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I turned it off after ten minutes. What could I tell them? He’d been sequestered to an emergency room while more doctors rushed into his room than onto a golf course on a sunny Saturday morning? To give any of them an answer to how Jude was doing, I’d either have to lie or admit things that I was sure I couldn’t admit.

So I paced. I chewed my nails down to nothing. I ached in every place I didn’t realize could ache. But I wouldn’t let myself think, or contemplate, or consider any one of the many things that would break me if I let them in right now. I was barely hanging on as it was, behaving like nothing better than a caged animal; if I let in any one of the emotions piling up , no vial of tranquilizer could subdue me.

It could have been fifteen minutes, it could have been fifteen hours, but when the serious faced doctor ambled into the waiting room, his eyes shifting my way, it took a lifetime for him to cross the room towards me.

“I understand you’re somehow related to Mr. Ryder,” he said, crossing his arms. He wasn’t covered in blood, so I assured myself that was a good sign.

“Yes,” I said, my voice hoarse. I was related to him in every way a person could be without the bond of blood relation.

“He’s sustained a concussion from the impact,” he began as my insides twisted. “I’ve put him into a medically induced coma to give his brain and body a chance to heal, but we won’t know the full extent of the damage until he wakes.”

I swallowed the bile rising in my throat. “He’s all right?” My voice was barely a whisper.

“He’s alive,” the doctor corrected. “We won’t know if he’s all right until he wakes. Until then, he needs to take it easy and rest.”

A nurse stuck her head around the corner. “Doctor,” she interrupted, “we’ve got a bullet wound to the stomach coming in.”

Giving her a nod over his shoulder, he started backing away. “We’ve moved him up to the fifth floor. You can go see him now if you like.”

“Thank you,” I said as he rushed off because what else could you offer the person who had helped the one you loved?

Following the signs that led to the elevator, I punched the fifth floor button, followed by a trio of punches over the “door close” button. My legs were bouncing, my breath was catching, my fingers were tapping over the elevator handrail. My anxiety was manifesting in a hyper active way so, the instant the doors whooshed open, I flew out, rushing towards the nurses’s station.

“Excuse me?” I asked, my voice sounding as hyper as the rest of my body felt. “Could you tell me which room Jude Ryder was taken to?” I didn’t wait for the middle-aged, smile wrinkled woman to look up from her chart before asking.

When she did, the smile that had earned her those wrinkles worked into position. Maybe the reason she was a fifth floor nurse was because she was five times warmer than the sour faced nurses in the E.R.

“He was just taken into 512,” she said, pointing down the hall on the right. “You can go see him right now. Just make sure he gets lots of quiet and rest, okay, hun?”

“Okay. I will,” I said, wrapping my arms around my stomach. “The doctor said they put him into a coma so his brain could heal. Any idea when he’ll wake up?” There were about a million questions I had now that I hadn’t thought to ask the doctor while he was in front of me.

“Could be next week,” she said, with a shrug. “Could be next hour. The brain is a tricky thing that’s got a mind all its own.” She smiled at her little pun. “The docs like to think they can command it to do their bidding, but in my experience, the brain wins every time.”

Why couldn’t all medical staff be as grounded and honest as this one was? “Sounds very… inconclusive.”

“Hun, whenever you’re talking about the human body or brain, it’s always inconclusive.”

Not exactly what I needed to hear right now, but I’d take the hard truth over a warm fuzzy lie most any day.

“Thanks,” I said, waving as I headed down the hall.

“Let us know if you all need anything,” she called after me.

Room 512 was at the far end of the hall and the closer I got, the farther away the room seemed to get. This whole night had been a screwy version of Alice in Wonderland.

Sliding inside the room, I closed the door silently behind me. Looking at him on the bed, if I imagined it just right, I could pretend he was asleep in his own bed. But then the heart rate monitor beeped and the antiseptic smell of the hospital called me back to reality.

I didn’t have an aversion to hospitals like most people did. To me, they were places your loved ones were taken who at least had a hope of being healed. When John had been shot, the only place for him to be taken was the medical examiner’s.

Jude was here, his heartbeat spiking and beating every second. That meant he was alive and had a fighting chance. There was hope.

Coming around the foot of the bed, I stared down at him. If not for the hospital gown and wires and tubes snaking over his body, he looked like he didn’t belong here. No stitched wounds, no black and blue marks spotting him, no casts supporting broken bones. Everything on the surface was perfect, but whatever was going on inside that brain of his was where the true threat waited.

I knew more about concussions than any one who wasn’t a doctor should. Watching hundreds of games in my lifetime, I’d seen my fair share of boys knocked senseless. John had been lucky enough to escape the seeming rite of passage concussion, but plenty of his teammates growing up hadn’t. Most recovered with little to no long term effects. But some, the names and faces that were at the forefront of my mind now, were forever changed. Those less fortunate souls would never walk onto that football field again, and a couple couldn’t so much as lift a spoon to their mouths, let alone palm a football.

The realization that this was potentially what Jude would face whenever his brain surfaced made my entire body weaken. Shuffling along the side of the bed, I collapsed onto the edge of it, grabbing his hand up in mine.

This is what happened when you didn’t heed the warning upon warning life threw your way or listened to that voice in your head that told you someone was going to get hurt if we didn’t stop fighting nature.

Jude and I had been riding a runaway train and Jude was the one to take the brunt of the impact when that train crashed into the wall. I knew when and if Jude came out of this, we could try to piece together the rabble, but it wouldn’t be long before we hit another wall. And after falling apart once, we’d shatter with the next crash until finally, there was nothing left of what we’d once been. There’d be no Jude. No Lucy. No us. None of the love we’d shared. Just a scattered mess that could never be fixed.

My hand was wringing the hell out of his, so I loosened my grip on him. The last thing he needed was a hand amputation after I’d cut off the circulation while I worried the night away.

I knew I couldn’t go, but I also knew I couldn’t stay. And this, the cruel irony, was the paramount of Jude’s and my time together. I loved him, but I shouldn’t. I trusted him, but it wasn’t natural. I wanted him, but I couldn’t have him.

With us, it wasn’t like we were suffering from a bad case of wanting to have our cake and eat it too‌—‌we were just trying to make the best out of an empty cake plate. You couldn’t create something out of nothing and, while it wasn’t Jude and me that didn’t have something‌—‌we had the kind of something people spent their lives searching for‌—‌life had given us a big nothing in the future department. There was nowhere to go but right here, one of us having a meet and greet with death, if one of us didn’t secede from the other.

I knew it couldn’t be him, he’d warned me countless times before he was incapable of walking away from me. So it had to me. I had to be the one to get up, turn my back on this man, and never stop walking away.

I’d never faced something with more fear.

Damn it. I was squeezing his hand all to hell again.

Clearing my throat, I tried to bring the words to the surface. They wouldn’t come. Something about acknowledging the permanence of them kept them bottled inside.

Goodbye. It would be the hardest thing I’d ever have to say, and the hardest thing I’d have to live. Jude wasn’t just my first love. He was my forever love. But hell if forces of nature hadn’t aligned against me actually being able to spend my life with that person.

Still choking on the word, Jude’s fingers flickered in my hand.

I jumped in my seat. Staring at his hand, I watched it come back to life, weaving through and around mine. Now something else was getting caught in my throat: relief.

His eyes flickered open the next instant, falling on where our hands were woven together. Following his gaze, I couldn’t determine which fingers were his and which were mine. Another piece of evidence for the Alice in Wonderland theory since his were rough, long man fingers and mine were skinny and soft, all girl fingers. Our hands had merged into one, creating its own Jude and Lucy. A Jucy or a Lude. The idea made me grin.

I felt his eyes move up, waiting for me to meet them. When I did, I wanted to set the world on fire and watch it burn for refusing to let me have this man.

His eyes grimaced with confusion as they scanned the room.

“You were hit, Jude. Hard,” I explained, gripping his hand like centrifugal forces were trying to tear us apart. I didn’t ease up because this time, his hand was gripping mine right back. “You blacked out, sustained a concussion, so the doctors put you into a coma so your brain could take its time recovering.” So much for the managed coma. But it shouldn’t have surprised me‌—‌Jude didn’t conform to social standards, a forced upon him coma no expectation.

“The hit I remember,” he said, reaching for his head. “The rest not so much.”

“God, Jude. I’m sorry,” I said, needing to say so much more.

“Sorry for what?” he said, inspecting the IV running into his arm. “That I was dumb enough to look in the opposite direction of a three hundred pound mamma-jamma who wanted to grind me into the astroturf? That was all my bad, Luce.”

“Yeah, but our fight,” I said, scooting closer to him when I should be moving in the opposite direction. “You wouldn’t have been so distracted if we hadn’t just gotten into it.”

“Luce. We fight. I’m used to that. Sure, that fight was the scariest ass one we’ve ever had, but you’re here now. That’s all that matters. No matter how many fights we have, or how much they tip the Richter scale, none of it matters as long as at the end of the day, you’re still with me.”

He shifted in bed, propping up onto his elbows. “And I wasn’t all that distracted from the fight. I was distracted by that D bag I was planning to torture as soon as the game was done.”

Smirking at me, the color began to bleed back into his face. “That was one hell of a phone spiral you launched onto the field. I’m going to start calling you Laser Rocket Arm. If coach saw that, he’s going to dump my sorry ass and drop you into the starting QB spot.”

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