Her tears are like knives in my heart. The very same day I tell her I love her, I have to give her up. There has to be some way, something I can say, something I can do. But there isn't and it's my own fault. I should've told her from the very beginning.
She takes a deep breath and steps out of my arms and walks away. I watch her go into the house and the door closes behind her, and I just stand there. How can I leave? She's in there hurting and I want to take away her pain, not cause it.
But I have to, for her. I walk around the car and slide behind the wheel, pull the door closed, and look once more at the house before I turn the key. It hurts more than I knew I could hurt to drive away, but I do.
I've been back in the apartment for two weeks but it still feels empty somehow. I take comfort in knowing that today I will go on campus and register for my fall classes. My doctors and therapists think I'm ready, but I'm still not so sure. I ask merely to keep up, hoping that the practicing we did over the summer will keep me from looking like a fool. And with that thought comes a dull ache that washes through me. I miss Cory.
I try to shake the feeling away, but it stays firmly lodged in my heart. I don't want him to be Cory McConnell. I want him to be my Cory again. And I don't want to be the girl he remembers as Blake the Flake. I want to be the one he carried up and down the stairs so carefully, smiled at so tenderly, kissed so longingly.
I can't do this. I'm only making myself crazy. I look at the clock and decide to leave early, because at my slow pace it will take me forever to get there anyway. I gather my things and totter down the stairs, clinging to the handrail and praying not to fall, and I don't. Another small step for womankind.
The morning is still cool, but soon enough the August heat will bake the ground. I wonder if I will regret refusing my dad's offer to get me a handicapped sticker for my car so that I can drive to class and park close. But no, I need to do it this way. On my own terms.
The first two blocks are easy. On the third, there is an uneven brick in the sidewalk and I stumble, but save myself. A right turn, and halfway down the next block I get a funny feeling and suddenly realize where I am. The street Cory wouldn't turn on. The street where I nearly died. I stop in my tracks and stare at the road, imagining the scene that, until this moment, I haven't remembered. The minutes tick away unnoticed as I go back in time.
"Don't stop now, Jess," a voice behind me says gently, and I know who it is right away. "You made it back. Keep going."
"I will in a minute," I answer, and then I turn and look up into Cory's eyes. "Come with me?" I hold out my hand toward him, and he reaches for it tentatively, as if he's afraid of hurting me again. I wrap my fingers around his and my heart starts beating again.
She's as beautiful as she has been in my head every minute of every day, and the smile I've been longing to see lights her face and give me hope. "I'm sorry," I tell her, and my heart is pounding. "I still love you and I'll never lie to you again, ever."
She draws my hand toward her, slowly pulling me closer. "Are you sure?" she asks.
"More sure than I've ever been of anything," I say, holding on tight to her hand so she won't run away, even though we both know I could catch her easily. "Do you think... you could ever give the evil Cory McConnell another chance?"
"No," she says soberly, and for a second I can't breathe. But then she rests her hand softly against my cheek. "I don't want the evil Cory McConnell. I want you. Because I still love you too."
With a whoop of joy I can't contain I'm lifting her off her feet and spinning her around, and she laughs happily before she wraps her arms around my neck and lowers her mouth onto mine. And when I finally let her down, I stop the next person walking by and dig into my pocket for my cellphone. "Would you take our picture?" I ask. He agrees and I scoop her into my arms, and when he's taken the shot and returned the phone, I look over Jessica's shoulder as we look at the image on the screen. It's a fantastic picture, the first of many. She's making a crazy face, and I merely look crazy about her. It's perfect.