I held onto Nicholas as my life depended on it. Somehow I was walking, moving forward, one foot at a time. The three of us made our way across the parking lot, to the railing. It was a quiet morning at the ski resort and we were alone as we walked over to the ski lift. There were a few hikers, some tourists, but we were certainly the only funeral procession. We were given respect and privacy as we got onto the chair lift. It was so beautiful and I clung tightly to that midnight black bronze, taking in my surroundings with blurred vision. Nicholas talked about Breckenridge all the time, skiing and snowboarding and winter goodness. He was such a good sport about winter; even though heaviest of blizzards could not deter his good moods. I did everything I could to anchor myself to him… I felt like I was falling, falling. At the top of the mountain we got out and made our way toward Ten Mile Station, the great, rustic log cabin lodge on the peak. It was stunning. I felt like I was in a dream as we walked around the property. The views were beyond anything I had experienced before. Washington State had some absolutely extraordinary views and sights but there was nothing like being at the top of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Alex explained the history of the building and pointed a few things out as we traveled the perimeter. It was an incredibly popular location for weddings, for its views and its dazzling reception hall, and it occurred to me then that this was where we would have gotten married—we would come across this and there would be absolutely no question. Vegas was fun, but this? This was perfect.
"These mountains are amazing," I murmured. "I wish I could have come here with Nicholas. He always talked about it so happily, so fondly. Like he would have been perfectly content to move back here and live out the rest of his days."
Alex sighed. "You know, California is a great place, and I loved going to college in Albuquerque, but there's nothing quite like these mountains. Kieran was pretty young still when we moved to Half Moon Bay, so he would probably tell you that California is the best place to live. For Nicholas and I, though, it was a constant source of conversation and memory." We walked around a little bit further, until Alex slowed down and I realized that we were at the top of the mountain, staring down the grassy open descent of the ski trail. There was a bench over to our right and he headed over to it, sitting down without a word. I took a deep breath and joined him, sitting opposite Lauren with Nicholas's ashes tight in my grasp. This is it. I was completely awestruck by the scene I was faced with—I felt so small, so insignificant there at the top of that mountain.
"When we were younger, we used to come skiing here every chance we got. Resident passes were a little cheaper and my mother was a huge proponent of anything that got us out of the house and out of her hair. Plus, Dad loved to ski, and we loved to do anything that he did. We started out on the bunny hill, but it wasn't long before we were racing down these ski trails all on our own," Alex explained, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, gazing down the mountain. The tears welled up in me and spilled over before I was able to rein them in; I felt the absence of Nicholas Reynolds more acutely than I ever had before. He was not just my soul mate; he was Alex's brother, Abby and Hazel's uncle, Clare's son. To be sitting there with Alex and Lauren, hearing a story about my Nicholas that I had never heard before… it was unexplainable, indescribable.
"One time, we kind of talked each other into going down one of the harder trails. It was stupid, but you know Nicholas, he's always been a bit of a daredevil and I just really wanted to go down that trail, even though I knew, we both knew, that Dad would be pissed if he knew what we were doing. I just really wanted to try it, you know? Long story short, I came off the chair lift way too quickly and shot down the hill… ended up tripping over my skis and landing in a snow bank just off the trail. Nicholas, who was quite a ways behind me, saw this all go down. I heard him yelling my name before I blacked out."
"So what happened?" Lauren asked. She'd never heard this story before, either.
"I came to, and Nicholas was standing over me, saying my name over and over, trying to get me to wake up. He asked me if I was okay, and even though I knew I'd broken my arm, I told him I was fine and that he should go get help. He wouldn't leave though…" His voice trailed off as he gazed off into the distance. "He helped me down the side of the mountain. He was nine and I was twelve and he got me down to the bottom all on his own." Beside him, I had broken into tears and was slouched over, arms around the urn, my whole frame shuddering. I felt Alex's hand on my back, between my shoulder blades, grounding me to reality with a careful weight.
"Dad was there… he'd stayed down for that run, chatting with a neighbor of ours. When he saw us, Nicholas holding me up, me trying not to cry because my arm hurt so fucking much, he went into instant concerned-pissed mode. I ended up going to the hospital in the back of an ambulance, and Nicholas rode with me, cringing in sympathy as the EMT's attended to my arm. When it was all said and done, when we got home, Dad more or less demanded to know what happened and Nicholas told him that it was all his idea. Even though we both knew it wasn't true." I laughed a little bit despite the tears that would not stop, finally lifting my head again and staring down the mountain. I imagined Alex and Nicholas at twelve and nine, Nicholas doing everything he could for his brother, refusing to leave his side and taking the fall. This was just his nature. He was selfless and caring, always.
Beside me, Alex shifted in my direction. He was looking at me with teary, glistening eyes and he took my left hand in his, holding it tightly. "Nicholas called me the very morning after you two first met and told me that he had met his future wife. " Oh no, I don't know if I can do this. There was a strong part of me that didn't want to hear it, didn't want to be having this conversation… this was a testament to Nicholas's instant steadfast love. This conversation was connecting us in a way I had never imagined and it was so bittersweet; it hurt so much. So fucking much. "He had never sounded more sure of anything in his entire life. He loved you. He lived for you." I could hear Lauren crying on the other side of her husband, clutching her round, swollen belly tightly—crying for the loss of her brother-in-law, for the violent ending of this relationship of ours. "You will always be part of our family, okay, doll? Don't ever forget that." I sobbed hard, sank into his embrace. "We couldn't just let you go. Besides, I think Lauren needs some company, being the only other woman besides our dear mother in the immediate Reynolds family." At this, we laughed despite our tears, laughed and cried more.
Without a word, I passed the urn into Alex's grasp. It was something I did without thinking, a complete autopilot reaction. As soon as it left my arms, I felt unbearably alone: cavernous, empty. What I wouldn't give to have you right next to me, your touch and your voice and your lips. We were supposed to be here together. I relive the last day we spent together constantly and would give anything, anything at all, to have you back. It should have ended differently. We weren't supposed to end like this. Oh, Nicholas.
Alex stood up slowly, clutching the midnight black urn in his right hand and holding his wife's hand with his left. Somehow I found it in me to stand up… I leaned against Alex, unable to find the strength to stand completely on my own, staring out over the vast mountain scenery through blurry vision. "Nicholas is… was… every bit the typical younger brother. He was stubborn, reckless, and a pain in my ass. But he was also one of my best friends. There came a moment when I was in college and he was in high school and suddenly, we just got each other. He helped me down the mountain when I was twelve. Calling him and telling him that Dad was gone was the hardest, worst, most heartbreaking moment of my life, until right now." The tears were flowing freely from all three of us, now; I lowered myself to the bench again and Alex followed shortly, staring down at the urn in his lap for what felt like a long time before placing his hand on the lid.
The air was cool and still on the top of the mountain. The backdrop of the Rockies was a clear, deep blue, brushed with wisps of cotton white clouds. I held back, trying not to burst into loud, wailing sobs, feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders. Alex stood up a little straighter, took a deep breath, and delivered his brother to the wind. It was too much, Alex there next to me, Lauren weeping painfully. I closed my eyes and tuned it all out, instead listening to the branches waving off to my right… summoning Nicholas with every ounce of energy. I needed to disappear; I needed to be somewhere else completely. It was one thing to say goodbye to him in New York City… this was completely unchartered territory and I couldn't handle it.
All I could think was how unfair it was. Sure, we were lucky—we had found Nicholas. There were plenty of families who were still missing loved ones, though… whose father or sister or uncle was on one of those planes, or at work in the World Trade Center. When we moved to New York City, we never anticipated anything like this could happen. How could we have, really? This sort of destruction? It was unimaginable. It was so, so incredibly unfair. We should have been here together. We should be back in NYC, and you should be emailing me from work right now, already distracted from editing. I should spend my lunch break dreaming of honeymoon destinations and color schemes. Instead… I'm here. Without you.
I took a deep breath. Alex was holding the urn in front of me, looking at me with teary brown eyes. I returned his glance and reached in carefully. There was an acute, sharp pain welling up in my chest, radiating out to my limbs. "Nicholas, I love you and miss you more every second that we're apart." Lauren, who had quieted down some, broke into a new round of tears. "Right now I don't really know how it's possible, but someday, we'll be together again, and we'll be here. It's where we belong." And then I could say no more. The words got caught in my throat, unwilling to come out—or if they did, they would be in the form of great wails of anguish, sorrow, and pain. I swallowed hard, trying to stay conscious… I needed to be alone, just for a moment. I mumbled something along these lines to Alex and Lauren, putting all of my energy into getting my feet to move forward and turning away from them.
I was on top of the world, the entire universe before me, but I felt like it was all closing in on me. Completely claustrophobic. I had done it, I had done what Nicholas had asked me to do, but I felt horrible. I remembered the day he'd gotten the call from Alex that their dad had died, the way he cried when he told me the news and then cried on and off in my arms the entire flight from New York City to San Francisco, barely saying a word. It felt like that, except much, much stronger—it affected me directly. Not that I wasn't directly impacted by Matthew Reynolds' death, because of course I was. It was just different. How are you supposed to deal with the loss of your fiancé, your soul mate? I was dizzy; the mountains and clouds and evergreen trees were spinning above my head and I steadied myself against the sienna colored façade of the building. The tears came in a strong and painful torrent.
"Hey… are you okay, honey?" I heard Lauren's voice behind me. I tried to calm myself, taking deep breaths and running a hand through my hair. She stood closer, putting her hand on my shoulder. I turned around (an obvious wreck) and tried to smile, failing miserably. She put her arms around me and hugged me tightly; I could feel that little girl in her belly fluttering between us. "I know, it's so hard. You guys were on the verge of something big, your whole lives together. It's not fair, either. Nicholas was amazing, wasn't he?"
I nodded slowly. "I don't quite know how to handle this whole thing without him." She led me over to the patio, picking the table closest to the perimeter, with the best view of the mountains. I watched as she carefully shifted into the chair, sitting back and resting her hands on the top of her stomach.
"No one expects you to. He hasn't been gone that long." She paused for a moment, gazing first out to the horizon, then down at the curve of her daughter. "A few months after Alex and I got married, I had a miscarriage."
"Oh, I'm so sorry."
She shrugged. "We got married really young. I was 21, he was 22, and we were still in college but there was no doubt in either of our minds that we were absolutely supposed to be together. And when you know, you just know, right?" I nodded. "So he asked me to marry him and we ran off to Vegas." I smirked a little bit. "Our parents were pissed but we didn't care. Anyway, we certainly weren't actively trying but we weren't actively not trying either…" she trailed off, gazing across the Ten Mile Range and brushing her fingertips over her belly. "One day I just felt… different. Like I was slightly off-kilter. I stayed home from work and thought it over all day, finally going to the drug store for a pregnancy test." She ran her hand through her hair. "Alex found me in the bathroom, staring at the positive result in my hands."
"It must have been surprising."
"A little bit, yes. We were both working and finishing up with school and I was scared of trying to do it all, but willing. I went to the doctor and found that I was indeed pregnant, a mere six weeks along. Three weeks later, I woke up in the middle of the night with a searing pain through my lower back." She swallowed hard. "There was… a lot of blood. There was nothing we could do, could have done, and there were few moments sadder than the ultrasound in the emergency room, confirmation that we had shifted back into two instead of three."
"Goddamn." I closed my eyes and rested back against the chair. "I don't even know how I would handle something like that."
Lauren sat up and looked at me. "Well, you're pretty much exactly where I was back then. You have moments where you're able to function, but there are times where you lose it completely. Look at you, you've made it all the way out here. You're a long way from home, from everything that happened. You're grieving and working towards a new normal."
My heart was pounding in my chest. "I miss him so much."
"I know you do, honey. I missed that little baby for what felt like an eternity. It was still early, so we didn't know whether or not it was a girl or a boy… we just knew that it was us, it was half of him and half of me and something we'd made together. I still miss that little baby every once in a while, and I wonder what kind of older sibling he or she would have been to Abby and Hazel." She fell quiet and I stared down at my shoes. "You will miss Nicholas for the rest of your life, and it will hurt like hell… it will never stop hurting… but you will be able to manage it, you will surround yourself with his love. He wouldn't have wanted you to lose yourself. You've only just begun to experience the worst days of your life, but eventually, they will subside. Be strong. You've got a hell of a support system."
I could feel her words coursing through my veins. She was usually a relatively quiet woman, so hearing this lecture and knowing that it was meant for me and me alone left me feeling renewed, refreshed despite the sadness. I imprinted the image of the mountains in my memory, not wanting to forget this moment. Oh Nicholas, if only you were here with me, taking this all in, holding my hand. If it had been any normal day, New York City in September, I'd be daydreaming about him as I sat in my office, going over proofs and memos. I'd be reading wedding magazines on my lunch break and emailing him on my laptop during a meeting (it was so high school but I loved it).
After a few moments of silence, we could hear footsteps behind us. We turned to find Alex, holding his brother's urn, walking towards where we sat. "Hello," he said as he approached.
"Hey baby," Lauren replied. He rubbed her belly and kissed her forehead, then directed his gaze to me.
"You okay, doll?"
I took a deep breath. "I don't know." It felt like the tears were at bay for now, but I also felt like I was suspended in some alternate universe, uncertain of my very existence. It felt like everything up until this moment had been a dream; that's it, a dream and nothing more. Of course, I knew this wasn't the case—even as I stood there I could recall Nicholas's hands, his lips on mine, the feel of his body wrapped around me in the middle of the night. This was more visceral, more real, than any dream could ever be. I forced myself back into the real world and focused in on Alex, who was standing there next to his wife.
"Me either. I think we're gonna be okay in the end, though." He sounded sure of himself, as if he'd somehow connected with Nicholas, connected with our futures: forever connected through the legacy of Nicholas Reynolds. Lauren just nodded, reaching for his hand and pulling him closer. "I don't know about you girls, but I'm goddamn starving." He laughed a little bit. "There's a really good place down in the valley we could go to." There was a pause and he considered the two of us. "If you want."
"That sounds good," I said. I was hungry, even though I still felt so nauseous, and I knew that if Nicholas were here, he would be lecturing me about taking care of myself. It was hard when I was so completely, so totally, wrapped up in him. "I think maybe it's time to go." I rose to my feet and Alex handed the midnight black urn to me carefully, not letting go until I had a close grasp on it. Having it in my hands again, that familiar weight, it was just a little bit easier to breathe (or at least, it felt like it was, anyway). Alex helped Lauren out of her chair and gave her a hug, brushing his palm over the curve of her stomach. We'll never have moments like this. It broke my heart. I wiped the corner of my eye quickly and began to walk towards the ski lift, talking myself into continuing on with slow, deep breaths. Aurora Elizabeth Clare. The daughter we always dreamed about… we'll never know her.
We rode down the mountain in silence. I focused on clearing my mind, on returning to a more functional level. There would be time to mourn, to be angry, to be so sad that it hurts. There absolutely had to be some good with the bad, though—Nicholas, the eternal optimist, wouldn't have wanted it any other way—and I had this time with Alex and Lauren Reynolds right now: the opportunity to remember Nicholas, the man who tied us together. I could spend the whole time locked away inside of myself, or I could share myself with them, share the love I had for his brother and the love he had for me. I turned and watched as the top of the mountain got smaller and smaller… we descended to where we had begun. After exiting the ski lift, we stood still for a moment, letting the truth of what we had done sink in. We had done it: we scattered him in the mountains he loved so incredibly dearly. Suddenly I was tired, completely worn down. I felt like I could sleep for days, but right now? That was not an option.
"Let's go get breakfast." There was Alex, pulling us all back to the present once more. Lauren and I nodded in agreement and we headed back to the car, getting in with few words. I placed the urn on the seat next to mine carefully and brushed my fingers through my hair, staring out the window. Alex put the car in reverse and backed out of the spot, maneuvering us through the parking lot and out onto Ski Hill Road. We left the resort and headed into town, listening to the commercials playing on the radio. At least there was something to fill the silence left between the three of us, unable to speak after what we had just experienced. It was a stunned sort of silence, one heavy with sadness, regret, and love. In a singular moment, Lauren and I had become closer than I ever imagined. The same, of course, went for Alex. I had always admired Nicholas's older brother, his sense of humor and his work ethic and his ability to be the most loving and caring (and hilarious) father to his girls. I knew Nicholas would have been that kind of dad, too—just like the man who raised him. Deep breaths. Focus on now. It seemed like I had to remind myself of this every other thought, but sooner or later it would start to sink in.
Alex made a right turn into a small parking lot. We got out of the car (I covered the urn with my sweatshirt, more to keep it warm than anything else—or so I reasoned) and made our way into a diner with huge windows that faced out into town, into the mountains. We noted the sign to seat ourselves and chose a table in the corner, surrounded by tall panes of glass and yet another incredible Colorado view. It was exactly the place that Nicholas would have brought us two, and I couldn't help the small smile that pulled at the corners of my eyes. You're gone, but somehow, you're still here. I still don't understand how this works, but I would never trade it for anything else. A waitress came by with menus and glasses of water, telling us to take our time with a smile.
I knew what I was getting almost instantly. This place had omelettes with a wide variety of ingredient options, so I knew I had to get Nicholas's favorite omelette ever: swiss cheese and ham. I got wheat toast and a glass of orange juice to go with it, feeling comfortable in this decision. Alex got biscuits and gravy, and Lauren got a big plate of pancakes with a side of bacon and toast—she was eating for not only herself but her sweet third daughter, after all. For a few moments they glanced around the room, admiring the décor, the views of the street and the mountaintops. It was quiet, and then Alex started talking about this book he was reading. I half listened, half daydreamed about Nicholas. I was inundated with a kind of longing that I'd never previously experienced. Oh, it was so complete and so paralyzing… somehow, I had been the lucky one: I had found Nicholas. And he always told me that I was it, I was everything he could have ever hoped for and so goddamn much more. Now that he was gone, that I could not, and would not ever, have him (again), I wanted him. I wanted him back. I wanted to hold him again.
There was a lull in the conversation and before I was aware of it, my voice was lifting into the air. "It was during a conversation pretty early on that the topic of hiking and the outdoors in general came up. He, being subjected to California girls and NYC girls, had all but given up hope of finding that girl who liked camping and roughing it as much as he did. He totally met his match in me." Growing up in Washington State lent itself to many, many wonderful experiences with nature. "Like a month ago we drove out to Montauk and went hiking out there and sat by the water." I could feel the wind on my face, the sand sticking to the back of my knees, the smell of the ocean, Nicholas's body pressed up against mine: shoulders and hips and knees, together. "I'm really glad to have that memory."
"Have you thought about writing this stuff down?" This time it was Lauren who spoke.
"What… memories of Nicholas?"
"Yes, exactly. I know it's kind of a hard thing to consider, but… if you write it down, you'll have it forever, you know?" I considered her quietly for a moment, then stared down at my hands. On my left hand, the engagement ring sat loosely; I had very clearly lost weight, not surprisingly. I had been journaling throughout this whole experience, but for some reason, it hadn't occurred to me to write down our story. I didn't have a chance to respond, though, because all at once the waitress arrived at our table with a full tray of plates. We helped her sort out our breakfast choices and asked for another round of beverages.
There was a café in our neighborhood back in NYC that had a fully customizable omelette option. I figured there had to be one in every town… Nicholas always got the ham and swiss omelette and today, it was good, if not better, than I always remembered it being. The combination was so typical of Nicholas, a true classic. We ate in silence, grateful for the sustenance we'd come across in this little diner. I imagined Nicholas sitting there next to me: he would rest his hand on my knee, fingertips splayed out softly. He'd tell a story and we'd all laugh because he always had with words, telling the most ridiculous and hilarious stories we'd ever heard. Work, New York City adventures, memories from his childhood… he'd captivated me with his story from the very beginning and now I felt like I was drowning in it, in him, and the fact that there would be no memories from here on out. That'd stopped on September 11th, when I lost him forever.
I felt Lauren's touch on my back, her voice: "Olivia?" Suddenly my vision was blurred with tears and I snapped back into reality. She and Alex were both looking at me with concerned glances, looks that I was pretty sure mirrored my own. "There, you're here again."
She shook her head fiercely. "No, don't apologize. I know where you just went. Believe me, you're allowed." She paused. "In a way he still feels real there." I nodded, wiping the corner of my eye quickly. Alex cleared his throat and looked away, staring at the tablecloth. "We've got a bit of a drive ahead of us, so we should probably take off shortly."
The waitress came by with the check. I took the opportunity to excuse myself to the ladies' room and stayed in there for a few moments to gain my composure. I had a long ride back to Fort Collins ahead of me, and an even longer drive to Salt Lake City after that. I was finding it difficult to go on, to even consider it. This particular part of the trip had completely knocked the wind out of me. I had been anticipating it, but nothing could prepare me for the reality of it. It hurt—this whole thing hurt in a way I never thought possible.
I returned to the table and we left the restaurant, piling into Alex's vehicle again. Settling into the backseat, I stared out the window, unblinking, imprinting everything on my conscious. I wanted to remember every single thing about this, as absolutely painful as it was… I didn't want to forget the place where Nicholas Kennedy Reynolds grew up. I didn't want those mountains and trees and blue skies to forget him, either; I couldn't bear the thought of him disappearing completely. I did everything I could to hold him close—and if I really tried hard enough, I could imagine him sitting there in the seat next to mine, staring out the window, captivated by the landscape.
I had been lucky enough to call him mine, but there was something horribly unfair about the fact that I was now going about this alone. He knew everything about me. He was my best friend, the one person I could count on for absolutely anything. When we kissed, I could feel it all the way down to my soul (and sitting there in the backseat, I struggled to remember that feeling, immersed myself in it). How absolutely tragic. Why him? Why him and not me? I found myself reaching over and picking up the urn, practically wrapping myself around it; the cool bronze felt better on my cheek, somehow calmed me down (as if we were together, for real this time).
"Hey doll, are you alright?" Alex asked. His voice was tinged with worry as he navigated the highway. I looked at him and felt a single tear roll down my cheek. "Do you want me to pull over somewhere?" I shook my head. "Do you want to talk?" I contemplated this for a moment, staring down at the midnight black urn in my hands. Then I took a deep breath.
"It's just… it's not fair. It's not fair at all. Nicholas was my soul mate. I didn't even really believe in soul mates, and there he was. You know how when you find that person who fills your spaces, you just know? When you find the one you're supposed to be with? Nothing felt more right than accepting his marriage proposal. Do you know how excited I was to be his wife? To carry his children?" The words were just spilling out of me. "The thing about all of this is that I know I'm not the only one, and that is even more unfair. So many mothers and fathers and siblings and friends and lovers, all gone in an instant. What the fuck is wrong with this world?" Lauren reached back and held my hand tightly. I felt a searing pain my heart, anger and sadness mingling and interacting. Oh god, this hurts so much. If you come back I know it'll go away. I know you've got to be out there somewhere Nicholas, oh please. My mind was racing. It was irrational but I didn't care. I just wanted him. "I'm sad I'll never get the chance to be your sister-in-law."
"Olivia, I've always thought of you as a sister. Nicholas being gone isn't going to change that, okay? You will always be important to me. You loved the hell out of my brother and I've never seen a connection quite like yours. Trust me when I say, I will always be there for you." His voice was strong and loving and I took it all in, remembered the words he'd said earlier, too. Regardless of the fact that our common link was gone, I had still gained a family, a support system. I was still Alex's sister, Abby and Hazel's Auntie Libby. Alex was crying, his eyes on the road, one hand clutching the steering wheel and, the other, his wife's hand. We kept going, drove on, sitting in a silence brought on by grief and the contemplation of our current stance in life: awaiting new life, missing life that had just departed. Going forward. I had done it, I had said goodbye to Nicholas here.
Now… the hardest part of the trip loomed on the horizon. If I thought Breckenridge was difficult, Half Moon Bay was going to be a completely different ballgame. I was so fucking grateful that my older brother, Christian, would be accompanying me there. The thought of seeing Nicholas's mom and brother, feeling their pain and sorrow, having to deliver him to the ocean… I started feeling dizzy at the mere thought of it. I need you so bad, I thought, closing my eyes and resting my head against the window. My mind filled with thoughts of Nicholas. I calmed myself with deep breaths…
…and then I was with Nicholas again, in our loft. It was a really stormy night and he'd been out late. Of course I couldn't help but worry; I just wanted him home so we could eat pasta (his favorite dish, with lots of mozzarella cheese) and curl up together on the couch. But the storm raged on, and the power went out, and he still didn't come home.
So I stumbled around in the kitchen, trying to find a flashlight. Once I located that, I went on a mission for candles. I found a few in the bedroom, and others in the hallway closet. After locating a lighter, I placed the candles around the kitchen. Soon the room was aglow and I sat there at the counter, drinking a glass of wine, listening to the radio and waiting.
Maybe ten minutes later, I heard his key in the lock. Much in the same way that it always did, I felt my heart tighten knowing that he was home. I stood up as he entered the room, unable to keep the smile from my lips. He was soaked, absolutely drenched from head to toe… laughing as he took off his shoes and sweatshirt. "It's crazy out there," he declared as he ran a hand through his hair. I felt myself drawn to him and, as I approached him, I wrapped myself around him. I barely even registered the fact that he was cold and damp and dripping, holding onto him tightly and pressing myself against him. He gasped just slightly and wrapped his arms around my shoulders, kissing my forehead, my cheek, and finally, pressing his lips against mine.
"I'm glad you're home," I whispered. He kissed me again and wrapped me up in his arms. "The power went out, but I was already done making dinner… it's keeping warm in the oven." We were always grateful for old gas appliances, especially during power outages.
"I was about to ask what smelled so great in here, besides you of course." I smirked and he laughed, running his fingers through my hair. "What did you make?"
I walked over to the oven, grabbing the potholders on the counter and taking the glass dish out of the dark cavern. "Lemon chicken pasta with mozzarella," I explained, setting the pasta bake on top of the stove. He said nothing, just walked over and grabbed a fork, taking a bite right out of the dish—and there was something so endearing about it, about how eager he was to try it, that all I could do was smile. "What do you think?"
"I think I am going to be the luckiest husband in the world," he answered. "This is incredible."
"Well there's a lot of it," I returned, "so grab a plate and enjoy." He nodded and kissed me on the cheek, dishing himself some pasta with a serving spoon. After finding the fork he'd set down, he put his plate down on the counter next to where I had been sitting. He picked up the contents of my wine glass and examined it.
"What are you drinking?"
"Cabernet sauvignon. You can try it if you want." It was a bottle I'd picked up at a specialty grocery store trip with Kylie and Shannon in New Jersey. I wasn't normally a fan of red wine, but for whatever reason, I couldn't get enough of this one. Nicholas took a sip, then set down the glass again and promptly searched the cabinet for his own wine glass, opening the bottle and pouring it carefully in the dark. He refilled mine as well and sat down at the counter, waiting for me to join him. I glanced at him across the kitchen, smiling when his eyes met mine. He was finally home; we were finally together again.
We talked here and there but mostly ate, enjoying the pasta and the wine. There was something really relaxing and romantic about the room being lit up with candlelight alone, the way the lightning flashing through the dark sky outside. Eventually, we finished the pasta (and saved the rest—which there was quite a bit of… we wrapped it up and stuck it in the oven again, not wanting to risk opening the fridge with no power) but kept drinking the wine. We both agreed it was the best red wine we'd had in a long time. Nicholas started talking about his day, after a few moments of silence, telling me about the places he'd been and the images he'd captured. I had such a profound pride in him, and a curiosity, too, as his work always completely managed to blow me away. Who knew that just a few short months later, everything would come to an end?
(Who knew that I would find the last footage he ever shot on a bruised and battered camera, video that, to that day, still made me nauseous to think about? I still hadn't shown it to anyone. I didn't know if I could.) I told him about my day, too, though it wasn't nearly as interesting or exciting as his. He loved every word and I marveled at the state of our situation—together, in love, working good jobs and making an honest living and planning a life entwined. Nicholas Reynolds had changed my entire goddamn life and all I could do was hold onto the ride, try to remember every single second.
When the conversation died down, Nicholas turned in his seat and sat on the edge, pulling me to standing and holding me up against him. I tilted my head up and kissed him, feeling a tingle that belonged to more than just the wine flow through my entire body. Without words, we blew out all the candles but a few, carrying the ones that were still lit into the bedroom, where Nicholas carefully closed the door and held me in his arms, lowering me back onto the bed…
The cell phone in my purse started ringing. Fuck. Back to reality. I fished through the bag until I found it, answering the call without looking. "Hello?" My voice was breathless and weak, and I fought to hold onto every second of the memory I had just wrapped myself up in.
"Hey Olivia, it's Christian." I sat up straighter and stared out the window; we were still driving through the mountains (they were endless and overwhelming.) "How are you, sis?"
I sighed. "I'm okay. How are you?"
"Looking forward to seeing you." He paused. "I… can't imagine today has been easy for you."
"You'd be right." Hardest days of my life so far. Somehow it just kept getting worse. "I'm looking forward to seeing you too."
I thought she could hear him smile over the phone. "I'm so proud of you, you know that? And I love you very much."
"I love you too." I realized that I'd been tracing my fingertips over the lid to the urn, much like what I'd be doing if Nicholas were actually sitting right next to me, his hand on top of my thigh. I took a shaky breath. "What time does your flight get in?"
"I land at Salt Lake City International Airport at 9:15 tonight," he said. "I don't mind waiting if I have to."
"Well, we're on the way back from Breckenridge right now. I'm probably going to try and take a nap when I get back to the house, but I should be on the road by 1:00." Alex nodded; I could tell he thought it was a good idea, too, and he was probably just as eager for a nap as I was.
"Sounds good. Stay in touch… I'll have my phone on until we take off. See you in a few hours, okay, Olivia? Tell Alex and his wife your brother says hi."
"I will. Love you, Christian." With that, I hung up the phone. I relayed the message to Alex and Lauren and got resituated. I was suddenly feeling restless and uncomfortable. Alex mentioned that we were probably an hour outside of Fort Collins and I stared out the window again, trying to stay settled until we were back at the house.
After trying and failing at dozing off, I watched the landscape through half-closed eyes and imagined all the things Nicholas would be telling me if he were there next to me. I pictured brushing my fingertips through his blonde hair, highlighted from spending his days out in the sun. I tried to conjure up a picture of Aurora Elizabeth Clare in my mind… she had long blonde curly hair and eyes like her father's. Every time. I took a deep breath and waited for the nausea to pass, then focused on the last bit of the drive.
When we finally arrived at the house, I sat in the car for a few moments before gathering myself enough to enter the house. Both Abby and Hazel were down for a mid-morning nap so we were quiet as we entered the house; I gave Alex a long hug before taking the urn and retiring to the guest bedroom. I took off my shoes and lay down on top of the sheets, curling up on my side and staring at the urn on the bedside table. Already it felt like it had been days since my trip to Breckenridge, not just a few hours, and I took a deep breath, filling my lungs and imagining I was breathing in the air I found on top of those mountains. The same mountains Nicholas used to roam.
I felt the tears on my cheeks before I registered that I was crying. There was something equal parts comforting and gut wrenching about being there, in these places Nicholas used to inhabit, without him. It felt like we were so close to one another, but… just not quite close enough. Maybe he'd sat on the exact same bench as I did on the top of that mountain, in the exact same spot. Maybe he'd been to that restaurant before, laughing and drinking orange juice as he ate. There was no better way to describe the sensation I was feeling other than longing, sorrow, guilt, and anger, all wrapped up into one searing package of utter pain. I rolled over, squeezed my eyes tighter, and curled up into the smallest form possible. Here was hell: life without Nicholas. I was sinking, falling, completely unable to do anything about it.
I didn't realize I'd fallen asleep until I felt the bed creak next to me. Baby? Is that you? Even in my half asleep state, I knew that it wasn't—though I wanted it to be more than anything else in the world—and I fought it for a moment, finally coming up for air with long stretches and blurred vision. Alex was sitting there, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. "Hi," I whispered.
"Hey, doll," he answered quietly. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, running a hand through my hair and brushing out the tangles. "How did you sleep?"
"Good, I guess. One minute I was awake, staring at the wall, thinking about Nicholas, and then… you were here, waking me up. What time is it?"
"It's about 12:20," he replied. "I know you were wanting to get on the road by 1:00, so I thought I'd offer you a sandwich and some coffee before you hit the road."
I smiled softly, even though my heart hurt; it got to me more and more with every heartbeat. "I think I'll take you up on that." I fell quiet, gazing down at the pattern of the bedspread. "Alex, I'm sorry you didn't get to say goodbye."
He visibly crumpled, then cleared his throat and sat up straight. "You didn't really get to, either. What can we do? I never thought I'd bury my dad, then my brother. There are days where I want to stay in bed forever, that I want to drink myself into oblivion." His voice was shaking. "But if I did that, what would happen to Lauren? To my little girls? They're my lifelines. Nicholas will never truly be gone completely. People like him don't just disappear." I was crying, again, and Alex was holding my hand. "It's going to be hard but we'll get through this, we have to. You know Nicholas wouldn't have it any other way."
I took a deep breath and wiped my eyes with the tissue Alex offered me from the nightstand. He was right about one thing; Nicholas would be having a fit if he saw the two of us there together, crying over him on such a beautiful Colorado afternoon. "You're right," I murmured, finding my voice again. "Now how about that sandwich?"
I stopped off in the bathroom to wash my face quick, then joined Alex in the kitchen. Lauren was there already, assembling sandwiches with sesame seed buns, turkey, provolone cheese, and brown mustard. Abby and Hazel were awake, too, watching a cartoon in the living room.
"So I checked the weather and you should have clear skies all the way to Salt Lake," Alex stated as I sat down at the kitchen table. I nodded and smile in reply. "You'll take U.S. highway 287 north into Wyoming, then hop on Interstate 80 west in Laramie. The ride's pretty boring and pretty desolate at times, so watch your gas gauges. I'll keep my phone on me, and if you need anything at all, don't hesitate to call." I thanked Lauren as she brought me a sandwich, then focused my attention back on Alex. "You can probably do the drive in six hours and forty-five minutes, just be careful."
I appreciated the words of advice from Alex and I told him so. Truth be told, my confidence was waning and hearing him lay it all out for me made it seem a lot simpler. I could do this; I would do it, for Nicholas. I was so glad to have Alex in my life as a friend, as an honorary brother of sorts. I ate the sandwich slowly, savoring every bite. It was delicious and I complimented Lauren on her superior sandwich-making abilities. She'd cut hers in half and ate it while, with her other hand, she played slow circles over her belly with her palm. I took a large drink of my water, swallowing hard. There was a twinge settling deep within me and I shook my head slightly, trying to break away from it: I will never know what that feels like, to carry Nicholas's child, our child. I took a deep breath and forced the tears away, biting in to my sandwich again.
"Give Mom a hug for me," Alex requested softly. I nodded with a smile and told him that I would. "She's planning on coming out after the baby is born, but it'll be a few weeks until that happens. I miss her a lot, especially lately." I could certainly relate to that; I knew I would be dialing my mom up as soon as I got on the highway. I finished my sandwich and put my place in the sink while Lauren filled a travel mug with coffee. After a few moments of sitting, I forced myself up and down the hallway, entering the guest room to gather my things and prepare for departure. I took my suitcase into the living room and came back to make the bed quickly, giving the room a quick once-over before picking up the urn and turning the light off.
There were tears as we said goodbye. I didn't know when the next time we would see one another would be, but I hoped it was soon. I made Lauren and Alex promise to contact me when the baby was born; I couldn't wait to meet the newest member of the family. Nicholas was so looking forward to having another niece to spoil and I imagined that she would be beautiful just like her sisters. They hugged me tight and told me they loved me, told me how proud they were of me for fulfilling Nicholas's last wishes. It's not like I have a choice, I couldn't help but think as I told them I loved them and got in the car. Nicholas would do the same for me in a heartbeat and he wouldn't look back.Once I pulled out of the driveway and drove through town, my mind started to clear. It had been so good to see Alex and Lauren and the girls, but so, so incredibly exhausting and painful and emotional to go to Breckenridge and say goodbye. I thought of the moments just after I let him go to the wind, after I excused myself from his brother and sister-in-law and hurried off to be by myself, feeling the worst kind of alive possible. It made it hard to breathe and for a moment I thought I was going to throw up. I brushed away a tear quickly and focused on driving, listening to the story on the public radio station I'd found.
I waited until I had driven out of Fort Collins and almost made my way to the state line before finding my phone in the center console and calling my mom. She picked up on the second ring and was incredibly happy to hear from me, giving me all sorts of encouragement and wisdom despite how awful I was feeling. She asked me to tell her about Colorado, so I started from the beginning and I didn't stop until I'd finished the story of leaving, after making our way there and seeing the house he grew up in and heading up the mountain and telling him goodbye and breakfast and sleeping and crying and… my mother waited, listened, and told me how strong she thought I was.
"If anyone can get through this, it's you. He's not letting you do this alone, honey," she said. Then why can't I feel him? Why can't I see him or touch him? Somehow, it was still inconceivable that he could actually be dead and even though everyone told me he was always with me, I had a hard time believing it. I gave her an affirmative response and listened as she told me what she had been up to, her soft Southern drawl calming me down and bringing me to a better place, where I wasn't constantly holding back screams of pain. She told me she was making up my bedroom and I told her I was looking forward to seeing her, to coming home, after I went to Half Moon Bay. I promised to call her in the morning before heading out with Christian. We hung up the phone and I found myself feeling a little bit better, which, given the circumstances, was something I could hold onto, even if it was only temporary.
A few hours into the drive, Alex's prediction for clear skies had been correct. I gazed about the landscape as I drove, feeling very small on this endless stretch of highway, this vast tract of land. The horizon seemed to go on forever and I struggled to comprehend how I was feeling, how I was functioning. After stopping for gas just outside of Rawlins, Wyoming, I put on a CD and dug around in the glove box for my cigarettes. The afternoon sun was warm and I sighed deeply, wishing I was anywhere but there.
Almost four and a half hours after leaving Fort Collins, I passed through Rock Springs. The clouds that hung overhead were puffy and white as cotton, dotting the clear blue backdrop. I switched the CD to one of Nicholas's favorites, a Weezer album, and stared out at the road before me with purpose and determination. For Nicholas. This is for him. For you. I miss you. I sang quietly and thought of him, conjuring up moments and memories out of thin air. I thought of him and felt a calm wash over me, his presence filling me inside and out. He wasn't there, but for an instant I thought we were back there on that fateful morning, lost in bed, wrapped up in one another. I could feel it—this was the tangibility of sheer passion and true love. He was mine as I was his. Nothing could be more true, more right.
And then I found myself thinking about our last vacation together—our 4th of July trip to Philadelphia. It was a spur of the moment type thing but then we were there, sitting there in my car in traffic, heading to Pennsylvania, laughing the whole way there. The night before we left, we booked a room at the Embassy Suites for two nights, choosing to make a longer weekend of it. (Why not?) We threw our belongings in one suitcase and took off after work on the 3rd, leaving in rush hour and listening to Weezer's Pinkerton on repeat. It was the album I was listening to as I drove through Wyoming, trying with all my might to find Nicholas, to make contact with him, even the slightest connection. I just had to get to Salt Lake City. I needed the strength and love of my brother, his support to get through this. I miss you so much, my love.
After arriving in Philly, we checked into the hotel and stuck our suitcase in the room. It was a really nice room and we were excited to have it for two nights. We freshened up after the drive and went outside to the street, walking over to a hole in the wall pizza joint and settling into a corner booth. It was Nicholas who suggested the pitcher of beer, who kept refilling my glass when it was even remotely empty. We'd ordered a deep dish pizza with pepperoni and sausage and it was so filling, absolutely what we'd been craving. When two pitchers of beer threatened to turn into three, we decided we should head back to the hotel. Nicholas tipped our waitress generously and took the box of leftovers, kissing me on the cheek as we stepped into the muggy Philadelphia evening. It was perfect.
On the way to the hotel, we stopped into a liquor store. Nicholas grabbed two bottles of white wine from the cooler and brought them to the cashier without a word, just smiling that familiar smirk. I leaned against him, my heart swelling. What I wouldn't do to spend the rest of my life with you, I thought wistfully, trembling slightly. I would later learn that even as we wandered around in Philly, he'd bought the ring and it was locked in the back of his desk in his office, where no one would even think to look. Even then, he planned on asking me to be his wife. We got back to the hotel room and put out the do not disturb sign, ending up in the bed with our bottles of wine and very little clothing. It was just the two of us, there together on that hot July night, almost a hundred miles away from home. It filled me with longing; the wine accentuated this feeling, of course, but there was nothing but pure desire for Nicholas. He always managed to make me feel like the most beautiful girl in the world.
We stayed up late and slept in late. He woke me up (slowly, slowly and sweetly) and once we were sufficiently conscious, we showered and headed out. It was another hot day and I wore a sleeveless blue dress, the hem just barely falling to my knees. I braided my hair over one shoulder and lathered on the sunscreen, causing Nicholas to pull me close to him and breathe me in as we stood in the elevator… one of the moments that filled me up and spilled over. We went out for lunch and the entire time he took me in with those deep brown eyes of his, while I struggled to stay afloat beneath their weight. After lunch, we walked around and visited some of the popular historical sites—the Betsy Ross house, the Liberty Bell—taking pictures together to document our adventure.
Later, we packed a picnic and somehow located the perfect spot for fireworks. We drank more wine and ate strawberries and cheese and ham sandwiches, enjoying such a typical and fantastic Philadelphia evening. As the fireworks display began, Nicholas laid back on the blanket and pulled me with him, slipping his arm around me. I rested my head on his shoulder and watched the colors exploding over our heads, red and blue and green. My hand was draped casually over his stomach and, slowly, I brought my hand up to his ribcage, resting my touch on his chest, over his heart. The fireworks exploded above our head but I couldn't hear them; I was mesmerized by the rhythm of Nicholas's heartbeat against my fingertips. I took a deep breath and tried to memorize every part of that very moment, afraid to let any of it slip away. I wasn't certain how I'd managed to get so lucky, but I knew I would do anything to keep Nicholas happy and loved and safe. I sank into him, consumed by the power of lights and Nicholas's touch on the small of my back.
After the show ended, we lay there on our picnic blanket as the groups around us began to pack up. "When you and I are married and have a house and a daughter named Aurora Elizabeth Clare," he began, kissing the top of my head, "we'll have a house with a big backyard that's a prime location for viewing the town's 4th of July fireworks." I smiled and curled up against him. "She'll have a playhouse and you'll be able to watch her from the back deck."
"So I take it you've thought about this?"
"Oh, only once or twice." I could hear the smile in his voice and I sat up a little bit, holding my hair back and kissing him softly on the lips. "Livy, you're it for me. I've never been more sure of anything in my life."
"I love you," I replied, grazing his jawline with my fingertips. I felt his hands slide up my back and hold me close, unwilling to let go. Lowering my head to his shoulder, I trembled at his touch, at the early July breeze blowing over our entwined forms. Even as I sat in the driver's seat of the Cavalier, traveling westward on Interstate 80 in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, I could feel that moment clear as day. It was like everything was meshing together, our past life and my current one, blending and shifting. I pulled over onto the shoulder and was able to put the car in park, flip on the hazard lights, and turn off the car before the tears washed over me. I sobbed and sobbed, shaking all over, burying my face in my hands. It hurt so much, so fucking much, and in that moment it was more than I could handle. I wept openly, crying his name, wishing with all my might that he would appear there next to me. I was dizzy, dizzy and disoriented. I missed Nicholas.
"I am so lost." I felt my words drift into the void.
I allowed myself to cry, then got on the task of calming myself down. I absolutely had to change the music and I settled on a Fleetwood Mac CD my dad had burned and left in the car before they flew back home. I sat there with the window down (and the traffic flying by), resting my elbow on the open window and my head in my hand, taking slow breaths, focusing on the dashboard. Then I heard footsteps, and the sound of someone clearing his or her throat. Startled, I sat up and found myself staring, teary-eyed and red-faced, right up at a Wyoming State Trooper.
"Ma'am, Sergeant Ryan Nelson, Wyoming Highway Patrol. May I… are you alright?"
How embarrassing. I took a deep breath and wiped my eyes. "Yeah, sorry, I'm okay." I brushed my hair out of my eyes and looked up at the trooper. He was younger, maybe Nicholas's age, tall and stately in the uniform of the job. "I'm okay."
"Well, we got a report of a motorist on the side of the highway and we generally investigate all calls. Especially way out here, and especially when said motorist is seemingly in distress." His voice had a soft drawl to it and I nodded in understanding. "Mind if I take a look at your license?"
I sighed and shook my head, reaching into my purse and grabbing my wallet. "I'm not in trouble, am I?"
"No honey, you didn't do anything wrong," he said with a smile. "Just gotta make sure your license is valid." I handed it to him and he looked it over. "You're a long way from home," he said, handing it back to me. Then his gaze fell to the passenger seat next to me, the midnight black urn with Nicholas's green sweatshirt wrapped around it to keep it safe on the ride.
"We were only engaged for two months before he died." It was never something I would just spill into the open, especially to someone I had just met, but it was out before I could stop it. Two months. He stammered and I stared ahead, feeling the tears start to well up.
"Miss Porter, I'm sorry." I could tell he was putting two and two together… the urn and the New York City address and my tears, the pain that must have been visible, so visceral it felt. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Bring him back. Bring him back so we can go home and start over. "Um… I don't think so… but." I paused, composing myself. "Thank you for caring." It was overwhelming to feel that from a complete stranger and I let it hold me up. Then I saw it flash across his face, a mutual sort of loss.
"Lost my little sister in a car accident a year and a half ago." I felt my heart crack a little bit for him and I stared down into my lap. "Her boyfriend thought he could beat the train. Look, I'm not going to tell you how you should or shouldn't deal with this… because only you can figure that out. Just… don't ever forget how much you meant to one another. Jenny was smart and caring and the sweetest girl I've ever known. She was going to be a nurse. I'll never forget her." I wiped my eyes and nose, glancing up at him again with clear eyes. "Do you think you've calmed down enough to head out?" I nodded, taking a deep breath. He handed me a card (his name, badge number, email and personal line). "If you ever need to talk."
"Thank you." It was all I could manage.
"You're welcome. Take care, ma'am, and please drive safely out there." He smiled softly and I thanked him again, watching in my mirrors as he got in his car and put on his seatbelt. I turned the car on again, feeling much more composed and ready to tackle the drive. He waited for me to signal and merge safely back into the interstate before pulling into the lane himself, changing lanes and passing on the left with a small wave. It was overwhelming, the feeling of love from a complete stranger, the good of humanity and gift of compassion. I drove on, my thoughts centered on my destination (and Nicholas, always in the back of my mind).