Chapter 36

Out Of The Woods

“Daddy, did you see how fast I was? Did you see me?”

“I saw you, you did so well! Ivy and I were cheering for you all the time.”

Hailey had placed second in her first track run. I worked as a coach for the track & field teams now, so Samuel had been sitting with Ivy while she ran.

We went to the pier, all four of us together, and got ice cream. Hailey was excitedly telling Samuel all about her track times.

It made my heart swell, not so much because she seemed to have a talent for running, but because I hadn’t seen her so proud of herself before, and I was happy that Samuel was here to experience it too. I didn’t want him to miss too many of the girls’ milestones just because we were no longer together.

The girls ran off to try the ferris wheel and we were alone. Samuel awkwardly scooted over to where Hailey had been sitting. We rarely spent any time together. Ever since that uncomfortable Winterfest a year and a half ago, we had mostly kept to administrative texts and taking turns picking up the girls from kindergarten.

Finally, Samuel cleared his throat.

“So, uh. You look… well.”

I couldn’t help but smile. I was sweaty and Ivy had wiped some ice cream on my sleeve, but I did feel better than I had in a long time.

“Thanks. You too. The beard suits you.”

We talked for a while, carefully sticking to safe subjects. I told him about Jessica getting into fashion design, how she was planning to move to Del Sol Valley with her boyfriend. Samuel updated me on Daria and Griffin who just found out they were expecting a baby.

Then, his expression turned serious.

“Do you ever… have you talked to Charlie?”

I realised that it was the first time either of us had spoken his name for almost two years.

“No. I wouldn’t pick up if he called, but he hasn’t tried.”

“He actually called me when he heard about the divorce. But we didn’t speak for long. I may have said that I would personally castrate him without anaesthesia if he ever contacted you again.”

“Samuel -“

“With a dull scalpel. I was pretty angry at the time, and he said some really cruel things, and… I just don’t know who he is anymore. I haven’t heard from him since.”

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to give him a hug, but I couldn’t imagine Samuel would ever want me to touch him again.

“Samuel, I’m really sorry that I screwed things up for everyone. Not just us, but you and Charlie too.”

Samuel sighed and attempted to smile.

“Hey, he wasn’t exactly blameless. He was supposed to be my brother. He should never have – anyways, you said you wanted to discuss the girls’ living arrangement? Are you not happy with the split?”

I was grateful for the change of subject.

“I am, but I’ve been asked to volunteer to coach the track & field team for seniors. And I would like to accept, but it’s in the evenings and I’d need you to have the girls a bit more often. I know your schedule can be difficult, so I only want to do it if you can find the time.”

He looked relieved.

“Sure, we can figure something out. For a moment I wondered if you, you know… Found someone.”

“Oh, no. It’s nothing like that. I just figured I should be doing something worthwhile with my time now that the girls are getting older, instead of being stuck in the house all the time.”

“You do know that was always an option, right?”

“Sorry, Samuel, I don’t mean to sound like I was a prisoner. It was my own choice to stay at home, I know. And you did try to talk me out of it.”

“Maybe I should have tried harder.”

“Samuel, don’t. I doubt you could have convinced me back then. I was pretty out of reach, I think. You were right, there was nothing you could have said that would have made me listen.”

We were both quiet. I wanted to ask him if he was seeing someone, ask why he cared if I was. But suddenly the girls were back and begged for more ice cream and the moment had passed.

In the fall, Hailey started school which meant less flexibility. She needed help with homework, she needed to have her school things with her whether she stayed with me or Samuel at night, and he struggled to make his work hours fit her new schedule. It was a hassle.

To make it all easier, we agreed that she should stay with me on weekdays until she’d settled in, just to get some stability.

Samuel was frustrated. He missed her, and Hailey was jealous that Ivy still got to visit daddy on weeknights and she didn’t. It was a few weeks of absolute chaos, and everyone was miserable.

Samuel had just dropped off Ivy and was about to leave when I stopped him.
“Samuel, before you go – this isn’t working. Hailey cries at night when Ivy isn’t there, and she misses you.”

“I know. It’s not really working for me either. I don’t like treating them so differently.”

“I have an idea, just as a temporary solution, but… it’s a bit unusual, I guess.”

“Unusual?

“I was thinking you could just come here after work. I would pick up the girls, take them home, make dinner. You could eat with us whenever you can make it, help Hailey with homework, hang out a bit, maybe put them to bed. You’d still be able to spend time alone with them when I coach in the evenings, and your work schedule would matter less. There would be some sort of routine. And you’d see them more, both of them.”

“Wait… You’d have me come by every day and make me dinner?”

“… You’re right, it’s too weird. It was just a suggestion.”

“No, I mean, what’s the catch? I am not turning down your cooking and seeing the girls every day for a while.”

“No catch. I just want everyone to be happy.”

He looked at me thoughtfully.

“You really do, don’t you? Well, no harm in trying it, I guess.”

“See you for dinner tomorrow then?”

“Sounds great.”

The new arrangement worked surprisingly well. I had never seen Samuel so relaxed. Even when he had a long shift, he was all smiles when he walked through the door and Hailey and Ivy were on him immediately.

I found myself looking forward to that moment every day, seeing him laugh as he hugged and kissed the girls, teased them, asked them about their day. They all looked so happy.

He would help Hailey with homework while I cooked dinner for all of us. He always managed to make it fun and interesting for her, and he even made sure Ivy felt included.

I loved listening to him patiently explain things to them. It made me happy to see. I might have done everything else wrong, but at least I picked an amazing father for my children.

I was almost sad that I had to scarf down my food before leaving them to go coach the senior team. I would rather have spent the evening with them, but I also knew it was good for me to get out, and I wanted to give Samuel time with the girls alone, without me hovering in the background.

“Hey, I’m back. And none of them broke a hip, so no extra work for your colleagues tomorrow.”

“Hey. The girls are asleep. I must admit, I wouldn’t have expected you to get into volunteering.”

I plopped down at the other end of the couch.

“Me neither. Jessica teases me relentlessly. But I just needed to feel useful, you know? I mean, outside of just working and being a mom. Do something nice for other people, something selfless for once. I’ve been stuck in my head for so long and this keeps me grounded.”

“That’s good. I should probably find a hobby myself. Just never had the time between the girls and residency and…”

“And your hysterical wife?”

“Come on, Freya! I would never call you hysterical.”

I laughed.

“Only because it’s medically inaccurate! I was the worst and I know it. I should have gone to therapy when I was like, twelve or something.”

He shrugged, smiling.

“Better late than never? And therapy is no joke. I had a few sessions myself to deal with the divorce and it was hard work.”

“Yeah? Do you want to talk about it? It’s fine if you don’t, and I probably wouldn’t enjoy hearing what you had to say about me, but…”

He smiled.

“I’ll skip the parts about you. It wasn’t much I haven’t said to your face anyway. But I ended up talking a lot about my family. I always felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to do better than Charlie, to never fuck up in any way. You know, to spare our parents, try to make up for all the grief he was causing them. It made me rethink a lot of things, and it made me very aware of how I parent Ivy and Hailey so I don’t end up creating some sort of unhealthy dynamic between them.”

“That’s good. I don’t want them to end up fighting each other.”

Samuel sent me a mischievous grin.

“Or stealing each other’s husbands.”

“Ouch.”

“Sorry. I went too far.”

“No, it’s OK. Also, you don’t know, they could be stealing each other’s wives!”

He laughed.

“True. Shame on me for assuming.”

“For what it’s worth, I still wish I had tried therapy sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have hurt you like that.”

“Freya, you would have hurt me sooner or later. I fell in love with you when we were fifteen, and you never did.”

“But if I hadn’t been such a mess, we wouldn’t have gotten married in the first place, and then I wouldn’t have…”

“And then I wouldn’t have my daughters. Would you take that away from me?”

“Not when you put it like that, no.”

“Good. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow.”

I followed him to the door and he turned to smile at me as I watched him walk to the car. It almost felt like I had my old friend back.

Everything was going great for a while. Samuel was happy, the girls were happy. We settled into a routine.

Samuel would often hang out for a bit in the evenings. We would talk about our day during dinner, but he would wait until the girls were asleep if he needed to vent after a rough day or worried about one of his patients.

Even if the guilt of how I had treated him would never go away, I was happy to be allowed to be there for him now. I knew I hadn’t done a very good job of that before, and if he was giving me a second chance to be his friend, I wanted to do better.

I also really enjoyed his company, almost feeling a bit sad when he had to leave at night.

That evening was really no different from so many others. Not at first. He came in and got swarmed by the girls as usual. He stomped around and made dinosaur noises. I couldn’t help but laugh with them.

We were still joking and laughing during dinner, and I said something funny.

And Samuel sent me a brilliant smile, and my heart skipped a beat and somehow everything changed.

He continued eating and talking to the girls like nothing had happened, like the entire world hadn’t just been completely shattered and rebuilt a million times in the instant of that smile as I struggled to breathe normally, desperately wishing and fearing that he would look at me again.

I was a mess during dinner, but thankfully I had coaching to do that night, so I quickly said goodbye and almost fled out the door, into the cool autumn breeze.

Over the next weeks that first spark turned into a roaring flame and I had no idea what to do with myself. What was happening? Was this what being in love felt like? It was horrible, and yet I didn’t really want it to stop.

Samuel was constantly on my mind, but not like back in university when I just wanted him to notice me. Now, I both obsessed about making him happy and feared that he would realise how I felt.

I lived for his laugh, died a little when he left, cried myself to sleep at night.

Whenever we were together, I found myself stealing glances at him. I tried to act normal, but every time he looked away I was staring at him, at the lines of his face, his body, his hands. Why had I never seen him before? I had always found him attractive, but he wasn’t just sexy as fuck, he was so much more. He was strong and brilliant, a great father. Kind. Funny.

Was this how Samuel had felt all those years? Suffering in silence, painfully in love with someone he could never quite reach?

When he left in the evenings, I would take out one of our old wedding photos and stare at it for hours, imagining what it would be like if we had never gotten divorced. If only I had never fucked up, never hurt him so deeply. If only I had loved him the way he deserved all along. If only…

How had he survived this? How did anyone survive this?

How could I ever have done this to him?

I knew I was torturing myself, but I couldn’t stop.

It was getting colder, the leaves would be turning brown soon. I had started staying out a bit later after coaching, just so I wouldn’t have to face Samuel. Being near him was almost painful, and I didn’t trust myself not to reveal everything, throw myself at him and beg for forgiveness. But sooner or later I had to go home.

Samuel had to leave as soon as I returned that evening, and I immediately took out the wedding picture as usual and put it on the table in front of me.

I had looked at it so many times in the last few months and I still didn’t recognise the two people staring back at me from the photo. It felt like a dream. I could barely remember half the wedding, I had been too anxious. Had I even been happy? Had Samuel been happy when we said the wows? Had he believed in us, believed in me?

I looked at the smile in his eyes, his smooth face. How had it only been seven years since this? We looked so painfully young. So stupid. The whole thing had been a fairytale, dreamt up in our minds with no basis in reality. Samuel hadn’t known me at all, I hadn’t even know myself. And I certainly hadn’t known or even cared who he really was.

And now it was too late. I saw the future stretch out in front of me, years and years of…

“Freya?”

I spun around. I hadn’t even heard the door.

“Sorry, I forgot my phone… Why are you looking at that?”

I scrambled to my feet.

“Oh! It’s nothing. I was just…”

My voice faltered.

He hesitated for a second. Then he came closer, and it felt like he was looking right through me. I was frozen in place, had no idea what to say.

“I’ve seen the way you look at me, you know. At first I thought I was imagining things. I figured it couldn’t possibly mean anything. After all, you said you never loved me… But you also never looked at me like this before.”

He put his arms around me.

“Freya?”

I saw the question in his eyes and felt the solidity of his body against mine.

Unlike the photo, this Samuel was real, not fiction. And I loved him.

The first kiss was brief, tentative. My nose bumped into his and I felt his lips form a smile against mine. We began kissing with an intensity that had never been there before until we both had to stop for breath.

Fuck,” he mumbled. “I am probably the biggest idiot who ever lived, but fuck if I don’t want you back.”

Tears started running down my cheeks and Samuel held me close.

“I’m so, so sorry”, I whispered.

“I know.”

He held me until I stopped crying. I wanted to burrow into his chest and never leave.

“Freya, my eyes. Look into my eyes. There. Tell me, what do you want?”

His eyes were almost black in the low light and it felt like I was standing on the edge of the edge, the abyss only a heartbeat away.

There’s a way out of everything, but there’s rarely a way back.

“You, Samuel. I want you back. I love you.”

His lips met mine again and I surrendered myself to him completely.

Chapter 35

This Is Me Trying

When I found the rose, I knew that Samuel had been there. I could imagine all too well what he’d seen.

I never meant for it to happen like this. I knew that what I did was the end of my marriage, knew that I was giving up on it the moment I kissed Charlie back instead of pushing him away, but I obviously hadn’t meant for Samuel to witness any of it.

I should have given up a long time ago. Then none of this would have happened.

It took two days before Samuel came home. The girls were asleep by the time he walked into the house after work, almost as if he hadn’t been gone at all.

I fully expected him to yell at me, to be furious. It would only have been fair. But he never even raised his voice. I would have preferred if he did, if he’d punished me somehow.

Instead, his voice was calm. Resigned.

“Freya, we’re done. I’m done. I’ve filed for divorce.”

“Samuel, I -“

“Shut up. Just shut up. I am no longer interested in anything you have to say. For once, just listen to me.”

I was taken aback. For once? It felt like I had done nothing but listen to Samuel’s lectures throughout our marriage. I was about to protest, but he continued.

“It’s finally clear to me that you don’t love me. Maybe you never did. You’ve told me again and again that I don’t care, and nothing I said or did could ever convince you. It was never enough, because nothing is ever enough for you. You just take.”

“The way I see it, there are two options. Either you don’t fully realise what you’ve done, or you did it on purpose. You’ve ruined our marriage, you’ve robbed me of any chance I ever had of having any kind of relationship with my brother, and whatever happens, you will have hurt Hailey and Ivy.”

“If you did this without realising the consequences, I worry about you. If you did this fully realising the consequences, I worry about you even more. But either way, I’m done with you.”

“We should never have been together in the first place, never have gotten married. I’m merely correcting a mistake.”

“I’ll come by tomorrow after work and spend some time with my daughters. Meanwhile, consider getting help.”

“No, wait, that’s an order. Get help, Freya, get your shit together. For my children’s sake.”

“Or I will have to keep them safe from you.”

Then he left. Somehow, the quiet click from the door closing behind him was louder than if he had slammed it in my face.

I had finally seen a Samuel that no longer cared about me, and it chilled me to the bone.

I called Jessica after he left, told her everything. She was my best friend, and I halfway hoped that she could somehow help me figure out what to do. But when I stopped explaining, she was quiet for a long time.

“Freya, if you’re calling so I can make you feel better about what you did, you have the wrong number, honey. Because that was a really, really shitty thing to do, and I can’t even begin to imagine what Samuel must be feeling. And what saddens me is that I’m not even that surprised.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I mean that you’re incredibly selfish, Freya. I’m sorry, but this has been a long time coming. You are one of the luckiest people I know. I mean, I know your parents had some problems when you were little, but have you looked at them lately? They’re doing great, they’ve moved on. But you haven’t. You’re gorgeous and privileged and your parents love you. Samuel loves you. Well, probably not anymore, but he clearly did, everyone could see that. And all you ever did was complain and take things for granted and feel sorry for yourself. And now you pull this shit, and I’m just… Frankly, I’m disappointed. I was hoping you’d get over it at some point, mature a little, start seeing the big picture.”

I was completely stunned. Hurt. Angry.

“Jessica! I didn’t call you to be attacked like this, I thought you were my friend…”

“I am your friend, Freya! Or are you going to doubt my word as well? But I am also done trying to coddle you, and I’m telling you this because I care about you. You need to get your head out of your ass and think about someone but yourself, because you’ve already lost Samuel and I am honestly not sure I’m going to last if you keep this up either.”

I spent all night on the couch. I couldn’t make myself go back to the bedroom, not after Charlie. I felt like burning the bed, maybe burning the entire house down. Start over from the ashes.

I didn’t sleep.

People had yelled at me for most of my life. Coaches, teammates, teachers, my parents, all of them telling me to do better, make fewer mistakes. Be more perfect. Samuel had yelled at me. And now Jessica. And I had been listening, hadn’t I? Hadn’t I always tried to correct the mistakes they all pointed out?

Or had I just stubbornly kept doing whatever I wanted? Because I knew better?

Shit. Maybe I hadn’t been listening.

The next couple of weeks were strange, to say the least. Slowly, we settled into a routine. Samuel would arrive after work like before. He had picked up a few personal things and was looking for an apartment. For now, he stayed in a hotel somewhere.

He wouldn’t speak to me unless it involved the girls or the proceedings of the divorce. It was understandable, but still slightly surreal to see him smiling and playing with them like before, while he ignored me completely or gave me short, disinterested answers if I tried to talk to him.

If he managed to arrive early enough, he’d take over the task of getting them ready for bed, but if he had a late shift and the girls were already asleep when he arrived, he’d spend a few minutes in their room, tucking them in and just sitting there for a while before leaving.

I was hurting, but not the way I had expected. I only cried a little when I took down all our wedding pictures. They felt like lies now.

The guilt was crippling, but I thought I’d be sadder about my marriage being over. Instead, it was almost a relief.

I found that I could accept losing Samuel. Maybe he was right when he said that I never really loved him. Either way, I no longer worried about him leaving me, about screwing everything up. That ship had sailed.

But there was still Hailey and Ivy. Samuel had made it pretty clear that I had to get my shit together or there would be consequences – and the thought of losing my girls made the anxiety flood back in, strangled me. I had to do something.

He was sitting in their bedroom as usual, watching them sleep. I opened the door quietly.

“Samuel?”

He didn’t look up.

“What do you want?”

“Sorry, just… I wanted to ask if you mind if I start telling people… what happened. Like, my parents and such.”

“Why would I care?”

“I don’t know… maybe you’d be embarrassed or something.”

He just shrugged.

“Tell people whatever you want. You’re the one who should be embarrassed.”

As if I wasn’t. As if I didn’t think about it every day, about how stupid I had been. I still couldn’t sleep in the bedroom. I tried to summon up some anger at his remark, but all I felt was shame. And worry.

But this time I was worrying about Samuel.

He was as tired as always, but it felt like the fight had gone out of him. I had always assumed that he was frustrated with me because I wasn’t good enough, because I annoyed him with my constant insecurity and neediness, but I was starting to wonder if he’d just been worried about me.

I wanted to ask him if he was OK, but that would be ridiculous. Of course he wasn’t OK. And it was my fault. I no longer had any right to ask him how he felt about anything.

I called both of my parents a few days later, told them about the divorce. Admitted that I had cheated, but didn’t mention Charlie. My mother mostly tried to convince me that it wasn’t all my fault, that a happy marriage took two people. Of course she would say that, she cheated on her first husband too.

My father simply asked if there was anything he could do for me, but I said no. After all, no one could undo what I had done. He told me that he was sorry to hear about the divorce, that he loved me no matter what. He also asked if I was seeing a therapist, someone to talk me through it all.

“You should really give it a try, monkey.”

It always made me smile that he still insisted on using my old nickname.

“I was actually going to ask you for some therapy tips, dad. I’m not sure where to start, or who to call, and I’m still getting used to the thought of being divorced. But I guess it’s karma, right? Remember how much shit I gave you and mom for not making things work?”

He laughed.

“Oh, you were harsh. Especially when you were a teenager. But I always felt like I probably deserved it.”

“You didn’t deserve it, dad. I get it now, parenting is hard. Relationships are hard. No one is perfect.”

“Middle ground, monkey. It’s not a matter of being either perfect or a failure. We’re all doing the best we can. You, me, your mom. Knowing Samuel, he’s definitely doing his best at all times. And hopefully, before you know it, you two will be getting along just fine like me and your mom does. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be friends again one day. Remember that old musical?
It’s things like using force together,
Shouting till you’re hoarse together,
Getting a divorce together,
That make perfect relationships.

“Didn’t that woman also sing that she’d been married three or four times?”

He laughed again.

“Like I said, middle ground. It took me a long time to figure out, but perfection is not the goal. Progress is.”

My father gave me a name and a number, someone his own therapist had recommended here in Copperdale. I wondered how long he’d had that number ready, if he’d been planning to suggest it for a while.

I was on my way to bed that night when I heard a knock on the front door.

“Samuel? What are you doing here?”

He was swaying and looked dangerously close to falling over.

“Why, Freya? Why did you do it? Please tell me. Was I not good enough? Was that it?”

I stepped back to let him in and he stumbled almost immediately. I barely managed to catch him.

“How could you? And Charlie? That fucking…”

“Samuel, what the hell? Please tell me you didn’t drive here like this.”

“No, I walked! Because I am the responsible one!”

He was slurring his words, but the bitterness was unmistakable.

Somehow I managed to drag him to the living room and he collapsed on the couch.

“Why, Freya?”, he mumbled.

Before I could find an answer, he was snoring softly, tears drying on his cheeks.

I gently rolled him over in case he threw up and sat with him for a while, making sure he was sleeping peacefully.

Why, Freya?

I had no answers. There was no excuse for the amount of pain I had caused him.

The next morning I called the number from my father and set up an appointment.

The therapist, who asked me to just call her Kristin, was a kind woman with a dry sense of humour. I quite liked her. But she was also merciless. She asked hard questions, pointed out the flaws in my arguments, and I left each session feeling both butchered and reborn.

I talked to her about the things I had taken for granted. Jessica was right when she said that I had been given everything. Yes, my parents made mistakes. All parents did. But I had happy, loving parents and I didn’t appreciate them, I just resented them for mistakes they made two decades ago. Mistakes I barely remembered any more.

Kristin made me reexamine everything I thought I knew, and she cut through all my excuses. It was hard, and I suddenly had an entirely new appreciation for what my father must have gone through to battle his own demons. And he did it for me, just like I was doing this for Hailey and Ivy.

Kristin also wanted me to try to deal with the anxiety by observing it. Like it wasn’t part of me, but merely something around me, like sitting in water.

I tried to imagine the worst. The first thought that came to mind was Hailey and Ivy getting hurt, but that was too much. I couldn’t do it.

Kristin suggested I start with something slightly less intense.

I thought about Samuel’s threats. That he’d take the girls away from me if I didn’t get things under control. What would happen? What would it look like? The anxiety simmered around me, but I forced myself to sit in it instead of trying to escape or push it away. I had spent years imagining the worst scenarios that I could come up with, but I had never tried to think them all the way through. I prepared myself. Kristin reminded me that it wouldn’t be pleasant, but that the anxiety itself couldn’t hurt me.

Deep breaths.

I imagined Samuel taking the girls away from me. Imagined how he’d come in and pack up their things.

How the girls would cry as I said goodbye, how they would be trying to hold on to me.

My throat closed up and I felt like I was drowning.

“Freya, remember to breathe. You’re safe. You can do this, breathe.”

I wanted to stop, to run, to think about anything else, but I fought the urge to quit.

A shuddering breath.

Then another.

And then, in my mind, I saw Samuel. Samuel, crying as he took away the girls, trying to comfort them because they didn’t understand. They couldn’t possibly understand that daddy wasn’t doing this to be mean. He wasn’t doing it to punish me, but out of love. For them.

Because he cared so very much.

A racking sob shook my entire body.

How could I have ever fooled myself into thinking that he didn’t care about his family? How many times had he told me that he loved me, tried to soothe me, put up with my unreasonable demands for reassurance?

Samuel was right. All I did was take.

And now I finally tried to listen, but no one was speaking.

I kept seeing Kristin every week all through the fall.

Leaving one of my sessions I thought about the incredible stress Samuel must have been under while I was too busy worrying about what I wasn’t getting from him. He had a demanding job, a demanding wife, and two demanding toddlers, and I had never cut him any slack. All I cared about was all the times I had been wronged, oblivious to the stress I was causing him.

I had been so stuck in the past, in all the perceived slights, that I didn’t see the present. And now I had no idea what the future would bring.

All I knew was that it would never be the same again.

They say the first holiday after a divorce is the hardest. But Samuel and I had been co-parenting pretty well for a few months now, surely we could handle being in the same room for Winterfest. For the girls. Right?

It started fine. The girls were thrilled to have us together instead of alternating between the house and Samuel’s new apartment. They were playing happily while Samuel set the table and I prepared dinner.

“Would you like some wine, Samuel?”

“What?”

“I found a bottle from when you still lived here. Do you want any?”

He came into the kitchen.

“Sure? It’s just… very out of character for you to offer me alcohol.”

“True. But you’re not going to be kissing me later, so I don’t mind.”

He didn’t respond.

“Fuck. I’m sorry, Samuel. That was insensitive of me.”

“Uh, yeah. Too soon.”

I nodded and poured a glass of wine, handed it to him.

“Sorry. A peace offering. I’m trying, Samuel, I really am.”

“I know. Thank you.”

It took ages to get the girls to fall asleep after dinner, they were too excited about the presents tomorrow. By the time we managed, we were both tired as well. Samuel was nursing his third glass of wine, sitting next to the pile of duvets and pillows I had brought him.

“Samuel, you don’t have to sleep on the couch, you know. The girls are going to wake you up at dawn, demanding presents. Do you want to switch? I stay here and you can take the bed?”

No! I mean, no thanks.”

I was startled by the force of his reply.

“Sorry, Freya. I don’t think I could ever sleep in that bed again to be honest.”

“Oh. If it helps, neither could I, so I got a new bed. You’re welcome to it. I promise no one but me and Hailey and Ivy ever touched it.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine with the couch.”

I was about to leave when he spoke again, his back turned to me.

“Freya, I need to know. Did you ever love me?”

The truth will set you free.

“No, Samuel. I’m sorry, but no. I really thought I did. You were my best friend, and you were – you are – very attractive. We seemed so perfect together and I guess I didn’t want anyone else to take you away from me. I wanted to be the one who got you, to… win. And before I knew it, we were married and…”

“I see. I guess I should be flattered to be considered a trophy husband.”

“Sorry. I think I loved the idea of you, of us, but not…”

“Not the reality. I get it. I think I always knew. Or suspected.”

He sighed.

“You know, in a way, that makes it easier. It would be so much harder for me to understand how you could ever have done this to me if you loved me the way I love you. Goodnight, Freya.”

Chapter 34

So It Goes…

It was Saturday morning and things were becoming predictable.

I had just gotten out of bed as Samuel entered the room. He came straight from the shower after sleeping on the couch again.

I missed him. Even when he was home, he just seemed so far away. By the time he came back from the hospital, he was exhausted. Every second of sleep was precious.

We barely talked. I couldn’t remember when we last had sex. A couple of months, at least.

He was in an even worse mood than usual today. He glared at his phone before going to the closet to get dressed.

“Samuel? Something wrong?”

Charlie.”

Even with his back to me, his entire body radiated annoyance.

“Charlie? What’s with Charlie?”

“He’s in Copperdale and he wants to visit us.”

There was venom in his voice as he pulled the belt through the loops of his pants with angry movements.

“Oh. But isn’t that a good thing?”

“I guess. I guess I should be thankful that my brother finally deigns to grace us with his presence. Do you know how often I’ve heard from him since the wedding? Twice. To congratulate us on Hailey and Ivy. That’s all.”

“I know, but aren’t you still happy that he wants to visit?”

Samuel sighed heavily.

“Sure. It just pisses me off that everything has to be on his terms. Always. He’s practically been gone since he moved out, doing whatever the fuck he wanted while someone had to be the responsible one. And then he thinks he can just walk back in like nothing happened and be all, hey bro, care for me to drop by for dinner?”

“Admit it, Samuel, you miss him. And he’ll get to meet the girls.”

“I know. And of course I want him to meet my family. He suggested dinner tomorrow. And he even invited us to see his band play at the old warehouse tonight.”

“Tonight? We should go. I could ask Amelia to look after the girls, make it a date. We haven’t gone out forever.”

“You know we can’t do that, Freya. I have another long shift, I won’t be home until early morning.”

I said nothing. Of course. All he ever had was long shifts, and he didn’t even take the time off he was technically allowed to. I only saw him when he slept, and lately he didn’t even come to bed.

My husband was slowly becoming a stranger in the house, just dropping by for the occasional nap.

“Freya? Are you mad? If you really want me to come home early, just say so.”

He always said that. But it was a risk-free offer. He knew that I’d never demand it. I tried to rearrange my face into something less pouty.

“No. You know I can’t do that, your job is important. I just… I wish you felt that your family was just as important.”

Samuel sighed.

“Ah, yes, because you always seem to think that I’m putting my job over my family. Of course you and the girls are more important to me than my job! But as you very well know, my job is also important, I have a lot of patients depending on me.”

“Whereas we are fine without you, I guess.”

I regretted it immediately. I was stepping onto a well-trodden path and I didn’t have the energy to have this particular argument again.

Neither did Samuel. He just turned away from me as he finished tucking in his shirt.

“You know what, I don’t have time for your shit right now. I need to be at the hospital in half an hour. And if family is really the issue here, why don’t you go see Charlie’s band? You’re his family too. Then you can ask His Highness what he would like for dinner tomorrow.”

He stalked off. Less than a minute later I heard the car start.

The sun was barely up and my husband had already left in a huff. Great.

I wondered if he’d come back.

I wondered if I wanted him to come back.

As I dressed and fed the girls, I thought about what he’d said. I would have liked to see Charlie’s band. I would have liked to go out and have some fun with my husband for once, the two of us, seeing other grownups.

As much as I loved Hailey and Ivy, they didn’t make for very stimulating conversation. At best, I got some hot gossip about which farm animals said what, or endless strings of “Why?”. And then I had Amelia over for tea every once in a while, but I hadn’t actually gone out for years.

Fuck it. I had decided. I was going to see Charlie’s band play, be around other people, have actual conversations. Even if it had to be without Samuel.

Luckily, Amelia was able to babysit despite the short notice.

I spent the day tidying the house. If Charlie was coming for dinner tomorrow, I wanted everything to be perfect.

Or rather, I needed someone to look at my life and tell me that everything was perfect. I wasn’t sure I believed it myself any longer.

After feeding the girls dinner, I went to the closet to find out what to wear. I’d never been to one of Charlie’s concerts. I wasn’t even sure exactly what kind of music his band played. I did, however, remember how Charlie used to dress. He was all black and leather, skulls and chains. Edgy.

Not exactly the kind of stuff I had in my closet. Everything I owned was either old athletic wear or screamed stay-at-home mom.

I could definitely have used Jessica’s help for this, she’d come up with something. I missed her. We talked on the phone sometimes, but I hadn’t seen her in ages.

I finally settled on some worn out jeans and found an old black shirt in Samuels’s side of the closet. He hadn’t worn it in years, it was too small. I just never got around to getting rid of it.

I still didn’t look like a forgotten band member of The Shrieking Llamas, but it was the best I could do.

I hung back when I arrived at the concert, feeling very out of place. Everyone looked like they were used to going out, except me.

Zᴀᴅᴅɪsʟᴀᴜs Sᴛʀᴀᴜᴅ ʜᴀs ᴇɴᴛᴇʀᴇᴅ ᴛʜᴇ ᴄʜᴀᴛ

And maybe except the extremely pale man I suddenly noticed standing next to me. He ignored me, his gaze focused unblinkingly on the stage. Something about him made me itch.

I moved away slightly. At least I wasn’t the only one rocking a dress shirt tonight.

Their music was good. I knew Charlie wrote most of the songs, and he definitely had talent.

He hadn’t changed much since I saw him at the wedding, but he still looked different. Like he enjoyed himself. As if he was in his true element here, and just slightly uncomfortable everywhere else.

When they were done, I intercepted him as he got off the stage.

“Charlie! You were great up there.”

“Freya! Where’s Sam, is he not with you?”

I shook my head.

“He says to tell you he’s very sorry, but he had to work.”

A shadow crossed Charlie’s face.

“Always so dutiful, my brother. Come inside and hang out with us for a bit. You’ve got to say hi to Caleb as well, and meet Kari.”

He led me to a room on the first floor of the building, and I talked to Kari for a bit. She seemed nice, if slightly intimidating. I’d never be that effortlessly cool, not in a million years.

Docs and sitting like a dumbass. Charlie confirmed for bi?!

Charlie offered me a beer, but I declined and just listened as he and Kari discussed the concert.

Caleb joined us a little later.

He didn’t look like he’d aged a day since the last time I saw him.

Charlie barely looked up from his phone.

“There he was at last. Caleb Babyface Vatore, we call him.”

Kari rolled her eyes.

“And it’s equally hilarious every single time, Charlie.”

I tried to follow their small talk. It was interesting to get a glimpse of a life so different from my own.

I wondered if I had missed out on something by choosing the path I did, but I also felt extremely out of place.

An hour later, both Kari and Charlie were getting a bit drunk and smoking something.

I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, like a spectator. Caleb was just brooding in a corner. I wanted to go home.

“Charlie, it’s getting late and I have my neighbour watching the girls. Will we see you for dinner tomorrow?”

“Sure! Actually, I should walk you home, you never know what kind of people might be lurking in the dark.”

He gave Caleb a pointed look.

Caleb scoffed.

Charlie quickly changed into a less ridiculous shirt and we left.

It was nice being outside in the cool night air after sitting in the stuffy room. My clothes smelled like whatever he and Kari had been smoking. I felt a little lightheaded as well.

As we walked back to the house, Charlie told me about touring, about trying to make it big. He told me about getting into trouble and running from the police. It was still baffling to me that he could laugh about things like being arrested, like it was all a joke to him.

He also talked a little about Samuel. It felt like he was trying not to, but couldn’t stop himself. It sounded like his feelings about Samuel were just as complicated as Samuel’s feelings about him. There was definitely the same mix of resentment and envy.

After we got back to the house and I thanked Amelia for watching the girls, Charlie followed me upstairs to get a glimpse of his nieces. They were both sleeping peacefully.

In the hallway outside their room, he turned and looked at me with those mismatched eyes, one brown, one green.

“Cute kids. I know I haven’t been much of an uncle, but I’ll meet them properly tomorrow. My brother has always been the lucky one.”

I felt the lump in my throat. Tell that to him, maybe he would be here now. Maybe he would still care.

“Is something wrong? Freya? Hey, what’s up?”

There was actual concern in his voice. A voice that sounded so much like Samuel’s, except Samuel’s voice was causing me nothing but pain lately. I felt the tears coming.

“I’m sorry, Charlie, I’m a mess these days. It’s just – I don’t know if Samuel and I are going to last, and…”

He put his arms around me, and I leaned into him as I tried not to cry. It felt good. Samuel rarely held me when I was upset, he just explained why I shouldn’t be.

Charlie lifted my chin.

“My brother has also always been a fucking idiot.”

Then he kissed me. Hard. Insistent.

This was nothing like Samuel’s gentle kisses, bore no resemblance to his constant restraint. Or to his complete absence lately.

My knees buckled as Charlie continued kissing my neck, his other hand slowly, deliberately, untucking my shirt.

I should have pushed him away, told him to stop. But I didn’t.

Somehow we reached the bed.

I had never felt this wanted, this desirable. All my frustration, doubt and hesitation obliterated.

As I wrapped my legs around Charlie, I knew this was wrong, this was a disaster. But all it did was turn me on more.

Charlie demanded instead of asking, ordered instead of suggesting.

Praised instead of criticising.

I let go of everything, lost myself completely in his arms, my mind blank, my body frenzied.

He looked up at me, eyes shining in the dark, as I moved my hips furiously, my nails digging into his skin.

Fuck. If only my perfect little brother could see what his perfect little wife is doing right now.”

His harsh words cut through me without mercy, slicing through all the ties that had ever bound me.

They say the truth will set you free.

I had spent my life running from the truth, telling myself that everything would be fine if only I could find a way to be perfect.

I guess there’s nothing as freeing as accepting that you’re just a horrible human being.

Or maybe I was just human.

Flawed.

Broken.

Never meant to be perfect.


This is my first attempt at making a machinima. Be advised that it contains explicit lyrics and somewhat suggestive images. If you’re fine with that, enjoy!

Chapter 33

Forever & Always

I had hoped the constant worrying would go away after we got married. After all, wasn’t that what I had been waiting for? And then we had Hailey, and a year later we had a mortgage in Copperdale, far away from everyone we knew. I was also pregnant again.

I loved my little family with an intensity that scared me, and it made my anxiety even worse.

Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and go to Hailey’s room, just to check that she was still breathing, and hadn’t been taken or hurt somehow.

I couldn’t go back to bed until I felt certain that she was fine.

In the mornings I woke up next to Samuel, wondering how much longer it would take before he was tired of me.

Or maybe he would fall in love with someone else. Or get in some sort of horrible accident or get sick and die, leaving me all alone.

I was constantly on edge.

Some days it felt like my anxiety sucked all the air from the house and even Samuel was struggling to breathe around me.

On those days, the fights got bad.

“I am not asking for much, Samuel, I just want you to spend a little time with your family sometimes! But you always put work first, like Hailey and I aren’t important! Like you don’t even care about us!”

“You’re being ridiculous, this has nothing to do with my work. This is about you and your own fucked up issues, Freya. Just like no amount of medals or trophies were ever going to make you feel good enough, there’s nothing I can do or say to convince you that I care.”

“You keep expecting me to manage all these feelings you’re having about random shit. You don’t just wear your emotions on your sleeve, you make them other people’s problem. My problem. And I can’t bring my bad mood to work, people depend on me. I’m a doctor, I have a responsibility to my patients, and -“

“I am aware that you’re a doctor, Samuel – because you never ever let me forget it! But you’re also a husband and a father and you have certain responsibilities here too!”

Yesterday had been pretty bad.

Samuel was quiet the next morning. I walked up to him as he was getting ready to leave for work.

“I’m sorry about last night. It’s just hormones. Promise you’ll come back.”

“Dammit, Freya, why are you so afraid that I’m going to leave you? Do you really think I’d give up on my wife, my daughter and my unborn child just because of a stupid argument? Do you not trust me at all?”

“You did once leave me for several years just because I wouldn’t kiss you.”

“Are you serious? That was a decade ago! We were fifteen, Freya!”

“I know, I’m sorry. I guess I’m just having my stupid feelings as usual. I’ll try not to bother you with them.”

“Freya, don’t. Please. Not now.”

“Listen, I promise that I will be back tonight, but right now I really need to get to the hospital. I’m already late.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Everything I did wore Samuel down, and I knew I was doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself. I needed him to stop me, to calm me down. I’d argue with him about things I didn’t even care about, just to have him look at me and tell me that everything was fine. To make him remind me, just once more, that he wasn’t going anywhere.

Only in bed were we in perfect sync. By now it was like a precisely choreographed dance, the same every time. We’d go to bed, turn off the lights. Most nights, we would kiss and say goodnight and then turn around, falling asleep with our backs to each other.

Occasionally, maybe once or twice a month, one of us would make the kiss linger ever so slightly, and then Samuel would move his hands down my body, making sure I was ready before entering me. On those nights, we’d fall asleep with our bodies pressed close. It was nice. And it was a break from the reality of what we had become.

But as I got close to my due date, even that stopped.

When Ivy arrived, I tried my best to curb the anxiety, fought to just enjoy my family.

I devoted all of my energy to Hailey and Ivy, did everything I could to be cheerful and shower them both with attention, making sure that Hailey didn’t get too jealous of her new sister.

Samuel doted on the girls as well, but by now the lack of sleep was really getting to us.

Everything in our life revolved around Hailey and Ivy.

At least the arguments died down.

We were simply too tired, often falling asleep in front of the TV at night before staggering to bed.

It was the closest we got to sleeping together these days.

I missed Samuel terribly. Even if our sex life had never been as… exciting as I had once hoped for, it had still been better than nothing.

But between the constant nightly diaper changes and feedings, his crazy work hours, and the lack of sleep, neither of us were really in the mood.

Often, both girls would be awake at dawn, and I’d take Hailey to our bed before going to feed Ivy. If we were lucky, Hailey would fall asleep again and Samuel would get a few more minutes as well.

When I came back to wake him up for work, I would sometimes just look at them for a minute. I loved them so much that it made my heart ache, but my mind kept racing with all the bad things that might happen to them.

I wanted to make it stop, but the harder I tried to ignore the thoughts, the more intrusive they became.

I was still trying to settle into Copperdale, it didn’t quite feel like home yet. But I wanted to make an effort, so I invited our closest neighbour, Amelia, over for tea.

She was a retired teacher whose husband had passed away a few years ago. Now she lived alone in a small house on the outskirts of the town, not too far from us.

Amelia was easy to talk to, and it was nice to have some grownup company for once.

She had three kids of her own, and several grandchildren, although they all lived pretty far away now.

She asked me how I felt about living in Copperdale.

I told her that I loved the nature and living near the water, much like where I grew up in Brindleton Bay, but I also told her a little about my frustrations, about how I felt lonely this far away from my friends and family, especially since Samuel was so rarely home.

Amelia clearly picked up on some of the things I didn’t say.

“Freya, listen. Sometimes marriage gets tough. My husband and I had 35 years together. And some of those years were hard, especially while he was enlisted and the kids were little.”

“But even if we had maybe as much as ten difficult years, that still means that 25 of them were wonderful. And those are the ones I remember.”

She was right, of course.

As we were saying goodbye, she took my hands.

“Freya, you have a beautiful family. It will get easier, you just need to hang in there. And call me if you ever need to talk, or need someone to watch the girls for a while, I would be happy to help.”

“Thank you, Amelia. It really means a lot.”

I tried to stay positive, telling myself that it would get better. But as the months passed, things didn’t improve.

Samuel was understandably drained when he came back from the hospital after yet another 16 hour shift. Sometimes he didn’t even reheat the leftovers I’d saved for him, but just ate his dinner cold in the kitchen at 2 AM.

On nights like that he would just pass out on the couch instead of coming upstairs.

On the days he managed to make it to bed, it probably wasn’t much better. The girls would often get up during the night and it was easier to just let them sleep in our bed instead of wasting time making them go back to their own.

The vegetables are strictly ornamental.

Not only were we exhausted, but we also kept running into another one of what Samuel simply referred to as my issues.

“Do you really have to, Samuel?”

“It’s just a glass of wine, Freya.”

“You say that, but why do you have to drink it?”

“Because I enjoy it. And this one pairs well with steak.”

“There are other enjoyable beverages in the world, why does it have to be alcohol?”

“It’s not like I drink it to get drunk, Freya! A single glass of wine every other week will hardly put me at any risk for alcoholism!”

“I just don’t see why it’s necessary…”

“It’s not, Freya, that’s the point. If it was necessary, I would have a problem. Can’t I have just one thing that I enjoy for no reason around here?”

I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to cling to him, keep him in my arms forever and set everything right, but instead I found myself pushing him further and further away.

Samuel was the logical one, the rational one, the one asking if we could please not do this in front of the girls.

I knew that I was pushing his buttons to get a reaction, to see his cool and collected façade finally crack, but it never did. Even when I felt myself dissolving into desperation and tears, he kept it up.

He would look at me like I was a patient and he was my physician, calmly explaining to me that I was hysterical and things would be fine if only I would trust him to help.

Always so professional when he put on the doctor face. I hated it.

He didn’t understand the problem. Having a bit of wine often made him flirty, and I just… couldn’t. I missed him terribly, needed his touch, but when he came to bed with the combination of toothpaste and alcohol on his breath, I wanted to throw up. Sex was definitely not happening.

The rejection always frustrated him, of course. I had tried to explain that I just didn’t like the smell of alcohol on his breath, that it made me not want to kiss him, but he accused me of overreacting as usual.

He seemed to suspect that I was withholding intimacy as some form of punishment and started preemptively sleeping on the couch after having a drink. As if he wasn’t allowed in our bed just because I wouldn’t kiss him.

Who is withholding intimacy now, Samuel?

Some days the thoughts would assault me the minute I heard the car leave the driveway in the mornings. He was going to leave me, I just knew it. Any day now. He said he loved me, but did he really? He felt so distant, closed off. I could never quite reach him.

Had he actually stopped loving me during those seven years after I first rejected him? Or had he maybe fallen out of love with me after we got married? As the days became filled with work and diapers, the nights too filled with crying babies to risk making any more?

Maybe he was just going along with it. Out of pity? Or for the kids?

I thought back to the women he had dated before me. Did he ever lie awake at night and wish he’d picked one of them instead? Maybe someone less neurotic. Less emotional.

Once more I found myself wondering if he would have chosen me, given a second choice. We said ‘I do’, we made a promise to each other – forever and always.

But if he could start over, knowing what would happen to us, would he still be my husband?

Or would he be happily married to someone else right now?

Someone who had their shit together.

Someone who wasn’t me.

It felt like I knew the answer.

Chapter 32

Never Grow Up

Less than a year later, Samuel and I were married.

The wedding was everything I’d dreamed of. I’m sure our parents would happily have paid for an enormous wedding if we’d asked them to. But that wasn’t our style.

Focus, Jessica!

All I wanted was a small, intimate affair with our closest friends and family while I said ‘I do’ to the love of my life. We rented the Myshuno Observatory. It almost felt like my grandma Cora was with us in spirit.

Even Charlie showed up. I knew it meant a lot to Samuel, although his brother couldn’t stay for long.

At least he was there for the ceremony, and he came over to congratulate us afterwards.

He said he had a flight to catch, his band was on tour at the moment. I suspected that he was also trying to avoid talking to Colten and Kailani.

I wondered if Charlie actually preferred his solitude, or if he secretly wanted to be a bigger part of his family than he was.

WHO CLONED ERIC?!

I was grateful that I got along with my own family, especially my sister Grace. I couldn’t believe that she would be starting high school after the summer, it felt like yesterday that I’d taught her how to cross the monkey bars in our backyard.

By the time Grace and I headed inside for the reception, Charlie was gone and Kailani was talking to Jessica. Jessica had volunteered to do the decorations, beautiful blush-coloured roses everywhere, my favourite.

Daria’s aesthetic is Whimsical Dominatrix.

We kept the wedding alcohol-free for my dad, and Griffin and Daria had offered to do all the food for us as a wedding gift. It was impressive, the entire menu was vegan since Griffin had also stopped eating meat after his first visit to the cadaver lab during medical training. I didn’t blame him, it sounded horrific. Samuel hadn’t seemed as bothered.

Over by the cake, Conrad was making my dad and Cecilia crack up with outrageous anecdotes. It was strange to see my parents interact with each other. It had happened before, of course, they had celebrated my birthday together a few times when I was younger, but I couldn’t remember if they had been in the same room since my mom and Conrad moved to Del Sol Valley.

Looking at the four of them now, it was impossible to tell that things had ever been bad between my parents. Still, I couldn’t imagine two people less likely to work out. They both had a certain desperation to them, and they both needed someone to temper them, not stoke the flames.

Conrad, with his extravagant approach to life, gave my mother a safe outlet, a way to release all that intensity so she didn’t blow up.

Cecilia, kind but unwavering, calmed my father down and turned his particular brand of chaos into something less destructive.

But who was I?

Was I like my dad, prone to holding on in an attempt to do the right thing until I finally self-destructed?

Yes, hello, this is Conrad’s fanbase. We would like to formally request that Conrad stops ageing immediately, please. PLEASE.

Or was I more like my mother, desperately trying to make people love me until I gave up and left them in the dust?

I needed to do better than both of them. I wanted everything to work out. I shook my head lightly, trying to chase away the dark thoughts. This was my wedding day, why was I only thinking about disaster?

I went to find Samuel. He pulled me close and kissed me.

This was what I needed. My husband.

Samuel would temper me, like Conrad and Cecilia tempered my parents.

We would be fine.

By the time we were back in our bed that night, I was both exhausted and deliriously happy.

I took Samuel’s hand, marvelling at the ring on his finger.

“I can’t believe we’re actually married.”

He sent me a mischievous smile.

“Me neither. But you better let go of my hand. I need it for something.”

I was glad that we’d had some practice over the last year, otherwise I might have chickened out of my wedding night completely.

Samuel was gentle, always making sure that I was satisfied. A small part of me wished he’d be a little less restrained, that he would lose himself in it, the same way he made me lose myself, but it was still good.

We had decided to just let things happen naturally after the wedding, and it didn’t take long until I was pregnant.

We were both overjoyed, and our roommates were excited for us. Griffin immediately started changing our weekly meal plans around the nutritional requirements of pregnant women.

I asked if he was sure he still wanted to be a surgeon and not become a nutritionist instead, but he laughed it off.

Daria’s podcast is called “Ethics, schmethics!” and is about white-hat hacking and veganism. Obviously.

“Freya, don’t be silly. You can do more than one thing with your life! Just look at Daria. Would you tell her to choose whether she wants to only do programming or podcasting or animal rights activism?”

“You know I’d never dare tell Daria what to do, but I honestly don’t understand how she finds the time.”

“Exactly, priorities!” Griffin looked at me like he’d just won the discussion and went back to his meal planning.

I thought about it. Sports had always taken up most of my time, and the rest I spent with friends and family. I didn’t really have any other interests, unless you counted reading a book or watching a movie. Griffin had his cooking, Daria seemed to be doing all the things, and even Jessica had a fashion blog.

At least Samuel was more like me, we both tended to focus on our careers and family. He wanted to specialise in paediatrics, he really loved working with children.

He was so excited about becoming a father. He kept flipping between ‘doctor mode’, spewing random facts about child development and asking me how I was feeling, and ‘dad mode’ where he obsessed about names and insisted on talking to my belly in silly voices.

It was pretty adorable. I couldn’t wait for us to finally meet our baby. We were going to be the best parents ever, together.

Nothing like my own parents.

I wasn’t even three years old when they split up. My father then proceeded to spend almost five years drinking and whoring his way through a pretty miserable existence.

Still, most of my memories of him back then were good. Even though he was troubled, he was always so happy to see me, and he always came to my games or picked me up from practice.

I remembered our trip to Mt. Komorebi vividly. The snowboarding had been amazing, and I loved spending time with my dad.

But then I had woken up from a nightmare in the big, dark, and unfamiliar house. I had felt very alone.

I was used to living by the harbour with my mother, used to the constant noise outside.

Here, the thick snow blanketed everything and it was eerily quiet.

I couldn’t remember how to turn on the lights, so I stumbled into the dark hallway, blinded by tears, only vaguely certain of where my dad’s bedroom was.

He wasn’t there.

It wasn’t the first time in my life that I’d gone to his bedroom to find it empty, but at home, it just meant that he was downstairs watching TV, or had fallen asleep on the couch with Cooper snuggled up next to him. Here, there was no sound of a TV or any light anywhere. The house felt completely deserted.

I knew I wasn’t really alone, my grandparents were in their bedroom somewhere downstairs, but I was afraid to go down there. I didn’t even want to go back into the dark hall.

I curled up on the big, empty bed. Surely, my dad would come. He had to sleep sooner or later.

I don’t remember crying myself to sleep, but I remember waking up.

My dad had been there, moisture still in his hair, fresh from a shower. With the smell of toothpaste and only the faintest hint of alcohol left on his breath.

I always hated that particular combination of smells.

He’d promised never to leave me again, and he hadn’t. Much later, I learned that he had started therapy as soon as we got home, and as far as I knew, he hadn’t touched alcohol for over fifteen years now. But I still remembered the smell.

I put my hands protectively on my growing belly.

“I’m going to do a better job than they did, no matter what it takes”, I whispered.

I was near my due date when Griffin called a house meeting.

“Listen guys, as much as I love living here with y’all, I’ll be moving out in a few months. Daria and I are getting married, can you believe it? So we’re moving in together, probably buying a house in the suburbs where we can pretend that we’re real, functional adults.”

Jessica squealed with excitement.

Whaaat? You proposed to Daria?”

“Of course not. She proposed to me.”

I was stunned. I mean, it wasn’t like it was against the law or anything, but I didn’t know any other girls who had done that.

“Freya, stop looking like you’ve seen a ghost. Daria is a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to get it. Why should she wait around for me to stop slacking? It’s one of the things I love most about her. She takes charge. Everywhere.”

He winked.

Jessica punched him in the shoulder.

“Too much information, Griffster. It’s more than enough that we can hear you guys sometimes.”

“Sorry, I’d ask her to keep it down, but the gag makes it hard for me to speak, you see.”

“Griffin!”

“And the handcuffs make it impossible to remove the gag!”

We all laughed, but I couldn’t quite let the mental picture of Griffin and Daria go.

We had all been unfortunate enough to walk in on them by accident. It was definitely something you only did once before you learned to always knock, even if the door was ajar.

Samuel and I were quite the opposite. He was so careful with me, like I was something fragile, or an easily spooked animal. And not just because I was heavily pregnant, it had been like that since the first time.

tfw he’s about to give you the neatest weinering you’ve ever received

And he wasn’t just controlled in bed. Sometimes, if he was frustrated about something, he felt like a tightly wound spring that could go off at any time, but he never did. Samuel was always measured, composed, and polite.

I wanted to make him lose that control, just a little. The sex wasn’t bad, not that I had much to compare with, but we had definitely never been at risk of disturbing the neighbours the way Griffin and Daria did.

That night, I was awakened by a dull ache in my back, much stronger than the small twinges of pain I’d been feeling for a few days now. I woke Samuel up.

“I think it’s time.”

“Is she asleep?”

“Yeah, seems like it.”

Samuel came over and put his arms around me. For a moment, we just looked at her.

Hailey. Our daughter. We’d made her and now she was here. Even though it had been almost a month, the thought still blew my mind. And scared me.

When I learned to drive, someone told me what to do and what not to do, and gave me a license afterwards to prove that I knew what I was doing. There were no licenses for babies. They just let you take them home from the hospital by yourself, expecting you to figure it out.

It was terrifying. And amazing.

“Samuel, I want another one.”

He let out a quiet laugh.

“Another baby? Freya, we just had Hailey. Not only would your body benefit from at least a full year to recover, we also need to figure out what we’re doing when Griffin moves out.”

“I know. But I want more, I want at least two or three. And I don’t want them to be ten years apart like me and my sister. I want them to be friends.”

“I get that, but still. And don’t you want some time back at work before we have more kids?”

I looked at Hailey. She was so tiny, so fragile. She depended on us for everything. Back to work meant endless training, weekends and evenings spent on matches. And Samuel would work long hours when he became a resident doctor. We’d be leaving Hailey with strangers for most of the day.

“No. Samuel, I don’t want to go back. Could we… could I maybe stay at home for a while? I don’t want to get a nanny or send her to daycare. I want to be there for her. And you’re going to be so busy when you start your residency, she’d never see either of us.”

“Freya, are you sure? If you skip out on your contract, you risk never getting signed again. What if you can’t go back? And how long would you stay home? Have you thought this through?”

“Samuel, this is really important to me. I don’t care about the contract. I want to stay home until we’re done having kids, maybe until the youngest gets ready for kindergarten. And if that takes ten years, then I’ll figure out what to do then. I just – I don’t want to abandon our baby.”

“Daycare is hardly abandonment. I know you have some issues, but I promise she’d be perfectly fine. But listen, this is your decision, your career, and I’m not going to argue. If you feel this strongly about it, we’ll make it work.”

“I do. Thank you.”

He put his arms around me again, pressing his cheek against mine.

“I guess I better look for residency somewhere affordable, then.”

Chapter 31

King of My Heart

Samuel.

The taste of him on my lips, his arms around my body. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else existed.

I didn’t want him to stop. I wanted more. I wished he’d just tell me what to do, take away my doubts and second-guessing and worry. I would have done anything for him in that moment, if only he’d asked. I could feel his body pressed against me and I wanted to rip his shirt off and take him to bed immediately and… and do what, exactly?

My brain slowly but surely pushed my libido out of the driver’s seat and took control back.

Samuel reluctantly broke the kiss.

“Freya? Are you OK?”

I nodded, not trusting my voice. Or my legs, for that matter. He took my hand.

“Freya, it’s fine. I love you, and I’m not going to ask you to do anything you’re not ready for.”

I was both relieved and deeply disappointed.

“Come. We better go back to the party before they start worrying about us.”

With less than a month to graduation, plans were being made.

Samuel and Griffin had already discussed sharing an apartment in the city as they were headed there for medical school next.

Both Jessica and I had been scouted and offered spots with San Myshuno FC, so we were also moving to the city.

Samuel suggested that the four of us could find an apartment in San Myshuno together. It would be both easier and much more affordable.

We might only have been dating for a few weeks, but we had been living together for the last few years anyway, and sharing a room seemed like the logical next step. After all, we needed to see where this relationship was going.

It was strange and exhilarating to get to know new sides of Samuel. Since we’d always been friends, I thought I knew him pretty well, but getting to know him as my boyfriend was something else. He’d been much more guarded than I realised.

He told me about growing up in the shadow of his brother. Charlie had always been the entertainer, the one to grab the spotlight and demand attention.

When he was little, Samuel had tried to live up to Charlie, be as smart and talented. As effortlessly good at everything he did.

Woah, someone really Neville Longbottomed.

Later, Charlie had demanded attention in a different way, by constantly picking fights and getting into trouble. Samuel had gone from trying to be just like his brother to trying to be the opposite. He didn’t want to cause their parents any more pain.

It felt similar to my own struggles, except I was trying not to be as much of a disaster as my parents had been. But we understood each other.

The new apartment only had three bedrooms, so while I did miss Shen and Tai, it was probably a good thing that they’d gone back home to terrorise Mt. Komorebi. At least we were still able to keep Jessica and Griffin around.

Griffin had been dating Daria ever since the party, and as she was vegan, he was working hard to expand his cooking repertoire.

I’d asked to join him. I wanted to be able to cook properly for myself – and to spoil Samuel with delicious food – and learning from a former chef wasn’t a chance I was going to pass up.

We spent so many evenings in the kitchen together, testing new variations on old favourites, and Griffin happily taught me proper knife skills and all his cooking tricks.

Daria would come by often, and it was pretty adorable to see how hard he tried to please her.

They seemed to have their own private language. Whenever they started throwing around words like “whipple” and “midnight black”, it was impossible to tell if they were flirting or discussing the relative merits of various types of heirloom beans.

Possibly both.

Samuel and I were really busy, him with his studies and me with my training. Most nights I’d come home to find him at the computer, mumbling about phalanges and metatarsals or looking up muscle groups.

I really wanted to take our relationship to the next level, but for some reason it was impossible for me to take the initiative. I’d spent so long reining in this want, trying not to let things go too far, and I no longer knew how to stop doing that.

I also still had that stupid fear. What if I got pregnant? What if he left me, all alone with a baby?

Some memories never faded. So many nights during my early childhood I would wake up in our tiny apartment to the sound of my mom crying quietly in the other room. A faint, heart-broken sound of desperation.

I could no longer remember what I used to do when it happened. Did I go to her? Did I hide under the covers? But the sound of her crying had never left me. And even as it happened less and less over the years, it didn’t fully stop until Conrad. I was eternally grateful to him for that, for making my mother happy again.

I never wanted to be like her, all alone, raising a child who felt like a mistake. Like they were the very thing that ruined someone’s life.

But I also really wanted Samuel.

Finally, he decided to address it. I clearly wasn’t going to.

“Freya, I know you have certain… opinions. About sex. But I would still like to talk about it, to manage expectations, I guess.”

“Oh.”

I could feel myself tense up immediately. Why did I always react like this? Samuel clearly felt it too.

“Don’t worry, I’m not trying to talk you into anything, or pressure you. I just want to understand. Why is it that you’re so against us having sex?”

I hid behind my book. Why? Because people always leave. But I didn’t know how to explain it in a way that would make sense to Samuel.

Or maybe it didn’t actually make sense at all.

“Because… maybe you’d just leave me afterwards?”

“What, the good old pump and dump? Freya, I love you, I’m not going anywhere whether you sleep with me or not.”

“And how am I supposed to know that? You might!”

He smiled, a hint of mischief in his eyes. Then he startled tickling me.

“Oh yes, I totally might! You have seen through my cunning plan, Freya! I’ve always been meaning to lure you into my bed exactly once, only to then leave you forever. It’s been my intention since early childhood, the longest con ever to be dreamt up by a precocious toddler!”

Laughing, I managed to grab my pillow and threw it at him.

“It’s not funny, Samuel!”

“It is a little funny, Freya. Do you really feel like being married first makes a difference somehow? And how do you know I wouldn’t marry you just to get you into bed, only to then divorce you immediately afterwards?”

“Samuel, don’t be ridiculous.”

“Oh, so that’s ridiculous, but the toddler-devised long con isn’t?”

I reached for another pillow to hit him with, but he quickly pinned me down.

“Truce! It’s fine, Freya. I can wait. I love you and I think you’re incredibly sexy and I want you. But I can wait.”

I didn’t have the courage to suggest otherwise.

My mother had been asking me to visit her in Del Sol Valley for months. So when my team finally had an extended weekend off, I called her.

“I can’t wait for you to get here, sweetie! It’s been so long. Is Samuel coming with you?”

“No, they have a huge test coming up, he and Griffin are really busy. Jessica and I barely see them these days.”

“Understandable. How about you bring Jessica then? Or does she have other plans?”

“Seriously? She can come?”

“Of course! We have plenty of room and I know you tend to get a little bored with just me and Conrad around all weekend. You could take her out and show her the Valley? Oh, and there’s a red carpet event on Saturday night for the Quantum Llamas season premiere, if you want to join us?”

“That sounds fun! Thanks, mom, I’m going to ask her. Say hi to Conrad.”

“Will do, and you wish Samuel good luck with the test, sweetie.”

Jessica was thrilled about going. My mother had a few meetings, so Conrad picked us up from the airport and took us to the theatrical museum. I’d been there before, but I figured it would be fun to show Jessica some of the props from movies he had been in.

Jessica was hanging on his every word, and it made me really happy to be able to give her this experience – even if it felt slightly awkward that she was clearly thirsting after my stepdad. I kept forgetting that he had that effect on people. To me, he had always just been Conrad.

She couldn’t stop talking about how cool everything was, and how amazing it was to see the Valley, she’d never been here before. It actually made me feel bad about how unwilling I’d been to visit my mother over the years. I hadn’t quite appreciated how lucky I was.

Ward-Flex, but OK.

We also took a walk around the neighbourhood, looking at some of the enormous estates. I really wanted to show her one in particular, Ward Manor.

“Wait… Ward as in Samuel Ward? Are you serious?”

“Yes! It’s named after that actress, Judith Ward, if you’ve heard of her? She was Samuel’s great-grandmother, but the house is owned by a different branch of the family now.”

On Saturday, my mother surprised us by letting us have our pick from her vast wardrobe for the red carpet event.

“This is crazy, Freya, why does your mom even own stuff like this?”

“I assume it’s from a promotional event or something with Conrad. She has a lot of odd things like that.”

“What about this? Too beach party?”

“What about ‘too naked’, Jess? Same for this one, I don’t know why you insisted I try it on. I’d feel less exposed in a bikini.”

“Fine. I guess we wouldn’t want to cause some sort of scandal for your dear stepdad.”

“Actually, knowing Conrad, he’d probably find it hilarious. But let’s try on a few more things.”

When we arrived – by limousine of course – I felt giddy with excitement. I’d visited mom and Conrad over the years, and I’d sat through endless dinner parties with directors and cast members, but actually being on the red carpet was new even to me.

Jessica and I had a lot of fun posing for the cameras.

No one knew who we were, but they assumed that we had to be important since we arrived with Conrad Richards himself, the star of Quantum Llamas.

Conrad was notorious for always being extra when making public appearances. He would usually put on a little performance with my mom for the cameras, and people loved it.

Back in the day, Conrad Richards had been known as a heartbreaker, but for the last 15 years, he’d only been breaking the hearts of his fans – by being aggressively devoted to my mother.

She was only too happy to play up that fact.

As Conrad delivered a short speech and a funny monologue from the new season, I noticed my mother beaming with pride in the front row, her love for her husband written all over her face. It made me miss Samuel terribly, and I longed to go home, away from the lights and the people and just be with him.

The next day, Jessica and I spent most of the morning in the pool before going home.

“Seriously, Freya, why do you not visit your mother more often? I’d literally kill to have this life.”

“Honestly? It gets exhausting. You’ve seen my mom, she and Conrad both thrive on attention. She loves this, all the glitz and glamour and dinner parties and red carpet events, and I just… don’t. I think I’m more of a homebody, really.”

“But you still want to be a great athlete? What if you made it, and you got really big, wouldn’t it be the same? Like, paparazzi and attention and security guards and sponsor deals and all that?”

I thought about it. I loved sports and I wanted to be the best at everything I did, but I hadn’t actually considered the practicalities of the life of a famous athlete that much.

“I guess? I doubt I’ll ever be, like, internationally famous, though. Plus it’s probably going to slow down my career whenever I get married and have kids and all that.”

“True. That’s why I’m not having kids any time soon, but I could definitely use a boyfriend.”

“What, tired of your dry spell?”

“Oh, you have no idea. You’re so lucky, I bet Samuel is an absolute fiend in bed, those restrained types always have hidden depths.”

“Uh… I don’t… We haven’t actually… You know.”

“What? Seriously, excuse me for prying, but why? You’ve been together for months, the man is gorgeous – how can you not?”

“I’ve just been really nervous about it? I actually think I might be OK going for it, but we’ve waited for so long that I’m not sure how to get started.”

“Come on, Freya, just jump him when we get home! It’s not like he’s going to say no, trust me!”

I splashed her.

“That’s more than enough advice, Jessica, thank you very much!”

I was happy to see Samuel again when I got home. Even if it had only been a few days, I’d missed him. But he seemed slightly withdrawn.

“Samuel, please tell me what’s wrong? Did something happen while I was gone?”

“No, I just… I’ve been thinking a lot. You have this irrational fear of getting pregnant, I get it. But you do want kids, you’ve mentioned that. Do you… not want them with me? Is that it? You don’t see us lasting?”

He looked at me, his eyes serious. Worried. It hadn’t occurred to me that Samuel could ever feel insecure about our relationship. That was usually my job.

“Samuel! That’s not it at all!”

“Then why? Don’t you trust that I’m going to stay with you? That I’m obviously going to marry you?”

I finally understood. This was not about sex at all. This was about Samuel feeling like I was holding him at arm’s length, like I hadn’t quite decided if he was really the one I was going to spend my life with or not.

But of course he was. There could never be anyone but Samuel for me. Of course I trusted him to stay, to marry me…

To marry me?

“Samuel, was that supposed to be some sort of proposal?”

He looked at me, momentarily confused. Then he laughed.

“Yes. Yes, it was. Will you marry me, Freya?”

These two idiots I swear.

I leapt into his arms, kissing him.

Samuel took my hands.

“Is that a yes, then?”

I laughed.

“Yes! Of course, you idiot!”

“My idiot.”

He was surprised when I pushed him down on the bed. But I had thought about Jessica’s words on the entire flight home. I wanted this, and I was no longer scared. Samuel would never leave me.

“Freya, I… this seriously wasn’t what I was trying to accomplish. I didn’t ask you to marry me just so you’d sleep with me.”

I looked him in the eyes.

“I know. But do you want to wait?”

“Of course not. But we don’t have to do this now. I can wait until you’re ready.”

I began moving my hand down his body.

“Freya? What are you… oh! Oh… Oh fuck, don’t stop.”

Chapter 30

It’s Nice to Have a Friend

I walked away from my father and Cecilia as quickly as I could. Of course my dad would drag out the goodbyes forever. He was always a bit sentimental when it came to me and Gracie. I remembered how he had teared up when she first started kindergarten.

Still, I would miss them too, so I hurried off before I started crying as well.

I wondered where Samuel was. Had he already arrived as well? The house had been deserted when we moved my stuff in. I’d even tried the door to his room, but it had been locked. He was probably out exploring campus like I was.

I shook myself mentally. Don’t think about Samuel. I was here to study and play football and get new friends. Not run around after Samuel like a lost puppy just because he felt… safe.

Even so, I found myself scanning for his dark curls as I walked around campus. I felt a little uneasy around all these strangers. So many people, just walking about or waiting for someone. There was even a Lobster Larry mascot to welcome the new students.

I ended up at the student hub, Larry’s Lagoon. I’d barely entered the building before a voice called my name.

On Wednesdays we wear turtlenecks.

“Freya? Hey, over here!”

“Oh, hey Jessica!”

I knew Jessica from my high school football team, but we hadn’t been that close. I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t even know she’d been accepted to Foxbury as well. She was sitting next to a blonde girl.

“Freya, this is Trisha, she lives in my dorm. Trisha, this is Freya, I think she’s in biology as well, right? And we’re all on the team!”

We chatted for a bit, mostly about football. I felt better now that I wasn’t all alone. It was really nice having someone I already knew around, and Trisha seemed pretty cool.

Suddenly, Trisha leaned over and whispered loudly.

“Girls, don’t look, but there’s a really hot guy coming over here.”

Of course I looked up immediately – only to see Samuel walking towards us.

“Freya! There you are!”, he smiled.

“Samuel.”

I wasn’t sure what to do, but Samuel politely introduced himself to the girls, expertly compensating for my lack of manners. Then he turned back to me.

“I have to go, I’m meeting up with my pre-med study group, but I’ll see you tonight. Ladies.”

He nodded to Jessica and Trisha and walked off.

As soon as he was out of hearing range, Jessica turned to me.

“Oh my gosh, he’s so cute! And a medical student? Are you guys dating?”

ᵒʰ ᵐʸ ᵍᵒᵈ ᵗʰᵉʸ ʷᵉʳᵉ ʳᵒᵒᵐᵐᵃᵗᵉˢ

“What? No, we’re… roommates. We’ve sort of been friends for years before we got here.”

“Oh, is he taken at all, then?”

“… No?”

“Don’t even think about it, Jess – I call dibs on Dr. Hotness.”

“Trisha! You can’t just call dibs on day one!”

Trisha rolled her eyes.

Fiiiiine, I’ll wait until tomorrow then. But mark my words, I will get the good doctor to do a personal exam before the midterms.”

They both laughed, and I tried to smile.

I hadn’t really thought about it before. I knew, logically, that Samuel would probably be dating here. He was a good-looking medical student, of course all the girls would be falling over themselves to get to know him.

For some reason, the thought of him spending time with other girls bothered me. He was my best friend, yes, but it would be very selfish of me to keep him all to myself. Just because I wasn’t going to date yet, there was no reason that my friends couldn’t, right?

And if I was a little bothered by it, it was only because it meant that he would have less time to hang out with me.

I’d completely lost track of whatever Trisha and Jessica were talking about, so I excused myself, telling them I’d see them at practice.

By the time I got back to the house, it was dark and the last of our roommates had arrived.

Shen and Tai were twins, exchange students from Mt. Komorebi.

Shen was a little… extravagant. He spoke loudly and wore even louder outfits, and spent an inordinate amount of time in front of mirrors or commenting on hot guys and their butts.

His sister Tai seemed pretty much the opposite, at least on first impression. But after sharing a house with her for a few weeks, I discovered that her mild exterior was hiding a personality just as intense as her brother’s.

The twins didn’t play sports, but they somehow managed to turn everything into a fierce competition – from video games to foosball to constantly trying to date the same guys with cute butts, apparently.

There was never a dull moment in the house around the Lei twins. I had no idea how they kept their grades up with the amount of dating and competing they engaged in.

The fifth inhabitant of the house was Griffin, who surprised me by also being a medical student. At first I was taken aback by his somewhat gruff demeanour, but I actually really liked him once I got to know him.

His commanding voice could call even the twins to order, and the fact that he was a few years older than the rest of us quickly made him the resident “dad”.

He was also a former chef who now wanted to become a surgeon. I had asked him why, once, but he had just winked and said that he already knew how to handle a knife, so it couldn’t be too difficult. He completely took over the kitchen, and would offer to whip up a quick salad when I came home late from practice and was starving.

Things were going pretty well as we settled into our new routines. I didn’t have Samuel to myself much, but we still got to spend a lot of time together, even if it was mostly while eating or studying. And since the house wasn’t that big, Griffin, Shen and Tai were constantly around. But it was something.

I needed other friends than Samuel anyway. I did my best to socialise, even though it had never been my strong suit. But I got along pretty well with my football team, which, in addition to Trisha and Jessica, included a girl called Daria.

Football definitely took up a lot of my time, and it annoyed me to admit that the university had probably been right in preventing me from joining both football and basketball. It often felt like I was trying to do my coursework while running from classes to football practice.

Still, I enjoyed being busy. And it felt great when we won our first match against our arch-rivals, those posh people from University of Britechester. They always thought they owned the entire town just because they were here first.

I don’t know how sports work and at this point I’m too afraid to ask.

Trisha was team captain, and she was good. After the match, she managed to hit just the right balance between praise and letting us know that this wasn’t the time to get complacent.

If you feel called out by this, then… same, I guess.

I really liked all the girls. But I still struggled with making proper friends – no one but Samuel ever got close. I wasn’t sure what to say or do half the time. Instead, I tried to work as hard as possible during practice and matches, hoping it would somehow make up for my lack of social skills.

Jessica had befriended Trisha on the very first day, and she was quick to befriend Daria as well. I wished I had her confidence. She never seemed worried that people might reject her friendship. And they never did.

As I walked home that night, I wondered if Samuel was only my friend because we happened to grow up together and now he couldn’t get rid of me. Would he still have chosen me as his friend if he’d had a choice?

And what would happen if I ever gave him that choice?

It seemed like I would get the answer whether I wanted it or not. As the first and second semesters passed, Samuel and I talked less. We were both busy, and his medical studies were extremely taxing. But it wasn’t just that.

He didn’t talk about it, but I’d see him around campus with various girls, and although none of them seemed to be serious girlfriends so far, I knew that some nights he came home late – or not at all.

He does seem to prefer brunettes.

Part of me had been waiting for things to become “normal” again. Meaning that Samuel and I would once more spend all our spare time together, joking around and talking about anything and everything. But I had to accept that this was the new normal. We couldn’t stay attached at the hip forever, and he was clearly eager to go out and get on with his life. Without me.

Even notorious flirt Shen had finally found someone with a cute enough butt to settle for, apparently. It seemed like everyone else were moving forward with their lives.

I should probably do the same.

I was still surprised when I came home from practice one evening to find my roommates having a little impromptu party.

Music was playing, Shen was cuddling with his boyfriend, and Griffin seemed to be teaching Tai some sort of dance – or maybe it was the other way around, it was hard to tell.

Samuel was talking to a girl I hadn’t seen before. But I saw the expression on her face, her hand resting possessively on his waist. I immediately announced that I was going to bed and went upstairs. I didn’t want to look at them.

It was still too early for me to sleep, so I decided to call my mom. She and Conrad lived in a giant mansion in Del Sol Valley. They were rolling in cash with her investments paying off and him making it big as the star of a really popular sci-fi series. I hadn’t watched it myself, but I knew he got rave reviews, especially from women. Trisha had freaked out when she heard that he was my stepdad.

I’d only been to the mansion a few times after they moved, but the view was spectacular. The place was way too big for my taste, though, too empty for just two people, although they threw a lot of parties. I’d rather have a smaller house and a bigger family, but I guess they didn’t have that choice.

My mother picked up immediately as usual. “Hi, sweetie! So nice to hear from you! How’s this semester going so far?”

“Hi mom. It’s… great. Everything’s pretty great… Actually, it’s not. Mom, am I a prude?”

Oh hi Conrad

She laughed.

“Sweetie! Why do you ask? Did someone call you Mrs. Crumplebottom again?”

“No, it’s just… It seems like everyone around me is dating and stuff, and I’m apparently the only one who thinks it’s better to wait a bit.”

Really, former dean Dr. Gilscarbo Richards, PhD.? Are you really sure you weren’t a great role model?

“Right. I mean, your father and I were probably not the best role models for… correct behaviour, sweetie. But this is not about what you should and shouldn’t do, it’s about what you want. And if waiting is what you really want…”

Focus, Katherine! Focus!

She trailed off, clearly distracted.

“But what if I’m not sure what I… Mom, is that Conrad?”

Conrad, this is not helpful. This is the opposite of helpful.

She giggled.

“… No?”

“Mom, I can literally hear him breathing.”

Conrad’s smooth baritone replied somewhere in the background.

“Hey Freya, hope you’re having a good semester. You should come visit soon, your mother misses you.”

“Thanks, Conrad. I better leave you to it, mom. Bye.”

I hung up before she could reply.

Classic mom and Conrad. It felt like everyone else were having more fun than I did. I thought about what she had said. What did I really want?

I wanted what both of my parents had, separately. But without the absolute dumpster fire of a relationship that resulted in me. Dad and Cecilia seemed blissfully in love, and mom and Conrad could never keep their hands off each other, even in their late fifties.

Of course I wanted a boyfriend. Rather desperately, if I was being honest. I wanted to experience the same things that everyone else did, the excitement and the kissing and the touching. But I also wanted a family that wasn’t broken.

Ideally, I’d find a really solid husband who never drank alcohol, never talked to other women, loved me, and never left. And then we’d have a couple of perfect, well-behaved kids, I’d be a famous football player and the best mother ever and we’d live happily ever after.

I rolled over and sighed. It actually sounded a little dull when I spelled it out like that. But I didn’t want the pain and heartbreak that my parents had been suffering through – or causing.

Most of all, I never wanted any of my children to feel like an accident.

Maybe I was foolish for thinking that I’d get to control everything. I tried to fall asleep, but I couldn’t relax.

Then I heard it.

I could just make out voices, quietly talking and laughing in the hallway outside my door, before moving to the other side of the wall. Samuels’ room. It got very quiet for a while. And then, the faint moans of a girl.

I sat up. Oh no. Anything but this.

The moans got slightly louder. I wasn’t sure what to do. If I went downstairs, they’d know I could hear them. I felt paralysed by the sheer awkwardness of the situation.

The moaning was now accompanied by a faint, rhythmic knocking of wooden bed against the wall. Shit. I wondered if I’d be able to get my headphones without making any noise, but for some reason I couldn’t move.

The girl giggled. “Oh, Sammy!

I was seething. His name is Samuel. I didn’t have time to seethe for long, however, because a much deeper groan now joined in.

I had never heard him sound like that. I got chills. I wanted to hear more of that voice, wanted it to be moaning in my ear, whispering my name. I needed to drown myself in that voice.

On the other side of the wall, Samuel groaned again as the girl babbled on inanely.

I wanted to make it stop, to run in and rip Samuel away from her. I wanted to kill her. I wanted to do unmentionable things to him, to have him do unmentionable things to me.

I had to get away, immediately.

I leapt out of bed, stomped across my room and loudly slammed my door before stomping into the bathroom, slamming that door as well. As I passed Samuel’s room, it was quiet. Good. Hopefully the mood was spoiled.

Samuel definitely does not want to build a snowman right now.

I waited anxiously by the bathroom door, straining to hear what was happening outside. A minute or so later, I heard Samuel’s door open, quiet voices, and someone going down the stairs.

Yes! She was leaving! I exited the bathroom, relief washing over me.

Only to immediately find myself face to face with Samuel, waiting for me outside. He looked about as displeased as could be expected.

“Freya, what the actual fuck was that about?”

“What, did I ruin something? Maybe if you’d tone it down a bit, I would be sleeping by now!”

“Well, if you… Never mind.”

Stupid sexy Samuel.

As he turned his back on me, he paused briefly, shaking his head.

“You can be such a piece of work, Freya, did you know that?”

Then he shut the door behind him.

I sat on my bed, feeling like I’d somehow won a battle but lost the war.

“It’s-a me, libido!”

I hated him. I wanted him. Fuck, when did he get so hot? The sound of his groans still rang in my ears, his naked torso seared into my memory. My entire body felt like it was on fire.

I wouldn’t call it revenge, but only because “returning the favour” sounds so much nicer.

My hands moved down, almost on their own, and for the first time in my life, I made no efforts to be quiet. I’d show him exactly how much of a piece of work I could be.

We were nearing the end of our final semester, and in some ways it felt like a relief. The situation was becoming unbearable, the tension between Samuel and I almost palpable.

We had avoided each other for weeks, much to the confusion of our roommates. I spent as little time as possible in the house, opting to either go for endless runs or do all my studying at Larry’s Lagoon.

I finally made a real attempt at befriending Jessica, and we actually became pretty close. It was much easier for me to hang out with her alone than trying to deal with the entire team at once, and she quickly picked up on that.

I thew myself into the final matches with wild abandon, even resulting in a few injuries, and whenever I had to stay home, I locked myself in my room and studied alone.

I missed Griffin’s horrifying kitchen accident anecdotes and the chaotic energies of Tai and Shen, but I just couldn’t be around Samuel. Besides, everyone was busy preparing for finals, especially the med students.

Whenever I caught a glimpse of Samuel, he looked frustrated. Whether it was only because of the looming exams, I couldn’t tell.

The nights were quiet now, but I still couldn’t sleep. Samuel hadn’t had any more visitors, and I knew he’d slept in his own bed every single night since the incident.

I longed for the semester to be over so we could go our separate ways. He’d probably move away to become a doctor and I’d never have to see him again.

Never.

I sat up, feeling like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over me.

Never seeing Samuel again? What was I thinking? The very idea was insane, impossible.

I almost felt sick. I needed Samuel in my life, needed him like the air I breathed.

I realised that deep down I had always thought that we would be together forever. Being without Samuel? That was never truly an option.

I loved him, more than anything. He had always been mine, and I had somehow assumed that he always would be.

I stared at the rain drops running down my window. After this semester, Samuel was going to disappear from my life. I couldn’t let that happen.

I had no idea what to do with these feelings for Samuel. Now that the floodgates had been opened, I ached to touch him, kiss him, bury my hands in his soft curls. The fact that he was now actively avoiding me only made it so much more painful. Every girl he spoke to felt like a personal attack.

At the end of the final semester, we threw a party at our house.

I was out of control. I wanted Samuel to notice me, to want me, but I didn’t know how. He had wanted me once, years ago, even tried to kiss me. But how did I get us back to that?

Sadly, Freya never wore glasses so she can’t remove them to reveal her true beauty for this 90’s movie makeover.

I had finally asked Jessica for help. She rallied the team, and tonight I found myself wearing one of her dresses. There had been no time for me to learn how to walk in heels, but Daria had some sandals that would do. Trisha even helped me with a tiny bit of makeup.

The party had started by the time I had gathered my courage and came downstairs.

With my heart hammering in my chest, I entered the living room. I wasn’t even sure what I was trying to accomplish, but I needed Samuel to notice me.

He definitely saw me, but his face remained unreadable.

Freya: 100 % maximum no chill

An hour or so passed. I made sure to stay near him, trying to catch his eyes, but it felt like he was doing his best to ignore me. I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Everyone else was having fun, Daria and Griffin even started doing keg stands. Slightly discouraged, I went over to cheer them on instead.

And then, just as Daria dropped Griffin on the floor, Samuel appeared next to me.

He grabbed me by the arm, not too gently.

“Come.”

“Ow! Samuel, what -“

Talking? What a novel idea!

“We need to talk. Upstairs, now.”

I followed him.

As we entered my room, Samuel closed the door and turned to me.

“Now please enlighten me, Freya. What are you playing at?”

I hadn’t actually planned this far. I was never good at talking about my feelings, but I knew that this could be my last chance, so I just blurted it out.

“Samuel… I really miss you – and I hate that we never talk anymore, and I don’t want you to… be with someone else.”

Samuel said nothing.

“I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t figure it out sooner, but I love you.”

He stared at me for a second.

“For fuck’s sake, Freya. NOW you tell me? After I spent the last seven years trying to get over you? And now you’ve finally decided that you love me? That isn’t how it works! That isn’t how any of this works!

Once more, he turned his back on me.

“Samuel, wait…”

He slammed the door behind him. The silence was deafening.

Why did I even try? I should have expected this. The tears were burning in my eyes.

The door was torn open again almost immediately and Samuel marched back into the room.

“Dammit, Freya!”

“I’m sorry, I know I’m an idiot.”

“Yes, you really are”, he croaked, closing the distance between us.

“But you’re my idiot.”

Chapter 29

Just Like Fire

The year I turned 42 was also the year we lost my mother. My father soon followed her, just as he always had in life.

They had been inseparable through everything – demanding careers, the loss of my brother, all of my problems – for almost 45 years. And now, not even death could keep them apart for long.

It’s a terrible day for rain.

I was shattered. I wouldn’t have gotten through it without Cecilia. I could only hope to get 45 years by her side as well.

I tried to keep it together for the girls who were also grieving.

Freya took it the hardest, of course.

She had known them for much longer than Grace, and had always been close with her grandparents. And she was already dealing with a lot.

At least something good came out of it. Samuel came over to comfort her, although things were a little awkward between them at first.

But their life-long friendship won in the end, and it actually seemed like they finally made up.

Can I offer you a nice hug in this trying time?

I don’t know if they ever discussed that fateful evening a few years ago, when he revealed his true feelings, but I was glad that she at least had the comfort of a friend.