You couldn’t force a man to better his life if he didn’t want to change for himself, and every time I pushed him, our relationship suffered. That was why I’d left all those years ago. He had gotten fed up with my attempts to help and pushed me away.
I just had to learn to love him from a distance even if that meant me worrying day in and day out about his well-being.
“Yep, taking it every day like I’m supposed to,” he said.
I knew it was a lie, too, because I knew my father.
We both went silent, which was pretty normal.
He never said much, so neither did I. I often wondered if our silence was due to the fact that we didn’t have anything to say or because we’d waited too many years to ever speak up. Perhaps our heads were filled with deep, meaningful conversations we wished to have with one another and we just didn’t have a clue where to begin.
That was okay, though. At least we still had the phone calls every once in a while.
Even so, sometimes I missed the words.
He cleared his throat. “Okay, well, hey, I gotta get to cleaning up a bit around here. Thanks for calling, Ellie. I’ll talk to you later.”
“And Ellie? Thanks for the money you sent me. You didn’t have to do that, though. I wish you’d stop, but yeah, thank you.”
“We’ll talk later, alright?”
He always did that, ending the conversations early, which was probably for the best. Otherwise, I would’ve just held on to the cell phone, listening to his erratic breathing and wishing we weren’t the people that we were.
“All right, Dad. I love you.”
“Yeah, you too. Buh-bye.”
He hung up without giving me the words I needed to hear most, the ones that might’ve given me a bit of comfort.
I love you, too.
It was hard to believe there had been a time when my father and I were close. Time had the ability to change relationships in ways we never thought possible. Death did that to people—turned their souls into something new. Sometimes, it was for the better, and other times it was for the worst. Over time, life forced people and their relationships to shift.
Some days, I wished I could ever-so-slightly shift my father back toward the man he used to be.
I missed that man every single day of my life, and I secretly prayed to Mom that she’d help him find his way back to me.
I fully believed in my mother’s love. I thought her love was so strong it could somehow beat death. I felt her love around me at all times.
I really hoped Dad felt her presence, too.
Still here, Ellie.
Those words from her were tattooed on my heart, and they kept it beating.
I stayed at EastHouse headquarters as long as I could. Most of my employees cleared out by seven, and when I glanced at my watch it was half past nine.
My phone started buzzing, and Landon’s name popped up on the screen. I ignored the call, but that didn’t stop my best friend from instantly texting me.
Landon: Go home, Grey.
I would’ve said me ignoring his calls was nothing personal, but it was. Ever since the accident, Landon had checked in on me every single day, and I pretty much ignored him every single day. I was sick of lying to him by telling him I was okay when I wasn’t. I was sick of hearing the concern in his voice. I was sick of him caring.
So, I buried myself in my work and continued to do so each day until I was the last man to leave the office.
When I made it home, the babysitter was sleeping on the couch. She was some seventeen-year-old kid Claire had hired for days when we didn’t have a nanny. I walked over to her and woke her up.
I felt pretty shitty about it being so late, seeing how she had school in the morning.
“Hey, wake up,” I said, tapping her shoulder. I didn’t remember her name, because I was the asshole who forgot people’s names, no matter how many times I’d met them.
She sat up a little and yawned. “Oh, hi, Mr. East.”
“Hello. You can head home now,” I told her.
She yawned again. “Okay. The girls did good tonight. Lorelai wouldn’t take off her butterfly wings, though, and she’s sleeping in them. And Karla is…well, you know…Karla.”
Oddly enough, I knew exactly what she meant.
I went into my wallet and pulled out cash. She shook her head. “Oh, no. Claire already paid me.”
“Here’s more, for the short notice.”
Her eyes widened. “But that’s a hundred-dollar bill.”
“Yes, I’m aware. Thank you for your time, er—”
“Madison.” She smiled, giving me her name like she always had to. “Like the capital of Wisconsin.”
“Right. Madison. Goodnight.”
She headed out of the house, and I released a breath of air. It was always nice when there was no longer anyone around.
After I poured myself a glass of whiskey on the rocks, I made my two stops of the night. First, to Lorelai.
Her bedroom was covered in her artwork. She’d gotten the artistic skills from her mother, that was for sure. Her breaths were quiet as she slept heavily with her body balled up in a knot. I went over to her, as I did each night, and took off her butterfly wings. She grumbled and twisted a little before falling back asleep.
During the day, she was a wild girl. She never went a minute without talking and her energy level was through the roof. At night, though, she was the definition of calm. Her breaths were always so soft and quiet.
I kneeled down beside her and combed her hair behind her ear. I kissed her forehead before heading to Karla’s room next.
She, too, was sleeping, but she had her iPhone lying beside her as her Beats by Dre headphones covered her ears. Whenever I checked on Karla, I first checked her heart beats. She breathed much heavier than her younger sister, and sometimes I swore her breaths took pauses that felt too long.
Or perhaps that was just my worried mind.
Karla Lynn East was born three weeks premature. She was in the NICU for five weeks, suffering from breathing issues. There was a moment we weren’t sure she’d pull through, but from day one, my girl had been a fighter. The day Nicole and I brought Karla home, I sat next to her crib for weeks, counting her breaths. Each inhale and every exhale was marked down in my mind. I had slept on the floor of her nursery each day, making sure her lungs were still rising and falling at a normal pace.
After the accident ten months ago, she punctured a lung which caused her to suffer from shortness of breath. Even though her lung healed, I couldn’t shake my fear away. Therefore, each night I’d check her breathing. I’d beat myself up every time she missed an inhalation, too. If it weren’t for my mistake, she wouldn’t have been suffering so much.
If my eyes would’ve been focused on the road…
Stop it, I told myself.
My brain always wandered on its own to the worst day of my life. I had no control over my own thoughts.
I removed Karla’s headphones, then sat at the foot of her bed, and placed the headphones against my ears. She listened to the same thing every single night, which meant I listened to it every night, too.
I closed my eyes as the recording played.
“I love you, my beautiful Karla,” the audio said in Nicole’s voice repeatedly.
I love you, my beautiful Karla, I love you, my beautiful Karla, I love you, my beautiful Karla…
My wife’s voice echoed on the most beautiful loop. I fiddled with my fingers and lowered my head as I listened to her words.
When it all became too much, I’d place the headphones back on Karla’s ears, kiss her forehead, and head to my own bedroom.
I sat in my darkened room, with no sound except the ticking clock on the wall. Time was moving, and my mind was working against me.
The words kept playing in my mind as I shut my eyes tight and lay down to try to sleep. Though, sleep never came easy.
I hated closing my eyes, because whenever I did, I saw Nicole’s face.
Nightmares had nothing on a cold reality. My current days were hard, but my memories were where I suffered the most.
“Grey…” Her breathy voice spoke my way.
I turned to my right, and Nicole’s forehead lay on the exploded airbag. Her eyes were struck with fear and panic.
I shook my head, shooting my eyes open. I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to shake the real-life nightmare from my mind. There wasn’t a day I didn’t blame myself for not checking on my wife more closely in that car. There wasn’t a day that passed where I didn’t remember every single mistake that I made that night.
So, I headed to my home office that evening. I knew sleep wasn’t going to find me any time soon, so I’d keep working and working to try to drown out the heaviness that was my own soul.
Around one in the morning my phone dinged.
Landon: Go to sleep, buddy.
I tried my best to listen to his request that night, but still, like all the nights that came before, I failed.
“Hi, Eleanor, welcome back to the Easts’ property,” Allison greeted as I walked up to join her on the front porch of Greyson’s home. She had been put in charge of giving me a tour and going over all the details of the job with me. We met up on a Saturday afternoon because she thought it would be easier to show me around while the girls were at their grandparents’ house. She wanted me to not be overwhelmed by meeting the girls and touring the property all at once.
I felt like she was trying to give me a calmness before the storm.
Allison was everything every woman dreamed of being—at least she was what I dreamed of becoming. She was beautiful in an effortless way and looked like a CEO as opposed to an assistant to a CEO. It was almost as if she’d been born to lead. She walked into all spaces as if she owned them and never had her chin down, moving as if she wore an invisible crown.
Her confidence was beyond impressive. Plus, on top of all that, she was nice.
I wouldn’t have blamed her if she wasn’t nice—she had everything else going for her. She reminded me of Shay in a lot of ways: strong.