I had never felt so safe and secure in my entire life. Like I was wrapped up in a cocoon of warmth. I squeezed my eyes shut. I didn’t want to face today. The nightmare from last night was so vivid. And I was glad it was just that. A nightmare.
Today was a new day. And I needed to get up before I was late for my exam. But I loved having Austin’s arms around me. It was the one time when his feelings about me were obvious. When he was sleeping, he clung to me. He held me close. I didn’t know why he couldn’t do that during the day. Why he couldn’t see us as more.
These were the moments I held close to my heart. They were the reason I stayed. The reason why I was patient with him. Melissa said I was a pushover. And maybe that was true, but it didn’t take away from the fact that I liked him. I truly did. I was just waiting for him to realize that we were on the same page.
I took a deep breath. He smelled different, like he'd started to wear cologne or something. But I knew for a fact that he didn’t wear cologne. For a second I wondered if it was another woman’s scent on his skin. The thought quickly faded. This scent was all man. Deliciously male. Maybe it was a new body wash. Whatever the change, I liked it. He smelled like a million bucks. It made me feel slightly dizzy like I was intoxicated by him. I turned in the bed to nestle into his chest.
His arms wrapped tighter around me. “Penny.”
That was not Austin’s voice.
My eyes flew open at the same time my heart stopped beating. A man’s chest I didn’t recognize was pressed against my face. I screamed at the top of my lungs.
“Penny, it’s just me.” The man pulled away, releasing me from his warm embrace.
I screamed again even though I recognized him now. James. The man that claimed to be my husband. The man from my nightmares. The man that couldn’t possibly be real.
“It’s me.” He grabbed both sides of my face and tried to force me to look at him.
I was supposed to wake up from this dream. Why hadn’t I woken up? I tried to push his hands away from me, but he gripped my face harder.
“Don’t touch me.” I clamped my hands on his wrists, trying as hard as I could to fight him off.
“Look at me, baby. Please just look at me. Look at me and try to remember.”
“Help!” I screamed. “Someone help me!”
He removed his hands from my face like I had slapped him. And we stayed like that for a moment, with my hands clutched tightly around his wrists. Frozen in the bed staring at each other.
The dark circles under his eyes and the frown on his lips weighed on me. And I had the same sense as before. That he was broken. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know him. I couldn’t fix him. I immediately let go of his wrists and scooted away from him. “What are you doing here?”
“I can’t sleep without you beside me. You know that.”
I hadn’t meant in my bed. I meant here. In existence. “I know nothing about you.” I inched farther away.
“Penny, you know me. If you’d just take a second to truly look at me I know you’ll remember.”
I kept scooting away from him until my ass was hanging off the edge of the bed.
“Look in my eyes and tell me you feel nothing.”
I locked eyes with him. It was true, his arms had made me feel safe. Secure. Warm. But I hadn’t known it was him. I thought it was Austin. That was the only reason why I had felt that way. I tried to ignore the nagging thought in the back of my mind. The one that was screaming that when James released me from his embrace, I had never felt so cold in my entire life. My skin pebbled with goosebumps. It was like my body was trying to tell me I needed him. I stared into his eyes, willing myself to remember him. To remember anything that he claimed to be true.
But there was nothing there. Yes, he was handsome. I couldn’t deny that. Any woman would be lucky to have him. But he wasn’t mine and I wasn’t his. Everything he claimed was true couldn’t possibly be. I scooted even further away, forgetting that there wasn’t any more room, and started to fall off the bed.
He grabbed my waist before I fell, and pulled me back onto the mattress. This time I didn’t think his touch was comforting. It was electrifying. Like he had just slapped me with a bug zapper. What the hell was that?
I climbed off the bed, pointing at him accusatorily. “You can’t just sneak in here and…and…hold me in the middle of the night, you psycho.”
He sat up in the bed but didn’t respond. His t-shirt was slightly wrinkled, and it somehow made the guilty look on his face even more extreme. He was sad and lost and…I wasn’t sure why I cared so fucking much.
I buried my fingers in my hair. “God, this was supposed to be a dream. Why haven’t I woken up? What the hell is happening?” I reached down and pinched myself. Ow. I stared at the other side of the bed where James had just stood up. I pinched myself again. Ow. Why wasn’t he disappearing? Go away!
I started walking back and forth. “You’re not real, and I don’t know why I can’t make you go back into my imagination. Not that I’ve been imagining you. I’d imagine someone my own age would want to marry me. At some point. Way in the future. Not any time soon. I’m too young to be married.”
“Penny.” He started walking around the bed.
“I’m 19. Don’t you see that? Don’t you see that I’m too young for whatever the hell this is?” I gestured back and forth between us. “You’re 34.”
“Penny.” He stopped a few feet away from me, giving me the space I desperately needed.
I flung open the blinds to see that the city was still below me and started pacing faster. “What the hell am I doing in New York City? I hate the city. I hate it here. I wouldn’t choose to be here unless I lost my mind!” I realized I was waving my hands around, but couldn’t stop.
“We decided that…”
“We?” I said. “There is no we. And all those people I met yesterday? Those aren’t my friends. And you’re not my husband. This,” I said and pointed to my ring finger. “Was just a terrible self-tanner accident. We’re not married. It’s impossible. And whatever is going on with my skin,” I gestured to my face, “is a weird hospital mirror trick. I don’t have wrinkles next to my eyes. Teenagers don’t have wrinkles.”
“They’re laugh lines,” James said. “And I love them. I love every part…”
I held up my hand so he wouldn’t come any closer. “What, you’re telling me you love this?” I gestured to my beer belly. “Am I just fat or did something happen to me? Did I lose my liver? Do livers make you sane? Why can’t I remember what the fuck a liver does?” I was screaming now. Screaming, pacing, and flailing my arms around like a maniac.
“Penny, if you’d just calm down I can tell you everything you want to know.”
“I don’t want you to tell me. I want the doctors to tell me. You’re not even real. I’ve just lost my damned mind.”
“Penny, please…” He reached out for me, his hand connecting with my forearm.
I felt the same shock as before. He was strong. And kind and patient. I wanted to be able to lean into him and let him fix everything. But I couldn’t lean on a figment of my imagination. “I’ve lost my mind.” I rushed past him toward the door.
“Penny, don’t go out there…”
But I had already flung the door open and was running out of the room. I needed fresh air. I couldn’t breathe in this hospital.
I flung open a door at the end of the hall. Strangers turned toward me from their seats in the waiting room. No, not complete strangers. I had met several of them yesterday. Some of James’ friends. His father. My eyes landed on my parents. Thank God. I was just about to yell for my mom, but someone beat me to it.
I turned around to see a little girl with bright red hair running toward me. I saw another reflection of myself. A younger version of me. She looked exactly like I did when I was a kid. And I felt something snap in my head. Like any sanity I had left had evaporated.
I was watching myself from my past. I wasn’t actually here. Was I dead? I felt tears start to fall down my cheeks. My life was replaying before me. I stepped out of the way of my childhood self, wondering if she’d be able to just run right through me anyway.
But instead of going toward my parents, she turned toward me. I stepped to the side again, and she altered her path again.
The little girl threw herself on me, wrapping her small arms around my legs. “Mommy, Mommy. I missed you.” She peppered kisses on my thigh.
“You have the wrong person, sweetheart,” I said as calmly as I could muster. “Your mom is over there.” I pointed to my mother.
The little girl pulled back from me and cocked her head to the side as she studied me. “No, you’re my mommy. That’s Grandma.”
“She’s your mommy, Mommy. The stork brought you to her. Like he brought me to you and Daddy. And Liam too. He’s the most beautiful baby in the whole wide world. Do you want to see?” She grabbed my hand.
I immediately pulled away and took a step back. I collided into a strong chest. The smell of James’ cologne engulfed me. It felt like I was suffocating. I stepped away from him.
“Penny.” He reached for me, but I backed away.
“Penny, let’s get back to your room.” He reached for me again.
“No. No, no, no, no…” I couldn’t stop saying it. I needed my parents. Not whatever the hell this was. “Mom!” I started to run over to them. “Mom, Dad, take me home. Tears cascaded down my cheeks. “Please take me home.”
“Mommy!” The little girl yelled as she followed me. “Mommy!”
“Would someone get Scarlett out of here?” James said sternly.
“No, I want my mommy!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “No!” She started crying as James’ brother lifted her into his arms. “No!” she screamed. “Mommy! Mommy, Mommy, I need you! No!”
I could still hear her screams as the door closed behind them. Or was it my own screams? Because I sounded just like her. Yelling for my parents. Begging for them to fix this.
“Take me home.” I was choking on my tears.
My parents were just sitting there, staring at me like I truly had lost my mind. I had. I knew that I had.
James wrapped his arms around me and started whispering in my ear to calm me down. But his breath wasn’t calming. It made my heart race faster. God, I was going to throw up.
“Penny,” he said in the soothing tone you’d use for a distraught child. “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to remember everything soon. Us. Your children.”
Children plural? “Get off of me.” I tried to wiggle out of his grip. People in the waiting room that I didn’t recognize were staring at us. Judging my insanity. “There is no us.” I said the word “us” with disgust. “And I don’t have any children with you. I don’t have any children at all.”
James shook his head. “You must have seen the similarities…”
I pushed him off of me. “That was not my daughter. I’m the daughter.” I pointed to my chest. “Mom, tell him. Tell him none of this is real.” I was barely getting the words out, I was crying so hard.
A doctor rushed in. “Mrs. Hunter, if you would just take a deep breath.”
“What’s happened to me?” I choked.
James tried to reach for me.
“Mr. Hunter, that’s enough,” the doctor said, stepping in front of him.
“She’s upset, I’m trying to calm her down,” James said.
“You’re the one upsetting her. Can’t you see that? Just give her some space.”
I wanted to hug the doctor. But all my fears came bubbling to the surface. “Am I sick? Am I dying? I’m delirious. I’m imagining things. I’m imagining him.” I pointed to James, hoping that the doctor couldn’t actually see him. Hoping that I was as confused as I believed I was. Hoping that everything was a dream.
“Mrs. Hunter, I need you to take a deep breath.”
“That’s not my name.”
“Okay, Penny, just take a breath. We’re going to get you back to your room.”
“Make him stay out,” I said and pointed to James. “He slept in my bed last night. I woke up and his arms were around me.” I started to scratch my skin, trying to rid myself of the feeling of his touch.
The doctor frowned. “Mr. Hunter, how many times do we have to talk about visiting hours? You’re not allowed…”
“She needs me,” James said, trying to sidestep the doctor. “How can she remember if I stay away from her?”
I started sobbing harder. “I don’t need you. I need to get out of here. I need to go home. Let me go home! Mom, Dad, please. Please.”
A nurse rushed in carrying a needle.
“Don’t hurt her!” James yelled.
But the needle was already being pierced into my arm. The room slowly blurred in front of me. And I entered the dreamlike state I thought I was already in.
END OF CHAPTER 5
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