If you had asked me before the night when everything changed, I’d have said that I was family. That the Cohens were flesh and blood, as ingrained in me as every cell in my body. Not because I was as clueless about genetics as my bio teacher, Mr. Waters, seemed to think I was, but because we shared things that mattered: history, memories, secrets, and time.
So the evening we sat around the dining table waiting to hear Mel’s news, it didn’t even occur to me that I could be somewhere else. That it was summer and the lake was glistening and I had my own home across town.
I was sitting in my usual spot, across from Rowan and beside Luke, the same spot I’d occupied since Ro and I met at tennis camp when we were seven and became best friends.
“Pass me the salad.” Naomi, Mel’s best friend, was sitting on my right, and she tapped my wrist to get my attention.
Mel had gotten home from the doctor less than an hour earlier and, instead of answering the barrage of questions we threw at her, immediately insisted that we sit down to “a nice dinner.” She said we would talk after we’d eaten. One of the things I’d always loved about Mel was that she never treated me, Luke, and Ro like kids. She told us the truth and spoke to us like we were her equals. Which made the way she was acting now all the more unsettling. She was talking and laughing with Naomi, as if everything was completely normal, as if everything was fine. But it couldn’t be, could it?
If the doctors had given her good news, she would have just said so.
She had to know that the way she was dragging this out meant that there was only one conclusion we could reach: Mel was sick.
The kind of sick you couldn’t get over with chicken noodle soup and a warm water bottle and a couple of days spent watching Netflix in bed.
My stomach lurched at the thought.
“I need some guinea pigs for this new cupcake recipe I’m trying for the bakery,” Mel said, trying to engage us, but Ro just kept vigorously chewing, violently scraping his fork against his plate. I didn’t know it was possible to eat angrily, but he was doing it. Apparently he had even less patience for Mel’s stalling than I did.
Beside me, Luke was staring down at his plate, moving the food around but not really eating anything. Ever the opportunist, Sydney, the dog, was sitting primly beside Luke’s chair, and I caught him sneaking her a cooked baby carrot when he thought no one was looking. Ordinarily, the sight would have made me smile, but Luke looked so miserable it made me feel like crying.
Oblivious, Mel kept chattering about her new cheesecake cupcakes, her voice as raspy and as calm as ever.
She talks the way Billie Holiday sings.
I’d written those words in my journal once, many years ago, after one of the afternoons I’d spent at the Cohens’, lounging around in the living room with Mel and listening to the old jazzy songs she liked. I’d doodled hearts around the words. Honestly, most days I wasn’t sure whom I loved more: Mel or her sons. I was a little bit in love with each of them, in slightly different ways.
“Jessi.” Ro’s voice suddenly cut through my thoughts. “Can you come help me in the kitchen for a sec?”
His voice had an edge to it, but I stood and followed him out of the dining room. I wondered whether he’d come to the same conclusion I had—that something was very wrong. As soon as we were in the kitchen, I couldn’t help it, I threw my arms around him. Ro hugged me, then patted my back like he was the one comforting me.
His voice was a whisper when he finally spoke. “You have to go.”
I froze, then stepped back. “Go where?”
His arms dropped to his sides. “Home,” he said almost sulkily, staring at the ground.
It took me a moment to understand what he meant.
Home. As in, my home.
“What? Why?” I asked.
“Because you shouldn’t be here.”
I started to laugh, but then I realized Rowan wasn’t smiling. “Ro. There’s no way I’m going home before Mel tells—”
He didn’t let me finish.
“Jesus, Jessi. Do you think you live here?” he spat. “Because you don’t. This is family shit.”
I was speechless. I’d known the Cohens for ten years. I’d spent birthdays and Thanksgivings and Christmases with them. I was there when Buzz, their old cocker spaniel, died when we were nine. A few weeks later, when Mel brought home a box with a shivering Labrador retriever, I’d been the first to peek inside. I helped them choose the name Sydney. I was at their house the day Dr. Cohen packed his things into his SUV and backed out of the driveway, never to return. Never—not once—had any of the Cohens insinuated that I belonged anywhere other than with them.
“Are you serious?” I asked, my voice small.
He nodded, his jaw still set. He made to run his hand through his hair but stopped halfway through the motion, as if just remembering the buzz cut he’d gotten at the start of summer.
“Rowan, I don’t get it,” I said, starting to feel less indignant and more hurt. I felt breathless, like we’d been sparring and someone had suddenly thrust something sharp and lethal between my ribs. Had I done something wrong? This had to be Ro’s way of lashing out because of everything that was happening with his mom. Right?
“There’s nothing to get,” Rowan said, his voice a whisper. “Just like . . . imagine if this was your mom.”
He walked out of the kitchen, leaving me standing there, stunned. The last thing he said was the worst.
Imagine if this was your mom.
Was he fucking serious?
I didn’t need to imagine anything. I didn’t love Mel any less because she hadn’t given birth to me. I didn’t need to be a six-foot-one prick named Rowan Cohen to feel how devastating even the thought of a world without Mel would be.
I stormed back into the dining room and sat down. Beside me, Naomi was refilling her glass of water. I stole a glance at her, at the white-blond hai...