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“It’s a long goodbye.”

He nods.

“Too long?”

“I…” he shakes his head “…don’t know.”

“It’s one word. You can say it now. You can say it over the phone. You can text it.” I swallow hard, trying to be strong for both of us. “Or you don’t have to say it at all. It’s okay to just … walk away. We’ve said all that has to be said, right?”

*

Flint

I could use a drink. Ten years is a long time to feel the pain without one single thing to numb it. Have we said all there is to say? In a lifetime, will we say all there is to say?

“I won’t say goodbye. And I won’t walk away. But…” I clear my throat “…I’ll watch you walk away.”

Her blue eyes fill with tears.

“Dinner. I’ll call you.” I turn and go back to work because if I stay to watch her tears fall, I’ll lose my fucking mind. As soon as I get in my car, I slam the palm of my hand against the steering wheel. “FUCK!” Leaning my head back, I close my eyes.

After a few minutes, I call Amanda to have her reschedule my appointments, and I find a meeting to attend. It’s my first in over five years. It’s hard to make sense of why the one thing that killed Heidi is the one thing I crave the most as I get ready to lose the woman I love in this present life.

*

“Why are you picking me up?” Harrison asks as he gets in my car after school.

“Because you’re my son.”

He rolls his eyes.

Because I need to remember why I’m here. Because I need to remember why I’m doing this thing called life.

Five minutes from our house, he breaks the silence. “Simon’s dad told Simon he’s not getting married again. Are you going to marry Ellen?”

Maybe picking him up wasn’t such a great idea.

“No.”

“If you married her, would we have to move? I don’t want to move.”

“I’m not marrying Ellen.”

“You’re just having sex with her?”

“It’s … complicated.”

“The sex?”

“It’s complicated because of the feelings. Do you really want to discuss feelings? I think that’s your least favorite thing to talk about.”

“But we’re not moving? I don’t want to move. My plants would die and so would yours.”

“Ellen is moving. We are not moving.”

Whisky neat. It was my go-to. But I never had an issue with beer if that’s all that was available. I could drink a lot of beer. All the beer—I’d stop drinking when there was no more beer to drink. But I always had a stash of whisky at home to get me to where I needed to be to get to sleep.

“Hey, Ellen’s here!” Harrison jumps out of the car before I get it completely stopped.

Why is she sitting on our porch steps, bundled up in a coat, hat, and gloves—with her guitar case?

Harrison runs around to the back door and opens it with his key. She waits on the front porch steps.

“Hey.” She stands as I approach.

“Hi.” Something is off. I can see it on her face. I can see it in the reddened rims of her eyes.

“You came to play?” Harrison opens the front door, grinning. I love that look that only Ellen Rodgers puts on his face.

“I did.” She carries her case inside. “My guitar is cold. Will you take it upstairs and let it warm up a bit before we play?”

“Sure.” Harrison takes her guitar.

“You’re leaving early.” I know it. I can feel it. It’s a cloud of gloom over her.

“Tomorrow.” Ellen draws in a shaky breath. “My dad fell this afternoon. He’s fine, but Lori is pretty shook up because it was on her watch. So…” she takes in another slow breath, like it’s all she can do to hold it together “…the moving truck is coming in the morning.”

It’s like I didn’t go to that meeting. I want a drink so bad I can taste it in my veins.

“I wanted to play guitar with Harry one more time.”

I nod, jaw clenched.

“I wanted to see you.” She bites her quivering lower lip.

If I hug her, it changes nothing. If I tell her it’s all going to be okay, it’s a lie. If I beg her to stay, she’ll leave. But if I take a drink … the pain will go away.

“I’ll make dinner. Go play.”

Her brow wrinkles in pain as she nods slowly before climbing the stairs to Harrison’s room. I busy myself with dinner, waiting for the pain to become self-numbing the way I’ve had to rely on it to do for over a decade. This is my penance. This is my sentence. This is the life I chose.

A life for a life.

Harrison dominates the dinner conversation with a summary of his latest podcast on futuristic airplanes. I nod on instinct to acknowledge him, but I don’t really register a word he’s said. Making the occasional glance at Ellen, I’m certain she’s not focusing on him either.

“Bed,” I say after he’s done with his story and his meal.

“It’s only eight.”

“Harrison …”

He sighs.

Ellen stands. “Give me a hug. I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“Where are you going?” he asks.

She smiles as I watch her eyes fill with tears. “Cape Cod.”

“Oh, duh.” He gives her a sheepish grin. “I knew that.”

Ellen hugs him, and after a few seconds he hugs her back.

Whisky. Beer. Vodka. It doesn’t matter. Anything will do at this point. I stand and grab the dirty dishes. I can’t watch this. As I walk off, I hear her sob.

“Why are you crying?” Harrison asks.

She clears her throat. “I’m just … going to miss you.”

“Okay.”

Okay. God … for just one time in my life I wish I could emotionally detach myself like he can.

“Night.” He goes to bed. No emotion. No tears. No regret. No pain.

I set the dishes in the sink. Fuck. I hate this.

I hear her sniffle behind me.

“Now.” My pulse makes it hard to hear anything but the rush of blood through my heart. “Walk away now. Don’t say anything. I …” I grit my teeth to keep my shit together. “I lied. I don’t want to watch you walk away.”

“Flint …”

“Go.” I rest my hands on the edge of the counter and bow my head.

Her chest presses to my back as she caresses my arm, stopping at my hand. Her fingers interlace with mine against the edge of the counter.

“Go … please …” My words are barely a whisper. It’s all I have left.

“I lied too.” She ducks under my arm and wedges herself between me and the counter, the same way she wedged her way into my life, my heart—my soul. “I need more than a goodbye.”

*

Ellen

Tears.

Flint Hopkins has tears bleeding down his face for me. The muscles in his jaw tick, and his eyes redden behind the leaky emotions. My hand inches to his face; my fingers touch the wetness on his cheeks as if I need proof that they’re real.

Alex never cried for me, at least not that I ever saw. Not when my mom died. Not when I cried for the loss of his friend and his hands. Not when he ended our marriage.

I rub my wet fingertips together, still in disbelief that I matter so deeply to any man other than my father. “I want this life,” I whisper. “I want you.” Every piece of what gives me life feels like it’s slowly dying.

“But …” He hunches his back more until his cheek rests on the top of my head.

I rest my palms against his chest. “But …” My eyes close.

But humans take on many forms of love, and right now my father needs the love of his only daughter, just like Harrison needs his father’s love. This just isn’t our time.

But I can’t make sense of it to my heart or Flint’s. It just hurts.

When my gaze meets his, there’s no need to say anything.

He knows.

I know.

So we say goodbye over the next few hours. It’s the most painful missed opportunity. It’s like trying to breathe but there’s no oxygen. I will forever wear his touch on my skin as a reminder of the life I want.

In the early morning, when his breathing evens out and his hold on me relaxes, I slide out of bed before the sun and before Harrison awakes—in silence and darkness—like I was never here at all.

“I love you,” I mouth, standing in the doorway to Flint’s bedroom as he sleeps. “Goodbye.”

I walk away, leaving him blind to my departure and deaf to my last goodbye.

Hours later, after the sun brings forth a new day, there’s no call, no text. He’s letting me go—as if he has a choice. As soon as the movers arrive, I give them instructions and turn in my keys to my landlord. My rats and I are on the road to Cape Cod before ten in the morning.

Someday I’m going to get to live my happily ever after. No more packing up and driving away from the man that I love. Everyone has their time. I will find mine.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Flint

“You look like hell,” Amanda greets me.

“Thank you.”

“It’s four days until Christmas. I thought you’d have your holiday spirit by now.”

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