Step by Step

Phyllis pulled her robe tight around her small waist. Her hands groped the wall for the light switch, the quick flood of light assaulting her eyes. She stood motionless for a moment, getting her bearings until the insistent knocking sounded again.

“Alright already! You’re going to wake the entire building!” She sighed as she hurried to the door. “This better be good,” she stammered, pulling the door open, her voice dropping off quickly as she saw Nick standing there.

“Nick..” His presence was entirely unexpected. Sure, they had been spending a bit more time together recently, but it had almost completely revolved around Summer and she hadn’t even considered the idea that he wouldn’t have thought anything other than that. Of course, as they say, perception is reality.

“Can I come in, Phyllis?”

It was his tone that struck her. Not friendly, but not unfriendly either—almost entirely devoid of emotion. Numb. She nodded, stepping aside for him to walk past her.

“Not to be rude, Nick, but do you have any idea what time it is?” She smiled at him, a feeble attempt to lighten the mood. She’d always been able to joke with him, but tonight seemed different, heavier..something she couldn’t quite pinpoint.

“I know…I’m sorry. It’s just…I had to talk to you. It’s important.” He looked at her, really looked at her. Something he hadn’t done in a long time.

She crossed her arms tighter across her chest, as if somehow she could feel the weight of his gaze. It made her feel exposed and vulnerable. Nick had a way of doing that to her.

He knew Phyllis was strong. He’d seen it. He’d experienced it. The things she’d been through in the past few years would have broken most people, but not her. She rose out of it, a little battered, but still here, still standing. Looking at her now, he hated the thought of crushing her again—of saying the words that had to be said.

“Why don’t you sit down?”

It was as if all the air suddenly left the room. She felt her skin grow cold, the heavy feeling of dread now weighing heavy in her chest. Her feet seemed unbearably heavy as she forced herself to move, to step closer to him. “Why?” Her eyes now fixed on his, trying to discern the meaning behind his request. “What’s wrong, Nick?”

The tremor in her voice told him she already understood. She knew, just as he did. It was instinct—when something horrible happened to your child. When someone was about to tell you the worst thing you could ever hear, before it happens, you somehow know….

Her hand flew up to her face, her fingers trembling as they clasp tight against her lips. His arms wrapped around her just before her legs gave out beneath her and he stepped backwards slowly, easing her onto the couch.

“What…Where…” There were questions that needed answers, but she couldn’t get her brain to process the words. She looked up at him, her eyes screaming. “Oh, God…”

“It’s okay.” Nick took her hand. It wasn’t okay. Nothing about this was okay, but lying to her to keep them both sane seemed like a small sin in comparison to the wrongs that had happened tonight. “I don’t know all the details,” he admitted. “Paul called me. It was a car accident, just outside of town. He was at the scene, but…” He paused to take a breath. “They need us to come identify the body.”

“She’s not a body, Nick!” Rage welled up inside her and she jerked her hand away from his. She jumped to her feet, walking quickly across the room. She jerked when she felt his hands on her shoulders. “She’s not a…” She turned towards him, noticing the tears in his eyes for the first time.

“I know,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around her as she nearly collapsed into him. His eyes closed as he lay his head down against her shoulder. It seemed wrong to find comfort in someone else’s pain, but there was a kinship there, a shared experience that no one else could ever understand.

“I should get dressed.” Phyllis pulled away. “I’ll be quick.”

“Take your time.” Nick walked towards the kitchen. “It’ll take some time for them to get everything arranged. They’ll have to take her to the hospital first and then to the….” He hated saying the word, but avoiding it didn’t make it any less true. “to the morgue,” he finished.

“Did they tell you that?”

“No. I just know from when…” His voice trailed off.

Phyllis stopped, her hand falling from the banister of the stairs. “Nick,” she whispered, walking back over to him. “I’m sorry…I wasn’t thinking.”

“You’ve got enough to think about. You don’t need to worry about me. I’ll be fine.” He shook his head. “It was a long time ago. Go get dressed. I’ll make us some tea.”

Phyllis watched him for a moment, before turning and heading up the stairs.

Nick stood in the kitchen, his eyes roaming the room. Summer’s things surrounded him and it seemed unbelievable to know she would never again be present here. So many moments he would miss. Much like the moments he would miss with Cassie. Even now, even years later, he still didn’t believe he was fully recovered from that loss…because it wasn’t just the loss of a child. He lost a marriage, a family, a dream…and now it was all happening again.

He knew firsthand what it was like to grieve alone and he couldn’t do it again. It was the most painful, lonely feeling in the world. The ache could eat you up and, if given the chance, it would. He had too much to live for now. He had Faith and Christian. He had reasons to carry on.

Reaching out to grab the kettle, he filled it with water and placed it on the stovetop. There was something else too…he had Phyllis. She’d seen what he’d been through with Cassie. She knew the pain of suffering alone and now she too was suffering a pain he’d never wish on his worst enemy. He had to be there for her, just as he knew she’d be there for him. It was what Summer would have wanted.

As the gentle whistle of the kettle began to sound, Phyllis’ soft footsteps began to descend the stairs. She walked slowly towards the counter, her eyes welling up a bit as she saw the mugs sitting on the counter.

“What?” Nick looked at her, unsure of what he’d done wrong.

“I can’t..” she stammered. “That’s her favorite…”

“Oh…” He reached up, grabbing another mug and placing the other back in the cabinet. “Sorry..I didn’t know.”

Phyllis stared down into the steaming cup, her hands still flat on the counter.

Nick slid his hand across, barely touching her fingertips. She jumped, the sudden contact startling her.

Her eyes met his, tears now streaming down her face. “I don’t know how to do this, Nick. You’ve got to tell me how to do this.”

This wasn’t the Phyllis he knew. The strong, stubborn woman he’d spent many nights fighting with was now standing in front of him falling to pieces. In most circumstances, he’d hold her together, but tonight he simply wanted to curl up with her. He shook his head, his own eyes filling with tears, his hands now covering hers. “I don’t know how,” he admitted. “But we will get through it. I promise. We start with tonight and then tomorrow and then the next day and we go on like that for as long as it takes. We do it together. Okay?”

She nodded, breathing in a shaky breath as she brought the warm mug to her lips. Tonight was step one.

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