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Oliver and Samuel’s relationship is fairy-tale perfect. They share a gorgeous house in Antwerp, go out with their friends every weekend, and count down the days to their dream wedding. But their happy ending is shattered one late night, and just like that, Ollie is left bereft and alone.
The months that follow are long and dark, but slowly Ollie emerges from his grief. He even braves the waters of online dating, though deep down he doesn’t believe he can find that connection again. He doesn’t think to look for love right in front of him: his bisexual friend Thomas, the gentle giant with a kind heart and sad eyes who’s wanted him all along.
When Thomas suddenly discovers he has a son who needs him, he’s ill prepared. Ollie opens up his house—Sam’s house—and lets them in. Ollie doesn’t know what scares him more: the responsibility of caring for a baby, or the way Thomas is steadily winning his heart. It will take all the courage he has to discover whether or not fairy tales can happen for real.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Ever since we’d left high school, Saturday nights had been holy. Untouchable. All-night happy hour at the Nine Barrels was something none of us skipped. The bar was known for its paella and port wine, but we went there to drink cheap beer and gyrate to Latin music while hitting on anything that moved.
Or, well, the others did the hitting. Not me. I’d found the love of my life when I was sixteen years old. He was being incredibly stubborn at the moment. Or maybe I was being a bit of a brat.
“But it’s Saturday,” I complained for the tenth time that day.
Sam sent me a look with a hint of annoyance, and I knew I was running out of brat-credit. “It’s one time, Ollie. It won’t hurt,” he said as he straightened his tie.
“I don’t know about that.” I threw myself back on our perfectly made bed and luxuriated in the duvet with the ridiculous thread count. “I might injure myself. You know like how those marathon runners or professional cyclists can’t just stop doing exercise or their overlarge hearts will explode? I bet it’s the same with me. I stop drinking abruptly and—”
“Your liver will explode?” Samuel smiled at me in our stripped and repainted mirror—an old piece of shit I’d found on one of my digs through Antwerp’s flea markets and that Samuel had completely turned into a work of art. “Now there’s a sight I’d like to see. Besides, there will be alcohol at this party. Better alcohol.”
It was mostly his eyes that laughed at me. Samuel always laughed with his eyes. His dark eyelashes were so long. They’d lift as his eyes narrowed in mirth, and the pale blue of his irises would glint with mischief and promise.
He spun on his heel, and I snapped my mouth shut. We’d known each other since we were ten. We’d started dating when we were sixteen, we’d had sex for the first time two weeks later, and we were getting married in one month. And still he took my breath away. Samuel always looked gorgeous, but Samuel in a suit threatened to melt my brain.
“Hi,” he murmured as he walked up to the bed.
“Hi,” I said. I sat up so I could touch him—his lapels, the white shirt underneath, the luscious burgundy tie. He kissed my nose.
“Get dressed, Ollie. We go to the opening, I show my face, do some brownnosing, and then we’ll go to the Nine Barrels.”
“Really?” I sprang up and hugged him—lightly, I didn’t want to crease him. “You’re the best.”
“That’s why you love me.” He grinned, and his eyes crinkled.
God. All mine.
“I do,” I whispered and kissed him. He smelled of cinnamon toothpaste—which I thought was disgusting to brush with, but somehow on him it tasted divine—and of my favorite aftershave. His dark hair was carefully gelled away from his face, and I wanted to mess it up but didn’t. I knew how important hosting this event was to him, his first as manager of the gallery. So I let him go, lifted my own suit off the hanger, and began to dress.
Samuel sat on the bed and watched me. I felt like making lewd jokes, but something fragile hung in the air, something to be treasured. A little moment in time I’d remember forever.
“You look gorgeous,” he told me when I struggled with my tie. He rose to his feet, squeezed my hands, then gently moved them aside. With long, deft fingers, he did my tie for me. He stared into my eyes the entire time. It was sappy. I didn’t care.
“You sure they’ll be okay with me being at the gallery?”
Samuel shrugged one shoulder. “They all know.”
“Knowing and seeing are two different things.”
He’d been working for his current boss at a huge gallery for over three years, but this was the first time she’d let him organize an opening party, and he’d managed to snag one of Antwerp’s most up-and-coming talents. I’d been to the odd Christmas do, but this felt different.
Samuel cupped my face. “It’s fine, Ollie. I’m not the only gay person who works at the gallery. This is Antwerp, after all.” The right side of his mouth lifted. “Stop looking for excuses.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay.”
He opened his arms, and I walked right into them, sighing deeply. Samuel was taller than me by a good four inches, and broader—not that that was hard.
“You make me feel so safe,” I murmured. His cheek lifted against my temple, and I smiled too.
“That’s good to know,” he said and gently let go. “We need to leave soon. Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“You’ll be wonderful.”
One last attempt to get out from under this. “But I won’t know anyone and I’ll look sad and pathetic.” I fluttered my eyelashes at him, knowing it wouldn’t work.
“All the women will fawn over you as they always do because you look like a blue-eyed Labrador puppy.”
“Thanks.” I pouted, and he laughed, ruffling my hair. Unlike his, mine didn’t have any gel in it, because while it was thick, it was straight as a pin.
“Let’s get going.”
We trudged down the marble steps of our ridiculously oversize home. We lived in a three-story house with a large garden right on the edge of Antwerp South, as the area was known. No twenty-six-year-olds should’ve been able to afford a place like this, but Samuel’s grandmother had been filthy rich and he’d been the only grandchild, so . . . lucky us.
His parents had been less than happy with Grandma’s choice and had tried to talk Sam into giving up the house for a while, but the will had been solidly drawn up, and they quickly let go of any objections. Sam and his parents had gone through a tense couple of months after that, but everything seemed to be forgotten now. He didn’t talk to me about it all that much. I always felt he had a strange attachment to the house, an intense connection I didn’t entirely understand.
We actually didn’t use a lot of the rooms. I’d suggested more than once that we should rent out a room or two to students, since we were close to a few colleges and a hospital, but Samuel didn’t like the idea.
The early June evening was fresh but not cold when we stepped out, and we walked arm in arm toward the tram that would take us into the center. For once it didn’t look like rain, and I squeezed Samuel’s biceps. Despite my earlier little tantrum, there was nowhere I’d rather be.
“You’ll be great tonight,” I told him, and he smiled down on me.
I probably drank more at the gallery than I should have—but I managed to make small talk and be polite and appear interested in the women who descended on me, as Samuel had predicted.
I was proud of my fiancé. He looked cool and competent as he guided guests inside, welcomed them, made sure they had something to drink while he chatted briefly here and there. He was always sending people off to see a particular piece of art. He checked on caterers, sufficiently calmed the artist—who looked one shattered glass away from a nervous breakdown—so the twitchy prodigy started chatting to potential buyers too. I noticed Sam managed to gather a collection of business cards along the way. His boss would be pleased.
He was born for this. A true people person. While I, on the other hand, loved hanging out with our close group of friends, but needed downtime afterward to recharge. Events like this made my knees knock together.
I kept my straight face going for most of the evening, but when it neared eleven and the party didn’t seem to be winding down, I began to worry. I really didn’t want to be stuck here all night. I was pretty sure two old ladies had squeezed my butt, and one scary bald guy with a scar through his top lip had given me his card in case I needed “a real man.”
I shuddered as I wondered what someone like that was doing at an art gallery. I remembered Antwerp had its very own mix of Mafia and decided I didn’t want to know.
As if my thoughts had summoned him, Samuel appeared by my side.
“I need to talk to one more person,” he told me, “and then we can go.”
“Really?” I tried not to look as happy as I sounded. I probably failed.
“Really.” He grinned and touched my sleeve. “Angela can take over from here. Everyone’s getting drunk now and just talking. Hardly anyone is looking at the art, and the doors are locked, so no one new can come in. Why don’t you go get our coats and I’ll meet you at the back?”
“You’re my favorite person in the world.”
“Lies. Stijn is your favorite person in the world.”
“Only for five minutes on Sunday mornings when I buy chocolate croissants from him. The rest of the time, I’m all yours.”
He smiled and his eyes twinkled, and suddenly I was reminded of the first time he’d looked at me that way, after our very first kiss in my bedroom. It had been a fraught moment because I didn’t know what I was doing or if he wanted it too or what it meant that I wanted it with him and not Cleo, our other best friend. His mouth had met mine. He’d opened me up from the inside out. And just like that, the world had stopped being a scary place.
“I won’t be long,” he said, and I nodded. The coat check was on the other side of the building, but I lingered a minute so I could watch him walk away. Damn.
When I looked up, one of the old ladies gave me a lavish wink. I offered her a little wave before scurrying away.
“Why do elderly women like me?” I lamented as we walked toward the Nine Barrels. The walk was maybe three miles or so and the air had turned chilly at last, but I didn’t mind. Antwerp was gorgeous at night, the traffic negligible, and we held hands as we crossed the cobblestone streets on our way to the harbor.
“It’s your personal charm,” Samuel said. He glanced down and smirked, and I knew what was coming. “Or maybe it’s the fact that you look like a mildly underfed young boy. You bring out their mothering instincts.”
“Since two of them copped a feel, that’s gross.”
Samuel burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it; I laughed too. “Well, it’s because you’re so beautiful they just can’t help themselves.”
I squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back. “You’re not so bad yourself,” I said.
“No, stop with the praise. It’s too much. I can’t take it.”
We walked down the Hoogstraat, which meant we were almost at the bar. I loved this whole area, but mostly the small antique stores that lined the streets. They sold everything from absolute junk to the most gorgeous pieces of furniture I’d ever seen.
“We should come back on Sunday,” I said to Samuel as I tried to peer through one shop’s gated-up doors. “We could get breakfast and go shopping.”
“We don’t need any more stuff,” he said. There was mirth in his voice, and I knew he’d come with me anyway. Partially to keep me company, but also because he liked strolling the Antwerp streets as much as I did. There could be something magical about this place. There was ugliness too, as in any city. Mostly it was pretty easy to ignore. Its seaport brought with it an industrial coldness, cranes standing out like silent monsters in the night. In contrast, the fashion, the art, and the students lent it a vibrancy that made my blood thrum.
“Maybe we’ll find an old crib,” I teased. “For all those babies we’re going to adopt when we’re married.”
He pretended to glare at me. “No babies. Not even furry ones.”
I squeezed his arm to let him know I was only teasing, and we walked on in silence. The streets grew busier, and when we neared the Nine Barrels, we could hear the music spilling out into the night.
As he always did before we went inside, Samuel pulled me close and kissed me lightly on the mouth. “I love you,” he murmured.
“I love you too, Sam,” I said. If I’d known it’d be the last time he’d ever hear me say it, I would never have let go.
The Nine Barrels itself was a tiny place, but the front door didn’t open up straight into the restaurant. The building was old and gorgeous, with a little courtyard that had been covered with a concave glass roof two stories up. The owner had crammed in a few tables and chairs there, with small trees and flowerpots strategically positioned to give patrons the idea they were still outside.
The left and right of the courtyard held stores that had closed hours ago. Small groups of people were murmuring over their porto and tapas. We pushed our way past. As soon as we entered the restaurant, loud music assaulted our ears, and my eyes fell on Cleo dancing on top of the bar. Simultaneously we looked at each other and laughed.
“Night shifts?” I asked Samuel, and he grinned.
Cleo was an ER nurse with a brutal schedule, but she figured she needed to work the hardest while she was young and childless. Her boyfriend Imran stood in the corner of the restaurant, chatting with a bunch of people I didn’t know, but as soon as he saw us, he excused himself and made his way over.
“Where’s Thomas?” I asked as we hugged hello. Imran nodded toward the other end of the bar from where Cleo was dancing. Thomas was patiently waiting for the bartender’s attention. He turned and gave us a little wave, as if he had heard me.
“You want something to drink?” Samuel asked.
“Sure.” I dug for my wallet, but Samuel stilled my hand.
“I got it,” he said, and I bit my tongue. Money was the only real argument we’d ever had, and we’d only had it once, but that didn’t mean I could always keep a lid on the trickle of embarrassment I felt whenever he paid for me.
“What’s yours is mine,” he’d told me once, “and what’s mine is yours. We’re going to be married one day, so what difference does it make now?”
Since we’d only been eighteen at the time, that counterargument had shut me up effectively. But these days I had a decent wage of my own as a medical software consultant. He’d been asking to make our accounts joint since we moved into his grandmother’s house four years ago, but I wanted to wait until we really were married.
He winked at me like he knew exactly what I was thinking and then walked up to Thomas to take over the drink ordering.
Cleo and I had played naked together in the paddling pool when we were three, so she was pretty much considered my sister—and Samuel’s too. Imran had joined our little triumvirate when he began dating Cleo. Their affair had been the dirtiest gossip her nursing school had ever known. Imran had been a resident at the hospital where Cleo had started her first practical, and needless to say, the authorities were not pleased. They’d lasted, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he popped the question at our wedding. The thunder stealer.
Thomas de Ridder had been the last addition to our group of friends. He had slipped in almost unnoticed three years ago. As head of IT at one of the hospitals where I’d had to install new software and familiarize everyone with it, he’d spent a lot of time with me. When I’d asked him to join us for a drink after a really late night, he’d agreed. He’d been quiet, and I’d wondered if I’d made a mistake not warning him about my having a boyfriend. But he’d agreed to join us again the next time, and after that he never left.
I watched Sam and Thomas kiss each other on the cheek, then talk for a minute before Thomas grinned and lifted his hands. If you want to stand in line, be my guest. Or something like that. He scanned the crowd, spotted someone, looked in our direction, and winked before moving in for the kill.
My fears about Thomas being homophobic had long since proven to be grossly unfounded. As he wove through the crowd, I had no clue who his target would be. The gorgeous brick of a guy who looked like he could be a professional triathlete? Or the short girl with a blonde bob and an impressive—even to me—pair of boobs? It didn’t matter who it was. Thomas wouldn’t be joining us again for the rest of the night. He was an unapologetic, self-proclaimed slut who would “settle down when I find the one, and how can I possibly find the one unless I try them all?”
I shook my head and left him to it, watching as Samuel fought the crowd to the small table I’d been able to secure.
He put everyone’s beers on the laminated wood. Thomas’s drink would most likely go untouched, so I appropriated it with a cheeky smile. Sam kissed the top of my head and straddled a chair. “You going to join Cleo soon?”
“I need some liquid courage first,” I said and pushed the lime into one of my beers. Imran tapped the neck of his bottle to mine, and we drank. “Water, Sam?” I asked when I saw him sip his glass.
He smiled at me and ran a hand through my hair, tugging it lightly. “Yeah. Don’t feel like drinking tonight, but you go on. I know you’ve been looking forward to the weekend.”
“Not to mention all the mimosas I’ve had already.” I sniggered into my beer, and Imran laughed.
“Good show?” he asked Samuel.
“Not bad.” Samuel hooked his arms over the back of the chair, resting his chin on his wrist, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him. His eyes twinkled with pride, and I squeezed his knee. He didn’t like to brag about anything, ever, but he’d done well and he knew it.
“You were amazing,” I told him, and beside me Imran made a gagging noise.
“You two put all the couples in the world to shame,” he said. “I’m disgusted.” He drank his beer, and Sam tugged my hair again. I threaded my fingers through his. Yeah, we were sappy, and I couldn’t care less.
Out of nowhere Cleo dropped into Imran’s lap and snatched Samuel’s water, which she downed in one go.
“Darlings,” she said and blew us kisses. “How did opening night go?”
“It was perfect,” I told her.
“So you hated every minute of it.”
Sam laughed at my indignant “No!”
“He did. You should’ve seen him, Cleo. Pressed against the wall like a frightened little flower.”
I sniffed when they all laughed at me. “Well, those old ladies have very sharp nails. And that bald guy was either going to make me buy illegal art or force me to become a running boy for his Mafia diamond-trade operation.”
“I think he just wanted to make you his bum boy,” Samuel said, and I felt my cheeks stain red while the others hollered at me in glee.
“Come dance,” Cleo said, and she gripped my hand. She was sweating head to toe, her dark hair hanging in thick strands to her collarbones, and she still managed to look radiant. I fought her tugging long enough to kiss Sam, because I knew once I was on that dance floor with her, I wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon. Our mouths brushed together, and for a moment the music seemed to dim, the noise around us fading into nothing. There was just me and him.
“God, Ollie,” he whispered, and then he let me go. The noise returned with a bang, the music heaving in the sweltering heat. I lifted my free hand, gave in to Cleo’s tugging, and whooped. She laughed and swung her arms around me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Thomas making out with the buxom blonde, and after that my world dissolved into the hot rhythm of Latin music and Cleo’s lithe body against mine.
Around three in the morning, the music slowed a little and Imran came to steal Cleo away. Right behind him was Samuel, and we slipped into a slow dance as if we’d rehearsed it. He didn’t say much and neither did I, but I felt the moment deeply, like a comforting weight in the center of my soul, grounding me to earth. I closed my eyes and smiled as I laid my head on his shoulder.
“Can we go soon?” he asked me when the song ended. “It’s been a long day, and I’m tired.”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course. Let me just go grab a glass of water. I’m parched.”
“Sure. I’ll be waiting in the courtyard. I need some air. Thomas said we can take his car.” He held out a bunch of keys, and I was relieved we wouldn’t have to walk home.
The place was still busy but not packed anymore, and I got my water pretty quickly. Cleo and Imran were snuggled up in the corner, so I just gave them a little wave. When I saw Thomas standing all by himself, I went to go say hi.
“What’s up?” I asked. “Where’s your girl?”
“Her name’s Liesbeth. And she’s in the bathroom,” he said. A strand of his long brown hair had gotten stuck between his lips. He’d pulled it back in a bun, but a lot of it had come undone and clung to his neck in sweaty peaks. I plucked the hair out of his mouth.
“So you won’t need our couch?” Thomas lived outside of Antwerp in a small village by the Schelde. He always talked about moving to the city so he wouldn’t have to deal with traffic on the E17 anymore. So far he hadn’t made real plans yet.
His gaze trailed to the bathroom, and I followed it, seeing the girl emerge. She waved, and we both waved back. He smirked at me. “Doubtful, but I’ll call if I do.”
“I’ll leave you to it. Good luck.” We hugged quickly, and he rubbed my back.
“Take care,” he said.
I nodded and walked away.
Samuel was waiting for me by the big wooden door that led to the street. “Ready to go?” he asked as he held up his arm. I walked underneath it and snuggled close.
“Yes. Did you have a good time?”
He smiled down at me. “I had a great time. You know I love watching you have fun.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want you to sit through these evenings because you have to.”
“No, I had a good time talking to Imran. His hospital stories are always incredible.”
Thomas had left his car by the docks. We crossed the Ernest Van Dijckkaai, a wide road that hugged the water. The night smelled of the sea air the river brought with it. A cool wind had picked up and made me shiver, and Samuel hugged me tighter.
Little light covered the parking lots, and we fell quiet as we hurried along. Samuel held Thomas’s key out, and in the distance a car beeped once as its indicators flashed.
We walked toward it, and a chill ran down my spine. Every single hair on the back of my neck rose. Either my eyes were playing tricks or the world was turning darker. The foreboding hung so thick I could taste it. “Sam,” I whispered.
“I know.” He grabbed my hand, squeezed it, then tugged me forward. We half ran toward the car. I’d never figure out why, but I understood something terrible was about to happen. My heart tried to claw its way out of my throat.
“Sam,” I said again, and a dark figure stepped out from behind a van. “Oh no.”
“Your wallet,” the man said. His eyes were wide and his gaze kept darting from me to Sam to the street behind us. It was hard to see his face, but every now and again the dim light caught the sweat on his forehead or the brown of his rotting teeth. “Both of you. Car keys, phones, watches. All of it.”
“Oh God.” I began to tremble, and Samuel took a careful step away from me. The mugger’s frantic eyes followed him, which must have been Sam’s intention, but I didn’t like it one bit.
“Do what he says,” he told me calmly. “It’ll be okay.”
I nodded and tried to keep a hold of myself as I undid the watch on my wrist. It had been a gift from my dad, but in that moment it could’ve been a gift from the king and I wouldn’t have cared.
By the time I managed to take my phone and wallet out of my pockets, I was trembling so hard I fumbled and dropped them. Then it all happened at once.
“Oh God,” I said again, bending to pick them up.
The guy yelled, “Stay where you are!” and Samuel stepped between us.
I heard the guy swear, ripping something from Samuel’s hands. Samuel turned around, his eyes wide.
“It’s okay,” he said.
“Yeah, we can get new wallets.” I tried to laugh, but my eyes were wet and my voice was hoarse. I looked up to see the man running away. “He’s gone. Should I call the police?”
“I think you need to call an ambulance,” Samuel whispered. He was clutching at me, dragging me down with him. I didn’t understand.
“Sam? Sammy? Oh my God. Oh my God.” I tried to ease him down slowly, but he was so heavy we both fell. The gravel bit painfully into my knee, and his head lolled to the side.
“Sam!” I grabbed his face and righted it. He looked at me and mouthed something, but all that came out were bubbles of blood. “No. No no no, Samuel, oh please, God, no.” He was clutching his abdomen and I pried his fingers away. A thick pool of blood darkened his shirt. I made a hoarse noise. Pressing my hands over what must be a stab wound, I looked up and saw a couple walking. “Help me!” I yelled. I fumbled around for either of our phones, but my vision was cloudy with panic and tears, and I couldn’t find them. “Somebody help me!”
When I looked back down at Samuel, his eyes had filmed over.
I screamed as his blood seeped under my fingernails. And because grief is, intrinsically, a selfish emotion, all I felt was my own heart bleeding.
I sat in the hospital, unaware of anything but the loud buzzing noise between my ears and the glaringly bright lights. I had no idea how I’d gotten there. Someone in a police uniform was kneeling in front of me. His mouth was moving, but I heard nothing. Eventually he shook his head and stood. I watched him go toward a nurse. They talked. He pointed at me. She looked over and nodded. Her mouth pinched together in what could’ve been sympathy. I averted my eyes. I didn’t want to see anyone’s pity. That meant acknowledging something was wrong.
Someone rubbed my arm. I looked down at the hand. Wrinkled fingers stroked the fabric of my coat. I knew the fat golden ring on the index finger, but my brain didn’t work. I looked up. It was Sam’s mom. I quickly looked away again. Cleo sat on my other side, sobbing so hard I suddenly understood why the chair I sat in seemed to be moving jerkily. I looked away from her too.
Something cold pressed to my cheek. I startled.
“You have blood on your face.”
They were the first words to penetrate the fog in my mind since Samuel told me to call an ambulance.
Where the cop had been, Thomas crouched. His eyes were swollen and red, his cheeks tearstained. There was such enormous pain in his gaze, my heart flinched.
“There’s blood on your face,” he said again. “Here, let me . . .”
He pressed the wet paper towels to my temple. I watched them come away dark with brown flecks. Sam’s blood.
I lurched out of the chair and barely made it to the bathroom in time to throw up into the sink. I didn’t look at myself. I couldn’t look at anything, because everything would bring me closer to acknowledging the truth. I rinsed my mouth and walked out.
“Ollie? The police have to ask you some questions, darling.”
Oh no. I shook my head, not looking at Sam’s mother either. “I want to see him,” I whispered. “Can I see him?”
A nurse stepped into my line of sight. “Yes. You can come with me.”
“Do you want anyone to go with you?” Cleo asked.
I glanced at Sam’s mom, but she was staring into space. I shook my head.
I should’ve felt something, surely. But there was nothing at all as I kept my eyes on the nurse’s white shoes and followed her down the stark hallway. Her soles squeaked with every step. I had no idea where we were going.
She opened a door leading to a small, single-bed hospital room. “Will you be okay?” she asked me.
I looked around the sterile space, the huge window in it, the crisp, clean floor, the table with its retractable leaf, the handrails, and finally the unmoving shape in the lonely bed. He was in a bed. Did that mean he’d still been alive when the ambulance brought him in? I wished I could remember if anyone had said something, but my mind was completely blank. I couldn’t even recall the ambulance ride.
No, I thought. No, I will never be okay again. “I’ll be fine.”
She nodded, touched my shoulder gently, and left me to it.
I took one step and then stood nailed to the floor as the door quietly fell shut behind me. It felt like I should stand there forever, like this moment should never move along.
What lay ahead of me anyway? Nothing at all. I tried to imagine, for a second, what life would be like without Sammy in it. My brain recoiled and slapped that thought away like it was an angry wasp. I stood there until my toes cramped.
I caught sight of Samuel’s hands, and my gaze snagged there. I wasn’t ready to look at his face.
His hands lay on top of the sheet, by his sides. They were pale and a little bit dirty. I stepped into the bathroom to my right and grabbed a few paper towels. I wet them under the tap and slowly walked over. His hand was still warm. Maybe not as warm as it should’ve been, but warm enough to pretend.
“I’ll clean you up,” I said. “I know how much you hate dirt under your fingernails. Unless it’s paint. You never seem to mind paint. Although . . .” I lifted my head and smiled as I stared out of the window. The sky was turning gray in the distance. I didn’t want there to be a new day, or a new dawn. It reminded me of every morning lying ahead of me when I’d wake up without . . .
I pushed that thought away too. “You could only bear the paint on your hands as long as you were actually painting. As soon as you were done, you’d scrub and scrub until it was gone.”
When I’d cleaned the dirt from one hand, I stood to get fresh paper towels and sat down on his other side.
“You never told me what you’ve been working on lately. I’m sorry to say I’m going to have to take a peek now.” I cleaned his fingers and his palm. “You always used to let me see all your paintings, no matter what stage they were in. So I could only come to one conclusion, you know. It’s a wedding present, isn’t it?”
I dropped his hand. I dropped the towels. Automatically, like a reflex, I raised my head and looked at his face.
“Sammy?” I asked in a very small voice. My hand trembled when I lifted it to swipe his hair aside. The gel had all come out, and it looked so soft. My favorite time of day was when he’d exit his evening shower and I could run my hands freely through his locks.
An ugly hiccup of a sob tore itself free from my mouth. I covered it to make sure no other noise escaped. His eyes were closed. His lips were pale. I dropped my hands. “Sammy?”
Nothing. Of course, nothing. Because Samuel Mathieu was gone. He’d been gone for goodness knew how long, while I’d been sitting in the waiting room, trying to change the course of time.
It was my fault. If we’d left earlier, if I hadn’t insisted on going out, if we’d stayed at the gallery and gone home from there . . .
I shook all over when I rose to my feet. Tears leaked out of my eyes and fell onto his cheeks as I leaned over him. I tried to wipe them away, but it was no use; they kept on falling. The pain was immeasurable, a giant beast in my chest, and I thought it wouldn’t ever stop roaring. I gave up, pressed a gentle kiss to his lips, and carefully lay down beside him, where I cried and cried until someone came to take me away.
I couldn’t remember anything between that moment and the funeral. Most likely I slept a lot on my mom’s couch. She lived in a small apartment on Linkeroever, on the other side of the Schelde. After my dad died when I was eighteen, and as I got ready to move on to college life, she’d downsized and never looked back.
The weather was undecided on the day of the funeral. A few raindrops fell when we entered the Holy Ghost Church, and as I sat through the service, I kept listening for a downpour on the roof but heard nothing. I don’t remember what the priest said. Afterward, a lot of people offered me condolences, one or two ignored me completely—I couldn’t have cared less even though my mom was outraged—and then I was in our home, with people eating and laughing and reminiscing.
I hadn’t been here since Sam died. It didn’t feel like my house without him in it, and part of me wondered if I’d have to give it up now. Did he have a will? I didn’t know. I hadn’t even been able to answer the question if he’d wanted to be cremated or not. His mother had thought so, and so did I, even though the idea of it had made me cry for hours. Imagining that beautiful man wasting away in a coffin six feet under had been ten times worse, so cremation it was.
I blinked. Somehow I’d made my way to our bedroom. From here the noise downstairs was a dim murmur. I couldn’t begrudge them their laughter, but it cut my soul.
Cleo stared at me, and her bottom lip began to tremble.
“Hey,” I said. When I looked down, I noticed I was holding one of Sam’s soft cashmere sweaters. I brought it to my nose and inhaled. His scent hit me like a sucker punch. “I can’t do this,” I whispered. I looked at Cleo and held the sweater out. “How do I do this? Help me, Cleo.”
Her face cracked and she ran at me, hugging me hard and crushing the sweater between us. I wanted to shove her away and fold it, but she wouldn’t let me.
“We’re here,” she whispered. “Oh, Oliver, we’re here for you. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. If I hadn’t insisted you come out that night . . .”
Her grip on me loosened, and I pushed her away, holding her arms tight so I could look at her. “No,” I said firmly, giving her a little shake. The awful urge to shake her really hard washed over me, but I didn’t. “This is not on you.”
It’s on me.
Work gave me a week off for bereavement leave, and I took another three weeks’ vacation because there was no way I’d be fit to join the general population after seven days. I stayed with my mother for a while, but I grew antsy there. I kept thinking our house still smelled like us, and I was missing it. Soon he’d fade away completely, and I wouldn’t remember his scent, or his voice, or what he looked like. I’d never know him when he was old. I’d never get to see him with gray hair.
I went home and slept a lot. I received a ton of phone calls I continued to ignore. My mom stopped by a few times, and I managed to pull myself together for long enough to shower and see her, but as soon as she was gone, I went back to bed. I could tell she was worried about me. It bothered me in a vague way because I knew she was grieving too, but I didn’t have the energy to think too much about it.
I wondered what was going to become of me. What about the house? It belonged to Sam. We hadn’t bothered signing any sort of contract because we were getting married anyway. I had no idea what would happen to his bank accounts or his savings, and I honestly couldn’t care in that moment. Sam would’ve wanted me to have it all, but he wasn’t here to stand up for me anymore.
“I miss you,” I whispered into his pillow, and I could hear his voice, almost clear as day, telling me, I know.
Crying again, I pulled my phone from underneath my pillow and dialed his number. Apparently he had fallen on top of our mobiles. The attacker had only taken my watch and Sam’s wallet. An onlooker had grabbed our things and given them to a paramedic. Sam’s battery had gone flat a long time ago, but I hadn’t canceled his service yet.
“You’ve reached the voice mail of Samuel Mathieu. I’m not available right now, but please leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
I cried until my throat was sore, with my mouth wide open, until his pillow was drenched in tears and snot and saliva. I really needed to change the sheets, but the idea of washing even part of him away was enough to make me throw up with anxiety. I couldn’t do this. How was I supposed to do this?
Then, a few days before I was supposed to go back to work, I couldn’t stay in that bedroom a moment longer. I didn’t know what came over me, but the urge to get out was so overwhelming I ran down the marble stars, almost slipping on the runner on the landing. I stood panting in the hallway, looking at my front door, where a pile of mail should’ve been gathering on the doormat. It was empty.
I opened the double doors to the living room. In Sam’s favorite chair sat my mom, blanket over her knees, book facedown in her lap, asleep with her lips parted. Cleo lay stretched out on the couch, her feet stuffed under a fat pillow. I had no idea what time it was, but it was definitely not the middle of the night.
Mom jerked awake and smacked her lips. “Oh, darling. Finally.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked, keeping my voice down as I eyed Cleo. She was out like a light, and she looked awfully thin and tired. I tried to dredge up the slightest bit of concern for her, and couldn’t.
I walked over to hug my mother. She patted me gently on the back before pushing me away. “We’ve been here for two days. If you hadn’t come down by this evening, we’d have dragged you out of bed. Have you eaten? You look so skinny. And darling, no offense, but you need a shower. Desperately.”
“Okay,” I whispered, shamefaced. “I’ll go do that now.”
Mom rose to her feet. “Is it . . .” She wrung her hands. “Is it okay if I refresh your bed? I peeked into your room last night, and the smell is terrible.”
“Yes,” I said. “But you don’t have to do it. I will.”
She patted my shoulder. “Don’t feel bad, Oliver. No one’s blaming you for wanting to hang on. We’re here for you, and we want to help.” She smiled a little. “And trust me when I say I’ve washed worse. You go shower. I made lasagna, so I’ll go turn on the oven, and I’ll have your bed made by the time you’re done.”
She was right. When I stepped back into the bedroom, the stale smell hit me like a brick. In an attempt to hide at least some of it before Mom came upstairs, I opened the curtains and the windows, even though a light drizzle was falling. I found myself some fresh clothes—fighting the urge to reach for one of Sam’s shirts—and turned toward the bathroom. As always, I had to wait forever for the water to heat in this old house. I vaguely wondered if I’d enjoy the novelty of having instant hot water in whatever new place I ended up renting.
Oh God, I was going to have to move. To someplace where Sam had never been, where his presence had never lit the rooms. I stepped under the stream of water to halt that way of thinking, even though it was still too cold. I shivered and waited for the heat to come.
One step at a time, Ollie.
I nodded and reached for the shampoo. “Okay, Sammy.”
Cleo looked terrible by the time she went home, and I knew I should reach out to her and the others, see if they were okay, but I lacked the strength.
Mom had wanted to stay another night, but I sent her home with the promise I’d call first thing in the morning. I mentally prepared myself to return to real life: work, grocery shopping, and eating meals at regular times. Everywhere I went, people would look at me with pity. I’d have to smile and go on and pretend I was already healing, because no one liked to be reminded of death and loss for too long. And each day I’d come home to an empty place.
The huge living room felt small for once. The walls closed in on me, and my clothes were too tight. I struggled upright and ran into the kitchen, where I threw open the back door and breathed the summer air. Sweetly, agonizingly familiar, our garden, and all I wanted was to scream.
I kept my mouth shut. Silently I closed and locked the door. Time stretched out in front of me like a dark abyss. Just like that, the sleep that had given me solace for all these weeks became elusive.
From the bay window seats in my living room, I watched night fall. The vibe of the city around me changed, but I remained safely in my cocoon. To feel less lonely, I turned on the TV, but in my mind I walked through the house and thought of all the things I’d have to go through at some point. Decide what to keep, what to give away, and what to throw out. In a self-flagellating way it made me feel better. The thought that I’d have to part with his things fed an anger I had no idea how to deal with. It churned along with the guilt in my stomach. I tried to cry, and couldn’t.
Am I already feeling less sad? I thought. When I reached within to find that hard core of hurt, that monster, I touched a tender scar. The gaping wound was gone. Surely I should mourn him for longer than this?
You get so much beautiful with this book along with so pain too and the way she writes this has you really feeling what these characters are going through and I could not put this book down once I started it!
Intense. Real. Vulnerable. . . . Your eyes will swell with tears, but it's all worth it in the end!
[S]ad and beautiful and honest and sweet and I couldn’t help but fall in love.
The words flew easily, it was a pleasure to read. . . . [A] beautiful journey among love, friendships, loss, hurt and love again.
[A]n amazing book that is full of emotional ups and downs.