Saving forever, p.11
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       Saving Forever, p.11

         Part #3 of The Ever Trilogy series by Jasinda Wilder

  I couldn't even begin to wonder what she was doing, and I didn't dare ask. This was a private moment, one that belonged only to Ever, and I was privileged to watch. I crossed my arms over my chest and kept silent, making sure even my breathing was quiet.

  Ever set the black-smeared brush on the tray and picked up the one she'd originally chosen, a medium-point brush. She dabbed at the white paint, brought it in an arc horizontally across the canvas, refreshed the paint on the brush and made a mirrored arc to match the first. Slowly then, she filled in the space between the arcs, merging the black and the white so that it seemed almost pixelated, as if the black was fading to white.

  It wasn't until she stepped back that I understood what she'd painted: an eye, opening.

  "The moment you woke up," I said. She only nodded. "You haven't forgotten."

  Ever set her brush and palette down, turned in place to look at me, hesitated, and then ran and threw herself into my arms. She cried long and hard.

  "I haven't forgotten." Relief filled her voice. "It's not the same, though. Even that is different. I don't--I'm not sure I can explain it. I don't see things the same. When I think about painting something, even the images in my head are different than I remember them being before."


  Her life was split into before and after.

  For me, it wasn't so simple. There was before, and there was after, and there was the unmitigated hell of in between. During. That time, the during, that was what had broken me. I'd survived the loss of my parents, my grandparents. I might have survived the loss of Ever, if she'd actually died. But she didn't. I'd lost her, but not completely. It wasn't the pain of her loss, the agony of limbo, or even the uncertainty of not knowing if she'd ever wake up that had done me in, though; it was the choices I'd made. The fact that I'd lost sight, lost hope, and betrayed her. And she'd woken up. I couldn't undo it, couldn't take it back. And even now, I wasn't sure if I could have done anything differently. But that didn't change the reality of my now. It didn't alter the fact that when Ever found out, it would gut her.

  And that would crumble even the ruins of what remained of me.

  art imitates life

  In the weeks that followed, Ever rarely left her studio. She barely slept, barely ate. She painted. She filled canvas after canvas, and sent me out to buy more, since she wasn't up to stretching her own just yet. She painted, and painted and painted. And from what I saw, she was absolutely correct in her assessment: she had changed, artistically. She had almost totally regained her fine motor control, could use the finest-point brush to paint delicate strokes and pin-thin lines. It wasn't a change in skill, but rather, as she'd said, a matter of perception. She painted messily, with quick, harsh strokes. Dark colors, little white space. She'd had a light style before. Even when the subject matter was heavy or dark, she managed to make it seem bright and lively. She had a painting of a raven, one I'd seen when flipping through her old paintings while she slept. It was a week or two before the accident, and I was up early. The raven had been so lifelike that I'd almost expected it to step off the canvas. There were reflections in the raven's beady eyes, and the sun glinted off its feathers. The piece contained all the inherent creepiness of a raven, the hint of some ancient evil in the eyes, the omens and portents of darkness in the predatory shape and black feathers. Yet, for all that, the piece had been distinctly Ever, still infused with the beauty of her style.

  Now, her paintings were...almost grim.

  She painted a lamp, one that sat on our bedside table. It was an ordinary lamp, silver and straight and modern, with a pull chain and white trapezoidal shade. In the painting, the lamp was on, surrounded by shadows. The outline of a moth was silhouetted on the inside of the lampshade. The sense of entrapment was palpable. The moth seemed caught mid-motion, as if banging against the shade, drawn by the light but burned by the heat, unable to fly away and unable to resist.

  She painted a still life of a bowl of fruit, but the apple was bruised, flattened on one side. It was true to life, an accurate representation of the fruit that sat in the bowl on our dining room table. Yet the painting seemed bleak. The sky in the window in the background was gray and overcast. The banana was flecked with black spots, looking soft to the touch.

  She painted me from memory, and the look in my eyes was haunted. My face was shadowed with the stubble of a beard, and my forehead creased with worry lines. But my eyes...god. If the painting was any reflection of me, she could see my secrets, and saw that they were bearing down on me. I looked old in the painting. Tired.

  I realized then that I hadn't touched a pencil or pen to draw since the day she woke up, if not long before. With Ever in her studio, warring with her demons and seeking herself in a thousand blank canvases, I brought out my sketchpad and pencil case and sat at the table with an empty page before me.

  I drew Ever, in that moment of vulnerability, her back bare and curved slightly to the left, her shoulders bowed under the weight of her fear. I wondered, as I drew, if she had shed a tear. Private. Unseen.

  My drawing did nothing to alleviate the torture within. I tried again, and I drew Ever once more. This time I drew her in profile. Yet, as the drawing progressed, I realized it was Ever in the hospital bed. Her eyes were closed, and her hands were still and thin on the sheets. I drew, and I could almost smell the antiseptic and sickness of the hospital.

  Hours passed, and my hand cramped, and the pages of my sketchbook were filled, one after another, with drawings of Ever. In therapy, struggling with a pencil. Just her hand, clutching awkwardly at the pencil. Dozens of images, yet none of them quieted the ache inside me.

  Finally, I drew Eden. Just her eyes and the tangle of hair by her cheekbone, a hint of her mouth. It was the moment I'd walked away from this very condo. The moment I'd known it was over, for better or worse. There was both relief and sadness in her eyes, and a huge amount of pain. There was no way to know it was Eden just by looking at it. Not unless you knew.

  I closed the sketchbook and sat at the table, my head pounding, my eyes burning, my hand cramping. The condo was silent, and I wondered what Ever was painting.

  I wondered where Eden was. Why she'd left.

  I wondered why any of this had happened, and why my life seemed so cursed.

  slide show

  I found her asleep on the floor of her studio. She'd forgotten to wash her brushes, so I washed them, and put them away.

  A painting sat finished and drying on the easel. Two doves, flying side by side. They were barely outlines on the canvas, dappled with hints of ivory. Wings were spread, faces turned upward, seeking the sunlight.

  One of the doves cast a shadow on the ground below.

  One did not.

  She enrolled in classes at Cranbrook and began attending three days a week. She found a job answering phones at a physical therapist's office Monday through Friday.

  She was establishing a new normal. I continued working at UPS, and found another job as a janitor at a local middle school. We both did our art, woke up and ate breakfast, had dinner together when our schedules allowed. We seemed, if seen from the outside, to be an average young married couple, making their way through life.

  What you wouldn't see was the chasm growing between us. Was it me? Was it my guilt, pushing her away? Was it her knowledge of that guilt, combined with our mutual agreement to pretend it wasn't there? I didn't know.

  The days passed almost as in a slide show.

  We even made love, clinging to each other in the darkness of our bedroom, sweating together, skin sliding in a nearly silent susurrus. She told me she loved me, and I told her the same.

  And we both meant it.

  Yet that didn't banish the space between us.

  Once I heard her crying in the bathroom, late at night.

  Time congealed and stretched and slipped away, minutes becoming weeks, becoming hours, which became days...which became months.

  And nothing changed. I withheld the truth, too c
owardly to speak it, too afraid of hurting her worse. And Ever? She painted dark and compelling images, passed her classes, and seemed to hold a part of herself removed from me, as if she was learning to be herself once more--or all over again--and asking if the person she was becoming included me.

  I felt the end approaching.



  a story told; a story withheld

  Eden was playing her cello when I arrived at seven-thirty the next morning. I parked my truck, hung my tool belt around my waist, and stood on the rotting porch, listening through the screen door. She was bent over her instrument, her hair in a blonde wave over one shoulder, swaying with the motion of her body. The piece she was playing was one of longing, slow and high, endless wavering notes that curled one after another. Her features were pinched, her eyes shut tight, her lips pressed flat together, lines of pain etched into her face and the corners of her eyes.

  I wondered who or what had caused her such pain, and how I could take it from her. Then I shook the thought away. I couldn't do that, and I don't think she wanted me to try.

  When she stopped playing and rested the bow on her knee, I cleared my throat.

  She started violently, gasping. "Holy shit, Carter!" She pressed her hand to her chest and laughed. "You scared the hell out of me!"

  "Who is it you miss?" I couldn't help asking.

  Her expression shuttered closed, going carefully blank. "My sister."

  I think she expected me to pry further, but I didn't. "You play beautifully."

  "Thanks," she said.

  She stood up, and I realized she was wearing nothing but a white T-shirt, "CRANBROOK, est. 1932" written in crimson on the front. It was sized to fit her, which meant everything from her waist down was on display for me. She had on a pair of red boy-short underwear, cut high across her butt. I'd seen her in a bikini, but this was somehow different. More intimate. Her legs were long, and thick with muscle, strong, sexy, and perfect. Her ass was a firm, perfect, round bubble, and her hips were generous, seductive curves. I hardened just looking at her, and had to forcibly rip my gaze away from her body. I focused on the wood planks at my feet, at the bottom of the screen door. Anywhere but on her, because she didn't deserve to be ogled and I was better than that.

  "I...I'll just get started. On your roof." I turned away, down the top step.

  "Want some coffee?"

  I moved back up and turned toward her. Meeting her gaze was a challenge. She wasn't wearing a bra, either, and her nipples poked the thin white cotton of the shirt.

  "Sure," I said, but didn't make any move to open the door.

  She pushed the screen door open and let me in, and I couldn't help stealing a glance at her chest. She caught the look, and seemed shocked to realize she wasn't dressed. "Shit! Sorry, I--I wasn't expecting you. I know you said today, but--" She crossed her arms over her chest, clutching her biceps. "Give me a minute. I'll put on some clothes."

  I stood in the kitchen, assessing what had to be done to the inside, and trying not to watch through the bedroom door, which she had mostly closed, but not all the way. Through the crack, I could see her step into a pair of yoga pants, and then pull her arms out of her shirt to put on her bra. She turned around after she'd tugged the shirt back into place, and her eyes caught mine through the partially open door. She knew I'd been watching her.

  There was palpable tension between us as she entered the kitchen. She set a clean mug on the tray of her Keurig coffee maker, and put a fresh pod in to brew. In seconds, I had a mug of coffee, which I drank black and scalding. She made herself some as well, adding a ridiculous amount of hazelnut creamer, stirring until her coffee was nearly the color of her skin: pale white.

  She saw me eyeing her coffee, and I must've been making a face, because she wrapped her hands around the mug defensively and frowned at me. "Shut up. I'm a girl. I like my coffee with a lot of creamer, okay?"

  I gave a little snort of laughter. "You can drink your coffee however you want. Doesn't mean I'm not gonna laugh."

  "Jerk." She was teasing, though, her eyes betraying her laughter.

  "Sissy. That's not even coffee anymore. That's milk." I grinned at her over the top of the mug.

  "Just because you can't float a horseshoe in my coffee doesn't mean I'm a sissy." She leaned against the counter beside me, and her elbow nudged mine.

  I didn't move away, and neither did she. The silence between us as we drank our coffee was companionable, easy, the earlier tension having ebbed away.

  "So, you're gonna put on a new roof?" she asked, glancing up at me. "Isn't that a lot of work for one guy?"

  I shrugged. "It's fine. I don't mind." I swallowed the rest of the coffee and set the mug down. "It's not a big roof."

  I'd already texted my brother's friend Jim, who owned a roofing company, and he arrived just then with a dumpster for the old shingles. Jim parked the dumpster in the driveway once Eden moved her car, and then we scrambled up the ladder, eyeing the roof.

  "Want some help?" he asked. Jim was a few years older than me, bearded and stocky.

  I shook my head. "It's fine. I'm doing this as a favor to a friend."

  Jim nearly fell off the ladder. "Holy shit, dude, you're talking!"

  I nodded, and Jim looked from me down to Eden, who had a vacuum beside her car and was cleaning out the back seat. She was leaning into the car, and his gaze lingered on her backside. Lingered a little too long, and I had to quell down the urge to call him out for it, if not just shove him off the ladder.

  He looked back to me, and nodded, his eyes sharp and knowing. "A favor for a friend, huh?" He winked at me. "Well, my guys are all working on another job, so I can spare you a few hours."

  "Don't have to."

  He descended the ladder, saying, "No, but I don't mind. It's a beautiful day, and the scenery sure is nice." And he wasn't just talking about the lake rippling in the distance.

  He grabbed a heavy-duty shingle scraper from the bed of his truck and tromped back up the ladder. Once we got started, Jim and I worked in silence, broken occasionally by Jim's phone. With his help, the old shingles came off in a few hours, and he helped me take off most of the old felt paper underneath.

  His phone rang again, and he listened to the other person talking with an increasingly upset expression. "Sorry, Carter. Gotta go. One of my new guys just fell off the fucking ladder."

  "He okay?"

  Jim shrugged. "Yeah, he'll be fine. Made a big fucking mess with the shingles he dropped, though. Goddamned new guys." He was gone in a cloud of dust and gravel-spitting tires.

  I was honestly a little relieved he was gone. His help had been nice, as he'd cut the shingle-scraping time in half, but his gaze had wandered a little too frequently over to Eden, where she'd spent the morning detailing her car and washing it. I had no place being possessive or jealous, but I was.

  When I slid down the ladder to clean up the bits of shingle that hadn't made it into the dumpster, Eden came out with two paper plates bearing sandwiches, and a pair of Cokes. We sat side by side with our feet hanging off the edge of the porch.

  We ate in silence for a few minutes, and then Eden glanced at me. "So your friend was a little...ogle-y."

  I winced. "Sorry. He's a roofer." As if that explained it.

  She grinned at me. "Ah." She shot me a sly, sarcastic look. "And carpenters would never ogle, right?"


  She laughed. "Uh-huh. Sure."

  "For real, though. I'm sorry if he made you uncomfortable." I decided to go with honesty. "And me, for that matter. I should've been more respectful of your privacy." I folded the paper plate in wedge-shaped quarters, staring down between my feet.

  Eden set her plate down and took mine from me, and our fingers brushed. She nudged me with her shoulder. "Hey, I was just teasing. It's fine. I didn't close my door all the way anyway."

  I shook my head. "Should've been more of a gentleman. So...I'm sorry." I brushed the crumbs off my
jeans and stood up. "Anyway, I should get back up there."

  Eden stood up with me and stopped me with a gentle touch to my side. "Carter, look, I--" She cut herself off, as if reconsidering what she was about to say, and then started over. "You are a gentleman. And thanks for doing my roof."

  I could only shrug, because she didn't know how much of a gentleman I wasn't. Just like Jim, I'd been sneaking glances at Eden all morning as she cleaned out her car, only I'd been more surreptitious about it. Jim was the type to stop working and just stare until he remembered himself. Unlike Jim, though, I'd been remembering the way Eden had looked that morning, in just a T-shirt and underwear. And thinking about what it might be like to wake up next to her like that, every morning.

  I'd had to shake those thoughts away time and again.

  So now I shimmied back up the ladder and attacked the remaining tar paper and underlying wood planking, until the framing two-by-sixes and insulation was exposed. The insulation need replacing, too, I discovered. I texted Jim, who sent his insulation guy, and we worked out a deal. By the end of the day, the roof was re-insulated and tarped over, ready to be covered the next day.

  Eden was waiting for me again when I descended the ladder. "Insulation is expensive."

  I nodded. "Yep. Ain't cheap."

  "I told you I can't afford to--"

  "Didn't ask you to."

  "Carter. For real. How much will that insulation cost?"

  I shrugged. "Couple grand." By "a couple," I meant almost five, but she didn't need to know that.

  "Carter." Clearly, Eden could suss out a lie in me easily.

  I left my ladder on the ground beside her house and threw my tools into the bed of my truck. "Eden. It's fine."

  "I'm not a charity case."

  "This isn't charity."

  "Then what is it?"


  She frowned at me, her jaw set and her eyes blazing. "Friendliness doesn't cover a several-thousand-dollar roofing job, Carter."

  "Sure it does. And it's not that much anyway."

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