drafts and giving me the feedback I desperately needed to hear. I’m so lucky to know both of you and even luckier that you like me enough to read my stuff! I love you! One day, we’ll all be in the same city—TOGETHER. Nikki! Thank you for working with me on my edits and giving me great suggestions when I was stuck, and working with my wacky schedule. Thank you to Alexis Durbin with Indie Girl Proofs and Ginelle Blanch for my proofreading—you both made time for me at the last minute, and did such an incredible job catching my typos! Thank you to Cassie Hanjian, my patient and supportive agent. Thank you for your guidance and everything you do to help me succeed. I can’t wait to see where we go this year and next. Thank you to Briana Pacheco for giving me helpful feedback and being honest about your feels. Thank you, Kristen Johnson, for making time for Tent Guy and telling me your feelings when you left ITT. Amy Bosica—your email lit up my whole heart. Thank you so much, I hope to get to Colorado and hug you hard. Judi Lauren,

thank you for squeezing it in when you didn’t have the time for it, and for giving me that lovely email. Christina Harris and Tiffany Elain–thank you for giving me writing inspiration and laughs. I like your faces and your hearts. Cynthia Aponte and Kat Zerko—I love both of you. Our chats are ridiculous. Thank you, Cynthia, for traveling from one coast to the other to meet me—I hope to do the same for you in 2017! Kat, get a visa and get your ass over here. Thank you to my Barbetti Babes—I love each one of you so freaking much. You make me laugh, you touch my soul, and you’re so lovely, all of you. Thank you to Christy Wallingford, Christina, Karla, and Kat for posting when I’m MIA—which is often. So many of my babes have traveled far to meet me at signings, spending all their time with me (!!!!) and made me feel cooler than I am. I’m so, so grateful to you all. Kimberly Dodd, Tina Lynne, Jenn Holter, Sampa Hanson, Christina, Cynthia, Kristen. From Dallas, to Pittsburgh, and Seattle—some of the best trips of my life— you’ve been there. Adore all of you. To my local friends, Debbie Snyder for margaritas and movies and Samantha Gillihan for being the queen of lip balms and always there if I need you! To Audra Atkins and Diane Hambric for giving me my first Into the Tomorrows gifts! I’m so, so touched by the work you poured into those beauties—and the fact that you did that for ME is just incredible. You don’t know how appreciative I am. I have one million bloggers to thank, for going out of their way to pimp my books AND me! I value your support and your time, so I thank you for all the times you shared my books with your fans. I know many of you also gifted copies of my books to your friends and/or hosted sponsored giveaways for my books. I truly thank each of you from the bottom of my heart. Here’s a short list of the MANY who support me.

Samantha and Dusty from Reviews by Reds Christie from Smokin’ Hot Book Blog Ali, Tiffany, Debbie and Leah with Black Heart Reviews Tina with Typical Distractions Jena and Sanzana from I Bookin’ Love to Read Natasha from Book Baristas Mary Ruth with The Reading Ruth Kristen with Literary Misfit Deniz with Books & Tea Nicole with Nicki’s Book Obsession Amy with Once Upon a Book Blog Linda with Second Bite Book Reviews Wendy with Cheeky Chicks Book Hangover Natasha with Read Review Repeat

Talon with Under the Cover Blog Cynthia, Marci, and Tina with Restless Book Obsession Erin and Katie with Southern Belle Book Blog Alexis from Three Girls and a Book Obsession Belinda and Lily from Hopelessly Devoted to Books Giselle from Hopeless Book Lovers Zoe from Literary Lust Autumn from Paperrdolls Claire from Claire Fully Reads Tawnya from One More Chapter

Lastly, thank you to all my readers. I love getting to know you on my Facebook fan page, in my reader group, on Twitter or Instagram and even via email. You rock my world.

Also by Whitney Barbetti Ten Below Zero Amazon US Amazon Worldwide

He Found Me Series He Found Me (Book One) Amazon US Amazon Worldwide He Saved Me (Book Two) Amazon US Amazon Worldwide Box Set (Books One & Two) Amazon US Amazon Worldwide

About Whitney Barbetti Whitney Barbetti is a mom to two and a wife to one, living in eastern Idaho where she spends her days writing full time and keeping her boys from destroying her house. She writes character-driven new adult and contemporary adult romances that are heavy on the emotional connection. You'll most likely find her curled up with a good book and a giant glass of wine, with Queen playing through her headphones.

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