“How’d it happen?” I asked, knowing dang well it wasn’t a question they wanted to answer. On the day I’d found out about Mom, Dad hadn’t wanted to talk about anything, much less the technicalities of how it had happened. And yet as friends and family had trickled in, we’d been swamped with questions. How had she died, who’d found her, and how had Dad broken the news to me?
“Mom went into the bedroom to ask him if he’d like her to have lunch by his side.” Katie sniffed, holding the back of Lori’s head. “He wasn’t responsive. She pressed the emergency button.” The Blacks had installed a medical alert on the side of Ronan’s bed. “When the paramedics came in, he still had a faint pulse, so they took him here. He died within minutes.”
I wrapped my arms around both of them, as if I were holding them together somehow. I breathed in their misery and kissed their heads, not sure if I had the right to do that but desperate to console them.
When their ragged breaths calmed, I stood up. Both Julian and Chase had their backs to me in different corners of the room. I went to Julian first. He was pale as an egg. He had that extra lonely shine about him, of someone who had recently lost much more than just his father. I knew he was going through a divorce and that adjusting to the new reality with Clementine wasn’t a picnic for him. Cautiously, and while holding my breath, I put a hand on his shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze. His eyes dragged up to meet mine, inch after inch, so slow it was obvious he was expecting some kind of confrontation.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said simply.
“You shouldn’t feel anything but contempt toward me.” He bowed his head. “But I appreciate it.”
“And I know it means nothing right now, when the wound is a gash, torn open and bleeding, but I promise you, there are better days ahead. You just need to hang in there.” I ignored his words.
“Why are you doing this?” His throat bobbed with a swallow. “Why do you even care? I’ve been nothing but awful to you.”
“You were,” I admitted, unable to move my hand from his shoulder. “You uncovered my lie and called me a six. You were unkind to me, but that doesn’t mean I should be unkind to you. I happen to like who I am. A six, but with a ten heart.”
“You heard that?” His eyebrows rose, almost comically.
I shrugged. “Beauty is subjective.” It wasn’t the time or place to talk about it, but I had a feeling it kept Julian busy, and that was the essence of dealing with grief. Keep going, talking, doing things.
“I wanted to rile Chase up.” Julian sniffed. “I didn’t mean it. And for the record—I did. Rile him up, I mean. So . . .” His gaze drifted to the window where Chase stood, still oblivious to my presence, deep in thought. “Make what you want out of it.”
All it meant was that Chase and Julian loved hating each other. I couldn’t allow myself to believe any differently. I dragged my eyes over to Chase. He pressed his forehead against the window, the condensation from his breath spreading over the glass like a gray cloud. The need to hug this dark, feral beast shredded me.
“Go.” Julian patted my hand on his shoulder. “It’s him you came for.”
I approached Chase. Put my hand on his corded back. My heart coiling in my chest. Looping. Twisting. Begging. Let me out. I’d never been so scared to talk to someone. I didn’t know if I could survive his pain.
He turned around, collapsing into my arms. I stumbled back from the impact but wrapped myself around him like a vise. Every inch of us was connected, pressed together. Like we were plugged in, me the charger, him sucking energy from me. His face was a wreck of emotions I’d never seen before. There was so much vulnerability there it felt like being slashed open by a sharp knife. I gathered his face and pulled him away so I could look him in the eye. Tears ran down my face so freely I was scared for my own sanity. I adored Ronan, but I didn’t know him enough for his death to inspire such a reaction. All I knew was that he’d left a family who truly worshipped him. That meant he was a person worthy of my tears.
“I’m going to take you home now,” I whispered.
He shook his head. “There’s so much to do.”
“No,” Katie and Lori said in unison, standing up.
“There isn’t. It’s all bureaucracy now. We’ll meet in a few hours and regroup,” Lori insisted. “I want to take a shower. I want to get myself together. I need to tell my sisters.”
The cab drive to Chase’s place was quiet. We held hands in the back seat, watching New York crawl past the window. When we got to his apartment, I poured him a generous glass of whiskey and curled his fingers around it. I sat him down on the U-shaped kitchen island, then headed into his bathroom and turned the shower on. Steam covered the glass doors of the five-jet spray heads. I threw a towel on the heater, returned to the kitchen, tipped the glass with the remainder of the whiskey to his lips, and had him finish it in one gulp. Then I dragged him into the shower. “Call me if you need me.”
“I’m not an invalid,” he said, surly, then took a ragged breath. “Fuck. Sorry. Thanks.”
I fixed him something hearty while he took a shower. I wasn’t much of a cook but knew he needed actual comfort food, not some fancy takeout. You could tell his fridge had been stocked by someone else who knew he was a bachelor who didn’t frequent the kitchen. I settled for beef chili with mushrooms, eggplants, and a pumpkin I found in an untouched Organic Living basket someone must’ve gifted him that sat lonely on the counter.
I read the recipe closely on my phone while swirling a wooden spoon inside the steaming pot of chili. The only ingredient missing from the chili was paprika. I opened Chase’s pantry to see if he accidentally kept any spices. Stopped. Put my hand to my heart, letting the phone slip through my fingers and fall onto the floor.
The azaleas were there, tucked in the darkness of the pantry, which now contained nothing but three humidifiers turned on heat. The azaleas were in full bloom, bursting with colors through the darkness. White-rimmed petals, their insides bright pink, staring back at me. I took a step in and carefully tipped the plant up, seeing the secret Sharpie mark I’d made there to make sure it was the same plant.
Dark, humid, hot spaces. That’s where the azaleas thrive best, I’d told him that day.