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How to Keep Rolling After a Fall
Author: Karole Cozzo



Chapter 1

As I park in the lot of the Harborview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, I realize that, for the first time ever, I’m actually excited to be there. I’m working a short, three-hour shift, and the shift itself won’t be so bad, since I’m filling in on the orthopedics wing, where Jeremiah’s been assigned.

After work, the two of us have plans to check out the end-of-summer party that spans the length of Ocean Isle’s boardwalk. Since I’ve seen it in those mailers that started showing up after the Fourth of July, the phrase end-of-summer has stirred feelings of anxiety, loss, and sadness. But tonight it means it’s time for a party. One final opportunity to eat handfuls of hot caramel corn with the salty breeze blowing across my face. One night to forget about everything else going on, in a crowd large and chaotic enough to get lost in.

I lift my butt off the seat and scrunch my hair as I look in the rearview mirror. Once upon a time, I was a shoo-in for “Best Hair” in the senior superlatives—it’s long and wildly curly, with natural highlights. All summer long I’ve tucked it under a baseball cap with the brim pulled down anytime I’ve been forced to leave my house. But not tonight. I made an effort to look good for Jeremiah. And I want to pretend I’m the girl I used to be.

Walking across the parking lot, I decide this place would be a lot more appealing if there was, you know, an actual view of the harbor. Instead, it’s located miles inland, in the middle of a bleak field. The builders tried to spruce it up with the usual gazebos and flower beds, but the name is still a bold-faced lie. It’s a depressing place to be, for all of us who are here because we have no choice in the matter.

But not tonight! I think, breezing through the automatic doors with renewed energy as I picture Jeremiah’s face. Tonight, it’s a good place to be. I head toward the nurses’ station to clock in, but when I catch a glimpse of Jeremiah through the glass-paneled cafeteria walls, I make a detour, a sudden diet Dr Pepper craving developing.

I feel giddy as I walk in his direction. We’ve been flirting for the past two weeks, since I started my stint at the rehab center. Jeremiah’s a sophomore at Rutgers University, with a long-term plan for med school and a specialty in orthopedics—as he explained it to me, “I want to break some bones and fix ’em up again.” Jeremiah’s got it all worked out, but his plans are on hold at the moment. He’s taking a semester off to help out with some family issues. He hasn’t said what kind of issues, and I haven’t felt right asking; I assume he’ll tell me eventually.

In the meantime, I’m content with the flirting. Jeremiah’s really hot—Abercrombie model hot, with the cool hair, and the scruff, and the smirk. He even looks good in scrubs. “One day women are going to be falling down the stairs on purpose just to end up in your waiting room,” I’ve teased him.

He’s sweet, too, taking the mop out of my hands and pushing it himself, and one time walking me to my car under an umbrella from the lost and found when it started pouring without warning. Then two nights ago, he snatched my phone and programmed his number. “So call me tonight,” he’d said all coolly as he tossed it back. I had, and now we have a date.

Jeremiah turns away from the register and slides his wallet into the back pocket of his scrubs, and his eyes meet mine. I smile and wave and wait for him to smile back.

But he doesn’t smile. He glowers instead, his brown eyes ignited with a fury that turns them amber.

“I know who you are.” He’s not discreet; he’s loud, pointing his index finger in my direction. “And you can go straight to hell.”

The blood drains from my face and runs cold. I want to vanish, but I can’t move. My feet feel as if they’re stuck in the wet sand left behind when a wave recedes, weighted down and useless.

A few trays clatter against steel, and then the room is deathly quiet. Workers stop serving, midscoops of mashed potatoes. Residents stop talking. The scene unfolds before me in slow motion as people who have had strokes and people in wheelchairs struggle to turn their heads in my direction.

“Nice try, Nicole.” He says my full name, the one I’d used to introduce myself, like an accusation. “Nikki Baylor, right? I know who you are. You forgot your ID badge yesterday. Now let me tell you who I am.” Jeremiah approaches and thrusts his right hand toward me with such force it jams against my rib cage. It’s almost a shove. “Jeremiah Jordan. Taylor Jordan’s my sister. My baby sister, for that matter.”

I hang my head and clench my fists at the same time, the mention of her name evoking the usual combination of shame and regret and a desire to run and hide. Except my feet are still stuck in the damn sand.

He folds his arms across his chest. “Guess it’s my bad. You should really find out a person’s last name before asking her out.” Jeremiah doesn’t say anything else and I look up, but it turns out he was saving one final zinger. “But now I know. And now it makes me sick to look at your face.”

Tears form in my eyes at once. It sort of makes me sick to look at my face now, too, but Jeremiah had changed that for a few weeks. Before I actually start crying, thankfully, whatever’s holding me in place loosens and I run from the room. I dart through the side door and into the central courtyard, the late-afternoon sun glaring down on me like the harsh lights inside the questioning room of the police station.

I choke back my tears, bending over and grabbing onto my knees for support. I’ll never escape this. This is going to follow me forever. I can pretend to be someone I’m not—I can pretend to be the person I used to be—but it’s nothing more than playing a part.

I shake my head back and forth and wipe my eyes with the back of my hand, struggling to wrap my head around what just happened, feeling like I have whiplash. Jeremiah had come and gone so fast. The prospect of happiness had been so fleeting. I walked in the door envisioning the warmth of his smile; now all I can remember is the cold hatred in his eyes.

What the hell just happened?

“That was pretty harsh.”

I straighten and turn around … then look down. The boy is in a wheelchair more lightweight than most I see around here, and he can’t be much older than me. But he has a more mature look about him, something about his deep-set hazel eyes and square jaw that makes him look more like a young man and less like a boy. His light-brown hair falls to his chin, and the muscular build of his upper body makes me think he might’ve been a badass at one point.

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