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Meet Cute(5)
Author: Helena Hunting

He’s right. I’m all she has. And now she’s all I have, too. I’m not sure which one of us is worse off for it.

Before I can leave the office, I speak with the cops. Felix was right to be the one to tell me. They wear apathetic expressions, so accustomed to delivering bad news in the form of death. I vomit into the wastebasket beside my desk when I find out the tractor trailer was a fuel truck that exploded on impact. Which is also the moment I break down.

I don’t remember cleaning myself up in the bathroom after the cops leave. I don’t remember getting into the elevator with Felix. I don’t remember getting into his car. When I arrive at the school, I tell Felix not to bother waiting. We’ll get an Uber or something. I don’t know how long this is going to take, and as much as Felix is my best friend, I need to do this with Emme on my own.

My entire body feels as if it’s encased in cement. It’s so hard to move, to think. The pain in my chest is a vicious, pervasive ache I can barely function around as I climb the stairs to the front doors.

I arrive at the beginning of lunch. I wait in a chair beside a sullen preteen boy who’s clearly gotten himself into trouble based on his hunched shoulders, while they retrieve Emme from the cafeteria.

“Daxton? What’re you doing here?” I look up to find my aunt Linda, my mother’s sister, standing behind the reception desk as grating bells ring through the building. Her questioning smile drops as she takes me in.

I’m sure my eyes are red rimmed and my expression is grim. I push up out of the chair with the half-destroyed armrests and run a heavy hand through my hair. “I need to see Emme.”

“Is everything okay?” Linda asks, suddenly on alert.

“No. It’s not.”

Before I can explain further, Emme’s excited voice twists my stomach into a tighter knot. “Dax?”

I turn to find her standing in the middle of the office. I wish I could bottle her happiness at this moment since I’m about to take it all away. Her wide smile lights up her face, dark eyes sparkling with excitement as she practically dances her way to me. She throws her arms around me. “Are you here to take me for lunch?”

It’s always something I tell her I’ll do when I see her at Sunday lunch, but work makes it difficult to follow through, especially since her school is a good twenty minutes from my office. I worry I’ve been a shit brother, too focused on my own life to be bothered to be part of hers outside of family events.

I hug her tightly, hating that I’m about to crush her world. The pain is brutally raw, scraping at the inside of my heart.

She pushes away, her smile full of anticipation. I want to preserve this innocence, keep her safe from the harsh realities of the world for a few more moments.

Her expression falls, sharp brown eyes taking me in. “What’s wrong?”

I can’t protect her from this. Nothing will soften this violent blow. “It’s about Mom and Dad.”

“What?” She looks around as if she expects them to appear.

My next words will change her entire life. “They were in a car accident.”

The color drains from her face. I wish we were somewhere else. Anywhere else. Somewhere without eyes on us. A room with walls and comfort and privacy.

She lifts her purple-painted nails to her lips. “Are they okay?”

My head feels heavy as I give it a slow shake. “I’m sorry. They’re gone, Emme.”

“Gone?” she echoes.

“They’re . . . dead. They died in the accident.” The words spit out like sharp gravel popping under tires.

Her hand drops to press against her chest, as if she’s trying to keep her heart from cracking open inside. “No.” She shakes her head furiously. “They dropped me off this morning. I had a dentist appointment. They were just here. They were just here!” Her voice rises, her fear giving way to a rush of anger as I reach out to comfort her.

“No!” She shoves me.

“Emme!” Aunt Linda’s eyes are wide with the same shock as my sister’s.

I’d forgotten she was here.

“I’m so sorry, Em.”

I grab her fists when she tries to pummel me, and I pull her against my chest, wrapping my arms around her. I want to shield her from the agony as the truth sets in and she crumples.

“No, Dax, no.” The fight leaves her and she sags against me, breaking into a fit of sobs, the sound full of anguish. “They were just here. They can’t be gone.”

And all I can do is tell her how sorry I am. Over and over.

chapter three



The funeral is much like pouring lemon juice on a fresh wound. Emme is a mess. I’m a mess. I act as her anchor to keep us both from drifting away in a stormy sea of raw emotions and we drag ourselves through the day together. We’ve shaken hundreds of hands, accepted as many hugs and condolences, but it in no way dispels the feeling that we’re floating, untethered in the unknown.

I’m slouched in a beanbag chair on the floor, staring at the glow-in-the-dark solar system on Emme’s ceiling, wondering how bad the pain will be before it starts to get better. Easier.

Emme rolls onto her side in her girlie double bed, the stuffed llama she grew out of years ago tucked under her chin. “Dax?”

Her bedside lamp casts shadows over her face, making her dark eyes look hollow. She’s been sleeping with the light on since Mom and Dad passed.

“What’s up, kiddo?”

Her fingers are at her mouth. Her nails are bitten ragged, the skin around them torn and bleeding. She’s so anxious and emotional, no wonder she doesn’t want to sleep alone.

“Mom had to reschedule my dentist appointment because it was at the same time as my presentation. That’s why they drove me to school.”

“Ah, kiddo, you can’t blame yourself for this.”

“But they might still be here. They might not be gone—” She breaks down again, as she’s done so many times over the past few days. She uses her stuffed llama’s feet to wipe her tears away. She looks so young, like the little girl whose scrapes I sometimes bandaged so many years ago. But I can’t cover this wound with a Band-Aid. It’s just too deep.

I want to tell her to try not to think about it, to just remember the good things, but Emme is like me in this regard. She can’t stop thinking about it, and not talking isn’t going to help her. I brush her hair away from her face—something I’ve seen my mother do a million times. I wish I had the right words and my mother’s soft hug to make it better.

“They could’ve stopped at a coffee shop on the way to the freeway, Em. If they’d been one minute either way, it could’ve been someone else and not them. It’s not your fault.”

“I just want them back. I want to wake up and I want them to be here and I want this to just be a really bad dream.”

“I know. Me, too.”

I let her cry, because I don’t know what else to do. When there are no more tears, she asks in a meek voice if I’ll stay until she falls asleep. I pull the beanbag chair next to her bed and settle in.

I wake up at midnight with a stiff back. Emme is fast asleep. Thank God. She’s been up the past couple of nights with bad dreams, and I stay with her until she falls asleep again. I tiptoe out of her room and down the hall, desperate not to disturb her.

I’m exhausted, but now that I’m awake, my brain is in motion. Tomorrow the lawyer is coming to read the will. He knew my dad personally, so the house call is out of respect for him and our family. There’s so much paperwork to go through, and my mind has been scattered. I decide it might be best to review some of it before Thomas arrives in the morning so that I’m somewhat prepared. Especially where Emme and custody are concerned.

Light seeps out from the crack at the bottom of my dad’s office door. I don’t remember leaving it on when I was in there earlier. Aunt Linda jumps when I push it open to peek inside. She’s been staying with us during the funeral arrangements, which has been helpful, sort of. She has a habit of coming in and taking over, which can be hard to handle.

“Oh! Daxton, you scared me. I didn’t realize you were still awake.” She puts the files she’s holding into the drawer of my dad’s desk.

“What’re you doing?”

“Just tidying up. There’s going to be a lot to sort out in the next few weeks.” Her smile is sympathetic. “It’s a big job, going through this house. Craig and Evelyn have been here since before you were born. Have you thought about how you’re going to manage that?”

“I guess it all depends on what the will says.” I assume the house is going to me or eventually to Emme once she’s old enough, but I won’t know for sure until tomorrow. So many things are up in the air until then.

“Of course. So much to consider. Well, I should be going to bed. We have an early morning what with reading the will and all.” She crosses the room, her hand resting on my shoulder. “You should get some sleep. You’ll need a clear head.”

She moves to the hall, and turns around again, as if she’s waiting for me to leave the office. I’m foggy and suddenly exhausted all over again by the thought of making sense of all this paperwork.

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