Thursday, February 18, 2021

Some Things Never Change Chapter XII

 Chapter XII

I sneeze for the tenth time this morning. Great, now I have a cold. I look at my coat in the car’s seat next to me. It has been lying there since I took it off Friday night in the midst of a rage attack. I stare at it for a minute and then put it on. 

“Mr. Cross,” Betty greets me at the entrance.

“Hey Betty,” I stop in front of her desk. “How’s baby Ellen? Feeling better?”

“Oh yes, she scared us for a minute, we couldn’t get the fever down, but she’s fine now,” she says.

“Your daughter?” 

“Better now that little Ellen lets her sleep.”

“Tell them I said Happy New Year,” I head for the elevator. 

“Mr. Cross?” She calls me, and I turn around. “Are you alright?”

I nod at her. “Yeah,” I say not very convincingly.

I face the elevator again, the doors are still closed. I decide to use the stairs instead. It’s only one floor, but I’m so used to coming in with Erick that I don’t even think about it anymore. 

I come out of the stairs and cross Lou in the hallway.

“Happy New Year, boss,” she says. She calls me that goodnaturedly, in a playful manner.

“Happy New Year, Lou,” I say back. “How was the trip home?”

“Interesting,” she laughs.

“So your brother brought home the new girl?” I ask. Her brother has recently divorced and already wants to marry another woman. I know because she told me last week when I asked her what her plans were for the end of the year. 

“Oh yeah,” she cringes and then laughs.

I try to return the smile, but truth be told, I’m not exactly in the mood for smiling right now. Erick’s office is across from mine, at the end of the hallway. I look in his direction.

“Everything ok, boss?” She asks. 

“Sure,” I part my eyes from Erick’s door and turn to look at her again. “How’d your mom take it?”

“As expected,” she says.

I sneeze. 

“Are you sick?” She asks.

“I guess,” I say.

I go into my office and turn my computer on. I force myself to concentrate on work. About ten minutes later, I see Erick wheeling towards my office. Surely, someone told him I came in.

He knocks on the glass door although he can see me looking straight at him. He rolls inside and closes the door behind him.

“Hi,” he says awkwardly.

I stare at him. I’ve always thought Erick had a kind face. He has white skin, which is looking a little pale today, it makes his blue eyes shine brighter. I look at the bags under them. He looks like he hasn’t slept more than I have. He’s wearing a dress shirt, his usual attire for work, no tie. The upper button is left undone, which is uncharacteristic of him. But I know someone else has to button it up for him, because he can’t do it himself without the use of his fingers. That someone else used to be his mother, but these days, I guess it’s Jules. 

“Tony, I…”

“Can we not do this right now?” I caught him off. 

He presses his lips together. “Ok,” he nods after a moment, but he doesn’t leave. 

I look away from him and do my best to continue working. 

“Tony,” he says after a minute. 

I look up from my computer exasperated and hold his gaze. I shake off his gloomy expression. He presses his hands to his thighs to straighten himself. 

“I’ll email you the orders,” he sighs.

I turn my eyes to the screen again, and after a few more minutes of staring at me, finally, he turns the chair around.

“Are you in love with her?” I can’t keep myself from asking.

He uses a hand on one wheel to turn the chair to face me again. He hesitates for a moment but then looks me straight in the eyes and nods. 

“Since when?”

Again, it takes him a moment to answer and I squint at him.

“A while,” he says finally.

“How long?” I ask again. “Always?” I whisper almost out of breath. I’m not sure I can take his answer.

“God, no, Tony,” he answers quickly this time. 

“When?” I press.

“At some point after the accident,” he lets out with a breath.

That’s eight years! Eight years during which I’ve seen him almost every day. Eight years of having breakfast with him, almost seven of working together, how many nights of venting my problems out to him? And at least three years of Jules dressing him, bathing him, sleeping with him. I push my chair back abruptly. 

“So, it’s my fault then?” I get up. He follows me with his eyes from his sitting position. “For making her look after you? For leaving her?”

He gasps. I take a deep breath and look up at the ceiling. I can’t take looking at him any longer. 

“Does she love you back?” I ask without meeting his eyes. He doesn’t answer. “Don’t you dare lie to me now,” I turn my eyes back to him. 

“I don’t know,” he whispers. 

“I said don’t lie,” I squint at him again.

“I’m not. I honestly don’t know,” he pushes his wheels to get closer to me. “We haven’t talked about it,” he mumbles.

“You don’t know?” I say outraged. “How long have you been with her? How long have you been lying to me?” I keep my voice down but he raises his hands in defense as if I were yelling. I look down at him from my full height. Eight years. Damn it. This has been going on for eight fucking years!

“We’re not. We haven’t,” he speaks up. “I hadn’t… She…,” he stutters.

“Have you slept with her?” I regret the question as soon as it leaves my mouth. God, I don’t want to know the answer. I don’t want to hear it. I can’t take it! 

“No,” he shakes his head. “No,” he repeats. 

I collapse back in my chair. 

“Tony, the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt you.”

I puff. 

“You’ve been lying to me for eight years,” I mutter. How could I’ve been so blind?

“Tony, no,” he parks his chair in front of the desk. “Nothing’s ever happened before, I swear.”

“But you’ve had feelings for her for eight years,” I say. “Eight fucking years, Erick!” I raise my voice now. I take a deep breath to calm myself down. “You’ve been living together for almost a month now,” I shake my head at him. “I carried your furniture. I helped you move in with my wife!” I hiss. 

“I wasn’t planning on ever acting on it, I swear to you, Tony. I didn’t think anything would ever happen between us.”

“Oh stop it!” I stand up again. I can’t take this anymore. He tilts his head up again to meet my eyes. I stare at him for a minute. My dark eyes are locked into his blue gaze. His hair is tousled. He’s hunched down in the chair, his curled hands lying back on his lap. I know his image so well, every gesture so familiar. Or perhaps I don’t know him at all. I never saw this coming. All the time they spent together, every time she kissed his cheek. The thought never even crossed my mind. I’ve been such a fool. I knew he loved her, I knew he loved her deeply, but... “And when you told me she would forgive me… you made me believe I had a chance to win her back,” I shake my head at him again.

“I meant it, Tony. I wasn’t lying to you. I was convinced she still loved you.”

“You knew I still loved her. You know I’ve never stopped loving her. How could you?” My voice quivers. “You’re my best friend, Erick. How could you?” I whisper.

He covers his face with those hands. “I knew,” he says, still hiding. “I know, Tony. God, how could I?”

I stand there, breathing heavily. The man I’ve considered my brother is sitting in front of me, his face concealed behind his hands. His voice, which I’ve found comfort in so many times, is sullied with guilt. And Sean’s words stab my memory. Am I being selfish like he said? Should I just step away and let them be happy? But I can’t. I can’t!

I sneeze.

Erick uncovers his face and looks back at me. I sneeze again. Damn it!

“Are you sick?” He asks me.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” 

“Tony,” he uses both hands to push himself away from the desk and then wheels around it. I take a step back. He sighs. “Yes, I’ve been in love with her for eight years, but I swear to you I always pushed the feelings away. I never acted on them, not a word, not… I didn’t even look at her that way, I swear.”

“Oh really?” I say spitefully. “What were you doing Friday night then?” And I have to close my eyes to try and wipe the image of my wife sitting on my best friend's lap, wrapped up in a kiss. I throw my head back. 

“Not before that night.”

I dare to look at him again. 

“So what changed?” The question scares me. A shiver goes down my spine and the sunken feeling which hasn't left the pit of my stomach for the entire weekend worsens, to the point that I feel like throwing up. 

He’s quiet now. I stare at him and he averts his eyes. 

“Erick, what changed?” I ask again. Although it frightens me to know the answer, I think I’ll go crazy if he doesn’t reply. 

And he doesn’t. 

The back of my neck heats up. It burns me. My hands roll into fists. I breathe in through gritted teeth. 

“Didn’t you want to talk to me? Didn’t you sit outside my door for an hour asking me to hear you out? Well, say it now!” I speak in a low voice, feeling the rumble of my anger boil inside, like pressure building up in a geyser. 

He pushes his rims back. I take a step forward to gain back the space he opened, and I bet he regrets wheeling around the desk. He looks up at me with one clear expression on his face, fear. 

“Leave! Come back when you’re calmed.” Sean’s words appear in the back of my mind.

Jules tries to grab my arm and I yank it from her grasp. 

“Don’t touch me!” I hiss.

I’m staring at my father’s coffin, hours before the service. The room is broad and its emptiness contrasts with the anger I feel inside. So much anger it doesn’t fit inside of me. I’m filled with it, brimming. I think I’ll burst if I don’t let it out. 

“This is your fault. You did this,” the volume of my voice doesn't match the explosion that has just torn me down. I take a step towards her and she takes a step back. My hands are shaking. “My father’s dead because of you,” I don’t stop. Not even when I see the tears roll down her cheeks. “You… you!” I ram at her. I’ve cornered her up against a wall and Jules, oh Jules, looks up at me with raw fear in her sweet eyes. And the last shred of love I feel for her tugs at my entrails with a slash. I turn around and bend down. I pinch my thighs with my fingers hard. Behind me, I hear her footsteps as she runs out. 

I take another step and Erick flinches as I go past him and get out. I rush down the stairs and into the street. 

“Mr. Cross?” I hear Betty ask as I leave her behind like a waft. 

I don’t stop. I half walk, half run for a while. I reach the worksite at the intersection, cutting me off like a tangible representation of my thoughts. Erick’s image appears on my mind. I stop and feel my haste breath raise my chest up and down. I watch the mist come out of my mouth. I sneeze, once, twice, three times. I left my coat inside. The anger is gone and now I feel a devastating sadness wash me down. I think I’ll drown in it. My legs can’t hold me up anymore. I sit down on the pavement and take my phone out. 

I hear the phone ring like the beat of my heart. At the fifth ring, Erick picks up.

“Tony?” He says into the line.  

“I don’t want to be that man again,” I voice my thoughts. “My father’s gone. I’ve only you to hold me down.”

“Where are you?”

“The worksite at the intersection.” I hang up and hold my face in my hands.

I sit there shivering for a while. A worker approaches me.

“Sir, are you alright?”

I look up at him. I think the answer is obvious so I don’t speak. 

“Sir, should I call 911?” He squats in front of me. 

Erick rolls in behind him. 

“Tony!” He pushes his rims hard to reach me. The worker turns to see him. 

“Do you know him?”

“Yes,” Erick says to him. 

“I think he’s sick or something,” the worker stands up and looks down at Erick, then at me, then at Erick again. “I’ll call an ambulance,” he says.

“No, no,” Erick stops him as he’s taking his phone out. “I’ll take it from here.”

The worker looks at him with a frown. I know what he’s thinking, a man in a wheelchair is going to help me how? 

“I’m ok,” I say to the worker. “My friend’s here. He’ll help me out.”

Erick’s eyebrows curl up. 

“I think you might be running a fever,” the worker doesn’t step back. 

Erick stretches a hand to my forehead but stops an inch away from me. He can’t feel if I have a fever or not. I’m pretty sure I do though. 

“It’s just a cold,” my teeth chatter, I’m shivering so hard. 

“You need a doctor,” the man insists.

“I don’t need a doctor, I need my friend here,” I wave him away. 

The man stares at us for another minute, before walking away reluctantly. 

“Tony, let’s get out of here, you’ll get pneumonia,” Erick says. 

I nod, but I can’t get up yet.

“I don’t fool myself. I know damn well that I lost her on my own accord,” I say to Erick. “I hurt her. I pushed her away. Sean too.” And I know what I have to do to win my son back. Somehow, I’ve managed to lose everyone I care about. “How did I ever hurt you, Erick?” I ask honestly. It can’t be a coincidence that my best friend’s left me too. 

“You didn’t,” Erick says leaning in on his chair.

“I did something wrong,” I insist. “I can’t see it myself, so tell me, please. I won’t get mad.”

I sneeze again and hug myself to control the shivering.

Erick pushes himself up from his legs and straightens, then he struggles, trying to take his coat off. 

“Don’t,” I stop him with my hand. “Just tell me.”

“Tony, you’ve never done anything to hurt me, I swear. Please, let’s get out of here before you freeze.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me,” I stubbornly stand my ground. “I need to know, Erick. The way you looked at me back in the office… I wasn’t going to hit you. I would never…”

“I thought you were gonna punch me, but I had it coming. Come on, get up, man.”

“I know I’ve let rage drive me in the past. I don't want to be that man ever again. I want to get my son back.” My teeth chatter again.

He shakes his head at me. “You’re not. You’re talking to me now, even after what I did. And Tony, you have never wronged me, not once. It would be so much easier if you had. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re the best person in the whole world. And I’m the worst friend ever. I’m sorry. Believe me,” he curls his eyebrows and shakes his head as he stresses the words. “I tried so hard not to feel that way about her. I fought the feelings every single day, but in the end, I couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry, Tony, I really am.”

I nod at him. I get on my knees and then put a hand on Erick’s lap. I rise to my feet and use the wall next to me to hold myself steady. Damn, I’m cold. 

“Let’s take you home,” he says looking up at me again. I wish my best friend could stand. 

I shake my head at him. “There’s work to do, and I’ll go crazy at home anyway.”

“Lou can handle it,” he wheels to the corner and stops a cab. “And I’m coming with you.” I stare at him for a while. I don’t feel angry at him anymore. I just feel so fucking sad. “Please,” he adds.

So I oblige. I open the front door for him and he transfers inside. 

“Can you open the trunk, please?” He says to the driver. 

I take his chair away, pop the wheel out like I’ve done every morning for the past seven years, and store it. Then I get in the back of the cab. 

“Can you turn the heat up?” Erick asks. The driver looks back at me on my plain shirt and does as Erick asks. I rest my head back. 

I unlock the door to my apartment and step inside. What a lonely place this is. I’ve lived here for six years but I’ve never managed to turn it into a home. I always felt it was temporary, a place I was staying in just until I got my family back. What a fool I’ve been. 

“Go to bed,” Erick says behind me. “Do you have medicine in the house?”

I shake my head at him. I can’t remember the last time I was sick, so no, I don’t have anything in the house. 

“I’ve scotch,” I smile grimly. How am I gonna let Jules go? How will I stand seeing them together? 

“Come on, let’s warm you up,” Erick looks at me with sweet eyes. 

If I were Jules, I would choose him too. I go inside my room and kick my shoes out. The bed isn’t made. I lift the covers and lie down.

“Do you want to change your clothes?”

I shake my head at him. He wheels closer to the bed. I’ve looked after him so many times, every time he got sick, close to a dozen times he’s ended up back in the hospital since the accident, every cold or UTI infection that’s knocked him down, or when he’s simply been too tired. But this is the first time he's ever looked after me. 

No, that’s not true.

“Let’s get you in bed,” I say because it’s late. We’ve buried my father and I’ve been sitting for hours in the dining room of what will soon stop being my house. Everyone has left. Jules is in the bedroom with Sean. She’s left blankets over the couch set for me, and did me the favor of staying away. I don’t want her near me now. But I don't want to be alone either. My father’s gone, and that’s what I am, completely alone in the world. 

Erick shakes his head at me. “I’ll stay up with you,” he says although he looks so tired. “Until you want to sleep.”

He’s wearing a black shirt that’s loose on him. He’s lost so much weight over the past months. He’s thin. His right sleeve has rolled up a bit, letting me see his bony wrist. His face is pale, it’s always pale these days. He’s slouching in that wheelchair looking at me with grief. 

I get up and walk to him, something so simple. I collapse on my knees before him and throw my arms around him. I can’t remember the last time I hugged my father, probably on Christmas or a birthday. My father wasn’t the hugging type. Erick hugs me back. His arms are weak, but he holds me as tight as he can muster. 

I stay in his arms for a few minutes. Thank god I didn’t lose him too. Thank god he didn’t die in that crash. Thank god he’s still here with me. 

I get up from the ground and pour myself another drink. And we sit there quietly that night and the next one, and every night of that week.

I look at him now. He uses both hands to pull the blankets over me. I close my eyes and thank god again that he survived the accident. Yes, Sean, I want Erick to be happy. I just don’t think that I can be happy too. 

Muffled voices wake me up. I’m alone in the room. My shirt is stuck to me, I’m sweaty. 

“What the hell happened to you?” Erick’s voice comes in through the closed door. 

“Nothing,” I hear Sean’s voice.

I sit up.

“That’s not nothing,” Erick says.

“I was in a fight.”

I sit up in the bed.

“Yeah, no kidding. Let’s get some ice on that.” Silence. “Has your mom seen you?” Silence again. 

I get up from the bed. There’s a glass of water on my night table. Erick must have put it there. 

“Who did you fight?” I hear him say. “Sean?”

“A guy from school,” my son answers. 

I take the glass and drink it full. I don’t go out. Sean wouldn’t have answered that question if it were me asking. 

“He’s been messing around with me.”

“Here, take this. Press it to your eye.”

“You should see the other guy,” Sean jokes.

“Jesus, Sean.”

“He wrote some things about Ana on Facebook.” Who’s Ana? “I couldn’t let it slide.”

“What things?”

“That he had been with her, you know…” Sean hesitates. “That she wasn’t good in bed.”

“There are other ways to fix problems rather than fighting, Sean. So the guy’s an asswhole, don’t be one too.”

“What would you have done, uncle Erick?”

I would’ve kicked his ass too.

“Yeah, yeah,” I can picture Erick smiling. “I would’ve kicked his ass too.”

They’re both quiet for a minute.

“But Ana didn’t need you to fight with this guy. What she needs is for you to be with her, let her know she has your support and what that guy says doesn’t get to you. Have you talked to her?”


“I’d bet she’d rather hear you ask her how she’s doing than hear you got into a fight with her ex. Girls are like that.”

I stand there listening to Erick be a father to my kid. I couldn’t have given better advice. It sounds like something my father would have said. I sit back on the bed. 

“I’ll call her,” Sean says. “Here, I brought what you asked. Is my dad sick?”

“He was burning up. He’s sleeping.”

“Did you make up?”

Erick sighs. 

“Is he going to let you be with my mom?”

“I’m not with your mom. Sean…”

“Yeah, because you feel guilty. But if you love each other…”

“Sean, stop it please.”

I lay back on the bed and cover my face with a pillow. God, I don’t want to hear this. 

“Go call that girl. I’ll check on your dad.”

I put the pillow down and pretend to be asleep. Yeah, I’m acting like a child, I know. Erick wheels in. I hear him stay put for a moment and then he wheels closer to the bed. I pretend to wake up.

“Hey,” he says. “How’re you feeling?”


He sets a bag with medicine on the night table and grabs the empty glass with both hands, he sets it between his legs. “I’ll get you some water so you can take a pill.”

He leaves again and a moment later comes back with the glass filled. 

“I got you soup.”

“I’m not hungry,” I sit up and take the medicine out of the bag. 

“When was the last time you ate?”

I don’t answer because I can’t remember. Sean walks in. He has a black eye. I meet his eyes and see him frown as I expected. At first, I think he’s still angry at me, but his expression changes as he stares at me.

“Are you ok, dad?”

I sigh.

“You look like crap.”


“I’m sorry,” he says and sits on the bed next to me. “Do you still have a fever?” He touches my forehead like Jules does when someone’s sick. 

“I don’t think so. What happened to you?” I pretend I didn’t just hear the whole story.

“Oh, nothing,” he says.

“Were you in a fight?”

“I walked into a door.”

I roll my eyes at him.

Erick’s struggling to open one of my drawers. He gives up. 

“Sean, can you take a shirt out?”

Sean turns to look at him. He gets up and opens the drawer for him. They bring me a clean t-shirt. 

“Thanks,” I say. “I think I’ll take a shower.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Erick says.

“Yeah, me neither, dad, you look really bad.”

I unbutton my shirt and take it off. Sean’s cell phone rings. He takes it out of his pocket and picks up.

“Hi, mom.” I feel a pang in my heart. “Uh… I’m at dad’s.” He walks out of the bedroom but leaves the door open. 

I finish changing my shirt.

“I think I’ll stay here for a while. He’s sick.” There’s a moment of silence. “He has a fever.” Silence again. “I think it’s a cold.” I lie back down. “Uncle Erick’s here.” A longer silence this time. “I don’t know.” Erick’s staring at his lap. “Ok.”

Sean comes back inside. He looks at me again with a strange expression on his face.

“Dad, are you ok?” He asks again after a while.

I snort. “You should put some ice on that.”

“I’ll get you that soup,” Erick says and wheels out. 

Sean touches my forehead again. 

“I’ll go help uncle Erick,” he puts his hand down. I nod and watch him step out.

About half an hour later, I hear the doorbell. I’m sitting on the couch, a blanket wrapped around me at Erick’s request. The soup he ordered is left untouched in front of me. Sean gets up from the piano stool and gets the door. I lift my eyes and watch Jules come inside. I gasp. 

“Sean!” She grabs his face. 

“It’s nothing, mom.”

She turns to look at me and I shrug. 

Jules is beautiful. She’s pettit; short and tender. She’s slim yet slightly curvy. When we were young, she used to be thinner, but I think I like her better now. She’s wearing jeans and a long sweater under a wool coat. I watch her take it off and hang it on a rack by the door. Her hair is loose. She wears it long, it falls smoothly over her back, strands of it frame her face and slide down her shoulders, all the way to her chest. She’s perfect. 

“What happened?”

“Tell you later?” Sean flashes her a smile. My smile. 

She sighs. “Did you put ice on it?”

“Yeah,” our son says. “I’m alright.” He kisses her cheek and takes a bag she’s been carrying from her hand. 

Jules walks into the living room. I follow her with my eyes and watch her crouch down in front of me as if I were Erick. I close my eyes to shake the image away. I want to stand up now, take her by the shoulders, lean my face down towards her. 

“How’re you feeling?” Her voice makes me open my eyes again. She puts her hand on my forehead. “You still have a fever,” she announces. 

I stare at her. She has big brown eyes. She gets up, and again, my sight follows her as if I were hypnotized. She turns around and picks up the bowl of soup that’s lying on the center table. 

“He hasn’t eaten?” She asks Erick. He shakes his head. “I’ll cook for you,” she turns around to face me again. “And I’ll make you some tea.” She leans in and touches my forehead again. Her hand is cool against my skin. “Did you take anything for the fever?”

I don’t answer. I’m not trying to be rude. It’s not that I’m angry at her. I just can’t talk. No phrase comes to my lips. She pouts. 

“I gave him a pill like half an hour ago,” Erick speaks behind her. “It should’ve kicked in by now.”

Sean’s standing at the kitchen’s door, looking in my direction. The three of them have their eyes fixed on me, a different expression on each of their faces. Sean is frowning. Erick looks worried. Jules is looking at me with tender eyes. I get up. All this attention is making me feel uncomfortable. I let the blanket fall on the couch. They all look at me with expectation. What, do they think I’m going to make a scene? Call them hypocrites for taking care of me now?

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I announce like a schoolboy. Their faces relax.

I splash some water on my face. I shiver. I’m cold again. When I come back out, Jules is busy in the kitchen. Sean’s helping her chop vegetables, and Erick is parked in front of them. How’s this going to work from now on? I wonder. Are the three of them a family now? Will they drop by and visit me from time to time? I collapse back into the couch. My father’s photograph stares at me from the piano. Don’t say it, dad. I know. I had this coming. 

Jules brings me hot tea with honey. I thank her and take a sip. It warms me up. I rest my back on the couch with the cup between my hands.

Later, Jules brings me a bowl of soup. Her soup. 

“Eat,” she commands sweetly, holding out the spoon for me. Is she going to feed me like a child? What are you doing Jules?

I take the spoon from her hand and eat. I take the first mouthful reluctantly, but as soon as I swallow it down, I feel hungry, starving. I haven’t had a proper meal since Friday night. Jules steps back and leaves me there. She serves them food at the table. And they sit down to eat, together, without me, while I watch them from the couch. 

“Do you want to head back to the office?” Jules asks Erick when they’re done eating. 

“Yeah, I guess I should,” he says. 

“Why don’t you take the car and drive him?” She suggests to Sean. 

Erick looks up at her with a sad expression in his eyes. 

“The car is at the office,” he says.

“Then, you should get it, Sean,” she says. “Do you have your keys?” She turns around to ask me.

I taught Sean to drive over a year ago, and he has his driver’s license. But I never lend him the car so he hasn’t practiced much. I think what Jules wants is to be left alone with me, so I indulge her.

“I left them at the office,” I say. “Can you get my coat too?” I say to Sean. “The keys are in the pocket.”

“You left the office without your coat?” Jules stands up. “With this cold?”

I nod, but I don’t elaborate. 

“Well,” she turns back to Sean. “Get the car and drive your uncle home after work. I’m staying here tonight.”

She is?

“Home, Sean. You’re grounded.”

“What?” Sean protests.

“You got into a fight,” she says.

“You haven’t let me explain.”

“You can explain tomorrow, after you spend a day grounded.”

Sean puffs. And they leave. Erick looks up at her grimly before wheeling out. 

Now, it’s just me and Jules. She sits on the table in front of me. She touches my forehead for the fifth time. 

“Your fever is down,” she says. 

“You feel guilty,” I say back. 

“I don’t,” she counters defensively.

I stare at her and she gets up. 

“You don’t own me, Tony,” she meets my eyes. “I don’t owe you any explanation.”

“Why him, Jules?” I stand too. “Why Erick? Out of all the men in the world, why my best friend?”

She stays quiet. And I know, I can tell, even if she denies it, she feels guilty. That’s why she’s here looking after me right now. 

I step closer to her, close enough to feel her breath on my chest. She remains silent, her shoulders rising and falling at an even rhythm. I touch her hair. It’s smooth, soft. I glide my fingers over it.

She turns around. 

I breathe in her scent. “You don't have to stay with me. I’ll be fine.” 

“I’ve looked after you every single time you’ve been sick during your entire life, and I will do so now,” she turns back around. 

I look down at her and she tilts her face up to meet my eyes. 

“Don’t you love me anymore?” I ask.

Her lips part. I tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and place my hand on her face. My hand is big, I encompass her whole cheek inside my palm. I grab her waist with my other arm and pull her close to me. She stiffens but doesn’t pull away from me. 

“I don’t own you, but you are mine. You are mine and I am yours, and that’s never going to change.” I lose myself inside her big brown eyes. 

She places her hands on my chest with open palms. I lean my head down and press my lips against her. Her hands slide across my chest and she wraps them around my neck. I’ve wanted to kiss her for eight years. I do so now and when she kisses me back, it’s like a music box opens inside my chest and sings an aria loud. The sound envelops us like ocean water, I can feel it all around. Every inch of my skin tingles. Every thought is wiped clean inside my mind. A wave of music swaths my body, and her fingers on my hair are seafoam. I swim inside her mouth. 

“Look at me Jules,” I caress her hair. 

We’re lying down nacked, facing each other. Her young face still has a childish gleam. We’re seventeen. I kiss her softly. Her small hand is pressing my waist, pulling me to her. I slide mine down from her neck, across her shoulder, all the way to her breast. I clothe it with my palm. 

Her fingers press me to her again. I ask permission with my eyes. She nods. I push her back gently and lie on top of her. She opens her legs to receive me, wraps them around my waist. And I enter her threshold slowly. Her lips part with a soft moan. I don’t dare move. I lean my face towards her and peck her forehead, her temples, her cheeks until she moves her hips. I go in further, her pressure tightening around me. I’m gentle, slow, I use the rhythm of her breath as a cue to advance. She lifts her mouth to meet mine. And then we’re one. Today for the first time. Forever. 

“Forever,” I whisper in her ear. 

“Forever,” she says back.

Her arms pull me yet closer. Her legs trap me as we sway together. One. Us. Forever.

“Forever,” I whisper as we part. “That’s never going to change.”

I lift her up in my arms. 

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