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“Good to see you, Meg.” He kisses her cheek.

Those are my lips. Why did he kiss her with lips that are supposed to be just for me? Why am I feeling so overcome with jealousy while my hands shake with panic because Swarley can barely lift his head?

“This is Avery. Avery, this is my friend, Megan.”

I offer her my shaky hand. She takes it and covers it with her other hand as well, giving me a gentle squeeze. “Nice to meet you. Don’t worry, I’m going to take good care of your dog. What’s his name?”

“Swarley.” Her kindness sends instant tears to my eyes.

It’s official. I’m an awful person for letting unwarranted jealousy get to me.

“Jake, let’s get Swarley inside.”

Jake and Megan carry him inside while I hold open the doors. “You can come back if you’d like, or you can wait out here while I examine him.”

“I’ll wait out here.” I return a shaky smile as I hug my arms to my torso.

“I’ll be right back.” Jake gives me a reassuring nod, but I don’t feel reassured of anything because Swarley looks so lifeless.

“Don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t you dare die on me,” I chant to myself while pacing the waiting room. “You owe me for injuring my fingers.” I curl the fingers of my injured hand and pump them into a fist several times. The pain is gone, but I can’t completely bend them all the way. They are stiff. I took off to my dad’s house instead of staying home and going to physical therapy. It’s all Anthony’s fault—and Swarley’s fault. But I can’t blame him for anything right now because I just need him to not die.

As for Anthony, he can choke and die on a chocolate-covered pussy for all I care.

“Is he going to be okay?” I run into Jake’s arms when he opens the door to the waiting room.

“Meg called her nurse. She should be here soon. She thinks it could be GDV, basically a twisted stomach. He’s probably going to need surgery.”

“Oh my god …” Tears escape my burning eyes. I cry for my nemesis.

I cry because I have to call Sydney and tell her I failed her.

I cry because Swarley was the only one there for me right after Anthony cheated on me.

I cry because he’s old and I’m really, really scared.

“Shh …” Jake frames my face with his strong hands and kisses the tears from my cheeks. “Meg is going to fix him. Okay?” His lips brush mine, and I nod before kissing him.

And that’s what Megan does. She performs surgery to untwist Swarley’s stomach while I make the phone call I don’t want to make.

“Hello?” Sydney answers.

“It’s me.” I bite my lips together and take a slow inhale to keep from falling apart.

“Avery, where are you? Would it kill you to check in a little more often? I get that you lost your phone, but clearly you can call.” She’s in mom mode. Worried. And angry because I made her worry.

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you okay? Where are you?”

“I’m fine.” I walk to the opposite corner of the waiting room to distance myself from Jake. I don’t want him to see more of my insecurities and shame. “We’re in Flagstaff.”

“Wow … that’s not exactly on the route to L.A. Listen, I don’t mind you spending your summer vacation camping with Jake, but we’d like our Swarley back. Ocean keeps asking about him.”

“That’s what I’m calling about. He …” I fist my hand at my mouth and swallow hard. “He ended up with a twisted stomach.”

“GVD? Avery, he has GVD? Where are you? Tell me he’s okay. Tell me—”

“He’s in surgery.” I wipe a tear that escapes as I stare out the window. “Jake’s friend is a vet. He’s in good hands.”

“Text me the address. We’ll get there as soon as we can. Don’t let him die, Ave.” Her voice breaks.

I choke on a sob and nod, but I can’t speak. So I end the call. Jake’s arms wait for me. What would I do without him?

Hours pass and we shift in a hundred different directions, fighting the stiff waiting room chairs. On a long sigh, I turn toward Jake with his head resting in his hands, hunched over with his elbows planted on his knees.

“I’m sorry,” he says with complete defeat. “I should have taken you and Swarley straight home.”

Straight home.

Would that have meant a few long days of driving in awkward silence and a semi-amicable goodbye. Probably a good riddance on his part. Straight home wouldn’t have given us a chance to … what? Fall in love?

I inwardly laugh. Are we in love?

I know my answer, but I don’t trust it because I don’t trust myself. My life has been filled with terrible choices, chronic grief, and debilitating envy that everyone around me has found happiness, a meaningful life, and someone to share it with them.

Is Swarley suffering because I only thought about myself?

Yes.

“It’s not your fault. It’s mine.” My fingers caress his hair.

He looks up with craters of pain lining his forehead.

“It’s nobody’s fault.” We turn toward Megan’s voice. She unties her surgical gown. “GVD is not fully understood. There are precautions you can take to lessen the chances of it happening, but some dogs have it happen despite all cautionary measures. Don’t blame yourselves. The surgery went well, but we’ll need to monitor him closely for a couple days. If he makes it through the night, that’s a good sign.”

More emotions burn my nose and eyes. If he makes it through the night.

“Thank you.” Jake stands and hugs Megan.

I remain idle, suffocating under so much guilt. Maybe … just maybe it’s not really anyone’s fault. But it happened on my watch, and I’m not sure Sydney will see it as simply an unfortunate, unpreventable happenstance.

“Thank you.” I manage to choke out two words and offer Megan another handshake where, once again, my hand shakes on its own.

“You’re welcome. There’s really nothing to do here right now. Why don’t the two of you go back to my house? Grab a shower, make yourselves at home. I’m going to stay here tonight with Swarley.”

“I can’t leave him. My sister is on her way.”

“Is she driving?” Jake asks.

“I … I assume so. They’ll have to take him home, so …”

He slides his arm around my waist. “Then it’s going to be hours before they arrive. Let’s go back to Meg’s. We’ll come back before they get here. And you’ll call if anything changes?”

Megan nods and returns a sad smile. Why is her smile so sad? Is there something she’s not telling us?

“Can I see him before we leave?”

“Sure.” She gestures with her head to follow her. “He’s not awake yet, and he’s hooked up to a monitor, and we’re giving him oxygen, so don’t be alarmed. It’s all normal.”

I see him through a glass window before we get to the door. My feet halt in this quicksand of shock that wants to pull me into the ground and drown me in a reality I’m not ready to accept. “Swarley …” I whisper. “He looks …” I can’t say it.

“Alive. He’s alive.” Megan rests her hand on my shoulder.

He’s not mine. He drives me crazy. He’s made me cry.

I don’t even think he likes me.

Yet …

I’m certain I love him. The idea of losing him makes it hard to breathe.

I turn.

“Ave …” Jake slides his hand along my neck and cups the back of my head, bringing me to my spot. The warmth of his cheek resting on the top of my head hurts so much because … I love them. I love the two males who have been there for me over the past few weeks. And I don’t want to lose either one of them.

“Let him rest. Come with me.”

* * *

Jake drives me to Megan’s house. The truck feels so empty without Swarley in the backseat. Sydney blows up Jake’s phone with a million messages. I reply to every one of them, doing my best to reassure her that Swarley will be fine.

I have no idea if he will be fine. Everyone told me my mom would be fine. She wasn’t fine.

“Ave?”

I glance over at Jake holding my door open. When did we get here? My thoughts are sluggish. I just need things to slow down, except Sydney getting here. I need her right now, but I don’t want her to hurry since I found out she’s driving alone.

Jake unbuckles my seat belt and scoops me up in his arms.

“I can walk.”

“And I can carry you.”

Two of the sturdiest dogs I have ever seen rush to greet us.

“Hey, pups.” Jake hunches down and gives them some love.

“Pups? They don’t look like pups.”

He chuckles. “Odin and Jord are South African Boerboels.”

I squat next to Jake and let them lick my face. Jake raises a single brow.

“I’m not a diva.”

I’m sometimes a diva.

We give them a few seconds of attention before they run off again. I follow Jake to Megan’s kitchen. She has a cozy house with an open-floor plan. It’s painted in shades of white and gray with soft green and gold accents and dog toys are scattered on the tile floor.

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