Step 1: Get over yourself, the fear is all in your head.
Alive was better than dead.
Or so the rumor went. But damn, Emma hurt from head to toe. Even her hair hurt. But the funny thing about spending two months in a coma and then the rest of the year in a rehab facility reacquainting herself with where her limbs lived was that it’d given her some hard-earned perspective.
Yes, she felt like ninety instead of thirty. And yes, half the time her left arm thought it was a useless club that hung from her shoulder. Not to mention the rest of her body pretending it didn’t have to listen to her brain.
Alive was still better than dead.
Her physical therapist had taught her that mantra. The man was diabolical with what he’d put her body through. She’d lost track of how many meltdowns she’d had on his table. He’d been extraordinarily kind, taking each one in stride with a sympathetic but steady professional touch, patiently waiting her out, letting her calm down before going at her again—which he always did. But she hadn’t privately nicknamed him Hard-Ass PT because of his hard ass. Okay, so he had a hard—and fantastic—ass, but he didn’t know the meaning of Give Up. Emma couldn’t argue with his results, though. She was now doing things the doctors said she’d never do. Like walk.
But she still hated him with a passion of a thousand suns.
And yet, turned out there was something she hated even more. Stairs. “Seven,” she said out loud, teeth gritted, jaw locked. “Eight . . .” The exhaustion was insidious, running in her veins instead of blood, but the stairs were part of her penance for surviving the accident, when not everyone had. “Nine.” She gasped for air. “Ten.”
There were fourteen in total, so silver lining—she was in the home stretch. Each step brought her closer to adulting on her own for the first time in a year. A year of having everything she did, every single thing, supervised.
“You already said ten, hon,” her ex-BFF, Cindy, said in a very gentle voice, the kind that insinuated Emma was a child. “Which makes it eleven. E-lev-en . . .” she repeated slowly.
Emma sent her a long look. Yes, sometimes her brain and mouth couldn’t find each other and she got her words mixed up. The docs had said it was normal. BC—Before Coma—she’d been a runner and a PE teacher, and because she loved dogs more than people on most days, also a dog trainer. Having grown up here in the small adventurous town of Wildstone, a mid-California coastal spot marked by gorgeous green rolling hills dotted with ancient old oak trees, her whole existence had been defined by activity. But she’d lost the ability to do anything she’d done before.
She had no idea who she was now.
“Should you really be taking the stairs?” Cindy again, sounding genuinely worried.
“Yes.” Because Emma refused to go back to their old apartment. She swiped the sweat out of her eyes. Hard to believe that she used to run 5Ks for fun.
“Careful. You’re really pale.” This not helpful statement came from her other side—Ned, her ex-fiancé.
Emma took another step. Twelve.
“Emma.” Ned put a hand to her elbow. “You shouldn’t be moving out so soon after getting out of the rehab facility. It’s only been a few days.”
Emma had gone from the hospital to the rehab center to the apartment she and Cindy had shared for four years, the one that Ned now lived in, so she literally hadn’t been alone in a year. At the moment, she was holding on by a bare, ragged thread. So it took every ounce of control she had not to throw Ned’s hand off. “I’m doing this.”
A soft whine came from just behind her, and then a cool, wet dog nose nudged into her palm. Hog was her emotional support dog, because yeah, that was a thing for her now. After one too many nightmares in rehab, one of her occupational therapists had given her a two-year-old 110-pound St. Bernard/Chewbacca mix. Historically, the breed had been used to help find and save travelers. The gentle giants were calm, patient, relaxed, and sensible.
Hog’s job was to watch out for Emma’s emotional well-being and protect her as needed, but as it turned out, he was named Hog—short for Groundhog—for a very good reason. He’d flunked out of service dog school for being afraid of his own shadow. Didn’t matter to Emma. He drooled, he ate anything not tied down, and he had gas that would kill an elephant. She loved him ridiculously anyway, even if, as it turned out, she was his emotional support. “Good boy.”
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