“I feel awful that I kept them apart for so long,” I said, sipping at my glass of wine and staring down the hallway toward Emma’s room.

“Honey, your life was turned upside down. When tragedies happen and there are children involved, you don’t think, you just act. You do what you think is best—you go into survival mode. And you can’t blame yourself for that.”

“Yeah. But, I feel like I ran away for me, not for Emma. It was just too much for me to handle. Emma probably would’ve been better staying here. She missed it.” My eyes watered over. “And I should’ve visited you and Lincoln. I should’ve called more. I’m so sorry, Kathy.”

She leaned in toward me, resting her elbows against her kneecaps. “Now listen to me, darling. The time right now is 10:42 p.m., and right now, at 10:42 p.m., you stop blaming yourself. Right now is the moment you forgive yourself. Lincoln and I understood. We knew you needed space. Don’t feel as if you owe us an apology, because you don’t.”

I wiped away the few tears that slipped out from my eyes. “Stupid tears.” I laughed, embarrassed.

“You know what makes the tears stop?” she asked.

“What’s that?”

She poured me another big glass of wine. Smart woman.

We stayed up for hours chatting, and the more we drank, the more we laughed. I forgot how warming it felt to laugh. She asked about my mom, and I couldn’t help but wrinkle my nose. “She’s still lost, somehow walking in circles, making the same mistakes with the same types of people. I wonder if there’s a point where people can never be found anymore. I think she’s always going to be this way.”

“You love her?”

“Always. Even when I don’t like her.”

“Then don’t give up on her. Even if you need your space for a while. Love her and believe in her coming around from a distance.”

“How did you get so wise?” I asked. She smiled a wolfish grin and tipped her wine glass toward me, then poured herself another glass. Very smart woman. “Do you think you can watch Emma for me tomorrow? I’m going to go into town and look for some work, maybe see if Matty needs an extra hand or two at the café.”

“How about we keep her for the weekend? It could be great for you to have a few days to yourself. We can even start up our Friday night sleepovers again. Anyway, I don’t think Lincoln is planning on giving her up any time soon.”

“You’d do that for me?”

“We’d do anything for you. Plus, every time I go into the café, Faye says, ‘How’s my best friend? Is my best friend back yet?’ So I’m guessing she’ll want some one-on-one time with you.”

I hadn’t seen Faye since Steven had passed away. Even though we talked almost daily, she understood that I needed the space. I hoped she would understand that now I needed my best friend to make it through this new beginning.

“I know this might be a bad time to ask, but have you thought about getting your business up and running again?” Kathy asked.

Steven and I had started In & Out Design three years before. He handled the exterior of homes while I worked on the interior designs for individuals and businesses. We had a shop right in downtown Meadows Creek, and it was some of the best times of my life, but the truth of the matter was that Steven’s lawn work skills brought in most of the money for our business, along with his business degree. There would be no way for me to run things on my own. Having an interior design degree in Meadows Creek pretty much gave me the opportunity for me to work at a furniture store selling people overpriced recliners or I could go back to my college roots and work in food service.

“I don’t know. Probably not, though. Without Steven it just doesn’t seem possible. I just need to find some steady work and try to let go of that dream.”

“I understand. Don’t be afraid to start dreaming new dreams, though. You were really good at your job, Liz. And it made you happy. You should always hold onto the things that make you most happy.”

After Kathy and Lincoln decided to head home, I fumbled with the locks on my front door that Steven and I were supposed to have changed months before. With a yawn, I headed toward my bedroom and stood in the doorway. The bed was perfectly made, and I hadn’t found the strength to enter the room yet. It seemed almost like a betrayal to crawl into the bed and close my eyes without him beside me.

One breath.

One step.

I walked in and went to the closet, opening it wide. All of Steven’s clothes hung on the hangers, and my fingers brushed against them before I started shaking. Taking all of the clothes off the hangers, I tossed them on the ground, tears burning the back of my eyes. I opened his drawers and pulled out the rest of his items. Jeans, T-shirts, workout clothes, boxers. Every single article of clothing Steven owned found its way to the ground.

I lay in the pile, rolling through his slight scent, which I pretended was still there. I whispered his name, as if he could hear me, and I hugged the thought of him kissing me and holding me in his arms. The tears of my pained heart released on the sleeve of Steven’s favorite T-shirt, and I fell more and more into my sorrow. My cries were wild and thick with ache, like a creature in indescribable pain. Everything hurt. Everything was broken. As the minutes went by, I grew more and more exhausted from my own feelings. The profound tranquility of my dreadful seclusion took me away into a deep sleep.

When I opened my eyes, it was still dark outside. A beautiful little girl and her Bubba were lying beside me, with a tiny part of her blanket resting over her body, and the rest covering me. Every time a moment like this one appeared, I felt a little like my mother. I remembered taking care of her when I should’ve been a child myself. It wasn’t fair for Emma. She needs me. I snuggled in closer to her, kissed her forehead, and promised myself I wouldn’t fall apart anymore.