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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 4

SHE’S THE ONE (OPHELIA)

I’m amazed the house hasn’t changed in all this time.

Yet everything feels so different and that’s even more remarkable.

Sure, it’s the same split-level ranch house where I spent the best and worst years of my childhood.

Same pale-grey siding and cheerful bright blue trim.

Same covered front porch and big back deck.

The familiar overgrown backyard my mother let go wild during her last battle with cancer, only to declare later that she liked it better that way. Mom grew back tough as a weed, so she wasn’t going to cut down her weeds when they grew big and tough, too.

The last time I was here, the house was full of life and sound.

My mother, my little sister, Grant storming in and out whenever he pleased.

Up until that night he told me to run and never come back again.

Tonight, as I unpack and stuff my clothes away in my childhood bedroom, now turned into a guest room dotted with so many of my old things tucked away lovingly in the closet, it hits me.

The house is too still.

And I have no flipping clue where my sister is.

Ros barely said hello before she was gone.

Not a word about our mom, her eyes too bright, her smile too wide, way more interested in whoever she was texting than in saying hello to the big sister who probably feels like a stranger to her, considering I left Redhaven before she was grown.

And Mom… she’s at the medical center on the edge of town.

The only patient in their little three-bed cancer wing.

I haven’t been to see her yet.

need to brace myself to see her like that again.

So for now, it’s just me.

Me and Ethan’s ghost.

He’s not dead.

He’s not.

I’ve repeated that unlikely mantra for what feels like ten lifetimes.

But every time, it sounds more desperate, more draining to believe something I know isn’t true.

I still remember the day I turned on the TV and Redhaven was plastered all over national news. It was even trending on Twitter and half a dozen true crime podcasts.

Rich, weirdo philanthropic family, bad seed, serial murders, the kind of thing that gets crime buffs panting with excitement. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the fall tourists are here hoping to get a glimpse of the Arrendells or dig around the Jacobin farm for more evidence.

Good luck with that.

Sniffing around the Jacobins is a good way to end up limping out of town with your butt full of buckshot.

I doubt there’s any evidence left, anyway.

According to the news, the FBI swept in and took everything over from Redhaven and Raleigh PD, and they’re still in the process of analyzing the DNA evidence to see if they can match them to any missing girls in the last twenty years.

It won’t be easy. All they have left are half-digested bone fragments thanks to the grisly way the victims disappeared.

But I can’t help wondering…

What if some of that DNA evidence holds a clue?

What if it points to my brother?

God. Am I ready for that?

Real closure, however awful?

Celeste and Ethan disappeared the same night.

The rumors were the worst part.

People saying Ethan did something terrible. That he killed her, kidnapped her—salacious small-town gossip that left me cringing every time I heard a whisper, or felt wary eyes on me any time I went out in public.

The other kids shunned me, snickering under their breath.

Murder girl.

Like I was guilty by association when my brother wasn’t guilty of anything at all.

I know he wasn’t.

And now I have a little proof.

Ethan never killed Celeste Graves and we know who did.

Which makes me wonder if the Arrendells killed him.

I’ve always wondered from the little things Grant let slip after the whole thing happened. He’d never been willing to tell me much, always trying to protect me.

But he had told me that Lucas Graves thought Montero Arrendell killed his sister, that Celeste was involved with the rich patriarch somehow. I guess that was supposed to comfort me, back then.

All it did was make me more desperate than ever to escape this bottomless pit of a town.

I stare down inside my empty suitcase.

I packed light because—I don’t even know.

Maybe I’m still treating this like a social visit. Not like my life in Miami is over.

No job, my lease on my apartment is almost up, and I can barely afford the rent anyway.

I have a bad feeling I’ll only be going back to Florida to pack up my things and ship them to Redhaven.

Fine.

That’s fine, I tell myself.

My mother needs me in her darkest hour and that’s more important than anything else.

Sorry, Grant. Guess I broke my promise to stay away forever, you huge jerkwad.

When I pull myself up from dreary thoughts I can’t believe how late it is.

I totally lost track of time unpacking, but my growling stomach reminds me it’s past midnight and I haven’t eaten since I grabbed a burrito from the taco truck next to Mort’s while he looked over my car and told me he wasn’t letting me spend a penny on repairs when it was the rental company’s problem and he’d bill them.

A little hometown hospitality, I guess.

But all I could hear were the whispers any time someone passed by.

Hey, isn’t that…?

Oh my God, it is. Hasn’t she been gone for ten years?

After the—you know. Do you think that’s why she’s back?

Oh, didn’t you hear? Her poor mother…

I grind my teeth as I head downstairs to raid the kitchen.

Yeah, yeah. My poor mother.

Who doesn’t want your pity any more than I do.

I throw together a quick turkey and provolone sandwich from what I can scavenge from the fridge, then wander into the living room to see what’s on the late-night channels. But as I settle in and reach for the remote—

Creak.

The noise is way too loud when it’s just me in the house. The silence of an empty space cracking with the sound of the front porch boards straining.

I tense, swallow, and fight back goose bumps as I crane my head toward the door.

Creak. Creak. Creak.

Deliberate, measured footsteps on the porch. Almost stealthy.

Oh, God.

I hold my breath.

A long shadow stretches under the thin gap beneath the door, the one my mother has been promising to fix with weather stripping for over a decade but never has.

My heart pounds wildly.

Silently, I squirm around until I can reach my phone buried in a cushion, struggling not to make a sound.

The steps stop, but that shadow stays, dark and ominous.

With shaking fingers, I unlock the phone and tap in 9-1, then pause, my thumb perched over the last number.

Creak.

And the shadow retreats, the light sound of those footsteps moving away.

What the actual hell? Did they see me somehow?

Was it a burglar who changed their mind?

I wait another minute, straining to listen for—well, anything.

Someone rattling at the windows, testing the back door locks, but there’s nothing.

With my mouth cotton dry, I slide off the couch and creep to the door. Stretching up on my toes, I peer out the peephole with my phone clutched to my chest.

Still nothing.

No one there.

Not even when I open the door, letting in the moonlight and the chilly night scent.

I stand on the porch, staring across the front yard.

It’s like no one was ever here.

There’s just calm starlight falling over the gabled roofs of Redhaven, bathing the sleepy town in the illusion of peace.

I won’t have any peace until I’m sure, though.

So I keep my phone close and shove my feet into my boots, clomping down into the yard.

A quick circle reveals more nothing.

No one’s been in the backyard, either.

I’d be able to tell when you’d have to stamp down a path through the overgrowth to get anywhere but the worn trail between the back door and the storage shed.

Did I just imagine it? Or did I just have a narrow miss with an actual break-in?

Maybe I’m just being jumpy after all.

Call it stress, being back home, worrying about my mother, about my baby sister, seeing Grant again, unpacking all these frothing memories I’d hermetically sealed.

I’m so tired, and not just physically.

It’s no surprise if my brain keeps conjuring demons coming home to my doorstep.

I turn to let myself back inside, climbing up the back porch steps and—

Another rattle, this time from the shed’s direction.

I freeze, breath hitching, the air cold in my throat until it’s like I swallowed a fist of ice. Poised with one foot on the step above, I listen to the heavy silence.

This is silly.

…it’s probably just raccoons, right?

Possums. Mice. Bats.

Something normal and furry and annoying that goes thump in the night.

But I won’t feel okay until I make sure.

I’ll just check the shed, scare the critters off, and go to bed safe and sound.

With my breath rushing loudly in my ears and sweat icing my temples, I turn slowly and step back into the yard.

Every step down the path feels like an eternity. My fingertips are numb as I switch my phone over to flashlight mode.

Just raccoons, just mice.

And if it’s not, well…

I may be short, but I can kick a dude in the kneecaps—or a little higher, if I really need to.

The years spent lifting orthopedic patients early in my career would turn any girl into a beast.

Only, there’s no sign of motion when I stop in front of the shed. But what’s that?

Light?

Yeah. Just little flickers of light through the windows.

Someone’s in there.

Well, crap.

Crap, crap, shit!

Moving carefully, I peer inside the little window next to the door.

I’m expecting—I don’t know.

A teenage punk. Some creeper, or maybe one of the Jacobins doing whatever it is the Jacobins do when they stalk around the hills at night hunting and making moonshine and God only knows what else.

I’m definitely not expecting a little girl.

She’s small—no more than ten—and she’s rearranged all the old junk in the shed to make a little playhouse.

One that’s probably been there for a long time, considering the books and toys tucked on a shelf, and the nest of blankets and pillows she’s made for herself in there.

The light splashes from her bright-pink phone screen. It’s one of those kiddie things parents give their little ones that can only use certain apps and contact preset numbers.

She’s crying.

The light from the phone’s screen reflects off the bright streaks on her cheeks and shines off her tousled brown curls and soft brown eyes.

I have no idea who she is.

But I can’t ignore a crying little girl, especially not one hiding on my family’s property. So I pull the door open slowly, careful not to spook her.

“Hello?”

Her head jerks up.

“M-Miss Ros?” she gasps—then flinches back, shrinking against the wall. “Oh. Y-you’re not Ros or Miss Angela…”

“No, sweetheart.” I exhale softly.

So she knows my sister. Probably why she felt so comfortable sneaking into the shed.

I slip inside and hunker down, making myself shorter and keeping my distance so she won’t feel cornered.

“I’m Ros’ big sister, Ophelia. I came home to take care of our mom.” I hold my hand out. “What’s your name, hon?”

“N-Nell,” she stammers softly, then bursts into a wail so abrupt it makes me flinch, loud and keening as she flings herself at me.

I catch her with a gasp, rocking back with my arms full of little girl.

“Hey, hey,” I say, patting her back and wrapping my arms around her. “Hey, c’mon, Nell, it’s okay. Everything’s gonna be fine. Why are you in our shed, sweetie? Did you run away from home?”

“I-I wanna go hooome,” she howls, sobbing against my shoulder. “I-I want my Uncle Grant!”

What.

I freeze.

Her uncle… who?

No.

No flipping way.


Guess what?

Way.

It’s almost comical how some things never change in Redhaven.

Like the elder Faircrosses still having the same phone number, despite the fact that they don’t live there anymore. It wasn’t hard to get the relay going when I called to find them already frantic and on the hunt for Nell, only to loop Grant in with a gruff promise he’d be by in a few minutes to pick her up.

I’m so lost.

No idea what’s going on.

But by the time Grant’s patrol car skids into my driveway, I have Nell calmed down at the dining table, sitting with a cup of warm milk and honey.

She’s in her pajamas, her bare feet dirty. I’m just wiping them off with a wet towel when a heavy knock comes at the door.

“That’s Grant, all right.” Standing, I rest my hand on top of the little girl’s head with a smile.

“Oh, no.” She stares down into her milk miserably. “He’s gonna be so mad at me.”

“You think? I bet he’s going to be crazy happy to know you’re safe. Don’t worry, Nell.” I wink at her, tweaking one of her curls. “I’ve been wrangling that big old bear since we were kids. I won’t let him yell at you.”

“You knew Uncle Grant when he was little?”

“I did,” I say. “We used to be best friends.”

Well… that’s fudging the truth a little.

But I do remember those days fondly before Ethan’s disappearance tore our hearts out, back when we were the Three Musketeers.

I’d better let Grant in before he breaks down my door, though.

So I pull away from Nell and pad over to open it.

Grant looks more haggard than I’ve ever seen him.

He’s in his pajama pants with a plain grey t-shirt stretched across his broad chest, his feet bare, his wild waves of dark-brown hair disheveled. Even his silver-shot beard is a mess.

The last time I saw a hint of emotion on that cranky face was when we realized Ethan was missing and not coming back.

That night I’d seen him go through the wringer.

Despair. Grief.

Tonight, it’s too familiar, torn with darkness.

Fear. Worry. And finally, sweet relief.

I have enough sense to step out of the way so he can see Nell before he’s past me and rushing over to the table.

Nelly-girl.” His normally steady rumbling voice cracks ever so slightly as he drops to his knees next to the chair and pulls that tiny girl into his massive arms.

“Uncle Grant!” she sobs, only this time it’s happier as she flings her arms around his neck and buries herself against him. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ran off. Ros wasn’t here and I got scared…”

“Yeah. You have to stop doing that, Nelly-girl,” he rasps out roughly. “When you’re mad at me, you talk to me first. You can yell at me all you want, but you can’t run off in the middle of the night. What if something happens to you before you get to Ros? What if someone steals you off the street?”

“So she does this a lot?” I ask softly, pushing the door shut and padding closer, folding my arms around myself as I watch them.

Grant starts like he just remembered I’m here, looking at me over the top of Nell’s head.

“Yeah. Precocious little scamp. She and Ros have this weird friendship because she’s obsessed with the way everything smells in your ma’s shop. When Nell gets mad at me, she runs away to the shop. Ros usually gives her candy and brings her right home. Can’t say she’s ever run off this late at night before or come here. I just left your ma’s shop when my pa called.”

I smile faintly. “I don’t know where Ros is tonight, so I guess Nell got stuck with me and warm milk. But I think she comes here more than you realize. There’s an entire playroom set up in our storage shed.”

“I don’t know what I would’ve done if she hadn’t. Thank you.” Breathing roughly, Grant buries his face in Nell’s hair, holding her tighter. “Tell Miss Ophelia thank you, Nell.”

“Thank you, Miss Ophelia.” Nell sniffles, muffled against Grant’s shoulder.

I don’t know what to say.

I’m at a total loss, seeing Grant like this with a little girl he obviously loves very much. Enough to rip so much raw emotion past his stoic wall.

It’s a side of him I’ve never seen.

A strange new facet to this man I thought I knew so well from forever ago. It cuts into me in completely new ways, reminding me how he used to be able to pull me to pieces with a single glance.

But I can’t.

Watching Grant with Nell is enough to tell me that I don’t know him at all anymore.

And I certainly don’t need my chest tightening and fluttering this way over a man who might as well be a complete stranger to me now.

He’d just break my heart again anyway, wouldn’t he?

I can’t leave myself open for that a second time.

Still, I can’t help murmuring, “Uncle, huh? But you’re an only child.”

“It’s a long story.” Grant curls his hand against the back of Nell’s head, cradling her against his shoulder and holding her against him as he stands, lifting her off the ground, tucked in his arms. He gives me a long look. “I need to take her home and put her to bed.”

I nod quietly.

He stops, faltering a moment as he adds, “If you want to come along, I can explain once she’s asleep.”

I understand without being told.

It’s a delicate story. Probably one best not retold in front of little ears.

It makes me wonder who she’s lost.

And why loss seems to be a way of life around here, so prevalent that it’s already hurting someone so very young.

Still, I hesitate.

I should mind my own business and let Grant get back to his life.

I’m happy I was able to help, and that should be enough for tonight.

I also need to turn in. I need all the rest I can get to brace for tomorrow’s visit to the medical center.

Instead, I find myself nodding, taking a step back. “Let me find my sweater and shoes. I needed to give your jacket back to you anyway.”

“Keep it,” Grant says, looking at me in that strange insightful way he has. “Until you get yourself something warmer. Seems like you forgot what winter’s like around here after all that time in the Miami sun.”

There’s an edge to his words.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it stings.

Whatever.

I won’t let it get under my skin. And I won’t back out of going either, even though I’m already having second thoughts.

I just turn away and head upstairs to fish out the thickest cardigan I have and get dressed, grabbing his loaned jacket last.

I try not to ask myself why I’m getting pulled into Grant Faircross again.


“She’s my cousin.”

I sit at the kitchen table in Grant’s comfortable colonial cottage, waiting on tenterhooks. I remember when this used to be his parents’ house, but then they moved into the Garrisons’ old place when the Garrisons moved and the Faircrosses retired, leaving the cottage to Grant.

It’s the little things, I think.

Almost like Redhaven is its own pocket universe.

All the same planets and stars, but they’re constantly shifting, forming odd new constellations that change how their gravity pulls on your heart.

Grant’s gravity tugs on me tonight as he sets a steaming mug of mint tea in front of me, then settles down with his own mug in the ladderback chair across from me.

In the low golden light of the kitchen, he’s like a wood sculpture, weathered and aged into a work of pure rough mahogany with his lingering summer tan. I swear, the man looks like he was carved from solid oak, and even as he’s grown into a man with deep thought lines around his eyes, there’s also something about him that’s just…

Eternal.

Unchanging.

It’s oddly comforting, especially when being back in Redhaven has me so unsettled.

But I frown, curling my hands around the hot ceramic until it warms them. “Wait… your Uncle Nathan and Aunt Melissa? The kid they had?”

“Yeah,” Grant grunts. Something troubled flickers in his deep hazel eyes, lending a solemn air to the handsome stony crags of his face. He starts to take a sip of tea, then stops, looking down into the mug. “Their house burned down. Nell was barely a year old.”

Oh, God.

My heart plummets.

Oh, I hadn’t realized—my mother never told me.

It’s like there was this secret embargo on Grant talk between us over the years, and now my heart hurts as I realize what I’ve been missing.

Before I can stop myself, I reach across the table, resting my hand on Grant’s wrist.

“You don’t have to say it,” I murmur. “I’m sorry, Grant. I didn’t mean to bring up something painful.”

He looks at me oddly, then down at my hand against the thick, dark hair furring his arm. I suck in a breath and pull my hand back, but that only earns me another unreadable look as he sets the mug down and runs his fingers through his thick, brown beard.

“I ain’t mad, having to talk about them,” he rumbles. “Just haven’t had to tell this story in a good long while. Mice in the walls, I guess. Got through the electrical wiring. Some of the walls in that house were a century old. Brittle as hell. Just damned tinder. All it took was one spark.” He shakes his head gravely. “I was on call that night. Got there before the fire trucks could make it. I wasn’t supposed to go, but when I realized it was my aunt and uncle’s address…”

I almost don’t recognize Grant right now as he trails off.

That taciturn young man I knew has grown into a colder, older man, yes, but there’s also more.

Some deeper, wiser, fuller sense of self.

Something that pulls at me in ways both old and familiar—and new and unsettling, too.

“I don’t remember going in the house,” he continues. “Next thing I know, there’s smoke and fire everywhere, rafters caving in. They’d gotten to Nell’s nursery and covered her with a wet blanket before the smoke got to them.” He pauses, swirling the tea in his mug. “I was too fucking late for them. But little Nell, she was screaming up a storm, scared out of her mind. She was okay ’cause that blanket filtered the smoke, saving her little lungs. I snatched her up and got the hell out of there right before the roof caved in.”

“Oh my God.” I shake my head, willing him to continue.

“Yeah. It’s just me and my parents now. We stepped up as a family, taking her in and sharing the responsibility. Nell mostly stays with me, but my folks keep her if I’m at work and she’s not in school. She calls me her uncle ’cause it makes more sense to her, I guess, seeing how I’m so much older.”

Holy hell.

That’s a lot to take in.

I just let it process for a minute, then murmur, “I’m so sorry. It seems like I’ve missed a lot of your life. But I’m really glad Nell has you.”

“You’ve missed a lot of everyone’s lives,” he flares.

And just like that, I’m ready to grind my teeth down to nubs again.

Stupid lunk.

Why does he have to rub it in when he’s the one who told me not to come back?

I try to keep my voice level as I say, “You’re right. Including whatever’s up with Ros. By the way, has she been acting kinda funny lately, or is that just how she is now? I don’t even know where she went tonight.”

For a second, the big man across from me sits up taller in his chair.

My eyes narrow.

There’s one thing I’ve always known about Grant Faircross.

He can’t lie worth a damn.

He can stay quiet about something—he’s insanely good at keeping secrets—but he sure as hell can’t lie about it.

And even if there are so many little things different now, things that throw me off until everything feels real but not real… I guess that hasn’t changed.

Because there’s a familiar stiffness to his shoulders, a little guilty jerk, a tell before he answers like nothing happened.

“Haven’t noticed,” he drawls, slurping his tea. “Don’t see Ros much these days. Been dealing with the tourists for weeks. Not much time to stop and talk.”

Right. Like he ever makes time for chitchat.

There’s a flash of irrational jealousy.

I picture Rosalind here every day, Grant stopping by Mom’s shop to find her waiting behind the counter with her sunny disposition and bright smile and crown of golden hair. She has the kind of personality that would charm anyone, even the most dour, stubborn, rude, brave—

Down, girl.

Calm your tits right now.

I do not have feelings for Grant Faircross anymore.

Especially when he’s hiding something and I need to know what.

“What do you know about my sister?”

“I told you. Nothing.” Grant scowls.

“Dammit, Grant. You’re acting like I’m still a kid and you have to protect me from potholes on my bike. If something’s going on with Ros, just tell—”

“Where the hell you getting this from?” he snarls. “I told you, I haven’t noticed shit. You got a problem with your sister, take it up with her. Don’t get mad at me about it, Butterfly.”

For a second, I stop and stare.

He shrinks back—as much as a human mountain like him can—knowing he slipped up using that old name I don’t dare acknowledge.

“That’s not why I’m—” I cut myself off, slapping my hands lightly on the table as I stand, shrugging out of his borrowed jacket. I drape it over the back of the chair, leave my tea untouched, and offer a sweet smile. “You know what? Never mind. Say hi to your parents for me, Grant. I’ll stop by one day to see them when I’m sure you’re not there.”

While he glares at me, I turn around and march into the living room, heading for the front door.

Only, there’s company.

Nell, just coming down the foot of the stairs. She’s dragging some kind of mangled blue floppy horse thing with rainbow yarn for a mane.

A unicorn, maybe?

It’s hilariously filthy and stained, but she clutches it like it’s the most cherished thing ever while she scrubs at one eye and blinks at me.

“Miss Ophelia? You’re going home already?”

That little girl makes my scathing smile genuine.

“It’s past my bedtime, hon. Pretty sure it’s past yours, too. Why are you up again, sweetie?”

“…I didn’t get to tell you good night.”

And there goes my heart.

“Oh, honey.” I step closer, offering my hand. “Want a goodnight hug?”

Nell nods drowsily.

So I sink down on one knee and pull her into my arms, painfully aware of Grant’s huge shadow in the kitchen doorway, watching us in vibrating silence.

“Promise me you’ll be good, all right? No more running away. If this big dumb jerk is mean to you, if you’re good and stay at home, then I’ll take you out for ice cream.”

Nell’s woebegone look is a little too calculated.

“He’s mean all the time. That’s a lot of ice cream…”

“You’ll have earned it. Because he is mean all the time,” I throw back over my shoulder before standing again and ruffling Nell’s hair. “Good night, munchkin.”

“Good night, Miss Philia.”

“Good night, Philia,” Grant rumbles, stressing his pronunciation in a way that tingles my heart.

Nope.

Not tonight.

I’m not giving in to that pull, that gravity, that one-way ticket to hurt.

Absolutely not.

will resist.

With one last silent, mutinous look at Grant—knowing damned well I’m being every bit the brat he thinks I am—I turn and walk out the door without saying a single thing in response.


In hindsight, rushing out of my house in nothing but his jacket, an oversized t-shirt, athletic shorts, a too-thin cardigan, and flip-flops was probably not the smartest move.

Dumber idea?

Walking home in the dark without the jacket alone.

In North Carolina in the middle of a biting October night.

I only have myself to blame.

But the teenage girl inside me almost wishes Grant would chase after me, just to make sure I get home safe.

I don’t have any business praying for special favors, though.

Our last run-in should’ve been a good reminder why I can never ask this man for anything.


I sleep so poorly it’s a major chore to drag myself awake.

It’s not just because I’m on edge, waiting to hear strange footsteps on the porch again or listening for ghosts that haunt this little town with too many secrets.

It feels like long, anxious hours lying awake, staring out the bedroom window, watching the leafless branches of gnarled trees clawing at the glass like starving things trying to get in.

Or maybe they’re trying to drag me outside with them and force me to face everything I don’t know I can withstand.

Everything I can’t avoid forever.

When I pry my eyes open and check the time, it’s dawn. I need to be at the medical center first thing.

God, it’s so morbid.

There’s a problem with my mother’s DNR paperwork, something they can’t get ahold of Ros to sort out.

Well, neither can I. She’s ignored my last two voicemails and left my texts on read.

Ugh, what gives?

It’s so strange to come home and still feel like I’m alone when my mom is barely in this world anymore and my sister has just…

Checked out, I guess.

But has she, really?

There’s an annoying lump in my throat as I force myself through a shower, throw down an English muffin with jam, and drag myself out the door with a cup of coffee in hand.

My rental car’s still at Mort’s, so I’m on foot as I make my way through sleepy Redhaven. Its meandering streets flow through rows of picturesque houses that belong in a painting on a hotel wall somewhere.

Redhaven’s a place where everyone walks or bikes unless they don’t have a choice, especially during tourist highs when parking gets crowded.

Everything you could ever want is neatly arranged around the town square in the branching spokes of a wheel, just a few blocks away from wherever you happen to be.

Only, those few blocks feel like a fifty-mile death march by the time I reach the medical center.

Miles of people staring at me as they pop in and out of their cars and shops and houses to start the day.

That annoying double take as they realize I’m not Ros—no, it’s the other sister.

The older one who ran.

The one who never got over what happened to her big brother.

Sure, a few people smile and beam me greetings, or wave and call out, “Welcome home!” But every glance, every hello, every startled welcome carries a weight like an elephant.

The weight of skepticism, surprise, curiosity.

The weight of avid greed, strangers asking for more of the scandal that’s so personal to me, no matter how I try to run from it.

The weight of pity.

Oh, that poor girl.

All these years thinking her brother was a murderer when he’s just been dead all along with the Graves girl. Guess he really did love her after all.

They’re wrong.

I never thought Ethan was a murderer. The very idea was so ridiculous it made me gag.

I’ve always known there was more to the story than anyone dared guess. But I can’t think about that right now.

Not when I’m standing outside my mother’s hospital room, looking in through the observation window at her and wondering when the woman who raised me became so small under the sheets.

So old.

It’s not like I haven’t seen her regularly.

I always fly her out for holidays, random visits, a few times a year just for brunches and long weekends before she headed back home. But the slow march of years crept up unnoticed until it’s like she’s aged thirty years since I last saw her.

The last time was in my Florida condo, sitting serenely in front of the big sunny windows and looking out over the ocean with a small smile. Her beautiful face was aging gracefully with wisdom and peace.

Just last week, she was on the phone with me, talking about how happy she is that I’m coming home, and her voice was so bright I could easily imagine her strong.

But I see the grim truth in front of me now.

I see the quiet battle Mom fought so hard, the ravages of a pain she hid weathered on her face.

She’s a sunken husk.

Her face is greyer, paler, more spotted than I ever remember.

Her cheeks are nearly concave.

Her skin is so thin it’s like desiccated silk.

Like she’s already part cadaver, her bones trying to poke through her skin, her hair brittle and showing her scalp past bristles of wiry dull yellow that used to be a warm honey gold.

Frankly, it scares me.

I wouldn’t even think she was breathing if not for the dim fog on her oxygen mask.

It hurts.

It hurts so fucking much it’s destroying me, knowing I’m standing here watching my mother die by inches and seconds and hopeless breaths.

I’ve been through this once before, back when she beat it the first time.

Even then, I never thought we’d get lucky twice.

I remember the last time, the cancer diagnosis, me and Ethan and Grant standing together in this painful huddle, trying not to hurt, to be brave.

Just three awkward kids staring down their first brush with death and how flipping cruel life can be.

I’m not that wide-eyed child who can’t find the right words anymore.

Oh, but what I wouldn’t give to have my brother here with me right now.

And what I wouldn’t give for those rare moments back when an impossibly grumpy, overgrown bear of a man could be comforting and kind.

Now, I’m an exile.

A stranger to Grant’s oak branch arms and his big, broad body throwing up a wall, blocking out the world and its threats.

A stranger to everything I’m struggling so hard to keep sealed—and failing—deep in my bleeding heart.


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