Not surprising, though. Mike is a great man. Was.

I didn’t think I’d ever get used to talking about him in the past tense.

“Lawrence Finkle.”

The sound of my name jolted me back to reality.

Game time.

I took a deep breath and stood up as Darla grabbed my hand. She gave me a tight smile and squeezed gently, trying to comfort me. I appreciated her gesture, but it was pointless.

A week ago, my life had been normal. My biggest worry had been who I’d be spending the night with or did my bike need to be washed, but now, I was sitting in a church with my best friend dead in a box, dreading walking up the steps in front of me. The priest cleared his throat, pulling me out of my own head once more. I was still standing in the pew aisle, staring down at Darla, though I wasn’t really looking at her. More like through her. She pulled her brows together and leaned in close.

“You okay? Can you do this?”

I swallowed a lump the size of a golf ball. “No, I’m not okay, but I have to do this.”

She offered up another sympathetic smile as I let go of her hand and scooted out into the center aisle. My shoes echoed loudly with each step I took toward the front.

I made my way up a couple of stairs toward Father O’Malley. He pursed his lips together and nodded toward the podium as he took a step back. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was turn to face all those people, but it was too late to back out now. I spun on my heel and wrapped my hands around the edges of the wooden podium without looking up.

I felt their eyes on me as I stared at the ground, taking my time. Some of them knew me, some of them didn’t, but they were all focused on me, wondering what I was about to say. It was a lot of pressure to have a couple hundred people hanging on my every word, praying that I’d be the one to come up with the magical phrase, some fucking generic sentence that would make them feel better. Take away their pain. How could I take away theirs when mine was so real, so raw?

I deserved this pain, every second of it.

It was my fault we were there.

I’d caused this.

I’d killed him.

Father O’Malley cleared his throat again, and I turned my head to the left slightly, looking at him out of the corner of my eye. He stepped forward and held his hand over the microphone. “Can you do this, son? If you’re not ready—”

“No, I’m ready,” I protested, harsher than I’d meant to. I looked at him and attempted a smile. “I just needed a minute. Sorry.”

“Take your time.” He moved his hand away from the microphone and stepped back again, folding his hands in front of him.

Obviously I can’t. You keep clearing your fucking throat.

I took another deep breath and looked out into the crowd. “Hi.”

Really? Hi? Nice start, asshole.

“Some of you know me, some don’t. My name is Vip—Lawrence Finkle—and I want to be here as much as you all do.”

A small gasp came from somewhere in the back of the church, and a couple people frowned in confusion.

“Please bear with me. I’m not a plan ahead kind of guy, so I’m winging this today. What I meant by that was I’d rather be anywhere on the planet other than here, saying good-bye to our friend.” I took a shaky breath, determined not to lose it, certainly not up there in front of all those people.

“Calling him a friend is an understatement. He wasn’t my friend; he was my brother. Not biologically of course, but we were as close as brothers, maybe closer. I was there when his kids were born, and he was there… for me. All the time. That’s the kind of guy he was. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you asked.”

I sighed and ran my hands through my hair. “I don’t know why I’m telling you guys this. If you’re sitting in this room, you already knew that about him. I’m guessing every single person in here can think of some way he helped them, or better yet, some goofy story about how he made them laugh.”

The low rumble of laughter vibrated through the room.

“What happened is… terrible, but that’s not how I want to remember him. I want to think about all the times he made me laugh in the locker room. I want to remember him grinning like an idiot when he sent me a picture of him holding his new baby girl. I want to remember the man who had my back no matter what, no questions asked, and trust me, sometimes he should’ve asked questions.”

Another small wave of laughter and I wondered if I’d said enough. I just wanted to be done. I looked down at Michelle, who was sitting in the pew with tears in her eyes, gently rocking a sleeping Maura back and forth while Matthew rested his head on her arm. Maura would never know her father. Matthew would never remember his father, and it was all my fault. Michelle leaned down and gently kissed the top of Maura’s head, and the lump in my throat came back, bigger than the last time. I blinked hard and shook my head slightly, trying to regain my composure. I needed to stop; it was too much. Way too fucking much.

“Anyway… Big Mike was amazing, but you all know that or you wouldn’t be here. Thanks for coming,” I finished abruptly and stepped down the steps as the crowd started chattering quietly, probably about my sudden departure, but I didn’t give a shit. Once again, their eyes were glued to me, the weird guy who could barely form a complete sentence up there. As I walked down the aisle, I paused briefly at the row I’d come from. Darla scooted in so I could sit down, but I shook my head. “No. I’m leaving, but do me a favor, please?” I handed her a small box of Lemonheads. “Set these on the casket at the end, okay?”

She blinked and frowned up at me, completely confused. “Wait. Aren’t you—”

“No, I need to go,” I interrupted and rushed toward the exit.

I needed air.

I needed to escape.

I headed straight out the doors.

Straight out into a shitty world that would never be the same again.

ONE MONTH, NINE days, and twenty-two hours. That’s how long it’d been since my husband, the love of my life, took his last breath in this world. The last five and a half weeks had been the absolute worst of my life. I’d been trying hard to establish a new normal, but how do you go on when the person you were supposed to spend the rest of your life with kisses you good-bye, goes to work, and never comes home again? It was beyond unexpected. A complete shock. He’d been ripped away from me so suddenly that I was still reeling, as if it’d just happened.

We had dreams. We had goals. We weren’t done yet. We had wanted to buy a house on the ocean in North Carolina and spend our summers there. We wanted to travel the country and see one baseball game in every stadium. We wanted to go to Paris. We wanted another baby. Damn it, we weren’t done.

I sat in the kitchen, lost so deep in my thoughts that the ring of the doorbell made me gasp out loud. Hurrying up to the front of the house, I was pleasantly surprised to see Kacie’s face smiling at me through the glass.

“Hey!” I said cheerfully as I opened the door.

“Hey yourself!” She held Emma in one arm but wrapped the other one around me and squeezed hard. “We were in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d drop by. Is this a bad time?”

I laughed as she pulled back. “I feel like lately it’s always a bad time, but no, please come in. Hi, girls,” I said to Lucy and Piper. They chirped hello in unison and waved as they followed Kacie into the house. “Matthew is going to be so happy to see you guys. He’s bored out of his mind in the playroom.”