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One wedding, no funerals, and a chance to ruin everything

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Casey tapped her nails against her suitcase handle while the woman behind the check-in desk moved at an excruciatingly slow pace, as if she knew that Casey was exhausted and considered it her personal duty to frustrate Casey’s hours-long daydream of taking a hot shower and going immediately to bed. The computer monitor looked new(ish), as expected from a (fairly) upscale hotel, so Casey didn’t think the delay was caused by a problem with dial-up internet or ancient software. Still, as her ex had often liked to remind her when they were together, Casey had a tendency to “spread her stress to everyone else and make the situation worse than it would have been,” so she kept her mouth clamped shut and stared at the clock over the woman’s head.

 

“You said you wanted to check in?” asked the front desk worker.

 

“Yes,” Casey said with a dollop of fake sweetness. “Casey McDonald.”

 

“So you want a keycard for yourself?”

 

This struck Casey as odd, but at 2:30 in the morning before a day full of Edwin’s wedding preparations, she decided against arguing. “Yes,” she answered.

 

A moment later, the woman gave her a keycard. “You’re good to go,” she said, clicking a few more buttons.

 

“That’s all?” Casey asked.

 

The woman glanced at her, confusion etched between her eyebrows. “That’s all,” she echoed.

 

This should have been Casey’s cue to ask more questions, but as she was exhausted, she didn’t. She glanced at the number of her room and rolled her bag over to the elevators, sparing a tired glance at the lobby and a BREAKFAST 8-11 sign in front of the dining room. The elevator doors opened, and her brain shut down to about 15% (it never fully shut off, after all), and she got on.

 

From the elevator to the opening of the door to her room, she only thought about her upcoming hot shower. At the door to her room, she let out a sigh of relief, unlocked the door, and—

 

“What the fuck!” yelled a voice.

 

Casey jumped, already halfway in the door to the fully lit room. But before she could scream or apologize or cry or whatever, she locked eyes with the room’s occupant.

 

Derek?”

 

“Casey?” He stared at her in disbelief, one hand holding up the television remote like her planned to turn her off. “Why do you have a keycard to my room?”

 

“Why are you in my room?”

 

“Um, clearly I was here first, Case—“

 

“Der- ek! ” She let the door to the room slam behind her and stood there in the entryway, fighting off the sudden surge of tears behind her eyes.

 

“What the fuck, Casey,” said Derek, his voice suddenly softer. He got up off the bed and walked over to her, taking her suitcase from her and pushing it aside.

 

“The desk worker must have mixed up my room,” Casey said quickly, brushing a renegade tear from her cheek. “Or, actually—no, the hotel must have made a mistake and put us in the same room, because she was so confused about why I wanted to check in, and—“

 

“Casey, sit down.”

 

“I’ll go back down—I’m so sorry, I should have asked more questions—god, I’m so tired—“

 

“Casey,” said Derek firmly, pushing her by the shoulders over to the bed. Casey sank down into the mattress and stifled a groan of relief and exhaustion. “Casey, chill the fuck out. I’ll call the front desk.”

 

As he picked up the phone, Casey gave into temptation and laid down on the bed. Almost immediately her eyes closed. Somewhere in the back of her mind she scolded herself for falling asleep with her contacts in and with her makeup still on, and then she thought are you going to sleep in Derek’s bed? But none of these thoughts spurred her into sitting up. She decided to just rest for—for however long the phone call took, and then she’d get up. For sure.

 

Sometime in a hazy later, Derek’s voice echoed over her. “They’re not picking up.”

 

“I’ll go to Lizzie’s room then,” Casey mumbled.

 

“Case, you’re asleep.”

 

“Okay,” Casey agreed, rolling into her back.

 

“There’s only one bed in here, and I’m not sleeping on the floor. I don’t care how upscale this hotel is, there’s no way in hell I’m touching the floor with anything but my feet.”

 

“Build a pillow wall,” Casey said, patting the bed with her limited remaining body control. “‘S okay. I don’t snore.”

 

Somewhere far away, Derek snorted. “Casey, your shoes are still on.”

 

But whatever she should have said in reply, she couldn’t find the strength to push more words out of her mouth. She felt the lovely sensation of her feet being freed from her shoes, and then she was dead to the world.





 

Casey woke up to a sliver of sunlight beaming into her eyes. She rubbed at her eyes, groaning softly as she sat up and blinked until her dry contacts re-moistened and she could actually see the room.

 

Derek lay beside her, a line of pillows dividing them. He was on his back, mouth ajar, and snoring softly. She watched him for a moment, his face just barely illuminated in the dim room.

 

It had been months since they last saw each other. They lived in different parts of Toronto, after all, and she’d spent Christmas in New York with her dad and her other (new, awkward) step-family, and by the time she got around to visiting London, Derek had gone back to work. Before that, the last time they’d been in the same room was at Edwin’s engagement celebration dinner nearly a year ago. Casey had brought Jarod, her ex who tried to treat her anxiety by telling her to suppress it, and Derek had brought Alexis, a woman about two years older than him who he’d been dating ever since they met while hiking in Spain. (It was hilarious that Derek had grown up to be the kind of person who went hiking in Spain, but Alexis didn’t act like someone who recognized that fact.)

 

As Casey remembered it, the only thing Derek had said to her at the dinner was holy shit, who is Edwin marrying? after Edwin’s fiancé, Erin, tried to pitch everyone on her essential oils business. Casey had snorted, said come on, Derek, they’re a perfect match and he’d said if only we could all be so lucky and that was the end of their conversation. 

 

After they went home, Jarod had called Derek “kind of a dick” and Casey would be lying if she said that that hadn’t come up a couple months later in their break-up fight, but it had, and she still didn’t care to bring that particular point up with her therapist.

 

Her thoughts returned to the quiet room. She spotted her shoes at the foot of the bed and felt a strange twinge in her chest. Shifting carefully, she disentangled herself from the bedspread and got up. If she was going to be awake, she might as well take the shower she’d been wanting since yesterday.

 

When she emerged from the steamy bathroom much later, Derek was awake and staring at his phone.

 

“Case, other people in this hotel need hot water,” he said, glancing up at her with an arched eyebrow.

 

“Cold showers are good for the circulation, so they should thank me,” Casey shot back, not knowing if it was true. She squeezed water from her hair and into the towel. Her dress stuck damply to her back, an unfortunate suggestion that Derek was right about her shower being too long and too hot. “Speaking of thank yous—thanks for letting me crash here. I didn’t mean to invade your space, honestly.”

 

Derek now turned his gaze to her, setting his phone down beside him on the bed. “Why’d you get in so late, anyway? I thought you were coming up with Lizzie and Kira.”

 

“I was, but—” Here Casey paused, considering her words carefully. “I decided it would be better if I drove myself.”

 

“Yeah. Kira’s annoying.”

 

“They’re in love , Derek. And you haven’t spent more than a few hours with her. She’s fine.”

 

“She thinks she’s better than us.” Derek tapped a finger against his chin. “Or at least, she definitely thinks she’s better than me . Maybe you two bonded over the whole Ph.D. thing.”

 

Casey snorted. “Not exactly. Kira said that a Ph.D. in literature is pointless and retrogressive. After she asked me what my dissertation was going to be about.”

 

“See? She’s annoying.”

 

Anyway ,” Casey said, rolling her eyes and flipping her hair to the other side. She didn’t want to spend too long on this particular topic, in case he got curious about why Casey, who in college he made fun of constantly for her very complex budgeting spreadsheets, didn’t want to spend hours in a car with Kira and save some cash. “I got a flat tire on my way here, and then I got lost—”

 

“They have GPS on phones now, Casey.”

 

“—because my phone died, Derek . So I had to ask directions at this super creepy gas station, and by the time I got here it was after two and then the front desk worker took ages to check me in.”

 

“I wonder who else they stuck in the same room.” Derek lounged back against the bed and grinned at her. His hair was boyishly long, like he’d forgotten to get it cut. “Anyway, Casey, it’s fine. You just owe me.”

 

“Owe you what?

 

“Dunno yet,” Derek shrugged. “I’ll let you know when I think of something.”

 

“You’re the worst.”

 

“But you love me,” he said with a wink. Casey flipped him off, ignoring the tightness in her chest.

 

Casey thought about asking why he was here alone. Where was Alexis? Had they broken up? But the question felt oddly invasive, so she didn’t ask. Instead she turned on the hair dryer. Derek got up and took a shower. For a while there was only the white noise of running water and the hum of the hair dryer and then the comforting rhythm of putting on her makeup.

 

When Derek finally reemerged, they didn’t say much. Silence settled over the room, broken only by the air conditioner, and try as she might, Casey couldn’t think of anything to say.





 

“What do you mean, you don’t have any more rooms?”

 

“I’m sorry, but we’re all booked,” said the morning desk worker. He had a pinched look to his face, like he’d already had to deal with more terrible customers at nine in the morning than anyone should have to deal with in a lifetime.

 

Nevertheless, Casey felt hysteria grinding against her empathy. “Don’t you usually have, I don’t know, rooms sectioned off for bedbug fumigation? Or something?” Somehow, that seemed like a reasonable alternative to explaining to anyone in her family that she’d already shared a room with Derek for one night.

 

The man’s mouth grew more pinched. “This establishment does not have bedbugs, I assure you.”

 

“What about—”

 

“Ottawa is a large city. If you’d like, I’d be happy to check with another branch to see if they have rooms available.”

 

Casey fell silent. Edwin and Erin had made a big deal of all the out-of-town guests staying in the same hotel, and had even paid for one night of everyone’s stay. She couldn’t very well go to another hotel—but her stomach turned to knots at the very thought of admitting she and Derek had shared a bed, regardless of the pillow wall.

 

The desk worker cleared his throat. “Would you like me to call?”

 

“No, no, I’ll figure something out. Thank you.”

 

She turned and saw Derek sauntering out of the dining room, a cup of coffee in each hand. He held one out as he walked up to her.

 

“Three creams and a shit ton of sugar, right? I was disgusted as I made it.”

 

Casey felt her cheeks flush as she took the cup from him. “Thank you,” she said, and then stopped with the cup halfway to her mouth, narrowing her eyes at him. “What did you do to it?”

 

He grinned, holding up his hands palms-out. “Nothing, Case. Why would you accuse me of that?”

 

“Because of the time you spiked my Christmas morning coffee with rum.”

 

“It didn’t stop you from drinking it though, did it?”

 

“And the time you said you ‘ accidentally ’—” here she made finger quotes— “made my coffee with salt instead of sugar.”

 

Derek’s grin grew wider. “Wait, when was that? I don’t even remember that.”

 

“Christmas Eve 2015. Oh, and the time you put a spider in my coffee—”

 

“That was a toy! And I totally washed it first. I’m not a monster.”

 

And the time in college when you made coffee with expired milk—”

 

“Okay, that was an accident, and I apologized. Many times.”

 

“Smell the milk, Derek! You have to smell the milk!”

 

By this time, Casey had already drank about a third of her coffee and had forgotten what she was doing in the lobby in the first place. The desk worker’s bad news suddenly came back to her, but just as she opened her mouth to tell Derek and, hopefully, strategize a plan that didn’t embarrass them, the elevators dinged and their entire family spilled out.

 

“Casey!” cried her mother, walking toward them with her arms outstretched. “I am relieved to see you.”

 

“Oh?” Casey asked, wondering if her mother had noticed how late Casey got in. If she had, that might lead to some questions, which Casey did not want to answer without formulating a decent lie with Derek first.

 

“Erin is a disaster,” hissed Marti, sidling up next to Casey with a wary eye on Edwin, who was play-punching Derek. “Disorganized. Forgetful. Wants us all to use her hairstylist. Casey, she got us all silk robes that say ‘hashtag Edwin and Erin Ever After’ on the back. I can’t wear it. I won’t.”

 

Casey snapped back into her oldest daughter role so quickly she could almost hear her therapist sighing in Toronto. “Marti, it’s just a robe. You’re not even on Facebook, so you won’t have to be embarrassed by it. Mom, hi. I’m glad to see you too.”

 

Her mom gave her a warm and delighted smile. Beside her, George was trying to convince Simon that his sweater vest looked dashing, but only received eleven-year-old disbelief in return. Lizzie and Kira stood off to one side, whispering something while looking in Derek’s general direction. Casey hovered somewhere between happy and anxious, seeing her family all together again.

 

The wedding venue was a mansion and its grounds about twenty minutes out of town, so they had to drive and meet Erin’s family there. Their carpooling plans somehow ended up with Casey and Derek squeezed into the backseat of George’s car, with Casey in the middle, Simon on her other side. They were tightly packed, given that this was the car of choice for parents of one rather than five. On every turn, Casey’s thigh pressed against Derek’s. She kept her arms crossed over herself.

 

George and her mom were content to ramble for the whole drive, earning grunts of acknowledgment from Derek, polite follow-up questions from Casey, and total silence from Simon, who regarded his eldest half-siblings more as a distant aunt and uncle than immediate family. Sometimes Casey felt guilty about this, but somehow, there were always so many excuses not to go home.

 

The road curved again. Casey got pressed against Derek again. She moved away, again.

 

“Erin’s grandparents are so nice, too,” George was saying. “They were surprised to find out that Edwin wasn’t the oldest! I said, no, no, Derek and Casey aren’t married yet. Edwin is the first.”

 

Casey froze in the action of moving away from Derek. The radio, playing dimly, filled up the silence. Her mother hummed along.

 

“Did you say it like that , Dad?” Derek asked.

 

“Like what?” George asked, looking into the rearview mirror. “I didn’t think you cared about Edwin getting married before you.”

 

“I don’t,” said Derek darkly. Casey snuck a glance at him, but his eyes were focused on the road passing by outside the window.

 

Casey cleared her throat. “It’s just that, George—they might have, you know, gotten a—a different impression than what you’d intended, you know, from what you said.”

 

She felt Derek shift and chanced another glance. Now his palm was fully covering his face. Echoes of the past came back to her— you can’t just let things go, can you, Casey?— and she gripped her knees, swaying with the movement of the car.

 

“What do you mean, Casey?” said her mother, turning around to look at her. 

 

Simon sighed loudly. “ Dad, you said that Derek and Casey aren’t married yet. It sounds weird.”

 

“Well, neither of them are?” George glanced at Casey in the rearview mirror, confused.

 

“That’s not what you said,” Derek mumbled under his breath, so only Casey could hear.

 

Her mother, for her part, just gave Casey a conciliatory smile and patted Casey’s knee. “Don’t worry, honey. You still have plenty of time.”

 

Casey did the only reasonable thing and took hold of her mother’s hand. “I know, mom,” she said, relieved that her lying voice sounded halfway convincing. “You don’t have to worry about me.”





 

Once, a few years ago—before Jarod, but after Lucas—Casey said to her therapist, “I think that—if Derek and I had met under different circumstances—things... things might have been different.”

 

Her therapist nodded slowly. “How might they have been different?”

 

Casey stared at the abstract painting behind her therapist’s head. A thousand moments swirled in her mind, each one flowing into the other, unified only by the image of Derek’s smile. At the bottom of the whirlpool lay something like grief.

 

She knew what her therapist wanted, but forming this into words and sentences would shatter the only stability Casey had left. When she was younger, she could easily pretend like nothing lay between the two of them in those quiet moments, their toes right on that fuzzy line in the sand. To acknowledge it now, though—Casey couldn’t. She just couldn’t.

 

“Just different,” Casey answered. “That’s all.”





 

The wedding rehearsal went smoothly. (Or at least, once Casey took the microphone out of Edwin’s hands and got him to stop telling jokes and everyone to actually rehearse, it did.) Edwin practically floated around the outdoor pavilion, Erin looked like a princess meeting her lowly subjects for the first time, and Marti only disappeared once, so all in all, Casey considered it a win.

 

They returned to the hotel's restaurant for the rehearsal dinner, and Casey ended up at a table with Lizzie, Kira, Derek’s mom—and Derek himself. Before they could flag down Marti, an elderly couple joined them, introducing themselves as Erin’s grandparents.

 

“This is going to be great ,” Derek said under his breath. Casey elbowed him.

 

They were saved from small talk for a while because Edwin somehow procured a microphone (again) and regaled his captive audience with the long version of how he and Erin met, peppered with (mostly) funny jokes and a few sexual innuendos that seemed to go right over Erin’s grandparents’ heads. Abby, on Derek’s other side, leaned past him around the time the main course arrived just to stage whisper to Casey, “Thanks for running the rehearsal, Casey, or we’d never get to eat.”

 

“This is true,” echoed Lizzie, stabbing her fork into a mushroom. “Even as best woman, I can’t keep Edwin from a captive audience.”

 

“Did ya try, though, Liz?” Derek asked.

 

“See, Derek, this is the difference between me and you,” Lizzie answered. “I can let things go. You just pretend like you can.”

 

“She has a point,” said Abby fondly, patting her son’s hand. Derek ripped a dinner roll in half and stuffed it into his mouth.

 

At that point, Erin’s grandparents asked for introductions. To Casey’s relief, Abby took over then. No matter what she said, her children’s innate sense of showmanship had to come from somewhere, and it certainly wasn’t from George.

 

“This is my son, Derek,” she explained, putting a hand on Derek’s shoulder and beaming at him. “He works in television. You’ve probably seen some of the shows he’s written or directed.”

 

“Oh, maybe I should send you my script,” Erin’s grandpa boomed, sending a wide, expectant smile in Derek’s direction.

 

Derek stared at him until Casey elbowed him in the side. “Sure,” he said in a strained voice.

 

“And next to him is Casey, who’s working on her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto,” Abby continued. “And then Lizzie, who works for a nonprofit and plays in an extremely cool band, and she’s Edwin’s best woman.”

 

“Yes, very—innovative,” said Erin’s grandmother with a pleasant, glassy-eyed look at Lizzie.

 

“And on her other side is Kira, Lizzie’s girlfriend who is also working on her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto.”

 

To their credit, Erin’s grandparents asked Kira about her research and seemed genuinely interested in the answer, and Kira was only too happy to explain the role of a philosopher in the modern world. She occupied their polite attention halfway through the main course, when Erin’s grandmother apparently got tired of nodding and took advantage of a slight pause to turn toward Casey and ask, “So, how did you two meet?” Her eyes darted to Derek, and she waited with an expectant smile.

 

The table went completely silent. Only Casey and Derek knew that the couple had been misinformed by George’s unfortunate implication, and so only Casey and Derek could salvage the situation before it got unbearably awkward, but neither of them spoke. Casey bounced between two options—explain that they were step-siblings, and explain that they weren’t a couple, while everyone watched—or laugh it off, and hope that no one asked more questions.

 

Derek went for option #2. “That’s a long story,” he said with a soft laugh. Casey glanced at him, and realized he was looking past her at Lizzie. He gave a short shake of his head, and Lizzie suddenly became very enamored with polishing off her green beans.

 

Kira cleared her throat loudly. “Abby,” she said brightly, “I picked up a copy of your book. I thought it was a fascinating look at the effects of global warming on ecosystems most people aren’t even aware of.”

 

Abby, visibly nonplussed, recovered admirably. “Thank you, Kira, I’m surprised you read it.”

 

“I actually think I can use it for my own dissertation, believe it or not,” Kira said.

 

Their conversation went on for a little while. Casey stared at her plate, letting the noise of the dining hall wash over her. Her chest tightened like someone was pulling a corset around her, and she took several deep breaths to calm herself. Everything felt far away, like she was looking at them all out of the wrong end of a telescope.

 

“Casey,” said Abby, snapping Casey’s attention back to the present. “How is your dissertation coming along?”

 

The lights in the dining room were too bright, Casey suddenly realized. Like spotlights, all focused right on her.

 

“Well…” she said, her mouth dry. “I, um.” 

 

“Don’t worry, Casey, we all know you’re brilliant,” Abby laughed.

 

Casey’s heartbeat galloped along. “Excuse me for a moment,” she said, grabbing her purse from under the table. Without a glance back, she rushed out of the dining room, and didn’t stop until she was outside, looking at the parking lot and a smattering of stars overhead.

 

The cool night air did little for her racing heart. She paced for a few minutes, her heels clicking against the pavement. Finally, she sunk onto a stone bench in front of the entrance to the hotel pool, dropping her face into her hands. Four seconds, breathe in , she told herself. Seven seconds, hold. Eight seconds, breathe out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

 

“Hey, you okay?”

 

She looked up and found Derek looking down at her. With his hands in the pockets of his dress pants, he seemed casual, like he’d come outside to smoke a cigarette or something and just happened across Casey mid-crisis. The crease in his brow, though, suggested a level of concern that only made Casey feel shakier, like the ground was tilting beneath her feet.

 

“I’m fine,” she said bravely. “I’ll be back in in a second. Don’t worry about me!” She tried for cheery on the last part, but it didn’t work, because Derek’s expression didn’t change at all.

 

“Do you want to ditch?” he asked.

 

Casey looked toward the hotel doors, imagining the assembled wedding party inside. Edwin’s fairy tale day come to life. “We can’t…”

 

“Well…” Derek shrugged and pressed his lips together. “Your mom is pretty tipsy and I don’t think anyone else would notice if we left.”

 

“What about your mom?”

 

“Kira’s got her giving a whole presentation. She’s pulled up PowerPoint slides on her phone. It’s a whole thing.”

 

“And Liz?”

 

“Taking shots with Edwin and Erin and Marti at the back table,” he answered. “Don’t tell my dad. He still hasn’t noticed.”

 

Casey considered this. She imagined going back into the party and trying to join in Abby and Kira’s conversation, or joining her mom and George and Simon, or taking shots and losing the last bit of control she still had. With a sigh, she looked up at Derek. 

 

“Yeah… okay. Let’s ditch.”





 

They went back to the room ( their room) without meeting anyone from the party. Once the door slammed closed, Casey sank onto the bed, pulling off her heels and falling back onto the pillows with a groan. This repeat of the previous night probably wasn’t a good idea, but the quiet felt comforting. She grabbed a pillow from the pillow wall and hugged it to her chest.

 

“Sorry to be so dramatic,” she said, looking at Derek. He still had that—that expression, and she couldn’t quite make sense of it, or the shaky way her stomach turned over every time he looked at her.

 

“I’m used to it, Casey.” He sat down on the end of the bed, his gaze never wavering. “Do you wanna talk about it?”

 

Feeling like she was losing some sort of a fight, Casey dropped her gaze from his. She just couldn’t look at him, not if she was going to tell the truth, but she could feel him still watching her. Waiting. She twisted the corner of the pillow between her fingers. How could she tell him? It had been her secret for months, carefully left out of her conversations with her mother. She’d avoided Lizzie’s dinner invitations for weeks. She hadn’t called her father since his birthday in June.

 

She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Sneaking a glance at Derek, she found him unchanged. This time, though, his gaze made her feel a little more steady. Memories of high school freak-outs and college meltdowns came to her, like the time he fell asleep in her dorm bed while she wrote a term paper through the night, and when she woke him up around five in the morning his hair was a mess and he looked like he could sleep for a thousand years but he got up and proofread her paper anyway, the two of them sitting next to each other on the bed, close enough to touch but not touching.

 

“I’m taking a medical leave of absence from my program,” Casey finally said. “I don’t know when or—or if I’m going back.”

 

He sat in silence, the crease between his eyebrows growing deeper. Casey twisted the end of the pillow tighter around her fingers.

 

“What?” he asked, his voice almost harsh. “What kind of medical absence?”

 

“It’s nothing serious, Derek.”

 

“It sounds serious.”

 

“It’s not—” she let go of the pillow to flail a little. “It’s not a real medical problem. I’ve just been a disaster. I don’t know, I thought that’s how grad school was supposed to be, I guess, but…” She took a deep breath, struggling to put everything into words. “As I got busier and more stressed, I just got more and more unhealthy. After Jarod and I broke up, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, and so I wasn’t really eating or sleeping—I was just working. All the time.”

 

“Casey…”

 

“So it’s just anxiety. That’s all. It’s not a real problem.”

 

“Not a real problem?” Derek asked, looking at her like she was speaking another language. “Casey, it’s obviously a real problem. If you’re that unhealthy and stressed out—”

 

“I know ,” Casey said quickly. “That’s why I’ve been too embarrassed to tell anyone. I should know better.”

 

“That’s definitely not what I’m saying. Fuck, why’d you end up going on a leave of absence?”

 

Now Casey let her head rest against the headboard. She wished that she hadn’t brought any of this up with him—his concern felt heavy, almost unbearable. She wanted to hug him, too, which was the bigger problem. No solutions would be found that way. Only more problems.

 

“I had a panic attack after teaching a class one day,” she said. As she’d expected, his eyebrows flew up, disappearing under his hairline. “I thought I was dying—but I wasn’t, obviously. It was so stupid. They took me to the ER, which was so embarrassing, but they found out I was pretty dehydrated and slightly underweight.” 

 

She pressed a hand against her forehead, as if she could shield her eyes from remembering that day. Her terror, and the certainty that she was having a heart attack, had been very real—even if the heart attack itself was not. But the memory still felt fresh, and she could feel her heart picking up pace, just thinking about it.

 

“Shit, Casey,” Derek said, drawing her back to the present. “Why didn’t you call me?”

 

She laughed. “I couldn’t bother you with that.”

 

It had occurred to her, if she was being honest. While sitting in the hospital bed, her thumb had hovered over Derek’s number first. But she hadn’t called. She hadn’t called anyone—not her family, not her friends, not Jarod, who would have come even though they’d been broken up for several months. It had all felt like something she had to handle alone.

 

“No,” Derek said. “You should have called me.”

 

Something snapped inside Casey then. She sat up, glaring him down, muscle memory turning this into a fight. “Derek—we don’t talk!” she said. “And you were with Alexis, and—and I didn’t want anyone to know. Okay?”

 

Muscle memory apparently didn’t kick in for Derek. He just sat there, looking at her.

 

“But if I’d known,” he said carefully, “I could have helped .”

 

“But I was fine!” Casey cried. “ Really . Anyway, after that, my advisor encouraged me to take a leave of absence. I guess she was right, but…” She trailed off, trying to gather her thoughts. “I’m still so ashamed.”

 

Her voice sounded smaller than she wanted it to. 

 

“You don’t have anything to be ashamed of,” Derek said.

 

Casey laughed, rolling her eyes. “I’m supposed to be—you know, me . But I couldn’t even finish school without falling apart.”

 

Derek fell quiet again. How many times had she put him through this? Too many to count. Maybe it meant something, that he kept showing up for her meltdowns, after all these years. Maybe that was why she hadn’t called him in the first place, why she’d let this gap between them grow and grow, until she could almost believe that they were simply polite acquaintances bound by a marriage they’d had no say in, and nothing else.

 

“You remember in college when you thought you were going to fail speech class?” Derek asked.

 

Casey snorted. “Yes.”

 

“And what happened?”

 

“It turned out fine.”

 

Exactly .” 

 

Casey sighed. “But this isn’t like that. This isn’t one class. It’s—it's my whole human existence.”

 

Now Derek rolled his eyes. “Casey, I know everything feels like life or death to you, but—you’re okay.” He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. “Everything is going to be okay.”

 

Maybe it was the warmth of his hand, or the final release of a near-panic attack, but Casey felt tears pushing against her eyes. She couldn’t stop it. They rolled out, down her cheeks and neck.

 

“Oh no, not tears,” Derek said, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Let’s watch a movie, okay?”

 

He moved to sit next to her, the two of them divided by a pillow, and turned on the television. Casey couldn’t really pay attention as he flipped channels, mildly saying “sure?” to every movie he suggested. Finally, he landed on Clueless , just as Cher pushed an admirer out of frame.

 

“This is a great script,” Derek said off-handedly. “Have you seen it?”

 

“Of course,” Casey said. “Not in years, though.”

 

“Same.”

 

They watched for a few minutes, though Casey processed none of it. It hit a commercial, and Derek muted the television.

 

“What happened to you and Alexis?” she asked, before she thought the better of it.

 

Derek’s expression went blank, except for a tightness around his jaw. He wasn’t looking at her, but it felt like he wasn’t looking at her on purpose. She wondered what would happen if he did look at her—what she'd see on his face.

 

“Didn’t work out,” he said.

 

Casey could hear warning sirens blaring, but she felt reckless. “What, so I share all about my life, and you don’t have to share anything?”

 

“That’s right.” He unmuted the television. “It’s back on.”

 

Sometime later, she went into the bathroom to wash her face and take out her contacts. They never discussed her sleeping arrangements for the night, but it was—understood, or at least she thought it was. She stared at herself hard in the mirror for a few minutes, her mind blank, but her fears churning in the background.

 

When she went back out into the room, Derek was already asleep. She turned out the light, sat down on the bed, and pulled the remote from his hand.

 

On screen, Cher was kissing her (ex) stepbrother. Casey watched Paul Rudd smile, his eyes alight with completely believable love. Her hand gripping the remote, she watched the scene play out, listening to Derek’s even breathing and wondering how she’d ended up in this version of her life instead of the fairy tale she’d planned.

 

She turned off the television and pulled the covers up to her chin. But this time, it took her a long time to fall asleep.

 


to be continued