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Waiting for Dawn

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for J.O.
grieving with you and looking forward to the day your dawn comes

i.

 

She had always had a pit of sadness, always talked about how her life had been shaped by hardship, but she hadn't truly known sadness until the day she watched her best friend's casket be slowly lowered into the ground. No, she hadn't been shocked to get the text that Riley was gone because she had just known. Why would she not when they had always been two halves of a whole, each other's extraordinary friendship? True, she had been expecting Riley to make a full recovery. But she had felt the connection between her and her best friend shattered forever, and she had just known that Riley was gone. Still, it didn't seem right that Riley would be gone so soon. They had promised each other they would go into the same retirement community so they could spend the twilight of their lives in rocking chairs side by side. If Maya had ever doubted that vision, it was because she knew that she put her future in her hands more than her fair share. She was not like Riley, the healthy living guru who tried everything in a quest to keep Farkle and her two precious children alive as long as possible. Yet, Riley had died, and Maya and the others had lived on.

Immediately after hearing the news, Maya's mind had gone to Farkle. His sun had set forever. How would he bear it? How could he continue to survive and face the challenges of life without Riley's light and love? Dear, dear Farkle—he had faithful loved and cared for Riley and deserved nothing short of happiness. But that wasn't how life worked. Life threw curveballs; Maya knew that very well. Farkle's was being left alone with his children and every glance at them only serving to remind him of the reason for her passing. She couldn't see how he would take it well. He always thought himself the mature one and took responsibility for everything. He would blame himself for not being content with two children, for making choices that had opened the door for the ectopic pregnancy that had cost Riley her life. It wasn't his fault; he couldn't have known, and Riley had been just as excited at the thought of another baby. It was no one's fault. It had just happened. Situations like this were the reason Maya could never believe in fate. How could fate have taken the one who had always believed that everything happened for a reason?

Maya had wrapped up her job in Hungary early and set off homeward for the funeral. Normally, she stayed with her parents or Riley and Farkle when she was in town, but she found herself taking a taxi to a hotel instead. She wasn't ready to see anyone to today. She had to prepare herself for what she already knew would be the worst day of her life so far—a life that had been far from easy. She tossed and turned in bed for hours before realizing that she needed to paint. That had sent her to the store to hunt for canvases feeling very lucky that she never traveled without her paints. She spent most of the night sitting on the edge of the tub and painting. The long repeated brush strokes were therapeutic, but in the wee hours of the morning, she looked at her painting and realized that no matter how excellent her work was she would never be able to capture the light in Riley's eyes. Without that light, there was no Riley. And Maya could not capture it—she would never see that light again. Riley was gone. She snapped the painting in half and stuffed the pieces in the garbage before turning on the shower and letting it run over her painty clothes and all wishing it had the power to wash away all the feelings. She would take bare and empty over this any day.

When she awoke, it was to her alarm ringing and the realization that she had overslept. She had to catch a taxi to the cemetery in just a few minutes. Glancing at the mirror, she saw that she looked terrible but as bad as she looked, she felt even worse. Outside, exhaustion pulled at her body, and inside, her heart felt like a heavy weight. She stepped into the cold, fall air wondering if perhaps she was the one who was dead. New York City had always been home, but she didn't recognize this. Everything was still and colorless gray. It seemed as if there were nothing but the empty shell of a city which had once been filled with life. Life—Riley's was gone. Maya could search the city from top to bottom and not go anywhere where she could hear Riley's sweet voice or see her shining brown eyes. The taxi ride to the graveside was a blur as she contemplated what it meant for the person who had always been there to be gone. She tried to block the thoughts of the future from her mind. She would live one step at a time, one moment at a time.

The sight of the cemetery sent chills through her body. This was no theoretical what if Riley was gone. No, this was real. The taxi stopped, and after paying her bill, she had to get out. She forced herself to put one foot in front of the other and walk to the spacious pavilion where the funeral would be held. Too soon, the door of it stretched before her. As she ventured inside, she could see Farkle in a dark suit and yarmulke standing near the front. There was no Riley by his side like there always was. Riley was in the casket and would never be by his side again. Sad didn't even begin to describe it. It was nothing short of tragic. Maya put on her bravest face and walked forward. Farkle turned, and she would never forget how it felt when they locked eyes and his glance said everything his words of the next year would not. She ran up and threw her arms around him. He said no word of greeting, and she couldn't force herself to speak either. The hug felt stiff and robotic like the Farkle of middle school, and the tears streamed down Maya's face. They both let go after a moment, and she finally managed an "I'm so sorry". He replied with a "me too". After she let go, Farkle turned and walked away, and Maya wiped the tears from her face with her hand. She wasn't one to cry; she had been through far too much to cry at every little setback. But Farkle was so stoic, and she knew he must be hurting so infinitely much, too much to even be able to express it. Besides Riley, he was her oldest and dearest friend, and as much as she was weighed down by her own grief, knowing that he was in pain hurt infinitely more.

Farkle didn't cry all day. He sat still when the rabbi started the service, when Zay read the tribute he had written, when he dropped a rose on the casket, when he watched Riley's casket be lowered into the dirt. She felt torn apart inside to watch him walk away with his children around him. She wondered at his courage as he looked into their deep brown eyes and responded to their bright smiles and happy questions with no smile of his own. They looked so much like their mother, and she was sure he was keenly aware of that every moment he was with them. At the dinner at this parents, he barely said anything and hardly swallowed any food. She knew that because she was watching him from the chair in the corner hoping she too could avoid the words of their well meaning loved ones. For one moment, she made eye contact with him from her corner and just knew that they were thinking the same thing. Surely, this was just a bad dream, and they would wake up to their bright sunshine with them again. This was the kind of situation that always called for Riley, and she wasn't here.

ii.

Maya didn't take off right after the funeral but found herself back with her mom and Shawn. It was her fall vacation—time off from traveling and painting and taking pictures. She generally loved her times in the city remembering her childhood, hanging out with Riley and Auggie, being Auntie Maya to Riley and Farkle's kids, and getting some downtime. But this year, the days were torturous. Life felt so empty and purposeless without Riley. Maya knew she had to stay busy, but everything she could do reminded her of Riley. Sometimes, she would start something only to stop when the memories brought tears to her eyes; other times she would power through promising herself to stop next time. And everyone she knew was only trying to offer sympathy. It was in kindness, she knew, but that didn't keep her from trying to avoid them as much as possible. She didn't want pity. She was tough. She could do what she had to do. She forced herself to get up and dressed and see Farkle and Riley's kids determined to not let them down. But many days, she just sat around the house wondering if the sun would ever rise again.

After fall vacation, Maya was off to Cambodia to photograph a resort. She wasn't sure she was up for working; taking pictures felt so meaningless especially when she knew it was merely for promotional purposes. But she couldn't cancel at the last minute without tarnishing her reputation, so she went and found it better than she was expecting. Maybe the sadness had traveled with her across the globe, but it was good for her to finally be doing something. The busy days of shooting kept her from dwelling on her grief, and for brief moments, her mind completely occupied by her work she would forget what had happened. The consciousness of Riley's passing always returned very quickly, but those moments always provided relief and hope that she would someday be on the other side of the grief.

After that job, she made up her mind that she would keep herself busy; it was the only way forward she knew. Work had always been her go-to, providing stability in the hard times. She had long leveraged getting in the zone with her art and the way it made all of her worries except the task at hand disappear. She would take as many jobs as she could and fill her life with busyness if not purpose.

As the weeks became months, she realized that her work brought pain as well as joy. In if as in all of life, Riley had been her biggest cheerleader. Maya had always loved art, but it was Riley who had first taught her about its importance. Art captured beauty, she had always said. Maya simply must make art because the world needed artists—people who showed the world the beauty that coexisted with pain. Riley had been so sure that Maya's work would change the world one person at time. Maybe Maya had never made it big, but Riley's praise had made her simple efforts seem like the greatest success. Now, Maya couldn't take a picture of beautiful scene or paint a painting without hearing Riley's exclamation of joy and then remembering with a stab of pain that she was gone.

Normally, Maya took a long break for the holidays returning for Thanksgiving and two weeks around Christmas and New Years. In her eagerness to be busy, she scheduled a job on the day after Christmas and only was in town for a day for Thanksgiving and a few days for Christmas.

Christmas Eve, she finally had the time to see Farkle and the kids. Riley had not had the time to give last wishes, but Maya knew that looking out for Farkle and the kids was on Riley's heart and she considered that as binding as any promise she could have made. It was thinking of that unspoken promise that made her leave her parents' house and venture out into the December cold to face her fears. What if she couldn't handle seeing them? What if she couldn't stop crying or couldn't make herself say anything? Fears be darned, she knew she had to go. It had been months since she had seen them, and if she didn't go now, she would leave poor Farkle manufacturing excuses as to why the kids hadn't seen Auntie Maya in so long.

She knocked on the door of their penthouse with a feeling of trepidation even though she knew they were expecting her. She was met by the happy smiling faces of Aaron and Charlotte and Farkle's solemn, tired looking one. Farkle did not look well, but Maya felt relieved to see for herself that he was surviving. It had been so long with just random texts for Smackle to reassure that he was still alive. Along with her own sorrow, she had been deeply aware that across the world Farkle was sharing in her grief. Riley was beloved, and many were morning her death, but the others had merely had their lives brightened by her sunlight. Farkle and Maya by contrast had had the privilege walking through life with Riley and soaking up her light until it was part of them. That was something that the others would never understand.

Finally back in his presence, Maya felt supported by the knowledge that he unlike anyone else truly understood what she had been and was going through. After hugging the children, she pulled him into a tight hug and felt his ribs poked her chest. He had always been thin, but Riley had considered it her job to help counter his tendency for skipping meals when he was busy. Maya felt tears coming to her eyes at the thought of his being too busy and sad and tired to eat. She wasn't much of a cook, but she would coax him into the kitchen under the pretense of needing a good meal and make sure he got a good dinner.

Maya went home to her parents that night feeling encouraged to know she was not alone in facing a big world without the light of Riley's presence. Farkle too was nearly beside himself with grief, yet he too was surviving. Somehow, that gave her hope that despite the immensity of her feelings she would make it beyond them. She would keep being brave and surviving one day at a time, and here Farkle would be doing the same thing.

iii.

Leaving New York the day after Christmas, Maya knew that she couldn't wait so long to come back. Maybe staying busy was good, but she couldn't leave Farkle and the kids for so long. It wasn't good for them; it wasn't good for her. The kids needed to know now more than ever how much Auntie Maya cared, and she needed to grieve with Farkle. Maybe the presence of the kids kept them from talking about Riley or their feelings. Still, it was comforting to just be there and to look at each other and know that they were not alone. Farkle's pit of sadness was way deeper than her own, and the words were buried beneath layers and layers of thoughts and feelings he barely knew how to feel let alone express. And she could tell that he knew that she understood that and that she had no expectations only that his door would be open and his shoulder there if she needed something to lean on. He could do both of those things, and beyond that he need not talk or express until he was ready. When she left Christmas Eve, she could see a look of thankfulness in his eyes that filled her with warmth. She knew that Lucas and Zay were looking out for him, but they didn't understand him like she did.

She returned in February knowing that her time in New York would leave her feeling better about life. Looking out for Riley's dear ones gave her a new sense of purpose and a reason to face all the memories that threatened to make her cry. She picked Aaron and little Charlotte up and took them everywhere Riley used to—everywhere Aaron said they didn't go anymore. She knew why. Farkle simply couldn't hack it; taking care of the kids, Riley had been at her best always smiling, loving, caring, instilling hope, and savoring life with every fiber of her being. At the children's museum where Maya had been with Riley and kids only twice, all she could see was Mom Riley teaching her kids, full of happiness to see them having so much fun. Maya reached for her tissues a lot that day, so much Aaron asked about it. She didn't know what to say—Auntie Maya was just having a hard day. And he had told her he loved her with the biggest hug, and all she could think was that Riley would be proud. Maya had always considered the kids too much, been scared at the thought of having children of her own. Yet, here she was managing the two on her own and thriving despite her grief.

She left New York again with a sense that she needed to stay in touch. The kids needed her. They needed to know that someone was there and that it wasn't just about Mommy being gone. They needed to know that she cared and was deeply invested in their lives, so she sent postcards from everywhere she went and texted Farkle pictures of things she thought they'd enjoy seeing. And she returned in April for Aaron's spring break and spent the entirety of the week with them. Farkle unfortunately was busy preparing for a proposal at work, so she didn't see him until Saturday. She missed him but encouraged herself with the thought that he knew that she was there and that his children were well taken care of.

She left again with joy in her heart. Riley's children were the dearest people in the world, and getting to see her live on in them gave her hope for the world. Aaron had his mama's kind heart and couldn't bear the thought of anyone hurting, and little Charlotte had a love for life unlike anyone Maya had ever seen. And their dark eyes sparkled like hers reminding Maya that Riley could never completely be gone from this world.

Maya returned for two weeks that summer. Farkle had wanted to pay her for her trouble, but she reminded him that she was doing it for Riley. And they had compromised with her staying at the penthouse so there no taxi rides or meals for her to pay for. It was a glorious two weeks, and Maya found herself enjoying every moment knowing that she didn't have long. She took the kids to all their favorite places packing every day with fun memories she hoped would stick with them forever just like the days with Riley had with her. She came home from a day at Coney Island, dehydrated and sunburnt, but Farkle merely noted that she had a glow. It was happiness. One of the attendants, a kind older lady had referred to her as the kids' mother. She wasn't their mother, didn't want to be their mother. Still, her heart exploded to hear that someone else could see the love she had for them; it was love that she had because of Riley—love that she had both inspired and taught. In that moment, Maya knew that the sadness was only temporary. Everything that Riley had taught her would remain with her forever—people change people and lessons well learned are never forgotten.

Before she left again, she and Farkle had planned her fall vacation. She would stay with them again, and Farkle would take a few days off so they could visit a cabin upstate and enjoy the beautiful fall foliage. She departed from New York amidst tears knowing that she was leaving her heart there. She had never really missed it much before. She loved traveling, and she had always known that her family could get along just fine without her. But now a new vision of family was arising, one where she was the dear Auntie who took Mommy's place as best she could and was Farkle's best friend and the closest thing he had to a confidante. They needed her, and being away from them made her miss New York like she never had before. She counted down the days until Fall vacation longing to return to New York and go home. She wanted to talk to Aaron and Charlotte face to face and feel Farkle's arms around her neck.

iv.

The first Saturday morning of fall vacation found them up at the cabin making a big, hot breakfast. The weather was just perfect for cooking up delicious treats and and savoring the coziness of a kitchen filled with love. Farkle was by far the superior cook, but Maya loved seeing the kids smile and did her best. They made pancakes, standing around the stove together watching their creations turn golden brown. Charlotte and Aaron were on kitchen chairs and carefully following Farkle's instructions for flipping pancakes. Farkle's arm rested around Maya's shoulder holding her close to the warmth of his body. Maya stood silent completely lost in the beauty of the moment and wishing that Riley could be there to see it too. She was completely taken aback by seeing Farkle turn sideways and lean toward the corner of her face. Her reflexes were just as good as they had been when Farkle had first tried to kiss her in seventh grade; noticing and reacting quickly was what kept her safe while traveling alone. This time, she did nothing. She was safe, and his leaning closer merely made her feel warm inside.

The moment Farkle's lips touched Maya's forehead, an image of Farkle kissing Riley on the forehead flashed through her mind. Maybe it was because he had done it all the time. Somewhere between junior high and adulthood, he had decided that he wasn't a fan of PDA and preferred to save most kissing for private. The times where Maya had seen her friends lock lips had been few, but she couldn't tell you how many times she had seen Farkle press a kiss to Riley's forehead. It was such a simple gesture, but it felt so sacred given Farkle's love for privacy. It told the greatness of his love in the grandest way he felt comfortable showing publicly. With those memories, chills ran up Maya's spine. Farkle had just kissed her forehead; he never kissed anyone's forehead except Riley's and perhaps little Charlotte's. In her panic, she managed a "I'm not Riley" to which he replied "I know".

She ducked from under his arm desperate to get away. She couldn't stay and face the confusion she felt. What was going on? Yes, Farkle hadn't been this friendly with her when Riley had been alive, but she had figured that he was merely lonely. She had thought nothing more of the hugs, the smiles of gratitude, the invitations to come and stay with him and the kids. She was Auntie Maya and his best friend now that Riley was gone—that and nothing more. She would have excused this as a careless mistake except he didn't seem confused, was too quick to reply that he knew she wasn't Riley. And he didn't apologize afterwards like he always did when he felt that he had done something wrong. Maybe he had taken his arm off the moment Maya started to move, but he had said he knew she wasn't Riley like what he had done was the most natural thing in the world.

Could he be hoping that she'd...she'd take Riley's place? They had become so close in the past few months, but she had assumed that it was loneliness that had rekindled the friendship that they had enjoyed when they were young. But maybe she had read it all wrong—the way he texted her to tell her everything, looked at her like her smile brightened him inside, always wanted her to be there. He had been so friendly with her, but she never once suspected that it was anything more.

What did she think of that? She honestly wasn't sure. Farkle had been Riley's for so long that she didn't know whether she could think of him any other way. It felt like the worst violation of girl code to get close to your best friend's man never mind that said friend had passed away and her husband and children were in need of a woman's love. The thought of Farkle wanting someone other than Riley was disturbing even if Riley was gone and that someone was her. It was supposed Farkle and Riley, and she doing her own thing. She sat on the bed of her room unsure how she'd face the rest of the weekend alone at the cabin with him and the children.

That night on the front porch, what she had been dreading happened, and he asked her what was wrong. What was she supposed to say? She didn't know what there was to say; it was possible that she had misread everything, and she didn't want to make it awkward by insinuating he had wanted more. So, she looked at him and merely listened as he apologized for making her feel uncomfortable and promised he wouldn't do that again. He paused, and the silence felt heavy with the important words she knew were coming. She thought he would say something about loving her or wanting her to be with him, but instead, his words took a different turn.

"You remind me of Riley", he began, and she had to look away. Tears filled her eyes. She didn't want to be Riley; she had always been Maya except that one blip in eighth grade when she had thought Riley was the only person to be. No, she was Maya, and there was only one Riley—the one who was gone from them forever. She heard his voice break and turned back to look at him. It was the first time they had ever cried together since Riley died, and she never wanted to forget it. She felt close to him, closer than she had in a long time. Tears streamed down his face as he told her her smile lines were like Riley's as was the way she wanted to always capture a beautiful moment and the love she had for his children. It was so beautiful to him, seeing Riley's kindness, hope, and love in Maya and knowing that she too had been forever marked by the woman he had loved. Her crying turned into sobbing; he was right. She would never be Riley, but her life would always reflect the beauty of Riley's light. Farkle was the only one who would ever understand that, and she would always love him for that. He called her over, and she sat across his lap. His arms snaked around her and pulled her close. He held her until her sobs grew quieter and the tears stopped falling from his eyes. With his hand in hers over her heart, he told her he loved her, and the tears returned to her eyes as he kissed the top of her head.

It was the beginning of something new. It would be the two of them together for as long as they had. She would share his heart, life, and home; become his second wife and the new mother of his children. It wasn't all for the best; she knew they would always feel like Riley was missing, they would be forever be grieving her loss. But they'd be doing it together hand in hand. It wasn't the future she'd dreamed for herself—she had been perfectly happy with the family she had found with her mom and Shawn, Farkle and Riley and the kids, and all the others. But she had always talked about the meandering path of life, and this was where hers was taking her. She knew that no matter what happened Riley would live on in the light and hope that streamed from their lives. It wasn't an easy road, but together, they had love and hope for the future, and she was sure she saw the sun rising. Dawn had come.