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The Last Letter: Chapter 28


The helicopter landed in the small clearing about thirty yards in front of me, and my heart sank. There were only two reasons they would land. Either they hadn’t found Colt, or…

“Breathe,” Ada told me. Larry had taken Maisie home. I didn’t want her here, didn’t want her on the front lines of a tragedy.

A group from County stood behind us, all watching. Waiting.

“If they found him, they would have airlifted him to Montrose,” I said. Trying so hard to push down the fear that held my stomach in a vise.

“Beckett will find him. You know he will.”

I’d seen the map, knew how far that fall was.

The door opened on the helicopter, and Mark got down first, then Beckett. He was wearing a long-sleeve shirt but no blue fleece.

He looked at me, and I didn’t need to see his face from the distance. His posture said it all. “No.” The sound was barely a whisper. No. No. No.

This wasn’t happening. This was impossible.

Beckett turned as other members of Telluride Search and Rescue climbed down and then slid out a backboard, carrying it like pallbearers.

Then I saw Beckett’s fleece.

It covered Colt’s face.

My knees gave out, and the world went black.

The world came into focus as I blinked. Bright lights hovered above me, and I caught the sterile smell of hospital. Turning my head, I saw Beckett in a chair next to me, his eyes swollen and red.

Havoc slept under his chair.

“Hey,” he said, leaning forward to take my hand.

“What happened?”

“You passed out. We’re at Telluride Medical, and you’re okay.”

It came roaring back to me, the helicopter. The fleece.


“Ella, I’m so sorry. He’s gone.” Beckett’s face crumpled.

“No, no, no,” I chanted. “Colt.” The tears started in a deluge, coming hard and fast as I let out a sound between a cry and a scream that didn’t seem to stop. Maybe it paused while I took a breath, but that was it.

My baby. My beautiful, strong little guy. My Colt.

Warm arms surrounded me as Beckett crawled into bed next to me, and I buried my head in his chest and wailed. Pain wasn’t strong enough of a word. There was no scale. No ten to be medicated. This agony wasn’t measurable; it was unfathomable.

My little boy had died alone and cold at the base of a mountain he’d grown up under.

“I was with him,” Beckett said softly, as if he could read my mind. “He wasn’t alone. I got there in time to be with him. I told him he was loved, and he said to tell you not to be sad. That he had everything he wanted.” His voice broke.

I looked up at Beckett, my breaths short and choppy. “You saw him?”

“I did. I told him I adopted him, that he had a mom and dad who would do anything for him.”

He hadn’t been alone. There was something in that, right? He’d been born into the hands of his mother and died in the arms of his father.

“Good. I’m glad he knew. We should have told him earlier.” All that wasted time because I was so scared. All the days he could have had Beckett and known who he was to him.

“Was there pain?” He must have hurt so much, and I wasn’t there.

“At first, but it faded really quickly. He didn’t hurt at all when he passed. Ella, I promise you I did everything I could.”

“I know you did.” That was a given, even without knowing what had happened. Beckett would have died to save Colt. “Was he scared?” I started to cry again.

“No. He was so strong and so sure. He asked about Emma. He saved her, Ella. That’s why she lived. He pushed her to safety. He was so brave, and he loved you and Maisie so much. That’s what he said last. To tell you and Maisie that he loves you. And then he called me Dad, and he was gone. Just like that.”

The sobs started again, uncontrollable and unstoppable.

This wasn’t heartbreak. Or sorrow.

It was the utter desolation of my soul.

“There was nothing you could have done,” Dr. Franklin said from across the table, flanked by other doctors.

I looked out the window and saw the barest hint of sunrise.

I didn’t want it to be a new day. I wanted it to be the same day that I’d kissed him goodbye, hugged him before he got on the bus. I didn’t want to know what the sun looked like if it wasn’t shining on him.

“Colton had severe internal injuries, including a severed spine, ruptured spleen, and a tear in the aorta, combined with the laceration to the femoral artery. And those are just the things we saw on the ultrasound. Please believe me when I say that there was nothing you could have done, Mr. Gentry. If anything, your quick thinking on his leg gave you those minutes that you had.”

“That’s why it didn’t hurt,” Beckett said, his hand covering mine.

“He’d lost all feeling. It didn’t hurt.”

Tears slipped down my cheeks, but I didn’t bother to wipe them away. What was the point when they’d just be replaced?

“If I’d gotten there faster?” Beckett’s voice strangled the last word.

Dr. Franklin shook his head. “Even if he’d had that fall outside our ER, there’s nothing we could have done. Not even Montrose. Injuries that severe? The time you had was a miracle. I’m so very sorry for your loss.”

My loss.

Colt wasn’t lost. I knew exactly where he was.

He didn’t belong in the morgue. He belonged at home, sleeping, warm and safe in his bed.

“We need to go home,” I told Beckett. “We have to tell Maisie.” A fresh wave of tears fell. How was I supposed to tell my little girl that the other half of her heart was gone? How was she supposed to pick up and carry on as half a person?

“Okay. Let’s go home.”

Dr. Franklin said something to Beckett, and he nodded. Then somehow I put one foot in front of the other, and we headed for the front door.

I paused just before the doors. The twins were born here. I’d stood from the wheelchair in this very spot and carried them out in their car seats, ignoring the protests of the nurses, walking because I had to know I could do it on my own.


“I can’t just leave him here.” My chest seized, and I struggled for a second before I could draw a breath. My own body didn’t want to live in a world without Colt.

Beckett’s arms surrounded me. “They have him. He’s safe. We’ll take care of him tomorrow. For now, let’s just get you home.”

“I don’t think I can move,” I whispered. I couldn’t make my feet budge, to leave Colt behind while I went home.

“Do you want me to help you?” he asked.

I nodded, and Beckett bent and picked me up, one hand behind my knees and the other bracing my back. I looped my arms around his neck and put my head against his shoulder as he carried me out into the morning.

Beckett drove us home in my car. At least I thought he did. Time lost all meaning and relevance. I was adrift on an ocean, just waiting for the next wave to pull me under.

I blinked, and we were inside, Ada fussing over something. Beckett sat me down on the couch and put a blanket over my legs. Ada said something, and I nodded, not caring what it was. A cup of coffee appeared in my hands.

The sun came up in defiance of my grief. Uncaring that my world had ended last night, it was determined to move forward.

“Mom?” Maisie walked into the room, clasping her blue teddy bear. She was dressed in purple pajamas, her hair sleep-mussed, and little pillow lines creased her face.

So similar to Colt’s face. Would I ever look at her and not see him?

“Hey,” I croaked.

Beckett appeared at her side.

“He’s dead,” she said as if it were fact, her face more solemn than it ever had been in any phase of her treatment.

My eyes flew to Beckett, but he shook his head.

“I knew last night. It stopped hurting. I knew he was gone.” Her face twisted, and Beckett pulled her against his side. “He said goodbye while I was sleeping. He said it’s okay, and to check his pocket.” Beckett sat her next to me on the couch, and I lifted my arm so I could hold her.

“I’m so sorry, Maisie.” I kissed her forehead, and she tucked in even smaller.

“It’s not okay. He wasn’t supposed to die. I was. Why did he? It’s not fair. We had a deal. We were always going to be together.” She began to cry, which started my tears all over again. Her tiny body shook against mine as her tears soaked through my shirt.

I willed myself to find the right words, not to leave my daughter alone in her grief because I couldn’t see a way out of mine.

“It’s not fair,” I told her as I rubbed her back, her little blue bear wedged between us. “And you weren’t supposed to die. Neither of you were. This is simply what happened.”

How could there not be a better explanation than that? What was the reasoning in an accident you couldn’t see coming? Where was the justice in that?

Beckett took her other side, and we surrounded her with as much of us as we had to give. She needed it all. I may have lost my son, but she lost her other half.

After about an hour, she fell asleep, having turned to Beckett. He held her against his chest, his hands running over her hair, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was how he held Colt as he died. Then I shut the thought down and shoved it behind a door that I’d open when I was ready for the answer.

Ada came in, holding a Telluride Medical bag. “Did you want this? She said to check the pocket.”

I reached into the bag and took out Colt’s fleece. There was no blood, no tears, nothing to indicate the trauma he’d suffered. I located the first pocket and came up empty. The next one would be, too, if logic ruled. After all, just because they were twins didn’t mean—

My fingers came across something thin and crinkled. I pulled it free, and my breath abandoned me.

It was a red leaf.

The sun shone beautifully the day we laid Colt to rest. It trickled through the leaves of the trees on the little island, dotting the ground in tiny spots of light. The breeze picked up, bringing a cascade of colors down, mostly gold from the aspens.

I stood between Beckett and Maisie as they lowered Colt’s small white coffin into the ground. Maisie refused to wear black, saying it was a stupid color and Colt hated it. She wore yellow, the color of sunshine, and clutched Colt’s pink bear.

She’d put her blue one in with him last night, saying that was the only way they could be apart. But watching the light drain from her eyes, I knew we weren’t just burying Colt but part of Maisie as well.

Emma, the little girl Colt had saved, stood with her parents, tiny tears on her cheeks. I was immeasurably proud of what Colt had done and couldn’t bring myself to wish harm on Emma; it wasn’t her fault. But I still couldn’t understand how God could exchange the life of one child for another.

Had it been Colt for Emma?

Or had I prayed too hard the last couple of years and accidentally traded Colt for Maisie with my desperate pleas for her to live?

The line of mourners began coming our way, wanting to express their sorrow. Why would I want to hear how much they missed him? I could barely breathe through my own pain, trying to absorb Maisie’s, support Beckett’s. There just wasn’t any more room for anyone else’s grief.

“I can’t,” I told Beckett.

“Okay, I can handle this,” he said and walked me over to the small bench we’d added to the island when Ryan had died. Maisie sat next to me as Beckett and Ada took the line, and Larry ushered them to the small rowboats we’d hired to take them back to shore.

“Now I’m like you, Mom.”

“How, baby?”

Her eyes stayed locked on Colt. “We both have brothers out here.”

Another wave of grief came for me, dragging me under waves so thick I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see my way to the surface. How did anyone live through losing a child? Why didn’t the pain simply stop my heart as it constantly threatened and send me with him?

Maisie’s hand found mine, and air trickled into my lungs.

“We do.” I finally found the strength to answer her.

“Beckett matches us, too.” She turned her attention to where Beckett was nodding and shaking hands with the last of the line. “Both his best friends are here.”

I swallowed for the thousandth time, trying to dislodge the permanent lump in my throat as I watched him. He stood strong and steady, handling what I couldn’t, even though his grief matched mine. He was simply that strong.

Soon it was just Beckett, Maisie, and me sitting on the bench, facing the house Beckett had built for us.

“Are you ready?” Beckett asked. “We can stay as long as you like.”

I couldn’t bear to watch them pour dirt over my little boy, to block out the sunlight on his face. It felt too final, too wrong. “Yeah, let’s go.”

We walked past where the workers were adjusting Colt, and I stopped at Ryan’s headstone, putting my hand on the smooth granite surface. “He’s with you, now. And I know you never really wanted to be a parent, but you have to be, just for a little while. Until we get there. Make sure he plays. Teach him everything, anything he wants to know. Hug him, and love him, and then let him shine. He’s yours for a little while.”

My vision blurred, and Beckett took my arm. I turned to see Maisie kneeling at the edge of Colt’s grave, her shoulders shaking. I moved forward, but Beckett stopped me. “Give her a second.”

I heard it then, her little voice talking to him. I couldn’t make out the words but knew it was just for the two of them, like so much had been while he was alive. Beckett stood silent, supporting me until Maisie was ready.

How do you say goodbye to the person who shared your soul? Who had been with you through every heartbeat of your life?

She stood up, tall and sure, then turned to us with a sad smile. Then, she wiped her eyes and stopped crying. “He’s okay now. We both are.”

And somehow I knew she meant it. She’d found her peace with the certainty that only a child could have.

It felt like a blink, but we were back in the house. Ada had organized the reception in the main house, so mine was quiet and empty, which was exactly what I needed.

I sent Beckett up to the house with Maisie, and simply sat, trying just to be. Havoc lay at my side, curling her head in my lap as I forced air through my lungs, concentrating on the simple mechanisms of living.

There was a knock at the door, and then Captain Donahue entered. “I’m so sorry to bother you. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling, nor will I pretend to know.” He stood in front of me and then dropped to my eye level. So much like Beckett. “I know this might not be the time, but we’re shipping out, and I don’t know when I’ll get back to Telluride. So this is for you.”

He handed me a white envelope with Beckett’s handwriting on it. It was addressed to me.

“What is this?” I asked, peeling back the paper.

“Don’t read it yet. Now isn’t the time. Some of the guys asked me to keep their last letters. I kept Mac’s for Gentry, and I kept Gentry’s for you.”

“For me?”

He nodded. “I’m leaving it with you in case you start to feel lost or forget how much he loves you. Like I said, not for now. But for someday.”

He left, but I didn’t remember the act of him leaving, or anyone else returning. The steady rhythm of my breathing was all I could concentrate on, counting to ten over and over, trying to live through the pain. I sat there, drank the water that was handed to me, ate the food that was prepared, and faked a smile when Maisie said it was time for bed.

I pulled myself together enough to tuck her in. I brushed her hair behind her ear with my fingers and put my hand over her chest as she drifted off, the day taking its toll on her tiny body. The beat of her heart gave strength to mine, the knowledge that she was still here because I’d fought like hell to keep her alive.

But God hadn’t given me that chance with Colt.

I found Beckett in the hallway, leaning in the doorway of Colt’s room.

“It’s like some kind of cruel joke,” I said, startling Beckett. “Like this isn’t real.”

He turned back toward me. “I keep expecting to find him in here. Like I can tell Havoc to seek him, and he’ll pop out from wherever he’s hiding.”

I nodded, my words failing me.

“Let’s walk,” he suggested.

I didn’t object as we walked outside, the fresh air stinging my raw, salt-wounded cheeks. Across the water, my son lay next to my brother, and I still couldn’t grasp the reality of it all. The fog that had surrounded my brain since the fall began to clear with the breeze off the lake, leaving room for other emotions for the first time in days.

This. Wasn’t. Fair. None of it. Colt deserved better.

“I fought so hard for Maisie,” I said, bracing my hands on the wooden banister of my deck. “I kept saying that she needed me, and that Colt would be okay, but Maisie was dying. How damn stupid was that?” My voice broke.

Beckett leaned back against the railing and listened, like he knew I wasn’t looking for a response.

“All of those treatments, and trips, and hospital stays, just trying to keep her alive from the monster inside her. All that fear, and joy when she went into remission. All of those emotions…and then this happens. He falls only a few miles from our house and dies before I can even say goodbye to him.”

His hand covered mine on the railing.

“Why didn’t I get the chance to fight for him? I should have had the chance. Where were his doctors? His treatments? Where were his binder and his timeline? Where the hell was I? Did I trade his life for hers? Is that what happened?”


“That’s what it feels like. Like every worst nightmare I had about Maisie, preparing to lose her, just came true with Colt, but it’s worse than anything I could have imagined. I’ve spent two years battling for Maisie’s life, while making sure I made every moment special because it could be her last. I was so busy staring down the freight train headed for Maisie that I lost sight of Colt, and now he’s lost. I lost him.”

“He knew you loved him,” Beckett said softly.

“Did he? I keep playing that morning over in my mind. We were in such a rush, and I hugged him—I remember that—but I don’t think I told him that I loved him. He ran off so fast, and I didn’t think anything of it. I thought I’d see him later. Why didn’t I stop him? Why didn’t we sleep in later? He would have missed the bus. Why didn’t I hug him longer? It was so fast, Beckett. All of it. His whole life went by so fast, and I forgot to tell him I loved him.”

“He knew.”

I shook my head. “No. I missed his plays, and games, and projects, and months of his life because I chose Maisie, and he knew it. I always chose Maisie because I didn’t know that he’d be the one to go. What kind of mother does that? Chooses one child over the other constantly?”

“If you hadn’t, we’d be burying two children right now. Ella, this isn’t your fault. You didn’t trade Colt for Maisie. You didn’t bargain him away, didn’t lose him because you fought like hell for her. This was an act of…I don’t even know. It was an accident.”

“There’s no reason! None. No war to fight, no way to battle what just happened. It was over before I knew it even began. I couldn’t fight for him. I would have, Beckett. I would have fought.”

Beckett wiped the tears I hadn’t felt. “I know you would have. I’ve never met a woman who fights like you do. And I know it doesn’t help you, but I fought. I did everything I could think of, and when that wasn’t enough, I lay down and held him for the both of us. He was not alone. You did not abandon him. You never abandoned him. Not during Maisie’s illness, and not the day of the field trip.”

The pain overwhelmed my system. I couldn’t imagine it ever lessening, or living with it day after day.

“I don’t know how to breathe. How to get up tomorrow.”

He wrapped his arms around me from behind, resting his chin on top of my head. “We figure it out together. And if you can’t breathe, I’ll do it for you. One morning at a time. Minute by minute if we have to.”

“How are you so sure?”

“Because a very wise woman told me once that you can’t reason with the universe, no matter how sound your logic is. And that we can either breathe through the pain or we can let it shape us. So I’m sure that we’ll take it breath by breath until the ache lessens just a tiny bit.”

“It’s never going to go away.”

“No. I’m going to miss him every single day. Maybe we lost a little of our sunshine, but Maisie’s here, and it might not be as bright without Colt, but it’s not entirely dark, either.”

He was right. I knew it in my head, but my heart still couldn’t seem to see past the next five minutes.

“Captain Donahue stopped by. He wanted to say goodbye. I guess the unit is shipping out,” I said carefully. If Beckett was going to leave, this would be the time. Now that Telluride was a painful place to be.

“I’ll wish them luck.”

“You don’t want to go?” My chest drew tight, waiting for the answer.

He turned me in his arms so he could see my face. “No. I don’t want to go. And it doesn’t matter anyway. I signed the papers last week. I’m out.”

“You’re out?”

“I’m out. Besides, the full-time gig at Search and Rescue has some really good insurance.” He gave me a little half smile.

“You’re out. You’re not leaving.”

“Even if you kick me out, I’ll still sleep at your back door. I’m never leaving you.” The truth rang clear in his voice, his eyes.

I’d forgotten to tell Colt I loved him. I would never make the same mistake again.

“I love you,” I said. “I’m sorry I haven’t said it for so long. But I love you. I never stopped.”

“I love you.” He placed a kiss on my forehead. “We’re going to be okay.”

In that second, I didn’t feel like we would be, but my brain knew he was right. Because for that brief second when he’d told me he’d chosen to stay, a flash of joy had streaked across my heart, only to be extinguished quickly by overwhelming grief.

But that flash had been there. I was still capable of feeling something other than…this.

So I took my happy and tucked it away. I’d bring it out again when it wasn’t so dark, when there was room in my soul for it.

And for now, breathing was all I could do.

And it was enough.


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