This Is Not How It Ends

This Is Not How It Ends

Rochelle B. Weinstein



In each loss there is a gain,

As in every gain there is a loss,

And with each ending comes a new beginning.

—Buddhist Proverb





PART ONE





CHAPTER 1

July 2018, Present Day

Islamorada, Florida

I’ve heard it said that life is about choices. Paths stretch out ahead of us—sometimes, we make conscious decisions and other times, fate intervenes and chooses for us. Had I known my life was about to take a sharp turn in those early hours of morning, I might have walked Sunny in a different direction. We would have taken the shortcut to the market on Overseas Highway and been in and out of the store minutes sooner. But then he would have missed exercising and swatting his golden tail at the mosquitos that dove inside his shiny fur. And I might have missed dawn scraping at the early morning sky, while the clapboard homes along Old Highway sprang to life.

But we didn’t know, and we didn’t take the shortcut.

Passing through the market’s doors at the exact time as a young boy and his father, we arrived just as crusty Lucille was complaining about the Florida heat. The little boy, about nine or ten, grasped my eyes in his, asking me with their speckled green if he could pet my dog.

“His name’s Sunny,” I said while the man hovered in that slightly awkward way that sends the retriever into a tailspin. “Let him sniff your hand first.” There was no rational way to predict who the temperamental dog would warm up to. It was a logic none of us had figured out. He didn’t like most anyone getting near me. Not other dogs. Not other people. And while he was a gift from Philip, he mostly didn’t like Philip. I pulled hard on his lead, and he sat, letting the boy stroke his thick fur. The man hid his eyes beneath a Cowboys baseball cap, though I could see tendrils of brown hair stuck to his neck.

All I needed was honey, a spoonful of sugar for my daily dose of hot lemon water. I should’ve been able to ask a neighbor, but that all changed when Hurricane Irma bucked Islamorada last year with a vicious roar, and our neighbor’s home was leveled. That our future home was spared was a stroke of luck.

The man and the boy took off inside the market’s narrow corridors, and I kept Sunny close, silently thanking him for not making a scene. I studied the variety of honeys—organic, raw, avocado, pasteurized—impressed that a local market would have enough options to fog anyone’s brain, when Sunny tugged. I paid no attention, tugging back. He tugged harder, dragging me down the aisle.

“Sunny!”

His force sent the honey jar in my hand, a teddy bear with its belly full of sweetness, to the floor.

Sunny raced toward Lucille, who was handing out sample cups filled with a morning snack. The little boy, the one who moments ago had been stroking Sunny’s fur, reached for his own throat.

“C’mon, Sunny,” I said, though I was fixed on the boy who appeared to be gasping, his fingers clutching his neck. The boy’s father was nowhere in sight, and my chest tightened. Sunny was hell-bent on hauling me across the aisle.

The boy fell to the ground, his backpack crumpling beside him, and the next sixty seconds were a blur. Like staring out the window of a fast-moving train, the images spliced into one another. His dad rounded the corner, a green plastic basket crashing to the floor. The contents spilled down the aisle. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. A carton of milk.

The shiny metal bracelet dangling from the boy’s wrist screamed emergency. Severe allergies. The man peered inside the white cup and reached for his son, whose pupils had folded back into his head.

Fumbling inside the nearby bag, he pulled out an EpiPen.

His fingers trembled as he ripped the top off. I was on the floor beside him, waiting for him to penetrate the skin, but he stopped, suddenly going stiff. Around us, his son’s shallow breaths formed an eerie cackle.

Instinct took over as customers gathered nearby. I ripped the EpiPen out of the man’s hands while he cradled the boy’s head. We worked in tandem, shoulder to shoulder, as though we’d done this before. The boy’s skinny legs jutted out of his shorts, and I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing. I jabbed the EpiPen against his thigh and heard the snick of the needle.

The instructions say the effect is immediate, but the waiting felt like an eternity. The man was rooted in place, holding the boy’s palm in his. I reached for his shoulder to reassure him, but he didn’t look up, not until the boy finally stirred.

“He’s back,” I said, my own heart awakening, a steady rhythm that reminded me he had to get to a hospital.

The man pulled the boy toward him, whispering in his hair. “Jimmy. Jimmy.”

“Jimmy has to get to a hospital,” I said. Though he appeared to be stabilized, I knew how anaphylaxis worked. Some patients had a reoccurrence when the epinephrine wore off, requiring a second injection.

“I don’t know what happened,” the man said, his head lowering. “I panicked . . .”

His gaze traveled to little Jimmy, while Lucille shouted into an old flip phone. “Send someone. Fast. There’s a little boy having a bad allergic reaction!”

I focused on the sign next to the brownies. “Vegan and Gluten-Free.” Jimmy had had a severe allergic reaction to whatever was inside. I inspected the half-eaten sweet on the floor, a nut planted in its center.

The man continued, every word a struggle. “It’s been so long since we’ve, since I’ve, actually had to use that thing . . .” He took off his cap and ran a hand through his hair. The same dark shadow lined his jaw.

Jimmy squirmed. The trickle of customers broke apart, careful to step over the backpack. The young boy’s eyes were a similar green to his father’s, though his hair was lighter. A faint spray of freckles covered his nose and cheeks.

Sunny was pacing: I ordered him to sit, and he tried, but he alternated from sit to stand. I stroked the boy’s leg where I’d just injected him, and the steady motion calmed me. I was still holding the empty pen, and the man extended his hand for me to drop it in his palm.

That’s when I noticed my bare finger. The ring that Philip had just given me was gone.

An icy cold fear shot through my body while I searched the ground. The man was watching me, following my desperation. The ring must have been flung off in all the commotion. Philip had warned me to have it sized, but I’d been too busy admiring it. The man could tell that whatever I was looking for was important. He searched, too, and locked on something nearby, a shiny glare from beneath a shelf of canned corn.

He reached across the aisle, holding Jimmy’s head, and handed me the brilliant diamond. He watched me place it back on my finger, and soon the wails of screeching sirens filled the air. First responders surrounded us. They poked and prodded and touched while Jimmy sat patiently.

Sunny watched over the frail child as he often did for me, his paw resting against the boy’s shoulder. Jimmy slowly patted his soft ears, smiling at me, and then at Sunny. His teeth were a perfect pearly white.

The blurry train continued. There was a stretcher. Soon Jimmy was on it. His dad—they’d called him Ben—slowly stood up.

Sunny and I followed the stretcher outside, where the morning sun cast a blinding glow. They were loading Jimmy into the back of the van, when a paramedic who looked a lot like Denzel Washington urged me inside. “The boy needs his mother,” he said.

I looked at the man called Ben, but he hadn’t heard.

“I’m not his mother.”

Jimmy said something then, his gravelly voice a scratch against the breeze.

The paramedic—I wish he had a name—said, “He wants to know if you’ll bring the dog . . .”

I stepped back, creating necessary distance between us. “I can’t . . . I don’t even know these people . . .” But it didn’t feel right to leave. Sunny agreed, tugging me toward the open truck, clawing at the dirt until a plume of dust rose up.

“Normally it’s against regulations, but I’ll make an exception . . . for the boy,” he said.

“I can’t,” I repeated, cursing myself for needing honey that morning. For knowing I wouldn’t be home when Philip walked through the door.

From the look on his face, Ben was biting back a string of emotions, and the glaring vulnerability reached inside me. Without thinking, I let Sunny pull me forward, pushing aside thoughts of Philip. Philip, whose red-eye from Los Angeles would be arriving in Miami any minute. Philip, who would be wondering where I was, expecting our reunion—intimate and often sweet. Instead, I thought of this little boy, innocent and fresh-faced like any one of my former students, the ones whose needs had always surpassed my own. The familiar twinge beckoned me to act, and soon I was inside the vehicle.





CHAPTER 2

May 2016, Back Then

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