Adrienne West focused on her breathing. In. Out. She could get through this. It was just a lunch. Lunch in downtown Phoenix near where her husband had been killed. One hundred eighty-four days, thirteen hours, and fourteen minutes ago. Well, crap. She mentally slapped herself. The constant counting was not helping.
She closed her eyes, blocking out the chatter of the other occupants on the light rail. The public transportation swayed as it glided down the tracks. A truck engine grumbled as the driver pressed the gas pedal, momentarily drowning out the electric motors’ whine. In. Out. She could do this.
Grief pole-axed her. She struggled to drag in oxygen. It shouldn’t hurt this much, not after One hundred eighty-four days, thirteen hours, and sixteen minutes. Her parents said so without looking her in the eye. Her friends nagged at her to leave the house still holding boxes of a life that had ended, the cartons of photos of her late husband embracing her and the basket of diapers still emitting the faint whiff of talcum powder.
Talcum powder. She crammed the heel of her hand into her mouth and doubled over. Every nerve in her body seemed to have exploded through her skin. Just stop breathing. Just stop and it would end.
She could join her husband and baby boy.
It should be so easy. Yet, her lungs continued to draw in air. Her heart continued to beat despite being shattered. Hot tears prickled her eyes but didn’t spill over.
Laughter swirled around her.
Opening her eyes, she wiped her nose on the sleeve of her hoodie. Life wasn’t fair. And she was stuck here. Drying her sweaty palms on her black slacks, she stared out the window catching a glimpse of the hospital where her son had been born, at the park where she and her husband had lunched, and the building where he worked designing electronics for exclusive clients. Each place a scab she picked at, revealing the bloody wound underneath.
The train car glided into the station near the Burton Barr Library.
Her heart drummed in her ears. Leave. Now. Escape back to suburbia. To the safe memories. Phantom echoes of his presence in their room. Cold spots that still smelled of his cologne.
A female voice chimed that the doors were closing.
She stood up and faced the loft apartments where they’d lived as newlyweds, where they’d made love for the first time, where they’d conceived their son. Her feet wouldn’t budge. Not an inch closer to the memories.
The door closed. The rail car glided forward.
She collapsed on the hard plastic seat and wrapped her arms around her stomach to hold herself together. She had to do it. It was just lunch. Thirty to forty minutes tops. Then she could call Lyft and take the freeway back to her suburban ranch, take off her bra and change back into her husband’s old sweatsuit. They’d promised to leave her alone for six months. Six months of not having to go out in a world where her husband and son didn’t exist anymore.
In. Out. In. The phone in her pocket vibrated. She tensed. Was her security alarm going off again? Would the screen only reveal static? Would she come home to find her underwear drawer empty and her cosmetics on the floor? Would she finally catch sight of her dead husband reaching out from beyond the grave? Would she finally have proof of the haunting to her parents, friends and neighbor? Only one way to find out.
She unfolded her arms and jerked her phone out of her pocket. ‘Jenna’ flashed across the screen along with a small bubble of her face. Smiling. Happy. Adrienne inhaled a shaky breath. People were allowed to be happy. Her friends were allowed to be happy.
The ignore icon popped up—a big red button against the black background of her iPhone. So tempting, so very tempting. But Jenna knew where Adrienne lived and had a key. Her finger hovered over the ignore button. What was the point? Either they had a conversation on the train or in ten minutes when Adrienne arrived at the restaurant.
She accepted the call. “Hello.”
“You chickened out on us, didn’t you?” Annoyance sharpened the edges of Jenna’s words.
A bell chimed, and the computer announced her station.
“No.” Adrienne pushed out of her chair. “I’m on my way.”
“She says she’s on her way.” Jenna didn’t bother to cover the mouthpiece of her phone. Why would she?
Thirty-two times Adrienne had made an excuse for not meeting them at a restaurant. She shuffled to the exit and crossed onto the outdoor station. “I am on my way.”
“Demand to see proof of life.” Her friend Cathy’s shout came through the phone.
Adrienne winced. If she could hear Cathy, so could everyone else in the restaurant. But Cathy always spoke loudly.
“Proof of life?” Adrienne could almost hear Jenna roll her eyes. “She hasn’t been kidnapped.”
“I don’t know,” Cathy persisted. “That’s probably the only excuse she hasn’t used so far to stand us up.”
If Adrienne thought it would have helped her escape their good-intentioned meddling, she might have faked a kidnapping. She fidgeted at the corner. “Dammit, I’m going to be there in a couple of minutes. I’m already at the corner of Third Avenue and Jefferson.”
She might have saved her breath.
“Yeah…” Jenna drawled. “But Cathy has a point.”
“Fine.” They wanted a picture. She would send them a picture. But she wasn’t going to look at it. She didn’t want to see the guilt in her eyes. “Give me a minute, and I’ll send it.”
“If you don’t call us back in a minute, we will come and get you.”
“You won’t have to go far.” Hanging up, she stumbled over the uneven sidewalk. Either she stopped to take the dang picture, or she might actually have a genuine excuse for bowing out of lunch—like a broken neck. She swiped her thumb across the screen, activating her camera and reversing lenses. Pulling herself into the frame, she quickly snapped a picture. Don’t look. Don’t look at it.
She uploaded the image and texted it to her friends.
A baby’s shriek sent an arrow straight through her heart. Adrienne glanced up. The phone slipped through her numb fingers. The man across the street looked just like her husband—the same tight fit of his jeans, the same broad shoulders, and the same nice definition of biceps from his workouts.
Stop it. She had to stop it. Her parents said so. Her friends said so. Her therapist said so. Only her neighbor Eli didn’t say so. He just listened. Her husband was dead, and he wasn’t coming back. She needed to move on, to live again despite the loss. Her breath lodged in her throat at the curl at the stranger’s nape. Andrew’s hair had always done that, and she loved to tug on it before kissing his neck.
Focus on what’s different. Her therapist’s words whispered through her thoughts.
Different. She could do that. Adrienne scanned the man from head to toe. Nothing was different. Nothing.
The man lowered the toddler to the ground. A shiny black band flashed on his wrist.
The watch. Her knees nearly buckled. She wasn’t hallucinating. She wasn’t losing her mind. Andrew would never wear such a watch. He loved the old timepieces with a sweep of hands for seconds, minutes, and hours. What else? What else could she see? Her gaze dropped to the toddler.
Apple cheeks bloomed in his chubby face. Even from here, she could see his cobalt blue eyes, so like Andrew’s. The flop of curly dark hair tugged at her. Oh, God, the boy was harder. Her son could have looked like that had he lived just a few months longer. They’d even talked of buying him a Diamondback’s jersey for their first baseball game.
Adrienne squeezed her eyes closed. She had to stop it. She had to stop seeing him everywhere. Stop thinking he was haunting her. The light rail rattled closer. Maybe she wasn’t ready to go downtown.
The toddler’s shriek dissolved into a giggle.
Her eyes flew open.
Across the street, the man stood in profile, raising the laughing child above his head.
She recognized the curve of the man’s jaw, the bump on his nose, and the velvety chocolate rumble of his voice.
“Caught you, you little terror.”
Oh my God! That was her dead husband!