Shiloh, Age 18
You know how they say when you’re about to die your whole life flashes before your eyes? Well, as it turns out, it’s true. But it’s not like what you think. At least, for me it wasn’t. Because the life I saw as I lay in the bathtub taking my last breath wasn’t the one I had lived during the eighteen years I’d been on this earth. Instead, the life I saw was the one I would be missing for the next eighteen.
Funny how I had wanted to die for years, had been gathering the courage to do it, and then when the moment was finally upon me and I felt the last bit of life drain from my body, well, that was when I realized there had been something to live for all along. Or maybe I should say someone.
Shiloh, Age 36
“Do you have a light?” a deep, disembodied voice asked when I stepped out of the gymnasium to get some fresh air.
I squinted at the dark corner where he was standing. I couldn’t make out his features, but I could see that he was tall, broad, and holding a cigarette.
“No, but you should give those up anyway. Smoking’s bad for you.”
“That’s brand-new information.” He coughed. “Thanks for enlightening me.”
He put the cigarette behind his ear and patted his pockets—front of his pants, back of his pants, shirt—and when he came up empty, he grumbled something angry-sounding under his breath. Then he stomped out of the corner and said, “I bet I have a lighter in my car.”
When he walked by me, I grasped his arm, looked up at him, and said, “Tobacco products aren’t allowed on school property, so even if you don’t care about your health, you can’t smoke here.”
“What about liquor?” he barked and shook off my hand. “Because I’m going to need a smoke or a drink before I can go back in there.” He drew in a shaky breath and tilted his chin toward the gym, which was at that moment full of teenagers enjoying the Halloween Dance.
I couldn’t hold back my chuckle. “I take it this is your first time as a parent chaperone?”
It was the Friday after Halloween, but dances midweek were against school policy, so we usually celebrated on the closest Friday night. If the turnout and elaborate costumes were any indication, the kids didn’t seem to mind, but I could understand how someone new to the tradition could find it a bit overwhelming.
“Uncle chaperone, and yes, it’s my first time.” He paused, dragged his gaze down my body and said, “Why? You come here often?”
My brain knew the comment was intended as funny banter, but my body trembled in reaction to the perceived come-on from a gorgeous man. And he was gorgeous. We were standing close enough by then for me to see his muscular body, strong jawline, emerald-green eyes, and sandy-blond hair.
I forced myself to stop lusting after the built, handsome stranger and said, “Afraid so. I’m the guidance counselor, so it’s part of the job description.”
“I don’t know how you do it.” He glared at the building. “I couldn’t stand being around high school kids when I was in high school. If I had to spend all day with them now, I’d lose my mind.”
“They’re not so bad most of the time,” I said with a shrug. “The masks seem to make it worse. So what put you over the edge? Was it the soulless music, the inane chatter, or the inappropriately flirtatious teenage girls?”
“Uh, none of the above.” He scowled. “It’s the pissant boys who think their teasing is funny.”
“Are they teasing your nephew? Is it serious? Is this the first time or do they tease him regularly? Are they fixating on something in particular? Has it escalated to threats of violence? Have they ever laid hands on him? What’s your nephew’s name?”
“Whoa! Slow down there, hot rod.” He rubbed his large hands up and down my arms. “Breathe.”
Heat flooded my cheeks, so I looked down and tried to get my emotions under control. At age thirty-six, I’d long since graduated from high school, but the memories of how hard it had been, how wrong I had felt, and how often I had wanted to stay in bed and avoid the world were still piercingly strong. I didn’t need a therapist to tell me that was why I had chosen a career designed to help kids that age. Of course, a therapist or three had told me that very thing, but I hadn’t needed them to say it.
“Sorry,” I said without making eye contact. “I didn’t mean to jump all over you, but I take the emotional and physical safety of our students very seriously.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” he said, his voice sounding soft for the first time. “You know, I just realized I didn’t catch your name.” He held his hand out. “I’m Travis Kahn.”
“Oh.” I looked at his hand, then shook it as I raised my gaze to meet his. “I’m Shiloh Raben. Nice to meet you.”
“Shiloh?” He smiled at me, a huge one that reached his eyes and made my knees go weak. “That’s a gorgeous name.”
“Thank you.” I bit my lip, lowered my chin, and looked up at him from underneath my lashes. “That’s very…uh, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. And in answer to your questions, my niece’s name is Jessica Zinn.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know who Jessica was, which surprised me, because even though we had a student body nearing two thousand, I prided myself on being at least somewhat familiar with all of them. “I don’t think I know Jessica,” I said as I knit my brow and tried to place the name. “Is she new?”
Travis nodded. “Yes, she’s a freshman.”
I remembered my own introduction to high school. I’d managed to hide in the middle of the crowd for a while, but eventually, the older, bigger kids found me and after that they seemed to seek me out. I had been too ashamed and too scared to ask for help, so I’d suffered through in silence. I didn’t want any of my students to endure that type of existence.
“I’d be happy to work with her,” I said. “I think I can help stop the teasing, but she needs to talk to me.”
Travis grinned. “The teasing wasn’t aimed at Jessica. It was aimed at her possibly overprotective uncle.” He dragged his hand through his hair. “She’s been dating seniors, which scares the hell out of her mother and has added a lot of tension to their house.” He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “That’s why I’m here, actually. I agreed to play the part of chauffeur and said I didn’t want to sit in my car waiting for her to be done at the dance, so I might as well volunteer to chaperone.”
“And she believed those were your only options?” I asked curiously. “There are all sorts of restaurants and coffee shops around here. You could have—”
“She’s fourteen,” Travis reminded me. “She doesn’t have great judgment about what to believe, which is part of what we’re worried about. Besides, she doesn’t spend much time thinking about anything any adult says. The salient points to her were a ride to and from the dance and the absence of her mother.”
The fact that this man had to explain the teenage mind to me was a testament to how distracted he had me. I earned my living working with teenagers, and I considered myself quite good at it.
“Right.” I nodded. “That makes sense.” I breathed in deeply. “Well, I better get back in there. I’ll make sure to keep an extra careful eye on Jessica, and if you tell me who these senior boys are, I’ll watch them too.”
“I’ll make sure to do that,” Travis said. “Listen, I know right now you’re busy working, and I’m busy planning the start to my life of crime by way of cigarette consumption, but I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, glanced down at me, and said, “Any chance you want to give me your number?”
“Of course,” I answered. “I’m happy to discuss the situation with Jessica anytime. My number—”
“Is that the only reason you’d want to hear from me?” he asked.
I furrowed my brow in confusion. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Can I still call you even if it isn’t to talk about my niece?” he asked as he peered into my eyes.
I felt like I was missing something obvious, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
“Why would you—” That was when I realized the handsome stranger was coming on to me, or at least wanting to get in touch so he could come on to me later. “Oh.”
He curled his lips up in a small, sexy smile and arched one eyebrow. “Yeah. Oh.”
I concentrated on keeping my knees stiff so they wouldn’t buckle, which made me sway. Travis grabbed my shoulders and steadied me.
“Shiloh?” My name in his whiskey voice had me swooning again. “Are you okay?”
I gulped and bobbed my head. “Yes.”
“Yes, you’re okay, or yes, I can call you?”
“Either. I mean both. I mean—” I shook my head, hoping to clear it. “You can call me, even if it’s for unprofessional reasons.” I didn’t realize how that sounded until Travis arched an eyebrow and smirked. “Uh, I mean, uh, if it’s for reasons not relating to my profession. Not unprofessional meaning unprofessional.”
“Got it.” His smile broadened. “I’m glad we have that straightened out.”
I gave him my number and managed to keep my voice mostly steady and my gaze mostly raised. Then I went back to work and said a silent prayer that he’d call.
Saturday I stared at my phone almost nonstop.
Sunday I managed to pry myself away from it, but I constantly thought I heard it ringing so I’d run in from whatever other room I was in and pick it up only to see a black screen.
Monday and Tuesday I had my phone turned off all day because I was working, and I was a believer in the theory that we should lead by example, and that meant staff following the “no cell phone during school hours” rule we had in place for students. That didn’t stop me from scrambling to turn the phone on as soon as I got into my car and being disappointed when there weren’t any messages.
By Wednesday night, I’d come to the conclusion that the hot guy who had asked for my phone number either never had any intention of calling or had changed his mind. I was more disappointed than I should have been, but not terribly surprised. The reality was, Travis Kahn was out of my league.
I was thirty-six years old with a job that kept me indoors and mostly sedentary. That meant my muscle definition wasn’t what it should have been, my skin tone was pasty, and there were more lines than I would have liked next to my eyes. My brown hair was still full, which was good, but I’d started getting some gray in my sideburns, which wasn’t great. Plus, at five foot ten inches tall and one hundred seventy pounds, I was at least half a foot shorter than Travis, and based on the width of his shoulders and the way his shirt stretched across his chest, I guessed I was quite a bit rounder and softer.
Anyway, all of that was to say that I wasn’t bad-looking, but I wasn’t a match for the tall, strapping, blond-haired, green-eyed man who probably had guys tripping over themselves to spend time with him. That brought me to Friday morning, when my thoughts of Travis were down to a low simmer in the back of my mind.
I had hit the snooze button a time or three too many, and the next thing I knew, the roar of a loud truck woke me. I blinked my eyes open and tried to focus on my surroundings. The clock told me I’d barely have time to shower and eat a piece of toast before I had to leave the house to make it in to work on time. Then I heard the loud sound again, and the realization hit me—it was trash day. I did a mental inventory of the previous evening and couldn’t remember having taken the can out to the curb. I’d had the same lapse the previous three weeks running, so by that point, the can was almost overflowing.
I jumped out of bed and sprinted to my front door, remembering only after I opened it that I was wearing my Simpsons boxers and nothing else. “Dammit!” I hurried back to my room. Putting on pants would have taken too long, so I shoved my feet into my slippers and tugged on my bathrobe, tying the belt while I hustled out the door.
Having just gotten out of bed, my hair stuck up at all angles, my face was unshaven, and I probably had pillow creases on my cheeks and dried drool on my chin. Also, I should mention that my robe was bright yellow with a huge picture of SpongeBob on the back and my slippers were each adorned with a stuffed Scooby-Doo on top. In other words, I looked crazy sexy. Or just crazy.
My trash can was on the side of my townhouse, behind a fence. I held the gate open with my foot while I dragged the overfilled can behind me, making it to the curb just as the garbage truck turned around at the end of my street. I didn’t know whether they’d picked up my side of the street or the other side, and I wanted to make sure to put my trash can in a spot where it’d be emptied.
As luck would have it, there was another can sitting on the curb. The townhouse next to mine had been empty for months, and because the “For Sale” sign was still out front, I hadn’t realized anybody had moved in. Grateful for the availability of a clue, I opened the lid on the neighbor’s can, hoping the absence or presence of trash would verify whether I should leave my can where it was or drag it to the other side of the street.
Good news—my neighbor’s can was full, so I was set as far as trash collection was concerned.
Bad news—as I was looking into the trash can, I heard a coughing sound and saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I glanced up, and there, on his front porch, was my new neighbor. At least I assumed he was my new neighbor, because he stood right by the front door with a cigarette in one hand and his phone in the other. And he was watching my classy trash-picking display with his jaw hanging open.
Did I mention that I recognized this particular neighbor?
“Uh, Travis, hi!” I said, sounding way too loud and high-pitched. The lid slipped from my fingers and banged shut. I flinched and then started walking toward my door, trying to keep my pace not too fast but not too slow. Nothing to see here, folks. Just a guy going for a walk. Wearing a robe and slippers. “How’ve you been?”
Making small talk in that particular situation would have been awkward no matter what. I mean, the man had blown me off and then caught me digging through his trash. Transitioning smoothly to a discussion about his well-being took more social skills than I had at my disposal that early in the morning.
But then things went from bad to worse when I reached my front step, tripped over my Scooby-Doo slippers, and grabbed on to the post in front of my house to steady myself. As it turned out, my robe wasn’t tied securely enough to withstand that kind of limb extension, which I realized when it flopped open. I jerked my head up and stared at Travis, trying to think of what I could say to salvage some portion of my dignity.
“Wow,” he said as he ground his cigarette into a bowl on the porch railing and flicked his gaze up and down my body. “You’re wearing three different cartoon characters right now, which is particularly amazing seeing as how you’re barely dressed.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” I snapped. Because apparently, my humiliation wasn’t complete enough, and I wanted to add desperate and whiny to my list of attributes, right after trash-obsessed, well-dressed, and impeccably groomed.
“I was actually doing that very thing just now.” He cleared his throat, held up his phone, and waved it at me.
“You were?” I asked, my voice cracking as I once again took in his ruggedly handsome face and felt my heart flip over.
“I wanted to call sooner.” He started walking toward me. “Usually I have weekends off because I’ve been on staff the longest, but everyone was celebrating Halloween last weekend, which meant we needed all hands on deck to deal with everything from skin rashes and oxygen deprivation in people who don’t realize spray paint and body paint aren’t the same thing, and heart attacks in men who had the wrong types of nurses in their beds.” He kept moving in my direction. “After that, I had my normal schedule, which is four twelves, but that turned into more like four eighteens because half the medical staff came down with the flu.”
He dragged his gaze from my Scooby-Doo-covered feet, up my Simpsons-covered groin to my unshaven just-woke-up face, and stopped when he was inches away from me. “Either I finally collapsed from exhaustion and right now I’m passed out in the hospital having the best dream ever or”—he grasped the sides of my robe and pulled it shut, then tied the belt more securely as he gazed into my eyes—“the cute guy I haven’t stopped thinking about just got even more adorable.”
“You think I’m cute?” I whispered as I blinked up at him.
He smiled softly. “I think you’re adorable.”
“Oh.” I scrunched up my nose and squinted. “Why?”
Travis threw his head back and laughed, and then he coughed, cleared his throat, and tried to look serious as he said, “I almost never see an adult wearing character slippers.”
“They were a present from my parents,” I said defensively. Technically, the present was a gift card, and I had chosen to spend it on slippers, but my money didn’t pay for them, so that still counted as a gift.
“Is that right?” He arched his eyebrows and crooked the side of his mouth up.
“Yes.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “For Hanukkah last year.”
“Lucky you.” He curled his lips over his teeth as if he was holding in a grin. “All I got was a new otoscope.”
“What’s an otoscope?”
“It’s something for work. I use it to look in patients’ ears. Pretty fun present, huh?” He chuckled.
“Are you a doctor?” I asked.
He looked down at the scrubs and white coat he wore; then he slowly raised his head and smirked. “Were you listening to anything I said? Or have you been too busy checking me out and having dirty thoughts?” He shook his head and smiled fondly. “Never mind, I think I like the second option better, so let’s go with that.” He cleared his throat and straightened my robe, flattening the fabric over my shoulders and chest. “In answer to your question, yes, I’m a doctor. Emergency medicine. I work at Southeast Medical Center.”
“Oh, uh,” I stammered, feeling foolish. “I didn’t think doctors smoked. But, uh, in that case, an otoscope sounds like a very, uh, practical present.”
Travis snorted. “Come visit the smoking area outside of a hospital sometime, and you’ll see one of our favorite ways to deal with stress and sleep deprivation. And, yes, my parents are really practical. When I was a kid, they used to give me socks and underwear for Hanukkah.” He paused and leered at me. “But they were always tighty-whities. Not like those super-sexy Simpsons boxers you’re wearing.”
I blushed at the reference to my embarrassing underwear, and then the rest of what he said sunk in. My jaw dropped. “You’re Jewish?”
He nodded. “Yes. Is that a problem?”
“Only if you were hoping to avoid meeting my mother, because when I tell her I’m dating a Jewish doctor, she’s going to start cooking up a storm and planning a wedding.” Once I stopped babbling, I noticed that Travis was giving me that raised-brow, crooked-grin look again.
Had I just told a man who affirmatively hadn’t asked me out that we were not only dating but also were on our way to becoming engaged? At that moment, I created a new rule for myself: no talking to anybody until after my first cup of coffee. Clearly, my uncaffeinated morning brain couldn’t be trusted.
“Uh,” I said. “I need to go or I’ll be late for work.” Then I turned on my heel and rushed to my door.
“Shiloh!” Travis called out after me.
“Yes?” I asked without turning around.
“I’ll pick you up tonight at six thirty.”
I looked back over my shoulder. “Pick me up?”
“Yes. For our date.”
“Our date?” I repeated dumbly.
“Yup.” He nodded firmly. “I think it’s important we get to know each other before the wedding, don’t you?”
“I didn’t… I mean, that’s not what I—”
“Six thirty.” He waved as he started walking back to his townhouse. “And feel free to wear those boxers.”