Page 129 of We Were Once

He walks with purpose, taking the door from me. “‘It’s safe enough’ isn’t reassuring.”

We start up the stairs to the second floor. “I’m in my residency. I don’t make much to offset living in the city. This building isn’t cute like the one I had in New Haven, but it’s affordable. I’m paying my dues, but come June first, I’m done.”

“You finish in two weeks?”

Holding the handrail, I glance back when I detect a note of panic. “Yes.”

“What will you do? Where will you go?” We walk the rest of the way and arrive at my door.

I pull the key from my purse. After twisting it in the lock, I use my hip to bump the door open. “Sometimes, it sticks.”

Walking inside, I continue the conversation, “I’ve put my interest in for a position at City Medical, but I haven’t heard back.”

“What’s your backup plan?” He enters the apartment, reminding me of that first time back in college.

I shut the door and lean against it. He’s big in my apartment, taking up more space than I can afford with my couch and treadmill in here. “I don’t have one.”

His head whips around, his eyes wide. “What do you mean? You always have a plan. A to Z.”

“Not this time.” Spying the couch, I shuffle the pillow and blanket down to one end.

“Interesting.” He eyes the pile I leave behind and then the treadmill. “This is the same couch you had.”

“Yes, same everything. It all came from New Haven with me. It was in storage while I was in medical school. I wish Ruby still lived next door, but she lives uptown.”

“She’s doing well?”

“Well all around.” Tired of talking in the darkened room, I tuck the blackout curtain panels behind their hooks to let some sunlight in. Smiling, I bend down and rub my finger along the edge of the pots. “Did you guys miss me?”

It’s not until I do it that I remember I’m not alone. It’s not that care that I sound like a crazy plant lady. It’s that I remembered who it is behind me too late, and my heart rate spikes as my panic sets in.

Joshua.

With my back still to him, I stand upright in silence and try to make him out in the reflection of the window to no avail. When the quiet between us stretches, I finally steel myself and turn around. “Is that Dwayne Evans?”

“Who, that?” What am I doing? I’m scrambling, that’s what. Please don’t let him take him from me. I take a step back, each of my hands protectively covering a portion of the pot. “That’s Hemsworth and Frankie. You remember Frankie.” Yes, play it off. He’s eating it up, none the wiser.

“Yes, I remember Frankie. I can’t believe she’s alive.”

“Pfft.” I scoff in offense. “Of course, she’s alive. I’ve spent years giving her the good life. She and Hemsworth.” Guilt starts to fill me up.

He tilts his head to the side to see around me. I shift not so casually to protect my babies. “Who’s Hemsworth?” Damn his persistence.

There’s no use. I can’t lie. Not to him. I once made him a promise. Anyway, he’d recognize his damn plant anywhere. “Technically, Hemsworth is Dwayne Evans.” I turn around and carefully pick him up. As if I’m presenting Simba to the pride, I hold his bonsai in the air.

Unexpectedly, Joshua plops down on the couch. “I think I need to sit down.”

The ceramic pot is heavy, so I lower my arms. And since my dramatic interpretation didn’t win any awards, I set the pot on the coffee table in front of him. “He probably missed you.”

He smiles and tugs the pot closer, leaning in to give him a once-over. “He looks a little sad.”

Defensively, I pull the pot across the table, closer to where I’m sitting. “He’s not sad. He’s happy. He loves it here with Frankie and me. He gets long soaks in the sink, and sometimes, I bring them into the bathroom when I shower so they absorb the moisture. I mean, you should have seen the condition he was in at one stage. I never judged because we were all a mess back then—”

“Why do you call Dwayne Evans Hemsworth? Not that I’m knocking Chris Hemsworth or anything. The dude isn’t The Rock, but there are worse Hemsworths to be call—”

“He’s named after Liam Hemsworth, not Chris.”

His chin jerks back as he stares at the tree. “Well, no wonder he’s sad. I’d be sad too if I were named after second best.”

“Liam Hemsworth is a great actor,” I say, nodding my head like a maniac. “And very handsome.”

Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he takes a deep breath and then slowly exhales. He reaches forward and takes the pot in hand. “I’m going to forget that Dwayne Evans was ever renamed because I’m assuming you have your reasons—”

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