“Yeah … okay, I’m not envious of that, but she had a boyfriend at ten. I had a boyfriend at like … I don’t even want to say. It’s embarrassing. Anyway, I was smart but not confident and I was never popular. She got a kiss on the neck and it made her giggle. I got my bra snapped and it nearly brought me to tears.”
“You seem to have turned out okay.”
“Sure.” She grunts a laugh. “Barely. It was close. Could have gone either way. Wanna know the crazy part? My father’s death was a pivotal moment in my life, but in a good way. And I know how morbid that sounds, but it’s true. I’ve discussed this with our shrink.”
Our shrink. That’s cringe-worthy. She makes us both sound like fuckups.
“When my father died, I was no longer the focus. The expectations died with him. I guess if something good can come from something bad, then my freedom came from his death. Like … someday if you find another woman to love, it will be bittersweet. Something good from something bad.”
I shake my head a half dozen times. “That won’t happen. I’m done.”
“Unless Morgan gives me a granddaughter someday, she is the last woman I will love.”
“Ouch. That’s a little pessimistic. You’re still in your thirties. A lot could happen.” She points to the coffee shop on the right side of the road.
I turn in. “I loved Morgan—Daisy—and she died. I loved Jenna and she died. See any pattern?”
“Oh … wow. I can’t believe Dr. Greyson has let you get away with that train of thought.”
“I haven’t told him. We’re still in the why-does-God-hate-me phase. I’m pretty sure we’re stuck there. What do you want?” I stop at the drive-thru to order.
“Grande caramel iced coffee with cream.”
“Two grande caramel iced coffees with cream,” I yell into the speaker.
Her jaw unhinges. “You’re getting the same thing?”
I shrug. “Sure. Why not?”
“Griff never as in ever gets naughty coffee drinks with me. He’s an icon of health. I’m not exactly complaining, but sometimes it’s fun to have a partner in crime. You know what I mean?”
“Yes. Griffin. He’s a mechanic and technician at the Harley dealership.”
“A guy with tattoos and a motorcycle? Now I too am surprised your dad didn’t have something to say about that.” And it’s happened. She’s brought me to a new low. I’m taking my newborn baby to meet my dead childhood girlfriend while indulging in copious amounts of caffeine, fat, and sugar—and making inappropriate jokes about dead people.
The laughter that fills the vehicle feels like Daisy is here with me, like Jenna never died, like God doesn’t have it in for me. I want to bottle it and save it for the nights that leave me wondering what the hell has happened to my life. This … this feeling is the remedy for my fucking pity parties that seem to creep up at the worst time, like when Morgan refuses to take a bottle from me or when she won’t stop crying and I swear she’s grieving her mom and … it. Fucking. Kills. Me.
“Jesus, Nate …” She sighs with a soft, satisfying hum. “I’ve missed your humor.”
I stop so fast at the drive-thru window my seat belt locks up. We stare at each other in silence. The same ghostly paleness washes down her face like it did that day in the nursery. It’s a strange familiar. She’s known me only as a single dad and grieving widower. That is the indisputable truth. But … she looks at me like she’s been looking at me my whole life.
She shakes her head, eyes wide and unblinking. “That came out wrong. Don’t—”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The barista at the window smiles, holding up the two iced coffees. I roll the window back down and hand her a twenty, not waiting for change before handing one to Swayze and pulling out of the parking lot.
“Nathaniel.” It’s not my intention to snap at her, but I’m on edge for some reason I can’t explain.
We don’t speak the rest of the way to the cemetery. As soon as my white Escalade is in Park, I open the door. “Just wait here.”
Swayze pauses. I can’t look at her because I don’t know whom I’m looking at, and I can’t handle the way she looks at me. It’s so fucking haunting. She shuts the door. Out of my peripheral vision, I see her nod once.
It’s a long walk to Daisy’s grave. She’s at the far corner next to her mom’s parents. They watch over her. Over two decades, a marriage, a baby, and the loss of my wife later … I still can’t visit her without a lump in my throat and an ache in my chest.
The only true love I have left fusses as I reposition her so she’s flush to my chest, head tucked under my chin. “Shh … you’re okay, sweet girl. I want you to meet my friend, Morgan.” I stop at the glassy black headstone.
Morgan Daisy Gallagher
Beloved daughter, dreamer, beautiful angel.
“Hey, Daisy.” I swallow back the lump as the wind howls through the tall trees. There’s so much to say. I’ve never allowed myself more than one visit a year. But a lot happens in a year.
Morgan continues to fuss, so I bounce her a bit. “I’m a dad. Can you believe that?” Damn tears. I cried in front of Daisy once in the eight years we were together. It was the day she died, so she couldn’t really see my tears. Since then, I’ve cried every year, just once—until Jenna died—on the anniversary of her death, here, where she rests for eternity. “So … you probably know by now … Jenna died giving birth to our daughter. We named her Morgan. Crazy right?”
Swallowing again and again, I try to keep my emotions contained. “Have you seen Jenna? I bet you’ve both been sharing stories and laughing about all my faults and the stupid stuff I’ve done.”
My lips press to Morgan’s head as she gets worked up even more. “I suck at this dad thing. But …” I laugh through the pain. “It’s only for eighteen years, right? That’s… fuck…” I sniffle and hold Morgan secure with one hand while I wipe my face with my other hand “…three years longer than you got.” The words fight their way into existence. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the reasons why. What kind of god takes away a daughter, a friend, an angel?
Morgan lets out a shrill scream.
I turn toward Swayze’s voice. She rubs Morgan’s back without meeting my gaze—my pathetic tear-filled gaze. I hand my daughter to Swayze and within seconds, she calms down.
Yes, it’s a perverted sounding thought but it helps me regain some composure, so I let it chase away the grief.
Turning back to the headstone, I squat until her name is inches from my face.
“I met my soulmate when I was seven. She didn’t care that I was poor and living in a dysfunctional home. She always gave me half of her allowance. When I refused to accept it, she’d leave a bag of groceries on our front doorstep with a note that said, ‘For now … I love you.’ She agreed to be my girlfriend until she found a real boyfriend. That went on for nearly five years.”
I pick at the grass. “I was her now. She was my always. And I thought that would add up to forever.” My jaw grinds side to side as I blink away more emotion.
“She didn’t care that I loved hockey more than anything … except her. She didn’t care that we would probably live in an old shack because the chances of making it to the NHL were slim. And she dreamed of being a famous poet, but I told her the only famous poets were dead poets, like all famous artists.”
“So she’s famous now,” Swayze murmurs.
I grin at the ground. “In my eyes, yes.” Standing, I take a few steps back and rob a single flower from a freshly-laid bouquet next to another grave.
“What are you doing?” Swayze asks in a hushed voice like we’re going to get caught committing a crime.
I set the single flower on Daisy’s headstone and take a foil-covered chocolate out of my pocket and rest it next to the flower. “She made me promise flowers and chocolates, but I rarely had the money to buy them. In fact … I never bought them. So …” I shrug.
“You stole them.”
“Did you steal that chocolate?”
I laugh. “One of my colleagues has a bowl of them on her desk. I pocketed several when she ran to the restroom.”
I glance back at Swayze. “It’s stupid. I know. I can afford them. It’s just—”
She shakes her head. “That’s not what I meant. It’s the way you loved her. It’s …”
“Beautiful.” Tears fill her eyes as she smiles, but she quickly blinks them away and averts her gaze to Morgan.
“I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to convince myself I was too young to really love her. It has to be the trauma of losing her so suddenly at such a vulnerable age. Some people think kids are resilient. They heal faster because their cells divide faster. It’s true on a physical level. But … emotionally, I think what happens to us when we’re young changes us forever. A broken bone is nothing compared to a broken heart. One is a scratch. The other leaves a scar on your soul.”