Step by Step pt 5

Nick pulled the car to a stop, letting the breath leave his body in long sigh before moving to get out of the car.  This was the last place he wanted to be and it was certainly the last place she needed to be.  When he’d returned from taking Christian to playgroup, he’d thought it was odd that she wasn’t home, but he hadn’t gotten worried—at least not really worried—until it started to get dark.  That’s when he’d started to call her phone.  Again and again it went to voicemail.  He’d sent her texts with no response.  He’d called Jack, Billy, Michael, Lauren, and everyone else he could think of that might have any reason to know where she was.  Then it hit him.  He knew where she was.

He stood at the doorway.  Part of him would be relieved to see her here, to know that she was safe, but part of him was terrified to see how he would find her.  He slowly slid his hand into his pocket to retrieve the key.

“Phyllis,” he said softly, his eyes surveying the room.  He rushed over to her, afraid from his immediate impression that she might be hurt.  “Phyllis,” he repeated, the urgency in his voice eliciting a slight response from her.

“Just go, Nick.”  It was desperation, almost pleading.  She had crawled into the dark hole he knew so very well and now she just wanted to stay there.  She wasn’t interested in being pulled out.  He knew that feeling too, that instinct.

He looked down around her.  “What is all this?” He asked the question even though he didn’t need to.  He knew exactly what it was.  Summer’s face stared up at him from every age.  Phyllis had always been diligent about taking pictures, believing that capturing the memories of her childhood would give them happy things to look back on in years to come.  No one could have guessed they would become memories so soon.

“Pictures,” she breathed, her voice slurred and shaky.  “It’s all I have left now…is pictures.”  She reached down, her hand clutching one.

Nick closed his eyes, his heart paining as he saw the image.  He remembered that day.  It wasn’t anything extraordinary—just a random day in their life.  Summer was sitting on the floor, playing with blocks and Phyllis was working on the computer.  For whatever reason, Summer suddenly crawled up on the sofa and snuggled in beside her mother.  It was at that moment, Nick sat down beside them and snapped an impromptu family photograph.

“You remember this?” she asked, tears streaming down her face.

He nodded.  “Yeah.  Those were good days.  Really good days.”

“We didn’t have enough.”

“I know.”  He reached out to try and comfort her.  “I know…it’s never long enough.”

“No,” she yelped, jerking away from his touch.  “We didn’t have enough good days.  We didn’t give her the life she deserved.  We were so damn selfish.  We couldn’t even stay a family…we couldn’t even give her that.”

“Don’t do that.”  Nick looked over, the sight of two bottles beside her.  “Phyllis,” he began.  “How much have you had to drink?”

“What does it matter?” she huffed.

“It matters because it isn’t going to help anything.  It won’t make anything better.  Trust me.  I’ve tried it all and it doesn’t make the pain go away.”

“Something has to.”

“Nothing will.  I promise you.  The only way you get through it is to go through it.  You can’t drink your way through it.  You can’t blame your way through it.  You just have to deal with it. It sucks, but it’s the way it is.”

“I’m not strong enough.”  The words came out in broken sobs now.  “I can’t.”  Her eyes rose to meet his, the anger that he saw present mere moments ago now turning to fear and desperation.  “I can’t go through it.  I won’t be able to stand it.  I feel like someone is literally ripping my heart out.”  She raised her body up to her knees, moving towards him, reaching out to him.  “Please tell me how to make it stop.”

He shook his head, pulling her close to him, feeling her body shake with sobs as he finally relented and let his own tears fall.  “I can’t make it stop,” he whispered.  “I’m sorry.”

~

It could have been minutes or even hours, he honestly had no idea.  Time no longer had any meaning in grief like this.  She had been the one to pull away.

Phyllis sat back down, her hand reaching for the bottle closest to her.  She took off the cap with shaky hands, not bothering with a glass, simply taking a long drink straight from the bottle.

Nick shook his head.  “You feel better?”

“Not yet,” she sighed.

“You won’t.  That’s not going to help.”

“I just need to not think about it.  Just for a little while.  I need this aching to stop.  I can’t go through every moment of every day missing her.  I can’t play this over and over and over in my mind because if I do…if that’s what I have to do, it’s going to make me crazy.”

“Hey,” he touched her arm softly, his eyes still burning with the possibility of tears.  “I’m here.  I’ll help you.”

“You’re not in here,” she sobbed, pointing to her head.  “I hear her voice all the time.  I dream about her.  I think of all the things I should have done…all the things I should have said…all the things I did wrong..all the horrible things…and now I’ll never have the chance to fix anything.  I’ll never have the chance to say anything else to her.”

“Don’t do that to yourself, Phyllis.  Summer knew you loved her.  Everyone knew that.”

She was quiet for a moment.  “I know,” she sighed.  “I know she knew I loved her…I just…it doesn’t make the pain stop.”  Her eyes met his again.  “What does, Nick?”

His hand touched her face softly, wiping away the tears that seemed to be in unending supply.  She leaned against him, her body trembling.  He didn’t answer.  He had no answers.

“You’re shaking,” he said quietly.  “Have you eaten anything?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“That doesn’t matter. You’ve got to eat something.  I’m gonna..”  He stopped as he felt her hand tighten around his.  He looked down, surprised to see her eyes staring directly into his.

“Please don’t go,” she said softly.

Nick nodded, swallowing hard as he sat down on the couch and gently pulled her up to sit beside him.  “Alright,” he said quietly.  “I’ll stay….but no more drinking.”

“Ok.”  Phyllis stared at him intently, her eyes barely blinking as they weighed heavy on his.  “I think you’re right,” she whispered.  “I don’t think that’s going to help.  I don’t think that’s going to make me feel better, but I think you can help me.”  She didn’t wait for him to ask, she simply leaned forward, her lips pressing against his.

“Phyllis, Phyllis stop.”  His hands gripped her shoulders, firm but gentle—“This isn’t going to help.  This isn’t even what you want.”

“I want to feel something—anything other than the pain I’m feeling right now.”  Her eyes stared into his again.

The pain he saw there was so familiar.  She knew him so well.  They could talk.  They could cry.  They could scream, but it wouldn’t change anything.  They’d still feel the pain—but for a moment, they could forget—they could be what used to exist—even if only for a moment.  He let his hands fall, his body relaxing, his eyes closing as he felt her lips fall on his again.

Step by Step pt 4

“Mom!  Mom!  Help me!  Where are you?”

“I’m here Summer!  I’m right here, but I can’t see you.  I don’t know where you are.  I need you to help me.  I need you to help me find you.” 

She bolted upright, her chest rising and falling in rapid succession.  “Summer?”  Her eyes searched the room for only a moment before she felt his hands on her back.  “Oh,” she whispered, the sinking feeling quickly returning.  Somehow the panic had been better.

Nick shifted forward, moving so as to sit beside her on the sofa.  “Dream?” he asked softly, already knowing the answer.  He’d initially been grateful, albeit a bit jealous, when she’d finally found some reprieve in sleep in his arms, but it hadn’t taken long for the nightmares to start.  She’d flail her arms frantically, her face contorting into tortured expressions, her mouth sometimes whispering—other times nearly screaming their daughter’s name.

“Yeah,” she said softly, looking over at him.  Her hand reached up to touch his face.  “I’m sorry if I woke you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping.”

“I can tell. You’ve got those lines near your eyes. Those always show when you haven’t been sleeping.”

“Yeah,” he sighed flashing a sad sort of smile.  “Sometimes I forget how well you know me.”

Phyllis nodded.  In any other circumstance, they could have joked about something, they would have ribbed each other about some relationship disaster, or given one another grief about a way in which they’d screwed up in years past, but now it all seemed so trivial.  The one thing they’d always agreed on, the one thing they’d both never doubted was that Summer had been the thing they’d done right.  She had been the only good and perfect thing to come out of their relationship.  No matter how many people said it was wrong and that it shouldn’t have happened, they could always know that Summer was the reason they never had to regret anything.  If they didn’t happen, there wouldn’t be Summer and now….

“You want some breakfast or something?”  She looked up now and saw Nick standing in the kitchen, already pouring what appeared to be pancake mix into a skillet.  She stood up, quickly joining him.

“You don’t need to do that.  Please don’t go to any trouble.  I’m gonna be going soon anyway.”  The reaction was immediate.

“What?” He stared at her for a moment, his expression a mix of confusion and pain.  She knew she was part of his coping strategy.  As long as she was here, as long as he had something else to occupy him, something else to keep himself busy, he didn’t have to think about Summer being gone.  He didn’t have to accept it.  Maybe, in a way, she was playing the same game, but that game had to end—and it was better that it end now.

“Nick…I don’t want you to think that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing.  I do.  It means a lot to me, but we can’t hide behind each other.”

He shook his head.  “That’s not what I’m doing.  Helping each other, leaning on each other, that’s not hiding behind someone…that’s just being a decent person.  That’s helping a friend that you care about.”

“I just think…”

Christian’s sharp cry pierced the awkward moment.  Nick glanced towards the stove.  “Can you watch..”  He paused, smiling as he considered the absurdity of the statement.  “Ummm..”

Phyllis grinned.  “Why don’t I go get Christian?  I think that’s the safer bet.”

“Yeah.  I mean, if we burn the house down, none of us have anywhere to live.”  He laughed softly as he watched her head up the stairs.

“Uh huh,” she muttered.  “Funny.”

~

Nick grabbed the plates with the pancakes and the carafe of coffee before heading into the living room.  “Breakfast is served,” he announced as he stepped towards the table.

“Smells good,” Phyllis said softly, smiling at Christian who sat contentedly on her lap.  “Since when did you become a short order cook?”

“Yeah..go ahead, get your digs in.  it might not be gourmet, but I guarantee you, It smells a lot better than it would have it you’d cooked it.”

“Touche.  You ready to eat?” she grinned, looking down at Christian who smiled happily at her. She stood, hefting him onto her hip and walking over towards the table.  She watched as Nick situated him in his high chair and handed pieces of pancake.

“What’s the matter?” he said softly, catching her staring intently at them.  “You ok?”

“Yeah,” she whispered.  “It’s just…I was just thinking how nice it must be to be like that.”  She pointed at Christian.  “You know?  To be that little and to have no idea of how bad things can get…the only thing you know is family and being loved and safe. It’s a whole different world when you grow up and realize that life isn’t really like that.”

Nick sighed.  “Yeah, they just know the good things..but that’s the way it should be right now.  They should only know the good stuff.  That’s my job.  That’s all of our jobs.”

Phyllis nodded slowly reaching out and slowly stroking Christian’s soft hair.  “Right,” she whispered.  She smiled as Christian turned to her, holding out a mashed piece of pancake towards her.

“I think you’ve got yourself an admirer,” Nick grinned.  “This kid really likes you.”

“I gave him cheerios.  He’s easily bought.”

“Nope.  He’s tough.  We’ve gone through three nannies already.  He’s weird about strangers and he hardly ever lets anyone outside our immediate family hold him, but he went right to you.  It’s like he could tell that you’re good people.”

“You might not want to let your father hear you say that,” Phyllis said with a slight huff.

“Phyllis.”  Nick looked at her, his face a little more serious now.  “I’m not joking around here.  I know you said you were going to leave, but maybe you think about staying…just for a while.  It would be really nice to have some help with Christian and there’s gonna be a lot to take care of.  We’re gonna have arrangements and packing.”

She sat quiet for a moment.  “I just think it might be too much, Nick.  I can’t just run away from everything and hide out here.”

“You’re not running away.  You’re here.  You’re helping me and who better to spend time with than the one person who really understands.  Look.”  He slid his chair closer to her.  “I know your instinct is to shut the entire world out, but  there are people that really need you to lean in right now.  And, to be honest, I think this will be good for us—for both of us.  You can’t deny that we used to have a really great time together, right?”

“We did have some pretty great times together.”  She smiled at him.  “I always had fun with you.”

“And I know fun seems like an insane idea right now,” he whispered, “but it won’t forever.  We’re gonna need that.  We’ll need that to help us get through this.”  He could see the real hesitation that still sat in her eyes.  He took a deep breath before touching her arm, her eyes snapping back to attention and looking straight into his.  “I need you, Phyllis,” he said quietly.

In her life she’d been hated, wanted, envied, and a host of other things, but rarely had she ever been needed.  It was nice.  “Then I’m here,” she said softly.  “I’m here.”

Step by Step pt 3

She pushed open the door slowly, her lips so dry she could hardly stand it.  Her trembling fingertips gripped the banister tight, feeling somehow her legs might literally give out underneath her without the support.  The lights were out in the living room, save a small overhead light in the kitchen.  That seemed appropriate—the world should be dark.

Each step felt incredibly weighted and difficult and she headed to the cabinet to grab a glass.

“Phyllis.”

She jumped, nearly throwing the glass across the darkened room.  He was beside her before she could even process his presence.

“Sorry,” he said quickly.  “I didn’t mean to scare you.”  His hand rested on her shoulder in an attempt to steady her.  Gently he took the glass from her hand.  “We’ve got bottled water in the fridge.”  He opened the door, the soft glow casting more light on the kitchen.

Just enough light…

“Here.”  Nick turned to hand the bottle to her, noticing then that she was no longer looking at him.  He followed her gaze to the wall, his heart sinking as he closed the door and moved to stand behind her.  “Come on.”  His hands were gentle as he led her into the living room, stopping to turn a lamp on before sitting beside her on the couch.

“I didn’t realize she was that tall when we were here.”  She almost sounded far away, as if her words were coming from a place deep within her.

“Phyllis.” There weren’t words for this.  He knew firsthand that nothing took this kind of pain away.  There was nothing anyone could say or do to make this better.  You simply had to go through it.  If you were lucky, you had someone to go through it with you—and even then, it was hell…a hell he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.

“I used to rock her right over there.  Do you remember?”  Her eyes were wide as she looked at him.  She was desperate to hold on to something, anything of her.

“Yeah.  Of course I remember.  You were a great Mom, Phyllis.  Summer loved you.”

“I made so many mistakes…so many stupid mistakes.”

“We all made mistakes, but that doesn’t change the fact that we loved her and we would have done anything for her and she knew that.  You have to know that.”

“I know she adored you.  She thought the sun rose and set with you.  From the moment she was born she had you wrapped and she knew it.” Phyllis smiled through her tears as she looked at him.  “There wasn’t a child on the face of the earth that had a more devoted father.”

“Hey, she adored you too.  In fact she was just over here the other day telling me how much she loved having you stay with her…how it was giving you two a chance to spend some time together.  These last few months of you living with her really meant a lot to her, you getting to be there to help her with her business classes, the two of you hanging out at night—that was really special to her.”

“It was to me too, but now…I…”  The tears rushed down her cheeks and she couldn’t find the words.

“I know.”  Nick pulled her close to him, her head falling against his chest as he felt her body shake with sobs.  There was a part of him that wanted to fall apart with her, but he knew right now she needed him and somehow that was helping him keep it together.  “About earlier…”

She pulled back.  “I’m sorry I ran off like that.  It’s just I didn’t realize I was singing that song.  It was her song and..”  She felt the tears welling up again.

Nick nodded.  “That’s just it,” he whispered.  “That’s how you get through it.”  He brought his hand to her face as he carefully wiped away the tears.  “You get through it by loving other children.  You get through it by loving other people.  You get through it by not shutting yourself off and by not shutting down and by sharing the love that you have with people who need it.”

“I don’t think I can do that.  I don’t even think I want to do that, Nick.  I just want my little girl back.  There are so many things we were supposed to do.  There are so many memories that we didn’t get to make.”   Her mind reeled as she thought of all the moments that would forever be left as dreams.  “I was supposed to hold her graduate from college.  I was supposed to see her get married.  I was supposed to hold her babies.”

It was all too much to handle.  “What if..What if this is my fault?  What if this is my punishment for doing the things I’ve done?  For living the life I have?”  Her voice was becoming manic and she felt herself quickly becoming unspooled.  “What if my daughter was taken to show me what a horrible person I am?”

“Phyllis, stop. Phyllis!”  His hands gripped her shoulders with more force now and she saw the seriousness in his eyes as he stared at her.  “I want you to listen to me.”  Nick took a deep breath, loosening his grip on her slightly as he saw her face relax a bit.  “You did not cause this to happen.  Nothing you did had anything to do with this.  This was a horrible, tragic accident.  Everyone knows how much you love Summer.  No one blames you for this and no one would want you to blame yourself.”

“I don’t know…I..”

“Stop it.  Summer was beautiful and smart and strong and she learned that from you.  You taught her how to be independent and brave.  You taught her to love without fear or boundaries.  You taught her to demand respect from people and to respect herself.  You taught her to be confident.  You taught her those things because you’re all those things, because you do all those things.  You can’t quit on me now.”

He could see the question in her eyes and he knew the thoughts that scrolled through her mind.  Everything in her wanted to quit, wanted to curl up in a ball and die right along with Summer, but he couldn’t let that happen.

“I know you want to quit.  I know you don’t want to move on.  I know the last thing in the world you want to think about is getting on with your life right now, but I need you….and the one thing I know about you for sure is that you show up for the people that need you.  I’m asking you to be here for me now.  I can’t go through this alone again.”

It was like a slap in the face as the realization hit.  She’d been so wrapped up in her own grief that she hadn’t even considered his.  Her eyes softened as she felt warmth poor into her again.  “Nick,” she whispered.  “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t even thinking about you..”

“Don’t be sorry.”  For a moment he said nothing, letting the room sit still around them.  He felt her hand move to touch his and felt tears rush to his eyes.  Until now, he wasn’t certain that he’d allowed himself to think, to truly process the reality of it all, but now, in the silence, it all seemed very real.  He turned, to look at her, her eyes reflecting the same pain he felt.  “I’m glad you’re here,” he whispered, squeezing her hand tighter in his.

She nodded, letting her head drop to his shoulder.  “Me too.”

Step by Step pt 2

The car gently slowed to a stop.  Phyllis lifted her head to look through the window.  Every motion seemed to take such effort as if she were wading through quicksand.

“Where are we?” she said quietly, her eyes darting over towards Nick for a moment.

“I had to stop for gas.”  Phyllis hadn’t said a word since they left the morgue.  At first, he’d tried to talk to her, but after a few minutes he’d decided to let her have her silence.  He’d never seen her like this before and if quiet was what she needed to help her deal with these first few hours, he could respect that.  “Do you want anything?  Coffee?  Water? Something to eat?”

She shook her head.

“Ok,” he sighed.  “I’ll be right back.”  Nick walked towards the brightly lit station, glancing back at the car before he entered.  Her head had dropped back down, her chin now resting on her chest once again.

She jumped slightly as the door opened, having been lost in her thoughts for longer than she realized.

“Sorry,” he said quietly, holding out a bottle of water towards her.  “Just in case you change your mind.”

“Thanks.”

“Look, Phyllis…I was thinking—where do you want me to take you?”

“Back to Sum…” She stopped herself, her eyes filling with tears almost immediately.  It wasn’t Summer’s apartment any longer.  “Back to my place,” she said softly.

“Maybe that’s not such a good idea.”

“Nick, I don’t want to stay at the Club…I want to be in my own place.  I don’t want to be around all those people.”  The last thing she wanted was a bunch of strangers whispering and staring.  She’d been the subject of gossip long enough.  She certainly didn’t want to be the object of their pity now.

“That’s not what I was suggesting.  You shouldn’t be alone.  What if you..”

“Don’t even suggest it,” she snapped.  “Jack and I are finished.  I’m not going back to that house.  I’d rather be alone than be with him.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that either.  I thought maybe you might want to come stay at my place..with me.”

“Nick…I…”

“Look, Phyllis, I know what you’re going to say and I know it’s probably not the best idea in the world, but you don’t need to be in that apartment alone.  Summer’s things are there and you’re going to be there thinking about her without anyone to talk to.”

“But Nick…me being with you at your place…your family will.”

“It’s not their call to make.”

She sat back in the seat, surprised by his sudden assertive nature.  In the past, she’d seen Nick stand up to his family over some things, but to do something that would almost certainly send them into a tailspin was not his style.

“I just don’t want to deal with all that drama…I can’t…not right now.  I can barely even think about putting one foot in front of the other and…”  Her voice trailed off.  Anytime she even attempted to think about going on with her life she became overwhelmed with the thoughts.  Summer had been the best part of her.  Since her separation, they’d become more than mother and daughter, they’d become friends and not having her in her life…

“Hey.”

“There aren’t a lot of people who can say I know how you feel and really mean it,” Nick said quietly.  “It’s the club no one wants to be a part of, but I do…I really do.  I know what this feels like and I know there is another side.  Right now, it’s hard to see it, but it exists.  We’re always gonna miss her, but you can’t shut down.  You can’t shut everyone out.”

The tears fell slowly down her cheeks and she didn’t move to wipe them away.  There was something almost comforting about letting them fall—about knowing there was a physical symbol of her grief.

“Truthfully, me asking you to come stay with me is as much for me as it is for you.  I’ve got Faith and Christian with me and I’m running on fumes most of the time.  I could use another pair of hands and I’m betting you could help me out with that…not to mention the fact that we’re both going to need someone to talk to and who better to talk to than the one other person that really understands?”

She couldn’t argue with his logic.  “Alright,” she relented.  “But just for a while..until things calm down a bit.  I’ll need to stop by Sum..”  Her eyes closed almost immediately and she felt his hand warm on hers before she had a chance to correct herself.

“We’ll pick up your things,” he said quietly.  “That’s not a problem.”

~

“Did you find everything you need?”

“Yeah.” Phyllis smiled as she walked down the steps.  “You wouldn’t think a little girl could snore that loud.”

Nick laughed softly.  “Yeah, you get used to it…it’s almost like a sound machine after awhile.”

“I look forward to that.”  Phyllis walked over to the couch, taking a seat on the end as Nick bounced Christian up and down on his knees.  “Trouble?”

Nick shot her a look. “This kid hates sleep.  Literally hates it…I’ve never seen anything quite like it…and he’s pulling on his ear again which probably means another ear infection. I’ve got some drops upstairs. Could you hold him for a minute while I run up and grab them?”

Christian was already in her arms before she could nod.  She glanced back to see Nick heading up the stairs.  Phyllis smiled as she turned back, surprised to see the little boy’s heavy eyes looking up at her.

“You’re sleepy aren’t you?” she whispered.  She drew in a deep breath as she gathered him in her arms and stood, swaying slowly as she hummed.  Christian’s eyes dropped more and she smiled as she found herself singing the familiar words. “And you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two…”

The sound of footsteps caused her stop and look behind her.  Nick stood at the bottom of the steps holding the drops.  “Told you we should patent the song,” he smiled, gesturing to a now sleeping Christian.  “He’s out.”

The reality hit her like a slap in the face.  “Take him,” she said, handing him over quickly as the tears burned her eyes.  Phyllis hurried up the stairs and rushed into the guest room, closing the door and sliding down against it.  She hit the floor just before the tears began to stream down her face.

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.