“Christ, what’s he done now?” he barked.

“No, nothing…he was in a car accident. I’m at the hospital. I slept here last night with his parents.”

“You weren’t in the car with him, were you?”

“No. I was at his parents’ house when it happened.”

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. “Is he okay?”

“I – I don’t know yet.” My voice broke and I chocked on my words, tears freely streaming down both cheek. It was the first time I’d cried since I’d found out about the accident. I’d held it together in front of his parents and the parade of doctors and nurses, but somehow the comforting familiar sound of Knox’s deep voice sent me over the edge.

Knox waited while I sobbed, fighting for breath, never once rushing me. “He was banged up pretty bad, but they’ve repaired his lung and his leg, so as long as the concussion didn’t do any damage, he should be okay.”

“Breathe for me, angel. It’ll be okay.”

I drew a deep breath, struggling to regain my composure. The busy nurses and hospital staff shuffling past paid me little attention. Apparently a girl crying uncontrollably in the hallway was a normal occurrence. I forced myself to maintain my hard-won sense of self-control, focusing on the sound of Knox’s steady breaths to calm me.

“I’m sorry….” I whispered.

“Don’t apologize. Are you all right?”

“I think so. I just hate being back in this hospital, and I hate feeling so helpless. I mean, this is Bri…we’ve been inseparable since first grade.”

“Hang in there, okay?”

I nodded and then smiled, realizing he couldn’t see me. “I’ll try.”

“So I know it’s the wrong time to ask, but the guys miss you. Any idea when you’ll be coming back?”

“No clue. I’ve taken a leave from work. I want to be here for Brian, ya know?” I had requested one because I wasn’t sure how long all of this would take, and now with the accident, I was even less certain.

“Understood.”

Was that sadness in his voice? “He was there for me when, you know, so I should be here for him and his parents.”

“Of course. I get it, McKenna. You guys have a past and he’s been in an accident. It makes sense you’d want to be by his side.”

“Yeah.” I shuffled my feet, trying to think of something else to say. I wasn’t done hearing his voice.

“Merry Christmas, angel,” he whispered.

I’d forgotten that was the reason I’d called in the first place. “Merry Christmas,” I whispered back. “What are you guys up to today?”

“Nikki and the baby came over for a little bit. Tucker had gotten Bailee a gift. And now we’re getting ready to head out. We’re actually going to the soup kitchen to volunteer. We’re cooking Christmas dinner for those with nowhere else to go today.”

My throat felt tight again. “Knox…that’s amazing.”

“Yeah, well, there’s this certain girl who sort of changed my way of thinking about things. Jax complained a little bit, but I think it’ll be really good for the guys.”

“I’m proud of you.” I had to physically force myself not to say I love you. I loved him with my whole heart, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being so vulnerable and hearing silence again. Little by little he was changing and growing into the man I always knew he could be. “I guess I should go. Brian’s mom is waiting on me.”

“Take care of yourself, McKenna.”

“Bye, Knox.”

I hung up the phone and cried like a baby.

When I’d finally composed myself, I ventured downstairs to the hospital cafeteria and got the cup of coffee I’d promised Patty. When I returned to Brian’s room I found Patty sitting in the arm chair beside the bed, but Dave was gone.

“He went home to get a change of clothes for us. He’ll be back in a little bit and you can borrow the car if you want to go home to shower or change,” she informed me.

“Okay, thanks.” A shower sounded heavenly, but I didn’t want to leave on the chance that Brian woke up.

Patty hung her head in her hands, her expression pure agony. “I just keep thinking what if I hadn’t sent him out, I knew the roads were icy…all over a carton of eggnog….” Her voice broke as she sobbed into her hands.

“Patty….” I crossed the room and stood beside her, placing one hand on her shoulder. “This isn’t your fault. Accidents happen.” In that moment, my clarity couldn’t have been more apparent if I’d been struck by lightning. Seeing Patty’s anguish and guilt made me feel so foolish for holding onto my own guilt for all these years. My parents’ accident wasn’t my fault. What I’d said to her was true. Accidents happened. They happened to good people and sometimes no one was to blame. Though I supposed that wasn’t entirely true. In my parents’ case. The drunk driver who’d taken their lives was very much to blame. “Shh, it’s gonna be okay. Brian’s gonna pull through.” I continued rubbing her back, soothing her as best as could, but inside, my thoughts were swirling. My realization changed everything. I felt freer and more aware in an instant – more grown up. Little by little, I felt the dark shame I stored inside me slipping away.

My adolescent mind at seventeen wasn’t mature enough to handle their deaths. I’d needed someone to blame – and I’d punished myself. But the twenty-one year old me was seeing things clearly for the first time and the results were astounding. Despite the horrible circumstances of the moment, I felt more in control than ever. We would all be okay. Once Brian was healthy, I would go back to Chicago and try to fix things with Knox. We were grown up enough to have a conversation about the scary L word. He either loved me and wanted to be with me, or he didn’t. And I would have to accept his decision and move forward with my life once and for all.

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