Authors: Stephanie Fournet
© Copyright Stephanie Fournet 2015
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. The characters (except where permitted) and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
ISBN 13: 9781503223394
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014921778
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
North Charleston South Carolina
For John and Hannah
You both inspire me anew every day.
Table of Contents
orinne Granger felt about 100 years old.
It didn’t matter that she had only been alive for two and a half decades; the last two and a half months had made her an old woman.
She taped up the last box of Michael’s clothes—the ones she could bear to part with—and carried it out to the front porch. Mr. Roush, Michael’s father, would pick them up in an hour and take them to Goodwill. He and Mrs. Roush had offered to help her pack up everything, but Corinne had refused. She really didn’t want anyone inside the house. Before this morning, she hadn’t gotten out of her pajamas in two days, and the two-bedroom rent house that she and Michael had shared for the last year and a half was a wasteland of unwashed dishes and empty take-out boxes.
Of course, the only reason they
empty and not yet attracting vermin was because of Buck. Michael’s three-year-old black lab saw to it no morsel of pizza or drop of soy sauce remained on Corinne’s dishes or delivery containers.
Buck followed her out to the front porch and sniffed the stack of boxes. He gave a short whine, and Corinne reached down automatically and caressed his left ear, rubbing the warm flap between her thumb and fingers. It was a gesture Michael used to do, and now she did it countless times a day—almost without noticing.
Corinne looked at the dog’s soft, glossy head and allowed herself a sad smile. Without him, she might not even get out of bed on some days, but Buck—at the very least—had to be fed, and he had to be let out. The lab often stood expectantly by the coat rack near the front door where Michael kept his leash, but Corinne hadn’t walked him since the last time Michael asked her to—three days before he died. And that was eight weeks ago.
The memory of Michael in the hospital bed flashed before her mind, and she closed her eyes and scrubbed them with her knuckles until she saw stars behind her lids.
“It’s cold,” she told Buck. “Let’s go back inside.”
He followed her in, as she knew he would, staying right at her hip. She closed the door behind them, looked around the small living room, and sighed. The place was a disaster. A disgusting disaster.
Perhaps she could pick up the trash. She bent down and collected a pizza box, a China One bag, and some soiled napkins. Corinne’s back and hamstrings protested with the ache that had become part of her body’s essence. She carried these items to the kitchen where she faced an overflowing trash can that smelled faintly sour. When had she last emptied it?
Her shoulders slumped at the prospect. That would have to wait. She waded back to the living room, found the remote in the couch cushions, and flopped down. Buck scooted in between her and the coffee table and leaned against her legs as she turned on the TV.
The DVR was full of shows she and Michael watched together.
Elementary. Agents of Shield.
The Daily Show.
Corinne bit her lip against its trembling and found the Food Network instead.
Giada de Laurentiis was making pancetta and cinnamon waffles in her bright kitchen, explaining in her soothing way how the warmth of fresh ground cinnamon made all the difference. Corinne sunk back into the couch and gave her mind over. The morning had been emotionally and physically exhausting, and watching the innocuous mixing of batter was like a morphine drip.
In the moments when he wasn’t awake, Corinne had been jealous of Michael’s IV drugs. Why had no one thought to give her some? Was there any worse pain than witnessing the love of your life die a slow and agonizing death? One that was so senseless and unfair?
As Corinne watched Giada pour her velvety batter into the waffle iron, she thought about how the anger had energized her before the end. Her anger had been her strength, making her ready to fight Michael back to health after the accident, ready to drag him out of hell. To push him through months of physical therapy. To help him walk again. To do whatever it took.
She never got the chance.
—the anger that had fueled her converted into a soul-crushing grief so violent and all-consuming, Corinne believed it would have to bring him back. Of course, it didn’t. It simply took her heart with him. And now, she was hollowed out. Shucked clean of her will, of her energy.
Corinne’s eyelids felt heavy as Giada drizzled melted butter onto her golden brown waffles. It was easy to fall asleep. She never stayed asleep for long now, but the feeling of fatigue never left her, so she dozed off all the time.
And sometimes, Michael would be there...
She was in their bed, aware of the morning sun on her face and Michael kissing her ear.
“I’m going to work. I’ll see you tonight, love,” he whispered.
“Mmmmm. Why do you have to leave so early?” she muttered, refusing to open her eyes.
Michael laughed quietly, tickling her ear, and brushed his lips against her temple.
“Because I’m not the artist in this operation. Real job and all.”
“Real jobs are stupid,” she said, reaching for him.
“Yes, terribly silly,” he said, letting her tug him into her arms. His clean, pressed shirt was cool against her neck, and he smelled like pine needles and cocoa. “You’re so beautiful.”
“Be late today,” she tempted.
“Can’t. Meeting.” He pulled away, but gently, and tucked the covers around her again. “Bye, love.”
The sound of the door rattling stirred her, but in the Neverland of her dream it was only Michael leaving for work.
But Michael’s gone,
she reminded herself.
And Corinne opened her eyes. It was always like this. An assault of truth waiting for her each time she awoke. If she could keep sleeping, would she be able to stay with him?
The sound repeated itself, and this time Corinne heard it for what it was: knocking. Michael’s dad.
Buck was already prancing by the door and whimpering with excitement. She pulled herself up from the couch and tried to comb her fingers through her dark hair as she made her way to the door. Her hair felt oily, and with her hands up at her head, she could smell the tang of her armpits.
“Damn you, Michael,” she muttered for the hundredth time and unbolted the door.
Corinne tried to paste on a semblance of a smile as she swung the door open, but the smile caved in when her chin trembled. When she looked into Mr. Roush’s sad eyes, she saw Michael’s, and Corinne had to grip the doorjamb before her knees could give out.
It wasn’t until she forced herself to look away that she saw that Wes Clarkson, Michael’s best friend, stood on her porch as well.
“Hi...” she croaked past the lump in her throat. Both men took her in, and Corinne was keenly aware that she looked as though she could have stepped from a horror show. Mr. Roush’s face registered pity. Corinne thought Wes seemed faintly grossed out.
“Hi, Corinne,” Mr. Roush offered, patting her elbow by way of greeting. Wes said nothing.
“Is this all of it?” Michael’s father asked, gesturing to the stack of boxes by the door. Corinne nodded, not daring to speak if it could be helped.
“Is there anything else you’d like us to take right now?” His voice softened, making him sound even more like Michael. It felt like a longsword had pierced her in the center of her chest and anchored her to the floor.
“No, Mr. Roush,” she whispered, hoping that if they left, she wouldn’t have an audience to watch her collapse.
“Please, Corinne,...it’s Dan,” he reminded her, gently.
“Dan...Right...No, I’m good,” she lied.
“There’s something else,” Wes spoke up, stepping forward. “If you don’t mind...”
Wes picked up the first box in his stupid, hairless Hulk arms, and Corinne remembered Michael frowning the first time she’d called his friend “Maximum Density.”
“What?” she asked, feeling a little irritated that he had come along.
“I was wondering if it would be okay if I took his bike,” Wes said, eyeing her evenly. For a second, Corinne hated him. He didn’t look destroyed. He didn’t even look hobbled like Michael’s father. He looked like he always looked—like a meathead. Glossy faux hawk, such a dark brown it was almost black, gray Under Armor t-shirt clinging to his marbled torso, ever-present black gym shorts. In February.
“What’s the matter? Yours isn’t fast enough?” She spoke softly, trying to make it sound like a joke, but his brown eyes hardened, and Corinne suddenly remembered him weeping at the funeral. She shook her head and took a breath to apologize.
“Actually, it’s not for me,” he answered, raising a brow at her. “There’s a tri guy I know who teaches high school history. His bike is a piece of crap, and I figured Michael would want someone to use his Pinarello, especially—you know—a teacher who’d never be able to afford one.”
Corinne knew she deserved the punch in the stomach that seemed to come with his words. Of course, Michael would want that—something good to come from his death. He might even have chosen to donate the bike to this history teacher while he was still alive.
“It’s in the spare room. I can get it if you load these,” she said, pointing to the boxes. She turned back inside, letting Buck out onto the porch and listening to the men greet the dog as she walked away.
She stopped in the doorway of the spare room and flicked on the overhead light. Corinne hadn’t been in the space since Michael’s office sent someone to collect his laptop more than a month ago. The room held a queen-sized bed for the rare times they’d had overnight guests, but it was also where Michael had kept his desk, his bike, and a weight bench.
The black and red Pinarello Dogma 2 stood in its stand, Michael’s matching helmet on a shelf above, along with finisher’s medals from the MS150, the Rouge Roubaix, and La Vuelta.
Corinne stared at the bike and considered the irony. She’d always been so afraid of Michael wiping out in a race and breaking his neck or being hit by a car on a training ride. She’d never thought to worry about a head-on collision with a drunk driver at 9 p.m. on a Thursday.
She crossed the room and picked up his helmet and was only vaguely surprised when she saw tears splash onto it. Memories erupted in her mind. The time they had camped at Lake Lincoln State Park so Michael could ride in the Mississippi Gran Prix. They’d sat by the fire with the other racers from Lafayette, but instead of trading stories about the road race, Michael had whispered the names of the stars in her ear. He later proved to her that sleeping naked in their two-person bag really was warmer than sleeping with clothes.
He had never tried to hide how much he loved her. He’d told her first—just weeks after they’d been together—and he didn’t rush her to say it back; Michael had already figured out that declarations of any kind did not come naturally to her. But he had opened her. He had filled her. He had loved her more purely, more completely than anyone else. And she would never know that again.
She cradled the helmet to her chest and shook with sobs. Corinne had learned in the last two months that she might be able to keep from crying now and then, but once the dam broke, she was lost. There was no stopping it until she’d wrung herself out. Weeping was a full-body endeavor, a cardio workout that doubled her over and took everything.
Which is why she didn’t hear the front door or the steps in the hallway.
“Aw, crap,” Wes muttered behind her.
Corinne wheeled around to face him, shock and shame checking her sobs. She slashed a sleeve across her eyes and under her nose, instantly outraged at his intrusion.
“What are you doing?” She flung the words at him, wanting to launch the bike helmet at him instead.
Wes threw his hands up with exaggerated innocence. A look of caution in his eyes replaced something else. Was it...
“I just came in to see if you needed help,” he said, eyeing the bike. “I...didn’t mean to....Are you alright?”
Corinne felt her eyes bug before she scowled.
Do I look alright?”
Wes folded his arms across his chest and set his jaw. The muscles in his face signaled his teeth clenching.
“Actually, you look like shit,” he said, blankly.
Corinne startled at the stinging words. Not the truth in them—she knew she must have looked like shit—but the fact that someone would say them to her. Didn’t she deserve to fall apart? What happened to her should be a free pass to be left alone without ridicule, without judgment.
“Well, we all know how important appearances are to you, Mr. Personal Trainer,” she spat. “I wouldn’t want to offend your aesthetic sensibility anymore, so, by all means, get the fucking bike and let yourself out.”
She tore past him, but not before his shoulders sagged and a frown crimped his brow.
“Always a pleasure, Wes,” she said, stepping into her bedroom and slamming the door behind her. Corinne locked it for good measure, tossed the helmet to the floor, and flopped face down on the bed. She expected another onslaught of tears, but her anger at Michael’s best friend seemed to keep them at bay.
“He’s such an asshole, Michael,” she spoke into her pillow. Not for the first time. Just the first time he couldn’t contradict her.