Home > Verity(2)

Author: Colleen Hoover

“What happened to you?” I ask.

He looks at me in the mirror. “What do you mean?”

“You said you’ve seen worse. What have you seen?”

He turns off the water and dries his hands, then faces me. “You actually want to know?”

I nod.

He tosses the paper towel into the trashcan and then shoves his hands in his pockets. His demeanor takes an even more sullen dive. He’s looking me in the eye, but there’s a disconnect between him and this moment. “I pulled my eight-year-old daughter’s body out of a lake five months ago.”

I suck in a rush of air and bring my hand to the base of my throat. It wasn’t gloom at all in his expression. It was despair. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper. And I am. Sorry about his daughter. Sorry for being curious.

“What about you?” he asks. He leans against the counter like this is a conversation he’s ready for. A conversation he’s been waiting for. Someone to come along and make his tragedies seem less tragic. It’s what you do when you’ve experienced the worst of the worst. You seek out people like you…people worse off than you…and you use them to make yourself feel better about the terrible things that have happened to you.

I swallow before I speak, because my tragedies are nothing compared to his. I think of the most recent one, embarrassed to speak it out loud because it seems so insignificant compared to his. “My mother died last week.”

He doesn’t react to my tragedy like I reacted to his. He doesn’t react at all, and I wonder if it’s because he was hoping mine was worse. It isn’t. He wins.

“How did she die?”

“Cancer. I’ve been caring for her in my apartment for the past year.” He’s the first person I’ve said that to out loud. I can feel my pulse throbbing in my wrist, so I clasp my other hand around it. “Today is the first time I’ve stepped outside in weeks.”

We stare at each other for a moment longer. I want to say something else, but I’ve never been involved in such a heavy conversation with a complete stranger before. I kind of want it to end, because where does the conversation even go from here?

It doesn’t. It just stops.

He faces the mirror again and looks at himself, pushing a strand of loose dark hair back in place. “I have a meeting I need to get to. You sure you’ll be okay?” He’s looking at my reflection in the mirror now.

“Yes. I’m alright.”

“Alright?” He turns, repeating the word like a question, as if being alright isn’t as reassuring to him as if I’d said I would be okay.

“I’ll be alright,” I repeat. “Thank you for the help.”

I want him to smile, but it doesn’t fit the moment. I’m curious what his smile would look like. Instead, he shrugs a little and says, “Alright, then.” He moves to unlock the door. He holds it open for me, but I don’t exit right away. Instead, I continue to watch him, not quite ready to face the world outside. I appreciate his kindness and want to say more, to thank him in some way, maybe over coffee or by returning his shirt to him. I find myself drawn to his altruism—a rarity these days. But it’s the flash of wedding ring on his left hand that propels me forward, out of the bathroom and coffee shop, onto the streets now buzzing with an even larger crowd.

An ambulance has arrived and is blocking traffic in both directions. I walk back toward the scene, wondering if I should give a statement. I wait near a cop who is jotting down other eyewitness accounts. They aren’t any different from mine, but I give them my statement and contact information. I’m not sure how much help my statement is since I didn’t actually see him get hit. I was merely close enough to hear it. Close enough to be painted like a Jackson Pollock canvas.

I look behind me and watch as Jeremy exits the coffee shop with a fresh coffee in his hand. He crosses the street, focused on wherever it is he’s going. His mind is somewhere else now, far away from me, probably on his wife and what he’ll say to her when he goes home missing a shirt.

I pull my phone out of my purse and look at the time. I still have fifteen minutes before my meeting with Corey and the editor from Pantem Press. My hands are shaking even worse now that the stranger is no longer here to distract me from my thoughts. Coffee may help. Morphine would definitely help, but hospice removed it all from my apartment last week when they came to retrieve their equipment after my mother passed. It’s a shame I was too shaken to remember to hide it. I could really use some right about now.

When Corey texted me last night to let me know about the meeting today, it was the first time I’d heard from him in months. I was sitting at my computer desk, staring down at an ant as it crawled across my big toe.

The ant was alone, fluttering left and right, up and down, searching for food or friends. He seemed confused by his solitude. Or maybe he was excited for his newfound freedom. I couldn’t help but wonder why he was alone. Ants usually travel with an army.

The fact that I was curious about the ant’s current situation was a clear sign I needed to leave my apartment. I was worried that, after being cooped up caring for my mother for so long, once I stepped out into the hallway I would be just as confused as that ant. Left, right, inside, outside, where are my friends, where is the food?

The ant crawled off my toe and onto the hardwood floor. He disappeared beneath the wall when Corey’s texts came through.

I was hoping when I drew a line in the sand months ago, he’d understand: since we no longer have sex, the most appropriate method of contact between a literary agent and his author is email.

His text read: Meet me tomorrow morning at nine at the Pantem Press building, floor 14. I think we might have an offer.

He didn’t even ask about my mom in the text. I wasn’t surprised. His lack of interest in anything other than his job and himself are the reasons we’re no longer together. His lack of concern made me feel unjustly irritated. He doesn’t owe me anything, but he could have at least acted like he cared.

I didn’t text him back at all last night. Instead, I set down my phone and stared at the crack at the base of my wall—the one the ant had disappeared into. I wondered if he would find other ants in the wall, or if he was a loner. Maybe he was like me and had an aversion to other ants.

It’s hard to say why I have such a deeply crippling aversion to other humans, but if I had to wager a bet, I’d say it’s a direct result of my own mother being terrified of me.

Terrified may be a strong word. But she certainly didn’t trust me as a child. She kept me fairly secluded from people outside of school because she was afraid of what I might be capable of during my many sleepwalking episodes. That paranoia bled into my adulthood, and by then, I was set in my ways. A loner. Very few friends and not much of a social life. Which is why this is the first morning I’ve left my apartment since weeks before she passed away.

I figured my first trip outside of my apartment would be somewhere I missed, like Central Park or a bookstore.

I certainly didn’t think I’d find myself here, standing in line in the lobby of a publishing house, desperately praying whatever this offer is will catch me up on my rent and I won’t be evicted. But here I am, one meeting away from either being homeless or receiving a job offer that will give me the means to look for a new apartment.

I look down and smooth out the white shirt Jeremy lent me in the bathroom across the street. I’m hoping I don’t look too ridiculous. Maybe there’s a chance I can pull it off, as if wearing men’s shirts twice my size is some cool new fashion statement.

“Nice shirt,” someone behind me says.

I turn at the sound of Jeremy’s voice, shocked to see him.

Is he following me?

It’s my turn in line, so I hand the security guard my driver’s license and then look at Jeremy, taking in the new shirt he’s wearing. “Do you keep spare shirts in your back pocket?” It hasn’t been that long since he gave me the one off his back.

“My hotel is a block away. Walked back to change.”

His hotel. That’s promising. If he’s staying in a hotel, maybe he doesn’t work here. And if he doesn’t work here, maybe he isn’t in the publishing industry. I’m not sure why I don’t want him to be in the publishing industry. I just have no idea who my meeting is with, and I’m hoping it has nothing to do with him after the morning we’ve already had. “Does that mean you don’t work in this building?”

He pulls out his identification and hands it to the security guard. “No, I don’t work here. I have a meeting on the fourteenth floor.”

Of course he does.

“So do I,” I say.

A fleeting smile appears on his mouth and disappears just as quickly, as if he remembered what happened across the street and realized it’s still too soon to not be affected. “What are the chances we’re heading to the same meeting?” He takes his identification back from the guard who points us in the direction of the elevators.

“I wouldn’t know,” I say. “I haven’t been told exactly why I’m here yet.” We walk onto the elevator, and he presses the button for the fourteenth floor. He faces me as he pulls his tie out of his pocket and begins to put it on.

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