Breathe Me Page 16

Breathe, Piper. Just breathe….

“Ms. Wetherson had paperwork drawn up to bring Leah to you if something ever went wrong.”

“No, Joss….” My voice quivered and I shook my head. “Are you sure? There has to be some mistake.” Maybe sitting down would be a good idea, I thought. I stepped back, Leah still fused to me.

“What’s going on, Piper?” I heard Sasha come up beside me, observing Leah in my arms and the officer patiently waiting at the door.

“Hello, I’m Officer Golding. You are?”

“I’m Sasha Koval. How can we help you, Officer?”

“I was just letting Piper know that her friend Joss has appointed her as guardian for her daughter. Ms. Joss has passed away in a car accident tonight.”

Sasha nodded and slipped his arm around my shoulders, gripping it tightly. He must’ve seen my distress, because all I remembered next was him maneuvering me toward the couch, with Leah in tow.

“Can you tell us what happened?”

“Yes. A drunk driver hit her car as she crossed Tropicana Avenue past Maryland. Some college kid who’d had a few too many at a fraternity party, apparently. Unfortunately, he hit her on the driver’s side head on. There was nothing they could do.” The officer shifted on his feet, eyeing Leah as he spoke. He must’ve hated giving out bad news. His job had to be hard to bear sometimes, and I didn’t envy him one bit.

“Thank you, Officer. What can we do to help Leah?” Sasha’s voice sounded so certain, so steady, it made me wonder if I’d ever be so sturdy, and what I would’ve done without him.

“Well, all the paperwork is in order. Her mother had custody set up to go to Piper. If you’re unable to take Leah, we’ll have to set up foster care, so please let me know as soon as you can what you decide.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card.

This made me snap out of my delirium, and anger shot through me as I shook my head. “No. No, she’s not going to foster care. Absolutely not.” Leah gripped me more tightly, making me suck in a deeper breathe to keep from passing out.

Officer Golding gave me a curt nod. “Well, that’s good. Here’s my card, and I have the keys to Ms. Wetherson’s residence. You may want to retrieve whatever Leah wants to keep from there. Ms. Wetherson’s instructions were for you to keep the house and everything in it as you see fit until Leah is of age for her to reside in it without you. You can also sell it and put the money in a trust for Leah. When she turns eighteen, she can access it.” He reached into his pocket again. “This is the card of the lawyer she had it all set up through. I suggest calling him in the morning to make arrangements.” Sasha took the keys and card, thanking the officer. I couldn’t even speak anymore, my mouth was as dry as the desert. I barely heard the door click shut after Sasha took the bag the officer handed to him with Leah’s overnight things and placed it on the couch next to her.

How could this have happened? Joss… gone? It wasn’t something I could even fathom, not even with a sobbing Leah next to me. I let my fingers stroke her long brown hair, offering small, comforting words. I hated the pain she was in, and I had no idea how to comfort her. What could I do? What could I even say that would make it any easier? There was nothing, nothing I could do but let her cry it out into my shirt until the tears dried up and her poor little weary soul passed out from grief.

Sasha offered a glass of water to the girl, a gesture I found heartwarming, especially when he then offered me one, too. I didn’t know if he and Joss had spoken much outside of setting me up with him. Though she’d been my best friend in college, they had never interacted much back then. There was the time she’d had words with him after our breakup, yelling at him across the college campus about what a man slut he’d been when he’d kissed that other girl and left me hanging.

The thought helped me collect myself even more. Joss had been such a strong soul. Leah would need someone like that in her life now.

“Leah?” I whispered softly to her. Her disposition was much calmer as her large brown eyes, reddened from the crying, peered up at me. An engulfing sadness spilled from them, ripping my heart out. “How about I make up the bed in the guest room for you? It’s quite comfy. Remember when you’d sleep there when I’d babysit you sometimes?” She nodded sadly. “Just think of it as a sleepover, okay? Eat all the goodies you want and watch all the TV you can handle. Sound good?”

“Can I use my iPad, too?” She sniffled and pointed toward the overnight bag. I nodded, giving her the most comforting smile I could manage.

“Of course! Anything you want.” I winked at her and she gave me a weak grin. Sipping on her water, she waited for me to move first.

Offering out my hand to help her up, she took it and got to her feet. Scooping up her bag, I followed Sasha to the guest room and allowed him to pull the covers back. Leah placed her glass of water on the nightstand, slipping onto the soft sheets as she pulled her bag closer to unzip it. She pulled out a framed picture. Joss’s brilliant smile, much like Leah’s, made my heart wrench. All three of us were in it, and I was making a silly face on the other side of Leah. It was the Three Musketeers, as we had called ourselves. She kissed her mother and placed the frame on the nightstand, close to the bed.

“Let me know if you need anything, okay?” I said. I know she’d want to change into her nightgown before turning out the light, so I signaled Sasha to head out. He took the hint and left, but I waited for her answer.

“Thanks, Auntie.”

Kissing the top of her head as she leaned in for another hug, I enjoyed the calm of the moment. She smelled of strawberries and whipped cream, like her favorite shampoo. She was the closest thing to a daughter I’d ever had, but this wasn’t the way it was ever supposed to be. Not like this. It was the Three Musketeers, not two.

She eventually straightened and began pulling out her night clothes. I told her goodnight, and she whispered the same back to me. Closing the door softly behind me, I stood there, staring down my darkened hallway, feeling empty and sullen. How could this have happened? Why her? The mix of fear, anger and grief hit me all at once, making my chest seize. I couldn’t breathe. Oh God, Joss… why, why, why…?

I gripped my stomach as I ran toward the hall bathroom and barely made it to the toilet, lurching out whatever was left in my stomach from dinner. I don’t know how long I was there, but Sasha flicked the light on and helped me up, letting me brush my teeth before taking me to the bed. I hadn’t even realized where I was until he slipped in next to me, spooning close as he reached over to turn off the lamp.

In the silence of the night, I felt the heat of his body engulfing mine, bringing some thaw to the iciness of my soul. He softly ran his fingers through the tangled mess of my hair and kissed the back of my head. Saying nothing, he understood what I needed right then like no one I’d ever known. What would I have done without him? Letting him steady me, I fell asleep, comforted that maybe it would be alright. It had to be, somehow. There was no choice in that matter. The shadows always faded with the daylight, and the fears that plagued my mind would hopefully go away with them. Time took care of things like that. Maybe it would play in my favor this time.

Chapter Twenty-One

Piper

THE FUNERAL WAS a blur. I hardly remembered standing there, gripping Leah’s tiny body, which was tightly wrapped around mine. The minister’s serene ceremony was short but beautiful. They had even played her favorite piece of classical music, Bach’s Violin Concerto in G Minor. For a lively woman, I’d never pegged her for a classical music lover, but it had been one thing her husband had loved before he died. It’d been calming for him in the many days he’d spent ill in bed, with multiple sclerosis. Will’s last years confined to a wheelchair had been so hard on Joss and Leah. It’d been the worst of times for her, but she’d been nothing short of a loving, patient and caring wife.

Maybe the music reminded her of him, of the good times they’d had. Listening to the soft melody, I felt my tears staining my cheeks. Never would I hear her laughing or chastising me again. Never would she bolt into my apartment unannounced to tell me about the silliest things which had happened to her. No more retail therapy sessions or junk food pig-outs on her living room floor. I was lost without her, yet trying to still keep grounded for Leah, whose face was buried in my side. She refused to let go of me and ignored everyone who came up to us to give their condolences. I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could and dreaded the wake being held at her house. I’d spent the night before scrubbing, packing and setting up her meager home in preparation of the wake. My apartment was too small, and I had refused Sasha’s offer to hold it at his massive home. It was just so impersonal. I needed to have her around me still, even if it was just her home and things.

Going through her belongings was something I had to do anyway, and being amongst them comforted me. I didn’t want to forget her voice or the way she smelled. She was my cousin, but we’d grown up together, best friends from diapers. How had this all gone so wrong? How could she have been ripped from me so suddenly, in this manner? It felt like I’d lost a limb. No, more. I felt like I’d lost part of my soul. It was losing a sister all over again and another person dead, another family member to bury. Maybe I was bad luck, everyone around me died.

This was devastating, and I felt like I was suffocating. The air was filled up with the words of friends, coworkers and people I’d never met who kept bombarding me, wanting to give their condolences. My Aunt Hazel, Joss’s mother, had passed away years before, and her father had left them when she was but a baby. She had no one. No one but me and Leah, who had finally broken away from me and settled with Cam on one side of her and one of her friends, whose name was Melody, or something like that, on the other side. Melissa, Melina, Mel…. I couldn’t remember. My mind was a jostled bunch of scrabble pieces, making no sense and numb.

Sasha was doing an excellent job of wrangling in the crowd, offering refreshments and taking the slew of cards from people, which were probably stuffed with money or gift cards for Leah. I hated that we had to go through this circus-like tradition. I wanted to yell at everyone to go home and leave us alone. Joss is gone, so get on with your lives. It was cold, I know, but their presence was stifling.

I’d abruptly stood up, ran to the bathroom and locked the door behind me. It was quieter in there, but it did nothing to ease the stabbing throb in my chest, the one that kept repeating with its drumming pain, Joss is dead… Joss is dead.

Slipping to the floor, I cried and cried. My make-up all but smeared away, and I was sure my eyeballs would be swollen shut for days. I wanted to yell at Joss for leaving us so soon, for being so selfish and making us have to go through this crap. How dare she die? How dare she leave her young daughter alone in the world to wonder what it would’ve been like to have her mother there at her sweet sixteen, at prom, at college graduation? What would I tell her when she asked me why this had happened to her? What would I say?

Not only that, but what if she hated me as her guardian? What if I did a shitty job? I’d never had children of my own, but I had babysat her many times. But that was so vastly different from being an actual parent. I wasn’t prepared for this. In one twisted moment, I had acquired an instant family.

What felt like hours later, I emerged, my face wiped clean of make-up and my hair smoothed back after yanking at it too much. I’d put myself together, the tiny, cracked slivers of what I had left, and carefully made my way back to the wake. I found Leah and held her tightly, giving her the reassurance that I would be there for her, no matter what.

Sasha smiled as he caught my eye. I threw him a weak, sad smile and felt relieved that he was there. After everything was said and done, he’d kept his promise that he’d do anything and everything to win me back. With each smile and chat he had with these strangers and every cup he refilled and tray of snacks or food he made sure was full, he’d pulled down the wall around my heart even further. The gaping hole he’d left inside before was slowly patching up. Even with the secondary injury of losing Joss, I could breathe a little better. I thanked my lucky stars that he was there and wondered briefly what I would’ve done without him.

I was glad I didn’t have to ponder it long before returning to Leah’s side and holding her closer. I’d never let her down, and I silently promised Joss that I’d be the best alternative to an actual mother I could be. I almost felt her silently hugging me, too, telling me that it would all be fine and that I’d do a great job.

I hoped she was right.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Piper

“SO, WHEN YOU and Joss came up with the plan to set us up, behind my back, might I add….”

Leah giggled and snatched a fry from my pile as the four of us munched in the food court at the Galleria Mall. “Did you ever think we’d be sitting in a mall, eating fatty burgers and devouring fries together, the four of us?” I flicked my eyelashes at Sasha, whose guilty look appeared comically exaggerated.

“It was Joss’s idea about the Ferris wheel, I swear. Scout’s honor.” He ran his hands through his thick dark-blonde locks, his own frustration getting the best of him. “I didn’t know how conniving she could be. All I knew was that I’d run into her at my coffee shop and I was pretty adamant on finding out what you’d been up to and telling her I still had feelings for you. It got her the wheels turning in her head, so of course I was super excited to know that you were single and Joss was willing to hook me back up with you. Your mom was always looking out for us, Leah.”

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