Noah McCourt cruised his dark grey Malibu along the long bridge that crossed over the great Chesapeake Bay, while Olivia’s Ipod blared with the voice of one of her favorite singers, Michael Buble.
In all the time since they’d been heading for her parents’ place, his girlfriend hadn’t opened her mouth to talk. The last thing they spoke to each other had been last night, when he’d called her to check if she’d found a ride back home after her book club meeting. Olivia reassured him she hadn’t had any trouble, but somehow her voice had sounded faraway, almost as if she’d been eager to end the call sooner than usual.
Normally, he would not be concerned at all by this. There were times when both enjoyed the silent company of each other without there being an underlying problem or issue between them. And Noah was sure that Olivia wasn’t upset by her having to ask someone else for a ride home.
But her quiet demeanor was unsettling because today was different. It was Thanksgiving and the holiday was a big deal for Olivia. She would always be gleefully talking about this or other recipe she would try out for that day’s dinner. Olivia liked to cook but the limited space of her kitchen made it almost impossible for her to make a big production out of cooking.
Or, Noah had expected her to be yammering on and on about the other guests to this year’s Thanksgiving dinner: Tracy and her soon to be husband, Trevor. Their wedding was next Saturday, and Olivia was her friend’s maid-of-honor. Noah had expected half their road trip to be plagued by whatever crazy ideas the bride-to-be had come up with for next week.
They still had an hour to get to St. Michael’s, and he was starting to feel the awkward quiet engulfing them getting to him. Ten years of being with her had not passed in vain. Something was up.
“You’ve been awfully quiet since I picked you up this morning. Are you okay?”
Olivia had been too busy wallowing in her own pool of shame and guilt, that Noah’s voice made her jump slightly in her seat. Thankfully, his eyes were focused on the road ahead so he didn’t notice.
“I’m fine. I……just had a late night, that’s all.”
Making a fool out of myself…..
When her thoughts went by unanswered Olivia let out a heavy sigh. Noah was unaware that there wasn’t just one but two moody women in the car lost in thought and currently not speaking to each other.
When she went to bed last night, she’d already decided to let Emilia be. Only that after an hour of tossing and turning, she’d given up and gone downstairs to the basement and had, unsuccessfully, tried to apologize to her about the rude remark she’d made earlier about Sam. Maybe Emilia had been out of line, but Olivia kept forgetting how this whole situation was as hard and frustrating on the other woman as it was on her.
The only problem had been that, although she was unable to grab stuff or as it had been last night’s case, close the door to the basement’s guest room, Emilia had metaphorically speaking shut herself in the room. She’d ignored Olivia when she’d stood over the bed or when she had sat for a while waiting for any kind of response from her.
This morning, the cold shoulder treatment remained in place. When Olivia came down with her bag of clothes to take to her parents’, she found the ghost sitting on the couch and staring off into space. The only time she moved was when Noah arrived at her house to pick her up.
“So that’s all? You are just tired?”
For a second, Olivia thought Noah had finally figured out she was a cheater and a sad excuse for a girlfriend. During the whole ride she’d been avoiding direct eye contact with him. Her lips felt swollen and still throbbed from the intensity of Michael’s kiss. Undeniably, it would take a good hard and long look at her before Noah discovered her betrayal.
“Yep. That’s it.”
And then she saw it. Noah’s features changed from preoccupied to serious. Her pulse quickened with desperation as it reminded her of Noah’s face appearing in her mind right before she broke the kiss with Michael.
Oh no, he knows……
Instinctively, Olivia shut her eyes and braced herself for Noah’s hurt recriminations about her act of disloyalty toward their ten year relationship. Her chest hurt as she held her breath, until Noah spoke again.
“Does this have to do with last Monday night? You know……the talk we had before I left.”
Her eyes snapped open. The words filled with remorse scrambled to a halt inside her mouth and all she could do was stare at him with confusion blurring her vision.
Noah must’ve noticed her jumbled expression, because he cleared his throat before he said anything else.
“The stuff about the uhm….the wedding….”
Understanding dawned on her slowly. He thought she was upset about their disastrous marriage conversation from last Monday. Olivia mentally tried to shrug away the way he physically recoiled as he mouthed the word wedding. As if saying it out loud might make it cling to him, like a disease he didn’t want to get.
“You mean the talk we didn’t have about when we’re going to get married.”
“Olivia, I thought we had agreed this was not the best time to discuss such a thing.”
“No, you just said something about your job, about how we are both still very young and then something like ‘marriage is a commitment that needs more tangible things to function than you feeling ready.’” Her voice had gone all grave and husky, imitating his.
“But never did I say, ‘sure honey, you’re absolutely right.’”
Olivia knew it was unfair to take out it on Noah, especially when she had been the one who had just let some strange man kiss her outside her house last night. Nevertheless, now that the talk about their future was out in the open again, she felt a sense of doom because she had a sinking feeling that Noah’s Monday night words had been his last on the subject.
Oh no, this so not over.
Olivia was glad her mind was now occupied with dealing with things that made sense and that involved her boyfriend, and not some other guy who caused her heart to leap every time she remembered the way her body had molded perfectly against his.
Don’t think about Michael now, damn it!
“What more is there to say? Don’t you think those are good enough reasons to wait a little longer?”
“No, they’re not. What is so wrong to think we can do this now, Noah? We love each other, we’ve been together for a long time so we know everything about each other. It’s the next logical step, the rest will fall into place as we go along.”
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t consider getting married in the future.”
“Don’t say it like that.”
“So vaguely, like you don’t give a damn if we do it in two years or in another ten.”
In a sudden move, Noah dangerously changed lanes until he pulled the car over onto the rest stop that had been announced for the last five miles.
Several angry drivers honked their horns as they drove past them. He turned off the engine and let out an exasperated breath before turning his body to face her.
“What has gotten into you, lately?”
“Excuse me?” That had Emilia coming out from the pool of misery and self-pity she’d jumped into since last night, after the mention of Sam’s name and the crude reminder that she would never know what would’ve happened had she survived her terrible accident.
Olivia was perplexed by his question. He was looking at her as if she had decided to share the existence of Emilia with him. Like bringing up this life changing subject was cause for hospitalization.
Maybe the out of the blue timing had thrown Noah off balance, but a throat choking fear had Olivia listening to Emilia’s words as they bounced off the closed windows of his car: Maybe I’m here to keep you from making the same mistake I did. Which was to waste my time waiting for Sam to change his mind and marry me. Maybe I’m here to tell you, not to do the same with Noah.
“What?” Her mood had gone from wallowing to red and dangerous. Her temper was about to explode.
“This is not you.”
“Wanting to talk about how we are going to spend the rest of our lives together is not me?”
“No…Olivia this…..you being pushy, acting like a spoiled kid whose angry because she’s not getting what she wants when she wants it. You just sprang this upon me with no warning.”
Even in her current state, Olivia didn’t miss how all this was something she wanted, not something he wanted as well.
“I’m sure this is all Tracy’s doing.”
She blinked twice at the unexpected mention of her best friend’s name.
“What does Tracy have to do with anything?”
“She’s getting married next weekend. You’re her maid-of-honor. Don’t tell me she hasn’t asked you about us?”
“We’ve never really talked about marriage before. I assumed you felt like I did, still do, that we aren’t ready. And now, after a few months of helping your friend plan her own and all of a sudden, you start talking about looking at houses. Come on, you really expect me not to be surprised?”
“It had to come out at some point didn’t it?” Her tone was defensive.
Okay, so Tracy did ask me that and she’s the one who told me I shouldn’t wait for Noah to bring up the whole marriage issue. Maybe…..
“Oh, that’s rich. Leave it to the guy to blame it on peer pressure. This is something you want. Olivia, you’re far too smart and confident to let others pressure you into doing something.”
Emilia’s weightless body shifted in the back seat. Her attention totally centered on Noah’s and Olivia’s imminent fight.
I though you were going to ignore me the rest of the long weekend.
“Me, too. But it is clear you need my advice right now.”
Since the beginning of the ride to Olivia’s parents’ house, she’d chosen to sulk and brood. She was tucked at the corner behind the other woman’s seat, with her feet up on the seat and gazing out the window at the cars passing them by. All of them unaware of her recent demise and all with eager looks on their faces, as they rushed to get to their families for the holiday. The image of her own family had floated before her eyes, and the yearning had been so strong she had had to clamp her mouth shut to stop it from trembling with the threat of more tears.
She had to admit that ever since leaving the hospital and being sent to Olivia’s side, she’d been putting off thinking about the people she’d left behind. Except for the reminders of Sam that were everywhere, especially now, as the dialogue from the people on the front seat felt so been there, done that.
Had she been alive and had she not broken up with Sam, both of them would most likely have been on their way too, to Sam’s parents’ place in Baltimore. Emilia would’ve probably been taking in the scenery outside like she had been doing before and at some point, Sam’s and Noah’s cars might’ve driven next to each other. And both women inside the cars would’ve not given the other a second thought, and life would have just gone by as it had done every day since she woke up at the hospital.
Part of her knew that her body had not been put to rest, yet. Emilia was certain the reason was one: her parents had not been able to get back from their cruise. Not because they didn’t care about her, but finding a decent mean of transportation while stranded in the middle of an endless blue ocean was turning out to be more difficult to accomplish. A faint voice whispered that she’d know when that moment came.
In the meantime though, where had they taken her? Was she at the morgue, waiting for her parents to get back?
Man, does my body look like one of those props they use in CSI? Do I have that totally disgusting Y carved in my chest?
Her eyes stared down at her pale, translucent arms while she closed her eyes and tried to bring back the feeling of having something warm flowing through her veins. The hole inside her chest where her heart had beat for twenty-eight years, ached ten times stronger as the lack of firm solid muscles or organs inside her made the yearning for her loved ones cling to every part of what she had become.
The pain was like being outside during a ferocious blizzard without a coat and having every muscle in her body feel the constant prickle of wind and snow, as they slashed at her until the idea of being safe and warm again was no more than a nostalgic memory.
Oblivious to her presence, Noah’s voice was a heartbreaking, if she still had one, and constant reminder of the one voice she would never hear again. Sadly, it was also an echo of what had come out Sam’s mouth countless times when she had been alive. If only Noah could see her or hear her, then she would beg him not to waste the time he had with Olivia. Most important, not to waste her friend’s time and be honest with her.
“Next thing I know, you’ll be acting like those women who issue an ultimatum to get their boyfriends to marry them. Nate warned me about this.”
If there was one name she really didn’t want mentioned right now, was Noah’s oldest brother, Nate McCourt. Noah’s family was sweet and she loved them all very much, but when it came to his brother, Nate was just a pain in the ass. Always giving his brother a hard time for never dating other women and dooming his manhood by chaining himself, yes that had been the word he’d used, to an outdated and unnatural relationship.
“Okay, first Tracy now Nate. How the hell did Nate get involved in this?”
“He called me Tuesday and I told him about our little chat. He said to be careful because his wife issued an ultimatum about their relationship before they got married. That’s why he says he got married without really being ready to take that step. He was pressured into making a decision.”
It figures. Never one to man up to his own decisions. Always blaming others for them. Damn you, Nate!
“Who is Nate?” Emilia demanded.
Olivia gave her ghost friend her most honest opinion of who Nate was.
Nate is Noah’s stupid and immature brother. It’s so typical of him to blame others for the decisions he’s taken and that he now regrets. Has been the one thing I’d never liked about Noah. The really crappy part is that Noah tends to listen to him quite a lot.
“It always takes one man’s fear to spread the seed and corrupt the rest. Sam didn’t have a brother but he had plenty of guy friends who said the same to him. You know the “you’re so lucky you’re not married yet” filled-with-envy comment. What are they, four? Couldn’t they have said, no thanks?”
Tell me about it. Anyway, whenever we get together with his family, Nate and I sort of tolerate each other for Noah’s sake. Well, at least I do. Nate just has a blast because he gets away with making me feel bad about everything about my life: me being a teacher, me not knowing how deep a sibling bond runs since I’m an only child….hell, if he sees something wrong with my outfit that day, he’ll say it. He thinks I’m this controlling monster of a girlfriend, who has his brother chained to him for life. Yeah, he used the word chained. Jerk.
“If you ask me, the guy sounds like a total loser.”
He’s such a wimp.
“Really? Nate criticizing something I said? That’s so not him, Noah. Why, I’m shocked.”
Olivia’s sarcasm was often her best weapon against the hurt she felt every time Noah took his brother’s side. She and Noah fought like every other couple, most of the times being able to find a solution and move on. But when it came to Nate, Noah was very protective of his big brother, even if that meant leaving Olivia to fend for herself against his snide remarks and hurtful and immature comments.
“Hey, just because he doesn’t agree with you, it doesn’t mean….”
“Noah, please. In case you’ve failed to notice, your brother and I have never agreed on anything. God forbid that day comes because when it does, it will surely mean the world as we know it will come to an end. Whichever way you look at it, he’ll still ruin my day.”
As with every time Nate got in between, his younger brother pressed his palms to his temples and took three calming breaths before he lost his cool with Olivia. Although, she was sure he knew trying to reason with her was only going to make his head explode, like always. Still, Olivia had to admire his resolve in doing everything humanly possible to find a middle ground between two people who, it had been exhaustively proved, would never be the best of pals.
“No, your brother is a big man. He shouldn’t go through life blaming others for his decisions. If he didn’t want to get married then all he had to do was say: no, thanks. He’s not a damn kid for God’s sakes! It’s pathetic and sick that just because he didn’t have the guts to do so, he should be telling you to beware of crazy possessive Olivia. Like if I ever issued said ultimatum, you’ll have no choice but to say yes or else I would harm you or something.”
“I think you’re quite capable of hurting him right now, or at least Nate, if he happened to walk by right now.” Emilia noticed the other woman’s hands fisted on her lap; she was bitting her lip so hard, the dead woman was worried Olivia might sink her teeth into her lips and chew off the lower half. Those brown eyes were blazing with fury as she was trying very hard to keep her emotions in check.
“And, if Nate’s wife issued an ultimatum…..arghh it’s so classic of a man to give it that name, as if whatever the outcome, you’re doomed. I mean, come on, it’s not like we women are the freaking U.N Security Council and you men are Iraq, before the gulf war in the nineties. And if you say no we would proceed and retaliate. It’s stupid.”
“What would you call it, then?” Noah said between clenched teeth. “Isn’t it always that way, you women saying either marry me or else?”
In an exasperated gesture, Olivia groaned loudly and lowered her head to her knees. In her mind, she had her hands around Nate’s neck until his horrible face turned blue. This was not how she had wanted to broach the subject again. Especially not today, when they were an hour or so away from facing her family, where the conversation would turn into the “and what about you two” direction, since Tracy and Trevor would be coming to dinner as well.
Silently, she counted until ten before straightening up to look up at Noah again.
“It’s not like that. It’s a time to make a decision, to stop beating around the bush and do what’s best for both people involved. Sometimes the outcome is a happy one but other times things just don’t work out.
Nate’s wife reached that point when she needed to know if Nate was really going to take that step or if it was time they each went their separate ways. I seriously doubt she threatened him with physical harm if he dared say no. The thing is, you guys think we’ll just sit around waiting for you but in the end, someone has to have the guts to speak up.”
“Well said, sister! You tell him.”
Cut it out. Olivia chuckled.
“Well, in my opinion, Nate is right. And if you decided to pull that one on me, then I would definitely say no.”
“Ah tsk-tsk, Noah, that was the wrong thing to say.”
Emilia shook her head disapprovingly and leaned in between the two front seats to take a good look at her friend’s face. It surprised her that instead of full on rage, all she caught was Olivia’s downcast eyes, making it obvious she wanted to hide what was really going on inside her.
The memory of what it felt like when someone’s words cut deep into her heart sent a cold breeze up and down her spine, like a shiver. She understood that more than angry, Olivia was probably wishing Noah hadn’t said a word or that she hadn’t pushed him to do it.
Emilia recalled the many times she would ask Sam to forget all about it and just focus on other stuff. Almost as if she had to be ashamed because getting married was something only she had wanted at the time. The ghost wished she could be visible for only a second so she could scare the bejeezus out of Noah.
“You would say no? Just like that?”
“Of course, I would and if I did the same, I would expect you to say no, too. Olivia, how successful do you think a marriage would turn out to be if one of the two people involved was practically forced to walk down the aisle?”
“Forced?” She croaked out the word. Her throat felt like she’d swallowed a mouthful of dirt, obstructing her airways and causing her breathing to come out in labored gasps.
“Wouldn’t you feel that way? If our situations were reversed?”
Using all of her will to calm down, Olivia was glad her voice came out steadier than the way her entire body was starting to shake.
“I guess……I haven’t thought about it that way.”
God, if our situations were the other way around, I couldn’t wait to say yes to you. Her thought was heavy with longing.
“Then tell him that, Olivia.”
Noah’s hands cupped her face and brought her lips to his. They stayed like that for a moment, and Olivia experienced the comforting, embracing sensation she always felt whenever Noah kissed her or made love to her. Safe, soothing, not the colorful fireworks that had exploded inside her stomach or her heart jumping out of her chest, as it had done yesterday when Michael did the same gesture.
Her response to Noah had never bothered her before. She always thought their connection was less passionate and more deep, less volatile and more stable because of their friendship. But now, the memory of last night standing outside her house, lost in a strange man’s embrace was taunting her to look for a sliver of that torrent of emotions that had coursed through her body. She squeezed her eyelids tight, pushing Michael’s face from her mind, while her hands pulled Noah closer.
The sound of another car approaching was enough to break the moment. Noah gave her a light peck on the cheek before he turned the key on the ignition to resume their way.
For the first time ever, Olivia was not looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner. Right at this moment, she had the sick wish of switching places with Emilia. That way at least, no one would see her flinch when her mother or Tracy questioned her and Noah about their own plans for their future.
Things were not good when suddenly all you wanted was to be death. Letting out a silent sigh, Olivia went back to her quiet attitude, while her Ipod resumed its playlist, this time with Marie Digby’s Beauty in Walking Away.
It took her a second to realize that walking away from Noah didn’t seem so crazy now as when Emilia had suggested the same, two days ago.