I STRUGGLED TO PULL MYSELF OUT OF a nightmare, but it clung to me, pressing me down, leaving me gasping for air. The stinging intake of breath only added fuel to the burn.
Light was behind my eyes. I needed it, and I needed my heavy lids to open. Bright fluorescent lights blinded me. A stark white ceiling stretched across my vision. I blinked against the glare, the confusion, and against the crust that was stuck to my eyes, making them hard to keep open.
I lay still, too afraid to move. Everything hurt too much, but my thoughts were covered in a thick fog, untouchable.
Then Gage’s face cut across my vision. His red-rimed eyes were pools of tears reflecting the pain I felt. He was an instant relief. My next breath came a little easier, a little less painful, knowing that I’d take it with him—that we were together.
“You’re awake.” His hand caressed my face, cold but soft. Barely there. A tear slid down his cheek, rolling onto his lip, trembling in a watery smile.
Focusing on him was easier than focusing on me, on anything else. I could get lost in the depths of his gaze, in the comfort there. I tried to grip his other hand that held mine and flinched at the stiffness in my muscles.
He sat up, hesitating as his eyes darted over me, hand lingering on me “I’m going to get the doctor.”
“No,” I croaked as I squeezed his fingers, but I was drained of strength, physically and mentally. His words forced me to recognize that I was in a hospital. “Don’t leave me,” I was already breathless. And I was scared to think. I was scared of everything beyond this man. I was scared of myself. I didn’t want to be left alone. Not now. Not here. Not ever.
He dropped his forehead to mine, hand slipping around my neck, holding me close. His lips brushed the skin on my face, wet and warm, but whisper soft, like his words. “I won’t. I’m here now. And I’m not going anywhere.”
He smelled like home and felt like safety. He was barely touching me, putting no pressure on my body, but he surrounded me, and the wave of his presence washed away some of my pain and all of my fears.
“I’m sorry. I won’t leave you alone. I’m so sorry.” His lips sought mine, breathing into them, and I wanted to latch on.
Oh, how I wanted to latch onto him and feel nothing but the sweetness of our kiss. But his words started a snowball of memories. Starting with him pushing me into the car, picking up momentum as I recalled Rusnak being out and their confrontation. But it turned to an avalanche with the memory of the car accident, and our moment collapsed with the impact. It buried me under a reality too deep to save, with such a crushing force that I was convinced it killed the last happy feeling I would ever have. That we would ever have.
“Stop.” I turned my head away, but he had me gripped in his hands. I closed my eyes, unable to look at his face, not wanting to see his broken tears shining on his skin, the pain shadowing his eyes. I was carrying too much of my own to take on his.
“Stop.” I repeated, with more air, but still not enough force. I couldn’t, not as tears welled in my throat, making it even harder to speak.
His lips stopped moving, but he stayed pressed to my forehead. “I’m so sorry,” his voice cracked with the emotion filling his words, weighing on them.
“No.” I shook my head, knocking his lips off me. “No. I don’t want that,” my throat was so raw my voice sounded foreign, low and raspy.
He removed himself from me, little by little, like a resigned sigh. His fingers unrolled from my neck, and then his head slipped away. Each bit of his skin leaving mine left a cold chill in its wake. The imprint of him was still around me. But the shadow of a feeling left me empty.
“Sal? How is he?” My head throbbed with questions I couldn’t ask.
“He died in the accident, broke his neck,” His voice was so low, but it sliced me, draining my hope.
“What about—” The corner of my eyes burned as tears tried to escape, but I met his eyes, direct. “Tell me.”
And I didn’t have to say the words I couldn’t form. He knew what I was asking. I knew he knew. I could see the fear cross his face, the lines deeper than ever before as he dropped his head. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from him, his dark hair shaking as he shook his head. But it didn’t make sense.
Even when his hands caught mine, holding them in his, and he looked back up with blood shot eyes, I still couldn’t accept his answer. That wasn’t an answer. It couldn’t be.
“No.” I pulled my hands back from his. “Go get the doctor.”
I listened to everything the doctor said like I was sleep walking, like it wasn’t really me it was happening too. I had been in an accident. Broken rib. Punctured lung. Bruised kidney. A few other minor bruises and cuts. I felt all of that. My raw throat was from the breathing tube they gave me when I arrived. But the thing I couldn’t acknowledge, I was no longer pregnant. I had miscarried before the ambulance brought me in.
I had to stay in the hospital for a week or two, depending on how I healed.
I nodded at everything said like I understood. I did. I understood. I understood everything the doctor said. I just didn’t understand how Gage could hover there by my side. How he could stand to look at me. I couldn’t stand to look at him.
I couldn’t stand to look at anything.
The doctor slipped out of the room as a nurse came in and checked all my vitals. Blood pressure, temperature, fix the IV, give medicine.
My thoughts were building, becoming too big to block away. I wanted to scream and shatter. But couldn’t when every movement hurt. All I could do was close my eyes and block out the world. Block out everything. That’s all I wanted to do. But first, I waited for the nurse to leave, to see what Gage would do. What he would dare to do now.
He was in a chair beside my bed, and he lifted his head from his hands the moment the nurse closed the door. I could feel his movements even if I didn’t dare look at him.
His stare slithered into the cracks of my barrier, and each movement he made to get closer to me added to the pressure.
He rose to his feet, and my lips trembled.
He stepped to the edge of my bed, and I took a shaky breath.
He lowered himself to sit beside me, and I closed my eyes as pain squeezed my heart.
When his hand touched my shoulder, I broke into a flood of tears. But I couldn’t release the grief I needed to. It hurt too much. Physically and mentally.
And Gage couldn’t take that away. He only made it worse.
I pushed his hand away.
“Regan, I am so sorry. I failed you. I failed us. I failed—”
“Stop.” I couldn’t let him say it. “Stop. Stop. Stop.” I closed my eyes and shook my head, regardless of my body’s protest to the movement. “Don’t talk to me. Don’t touch me. Just get away. Leave me alone.”
“No.” He grabbed my hand again, but my tears didn’t leave any energy for me to fight him off. “I’m not leaving. We can get through this together.”
I couldn’t keep up the struggle, and he pressed a little further with each passing second, with each unbearable tear.
Before I knew it, he was leaning over me, his body sheltering me, his tears pressing into my neck as his hands stroked my hair. But none of it was comforting anymore, it all made me sick. Everything made me sick. I deserved to be sick though. I deserved so much worse.
Eventually exhaustion pulled me down and I submitted to the haunting darkness that was better than my devastating reality.
Gage was still sitting there, half asleep in the reclining chair in the hospital. He had stayed the night, disappearing some during the day but never for long. He looked like hell, red eyed and unshaved. I don’t know when he slept; he was always awake when I looked towards him. But I refused to speak. I refused to do anything, stuck in a deep pit with no light in sight. I only let him stay because he deserved to be in it too. But he wasn’t, not really, that was clear every time he got up and walked out of the hospital.
I had been up to walk twice, but only with support and not very far.
A nurse walked in with a vase of purple and yellow flowers, and Gage popped up out of his seat, grabbing them from her before she could give them to me.
I was use to this routine, it was the same as the last four flowers that now spotted the room, sunflowers from Leo and Kendall, an orchid from Gage’s mom, wildflowers from Dexter and Leona, and carnations from the boxing team.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, dismissing the girl as he scanned the arrangement. This bouquet was bigger than the rest, and it took a moment before he found and plucked the card from between flowers. His entire demeanor turned to ice, hard and cold, as he read the note. Then he walked out of the room without looking towards me.
I swept my feet off the bed, taking in a breath as I braced myself for the pain of rising. Every little movement affected my healing ribs and lung like a jolt of electricity. Every movement. But I was done with his silence and his control, so I pushed through the stabbing pain.
I’d only made it a few steps when he walked back in. His lines of anger changed to surprise as he saw me. “Wait.” He stepped close to me, arm gripping my elbow. “You should have waited for me, I know you’ve got to be in pain.”
“Get off.” I pulled away, gritting my teeth to keep from flinching at the action. “You don’t listen to me. You don’t change. You keep thinking you can just decide everything. Well you can’t. You can’t, and I’m not going to let you anymore.”
His breathing picked up, but he stayed silent, eyes wide as he kept his hands raised, hovering by me like I might tip.
“I’m done waiting for you.”
Our eyes were locked on one another, our argument pulling between our gaze. A tug of war I refused to loose.
“I’m done.” He still only stared back as a response. “Do you hear me? I’m done.” My muscles ached to hit him, to lash out, to release this anger that was consuming and poisoning me—so much anger covering a well of sadness.
“Don’t.” I must have lifted my fists because he gripped my wrists when he spoke, “Get back in bed and we’ll talk.” He nodded over my shoulder to the bed.
I didn’t want to listen to him. I didn’t want to give him control. But my body shook and sweat beads broke out on my skin with the effort of standing. I thought about sitting in a chair, but knew I wouldn’t last there either.
“What did you do with the flowers?” I stepped back to the bed and lowered myself down to sitting.
“I threw them out,” his response was flat, and he crossed his arms, watching me.
When I narrowed my eyes at him but stayed seated, he stepped forward and adjusted the pillows behind me. “Lay back. You need rest to heal. This is serious.”
I hated that I was going along with him, leaning back on the support of pillows he made. “I know it’s serious. I’m the one here in pain, not you.”
He closed his eyes, inhaling.
“Talk,” I demanded, wishing I really had that power.
His eyes popped open, crystal blue and intense on mine. “Those flowers were from Rusnak.”
I hissed against the pain as I flinched.
He took a step closer but stopped short when I shot him a look.
“What did it say?”
He shook his head and sat on the edge of the bed.
“To get well and keep safe.”
“Go get the card.”
His head whipped to meet mine. “What?”
“Go. Get. The. Card. I want to see exactly what it says.”
“Jesus, why? I just told you what it says.” His eyebrows creased and he leaned away from me.
“You like to leave a lot out,” I responded quick, matter of fact.
Our gaze filled with tension and then he snapped it, getting up and walking out.
He came back in a second later, dropping the slip on my lap. “There. See for yourself.”
The message was typed onto the little tile card.
Get well soon. Keep safe. A.R.
“I think it’s time you tell me what happened in that room.” His hand gripped my knee like he was trying to be supportive, but his hard tone gave away his anger.
Pulling my eyes from the card, I looked up to him and shook my head. “I went there to talk to you. I tried calling you first, but you didn’t answer and I had to talk to you. Anthony stopped me again.” I paused as his grip tightened on my leg. “He said, things were about to happen and it was my last chance to talk.”
“Then you walked right into Anatoli.”
“He followed me into that room. Ian told me to wait there for you. I didn’t know he was even out of prison, you never told me.”
“No. I didn’t know until that night. It was all kept quiet. The review of his file, some evidence gone missing, they found illegal procedures leading to his arrest.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. People pulled strings and he got out without warning. He showed up without warning, too.”
“Then why did you go off on me? You should have known I didn’t know, that I didn’t show up for him. But you kicked me out and put me in that car.” I choked on the rest of the words, unable to face that part of the night.
He looked away, nodding slowly. “I will regret that forever.” He turned back to me, gripping my hands. “Please try and understand, I thought the club was dangerous for you. I thought being near me at that moment was the most dangerous thing for you. I didn’t realize what was going to happen.”
I closed my eyes, and his thumbs slid under them, wiping away my tears.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do was keep you safe.” His breath felt cool against my wet cheek, but the heat of him warmed me up.
I was shaking, conflicted and in pain, tears rolling down my face and neck. Wanting to let him in, to let him take away my pain, but knowing he couldn’t.
“You can’t keep me safe. Not like this. Not with the things you do. Not by keeping secrets.”
“I’m sorry. I know.”
“No, you don’t know.” I cut off his apology, heart crumbling. “I always thought I felt safest with you, but I realize now, you’re the reason I was scared to begin with. These people. I shouldn’t need to be kept safe. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be in this anymore. I never really could, but I wanted you so bad I let myself believe it.”
“You’ve been through a lot. More than anyone should.” He bowed his head and then looked back up. “But we made it through worse, we can get through this.”
“Worse? No. This is the worst.” I wanted to yell. I tried to yell, but the air stung in my chest and it came out in broken sobs.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” His arm came around me. “I just meant, together we can do this. We need each other. Please baby, I need you too. I’m hurting too.”
“Get out.” I pulled away from him. “Leave me alone. I can’t be around you.” I pushed on him, and he hopped up, out of my reach.
“Calm down, you’re going to hurt yourself.” He patted the air, trying to calm me from a safe distance.
“I don’t care. I just want you gone.” Every time I looked at him, I experienced the loss all over again. And I knew it wasn’t really his fault. It was mine. It was what I let myself become when I was with him.
“You don’t mean that.”
“Listen to me. You being here hurts me. I can’t take it. Get out. Please. Please.” I covered my face with my hands, sobbing. Painful ragged breaths tore me apart. I let my despair come to the surface. I wanted to be alone. I needed to be alone,
And at some point when I looked up, I was alone.