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“It’s part of the process. At least she’s strong enough to cough now.” She hurried out of the room.

I leaned back in the chair. I was torn between blowing off her parents, who didn’t want to see me anyway, and doing what Corabelle asked. But, my motorcycle was here. I couldn’t pick them up on that. By the time I could get to her place, pick up her car, then jet to the airport, they’d be in a taxi.

I hadn’t planned this well. Corabelle had always been the organized one.

I turned over the phone and texted them the name of the hospital and the room number. They’d be here soon enough. I would smooth things over. We would get back to where we used to be.

I needed to call Bud, tell him I’d be taking off yet another day from the garage. And e-mail the professors, mine and Corabelle’s, to let them know how she was. God, this was a mess. They might not excuse me, but I didn’t care. I had no direction anyway. Not true. Corabelle was my destination. I’d do whatever I needed to do to make things right with her.

Her black hair was a harsh contrast to her pale fragile face. I could still see hints of the girl she once was, the one who sheltered me when I dashed across the alley from my house to hers as a child escaping a difficult father. The last four years without her had been such hell. I hadn’t seen it until I had her back. Nothing made sense without her. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

My stomach rumbled, so I shoved myself out of the chair. The cafeteria food was passable, and one of the staffers always had pity on me and gave me the staff discount. This was my new life, for a while. Eventually I had to get back to work, pay the bills, figure out our next step.

Another text message buzzed me as I stepped into the elevator. I suppressed a snorting laugh when I saw it. You’d never know that I’d once been a favored son, that the same hand that typed these words had once clapped me on the back in approval.

It said, “Don’t be there when we arrive. I mean it.”

~*´♥`*~

I dumped my leftovers in the cafeteria trash and stacked my tray, wiping my hands on my jeans. My hair was all over the place. Corabelle’s parents would think I was a vagrant. Or a mooch. God, no telling. The way they were acting, you wouldn’t know that the first door I ever walked through that wasn’t my own was theirs. Of course, their daughter was the first thing I ever walked away from.

I stepped into the elevator, trying to figure out what to say, how to explain myself. A nurse got on with me, holding an apple, and nodded in my direction. “Which floor?” she asked.

“Four,” I said.

We lurched up from the basement to the first floor and stopped again. The doors slid open, and the time for me to figure out what to say was over, because Corabelle’s parents were standing right outside.

“Oh!” Mrs. Rotheford said, her vivid red lipsticked mouth open with shock.

“Hey,” I said with a wave. I tunneled my fingers through my hair one more time, not that it was going to help.

Mr. Rotheford glared at me from behind heavy-rimmed glasses, different from the ones I’d last seen him wear, now with a line across the centers. I’d thought of them as ageless, but the four years had not been especially kind to him.

“I’ll have you thrown out,” he said with a growl.

The nurse shifted next to me, her arm partially outstretched, as if trying to decide whether or not to push the button to close the doors. I glanced at her. She raised her eyebrows as if to say, “Should I?”

But Mrs. Rotheford grabbed her husband’s arm and dragged him forward, pulling a petite roller bag. “Don’t be ridiculous, Arthur.”

He didn’t resist, and the nurse and I scooted to the corner. The elevator was deep to accommodate hospital beds, so we were not crowded together.

Mr. Rotheford’s shoulders were hunched, and his fingers on the handle of his rolling suitcase were tightened into fists. I couldn’t imagine him manhandling anyone. He had always been such a calm and gentle man, endlessly patient with Corabelle’s teddy-bear classrooms, sitting obediently in a little chair to be her student if she held her playschool on the weekends.

Her mother glanced back at me, her hair an intricate black sweep into a silver comb. She had always been elegant and kind, the sort of mother you might see on television. I knew they had their sorrows, a string of miscarriages after Corabelle, and in the days Finn was in the hospital, I knew her grief was magnified by the thought of all those children, and what tragic genetic code might have been passed on to her daughter. If I was going to make inroads with them, it would be through her.

“You’re all grown,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say to that, but nodded. I could sense the fury growing in her husband. I hoped the elevator reached our destination before he blew.

We skipped two floors to land at the fourth. Corabelle’s parents stepped out first, since they were closer to the door, but paused, not sure where to go. I squeezed behind them and to the side, prepared to lead the way, but Mr. Rotheford’s jacketed arm snaked out and snared me, his fingers grasping my elbow in a vise. “Where do you think you’re going?”

I turned around to face him squarely, man to man in a way I’d never done as a teen. I was half a head taller than him, and he seemed small and sad rather than menacing. I inhaled slowly so I could choose my words. “I’m going to Corabelle’s room. She’s expecting me back. I know you don’t want me there, but she does, and right now, she matters most.”

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