When I had stepped out of the hospital earlier today it felt like I could finally breathe again. But now? The night was hot and humid. It felt more like the buildings were caving in around me. Like the sidewalk was cracking under my feet. Like my whole world was being destroyed.
Here I was planning a fucking re-proposal and she was what? Sucking Tyler’s cock?
A drop of rain hit the top of my head. I looked up to see the storm clouds above me through the darkened sky. Every time it rained, I thought of her. I always would. But she wouldn’t be thinking about me. I tried to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
Penny looked the same. She smelled the same. But she wasn’t the same. Was this how people felt when their spouses died? Like their world was caving in around them? That’s how I felt. Like the Penny I knew and loved was gone. Like she had been taken from me far too soon. And I couldn’t get her back. No matter how hard I fucking tried to recreate our lives. Or show her that I cared. None of it mattered. Because one person caring in a relationship wasn’t enough.
It started raining harder. Each drop felt like it seared my skin. I needed to stop before I did something I regretted. I needed to turn around and go back to my apartment. But my feet kept moving forward.
I didn’t want to believe any of this was real. It was like Penny and I were on a broken wheel. Every time something went wrong in our relationship, she went back to Tyler. How many times could she run back to him before it stuck? How many times was she going to try to break me?
It felt like tears were running down my cheeks, but I couldn’t really tell. It was pouring now. I was soaked from head to toe. I wished that I felt numb. I wished I never knew what it was like to feel this way. But if that was true, I never would have felt what it was like to be loved either. To love. I didn’t know how to fucking live without her love.
My feet suddenly stopped. And I knew it wasn’t rain on my cheeks. I broke down in the middle of a busy sidewalk in NYC and started crying. I felt my knees buckle and I fell to the ground and let myself cry. I let the grief of losing her overtake me. I let the feeling of hopeless take over.
I saw a dollar bill fall to the ground in front of me. Someone had mistaken me for a homeless person. A small act of compassion should have been able to improve my mood. But it didn’t. It just made me feel worse. Because someone thinking I was homeless was fitting. The dollar bill blurred in front of me. Penny was home to me. And I had lost her. I had lost the only home I had ever really known.
In the blink of an eye the anger overshadowed the pain again. If Penny could remember Tyler, she could remember me. She was just choosing not to. Or something was blocking her. I needed her to see that I was the right choice. And showing up looking like a scraggly, wet homeless man wasn’t going to help. I knew how she’d look at me. Like I was an addict. Like I was broken. Like she was scared of me.
When had I gotten used to her not recognizing me? When had that become more familiar than seeing her look at me with love in her eyes?
None of that mattered. Penny was the reason my heart kept beating. She was the reason that I could breathe. And I’d spend every second of the rest of my life trying to win her back. I needed to fix what I had broken. By breaking Tyler’s nose. I knew it wasn’t logical, but that’s what motivated me to stand back up.
I didn’t care that I was about to show up looking like a crazy man. And no matter what I was about to walk into, I’d forgive her. I’d forgive her and we’d move on. That was the only option. She’ll leave with me, right? She’ll come back home. For me, for our kids.
I pushed into the front lobby of Tyler’s apartment complex and my anger only grew. I had helped him find this place. I had let him move two blocks away from me and my wife. I had been blind to what he was planning.
“Good evening, Mr. Hunter,” said the woman standing in the reception area. “Are you…I mean do you…need a towel? Or…”
I ignored her and walked past the elevators and into the stairwell. Was that why Penny wanted Tyler? Because he was healthy? I’d be fine. I just needed to get back in shape. I walked up one flight of stairs before I had to stop on one of the landings.
Damn it! I slammed the side of my fist against the brick wall. She probably looked at me and saw weakness. My past. My present. I put my hand on my chest. I wasn’t weak. I was healing. I just needed time.
I took another deep breath and forced myself up more stairs.
I’d prove to her that she wasn’t better with Tyler. How had I not known she preferred guys with blonde hair and blue eyes? What was she, a fucking Nazi?
The thought actually made me laugh. The sound echoed around in the empty stairwell. I’m losing my mind. I buried my hands in my hair. I’ve lost it. I laughed again and then coughed as more tears threatened to escape.
Get a grip. I needed to win her back. But I wasn’t opposed to dragging her back to our apartment caveman style. Penny was mine. She was mine. A piece of my heart was inside of her and she was just having trouble remembering. I’d remind her. I had to.
I almost slipped on the next landing from my wet shoes, but I pressed on. When I finally made it to Tyler’s floor I was completely out of breath. But I knew if I stopped moving, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. I’d stop. My heart would stop. Everything would stop.
I knocked on Tyler’s apartment door. When no one answered after probably what was only a second, I knocked even louder. You’re dead, Tyler. Enjoy your last breaths.
The door opened a moment later. But it wasn’t Tyler standing there waiting for my wrath. It was Hailey. “Shh James, I just got Axel to bed.” She held her index finger up to her lips like she was hushing a child. And then she laughed, like she knew she was talking to me like she did her son. She smiled up at me before concern crossed her face. “Is everything alright?” Her eyes scanned me, taking in my wet clothes, and maybe my red eyes.
Poor, sweet, naïve Hailey. She was in the same boat as me. She wouldn’t be looking at me with pity when she found out her spouse was cheating on her too. I was going to fix this problem for both of us. I looked past her into their living room. “Where is he?”
“Who? Tyler or Axel?”
“Right, I’m here because I'm pissed off that your three-year-old son has a crush on my daughter. Yes Tyler.” There was an edge in my voice. Probably because I was actually annoyed about the first thing I mentioned too. My daughter would never end up with a cheating, lying Stevens. We were done with this family. None of them would ever step foot in my home again.
She laughed. Like this was a time for laughing. “I knew you were upset about Axel and Scarlett having cute little crushes on each other. It’s just a kid thing. I think it’s adorable.”
“Where is he?” I wasn’t even listening to what she was saying. I walked past her and peered into their kitchen.
“I told you, I just put him to bed.”
Jesus, this woman was driving me insane. “Not Axel. Tyler! Where is Tyler?”
“Would you keep your voice down? I had to read Axel three bedtime stories and…”
“Where the fuck is he?!”
She winced at my words. Or maybe it was just at my tone. I wasn’t trying to direct my wrath at her, but she was standing in the way of what I wanted.
“Tyler isn’t here,” she said. “And I think you should go home, James. Whatever this is can wait until the morning. Don’t you think?” That moment of weakness where she had winced was gone. She even seemed to be standing a little taller.
Couldn’t she tell I was here to help her? “I’m not leaving until I speak to him.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m not going to ask you again. You need to go.” Her bottom lip trembled slightly. I would have missed it if I hadn’t been staring right at her.
She was scared of me. What the fuck was I doing? I swallowed down the lump in my throat. She needed to know the truth. She was tough, she could handle it. Probably better than I could. “He’s cheating on you. He’s with Penny.”
“What?” She immediately unfolded her arms. “Why on earth would you think that?” She didn’t believe me.
“Penny disappeared about an hour ago. She said she was going for a walk.”
“Right before that, she was reading the book she wrote. All the pages about Tyler were on top of the coffee table when I got home. She remembers him. She remembers him and she doesn’t remember me.” My voice broke. “She doesn’t remember me, Hailey. She doesn’t want to remember me. But Tyler? Apparently she wants to remember him.”
Hailey’s face softened. “She can’t help how she remembers. Getting amnesia wasn’t something she asked for.”
“I’ve tried everything to jog her memory. Everything I could think of. And she reads a few pages about Tyler and runs to him?”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“When did he leave to go on a run?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “About an hour ago.”
See. Wasn’t that proof enough? “Does he usually go on runs this late?”
She didn’t look convinced of my theory at all. “No. He usually goes before work. But we were running late this morning. It’s just a coincidence.”
Was she blind? “They’re together right now. We need to go find them. We need to stop them before Penny breaks your family apart too.”
She drew her eyebrows together. “Tyler loved Penny in that way once. But he doesn’t now. He’s not stuck in the past like Penny is right now. Even if she makes a pass at him, he’ll shut her down. He’ll remind her that she loves you and only you. You’re worrying about nothing.”
“How are you so sure?”
“Because I know Tyler. I know him better than anyone in the world and he’s not the kind of guy that cheats on his wife. Or steals someone else’s wife, for that matter.”
“He asked Penny to run away with him the day before our wedding.”
“Oh, you mean the wedding that you called off? If you ask me, that was kind of on you. And he was in a bad place. He’s been through so much. He was in pain and he was just trying to find comfort in the wrong place. Because he hadn’t met me yet.” She gave me a small, sad smile.
It was right after our wedding that Tyler and Hailey fell in love. Right after Penny rejected him. Couldn’t she see that there was a hole in her logic? The only reason Tyler was with Hailey was because Penny had turned him down. She was his second choice. And right now, I wasn’t Penny’s any choice. She didn’t even like me, let alone love me.
“Then call him,” I said. “Prove me wrong.”
“I will.” She walked into the living room and picked her cell phone up off the coffee table. She pressed a few buttons and put her phone up to her ear. After several seconds ticked by, she pressed her lips together and looked down at the ground. Maybe a tiny bit of doubt was getting into her head. “He didn’t pick up. But he listens to music when he runs. He probably just has the call function turned off or whatever.”
“That’s not a thing.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m a tech guy. I do know that. A cell phone’s primary function is to you know…be a phone.”
“God, you’re such an old man. If anything, a cell phone’s primary function is for texting. Well, that and watching cat videos on YouTube.”
I glared at her.
She glared back.
“Then text him,” I said.
“He can’t run and text.”
“You’re making excuses for him. I’m telling you that he…”
“James, I’ve been patient with you. But I will not have you stand in my home and insult my husband. And insult me. I’m sorry that you’re hurting. I’m sorry that Penny doesn’t remember you. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. If you’d like to talk about it, I’m here to listen. But if you say one more thing about Tyler I’m going to…punch you.”
“You’re going to punch me?” Was she serious? I just stared at her. All Stevenses were the worst. Even the ones that were married into the family.
“Yes. And it’s going to hurt. I have a mean left hook.” She held up her hand in perfect form. Most people who had never punched anyone would tuck their thumb underneath their other fingers. But she was doing it right. No thumbs would be broken if she decided to collide her fist into my jaw.
“My dad taught me how to defend myself. And I know to use words first, but you’re testing my patience. So you best be getting ready for a beat down if you say one more thing about Tyler.” She made a fist with her other hand too and started moving them in the air in a gesture that could only be seen as playful.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. The thought of her attacking me was too humorous.
And she started laughing too.
“I’m sorry, James.” She dropped her hands as she approached me. “Really, I can’t imagine the hell that you’re living. My heart aches for you.” She threw her arms around me. And for the second time tonight, I let myself be hugged by someone who had never hugged me before.
Hailey knew what it was like to lose everything she loved. Her father died a few years ago. He was her only family. Tyler was there to catch her when she fell from that loss. And it was fucked up of me to think that he’d suddenly stop being there for her. Just because Penny thought she was a teenager, it didn’t mean Tyler had suddenly forgotten the past several years. And he loved Hailey. I knew what love looked like. I used to have it. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said into my chest. “I’m sorry I threatened to punch you.”
I laughed. “It’s okay.”
She dropped her arms from around me. “Wait, James, what if Penny isn’t with Tyler?”
I'd been so focused on her running to Tyler that I hadn’t even thought of that possibility.
“If she’s not with him do you have any idea where she is? Let me try to call Tyler again.”
Where is she? The words echoed around in my head. Jesus, why hadn’t I even thought of that? Where the hell was my wife? “Call everyone we know. I’m gonna call the police.”
She didn’t tell me I was jumping to wild conclusions this time. She was on her phone faster than I was.
“Rob?” she said into her cell. “Is Penny there with you?” The brief pause seemed agonizingly long. She shook her head at me. “We think she’s missing.”
I had spent all this time thinking she was running back to Tyler. I had never even thought that there could be something worse. I never even considered the fact that there was a threat looming. Dr. Nelson was still out there. He had already tried to kill her once. And I wasn’t with her to protect her. There was nothing to stop him from trying again.
END OF CHAPTER 3
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