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Dear Ana: Chapter 29


I pulled into Bayan’s driveway and killed the engine, waiting for her to come out.

She texted me back a few nights after I got settled in at Noah’s apartment. Part of me wanted to be petty and not respond so she knew how it felt, but the bigger part of me knew that was immature. There was another part though––smaller than the others but somehow more powerful––that wondered if she would even notice if I didn’t text her back.

“Hey,” she greeted. “Did you get a new car? Congrats!”

“Um, no I didn’t,” I replied, backing out of her driveway. “It’s Noah’s car.”

“Who’s Noah?”

For a moment I completely forgot our phone conversation all those months ago was pretend.

“He’s . . . my boyfriend, I guess. I met him when I visited Ana’s grave back in December. He’s her brother.”


“Yeah,” I nodded.

“Does he know who you are?”

“He does now. I kind of . . . lied to him about it.”

“How did he take it?”

The memory of me screaming outside his door flickered in my mind. “He was really, really mad.”

“Wait, actually?”

“He had every reason to be. I lied to him every single day we were together. But he forgave me,” I told her as we went through the Starbucks drive-through. “He’s the one who hit me with his car that day. That’s how Ana died.”

What?!” she screeched loudly. We were at the window now, so instead of responding I told the barista our orders and continued through the line. Once we got our drinks I parked in our usual spot and told her everything. Well, everything she needed to know.

“That’s so crazy,” she said when I was done. “Your parents probably freaked out.”

“That’s an understatement,” I muttered.

She regarded me seriously for a moment. “Do you love him?”

“I do, yeah,” I said with a chuckle. “It’s still so strange feeling like this, but I’ve never been more sure of anything before. I am so completely in love with that dude.”

“I knew there was something different about you when I came in the car,” she said, smiling. “I can’t believe you never told me about any of this.”

You never asked, I thought, looking away. She stayed quiet, waiting for me to respond. Waiting for me to tell her why. I didn’t want to lie, but I also didn’t want to tell her the truth because I didn’t know how she would react, and I didn’t want to fight. We always talked about how we never argued, and how that made our friendship so special but maybe that was our problem. Maybe we should fight.

“You never asked,” I said out loud this time.

“That’s not fair,” she replied, surprise lacing her voice.

“I know it’s not fair of me to think like that, but . . .” I hesitated for a minute. “You never really seem interested anymore. I always ask you about everything, and you used to always ask me about everything too until you just stopped. I know it’s not personal––or maybe it is personal––but either way, I noticed. And as much as I wish that it didn’t, it hurt my feelings.”

The car filled with a cloud of uncomfortable silence as she pondered my words. “I’m sorry,” she said finally.

“I don’t want an apology from you, Bayan, I just . . .” I finally looked at her, but I couldn’t read her expression. “What happened to us? We used to tell each other everything. We used to hang out every day. You were my person.”

“And now?” she asked, an edge to her voice.

“And now . . . I can’t help but wonder that if I never reached out first, would we be hanging out right now? Would we ever speak again?”

Of course we would. Where is this coming from?”

“Don’t,” I said with chagrin. “Don’t act like this is all in my head. Things between us have been different for a long time and we just keep ignoring it. But then again, maybe things have always been one-sided and I’m only just now realizing it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ll be the first to admit that I came into this friendship pretty strong. I know that I can get a little . . . clingy,” I admitted, cringing slightly. “But it’s only because I love you so much. It’s only because I was excited. I was so fucking excited that I finally found my best friend, and I had so much love to give. I guess I just assumed that one day you would eventually be at the same level as me, but you never did, and now we’re just sitting awkwardly on this uneven see-saw.”

“Maya, I don’t understand . . . is this because I didn’t text you back?” she asked, genuinely mystified.

“It’s not weird to get offended when your best friend takes one to three business months to reply to your texts with a simple hello, if you even reply at all. But it’s not about that.”

“Then what is this about?”

“Why didn’t you ever ask?”

“About the Noah thing?”

“No, why didn’t you ever ask about me?” I snapped, harsher than I intended.

“I don’t understand,” she repeated.

I sighed, instantly regretting saying anything in the first place. “How is it that Noah––a total stranger at the time––took one look at me and knew I wasn’t doing okay, but you never did?”

She averted her eyes away from mine and looked out the window instead of answering, but it didn’t matter. I already knew the answer. I was almost positive that a part of me always knew, and I just never wanted to admit it to myself.

“That’s not it though, is it? You did notice; you just didn’t care.”

“It’s not that I didn’t care,” she disagreed. “I knew you were going through stuff . . . I just didn’t know how to be there for you.”

I closed my eyes against the sting of her words. “Listening would’ve sufficed. Merely asking would’ve been enough. I always listened to you when you needed to vent. I was always there for you. It was a privilege for me to be a source of comfort to you. It wasn’t something I had to think about, it was simply second nature.”

“I’m sorry,” she said again, and I knew she meant it.

“I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry for taking what should’ve been a simple and fun friendship and turning it into something bigger and more complicated in my head,” I told her quietly. “I guess I didn’t realize I was subconsciously expecting things from you, and when you didn’t deliver I would get hit with this extreme wave of disappointment, which quickly turned into guilt. I expected so much from you, Bayan, which was wrong of me, but . . . I never expected more than what I was willing to offer you. Which still isn’t fair, but it doesn’t make me a bad friend. It doesn’t make you a bad friend either, and that just makes this so much harder.”

“Makes what so much harder?”

“I have a lot going on right now. My life recently blew up, and I’m still trying to carve my way through all the destruction left behind. I don’t want to have to keep putting up a charade of happiness to make people feel comfortable. I don’t know, I guess I just need to be around people who want to be there for me.”

“Maya, it’s not that I didn’t want to,” she started again.

“I know, and I’m not mad. It was never your responsibility to be there for me, and that doesn’t mean you didn’t love me. It hurt, but if I’m being honest with myself, I think the real reason it hurt so much was that it made me internalize my own insecurities, and then come up with all these reasons why you never . . .”

I finally looked at her, all our memories and happiest moments lingering in the air between us. “I forgive you. I forgive you for not being there for me when I needed someone. I forgive you for not knowing how to be there for me when I needed someone, and I will never regret being that someone for you.”

She gave me a small smile and clicked her seat belt into place as I started the car. Nothing more was said on the car ride back to her house, but I think we both knew what was happening anyway. What needed to happen. I stopped the car and waited, but she stayed put.

“So . . . are we just not going to be friends anymore?” she asked after a moment.

I swallowed down the lump in my throat. “You’ll always be my best friend, but for the time being . . . I think we should stop forcing our paths to align and . . . go our separate ways.”

She still didn’t make a move to leave the car, and I didn’t want her to either. But this wasn’t about what I wanted.

“I don’t want to be thinking about you,” I whispered. “I don’t want to be constantly wondering if you’re waiting for me to ask you to hang out, and I don’t want to be constantly wondering why you aren’t asking me to hang out. I love you so much and I would drop everything for you in a second . . . but right now that’s not what I need. Right now I need to focus on loving myself, instead of being consumed with my love for other people.” She nodded before finally stepping out of my car and shutting the door behind her. I leaned back against my seat, waiting until she got inside before I left.

I loved her. God, I loved her so much and so hard that my love had grown into an extension of myself. A third arm, or a sixth toe. But that wasn’t normal and it needed to get removed. Maybe not forever, but definitely for now.

She was my best friend. My twin flame, and unfortunately, over time, flames burned out. But sometimes they could get lit up again. If it was truly meant to be, sometimes the blackened end of the match can miraculously pick up a new spark and come back to life even brighter than before. But that wasn’t important. I needed to stop running away and start dealing with all my shit. I needed to heal and figure out who I was outside of all my pain, and it wasn’t fair for me to drag her along for the bumpy ride when that wasn’t what she wanted. This didn’t have to be goodbye. Maybe it could just be . . . a pause. Maybe we could meet again, once I was whole and new. Maybe we could make it work when I was finally in a place where I didn’t need anything more than what she could offer.

“Noah?” I called out, looking around the empty café. I faintly saw some movement behind the white tarp and quickly walked toward the bookstore. I pushed it out of the way, and my eyes widened as I looked around the . . . finished bookstore? The last time we were here, we’d only completed about three-quarters of the paint job, but obviously, he had been working on it without me. The walls were done, and there were bookshelves stacked by each wall. There was a desk by the door, with a monitor and a register waiting to check out its first happy customer. And there, in the middle of the room, was Noah, smiling brightly. He was sitting on a blanket with a bunch of candles illuminating the room, and a covered dish with plates and utensils.

“What’s all this?” I asked, taking a seat beside him.

“Well, you didn’t get a proper welcome home party so we’re celebrating today,” he said, taking my hand in his.

“When did you finish the store?”

“A few days ago,” he replied, tugging my glove off and placing his lips on the back of my hand. “Ravi helped me. I left the organizing and decorating part for you, though.”

“Thank you,” I said sincerely, lifting the top off of the steaming pan. “Lasagna?”

“Your favorite,” he said, letting go of my hand and cutting me a piece. “How’s Bayan? Did you have a nice time?”

I took my plate instead of answering him. It smelled delicious, almost as good as the one my mom used to always make for me. I wondered if I would ever get to taste it again, or if she was going to be out of my life forever too.

“Maya?” Noah said, noticing my shift in demeanor.

“Is it such a crime to want people to care about me just as much as I care about them?” I asked quietly. “Even if I care way too much?”

“No,” he responded immediately. “But . . . just because they can’t care about you the way you want them to, doesn’t mean they don’t care about you at all.”

“So then I shouldn’t have been upset that she never reached out to me? That she never asked if I was okay?”

“Of course you can be upset. We can’t control how our emotions choose to react to things, but . . . not everyone is capable of comforting you in the way you need them to. It’s not always personal, though.”

I nodded slowly, the lump in my throat returning full force. “So me . . . pushing her away wasn’t the right thing to do.”

“If you did it because you know it’ll benefit you, then it was the right thing. We’re allowed to have boundaries, even if not everyone can understand them.”

“I guess,” I sighed, his words relieving me slightly. “It’s just embarrassing; you know? I always felt like my love for her was almost . . . obsessive, or something. Like it wasn’t normal to care about someone that much. In the end, it’s my fault. My fault for constantly loving people so intensely that it literally consumes me, and then getting butt hurt when they can’t do the same.”

“Look at me,” he said, taking my hand again and pulling me closer to him. He ran his fingers along my jaw softly, waiting until I met his gaze. “Don’t ever apologize for caring. There’s no such thing as caring too much, okay? The way you love is precious, and your heart is so pure. The selfless and unconditional way that you care about people is rare, baby. Never change.”

He pressed his lips on my forehead. “Is that it then? You guys aren’t friends anymore?”

I glanced back down at my plate. “I don’t know. We didn’t fight or anything, which I appreciated. I was honest with her, and she was honest with me. But . . . despite knowing that this was the right thing to do, there was still a part of me hoping that she would fight for me. Fight for our friendship. Now I’ll never know if it’s because she was respecting my space, or because I finally gave her the out she was waiting for.” I took a deep breath and wiped away the solitary tear that appeared in the corner of my eye. “I never made this decision because I was starting to love her any less, but because I always loved myself less when she could never . . . anyway what’s done is done. I’ll always want her to be a part of my future, but if not . . . she’ll still hold a permanent place in my heart,” I chuckled, my face warming up. “That’s not even what I wanted to talk to her about.”

“What did you want to talk to her about?”

You.” He looked at me quizzically. “I was so excited to finally tell someone about you . . . to talk about how I felt about you . . . to talk about how you made me feel . . .”

Noah blushed, and my heart skipped several beats at the sight. “You can always talk to me about me.”

“You know how I feel about men and their egos.”

He nodded, my favorite dimpled smile on his pink face, and we began eating in comfortable silence. His lasagna was delicious, of course, and I completely inhaled my plate before immediately getting seconds.

“How do you think you’re going to organize the books?” he asked between bites.

“Well, I don’t want to do the typical genre or author pattern. I feel like most readers choose books based on their moods, so I was thinking one shelf could be: books that ripped my heart out and broke it into a million pieces.” He snorted. “Another one could be: books that transported me into a different dimension, and took me on a supernatural journey filled with magic and fictional creatures. And then the classic: books that made me lay in bed and contemplate my whole existence for days. Those are my favorite.”

“This will definitely be the most unique bookstore that anyone will ever walk into,” he concluded. “I have a big order of inventory coming in this week, so you’ll be able to start soon.”

“I don’t even know when I’ll have time,” I groaned. “They scheduled me almost every night this week.”

He was silent for a moment. “So quit.”

“I can’t quit, Noah, I’m still helping my parents out.”

“The store should be ready within a few weeks, so you can just come work here. With me.”

I moved the last few bites of food around my plate. I figured we were going to have this conversation sooner or later, but that didn’t make it any less awkward for me. I knew he was just trying to help and I didn’t want to be difficult, but . . .

“I’m not comfortable with you paying me. Especially now that I’m living here rent-free, and using your car that somehow always has a full tank of gas.”

“I pay all my employees,” he disputed calmly. “And there is no rent to pay when I own this property, so I don’t understand what the issue is.”

I put my plate down, my appetite vanishing completely. He made a strong argument, almost like he’d prepared it beforehand. He’d gotten so good at understanding my face and hearing my unspoken words. How could I accept what he was offering, though? This wasn’t how I imagined things would pan out. When I pictured my life after my family, I was still doing everything for myself, just like I had always done.

“This doesn’t make you any less independent or capable, Maya,” Noah said softly, reading my mind. He placed his warm hand on mine, halting my movements. I looked down, not realizing that I had absently started picking away at the skin around my fingernails. “Don’t do that. Don’t get sucked back into that toxic cycle of self-sabotage. It’s whispering things into your ear because it doesn’t want to let you go. I know it’s hard, but you need to push it out. You need to tell it to get the fuck out.”

I let his words swirl around in my brain, but something was blocking them from sinking in. Something that had its talons planted deep into my core and didn’t want to let go. I didn’t mind its presence before because it took up so much space in my head that there was barely any room for the pain. But that meant there was also no room for the happiness, either. I couldn’t pick and choose what to let in, it had to be all or nothing.

“I don’t know how to get to where you are, Noah.”

“How did we learn to walk and talk? One step and syllable at a time.” He leaned in closer and gently tilted my chin toward him, forcing me to meet his gaze. “It’s going to be really hard for a while, but one day you’ll wake up and it’ll suddenly be second nature. Do you remember what you said to me when we first met?”

“I said a lot of things, you’re going to have to be more specific,” I replied with a smirk.

He grinned. “You told me that healing is messy. And you were right.”

“I’m pretty sure I stole that from somewhere.”

“That’s okay,” he chuckled, before getting serious again. “You don’t need to figure everything out right now, but let’s settle on one thing, please? You can continue to take care of your family, but I am going to take care of you, with you. We’ll take care of each other. You’re mine.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Yours?”

“Yes, mine,” he repeated firmly, narrowing his eyes. “And I am yours. Do you have a problem with that?”

“I don’t know; I’ve never really belonged to anyone before.”

“Then I’ll just have to be your first.”

“And my last, Noah.”

He leaned down and brushed his mouth on mine. “You have blessed me with the greatest honor, habibti.”

I sighed. “I guess I’m quitting.”

He smiled against my lips. “Wow, I didn’t realize you were capable of being reasonable.”

“Don’t let this win get to your head,” I warned him. “And I’m still keeping my other job at the hospital.”

“Then I’ll just have to get injured more often,” he replied, kissing me again.

I laughed. “Obsessed much?”

Obsession is an understatement,” he whispered, his warm breath tickling my face. “My entire being aches for you in your absence. My heart beats your name against my chest with a heightened sense of desperation, and it can only be soothed by the tantalizing flavor of your presence in the air.”

“Okay, settle down,” I teased, but I was the one not settled. His words lit my frozen heart on fire, melting my entire existence into a pile of throbbing desire at his feet.

“What did I say about you telling me to settle down?” he asked, low and seductive. His lips were back on mine, all traces of gentle caresses disappearing. He pulled me into his lap, neither of us caring about the plates that clattered beside us, and demonstrated just how obsessed he was.

“I can’t believe I fell for a skater . . . man,” I stated, looking down at the skateboard. It was warm out today and he suggested we skateboard to Tysons so I could officially quit. I assumed he was joking, but he was being completely serious.

Noah chuckled. “Is that disappointment I detect?”

“No. The hair, the body, and now this? You are exactly my type.”

“This is an electric one––does that still count as your type?”

“Oh, well, that’s just cheating.”

“I have a normal one too, but you’d probably fall off.”

“I’m probably going to fall off this one.”

“You’ll be holding onto me the entire time,” he assured me, placing the bulky helmet over my head.

“You seem a little too confident . . . have you done this before?” I asked, and then something occurred to me. “How many other girls have you tried this with?”

He laughed. “None, silly.”

“I’m curious now,” I started slowly. “How many girls have you dated?”

He buckled the straps under my chin and tucked my hair behind my ears. “Why do you want to know?”

“I don’t know, but tell me anyway.”

He glanced down at me for a minute speculatively. “Six.”

“Huh,” I said surprised. “I never figured you to be a lady’s man. How long was your longest relationship?”

Ours,” he said, kissing my nose. “No more stalling, Maya. I promise I won’t let you fall.”

“This thing was designed for one person though, not two. You’re fighting with the laws of gravity at this point.”

“True . . .” he agreed softly. “But I am not whole without you, so you could say that together we still make one.”

“I just know that mister Newton is rolling around in his grave right now because someone is trying to dispute all his hard work with love.” I blushed, smiling cheekily. I would never get used to hearing him say stuff like that. “But you did sway me,” I sighed and carefully stepped onto the board, holding his hand for support. He placed his feet on both sides, making sure I was balanced properly. I wrapped my arms around his torso gently and watched the world pass by us in a blur. I hated to admit it, but it was actually fun.

“Are you okay?” Noah yelled over the wind whipping past us.

I nodded, tightening my grip on him. Before I knew it we rolled into the Tysons parking lot, and he slowed down. I looked at the doors anxiously, already wishing that I had just sent her an email instead of quitting in person.

“Don’t be nervous,” he assured me, taking my helmet off. “Do you know what you’re going to say?”

“Yes. I’m going to tell Michelle that I enjoyed working for her, but I got another job. Then I’m going to walk into Sheila’s office and I’m going to call her a bitch, and that for someone who only made like twenty cents more than me, she really let the power get to her head.”

He laughed and smoothed my hair down. “Good luck. I’ll be out here when you’re done.”

I nodded and walked into the store before I could chicken out. I waved at some of my coworkers on my way to the break room, feeling a little sad that I would probably never see them again. Working here sucked, but despite a select few, the people here were all great and I was going to miss them.

I knocked on her door and stepped inside after she told me to come in. “Hey, do you have a minute?”

“Yeah of course,” she replied, pointing to the chair across from her. “What’s up?”

“Um, I’m sorry to do this without any notice, but . . . I’m quitting.”

Her face fell. “Awe, really? Did you get another job?”

“Yeah,” I said smiling apologetically. “There’s a new bookstore opening up downtown, and I’m going to be running it.”

“You always were reading on your break,” she said kindly. “I loved having you, Maya, so I’m sad you’ll be leaving us. But that sounds like a fun experience and I’m proud of you. I hope you enjoy it.”

“Thank you, Michelle. I enjoyed working with you.”

“Hey Michelle,” Sheila interrupted. “Oh, are you busy?”

Obviously, I thought. “It’s fine, I was done anyway.”

“Maya’s leaving us,” Michelle told Sheila before I could take another step.

“Oh no, really?” she said. I repressed the urge to roll my eyes at her fake tone. We both knew that she wasn’t going to miss me. Actually, scratch that. She would miss having someone to bully in her free time. Hopefully, she didn’t find a replacement after I was gone. “Well, it was certainly a pleasure working with you.”

I looked at her and paused for a moment. My rehearsed statement was sitting on my tongue, eagerly waiting to slap her across the face. She was smiling at me and her expression reminded me of Mikhail. It was goading. She knew that I knew the way she treated me was unfair, and she wanted me to say something about it.

“It was a pleasure working with you too, Sheila,” I said, smiling warmly back at her. “I wish you well.” I gave her one last smile before stepping around her and leaving Michelle’s office.

I knew she would think she’d won, but honestly, I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to dignify her unprofessional behavior with a response. Not everything needed a reaction. Being the bigger person didn’t mean I was weak and couldn’t defend myself, it just meant I was selective with what and who deserved my energy. And some bored, middle-aged assistant manager with raccoon eyeliner definitely did not make that list.

Noah was leaning against the wall when I came out. I admired the view for a minute––the way the setting sun illuminated his flawless skin, and how his water-colored eyes glowed under the sharp golden rays beaming down on him as he absently rolled his skateboard back and forth. My deep affection for him hit me forcefully as I kept watching, but it wasn’t because of his beauty. It wasn’t because he was kind, or because he offered me this new and amazing opportunity, or even because he loved me. I loved him because not once since the moment we met did he ever try to change me. Even when I was a little mean, or sad, or secretive . . . he continued to accept me. I spent all my years modifying my image into what others wanted to see, but I never had to do that with Noah. I was already the person he wanted, simply by being myself.

I stepped onto the board and kissed him, taking him by surprise.

“I’m guessing it went well,” he whispered against my lips.

“I didn’t do it.”

“Didn’t quit?” he asked in disbelief.

“No, I quit. But I didn’t, you know, tell Sheila off.”

“I knew you wouldn’t,” he said softly. “I love that about you.”

“I don’t know about love . . . but I think I’m starting to like that about me too.”

“One day you’re going to love every single part that makes you, you. But until then, I’ll happily love you enough for the both of us. I’ll love you enough to fill a billion hearts.” He kissed me gently. “The parts you hate will always receive an infinite amount of love from me, Maya.”

“What book did you crawl out of, and why haven’t I read it?” I said, looking away as my face blushed.

“Probably because it hasn’t been written yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been thinking about what you told me at my parents’ house. About how you’ve always wanted to write a book.”

“Yeah, I also talked about how I didn’t have any ideas to turn into a book.”

“You don’t need to come up with an idea when your whole life is basically the plotline of an epic novel.”

It took a few minutes but eventually, his words sunk in and I was able to comprehend what he was saying. “You want me to write a book about my life?”

“Maya,” he said seriously, taking my face in his hands. “Did you know that sibling abuse is a common type of abuse that occurs within families, yet it’s rarely ever talked about? They call it the silent pandemic.”

“Noah, I’m trying to move on from my past. How am I supposed to write a book about my life without reliving the entire thing?”

“Well, you’ve already written half of it . . . wouldn’t you agree?” he said, referring to my journal. “Look, it’s completely up to you, but I think . . . I think this might be good for you. Tell your story, Maya. Tell the world your story, and raise awareness about the things you went through. Maybe it will help someone that’s going through the same thing. Maybe it will help you put your past to rest, so you can finally create a new story for yourself.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just looked at the setting sun behind him, pondering his words.

“Like I said, it’s completely up to you. But I think you could create something beautiful.”

I leaned my head against his chest and wrapped my arms around his waist, his heart beating erratically in my ear as we skated back to the cafe. His words swirled around in my mind the whole way there . . . could I do that? Could I write a book about my life? It sounded crazy and way too embarrassing, especially if someone I knew read it. Why did I care, though? Why was I still trying to hide away from my past, when I could just own it, accept it, and then hopefully move on?

I felt Noah’s lips brush my cheek, pulling me out of my thoughts. “I’m sorry if I overstepped, it was just a thought.”

“You didn’t overstep. I was just surprised––that idea never occurred to me before.”

“Alright, but there’s no pressure here. You can do whatever you want, as long as you’re happy doing it.”

I smiled warmly at him as he unlocked the door. We walked through the café, but he stopped in the kitchen.

“I just have a few things left to do before we open tomorrow.”

“Okay, I’ll help.”

“It will only take a minute,” he assured me. “Go get ready for bed.”

I nodded. “Noah?”

He looked back at me immediately. “Yeah, baby?”

“I love you.”

His eyes widened slightly, surprised into momentary silence by the three little words spoken from my lips, despite him saying them to me at least a million times a day. It was no secret that expressing affection rendered on the side of awkward for me, given my past, but he never seemed to mind. The look on his face right now––pink, dimpled, glowing––made me want to change that forever.

“I love you too, pretty girl.”

I left him in the kitchen while he did what he needed to do and got changed for bed. My eyes landed on my journal after I finished brushing my teeth and I hesitated. Avoiding things had been my coping mechanism for so long that it became this essential habit I couldn’t live without. I turned away from anything and everything I thought might make me anxious, in the hopes that it would just take care of itself and disappear. I was always so terrified the outcome of things I wanted would end up being negative, that I just never even bothered to try. But I couldn’t avoid reading my letters forever. I owed it to myself to at least try. I knew that the only way to truly heal from my past was to rip off the bandages that covered all my wounds and properly treat them this time.

Before I could overthink it, I flipped it open to the last empty page and started writing . . .

Dear Ana,

Hey, it’s been a minute. Based on the last letter I wrote five years ago, you’re probably surprised to be hearing from me again. Even though I could never actually kill myself, thinking about killing myself made things simpler. But it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and I know that now. I knew that then too, deep down, which was why I never did it.

I don’t judge you, by the way, about the whole Noah thing. How could anyone not fall in love with him? I get that you didn’t choose to fall in love with him because I didn’t either. All I really wanted was to be his friend, I swear, but then I got to know him and that flutter of love started to creep up on me softly, until one day I thought I lost him forever, and that flutter transformed into an intense wave that completely consumed me. All I wanted was a drop of love, but he gave me an entire rainstorm. All I wanted was a single star to wish on, but he offered me the entire fucking galaxy and then helped me make each of them come true. I’m sorry he couldn’t give you what you wanted, but he did give you the one thing you needed, even though you didn’t realize it at the time. The one thing I needed, but will never have. He gave you a brother, Ana.

I thought about writing to you for a while now, but today seemed like the perfect time. Noah suggested I use these letters and all the horrible things I’ve gone through to write a book. It sounds silly, but I think I’m going to do it. Not because I’ve always dreamed of being an author, or because I think my life would make a good story––quite the opposite, actually. Noah thinks I can create something beautiful, but my life isn’t beautiful, Ana . . . which is exactly what made up my mind. I don’t want to write a story filled with sunshine and rainbows. I don’t want to write a story about a girl in pieces who falls in love and gets magically put back together. Yes, Noah helped me. He has helped me in ways I never thought possible, and that’s okay, I think. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m not alone anymore. But his love didn’t heal me. Only I can heal myself and after years of choosing to be numb, I have suddenly been overwhelmed with the wonderful urge to feel. I’m finally going to give your heart the future it deserves, Ana.

I spent my entire life living quietly. I stayed pent up and repressed, always following the rules to avoid punishment and letting people down while keeping myself under the radar. Invisible. But maybe that’s my problem, Ana. Maybe I need to shine light on my pain, so others don’t have to suffer in the shadows.

My story is ugly and messy but it’s also real. It counts, Ana, and I want to create something for all the invisibly broken people who want their stories to count too. This is my truth, and I’m finally ready to embrace it.

–Love, Maya

Suffering is hard, but healing is much harder.

You don’t realize when you’re living in it, but suffering is an addiction. The human body can only live in fight or flight mode for so long before that becomes your default mode. Our bodies are designed to keep us alive throughout any and all circumstances, so if you’re trapped in a toxic environment, eventually your body will learn to adapt. All the organs and systems that work hard to make us function every day get so attuned to the chaos, that they’ll ultimately start to use that pain as sustenance and ammunition to survive. So what happens when it all disappears? What happens when you take away your body’s main source of fuel and energy? The answer is simple: it will start to decompose and subsequently go into withdrawal.

During the first wave, I slept. I slept all day and night. I couldn’t stop sleeping. Noah had to call the hospital and get me a medical leave of absence because I simply could not stay awake. He helped me to and from the bathroom when I needed it because my body was too exhausted to stand up straight. He made me three meals a day in bed so I wouldn’t die of malnourishment. When I could barely keep my eyes open, or move my lips, he would gently nudge the spoon into my mouth. When I was too drowsy to remember how to work my jaw, he would patiently walk me through it. It was humiliating, and truly terrible . . .

Or so I thought because then the second wave hit, and my body completely shut down. Once it realized it wasn’t getting what it craved, it decided to just stop working. The connection between my brain and the rest of my organs seemed to get deactivated and I couldn’t operate anymore. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat. My temperature was too high, but then sometimes it was too low. My muscles were shaking, my bones were quivering and it hurt. My digestive system could no longer figure out how to absorb my food, so everything that went in came hurtling out within seconds. My nervous system was on the fritz––constantly sending my cells a whirlpool of contradicting signals. Everything hurt, everything ached, my essence was throbbing as it desperately tried to cling onto the fractured girl I was trying to let go of––

“Make it stop,” I begged. “Please, make it stop. I need it to stop, Noah, I need everything to stop, please.”

“Shh,” he soothed. I couldn’t see him and I couldn’t feel him, but I knew he was there. “Your body is just trying to resurface everything you spent your whole life repressing. I know it hurts, but this is the only way. You have to let yourself feel your pain. You have to let yourself acknowledge how much it affected you. You have to validate all your experiences so your body can feel safe being you, instead of this person you conditioned yourself into believing you needed to be. Let it out, Maya. Grieve. Cry. Scream.”

So I did. I opened up the latch and let the memories surge through my numbed mind, igniting all my senses on fire. I accepted each ripple with open arms and succumbed to every ounce of the wretched misery I was holding back.

Wave three was when the night terrors started. I kept having this recurring dream where I was tied to my bed, or glued to the floor of the shower, or trapped under the seatbelt in a car. I was always alone, but I could still feel him everywhere. He was mingled in the air surrounding me, trying to suffocate me with his invisible hands. But then I would have a moment where I knew I was dreaming, and I would feel relieved . . . until I remembered I had once lived through each of these nightmares, and I would wake up to the sound of my ear-splitting shrieks.

It was unbearable. The whole thing. Every second worse than the last. How could something that was supposed to be good for me, cause me so much distress? I was so, so tempted to call it on this attempt to heal . . . but I didn’t, because throughout all the sleep, and pain, and terrorizing nightmares, there was one thing holding me back. There was one thing that I knew for sure was real, and it was the only thing keeping me together. It wasn’t anything big or extravagant––strong arms wrapping around me tightly, and enveloping me in a blanket of warmth and safety . . . soft lips brushing against my shoulder or my collarbone . . . smooth fingers stroking my face and my neck gently . . . or even just the constant whispered I love you’s in my ear . . . they were simple but so powerful.

Noah never tried to intervene. He never tried to tell me it was going to be okay. He was just there. He was always with me––giving me enough space to mend, but still near enough so I could reach out to him if I wanted to. And every time he could see in my eyes that I was silently struggling to hold on, he would lean in close and ask me one simple question.

“What do you need, Maya?”

And I would tell him, and then that was the end of it.

Eventually, the final wave hit, but it just happened to be the worst one. It was the wave when I suddenly woke up and realized how much time had passed. How many years I had wasted stuck in a bubble of despair and self-hatred, and then the sharp acceptance that I could never get those years back. I could never reclaim that time and do something worthwhile with it. I wasn’t just waking up; I was getting reborn. And along with that rebirth, I was forced to mourn the girl I used to know and try to figure out who I wanted to grow into. I did myself dirty by convincing myself that the key to my happiness was to just move out of my house . . . because no matter how far I ran, I could never escape from the chaos that would forever be engraved in my mind until I finally decided to do something about it. I used to think fight or flight were my only two options, but there was a third F people failed to mention. You could choose to fight, and you could choose to flee, but you could also choose to feel.

It may have been the final wave of the tsunami, but the ocean never stops crashing against the shore. The sand just has to learn how to live with it.

four months later

“Hey, how was the meeting?” Noah asks as soon as I step through the door.

“It was fine.” He gives me a look. “It was good. She liked my revisions, but she’s still on me about the ending.”

“Why doesn’t she like it?”

“She thinks it’s too . . . abrupt. Unfinished.” I sigh and shake my head. “She wants it to be bigger and brighter––you know, the typical happily ever after bullshit.”

“How dare she suggest such a horrific thing.”

“I know, right? As if a girl falling for her heart donors brother isn’t already a colossal fucking cliché in itself,” I say with a chuckle.

He’s quiet, so I glance at him. “What?”

“That’s not how I see it. I mean, it’s the truth––technically––but that’s not how I see it.”

“How do you see it then?”

He stares at me with soft eyes. “I am just a boy, and you are just a girl, and we fell in love over several cups of free coffee.”

I laugh. “The free coffee was the only reason I kept coming back.”

“Really? Because you never once left without fighting to pay.”

“Yeah, but only because I like to be difficult.”

“My favourite thing about you.” He walks up to me, stroking my cheek gently. “It’s your book, Maya. Your story. If you change something it’s only because you want to change it, okay?” I nod and kiss him chastely. “I’m going to go help with the evening rush. Let me know if you need anything.”

I take a look around for a moment and admire my handiwork over the last months. The second I came home from work or therapy or a book meeting, I would quickly change into sweats and spend the rest of my day in here. I didn’t stress too much about having a huge selection of books and organizing them all into the perfect category. The most important thing for me is to create a comfortable and welcoming environment that feels like home. I don’t want this to be a place where people just come in to pick out a book and leave. I have cozy chairs set up near the windows, and large pillows in the corner where people can lie down and read. I also put a hammock chair in the bookstore as well, swinging lightly from the ceiling, which is easily my favorite thing in here.

Anytime I’m not working on the bookstore, I’m writing. It was hard at first, getting sucked back into my past. I had pushed away so many terrible moments, and reading my letters was like getting dragged through hell. I forced myself to relive everything I fought so hard to forget, and somewhere between now and then, my heartache turned into ink on paper, my unspoken thoughts turned into chapters, and the girl I was always meant to become blossomed through the pages. When I look in the mirror these days, my perspective has shifted. Where I used to see weakness, I now see strength. Where I used to see damage, I now see resilience. Where I used to see cowardice, I now see bravery.

And whoever I used to be . . . that before girl I could never seem to remember . . . I know she’s proud of who I’m slowly turning into. Keeping everything inside gave it power over me, but when I finally let it all out . . . when I finally gave my pain purpose . . . I was free.

Because this is the thing about pain––you can’t run away from it, and you can’t hide from it either. It will get felt whether you want it to or not, and time doesn’t make it hurt any less, so would you rather feel it now, or would you rather have already felt it then? It seems impossible when you’re in the middle of it, but if you just let it run its course, the pain will stop being the center of your universe and slowly fade into a distant memory.

Despite how it seems, my book deal isn’t my consolation prize for everything I went through. I was so obsessed with this idea that in order to overcome my tribulations, I needed to get something out of it. I truly believed that success had to be loud, with some kind of physical trophy as proof of your triumph, and why would I have believed otherwise when that’s what I was taught? When you succeeded at school, you were gifted a diploma and a graduation ceremony. When you succeeded at love, you were gifted a diamond ring and a wedding. When you succeeded at creating life, you were gifted a child and a family. And then, at the very end, when you succeeded at living a full existence, you were gifted a coffin and a funeral. But I think the successes that matter the most aren’t celebrated with a medal or a roaring commemoration. I think the successes that are quiet and invisible to everyone but you are the most significant and one of a kind.

I spent my entire life wondering why Mikhail couldn’t love me, but sometimes there is no reason why bad things happen to us. Sometimes things just happen without a heartfelt and meaningful lesson in the end to tie it all together. They can’t be fixed or redeemed. They are terrible and heartbreaking and unfortunately, they are also life. I was so convinced that I needed closure to move on, but you don’t get closure from the people who hurt you. You get closure from yourself when you finally realize and accept that you never deserved any of it. The last twenty-five years will always be a nightmare I will never forget, but a nightmare I eventually woke up from. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if he had a reason because there is no reason that can justify the way Mikhail treated me. I took that empty space in my heart waiting to be filled with his love and filled it with my own love instead.

Five years ago I was in so much pain that I decided to kill myself, but it wasn’t because I wanted to die. If I truly wanted to die, then I wouldn’t have waited for the anniversary of my accident––I would have just done it. No, I wanted that feeling to die. That crushing feeling of hopelessness I carried with me at all times. An extra limb that no one else could see except for me. But you can’t kill feelings. It wasn’t something I could hold in my hand and squeeze to death. It didn’t have an extension cord that I could unplug and watch as it slowly lost its life. So I decided to kill its host instead. I decided to kill the thing that was providing my unwanted parasite residence and nourishment, which was . . . me. But just like so many things, I had it all wrong. I didn’t need to kill that feeling. I just needed to heal it until it transformed into a new feeling.


It’s funny, though. God said that He would never put me through more than what I could handle, and I was so determined to prove Him wrong. But here I am, setting up my bookstore with the love of my life and I’m . . . fine. Not perfect. Not shiny, polished, or new. Just fine. Excellent, in fact. Maybe even top-notch and exceptionally fucking splendid.

The sound of the bell announcing someone’s arrival pulls me out of my reverie, and I quickly turn to see who it is.

“Hey,” a young girl greets me. “Are you open?”

“Um, not quite,” I say apologetically. “It’s okay, though. You can come in if you want. I’m pretty much done.”

She hesitates for a moment before coming in. “Wow, it looks great in here.”

“Thank you,” I reply, my heart swelling. Until now, I’d never really felt proud of anything I had ever done. “Are you looking for something in particular?”

She shrugs. “Not really. I’m not a reader, but I’m kind of looking for a new hobby.”

“Reading is definitely a trend right now,” I chuckle. “I have a shelf dedicated to books that will hook you into reading by the very first line.”

“What are these for?” she asks, pointing to the baskets of sticky notes I placed all around the store.

“They’re for annotating. I couldn’t always afford to buy new books, so I wanted to give people the option of checking them out instead of purchasing them. I was thinking each person that checked it out could leave some annotations before returning it, so everyone can read each other’s thoughts and opinions. Kind of like a never-ending book club.”

“That sound really cool,” she agrees, taking one of the packs.

“My boyfriend inspired the idea,” I say, smiling. “I was never one to annotate, but he let me pick out a bunch of books for him to read on our first date. One day he handed me a stack of books that were filled with little notes, and scribbles.”

“That’s so sweet.”

He’s so sweet,” I correct her.

“Maya?” Noah says from behind me.

“Speak of the devil,” I say, turning to face him. “Noah, this is our very first customer.”

He smiles at her before meeting my gaze again. “There’s someone here for you. In the café.”


“Why don’t you just go and see. I’ll finish up in here with her.”

I stare at him for a moment, the tone of his voice worrying me. I head through the door without another word but freeze in my tracks when I see who he’s talking about.

My mother.

We haven’t spoken since the day I left. I keep wanting to text or call her, just to see how she’s doing . . . but I assumed that she’d disowned me, just like my father had declared. Despite everything that happened, I never stop wondering how she is, or if she’s okay. I still get hit with guilt whenever she crosses my mind––not because I made the wrong decision, but because the right decision for me hurt her. The only thing that gives me a sliver of reassurance is the money that gets withdrawn from my account every week. At least I know they’re accepting my help, but . . . I still miss her. I always miss her.

I walk over to her table slowly and pull out a chair. I inspect her face carefully, checking for any signs of harm, but find nothing. She just looks tired. And sad.

“How did you know where I was?” I ask quietly. I never told her the name of Noah’s café.

“He called me.”

Noah called you?” I ask, surprised.

She nods. “He said you missed me. He said you couldn’t be happy until you knew that I was okay.”

I look at the glass wall separating the café and the bookstore and see Noah staring at us, his expression unreadable. I never talked about my mom since leaving, but he still knew how I was feeling anyway.

“How’s Baba?”

“He’s good. He wanted to come but––” I scoff, and she gives me a look. “He didn’t mean what he said. You know how he is, he’s ashamed. He feels bad that he couldn’t do better for us. Do you think he likes that you had to put off school to help us pay the bills?”

“He has an interesting way of showing it,” I mutter.

“He loves you, Maya, and one day he’ll learn to be okay with your decision.”

Her voice sounds broken, and her shoulders slump as she looks down at the table.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” I whisper.

“It’s okay,” she says, taking my hand into both of hers. “I’m not upset with you.”

Relief wells up in my eyes. “Really?”

She nods and stares at me regretfully. “Everything you said about Mikhail . . . was that true?”

I want to say no. I want to save her from the hurt I know will come with my answer.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Yes. It’s all true.”

The crack through her heart snaps sharply against my ear drums.

“I’m sorry,” I repeat, but she shakes her head.

“You have nothing to apologize for. I always knew he could get irrationally angry sometimes, but I never . . .”

“You saw what he did to me that day, before I called the police,” I remind her. “And then again in my bedroom before you kicked him out. Did you really think that was the first time he ever laid his hands on me?”

“I didn’t want to think about it,” she says. “When I saw him strangling you––” her voice breaks––“it was terrifying. But then after you ran downstairs, he stared at me and he looked so confused and scared. It was like he didn’t know what he was doing.”

“He always was a good actor. And even if he wasn’t acting, it’s still not an excuse.”

“Not an excuse,” she agrees. “But Maya, you have to understand, he’s my son. I didn’t know what to do . . . of course I hated the way he treated you and the way he treated all of us, but it wasn’t all the time. He wasn’t bad all the time. It hurt me to see how much he affected you, but how could I send him away? How could I kick him onto the streets, when I knew he didn’t have the means to take care of himself? I’m his mother––”

“You’re my mother too,” I reply, slipping my hand out from under hers. “You’re my mother too, yet you chose him. You chose him every single time.”

“Are you forgetting that I kicked him out anyway? I kicked out my own son––”

“And then you invited him back in. He has you guys wrapped around his finger, Mama. He hasn’t changed at all, but you fell for it anyway.”

“I’m sorry. I know I didn’t do a good job with you,” she admits. “You were just so . . . quiet. You never spoke up, and you never complained. I guess it was easy for me to sweep things under the rug because you never put up a fight.”

“I only did that because I was trying to keep the peace. I saw how much you guys struggled with money and with him. I didn’t want to add anything more on top of that.”

“I know,” she sighs. “Baba and I . . . we tried our best.”

And that’s the end of it. There’s nothing more to discuss because it all comes down to this truth. When you spend your whole life thinking one way, it gets to a certain point where you can’t un-think it anymore. She raised me with the same rules and values that her parents raised her with it, and the cycle just continues from there.

As a child, you look at your parents like the masters of the universe. The all-knowing. The very top of the pedestal. You assume they hold the universal key to knowledge and can do no wrong. But the older you get, the more you start to realize that was never the case. You start to notice their mistakes––big and small––and you start to notice the mistakes they passed on to you. I can’t fight what’s normal for my parents, but I can create my own normal.

And even if they had decided to get help all those years ago, the type of mental assistance Mikhail needed just wasn’t affordable. It just wasn’t accessible to everyone, including us. And, knowing Mikhail, he never would have gone through with it anyway. You can’t help someone who doesn’t believe they need help. So no, I don’t blame my mother. I don’t blame my parents. They did their best with the knowledge they were given and that’s that.

“It’s okay, I forgive you. If not for you, then for myself. Holding all this inside was tearing me apart.”

She gives me a small smile and turns her head away from me. I follow her gaze and see her staring at Noah, who is still staring at us. “So, tell me about him.”

I can’t help the huge smile that lights up my face. “He’s my favorite person in the entire world.”

“Do you love him?”

“I do,” I reply softly. “I love him a lot.”

“But he . . . he’s the one who hit you. We realized as soon as you two left––”

“That accident was not his fault,” I interrupt firmly.

She drops it. “You look different, Maya. You look . . . happy.”

“It’s been hard, but I’m going to be okay.” I hesitate for a moment. “Do you want to meet him? Officially, I mean.”

She nods, and I wave at him. He immediately stops what he’s doing and comes over to us.

“Mama, this is Noah . . . my boyfriend,” I say when he takes a seat beside me. He smiles at her and shakes her hand gently. I know how he feels about my parents, but he’s willing to move past it, which I appreciate wholeheartedly. They spend the rest of the night getting to know each other, and I know things between us are going to be all right.

I hug my mother tightly in the doorway before she leaves, and hand her the plate of pastries Noah made for her.

“We’re going on a trip this weekend, but maybe when I come back . . . we can have coffee again?”

She nods and smiles at me sadly. I know she’s hoping I would have agreed to come home with her, but as much as I’d do anything for my mother, the best thing for our relationship is to love her from a distance.

I always believed our lives were split into two parts. Your life with your first family––the one you’re born into––and your life with your second family––the family you create for yourself. The universe would then take the burdens written for you and spread them out equally within the two, to keep a balance between the pain and the ease. It was silly, and I had no proof to back up this belief, but it made me feel better to think that my second life might be easier.

For my mother’s sake, I hope it’s true. I hope her life before us was amazing. I hope she had a childhood filled with laughter, smiles, and love. I hope she was able to fulfill all her dreams before she got entirely consumed by the family she created. I hope her first life was filled with so much joy and happiness that maybe, just maybe, it could level out all the pain Mikhail and I had brought into her soul. But more than that, I hope my absence brings her some solitude. As much as it hurts to admit, it’s clear that I was the source of all my brother’s inexcusable anger. Now that I’m gone, maybe she can have the family dynamic she always wished for. Maybe she can finally try to find some peace in all the chaos, just like I am.

I wait until she safely drives away before locking the door, and I feel Noah wrap his arms around me from behind.

“Are you sure you’re not mad?” he asks.

I turn around in his arms and look up at him. “I’m not,” I assure him. “But why didn’t you just ask me.”

“I didn’t think you would be able to call her yourself, but I knew you needed to see her.”

I lean my head against his chest. “Thank you.”

He nods and I feel his breath in my ear. “Anti qalbiwaruhiwahayati.”

I usually laugh whenever Noah tries to speak Arabic, but I’m not laughing right now. Right now I’m trying to keep myself from trembling into pieces.

“What did you just say?”

“You don’t know?” he murmurs. I can feel the saliva from his lips wetting my skin.

I know what you said,” I reply shakily. “But do you know what you said?”

He chuckles and places a kiss on my temple. “You are my heart,” he places a kiss on both of my closed eyelids, “soul,” he places a kiss on the tip of my nose, “and life.”

I hesitate for a second before speaking. “There’s something else she wants me to add to my book.”

“What?” He stares at me, waiting. “You’re blushing, Maya. Why are you blushing?” He continues to stare before the realization hits. “Oh.”


“Well . . . are you? Going to add that?”

“I’m not sure yet. I’ve only ever written what I know, Noah.”

His tongue is on my skin now and I can’t feel my body anymore. All I can feel is heat as he continues to trail his lips along my jaw and down my neck.

“What are you doing?” I ask breathlessly, already getting intoxicated by his intimacy.

“Fueling your imagination,” he whispers, biting my ear lobe gently.

I chuckle, my heartbeat erratic. “That’s not the only reason. You know I’m not the biggest fan of smut in books.”

“Really? Because . . . most of the ones you made me read were filled––”

“I mean writing it,” I interrupt, my face heating up, and he laughs. “I’m not comfortable writing it.”

“It’s okay to get out of your comfort zone once in a while,” he reminds me, sliding his fingers under my shirt and stroking my lower back. “Besides, you don’t have to give them the whole slice of cake . . .” he mumbles against my neck. “Just some sprinkles here and there, to keep them satisfied.” His lips are on my shoulder now, carefully grazing my skin with his teeth. “You can just, you know, insert fades into black . . .”

I can’t comprehend what he’s saying through the intense mush of lust that’s overcome my brain. He continues to trail his lips lower, and my back arches into his body. I lift my fingers into his soft hair and scrape my nails against his scalp. He moans into my skin, and his lips move faster . . .

. . . insert fades into black.

“Are you ever going to tell me why you drove us to the middle of nowhere?”

“You’ll see soon enough,” he assures me.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

“Do you trust me?”

“With directions? No, not really.”

He laughs, poking me playfully in my side. “I got us lost one time, Maya.”

We continue down through the trees silently for a moment, our hands swinging between us. “I love the forest vibes. The only thing left is for a certain vampire to step out of the shadows, and then this will officially be the best day.”

“If you told me ten months ago that I would be extremely jealous of a fictional character, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

“If you told me ten months ago that a real-life man would replace a fictional character for first place in my heart, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

He chuckles. “I still can’t believe you never dated anyone before me.”

“I wasn’t looking,” I reply. “I never . . . I always wanted to be loved, but I was never going to go looking for it. If it was meant to happen, then it would just . . . happen. I wasn’t going to agonize over it, you know? I watched my friends fixate on finding someone, and then get heartbroken a million times so I told myself that I would stay single until it felt easy and simple . . . like breathing. I never wanted to be put in a position where I had to teach someone how to treat me, especially after Mikhail.” I tighten my hand around his. “But at the same time, I didn’t really want anyone. Not yet, anyway. Not until I had completely moved on from my past, which seemed impossible, so I guess I kind of just accepted it.”

“So . . . you never wanted to fall in love with me?”

“Not at first,” I answer truthfully. “Falling in love with you wasn’t a choice I made. I didn’t even notice it happening because it felt so soft, and safe, and real . . . just like you.” I look up at him affectionately. “So no, I never wanted to fall in love with you, but I can never go back to a time without it. I don’t want to go back. I can’t imagine not knowing how it feels to be loved by you, Noah.”

“And I, you,” he whispers, letting go of my hand and wrapping his arm around my shoulders, pulling me against his body.

“We’re here,” he announces after a few minutes, pushing back some branches and moss and leading me into an empty clearing. It’s cloudy out today, the mountains and trees shielding me from the sun. The wind is blowing calmly through the fields of green grass we’ve stepped into, and the trees thin out, leaving an opening at the very end that overlooks the water.

“The view is so pretty,” I say quietly, not wanting my voice to disturb the calm bubble of serenity that encircles us.

“I’m glad you think so.”

“How did you find this place?”

“I bought it.”

I look at him in shock. “You . . . bought this land. Why?”

We reach the end of the clearing, so he stops and faces me, smiling tenderly. “I was thinking of building a house.”

“Oh,” I reply in surprise. “This would be a beautiful place for a house. Real estate is a great market to get into right now.”

“Maya,” he laughs. “I don’t want to build a house so I can sell it.”

“Okay . . . ?”

“I was actually thinking that a farm would look perfect right over there,” he says, pointing to a spot in front of us.

A farm?

“And then over here,” he says, walking toward the place he’s referring to, “would be a great place for a garden, don’t you think?”

I nod slowly, still not sure what he’s getting at.

“Maybe you can start with planting strawberries,” he suggests after a moment. “It’s my favorite kind of jam.”

I freeze.

“Nothing but reading, and making my own jam.”

“Is this how you always imagined your happy place, Maya?” he whispers.

I meet his gaze, and he’s staring at me intensely, waiting for me to understand. But he doesn’t need to wait anymore because it’s all clear now. He wants to build me the future I described to him. He wants to give me my happily ever after, but what he doesn’t realize is that I already got it. My happily ever after was never the house, and the farm, and the garden, and the beautiful boy to share it with. That wasn’t what would give me clarity and freedom. It was choosing to move on.

People think healing comes naturally. A papercut that closes up on its own after a few days––red, to white, to skin––without any effort from you. Emotions don’t work like that. A wounded mind can’t heal itself. It’s a choice. You had to choose to heal. You had to choose to be better. You had to choose to be happy, and that choice, as difficult as it was, is my happily ever after that opened the doors to an infinite number of happily ever afters waiting to come.

“Not quite,” I reply, and his smile falls. “I was always alone in my happy place . . . but I’d prefer this one, with you.”

His smile quickly comes back to life, and he pulls me into his arms in a bone-crushing hug. “Thank you for saying yes. I thought I was going to have to beg on my knees for hours.”

I chuckle into his chest. “I wouldn’t mind seeing you beg on your knees.”

He leans back slightly. “This house wasn’t the only reason I was going to be on my knees today.”

“What do you mean?”

He cradles my face in between his warm hands. “Maya?” he asks quietly.



“Yes?” I laugh.

“What are you, right now? On a scale from one to ten?”

I think about his question for a second, vividly remembering the first time he asked me that. I snapped back at him instead of answering, but it was only because I was so extremely low. Now, though . . . it’s crazy how a glimpse of your future can make up for a lifetime of your past. Everything that I had gone through, everything that I had to overcome, it all led up to this moment. My life suddenly makes sense.

“Ten, Noah. I’ve only ever felt true happiness when I’m with you.”

“Good,” he replies, releasing my face, and nervously crouches down on one knee.

“Noah?” I ask breathlessly. “What are you doing?”

He doesn’t respond. Instead, he slides his hand into his pocket and pulls out a small black box.

“Maya Ibrahim,” he starts, looking up at me, but then pauses. His lips are parted and the words are on his tongue, but he doesn’t speak them. He just stares at me, pure love and devotion glistening tears in his eyes and I know. I know what he’s saying even though he isn’t talking and I hope my eyes are telling him the exact same things back.

“Sorry,” he says, clearing his throat after many minutes. “I prepared a million different ways to express myself but it doesn’t matter because they all mean the same thing . . . I love you, Maya. I sincerely and wholeheartedly love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you, right here, watching you read, write and make jam, in our peaceful and soft forever.”

He flips open the box, revealing a ring. It’s a thin gold band, encrusted with small diamonds. In the center, there’s an oval-shaped sapphire that’s a radiant spring green, with a hint of mint and chartreuse. It isn’t loud, vibrant or extravagant, but instead, it’s simple, dainty and exactly what I would have picked out for myself.

“Noah,” I whisper, my heart feeling like it’s about to burst with all of the overwhelming emotions building up inside me. “It’s so pretty.”

“Not prettier than you. Will you marry me, Maya?

I give him a watery smirk. “Are you sure you’re not just proposing so we can have sex?”

He shakes his head and laughs through his tears. “Maybe just a little bit.”

“Okay, settle down,” I tease, blushing.

“For you?” he vows. “For you, I’ll do anything.”


Pinky promise, Maya.”

The flood of passion and sentiment is still crashing against my chest, leaving me speechless and breathlessI can’t bring myself to open my mouth to speak, so I nod and extend my hand toward him with tears streaming down my face, and playfully tap his nose. He gives me that lopsided smile in response and slips off my glove before lifting the ring to my finger, but as soon as the cold gold touches my skin, something happens. It’s like a bucket of ice water got dunked over me, and the explosive sensation in my heart suddenly turns into searing pain.

I gasp and yank my hand away, clutching at my chest. I’m expecting to find a knife or a gunshot wound, but there’s nothing there.

“Maya?” Noah stands up immediately, losing the ring in the grass beneath our feet. “What’s wrong?”

I meet his horrified gaze, but I still can’t speak. All I can feel is pain––


I can see it this time. Death. Its shadow is in front of me, arms wide and welcoming, and I can feel myself drifting to it effortlessly––

“Maya, wake up.”

I can hear Noah somewhere, his voice a million miles away, in another dimension.

“Baby, please. Please wake up. Please come back to me.”

He sounds completely shattered. I want to comfort him, but I can’t see him. I can’t move. A sob cracks through the tunnel separating us and hits me full force.

“Please, Maya, I need more time. I need more time to love you. Please don’t leave me, baby, please, please, please.”

They say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re dying, but the images I’m suddenly seeing aren’t from my past. The blurry glimpses are ones I have never seen before––Noah slipping the ring on my finger, and me, Maya, smiling and laughing. He’s lifting me up in the air, twirling us in circles before dropping to his knees, laying us back in the grass, lips moving urgently with mine, happy tears mingling together on our tongues––

“Just give me one more minute. Just let me look into your eyes for one more minute. Just come back to life for one more minute.”

I’m in a white dress, a makeshift flower bouquet of all my favorite book quotes in my hands, and I’m walking toward Noah. There are other people there, but I can’t tell for sure because all I can see is him, my favorite beautiful boy standing at the other end of the isle, one blue eye, one green eye, messy hair, black tux, high-top sneakers identical to the ones on my feet––

“Maya, please.”

We’re in a cabin. I don’t know where, or how, or when. All I see is two moving bodies pressed together on a blanket in front of a roaring fire, surrounded by candles and light music that you can’t hear over the sensual moans and heavy breaths of newlyweds making love for the first time––


The vast field of land is back except this time there’s a house with a green kitchen and a library with a reading nook and high windows. The sun is setting on the horizon, Noah is watering the plants, and I’m feeding the chickens while holding hands with a little, curly-haired girl with different colored eyes––

“It’s okay, Maya.”

I’m in a bookstore. My bookstore. Noah and I’s bookstore, signing copies of my book, people lined up in the store, outside the store, all the way down the street––

“You can let go now.”

I try to fight it. I try to cling on to the future that could’ve been. The future that will never happen. It seems cruel that when I so desperately wanted to die last December I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and now when I so desperately want to live I can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t bring myself to stop that thing tearing through my heart. My borrowed, fractured, and imperfect heart. But if I learned anything in life, it’s that it’s cruel. So you need to take those brief flashes, and glimpses, and blurry images of joy and cherish them because one day, you’ll be in the middle of something amazing and out of the blue, without any warning and without making any sense, you’ll be gone and everything will become a memory. You can’t guarantee a life filled with happiness––that’s something you have to work for––but you can guarantee a life that will eventually come to an end––

“I love you, Maya.”

This is my end.


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