Page 98 of We Were Once

I’m at a loss for what to say. Anything I want to voice shouldn’t be heard by strangers. Holding my hand up, I say, “Thanks,” like an idiot.

I hate the disappointment that comes over her when she looks down and nods. “You’re welcome.” She disappears into the room in front of her, leaving me standing here staring like she might magically reappear. Spending only a few minutes with her has me wanting to see her again. We could talk about life, what happened, and the pain sustained that a hospital can’t fix. Knowing the truth of how we played out, I struggle to stay mad.

“We’ll go over here, Mr. Evans.”

When I’m finally free to go, I leave the ER with the doors sliding closed behind me and stop on the rubber mat. I look back. The area Chloe works in can’t be seen from here, but by instinct, I take the chance, just in case, to steal one more glance.

Then I leave because again, what the fuck am I doing?

Chloe Fox is my past. The five months I spent with her were only a dream, and a small cell doesn’t offer much room to hold onto things that weren’t real. I’ve built a life without her. A good life. It may have cracks and empty spaces, but dwelling on her won’t make me whole again. I spent years with only memories to keep me warm under a threadbare blanket. Like all dreams, one day we wake up to reality. I woke up, and reality is where I’ve planted my feet.

I don’t get far when I hear my name being called down the congested sidewalk.

Stopping under the white and red awning, I turn back. Her hair has escaped the ponytail, and her white coat flaps open as she hurries to catch me.

I’ve become so aware of my heart and the emotions tearing through it. All of a sudden, it’s willing to forget the past like it didn’t happen. Anger that she didn’t fight harder for me. Pain that streaks through me when I let the memory of how we ended perform an encore.

Holding her hand out, she says, “I figure you’re probably going back to work, so just in case you don’t have any at the restaurant . . .”

Five latex finger protectors fall into my open palm, allowing disappointment to set in. This is it? This is the way we end, again? As heartless as before? “I have some.”

Discomfort works its way into her features, and she shakes her head just enough to make me think she feels the same disappointment. “All right. Just wanted to make sure.” She backs up and gazes straight into my eyes before turning away, as if one more look will tide her over.

Good luck with that. When it comes to her, it never worked for me.

But now I’m feeling a ridiculous rush to get her attention again. “Chloe?”

Her feet stop, a jolt hitting her shoulders. She turns around, and this time, she’s not the doctor she was inside. She’s the person I met many moons ago—lowered chin, shy eyes, her frame carrying emotional baggage she can’t hide. “Yes, Joshua—Josh?”

I regret that my words from so long ago continue to burden her, even if I understand it too well. In her best interest, I hate it for her. “It was good to see you again.”

“You too,” she replies with the smallest of smiles. Still standing there, we let awkwardness sneak in, both of us waiting for the other to . . . to what? Make small talk? Catch up like old friends? Pick up where we left off, be that with a fight or a reunion. My mind plays tricks on me like it has all along. Love isn’t real, I remind myself. If it were, Chloe would still be my girl.

I don’t know how long I stand there with the ghost of our past keeping me company. For someone who doesn’t put stock in feelings deeper than puddles, I’m starting to consider the concept that I might still have unresolved feelings for her.

Needing to get back, I finally drag my ass away but find myself taking the long way to stew in my own misfortune a little longer. Feelings and the sort aren’t usually something I put stock in, but that’s easy to say when you’re desensitized to so many things.

Clearly, I’m not numb to Chloe. Does she feel anything, or is she numb to me?

Pushing through the back door, I set these fucking feelings aside. I have other more prevalent concerns when I enter this kitchen.

I’ve been gone from the restaurant long enough for the dinner rush to end. Cleaning up isn’t a hardship after a long shift. I let some of the other guys go home to their families, girlfriends, or waiting beds. I don’t mind the chores.

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