Running toward the east there were more hills than I was used to running. It felt good to push myself harder. Today I needed to be pushed. I ached for that runner’s high and that little bit of euphoria that I could only get from pounding my feet into the pavement. I didn’t know how long I had been running until I passed a bank and the sign read almost nine forty-five.

Crap, I had been running for over an hour and a half. I needed to hustle back if I was going to get home to shower and get ready for work on time. As I started to spin back around, my feet hit some loose gravel on the sidewalk and I went down face first. Luckily, I only scraped my lip across the gravel before my hands finally caught the rest of my face from smashing. Great, now my lip was bleeding and my palms were all scratched up.

It took me just as long to get back to the apartment, if not longer, because I had to keep wiping blood from my face. When I walked in my front door, I was drenched in sweat. Quinn was sitting on the couch with her phone in her hand. When she saw me, she jumped up and ran toward me. She crashed right into me and held me so hard I could barely breathe.

“YOU IDIOT, where have you been?” she yelled.

“I was running and besides, I left you a note on the fridge.”

“Jaxon said he saw you leaving three hours ago, and you NEVER run for more than an hour.”

“I’m sorry, I had a lot on my mind and I went further than I thought. Besides, you and Cole were occupied this morning anyway.” She started giving me a sad look when I interrupted her, “Oh, no you don’t, don’t get upset. I ruined your night together; don’t be sad because you were with your boyfriend.”

“What the hell happened to you?” She gestured toward my fat lip.

“I fell in some loose gravel, I’m sure it’ll look better after I wash off.”

“Shit! Cole and Jax went to look for you, I need to call them,” she said while dialing her phone.

“You guys are so ridiculous.” I walked to the bathroom for a shower and I heard her saying that I had made it home.

I washed my hair and shaved my legs. I mostly just stood under the spray of the water with it turned on as hot as I could stand it. There were still tiny pieces of gravel embedded in my palms that I gently removed. When I got out, I brushed out my hair and scrubbed my teeth, until they felt clean again. My bottom lip was so swollen it looked like I had been punched. When I walked out of the bathroom, Cole looked down the hallway and saw me walking toward my door. He met me halfway.

“Em, why are you scaring the hell out of me lately?”

“Jax is going to freak when he sees your lips.”

“Just don’t tell him about it, I’m sure the swelling will go down soon,” I responded.

I walked into my room and closed the door behind me. Sitting down on the edge of my bed with a towel wrapped around me, I thought about everything that had been going on lately. I felt like a mess. I was usually so in control, now I felt like I didn’t have an ounce of it. I wasn’t surprised when my door flung open and Jaxon walked in. I fell backward onto my bed, looking up at the ceiling.

“Jaxon, I can’t do this right now,” I said, frustrated.

He climbed up onto my bed, and looked down at me. He ran the pad of his thumb over my swollen lip. “Emerson, what happened?”

“I fell. I’m fine, but I’m going to be late for work if I don’t hurry up.” Although my argument was a little weak considering, I wasn’t attempting to move from my position on the bed. Having his gorgeous body leaning over me again had me frozen with desire.

“Please stop trying to catch me,” I said getting up to leave.

He grabbed my hand and squeezed. “I didn’t sleep with her. All I did was take her home. She was pissed, but that’s all that happened.”

“There’s no reason to tell me this—“

“Damn it, Emerson, just stop!” he yelled, “Stop pretending you don’t care. Why won’t you let me in? Why won’t you let me care about you? Because for some maddening reason, I do!”

“I warned you from the beginning. Don’t make me out to be the bad person, here.”

“Emerson, I know we would be great together. You’re scared, and I get that. I swear I won’t get all crazy-serious. Just give us a shot.”

He was starting to break me down the longer I stood here. I needed to leave. “We’re just having fun, Jaxon, that’s it.”

He lowered his head to his hand and pinched the bridge of his nose. I heard him inhale and exhale slowly while silently warring with himself. When he lifted his head to look me in the eyes for a couple of seconds, I didn’t say anything, so he turned around and left my room. I heard Quinn and Cole talking to him before the front door opened and slammed shut. How come every time I wanted to avoid hurting him, all I did was hurt him more?

When I was finished getting dressed, I came back out to the living room to grab my purse and keys. Cole and Quinn were lying on the couch together and Jaxon was gone.

“Don’t look at me like that you two. I’m super happy you finally opened your eyes and now you have each other, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone else.”

Quinn gave me a sympathetic glance and Cole looked like he was dying to say something. “Spit it out, Coley.”

“You could at least explain to him why you are the way you are. He’s crazy about you and I know you are about him.” When I rolled my eyes, he retaliated, “Don’t give me that look, because you’re lying to yourself if you think that’s not true. We’re all here waiting for YOU to open your eyes now, love.” Usually his term of endearment was like a lovable big brother, now it just sounded patronizing.

“I was honest from the very beginning. I DON’T DO RELATIONSHIPS! It’s not something that’s just going to change because some gorgeous boy walks into my life.”

When I turned the doorknob to leave, Quinn sat up and said, “I love you, Emmy.”

It was a rough night at work for me. I wasn’t as flirty and nice to the customers as I typically would be. Even Ed came out and asked me what was wrong and when I told him I was fine, he shrugged his shoulders and went back to his office.

One of the regulars, Joe, came up to the bar to talk to me. “Hey, Em, did your boyfriend knock you around or something; what’s up with the fat lip?”

“No, this was my own stupid fault, I fell,” I said, motioning to my lip.

“Alright, well if you ever need me to kick some jerk’s ass, you just let me know,” he said while holding his fist up like he was in a boxing ring.

Joe was about seventy-five years old and skinnier than my twelve-year-old cousin. But he always kept me company on slow nights at the bar. One time, he told me how his wife had died of cancer about ten years ago. They had been together forty-five years. I’m not sure how he could be so happy when his other half just left him here all alone.

“Hey, Joe, can I ask you a personal question?”

“No question is a personal question for me. Shoot,” he answered back, while I poured him a Sprite, his drink of choice.

“How are you so happy after your wife, your best friend, died? I just don’t think I could come back from something like that. I know I couldn’t be as happy as you are.”

“Didn’t you tell me once that you lost your mom and dad a couple of years ago, kiddo?” he asked.

“And yet, here you are functioning perfectly fine. I’ve seen you with those three boys and that beautiful girl Quinn in here, you’re always so happy when they’re around. Just because someone you loved dies, doesn’t mean that your world ends as well.” When he noticed his reply didn’t seem to help, he took a long sigh and continued, “The first year after Violet died, I felt paralyzed, as if she had frozen time around me when she left. Then I realized I’m still here and I can keep going, or stay in the same spot forever and be unhappy. I decided to keep going and live my life fully, because I would want Violet to do the same thing if the roles had been reversed.”

“It sounds so easy when you say it like that,” I sighed.

“Once you think about it, it is that easy.” He smiled at me.

He patted my hand and walked back to his pool table with his drink in hand. I felt like such a chicken. Here I was afraid just to date someone because the idea of losing him in the future was so painful. I wasn’t completely delusional. I knew that if I allowed it, Jaxon and I could have something great. I’d been shown glimpses of that already. I also knew how easily I could screw it up and he’d be gone, leaving me shattered. Yet, Joe can still be happy after actually losing his wife of forty plus years. Times like these, I craved advice from my mom. Ellie has always made it known that I could come to her for anything, and over the years she has become my mom, in a way. I took out my phone and texted her.

Me: Can I come home for a couple days?

No one has a better step-mom than I do. Ellie has never tried to force me to talk about any of my issues. She was always just there whenever you needed her, anytime of the day or night. Before I left, I asked Ed if it would be all right if I took off the remainder of the week. He took one look at my fat lip and nodded. I almost told him my lip had nothing to do with it, but I decided not to push my luck.

I didn’t even go back to the apartment. I still had a ton of clothes at home that I could change into when I got there.

Me: Quinny, I’m going home for a couple days, probably all week. Enjoy the apartment alone with Cole. xoxo

Quinn: Come get me, I’ll come too.

Me: No, I know you have a test this week, you already told me about it.

Quinn: If you need to go home, I need to be with you.

Me: Ellie will take care of me. It’s nothing serious I just need a refresh.

I got home late that night. Ellie and Charles lived about an hour away from campus. She told me that Charles was away on a business meeting, so she was excited that I decided to come back home and keep her company. Ellie didn’t have to work anymore because Charles made more than enough to support us all. She did have to attend a bunch of fundraisers and special dinners with her husband, so that was almost a full-time job in itself.

It was dark when I walked into the house. I tiptoed up the stairs and peeked into the master bedroom. She was lying in bed and when she saw me peek in, she lifted the covers gesturing for me to climb in. I instantly scooted in next to her while simultaneously kicking off my shoes. I loved coming back here because it was home to me. Ellie had always made me feel completely comfortable.

“It’s good to see you little girl,” she said in a tired voice.

“It’s nice to be back.” I yawned. She tucked me in and I passed out quickly after.

The first couple of days I was there, we lay out by the pool, went shopping, and ate delicious meals downtown. She loved to spoil Quinn and me when we came home. At one point, Jace had started texting me to ask if I was okay. I always smiled at his concerned messages. Quinn would call me every day to ask when I was coming back and even Cole would get on the phone to ask if he could come get me yet. I never heard from Jaxon, but who could blame him. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either after how I’d acted toward him.

By Saturday, I knew I would have to go back to the apartment and school soon. I had skipped classes all week, and if I didn’t want to be dropped by my professors, I needed to make all of my classes for the rest of the semester. I also had a lot of studying to do to make up for this past week. Cole was upset that I had missed their game yesterday, but he called last night to give me the play-by-play. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t want to hear about Jaxon scoring the winning touchdown again.

“Okay, little girl, it’s time to fess up. It’s not that I don’t love the alone time with you, but I know you had classes this past week. Spill the beans,” Ellie said to me out by the pool.

“I’m just a really messed-up person. I don’t know how to handle life like every other normal college student out there,” I sighed.

“I highly doubt that, Emerson.” Ellie had never really gotten on the Em train either.

“Yeah, I am. I made all these rules for myself to keep people at bay. I just wanted to have fun with guys. I didn’t want any of them to actually stick around and become anything serious. I can’t be left behind again like I was with mom and dad. Not only did they both go and die at the same time, but even worse, they were cheating as well.” I’d never, ever, come out and said the word “cheating” when talking about my parents to Ellie.

She sighed, “I wish I would have known all of this, Emerson. I’m supposed to be able to help you go on with your life. Maybe by not forcing you to talk to me more, I enabled you to hold back like this. First of all, we can’t do anything about the fact that they died. Second of all, of course I have always wondered why they were in that car together, but we can’t just assume they were having an affair.”

I started to insert my opinion and tell her there could be no other reason. She interrupted me. “So what if they were. Life can hurt sometimes, but you know what? I wouldn’t have traded a single second I had with your dad. I was happy and he gave me a bigger family than I had before I met him. Don’t hold back your life because of the choices someone else made. Now, quit stalling and tell me about the boy.” She said, while smiling.