It started with the autopsy.
The very word made Joel shudder involuntarily. He was sitting across the desk from the police officer who had helped him up off the ground, after he had released Sarah from his numb grip, after she had stopped breathing, after that motherfucker had gotten away, after he’d made the worst mistake of his life --
Joel shook himself, rubbed a hand over his aching eyes before he looked up. The police officer was staring at him, pity scrawled all over her fresh, young face. She couldn’t have been much older than Sarah. Joel swallowed the lump in his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “what did you say?”
The officer bit her lip. “Sir, there’s a trauma counselor available, if you’d like to --”
“No,” Joel said curtly, his lip curling.
There was a prolonged silence, the only sounds the clacking of computer keys and the low murmurs of other officers on the shift. The woman sitting across from him cleared her throat.
“Well.” She shuffled some papers before putting a form in front of him. “You just need to fill out these two parts,” she said, pointing at each in turn, “and then sign here.” She stuck a pen under his nose. “And I’ll call you when -- when the results come in.”
He filled in the boxes on autopilot: name, address, phone number, relationship to the deceased...
When he pushed the form and the pen back across the desk, the officer stood, and he did likewise.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Miller,” she said. “And again, I’m so --”
“Good night,” he said abruptly, before turning on his heel and leaving.
After a week and a half, the hotel room smelled stale. Joel hadn’t taken the “DO NOT DISTURB” sign off the knob once, and had he thought about it, he would have been pretty sure that the only way the hotel staff knew he was still alive was the fact that he was surviving solely off of room service. When he was remembering to eat, anyway.
He spent most of his days lying atop the unmade bed, drifting in and out of sleep. Waiting. So when his phone rang, he wasn’t startled; he was something close to relieved.
“Miller,” he said, his voice rough from disuse.
“Mr. Miller?” came a clipped, vaguely familiar female voice. “This is Officer Callahan. I’ve officially been assigned to your daughter’s case.”
An image of the young female officer from that night swam at the corners of his memory.
“We just got the results of your daughter’s autopsy,” she continued, her voice tightening on that last word. “There’s some good news and some bad news.”
Joel only grunted in response.
Callahan went on: “The good news is, we were able to lift some foreign DNA that we hope will link us to the suspect. Bad news is, when we ran those samples through the system, we came up empty.”
Joel digested this silently. Something cold and hard contracted in his chest, something that couldn’t be cleared by the deep, audible breath he took.
“We still have the sketch of the suspect that we made based on your description of him, and we still have news coverage on our side,” she said gently. “And some info came in on the tips line, which we’re looking into.”
“Is there anythin’ I can do?” Joel asked. His voice sounded even more hoarse to his own ears.
“Just know that I’ll be in touch,” Callahan said.
“How long is this gonna take?”
There was a slight crackling noise that might have been Callahan sighing. “It’s hard to know. We could catch him tomorrow; we could catch him next week. And then there’s all the court stuff, but that would be in the far future. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific than that.”
“Alright,” Joel said. And then he hung up, his limbs heavier than they were before.
After two weeks of apartment-hunting in Boston in the middle of December, Joel decided he must have landed himself in some form of hell. The money from selling his house in Austin was burning a metaphorical hole in his pocket, although it wasn’t as much as he would have liked; cash didn’t seem to go as far in Boston, and of course, he’d had to pay all the moving and storage fees. But the only thing that gave him pause in his decision was his reckless little brother trying to dissuade him from his plan.
“You need to come home,” Tommy had said the week before, his voice fraying into static over Joel’s phone. “It’s doin’ you no good to stay up there.”
“I gotta see this through,” Joel said, half-heartedly tossing a shirt at his open suitcase. He looked at the walls of his hotel room with distaste.
“You can do that just as well from Austin,” Tommy said. “Or, hell, if you need to get rid of your house, at least come live with me. I got a spare room. You need to be with family.”
“No,” Joel said, his tone rough. “I don’t expect you to --”
“Don’t fuckin’ tell me what I don’t understand,” Tommy spat, his voice dangerously low. “I lost Sarah too, you know.”
Joel had the foresight to at least hang up on his brother before he responded with anything stupid. He sighed and scrubbed a hand through his untrimmed beard, thoughts tumbling in his brain like rocks. He had to stay. He owed it to Sarah.
All of these things were on his mind the next time he met with Officer Callahan. She called him every week to update him on the case, and they met once a month at the precinct for a full rundown. This month, Joel sat, as he always did, in a hard metal folding chair across from her as she pulled up some files on her computer. She watched him for a moment has he spun his tepid cup of coffee around and around in his hands, making a soft noise against the surface of her desk.
“How you doin’?” she asked him, her voice hesitant.
“Hm?” When he looked up at her fully, he saw her face creased with concern and shook his head a bit. She was too young to look like that. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, Officer.”
“Tess,” she said lightly.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I think at this point, you can just call me Tess.” She held his gaze for a few seconds longer, then bit her lip and continued tapping away on her computer. Her eyes, Joel noticed, were the same color as the caramels his grandma used to make him and Tommy.
He ducked his head, his stomach giving a funny lurch, something deep in his chest twisting with a feeling he didn’t want to name.
“Hey, uh,” he said, the edges of his voice ragged. Tess stopped typing and looked at him, brows raised. “You don’t happen to have any uh -- any idea of a good place to rent an apartment, do you?”
Tess blinked. “Thinkin’ of stickin’ around?”
Joel shrugged, looking deep into his increasingly cold coffee. “Just seems like the best thing to do. Since this all seems to be taking a while.”
Tess was silent. When he glanced up at her face, it was unreadable. “Area around Fenway is usually a good bet,” she said finally. She coughed and turned back to her computer. “So. Here are the latest notes...”
He wound up signing a lease for a condo that very afternoon.
“I think you should come in.”
Goosebumps rose on Joel’s arms despite the unseasonably warm late spring day. She had caught him driving home from the grocery store, the windows of his truck rolled down to let in the balmy breeze. It had felt almost normal, driving around like this; like he unexpectedly had an afternoon off and had gone to the store to get some extra ice cream to surprise Sarah. But then he’d blink and look around at Boston’s winding streets, and remember that he wasn’t home. That he didn’t have a real home to go to anymore. That there was no one waiting at the other end.
When the precinct’s number had showed up on his phone, Joel pulled over, and now he sat in his truck on a residential side street, listening to Tess’s uncharacteristically wavering tone.
“Come in?” Joel repeated. “Did you find the guy?”
“Just come in as soon as you can, please,” she said, before she hung up.
When he reached his apartment, Joel put his food away in a frenzy before slamming back into his truck and driving down to the precinct. Tess was in the lobby waiting for him, her hands in her pockets, her face pale.
“Mr. Miller,” she said, nodding at him.
“What’s goin’ on?” he asked.
“I think we should take a walk,” she said, walking past him and out the front door.
She led him in a slow lap around the block, biting her lip and jingling her keys in her pocket as they set off. The street was deserted; Joel would never forget that it was an early afternoon on a Tuesday, the trees bursting into leaf, the sun warm on the back of his neck. His palms were soaking wet, his mouth dry, his stomach roiling. He waited -- for what, he didn’t know.
“Mr. Miller,” she said, her voice strained. She looked at him quickly, then away again, staring at the sidewalk. “I’ve got some bad news.”
Joel swallowed, the lump in his throat sticking. “Yeah?”
Tess stopped walking, and as he did the same, she took a deep breath and then looked him square in the eyes.
Then she said, in a voice more formal than any he’d heard her use, “I’m afraid the trail’s gone cold. There’s nothing more we can do right now. But I’ve been asked to close the case.” She exhaled audibly, the sound almost a sob. “I’m so sorry.”
Joel’s vision tunneled, his entire field of view reduced to a pinprick of light in the center of Tess’s face. There was a roaring sound in his ears. His limbs were numb, pinpricks dancing through his fingers. And in his chest, his heart pained him more than he had ever thought possible.
He felt something warm on his elbow; when he looked down, he saw Tess’s slim hand.
“Mr. Miller?” Her voice was echoing, so far away.
“I need go to,” he heard someone say with his voice.
He stumbled backward away from her. The next thing he remembered was sitting in his truck, his breath coming in harsh, quick gasps as he grasped the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip and pounded his head against it and over and over. His forehead would be purpled by a bruise for days. But at that moment, he didn’t feel any pain; just his heart crying with every beat, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.
It wasn’t until the following August that he saw her again.
He was standing at the end of the counter in the coffee shop near his place, a new little yuppie outfit that even he had to grudgingly admit made a good cup of dark roast. Lost in his thoughts, the light tap on his shoulder near made him jump out of his skin.
He whirled around, and when he did, he saw a slim woman with an uncertain expression on her angular face. He blinked several times before he recognized her.
“Mr. Miller,” she said with a nod, one corner of her mouth quirking upward.
“Didn’t recognize you without your uniform.”
“Sometimes I have days off.”
“What’re you doin’ in this neck of the woods?”
The barista called her name, and Tess stepped forward to grab her iced chai without breaking eye contact.
“Game day,” she said, pointing at her bright red shirt.
Joel snorted. “Cardinals?”
“You don’t just give up on your hometown team, y’know,” she said, taking a sip. “Supposed to be meeting some friends at Fenway.”
Joel scratched the back of his neck absently. He breathed a sigh of relief when his name was called, breaking the awkward pause.
“You know it’s a million degrees outside, right?” Tess said, eyeing his steaming cup.
Joel shrugged. “Got a job later today. Keeps me awake.”
She cocked her head at him, a small smile playing around her lips. “Job?”
“Yeah,” he said, putting a lid on his cup. He hesitated. Doesn’t she have a game to get to? But she didn’t move, just looked at him, waiting. “Finally got my Massachusetts contracting license a few months back.”
“That’s great!” She beamed, and something wobbled in his stomach.
“Yeah, uh,” he cleared his throat. “Don’t wanna hold you up --”
She shook her head. “I’ve got some time,” she said. Then her eyes widened, the corners of her mouth pulled downward. “Unless you have somewhere to be, I didn’t mean to --”
“No,” he said, loudly enough that a few other patrons turned to look at him. “No,” he repeated, more quietly, “got some time to kill.”
“Do you ...?” Her eyes slid over toward an empty table.
“Sure,” he said. He put his cup down and pulled one of the too-small chairs away from the too-small table, and settled down across from her.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Fine,” he said automatically, rubbing at his watch strap. He’d just gotten it replaced, worn green cloth for the leather one Sarah had given him, just before --
Tess made a noise in the back of her throat. “How are you really?”
Joel took a scalding mouthful of coffee. “You don’t gotta worry about me anymore.”
“I don’t forget cases like yours,” she said simply. Her large, brown eyes held his. Caramel. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, and Joel sighed.
“I’m alright,” he said. “Workin’ a lot.”
“I was kind of surprised to find you here. Still in Boston, I mean.”
“Just not a lot for me back in Texas,” he said, thinking of Tommy, who’d gotten serious with a woman not long after Joel found his condo. Tommy and Maria certainly didn’t need Joel moping around and third-wheeling their happiness.
“Hm.” Tess took a long drink of her chai, her sharp eyes looking as though she were picking through a puzzle. Finally, she said, “So, contracting.”
“Figured people up here need houses, same as we do back in Texas,” Joel said, giving her a smirk. He felt old, rusty. When was the last time he’d smiled, anyway?
But when she laughed, he felt lighter. The sound was throaty, unvarnished, unfiltered -- he hadn’t been around laughter much, either, these past two years.
She checked her watch. “I have to run now, but --” She snatched a loose napkin off the counter, pulled a pen out of her back pocket, and scrawled a string of numbers before pushing the flimsy bit of paper toward him. A flush was creeping up her long neck. “If you need anything --”
“Thanks,” Joel said, equally unable to meet her eyes.
“It was good seeing you,” she said as she pushed her chair back and hurried out of the shop.
Joel’s heart was pounding in his chest, and he didn’t want to think about why.
He didn’t call her.
Instead, the napkin sat crumpled on his bedside table, where he’d left it after emptying his pockets that night. He’d made a mental note to throw it out, but he kept forgetting -- or so he told himself.
A week later, his phone rang. The number was unfamiliar, and he was exhausted after a long, hot day of reshingling a roof, so he let it go to voicemail. A few minutes later, when it beeped again, he tapped over to his unheard messages.
And then he nearly dropped the phone in shock.
“Hey, uh, this is -- this is Tess. Strictly unethical for me to be looking up your number in our system, but I’ve had a few beers, so I figured what the fuck. Anyway, I just wanted to -- to check in on you, if you needed anything. Feel free to give you a call. Alright, bye.”
She’d sounded nervous, a furious tapping sound like nails on wood coming from somewhere in the background. His mouth went dry.
He didn’t call her back.
And he didn’t pick up the next two times she called, although he had saved her number in his phone immediately after that first voicemail. Her following messages were more of the same, although she seemed to be more sober: “Just wanted to check in again ... Call me if you want ...”
The third time she called, two weeks after he’d run into her in the coffee shop, he answered.
He said nothing, just held the phone up to his ear.
“Joel?” she said, her voice uncertain. His stomach flipped over. She’d never called him by his first name before. “Are you there?” She paused, then: “Do you want to get a drink with me?”
He swallowed against the knot in his throat. His hands were slippery against the cool plastic of the phone. Finally, he spoke.
“Do you wanna stay the night?”
It wasn’t the first time he’d ever asked her this question; hell, she’d accepted a handful of times in the past, and most of those times, she’d even given him reason to be especially grateful he’d asked.
But tonight, she frowned and shook her head, tried to lever herself off his couch. He was more sober than he’d wanted to be, and she was probably still a little too drunk, judging by how unfocused her eyes were. When she banged her leg against the coffee table, causing the empty whiskey glasses to clink, he grabbed her elbow and eased her back onto the couch.
“C’mon now,” he said gently, “you’re gonna hurt yourself.”
She jerked her arm out of his grip. “Since when do you give a shit?” she spat. She’d been sitting on the couch with him silently until this, finishing her drink and the last of the pint of ice cream he’d gotten for them, to go with the steak dinner he’d cooked. She’d seemed happy enough then; it was the first time he’d decided to try to impress her by cooking for her, since he knew she wasn’t much in the kitchen, and he thought it had gone pretty well. Now, though, he wasn’t so sure.
“What the hell’re you talkin’ about?” Joel said. She was glaring at him, her eyes dark and hard. He wracked his brain for what he could have done to have made her this angry. He’d never seen her so furious before.
Tess succeeded in pushing herself out of her seat this time, and she stood in front of him, hands on her hips, her face red. “Oh, don’t gimme that shit.” She ran a hand her through already-disheveled hair. “I need to talk about where we stand.”
Joel flinched. “Oh, c’mon, baby, let’s not do this right now --”
“No, let’s,” Tess said. “I’m not waiting another week, another day with you avoiding this conversation.”
Joel gaped at her helplessly. “Tess, you -- you know how I feel about you.”
“No, I really don’t,” she said. “And y’know why? It’s because I’m getting real fuckin’ tired of your strong, silent-type bullshit. One of us is always setting up dates, always calling first, always fuckin’ saying how she feels, and Joel, it sure as shit ain’t you.”
“Now you just wait a second,” Joel said through gritted teeth. He slowly rose to his feet, causing Tess to take a step back and bump against the coffee table again. “You think I fuckin’ -- what? Go out with you, spend time with you, because I don’t give a shit? Hell, I even cooked you dinner --”
“And I’m supposed to be down on my knees right now thankin’ you, is that it? Is that your game?”
“No!” Joel all but roared. “No, and you know it! I ain’t seein’ anybody else --”
“That’s because you don’t leave the fuckin’ house except to go to work,” Tess countered, crossing her arms. “I’m just easy pickings.”
Joel groaned. “Tess, c’mon, it ain’t like that.”
“Like hell it isn’t. We’ve been standing here screaming at each other for ten minutes and you’d still rather do that then tell me how you really feel about me.”
Joel rubbed a hand over his face. “Tess...”
A silence stretched out between them, and in the space, there was only the sound of both of them breathing hard, Joel’s pulse pounding in his ears.
“Fine,” Tess said. “Fuck you, Joel. Don’t call me again -- oh wait, you won’t.”
She spun on her heel and tottered toward the front door. Joel’s mind went blank, except for a distinct memory from ten years ago, when he’d been framing a house and one of the ten-foot tall beams had toppled onto him. If he hadn’t been more careful, it would have snapped his spine. He wondered if it hadn’t been snapped just now.
“Tess, no --” He reached out and grabbed her wrist, tugged her back toward him with more force than he intended. She stumbled back with a hiss, fixing him again with her steely gaze. “Please, don’t go.” The words choked him even as they came out.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t.”
He stepped toward her slowly, like he was approaching a wild animal. When she didn’t move to get away from him again, he reached out to tuck some unruly locks of hair behind her ear, then left his hand resting on her soft skin where her neck met her shoulder. Her eyes were stormy, her freckles standing out against her flushed skin. Beautiful, he thought.
“Tess, I --” He shifted his thumb upward, toward her pulse. She closed her eyes and shuddered.
“I can’t keep doing this,” she whispered.
“I know,” he murmured. “I’m sorry.” He pressed his forehead to hers. Then, his limbs shaking, he brought his lips to brush against her ear: “I love you.”
She stiffened, but said nothing.
“You can go now, if you want,” he said, but all the same, he buried his face in her neck, breathed in the salt of her skin, familiar to him now as if it were a part of him. If he would never see her again, he wanted to remember it.
Fuck, no woman had ever made him feel like this. Because no woman had ever been as persistent as her, as willing to open her heart to him, even before he was drowning in grief. He had no idea what she saw in him.
She put a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up at her. Tears dotted her eyelashes, but she was giving him a small smile.
“I love you, too,” she said.
He kissed her forehead, her damp eyes, her warm cheeks, her lips, her neck, then scooped her up in his arms and carried her toward his bedroom.
“I love you,” he murmured against her skin, moving his mouth over her shoulders, her breasts, her stomach, her thighs. He said it over and over again: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
She didn’t find the boxes until a month after she moved into his apartment.
She’d been cleaning, trying to find a better place for her things, while Joel watched Sunday night football in the living room. The boxes were unmarked and dusty, and between them was a beat-up guitar.
“Joel?” she called.
He stepped into the bedroom just as she lifted the flap on the first box, and a framed picture of a smiling blonde girl looked up at her. Next to her was a young man with dark hair: Joel.
He looked over her shoulder, then froze.
“Oh, Joel,” she said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to --”
“It’s fine,” he said, his voice blank. He reached over and closed the box again, shoved it to the back of his closet. “Don’t worry about it.”
He wondered, sometimes, when he was drunk, that the thing that had brought them together in the first place was his daughter’s death.
But he wasn’t drunk right now. He pushed the thought aside and put a hand on her shoulder. “Wanna come watch the game?”
“Sure,” she said, getting to her feet. “Who’s winning?”
The boxes remained untouched for years after that, waiting in the dark.