After all the excitement, waiting a whole week for my next appointment with Speranza was out of the question. I called her office the next morning and spoke with Carol, insisting on one of the emergency appointment slots that afternoon. Carol agreed pleasantly enough and I made room in my schedule to swing by.
Sitting in the waiting room, I was struck by how many times I'd been there and how different I was each time. Like every visit brought me substantially closer to the person I was supposed to be. I heard Speranza's heels clicking down the hallway, heralding her approach. When I looked up, I saw she was smiling at me, and what I presumed was my folder was tucked under her arm.
"Emerson," she said brightly. "You look well today. What brings you here?"
"Nothing I want to announce publicly in the waiting room," I replied. I hadn't been sitting, of course, so I only had to walk across the room to greet her. We didn't shake hands, but I forced a smile back.
Her own smile transformed into more of a smirk at my attempted humor. "Well, then, let's go to the room, shall we?"
I stood across from the painting of the tree I liked so much and watched as she tucked herself into her usual chair. She crossed her legs, the folder and notebook spread across her lap, and held her pen above the paper. The action was so familiar by now that I actually found it kind of reassuring.
"A lot's happened since the last time I saw you," I said.
Speranza raised an appraising eyebrow. "I can tell. Where should we begin?"
The strap of my messenger bag was digging into my shoulder, but I didn't take it off. I just stared at my hands, twisting my fingers together as I thought. Since I'd seen Harper, I'd been doing a lot of that, but I hadn't come to any conclusions yet.
I cleared my throat. Best to start at the beginning, I supposed. "Well, first of all, Nico and I are—uh, well. A couple. Officially, I guess."
"We haven't talked about it, but we, uh. You know. Ahhhh..." I trailed off, blushing.
She watched me patiently and made a motion with her pen for me to continue.
God damn this woman. She was actually going to make me say it, wasn't she? I looked at the wall and said, "We slept together, so yeah."
Her smile was ridiculously bright for a woman who'd just been informed her patient had engaged in gay sex. "Congratulations, Emerson. That's a big accomplishment. I'm very proud of you."
I half-laughed, half-coughed at the trite sentiment. Usually I would have scorned it, but I was inclined to agree with her this time. It was pretty awesome.
When I didn't say anything else, she prompted me with, "And how do you feel about that?"
"Scared," I admitted honestly. "But also happy. It's intimidating sometimes, but he makes me feel good."
"That's wonderful," she said, scratching down notes. "I think it's perfectly normal to be a little scared sometimes. It's not overwhelming, is it?"
I shook my head. "Not at all."
"Excellent." Scritch, scritch, scritch. "Then if things are going well there, I suppose that's not the reason you requested an appointment today?"
"Er, no. I've been having—well, I don't really know how to explain it. I had a really bad panic attack the other night."
"Was it your first one?"
I didn't answer right away. If I thought about it, no, it wasn't my first. I could recall several times when I'd felt something similar. But this had definitely been the most intense.
"No," I said. "But it was pretty intense. I'm worried Dr. Demitrav will want to change my medication."
"What caused it?" she probed.
What a loaded question. I knew this session was strictly confidential, but something still held me back. Opening up about my innermost feelings was a little different from sharing protected identities and events.
"The whole Harper and Sheridan situation," I said instead, which was still kind of the truth. "I told Sheridan and she freaked out. It was pretty stressful."
"I see." Speranza's pen paused. She looked at me from beneath the soft wave of her dark hair, gentle and contemplative. "This isn't the most encouraging thing, so I don't normally like to say it, but in this case I think it's appropriate."
Putting down her pen and paper, she folded her hands in her lap and leaned forward to look me in the eye. It was a typical caring therapist pose. But it was Speranza, so it felt genuine.
"No matter how much medication you're on or how much therapy you go to, there will still be things that trigger symptoms, like anxiety attacks," she said. Her eyes were caring as she continued, "But that's not to say there's no hope. Think of it like this: instead of feeling like that all the time, you only feel like it once in a while in dire situations."
Well, when she put it like that, it made me feel significantly better.
"So I'm not getting worse?" I ventured hopefully.
She scooted her chair closer. "Absolutely not," she said fiercely. "Emerson, I have to tell you that you're one of my favorite patients. You're a great example of how medication and therapy work well together. I'm very happy to have you in my care."
More corny sentiments that would have been meaningless from anyone else. If she was just putting on an act for me, I didn't want to know. She was making me feel the best I had in weeks. I wanted to believe it was all sincere.
"You don't know how relieved I am to hear that," I told her.
Laughter. Picking up her pen again, Speranza crossed her legs the other way and got re-settled. "Oh, I think I do. You should see your face."
It was an immediate, self-conscious reaction to reach up and touch my face. My cheeks were stretched and my lips were curved. I was smiling.
"You're a miracle worker," I said, awed.
She winked at me. "Don't cut yourself short. You did most of the work yourself."
Deadlines were always killer. When I walked into the office, the noise was the first thing I noticed. With the panic of a time limit and Kincade practically breathing fire down our necks, the decibel level had risen to something closer to a carnival or a mass riot compared to its usual buzz. Keyboards clacking, printers whirring, frantic phone calls to clean up miscommunications about "they're" versus "their" versus "there".
All this, and I'd gotten here half an hour early, a time when the office was usually dead quiet. It was the eighth wonder of the world that the newspaper business hadn't spontaneously combusted yet.
I tip-toed through the chaos to my desk, where my "In" pile had grown exponentially larger than my "Out" pile overnight. However, I was still pleased to see that the top article of the staggering heap was from Legal News. It was a nice reminder of my recent accomplishment. More like a step closer to a normal life—something so far in my past I could barely even remember having one.
Of course, that was not considering the recent developments with Harper and Jordan.
But I wasn't going to think about that. I was going to distract myself so the worry didn't overwhelm me. Harper would make the correct decision. I just had to trust her…
Distracting myself. Right.
I picked up the top article and scanned the headline. My face immediately went pale and cold and I very nearly dropped the paper. As it was, my breath snagged in my throat and sent me into a coughing fit. Over the top of her own impressive stack of work, Sheridan sent me a concerned glance.
"You okay?" she asked.
"I just need some water," I croaked, setting the article back on my desk. I shuffled past her and Steve without making eye contact and shuffled into the break room. My personally labeled mug was in its usual place, white and pristine. I grabbed it, filled it with water, and drank greedily.
When I'd sufficiently calmed down—or at least bloated myself on tap water—I crept back to my desk and picked up the article again. Murder in NYC wasn't really big news. But an insider witness with the mob and a pending trial date? Shit.
Holding my breath, I scanned the article for any mention of me—or anyone else I knew. Only when I'd read it twice and had confirmed that it solely used vague terms like "witness" and "victim" and "potential, unspecified mob affiliation" did I relax. Even if this nebulous article was somehow matched to the Petrov incident, Jordan and I had different surnames. It would be harmless if I was listed as the editor in the byline.
I sank into my chair with a sigh and let myself breathe easily again. I rolled my shoulders, tilting my chair sideways to get a pen from the drawer. I had a deadline to meet, so I had to focus, no matter what. With the way my life was going lately, I wasn't eager to screw it up again.
I dragged myself home at close to nine that night. There was one missed call and two text messages from Nicolas asking where I was. Exhausted, I hung up my messenger bag and coat and debating whether I wanted to return his call or simply go across the hall.
The appeal of physical comfort and a half-formed plot to beg for authentic Italian food had me easily swayed. I deposited my scarf next to my other divestitures and wearily slumped toward the door. Hopefully Nicolas wouldn't mind if I was still in my work clothes, argyle socks and all.
I went across the hall and hesitated outside his door. It was eerily quiet. My hackles raised with a sense of premonition but I told myself I was just being paranoid. Jordan was in witness protection and Speranza had said it herself—I was better. There was no point in listening to my anxiety anymore.
I lifted my hand and knocked. Just twice, waiting for the sound of his footsteps. Instead, I heard a loud "Shhh!" followed by a female giggle.
What. The. Fuck.
"Nicolas?" I asked. There was no way he had a girl in there. Well, not for anything scandalous. As far as I knew Nicolas was gay, gay, gay.
The door opened a crack. Nicolas's eye appeared in the one inch opening. "Emerson?" he said in surprise.
"Um, yeah." I leaned to the side to try to peer in. "What're you doing in there?"
He shifted in front of the door. "Nothing. Can you come back in like ten minutes?"
I stared, taken aback. "Are you serious?"
"Er." Wincing, he opened the door a little wider. "You're right, that sounded weird. We'll just start it now." He looked over his shoulder and called, "Places, everyone!"
I stood on my tip-toes to try to peer over his shoulder. A futile effort. "What's going on?"
When Nicolas looked back at me, his smile was radiant. "Oh, just a little something for you." He stepped aside and swung the door open, revealing his crappy little apartment had been transformed into a Hawaiian-themed party. Plastic flowers hung like streamers from the ceiling and a fake coconut served as a punchbowl on his kitchen table. There was a cake and a colorful assortment of cookies next to it.
But more importantly, there were my friends, few as there were. Sheridan and Steve stood around the table, beaming at me. And behind them, loitering by the couch, stood my mom and dad, decked out in Hawaiian shirts.
I noticed with a sinking, stabbing feeling in my gut that there was no Harper.
I tried to shake it off. Went with humor instead. Turning to Nicolas, I tried on a smirk and said, "What's with the luau theme?"
He shrugged sheepishly. "All they had on sale. It was kind of a last minute. We just wanted to do something to say we're happy for you."
Mom raised her cup of punch to me and smiled. "And proud of you."
My heart skipped a beat. No matter how many times I heard that today, it seemed like it was still going to hit home. If only Harper could have been here, too.
Overcome with emotion, I sought out Nicolas's warm, solid hand and squeezed it. "I don't know what to say. I thought maybe you'd discovered my lifelong obsession with Hawaii," I joked weakly.
"You could start with 'thank you'," he said.
"Oh, he doesn't have to thank us," Mom cut in. She handed off her cup of punch to Dad, who looked at it dispassionately before downing it in one swig. Mom didn't care, though—she walked over to me and gave me a delicate, one-armed hug, complete with two pats on the back. It was our usual exchange, but it felt more meaningful than usual. I held onto her and returned the embrace with both arms.
"Verity," Dad admonished in his smoker's croak, "get off the poor boy. You know how he hates touchy-feely things."
"Oh, pish." Mom sniffled and withdrew, dabbing at her eye with her oversized flower-print sleeve.
"Really, it's okay," I said, surprised to find that it was the truth. I felt relaxed today, and no immediate Purell cleansing was necessary. I was comfortable enough to release Nicolas's hand and drop into one of the chairs gathered around. I poured myself a cup of coconut-y punch, adamantly not thinking about Harper. This was my celebration and I was determined to enjoy it. Dwelling wouldn't have any effect on her decision.
But I couldn't help it. It was at the forefront of my thoughts. I must have been pretty transparent, because Nicolas dropped into the chair next to mine as soon as my mom fluttered back to my dad's side.
"I tried to call her," he said, inching his fingers closer to mine across the tablecloth. His fingertips brushed the tops of my knuckles. "She didn't answer, but that doesn't mean anything."
I didn't have to ask who "she" was. With a sigh, I put my head down on the table, face pillowed in my arms, and stared at the coconut punch bowl.
"That's assuming she left," he said.
I glared at him. "You know she did."
"You're being—oh, hi, Sheridan."
I glanced up just as Sheridan sat on the edge of the table, beaming her silly head off. "Congrats again, Em!"
"Thanks," I said, dragging my mind away from the emotion-laden conversation with Nicolas. I looked past her at Steve, whom I had nearly forgotten was here. "Um," I said to her and Nicolas, voice barely above a whisper. "Why is Steve here? I mean, it used to be his job. Isn't that a little weird?"
"Oh." Sheridan turned pink and looked behind her. She seemed happy. Glowing, almost. "He's my date."
"I'm pretty sure work relationships are always a bad idea," I pointed out.
Nicolas cuffed me on the back of the head. "What I think Em meant to say was 'good for you'."
Sheridan tucked her bright hair behind her ears, grinning. "Thanks, I know. I thought it might not be the best idea, but then I remembered I've done way worse."
We shared a meaningful gaze that only made me think of Harper again.
Nicolas frowned, watching me with a keen eye. "I'm sure she would have called to say goodbye," he said.
I slumped. "Unless yesterday was goodbye."
"Hold on, who?" Sheridan said. She planted herself in the middle of the table and looked worriedly between us. "Who's leaving?"
"My sister," I said. "Maybe. It's complicated. She might be moving with Jordan."
Sheridan's upper lip curled. "No offense to your sister, but if she stays with that bastard after what he did…" She trailed off distastefully.
I froze. My stomach churned. All I could do was stare at Nicolas.
Sheridan gawked at me. "Emerson, you did tell her, didn't you?"
Catching on, Nicolas stared back at me. All my thoughts were reflected in his eyes. "No," he said slowly.
"Well, shit," Sheridan said. She launched herself off the table and whipped out her cell phone. "What's her number? We'll call and tell her right now."
Nicolas shook his head. "She won't pick up."
"How would you know?" Sheridan asked, flipping her phone open." Let's try anyway."
"Because she didn't earlier," Nicolas explained tiredly. "But go ahead and try. Em, can I see your phone?"
Numbly, I handed it over, sitting stock-still in my chair. Too lost to speak. Over by the couch, Mom and Dad were sipping fresh cups of punch and laughing at something. Dad was wearing his house slippers again. They didn't even know their oldest child might be leaving their lives indefinitely.
Because I hadn't had the courage to tell Harper about Jordan and Sheridan.
Sheridan took my phone and scrolled through my contacts until she found Harper. Then she hit call and held it up to her ear. "It's ringing."
My head snapped up. I looked at Nicolas with hope. "Did it do that before?"
"No," he said, bending to listen to the phone. "Went straight to voicemail. Do you think—"
"Hello?" Harper's voice answered, small and static.
I snatched the phone from Sheridan. "Harper?" I asked in a reedy, desperate tone.
"Emerson," she said, sniffling. "Oh, thank God. Please tell me I did the right thing."
My entire body was wound tight. Buzzing. I gripped the phone harder and said, "What did you do?"
"I stayed." She definitely sounded like she'd been crying. She snuffled again. "I just—we were talking, and he told me he'd slept with another woman—"
"He what?" I interrupted. I should have felt bad, but I was mostly relieved. Thank God he'd said something.
"Some woman he met while he was here. He said it was because he missed me—oh, it's all very complicated. I feel terrible, but how could I leave my life and my family to be with a man like that?"
"You couldn't," I said firmly. "Where are you?"
"The house," she said. "I'm packing."
"I thought you weren't going with him?"
I could hear Langley yelling in the background. Harper sighed. "I'm not, but I still have to move. I'm sorry, I can't really talk about it."
"No, no, it's fine. Hold on a second, okay?"
I covered the phone without waiting for a response. Nicolas and Sheridan were both watching me anxiously.
"Well?" Sheridan pressed.
"Change of plans," I announced to the room. Steve looked up from where he'd been chatting with my parents about sports. "Let's move this party to the park and meet Harper there."
"Oh, I was hoping we'd get to see Harper and Langley today," Mom said delightedly. "Is that her on the phone? Do tell her to bring a hat and gloves, dear, it's freezing outside!"
Dad reached down and tapped his house slippers. "That's why I wear these. And you tell me I'm crazy."
"I keep telling you, Edward, they're inappropriate. At least I got you out of your pajamas this time. When you go out in public, you have to keep in mind what kind of image you're presenting—"
I tuned out my parents' squabbling and uncovered the receiver again. "You still there?"
"Yes," Harper said. "Who else is there?"
"Mom and Dad. I, uh, got a promotion, so we're having kind of a party."
"Oh." She sounded taken aback. "Well, congratulations. Am I interrupting?"
"No! Um, I mean, no. I was wondering, do you want to meet at that park by your house? We could bring the cake and stuff and have it there where Langley could run around."
"Maybe no cake," she said, an echo of her usual humor returning. "You know how Langley gets when she has sugar. But sure, that sounds great. We can be there in twenty."
"Great," I said, giving the thumbs up to the rest of the room. Nicolas smiled at me and started wrapping up the cake while Sheridan went to hang off Steve's arm. "We'll see you there."
"Okay. Thanks, Emerson. See you then."
"No problem. And Harper," I added gently. "You did the right thing."
Harper was quiet so long that I thought she'd hung up. But then, softly, almost uncertainly, she said, "Thank you."
"She's a cute kid," Nicolas said, eyes focused on where Harper was holding Langley up to the monkey bars. The wind whipped his wavy black hair away from his forehead and sent his loose shirt fluttering against his frame. I squinted at him, studying the carefree lines of his face and the curve of his lips, and smiled at how happy he looked.
"Harper's a good mom." I turned away from him so I could watch my sister too. She had on a hat and scarf to fight off the bite of the early November air. Langley had started off with matching pink mittens but at some point had thrown them into the woodchips.
Nicolas put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me into the warmth of his side. "I think she'll be okay," he said, gesturing to where Harper was cheering Langley along. Then he pointed to Sheridan, who was sitting on a park bench arm in arm with Steve. "Don't know if I can say the same for her, though. That girl goes through more boyfriends than hairstyles."
I smirked. "I wouldn't tell her that. She'll beat you with her feminist guile. Sexual freedom, you know."
At the word "sexual", Nicolas's ears went pink. I smirked harder.
"Shut up," he said, bumping my shoulder.
"I didn't say anything!"
"You were thinking it." He ducked down to kiss the top of my head.
"Yes, I was," I agreed, pleased. I would have said more, but Langley was bolting toward us with alarming speed. She stopped herself by clinging to my pant leg, looking up at me with her hair in her big brown eyes.
"Come swing!" she said.
"Langley, I don't think Uncle Em wants to," Nicolas started, but I held up my hand to stop him.
I smiled down at Langley and said, "Okay. We'll be with you in a second."
"Great!" Langley released my leg from her sticky-fingered grasp and tore off in the direction of my Mom and Dad, presumably to rope them into swinging, too. Even though there were only four swings.
When I looked back at Nicolas, he was staring at me with something akin to awe. Something warm and steady. Something like love.
I felt myself blushing. "What are you looking at?" I asked.
"You," he said, touching my cheek with his gloved hand. Winter gloves, not latex. "You're amazing."
"Oh, whatever," I said. I brushed away his hand but couldn't deny that I was pleased. I knew I was looking at him the exact same way.
"Whatever yourself. You ready to go swing, Uncle Em?"
I grimaced and burrowed into my scarf, wrapping it double around my neck for added warmth. When I spoke, my glasses fogged. "Not really."
"The best things always happen when you're unprepared," he noted, never taking his eyes from me.
I couldn't agree more. Nicolas took me by the bare hand to tug me over to the swings, and I let him.
Notes: So, uh! Thank you for reading. Tbh I started writing this when I was 17 and didn't finish it until I was 25, so you can see a lot of shifts in the storytelling and stuff. And plot lines coming out of nowhere, lol. I hope there are still some people out there who enjoy it!