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It sounded lonely and empty. At one time it’d sounded relaxing and warm.

He’d never so looked forward to fall. The cooling temperatures had brought back the lush green Pacific Northwest colors after the long, dry summer. He even loved the sight of the fluorescent-colored thin jackets the runners wore along with their gloves and knit hats. He’d hauled in a big load of firewood and stacked it in his utility shed, excited to use their woodstove in the evenings. Wine, a fire, and his soon-to-be wife.

My wife. He squeezed her hand and she glanced at him and smiled, her eyes lighting up in the dim evening glow. He’d left the wedding plans up to her. She occasionally asked him for an opinion, but he’d told her to let him know what time to show up and what to wear. Cheryl had mentioned Ava was struggling to make decisions, but he figured that was normal for a bride. She’d have one wedding in her life; this was it for the both of them.

At least for him. She could do whatever she wanted once he was dead.

He was going to die first; he’d made her promise.

She’d looked at him as if he were crazy, but agreed. He’d suspected she thought he was simply making a joke, but he’d been deadly serious. He didn’t want to rebuild a life without her; he was done starting over.

He followed her up the deck stairs, and she pulled out her phone to call the therapist.

“Oh!” She halted before entering the house. “An email from Jayne.” She frowned. “That’s two this week. That’s unusual.”

Mason peered over her shoulder as she opened the email. It started with an explanation from Jayne’s therapist that she was sending the extra email from Jayne because she thought it was beautifully written and showed a great improvement in Jayne’s state of mind.

“Oh, brother,” Ava muttered. She squared her shoulders as she scrolled down to the body of the email.

Mason wondered if Jayne had snowed the entire staff at the recovery center. He knew as well as Ava that someone like Jayne didn’t make “great improvements” this rapidly. What Jayne did was adapt to situations and figure out how to use people to get what she wanted. Didn’t her therapists see that?

Dear Ava,

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sitting here in my room and I’m overwhelmed by the decades of hell I’ve dragged you through. I see it so distinctly now. You were always the stable and good one, while I ran wild and tried to stir up everyone around me. My brain and body craved both physical and mental stimulation, and it felt good when the people around me were upset. It gave me a rush of energy that I could make that happen. I understand now that I was sick. It’s no excuse. I should have known what I was doing was wrong. Actually I did know it was wrong! I just didn’t care to stop it. It felt too good. It gave me something I needed.

How clear everything looks today. It scares me that I might not see it tomorrow. I know it’s the medications that free my brain, take away the need for the constant stimulation. It scares me that my future is reliant on a pill bottle. What if they stop working? What if my body compensates for the chemicals and I go back to the way I was? Sometimes the future is scarier than my past.

Mason snorted. He’d seen what Jayne had done in the past to Ava. It was amazing that Ava wasn’t in a nuthouse.

Sheer force of will had kept Ava’s head above water.

I’m not asking you to forgive me. I realize that’s a huge step. All I want you to know is that I can see it now. I see it all.

“No, you don’t see it, Jayne,” Ava muttered. “Forgiveness is the easy part. I’ve had to forgive you over and over because if I don’t then I can’t move on with my life.”

I won’t hurt you again.



Mason read it again, searching for the subtext that Ava had taught him to look for. “Is she going to try suicide again?” he asked bluntly. “Because that’s the only way I know of that she won’t hurt you again.”

“I don’t think so,” Ava said. “That last line is a bit dramatic but not in the usual Jayne way. I’m trying to figure out what’s happened that makes her feel the need to apologize.”

“Has she ever said anything like this to you before?”

Ava was quiet for a few moments. “Not exactly. Usually this sort of thing would spill out of her when she was drunk and regretting something she’d done. I will say her ability to experience regret has diminished over the years. In high school she used to have huge bawling sessions where she moaned about the things she’d done and beg me to forgive her. Looking back, I suspect it was her way of reliving the event and reiterating that she’d managed to rip out a piece of my heart.”

Ava’s matter-of-fact tone told him she’d cut off her emotions to analyze the email. She’d developed the habit of learning from her sister’s behavior instead of being engulfed by it. He hated that Jayne still pushed her into that mind-set.

“I suspect you’re right,” he admitted. “The therapist seems to think this is a big step. You don’t agree?”

“No, not at all.” She gave him a shaky smile. “Jayne will never recover. She will always be searching for the next way to exploit the people closest to her. I think she likes the praise this letter must have earned her from her doctors.”

From any other person’s mouth, those words would have made Mason raise an eyebrow, believing they were too pessimistic. But over the last ten months, he’d learned that Ava knew exactly what she was talking about when it came to her sister.