“Care for breakfast?” Devin’s deep voice caresses my body, rumbling through the dark like the intoxicating purr of an engine.
I blink open my eyes and stretch my arms above my head until my knuckles brush the smooth headboard. Devin’s smiling at me from beside the bed, dressed in the same fitted jeans and navy polo from last night. Soft morning light creeps through the hotel room’s translucent curtains, casting his normally coal-brown hair in a mahogany glow.
“Are you referring to food or yourself?” I say. Curling onto my side to face him, I pull the crisp white sheet up to my chest.
The mattress dips as he sits next to me, dark eyes twinkling. “Take your pick.” Brushing a lock of hair from my face, he presses his lips against mine in a lingering kiss. My chest expands, filling with joy until I’m sure it will crack.
After years of putting love on the back burner to focus on school and career, I can’t believe I’ve finally found someone. We’ve only been together a few months—three, I think—but this is the real deal. I can sense our soul-deep connection in my marrow. I have that overwhelming you-complete-me feeling I’d only hoped I’d find with someone someday. And guess what? He feels the same way about me.
How in the world did I get so lucky?
Devin graces me with a heart-melting smile. “I brought your favorite.” He reaches behind him, and from out of nowhere proffers a piece of strawberry-covered cheesecake on a gleaming white plate.
I grin as he hands it to me. “Dessert for breakfast? How decadent.” I take a bite, and immediately wrinkle my nose. The taste is off. Rather than creamy, tart deliciousness, something stale and plasticky fills my mouth. I take another bite, just to be sure, and somehow manage to shove the fork down my throat. Pain sears my esophagus and the urge to gag overwhelms me. A burst of dazzling light fills the room, blurring Devin’s edges like watercolors.
My heart beats faster. Something’s not right.
Gripping the sheet, I tug it to my chin as I shrink against the pillows. Above me, the ceiling recedes into an endlessly blue sky. And it’s filled with flying kittens. Tiny, feathered wings flap as they dip here and there, playing oversized violins like furry, fluffy cherubs. One of them, a tabby with green-golden eyes, winks at me as he draws his bow across the strings, causing a shower of effervescent sparks to rain down on Devin and me.
Welp… guess I’m dreaming. At least Devin’s in my dream too, which means it’s a Very Good Dream.
I realize now that my body feels like it’s floating in the ocean; I’m in that twilight space between awake and asleep—aware that this is a dream, but still not quite conscious. This hotel room, the cheesecake: they’re from the weekend trip to the lake that Devin surprised me with last month. Maybe if I don’t think too hard about waking up, I’ll stay asleep. Maybe I can make the dream change… call up another favorite memory…
A thick blanket of clouds passes overhead, but the sky is as bright as ever and I squint. A pair of strong arms snakes beneath me, lifting me against a firm, familiar chest. Devin…
“Cassidy…” A faint voice echoes from far away, no louder than a reverberation from a church bell. It’s easy to ignore, so I do.
The dream shifts. I’m no longer lying in bed, but standing in the center of a dimly lit restaurant, clothed in a knee-length burgundy silk dress. Devin’s wearing a white button-down with a red scarf, and we’re dancing—just like on our first date. Soft music curls around us. I’m vaguely aware that people are staring, but I don’t care. I cling to Devin so tightly my body melds with his and our souls tangle together. We’re complete.
“Cass, come back to us,” a distant voice echoes, louder this time.
“Time to go.” Devin’s deep voice rumbles in his chest.
I sigh into his neck and grasp him tighter. “I want to stay here with you.”
Gently disentangling himself from me, he steps back until he’s an arm’s length away. I smooth my dress over my stomach. Rather than lush, soft fabric, my gown is oddly thin and scratchy. I frown. A truck beeps somewhere in the distance, a steady, rhythmic sound. Devin takes my hand, but his palm is no longer rough. It’s small and smooth, and long nails prick my skin.
“Cass…” he whispers, his form blurring.
“Cass… can… hear me?” says a higher-pitched voice.
The dream turns fuzzy. No, not yet. I don’t want to wake up. But Devin’s form swirls and dissolves like smoke.
I surface to consciousness like a creature emerging from the deep. I’m vaguely aware that I’m lying in a bed that’s not mine, and something’s beeping. An alarm clock? I open my eyes. A fluorescent light blinds me and I blink sluggishly. My eyelids are heavier than dumbbells. Someone squeezes my hand so hard it aches, and the blurry but familiar form of my best friend fills my vision. Her blond hair is pinned in a messy bun, her face a mask of concern. “Brie?” My voice is a raspy whisper and I cough.
“Oh my God, Cass! You’re awake!” She squeezes my hand again. Behind her delicate, round gold glasses, her honey-brown eyes are as wide as hubcaps.
“Where am I?” I ask.
“In the hospital. You had an accident.”
My vision clears, and I realize that I am, in fact, lying in a hospital bed, wearing a thin patterned gown with a stiff white blanket pulled up to my waist. A heart monitor beeps steadily from the corner. Brie’s here, but where’s Devin? He must have stepped out.
“Hold on. Mel… Melanie!” she shouts over her shoulder. Rapid footsteps approach and my mother appears beside Brie. Dark circles ring her eyes, and her normally shiny hair is limp. She’s only forty-two—she had me at seventeen—but she looks at least fifty today. My stomach tightens as she smooths a lock of damp hair from my forehead. “Cass, is that you? Can you hear me?”
I clear my throat. “Yeah, Mom, I hear you. You’re shouting.” I attempt to scoot higher in bed, but pain blasts through every cell of my body and I wince.
“Shhh, don’t try to move. You were in a car accident, honey. You’ve been in a coma. We weren’t sure if you…” Mom’s chest heaves and a sob rips through her. Oh God, Mom never cries. Brie curls an arm around her shoulder while she struggles to regain her normally unflappable composure.
Wait, a coma? The heart rate monitor beeps faster. “How long was I—”
“Out?” Brie finishes. Gnawing her lip, she takes a deep breath. “I don’t know how to break it to you, but… the year is 2041, and the robots have taken over. I’m sorry. I hope you’re ready for the apocalypse.” Her lips twist in an obvious attempt to suppress a smile. I blink.
Mom slaps Brie’s arm. “Brielle Owens.”
“What? The opportunity was too good to pass up. I couldn’t help myself.”
Warmth fills my chest. Brie’s always known how to make me smile.
Mom shakes her head. “It’s August 4. You’ve been out for six days.”
I glance around the hospital room, at the blue vinyl chair pulled out into a bed in the corner, the open bag sitting on top of the twisted sheet, the lunch tray of half-eaten food on the rolling table. It looks like Mom, or Brie, or both, have been staying with me. Maybe they’ve been taking turns with Devin to visit. “Hey, can you—”
“Someone’s up, I see.” A rosy-faced nurse bustles into the room, and a swell of activity ensues. The nurse calls in a doctor, who examines me and asks what feels like a million questions. “Do you know your name? What year is it? Who’s the president?” Half an hour later, a specialist arrives and introduces herself as Dr. Holloway, a neurologist. She studies my chart as the nurse inclines my bed.
“I could use some caffeine,” announces Brie. “Can I get you a coffee, Mel?”
“Yes please. Two creams, one sugar. Thanks, Brie,” says Mom.
“You got it. I’ll be right back.” She flashes me a reassuring smile as she leaves the room.
Adjusting her laptop, the doctor peers at me over her tortoiseshell glasses. “Tell me, Cass, what’s the last thing you remember before waking up today?”
“I—” I cough, and Mom hands me a paper cup of ice chips. I slurp one into my mouth. The chilled liquid feels good against my abraded throat. Apparently I was on a ventilator until two days ago, when I began demonstrating bouts of wakefulness—of which I remember nothing—but my throat still feels like someone shoved a red-hot poker down there. “I remember taking the bar exam.”
“Mmm-hmm. And what about after that?” the doctor asks.
I think back. I recall the last day of the two-day, soul-sucking exam, how I felt elated and exhausted when I left the test center in Columbus, and then… “Nothing.”
She types for several long seconds before shutting the lid of the laptop. “The good news is it looks like there’s no brain damage.”
Across the room, my mother slumps in relief. “Oh, thank God.”
“But she has a long road of recovery ahead. We were able to relieve the swelling on her brain with an emergency craniotomy, but it’s possible she may experience lingering adverse effects.”
I automatically finger the thick bandage behind my ear.
“What kind of adverse effects?” asks Mom.
“Possible trouble with coordination, short-term memory loss. We won’t know until we run further tests. And with two cracked ribs and a fractured tibia, I’m recommending she be moved to a rehabilitation center…”
I close my eyes while the doctor explains my recovery plan. The back of my neck tingles, and a memory lumbers to the surface. “Wait,” I say, opening my eyes. “I do remember something. Before driving home after the bar exam, I had dinner with Devin.”
Mom frowns at me. “Who’s Devin, honey?”
I blink. “You know, Devin Bloom. The guy I’ve been seeing.”
“You didn’t tell me you were seeing someone.”
“I did, you’ve just been working too hard,” I mumble. “So wait, he hasn’t come to visit me?” Disappointment swells in my chest like a cresting wave.
“No one’s been here except me, your stepdad, and your brothers. They came by yesterday after you were moved out of the ICU. And Brie, of course. She jumped in the car and drove up as soon as she heard about your accident.”
Maybe the hospital only allowed family to visit? No, that couldn’t be, because Brie’s here and she’s not family. Wait. Maybe Devin didn’t even know I was in an accident. Panic constricts my lungs. I look around automatically for my phone, but it’s not on the nightstand. “Where’s my phone? I need to call Devin and tell him I’m okay. He must be worried sick.”
Mom frowns. “Your phone was destroyed in the accident.”
The door opens and Brie returns, holding two cups of coffee. She passes one to my mom and takes a sip from the other.
“Brie, can I borrow your phone? I need to call Devin.”
She splutters. “Huh? Who now?”
I let out an exasperated huff. What the hell is wrong with everyone? “Come on, Brie. Devin, my boyfriend. We talk every week, so I know I’ve told you all about him.” At her blank stare, I continue. “We met at a bar in April, hit it off, and we’ve been dating ever since? He grew up in Cleveland and he helps run his family’s business? You haven’t met him yet, but I’m sure you’ve seen pictures. He’s six two, dark brown hair, brown eyes. You know—Devin Bloom.”
Brie’s cheeks pale as she slowly sets her coffee on the nightstand. The doctor looks between me, Brie, and my mother, opens her laptop, and begins typing. Dread slithers into the pit of my stomach, coalescing into a writhing ball.
Brie stares at me with wide, confused eyes. “Who the hell is Devin Bloom?”