Title: Finding Me (His, #3)
Author: Mariah Dietz
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: June 1, 2015
I came here to escape. Leave the debris and avoid the inevitable truths.Things are better. Worse. Different. I’m finding me, but in the process I fear I’m forgetting those I have left, and the ones who have left me. Maybe I’m losing who I was. Can I forget my past and move forward? Can I forget him?
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~*~*~ See Chapter One Below ~*~*~
ExcerptWalking the short distance through the apartment and down to the parking lot, time slows down, allowing me to fixate on the fact that I look like a mess, and feel like I’m walking too straight. I slump my shoulders slightly to try and look more relaxed and then feel even more awkward, and straighten again and feel even more rigid. He unlocks the truck with the press of a button and unlike he did when we rode in his Jeep together, he doesn’t come to open the passenger door. I’m still debating if I wanted him to when I notice a water bottle lying in the middle seat. It was mine. I carried it in here from the hospital Sunday. I never would have remembered it if I didn’t see it again, that entire night is sort of a blur, but at some point, someone had passed it to me while we waited for the doctor. I don’t remember carrying it out. It’s still mostly full, showing proof I barely touched it. Did I carry it out? The truck starts with a soft rumble. It sounds so different than his Jeep. My mind turns with the gears. What do I say to the guy that was everything and is now supposed to mean nothing to me? This silence is unbearably uncomfortable. I can’t stop from guessing what he’s thinking. Is he wishing I wasn’t here? In his truck? In California? “So, how’s medical school?” Max’s head turns and his eyes focus on me for a second before he turns back to the road. I keep my attention on him, confused by his delayed response. Of all topics, this seems like a safe route. “I have my own set of flashcards.” I smile out of relief more than humor. “I used the wrong set of flashcards to study for a test last semester.” I shake my head and release a short breath. “It’s amazing that I passed it.” “I bet you got an A on the paper, didn’t you?” I glance at Max and he’s looking at me. His head shakes and a soft chuckle mingles with the music. “You’re the smartest person I know. You’re astrophysicist material.” “Says the guy studying to be a brain surgeon.” “Neurosurgeon.” My laughter fills the truck. It’s not even that his joke was all that funny, but having an easy conversation with Max makes laughing easier. Better. When my laughter fades into a smile I expect to feel the same stab of nostalgia I experienced earlier with the knowledge that I will miss this, but I don’t. I simply appreciate the moment, and attempt to stretch it. “Do you remember the Maximus flashcard?” Max’s truck pulls into a parking spot, and he shifts into park before turning to me. “I remember everything.” His tone is solemn, but his face is relaxed. I keep his stare without abashment. I want to stay here and continue to draw out this moment. To feel this emotion that’s flushing through me, warming me, and filling me with something I have forgotten about. I don’t know how to describe it: it’s not the same comfort that I get from being around my sisters, or the adrenaline I receive when I reach that point while running; it’s a rightness, a completeness that makes my heart swell and my smile broaden. My head starts to race with interpretations of what this means, but a fog fills my thoughts because I know. My heart understands exactly what he’s saying to me … I think. “I do too.” My admission makes me feel brave. My phone rings, and we’re back in his driveway almost two years ago when his phone rang, back to where neither of us knows how to say the right thing to one another, but this time it’s both of us walking a gray tightrope, one that felt less intimidating to cross because I could see him at the other side. His eyes close and he looks embarrassed, or possibly ashamed. It awakens old tendencies, making me question the reality of the moment. My phone rings again, and Max’s entire body shifts away from me. Opening the door, he climbs out in one fluid movement. I don’t know if I can go out there and face him right now. I feel as though he’s rejecting me all over again, and it makes my eyes and throat burn.
About The Author
Mariah Dietz lives in Eastern Washington with her husband and two sons that are the axis of her crazy and wonderful world. Mariah grew up in a tiny town outside of Portland, Oregon where she spent the majority of her time immersed in the pages of books that she both read and created. She has a love for all things that include her sons, good coffee, books, travel, and dark chocolate. She also has a deep passion for the stories she writes, and hopes readers enjoy the journeys she takes them on, as much as she loves creating them.
“Time will always pass, but sometimes you forget to pay attention until it’s too late.”
–Dr. Kitty Clarke
I’ve experienced moments where I knew as they were occurring, I would be able to remember them for the rest of my life. Moments like lying in bed beside Max, watching his chest rise and fall with heavy breaths, or the gleam in my dad’s eyes as we readied our soap cars in preparation of our first soap box race. I can still remember the look of love and sincerity on my brother-in-law Kyle’s face as I stood beside my sisters and he promised to love my oldest sister, Mindi, for all of time.
My brain has so many memories I actively work to suppress that it no longer seems to function for any intellectual purpose, just as a dark cave chock-full of images I work to avoid because if I face them, I don’t know that I’ll be able to get back out.
Unfortunately, memories appear from a single scent, taste, sound, image, or touch. They’re all so deeply imbedded in me that something as simple as the sight of a particular pen will catch me off guard when I realize it’s the same kind my dad had always used. Did I know a year ago he had always carried the same blue pens with him? Memories are funny that way, like time, they sneak up on you—it’s inevitable.
When my mom brought to light my own fears about Max moving forward, I knew I needed to escape, I just didn’t know where, not until a card came loose when I finally pulled my phone out of my purse one day. I had been leaving it on silent to avoid the constant ringing and vibrating because I was sick and tired of hearing people ask if I was okay. The ironic part was that as much as I hated answering that question, most people never seemed all that interested in my actual response.
I set my phone aside to pick up the business card that had floated to the floor. There was a number scrawled across the back in nearly illegible handwriting, along with the name Ben. I could hardly recall seeing Ben, let alone having a conversation with him, which was kind of a shame. He and my dad had been roommates their freshman year of college and then continued on to medical school together. Though I had mostly seen him from the cover of Christmas cards that he graced along with his wife and their daughter, Emily, I had enjoyed him the few times that we’d met in person.
Mather’s Science and Technology. I stared at the name of the company embossed across the front of the card. He had started the business several years ago after moving to the East Coast. It was late and I hadn’t been sleeping much, so I went online and started reading through his company website. Entranced, I sought any articles that had been written about the company. All my life I’d wanted to help people, and here was this company focused on researching medical cures without the aid of medicine. And it wasn’t financially supported by a drug company, something that was about as common as finding a seashell in a forest. Thoughts began blooming in my mind, covering ugly fears and insecurities and replacing them with possibilities. A new start.
Science to Improve Life. That was their motto. Not overly catchy or life altering in itself, but it led me down a path that seemed impossible to turn away from.
I stayed up all night researching how far it was to Delaware and the best route to drive. I made a list of things to bring and what I needed to do. Then I began looking for an apartment online and schools in the vicinity. When it was a respectable hour on the East Coast, I called Ben. He was polite, but I heard the reluctance in his voice at the potential of me coming to work for him. I offered to volunteer, thinking he wouldn’t say no to free labor. Apparently either my overly ambitious attitude, or perhaps guilt from having seen me cry a sea of tears at my father’s funeral, made him accept even though I didn’t have a degree or even a declared major. He even tied a small salary to the position he offered me.
I was relieved. Things were falling into place so easily.
It seemed like kismet.
Saying goodbye was hard, but nothing like what it would have been a few months prior. I think my heart had gone into full self-preservation mode, allowing me to part from everyone without really considering their emotions. That, or maybe I was just becoming immune to them all after the emotional-packed month I had experienced. Maybe both.
The comfort I’d been seeking with moving out here, away from having to watch Max move forward and seeing the house that held memories of both my dad and Max lurking around every corner, away from the cemetery where my father now rests that made me break out in chills and heaving sobs the few times I’d passed it before leaving, wasn’t nearly as attainable as I’d hoped. The walls of my apartment close in on me a little more each day, and the nice weather that had offered some solace vanished before October arrived. My fingers and toes are now constantly freezing as the month of November dawns.
The weather had begun changing in September. Cooler breezes and chilly nights turned into frost-covered windows and an icy parking lot each morning, making running outside feel like a medieval torture method. Begrudgingly, I joined a gym.
Snow flurries are forecasted for the entire week. A small part of me is excited, hoping it will break this endless cycle of gray that I’ve been drowning in for several weeks now.
I pull on some sweats and shove work clothes and my Converse sneakers in a bag and make for the parking lot.
Two girls slip in before me at the gym. They’re giggling about something, wearing their Spandex pants and sports bras even with the cold temperatures. Their hair and makeup is already complete, and a wave of their perfume hits me as they pull open the doors.
It feels like I’m in a bar rather than the gym, as I watch them scour the large space to determine where they’re going to work out based upon the few guys that are here this morning.
Once my bag’s stored in the locker room of the gym and my shoes are tied, I head out and grab some wipes for the treadmill at the far end of the line. Working in a science lab, I know all about the germs that are bred in places like this.
I’ve never been a fan of gyms. The monotony of the treadmill is what I hate the most about coming here. I miss running outside and seeing the different sights, breathing fresh air. Here, sweat, perfume, cologne, and chemicals permeate the air, and I have few options of things to look at; it’s either my own reflection across the room, other machines and people, or the TVs that are currently all set to a Spanish soap opera.
I close my eyes and beckon a memory that doesn’t hide far in the recesses of my mind. Visions of palm trees and stretches of ocean placate me while I seek a familiar burn.
After getting showered and dressed, I pull out my phone to check the time. Previously, my phone was an accessory I often misplaced. These days it’s a taunting shadow. There are no messages or alerts. No missed calls. When you ignore people long enough, they begin ignoring you too.
“Good morning, Harper. You staying warm out there?”
I turn to Gus, the guard at the front door of Mather’s Science and Technology and force a small smile. “Hey, Gus.” He’s also one of the few people that makes an effort to speak to me.
“You be sure you get some snow tires on soon!” His voice is raspy and deep, like his lungs have endured a lot of smoking over his fifty-odd years of life. He really should do something like commercials or movie introductions; it has the ability to melt the grimace from my face that is there too frequently these days.
“Thanks for the reminder.” I pull out today’s newspaper and lay it on the counter for him. I tell myself the reason I take the route that takes me ten additional minutes to get to the lab is so I can stop by this tiny, independently-owned convenience store so I can pick up the paper and my coffee each morning. It has absolutely nothing to do with avoiding Miller Ave. Nope. Nothing.
Too-early mornings. Gym. Paper and coffee. Work. School. This is my life.
“How did it go?”
Except … now there’s Fitz. Fitz helps.
I look over at him and take a long sip of my coffee, waiting to warm up before removing my jacket.
Fitz’s eyes grow wide. “Don’t tell me that you didn’t go! Harper, she can force you to go to a school counselor. This is serious!” he growls. “Dammit, you promised me.”
“She called and canceled on me, actually. She rescheduled it for tomorrow,” I explain after pausing long enough to gain a dramatic edge that I soften with a small smile. Fitz’s chin drops and his eyes narrow, looking more annoyed than relieved, which only serves to make my smile grow.
“You’re such a pain in the ass,” he mumbles.
“Aren’t you glad that I’m your pain in the ass?”
Fitz’s annoyance cracks and he shakes his head with a laugh. “So much,” he replies sarcastically. “Get all your snow gear off, California. Time to get to work. I’ve got a new hypothesis for us to start working on.”
I met Fitz last month after completing my orientation, which consisted of being passed around from different lab rooms and scientists that mostly regarded me with disdain and annoyance, only ever referring to me as “hey you.” I was assisting Dr. Schooner at the time. I wasn’t allowed to perform a lab by myself due to my lack of degree. However, I was able to help set up, clean, read the equipment’s results, take notes, and log outcomes in detailed journal entries for the doctors.
The day I met Fitz, I was cleaning up a lab I’d begun with Dr. Schooner. She was only thirty or so, but she had insisted that I call her Dr. Schooner.
We’d begun dissecting a new heart that day, something I was still trying to adjust to. Even though I was only ever observing, the first cut was always the most difficult for me. It felt like we were cutting at love, at opportunity, at life.
It had brought me back to a question Adam, my Philosophy teacher and my older sister Jenny’s boyfriend, had posed after I handed in my final back in June.
“Are they really gone if you’re able to keep the memory of them alive?”
“Of course they’re gone. Memories means past tense,” I replied angrily and grabbed my things from my desk.
“So what’s a greater tragedy? Someone dying and therefore not able to create more memories, or someone alive that refuses to live?”
“I’m still living, Adam! I’m breathing, and talking, and moving!” I said, slinging my bag over my shoulder.
“You’re thinking with your scientific brain again, not your philosophical one.”
“It’s all one brain!”
“Don’t let loss make you lose yourself.” I glared at him and then stormed out of the room.
Adam’s look of defeat was haunting me as I continued staring at the heart, trying to hide images of my father as I forced myself to gather the tools used to reveal the internal surfaces and structures of the heart.
“Harper, this is Dr. Maxwell Fitzgerald.”
The scalpel I was holding clanged against the floor and my neck snapped up to see Ben standing beside a short, thin guy with light brown skin and spiky black hair. I’d seen him before in passing but had never bothered to learn his name. I glanced back at Ben, certain I must have imagined his words, as he apologized for startling me. The name still hung on my thoughts, distracting me as I looked down to see smears of blood staring up at me from the white tiles.
“Max. Just Max is good,” he said, keeping his eyes on everything but me.
“Max, this is Harper Bosse,” Ben said again when neither of us spoke. “Max here is currently studying aortic aneurisms, and I know that’s where you want to apply your focus, so I thought this partnership would behoove you both. I let Dr. Schooner know that she’ll be starting again back over in lab six tomorrow. If you can please make sure to deposit whatever she needs over there, you guys can remain in this lab.” It was the smallest of the few dozen, so I’m sure Dr. Schooner was thrilled to be out of here and away from me.
Max’s eyes roved across the small room, looking bored and disappointed to be paired with me. I didn’t blame him. I’d have been disappointed too.
Ben quickly gave a timid smile and then left.
I bent down to retrieve my scalpel, keeping my sole focus on the floor as I turned and headed to the sink used for sanitation. His name’s Max? Is this a joke? Maybe I heard him wrong?
I glanced in his direction again as I went to gather the other supplies that needed to be cleaned.
“Your name’s Max?”
He looked up from where he was circling around a vacant work station, carefully inspecting the blank space.
“And you’re Harper,” he answered in a bored tone.
“Do you mind if I call you Fitzgerald?” The question left my lips in a rush before I even had time to lower my voice to make it sound less pleading. As I moved back to the sink, I glanced over at him again. His shoulders were hunched as he hovered over the desk, but his face was tilted up, looking at me carefully in a way that was uncomfortably familiar. He finally shrugged, then his eyes fell back to the table, and I quickly scrambled to finish getting things washed and noted.
Dr. Schooner had requested for me to sit in and complete the dissection that we had begun a few days prior, and Fitzgerald had agreed, stating he needed to get organized. I was back in the lab with him, recording my notes from the day, because I hadn’t bothered moving my things for the short period. I was feeling annoyed and befuddled over how a forty-six year old librarian suffered a major heart attack and died in her sleep. Alone.
Being that I spent the majority of my time since coming out East alone, that small notation highlighted itself, causing my eyes to continue to scan back over it.
The woman hadn’t smoked, wasn’t a drinker, and worked in a profession we calculated as low stress. I thumbed through her file again, hoping something would expose itself.
“What are you missing?”
I jumped and glanced over at Fitzgerald, whom I began to mentally only ever refer to as Fitz. We’d worked together with radio silence between us during the time I completed my notes, and he worked on his own processes and getting his work station set up to his liking.
“I just don’t understand what happened to her,” I said on a sigh. “I mean, do I just chock it up to genetics, or is there something else? Something I’m not seeing?”
“Go ask, then,” Fitz responded, turning his attention back to his desk.
Eventually he must have felt my stare because he turned and looked back at me, his dark brown eyes wide. I’m pretty sure he was sizing me up, or maybe he was challenging me.
“If you want to be a scientist, you need to ask questions. The more answers you’re able to collect, the better your chances will be of finding the correct one.”
“You think I should just call her family?”
His chin tilted as he surveyed me and his look turned into a taunt. “Unless you have a direct number for God…”
I wanted to roll my eyes, or glare at him, but he didn’t give me the opportunity. Instead, he returned his full attention to his lab and placed a set of earbuds in. An indignant huff blew through my nose, and I stood up to head to the commons to get some caffeine and a break.
When I returned, Fitz was gone. I felt relieved to be back in my space alone, even if it was only for a short while. I peered over the file again, glancing at the contact information. My fingers began dialing the number provided before I finished thinking about what I was about to do.
A woman answered on the third ring with a tone that said she was expecting a telemarketer.
“Hi, my name’s Harper Bosse. I’m an assistant at Mather’s Science and Technology and I was hoping to speak to the … the … someone that knew … Elaine Boggman.” My words were jumbled as my eyes frantically searched over the information for the point of contact’s name, only to come up with a W, making myself cringe at the fact I hadn’t thought to prepare that far in advance.
“This is Wendy,” she replied. “I’m her … was … her daughter.”
My eyes welled with tears and my skin prickled with goose bumps. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Wendy.” My words came out barely above a whisper as I attempted not to choke on them. I stared into the brightness of the bulb shinning from my desk lamp, not allowing my eyes to blink or pool with any more tears.
“Wendy, I wanted to ask you a few questions about your mom if that’s alright.” I paused, feeling my pulse racing in my fingertips that were tightly gripping a pen. “I understand if it’s too difficult.” The lump in my throat expanded with each word.
Certain things used to trigger a breakdown: the smell of whiskey, the scent of Max’s cologne, seeing a father and daughter together, pancakes, and many other everyday things used to make me dash to the nearest restroom where I’d hide until the sobbing subsided. Eventually, the sobbing became stray tears and now, most days, I can cross my arms tight across my chest, count down from five, and be okay … most days.
A month ago, I even began exposing myself to some of the memories after I woke up in a panic and couldn’t remember the sound of Max’s voice. I went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of whiskey. The memories infiltrated my brain with just the scent and continued with each drink, filling me with tears of relief.
“How can I help?” Wendy’s voice sounded slightly timid.
“I … I’m studying heart disease and your mother looked like she was in good health. I was just calling to see if there was something that might be missing from her medical records.”
“She was in excellent shape, but the last few years were really hard on her. You see, my dad passed away about five years ago, and my mom … she couldn’t get over it.” Before I could stop the tears, they slid down my cheeks in thick streams, tickling my chin. “At first she wouldn’t get out of bed or get dressed. I think she felt guilty if she let herself be happy, so she worked to keep busy and shut herself away from the world. I think she died of a broken heart.”
I knew that she was wrong. Although there is a condition called broken heart syndrome, it’s very rare one dies from it. However, the lump in my throat had become a boulder, and the room was so blurry it took me several seconds to manage a reply.
“Thank you, Wendy,” I choked out, pinching the skin on my forearm, desperate to feel something else. “I really appreciate your time, and I’m so sorry for your loss.” I hung up before she could reply and slid into to a heap beside my desk as the sobs took over.
I’m not sure if Fitz had walked in at the beginning, middle, or very end of my phone call; I’d never noticed him, but I felt his hands on my shoulders that racked up and down.
When I was finally able to breathe without crying, I gathered my files and locked them in my drawer, grabbed my purse, and left.
I spent the rest of that week dutifully avoiding my lab and Fitz. The following week I was scheduled to officially begin working with him. Fitz entered, looking surprised to find me ready and waiting. He set down his things while staring at his desk and then looked back up at me.
“So what’s your deal? You don’t talk to people. You don’t seem to have any friends that I can tell. You don’t date anyone … are you Mormon?”
I furrowed my eyebrows and shook my head.
“Are you a lesbian?”
Was that what people thought? I laughed. “No, I’m not a lesbian.”
“Then what’s your deal?”
“I don’t have a deal. I’m here going to school and needed a job. I wanted to work in a lab that wasn’t owned by a drug manufacturing company, so I came here.”
“Bullshit. There are labs like this closer to California than Delaware. What are you running from?”
That was my first taste of Fitz’s brutal honesty and lack of tact, and it was a bitter taste, delivered with an even more bitter aftertaste.
I didn’t know at the time how he knew I was from California, or what else he thought he knew about me, but I wasn’t in a sharing mood so I gave him a curt answer. “Nothing. I am running from nothing. My dad knew Ben, I asked for a favor, and Ben accepted me.”
“You asked for a favor? Wouldn’t your dad be the one that asked for a favor?”
I took a deep breath and channeled the frustration I was feeling to distract me from the sadness that ensued at mentioning my father. “Because I’m perfectly capable,” I said, glaring at Fitz.
“How did he die?”
That was the bitter aftertaste.
There was nothing I wanted to do more than object to his question and tell him how absurd and rude he was for making such a bold assumption.
“Your voice changed when you made that call. Your dad … he died, didn’t he?”
“An aortic aneurism.” I stated the words factually, fighting off the emotions brewing in my chest. I moved my focus away from his so he couldn’t see how uncomfortable the conversation made me.
“When did it happen?”
“May. May 5.”
Fitz nodded. “Was his name Max?”
I cringed and shook my head. “No, my dad’s name is … was…” I swallowed and took a deep breath “…his name was David.” Fitz nodded again and then excused himself. I’m sure I had made things incredibly awkward, however, I hadn’t really had the time to think about it because I was focusing on trying to relax and stop the impending tears that I could feel burning the corners of my eyes.
Fitz returned shortly with two coffees and placed one in front of me. “My dad died when I was thirteen. It never gets easier, but you start remembering the good more than the loss and that helps a lot.”
The following day Fitz insisted that I go to lunch with him. I didn’t realize how many people I had been avoiding as I followed him out to the parking lot.
“You’re like a celebrity,” I joked, sliding into the passenger seat of his car.
“I am after that feat. There’s kind of been a stir about you since you started, and here you are, getting into my car.”
“A stir?” I repeated, my voice swimming with sarcasm.
“You’ve kind of made a habit of avoiding everyone. People are intrigued by the hot blonde that only ever speaks to Gus.”
I turned in my seat to look at him, and he laughed at the obvious confusion across my face. “Just because you don’t pay attention to anyone, doesn’t mean people aren’t paying attention to you.” His words reminded me so much of my mom’s that my chest throbbed slightly before he turned on the radio and reversed with a sharp jerk, distracting me from my own misery.
The atmosphere of the lab changed along with our relationship after that. Fitz began playing his music from the speakers of his computer and my shell slowly began to crack as he inquired and learned about my family and Abby. We talked about movies and music, food and philosophy, along with weird things like textures we didn’t like, laughs we found annoying, and theories on the extinction of dinosaurs. We discussed nearly everything, everything except for Max, my mother, and anything regarding my dad from the last year.
Sometimes we’d be talking and the conversation would veer dangerously close to one of the topics that had become my own personal Bermuda Triangle, and I’d completely shut down. Thankfully, Fitz never made a big deal of it and would carry the conversation back to safer waters and pretend like I hadn’t just made things incredibly awkward.
“So what’s your hypothesis?” I ask, shrugging off my coat.
“What are you going to do when it actually snows? You aren’t going to be able to fit more layers on. You need to start eating more.”
I brush off his comment and remove my sweatshirt. I can tell that I’ve lost some weight because my clothes are looser, but I haven’t had much of an appetite, and my budget’s a bit tight since I live alone on a meager income, refusing to accept help from my mom for anything besides school. I primarily eat cereal from one of my four bowls while sitting on my bed—an air mattress that serves not only as where I sleep but also as my couch and dining room.
“Come on, impress me,” I goad, walking toward the lab tables.