“Honey, what happened with the baby?” She interrupts my happy memories with a dreadful one. My stomach drops and I squeeze my fists together. “Please. Just talk about it. It’ll help.”

The first time I looked at this little white stick with its two pink lines, I cried my eyes out. I cried out of sadness, frustration, humiliation, and shock. I was scared. I cried because I didn’t think I had anything to offer this child. Now, I gaze at the stick with hope. I can do this. I can love this baby and that’s enough.

I know I need to move out of this house. Being around my dad just isn’t okay anymore. I’ve never actually thought about it in that light before. It’s amazing what even the prospect of being a parent can do for you. Before, my dad’s aggression was just a phase that I needed to wait out. I would bear it. I would graduate and then I would leave Texas.

But now this tiny little plum-sized baby is my number-one priority. Now I realize that I can’t allow my body to be harmed. I need to get out of here and find a safer home for the two of us.

As I pack my bags, I have a fleeting thought of seeing Jace one more time. I wish I could see those sea-blue eyes for just a second longer. In a way, if this baby had been Jaxon’s, at least I could pretend it was part of Jace as well.

Mr. Howard stole that from me.

When he told me that I wouldn’t pass if I didn’t attend his after-school study session, I was confused. I thought I was doing well in his class. When I showed up and I was the only student present, that should have been my first warning. But I was naïve, so I followed him into his storage room to grab the supplies we supposedly needed. I’ll never forget the echo the metal lock made when he slid it into place.

I chase away the bad memories by shoving more clothes into my backpack. One good thing about never really owning much is that I don’t have a lot to carry out of here. I’m hoping that today at work I can talk to Nico about helping me find some place to stay.

“Don’t worry, little plum, I’ll find somewhere safe for us,” I whisper.

I quickly stash my loaded backpack underneath the couch and pull on my t-shirt for work. It’s getting a bit snug and I’m sure people at work have noticed. I’m still in that awkward stage where others are probably wondering if I’m pregnant or just sneaking in a few too many of our famous breadsticks. Well, they’ll all know soon enough.

I grab my purse and step out onto our front porch. My heart lurches when I see my dad coming up the stairs with a death stare focused directly on me.

His eyes flash to my stomach and back to my face, and then return to my stomach for one final perusal. I see the wheels turning and I pray I can just get to work without incident.

“What have you gone and done?” he growls in a low, threatening voice.

“Nothing. I need to get to work,” I quickly say, stepping backward.

“You’re just like your whore of a mother...”

I try to interrupt and tell him I am nothing like her, but he launches forward. His foot rises up and connects with my stomach. I feel the air rush past me, but I’m confused about what exactly is happening. When I feel the hard smack of concrete on my back and the coppery taste of blood in my mouth, my friend, darkness, returns.

Julie wipes away a fleeing tear. She sits in silence for what feels like an eternity. Maybe she’s giving me a chance to accept my words, but I’ve already done that. I can’t let my father hold this over my head anymore.

“Audrey, it was never right for you to be there,” she interrupts my thoughts. “I wish I would have known.” I wave off her concern. There isn’t anything that can be done now; we’ve all made our mistakes.

“I woke up in the hospital two days later, no longer pregnant.”

I shake my head and say, “I haven’t seen my dad since. The boss I worked for let me sleep in the restaurant at night. The day I graduated, I hitchhiked out to California. Although before I left, I did go back and take our dog, Chuck.”

“Hitchhiked!? Audrey, please tell me I just heard you wrong.”

I laugh, thinking about all of the people I met on that trip. “I never told Jace that part.”

“Don’t you ever do that again, young lady,” she scolds while hugging me. “Give Jace time.”

“I feel like I’ve been giving people time my whole life.”

“You know, Jace and Jaxon may be identical but they are nothing alike. Jaxon has always been my child that charges through life. He never thought about the consequences until he was grounded for two months for sinking his dad’s boat to the bottom of the lake, amongst other crimes. Jace, on the other hand, is my thinker. He tries to reason through every scenario before he acts on it. He worries about what others think and he hates to make people upset. This type of situation, an unexpected one, throws him off. These moments don’t show him in his best light. I know that doesn’t excuse his behavior, but just give him some time.”

I stand up to brush off my jeans and she follows. “I have to be at work in about ten minutes.” The moment is awkward and I don’t know what else to say.

Without warning, she hugs me tightly and whispers into my ear. “I know you don’t want to hear apologies, but just know I wish I could go back and change the way things went down. You didn’t deserve anything that was thrown at you, but you are strong and you’ve overcome it all on your own. Be proud of that.”

With a nod, I walk out to the parking lot toward Lane’s SUV. I’ve never actually thought about being proud of myself. I’ve always condemned myself for putting up with my dad’s abuse and my mom’s neglect. I should have done this or I could have done that. At the end of the day, isn’t Julie right though? I came out stronger, so I should be proud.

Work flies by, thankfully. We had a full house all night. There was a game on that all of the customers were intensely watching, although I have no idea which game or even which sport. I moved around in a daze. Tonight, Em should have technically been on shift with me, so while the extra pair of hands would have been helpful, being busy kept my mind occupied.

Now I’m walking down the hallway toward Jace’s apartment door at three in the morning, hoping my textbook is still lying next to his bed. I want to get in and out as quickly as possible. I don’t want to see that giant, comfortable bed, his pictures on the wall, or even that darn pantry.

I called Quinn from work earlier, asking her if she could keep their door unlocked since I would be coming by so late. I turn the knob and enter into the darkened living room. The familiar scent that I once found so comforting is unwelcome. I’ve been able to keep the sadness away but being here is difficult.

I tiptoe down the hallway quietly and open Jace’s door. Fortunately, even in the darkness I can make out my book lying next to his nightstand on the floor, right where I left it. Unfortunately, Jace is lying in his bed as well. He must have come in and passed out quickly. He’s lying on top of his covers, still fully clothed. He has one hand sprawled out above his head and one draped across his chest.

I didn’t even think to look for his car out front. Em told me that he’s been sleeping in a chair in Jax’s room. It’s too dark to see his face, but he must be exhausted if he hasn’t slept in a bed in over a week.

I reach down, grab my book, and turn for his door when a hand grabs me and tugs me down without missing a beat. I gasp at the sudden, unexpected movement. I still can’t see his eyes in the darkness, but I can feel his lips move against mine. For a few seconds, I allow myself this.

The amazing part is touching him, feeling his body close to mine. I run my hands through his hair while his skim slowly up my back. Our lips meet hungrily, as if it has been another four years since they have touched and not a little over a week. He pulls me in tighter and almost desperate.

The painful part is that this feels like a goodbye. A simple parting gift. My heart breaks a little at the idea of saying goodbye to him. I knew this would come though. Jace and I are from two different worlds. I have my penny and my memories, and those should keep me company for at least a little while longer.

I shove away from him before the moment becomes even more agonizing and I clamber out the door. When I escape into the hallway, I lean up against the wall. I will him to come out here and find me. I want him to tell me that he’s not letting me go or that he just needs time until Jaxon wakes up. All of this I would understand, but I need him to tell me. I can’t stand his silence and I can’t assume what he’s thinking, especially when it feels as if his lips just gave me a farewell kiss.

After eight days, Em and I start to closely resemble the walking dead. At first we went home to shower and change, but now we just shower in the restroom here and have Quinn bring us fresh clothes when she visits. They had Jax in a unit where we were only allowed to visit for ten minutes every hour, but later they moved him to a Neuro-ICU. The nurses here have taken pity on us, allowing much longer visits, although we do still get kicked out a couple of hours each day during their “quiet times.”

There isn’t much activity with a coma patient so Em sneaks into Jax’s bed to catch some sleep while the nurses are out of the room. Only one nurse has caught her. She didn’t say anything though when she realized Em wasn’t disturbing his lines or tubes, but she still frowned about it. I, on the other hand, have been sleeping in a chair. I wake up multiple times a night with my head bobbing up and down and a strain in my neck. A few nights ago, I stumbled out of the hospital and before I knew where I was going, I had pulled into Audrey’s parking lot. I held her for as long as I could allow myself to stay and when it became too painful, I snuck back out to return to my chair.

Mom stays at the apartment so she can get a decent rest. There must be something to it because she has definitely been in a much better mood than the rest of us. Tonight, she finally kicked us out and demanded that we not return until we sleep in a real bed and shower for more than ten minutes. It’s a slow, sluggish walk out of the hospital for the two of us. We know we need to go, but wants and needs are two vastly different things.

Em keeps me awake on the drive home, talking about what I think Jaxon would like for her to read to him tomorrow. I want to shout, ‘He’s in a damn coma for God’s sake, he can’t hear you!’ But I’ve already been enough of an as**ole to one girl this week. So I just ignore her for the remainder of the drive.

My feet are heavy as I traipse through the apartment. The second I see my bed, my heart sinks at the thought of the last time I slept here. Audrey was snuggled up with me, and I remember the sound of her contagious laughter as she tried to “stealthily” sneak into my room that night. Jaxon and Em weren’t even home, but she didn’t have to know that. The second her head popped in through the door, she immediately dove under the covers with me. I also remember telling her how I’d never let her go, which is true, I haven’t let her go, but I did f**k this whole situation up.

I should have let her comfort me. Hell, maybe I wouldn’t have made it through this week ten pounds lighter if I had. I definitely wouldn’t feel this homesick. I feel like I’ve lost my home without her and Jaxon. I know Jaxon will make it through this, but will I have Audrey when it’s all said and done?

I quickly realize that my body is only going to function for a couple more seconds. When I hit the pillow, I quickly succumb to my extreme exhaustion and fall into a deep sleep, without removing my shoes or jeans.

I dream about Audrey. I dream about her on the beach, in the back of my car, and at one point, I see her silhouette watching a train fly by. I also dream that she comes into my room in the middle of the night.

When I reach out for her, I magically feel her soft, smooth skin. I’ve missed her sweet face and her body touching mine. In my dream, I pull her on top of me and I don’t even hesitate to touch my lips to hers. She comes willingly and as always with trust. I love this girl with everything I have. I can’t believe she is letting me touch her after everything I’ve done. I’ll always need her touch.

Too soon, she shoves off of my chest and moves away from me. The room is dark but I feel her hesitate right before she scrambles out. The only sound I hear is the click of the door. Dreaming about her only makes me ache more for her.

I want to chase her. Keep her next to me forever. I never should have let my stupid mouth speak before my brain could filter out the foolishness. But my body feels heavy and I slowly sink further into my mattress. I beg and plead for my legs to move, for my body to allow me to chase after her. I want keep her in my dreams all night. Instead, my eyes listlessly close and I crash harder into sleep, leaving only the faint taste of her chapstick on my lips.

A continuous buzzing rattles me out of the deepest sleep I think I’ve ever had. Apparently sleeping upright for days on end can take a harder toll on your body than I thought. I reach out and slap my alarm clock, begging it to leave me be. After all, if my brother can “sleep” for nine days, why can’t I?

I know Dr. Graham said we could easily be looking at a couple of weeks, but for some reason I really thought he would pull out faster than this. All of his scans continuously come back showing signs of improvement, so why isn’t he opening his eyes? I hope he doesn’t think he can just lie there forever, because I won’t have it. Not gonna happen. I need him to wake up.

When the buzzing doesn’t stop, I lift up my heavy head and glare at the device causing my disturbance. The alarm clock is not flashing like it typically would, and it’s then that I realize it’s my cell phone that’s actually going off. Shit, sleeping in the hospital is really messing me up. I reach and grab for the phone and without looking at my caller, I slide my finger across the screen and answer.