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The Life You Left Behind

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Most people come back the end.

~ John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things


Dani returned to her childhood home at the age of twenty four. The porch swing where she used to spend her summers reading was in dear need of a coat of paint. She ran her finger along the arm rest. She could almost hear her father calling her in at sunset, the scent of pot roast and cherry pies wafting through the open window. 

Even later, evenings sitting here with Eddie, her head on his shoulder, the only comfort she felt for miles. Dani spun the ring around her finger, squeezing until the diamond nearly cut into her palm. A reminder that the simple times were long gone, and an entire life stretched out in front of her. Her stomach rolled at the permanence of that thought. 

Dani used her spare key to let herself in, dropping her suitcases at the bottom of the stairs.

Mom? ” 

Only silence and long forgotten scents assaulted her, her mother’s favorite perfume, and Murphy’s oil soap from the shining wood floors. Dani dragged her things up and into her bedroom, dumping her bags onto the single bed. The mattress creaked as she sat, her movement bouncing her carry-on off and onto the floor. Her back already hurt at the thought of sleeping here for even one night.

Her bulletin board hung on the wall, bearing swim team ribbons and old sketches on yellowed paper. Two poorly drawn girls rode horses in a flowering field, carrying swords into a battle. She walked over and traced the figures, and something tickled her brain at the familiarity. 

A sense of melancholy washed over her, increasingly common these days, when the size of her world left her feeling claustrophobic and lost. It would pass, she knew. It always did. 

Dani smiled as she walked over to her bookshelves, surprised to find a smattering of clean unbroken spines amongst her old collection. New York Times’ bestsellers from over the years filled an entire shelf. She touched the spines delicately before moving to unpack her wardrobe for the week. She hung her pink sundress, Eddie’s favorite, in the closet next to an old letter jacket and neglected Christmas sweaters. 

Dani pulled the rest of her clothes from her suitcase. She separated them into several drawers in the crooked white dresser along the wall. The top drawer refused to close, still requiring a hip check to get past the last few inches. She tossed the book she'd been reading on the trip home onto the bed, and nudged her shoes until they were aligned just inside the door. She looked around and nodded. It was starting to feel familiar again.

“Dani ?” Her mother’s voice rang out from downstairs.

“I’m up here!” 

Dani sighed, mentally preparing herself for awkward banter and endless excuses. She scrunched her shoulders up to her ears, held them, and loosened. I can do this . She walked out her door and down the stairs. She found her mother in the kitchen, heating water for tea.

“Hey, mom.”

“Dani!” Karen Clayton turned, a tremulous smile on her face, hair longer than Dani was used to. She came over to engulf her in a hug, and Dani hesitated before returning the embrace. 

Several seconds passed as Dani forced her muscles to relax one by one. She clenched her teeth and began to pull away. Karen squeezed tighter at the last moment before they separated. 

“I hope decaf is okay, it’s all I have left.”

“It’s fine.” She took a seat as Karen busied herself with tea bags and a drizzle of honey for each mug. 

Karen brought both over to the table, spilling some onto both placemats. “Wait. I’ll get a towel.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“It’ll just take a second.” Karen wiped at her forehead and hurried over to the oven, taking a red checkered tea towel from it’s handle. She avoided Dani’s gaze as she wiped up the mess. 

“Mom, you got it.”

“Oh! I almost forgot. I made poundcake.”

Dani narrowed her eyes. “You… baked ?”

Karen paused before cutting two thick slices. “My sponsor suggested it, a new hobby to keep me busy. I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it.”

She grabbed two forks and joined Dani at the table, hands shuffling together as her eyes darted around the table. “I hope you like it.”

Dani took a taste, letting the rich flavors explode on her tongue. “It’s great. Really. Just, not what I’m used to.”

Karen grimaced a bit, covering it quickly with a forced smile.

The clock on the wall ticked through the ensuing silence.

“Are we gonna talk about it?”

Her chair creaked as Karen leaned forward, her forearms pressing onto the worn linoleum of the table top. “I don’t even know where to start.”

Dani put down her fork and leaned back. She crossed her arms and nodded. “How about when the Millers found you blacked out behind their house. Maybe let’s start there.”

Karen’s knuckles whitened as her fingers twined together. 

“Or we could talk about how I didn’t find that out until you left rehab last week. Dealer’s choice.”

Karen’s fingers shook as she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. Her cheeks reddened and her chin quivered. “I thought I could do this.” Her lips puckered open as she took in staggering breaths. 

Dani sat, silent, rhythmically squeezing the diamond from her ring into the tender skin of her palm.

“I didn’t know they would call you, I’m sorry about that.”

Dani’s nostrils flared. “You would’ve preferred I not hear about it at all?”

Karen dropped her hands to the table, spreading her fingers out on the surface. Her eyes were red-rimmed when she glanced up. “That’s not what I meant. Fuck, I’m already ruining this, aren’t I.”

“Ruining what?”

“I’m trying to explain.”

“And I’m waiting.”

Karen’s legs kept brushing hers as she adjusted and readjusted in her seat. The tea sloshed in their cups as she began tapping her foot, with her knee continuously bumping the table legs.

“I couldn’t let you see me like that. Like I was. Having my stomach pumped. Hooked up to IV’s. I was embarrassed. I’m supposed to be the parent here, and I’m just… I’ve never been that to you. Not really.”

Dani nodded, swallowing past a lump in her throat as her eyes welled with tears. 

“And after… I didn’t want you to know I was in rehab. Not because I didn’t need or want you. Never that. But I couldn’t stand it if I tried and failed. I wanted to be strong for once.”

Dani chose her next words carefully, using every ounce of will in her possession to hold her expression neutral. “It takes a very strong person to ask for help. That’s something Dad understood really well. So I am glad you did that, even if it was on your own. I would like to make a request, though.”

Karen nodded, and wiped her red cheeks dry. “Anything.”

“That in the future you communicate with me when you almost die or even have a bad cold. I know we’ve never been particularly close, but you’re still my mom. I still love you. But we’ll never be close unless you let me in.”

Karen started nodding before she finished speaking. “I do. I can promise you that. That I’ll try.”

“That’s all I ask.”

Dani reached for her cold mug, the tea having lost any and all warmth over the course of their conversation. “Let me freshen these up.” 

She squeezed her mother’s shoulder as she reached for her mug. Karen placed her hand over hers and held it there for several seconds, giving it a light pat before releasing her. It was a step for them, no matter how small.

Dani opened the window as she reheated the kettle, allowing the fresh Spring breeze in. She closed her eyes and let the scent of freshly cut grass overwhelm her before turning to lean her back against the counter. “Are you doing okay though? With everything.”

“I don’t really know how to answer that.” She was breaking her poundcake into increasingly smaller pieces with a fork, then smashing them flat instead of eating any. “It’s been hard, I guess. Not just stopping drinking, or all the work in rehab. But coming back here, where there are so many memories. I had vodka hidden all over the house. Took me days to find it all and trash it. I almost slipped so many times.”

“And did you ever? Slip, I mean.”

Karen shook her head. “Almost. Last night, actually. Knowing you were coming here, that we’d have this conversation. I spent four hours on the phone with my sponsor. But I didn’t drink. Pretty proud of that. Even though it’s a small victory in the scheme of things.”

Dani tossed the used tea bags and brought their drinks back to the table. She pulled her chair a little closer to her mother and sat. 

“That’s not a small thing at all, though.” She reached over and took her mother’s hand in hers. “You say you want to be strong, but that takes a lot to face your demons, and not give in. To not reach for that familiar crutch when you’re really low.”

Karen gave a tremulous smile, and her eyes sparkled with a bit of pride. “That wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest was facing how I’d been. With you. With your dad.”

Dani squeezed her hand and rubbed her knuckles with her thumb. 

“It breaks my heart that I can never make it up to him. Give him all the patience and love he deserved. But I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.”

Karen turned her hand over and started tracing the lines on Dani’s palm. The skin was tender where her diamond had pressed earlier. 

“I was thinking, though. Hoping, really. Maybe it’s not too late with you? We could try making something new. Something healthy for the both of us.”

A warm tingle permeated her skin where Karen touched her. It unlocked memories long since buried under bitterness and resentment. Of her mother, smiling up at her, kissing her scraped knee before lifting her high into the sky. Her arms wrapped tight around her, pointing out red pandas at the zoo. Her hair tickling Dani’s chin as she blew raspberries on her neck. 

The deep fissure in Dani’s heart slowly began to knit itself together again. “I’d like that.”

“Good. I’m glad.” Karen pressed Dani’s palm between her own. “I wish there was a  roadmap for this. I feel like I’m trying to put a puzzle together but all the pieces are blank. And I don’t even know what parts are missing yet, does that make sense?”

Dani nodded as she swallowed. An uncomfortable familiarity was crawling up the back of her throat. “It does.”

“Maybe we could help each other out with that, if you’re comfortable with it. I’m gonna fuck up a lot as I go, but…” Karen gave her a light squeeze. “Do me a favor? I might not deserve to ask this, but try to be gentle when I do?”

Dani’s voice was soft, but sure. She clasped her mother’s forearm. She rubbed the inside of her wrist with her thumb. She could feel the age in her paper-thin skin. “Everybody deserves a second chance, mom.”

Karen let out a sob and covered her mouth, nodding her head as her tears fell free. “Thank you.”

Dani leaned forward to kiss her mom on the cheek, and they both had to dry their eyes with napkins from the table, each giving watery laughs.

“I swear I’ve cried more in the past few months than I have in my entire life.”

“I like a good cry. The salt is good for the skin, or something like that.”

Karen laughed. “That sounds like a lie your father would say.”

“He did. Many times.”

Karen nodded, then pressed her chapped lips to Dani’s knuckles. “I think of you a lot, you know.”


Karen nodded as she tapped her fingers on the ceramic mug. “Whenever I’m out, if I see a book I think you might like, I bring it home. Thinking someday you might come back, read on the porch like you used to. Under better circumstances, hopefully.” 

“I saw them up there, was wondering where they came from.”

“I realized at some point I have no idea what you read these days, but I figure you can donate whatever you don’t want. I’m aiming for a good one out of twenty.”

Dani took a sip of her tea. “You did great. I spied a few up there that have been on my to-read list for a while. You might know me better than you thought.”

Karen’s smile lit up the room, all teeth and scrunched eyes. Her shoulders lowered a bit, and her back settled deeper into her chair.

“Now. Finish your tea before it gets cold again and catch me up on everything in your life.”

“I’m here all week, I’m sure I could spread it out.”

Karen waved her off. “Nonsense. I’m a little desperate for news that isn’t remotely about me.”

Dani spun her ring around her finger. The diamond scratched her pinky with every turn. “Well, I’ve only been teaching at the elementary school for six months or so.”

“And? How is it?” Karen sipped at her tea. The redness in her eyes was fading. An intense attentiveness was left behind that Dani wasn’t used to.

“Good I guess? Overwhelming. There’s so many kids, and some of them need so much help.” Dani rested her chin in her hand.

“Your aunt Rosalie always said the same about teaching. She was getting pulled into thirty different directions for decades. She was always so patient though. You remind me of her.”

“Really? I never knew that. Never really knew her.”

“She was a great woman. Kind. I wish she had lived long enough to see you follow in her footsteps, she’d have loved that.” Karen paused to bite her lower lip. “She got all of our mother’s best parts, and it warms my heart to see them in you.”

Dani reached for a fresh napkin. “Oh my god you have to stop making me cry.”

Karen clapped her hands. “Enough crying. Tell me all about the school. How’s the principal? And your kids.”

Dani settled her arms on the table, hands cupping her elbows. “They’re really great. The classes are so overloaded, like everywhere, but nothing I can really do about that right now. But I feel supported there, like I can make a safe space for anyone that might need it.”

Karen leaned forward a bit. “If that doesn’t scream you I don’t know what does.”

“You sound like Eddie.” Dani squeezed her elbows, her heart racing a bit when the ring pressed into her flesh.

“How is Eddie?” Karen’s gaze flicked down to the round diamond. 

“Good! He’s good. He said he’d stop by later this week if we need anything, I’m sure you’ll see him.”

Karen nodded a bit, and Dani could practically feel the path her eyes blazed across her face. As if she was decoding every gesture, every micro expression, every averted gaze. She cleared her throat and shifted focus.

“Anyway, the school district has better funding than what I expected, which is great. Not sure it’ll continue after this year, but I’ve been really fortunate to end up there.”

Dani spent the next hour filling her mother in, the conversation serving as a balm to the raw wounds they’d opened that afternoon. It was bittersweet, this new closeness. Something Dani had always wanted with her mother, that she feared couldn’t last. 




What followed was three days of a tremulous connection. They had taken to having coffee in the mornings, curled up under a blanket on the porch. They would watch the sunrise together in a comfortable silence. It was difficult to let go of the past completely. There were still snide remarks and passive aggressive digs. A plate Dani hadn’t washed enough, a book left on a tabletop, shoes left on the living room floor. But instead of falling into the comfort of punishing silences, apologies were promptly given, and accepted. 

Every misstep Dani feared would lead to instability, but at the end of each night there was a warm embrace, a kiss on her forehead, a hand on her shoulder. Two steps forward, one step back, it still felt like progress.

Halfway through her Spring Break, there was a knock on the wall next to the open garage door. Dani wiped the sweat from her forehead and looked up to see Eddie, smiling, carrying a beautiful bouquet of lilies. Her favorite. 

She forced a smile on her face as she walked over, accepting his kiss before being pulled into a tight hug. “I’m all sweaty.”

He pressed another kiss to her hair. “I don’t mind. Here. For you and your mom.”

Dani accepted the flowers, crisp white petals with baby’s breath and shining green leaves. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her nose into a bloom. “They’re beautiful, thank you.”

He rubbed her back but she pulled away, using the excuse “I need to get these in some water. I’ll be right back.” 

Dani escaped into the house, and took a clear vase down from the cabinet over the fridge. She carefully cut the stems at the sink while she took deep breaths to calm her racing heart. Her nostrils flared and her teeth clenched. Once the flowers were arranged and set on the windowsill to catch the sun, she pressed her hands onto the countertop on either side of the sink, arms straight, head bowed. It’s just Eddie .

“Dani?” His voice rang out from the garage.

“Coming!” Dani wiped her hands on a towel and checked her face in the hallway mirror on the way back. She pressed her chilled damp hands against her cheeks to cool them.

When she returned, Eddie was inspecting her progress, hands on his hips, proud grin on his face. “You’ve done a lot!”

Dani pressed some loose tendrils back into her ponytail. “Yeah. I wanted to get all this stuff organized before I left again.” 

A dozen labeled rubbermaid containers were stacked against the back wall. Formerly haphazard gardening tools and Christmas decorations now lined brand new metal shelving. 

“I can’t believe how much space there is in here now.”

“I know, you could even use this thing for a car some day. Imagine that.”

Eddie barked out a laugh and came over to her, rubbing his hand up and down her arm. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, doing great.” Dani evaded his gaze, focusing instead on the piles of donations she had yet to organize in the corner. 

“Are you sure? You seem a little… tense.” He squeezed her tight shoulders before she stepped out of his grip. “Is it your mom?”

“No, nothing like that. She’s been pretty great, actually.”

“That’s amazing. My mom said she’s been doing so much better. Even went over for Sunday dinner last week.”


“Hey, talk to me.” He pulled out two folding chairs from where they hung on the wall and patted a seat for her.

Dani slouched back into the seat and crossed her legs. “Everything’s fine, just… a lot going on.”

Eddie leaned forward, the old metal groaned as he adjusted to rest his forearms on his knees. “You don’t have to do this alone, you know. I can stay here with you. The rest of the week if you want.”

The hair stood up on the back of Dani’s neck at the thought. “No, it’s fine really. Things are still a bit tense, but she really is trying.”

“Well if you change your mind, text me. Send a 911 and I’ll know what to do. I’d be here in twenty with a calvary. Well, just with mom’s meatloaf, but still.”

Dani laughed. “I appreciate that.”

“Oh shit, that reminds me! Something my mom wanted you to have, hang on.” 

He jogged out of the garage, and in the brief moments he was gone her chest felt less tight. The air lighter. Sooner than she was ready he returned, a long white box in his arms.

“What’s all this?”

He brought it to a table in the corner and set it down gingerly, lifting the lid with a triumphant grin.

A beautiful lace veil sat within white tissue paper. Small white pearls spread like confetti throughout. Dani’s eyes burned as she looked at it.

“Mom remembered how much you always admired it in her wedding photos. She thought you might want it for the wedding. But it’s totally okay if you don’t want it, or don’t want a veil, even.”

Dani’s mouth was dry, and she forced her next words through an aching throat. “That’s so thoughtful of her. Really. I don’t know what to say.”

He kissed her on the temple and closed the box again. “You don’t need to say anything or even make any decisions, but it’s here if you want it.” 

Dani kept her hands clenched, tucking them deep into her pockets. “No, of course. Tell her thank you for me?”

“I will. She’d love to see you, though I get it if you guys want to be alone this week.”

Dani’s stomach twisted at the hope in his eyes. “That would be best, I think. The alone part. I think we need that.”

Eddie frowned for a brief second before he tugged her into another hug. 

She settled her face into his neck, breathing in his familiar clean scent. He began to move, hand coming up to her cheek. She could feel her shoulders tightening, her entire body going rigid in anticipation. He pressed a kiss to her closed lips. She turned away after only a second, pretending to busy herself with the shelving she had already organized.

“Alright, I’ll get out of your hair. Make sure you call me if you need absolutely anything.” 

Dani glanced over her shoulder, guilt prickling at the back of her mind at his tentative smile. “I will. Love you.”

His eyes softened in the late afternoon sun. “Love you, too.”

And then, she was alone again, the tight band across her chest loosening with every second. Without a thought she wiped at her lips with her opened palm. 

“Eddie looks good.” 

Dani jumped. “Jesus! Mom. I didn’t know you were still here.”

Karen stood at the door to the house, her gaze flicking to the box and back to Dani. She walked across the garage and took Eddie’s empty seat. 

“I still have a little bit of time, thought I’d see if you needed more help with all this.” She gestured at the pile in the corner.

Dani leaned back against the table, her hip inches from the white box. She gripped the edge until the metal of her ring pressed hard into her knuckle.

“How is he doing? I realized you haven’t mentioned him much.”

Dani crossed her arms, rubbing at her bicep when she felt a sudden chill. “He’s good. Great, really. He started as a CPA at a new firm in town, so he’s excited.”

Karen nodded and crossed her legs. She opened her mouth once but closed it quickly, her brow furrowing before she tried again. “And are you excited? About the engagement, I mean. It’s a very pretty ring.” She motioned to Dani’s arm, where the stone refracted the overhead light.

Dani tucked it away in her fist. “Yeah, of course. This was his grandmothers, so it means a lot to him. That I wear it.”

Karen tapped her nails on the metal of her chair. 

Dani squared up her shoulders. “Did you have something to say about that?”

Karen shook her head. “I love Eddie. You know that.”

“I do.” Dani started picking at the side of her thumb.

“He was always there for you, when I wasn’t, and that means a lot.”

“And Judy, both of them. They were a second family to me growing up. And after Dad… I think I needed that.”

“You did. And I’m so thankful to them for giving you that. I just…” Her mouth hung slightly open, chin quivering.

Dani cleared her throat and she waved her hand at her mother. “Go ahead. Let’s hear it.”

Karen’s mouth set into a pained smile. “I always knew you loved Eddie. How could you not, really. He’s become such a kind man. Gentle. Thoughtful.”

“He is all of those things. He’s special.” Dani’s voice had hardened. She was so used to defending her choices it had become second nature.

Karen nodded and said, “But you’ve never seemed in love with him.”

“Huh.” Dani gripped the back of her neck with both hands. “Well, you haven’t really been around us that much as adults, in all honesty.”

“That’s true, of course. And that’s my fault completely.” Karen leaned slightly forward, head tilting. “But in all the years you’ve been dancing around a future together, you’ve never seemed excited. About any of it.”

Every muscle in her body went rigid. “Sure I’m excited. Who wouldn’t be?”

Karen’s hands splayed wide. “I know I don’t have any business saying any of this. It’s your life, and I will be happy for you no matter what you do.” She paused for several weighted moments. “But is there any part of you that thinks you could be doing this for him and not for yourself?”

Something heavy settled in Dani’s stomach. A souring weight that made her feel ill. 

“Please don’t take this as any sort of judgment. You’ve always given so much of yourself, for everyone around you. And that’s beautiful.” Karen stood and walked over to her, fingers grazing the edge of the white box. “But are you sure you’re happy?”

Dani couldn’t speak. Her nostrils flared as she tried to take in enough of the stale garage air in small panting breaths.

“That’s what your father and I had. For so long. You probably don’t remember, you were too young. But when he was healthy, and I wasn’t drinking, there was no one in this world that could make me laugh like he could.” Her voice cracked. “He was my best friend. And the love of my life. And it destroyed me when I lost him.”

Dani’s voice was small and brittle. “It destroyed me too.”

“You deserve that kind of love, is all I’m saying. And if that’s with Eddie, then I will stand at your side with a proud smile on my face at your wedding. I’ll toss all the birdseed and ruin my makeup crying.”

Dani hummed.

“But if it isn’t him...” Karen reached over and brushed a thumb across her jaw, then pressed her palm against her warm cheek. “That would be okay. And you would be okay.”

Karen pulled away and softened her voice. “You have all the time in the world, either way. I hope you know that.”

Dani couldn’t force any words out, so just nodded her agreement, trying to swallow past the ache in her throat.

“Okay. I’ll be at my meeting for a few hours, but there’s leftovers in the fridge if you get hungry.” Karen walked away, turning back once more at the garage door. “I love you, you know.”

Dani nodded, and she reached up to her hair back on her forehead. “Love you, too.”

She stayed there long after her mother was gone, her ring a lead weight on her finger. Mentally exhausted, she took the box upstairs to her room, carefully setting it onto her small desk in the corner. She sat on the bed, digging her fingers into the edge of the mattress until she felt her short nails bend. She tasted the salt of tears when she licked her dry lips. 

The sun lowered in the sky as she sat, purples and reds filling her room from the single window. There was a strange but familiar scent in the air, something she couldn’t quite place. She closed her eyes and breathed it in.

Dani blinked when she thought she heard someone say her name. She narrowed her gaze, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. Her familiar desk was against the wall, her overnight bag open on the floor. There was nothing to trigger the goosebumps rising across her skin.

She shivered, and laid down on her back, her body automatically rolling into the dip in the center. Her eyes dried as she stared at the ceiling, where old glow-in-the-dark stars spread across in a galaxy she created when she was ten. When her back started to ache, she rolled onto her side, folding up the flattened pillow to cradle her face.

Her eyes grew heavy as silence blanketed the room. It wasn’t long before she let her exhaustion take her into a dream.

In it a warm glow reached her from across the room. Silver sparkles danced around her, and she reached out for them, surprised when they tickled her skin. They wrapped around her where she lay, before lifting her into the air. 

Dani was shrinking in space, floating through her room towards a thin book that stood out among the rest on a shelf. A cream white cover with playing cards floated across its spine. The air around it vibrated. 

And then she was shrouded in darkness, her body spinning head over foot. She felt dizzy, and couldn’t slow her body until she was suddenly dropped onto lush green grass, large foreign trees surrounding her, thick vines criss-crossing their trunks. Mushrooms towered over her, shining purple tops and tan stems. She stepped away from one and tripped over a root. Or so she thought, until it grumbled at her.

“Christ, watch it, some of us are sleepin’ here.”

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”

The lump on the ground was covered in a green cape, camouflaging them to the surrounding environment, until dark hair popped out from below. 

“You could try lookin’ where you’re goin’ sometimes.”

Dani felt a tingle of familiarity at the girl’s voice. 

“To be fair, you were hidden under that thing.” She gestured at the cape.

“That’s the point, so people will leave me alone.”

“Well, I’m sorry but it doesn’t really work. If you’re on the ground. Where people could, you know, walk.” 

The woman stood, wiping grass and leaves off her body as she kept her head down. “Worked fine til you came along.” She started walking away and Dani followed close behind.

“I didn’t choose to come along, I was just plopped here.” 

The woman moved a branch out of her way. Dani had to duck to avoid it snapping back into her face.

“Well plop yourself somewhere else, then.”

Dani groaned. “If you could just wait a second, and tell me where I am?”

The woman waved at the mushrooms surrounding them. “These not givin’ you the hint?”

“Clearly not.”

The woman turned and Dani was struck silent. Hazel eyes stared back at her, framed by curly brown hair that had haunted her dreams for so many years. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move.