Our Finest Hour

The Time Series #1

Sometimes broken hearts need whiskey. Sometimes they need music. Other times, only a night with a stranger will soothe the pain. 

 

On the night Isaac and I met, we tried all three. 

 

When it was over, we went our separate ways. 

We planned to never see each other again, but I should really know by now that plans don’t work out the way they're supposed to. 

 

It has been four years since that night, and it’s a bizarre twist of fate that lands me in need of help only Isaac can give. 

 

I don’t want to be attracted to him, but I am. 

I don’t want my heart to skip a beat when it sees him, but it does. 

And I really don’t want him to look at me that way, but he won’t stop. 

 

Because things aren't like they were four years ago. And this time? We don’t have the option of parting ways when the sun comes up. 

CHAPTER ONE:

Aubrey

April fools.

I’m still waiting for Owen to yell the words.

How many seconds have passed now? 

Nine?

Ten?

Each one is excruciating. 

The longer we’re quiet, the clearer it all becomes. 

This isn’t a joke. He means what he said. 

Still, with a shred of hope left in my rapidly deflating heart, I ask, “Is this just a really bad April fool’s joke?” I despise how my voice shakes. 

His sigh is my answer, but he speaks anyway. “No, Aubrey. It’s bad timing. I’m sor—”

I pull my phone away from my ear and stare at it, the rest of his sorry floating out into the air. With my thumb I end the call and toss my phone on the bed beside me. I don’t need to hear his apology. 

Eyes squeezed tight, I try to numb myself. Despite my efforts, the feelings come. Horrible, terrible feelings. 

How could I have allowed this? The real question is, how could I have allowed this again? 

It’s my own fault. 

Ignoring Owen McNamera would’ve been the very best thing for me. And I tried. My guard was perfectly intact despite all his persistent visits to the overpriced juice shop where I work on campus. It was obvious he had no desire to drink his vegetables, but every day he came. It was his slow smile that broke down my walls. The way only one corner turned up the tiniest bit, and then, after a few moments, that one side would finally give rise to the other corner. That smile was special. Just for me. Like I was the chosen one. And it was what ultimately took down my walls. No cannons or torpedoes needed. Just something nice and kind, something masquerading as love.

My vision swirls until the water clouding my eyes spills over. How long have I been lying here? Long enough for the shadows on my bed to lengthen. With the back of my hand, I wipe away any remaining moisture from my cheeks. I will not cry anymore. 

All my emotions have been rounded up and locked down. My walls are rebuilt, even higher than before. 

It's a crappy way to live, but it's what I know. There's comfort there, even if it's not the kind of comfort that comes with happiness or ease. Sometimes comfort is really just doing what you've always done, simply because it's what you know. 

In this case, I’m a pro. 

I've been here before. I know how to watch someone I love walk away. 

 

“It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts,” I explain to Britt as she rubs her eyes. She mumbles something about accidentally looking too closely at the sun, and when she pulls her hands away from her face, I see the water pooling on the lower rims of her eyes. 

“Here,” I grab my backup pair of sunglasses from my backpack and hand them to her. 

She slides them on. “Thanks. I couldn’t find mine this morning.” 

I’m not shocked, considering the state she keeps her room in. But I don’t complain, because she keeps the rest of our place spotless.

 

“So what were you saying before I tried to stare down the sun?” She throws her backpack’s second strap over her other shoulder and starts toward our apartment. 

“Just that I don’t believe in ghosts, exactly.” Not the ghosts of people who’ve died, anyway. But the ghosts of those who are still living? I believe in those.

Britt gives me a look as we come to a stop at a light. She presses the walk button and folds her arms across her chest. For a moment she studies me. I’m waiting for her to ask just what it is I believe in, exactly. 

Three minutes ago, the very moment we stepped away from her last class, Britt asked me about ghosts. Her knitted brows and worried expression tell me her opinion on their existence. 

I’d like to poke a fork into the arm of the lab partner who told her the apartment building we live in is haunted.

“Well," Britt tucks one side of her blond bob behind an ear, “We don’t all have an Owen to protect us from the spirits of the undead.” 

I peer around, hoping to find something interesting to warrant a subject change. We’re standing in a cluster of pedestrians on a busy street corner, and most people are wearing headphones. If they aren’t, their necks are bent at an awkward angle, staring at their phones and using a finger to scroll. Nothing interesting to comment on. 

“Yes, I'm so lucky to have Owen," I murmur. The light changes, and we step off the curb. 

She walks with purpose, even though we’re headed to our apartment for an afternoon of absolutely nothing. Maybe some studying. Probably some bad TV. 

It’s not hard for me to keep up with Britt. I walk with purpose too. I always have. We pound the stairs to our second-floor apartment. Neither of us is out of breath, a welcome change from nine months ago when we first moved in. If Britt hadn’t been gasping for air each time she scrambled the stairs, she would’ve punched me for choosing the second story. 

When I promised my dad I’d get the safer second-level apartment, I didn’t know Britt  Pomeroy was going to answer my ad for a roommate. Nor did I know the wheezing, blond ball of sarcasm who knocked on my door was going to become the best friend I’ve ever had. What mattered was my dad and the promise I made to him. And promises? They mean something to me. 

When we get home, Britt takes out her laptop and navigates to Facebook. “Yesterday was April fools,” she says without looking up. She scrolls through posts, laughing at some, and tossing chip after chip into her mouth. “I totally forgot.” 

Not me.

I haven’t told Britt that Owen broke up with me. I can’t stand to say the words. I’m humiliated. Mortified I even dared to be happy. Worse, I’m sad. The kind of sadness I promised myself I’d never allow anyone make me feel again. Through fake smiles and an early bedtime, I hide it all from her. 

By the next afternoon, the misery has seeped through the cracks in my walled-off heart, and Britt notices. 

“I’ve never seen you like this." She leans over, plucks a mandarin orange from an old,  chipped fruit bowl on the counter, and tosses it in the air twice before her eyes come to rest on me. “What’s your deal?” 

"I don't know what you mean," I murmur. Obviously I know exactly what she means. Call it a reflexive action, like putting your arms up when a ball comes flying at your head. No need to analyze the hows and whys of my automatic denial. Thanks to the therapist I stopped seeing long ago, I already know. Fear of abandonment, she said. When I left my session that day I told my dad he should get a refund. The only gem in our entire session was when she said it's a natural reaction to what I've been through, that she would expect me to push everyone away. If you didn't push people away, I'd wonder if you were facing an inability to feel. And if that were the case, our visits would be very different.

I should have told my therapist not to worry, that I'm not facing an inability to feel. If anything, the opposite is my problem. I feel too much. I feel every part of my mother's departure like little stabs of pain all over my body. Most of the pain is concentrated in my heart. That's where the pinches and pulls hurt the most. Right in the center of my chest, where my breath stops in my throat and my chest tightens. Even after thirteen years, I can't get rid of what my mother left behind when she walked away. 

So, no. I don’t believe in the ghosts of the dead. But the ghosts of the living? Yeah, those are real.

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