The heat of the room was apparent, leaving a thin sheen of sweat on her upper lip, brown, and down her chest—heavy and unusual for March. A breeze wafted lazily in through the open window and sirens sounded in the distance. She inhaled deeply on the cigarette and ashed it right onto the wood floor. She didn’t live here anymore, after all. It wasn’t until she heard the thud of heavy boots that she pushed herself up on to her elbows and shook her hair out of her face.
“That’s the last of it,” the man said. He was muscular and large, but harbored a considerable stomach stretching the white cotton of his shirt and hanging over his paint spattered jeans.
“Great,” she answered flatly, the taste of tobacco on her tongue.
“First truck is going to the storage place in Jersey City. Second truck is going to uh…” He raised his hand and looked down at the sheet of paper, slightly crumpled, between his meaty thumb and forefinger. “Cobble Hill? Warren Street?” A large one bedroom apartment with a nice new kitchen, plenty of natural light, a huge bathroom and patio in a new building with….you guessed it, an elevator. She hadn’t even entertained looking at walk-ups. She wasn’t ready to cement the fact that Will was out of her life forever. She had to hold on to a little thread, even if it was just pressing the 10th floor button every day.
“Yep,” she answered unequivocally and inhaled the last of the cigarette, pressing the lit end into the crevice between the floorboards. She ignored the man watching her with consternation. She didn’t have time for his apprehension. He’d told her his and his partner’s names when they’d arrived for the move, but she’d simply nodded numbly. She hadn’t been listening—the buzzing in her head had been too loud when she’d roused, bereft with the memory of waking up next to Will the first night they’d been together at the beach.
Her dream had been so real. Will had stirred against her, his skin warm and smooth on her bare back, his hands rough and calloused, but gentle. He had kissed her on the shoulder and tucked her hair behind her ear, so he could reach her cheek. Somehow, he smelled of fresh peppermint even though it was first thing in the morning. Warm sunlight streamed through the half-closed curtains and the cyclical crashing of the waves played through the open window. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The peace that soaked through her—like she was finally in the right place—had felt so welcome and so foreign at the same time.
Then her alarm broke through the rose-colored haze like a sledgehammer and she’d found herself shivering in an empty bed, in an empty room, in an empty apartment, in an almost empty life. The thought was enough to hollow anyone out and dump them like a husk.
“And someone’s there?” he asked quickly, tugging her back to the hot vacant room as he turned to leave, as if he couldn’t bear to stand there with her any longer.
“What?” she asked blankly.
“The new apartment?” he pressed, “Someone will be there to let us up right? Cause you look like it might a little while before you get over there. Your boyfriend or something?” He had a look of slight concern, but it didn’t move into his eyes. This was just a job and he wanted to get home.
“Oh, yeah, someone’s there,” she replied after a long moment, looking down at her hands. She didn’t feel the need to correct him. Max certainly wasn’t her boyfriend, but it felt irrelevant. He’d been picking her up every day since Will had told her not to come back. Max had been there for her since Will had, for all intents and purposes, essentially died, disappearing from her life in a horrific explosion, leaving dust and debris everywhere.
The Cory she had known was gone.
And Nora? She was long gone, too, as she should have been. Scottie, in her self-destructive swan song, had told Nora everything she’d done, sparing few details because she was a sick fuck and Nora had pressed. Scottie hadn’t been strong enough to drop the truth and go. She wanted to make sure that Nora never went back to that piece of shit life-ruining cheater. After what he’d done to Will, he didn’t deserve mercy. And Scottie had shown him none. But in doing that, she’d also shown Nora none, and ensured, quite quickly and permanently—with one final and acutely visceral “fuck you” on Nora’s end—that their friendship was entirely and utterly finished. But she supposed that she had ensured the demise of their friendship long before that phone call. She’d probably ensured it the first time her lips met Cory’s.
The man from the moving company mumbled something and left the room as the light changed, the sun dipping low and casting shadows through the window of the apartment that was no longer hers. She’d sold it a month ago, and now had enough money to coast along without work or purpose for…well, years, she supposed. And what had perhaps felt like a blessing in the beginning, now fell heavy on her. She needed a purpose. She needed to find something outside herself in order to stay afloat. The days had turned into weeks and the weeks into months. And soon the months would turn into years and she would heal because what other choice was there? As much as she wallowed, she refused to turn into her sister or her mom. She wouldn’t let herself.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she pulled it out. Max. Just seeing his name made her smile.
“Max,” she answered warmly.
“Baby girl, this place is fire. Get your butt over here and let’s celebrate. I’ve got champagne and City Bakery cookies.”
“The fuck you don’t have City Bakery Cookies.” These cookies had been Scottie’s favorite cookies in the world for as long as she remembered. They were so incredible and addictive that she was convinced there had to be crack in there.
“The fuck I do,” he said smartly. “Now let’s go.”
“Okay, okay,” she allowed as she hung up, feeling buoyed by the fact that she wasn’t entirely alone.
And with that tiny glimmer of what was not hope yet, but the first spark she’d been able to hook herself onto, she pushed herself to her feet, grabbed her light jacket that she really didn’t need, and her purse, and walked through the vacant rooms for the last time.
This was a new start. It had to be.
Will sat in the unnecessarily dark bar facing the door, the beer he’d just ordered rested almost empty in front him, the glass slick with condensation. It was the middle of the day, but he was in a sour getting drunk kind of mood. He shifted nervously in his wheelchair, adjusting his weight and lifting his legs up before dropping them both down so his feet landed crooked on the footplate. Hurriedly he corrected them. He didn’t want her to see him like this—tense and self-conscious. Straightening up he signaled smoothly for the waiter and nodded toward his beer, indicating he was ready for a refill. The shrimpy kid in the apron who’d irritatingly made a huge fuss over removing one of the chairs from Will’s table gave him a thumb’s up and disappeared around the crowded bar. Will exhaled and tried to calm his frayed nerves, but laughed at his fruitless attempt. He hadn’t been able to do that for months. Not since he slammed the door in Scottie’s beautiful face.
A lot had changed since then. Will had spent days not sleeping. He’d quit his job in a quiet, respectful way that surprised even him given everything that had happened with Emily. Pete hadn’t moved out of the apartment just yet, but his boxes lined the walls. It was happening that weekend and Will was absolutely dreading it.
He’d been forced to consider a roommate, as the rent of this place alone would have been simply too much to spend per month. He didn’t need a place that big by himself, but would undoubtedly miss all the space. He’d miss his brother’s company even more though. He’d been feeling like he was stuck on an island ever since he found out Cory had been driving, and he hadn’t been able to shake it just yet. But Pete was moving whether Will was on board or not, so he got the fuck on board. The baby would be here in June and Will smiled every time he thought about holding the little muffin. They had decided not to find out the sex of the baby, so they’d been affectionately calling it “the muffin” in the meantime.
In the end, he decided he’d move out at the end of the month, as Pete had agreed to pay through the 31st. Will had found a good sized, accessible, one-bedroom in south Brooklyn, down in Cobble Hill. It was exactly what he’d been looking for, and he’d actually found himself excited for a completely fresh start. He missed Scottie every goddamn day, but he knew he wasn’t ready to unpack what she and Cory had done. He still was unclear about the timeline, and he supposed he owed it to her to at least ask. But he just couldn’t. He had too much on his plate right now, and if he ever hoped to have a healthy relationship with himself, let alone another person, he had to figure this shit out on his own.
The kid appeared next to him, abruptly interrupting his thoughts, and put the glass down with shaking hands, sloshing beer over the side.
“Fuck, sorry,” he stuttered. “Shoot sorry I shouldn’t say fuck. Fuck.” Will surprised himself by laughing. The kid stopped and stared, as if he hadn’t expected Will to react. Will would have guessed this kid couldn’t have been much past 21 years old—if that. Right around the age when Will was paralyzed.
“Hey,” Will said, “It’s fine. Curse in front of me. I don’t care. Just relax.” Will grabbed a napkin and wiped up the spilled beer slowly, making a show of it to let him know he really was fine with the spill.
“Okay,” he said self-consciously, laughing a little, then staring down at his shoes. “It’s like my second day.” Will followed his gaze and noted that the kid’s shoes were untied.
“Maybe start with tying your shoes?” Will suggested playfully.
“Oh,” he laughed, and his cheeks went red. “Right.”
“The rest is just a learning curve. You’ll get there.” The waiter nodded and looked like he might ask something else as Will took a sip of his beer, but he didn’t get the chance, as Will almost coughed it out when she came into view. A macabre ghost from his past, standing there in the flesh.
He’d almost forgotten he’d seen her months and months ago, almost a year now, at Royal Palms. She’d appeared out of nowhere and held his hand, begging for something in her eyes that he couldn’t quite place. Now, with the full story flapping out in the open, he thought he finally knew what she had been begging him for—forgiveness and perhaps, support? It still felt slightly out of reach.
“Hi,” she said softly, her word almost getting swallowed back before she could get it out. She didn’t look great. More exhausted than anything, she had dark bags hanging heavy under eyes and looked thin in a kind of accidental way, her shirt and pants sagging awkwardly off her boney frame. She’d always had curves—curves that Will had loved at one point. Looking at her now, with her soft blonde hair framing her thinner heart shaped face, that little birthmark below the curve of her bottom lip, and her sad green eyes, he felt a kind of disgust rising inside him. It was so potent that he had to hold onto the edge of the table.
“Can I?” she asked timidly, gesturing to one of the empty chairs, looking from Will to the kid and back again. The kid just stood there like an idiot, unsure if he should move. The tension was like a brick wall. It seemed like nothing could knock it down. Will nodded tightly.
“I’d get up, but, I can’t walk,” he replied sharply, crossing his arms over his strong chest and shrugging. She flinched as if she’d been slapped, but pulled the chair out anyway and slipped into it. Will noticed the waiter looking at him strangely through his peripheral vision.
“Can I get you anything?” the kid finally asked, voice squeakier than he’d intended. Kristin smiled blandly up at his pale wide face and asked for Chardonnay. The kid nodded and slowly backed away, almost tripping over another table. The commotion didn’t peel Will away from Kristin’s face, but her gaze flickered for a second, allowing Will to exhale and ready himself. Neither of them said anything, but their scrutiny held.
It was Kristin who broke first, peeling her eyes off the man she’d once loved and then betrayed, down to her hands. They were shaking, and her nails were bitten with chipped blue nail polish.
“Will, I just, I need to open with an apology,” she murmured, afraid she was going to lose her nerve. “What I did, on so many levels, was so fucked up.”
“You mean cheating on me? Or letting Cory drive? Or letting Cory move and possibly paralyze me? Or leaving me…” Will’s voice failed him at that, the realization of how much she had hurt him rushing through him in one cruel wave. Her voice, at once his favorite sound, turned brassy and dissonant. He could hear her in his memory, telling him she couldn’t be with half a man. At the time, that had haunted him. He’d been so incredibly angry at her, but he’d held on because he’d been desperate, unable to care for himself, unable to understand what future he could have. Who could ever love him? For months after, that was the first thing he thought when he woke up every morning.
But now, almost a decade away, seeing her in this light with a truth she’d felt was better left untold, her words and actions—recoiling when she touched any paralyzed part of him—took on a whole new meaning. It was if she was throwing rocks at him to make sure he never came back.
“What was it that you couldn’t handle exactly?” he asked, pivoting away from the frustration in his voice earlier and moving into controlled anger.
“Excuse me?” Kristin asked, tilting her head slightly as she looked at him.
“Was it what had happened to me, that you couldn’t handle? Or what you had done?”
“I don’t know,” she replied almost immediately, clamping her mouth shut as the kid reappeared with her wine and taking the hint, promptly turned on his heel and went. Will took a healthy sip of his beer and wished for something stronger. He’d promised Pete he wouldn’t though. Not for a conversation that he’d debated having for weeks, losing sleep and losing sanity.
“You don’t know,” Will said stonily after a minute, sliding his glass back and forth across the table. It wasn’t really a question.
“I didn’t give myself a chance to handle what happened to you because of what I’d done.” She exhaled and tapped her fingers on the sticky tabletop. Will nodded but wouldn’t look at her. It felt like a cop out. “I regret not stopping Cory the most, but I didn’t think about the consequences. I didn’t even fathom there could be such…permanent consequences.”
“Right, well,” Will said, voice measured. He knew that it could have happened without Cory. He could still have landed in the chair. And he knew that if he was going to move forward, he had to make peace with the fact that it was what it was, no matter how it happened. His anger was directed at Cory, but his pain was directed at Kristin. Her betrayal was hot and sharp.
“I was going to end it,” she offered slowly, “we weren’t right for each other. I think we both knew that. I loved you, but I’d fallen out of love with you, and I know you had to. The last time we had sex…” She trailed off, but Will didn’t need her to fill in the blank. It stood out in vivid color in his mind. The last time he’d had sex able bodied—of course he didn’t know that at the time—and it had been an utter disaster. He couldn’t get hard. He’d had to picture someone else in order to get it up—a random pretty girl he’d had class with a year before. Kristin had cried, crouched, naked, wrapped in his comforter. She’d kept saying that something was missing. Will realized, quite suddenly, that she must have been sleeping with Cory at that point, and in that moment, had a comparison to hold him against. It was like a fresh punch in the gut, even years and years later. But when she’d said it, he’d known she was right—something had been missing—but he was stubborn as all hell. He’d finished, but it was empty and obligatory. Kristin hadn’t, which wasn’t like them. That weekend they went up to Vermont, and then everything had changed.
“I couldn’t have told you the truth about us after everything,” she continued mechanically. “But everything had changed in a second. I mean, hell, you’d just been told about your legs, and well, I wanted you to think it was more about me not being able to handle you not walking again than, hey I’m leaving you for your best friend who could…well…you know.”
“Still walk?” he asked flatly, staring at her, realizing that instead of the shock and pain he’d felt when she’d walked in, he was starting to feel incredibly numb. “Still fuck you like you wanted?” She winced but nodded.
“I deserve that. I deserve all of that.”
“Did it continue?” he asked, despite his inner protests. He was glutton for punishment. She shook her head and looked down at her hands.
“No, we, well, we tried, but it was ruined. The guilt was everything. I couldn’t look at him without seeing you.” Will scoffed bitterly and took another sip of his beer and signaled to the kid for another. He’d thought he would marry her. He thought she’d stay by his side, but he’d been so terribly wrong. Perhaps that was what most upset him—the fact that he thought he knew her, but she’d turned out to be something entirely different. Their encounter at Royal Palms. The phone call to apologize. Both took on a sickly shade of conspiracy and it made him feel sick.
“Why’d you take his money?” he asked, without judgement. At this point, he just wanted to understand. She shook her head in disappointment.
“Because,” she offered simply, “I needed it. You know what I come from. I wanted to run from you, from him. I still wanted my future, selfishly, even though I’d thrown a terrible wrench in yours.” Will was yanked back to his hospital bed, where she sat perched precariously on the edge, careful not to touch him. “It’s just not how I saw my future,” she’d confessed quietly, her shame radiant. She’d managed to untwist and de-tangle their futures. They used to say “our” and now she was saying “my.” She could walk away, and she did.
“I made a deal with the devil,” she stated firmly, looking from her hands up to meet his gaze. “And as soon as I was far enough away to see it, the guilt started to get to me. Two years ago, I stopped cashing the checks.” Will looked up from his beer and shifted slightly in his chair. This wasn’t something he had expected. She smiled slightly at his shock and bowed her head.
“It’s true. That’s why he started sending more. I had a price before, and he met it, but it was like all of a sudden I woke up, and everything changed. There wasn’t a number in the world that I would take. It wasn’t worth it.”
“Why didn’t you come to me then?” he asked. She threw her hands up in the air.
“I wasn’t ready,” she replied simply.
“Not ready to face me?”
“Not ready to face you, not ready to face what I’d done. Cheated. Stood by while something terrible happened. Kept a secret that never would have existed had I done something? I needed to come to terms with myself before I could come to terms with you. I’m so sorry it took me so long.” Will bit his lower lip and looked down at the last of his beer and drained it. He was slightly dizzy, and though he didn’t want to admit it to her or himself, he kind of understood what she was saying. His anger and pain and numbness at it loosened ever so slightly.
“Finally, I decided it was time. I tried in person once because I needed to see you. And well, we both remember how that ended. You pulled away from me, then, you fell, which I blame myself for, and then you left, which I also blame myself for. Cory was livid at me and his temper was scary. I was scared.” She took a deep calming breath and pressed onward. “Then I called you and lost my nerve.”
“I thought there might have been more to that call,” Will recollected.
“I’m a coward and I will never be able to make this right. But please just know, just just know that I never meant to hurt you so badly.”
The macho part of Will wanted to spit back that she hadn’t hurt him at all. He wanted to rise to his full height and kick his wheelchair to the side of the dark bar and slam his hands on the table, then storm out, his stride powerful, his message received. But of course, he didn’t do that. He couldn’t do that. His legs simply sat quietly in front of him, as they had for the last decade.
Will knew there was nothing she could say to wipe this away. They both knew it. That’s why they sat in silence for the next fifteen minutes. Will got another beer. She got another glass of wine, and they just sat together in the same place, thinking about what they had once had. Nostalgia packed a mighty shot, like whiskey straight to your head.
Kristin took one final sip of her wine and placed the glass back on the table. She fished for her wallet and placed two twenties down on the table as she stood slowly. She paused for a second, considering if she should hug him, or touch him at all, but realized quickly that it would be too much. It was better left right here, a grey area that could be pondered later, perhaps sorted, and absolutely packed away.
“Will, you really do look good,” she stated as she studied him. He nodded curtly and put his hands on his push rims, scooting his chair back slightly. She soaked in his hair with that gentle curl, his bright laughing blue eyes, his broad shoulders, well-muscled chest, strong arms contrasted with his ever-still, neatly placed lower half that she’d never get off her conscious. He certainly knew how to make lemonade out of lemons, that was for sure.
She raised her hand in a single wave goodbye then started to head toward the door. But she stopped abruptly and turned.
“For what it’s worth,” her voice came out small but serious, with so much weight in her eyes that he thought it might pull her down to the very ground. It wasn’t pity in her gaze—Will had received so much of that kind of look he could pick it out from a mile away. He knew it like the back of his hand. No, but this look, this was profound sadness. This was regret. This was self-loathing that went down to the bone. Will had had his share of frustration and low self-esteem, but having that kind of hate for yourself, not based on something you couldn’t change, but something that you chosen, well, he was pretty sure he couldn’t live with that kind of dead weight dragging him around. He’d take his useless lower half any fucking day.
“She’s good,” Kristin whispered, wiping at a rogue tear that had slipped out of her right eye. She bit her lip and pushed her straight blonde hair over her shoulders. “Scottie is a really good one. You should have seen her when I told her everything. She…I…I’ve never seen that kind of anguish. She puked in my flower bed,” she continued with a light little laugh like it was a fond memory. “Don’t let her go. I didn’t know about her and Cory’s relationship, but she was going to risk everything to make sure you knew the truth. That I feel sure of. She’s good, Will, hang on to her. Most people aren’t good.”
Will’s breath hitched at the implication that they were still together and he let his mind drift to her, specifically the morning they’d woken up next to each other in that bottom bunk bed, when he reached for her hand from his chair, the sunlight kissing her face golden. He could smell her, and she seemed so close all of a sudden, his chest ached.
And with that last word, Kristin shrugged and turned, pulling her light jacket tightly around her and leaning into the door, the light harsh as she stepped out onto the sidewalk and disappeared.
Will never saw Angela Kristin King again, and that was okay.