Bonus Chapter: The Traveling Woman – The Missing Month

The Missing MonthI have to get away from her. I can feel the rage swirling behind my eyes, surging through my body, threatening to choke me. It’s rage, but it’s also a fist of black frustration that I’m losing her again. Nothing I said meant anything to her. I’d all but sunk to my fucking knees and begged her. But even that wouldn’t have made a difference.

I’ve been kidding myself for the last seven weeks—she doesn’t want me, she never has. Not the kind of wanting that means sticking around. I’ve been played. I’ve been screwed, I’ve been fucked, and she didn’t even say thank you in the morning. I really am the dumb as shit carnie that everyone thinks I am.

Sorcha played me as well, made a fool of me, but she never understood me or got inside my head, under my skin. I wouldn’t allow it. But with Aimee, I let my guard down, just like the stupid kid she left eight years ago. Then she took the scraps, and what was left of me she stamped into the dirt.

Pain pulses behind my eyes. I’d started to believe—in her, in us, in the possibility of a future. And Bev, Madame Cindy, she’d all but promised that Aimee would be in my life. Well, she got that spectacularly fucking wrong.

Aimee’s words pound through my head: If we don’t have trust, where can we possibly go from here?

New Hampshire, as it turns out.

I wish I could gouge out the memories of her walking away, tear out my eyes so I don’t have to see her leaving me over and over again.

I slam my hands against the handlebars and yank hard, sending the bike in a slide across the main road out of town. A trucker coming the other way blasts his horn, but I’ve accelerated out of danger before he’s finished braking, twisting that throttle like I’m trying to squeeze the life out of it.

Part of my brain knows that the bullshit with the trucker was a dumb rookie trick, but mostly I don’t give a fuck.

I don’t even know where I’m going. Maybe the bike knows. I’m running, riding, I don’t know which it is. But I can’t outrun the pain.

The hell I can’t—I’m going to make a damn good try.

So I race faster and faster, tearing up the miles, flattening the curves, flying over the hills and dips in the road, forcing every nerve to concentrate. It presses out the aching thoughts, because at this speed, I’d be just another smear of road-kill if I hit a patch of grease or get a tank-slapper.

I cover the 60 miles to Ridgecrest in 45 minutes, but I don’t stop. I want to keep riding until I run out of road: maybe in a thousand miles when I hit Mexico. I’d have to stop then because I don’t have my passport with me. That’s as funny as fuck, and each time I choke out another laugh, it burns like acid. I’m laughing. I’m definitely laughing. What else could it be?

The road flies under my tires and I lean into the wind, pushing the bike faster and faster, oblivious to the hills darkening behind me.

And then an idea sparks, making me slow down. There’s one place I can go.

I turn the bike around again and head north. I ride through the night, pushing through exhaustion, running from regret, and by dawn, the quiet Pacific of Arcata Bay is glinting in front of me.

The air is cooler here, not that I need it. I’m chilled from riding all night, and I move stiffly like an old man. I must have been out of my mind to ride 500 miles with just a denim jacket. Out of my mind—yeah, that about sums it up.

I haven’t been to the cabin in years. Even when I visit Mom, I always steer clear—too many memories. But now it feels right to be back.

The breeze coming off the ocean makes me shiver, but I’m so cold and dead inside that I don’t care.

I stare around me, measuring the changes of a decade. The shack is gone, the one that Jacob Jones and the other ponies used when a storm came in off the Pacific. There’s no sign of it, not even a splinter of wood.

The cabin doesn’t look like anyone has been here for a while—maybe for eight years for all I know. But when I test the lock, it’s firm and newish looking. You have to use marine steel out here because anything metal rusts to shit within a couple of seasons.

I don’t know why I’m here. I sit my ass down and lean back against the cabin wall. The sun is beginning to warm the wood, and I let the loud silence soothe me and calm me until I fall asleep.

When I wake, I’m still me. Fucking luck. The sun has shifted, and it’s a couple of hours later. There’s no one around. There used to be another cabin half a mile away, but the road to that looked even less used than this one. I’m a long way from nowhere, but I haven’t left my thoughts behind.

My stomach reminds me that I haven’t eaten in 24 hours. I’ve got my wallet and a few hundred bucks, so I won’t starve.

I pull out my cell phone, staring at the long list of missed calls and unopened text messages. None of them are from her. Zach has called so many times, the battery is about dead. Even Zef and Tucker have tried.

I send one quick message saying that I’m taking some time and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. I climb on the bike and keep moving.

I just can’t face it, face them.

Today, I can’t face anything—not even the carnival, and I love that with every goddamn breath in my body. But she doesn’t love the life; she just wanted her summer of slumming it. Something to tell her land-roach friends about, the brick-dwellers, and she can laugh about it.

Christ, I thought it was real, but I should have known better. She kept saying how she loved the magic, the illusion. But she was the master illusionist, making me think that she actually cared about me.

My stomach rolls, a bitter stream of bile shooting into my throat. I have to pull the bike over to throw up.

I start to laugh. Jesus, what a fucking mess. If she could see me know—the star attraction on his knees in the dirt, spewing up his guts, a dirty, grease-covered roustabout. Yeah, she’d fucking laugh.

Without looking back, I leave Arcata and check into a small motel for the night a few miles up the road. I wish I could sleep, but thoughts pound through my head most of the night. The next morning, I head further north, just drifting. Just another nameless guy passing through. I get as far as Bellingham, a few miles from the Canadian border before I turn around. Dono didn’t usually travel this far north, so this territory is unfamiliar. I feel calm for the first time in days. I can rationalize what happened. She’s gone: I’ve moved on.

But I’m lying to myself, because the calm doesn’t last.

Dono stuck to the mid-west, only returning to Cali when the Fall set in. I remember the year we first got the gig in Fairmont. We used to go to New Ulm—that was our furthest point east before we turned around and headed back the way we’d come. But when the town council upped the rent, we took our chance in Fairmont.

God, that brings back memories—and I’m not sure I want to have them.

IMG_6524Why does every fucking memory lead back to her.

The first time I kissed her was at the top of the Ferris wheel. I felt so light, I swear I could have just floated up into the clouds. And every year, every year, she’d be there waiting for me.

I thought I was something special. I was the only one who had a girl waiting for them. Guys like me—carnies—girls don’t wait for us. But she did. Aimee.

And the first time she let me inside her, well, damn. I think I lasted about three seconds. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.

God, these memories! Why can’t I make them stop? Every time I think it’s getting easier, I feel like I’m drowning again.

I could go east. But I don’t. So I have to make a choice.

For the first time since I left, I have a destination in mind—and I turn my face to the south, to the fairground in Bishop.

The fairground pulls me home. That’s what she never understood—I can travel anywhere in the goddamn country, in the world even, but all I have to do is follow the carnival and I’ll be home. I thought she liked that. Hell, I thought she could love it.

The four days it takes to get back, I convince myself that I don’t need her, I don’t need anyone. Just the show, just the guys. But the nearer I get to the last place I saw her, I drive more slowly, my vision blurring. And the pain is too much.

There is one way I can forget everything. It worked for dear ole Mom—no reason why it won’t work for me.

I’d never wanted to drink before. Just the smell of alcohol turns my stomach. There are too many memories of seeing Mom face down in a pile of whiskey-reeking vomit, but right now self-medication sounds pretty good.

I could just stop and find a bar in any one of the small towns I pass, but I don’t.

I’m relieved that when I get back to the fairground, it’s already dark. The rubes have left, the lights have dimmed and I stare up at the Ferris wheel, dark and unmoving. That’s how I feel inside.

The RV is empty, thank fuck. I can’t deal with seeing anyone now.

I know there’s beer in the fridge, but I want something that will work faster, so I head to Tucker’s room and find a bottle of Jim Bean under his rack. I twist the cap off and the smell of it makes my eyes water, but I raise it to my lips anyway.

“What the fuck?”

The bottle is pulled from my hands, sloshing over my shirt. Ollo stands in front of me, disbelieving.

“What are you doing, kid? You don’t drink!”

“I do tonight. Give me the fucking bottle!”

I can’t stand that look of sympathy on his face—it shames me. I try to grab the bottle from him, but he dodges away. I jump after him and twist the bottle from his hands roughly and Ollo falls backward. I’m staring down at the man who’s been more of a father to me than anyone, when suddenly Zach is in my face.

“Kes! Goddamn it! You don’t drink!”

“Maybe I do tonight.”

I have to look away because I can’t stand the look on his face.

“Aimee was really upset,” he says quietly.

Hearing her name is a spear through the middle of me. I look down, surprised that I don’t see blood pouring out.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I mutter.

Zach rubs his forehead. “You’ve been gone nearly three weeks and this is the shit you come out with?”

I squeeze my eyes shut, not wanting to hear any more.

“Look, Kes, I know there’s stuff you don’t talk about, things you’ve never said, but Jesus! This is Aimee! Why the fuck couldn’t you tell her? You’ve loved her since you were a kid. You get this awesome second chance and you screw it up!”

My temper explodes.

“Me? I screwed it up?! I fucking begged her to stay! I’d have given her anything! Anything! But she couldn’t get away fast enough!”

Zach shakes his head and starts to speak, but I’m done. I want that bottle of whiskey, like now. I start to take a drink, but Ollo grabs it again and Zach tries to hold my arms. I wrench myself free and start to throw a punch at Zach. But I can’t do it. I can’t hit him.

My hesitation costs me, because Zach lands a good one, making my left cheek explode with pain. I crash back against the door and land on my ass.

“Stay down, Kes,” Zach warns, his voice low and hard. “Because I will hit you again—until I beat some fucking sense into you.”

The Missing MonthI’m staring up at him, stunned that my brother threw down on me.

I can see he’s pretty damn shocked, too, but from the look on his face, he means every word.

I rub my jaw, enjoying the pain, because it distracts me from the wounds you can’t see.

“My man needs coffee,” Ollo says to Zach, who’s working his fingers loose after he nearly broke my face.

We head into the living area and I slump onto a couch, my head in my hands. Ollo passes ice packs to each of us: me for my cheek, and Zach for his hand. It’s kind of funny, we’re all so fucked up.

The scent of coffee fills the room, calming me, but everywhere I look, her shadow, her memory taunts me. Ollo pushes a coffee toward me, loaded with sugar.

“What’s your plan?” Zach asks.

I look at him, confused.

“What plan?”

He all but rolls his eyes at me. “To get Aimee back, you douche.”

I shake my head. “Not gonna happen. She made her choice.”

“Did she? Because it seemed to me like you didn’t give her one.”

My temper flares again. “Fuck you! I wanted her to stay.”

“And then what?”

I blink at him, because I have no idea what he’s asking me.

Zach sighs. “Kes, what did you think would happen when you told Aimee that you wanted her to stay?”

I shrug, because it’s obvious. “We’d be together. We’d do the circuit. Maybe take some of those overseas show offers…”

He groans with frustration. “Exactly! You’d do the circuit. You’d do the gigs in Europe and Australia. What would Aimee do?”

“She’d be with me.” Why is that so difficult to understand?

“And she’s just supposed to wait around while you do your shit?”

I all but snarl at him. “It worked out pretty good this summer.”

“For one summer! You’re asking her to give up her whole life to follow you wherever you travel? Could you be more fucking selfish! Do you even know what you’re asking her to give up? You’ve never been to her apartment, never met her friends. She’s seen you working every day, but you haven’t a fucking clue about her life.”

“That’s not true! I know that shit!”

“Do you? Do you know the name of her school? Do you know her favorite subject? Do you know what she likes about her apartment, or what she likes about New Hampshire? Did you ask her even once?” His voice is calm. “You should at least understand what you’re asking her to give up, don’t you think?”

I’m silent, thinking about what he’s saying.

“She loves you, you idiot.”

I give an acid laugh.

“Yeah, because that’s what walking out the door means.”

“Look, Kes,” he says tiredly, “Aimee’s not the kind of girl you just let go.”

“I didn’t let her go!” I yell. “She walked out on me.”

“Because you don’t trust her!”

“I do, I…”

“She thinks you have a kid.”

My jaw drops open. “What?”

He rubs a hand over his face and massages his swollen knuckles.

“It’s one of the answers she came up with when she tried to figure out where that monthly fee was going. Jesus, you asked the woman to look at your accounts—you think she didn’t notice that and wonder? Hell, I’ve wondered! You play your cards so close to your chest.”

“I don’t have a fucking kid!”

Zach gives an empty laugh. “Don’t tell me, tell her.”

“I would if she hadn’t left.”

“God, you’re acting like a bitch,” Zach sneers.

“You should know!” I snap back.

His face goes still and I know I’ve gone too far.

“Shit, Zach, I…”

He stands up. “Sort your shit out, Kestrel.”

I’m left alone, sipping my cooling coffee, wondering how the hell this month has gone from waking up with my girl by my side, to this fuckfest of a disaster.

I hear a noise at the door and for the length of time it takes my dumb heart to beat, hope flares inside me. But instead of Aimee’s dark eyes flashing with fire and heat, I see Ollo.

“You could have told her,” he says.

“No, I…”

“Yes,” he says insistently. “You could have told her. She should know. It’s not your secret to keep any longer, Kestrel. You don’t need the Senator’s money and you don’t have to apologize for Maura. You can trust Aimee.”

I give him a sour look. “You’re the one who taught me to never trust anyone who wasn’t a carnie. Hell, you taught me to watch everyone out of the corner of my eyes. Everyone.”

Ollo clears his throat then climbs up on the sofa, his short legs sticking out in front of him.

“Aimee is family, don’t you know that?”

My laugh is incredulous. “Yeah, because my family is so fucking awesome.”

“No, you dumb grifter! ‘Family’ means something different to us. Didn’t I teach you anything? We’re your family, the carnival, the guys next door—and so is Aimee. She always has been.” He looks up. “Go bring her home.”

Can I? Would she even consider it? Wouldn’t it be better to just try and forget about her? But who am I kidding—I’ll never be able to forget about her, not until my heart stops beating.

I cut my gaze to Ollo who’s watching me without blinking.

“What if she won’t come?”

I hate that I sound so fucking pathetic.

Ollo grins at me. “Persuade her.”

I shake my head. “She has a good life back east. Stable, you know? That’s important to her.”

Ollo looks disappointed. “Give her a reason to come back. Didn’t figure you for a quitter, Kestrel.”

And then he hops off the couch and disappears into the night.

I don’t know what to do. The coffee has me buzzing, but my body is exhausted. I walk into our— my bedroom, and I can still smell the faint scent of her perfume. I pick up the pillow from her side of the bed and breathe in. Last time I was in this room, we were in this bed and I was balls deep inside her. She screamed my name and I felt like a king. I didn’t know it would be the last time.

I wonder if Zach is right, that I should have tried harder to understand what I was asking of her. It seemed so simple to me—I was a carnie, always had been, always will be, and I’d never wanted anything else. Not like Con; he hadn’t been able to get away fast enough. But for me, why would I want anything else? I had the grass under my feet, the sky over my head, and the open road calling to me. Sure, I know that most people live in towns or cities, but that is so alien to me. I can’t imagine staying in one place, living that kind of life. I heard that some people live and die never having gone anywhere. My people aren’t like that. Everywhere is ours, lords of the landscape, rulers of the road.

I just assumed that Aimee would want that, too. She knows who I am, what I was, so I thought she wanted the life. I couldn’t understand anyone not wanting it. Like Con. Like my own brother.

I remember what he said to me, that summer he left for good. “I want more, Kes. I want more than living in a shitty RV and working my ass off for a few bucks, being treated like a piece of crap.”

But that wasn’t how I saw it. Not then, and not now.

I look around the bedroom. Yeah, it’s small, but everything’s in good condition, I make sure of that. The RV cost more than some of the clapboard houses and shacks that we drive past when we’re on the road. I pay the guys decent money, we have a good life. Don’t we?

But maybe it’s not enough for a woman like her, like Aimee. I thought it was, but now I’m not so sure. I keep thinking about what Zachary said—that I don’t know what I was asking her to give up.

And I still can’t believe that asshole hit me! But he says Aimee loves me and I guess he’d know. I don’t want to allow myself to hope, but I can’t help it either. It creeps over me, calming me and energizing me at the same time.

I mentally scroll through my schedule for the next few weeks: a couple of meetings with my sponsors, one small gig at a new shopping mall. Worth ten K, but I can live without that. If I clear everything, I could go to Aimee, check out this fucktastic life that Zach says she has. I don’t know, maybe we could do the long-distance thing. The thought hurts, but it’s better than the emptiness.

And I’ll have to tell her the truth about Mom, about my dickwad father. I don’t like it, but I guess I’ll have to suck it up. I know Con told Hilde about Mom, but I don’t think he’s told her the rest of it. Ollo knows, but I’ve never talked about it to anyone else. Guess that’s going to change.

I lie in bed working out the rest of the details. My brain has already assumed that I’m going after Aimee.

I’m going to do it—I’m going to try and be the man she wants. Somehow.

I’ll take the RV across country. The guys won’t care if they get some time off—they’ll still get paid. Zach will finish up the circuit and then we’ll catch up at Thanksgiving. I’ll have to talk to him—I was a real dick and he didn’t deserve what I said to him.

But at the end of it all, will she let me into her world? Or maybe I’ll find out once and for all that a carnie doesn’t figure in her future. Why would she want me? Uneducated, never even set foot in a school, and she’s a goddamn teacher! I rub my forehead. Fuck, I’m tired.

I’m dreading failing, but I’ve got to try.

But there’s something I’ve got to do first.

Long before dawn, I’ve showered and left the RV. I didn’t get much sleep last night, but there’s a strange clarity in my brain; a feeling of peace, something to shoot for—I haven’t had that since she left.

I wish I could be heading east today, but Sacramento is only a two-hour drive. I need to do this. Aimee thought I needed to, and if it’s part of what makes her want to take me back, then I’ll move every grain of sand in hell to do it.

It’s barely dawn when I arrive at Sorcha’s apartment. I’ve been here plenty in the past. We fucked on every flat surface she had, including against the wall. But I never slept here; mostly I just fucked and left. When she traveled in the RV, that was the only time I ever slept with her and even then, more times than not, I’d end up sleeping outside. The woman suffocated me. It was different with Aimee.

God, everything was different with her.

Anger courses through me when I think of the lies Sorcha told, for fucking years. I don’t even care about the money she stole—I kind of guessed she was doing it, but I was earning plenty and she kept the gigs rolling in, so it didn’t bother me. I think that pissed her off the most. She probably thought she needed to do something to get my attention.

What I can’t forgive are those eight years.

I buzz Sorcha’s apartment, and after a few minutes I hear her voice.

“Yeah, what?”

“It’s me.”

There’s a pause, then she buzzes me in.

I take the stairs two at a time, wanting to get this over and done with. She’s left her door open so I walk in and shut it behind me. She’s not in the living room, so I head to the kitchen and wait. I’m not going near her fucking bedroom.

But after a few minutes, I get bored of staring at four walls. I walk to her room and rap my knuckles on the door.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she purrs. “Get your sexy ass in here.”

“No. In the kitchen. We’ve gotta talk.”

“Talk!” Her voice is incredulous. “Since when does the great Kestrel Hawkins ever want to talk? You’ve gone soft.”

“Fine. We’ll talk here.”

I storm into her room and she’s laying on her bed, naked, her arms behind her head. I can’t help looking, but the cat-like smile of satisfaction that spreads across her face turns my blood cold.

“Like what you see? Why don’t you come play with me?”

Her eyes run over my body, pausing at the bruise on my cheek, then settling on my crotch. Her gaze feels like roaches skittering across my skin, making my stomach lurch.

“You’ve been stealing from me,” I say flatly.

Her eyes widen and her head jerks up.

“What?”

“If you wanted more in your paycheck, I would have given it to you. But you scammed me, so here’s how it’s going to work. I know you set that reporter bitch on me, and I know you think you’ve got some dirt on me, but you don’t. My lawyer is going to be in touch and you’ll sign whatever papers he sends you—and you’ll keep your fucking mouth shut from now on.”

She sits up quickly and pulls the sheet over her body.

“You think you can order me around?”

“Yeah,” I say flatly. “Sign what you’re told and keep the money you stole. Consider it severance pay.”

“And if I don’t?” she challenges.

“Expect a visit from the police.”

She laughs coldly.

“Really? I don’t think so. Carnies don’t go to the police. We’re not like them—ordinary people.”

I take two steps toward the bed, and her eyes glow with lust. She licks her lips and her chest heaves. She wants me to hit her; she gets off on that. I never really knew why, I just gave her what she wanted.

“I will do it, Sorcha,” I say, my voice low and deadly quiet. “I’ll fuck you over so badly you’ll wish you’d never met me.”

I see the flicker in her eyes and she tries to slap my face, but I catch her wrist.

The Missing Month“You lied to me,” I say, gripping tight enough to bruise her. “For eight fucking years. I could kill you for that.”

I don’t know what she sees in my face, but she tries to pull her wrist free and I can feel that her pulse rate has spiked.

“We had a good thing, Kes,” she says, her voice cracking slightly. “That little school teacher can’t give you what you need, we both know that. You need the darkness, I know you do!”

“You’re wrong and you know nothing,” I snarl. “You never understood.”

I shrug, shaking away the fear that she’s right and move away from her. I feel dirty just touching her.

“It was easy—you were easy. Now stay the fuck away from me and don’t even think about trying to travel any of my regular circuits. I’m putting the word out—you’re not welcome and you’re not protected. You know what that means, Sorcha.”

She pales and I can see real fear behind her eyes.

“W-what am I going to do?” she whispers.

I turn to leave and her question bounces off my back.

“Ask someone who gives a fuck.”

I break speed limits all the way back to Bishop, then I prep the RV, unhooking it from the water pipes and generator cables.

Tucker stumbles out of his rack, his lip about twice the size it should be.

“You look like shit,” I say, by way of apology.

“Did ya check the fucking mirror, Kes,” he laughs. “That’s quite a shiner you’ve got.”

“Fuck you, McCoy.”

“Nah, you’re not my type.”

I throw an empty beer can at him, but he just ducks, laughing the whole time.

“So, you gonna get your pissy self over to get your gal?” he asks, his voice almost serious.

I cut him a look.

“I’m going to try.”

He nods slowly. “Good.”

That shocks the shit out of me: Tucker is always going on about how women suck you dry and spit them out, if you let them. I know he got badly burned by some chick, but he never talks about it. He just fucks and runs. Like I used to.

Zef walks in already dressed.

“What’s the plan?” he asks.

“Going east.”

He gives me a quick smile. “Road trip? Need a co-driver?”

I look at him in surprise. “You want to go to New Hampshire?”

“Nah, man, but if you’re going to the east coast, I’ll go down to Savannah and catch up with Daniel.”

“Yeah? How’s he doing?”

“Real good. Could go pro, but he’s not sure it’s what he wants.”

“Why wouldn’t he be?”

“Got other stuff he wants to do, writing music and shit.”

“Can’t he do both?”

Zef scratches his chin. “He wants to stay near his girl.”

“Huh.”

Two months ago I would have said that Daniel was a pussy-whipped dick. But not anymore. I wouldn’t say that now because I get it—wanting to be near one person more than you want to breathe.

I tell Zef we’ll be heading out as soon as I’ve seen Zachary.

“You going to get Aimee?” he asks when I knock on the door of his RV.

“Yeah.”

H grins, and it’s real. “Glad you came to your senses!”

“Look, Zach, about what I said last night…”

But he waves it away. “We’re good, Kestrel. I’ll see your ugly face in Pomona for Thanksgiving. Now go bring our girl home.”

His words strike a chord: our girl. Somehow, Aimee has become part of us, part of my crazy carnie family. Tucker and Zef will screw any woman who walks in front of them, but they never put the moves on Aimee. They’re like my brothers, and they treated her like a sister. Yeah, we’re family. We’re tight.

We’ve got my road bike stashed in the RV to drive east. I don’t like doing that, but I’ll need transport and I hate hiring loaners—they’re always underpowered.

The plan is to drive to Savannah and then I’ll take the bike north overnight to Concord, New Hampshire. After that … I have no fucking clue.

Which is why, almost a week later, I’m standing in front of Walker Elementary School, my heart just about pounding out of my chest when I see her. She’s talking to a guy, or rather a guy is talking to her. She looks pissed and I want to smile, but then I realize that the douchebag is probably her ex … or maybe they’re back together. I want to kill him. I want to murder that motherfucker. I want to tear out his fucking eyeballs for even looking at her, rip out his tongue for daring to speak…

But I can’t. I have to act like a human being not a wild animal. I’m here for Aimee, and like I said, she looks pissed.

She frowns again and looks away from him. And that’s when she sees me. My heart rate rockets, and I wonder if it’s going to keep beating long enough for me to walk across the parking lot to her.

We lock eyes and I don’t even realize that my legs are already moving.

My mouth opens before I know what I’m going to say.

“Am I too late?”

Her shocked gaze softens and she sighs.

“No, you’re not too late.”

I breathe again, feeling my lungs expand. I’m not too late…