CW: Adult Language, Mentions of Grief and Death
Day/Time: Sunday, 7:43 p.m.
Current state of mind: Nostalgic
What are you wearing? Tan shorts and a black lace tank top
What are you listening to? Stars Are on Your Side by Ross Copperman
What are you drinking? Watermelon sangria
Where are you? Patio
Three Years Ago
I’d never been the type of girl who made a big deal out of my birthday. I didn’t turn it into some month-long event—unlike some people I knew. Cough, Ash, cough. But that didn’t mean I hated it. If anything, I loved it—loved spending the day with my family and friends. It was something I looked forward to every year. But not this year. This year, I wasn’t feeling it. This year, I wasn’t in the mood to party it up. This year, I just wanted to crawl back into bed, burrow my head under the covers, and sleep the day away. But I didn’t know why.
My crap mood was a mystery—a faceless, nameless culprit hiding deep within the shadows of my mind. I had a couple of plausible suspects, but nothing concrete. Not really. Maybe it was hormones, or the lack of sleep, or the disastrous run-in I had with my father last night. Or maybe it was a combination of all three. Or maybe…
No. I shook my head. I couldn’t—wouldn’t let my late brother consume my thoughts. I didn’t want to dwell on the sound of his resonant voice or hear the bellow of his infectious laugh in my head. I didn’t want to picture his dimpled, cocksure grin, or see the playful twinkle in his navy-blue eyes whenever he teased me about all the stupid shit I did. I didn’t want to think about him.
Thinking about him hurt—the pain so suffocating that I could barely stand to breathe. And I couldn’t deal with all that agony. I couldn’t handle it. Not today. Today, I needed a reprieve from my grief—needed a break from drowning in the sea composed of my own sorrows. Today, I needed to be happy. I needed to be okay.
Swallowing past the lump forming in my throat, I dipped my feet in the tepid pool water and tipped my head back. The sun’s rays hit my face, heating my skin as I basked in its brilliant UV light. Maybe some vitamin D would cure my birthday blues.
“Hello?” Ash’s voice interrupted my moment of attempted Zen. “Have you even heard a single word I said?”
Shit. I was such an asshole. During my pity party for one, I’d forgotten all about Ash—just tuned her out mid-conversation like the inconsiderate bitch I was. Guess I could add shitty friend to my growing list of problems.
“Sorry.” I winced. “I’m just really tired.”
Lame. You’d think that after a couple of lifetimes that I could come up with a craftier excuse than “tired.” Gods, I needed to get out of my head. I hopped up and slipped my flip-flops on. “Do you want a drink? I need a drink.”
“What is with you today?” Ash asked, eyeing me suspiciously. “You seem… off.”
Off was one way of putting it, but I wasn’t about to confirm her suspicions. I wasn’t in the mood for some heart-to-heart chat about my feelings. I wasn’t about to tell her how empty I felt, or how much I wished Tom was here instead of me. I didn’t want to admit my guilt—didn’t want to admit that I’d failed him in the worst way.
“Nothing,” I retorted, sounding bitchier than I intended. “I just slept like shit, that’s all.”
“Right.” Ash nodded, obviously not buying what I was selling. “If you say so.” She got up and stripped out of her sundress, revealing her white two-piece suit. “I’m gonna go for a swim. Feel free to join me after you finish drowning your sorrows.”
Fucking great. I just pissed off my best friend. Way to go, Riss. You’re on a roll today.
“Have fun,” I mumbled. Spinning on my heel, I cut across the paved pool deck over to the outdoor kitchen where Nick and Ryan were manning the grill. The smell of freshly grilled food wafted through the humid air—my stomach rumbling in protest as I stopped mid-stride.
What the hell was I doing? I couldn’t go over there. If anyone was gonna notice my craptacular mood, it would be Nick. My brother was notoriously observant—there was no misleading him, no hiding or evading the truth. He could read me better than anyone, could see right through my lies. I wasn’t ready for another round of grief counseling. I didn’t deserve his sympathy, and he didn’t deserve to get dragged down my highway of misery.
I raked my fingers through my thick waves, my gaze roaming over the sprawling yard. There were people milling about all over the place. Everyone that I cared about was here. Everyone except Tom.
Suddenly, everything reminded me of him: his favorite patio chair, the soccer ball rolling across the lawn, the nineties rock song blaring from the speakers, the scent of suntan oil and citrus tingeing the salty air. He was everywhere and nowhere.
Fuck. I pressed a palm to my stomach as the memories of birthdays past hit me like a sucker punch to the gut—knocking the wind right out of me. Tears pricked my eyes as I choked back a sob—the pain consuming me, crushing my heart, and shredding my soul.
“How about we get out of here?” Luke’s deep timbre rasped in my ear, his featherlight touch gentle and soothing as he gripped my arm. “We can hit the beach, grab a drink, or just go for a drive. Whatever you like.”
Not trusting myself to speak without breaking down, I nodded, eager to get away from the stifling crowd.
Thirty minutes and two ice creams later, Luke and I found ourselves sitting on a small, secluded beach. It was peaceful, quiet—the perfect escape from all the human tourists who’d flooded our town. We were the only two people there, just relaxing, and watching the sun meld into the horizon—bathing the evening sky in soft shades of pink, lavender, yellow, and blue.
As we indulged in our frozen treats in silence—chocolate chip cookie dough for me, and coffee chip for Luke—I ransacked my brain for words. We’d barely spoken since we left the party. And I knew Luke was giving me space—allowing me the freedom to think and process my grief without pressuring me to talk. He was good like that, and it was one of the many things I adored about him.
He’d saved me from a mortifying meltdown, whisking me away from prying eyes and then treating me to my favorite ice cream without asking for anything in return. I owed him a conversation at the very least, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I had plenty of thoughts, and yet I couldn’t vocalize a single one.
I glanced over at him, my pulse quickening as he licked the last bit of ice cream off his plastic spoon. Gods, he was gorgeous with his impeccably sculpted features, strong jaw shaded in thick stubble and a sensual mouth that looked like it had been made for kissing. His handsome looks combined with his attentiveness and intellect made for the perfect package. I didn’t know how or why he was single—and it was none of my business.
If he wasn’t my brother’s friend—if he wasn’t my friend, then…
Then what? I scoffed to myself. We’d ride off into the sunset together? Get married? Adopt a couple of dogs? Right. Like I stood a chance with him. I was damaged goods—a hollowed out version of myself with so much baggage that I was running out of room to store all my bullshit. No one wanted to deal with my trauma. Not even me.
“You okay?” Luke shifted his gaze, his stunning teal eyes glimmering with concern.
My skin heated, my breath hitching as my heart thumped against my ribcage. I’d just been caught staring at him like some pathetic teenage girl with a crush. Talk about your awkward moments.
Fuck. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t even tell him a simple “thank you,” let alone confirm I was okay. But I wasn’t sure about the latter. Not really. Nothing made sense. My thoughts were scattered—ping-ponging around in my head like tiny pellets of senseless chaos. Gods, I was a mess. “I…”
“You can talk to me, Riss.” Luke set his empty container down onto the flannel blanket. “You know that, right?”
“I know.” I nodded. “It’s just…”
“It’s just what?” Luke asked, his fingers grazing mine. A pleasant shiver coursed up my spine, shooting into my nerve endings, warming my entire body. He placed his hand on mine, sweeping his thumb across my wrist. “It’s okay. You don’t have to talk. We can sit here for as long as you want.”
I didn’t deserve him, I really didn’t. He could’ve left me at the party, let me succumb to all the overwhelming grief and the pain, but he didn’t. I owed him a conversation as much as I owed it to myself. I needed to release the intrusive thoughts, needed to get the proverbial weight off my chest and shoulders, because if I didn’t, I’d be back to suffering all alone. And I didn’t want that. Today had sucked enough.
Here goes nothing—and everything. I blew out a breath, meeting Luke’s dark sea-blue eyes. “It’s just that I don’t know what to say, or where to start,” I blurted. And before Luke had a chance to respond, the words poured from my lips.
I told him everything. Told him about how Tom’s memories had been haunting me throughout the entire day, how every little thing had been a reminder of him. I told him how much I missed him, how much I wanted my brother back, more than fucking anything. I just talked, chattering on about Tom, rambling on about my feelings, and how some days, I wished I could trade places with him. The grief hit me like a derailed freight train, knocking me down and tearing my heart into tiny pieces.
The tears that I had been holding back for so long spilled down my cheeks. My whimpers turned into full-blown sobs. Luke pulled me into his arms and held me, letting me cry on his shoulder. He never told me to stop—never interrupted me or broke his embrace. He just sat there silently, rubbing my back while I bawled into his chest.
When my tears finally stopped, and the debilitating pain eased, I leaned back. Luke’s shirt was soaked with my tears, the white cotton stained black from my mascara. “Shit. I’m sorry.” I grabbed a napkin and started dabbing at his t-shirt.
Luke stopped me, his hand encompassing my wrist. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”
“Will dry.” He brushed my hair away from my face, tucking the unruly waves behind my ears. “How do you feel?”
“Better,” I replied. And that was the truth. My eyes were tired and sore, and I was exhausted from crying, but my mind was clear—the intrusive thoughts and memories gone. A weight had been lifted, and for the first time that day, I felt good. Normal. My birthday blues were gone.
Two hours later
The sun had finally set, a velvety midnight blue sky had replaced the pastel clouds. The in-ground pool was all lit up—the multi-colored disco lights pulsing to their own unique beat, as a modern pop song blared from the speakers. Ryan cannon balled into the deep end, spraying water everywhere. I bit back a laugh as Ash tossed a beach ball at his head.
I plopped down onto one of the lounge chairs and just watched everyone. There was life all around me—the people I cared about the most had showed up just for me. I was a lucky girl—lucky to have family and friends who loved me and supported me without condition. And while today had reminded me of who I’d lost, it also reminded me of who I still had. My brother, my sister, Luke, and all my friends made life worth living, and I would be forever grateful for them all.
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