So why in the hell had I passed up the opportunity to be with her again? My entire body pulsed with energy when I saw her standing in that ballroom. A blindfold hid most of her face, but I’d seen her picture before. She was easy to recognize because she’s such a beautiful woman.

It was a simple proposition. I could have brought her to the club after they’d served the cake at the party tonight, but I shut that down. Having another divine sexual experience was within my grasp, but I turned my back on it.

Same old Benjamin. Shielding himself. Taking the easy way out. Being a coward.

I could have fucking had her tonight, and I passed.

Because despite how desperately I’ve been seeking to feel something the last few months, it scared the shit out of me once it happened.

It means I’m not totally dead inside.

And that means I can hurt again.

“Goddamn it,” I mutter as I scrub my hands through my hair. No good choices.

April would be shaking me right about now if she were corporeal. I imagine her as a spirit somewhere but not in Heaven. I can’t believe in such a place because I can’t believe in a God who would do such an awful thing to our family.

I can almost understand April. She had not lived a complete life, but a full one. But what the fuck had Cassidy ever done to ever deserve to die that way? Why would God do that to a five-year-old?

Again, I can almost envision April shaking her head sadly at me for thinking these thoughts. She’d wonder where her eternal optimist had gone.

It’s easy for me to ignore these thoughts as April’s face dulls and fades more each day. Without the pictures out to remind me of how beautiful and sunny she was, I sometimes struggle to remember what she looked like. The memory of Cassidy’s face faded a bit faster, since I’d had less time with that precious angel.

And then something uniquely horrific hits me straight in the middle of my chest. A pain so intense that nausea sweeps through me. Groaning as I rub my breastbone, I try to put meaning onto what I’m feeling.

Guilt.

Pure, exquisitely sharp and brutally unforgiving.

Tears prick at my eyes for the first time in months. Not since my mom told me April and Cassidy had died in the accident.

They had put me in a medically induced coma so I could cope with my multiple injuries. They’d brought me out of it eight days later and my mom’s face was the first thing I saw as my eyes fluttered open. My mouth was dry, and I tried to talk but couldn’t.

“You have a trach,” were the first words out of her mouth as she leaned over the bed to hover in my field of vision. I could tell by the expression on her face she was holding onto some horrible, awful secret. “Don’t try to talk.”

My gaze moved left and right and there were two nurses checking me out. I hurt all over, but that’s not what caused me to want to slip back into unconsciousness.

It was the sickening expression on my mom’s face.

She grabbed my hand, gently of course, and leaned in even closer. “You’re going to be all right. You’ve been in a medically induced coma for eight days to help you cope with your injuries.”

It was impossible to talk, but I spoke with my eyes. I stared at my mom, imploring silently for her to tell me everything. Because I remembered April in the front passenger seat and Cassidy in her child safety seat in the rear when a pair of headlights crossed over into our lane of travel and came barreling at us.

My mom’s eyes filled with tears, and she gave a sad shake of her head. “I’m sorry, Benjamin. I’m so sorry. But April and Cassidy didn’t make it.”

I’m not sure if I’d been crying or not. I’d felt such painful emotion deep in my lower throat, but it couldn’t rise any higher than the trach. My eyes blurred, and warmth hit my cheeks. Pain spread through my chest, so severe I thought perhaps the stress of this news was killing me. It moved down into my stomach, and it seemed to curdle there.

My mouth opened and I gasped like a dying fish, but no sound came out.

I’d cried in the only way my broken body would let me, and it hurt so fucking much to do it so quietly. All the pain and grief stayed pushed down deep. By the time my trach was removed and I was released from the hospital almost three weeks later, I’d learned to keep it pushed down.

I haven’t shed a tear since.

The guilt within me continues to pulse, and I breathe through the pain.

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