Jake Understood

Page 39

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Nina was still coming down from the laughing fit. Looking annoyed, the flight attendant who’d tried to pick me up earlier came over to us. “Is everything okay over here?”

“Yes. Everything’s just perfect.”

It was.

***

We were well into the flight, and Nina had calmed down a bit after listening to some music I’d downloaded for her.

She took off her headphones for a moment. “How much longer?”

“About a half-hour.”

“I still can’t believe you did that to me.”

I raised my brow. “Now, when people ask how you got through takeoff, you can tell them I went down on you.”

She punched me lightly in the arm and returned the headphones to her ears.

Nina had been listening to the special playlist I’d put together for the flight. In my typical wise ass fashion, I’d titled the list Crash and Burn. The songs in the beginning were meant to make her laugh, but there were a couple that I’d snuck in because they conveyed feelings that were impossible for me to express. At one point, she looked at me, and I knew one of those songs had come on.

I took one of her earbuds to hear it and smiled when I realized she was listening to Come Away with Me by Norah Jones. That song said it all more than the others. I wished I could just take Nina away some place for a lot longer than a day and not have to deal with inevitably breaking her heart after Christmas. All I wanted was to be with her. For now, this quick jaunt to Chicago would have to do. It wasn’t just about getting her over the fear of flying. The trip was also for me, so that I could feel what it was like to take her away just once.

“That’s a beautiful song,” she said. “I’ve always loved it. I love it even more now.”

Me, too. Because it will always remind me of you.

I yearned to touch her, so when a patch of turbulence came, that was my excuse to grab her hand again. At one point, the plane jolted hard, and she tightened her grip on me. I wanted to hold her, but instead in a silent compromise, took both of her hands inside mine and held them together. “It’s almost over, Nina. You did good.”

My stomach sank as I absorbed my own words, which I hoped didn’t foreshadow the weeks to come.

It’s almost over.

***

It wouldn’t be a full excursion without a couple of surprises up my sleeve. Our action-packed morning started with a killer view of the city.

Nina was less than enthused by our stop at the famous Skydeck at Willis Tower. I made her stand with me on the glass ledge that extends out over a thousand feet in the air. We had our picture taken, and I’ll always cherish that photo despite the look of terror on her face. That very look in contrast to my wide smile was what made it a classic snapshot that would forever be a keepsake.

The second stop was a visit to the house where I grew up on the South Side. No one was home, so we couldn’t go inside. Instead, we sat outside for almost an hour as I told Nina stories about my childhood. I’d gotten the urge to kiss her a dozen times on this trip but never as much as when we were sitting in the backyard of my old house. She’d grabbed my hand and was listening so intently to me reminisce while the breeze blew her hair around. It took every ounce of restraint in me not to reach over, fist that beautiful hair in my hands and pull her toward me.

After we left, the next stop was supposed to be lunch at Bernie’s, a retro diner and one of my favorite childhood haunts. On the way there, though, a feeling came over me that I couldn’t shake. It wasn’t part of the original plan, but I couldn’t leave Chicago without making a certain stop.

“How hungry are you?”

“I could take it or leave it,” she said. “Why?”

“Do you mind if we take a detour?”

“Not at all.”

“Maybe we can pick up something on the way then hit Bernie’s for dinner instead of lunch.”

I hailed an approaching cab, and we hopped inside.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

My chest hurt just thinking about it. “Naperville.”

***

The cab idled as Nina and I walked up the path of dead, snow-covered grass that led to my sister’s plot. Her name, Amanda Thompson, was carved into the granite gravestone. Guilt set in because I hadn’t been back here since moving to Boston for college. Life happened, then Ivy happened, and the things that were once so important to me here took an unintentional backseat. Dried-up flowers that were half-covered in snow blew in the wind. It made me incredibly sad, but having Nina with me made it a bit easier to face.

I kneeled down at the foot of the headstone. “When you first told me about feeling guilty for not visiting Jimmy during his last days, it reminded me of how I felt after I moved away and couldn’t come here anymore. I used to visit her here when I was a teenager a lot. It was out of the way from where we lived. I bought a crap car just to be able to come out here whenever I wanted to keep her company. I only knew her in death, so those visits were all we had, you know? They were what bonded us.”

“That was how you met your other sister, right? Here at the gravesite?”

I nodded, still looking down at the stone. On the anniversary of her brother’s death when Nina and I had stayed up all night talking, I’d told her all about Amanda. My sister died in a car accident when she was a teenager and was one of two daughters my mother had given up for adoption before I was born and before she’d met my father. I only found out about Amanda when I was sixteen, many years after she died, so I never had a chance to meet her. I met my other sister, Allison, when we ironically showed up at the cemetery at the exact same time one day.

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