Living Without You (PG-13)

(Sequel to Dying to Be With You)

Marrissa Morrison was sitting at the table in McDonalds with her four year old son Liam and Liam's Aunt Alice when she noticed Paul McAndrews enter the restaurant with a college co-ed she didn't recognize.

"Uh-oh," Alice said when she noticed Paul too.

"It's okay," Marrissa replied as she helped Little Liam with his hash browns. "It's been a long time."

Paul was making kissy face with the coed and he didn't see Marrissa so she had a chance to give him the look over. He didn't look that much different from his high school days. His hair was a little longer and better styled and he was better dressed but he still had the handsome smile and deep blue eyes.

Paul handed the coed her Latte and he took his coffee to go and it wasn't until he turned to start for the door that he noticed his former high school girlfriend seated in the booth.

"Marrissa!" He said with surprise. "Wow! Hello!"

"Hello, Paul," Marrissa said politely. "It's nice to see you again."

"This is Charlene," he said, introducing the woman on her arm. "We're going skiing."

The woman smiled. She was almost as tall as Paul with long blonde hair underneath her fancy wool ski hat. She was wearing an expensive ski jacket with several ski passes tied to the zipper and she was wearing wool tight pants that hugged her shapely legs.

"Hello," Charlene said with a friendly smile.

"This is Marrissa," Paul said. "From high school."

"You graduated from Green this year, right?" Marrissa asked.

"Yep, Bachelors in Business Administration," he said proudly. "Now it's off to Grad School."

"Congratulations," Marrissa smiled. "You remember Alice Jacobs?" She asked, gesturing to Alice who was seated across from her.

"Yes, hello," Paul said politely but his tone seemed cool.

"And this is Little Liam," Marrissa said, patting the boy on his blond head. "My son."

"He's getting big," Paul said with surprise. "I can't believe how long it's been."

"Yeah," Marrissa said with a smile. "Me either."

"We should get going, Paul," Charlene remarked, obviously feeling like the outsider.

"Right, the slopes await us," Paul said with a smile, glancing at his girlfriend before turning back to Marrissa. "It was nice seeing you, Mar."

"You too, Paul," Marrissa said warmly, watching as Charlene possessively took Paul's arm in hers and led him towards the door.

Marrissa didn't say anything as she finished her Egg McMuffin.

"Do you have any regrets?" Alice asked after a moment's pause.

"Nope," Marrissa answered without missing a beat.

"That could have been you on his arm," Alice pointed out.

"I made a different choice," Marrissa replied.

"Was it worth it?" Alice wondered.

"Yes," Marrissa answered, looking at Liam and giving him a smile. "You almost done, buddy?"

"You don't want to go skiing?" Alice asked with a smirk.

Marrissa looked at Alice and smiled. "I have everything I could want right here." She handed Liam another piece of his hash brown. "Keep eating, Liam!"

"At least Paul doesn't seem to hate you anymore," Alice observed.

"He had every right to hate me," Marrissa remarked. "I cheated on him with another guy, dumped him to be with that guy, and got pregnant with that guy's kid."

"But now that guy's gone," Alice sighed. "And here you are."

"Here I am," Marrissa agreed. "It wasn't as if the guy dumped me, Alice. He died."

"I guess this is what you signed up for," Alice said, making a play face at Little Liam.

Marrissa smiled with sentimentality. "Did you know that when Shannon dumped your brother, she said his brain tumor wasn't what she signed up for!?"

"But you did," Alice said with fascination.

"I did," Marrissa testified.

"You know, you're still as beautiful as my brother saw you," Alice remarked. "That thick dark black hair of yours that still hangs below your shoulders, those deep brown eyes, that dimple on your chin, and that beauty mark on your right cheek. Don't let Charlene get to you."

"I could care less about Charlene, Alice," Marrissa laughed.

"What about Paul?" Alice asked.

"It was high school," Marrissa replied. "I'll tell you the same thing I used to tell your brother."

"What's that?"

"Don't worry about Paul!"

Alice smiled happily.

"I really have no regrets, you know," Marrissa told Alice. "I wanted to get pregnant. I wanted to have his baby."

"So he'd live on?" Alice asked.

Marrissa looked at Little Liam and smiled.

"Why did you wait until he got sick before you got serious about him?" Alice asked.

"Oh, I was always serious about him," Marrissa insisted.

"But you were dating Paul," Alice reminded her.

"I was saving Liam for later," Marrissa explained.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Alice wondered.

"Liam and I were friends since kindergarten," Marrissa explained. "We lived kitty-corner across the street from each other and we grew up together. We walked to school together and we hung out with the same neighborhood kids, playing all the usual kid games together, riding bikes, and all the rest of it."

"But you dated Paul."

"I knew I was going to marry Liam from the time I was in first grade," Marrissa revealed. "He asked me out a few times in high school but I turned him down."

"Why?"

"I just wanted to live life a little," Marrissa replied with a shrug. "I thought we were going to have the rest of our lives together so I dated Paul just to get an idea of what else was out there. It never occurred to me that Liam would get sick."

"And when you found out he was dying you made love with him?"

"I wanted to have his baby," Marrissa acknowledged. "I know a lot of people thought I was crazy. I was a senior in high school. Barely eighteen years old. My whole life in front of me. My parents weren't happy but what were they going to say? The boy I was in love with was dying."

"I think my parents are very appreciative," Alice replied. "They're happy to have Little Liam in their lives."

"I am too," Marrissa smiled, rubbing her hand along her son's face.

"You were a lot more intelligent than Paul ever was, Marrissa," Alice said. "He's on his way to grad school. You live with your parents. Babysit the neighbor's kid."

"I took a few classes at Blue County Community," Marrissa said defensively. "When Little Liam goes to school, I'll be able to do more with my life. Get a real job and stuff."

"But you really have no regrets?"

Marrissa shook her head no. "I wish Liam hadn't died, of course," she said plainly.

"I wish he lived long enough to meet his son," Alice sighed.

"He held on as long as he could," Marrissa said sadly. "Those last few months were pretty tough."

Alice shuttered. "I hate even thinking about it."

"I promised I'd never forget him," Marrissa whispered. "He was my lovely."

"It was always you, Marrissa," Alice said. "You were the only girl he ever loved."

"I know," Marrissa replied as her eyes became teary.

### ###

Marrissa was grateful to her parents for allowing her to live with them. She converted her older sister (now married) Mary's former bedroom into Little Liam's nursery and bedroom and she devoted most of her time to raising her son as a single mother.

Living in a house with grandparents made it easier and Liam's other set of grandparents were right across the street so Marrissa was never short of help. Alice was always available to lend a hand when necessary too.

Mary's friend Carolyn Webster next door had married her high school sweetheart Jeremy and the couple bought the house when Carolyn's parents retired and moved to Florida. They had a baby girl named Julie a few years before Little Liam was born and because both of Julie's parents worked, Marrissa often looked after Julie who played well with Little Liam. It was convenient to have Julie stay at the house and it was just as easy for Marrissa to bring Liam r to Julie's house too which she often did.

Carolyn and Jeremy were a wonderful couple – serious and talented in their professional lives, but also dedicated and devoted parents who loved Julie and spent as much free time with her as they could. They often invited Marrissa and Little Liam along on various family outings and Marrissa was grateful to have the babysitting job as well as the friendship of Carolyn and Jeremy Neilson. She envied them for being a married couple raising a child together and she missed Liam the most when she saw them parenting together.

Carolyn had been generous in her advice, support and friendship during Liam's illness and Marrissa's pregnancy and she was with Marrissa in the delivery room when Little Liam was born. Marrissa considered Carolyn and Alice to be her best friends and while she often felt alone raising Little Liam without his father around, she was appreciative to have Carolyn and Alice in her life.

Jeremy was a nice guy who gave Little Liam extra male attention in his father's absence. The boy had both his maternal and paternal grandfather active and present in his life, but Jeremy was only twenty-seven so he was much more hip, energetic and interactive in his involvement with Little Liam, always quick to involve the boy in Julie's activities whenever possible.

Seeing Paul again reminded Marrissa of how much her life had changed since her high school days. Liam used to tease her for being so popular in high school. He said it was one of the reasons she refused to date "a regular guy" like him but once Liam was stricken with his brain tumor, Marrissa devoted herself to him. She broke up with Paul a few days after she and Liam made love for the first time and she discovered she was pregnant a few months later.

By then, Liam's health had taken a turn for the worse and while he was thrilled to learn he was going to be a father and he talked warmly and happily about the approaching baby, both he and Marrissa knew he wouldn't be around to help raise the child.

Liam's original goal was to receive his high school diploma at the graduation ceremonies that June but by February the affects of the brain tumor had taken its toll on Liam.

"I feel like an engine running out of steam," he lamented one day. "I have just enough energy to do one or two small things and then it is gone!"

Liam was spending more time in bed. His short term memory continued to deteriorate. He had trouble keeping his balance. He was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted every day. Just walking to the bathroom became a chore. He told Marrissa that he was afraid to go to sleep because he wasn't sure if he would wake up again. As the illness progressed, it became more difficult for him to speak. His appetite began to fade and he needed help feeding himself and caring for himself.

Pregnant with his child, Marrissa rarely left Liam's side during the slow fade. While it became increasingly difficult for Alice to deal with her brother's illness and Liam's mom became more emotional during the last few months, Marrissa was a trooper who never treated Liam any differently even after he slipped into a semi-comatose state in the final weeks of his life.

His final coherent words to Marrissa had been 'remember me'.

"I will," she promised as she kissed his forehead.

Hospice assisted and the family was able to keep Liam at home until the end. He slipped into a coma three days before he passed away. In the final hours before his death, Liam's breathing became labored which was very distressing for the family.

"It sounds like he's drowning," Alice cried.

Liam's parents, his sister Alice, and Marrissa were all present when Liam took his last breath. They talked him over the side saying their goodbyes and when it was finally over, Liam's mother sat on one side of the bed and Marrissa sat on the other side, both women holding his hand long after he was gone while his father held Alice in a hug at the foot of the bed.

They had months to prepare for and talk about his death. Liam himself was open, honest and real about his mortality and he faced his death with bravery, courage, and acceptance but when the moment of his passing came, his survivors were still unprepared and his death was a surreal experience for all of them.

Marrissa was five months pregnant at the wake and funeral, seven months pregnant when she graduated from high school with both her parents and Liam's parents in attendance. Her classmates took special care in remembering Liam during the ceremonies and supporting Marrissa during the emotional evening. Even Paul, who had been extremely unforgiving when she broke up with him, offered pregnant Marrissa comforting words of support on the night of their graduation.

Little Liam was born on a hot summer afternoon in August and the newborn became the focus of Marrissa's life. Once the baby was born, there was no time to grieve for Liam as Marrissa's entire world was now all about Little Liam who looked a lot like his Dad. Everybody said so.

### ###

It was six thirty in the morning and Marrissa was surprised to hear the front door bell ring. She was up so it wasn't a big deal and she opened the door to find a white faced Jeremy standing on the porch with Julie in his arms, still in her pajamas.

"Could you take Julie?" Jeremy asked, panic in his voice.

"What's wrong?" a worried Marrissa asked, taking Julie from him.

"Something's wrong with Carolyn," he whispered before running back toward his house.

Marrissa saw the cop car and ambulance pulling up to Jeremy's house as she closed the door and she knew her job was to keep Julie calm no matter how much she was freaking out herself.

"Would you like some breakfast, honey?" Marrissa asked as she brought the little girl into the kitchen where Little Liam was already seated in his chair.

"Okay," Julie replied, apparently unaware of the drama unfolding next door.

Marrissa's parents came downstairs soon afterward and Marrissa's Dad hurried over to the Neilson house as soon as he was made aware of the situation. He returned a half hour later looking shaken, his face ashen.

Julie was upstairs playing with Little Liam and Marrissa waited for her father's report. "What is it, Daddy?" She asked nervously, her heart bounding in her chest.

"I'm sorry, Marrissa," her father replied, giving her a hug. "Carolyn's gone."

"Gone?" Marrissa asked with confusion, not understanding what her father was trying to tell her. "Where'd she go?"

"She's dead, Marrissa," her father clarified.

Marrissa felt her legs buckle and her father had to hold her up as she burst into sobs. "What are you talking about?"

"She apparently died in her sleep," he explained as he held his daughter tight. Marrissa's mom joined them in a group hug.

"She's twenty-seven years old!" Marrissa wailed. "How can she be dead?"

"I don't know, dear," was all her father could say in reply.

The black medical examiner's station wagon had appeared in front of the Neilson house the next time Marrissa peeked out the window but her job was to be with poor little Julie. Marrissa's parents had gone to work, leaving Marrissa home alone with her son and poor Julie who thankfully was oblivious to the tragedy unfolding next door involving her mother.

Marrissa felt like she was having an out of body experience as she waited for more news. Several cars came and went from Carolyn's house and Marrissa had to go into the bathroom several times to cry away from the children. It was her first experience with death since losing Liam and Carolyn's sudden demise brought back all the terrible emotions and memories for Marrissa.

A drawn, white faced Jeremy knocked on the door later in the afternoon. Marrissa burst into tears as soon as she opened the door and Jeremy fell into her for a needed hug.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Jeremy!" Marrissa sobbed. "I don't understand any of this."

"Me either," the red eyed Jeremy replied. "My entire world just ended."

"What happened?" She wanted to know.

"Not sure yet," he said in a monotone voice. "Apparently, a undetected heart birth defect," he said. "A torn aorta, perhaps."

"Oh my God," Marrissa cried. "This is so unbelievable. I can't comprehend any of it. I'm shocked and numbed."

"I know," Jeremy sighed. "It's so surreal I feel like I'm in the middle of a nightmare I can't wake up from."

"Daddy! I thought I heard your voice!" It was Julie running down the stairs with Little Liam behind her. She was still in her pajamas from the morning.

"Hi, Angel," Jeremy said bravely. "How are you?"

"I'm good, Daddy," Julie said happily. "Little Liam and I have been playing."

He took the little girl's hand in his. "Thanks for helping," he told Marrissa.

"Anything, anytime, you just let us know," Marrissa said, trying to keep her act together.

"Thanks," he said as he left the house with his daughter.

### ### ###

The next few days were a blur. People came and went from the Neilson house, bringing food, expressing condolences, being supportive. Jeremy dropped Julie off at Marrissa's house several times when he had to entertain people, make arrangements, and grieve the loss of his wife.

Marrissa was mostly in a fog. She had lost one of her best friends in an instant, she was the undefined and unclassified new nanny for that friend's little girl, and she was an emotional wreck as she grieved for Carolyn, felt for Jeremy and Julie, and missed Liam all the more.

"Daddy says Mommy is in heaven with Little Liam's Daddy," Julie told Marrissa a few days after Carolyn's death.

"Yes, dear, that's true," Marrissa said with a sad smile.

"Do you think they'll be friends there?" Julie wondered.

"Oh, I'm sure they will," Marrissa assured the little girl.

Carolyn's wake and funeral was an emotional ordeal. Marrissa's parents and Alice helped with Julie so Marrissa could make an appearance at the wake and attend the funeral. Julie was brought to the reception that followed. Carolyn's parents flew up from Florida. Jeremy's parents were divorced. His mother lived in Maine and his father wasn't the greatest when it came to emotional support or being a hands on grandfather so once the funeral was over and people returned to their normal routine, Jeremy was left home alone as a single widowed Dad trying to take care of little Julie on his own.

Marrissa continued her supportive role as part time Nanny and caregiver to help out Jeremy who still appeared to be a stunned zombie weeks after the funeral. He dragged himself to work each day and came home at night emotionally exhausted and withdrawn. He did his best with Julie but the absence of his wife left him depressed and sad.

He relied on Marrissa to help out with Julie which wasn't a problem since Julie and Little Liam got along so well together. Marrissa split time between the two households and she noticed when she was at Jeremy's house that the bed in the master bedroom was never slept in.

She found Jeremy asleep on the living room couch more than once when she stopped by in the morning. He asked her to clean out the bedroom of Carolyn's personal affects about a month after the funeral, a powerfully emotional and sad task for Marrissa who cried several times as she boxed up Carolyn's clothing and other belongings for Goodwill and packed up some of her personal affects for storage, knowing Julie might want to go through them when she was older.

Jeremy left most of Carolyn's photos out knowing it was important for Julie to be reminded of her mom but the house still seemed sad, empty and lonely whenever Marrissa was in it. She knew Jeremy was still sleeping on the living room couch and he admitted that he just couldn't sleep in the bedroom because there were too many memories of Carolyn there.

Marrissa suggested that Jeremy change the bedroom furniture and when he expressed no interest in getting involved in such a project, she took it on herself. She sold off the furniture that was in there, re-wallpapered and painted the room, and bought new bedroom furniture that she arranged differently in the room so that the master bedroom had a totally new look and feel to it.

Jeremy eventually started sleeping in the master bedroom again and Marrissa took that as an important first step in his grieving process.

It was easy for Jeremy and Marrissa to hang out together, mostly doing kids stuff with Julie and Little Liam. They continued most of the activities Jeremy and Julie used to do with Carolyn, only now Marrissa and little Liam tagged along, whether it was pizza at the Hillsboro Pizza House on Friday nights, or a trip to the park on Saturday, or a Sunday afternoon at the Kid's World play area in South County. They went to a few movies as a foursome and found other activities to do too.

Marrissa continued in her nanny role. She took Julie to her dance lessons, attended school functions that Julie participated in, and looked after the little girl when Jeremy needed help. It was natural for Marrissa and Little Liam to stay for supper when Marrissa cooked the meal for Jeremy and Julie and occasionally the Morrison's had Jeremy and Julie over to their house for a meal.

Jeremy somehow got through all the firsts without Carolyn. The first birthdays. The first holidays. The first special occasions from the past that always involved Carolyn. Marrissa understood perfectly well what Jeremy was experiencing because she had gone through it herself when Liam died. She couldn't help but be reminded of Liam as she watched Jeremy struggle through his own sense of loss, absence and grief but she knew there was nothing she could do about it but be there for him.

Jeremy understood that Marrissa had lost somebody important in her life too but it still took him a long time to talk about what he was feeling.

"How'd you not end up killing yourself from the grief and pain?" Jeremy asked one evening as Marrissa helped him do the dishes after sharing a meal together. The children were playing in the other room.

"I was carrying Little Liam and I knew that had to be my focus and concern just like Julie must be yours," Marrissa said. "I had no choice but to carry on and neither do you."

"God, I didn't sign up for this," Jeremy grumbled.

Marrissa was reminded that Liam's high school girlfriend Shannon had said the very same thing to him when he was diagnosis with his brain tumor. She had dumped him and Marrissa considered her a coward for being so weak.

"Of course you signed up for it," Marrissa said, trying not to sound angry or annoyed. "You signed up for it when you told her you loved her. You signed up for it when you exchanged your vows with her. You signed up for it when she had your daughter."

Jeremy sighed heavily. "I just thought she'd die when she was eighty-seven, not twenty-seven," he said.

"I know," Marrissa said. "Liam was barely eighteen."

"Do you still miss him?" Jeremy asked.

"Every day," she replied. "But I've learned to somehow live without him, as hard as it is. He was my everything and I was an emotional mess when he died but four years later I'm still here. I made it somehow. And you will too."

"It gets harder every day, not easier," Jeremy sighed.

"And it will get even harder," Marrissa let him know. "But you have to keep on moving through the pain, both for Julie and for yourself."

"I don't know if I'm strong enough," Jeremy confessed.

"Your life will slowly get back to some sense of normal even though it will never be the same again," Marrissa predicted. "Little Liam is doing well and Julie is too. You just have to pick yourself up and do what you have to do to get through the day."

"There are some days when I don't even remember what I did," Jeremy admitted.

"She was my good friend, Jeremy," Marrissa sighed. "It hasn't been easy for me either."

"Daddy, come see what we made!" Julie called from the other room.

"Go," Marrissa said, wiping a tear from her eye as she went back to doing the dishes.

Jeremy nodded and left the room to see what the children had made for him.

### ###

Thank God for Alice and her parents was all Marrissa could think as she struggled with Carolyn's death. As much as she tried to focus and concentrate on Little Liam and care for Julie as a surrogate, Marrissa was still grieving for the loss of her friend and missing Liam all over again too. Although Alice and Carolyn weren't as close because of the age difference, Alice definitely understood Marrissa's painful loss and she was extra supportive during the months that followed Carolyn's death.

Alice was Liam's kid sister and she resented Marrissa for several years, especially when she stopped hanging around the neighborhood and began dating Paul in high school. But when Marrissa started spending every day with Liam during his illness, Alice came to forgive her and they bonded during Liam's final months of life. Alice was tickled to know that Marrissa was carrying Liam's child and the two became extremely close and they now considered themselves sisters.

Alice knew that the day might come when Marrissa would find somebody new. They never talked about it but now that Jeremy had lost his wife and Marrissa was spending so much time with him and Julie, Alice began to wonder if this was the cosmos in action and if Jeremy and Marrissa might find each other through mutually shared grief and loss.

Alice herself hadn't exactly enjoyed a great romantic career so far, guilty of picking losers but Marrissa was her greatest advocate and cheerleader and she was always trying to fix Alice up with guys she knew from college and the neighborhood. Alice had always been there for her and Marrissa just wanted to see her happy too.

After Carolyn's death, Alice spent even more time with Marrissa knowing she was doing so much for Jeremy and Julie while trying to fill the void left by Carolyn's loss. Marrissa tended to lock herself in the bathroom to cry or she waited until late at night when she was alone in her bed to have a grieving sob attack, but Alice was good at picking up on Marrissa's moods and vibes and she was able to offer a needed hug or a kind word at just the right moment which Marrissa greatly appreciated.

"How come you've never dated all these years?" Alice asked Marrissa one afternoon as they sat sipping tea.

"Never wanted to," Marrissa replied, surprised by the question. "Would you be okay with it if I ever did?" she asked. "Liam was your brother."

"It's been four years, Marrissa," Alice sighed. "You deserve to live your life."

"I am," Marrissa insisted. "I have Little Liam and now Julie. They keep me busy and happy."

"What about Jeremy?" Alice tested.

"Jeremy? Marrissa asked with surprise. "What about him?"

"You two seem to be spending a lot of time together lately," Alice observed.

Marrissa rolled her eyes. "The man's wife died!" She said with disbelief. "I'm helping him with his daughter. His wife was my best friend for god sakes."

Alice held her hands up in a defensive posture. "Okay, relax, I was just asking."

"There are too many memories for both of us," Marrissa sighed. "We'll both move on when we're ready but I'm sure Jeremy doesn't think of me in that way anyway. He was so madly in love with Carolyn it wasn't funny."

"Do you ever think of him in that way?" Alice questioned.

"I haven't thought about any guy in that way since Liam," Marrissa replied.

### ###

The thing about Jeremy for Marrissa was that it was just so easy to be around him. She had known him just about as long as she had known Carolyn and she knew him as part of Carolyn.

They had always gotten along well and he had treated her with kindness and patience, knowing she was a single mother who had suffered a great loss in her life. She never felt like a third wheel when she tagged along with Carolyn and Jeremy and even though now the absence of Carolyn was pronounced, it was still easy to feel comfortable being with Jeremy in their shared grief.

Marrissa tried not to think about what Alice had said about thinking about Jeremy in that way. The thought had honestly never crossed her mind and even now she wasn't thinking about herself and her lack of a romantic life. All she cared about was Julie's emotional wellbeing and Jeremy's ability to function as a widower raising a child on his own. She saw her job as being there for both of them in the capacity as Nanny and friend. She was still in love with Liam.

But when she thought about it late at night lying in her bed, sometimes crying over Liam or Carolyn, Marrissa had to admit that she enjoyed Jeremy's company. It was always in the context of Julie and Little Liam when they were together, but it was still nice to share quality time together as two lonely single parents trying to do what was best for their kids.

Jeremy seemed to be holding up fairly well but Marrissa knew he had a long way to go. The first year was always the toughest in any grief period and even if Alice thought Jeremy might be a good fit for Marrissa given their similar stories, it was too soon for him to be interested in anyone let alone her. There was an understandable sadness to Jeremy and Marrissa knew that feeling only too well.

For some reason, Alice seemed interested in the idea of Jeremy and Marrissa getting together beyond the pretext of the Little Liam and Julie.

"Marrissa, don't you think all of this is some sort of omen? Alice asked over coffee one Saturday morning.

"No," Marrissa was quick to answer. "I don't think God would take Carolyn just so I could have a new guy!"

"That's not what I mean," Alice groaned. "I just meant that now that the two of you are alone maybe could be together."

"We are together," Marrissa pointed out. "We're alone together!"

"You can't stay alone forever," Alice said. "Liam wouldn't want you to live that way."

"This isn't even about me," Marrissa said. "It's about Jeremy and he's not ready for anything right now. He might need four years just like I did."

"Sometimes things happen for a reason is all I'm saying," Alice said. "Maybe it's supposed to be about you now."

Marrissa thought about what Alice said, about maybe it was supposed to be about her now. She had spent so much time grieving and missing Liam and taking care of Little Liam that she really didn't think about herself that much. Little Liam had always been her priority and focus. She didn't avoid people or push people away but she didn't go out of her way to be with them either.

She remembered about a year earlier when she would see a guy around her age with a son around Little Liam's age at the park on most days when she was there too. He was handsome and good looking and she briefly fantasized about maybe striking up a friendship with him until she noticed the ring on his finger. That was about the only time she thought of a man in a semi-sexual way since Liam and it didn't last long.

Occasionally, a repair man would be at the house and there were a few times when Marrissa's father brought some young guy home from the office for dinner but she barely paid attention to them and it became an accepted reality around the Morrison house that Marrissa was a happy and content single mom raising her son on her own with the help of family and wonderful friends like Alice, Carolyn and Jeremy and that she was contented with her lifestyle and routine.

Almost sub-consciously, Marrissa began to wear her hair differently, put on more makeup, and pay more attention to her wardrobe choices. It was a subtle change that Alice picked up on but she didn't say anything to Marrissa about it. One afternoon, Marrissa asked Alice to look after Little Liam while she went to the hairdresser for the first time in years and got a new cut and style for her hair.

"Maybe it's time you and me go out on the town," Alice said to Marrissa a few days later.

"You know, I haven't been out on the town since Paul took me to the Sun Rise Lake Inn for Junior Prom!" Marrissa laughed. "I've been so busy taking care of dying boyfriends and little boys since I was eighteen that I haven't had time for a social life."

"That's kind of pathetic when you think about it, Marrissa," Alice sighed.

"I'm only twenty-two," Marrissa said with a shrug. "There will be time."

"When?" Alice wondered. "When Liam turns eighteen?"

"Look, you're not even twenty-one yet so we're not going out drinking!" Marrissa laughed.

"How 'bout we jut have a girls' night out then?" Alice suggested. "Didn't you and Carolyn used to go out once in a while?"

"Shopping," Marrissa recalled with fondness. "Get away from the kids for a few hours."

"So let's do something," Alice said. "Let's go someplace that you never go. Someplace you'd never take the kids."

"The strip place in South County?" Marrissa teased.

"Do they have girl's night?" Alice asked with interest.

They settled on a Fake Problems concert at the Springfield Civic Center and Marrissa actually had a great time. It was the first time she let go in a long time and it was fun to scream and dance and rock and roll.

"Man, I haven't let loose like that in forever," Marrissa laughed during the ride home.

"You need to find yourself, Marrissa," Alice said.

"I hadn't realized I had lost myself," Marrissa teased.

"Tonight was the first time I saw the real Marrissa in a long time," Alice admitted. "You've been so busy being the dutiful grieving girlfriend and dedicated mom that you forgot what it's like to let go and have fun."

"I'm having fun being Liam's mom," Marrissa replied. "I told you before, Alice, I knew exactly what I was doing when I got pregnant with your brother's child. I have no regrets. This is my life."

"You deserve better," Alice sighed.

### ###

Marrissa told Jeremy about the Fake Problems concert the next time they shared a meal together. Sometimes when they ate at Jeremy's house, they'd put Little Liam down on the extra bed in Julie's room and he would fall sleep there. Occasionally, Marrissa would let the boy sleep there all night and she'd come back in the morning and get him.

On this night, Julie and Little Liam were sleeping upstairs and Jeremy and Marrissa were chatting in the living room.

"Fake Problems?" Jeremy rubbed his chin. "I think we have one of their CDs."

He went to the stereo system and dug through the collection until he found what he was looking for. He inserted the disc into the player and music spilled out of the speakers.

"Oh, I love this one!" Marrissa laughed as she jumped up and started swaying to the music.

Jeremy watched her move to the music with a grin on his face but it turned to embarrassment when Marrissa glanced at him and noticed that he was watching her.

She didn't seem to care because she had an amused look on her face and she continued to dance to the music. Jeremy could smell her perfume and for the first time he noticed how sexy Marrissa looked. Her hips were tight in the jeans she was wearing and her breasts seemed to bounce with her moves.

He was surprised that he saw her in that way after all these years and he tried to shake the thought from his mind. This was Carolyn's friend and Little Liam's Mom. He was a grieving widower so why was he having sexual thoughts about Marrissa all of a sudden?

He wondered what it might be like to kiss her softly and maybe hold her in his arms. He had been so lonely these many months and he knew that Marrissa had been a "born again virgin" as Carolyn put it after that Liam guy died several years ago.

Jeremy had never actually met Liam. Carolyn had because she grew up in the neighborhood and knew all the families, including the Morrisons and the Jacobs and Jeremy heard many stories about the guy's traumatic illness and horrible death. Carolyn thought Marrissa's commitment to Liam was one of the most romantic stories she had ever heard and she was always going on to Jeremy about how noble and true Marrissa had been to Liam, even after he had died.

Jeremy had to admit that he had little patience or interest in all that gooey girly stuff. He felt sorry for Marrissa for being a single mom raising a kid who had a dead father but he didn't give her situation a whole lot of thought, at least not until he lost his Carolyn. Now Marrissa seemed to be the only one who truly understood his sorrow and grief.

The guys at work kept telling Jeremy that it was time to move on. Get laid, they said. Others seem to have forgotten that Carolyn was dead while others never mentioned her name or asked after him or Julie. Life went on for everybody except for him. Marrissa seemed to understand that and she had been there for him since that awful day, helping out with Julie, cleaning up the house, making meals for them, and being supportive toward Jeremy when he was having bad days.

And now here she was dancing in front of him in his living room and he knew he needed to stopping looking at her like she was beautiful, sexy, and desirable. Marrissa was aware that he was watching her but for the first time in a long time, she didn't care. It was nice to feel noticed for a change even if it felt like she was cheating on Liam (not to mention Carolyn). The fact that she was aware of Jeremy made her feel guilty but at the same time she felt like somebody else beside Little Liam's mom and dead Liam's girl.

The song on the CD finished and Marrissa stopped dancing. "I should probably go," she said.

"Yeah," Jeremy agreed. "You going to leave Little Liam?"

"Call me in the morning when they wake up," she said as she started for the door.

"Okay," Jeremy agreed, walking with her.

"Goodnight," Marrissa said warmly when he opened the door for him.

"Goodnight," Jeremy replied with a smile.

### ###

Marrissa woke up the next morning in an unusually good mood. For some reason, she felt free for the first time in a long time. Free from grief. Free from guilt. Free from loneliness. Free from the past.

Her cell phone rang and she answered it while still lying in bed. "Hello?"

"The kids are up," Jeremy let her know. "I'm making them chocolate chip pancakes."

"I'll be over in a few minutes," she said. "Make me three."

Sunday morning pancakes became another part of the routine. Saturday nights turned into sleep over night for Little Liam on a consistent basis and Marrissa would show up on Sunday mornings for the pancakes. The semi-blended family continued with the other standard activities too – the pizza place, the park, Serguci League baseball games at Beano Field so Julie and Little Liam could play in the play area down the left field line.

Marrissa never missed one of Julie's dance practices or the recitals when they happened. Little Liam decided he wanted to be a dancer too and she signed him up for a class, much to Julie's delight.

Several more months had passed and Jeremy and Marrissa had the routine down pretty pat. Her parents and Alice stopped asking questions about how much time Marrissa was spending at Jeremy's place and Little Liam's paternal grandparents didn't seem to be concerned as along as they were able to see their grandson as before.

It was Saturday night again and Little Liam was asleep in the extra bed in Julie's room. Jeremy and Marrissa had watched a DVD and then Saturday Night Live and it was after one o'clock when she prepared to leave as always.

"You know, you could stay one of these nights too," Jeremy pointed out.

"You mean, we could have a sleep over?" She asked, her eyebrows raised.

"Only if you wanted to," Jeremy said sheepishly.

"Are you ready for that, Jeremy?" Marrissa asked him straight up.

"I appreciate the fact that you are not Carolyn," Jeremy said with a nervous sigh. "I know you are different and that we would be different."

"I've only made love with two men in my life, Jeremy," Marrissa let him know as they sat on the couch staring at each other. "My high school boyfriend and then Liam."

"What went on in the past should stay in the past," Jeremy commented.

"I think Carolyn would agree."

"I don't talk about my bedroom history with anyone," Jeremy said. "What's important is how you and I might enjoy each other now, not what we used to do with someone else."

Marrissa nodded her head. "I understand completely," she said.

"But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I've been thinking about it lately," he sighed.

"Sex?" She guessed.

"I really miss it," he said.

"I miss being openly desired," Marrissa told him. "I miss the teasing, I miss the flirting, I miss the foreplay. I miss being sexy."

"I think you're very sexy," Jeremy let her know.

"It's been a long time, Jeremy," she said. "It's not that I don't crave sex. I just felt I owed it to Liam…"

"I know," Jeremy said, putting his hand on hers. "Same with me and Carolyn."

"But it's not just about the sex," Marrissa warned. "It's about the desire to be desirable. It's about having a man openly want me and me wanting him back."

"I'm scared," Jeremy whispered.
"Well, with fear comes courage and the desire for second chances to embrace what I've always wanted to be but have been too afraid to try," Marrissa reasoned.

"For me, sadness always creeps in," Jeremy said. "I'm lost and I'm not sure how to do this or even if I want to. I am scared I will do something 'wrong'."

"I feel vulnerable," Marrissa revealed. "I'm trapped between my dead Liam and the real world and I'm not sure what to do about it."

"We'll figure it out," Jeremy told her.

"Alice gave me a book a while back about sex and sensuality," Marrissa revealed. "It talked about the fear people have after divorce and death about being intimate with someone for the first time. All the self talk and fear in their heads and about how as soon as you touch one another and are close, how the thoughts shift immediately to 'wow that feels good, she smells good, I like this' and all that."

Marrissa glanced down on his hand that was still resting on hers. "The book says that the newness of a new person is exciting and the mind fills with so much new stimulus that it can't think about anything else but the experience at hand. It takes a while for the defenses to crumble but every step on the journey is huge and being able to venture out emotionally is important."

"But it's not something that you can share with just anybody," Jeremy sighed. "Being intimate with someone you love and who truly loves you back is rare. There was no pressure and no worries being with Carolyn - just love. God, I miss that."

"Me too," Marrissa agreed as she shook his hand from his and stood. "Goodnight, Jeremy.

"Good night, Marrissa," he said with a smile as he walked her to the door.

### ###

Several more weeks passed and Jeremy and Marrissa continued the shadow dance with each other as Carolyn and Liam both stood in the ghost wings watching. The parents focused their attention on Julie and Little Liam and they continued with their routines and activities without talking about the obvious.

One evening, Jeremy came home late and found Marrissa still in the house having put Julie to bed, along with Little Liam.

"How was your day?" Marrissa asked with a smile after Jeremy looked in on Julie.

"Fine," he said. "Long. Busy."

"You hungry? " She asked. "I left the food warming in the crock pot."

"Yeah, I guess," he said.

Something in her the way she was looking at him gave him pause and Jeremy realized he was unsure of how to read her. She headed for the kitchen and he followed, stepping up behind her as she stood at the counter about to put some of the casserole on a plate.

Jeremy reached up from behind and she turned to face him. They stared at each other for the longest time without saying a word until finally Marrissa slowly started undoing one button at a time on her blouse. Jeremy's eyes dropped to her hands and he watched her fingers as his mouth went dry. He was nervous and aroused at the same time as her blouse opened more with the opening of each button.

Jeremy caught a glimpse of the top of her bra revealing the swell of her breast and he swallowed with nervous anticipation. Marrissa finished unbuttoning her blouse and it fell open as she looked at him, neither of them speaking. She stepped closer to him, her lips approaching his and Jeremy felt his breath catch in his lungs as her breath blew against his lips.

Marrissa reached out with the tip of her tongue and she ran it along the fullness of his lower lip. He moaned and clenched his hands at his side to keep from touching her without breaking eye contact and her gaze was both intense and passionate. Marrissa then took his head between her hands and kissed him with the most tenderness of a kiss he could remember. He looked at her, feeling her smile against his lips.

Jeremy finally wrapped his arms around her, holding her as close as physically possible. Her hands moved from the sides of his face to his neck to play with the hair at the nape of his neck, her fingernails lightly grazing as they moved. They stood lost in each other until she pulled back slightly and kissed him again with an increasing intensity.

They continued to kiss and Jeremy felt the wall behind him and suddenly and without breaking the kiss, Marrissa reached for his shirt and yanked hard, tearing the buttons off. He began tearing at her clothing, their fingers fumbling as he looked deep into her eyes and then he switched positions so that she was now up against the wall. He grabbed her hips and took one breast in his mouth, sucking hard and deep, feeling her nipple tighten as he pulled her skirt down her hips with one hand and reached for her mound with the other. He felt the heat through her panties and she moaned, her head falling back against the wall.

Jeremy fumbled with the zipper on his pants and he yanked Marrissa's panties down her legs too. Her hands clenched at his shoulders as he entered her. She gritted her teeth and moaned out loud and long groans. Jeremy closed his eyes and he shouted out as they both orgasmed and when he looked at her she smiled happily and he kissed her and held her close.

"Finally," she whispered.

In the morning, Jeremy slipped out of the bed first he and went downstairs to cook chocolate chip pancakes while Marrissa and the children slept.