RISE | Advance Preview


From multi-published novelist, Katherine L. Evans, comes a story about recognizing your worth and rising above your circumstances.

In this unforgettable, heartrending story, the impact of childhood abandonment is revealed in the life of a young woman who yearns for something both inexplicable and intangible.

Emma Abercrombie, an inexperienced reporter with lofty aspirations, grew up a bullied outcast in a small town in South Carolina, fled to California after high school, and once there, she believed the worst was behind her. But after two years in a dead-end job and one too many disappointments in her personal life, Emma becomes desperate and manic as she takes matters into her own hands and kicks her career into high-gear.

At the height of her success and despite concern from her loved ones, she accepts an assignment abroad covering the refugee crisis in Syria. In what was intended to be a mission to raise awareness and win hearts and minds, Emma and her team suddenly find themselves fellow victims of the danger and tragedy they were only supposed to be reporting. Emma is ultimately faced with the most basic of choices—whether to live, or whether to die; to lie down and accept her fate, or to stand up and rise.

Rise is the gripping tale of one woman’s journey to overcome a life that kicked her when she was down at every turn. It is a heartbreaking story of loss, a heartwarming portrait of unwavering friendship and unconditional love, and a compelling glimpse into the conditions of the current displacement crisis of the Syrian Civil War.


Since this fictional story was inspired by so many tragic, non-fictional events, 100% of the author’s royalties will be split evenly between Mercy Corps and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.

About Mercy Corps:

Mercy Corps is meeting the urgent needs of nearly 4 million people both inside Syria and in neighboring countries. They distribute emergency food and supplies, increase access to clean water and sanitation, improve shelters, and create safe spaces and activities to help children heal from trauma. For more information, please visit their website.

About the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation:

Jim Foley was a conflict journalist who made headlines in 2014 when he was murdered in Syria after an extended period of internment. Since the uprising in Syria, 153 journalists have been killed there. The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation seeks to advocate for the release of American hostages kidnapped abroad by partnering with the USG and American media and by establishing a resource center for American hostage families, support press freedom and the rights of freelance journalists, and promote educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth. For more information, please visit their website.

Disclaimer: Neither Katherine L. Evans (hereafter referred to as “Author”) nor this fundraising effort are in any way affiliated with Mercy Corps or the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation (JWFLF). Author royalties from the sale of each copy and/or unit of RISE (hereafter referred to as “Book”) shall be paid to the Author according to each retailer’s standard payment procedure. Upon receipt, the Author will hold the funds until six months after the Book’s release date (November 4, 2016). At that point, the total amount of funds accrued from the sale of the Book will be divided in half and donations will be issued to both Mercy Corps and JWFLF, with each organization respectively receiving 50% of the total amount of royalties accrued. The aforementioned donation process will be repeated every subsequent six months for the retail life of the Book. The Author can only guarantee donations will be paid with royalties from copies/units of the Book purchased from first-party retailers.


Available May 2017 in both eBook and paperback.

Pre-order your copy now at:

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Kobo | iBooks



I wouldn’t have called it a depression. It was something else.

An observer of my life probably would’ve pinned that label on it, but it’s not entirely accurate. At the time—at what I would call the beginning—it looked nothing like depression.

I wasn’t sad. I didn’t feel empty or anxious. There was no fatigue or necessity to lie in bed for days on end. No loss of appetite, or any of the other classic symptoms.

At the time, it was just a sense something was off. Merely a little gnat in my ear. Something so commonplace you don’t pay much attention to it other than absently thinking, “This thing is so annoying,” and then you swat it away. Sometimes the gnat is persistent—and the gnat in my ear had been persisting for a while—and you have to break out the fly swatter.

And that’s what I would call the beginning: the day I broke out the fly swatter. The point in time at which everything began.

It was August 31, 2015.

Just shy of four years ago.

One thousand, four hundred, fifty-seven days from the time when I was just an average person, living their life, going to their job, until I finally ended up what and where I am today.

Four years during which the thing I wouldn’t have called a depression compelled me to do things that repeatedly broke me down, brought me to the brink of death, dropped me in the middle of the pit of hell, and left me there to rot.

And it all started one afternoon in a newsroom.

This is what you’ve been wasting your time doing?”

Vern pitched the stack of papers into the trash, causing me to curl my lips between my teeth. The barrier of my pinched-shut mouth prevented me from hollering back at my editor. Hollering was definitely not the appropriate response—but explaining the side project was.

“No, Vern. That was just-”

“I don’t care what it was! It wasn’t the copy for the daily brief or the vlog!”

His shouting sprinkled my face with droplets of stale-coffee-scented saliva. He paused his tirade long enough to suck in a breath, but not long enough for me to get a word in edgewise.

“Vern, I have-”

You are not a feature writer.” His face was now beet-red and a vein appeared to be on the cusp of bursting through his forehead. “You are just the ninety-second source of headlines intended to draw web traffic. When you’ve spent a decade at this paper, that’s when you can come to me with your hackneyed side projects. And I’ll probably reject them then, too.”

I didn’t bother clenching my jaw. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

He thrust his index finger into the air toward the office door. “You’d better email me the web copy and vlog file for the daily brief within the next thirty minutes or you can consider this your two weeks’ notice.”

I turned, left his office—as well as the piece I’d been perfecting for two weeks—and went back to my desk.

I sank into my chair and stared at my computer screen.

That was the moment I always look back on and consider the beginning. It was the moment—not all that dissimilar from the first of the twelve steps in addiction recovery—when you take stock of your situation and admit it to yourself.

My name is Emma Abercrombie, and I hate my job.

The gnat in my ear was my job and that’s why I didn’t realize something was actually wrong with me. But something was wrong. Even right then I knew something was wrong. Not wrong in a major sense, just… off. For as long as I could remember everything in my life was wrong, but right then it just seemed like the problem was my job.

I held a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, so I should’ve been working as a real reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News. Not just as a low-level staffer recording videos of myself rattling off headlines and exhorting site visitors to click various links. Two years of doing this every single day of my working life had become the gnat that wouldn’t leave. Which was why I attempted to take a step up from my current position by putting together an amazing feature story of a local girl named Gemma Brooks who’d worked her way out of the LA projects and earned a spot in UCLA’s aerospace engineering program. A huge accomplishment and a story worthy of telling.

I’m sure if one of the feature writers had come up with it, Vern would have been jumping up and down, spraying them with his stale-coffee-scented saliva as he sang their praises.

But since it was me who presented it to him, Vern decided it was extracurricular fluff. A waste of my time, and by proxy, his time.

Something was wrong and it must’ve been my job.

I checked my reflection, positioned myself in front of my webcam, and put on a genuine smile. “Good afternoon, Los Angelinos. Emma Abercrombie here with what’s up in LA today.”

Seventeen minutes later, I sent the video file and web copy to Vern and I spent a few minutes perusing articles about the ongoing conflict in Syria and became even more annoyed by my crappy job because I should’ve been one of the reporters writing the real news. Not just tossing headlines into the vacuum of cyberspace for the purpose of generating web traffic. Or writing the human interest pieces. Or something. Something that involved legitimate reporting—and Vern made it clear he’d never give me such an opportunity while working for him.

Something was wrong and I was positive it was just my job.

So that was when I broke out the fly swatter.

I did an internet search for “Associated Press Reporting Jobs.” I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for, but I found something intriguing.

I came across an organization called Associated Reporting Incorporated. According to their website, ARI was founded by freelance journalists in 2001 with the goal of revolutionizing the way news is delivered. They had a network of hundreds of correspondents on every continent and their business model gave the traditional newswire a run for its money.

My eyes widened as I consumed the info on their About page. ARI looked like precisely the opportunity I needed: the freedom of a freelance reporter with the job security of a traditional staff writer.

So on a whim—and with more than a little wishful thinking—I filled out the application and attached my story about Gemma.

I remember pausing as I hovered the arrow over the Submit button. Something about it made my stomach twist into a knot. I didn’t understand why the idea of submitting my application made me so nervous. At the time, I figured the worst that would happen was I’d be rejected and I’d be no worse off.

In retrospect, it seems more like it was a sense of foreboding, as if I knew exactly what would ultimately happen to me as a result of clicking that button.

But at the time, I wouldn’t have called it that. Just like I wouldn’t have called the other thing a depression.


And I’d sealed my fate.


The Book

The Book_blog photo
Courtesy tazzerwhite.

It had been a terrible day, but it had been a worse eleven months. If not for the previous eleven months, the day would have just been annoying. Annoying days are simply standard operating procedure within the corporate event industry. Between obnoxious vendors and even more obnoxious clients, the long hours, the shitty food, the inevitable equipment failure, and staff who let the Las Vegas culture get to them a bit too much, every day onsite has the tendency to be a headache. Today would have been yet another headache if it weren’t for the terrible day eleven months ago that changed everything.

Today would have just been a misunderstanding if Celia weren’t still so fragile. Women within a corporate setting are so competitive despite touting a mantra of sisterhood and building each other up. In reality—at least in this particular environment—women are cutthroat and merciless in their need to prove themselves amidst attempting to claw their way up the corporate ladder. It’s still a man’s world, a boys’ club, and your fellow sisters will not hesitate to throw you under the bus if they think they can get a leg up from your metaphoric corpse.

Laney, the special projects director for the Venetian’s conference center, is one of those women (but weren’t they all?); one of those well-dressed, pin-thin, sharp women in sharp stilettos, who march around the venue as if they own both it and the entire conference. And Laney, for whatever reason, didn’t like the tone Celia had used to communicate with Laney’s husband in a few of the group emails that had gone around during the last minute preparations. Laney’s husband Max, being the event manager, essentially does own the entire conference, and it’s part of Celia’s job as the project manager for the marketing analytics provider to talk to him. But Laney thought Celia had been flirtatious—apparently, politeness is so rare these days that it comes off as flirtation—and Laney had made that painfully obvious to Celia that morning. All while fellow event staff and a large handful of conference attendees had been watching.

So there she’d stood that very morning, next to the registration desk, trying not to make a scene, when Laney had reprimanded her loudly and pointedly enough that now a bunch of people probably believe Celia is a wannabe homewrecker. What sent the confrontation over the edge from annoying and embarrassing to humiliating and heartbreaking was when Laney cited the lack of Celia’s spectacular, yet understated wedding rings, which had been present at last year’s conference and were now suspiciously absent. How such a small change had been so noticeable was beyond Celia, but it seemed Laney was looking for evidence and found it in the missing rings. And that was when Josh appeared from out of nowhere.

Sweet Josh. Nice Josh. Quiet Josh, who’d never confronted anyone that Celia had ever seen, at least not in the three years she’s been working this conference. Friendly Josh, whom Celia had spoken to all of maybe five or six times in those three years. Subtly handsome Josh, whom Celia had never really noticed was subtly handsome until she woke up at 4:45 AM just now. Now, as she’s studying his sleeping face.

Josh, who is the director of conventions and corporate events for the Venetian, Palazzo, and the Sands, which makes him Laney’s superior, but not Celia’s. With endless vendors and clients, the hierarchy within the corporate event industry can get a bit confusing and muddy, so Celia can’t help wondering whether Josh being asleep in her hotel room at quarter ‘til five in the morning is a conflict of interest. If it is, he certainly hadn’t acted like it. But then again, it had been a terrible day for both of them and maybe the terrible day is justification for what they did in here.

How Josh had known that the topic of the missing rings was an emotional sticking point for Celia was also beyond her, but apparently he’d noticed her a lot more than she’d noticed him. Because there he suddenly was, telling Laney to shut it down and act like a damned professional, before hooking Celia’s elbow and ushering her into one of the session rooms that wouldn’t be in use for another couple of hours.

Eleven months, which had crawled along slower than molasses in January, suddenly felt like eleven minutes ago and Celia nearly cried like she did when she got the awful news. But she couldn’t cry like that. Not right then. Not while Josh was standing there, his presence suddenly mammoth when it had previously never more than barely registered in her consciousness. Instead of crying, she sat in one of the empty chairs, staring at the gaudy pattern on the carpet, breathing, and attempting to steady her shaking hands. She would have been fine—relatively fine—but then he had to go and open his mouth.

“That wasn’t about you,” Josh began. “She and Max had some kind of an issue earlier this year and she’s rattled. She doesn’t know about your um… your loss.”

Celia glanced up briefly in surprise. “But you do?” There wasn’t any way to ask without sounding almost offensive or rude, but Josh didn’t appear to be fazed.

He slipped his hands in his pockets and looked apprehensive, as if he was suddenly struck by the intimate nature of the environment he’d placed them both in. “Ted was meeting with some of the people from your team during a site visit early in the year. They told him you were supposed to be there, but you were still on a leave of absence. Afterward, he mentioned it to me because I guess he felt the information was something I’d find relevant. Or maybe relatable. I don’t know. Maybe he was just gossiping.” He tried to laugh casually, but it came out forced and awkward. “You know how people in these circles like to gossip.”

Celia huffed. “I do.” Gossip in the events industry is a sport that everyone plays.

He slid a chair in front of her at a respectable distance and sat, spinning the platinum band on his left hand. “I know that it’s not really what Laney accused you of. I know it’s more like, you’re still getting used to the idea of not having that person in your corner. You were married… how long?”

She swallowed and set her chin in a feeble attempt to hold herself together. “Seven.” She had to pause. “Seven years.”

“Seven years,” he acknowledged, nodding. “That’s a long time. So it was like, you guys were together through a lot of stuff. Probably college and starting your careers and everything people do when they’re, you know… young adults who grow into older adults. If that makes sense.”

It does, she wanted to say, but she couldn’t say anything because, my god, this was not a time when she wanted to cry. Instead, she settled for nodding back at him.

“And you’re used to having them to call and vent to when you have a really shitty day. Like when someone onsite is being an asshole and you just need to be like, ‘Babe,’” he said, holding his hand up to his ear, mimicking a phone call, “‘you wouldn’t believe what this guy said to me today.’ And then they’re like, ‘wow, what a piece of shit.’” He laughed again, but it was a blatantly sad-sounding laugh. “And you guys have this little pep rally over the phone and you feel better. But suddenly, you can’t make that call anymore and it makes what the asshole said or did that much worse because you don’t have anyone to confide in who can help you build yourself back up afterward. And you miss a lot of things, but right then you miss that the most. You miss your partner. The person who’s always had your back no matter what.”

And then, Celia might as well have been alone in the big, empty session room because—Josh or no Josh—she had to cry. How he’d known exactly what the whole situation felt like was beyond her, but it seemed less than important. She leaned over her knees, clutching her face, trying to be discreet, even though she knew it wasn’t very discreet, but that also felt less than important.

“That’s what’s so hard,” he went on. “And that’s what always hurts and always makes you feel more alone than anything else. Having to go through the mundane, day-to-day shitty stuff alone. And that’s why Laney’s stupid ranting is more than just stupid ranting, and that’s why it bothers you more than it would have.”

He placed his hand on one of her shoulders for all of one second before retracting it and exhaling loudly. “I never used to work this conference because it always falls during the week of my anniversary. So my wife and I were always as far away from Vegas as possible. We usually went to California to hike. One of our bucket list items was to hike the entire John Muir Trail. That’s like… probably three to four weeks of hiking, so it wasn’t something we’d be able to do for a while. We usually just hiked portions of it.”

She was suddenly distracted from crying and glanced up again. “You’ve been here every year since I was assigned this event.”

“Yeah,” he said quickly and then cleared his throat. “Misty… my wife… she got sick three and a half years ago. She caught the flu. The flu, right? You don’t think the flu is that big of a deal, especially not for a twenty-nine year old person in really good health. But she caught a secondary infection, caught pneumonia, and it was all downhill from there. She was just fine, and then over the course of about a month and a half she was just gone.”

Celia covered her mouth and her eyes widened. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, well.” He gave another defeated laugh. “Always get your flu shot, right?”

She nodded. “Flu shots are important.” After all, what else are you supposed to say to something like that? “So this is your anniversary week?”

“Yeah. Today is actually my… or our…” He paused and looked at her through red-tinged hazel eyes for a moment before he looked back at the floor. “Anyway. Today’s the shittiest day of a really shitty week, and I heard Laney running her mouth, and I knew you were like… you know. But to answer your question, yes. And work is a good distraction, so now I always work this event.”

“I’m so sorry, Josh. Truly.” He nodded again, but continued to stare at the floor and said nothing, so she added, “Micah was a runner. He always ran before work before it got too hot. He basically ran in the dark and I always told him that was so stupid because drivers couldn’t see him very well. But he was stubborn and I was right. And here I am. That was eleven months ago.”

“Ted mentioned it was something along those lines. How ironic, right? You think eating right and staying active will give you longevity, but sometimes shit just happens. It sucks.”

“It totally sucks. Have you gone to like… meetings and stuff?” she asked cautiously. All those ridiculous meetings for widows. Absurd. A widow at thirty years old.

“I went to a few. I was the only person there under forty-five and I couldn’t relate to those people. They all looked at me with pity, which annoyed me and made me feel like a child. So I stopped going. I’d rather just work.”

“I went to them for about three weeks before I couldn’t go anymore,” she said. “I’ve been seeing a therapist. About six months ago, she told me to set a goal date to take off my rings. She said it was a ‘practical step in moving forward,’ but I don’t know about that. But I did it anyway. Two weeks ago, I put them in my jewelry box.” A lump formed in her throat and her eyes spilled over again. “I didn’t exactly have a chance to explain that to Lane—” She couldn’t even finish saying the woman’s name before she had to stifle another sob.

He placed his hand on her shoulder again and let it linger there that time. “Laney’s an asshole. She’s taking out her personal problems on you.”

Celia shook her head. “She just doesn’t know.”

“I know. But I’m sorry she unloaded on you.”

They went silent and she found them looking at each other. Her sniffling back sobs and him with his eyes red. They shared a similar look several hours later when they stood outside her hotel room, and it was what compelled her to invite him in. And that’s how he ended up asleep in her bed right now.

Back in the empty session room, the look lasted until Celia’s radio chirped.

“Celia!” came a voice over the tiny speaker. “The kiosks on level three all have the blue screen of death!”

She groaned as she stood up and lifted to radio to her mouth. “I’ll be right there.”

Josh stood as well. “Never a dull moment. You okay?”

“Of course. Thank you for that.”

“Don’t mention it. I’ll have a word with Laney.”

“You don’t need to do that. I’m fine.”

“Okay.” He slipped his hands into his pockets and took a step away from her. “Well if you need anything, just holler.” He pulled a radio out of his pocket. “I’m on here, too.”

“Thanks. I’ll probably see you around the floor.”

He hesitated for a moment. “You guys are planning to be at the reception tonight, right? CVI ordered lead retrieval, didn’t they?”

She nodded, suddenly wondering if it was strictly work-related question or if it was more her-related. “Yes, we’ll be there until after the reception ends.”

“Sounds good. Then I’ll see you there.”

“I’ll see you there, too.”

She didn’t actually see him there, at least not until it was almost over. She was swapping out chargers for the lead retrieval scanners while most of her staff was sneaking off to the open bar, and he’d approached the booth expertly balancing two plastic cups of wine in one hand, a small plate of food in the other, and what appeared to be a small book under one arm.

“Celia,” he’d said over the obnoxiously loud music, setting the plate and cups down on the counter. “I’m guessing you didn’t grab a bite yet.”

She smiled gratefully. “I didn’t. I didn’t get much lunch either. Thank you, you’re a lifesaver.”

“No problem.” He pulled the book from under his arm and held it against his chest. “Are you feeling any better?”

“I am. Sometimes you just need a moment, I guess.” They both picked up the cups of wine and she gestured toward him, feeling like a toast of sorts was politely obligatory. “To um, having someone to commiserate with.”

“And to the people we commiserate over,” he added, and she had to immediately drink, because damn.

She noticed she unintentionally downed the cup. “Today sucks.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Fuck today.”

She had to laugh. “Fuck today, indeed.”

He pulled the book away from his chest, tilted it toward her, and started saying something just as the announcer boomed overhead, “Ladies and gentlemen, please remember to return your lead retrieval devices to the rental booth prior to leaving the show floor. Thank you.”

“What was that?” Celia asked, leaning across the counter and glancing at the book.

“I was just saying this book is something that really helped me when I—”

“What’s up Joshua!” AJ, one of her staff hollered as he, Stephanie, Todd, Sandra, and David descended upon the booth again, all double-fisting cups of free wine.

“Not much,” Josh said, placing the book back under his arm and shaking AJ’s hand. “How’s it going? Working hard or hardly working?”

AJ laughed and lifted his cup. “You know how we do!”

“Yeah, I know how we do, too,” Celia butted in. “And unless all of you want to get a late start at the blackjack tables, you might want to get back here and help me charge batteries. Or start going to the booths and pick up devices so we don’t have to wait for everyone to come here.”

“Yes, ma’am!” AJ said before downing his drink and disappearing behind the back curtain with Stephanie and Todd. Sandra and David picked up checklists and meandered back out into the crowd, leaving Celia and Josh alone again.

“So what were you saying?” Celia tried again.

“Oh yeah.” Josh pulled the book out from under his arm a second time. “So anyway, about six months or so after… after, um…”

“Just after,” she finished for him.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “This book… it was really helpful. It’s not just about, you know, all that, but it has one section that—”

“Celia!” Stephanie hollered from behind the curtain. “This entire charging station isn’t getting any power!”

Celia briefly lifted her gaze to the ceiling in exasperation just as David returned wearing a look that told her there was an issue with one of the lead retrieval devices.

“Celia,” David said. “Beta Tech says their device isn’t showing any of their scans from today.”

Josh slipped the book under his arm and smiled with understanding and good humour. “This is a bad time. I’ll let you handle up.”

“Okay, I’m so sorry,” she said genuinely. “Can I try to find you later? I’d like to hear about the book.”

“Yeah, I’ll be around. I’m sure I’ll bump into you guys.”

The book. It’s a beautiful book. Right now, it’s sitting on the nightstand and Celia sets her phone back down next to it after checking the time. Her movement causes Josh to stir and he reaches for her, pulls her close to him, and she’s almost one hundred percent positive he’s merely acting on his subconscious, possibly his dreams, where he’s undoubtedly reaching for his wife.

“What time is it?” he murmurs, eyes still closed.

“Early,” she says. “Not even five yet.”

He hums and tilts his head, resting his cheek on her forehead, and his breathing becomes long and deep once again. Her ear is on his chest and she closes her eyes. Eleven months ago, she did this. Rather, eleven months ago, she stopped doing this. Her heart aches again for the umpteenth time that day, a tear spills onto his chest, and she lets herself pretend she’s listening to Micah’s heartbeat.

Earlier, when her team had been securing everything for the night, they kept running post-work plans by her, and Celia couldn’t help noticing she wondered about how conducive each idea would be to bumping into Josh. And then, of course, she couldn’t help wondering about her own motivation. Did she just want to hear about the book? Or did she suddenly have a thing for Josh? Josh, who’d barely registered in her mind prior to the Laney incident. Or was she just lonely? Attention and affection starved? And if that was the case, was that really the best idea? After all, even if she did suddenly have a thing for him, he clearly still had a thing for his wife. The face and behavior of a person whose grief is still open and raw is distinctive and Josh’s person was riddled with it even three years after the fact.

No, Celia told herself repeatedly as she followed her group through the casino. No, no, no, in time with the chimes and jingles of slot machines. No… no… no… with each of sip of her martini while she sat with her colleagues around a blackjack table.

She doesn’t even play blackjack. It’s always just a place to be so she doesn’t have to be by herself. She gets enough of that at home and she still doesn’t like it. The conferences are a good escape from reality, which was why, after she returned from her leave of absence, she asked for an increase in her workload. Now, she manages and travels to three conferences each month, which, truthfully, borders on too much work. She constantly feels like she’s on the cusp of either dropping the ball or losing her sanity completely.

As she pondered all of this, she thought again of Josh and the book. He said the book helped him, but he still seemed so sad. Maybe he’d been even sadder. Or maybe the book didn’t really help him, but he thought, maybe, it could help her.

And then, as if thoughts had the ability to materialize people and things, her radio chirped inside her pocket. She pulled it out and saw the screen read, “Joshua D.” She placed it next to her mouth and pressed the button, telling herself the call was likely work-related.

“Yes sir.”

“You don’t have to call me that.”

“Sorry. Is something going on?”

“Are you busy?”

“Not at all.”

“Want to meet me somewhere?”

Actually, yes, she wanted to say. “Sure. Where?”

“Are you staying at the Venetian or the Palazzo?”


“There’s a casino bar halfway between the lobby and the main escalator. It’s blue. Meet me there in ten minutes.”

It took longer than ten minutes to walk from the blackjack table in the Palazzo to the blue bar in the Venetian. While she was still a couple dozen yards away, she spotted him. He’d shed his tie, but still wore his jacket, and even from across the room she could tell he looked somber. In spite of that, he smiled cordially when she joined him.

“Celia,” he greeted her, offering his hand and she politely shook it before he gestured at one of the stools.

She sat, shifting slightly to face him and he sat as well. “Hi, Josh. How’s it going?”

“It’s going. Another long day.”

“Very long as usual,” she agreed.

He gestured at the shelves of bottles. “Whatcha drinking?”

“Maybe just a beer. I already had that wine earlier and a martini about a half hour ago, and at least one person on my team needs to show up tomorrow morning without a hangover.” Truthfully, she didn’t want to get drunk and do something stupid, like invite him up to her room. But apparently, she hadn’t needed to be drunk for that to happen.

Josh chuckled as he placed the order and then turned back to her. “Then you’ll be the only person on the entire event staff who’s not hungover. Maybe the only person at the event, period. You know how the attendees like to tie one on.”

“They certainly do, but hey. When in Rome, right?”

He gestured around the room grandly. “Or in Venice.”

She laughed, feeling more than a bit appalled at the fact she found him to be concerning levels of cute. That was both old and new. Old, because the last time she’d thought about a guy as being cute was way back in college, and then she married him. New, because of the same reason. And whether it was the old or the new, or simply because it was different, she felt a stab in her heart and suddenly longed fiercely for the wedding rings back home in her jewelry box. Or more specifically, the man who’d given them to her.

The bartender set down the bottles and Celia suddenly couldn’t decide whether to down hers and then politely leave or feign fatigue and excuse herself right away. She felt her eye rims begin to prickle and hastily took a sip in an effort to wash down the lump in her throat. As she did, she noticed Josh picking at the label on his bottle with his thumbnail, which caused his wedding band to reflect flashes of the blue neon lights into her eyes, and she wondered what on earth they were both doing there like this. It suddenly felt like an emotional affair, because the both of them were clearly still emotionally unavailable. That is, if that was even what they were doing there. What was this? She didn’t know, she was afraid to find out, and subsequently wanted to evaporate into the air along with all of the cigarette smoke that hung in the atmosphere.

“You look like you did earlier,” Josh said, shaking her out of her thoughts.

“What do you mean?”

“When Laney was laying you out, you had that same look on your face.”

She closed her eyes briefly as she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I’m just having a day.” She paused. “Still having a day, I guess.”

“I hear you,” he said, leaning into his elbows against the bar. “Do you ever notice they seem to practice age discrimination in this industry?”

She crinkled her brow. “Not really. I feel like there’s more of a problem being a woman. The events industry is a total boys’ club. If I’ve had any problem, it’s been with not being taken seriously because I’m not one of the guys. I’ve had event managers walk right past me to talk to guys on my staff because they assumed they were in charge.”

“I guess I’ve seen that too.”

“And,” she added, “it’s what makes women act like Laney. This morning isn’t the first problem I’ve had with her, and she’s not the first woman I’ve had a problem with.”

“That’s sort of the same thing I deal with constantly. People will go over my head when they don’t like an answer I’ve given them or whatever. And it’s actually pretty hard to go over my head. Within the convention arm of the Sands, there’s really only two people above me and they don’t really give a shit about what these clients typically want to whine about. But clients have trouble hearing no from someone younger than them, even though I basically run all of this,” he said, flipping his hand in the air.

She smirked to herself before taking another sip. “Big man on campus. I feel so sorry for you.”

“I don’t need you to feel sorry for me,” he said defensively. “I’m just saying I hate my job sometimes. I busted my ass to get to this position and people still walk all over me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. That’s exactly what I deal with, too. It’s annoying and it’s just the way things are, and there’s not really anything anyone can do to change it,” she said, absently patting his hand. He glanced at their hands and then at her face, and she pulled away.

“Sorry. I’m too touchy-feely. It’s not really appropriate.”

“It’s okay. That wasn’t inappropriate.”

“Well, I’m sure if Laney saw it, she’d think otherwise.”

“Laney’s just not happy. Not everyone has a great marriage.”

“That’s really sad,” Celia said before pursing her lips and turning her gaze toward the shelves of bottles. “I had a great marriage.”

He nodded as he sipped his beer. “So did I.”

“Not that we never had our problems,” she added. “Everyone has problems sometimes. The difference is how you deal with it.”

“Exactly. When we’d have a fight or something, we wouldn’t go to bed without resolving it. That was a rule she insisted on since the very beginning. Never go to bed mad.”

“Oh yes,” she said enthusiastically, turning to him again. “We had that rule too. And sometimes we’d be up until all hours of the morning hashing through stuff.”

“Yup. The major fight we seemed to have was about kids. There was a period of time when we lost a lot of sleep over that one.”

Celia lifted her eyebrows. “You have kids?”

“No, and that was the thing. I wanted kids and she was always on the fence. As time passed, she decided she didn’t. She was really career-driven. Not a workaholic, just ambitious. And like you were saying, it’s sometimes harder for women to get promoted specifically because of things like having kids. Taking maternity leave and all that. She didn’t want to do that. And I was always saying, but what about beyond our careers? Someday we’re going to be old and we won’t be able to devote all this time to work or traveling or hiking, and what’s going to happen when we’re really old and one of us dies? The other one would just be alone.” He paused, pulling his bottom lip between his teeth while he picked at the label again. “We’re both only children and we’re not really close with our parents and our jobs don’t really lend themselves well to cultivating close friendships. I was constantly saying we needed something more, and truthfully it was because I hated the idea of her being totally alone one day. I was older, and I was the man, and for some reason I always believed I’d be the first to go. But she said I worried too much. And now I’m the one who’s alone in a Vegas casino bar on my anniversary.”

He cast a sad sidelong glance at Celia. “It’s pathetic.”

“Well,” she said, lifting her shoulders slightly, “I’m alone in a Vegas casino bar too. Because I am a workaholic, and I’m a workaholic because I don’t want to be alone in my empty house. All I have is my job, too. So I guess that makes me pathetic also.”

He let his chin sink into his palm while he stared at his beer, so she stared at hers.

“We were planning to have kids,” she said, mostly to herself. “I was concerned about work too, so I wanted to put a good five to seven years in at my company. I’d been reading all of these articles about how pregnancy in your thirties isn’t as bad as everyone seems to believe. It’s actually better to be more established in your work and finances and stuff, and in your thirties you’re more emotionally prepared for parenthood because you’re more mature. So we said we’d start trying after my thirtieth birthday.” She pressed her lips together as she swallowed and then took a deep breath. “I turned thirty four months ago. And it just came and went. No more husband. No pregnancy. Nothing. Except for work. Pathetic indeed.”

“Maybe pathetic is the wrong word,” he finally said. “Maybe it’s just sad.”

She nodded. “Sad. Yeah.”

That time, he was the one who placed his hand on hers and she decided he was right. It wasn’t inappropriate. Or if it was, that didn’t seem to matter because right then what she wanted more than anything in the world was someone to hold her hand. And maybe that’s what he wanted more than anything too, and maybe that’s why he did it. And maybe they weren’t the people they each wanted to be holding hands with, but they each were the only person there for and with the other.

“Not how I pictured ‘til death do us part,” he muttered.

He said it quietly enough that she knew he wasn’t talking to her, rather just saying it because he needed to. She wondered which anniversary this would have been for them. How many years ago had they said that to each other? She and Micah had said it about seven and a half years ago, and she had to agree. This wasn’t what she pictured either. Not that she’d really pictured it. But when saying it, a quick mental picture flashed in her mind. Old and gray. Maybe in bed together. At the same time, of course, even though that wasn’t realistic.

Josh rubbed his thumb over hers and she had a sudden realization that this was exactly what ‘til death do us part looks like. If their souls left the earth at the same time, would they really be parted from one another? She didn’t believe that. Death do us part meant one leaves before the other. And that’s what happened.

Her breath hitched in her throat, but it was concealed by a stomach-pounding thud of bass from the speakers in the bar and an auto-tuned voice repeatedly booming the words, “Welcome to Las Vegas!” The kicker was when the cocktail waitresses all climbed onto the bar and began twerking only a couple of feet from where she sat.

“Okay,” she said, pulling her hand away. “I think I need to call it a night.”

“Yeah,” he agreed as he stood with her. They stepped out of the raucous bar, heading toward the escalator and when they reached it, she turned to him to say thank you or goodnight, but he spoke before she could. “Want me to walk you to your room?”

Was that a loaded question? Possibly, but she still said, “Sure.”

The elevator ride was silent as she continued to ponder the question, continued to wonder what exactly was happening between them, or if there even was something happening between them, and if there was, how she felt about it. All of the questions in her mind returned unanswered. And yet, when they stood next to her door, she looked at him and he looked at her, and his eyes were so sad, and she found herself asking another question, but this time she asked it outloud.

“Do you want to come in?”

Why? Why had she asked that? And why would he come in? She tried to tell herself this is what single thirty-something year old adults did. Especially in a place like Las Vegas. That was part of the reason there are so many relationships and marriages amongst people in their industry. People came to Las Vegas for a week at a time several months out of the year and they saw the same people and found companionship with those people. But this wasn’t exactly like that, because she and Josh weren’t single. Not really. Single meant unattached. She and Josh weren’t exactly unattached.

Nevertheless, after a hesitation, he gave a single nod. “Sure.”

Now what?

Inside the room, Celia slipped out of the jacket of her skirt suit, draped it over the chair at the desk in the corner, and turned to face him in a way that she felt was blatantly expectant. Expectant of what, she wasn’t sure, but she was suddenly very nervous, as if she’d irrevocably signed up for something that she wasn’t convinced she wanted.

He crossed the room with distinctive intention, holding her gaze, and stopped right in front of her. He stood there for a moment and she was sure she looked terrified. And maybe that’s why he didn’t kiss her, rather slipped off his own jacket, draped it next to hers, and pulled a book—the book—out of the inside pocket.

He held it against his chest and said, “Let’s read this. I think you’ll like it.”

She nearly passed out from relief. “Okay.”

They stepped out of their shoes and sat on the bed next to each other, propped against the headboard, and he held the book between them.

Kahlil Gibran’s Masterpiece: The Prophet.

“This is basically a collection of philosophical poems about some of life’s great experiences and other facets of the human experience. Love, marriage, joy and sorrow, freedom, friendship, children, death,” he said. “At our wedding, Misty read the passages about love and marriage. And so reading it on our anniversary became an unofficial tradition of ours. You know, to remind us of what we had promised each other and signed up for. After she died, I couldn’t even look at it for about six months. But when our first anniversary after that came around, I was so desperate for something. Just some kind of connection to what we had that I picked it up again. I sometimes read the whole thing, but at the very least I always read the sections on love, marriage, and death.”

“Is it a religious book?”

“I don’t think so. I think it’s just about life. It doesn’t really tell you right from wrong, or what to do. It just makes you think.” He opened it, flipped to a page, paused, and glanced at her. “May I?”

“Of course.”

And he began to read:

“Then Almitra spoke again and said, And what of Marriage, master?

And he answered saying:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

You shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of heavens dance between you.”

As he read, Celia picked up a pillow, pressed it to her mouth, and drew her knees to her chest. Her mascara smudged on the pillowcase and she turned her face toward the opposite wall. But he continued to read. His voice was quiet and held just a hint of fragility. He read for several minutes until he stopped and she was still wiping her eyes on the pillowcase. They sat in silence for a while until she spoke without even thinking, not really even to him.

“That is so beautiful.”

“Yeah,” he said, quieter and more fragile. Silence resumed for several more minutes when Josh reached for a tissue from the box on the nightstand and handed it to her.

“I really wish,” she started to say and her breath hitched. “I wish I’d known about that book. I wish I could read it to him.”

He nodded. “I wish she could read it to me. She always did.”

“What anniversary is this?”

“It would’ve been number twelve.”

She reached for his hand and he not only let her hold it, but also slipped his fingers between hers, interlacing them together.

“Happy Anniversary, Josh.”

“Thank you, Celia.”

Silence resumed for another beat or two, when he broke it by speaking quietly. “Want me to read from the beginning?”


And he did. And that’s the last thing she remembered before waking up at 4:45 to check the time, when she suddenly found herself with her head on his chest and his cheek resting on her forehead. When she fell asleep to the sound of his heart while pretending it was that of her husband.

The next thing she knows, a hand is stroking hers and she peels her eyes open to see a desert sunrise.

“Celia,” he is saying. “Celia. Celia, it’s almost seven. I have to get going and you probably do too.”

She sits up and sees he’s once again wearing his jacket and shoes, but now he’s also wearing splotches of smudged mascara just to the left of the white shirt’s buttons. She wonders if she should try not to think about the fact that he slept in here. Thinking about it too much would surely complicate something that wasn’t really complicated. She tells herself there are worse things. Worse things like kissing him or sleeping with him in the other sense of the phrase. Somehow, it seems what actually did happen between them in her hotel room last night was far more intimate than those things. And that is what she definitely needs to avoid thinking about.

She walks him to the door and he pauses just outside, facing her.

“I was kind of having a terrible day yesterday and… um,” he starts to say, but settles for, “Thanks for humoring me.”

“If I humored you, then you humored me, so thanks for that.”

He cracks a smile and then leans down to kiss her cheek as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, but it doesn’t feel that way and his faces suddenly says as much. Her eyes dart back and forth between his eyes and his lips and for a second she wonders, but then he drops his gaze to the floor.

“Have a good day, Celia,” he says to the carpet as he turns and starts down the hall.

“You too,” she says, barely loud enough for him to hear, but it seems he hears her anyway because he abruptly stops and returns.

He stands in front of her again and holds the book out, but she can’t bring herself to take it.

“I’ve read this so many times that I’ve memorized it,” he says. “I want you to have it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Completely. This isn’t the original copy I’ve always had, it’s just the one I carry with me.”

Hesitantly, she takes it from him and holds it against her chest. “Thank you.”

He nods and turns to head back down the hall, and she wonders if that’s it. If that was the extent of their emotional affair. But when he reaches the corner at the end of the hall, he pauses again as he glances back at her.

He smiles. And she wonders.


If you liked this story, let me know! If I get enough interest, I’ll write the full novel

The We and the They

british-army-patrol-on-the-nationalist-falls-rd-after-a-night-of-rioting-bx1rkt“The We and the They didn’t used to exist,” Great Aunt Alexa says, pulling the curtain back and peering out the window. “It used to just be the US.”

She is worried, but Mom always says she frets too much. It’s what older people have always done. They long for the past and are always talking about the “good old days.” Things were always better back then.

“But we know better,” Mom is always saying, “We are creating a better way of life. The way things are now is not any good and They are entirely to blame.”

Great Aunt Alexa doesn’t like the way Free Oppela is governed or the way it functions, or the fact that We can’t visit Old Oppela. We don’t want to go there anyway.

“They have blocked the N6 again,” the man wearing a patch of the Free Oppela flag says over his megaphone to a group of the We that have gathered in the square. “They are keeping the aid shipments of food and medicine from getting through. They are threatening to shut off the pipelines to restrict the water supply to Free Oppela. We won’t stand for this. We have a plan. We are preparing an offensive. It will begin at the end of this week.”

The crowd of the We begin to cheer and I watch through the windows as the We wave the flag of Free Oppela, a dark blue square with a large, white five-point star in the center.

Great Aunt Alexa closes the curtain and Dad turns on the TV. Though the We are liberated, Free Oppela still receives the government-sponsored channel of the Republic of Saxet. They are talking about the We again, calling the We terrorists, but We know better.

“They are so brainwashed! Listen to those idiots,” Dad says, getting irritated and switching to the only other channel that attenae in Free Oppela can pick up, WNN, which is an international news station. WNN is decidedly on the side of the We. Being on the other side of the world has given the international community a big picture perspective of the revolution and WNN knows that the We are liberators fighting against a murderous tyrant.

“Twenty-seven people were killed, including twelve children, when Saxet government forces targeted the last functioning hospital in South Oppela in an airstrike this week,” the WNN reporter says. “Fifty-six people were injured. Hospitals and schools have increasingly become targets as tensions are running high in the republic, which is now entering its ninth year of civil war.”

The revolution began while Mom was still pregnant with me, so I don’t know what it was like before the We and the They, but Great Aunt Alexa always jumps at the chance to tell the story.

“I was born in Oppela and when I was growing up, it was still just a small town,” she has told me and my little sister, Rim, on more occasions than we can remember. “Most people only lived here because they were students at the University of Saxet and enjoyed the laid back culture, so many of them stuck around, starting families and building businesses. It had a thriving local music scene, and that combined with its proximity to lakes and hiking trails made it a destination of sorts for people from out of state-”

“What’s a state?” Rim usually asked. She’s four years younger than me, so she hasn’t started school yet and doesn’t know a lot of the words used before the We and the They.

“Before the Continental American Territories were established, it was all a single country known as the United States of America. There were fifty states and after Saxet seceded—it was called Texas in those days—many other states did as well, and many of them banded together to form larger territories based on their political leaning.”

“Why was Saxet called Texas?” Rim would ask.

“When Saxet, er… Texas was in the process of seceding, people said it was a backward state and started referring to it as Saxet. The people of Texas considered that a badge of honor of sorts and adopted it as the Republic’s new name.”

“That’s so weird.”

“It’s all weird, Rim. It’s all very weird. Anyway, Oppela became very prosperous and the population was mainly educated people and transplants from other states who had beliefs about how things should be that differed significantly from the majority of the rest of Saxet. Everyone managed to coexist with each other until a very divisive presidential election. Leading up to that election, people were very angry at each other and everyone started speaking in terms of the We and the They. ‘We can’t stand for this,’ people on both sides would say. ‘If They win, it will destroy our way of life.’

“Eventually, Wilhem Ryder won the election and half of the United States, or the US as it was called, became very angry. The other half, Ryder’s supporters, became indignant. Everything was about We and They. ‘They are a bunch of backward idiots. We are going to lose a lot of our rights.’ ‘They are a bunch of liberal crybabies. We are going to make this country great again.’ It was all anyone talked about and everyone talked about it constantly.

“I remember when your father was just a baby, your grandmother used to host playdates with all the other new mothers in the neighborhood and it’s all they talked about. ‘They spray painted a bunch of hateful words on a store in North Oppela. Can you imagine being so ignorant? I’m so glad We are so much more intelligent than that.’ Even when she was rocking your dad to sleep, she’d listen to speeches given by people talking about it. ‘We have to do something. Make sure you’re calling your representatives. Say We won’t stand for what They are doing to our country.’ Everyone talked like that. It became the norm and it made the divide that much worse. An entire generation of people were born and raised with those divisive words of We versus They and it was all they knew. And as that generation grew into adulthood, We and They became more than just pronouns. It became an identity claimed by both sides of the divide.”


Today is a school day and I make my way through streets flanked by dilapidated buildings and piles of rubble. My walk is interrupted by one of the We shouting from a roof.

“Take cover, kid! They have a sniper today!”

I duck into an abandoned storefront and wait, flinching and clasping my ears at the sound of a series of gunshots. After it falls silent for several minutes, I make my way out the backdoor and creep through the snaking alleyways until I arrive at a hollowed-out former coffee shop, where my teacher is in the middle of the day’s lesson.

Miss Abercrombie is like Great Aunt Alexa and doesn’t conform to the We and the They, and many of my classmates talk behind her back about how the We is going to come after her one of these days.

“It was after Ryder lost his reelection to the Democratic challenger, Tobias Preston, in 2020 that Texas petitioned for secession and became the independent Republic of Saxet. Saxet was nearly unanimous in its choice to elect President Aleshire. Now, back in the days when Saxet was still part of the US, a president was limited to two four-year terms but the state governor had no term limits, and the people of Saxet decided to extend this to the newly-created office of the President of the Republic. And as a result, Aleshire has been in power for nearly thirty years.”

“Jeez! They were such a bunch of idiots!” a boy named Micah pipes up from one side of the room. “They should have established term limits. Then We wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“How did this mess begin, Micah?” she asks.

“The They started shooting the We at the first demonstrations.”

“Not quite.”

“That’s what my dad says. He was there.”

“No, what happened was a group of people were unhappy with the choices made by another group of people and wanted to do something about it. So they protested. The government sent military forces to keep things under control, but the protestors lashed out and became violent, and the military responded with force. Both sides were wrong and both sides were responsible for killing a lot of people.”

“The We were not wrong. The They just wanted to keep the We from getting our rights back and the They shot everyone.”

“And then what happened, Micah?” she asks in voice that is patient, but also slightly patronizing.

“The We fought back. The We had to. The They would have killed everyone.”

“What if the protestors sent people to talk to the government instead of fighting back?”

“You can’t talk to the They. The They are bunch of backwards idiots.”

“How do you know that?”

“They just are.”

“Have you ever talked to anyone from Old Oppela?”

“Of course not.”

“Then how do you know they’re just a bunch backwards idiots?”

Micah shrugs. “My dad says so.”

“Has he ever talked to anyone from Old Oppela?”

He shrugs again. “Maybe before the revolution began.”

“Do you understand how that’s a problem?”

“It’s a problem because the They are too ignorant to reason with.”

“No, the problem is, and always has been, a lack of communication.”

I raise my hand.

“Yes, Omran?”

“Miss Abercrombie, how can the We communicate with the They if the They just want to kill us?”

“You have to be the first to bridge the divide. It was a lack of communication and willingness to bridge a divide a long time ago that sank this whole continent into chaos. Back in the early years of the twenty-first century, there was no They and We in the sense that you all use those words today. That happened because people were very angry about a lot of things, and instead of trying to compromise and communicate with people they were angry at, they only talked to people who agreed with them. That resulted in a culture and language of division. That division is the only thing your parents ever knew growing up because it’s all their parents could talk about, so it became the world your parents grew up in and the language they spoke. Once they were adults, they were fluent in divisiveness instead of compromise and when they became sick of the way things were, the only way they knew how to change anything was by fighting.”

“We can’t communicate with the They,” I protest. “The They are ignorant and violent.”

“No,” she says, “they’re just like you. And you’re all just angry.”

Out of nowhere, the guttural hum of a low-flying jet fills the air and she’s barely able to tell us to take cover under the tables before there is an earth-shaking explosion.

I am suddenly rendered deaf, but only momentarily before total silence is replaced by a high-pitched buzz in my ears. The buzzing is so loud that all the sounds of screaming and crying surrounding me are muffled and incoherent. I am in total darkness, save for light peeking through crevices between the pieces of brick and dry-wall that have buried the table I dove underneath. A girl named Leila huddles next to me and we cling to one another in our cave of rubble. After what feels like a lifetime, we hear the rescuers shouting orders at each other as they begin shoveling and digging.

A couple of hours later, Leila and I sit on the curb across the street from what used to be our school building, staring at three small bodies covered by white sheets. Micah, or what used to be Micah, is under one of them. Leila is hysterical, but I can’t feel anything enough to cry. Some of the rescuers are wailing and some are filming the scene with phones.

“This is the aftermath of the latest airstrike. Look at what They have done. Three innocent children dead.”

Some of the rescuers are yelling at Miss Abercrombie, who is white with dust and bleeding from her head. “You are responsible for this! You are an informant! You are on their side and look what They did!”

She tries to reason with the rescuers despite being confused and wobbly, but she is taken into custody and led away. I never see her again.

Two of the rescuers drive the rest of us to a makeshift hospital in a van that functions as a makeshift ambulance. While one drives, the other films us with his phone.

“Look at what They did! They are ignorant, violent scum and look at what They have done to our children!”

We are treated for various injuries and our parents are called. Mom and dad weep and cradle me while wailing, “How could They do this? They have no respect for innocent lives!”

That night in our home, we watch the President of Saxet sit in his office flanked by the flags of the Republic of Saxet, which are squares consisting of a white top half and a red bottom half. He issues a statement on the government-sponsored channel about the attack.

“They staged it. They are insistent upon perpetuating this war to the point that They manufacture propaganda to convince the world that They are right. We will not stand for this kind of manipulation of hearts and minds and We will not relent until We once again have a safe and united Saxet, and this includes the areas of Oppela They currently occupy.”

Later, WNN airs a statement from the leader of the We. “They once again take no responsibility for the murderous acts They insist upon carrying out against We who are liberated in Free Oppela. All of Saxet deserves freedom from They who seek to continue this oppression. In response to this atrocious act, We will make an example of this-”

The footage of the leader of the We is abruptly cut short and the anchorwoman begins discussing news from elsewhere in the world. There is commotion outside in the square and Great Aunt Alexa lifts the curtain. I approach her so I can peer out, but she stops me.

“Don’t watch this time.”

“Why not?”

She sighs and closes the curtain. “It’s your teacher.”

The word barely makes it past her lips when the sound of a single gunshot ringing out causes us both to jump.


The We begin the offensive later that week, launching multiple rocket-propelled grenades stolen from the They into Old Oppela. The state-sponsored broadcast says, “We will not stand for this. They will be met with force.” In only a matter of days, tanks bearing the white and red flag crawl through the barbed-wire boundary separating Old and Free Oppela and begin obliterating entire neighborhoods. Our house is destroyed on day four and it seems Great Aunt Alexa had every right to worry after all. But she didn’t say, “I told you so.” She didn’t live long enough to say anything.


I do not expect to see him, but there he is. He looks older, of course. I do too. He also seems taller. I do not go out of my way to say hi, but he’s in my path to exit the wedding festivities and I have no reason or desire to avoid him. So I wave.

Recognition comes after a beat and he smiles. “Hey! I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“I know, it’s been a while. Like, something like–”

“Like six or seven years or something,” he finishes for me.

“Something like that, yeah.”

He tries to conceal the smirk on his face. “Since that-”

“Yeah,” I cut in. I knew he would mention it. “That party. And that weekend.”

He suddenly appears guilty, so I smile. But it seems he feels the need to explain himself anyway.

“I didn’t mean to, like… I mean if that was…” he stammers, still smiling, but also rubbing the back of his neck. “I didn’t want to be… I don’t know. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but you were really cool about it. I expected you to go a little psycho afterward.”

I laugh lightly. “Why?”

He shrugs. “Because that’s what women do when guys do what I… you know… did.”

“Well,” I say, also shrugging. “I don’t really give that incident much thought.”



“Why not?”

“Because when I think of you, I don’t think of that weekend.” The words roll off my tongue before I can assess their true meaning.

“Really?” He appears marginally insulted, but he’s still smiling. “So what do you think of instead?”

I look past him to the dusky sky for a second as I think of everything. Then I look back at his green eyes, noticing the crow’s feet that haven’t always been there.

“I think of… seventh grade. First day of school. When you wouldn’t stop poking me in the back with your eraser, and I turned around to tell you to quit and you said, ‘if I quit, will you give me a kiss?’ and then I turned back around with my cheeks burning and wondering if some boy would actually want to kiss me.

I think of high school, when my best friend had such a huge crush on your brother and I had to go with her to a party you threw just so she could talk to him.

I think of my first night after moving back here and going to a bar with people from my new job that I barely knew, seeing you bartending and spending the whole evening talking to you instead of them.

I think of a year later at that same bar when I got into a scary fight with my boyfriend, which you defused by stepping in and casually engaging him in conversation about some video game.

I think of the first time I saw you after you came back from Iraq and noticing you finally looked like a man and not a boy.

I think of the day my best friend married your brother and us walking up the aisle.

I think of the day we stood in front of the glass at the hospital, looking at their newborn baby, talking about how crazy it was. How a baby could be such a perfect combination of two people.”

I stop talking and he’s wearing a wide grin.

“Oh yeah,” is all he says. But his eyes say more.

“Yeah,” I agree, taking a step back. “Anyway. It was nice seeing you.”

I start to leave again when I hear him speak.


I glance back and see him holding out his hand toward me.


He flips his fingertips slightly, gesturing toward the dancefloor. “Come on.”

“What, you want to go dance?”

“Yeah.” He’s still grinning. “Come on.”


He shrugs. “So you can have another thing to think of.”

I smile.

Sometimes it is not, nor should it be, love.
Sometimes it’s just a thread. One you don’t notice unless you go searching for it, skimming over the tapestry of your life. Maybe you can find the beginning, maybe you can’t. Maybe you can find the ending, maybe you can’t. But the thread is there, adding color and intricacies.

And even though you rarely think of this singular thread, it is part you, and you know that without it the whole thing would look a bit different. Like it was missing something.

Hello, Sunshine

Today is July 13, 2016 and it is 102 degrees in Austin, Texas. Yes, summer is in full swing. And what better way to beat the heat than to write a blog from the comfort of my 72 degree house? Appropriately and ironically, I was nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Appropriate, meaning it’s really sunny outside. Like, burn-your-face-off sunny. Ironic, because I am not much of a ray of sunshine. I’m more like Meredith Grey.

Yep. That’s me.


Awww… Thanks, McDreamy.

Anyway, I thought this would be a fun change of pace, especially since I’m long overdue for a blog entry. I was nominated by my brotha-from-anotha-motha (BFAM), Sci-Fi novelist, Eric Warren. Eric is one of my DFWCon peeps and a valuable member of my tribe of fellow novelists. If you are a writer, having tribe is invaluable and my #writerslife has vastly improved by knowing these people.

So what is the Sunshine Blogger Award?

The Sunshine Blogger Award is given to those who are inspiring and bring sunshine into the lives of their readers and fellow bloggers through their blogspace and/or their social media.”

Yeah! I like the sound of that. So here we go. The rules are as follows:

  • Name drop and link to the blog of the person who nominated you.
  • Answer the eleven questions from the blogger who nominated you.
  • Nominate up to eleven wonderful bloggers and write (or borrow/steal) eleven questions for them to answer.

Here are the questions I was given (this could get pretty wordy):

What is your most embarrassing secret? Haha, no, kidding. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing with your life?

My most embarrassing secret? Everything embarrassing that’s ever happened to me is so funny that I’ve told everyone about it already. Like that time I got caught by the MP’s with a former boyfriend in a restricted area of Fort Hood. That was hysterical.

Anyway. So, the thing about being a writer is you just are one or you aren’t. It’s one of those things you sort of realize about yourself as you grow up and you just do it. And so it was with my professional life. In my early twenties, I worked as a freelance writer, mostly in the tech sector, doing collateral development. I also spent time writing web copy for every type of industry, from powerboats to Persian rugs. In college part one (read: I dropped out before I could finish and have recently returned), I studied journalism, which is basically functioning as a reporter and getting paid in grades instead of money. So I’ve never not been a writer. But I guess if I wasn’t actively pursuing a career as a novelist, I’d be involved in journalism. Journalism has evolved so much that it’s not just churning out articles anymore. Does that answer the question? I have no idea.

Do you use any special tricks in your writing? Anything you’ve figured out over the years that helps in some way?

I have my own process for starting a novel. Draft an overview of the plot, draw up character profiles–which helps me start to understand the characters and get a feel for what their personalities are like, then outline the plot in greater detail. Pretty typical for any writer. Music is vital to my creative process, so for each book I have a specific Spotify playlist or Pandora station. Each of my books have been inspired by a single song and that’s where everything begins.

I’m also a big fan of Google docs because you can edit and add to them on a web browser or a phone app. Fun fact: my first five novels were all originally written on my phone using the Google docs app, and the majority of them were written in bed, in the dark, in the middle of the night.

What does your ideal writer’s space look like?

My couch. I am a couch writer. I take the word “laptop” quite literally. I can’t sit in a standard chair for too long because my derrière is quite maigre and I have mild scoliosis. It becomes painful, especially if I’m writing all day long, so I need my big, squishy couch. Additionally, I need music, coffee, a clean environment, and scented candles.

Do you enjoy killing off your characters if the mood or circumstance requires? Why or why not?

My sixth novel is the first time I’ve killed main characters (sort of) and it was an experience in itself. Every novelist worth his salt knows the strength of the bond with characters and having to kill the ones you especially love is palpably heartbreaking. I spent three days putting off a major death scene and had to pace around my house when I was writing it. I had shaky hands, cold sweats, nausea, I couldn’t eat. It was awful. And a long time after it was done, one of my beta readers mentioned one of the dead characters and I had a bout with writer’s guilt. To the average person, I sound like a drama queen, but I suspect any writer knows the feeling all too well. Should I quote Frost? No? Well, suffice to say, he was right.

Do you have a routine or something you do when you get writer’s block or get stuck somewhere?

Apparently, I write blogs that my friends nominate me for. Seriously though, if I can’t get anything out I go to the gym. Or I clean my house. I’m a stress-cleaner. It’s less like a chore and more like therapy.

What is your favorite type of book to read? Doesn’t necessarily have to be genre, just something about a book that will always draw you in, no matter what.

I need something character-driven and relationship-driven. Not necessarily romantic relationships, just people dynamics. I love people. People are my favorite topic.

If someone were to ask you: “Should I become a writer?” what do you tell them? Why?

I would say, if you are a writer, nothing will stop you from becoming one. You’ll just do it. Now, if they asked, “Should I write books with the intent to publish them?” Then I would say, “Well, how do you feel about standing naked in front of a crowd and giving them free rein to pick apart every last one of your most vulnerable flaws? Because that’s exactly what it’s like.”

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

A wildlife biologist once measured the inside volume of a typical woodchuck burrow and estimated that — if wood filled the hole instead of dirt — the industrious animal would have chucked about 700 pounds’ worth. Source.

What is your favorite “non-writing” activity?

Gym, pool, rinse and repeat. I’m also a news junkie, particularly national politics and international affairs. I watch a lot of Frontline documentaries. And I read books, but that feels too connected to writing to be a “non-writing” activity. Yes, I’m boring. But I’m an introvert, so it’s acceptable. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

It is 10,000 years in the future. Humanity is a burning husk. Somehow your work has survived and aliens have translated it so they can read it, but they only have enough power to translate one story. Which story would you choose to survive humanity for another civilization to read?

It would definitely be Rise because of the historical aspect of the Syrian Civil War (at least, in 10,000 years all of that will be ancient history–or one can hope.). I don’t think aliens 10,000 years from now would care to read much about cute little love stories.

Hollywood wants to turn your book into a movie, BUT in the process they want the right to rewrite it as they see fit for the screen without your input. What do you do?

It probably depends on the book. Some of them, I think Hollywood could probably improve vastly. Others, not so much.

All right! That was fun! Here’s my list of questions for my chosen ones.

  1. Where can you always find inspiration as a writer?
  2. You’re only allowed to read one book again for the rest of your life; which is it and why?”
  3. If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be and why?
  4. Who is your favorite entertainer (singer, actor, etc.) and why?
  5. Best childhood memory?
  6. Who do you most admire and why?
  7. What is something that is popular now and annoys you?
  8. What would be the perfect weekend for you and why?
  9. If you had intro music what would it be?
  10. What do you feel is the most controversial opinion you have?
  11. Tell us about your current writing project(s).

The rules are to choose eleven people. I don’t even know eleven people and my BFAM already picked a bunch of my peeps. So I am instead nominating three of my favorite writer peeps.

Diana Minot is a dear friend of about 16 years. She holds a legal degree from Northwestern University and is the author of Personal Jurisdiction and Breaking Free. She currently works as a success coach for female entrepreneurs and is not only full of great advice, but also great ideas. Visit Diana.

Sally Hall is a longtime friend and has been an invaluable writing mentor to me. She is a freelance writer and blogger, and has contributed to several published works. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be near the writer I am today without her encouragement and guidance. Visit Sally.

Jessica Shook is a novelist and editor. She is the author of Jade Can’t Be Blue, a powerful book that gives me chills just thinking about it. If I could recommend any book to young women in the dating scene, it would be that one. Visit Jessica.

Well, that was fun! I hope everyone’s having a great summer so far.


With Great Power…

I’ve always been a believer in the saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And I feel, as a writer, this is applicable no matter what you’re writing. Not that I think I have some kind of great, magical power or huge influence as a writer, because I don’t. I do, however, write things that people read, and I feel it’s important to say something useful whenever possible. So when I was plotting my Unbreakable Love series, I decided it was a good opportunity to talk about an issue near but not particularly dear to me.

Today, June 2nd, is World Eating Disorders Action Day. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, formerly known as EDNOS, or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). Four out of ten people have either personally experienced an eating disorder or know someone who has. If you’re reading this blog, you’re one of those four people because I’m someone who has.

Back in the nineties, there was a so-called “classic sufferer”, which consisted of middle class white females in their teens and twenties, who is not “objectively fat”. Since then, researchers have determined that eating disorders are prevalent across racial and gender boundaries. However, at the time all of this started for me, I was the “classic sufferer”. It started when I was sixteen and it stuck around in various forms until I was twenty-six.

There were only a few periods during that time that I actually “looked like” I had an eating disorder. One of those periods was when I was twenty-three. My entire life was a mess at that point—which is another blog for another day—and my sickly thin state was just the bitter icing on the utterly twisted cake. My grandmother recounted a story to me recently.

Me at 23.

“We were at someone’s wedding,” she told me, “and you were wearing this long, strappy dress. I could see every last one of your ribs and when we got in the car I cried the whole way home.”

The wedding was that of my cousin and I remember the strappy dress. I had borrowed it from one of my friends and was so excited because I’d never been thin enough to borrow this particular friend’s clothes before.

Ironically enough, I went to the lake with that same friend a few weeks later and she pointed out that I was way too thin. We sat on the back of a boat on Lake Travis and she said, “You look sick. You need to do something.” And that was when I cried.

I’d like to say it’s also when I decided to fix the problem, but eating disorders are never that simple. I’d “fixed the problem” umpteen times at that point. The mindset of an eating disorder is very similar to an addiction, in that you become cunning and conniving in order to keep getting your “fix”. The “fix” in an eating disorder is maintaining all the behaviors you’ve developed.

Ultimately, I did fix it—which is also another blog for another day—but, just like an addict, fighting the mental battle never ends. And as with a lot of things in my life, I found catharsis in writing about it. Granted, I wrote about it several years after it was no longer an issue, but somehow the process of working through it via writing made me feel even better.

Which brings me back to the responsibility I feel as a writer to write something useful. Thousands of people have written books about eating disorders, but I wanted to write my story. And that’s what Until You is.

Yes, Until You is just another one of my sweet little romance novels, but if you read it, you’ll see my personal experience with the disease woven through the story. I recalled some of my former behavior and realized how nasty it could be and how that affected the people I loved, and I guess you could call this me trying to explain myself. There was a reason I did so many of the ugly things I did and it was because my mind didn’t belong to me. And that’s what I wanted to show in Until You. Something else takes up residence in your mind, and fortunately for me, I managed to evict it.

That said, however, not everyone is so fortunate. Eating disorders are the single most deadly mental illness and the reason is two-fold. People with eating disorders have a high risk of suicide, but in addition the chronic malnutrition they suffer extracts a physical toll on the body. The combined mental and physical assault boosts the mortality rate from death by sudden heart attack, multiple organ failure, and other deadly consequences of prolonged malnutrition. Overall people with anorexia nervosa have a six fold increase in mortality compared to the general population. Reasons for death include starvation, substance abuse, and suicide. Also notable is an increase rate of death from ‘natural’ causes, such as cancer.

The facts and figures are more than a little depressing. Fortunately, there are things we can do about it. For World Eating Disorders Action Day 2016, the following nine goals have been proposed as a global manifesto to be presented to and acted upon by policymakers and governments to take action on the growing epidemic of eating disorders across the globe.

  1. We call for all front line providers (including pediatricians, primary care doctors, dentists, emergency room and school health providers) to be educated in the identification, diagnosis and referral to appropriate services of eating disorders.
  2. We call for accessible and affordable evidence-based treatment, with early diagnosis and intervention a priority.
  3. We call for public education about eating disorders to be accurate, research based, readily available and geared to end stigma about eating disorders.
  4. We call for an end to mandatory weighing and BMI screening in schools, and development of evidence-based health programs.
  5. We call for increased awareness of diversity in eating disorders, as eating disorders affect a wide cross section of the world’s population, including people of all ages, sizes, weights, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, nationalities, and documentation status.
  6. We call for community and family eating disorders treatment support programmes to be available for all.
  7. We call for research-based interventions to be delivered in schools and universities on the facts about eating disorders, and how peers and staff can best support patients and families during treatment.
  8. We call for government agencies to include eating disorders services as part of health systems, public education campaigns, and regulatory bodies.
  9. We call for the World Health Assembly and the World Health Organization to formally recognize June 2 as World Eating Disorders Action Day.

In a more practical sense, if you or someone you know is or may be suffering from this mental illness, please have the courage to reach out to one of the following resources:

A list of international resources is available here.

With great power does indeed come great responsibility, and a mental illness such as this one can make a person feel utterly powerless. Despite what it feels like, you are not powerless. As someone who has lived it and made it to the other side, I can say with utmost certainty that you do have the power to make it to the other side, too. And because you have that power, you also have the responsibility. To yourself. To your family. To your future.

Take the leap.


May 27, 1997 | A Short (True) Story

We were just kids.

Our parents weren’t home. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

Our brother was fifteen, but he wasn’t there either. Not that he could or would have helped the situation. But still. He wasn’t there.

My sister, Asher, and I weren’t the only ones in this terrifying predicament. We lived in Cedar Park, a small town just north of Austin, Texas that was a family oriented community and there were lots of kids our age.

May 27, 1997 was a Tuesday. School had let out for summer the previous Friday, so all of our parents were at work. When you’re fourteen, being home alone is awesome. You have free reign of your time and can raid the refrigerator and watch as much TV as you want. And since it was only a few days into summer vacation, the novelty of being out of school hadn’t worn off yet. By the end of summer, I’d usually grow a bit bored, having nothing to do. Of course, there were chores required of my siblings and me, but those just had to be completed by the time our parents arrived home in the evening. We usually waited until the very last possible minute before we started on them.

So with my free time between waking up and when my parents got home, I got to do whatever I wanted.

On May 27, 1997, I slept in, as teenagers have a tendency to do. I drank a Coke for breakfast and I watched TV. When I was fourteen, I was obsessed with celebrity life and fashion, so I watched a Fashion Emergency marathon on E! Asher and I got into a stupid fight over something that didn’t matter and that I can’t remember, and she left the living room to go take a nap.

And shortly thereafter, it started.

Joan Rivers was running her mouth and out of nowhere, her Brooklyn accent was replaced by a loud, obnoxious series of blaring beeps.

A crawler appeared at the bottom of the screen.

The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Watch for the following counties: Bell, Frio, Hays, Hill, Kendall, McLennan, Navarro, Travis, Uvalde, Williamson…

Cedar Park is located in Williamson County, so I glanced out the large windows of the living room. The sky was blue and clear and it looked as hot as was typical for that time of year. It wouldn’t last. I knew that. But there probably wouldn’t be tornadoes. I knew that, too. At least, that’s what I believed at the time.

Growing up in Texas, you become accustomed to the warning, “conditions are favorable for tornadoes,” but for some reason, the worst case scenario always evaded us. A Tornado Watch just meant it was going to storm, and growing up in Texas, you live for those delicious spring and summer storms that give you a brief respite from the oppressive heat.

Nevertheless, because Texas is technically part of Tornado Alley, you also grow up knowing what to do in the event that a tornado actually shows up. My dad, being not quite a helicopter parent, but one who insisted that we were always prepared for the worst, drilled into us the safety precautions from a young age.

“Stay away from windows.”

“Go to a location in the center of the house.”

“Bring blankets and pillows.”

“Bring a battery-operated radio.”

“Bring a flashlight.”

But even at fourteen, I’d never experienced having to take cover in such a manner. Instead, severe thunderstorms were merely an exciting novelty. So I turned off Joan Rivers and switched to the weather radar, and there it was.

Radar from the KEWX WSR-88D radar station in New Braunfels, Texas.

A big blob of green, yellow, orange, and red slowly floating its way across the map of Texas, taking a diagonal, southwestern path and heading straight for us. I immediately ran to the kitchen to grab another Coke, jumped back on the couch, and patted the cushion, inviting our black labrador mix, Abby, to join me for the exciting show.

She and I sat on the couch for a while, anticipating when the glorious rain would arrive, looking forward to it squelching the stifling the heat and providing a nice, dark canopy to shield the neighborhood from the searing rays of the sun.

I should have been tipped off by the fact that the rain never arrived. This storm would be different.

Sometime later, the blaring series of beeps sounded again and the robotic warning came over the speakers.

“The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning for areas in Central Texas, including Bell County, Frio County, Hays County, Hill County, Kendall County, McLennan County, Navarro County, Travis County, Uvalde County, Williamson County. A tornado has been spotted in McLennan County west of Box Ranch Road and moving west-southwest to west of Mackey Ranch Road. Seek shelter…”

I glanced out the window. Still bright and sunny and McLennan County was a decent distance away from us. So I grew bored with the radar and lack of interesting weather and switched back to the E! channel.

I spent the next couple of hours using Abby as a pillow, only getting off the couch for a snack or another Coke, haphazardly checking the time to make sure I didn’t miss my window to start my chores. The warnings continued to randomly punctuate my shows, but I’d stopped paying attention to them for the most part.

It was not quite three p.m. when the sky finally turned ominously dark. There was still no rain, and I was still not tipped off by that.

And then, right around three p.m., maybe a bit after, the phone began to ring.

I wish I could say that one of my parents was the first to call, but they didn’t. The first person to call was my brother, Tim.

“I saw a tornado.”

Tim was perpetually full of shit.

I scoffed into the phone. “Yeah, right.”

“I did. It was in Buttercup.” Buttercup Creek was a nearby neighborhood where the vast majority of kids from our school lived, including Tim’s friend, Jay. They had spent the afternoon rollerblading. “You guys need to take cover.”


“I’m serious,” he insisted. “A bunch of people’s houses were blown away. Jay’s crying. His mom is freaking out.”

You had to take Tim’s words with a grain of salt. But sometimes there was a larger element of truth than others, and somehow the idea of Jay crying freaked me out. Jay was a year younger than me, but always seemed mature for his age. And when you’re fourteen, you think you’re basically a grown-up, so anyone your age also seems like a grown-up. Grown-ups and mature teens don’t usually cry or get scared.

I don’t remember what I said to Tim, or if I said anything.

“Just take cover,” he said. “Jay’s mom is going to bring me home when it’s safe to drive.”

I got off the phone and went to the formal living room where Asher was asleep on the sofa, trying to remain calm in spite of my steadily growing apprehensiveness.

“Wake up,” I told her. “There’s a tornado and we need to go in the bathroom.”

She stretched and yawned and was still annoyed at me over our earlier fight. “What are you talking about? The sun is shining.” She pointed at the windows and went quiet.

The sky was black—and still no rain.

We immediately began going through the motions of everything the we’d been told to do in this situation. I moved at a normal pace, not wanting to panic and upset my sister. I was the oldest right then and I couldn’t let her know I was scared.

Since we lived in a large, two-story house, gathering the necessities we’d need for such a situation took a few minutes. Our cat, Sophie, was usually hiding under one of the beds and Asher went looking for her. I went upstairs to my room to grab blankets and pillows. While I was up there, curiosity got the best of me and I needed to look out the windows.

The sky had changed. It wasn’t black anymore. At that moment, it had transformed into thick masses of light grey clouds, but there was that distinctive horizontal break. The clouds abruptly ended in a harsh, straight line and there was clear sky below it. I noticed the movement of the clouds. Slow. Strangely directionless.

There was otherwise no movement anywhere outside. No people. No birds. And the trees were eerily still.

Our childhood home. My window top right. My brother’s window top left.

My room faced the street in front of the house and my window was the largest. It was floor-to-ceiling, at least five feet wide, and topped with an elegant arch. Everything I needed to see was right out that window, but for some reason I was compelled to go look out Tim’s window, which also faced the street.

I dropped the blankets in the hall between our bedrooms, stood in front of his window, and I saw it.

The first thing I noticed was the trees were finally moving. But I quickly forgot the trees because I saw the debris in the air. Black pieces of unidentifiable debris. It looked like roof shingles and roof shingles shouldn’t be able to swirl around in the air like that.

I saw it in the top left quadrant of the window and it was right above our next door neighbor’s house. It appeared faint against the rest of the clouds, but it was distinguishable. Thin, narrow, wispy, but unmistakable. A funnel cloud drilling and spiraling in its descent from the sky.

And that was when I finally panicked.

“Touchdown!” I screamed, as if we were watching football. “Touchdown! Touchdown! Get in the bathroom!”

With blankets and pillows, Abby, Sophie, food and water for both of them, and a radio, we piled into the downstairs bathroom.

We climbed into the bathtub, covered ourselves with a blanket, and waited.

We didn’t turn on the radio. Not yet. We had to listen.

They say that a tornado sounds like a freight train, but we heard nothing like that. In fact, we heard nothing at all.

At some point Asher spoke up. “I’m sorry. I love you.”

We’d had a fight that afternoon and right then we were sitting in a bathtub waiting for our house to be blown away; possibly waiting to die, too.

We were just kids. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

“I love you, too.”

It was the single most anticlimactic moment of my life, because we continued to sit in total silence for a long time and nothing happened.

The silence lasted until the phone began ringing. The phone, which was not cordless and all the way across the house in the kitchen. The path from the bathroom to the kitchen was replete with large windows. There were so many windows in our house that we didn’t even have to turn the lights on during the day. I loved the windows and the natural light they provided, but right then all I could think of was the second I left the safety of the bathroom, I was vulnerable to a potential explosion of shattering glass.

But the phone was still ringing, so I had to go.

I left the bathroom first and Asher came with me.

In the windows, the sky was no longer black, but the same light grey it had been right before I saw the funnel cloud. There was still no rain.

I made it to the phone and my mom was on the other end.

“Are you girls okay?” Mom was a nurse, so she wasn’t the type to panic. She was always solid and calm, and right then was no different.

“We’re fine.” I was the type to stifle my feelings in situations that were too intense. “Nothing’s happening here.”

“I’m leaving the hospital. I’ll be there soon.”

Nineteen years later I would ask Mom about this particular phone call.

“It’s a wonder you all were not killed,” she told me. “This was before the time of cell phones, so I had to call before I left work. The hospital would not let the staff leave, but I managed to get out before they made that announcement. The traffic was crazy and I couldn’t get home fast enough.”

In my mind, all I could think of were my schoolmates and friends who lived in little Cedar Park; all of their parents, like mine, at work in Austin; all of those parents in their cars, clogging up the northbound lane of Highway 183 that lead from Austin into Cedar Park. Over the course of nineteen years, 183 was renovated into a big, wide highway with toll lanes. But in 1997 it was essentially just a three-lane suburban street, given to awful traffic jams during peak times. And late afternoon on May 27, 1997 was definitely a peak time.

After I hung up, Asher and I went outside expecting to see some kind of damage in our neighborhood. But there was nothing. Everything looked totally normal other than the gusts of wind.

The Tornado Warning wouldn’t expire until well into the evening, so we went back inside and moved the blankets to a large closet under the staircase. Abby and Sophie were growing agitated by being confined to a small space—especially being confined to a small space together—so we let them out.

The phone calls continued.

From Jay’s mom. “Are you girls okay? Make sure you stay inside. I’ll be there soon with Tim.”

From my best friend, Natasha. “Did you see a tornado? We didn’t see anything over here.”

Natasha lived in Leander, which was the next small town slightly north up 183 from Cedar Park.

“Oh yeah,” I said, feigning excitement over the whole thing; the only way to quell my fear and anxiety. “We’re having a party!”

“What? A party? Like a real party?”

“We built a clubhouse under the stairs. We’re having fun!”

She laughed. “Can I come over?”

For some crazy reason, her mom agreed to it.

From Tim. “I’m on my way. You won’t believe what Buttercup looks like right now.”

I felt a strange combination of horror and intrigue, and I decided I wanted to see it.

The rest of the evening is hazy in my memory. The weather morphed into something less strange and more normal. Natasha arrived at some point and so did Tim and my parents. We watched movies in the living room and managed to overhear Mom and Dad speaking in semi-hushed tones in the kitchen.

“The Albertson’s has a gaping hole right through the center of it,” Mom said. Albertson’s was our go-to grocery store. Like many things in Cedar Park—being the up-and-coming community that it was—it was brand new. The store managers had saved the lives of customers by pulling everyone into walk-in freezers. “Someone said it looks like a bomb went off.”

Aftermath of tornado damage to Albertson’s grocery store in Cedar Park, Texas. Source: TEI Controls.

Nineteen years later, I look at the photos of the grocery store and am reminded of photos of the Pentagon on 9/11.

“The entire city of Jarrell was wiped away,” Dad said. “It was an F5.”

The movie Twister had come out almost exactly one year prior to this chaotic day, and we had all become well-versed in the Fujita scale as a result. An F5 tornado was classified as having wind speeds between 261 and 318 miles per hour. In the movie Twister, the F5 tornado is the one at the end that nearly kills Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt.

F5 Jarrell Tornado. Source: Shawn.

In real life, the Jarrell F5 tornado killed 27 people and 300 cattle and horses. The city itself hadn’t been wiped away as my dad said, rather a subdivision had. The tornado was three-quarters of a mile wide and tracked across the ground for more than seven miles. The subdivision, Double Creek Estates, consisted of 38 homes and several mobile homes, and it was obliterated.


“It was literally wiped off the face of the earth,” the reporters would later tell us. “Nothing is left.”


Foundation of a former home in Double Creek Estates in Jarrell, Texas. Source: Shawn.

Aerial damage from the Jarrell tornado was reviewed by researchers and it was considered to be the most violent tornado they’d ever seen. The homes in Double Creek were well-constructed and bolted to their foundations, but the storm left only the concrete slabs. The houses were pummeled into finely granulated fragments and scattered for sweeping distances across the Central Texas countryside. Entire families were killed, including the Igo family, who were beloved by and active in the Jarrell Baptist Church. Those who weren’t killed were sandblasted by the loose soil of the region, resulting in dozens of traumatic injuries. Rescuers said they had difficulty distinguishing the human remains from that of the animals.

The Igo family. From left to right: John, 15; Joan, 45; Paul, 15; Larry, 46; and Audrey, 17. Source: Shawn.

The night of the storm, none of us knew the extent of the damage and loss of life. We only knew that, in our little subdivision in Cedar Park, we’d dodged one hell of a bullet.

Tragically, many of my school friends who lived in Buttercup Creek couldn’t say the same thing.




The next day was hot. The temperature was in the mid-nineties with high humidity, as was typical for late May in Central Texas. In spite of this, Asher, Natasha, and I decided to walk the five miles to Buttercup Creek.

Buttercup Creek was an older, established neighborhood, full of large, nice, well-built homes. Meticulously manicured lawns and expensive cars. Cedar Park, at the time, was yuppie-central and nice homes and cars were seemingly important status symbols. But after May 27, 1997, every resident of Cedar Park got a harrowing reality check.

Sticky and sweating, Asher, Natasha, and I made our way into the parameters of the neighborhood and everything seemed totally normal. Then we rounded a corner.


It was like walking into a movie. There was a slight bend in the street, so we watched a slow reveal of the carnage.

Tornadoes are Mother Nature’s version of Russian Roulette, and this street in Buttercup Creek was a terrifying example of that.

Untouched house; untouched house; house with broken windows; untouched house; a car in a driveway flattened by a tree; largely untouched house, the lawn littered with branches and leaves; untouched house; house missing half of its second story.

I stared at that one.

I was a couple hundred yards away and I could see inside someone’s bedroom. I didn’t know whose house it was, but it looked like a typical teenager’s bedroom, so I knew it was someone from my school. It wasn’t even particularly mangled. It looked like someone had carefully and meticulously sliced it in half with a jig saw. Posters still hung on the wall and the bed sat neatly in one corner.

Untouched house; tree branches in a yard; a stripped roof; a large tree on its side between two houses; a concrete slab with groupings of pipes sticking up out of the ground.

We all stopped.

I don’t remember any of us saying anything. We were probably all thinking the same thing.

A house used to be right there. That was where someone lived, and now it’s gone. How is that possible?

We were just kids. A lot of the people who lived on this street were just kids. And right then, staring at a street replete with varying degrees of destruction spliced with total normalcy, it seemed none of us could process what we were looking at.

Construction crews and electricians and other workers were milling about. I don’t remember seeing any of the families. I guessed that many of them had gone to relatives’ houses in the wake of damaged or destroyed homes.

And since we were just kids who couldn’t process the gravity of the sights, and since it was so hot, the three of us merely left in search of a nearby neighborhood swimming pool.

The Cedar Park tornado varied in intensity between F1 and F3, had traveled a total of nine miles and reached a maximum width of two-hundred fifty yards. One-hundred thirty-six homes in the neighborhood were damaged and there was one indirect fatality. The man had died of a heart attack while trying to wait out the storm in his truck. He was a family friend of my friend, Kelly. About a year after all of this, I spent the night at Kelly’s house and she showed me a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, crying quietly over the man she’d known since toddlerhood. The first person she’d ever known to die.

We were just kids, most of us without our parents that day.  And on that day, we stared into the face of our own mortality. We saw firsthand how flippantly destructive Mother Nature can be. We came to grips with the idea that, sometimes, nobody can protect you. Because sometimes, it’s just you and your little sister sitting in a bathtub, in the dark, saying I love you and believing it’s the last thing you’ll ever say to anyone.

We were just kids, but on May 27, 1997, it seemed that we were forced to grow up.


After the Fight | a short story

AFTERTHEFIGHTRINGIt was seven-thirty AM and Sean O’Connor stood in front of the bathroom mirror, dragging the razor up and over his chin. He didn’t need to watch what he was doing, but he kept his eyes intentionally trained on his reflection anyway. Despite his intention, his gaze occasionally betrayed him and flicked to the glass dish next to the other sink in the master bathroom.

Lizzie’s ring sat in the dish where she left it after the fight.

It had been such a stupid, childish fight; one that smacked of adolescence, in spite of the fact that they were too old to be acting that way. She was thirty-two; he was thirty-three. Thirty-something-year-olds don’t act that way, but Sean and Lizzie had always been kind of young at heart. At least, Lizzie used to be kind of young at heart. Over the course of the seven years they’d been married it seemed she grew up and he didn’t. And that was ultimately the cause of the fight.

He’d misplaced the cable bill and forgot to tell her. Lizzie was good with finances, so she made sure the bills were paid on time. His job was simply to set the mail out where she could find it. On Monday she went through the small stack and saw the late notice.

“I never got the first one!” she’d said in protest to the letter before turning her hazel eyes up toward him. “Did we get the first one?”

He’d drawn a blank and shrugged, which caused her eyes to flash with exasperation. After sifting through a large stack of junk mail in a far corner of the kitchen counter, she found the previous bill and waved it at him.

“Twenty-five bucks down the drain, babe.”

He’d rolled his eyes and combed his fingers through his shoulder length hair as he went back to the master bedroom. “Right.”

What’s twenty-five bucks when you’re expecting yet another fat commission check? he wanted to ask. Lizzie was the Director of High Grade Sales at one of the largest brokerage firms in New York, so she brought home the bacon. A single one of her commission checks was usually what he managed to make in an entire month of bartending. It was a little emasculating, and being berated every time he dropped the ball on something so mundane didn’t help.

After the fight, he’d heard her leave for work, so he picked up his guitar, sat on the couch, and began strumming to distract himself. He remained distracted for the rest of the day until she arrived home from work and she brought it up again.

“Put all the mail in this,” she’d said, setting down a shallow plastic letter tray she’d brought home from her office. “That way we won’t waste anymore money on late fees.”

Her tone had seemed condescending and it grated on him, so he crossed the apartment and flippantly tossed all the mail in the tray without saying a word.

She cocked her head to one side. “What’s your problem? I’m trying to create a system. It’ll help.”

Before he could respond, his cell phone rang from in his pocket. The caller ID said it was Elena, one of the other bartenders.

He made a big show of answering casually. “Hey Elena, how’s it going?”

Lizzie pursed her lips as she eyeballed him while sifting through the letters.

“Can you cover my shift tonight?” Elena asked. “Jade’s got a stomach flu or something.”

Ohhh… yeah, of course,” he said oh-so-smoothly, sensing that Lizzie was still eyeballing him. Elena was gay and Jade was her partner–but Lizzie didn’t know that. As far as Lizzie knew, Elena was yet another one of the flirtatious cocktail waitresses. Lizzie hated the cocktail waitresses, because all the cocktail waitresses loved Sean. Everyone has their insecurities. His was the money situation; hers was the fact that seemingly every woman wanted to jump her husband’s bones.

And while Sean would never even entertain the idea of so much as looking at another woman, sometimes it was an ego-booster to remind Lizzie that maybe other women out there might not care where the fuck he left the mail. Or that he didn’t make anywhere close to six figures and that he never would.

Then again, Lizzie didn’t care that he’d never make the kind of money she did. She just seemed to want him to grow up the way she did. Stop messing around with the guitar. Stop wasting time playing late night shows at AJ’s club. Try to find a respectable job. Blah, blah, blah.

“Are you sure?” Elena asked.

“It’s absolutely my pleasure, Elena,” he said with an air of faux flirtation and a smile.

“You’re a lifesaver,” she said. “Thanks again.”

“You got it. See you later.” He shoved the phone in his pocket before putting on his shoes.

Lizzie shot him a look. “Who is Elena and where are you going?”

“One of the bartenders,” he answered, still oh-so-casual. “And I’m headed to work.”

“You’re not on the schedule tonight,” she protested.

He shrugged as he headed for the door. “I am now. I’ll see you later.”

He could feel her burning holes in the back of his head with her eyes, but he left anyway. He’d successfully made her jealous, which was stupid and childish and he knew it. It was just another one of their stupid, petty fights. They always made up. In spite of these stupid, petty fights, things were good–or so he believed until he found her ring in the dish next to her sink on Tuesday morning.

He focused more intently on shaving; perhaps dragging the razor a bit too aggressively, because he nicked his chin. It caused the rims of his eyes to prickle and a lump to rise in his throat, but it wasn’t the cut on his chin that hurt.

As he dabbed the blood with a towel, he thought of the day he gave her the ring. Just a thin gold band with a little half-carat diamond. It had taken him seven months to save up for it, but all the scraping together of his meager earnings from waiting tables was totally worth it when her eyes welled up as he held it out toward her while they sat on a bench in Central Park on her twenty-fourth birthday.

“Hope it fits,” he’d said, casual as always. He remembered the way she crinkled up her nose in delight as he slipped it on her finger and she gasped in delight.

“Look, babe! Perfect!” She pressed her nose against the side of his neck and sighed happily. “Just perfect.”

Sean abruptly shook his head and looked back at his reflection while combing his fingers through his close-cropped hair. He still wasn’t used to this stupid haircut. But that didn’t matter. She wanted him to finally grow up, so he did.




At the office, Sean was greeted by a notice that he was expected for a review.

Seeaaannn…” Mark drawled in his obnoxious voice with an equally obnoxious chuckle. “What’s going on, man? Your numbers are down again this quarter.”

Sean nodded and wore a pleasant but humble expression. “Yeah, I know. Lots of hang-ups. People just aren’t interested. They hate getting the calls. A lot of people are asking to be added to the Do Not Call registry.”

“Well, we just need to figure out how to get around that, huh?” Mark was so patronizing.

“We sure do.”

Mark picked up a pen and started making notes on a sheet of paper. “I’m going to have you shadow Jenny for a while. Maybe pick up some tips.”

Sean sighed quietly. Shadowing Jenny meant he was on informal probation for three months. If things didn’t improve after that it would be formal probation. It things still didn’t improve, he’d be shit-canned.

After signing off on the paper, Sean made his way to his desk to grab his head set and a notepad and pen. He let himself sulk for a moment in his chair before going to join Jenny, while he absently spun his wedding band and glanced at the photo on his desk.

Lizzie wearing a veil and him wearing a tux; her crinkled nose pressed against the side of his neck while they both grinned happily.

“Get your shit together,” he told himself under his breath. The job sucked. But that didn’t matter. She wanted him to finally grow up, so he did.

A minute or so later, he sat down next to Jenny’s desk and she gave him a sweet smile.

“Are you doing okay today?” she asked in that sympathetic tone everyone seemed to use on this particular day. “I’m surprised you came in at all.”

He shrugged. “Gotta work. Even today.”




After work, Sean swung by the apartment long enough to change into running clothes and was out the door again. He jogged through Tompkins Square Park, ignoring the flags at half-mast. Instead, he focused on one of the basketball courts. He and Lizzie played at that one. They’d played that Saturday. They’d been playing one on one since high school. It was how they’d met.

He had been a sophomore and she was a freshman and they happened to be on this court at the same time one day after school. He’d never seen a girl play basketball before and she was pretty damn good. He had intended to go easy on her, this cute, curly-haired brunette, but early in the game, she stole the ball from him and shot it over his head.


He’d glanced back at her in disbelief and saw her crinkle her nose at him for the first time ever. The first of a million times she’d do that. Not quite love at first sight, but pretty close.

He rounded the corner toward East Tenth Street and headed back toward the apartment, staring at the ground to avoid seeing the flags.



After the long run, Sean was famished, so he pulled open the refrigerator door in search of any kind of sustenance. There was some leftover pizza and he scarfed three slices, only noticing mid-way through the third that it tasted a little funny. He grimaced, wondering if he would end up with food poisoning later, but decided it would make a convenient excuse to miss work.

He made his way back to the master bedroom, peeled off his sweaty running clothes, and collapsed on the bed, intending to rest for a few brief moments before getting in the shower. He stared at the ceiling for a while and then rubbed his eyes.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he heard the bedroom door open and felt the well-manicured nails stroking back his sweaty hair.

His eyes shot open as he jerked upward to sitting, and she was seated on the edge of the bed next to him. “Lizzie!”

She smiled at him. “Hey babe.”

He sighed loudly. “I missed you.”

“I know. I miss you too.” She continued to smile and stroke her nails through his hair. “How was work?”

He groaned. “I hate that place. I’m not making my quotas. I’m just not cut out for the corporate bullshit.”

She shrugged. “So quit. Don’t work somewhere that’s going to make you miserable.”

He gave her a mildly exasperated look. “I can’t quit. This is the kind of job you said I should have. It’s sensible and stable.”

She smirked. “That doesn’t matter. It’s obviously not what makes you happy. You should do what makes you happy.”

He shook his head and looked at her, noticing her outfit. White blouse; gray skirt. She looked like she just came from the office. “You look beautiful.”

She gave him a playful smile. “I think you just have a thing for my work clothes.”

“No, I just think you’re beautiful. I always have.” He paused as he noticed his chest starting to ache. “After the fight… when I came home, you were already asleep. You were beautiful then too. I wanted to wake you up just so I could kiss you goodnight, but I was still mad.”

“Well…” she said with a sigh. “I was mad, too. It is what it is.”

He noticed a surge of anger pulsed through his veins and he clenched his jaw. “And then you left in the morning.”

“I know.”

He huffed. “Why didn’t you at least wake me up before you left?”

She chuckled. “I never woke you up before I left. I always let you sleep in. That morning was no different.”

He raised an eyebrow. “That morning was completely different.”

“Yeah, but nobody knew that at the time.”

He sighed, but said nothing, so she smiled at him tenderly and touched his cheek. The feeling of her fingertips on his face caused his heart to burn. “I wish you’d called me. Or I wish I’d called you.”

“I didn’t have time. And you didn’t know. You probably weren’t even awake yet.”

He knew she was teasing him and it caused him to chuckle in spite of himself. “No, I wasn’t actually. I didn’t wake up until AJ called me at around nine-thirty.”

Out of nowhere, his mind materialized a mental picture of that particular phone call.

“Don’t turn on the TV,” AJ had said. But Sean turned on the TV anyway. Then he called her. Or at least, he tried to.

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten times he called, dropping the phone multiple times because his hands had been shaking uncontrollably. With every call, the same result: straight to voicemail.

He scrubbed his hands over his face and sighed.

“Have you been to his club lately?” Lizzie asked, shaking him out of the memory.

He cocked his head as he gave her a look. “I can’t do that anymore, sweetheart.”

“Why not?”

“You know why.”

“Playing is what makes you happy, Sean. You should swing by sometime.”

“But that’s not what you want me to do.”

“I think you would feel better if you did.” She paused. “I want you to be happy. You know that.”

The rims of his eyes began to prickle so he rubbed them with his fist before looking at her again. “I’m sorry about that phone call, Lizzie. It wasn’t at all what I was making it sound like. I was just so fed up right then.”

“I know.”

“I’d never do that to you,” he went on. “I was really frustrated and I was acting stupid.”

“I know.”

He paused for a long time while his chest began aching. “So why’d you take your ring off?”

She laughed. “I was acting stupid, too,” she said, stroking his hair back again. “I’d never do that to you either. I love you. You know that.”

The sound of her saying those three little words caused the ache in his chest to intensify to the point that it felt like his rib cage would split apart at his sternum and he rubbed his eyes again. When he peeled his eyelids open, he saw the ceiling again and he couldn’t help covering his face.

“I miss you so much.”

The words crossing his lips seemed to be a catalyst of sorts that caused his shoulders to heave once as he uttered guttural sob. He sat up and allowed himself about a minute or two to feel the full weight of his grief. After all, nobody else was there to see him cry like a little girl.

After getting himself under control, he took a quick shower with the intention of going straight back to bed, but found that sleep was now evading him. Having nothing else to do, he made his way to the living room and sat on the couch before flipping on the TV.

With this being the third anniversary, he was now used to the scenes on the local access station. The cheesy graphic of the American flag waving; the infamous date; the obligatory words in a banner across the top of the screen.

Never Forget.

Cheesy indeed, but he always watched. He had to. It usually took a couple of minutes before the scrolling words arrived at the point when he’d allow himself to turn it off.

And, eventually–for the third time–there were the words.

Elizabeth O’Connor – WTC 1 – 92nd Floor

Once her name and the name he’d given her disappeared passed the top edge of the screen, he turned off the TV as he always did and sat in silence.


Just like the stupid haircut, he still wasn’t used to the silence. And today, the silence seemed that much more deafening. So he stood from the couch and made his way to the closet. He hadn’t opened the closet in three years, so the guitar needed a little dusting off and a bit of tuning. But after he’d done that, he sat back on the couch and began to play.

The EPOCH! | Reflections on DFWCon

I was advised to blog, so here’s a blog. Numero uno. The first ever. The epoch! I am stoked, so you should be too. Or, you know, don’t be. Either way, I’m still going to toss my ramblings into the abyss of cyberspace.

Since it’s fresh in my mind, I think a good topic for this is my experience at the DFW Conference. I had a great time this past weekend, met lots of aspiring and established novelists, and learned some helpful tips about writer life in general.

But allow me to be real with you for a moment–that’s not why I went to this conference.

On December 23, 2015, I started writing my sixth novel. That was approximately eleven months after I started writing my first novel. I wrote five full length novels over the course of 2015, all of which were published with Liquid Silver Books, a romance publisher that deals exclusively in eBooks.

I know what you’re thinking.

“Wow! You got published!”

Or maybe you’re thinking:

“Wow! Five books in one year! That’s amazing!”

I know you may be thinking that because that’s what I thought in the beginning of this journey, but then reality set in. Reality, where your friends leave scathing reviews about your books and where the writers in your family ask you, “When are you going to write something serious?” Or they say, “That publisher is not legit. It’s just a romance mill.”

Among other things.

I’m fortunate to have lots of very supportive people in my life, and it’s important to keep in mind that even the detractors saying these things to me were also very supportive in a tough love kind of way. Nevertheless, it’s hard to not allow such things to get in your head–and get in my head they did.

However, the fact that these detracting words got in my head seemed to benefit me by lighting a fire under my ass to step up my game. And that brings me back to when I started writing novel number six, RISE.

Write something serious, in my mind, meant get the hell out of the contemporary romance genre. This was partially a result of an issue with my publisher that I can’t discuss on a public forum, but suffice to say I learned I’m not really cut out for the romance genre. The natural progression was to women’s fiction, so that’s what I started plotting on December 23, 2015.

As a person preoccupied with politics and current events, as well as having a background in journalism, I decided I wanted write something that touched on the Syrian refugee crisis, but I also wanted it to be something relatable, so I drew from personal experiences and came up with a pretty compelling premise.

About two months into writing this novel, one of my writer friends sent me a link saying, “I saw this and thought of your new book.”

The link was a press release from the DFW Writer’s Workshop announcing that a certain agent would be attending the April Conference and that she was seeking pitches for exactly the type of book that I was writing. I read the agent’s profile and bio, visited her agency’s website, skimmed over the books they represented, and decided this was a good fit for RISE, so I registered for the conference.

This particular agent is–quite literally–the entire reason I went to this conference. But once I started skimming over classes and connecting with other attendees on social media, I realized this conference was a wealth of information and professional connections at my proverbial fingertips.

It’s worth mentioning that the past sixteen months of my life has been more than a bit isolating, because it’s extremely hard for non-novelists to understand how emotionally and mentally taxing it is to write books. Prior to this conference, I only knew two novelists–my sister, Asher Lee, and a friend of mine who lives in San Francisco–and they were the only people I found to whom I could relate about what I was experiencing. That changed the instant I stepped in the line for registration.

The common denominator that drew each person to this conference subsequently drew all of us together. As an introvert, I’m not big on socializing, I’m not very talkative, I prefer to listen, so on and so forth. But I noticed sharing the common of experience of being a novelist helped me to connect with people in a way that I haven’t before. Don’t get me wrong–I am an introvert in the truest sense of the word so merely interacting with too many people for more than a couple of hours at a time causes me physical exhaustion. And I was certainly tired over the course of the two days at the conference, but I was simultaneously quite fulfilled. I remember driving home on Sunday, thinking to myself, “Oh my God. I have found my people.

So what started out as a means to simply get my sixth manuscript into the hands of an agent ended up becoming a defining moment for me as a novelist.

I don’t have to feel isolated, or alone, or like nobody understands what I’m going through,  because there are people out there who do–and now I share a connection with quite a few of them.

Anything and everything in life is better when you have people in your corner–and in the world of attempting to write and sell books, you need those people even more. One of my mottos in life is, “People matter,” meaning that we have to remember the complexities of the human experience is shared by all of us, everywhere. Each of us matter and each of our diverse experiences matter. But last weekend, I learned that people matter because sometimes I need a reminder that I’m human, too, and sometimes I need my fellow humans.

Until You | Advanced Preview


Shannon Callaghan wakes up to a world and a life she doesn’t recognize. In the midst of such circumstances, she’s relieved to find that she has a kind and devoted fiancé in handsome, yet mysterious, Jack MacCarrick.

As time passes, however, it becomes clear to Shannon that this is no ordinary engagement—and Jack is no ordinary man. A wedding is impending and she has to make a decision soon, but the life she appeared to be living with Jack is one that she isn’t sure she wants to continue.

Available April 18 at all major eBook retailers.



“Poor baby,” Shannon cooed with a small giggle after Jack rubbed his eyes and yawned for the umpteenth time that morning. It was barely six o’clock in the morning and they’d already been up for three hours. Well, Shannon had been up for three hours. Jack simply didn’t bother to sleep the night before, which was pretty standard for nights when he had to catch a red-eye the following morning. He usually just slept on the flight. But that wasn’t happening this particular morning because Shannon woke up all excited and wanted to chat him up about wedding plans, so he happily obliged. Tired as he was, he couldn’t help feeling excited too.

This wasn’t just an ordinary trip to Austin they were taking. This trip was chock full of important activities. The first being Jack meeting Shannon’s mother for the first time, so, naturally, his excitement was spliced with quite a bit of nerves. The second was to pack up Shannon’s apartment in preparation for her move to New York, so his excitement was also mixed with total, utter, blatant giddiness over the idea that after nine months of wanting her there, she’d finally be living with him. Finally, they’d be visiting a few potential wedding venues, the idea of which, truthfully, kind of made him feel extra tired. But she was excited enough about that for both of them, so he figured he’d survive.

Shannon gasped as she tilted a magazine toward his face, her ring reflecting the light from the small window and causing him temporary blindness.

“Look at this, baby! It’s on top of a hill and overlooking one of the lakes,” she gushed. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have the ceremony at sunset?”

He smiled and nodded. “That would be beautiful.”

She peered at him. “Are you sure you want to do this in Austin? We could just as easily have it in New York. Or anywhere else.”

“I think Austin is a great location. It will be easier for your friends and family to get there. And I have no problem making all of my peeps cough up the airfare.”

She laughed. “You’re so considerate and inconsiderate all at the same time.”

He shrugged. “I’m just well-rounded that way.”

He gestured at the flight attendant. “Another coffee if you don’t mind.” He turned to Shannon. “Want a coffee, babe?”

She shook her head. “I’m okay. Maybe you should skip that so you can sleep in the car when we land.”

He smirked. “You’re not driving.”

She shot him a teasing look. “I am a good driver.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t. I’d rather drive because I never get to drive.”

She laughed. “You don’t never get to drive.

“Nope, I really don’t. You’ll see. Spend a year in New York and then you’ll see how much driving you do. You’ll be chomping at the bit to drive whenever you get the chance.”

“Ha, no. I like being chauffeured around.”

“It gets old.”

She laughed again and then paused silently as she gleamed at him for an extended moment.

He rubbed his chin. “What is it? I know I probably should’ve shaved before meeting your mom.”

She shook her head as she smiled. “Ma won’t care about your scruffy chin. I was just having a little moment.”

“What kind of moment?”

“I’m just…happy. You know? After all the crap last year.” She sighed as she leaned against his shoulder and nuzzled her head against his neck. “And I was constantly stressing over us.”

He draped his arm over her shoulders, pulling her close and kissing her head. “Really? What were you stressing about?”

“I just had serious doubts this would last until the moment you put this ring on my finger.”

He nodded. “I think I had moments like that too. Mostly because I was screwing everything up and couldn’t seem to stop.”

She squeezed his arm. “You did so well, Jack. I’m so proud of you.”

He smiled as he rested his chin on her head. “And we’ll never have to worry about us again.”

“Nope,” she agreed. “You’re pretty much stuck with me now. So just keep that in mind when we’re out looking at our fifth potential wedding venue. You signed up for this.”

He had to laugh. “I certainly did. And if visiting every wedding venue in and around Austin means I get to keep you forever, then I’ll happily do it.”

* * * *

The plane landed in Austin at nine o’clock on the dot and was greeted by a fierce, bitter cold, January rain storm. Jack and Shannon hurried through the airport to the baggage claim and then went to pick up the rental car.

“Whooo!” Jack hollered as he was pelted with frigid raindrops while holding the door for Shannon to slide in. “I think I’m totally alert now.”

She laughed as he hopped in the driver’s seat. “This should be nothing compared to the snow we left back in New York.”

“This is a totally different kind of cold than in New York,” he retorted, scrubbing his fingers through his damp hair. “This is wet cold. I feel like a stray cat.”

“That’s nothing,” she said. “Just wait ’til my hair dries. It’s going to be a wild, frizzy mess.”

“Mmmmm…” he growled, leaning over to kiss the side of her neck. “I love when your hair is a wild, frizzy mess.”

She laughed. “Only because it’s not on your head.”

“True. But I actually love it even more when I’m the reason it’s a wild, frizzy mess.”

She threw her head back and giggled wildly. “That’s the only time it’s acceptable for my hair to be that out of control.”

“Mmmm…” he growled again as he moved his lips to hers. The little make-out session only lasted a second or two before a loud honk from behind them jolted him back to reality.

“All right, all right,” he muttered. “Sorry, babe. We’ll just have to do this later.”

After pulling out of the airport and onto the highway, they were greeted by a mass of morning traffic, causing Shannon to let out a growl of her own.

“Ugh,” she groaned. “This sucks. I’m sorry, Jack. Traffic is always a nightmare here, and it’s worse when there’s even the smallest amount of precipitation.”

He waved a hand. “It’s all good. I told you I like driving.”

She shook her head, covered her mouth, and let out a massive yawn.

“Go ahead and take a nap, sweetheart,” he insisted. “I’ve got this.”

She lifted her eyebrows. “Are you sure? You’re not even tired? You haven’t slept since yesterday.”

“Nah…this is nothing. Besides, between the rain and the traffic there’s enough going on to keep me plenty awake.”

“Okay. Just remember, it’s highway 183 to 281, and when you see the Evant city limit sign, wake me up. It’s normally about two hours, but it might be longer with all of this.”

He nodded. “I got it.”

She smiled at him for a moment and then leaned over to kiss his cheek. “I’m really excited about all of this.”

He rubbed the top of her thigh. “Me too.”

She kissed him one more time and unbuckled her seat belt to lean over and squeeze his shoulders tightly. “Love you, love you, love you. More than I could ever tell you.”

He glanced at her face quickly and got a funny feeling that made him need to hug her as tight as he could. So he slipped his hand around her waist and pulled her closer to his side. She covered his neck with kisses, which caused him to grin.



“I love you more than I could ever tell you too.”

“I know, baby.”

He lifted her hand to kiss it as she sat back down in her seat, refastening her seat belt. “I hope you always know that.”

She smiled at him. “I couldn’t ever not know that, Jack.”

He drew in his breath deeply and sighed as he shrugged off the weird feeling as a symptom of being overdue for sleep. “I know.”

She nestled herself into the seat, leaned her head against the window, and fell asleep almost immediately.

As he navigated the stop-and-go traffic, he kept his eyes on the road with only the occasional glance at Shannon sleeping peacefully. After a while, he got the weird feeling again, and he couldn’t help reaching over to stroke her head, letting his fingers twist through the long spirals of her hair.

“I’ll love you forever, Shannon,” he said quietly, eyes still on the road. “I hope you’ll always know that.”

* * * *

Green hills sprawled in every direction, and the mist of fog settled on Jack’s face, leaving it cool and damp.

He sat cross-legged on a blanket across from her, the two of them occasionally sipping from a pint bottle of stout he’d swiped from Kerry’s refrigerator.

They sat in perfect, still, quiet for a very long time, until she giggled at him and spoke in her sweet, singsongy, Irish lilt.


The mist seemed to make her face a bit hazy, so he couldn’t quite see her, but he could make out her smile, and he noticed her hair.

Hair that was gold, a lot like the sun. The sun, which seemed to be hidden that day. He only just noticed it was hidden because it seemed he was now lying on his back staring at the sky, out of breath.

His shirt was also now missing, which was confusing because he didn’t remember taking it off.

He glanced to his right to see her, and there was his shirt. It was draped over her; her bare shoulders exposed while she was curled against his side in the shape of a question mark. Her fingertips tip-toed their way down his arm until they arrived at his hand, and she interlaced their fingers together.

Jaa-aack… she lilted again.

He reached a hand across to run his fingers over her cheek.

I love you, Penny.

She placed her hands on his face.

Jaa-aack…are ye okay?

Yeah. Are you okay?

Suddenly, she grasped his shoulders and shook him violently.

Jaa-aack…wake up.

I am awake.

She shook him again.

Jaa-aack…wake up.

I am awake. I’m right here. What’s wrong?

Another violent shake.

I’m awake, he insisted. Why are you doing that?

Jaa-aack…wake up. Yer goin’ to get us killed.

Penny, don’t say things like that.

Jaa-aack…wake up. Please wake up.

She began shaking him relentlessly, harder than seemed possible for a slender sixteen-year-old girl. So hard that his head was smacking against the ground below. She continued to shake him until she tilted her head back and slammed her forehead into his.

He instantly saw stars. His head spun and his face felt warm and sticky.

The warm, sticky feeling seemed to slowly be replaced by cold wetness, and he thought it was the fog growing thick. Eventually, he realized the fog had transitioned into a stinging cold rain and the perfect, still, quietness gradually morphed into muffled commotion.

People were shouting orders and speaking briskly. There was the dull roar of diesel engines, the crackle of static over radios, and the deep hum of something he couldn’t identify, but that sounded pretty large.

At some point, he felt it was necessary to open his eyes because he was moving, but not on his own volition. Several people stood over him and seemed to lift him onto something. He attempted to scan his surroundings, but he’d been strapped into restraints that prevented him from moving easily.

From his raised vantage point, however, he could see quite a bit.

There was utter chaos in every direction.

Police cars, ambulances, a fire truck, some other type of large truck with a mangled front end, something that looked like it had been a car at some point. A dark red car. Very similar in color to the one he’d been driving mere moments ago.


Mere moments ago, she’d been sleeping peacefully in the passenger seat. Now he couldn’t see her, and as the chaos around him began to make more sense, Jack began to panic.


“Hey there, sir,” a younger man said, leaning over his face. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Jack,” he answered. “Where is Shannon?”

“Is Shannon the woman you were with?”

He nodded.

“She’s still in the car right now. They’re working on getting her out.”

Still in the twisted red steel formerly known as the car. A wave of nausea washed over him, so he closed his eyes.

“Is she dead?”

“No, she’s alive. But she’s still trapped in the car, so they’re working on getting her out,” the young man said. “We’re going to get you to the hospital, and she’ll be right behind you.”

“I need to see her.”

“She’ll be on her way right behind you—”

I need to see her!

“Hey, Jack,” the young man said in a voice that was infuriatingly calm, “I know you’re worried about her, but the best thing you can do for her right now is let these guys try to help her. And you need to let us take care of you. I’m sure she’s just as worried about you as you are about her, so let us help you both, okay?”

He swallowed hard. Crying wasn’t going to help anything either, so he decided to save that for later when it would really be necessary.

“Can you please…” he pleaded, “just have someone tell her I love her.”

The young man nodded. “I sure will.”

“Thank you.”

* * * *

The next few hours—or maybe it was days…Jack couldn’t tell—everything was a blur of X-rays, scans, exams, pokes, and prods. He was numb, dazed, and subdued on painkillers for broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. He’d escaped the wreck relatively unscathed for what it was, and especially compared to what seemed to have happened to Shannon. He still didn’t know exactly what her condition was. Shannon was alive, that much he’d been able to ascertain through constant grilling of the medical team.

She’s alive.

She’s stable, but she’s unconscious.

She’s getting a CT scan.

It appears she suffered a traumatic brain injury.

She’s still out, but stable. We’re monitoring her.

You can see her as soon as we’re done.

Soon was nowhere near soon enough for Jack’s liking, and in the meantime, he was trapped in the hospital with nothing to do but hate himself for allowing this to happen a second time and stave off nausea at the endless series of what ifs.

What if he’d killed her?

What if she, in spite of her “stable” condition, still didn’t make it?

What if she woke up, but the traumatic brain injury inhibited her from living a normal life?

He’d decided it had only been a matter of hours after the wreck when he was informed by someone that Shannon had been transported to a trauma hospital in Austin, which caused him to raise no small amount of hell that he hadn’t been told sooner so that he could accompany her. But yelling at doctors and nurses wasn’t helping the situation, so he simply discharged himself and called a cab.

After he arrived at the other hospital, it was just more tedious waiting.

At some point in his waiting, his phone began to ring. To be expected, the first person who called was Alicia, whose concern took the form of her being utterly pissed off.

“What in the fucking hell happened, Jack?”

“Hi, Alicia,” he stated evenly while propped up against a wall in the hallway as he continued to wait for permission to see Shannon.

“What happened?”

He shook his head and lifted his gaze to the ceiling for a moment. “I fell asleep at the wheel and a huge farm truck T-boned the car.”

“And are you okay?”

“I’m fine. But Shannon’s—” He cut himself off before his emotions ran away with him. The pause was long enough for Alicia to jump to the worst-case scenario, and she gasped.

“Oh, God, Jack, is she dead?”

He swallowed. “No. But she’s in pretty bad shape.”

“How bad?”

He shook his head and rubbed his chin. “She hasn’t woken up yet.”

“So is it a coma or something?”

He shrugged. “They can’t really give me a straight answer right now. All they said is it’s a traumatic brain injury.”

Just saying the words made him nauseated.

“Holy shit.”


She paused for a long time, then cleared her throat and spoke in an uncharacteristically comforting tone. “I’m so sorry, Jack. I really am. I’m just so sorry.”

He nodded, unable to speak.

Alicia exhaled. “Okay, what do you need me to do? Do I need to come down there? Have you talked to Deb? Do you want me to call her?”

He sucked in his breath and blew it out in a sharp puff of air. “Would you mind? I just can’t…I mean, this is all…a lot. Just tell her I said that. She’ll understand. Let her know that I’m fine, and that I’ll call her soon. I just can’t right now.”

“I’ll tell her.”

“And cancel everything I have for the next…I don’t know. For the next six months, at least,” he went on. “If she pulls through, it sounds like there’s going to be a lot of hospitals and therapists and treatments. If she doesn’t…” He paused to shake his head again. “If she doesn’t, I’m just going to—”

“I’ve got your back. Don’t worry about anything,” Alicia interjected. “Hang in there, Jack. Shannon is young and healthy. She’ll get through this. You both will.”

He rubbed his eyes. “Thank you.”

“And call me if you need anything,” she added. “I won’t hesitate to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice if you need me to.”

As Alicia was speaking, he caught sight of a woman marching down the hall toward him, jaw set and eyes fixed intently on his face. Even though he’d never met her before, Jack knew her immediately. It was the hair. Fiery masses of curls, which she wore twisted into a fat knot on the top of her head. It was also her diminutive stature, fair skin, and piercing turquoise-green eyes, which, as she approached, appeared to be red and watery.

“Alicia, I need to go,” he hastily cut her off. “Thank you for your help. I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up and stuffed the phone into his back pocket and approached the woman, meeting her about halfway down the hall. They stopped in front of each other, and neither said anything just yet.

What was he supposed to say to this woman?

I’m so sorry I nearly killed your daughter. It seems to be a bad habit of mine.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to come up with anything because she spoke first.

“Jack,” she stated in a firm voice, an obvious attempt to maintain strength in the midst of something so unimaginable.

He cleared his throat and nodded. “Hello, Aine.”

“They’re tellin’ me she won’t wake up.”

He gave a small shake of his head. “Not yet.”

“And ’ave ye seen her?”

He shook his head again.

She gave a few assertive nods as she appeared to clench her jaw, her eyes scanning the hall and eventually landing on his.

“Are ye all right, lad?”

He pulled his lips in between his teeth as his eyebrows knitted, and then he lifted and dropped his shoulders, once again unable to speak.

She stared at his face with the firm, yet emotional, expression for only a second and then outstretched her palms and flipped her fingers toward herself.

“C’mere, Jack.”

With that, he allowed his face to fall forward onto her shoulder and he placed his hands on her back. The combination of his brittle state and the overwhelmingly maternal comfort caused him to momentarily lose control of his emotions. She patted the top of his head and rubbed her hand in circles over his back as she shushed him, swaying slightly and speaking quietly.

“I know what yer thinkin’ and ye need to stop. She has always been stronger than anything this world has thrown at her. This will be no different.

She gripped his shoulders, pushed him back, and forced him to look her in the eye as he noticed a single tear trickling down her cheek. “Whatever ’tis ye believe in, ye need to be a man of faith right now.”

He nodded and wiped his eyes. “Of course.”

Just then, Dr. Everette approached them wearing an expression that Jack couldn’t decipher.

“Mr. MacCarrick, do you have a moment?”

Jack nodded and gestured toward Aine. “This is Shannon’s mother, Aine Callaghan.”

Dr. Everette nodded, and Aine gave him a firm handshake.

Then his indecipherable expression grew somewhat pleasant. “Would you like to see her?”

“Yes,” Aine answered for both of them.

“Right this way.”

They followed him down the hall and he gestured into a room.

“I’ll give you some time with her, and then I’ll be back in a little while to speak to you,” Dr. Everette said.

He and Aine stepped inside, and as soon as Jack laid eyes on Shannon, he had to turn around. If he didn’t, he’d probably have passed out, or cried again, or possibly even vomited at the sight of what his own negligence had inflicted upon the most important person in the world to him. The person he loved more than his very own life.

In the two seconds he’d looked at her, he noticed half of her face was almost completely mangled. One of her beautiful eyes was a sickly purple-gray-green and swollen shut. A large bandage covered her entire cheekbone, but it was clear that it concealed similar distorted colors and severe swelling. The rest of her face was marred with cuts, scrapes, and minor bruising.

And her incredible, incredible hair…

It was partially shaved off on the right side of her head, above and next to her ear. Whatever injury that necessitated shearing her like she was nothing more than a sheep was also covered by a bandage.

Beyond all of that, she was still and silent, breathing through an oxygen tube that was threaded across her face, attached at her nose.

And it was all more than he could process, so he simply refused to look.

He faced the back wall for a while, hand over his mouth, eyes closed, head shaking slightly. As he stood attempting to gather himself, he heard Aine speaking quietly to Shannon in Irish Gaelic. Some part of his brain retained bits of the language that he’d picked up during the few years he’d spent in Ireland as a teenager, and as Aine spoke, the words translated in his mind.

Bí i do threis. Tá tú tréan, a iníon dom.”

Be strong. You are strong, my daughter.

Tá cíon agam ort, a pháiste mo chroí.”

I love you, my dear child.

He drew in a silent breath and rubbed his fingers across his forehead as Aine continued to speak to her daughter in a low, slow, melodic lilt. He decided it was better for him to keep his distance for a while. Not only because he wasn’t ready to take in the sight of her injuries and comatose state just yet, but also because he knew Aine needed this. Perhaps Shannon needed it too. Just to hear her mother’s voice. It gave him a microscopic amount of audacious hope that it could somehow make a difference.

“Jack,” Aine’s voice carried from across the room after what seemed like millennia. “Why don’t ye come sit with ’er? She needs to feel yer presence too.”

He inhaled once again and braced himself to face the damage he’d done. He slowly turned and crossed the room, pulling a chair to the opposite side of the bed from Aine, and sat down. He picked up one of Shannon’s hands, stroking the back of it with his fingertips.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he said quietly. He reached up to stroke the remaining hair on the shaved side of her head, twisting his fingers up in the long, red spirals. “You’re as beautiful as ever.”

He rubbed a thumb over the strand of hair in his hand, recalling one of their last conversations. “Your hair’s not even a wild, frizzy mess.” He chuckled lightly at the brief moment in the car that morning, which seemed to break the dam of his stifled emotions, and opted to lean forward and rest his head on the hand he was holding.

And for a long time, that’s all it was—Aine speaking softly in Gaelic, Jack stroking Shannon’s hand and hair, both of them taking intermittent moments to cry quietly.

Hours stretched into days, days stretched into weeks, and there was still no change.

Jack grew stir crazy, dividing his time between sitting at Shannon’s side and pacing the halls, jogging the stairs, and sometimes doing push-ups in the room at the foot of the bed. Aine, on the other hand, remained steady, sitting next to the bed, uttering silent prayers, only stepping away when Jack absolutely insisted that she take a break to go shower or nap at the nearby hotel room he’d rented. But for the vast majority of the time, she simply stayed, explaining this was just what a mother is supposed to do for her child. This is what would help.

And for approximately five weeks, her efforts seemed to be in vain, until one afternoon something happened that could only have been described as miraculous.

Jack was pacing the room at the foot of the bed when Aine called out to him.

“Jack,” she said. “She’s awake.”

He whipped around and saw, for the first time in weeks, the beautiful turquoise-green eyes that he’d missed so much. She seemed to be staring ahead, her eyes looking more glassy and vacant than he was used to, but they were open and they were hers and she seemed to be looking at him, so that was enough for right then.

He crossed the room in a stupor and stopped to stand next to the chair Aine was seated in. He didn’t try to speak, knowing he couldn’t, but also because Shannon’s sudden alert state seemed so fragile that he felt if he even breathed, she’d be sent back into her slumber.

“Shannon,” Aine said in the same low voice. “Can ye say hello to Jack?”

Instead of responding, Shannon simply flicked her gaze from her mother’s face to his, staring at him. So he stared back.

“Shannon,” Aine tried again. “Say hello to Jack. He’s very worried about ye.”

But she just continued to stare.

Aine stood up and tugged Jack over to sit in the chair.

“Talk to ’er,” she whispered.

Before speaking, he picked up her hand and rubbed his thumb over the back of it as he so often did. She always used to reciprocate the subtle gesture of affection by rubbing her thumb over the back of his hand, but she didn’t do that right then. Right then, she couldn’t even move, and his simple acknowledgment of that fact was enough to nearly knock him off the chair with grief and regret.

But this wasn’t the time for him to be weak. Part of what he’d signed up for when he’d asked her to spend her life with him was the promise to be strong when she couldn’t. So he swallowed the lump in his throat and smiled at her.

“Hello, Shannon,” he said quietly.

She still didn’t speak and simply continued to stare at him with a blank expression.

“I’m so glad you’re okay.” He’d said it in spite of the fact that she was clearly not okay. Whatever this traumatic brain injury was, he began to wonder if it had taken her ability to speak. It was apparent that she could hear just fine because she turned her eyes to whomever had spoken to her. And that was something.

Because, after all, she was alive.

This wasn’t a repeat of Penny. He hadn’t lost Shannon.

She was still there, awake again, somewhat responsive, and—according to the medical team—in stable condition.

As he continued to smile at her and rub his thumb over the back of her hand, that same audacious hope began to rise in his chest. Aine was right—Shannon was strong. Alicia was also right—she was young and healthy. She would get through this. Maybe she couldn’t speak to them right then, but something in him chose to believe that would pass. She’d continue to improve. He knew it.

After all, Aine knew Shannon better than anyone. The way only a mother can know her child. She’d said Shannon had always been stronger than everything this heinous world had ever thrown at her. And Shannon was stronger than this too.

Whatever ’tis ye believe in…

He rubbed his thumb across her hand again. He’d never believed in much of anything before, but he definitely believed in something now.



The life they’d promised each other, during which they’d walk through the pit of hell together if necessary. This was definitely the pit of hell, and just as they’d said on the day they made that promise, they would make it to the other side if they only walked together.

So Jack heeded the words of his future mother-in-law and chose to be a man of faith.

Faith in her, faith in them, faith that nothing would keep them from living the beautiful life he knew was in store for them.

He felt more than a bit overwhelmed by his love for her, to the point that he couldn’t help reaching for her face. But, to his dismay, Shannon immediately recoiled from his hand and then looked at him through a face of sheer terror.

And that was the moment he knew something was very wrong. Even more wrong than he’d previously thought.

It wasn’t the coma, or the fact that she wasn’t speaking. It was the look of fear that overtook her when he tried to touch her.

A realization hit him like a punch in the gut and sucked the breath out of his lungs.

Shannon didn’t know him anymore.

And she didn’t just not know him. She was afraid of him.

Chapter 1

Her first memory was a confusing one.

There was blinding white light.

There was frantic movement.

People in blue shirts looking at her, talking to her, talking about her, moving her, touching her.

She had an instinctual urge to leave, but found she couldn’t move. The feeling of being frozen in place scared her to the point that the chaos swirling around her hypnotized her back into a deep sleep.

Sometime later, there was a different type of sound. It was a familiar sound. A woman’s voice. She found it to be lovely and comforting, so she opened her eyes.

The first thing she saw was a man. A tall man with dark hair, who was walking back and forth across the room from her.

As the woman spoke, she turned her head to follow the sound of her voice.

The woman had a soft face and vibrant hair and eyes.

The woman continued to speak in the lovely, comforting tone for a while. She began to speak to the man, who walked over to stand next to the woman.

As he approached, she noticed his eyes. His eyes were similar in color to the shirts worn by the frantic people she’d seen earlier. They were beautiful eyes, so she continued to look at them until the woman spoke again, which caused her gaze to instinctively shift back to the woman’s face.

The woman said something while pointing to the man, so she flicked her gaze back to his eyes.

He sat down next to her and smiled as he held one of her hands.

“Hello, Shannon.”

Hello, Shannon, her mind seemed to echo his words.

She got an urge to say the words back, but there seemed to be a disconnect between her mind and her mouth.

“I’m so glad you’re okay.”

Okay? she wanted to say.

She didn’t feel okay. She felt everything but okay. She felt pain and worry. A vague sense of fear that she couldn’t seem to speak or move. Although, when the man reached a hand toward her face, it seemed she could move after all.

She recoiled and flinched, noticing her eyes squeezed shut involuntarily. Her heart rate accelerated and she curled her fingers into tight fists clutching the sheets at her sides. An instinctive notion inside of her sent out an alert that told her men—at least large, strong men like this one—were a threat.

Which was odd. He didn’t look the least bit threatening, and he seemed to be surprised by her reaction. He immediately turned to look back at the woman, who nodded and said something too quiet for her to hear, and then turned back around.

“Shannon,” he said again.


That was familiar too.

“Shannon, it’s Jack,” he went on, gesturing to himself and then to the woman. “This is your mom.”

She flicked her gaze to the woman’s face as her heart rate seemed to pick up again.

Shouldn’t she know her own mother?

She deduced that she should, but somehow she didn’t.

The rims of her eyes pricked and her breath hitched, which caused the man to reach for her face again.

A surge of fear pulsed through her veins and nerves, and it seemed to obliterate the barrier between her mind and her mouth, causing her to instantly cry out.


He froze, as a distinctly heartbroken look overtook him. Then he abruptly stood up and gestured for the woman to step away from her, and they spoke to each other in quiet voices.

The woman, who was her mother. This man, who was Jack.

She knew she should definitely know her mother, and it seemed she was supposed to know Jack too.

But she didn’t. She didn’t know either of them. She didn’t know much of anything, it seemed.

She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them.




There were no words to describe this type of disorientation.

The sense that something should be there, but you have no idea what it is or if you’d ever had it at all.

You’re in a place and you don’t know how you got there, and you’re not even totally sure what the place is.

And before you arrived at this place…there was nothing.

There was nothing.

And it was less like nonexistence, but more like…like a void.

Something should be there, but nothing was.

It was overwhelming. Suffocating. Like being a fish drowning in a sea of fresh air. Her heart felt like it would pound its way right out of her chest. Her throat constricted.

She eyeballed these two people in the room with her.

Her mother.

She understood the concept of a mother.

A mother who loves, who nurtures, who protects. A mother knows her child, and a child should know its mother. But she didn’t. That was not the way it should be. Something must have happened that caused it to change. It wasn’t that she knew of her mother and this woman just wasn’t her. It was that she had no knowledge of having a mother at all—although she assumed she did, and so she assumed this woman was her.


Jack was a man.

An adult male. She guessed he was thirty-something, which was strange because if she could guess his age she must have some frame of reference for what a man of a certain age looks like. But she didn’t seem to have a frame of reference for anything.

Her thoughts spun as she attempted to dissect and unravel the disorientation. There was general knowledge of general concepts about the world, but no information about her own life, who she was, or who these people were—other than what the man had just told her.

The disorientation was so overpowering that she seemed to be reduced to a stupor of sorts and couldn’t manage to do much else besides continue to stare at these two people.

These two people. Her mother and Jack.

She felt the need to keep mentally repeating what she’d been told, just in case the disorientation had a tendency to randomly reset itself and steal more knowledge from her.

After a moment, her mother and Jack approached the bed again, and this time her mother sat down next to her.

“Shannon,” she said.


That word again.

“D’ye know who I am?”

She stared for a moment and then opened her mouth to speak. And somewhat surprisingly, she was able to. Sort of.

“Mom?” That’s what she’d been told, after all.

Her mother nodded. “Yes.”

She pointed to Jack.

“Who is that?”

“Jack?” That’s what he’d said, at least.

Her mother nodded again. “D’ye know who Jack is?”

She stared at her mother’s face and then glanced at Jack, who was watching her with a somber expression and one hand on his chin. His blue eyes were red and teary.

It was quite apparent she was supposed to know who he was, but that didn’t change the fact that she just…didn’t.


Her mother glanced back at him and said something quietly, which caused him to nod and shove his hands into his pockets.

Her mother turned back to her.



She began to deduce that Shannon was her. She pondered that deduction for a moment or two, which caused another wave of fear and confusion to wash over her.

Why didn’t she already know that? Shouldn’t she know who she was?

“What’s the last thing ye remember?”

She opened her mouth in preparation to reply but hesitated as she wracked her disoriented brain for the answer to such a simple question.

After a moment, she could only come up with one response.

I was in a room with people wearing blue shirts.

She attempted to speak the information, but her mouth was infuriatingly uncooperative.

“Room,” was all she could get out.

“A room?”

She nodded.

“What kind of room?”

“Room,” she repeated, gesturing around her.

“This room?”

She huffed and shook her head.

“A room like this one?”

She nodded.

Her mother’s eyebrows lifted as her eyes began to well up. In spite of her emotional reaction, her mother smiled and nodded.

“That’s very good, Shannon.”

Her mother became quiet as she placed a hand on the bed, smoothing the sheet with her fingertips. Her gaze flicked from her mother to Jack and back again.

Ten million questions swirled around in her mind, and it was clear she had no ability to ask them. Frustration and fear gathered in her chest and she began to feel suffocated again. Tears stung her eyes and she brought her hands over her face, feeling startled at the fact that she had some kind of stitched wound on her cheek. She continued to graze her hands over her face, until they arrived at the sides of her head. One side was covered with a thick mass of hair, the other was essentially bald and there was another line of stitches.

So not only did she not know anything about who she was or how she ended up here, she was also severely injured.

She felt her eyes widen and her stomach plummet as her gaze darted to Jack.

Maybe that’s why her instincts told her he was a threat. She’d clearly been involved in a very serious altercation and as she stared at this very tall, obviously strong man, her gut told her he had to be the culprit.

She quickly looked back at her mother.

“Mom,” she managed to say again.

“What is it, child? Just try to speak slowly.”

Did he do this to me? she wanted to demand. But, of course, her mouth only seemed to be capable of spitting out single words.

She pointed an accusing finger at Jack.


Her mother shook her head in confusion.

“Hurt…” she prompted.


“Are ye hurtin’?”

No! Hurt!

The frustration between the two of them seemed to send her mother into a fragile state and she began to cry, which prompted Jack to cross the room and clutch her mother’s shoulders.

Her instincts began screaming at her that Jack was a danger to both of them, and the only thing she could do to protect them was shout.

“Don’t! Don’t!”

Jack immediately took on a startled expression and his mouth gaped, but he didn’t say anything yet. Her mother shook her head and spoke through her tears as she seemed to finally understand what she’d been trying to say.

“’Tis all right, Shannon. He’s not going to hurt me. He didn’t do this to ye.”

Jack dropped to kneel next to the bed and looked at her with a calm, yet blatantly sad expression.


She shoved an aggressive finger toward him. “Back!

He leaned back slightly and lifted his hands in a surrendering motion. “I’m not going to touch you. But I need you to listen to me.”

She panted as the panic caused every muscle in her body to tense, but said nothing as she glared at him with a fierce expression.

“It was a car accident,” he continued, speaking calmly and evenly.

She stared at him as she processed his words. “Car?”

He nodded. “We were on our way to your mom’s house and a truck hit us.”

He pointed to traces of healing cuts on his own face and turned his hands over to show her what appeared to be the remnants of scrapes and burns. “See? We got pretty banged up.”

Her eyes shifted.

He bit his lip and then lifted his shoulders as he went on. “I was driving and I fell asleep. So all of this is my fault. But…” He paused to shake his head and sigh. “But I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

She continued to stare at him. His eyes held a significant amount of pain and he wore an earnest expression.

Once again, he didn’t look like a threat, other than his large, muscular frame and towering stature, which told her he could probably hurt someone very easily if he wanted to. But the way he spoke was gentle and seemed honest, and she couldn’t help noticing the sound of his voice was almost as comforting as that of her own mother. Nevertheless, something in her continued to sound alarms that men like him were dangerous, and she couldn’t help wondering why, so she continued to press the issue with her limited communication abilities.

“Hurt?” she asked, pointing a finger at him and then at herself.

He pressed his lips together, closed his eyes, shook his head, and then looked at her. “Shannon…No. I have never hurt you. I’d never hurt you. I’d never hurt anyone.”

She drew in a deep breath as the tension in her body seemed to release, and then he stood up and stepped away from the bed.

She decided to believe him—at least until he gave her a reason not to.

At that moment, a man who was clearly a doctor entered the room, and she narrowed her eyes skeptically at him. But this man was much older, and he was a doctor, so she decided he was probably okay.

“Shannon,” the doctor greeted her pleasantly. “I see you’re awake. Welcome back.”

She stared at him, but said nothing.

He glanced at a chart and then at her mother and Jack. “Is she talking?”

Jack nodded. “She wasn’t at first. Now she seems to be able to, but it’s all just single words.”

She chewed a thumbnail as she watched Jack closely. He seemed to be sort of in charge of the situation, which made her wonder what his relationship to her was.

He was much younger than her mother, and he called himself by name instead of “Dad,” so she ruled out the possibility of him being her father. He also looked nothing like her mother. He had extremely dark brown, almost black hair and light blue eyes, compared to her mother’s vibrant red hair and emerald-like green eyes, so she figured he was probably not her brother.

That really only left two possibilities—Jack was either her boyfriend or her husband.

And given the fact that her instincts seemed to have a really bad feeling about him, her mind seemed to reel at exactly what type of life she had.

The doctor pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket and used it to shine in her eyes as he examined them.

“My name is Dr. Everette. Can I ask you some questions? You can just nod, but try to speak if you can.”

She nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“Shannon,” she stated hesitantly, going strictly on her assumptions after hearing her mother and Jack use the word repeatedly.

“Do you know your full name?”

Her eyes scanned the room until they landed on her mother, whose chin began to tremble again. She looked back at Dr. Everette.

“No,” she whispered.

He made a note on the chart.

“How old are you?”

She stared blankly at his face as the realization hit her that she probably wasn’t going to have an answer to any of his questions.

She shrugged.

Another note.

“Do you know what year it is?”

She exhaled in total frustration and shrugged again.

“Do you know where you live?”

“Manhattan,” she blurted without a moment’s hesitation and then furrowed her brow at her own response. She had no idea where it came from and had no idea if it was true or if her impeded brain had just randomly come up with it in a reflex of sorts.

Dr. Everette raised his eyebrows and turned to her mother and Jack, who both had a shocked expression on their faces.

Jack cleared his throat. “That’s uh…that’s where I live. We were in the process of moving her there. That’s a good sign, right?”

Dr. Everette nodded with approval. “I’d say so.”

She stared at Jack, who seemed to hold her gaze.

So the one and only bit of information her brain seemed to retain was where this man lived. Not her own mother, or even her own name, or anything else about herself—just where Jack lived. She wasn’t sure if she liked that or not.

And he said she was moving there. That meant she didn’t live with him yet. So he was probably not her husband. All of which meant she still had the opportunity to make a clean break from this guy if he tried anything.

“Can you tell me anything about Manhattan?” Dr. Everette asked.

She furrowed her brow as she thought. Manhattan was part of New York City. New York City was in New York State. New York State was part of the United States, which was part of the continent of North America, which sat on planet Earth.

So it seemed there was information in her head. Just no information about how she related to all of it.

She knew she wouldn’t be able to explain all of that, so she simply shook her head.

“Okay, that’s enough questions for now,” he said, setting the chart aside. He lifted the sheet and rubbed something across the bottom of her foot, causing her to jerk away.

“Don’t,” she protested.

He nodded. “Also a good sign.”

He eased into the chair next to the bed and looked at her with a kind expression.

“I imagine you’re probably feeling pretty scared and frustrated right now, aren’t you, Shannon?”

His empathy seemed to pierce her heart, and a lump rose in her throat. Her chin began to tremble as she nodded.

“Do you understand what’s happened to you?”

She shrugged and wobbled her hand back and forth in a sort of motion.

“You and your fiancé were involved in a very serious car accident,” he began, and Shannon flicked a glance at Jack.

Fiancé. Well, that answers that.

“A truck collided with the car on the side you were sitting on,” he went on, using his hands to depict the collision.

“Your head went through the side window, and it injured this part of your brain,” he explained, gently placing a fingertip on the wound on the side of her head. “That area of your brain houses your long-term memory, which is why you can’t remember anything right now. Does that make sense?”

She nodded and blinked, which sent a tear rolling down her cheek.

Dr. Everette patted her hand.

“Don’t despair,” he consoled her. “Like I said, it’s an injury, so there’s every reason to believe it will heal over time, and all of this will be a thing of the past one day.”

She exhaled a huge sigh of relief.

“Exactly,” he nodded, grinning at her, and then he pointed to her mother and Jack. “But remember, you have your mom and Jack. I’m sure you feel like you don’t know who in the world they are, but I’ve spent enough time with them over the past few weeks to know that they both love and care about you very much.”

Her chin trembled again as she glanced at them. Her mother wore an expression that she guessed mirrored her own. Jack looked as somber and heartbroken as he had the entire time. He seemed to hold her gaze, and she found herself wondering what was going through his mind. She wondered about him in general.

He seemed very kind and concerned. And his story about the car accident had checked out with the doctor. But what about this nagging feeling she had, not just about him, but about men in general? That had to be something. She figured time would tell if her instinct was right or wrong, but in the meantime she decided she’d try to have an open mind about him.

Especially since they were engaged. Clearly, if she agreed to marry him, he couldn’t be that bad. Right?

Dr. Everette turned to Jack and her mother. “She’ll need to see a specialist. There’s a neurology center in Dallas, so I’m going to refer you to them.”

Jack nodded. “Thank you.”

“When can we take ’er home?” her mother asked.

Dr. Everette chuckled. “Well, let’s see. Shannon? Are you ready to go home?”

She lifted her eyebrows incredulously and flipped her palms.

Home where? she wanted to ask.

He chuckled again. “She appears to be in pretty good shape for the shape she’s in, but I think we need to run a few more tests and have the occupational therapist come check her out. So I think we’ll keep her at least another day to keep an eye on her. And then I would plan to go to Dallas right away. The sooner she can begin working with a specialist, the better.”

Jack nodded again and shook Dr. Everette’s hand. “Thank you.”

Dr. Everette made his way out and her mother and Jack began speaking to each other in hushed tones, occasionally glancing at her. Her mother gestured assertively at him, while he shook his head and wore a doubtful expression. Her mother pushed a finger into his chest and raised her eyebrows while saying something that caused Jack to appear to relent, and he nodded.

She narrowed her eyes as she watched them, processing the information that her mother seemed to have the upper hand and was clearly not the least bit intimidated by him, in spite of his muscular build and the fact that he had at least a foot and a half of height on her. That had to count for something too. Right?

“Shannon,” her mother began after approaching the bed again. “I’m goin’ to make some calls. Jack is goin’ to stay with ye. Ye needn’t be afraid of him.”

She pulled her lips in between her teeth, hesitated, and then nodded.

Her mother patted her hand and kissed her forehead, and then stood up and gave Jack a small push toward the bed before stepping out of the room.

Once alone, she and Jack just stared at each other, him with his hands deep in his pockets, her chewing a thumbnail.

The situation felt stiflingly awkward. She didn’t necessarily feel afraid of him right then, just uncomfortable. And it was all made worse by the fact that she couldn’t even speak to him properly and potentially gather information about who he was and why she had such a bad feeling about him.

So, in an effort to simply be polite, she gestured at the chair. He waited a moment, still wearing that same sad expression, and finally sat down.

He leaned forward over his knees and rubbed his hands through his hair as he exhaled heavily, and then he sat up straight again.

“I can see that you’re afraid of me,” he began. “And that’s okay. I know all of this is scary and confusing for you. But I promise you that I never have and never would hurt you. You don’t have to trust me right now, but I hope that you can again someday.”

She peered at his face for a moment and then nodded.

“And even if you don’t,” he went on, rubbing his chin and resting it in his hand, “I’m still going to do everything in my power to help you get back to normal. I’ll find the best doctors and specialists available, even if it means flying us halfway around the world and back. You’re more important to me than anything, and I’ll never give up on you.”

He paused as he rubbed his hands together and stared at the floor.

“I love you, Shannon,” he said through a broken voice. “My worst fear was that you’d somehow not know that, and…and it seems that fear has sort of become reality.”

In spite of the fact that she still didn’t know or trust this man in the least, his words and obvious heartbroken state seemed to stab her in the chest. That, combined with the suffocating stress of the whole situation, caused her to instantly break down into tears. She leaned forward, covering her face, and cried quietly for a moment or two before she noticed out of the corner of her eye that he’d gingerly placed a hand on the bed next to her leg. Without even thinking, she placed her hand on top of his and squeezed it. He squeezed back as he continued to stare at the floor with his chin resting in his other palm.

After a moment, she wiped her face and looked at him again and he looked at her. She chose to smile, and he smiled back.

This felt okay. He seemed very kind and clearly cared for her a lot. After all, he’d said he loved her. And they were engaged. In her very basic and generalized knowledge of things, she understood being engaged meant, at some point, he had asked her to marry him and she had accepted. So surely, he was good. He had to be good. She couldn’t imagine agreeing to marry a man who wasn’t.

Still, she wished she could talk to him, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. Instead, she tried to think of something else for them to do, and she scanned the room until her gaze landed on a large book on the table next to the bed. That was something. Maybe if he read to her, it would help her figure out the whole talking thing. So she pointed to it.

He glanced at it. “Do you want this?”

She pointed a finger at him and then back at the book.

“You want me to read it?”

She pointed at herself.

“Read it to you?”

She nodded.

He smiled and nodded back. “Sure.”

He leaned back in the chair and opened the book to a place that had been marked by the previous reader and then furrowed his brow. “Uhh…this is your mom’s Bible. Do you still want me to read it?”

She shrugged and nodded. It was just something for them to do, after all.

“Okay…” He cleared his throat and flipped one of the pages.

“O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways…”

She watched him as he read, his voice deep and steady and strangely comforting.

“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me…”

She leaned backward and sank into the pillows, turning her head so that she could still see him, and she noticed the melodic sound of his voice seemed to be lulling her off to sleep. He paused to glance at her, so she reached a hand across the sheet, and he placed his hand over it as he continued.

“For thou hast possessed my reins. Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well…”

She couldn’t hold her eyelids open any longer and let herself drift off while still holding his hand.

Chapter 2


“Very good,” AJ, the occupational therapist, praised her. “Now tell me your age.”


“Twenty…?” AJ prompted.

Shannon hesitated. “Five.”

AJ nodded. “Now altogether.”


“Awesome,” she replied. “What’s your birthday?”

“March,” Shannon blurted.

“March what?”


AJ squinted. “Close.”


“Good,” AJ said. “Say it together.”

“March twenty-seven.”

“And what year?”


AJ lifted her hand toward Shannon. “High five.”

Shannon laughed and they slapped their palms together. She liked AJ. AJ made her feel normal and not like she was a fragile, broken thing—which was how she constantly felt around Ma and Jack. But mostly Jack. Jack acted like she’d shatter into ten million pieces if he breathed on her wrong. It was annoying.

She was really trying to like him. Well, she did like him. He was always very nice, very gentle, soft-spoken, concerned about and considerate of her. But she was trying to like him the way she figured she probably should like a man whom she was supposed to marry. And it seemed like it should have been easy for her.

He was, after all, insanely attractive. Like, unrealistically, impossibly, almost absurdly attractive, with his strong, square jaw, chiseled features, icy blue eyes, dark hair, and persistent five o’clock shadow. He looked like he could’ve been a model or a movie star or something else that required a person to have perfect genes. He was so attractive she almost couldn’t look at him half the time.

Beyond that, over the course of the month or so since she’d woken up, she noticed he seemed like he was independently wealthy. He never worked, and yet he had the means to put the three of them up in luxury accommodations during their extended stay in Dallas. They had a private car and driver, and he seemed to be covering the cost of her therapy and the brain doctors—anytime a financial person approached them with a clipboard, Jack immediately filled out the papers and handed them back before she or her mother even had a chance to look at them. Not to mention, the ring on her hand seemed like it probably cost a small fortune with its massive center diamond and glittering band.

So, between him being nice, handsome, and rich, in Shannon’s semi-damaged brain, he was basically the perfect man, and she believed that’s all it should have taken for her to fall madly in love with him to the point that she was ready to waltz down the aisle.

But apparently, being in love with someone requires more than them being physically attractive and having a fat bank account and good manners.

She’d figured that being in love would have required her to know him. She still had no idea who he was, and really getting to know him seemed to be of much less importance than her therapy and treatment.

On top of all that, she couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling she had about him. She’d since decided it was not necessarily men in general who were a potential threat, just certain men. Men who were semi-close in age to her and men who were close in age to her mother. And not even all men who were part of that age range, just certain ones. She’d met her brother, Niall, who was about two years younger than Jack, and he didn’t make her feel worried or unsafe. She had yet to figure out the common factor that elicited such an uneasy feeling from her.

Fortunately, there seemed to be not an ounce of pressure on her to make any kind of decisions about marriage or living with him or continuing whatever life they had together before all of this. And that was a relief. It was hard enough to have zero knowledge of the entirety of your personal existence and also have to basically relearn how to speak.

At that moment, Jack and Ma entered the room, so Shannon stood from the chair and smoothed her head scarf, which Ma had given to her to cover the bald spot. Her head was still half shaved after a fruitless neurosurgery two weeks ago.

The surgeon had offered a lengthy explanation, none of which Shannon understood, other than the fact that there was really no fixing what was wrong with her brain. In addition to having her head cut open for apparently no good reason, the specialist she’d been seeing had begun to sound like a broken record. Not much he could do, no other options, nothing more to offer other than a list of names from which they could obtain second, third, fourth, and fifth opinions. So for the time being, Shannon just went to her therapy appointments, where she’d practice speaking and writing, and doing other activities to improve her fine motor skills.

Ma squeezed her shoulders and kissed the side of her face, and Shannon squeezed her back. She still didn’t have any memory of Ma, but she could see from her own reflection that she was clearly this woman’s daughter, and she couldn’t ignore the sense of calm and comfort she got from Ma’s presence.

Ma was the name that Shannon had been told she always used to refer to her mother. Ma was an Irish immigrant who had come to Texas before Niall was born. Which made sense, given the fiery red curls she, her brother, and Shannon herself had. So that was one more little piece of the puzzle to her elusive past.

Shannon nodded and smiled politely at Jack, and he smiled back, so she immediately turned her eyes to the floor. He was just way too attractive. It was baffling what he could have possibly seen in her to cause him to want to marry her. She always came back to the feeling she had about him. He’d given her literally no reason to think that he’d hurt or mistreat her, but she couldn’t help wondering if that was because she’d never been alone with him for any significant amount of time. Maybe he was only this nice and considerate because Ma was always around. Maybe he was with her because they had some kind of weird relationship where she was totally dependent on him and he lorded over her. Maybe they had some kind of emotionally manipulative arrangement.

But all of that was just a bunch of assumptions Shannon had come up with in her spare thinking time—which she happened to have a lot of. Just a bunch of time to think, while Jack and Ma made phone calls, did research, and had endless lengthy discussions about her. She usually hid in her room in their suite, where she either spent time reading book after book or practiced her balance and coordination. Sometimes she did little exercises too. Sit-ups and push-ups and lunges.

She spent a lot of time looking in the mirror in an attempt to familiarize herself with her appearance in hopes it would jog her memory. In her moments of staring at herself, she’d developed a habit of poking and pinching at her tummy, her bottom, and her thighs to see how they’d jiggle and squish between her fingertips. She didn’t consider herself fat by any means, just soft. And she’d decided it was from the time spent lying in a hospital bed, so she figured she could stand to strengthen her muscles a bit.

One afternoon in her boredom, she’d randomly decided to call the concierge to see if she could get a scale for her bathroom, and they’d pleasantly accommodated her. She was 114.7 pounds, so she set a goal to lose 4.7 pounds. Once again, for no other reason than it was something to do.

So, for the past month or so, this was Shannon’s life. Visits to the brain doctors and AJ, and staring at the mirror between exercises, all the while basically hating her existence and counting the seconds until she could get back to her real life.

Whatever her real life happened to be, that is. Surely, it was better than this. This had gotten very old very quickly, and none of it was making a lick of difference, and she just wanted to move on from it. But there was no moving on as long as Ma and Jack were in charge. They were convinced there was always something else that could be done to get the old Shannon back.

But the current Shannon knew there was nothing else, so she just had to go along with everything until they finally realized it too.

Jack was still smiling at her when she turned her eyes back up to his face.

“How’d it go today, Shannon?”

She nodded and focused intensely on putting words together. “It…went very…well.”

AJ patted her back. “She’s a pro.”

“Very good job, dear,” Ma said. “Ye ready to go back to the ’otel fer a little lunch?”

Shannon nodded and then waved at AJ. “Thanks.”

“See you next time.”

The three of them made their way through the building and down the elevator. Shannon kept her eyes trained on the floor to avoid seeing the stares. There were always stares. And people whispering. She tugged at the scarf to make it look less weird and silently wished for her hair to grow faster. She didn’t understand the staring. Plenty of other patients here seemed to be even balder than she was, and nobody seemed to stare at or whisper about them.

She, Ma, and Jack always left through the back doors, where the car was waiting by the dumpsters in the staff parking lot, which she didn’t really understand, but also didn’t question it. They always left from and arrived at the back of the hotel too.

After they arrived in the suite, Jack placed an order for their lunch. He’d learned by now what both Shannon and Ma would eat, so he didn’t ask anymore. Shannon sank down into one of the sofas and Ma began futzing with the scarf.

“D’ye want to take this off?”

Shannon’s gaze flicked to Jack’s face and then turned to the floor shyly.

“No, thank you,” she replied quietly.

Jack had seen her without it plenty of times, but that always made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t imagine herself being pretty enough for someone who looked like him even if she had a full head of hair, and she certainly didn’t think her half-bald state helped that situation.

Jack brought her and Ma glasses of water and then sat down in a chair across from them, leaning into the armrest with his chin resting in his hand while he looked at Shannon. She looked back, the two of them holding each other’s gaze, but not saying anything.

This was something they always seemed to do. The perpetual staring contest. If personal information and thoughts and intentions could be transmitted via just looking at someone, Shannon would have learned all she’d wanted to know about Jack by this point. But they couldn’t, so all she’d managed to accomplish was veritably memorizing every gray and green fleck hidden in the tiny seas of azure.

She’d also memorized the look he constantly wore during their staring contest. Tired, discreetly discouraged, but pleasant. He was always pleasant. Patient, soft-spoken, kind. She wondered if he was a ticking time bomb. That all of the obvious stress from this situation would eventually chisel away the gentle, long-suffering exterior and he’d snap, finally showing his true colors and proving to Shannon that her gut feeling about him was right.

Lunch arrived like clockwork, as it did every afternoon, and Shannon began the dissection of her sandwich. A while ago, she noticed, for some unexplainable reason, she felt uncomfortable eating around Ma and Jack, so she turned meals into a ritual of sorts to distract herself.

Take one half of the sandwich and set it aside. She never ate it. Splay the remaining bread; peel away the cheese and set it on top of the half she wouldn’t eat. Set the remaining components in a meticulous row—bread, turkey, tomato, lettuce, all in a line next to a tiny stainless steel ramekin of mustard. Then, eat the components in order as she worked her way backward from the ramekin to the bread, dipping each piece into the mustard and counting the bites.

She knew it was an odd way to consume her lunch, but she’d only started doing it as a way to give her brain a workout. The organizing of the food, the counting, and the intense focus on what she was doing made her feel like she was doing something beneficial to her injured brain.

The intense focus served a dual purpose. It not only exercised her brain, but it also distracted her from the annoying inevitable conversation between Ma and Jack about what to do next.

“The Mayo Clinic is ranked number one in the U.S.,” Jack went on as he flipped through a stack of papers.

“Where is that?” Ma asked.

“Hmm…looks like Minnesota.”

“’Twould get cold come winter.”

Jack chuckled. “We wouldn’t have to go outside.”

Ma chuckled back politely, and Shannon rolled her eyes and stood up from the couch, dumping her remaining food into the trash.

“Are ye not hungry, child?”

“No, Ma.”

“Ye didn’t eat much breakfast—”

“I’m fine, Ma,” Shannon managed to spit out in a deft assertion. She timidly eyeballed both of them; Ma was looking at her with a lifted brow and Jack was wearing a similar expression. She sharply turned away from them and refilled her water glass.

So Jack continued.

“There are a couple in New York, which may be an opportunity to take her back to Manhattan like Dr. Hester mentioned.”

“I think that is a good suggestion.”

“Or,” Jack went on, flipping more pages, “there’s a place in Switzerland. It’s more experimental, but it’s non-invasive.”

Shannon’s stomach did an infuriated twist. She downed a glass of water and then shook her head.

“They’ve only done a handful of trials, but the success rate is almost one hundred percent—”

With that, Shannon slammed the glass into the sink, sending shattered shards flying across the counter and causing Jack and Ma to leap from their chairs.

Shannon!” Ma scolded. “What in God’s name are ye doin’?”

“No, Ma,” she fired back. “What…in God’s name…are you doing?”

“What do ye mean?”

She pointed a furious finger at both of them. “You two…you two…you two…

She clutched the sides of her head and squeezed her eyes shut as she focused all of her energy on spitting out the words that she needed to say. Words she’d needed to say for a couple of weeks now.

“You two…are living…in the past. This…thisis never…going to get better!”

Jack lifted a hand in an attempt to calm her. “Shannon, I know you’re frustrated, but we can’t give up when there are still options—”

“There are…no options…Jack! You are a…fool living in a…fantasy world!”

He closed his mouth and dropped his hand.

Ma’s jaw fell open. “Shannon, ye can’t speak to him that way—”

“I can too…speak to him that way!” Shannon retorted and darted a furious glare at Jack’s face. “I’m his…fiancée…whatever the…hell that even…means.”

Ma pressed her lips together and Jack lifted his hand again.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I know this has been a lot to deal with, and we’ve had more than our share of disappointment, but I just want you to take some time to—”

“You both,” Shannon cut him off again, “want…a girl who…who…who doesn’t exist anymore!”

She ripped the scarf off her head and tossed it at Jack’s face. “This…is all…you have left. I’m sure…that’s…very disappointing…for you. But that’s just…the way…it is.”

“Shannon,” he started to say, but she cut him off a third time.

“Why don’t you…just…deal with it!”

And with that, she walked to her bedroom and slammed the door.

She paced the room furiously and, out of nowhere, dropped to the floor to do push-ups maniacally. She continued to thrust the floor away from her until she felt a weird urge to vomit. She decided it was a combination of stress and the push-ups jostling her minimal lunch around in her stomach, so she hopped off the floor, marched to the bathroom, and vomited until she was empty. Afterward, she felt strangely calm as she washed her face and rinsed out her mouth. Both the push-ups and the vomiting made her somewhat tired, so she flopped on the bed and curled up on her side with the intention of taking a nap.

Before she could fall asleep, however, there was a soft knock at the door.

What?” she said with a huff.

Jack stepped into the room, closed the door, placed the scarf on the nightstand, and sat down in a chair across from the bed. She found them locked into one of their intense staring contests for a moment.

She sat up, grabbed the scarf, and tied it around her head.

“Why…are you…doing this…to yourself…Jack?”

He leaned his elbow on the arm rest while he set his chin in his palm and continued to stare at her with a soft expression.

“I made a promise. So did you. It would go against everything I believe in to walk away from you right now.”

She sighed. “I think…you’re…crazy.”

He shook his head. “No. I just love you. And I want you to be happy.”

She abruptly perched on the edge of the bed, facing him. “Then stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop…all of this.”

“You mean your treatments.”


He drew in his breath and released it slowly.

“You’re not…doing this…for me…anymore,” she added. “You want…what you…had. You’re not…going to get…it back.”

He rubbed his hands over his face and leaned back in the chair. “I just want you to be happy, Shannon.”

“Then let…me have…a life.

He hesitated a moment and then nodded. “Okay. I’ll talk to your mom.”


They settled back into their familiar stare and sat in silence for a while.

“Is that what’s really bothering you?” he asked after a while. “Your mom and I are a little concerned.”

She scoffed. “Isn’t that…enough? We live in…a hotel and…we don’t do…anything but go to…doctors.”

“We’ve just been trying to help you, Shannon.”

She abruptly flipped over to face away from him. “Well, none of…it is working. Can we…just…go home already? Wherever…home…is?”

He placed a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off.

“I’ll go talk to your mom.”

And he left the room.

She breathed a sigh as she noticed the mere thought of doing something other than constantly going to doctor’s appointments made her feel better than she could remember feeling. Maybe she’d feel even better after she got out of this obnoxious, repetitive routine, and back to whatever it was she was doing before all of this. Or maybe she’d figure out something new to do altogether. She just needed something, and she hoped going home could be that for her.