By: Winter Renshaw

Never thought I’d be almost nineteen years old and already head over heels in love with my soul mate. And I think I always knew it would be him. I just didn’t want to admit it.

The clock on my dresser reads eight. He should’ve been back hours ago.

I try his cell again, but it goes straight to voicemail. I send a text I know he’ll never read because his phone is obviously dead. The irrationally optimistic notion that maybe he’s home, and I missed him, creeps through my mind, so I tiptoe to the basement, where he’s been staying since he was kicked out of foster care last year when he turned eighteen.

His room is empty, but I linger for a moment because it smells like him, and I need my fix.

I crash on his bed and bury my face in his pillow. A smile creeps across my lips when I remember all the naughty things we’ve done in this private little corner of the basement. Thank God for locks on the door, because my parents would flip their shit if they ever walked in on us.

But we can’t help it.

We can’t keep our hands to ourselves, and why would we want to when being together feels stupid amazing? The cheesy smile on my face has become a permanent fixture in the last year and a half because of that boy.

And I hope it never fades.

I pull myself off of Royal’s bed when I hear Mom calling out that dinner’s ready. We’re eating late tonight. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one waiting for Royal to come home.

Selfishly, I hate that he had to run off and help someone. Every hour apart is torture. We’ve spent every waking moment together this summer, woefully counting down the days on the calendar as we get closer to the weekend my parents move me to my dorm at Hargrove College.

We’re staying together. Royal promised. But we’ll be a couple of hours apart for a while. He’s going to try to find a job closer to me, but until then, we’re soaking in these carefree summer nights like they’re going out of style.

Climbing the stairs, I amble down the hall and see Mom removing an extra place-setting at the end of the table.

My heart drops and my hands weaken. I take another step and grab onto the back of Delilah’s chair.

“Why’d you do that?” I ask Mom. “Why’d you take Royal’s plate away?”

She turns to me, her expression sullen. “He’s not coming.”

“He’s not coming . . . for dinner?” I need clarification. I need context.

Mom’s gaze lifts across the room to meet my father’s. His lips straighten, and his chest rises and falls with one loaded breath. And then he nods.

They know something I don’t.

My chest flutters, opposite my churning stomach.

“He’s not coming back, Demi.” Mom’s shoulders fall and she turns away, returning his plate and a handful of flatware to their rightful places in her meticulously organized kitchen.

I laugh. This is a joke. It has to be. Royal’s always messing with people. He’s going to pop around the corner and surprise me with a dozen red roses and two surprise tickets to see the traveling Broadway rendition of Les Mis in the city. He’s random like that. It’s why I love him so.

“What do you mean, he’s not coming back?” I stumble back until I hit a wall.

No one’s smiling. No one’s laughing.

Delilah and Derek stare at their empty plates. Daphne twirls a fork between two fingers.

“What happened? Is he okay? Did something happen to him?” My words come so fast my lips feel like Jell-O. “Where is he?”

Dad clears his throat and rises. “You and Royal are through, Demi. That’s all you need to know. He’s not to come back here. And you’re not to see him again. Is that understood?”

“Robert.” Mom’s voice breaks. From where I stand, I see her clutch her hand across her heart and shake her head, though her back is toward all of us. I’m sure she’s wishing Dad would’ve delivered his message with a little more compassion, but there’s no delicate way to drop a bomb like that.

“No. No, no, no, no . . .” My voice escalates. I repeat the same word over and over, until the back of my throat is raw and it hurts to swallow.

Thick tears trail my cheeks, and I find myself on the floor after a minute, my knees pulled up against my chest and my face buried. Someone’s arms are around me. Delilah maybe? No, feels like Daphne. I don’t bother looking up. I don’t have the energy.

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