After a deep sigh, I nodded my acquiescence. It felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest, having exposed this dark secret about myself.

“Get yourself cleaned up, honey. You can do this.” She kissed my forehead and then was gone.

I began by cleaning my house. I sorted through the mail, picked up the dishes and trash, dusted the living room, and vacuumed and scrubbed both toilets. After working off some of my nervous energy, I took a long, leisurely shower.

I tied my silk robe loosely around myself while I dried my hair, and then took my time applying my makeup.

I had to hope that not only would Cohen accept my fear of love and inability to have children, but also forgive me for walking out on him. After a few more swipes of mascara and a quick comb of my thick, unruly waves, I was ready. There was no putting it off any longer.

I dressed simply in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and glanced in the mirror one last time. My eyes were wide with fear and I rolled my shoulders trying to relax.

I focused on my breathing with each step towards Cohen’s apartment. Tension coiled in my belly as I stood in front of his door. Before I could talk myself out of it, I made a fist and knocked. I had no clue what I would say…how I would begin the conversation, and prayed that the right words would come to me.

I continued waiting a few moments longer then rapped again, not sure if he heard me the first time. Or maybe he wasn’t home. I peeked over the ledge of the balcony to see if his Jeep was parked in the street. It was nowhere in sight, which didn’t mean much, considering that parking was insane in this neighborhood, and he’d often park several blocks away just to find a spot.

After waiting another minute, I gave up and walked back downstairs, hoping I wouldn’t lose my nerve when he got home.

Chapter 18

I’d fallen asleep on the couch, curled up with Sugar and Honey Bear against my chest. I liked how my cats could tell when I was down and did their part to cheer me up.

Unsure of the time, I reached for my phone and discovered it was three in the morning. It was a second before I realized what had woken me—Bob’s insistent barking from upstairs. That was strange. I’d never heard that dog bark. Not ever. And certainly not in the middle of the night. Why wasn’t Cohen quieting him down? He was bound to wake up the whole damn neighborhood if he kept that up. Unless he wasn’t home.

That thought left me unsettled. Cohen rarely stayed out late, even the times I’d known him to go out with friends. I swallowed down a sharp lump that had suddenly lodged itself in my throat. He was likely out on a call. I never really worried about him going out on calls, the pager made me more annoyed than anything else, but tonight, something felt different.

I slipped on my shoes and headed up to Cohen’s door. Bob’s barking became louder as I got closer. It was as though he was standing on the other side of the door, wanting to be let out. I pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to think. Had Cohen not been home all day to let the poor creature out? I knocked on the door and waited, but surely if Cohen was home, Bob wouldn’t be barking like he was. Of course, there was no answer.

My heart rate sped up while I considered what to do. I tried talking to Bob through the door, assuring him that everything would be okay, but even I wasn’t so sure. The night had taken on an eerie quality, and I made my way back downstairs, wanting to be safely inside my apartment and away from the ear-splitting barking that was adding to my stress levels.

I shucked off my shoes and begin pacing the length of my living room. I considered calling Ashlyn and Aiden, but really what could they do? I wondered if Aiden was good at picking locks. Or maybe I could just break down the door.

I picked up my cell phone again to check the time when I noticed a missed call from my landlord, from just a few minutes ago.

That was strange. Why would he call in the middle of the night? Unless someone in the neighborhood had called him about the dog barking his head off in one of his tenant’s places.

I dialed his number and waited, the sinking feeling that something was very wrong intensifying as it rang.

This night was strangely reminiscent of the first night I’d met Cohen—waking at three a.m. only to be terrified by a bat. Of course Cohen’s calming presence had affected me from that very first night—and I smirked as I remembered eating pancakes in the diner with him.

My landlord picked up on the fourth ring, “Yeah.”

“Hi, um, it’s Liz…you called me.”

“Oh, Liz, good—you’re up. Listen, I’m sorry to call so late, but there’s been an accident.”

My legs no longer worked properly and I fell backwards onto the couch, landing with a thump as my butt hit the cushion.

“It’s the tenant upstairs—Cohen. He’s been admitted to Mercy—he’s in surgery now. I didn’t realize he was a firefighter. Anyway, I’ve talked to his mother, and she reminded me that he has a dog that will need taking care of.” He cleared his throat. “Boo Boo, I think she said he was called.”

“Bob,” I corrected.

“Okay, so can you take care of him until they can get something else figured out?”

“Forget the damn dog—how’s Cohen?” The panic in my voice startled even me, as I pleaded silently that he was okay. I realized my landlord had no way of knowing the extent of our relationship.

“All I know is that he fell through the floor in a burning building, he was rushed to the hospital and is undergoing emergency surgery.”

And then he was back to talking about the dog, and making arrangements to give me a key to Cohen’s place, but I sagged with relief against the back of the couch. I turned the phone away from my ear and bit my fist, fighting back a cry. This was all too similar to the call I got about Paul all those years ago. But Cohen was still alive, and I prayed he was going to be okay. I repeated the mantra in my head.

“So can you… I mean take the dog out, feed it, stuff like that?”

“Sure.” I replied.

He said he’d be by with the key in a few minutes, so I quickly changed into jeans, and threw on Cohen’s Chicago Fire Department sweatshirt over my top.

As soon as Bob had been out to do his business, I hopped in my seldom-used car and I high-tailed it to the hospital to be there when Cohen woke up, praying the entire time that he would be okay.

***

After parking outside the ER, I jogged into the hospital reception area, boggled by all the signs I saw. I settled for approaching the information desk to inquire about Cohen’s whereabouts.

“Are you family?” a frowning middle-aged nurse asked me wearily.

“I’m his…” Friend? Neighbor? “Girlfriend.”

She frowned and shook her head. “Sorry, family only sweetheart. You’ll have to wait over there.” She pointed to a cheerless waiting area behind me, complete with upholstered chairs, carpeting and wallpaper all in the same annoyingly cheerful pastel pattern.

I stalked away into the waiting room, and sank into a chair to wait. A pain above my left eye throbbed and I pressed my palm to my temple, applying pressure to squelch the pain.

I was surprised that I didn’t see his mother Denise. I was sure she’d be a wreck. Unless there was a family-only waiting room. It probably had plush chairs, and magazines from this decade. And coffee. I was ready to kill someone for a cup of coffee.

I tuned out the squeak of shoes against the tile floors and the hum of mechanical equipment, along with beeping pagers that remind me of Cohen. I sat for an hour with my head in my heads, reflecting on all that could have been, and all I might have already lost, praying that Cohen would be okay and that he’d give me another chance.

I drifted in and out of consciousness as I played through various scenarios where Cohen was fine and I was completely forgiven, to Cohen crippled for life and angry and bitter towards me. I would probably deserve that treatment for walking out on him the way I did, but he didn’t deserve to be hurt. I just prayed that he’d recover from this accident. The rest I could take.

Hushed voices drifted in from the nearby hallway, and I mostly tuned them out until I heard the name Cohen.

I rushed out of the waiting room to find two doctors retreating into the distance, and a nurse standing in the middle of the hall with a file full of paperwork.

“Excuse me, but did I overhear you talking about Cohen? Can you tell me how he is?”

She surveyed me up and down, as if deciding whether she should respond. “Are you a relative of his?”

Were they all trained to ask that? “Close enough. I’m the only one who’s here for him right now.”

“He’s been in surgery for two hours. His mother has been contacted, but my understanding is that she’s trying to find someone to stay with the younger sibling so she can get here.”

“I can do it.” The words flew from my mouth before I could even process them.

The nurse looked at me quizzically. “Okay.” She narrowed her eyes at me then flipped through the file. “Other than that, we don’t know much. He did extensive damage to his shoulder, and is still in surgery.”

I nodded, and shouted “Thanks,” before scurrying away down the hall.

It was only by a sheer miracle that I found Cohen’s mother’s house. I was a terrible driver and horrid with directions since I rarely drove, but somehow divine intervention saw to it that I arrived. I stopped my Honda against the curb and approached the house. It was dark and chilly, but the porch light was on, which was promising.

I tapped softly on the door, aware that Grace was probably asleep. A second later, the door opened and a puffy-eyed Denise stood before me.

“Eliza?” she asked.

I nodded. “Hi. I heard what happened. Can I come in?”

Her eyes darted down to the Chicago Fire Department sweatshirt I was wearing, and a flash of recognition crossed her features. “Sure.” She held the door open, and I passed by her.

“Our landlord called to ask me to take care of Bob, which I did, by the way. And then I went to the hospital, but they wouldn’t tell me anything, because I’m not family.”

Her chin lifted at this and she crossed her arms. “Haven’t you done enough?”

Her tone was sharp, and completely unexpected. I’d just driven halfway across town in the middle of the night because I was worried sick about Cohen. “Excuse me?”

“Cohen, that’s what I’m talking about. Before the accident, he’d been distracted and moping, quite unlike himself the past few days. He said you’d stopped speaking to him suddenly and he didn’t understand why.”

I sunk to the sofa at the weight of her words. I had caused another accident. First Paul, now Cohen. The weight of all my mistakes rushed back to me at once, and my breathing hitched. No.

“You sniffed around him like a dog in heat, even after I warned you not to hurt him—now look what you went and did. Exactly what I said not to. I don’t know what happened between you two, but he didn’t deserve that.”

“You’re right.”

The blazing anger in her eyes softened just slightly.

“Go to the hospital. I’ll stay here with Grace.”

She nodded, her anger replaced with concern over seeing Cohen. “You’ll be okay to get Grace off to school?”

“Just go.”

Her eyes searched mine for understanding. This was a woman who’d been through her fair share of heartbreak, and she seemed to understand that sometimes even the best of us fuck up. At least I hoped that was what she was thinking. Her words had been harsh, but worst of all, they were true.

Denise nodded again and grabbed her purse from the table before disappearing out the door.

I curled into a ball on their couch and cried myself to sleep.

Chapter 19

A few hours later I got Grace off to school, assuring her that everything was fine, even though I hadn’t heard a peep from Denise. I swung by Cohen’s to let Bob out and feed him, and then headed to my place to shower and change. I got back to the hospital around ten and was determined to see Cohen today, despite the hospital’s strict family-only visiting policy. I cursed myself for not exchanging cell phone numbers with Denise. I called the only other person I could think of—my landlord, since he’d informed me of Cohen’s accident in the first place, and thankfully he knew Cohen’s hospital room number.

I found his room on the sixth floor, and lingered outside. I could see his mother through the small glass windowpane in the door and Cohen’s sleeping form in the hospital bed, institutional-grade white sheet tucked in around him. He looked pale and had plastic IV tubes connected to the back of his hand, but otherwise okay. My knees knocked together, and I braced myself against the wall. He was okay. He was going to be all right.

The door opened a second later and Denise stood before me, frowning.

“How is he?”

She closed his door before addressing me so as not to disturb his sleep. “He’ll recover. He shattered his shoulder falling through the floor and has a concussion and some bruised ribs, but otherwise, he’ll be all right.”

“Can I see him?”

She released a long slow sigh. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I waited for her to continue, to tell me that I should come back when he was awake… something, anything, but she just stood there stoically.

“I know you two had sort of a falling out, and I’m not sure he’d want you to see him like this. Thank you for taking care of Grace. And Boo Boo. I’ve got it covered from here.” She disappeared back into his hospital room before I could formulate a response.

I bit down on my lip hard enough to draw blood to keep from myself from crying, but it did little good. Tears of frustration silently streamed down my cheeks.

I heard Cohen’s muffled voice croak from inside the room. “Who was that?”

“It was nobody, dear. Nobody at all,” Denise answered matter-of-factly.

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