No matter how bad I’ve felt over this last week and a half, today is a million times worse. The dull ache in my chest won’t ease, and every time I think I’ve exhausted all my tears, a fresh new bucket-load falls.
“Are you ready to do this?” Megan asks, her voice barely a whisper.
I place my arm on hers and squeeze as I nod. “Are you?”
“No.” She looks at me with bloodshot eyes. “But we have to, don’t we?”
I swallow the lump in my throat. “Yeah, we do.”
Megan pauses as the doorbell rings, glancing at me.
“I’ll see who it is, and tell them now isn’t a good time,” I say as I head to the door.
I open it and see Tanner standing there—looking like a lost sheep—and the urge to slam it shut again is overwhelming.
“Please, Rach,” he says.
His voice sounds flat, and I look at him. Despite being dressed for work, he hasn’t shaved for a day or two, and his hair looks like it hasn’t seen a comb this morning. Irritatingly, the rugged look would suit him if it weren’t for the dullness in his usually bright eyes.
“What are you doing here?” I sigh, crossing my arms, hoping my face isn’t showing how hard the last ten days have hit me.
“I’m sorry for showing up like this, but I wanted to give you this.” He holds out an envelope to me.
I stare at it but make no effort to reach out and take it. “What is it?”
“It’s an envelope, Rach.”
“I can see that. Why would I want it?”
He lets out a deep breath as his shoulders sag. “Please, just take it. I hope you’ll at least read it before you shred it and use it for Nigel’s litter tray or something.”
I let out a small gasp, a fresh wave of tears burning my eyes as they threaten to fall.
“Rach?” Tanner looks stricken. “I’m so sorry. I never should have shown up here. I should have just posted it. I just wanted to see you. I’m a selfish jerk.”
“It’s not you. For once,” I say as my shoulders shake.
Tanner steps forward and pauses as though waiting for me to stop him. When I don’t, he wraps his strong arms around me. I can smell his familiar scent—spicy cologne mixed with clean skin. I let out a huge breath as I sag against his chest. He holds me tight, kissing my hair. His heart beats a strong, comforting pace against my cheek. I’m tempted to stay here forever and pretend that the last ten days never happened.
Pretend that the last twenty-four hours never happened.
“What’s happened, Rach? Tell me, please?” His voice sounds heavy with emotion at seeing me in such distress. I know he’s not used to it. No-one is. Rachel Jones doesn’t cry. Rachel Jones is made of stone.
“Tanner?” Megan appears behind me.
I pull out of his arms and scrub at my cheeks with the sleeve of my sweatshirt, standing to one side so he can come in. He glances at me, seeking permission silently, and only when I nod does he pass over the threshold and into the house.
“What’s happened, Meg?” His worried eyes dart back and forth between us.
Hearing him call her Meg is another blow to my heart. Realizing how close we all were just days ago, how much he had become a part of my life. But now isn’t the time to think about that.
Today isn’t about us.
Megan walks into the dining room as Tanner and I follow. She stops by the table and stares sadly at the towel-wrapped bundle lying motionless on top.
“Oh, God.” Tanner’s voice breaks as he reaches out a hand and lays it over the fabric. “Nigel.”
“He’d been sleeping more recently, and we just… we just thought it was old age,” Megan mumbles as she cries.
I watch as Tanner pats the towel, hanging his head. “Goodbye, Nigel. You were a good little mate,” he says softly before turning to look at me.
“We gave him his breakfast this morning, and he was laid between us on the sofa. We thought he was asleep. But then, he’d gone. It was peaceful,” I say before my tears start again.
“We were just about to bury him in the garden,” Megan says as I move to the table.
With great care, I lift Nigel’s wrapped body into my arms and cradle him, my fingers stroking the soft cotton towel with tenderness. “We love you so much, Nigel.” I sniff as tears drop onto the fabric.
“Can I help?” Tanner asks, his voice soft.
I look at him, and my feeling of brokenness is reflected in his eyes. I nod, and the three of us head out to the garden where I’ve got a shovel out ready.
“Where?” Tanner asks, not needing to say more. I know what he means.
“Over there, under the tree. He used to like that patch when the sun was shining,” I say as we walk over the grass together.
Tanner picks up the shovel and digs. No one says anything as he creates a deep hole. He gets soil on his suit, but either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. When he’s finished, Megan and I whisper our goodbyes and kiss Nigel through the towels one last time before I kneel and gently lower him into the earth.
“Goodbye, Nigel,” I whisper as we fill the hole with soil and pat it down.
I put my arm around Megan as she falls to her knees beside me. “I’m just going to sit here for a while,” she says.
I nod in understanding and motion to Tanner to follow me inside. I lead him back towards the front door and open it. He hesitates, but then steps out before turning back to face me.
“Thank you for helping us do that,” I say, not wanting to meet his eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Rach.” His voice is heavy, as though there’s so much more he wants to say.
“I believe you.” I force myself to raise my eyes to meet his. He stares back. He looks hopeful, but I need to be honest with him. I take a deep breath. “Tanner. I know you had your reasons for not telling me. But you lied to me. How can I ever trust you again?”
He opens his mouth.
“Wait, let me finish.” I watch his lips come back together; his beautiful mouth stills as he listens. The number of times I’ve kissed those lips, laughed with those lips, shared moments, and smiles. It’s painful to look at them, so I shift my eyes back up to his. But that’s just as bad, if not worse. I’ve looked into those eyes so many times and felt things I’ve never felt for anyone before. Things I never allowed myself to feel because I knew I never wanted to be vulnerable to the heartache that follows. Tanner opened a part of my heart I thought was sealed shut forever. Now it’s closed again, but this time it’s shattered inside.
I scratch at the sudden itch on my wrist as I begin again. “All the shit that’s happened to me, this is the worst deceit. When I found out that our moms knew each other, I felt—” I tilt my head back and search for the right words. “I felt like I belonged again. Meeting your mom and hearing her stories and memories… it’s made me feel my mom around me. It’s helped me know who she was.” My voice breaks as tears flow down my cheeks.
Tanner reaches out to me, but I step backward, and he drops his arms to his sides, his eyes shining as he looks at me. He looks distraught and as angry as I am at him; I hate seeing him like this.
“Now that you’ve lied to me, I can’t trust you. I can’t see you anymore, and that means I’ve not only lost you, but I’ve lost your mom. The only connection to my mom I’ve ever had. It’s like losing her all over again. Only this time, I’ve got the memories that make it more painful.”
“Rachel, I never knew about our moms, I swear.” Tanner’s voice is breaking as he pinches the bridge of his nose and draws in a shaky breath.
“I know you didn’t. But it doesn’t change the way I feel. I can’t forget.”
His haunted eyes look up to me, searching mine wildly. “Please, Rachel… I love you.”
I gasp and take another step back. I suspected it; I even thought he was going to say it to me that night. I hoped he was going to say it. But now? Hearing the words, I don’t know how I feel. Incredibly sad that we have both come to this point, I guess. If only I’d been the person I’ve always been. Kept him at a distance, not let feelings grow. We wouldn’t be here now. I wouldn’t have this gut-wrenching pain in my stomach, and Tanner wouldn’t have his face screwed up with tears coursing down his cheeks.
I take another deep breath. I know once I say this, there’ll be no going back. But I must. What else is there for us? I need to go back to being who I was before. I was stronger, then.
“I’m sorry, Tanner,” I whisper, “but I don’t—” I can’t even get the words out as I see the pain in his eyes.
“Don’t or won’t let yourself admit it?” he chokes out, his voice thick with hurt. “What we have is special, Rach.”
“No, Tanner. What we had… it was a mistake.”
His eyes flash with anger as he looks at me. I hold my breath, not trusting myself. He’s too close. It would be too easy to fall into his arms and say I forgive him, that we can work it out. But I won’t do that. I can’t do that. I can’t trust him not to hurt me. He’s proved he has the power to do it. I need to take that power back.
I can’t ever feel like this again.
“If that’s how you really feel?” He searches my face in a last-ditch attempt to break down the walls that are firmly back in place.
I suck in a deep breath, hoping to steady the shaking which has started in my fingers. I clasp and unclasp my hands before answering.
He holds my gaze long enough that I can tell he’s hoping I will say something else. When I don’t, his shoulders fall, along with any remaining light in his eyes.
“Then I guess this is goodbye, Rachel.”
I nod. “Goodbye, Tanner.”
I watch him walk down the path, get into his car, and drive away.
It’s only after he’s gone that I see the envelope on the table, my name written across the front in his handwriting. I stare at it. Today has been heart-breaking enough. Whatever’s inside can wait.
Today’s tears are for Nigel, not me.