Annie's sister is an exact replica of Coach Taylor; dark hair, dark eyes, tall and athletic. Now that I realize it, Annie is surprisingly short. She must be nowhere above five-five; the top of her head barely reaches my shoulder, shorter than Karissa. Short girls are cute . . . Annie is friggin' cute, now that I think about it, too cute.

"Who is the best little buddy?" Annie says in a funny voice as she plays with her little nephew, Nick, on the living room floor. "Who's got the best auntie in town?"

"You are, duh!" he replies, laughing. "You're the only one who knows how to make me feel better."

Annie smiles as she hugs Nick close. I smile, but wonder why she looks like she is in pain. Physical pain. Nick jumps up from his place on the couch and runs out of the living room. I hesitate, but move from the chair to sit next to Annie.

"Are you okay?" I ask, lowering my voice. "You don't look . . . I don't know, not yourself, and please do not tell me not to worry. My sister once told me that and I had to find out through Gil what had happened to her. You say you're a good listener, so am I."

Annie hesitates, looking directly into my eyes. I see the cloud and want so badly to pull her close and hug her, I do not know why. Instead of thinking about it, I take action. I reach my arms around Annie's shoulders and pull her to my chest. She breaks down, her shoulder shaking as she begins to sob.

"Talk to me," I whisper into her hair. "What's wrong?"

"I don't want you to be someone else I have to say goodbye to," she whispers, sniveling. "I have to say goodbye to so many people already . . . I was not expecting to add you to the list . . ."

"Annie, what list?" I ask, staring into blank space.

"My days are numbered, Eric. I do not have very long to live . . . I have . . . I have bruises all over my body because I have leukemia. I was diagnosed four years ago, and I was lucky because the doctors caught it in the very early stages . . . I did chemotherapy for a while, but then I stopped responding to treatment. I spent a year in China and the natural remedies helped until a month ago. The doctors say that I have a year left, if I am that blessed."

Annie sobs deeper and I might join her. I have only just met Annie and she has seemed so full of life. How can she be dying? I hide my face in her hair, shutting my eyes, but the tears are already penetrating.

"That is why I say you need to forgive your brother," Annie goes on, unmoving. "You don't know when you will meet your end, and you do not want to ever leave things like that. You have to live as if you do not have a tomorrow, Eric. I have been living this way since the beginning."

I hug Annie closer; I have never met someone who was dying. I never had reason to grieve for anyone, nor have I ever been to a funeral. I do not even know my own grandparents, on either side. I think Mom's folks already passed away, but I do not know anything about Dad's parents.

"Annie?"

We break our hug at the sound of Nick's puzzled voice. Annie forces a smile and goes to assist him with a broken car. I watch them leave the room with a heavy heart. I quickly stand from the couch and follow Nick's happy chatter to the kitchen. Annie is preparing him a snack, nodding and smiling softly as he rambles on about something he did at school. The moment Annie gives Nick his snack, I go over to her, enveloping her in my arms, which catches her off guard. She does not pull away, but wraps her arms around my waist, resting her cheek against my chest.

"Don't be sad," she whispers, "I did not tell you that so you would be sad. I told you so you can fix things with your brother and not have regrets."

"How am I supposed to react?" I ask; my distress is apparent in my voice. "I've only just met you and I have been enjoying your company. You say all the right things and you help me forget the things that make me zone out. I wish I had known you before . . ."

"Oh Eric . . . I wish that too."

We tighten our embrace. I slump my shoulders so I can hide my face in Annie's hair. Her beautiful, red curls swishing against my face.

"I'll make things right with Jacks," I whisper, hugging Annie's shoulders tighter still. "You're right; I don't want to be living life with a heart of regrets."

"Good," Annie whispers back with a sniffle. "Now, as much as I am enjoying this bear hug of yours, I need to breathe."

She giggles as I pull away, smiling softly. Annie reaches for a napkin from the plaster dispenser on the counter and starts to dab my eyes gently.

"Don't cry for me, okay?" she says, standing on her toes to kiss my cheek. "I'm going to be okay."

I nod, but hang my head.

"DominEgo," Annie sings, making me look in her eyes. "I mean it; I'm going to be okay. I don't want you to be another person I say goodbye to, but I really do want you to know everything will be alright."

"FlamingRed," I reply with a soft smile. "I cannot promise that I will pretend about knowing I might not get to see you again one day . . . I've never known anyone who would no longer be around."

"Then you are just gonna have to remember that when I do leave, you look up with a smile and wave. Because I will be waving right back to you."

My smile widens, but only on one side. Annie raises an eyebrow and turns to talk with Nick. I watch her for a long, silent moment. I then feel my phone vibrating in my pocket and pull it out to see what it is. The caller ID says Jacks, which is odd because he has not called me in forever. I nod to myself and answer the call.

"This is Eric," I say, knowing no one else answers my phone.

"Bro," Jacks says, his voice sounds anxious. "I need your help . . . Do you gotta minute?"

"I have more than a minute," I reply, leaning back against the counter. "I'm at . . . a friend's house, but if you tell me what is up, I am sure I can get away."

"Well . . . It's about Karissa. I'm caught up at the moment and she needs a ride back to campus. She went shopping with Mom and Sabrina again, so she is at Sabrina's house. Could you pick her up? I would owe you big time."

Giving Karissa a ride would bring me a step closer to accepting her with my brother. It is a small step, but worth it. The thing is I do not want to leave Annie right now. Not after her telling me her secret, and especially not when I would be leaving her with her nephew alone. Unless . . .

"Hang on a second," I cover the mouthpiece and look at Annie. "My brother needs me to pick up Karissa from my sister's house. Do you and Nick want to come along?"

"I would have to double check with my sister first," Annie replies, nodding as she pulls out her phone. "Maybe we can let the boys play together for a short time while we're there."

I smile and bring my phone back to my ear.

"I've got you covered, Jacks," I say, "If I leave in the next five minutes, I can be at Sabrina's in . . . half an hour. I am not that far."

"Thank you!" Jacks' says with relief. "Eric, I owe you big time for this."

"No you don't bro. That is why I exist . . . Listen, I do not know when either of us will be free, but I really need a brother-to-brother talk."

"What about tonight? I'll bring the pizza and we can play games like we used to at home."

"Sounds awesome, bro; I'll see ya later."

"See ya bro."

As I end the call, I catch Annie smiling at me.

"What?" I ask, unable to hold back my own smile.

"Oh nothing," she replies with the wave of her hand. "I just had a funny thought . . ."

"A funny thought? What might that be?"

"I just think you're cute."

I blink as Annie's words sink in. She grins and shakes her head before disappearing with Nick toward the bedrooms. I start to smile and head towards the living room. Annie called me cute to my face.

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