Chapter Thirty-Seven

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Countdown to The Life-After: one day.

I look at my hands and my arms, uncertain about what I expect to see. My skin is still the same pale shade it's always been. I wiggle my fingers and then run them through my hair before dropping my arms at my sides. I'm here and I'm whole. No one would ever know by looking at me that I'm going to die in less than twenty-four hours. I keep scanning my body up and down, though, searching for some clue that could give everything away.

The only difference I've seen so far is in my energy. The spot that's been dead for so long has had tiny threads of color running through it today, and I presume it's something The Life-After is doing to help me get ready to go back. I haven't asked Noah about it, because I'm not sure it matters. That, and I've been too busy thinking about the evening ahead of me to give it much thought.

Tonight is the last time I'll see Riley here in The Before. I smooth a wrinkle in my dress and glance at myself in the mirror. The girl staring back looks nervous, and she jumps when the doorbell rings. I see myself shiver. There's a full-blown swarm of butterflies in my stomach by the time I pull open the front door.

"Hi." My voice cracks on the single syllable. I hide my hands behind my back to conceal my trembling fingers, and take a step to the side so Riley can come in.

When he walks through the door, I notice the rose in his hand. He holds it out to me. I try to keep my hand steady when I take it from him.

"Thank you," I say, barely able to put the two words together. When he leans in to kiss me and pulls me closer to him, I'm sure it has to be obvious that I'm shaking. Maybe he doesn't notice, though, because he moves a hand up to my hair and twirls a strand of it around his finger. When I look at him, his eyes shining down at me, I know this is going to be the hardest couple of hours I've ever lived through.

He reaches down for the hand that's not holding the rose. His touch gives me enough strength to make the trembling stop. With our fingers entwined, I lead him into the kitchen where I've already started dinner.

"It smells good in here," he says, sniffing the air. "Spaghetti?"

"Close," I tell him. "Spaghetti squash." He looks confused so I point at the yellow spaghetti squash that's in a baking dish on the counter.

"We're putting tomato sauce on that?" he asks. I can tell he's not big on the idea.

"Have you ever had a spaghetti squash?" I ask.

"It's a vegetable, right?"

"You do shop and cook for yourself, right?" I tease him, holding up the squash.

"Of course I do. I'm the king of mac and cheese and frozen pizza."

I swat him. "Liar, you helped me chop up vegetables when we had lunch here."

"That's salad. Anyone can make a salad."

"What have you lived on since moving out?" I challenge.

"Takeout and family dinners?" he asks, giving me his best lost-little-boy expression.

I look up at the ceiling. "Hopeless."

He laughs, putting his arms around me. "Thank you for making dinner," he says, burying his head in my hair. The number of butterflies in my stomach multiples by at least two hundred, and tears well up in my eyes. I swallow hard and concentrate on silently counting to ten, trying to get it together.

Once dinner is ready, we bring our plates to the living room and eat in front of the TV. When our plates are empty and our stomachs are full, we settle in against the sofa cushions, changing channels until we get to one that's showing a movie. It takes me a minute before I realize we're watching Ghost.

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