"Henry?" Elizabeth whispered, her heart clamouring in her throat.
She held herself still and stiff in the darkness, her head resting in that spot on his shoulder that had always seemed perfectly sculpted to fit her cheek.
"What would you think about us moving in together?"
"Wha — really?!"
He'd sounded muzzy with sleep a moment ago, and she'd known that her hushed voice might not be enough to draw him back to wakefulness from the depths. In truth, a part of her had hoped that her cautious words would simply sink like pebbles in a pond, leaving no lasting trace on the water's glassy surface.
Now, though, she heard his heart skip a beat beneath her ear, and her own heart shuttered and retreated in response, trying to burrow deeper inside her chest. "Yeah – I mean – it's silly for both of us to keep paying rent on two apartments when we could just pool our money and probably find something nicer."
Henry was silent for a moment. Was it possible he had fallen back asleep?
"Henry?" she said again, a little louder this time. There was no taking back her words now that they had been released, and the longer the silence stretched between them, the more the suspense threatened to strangle her. She nudged him gently. "What do you think?"
"I'd love that," he said quietly.
Elizabeth flashed a dazzling grin that nobody could see and hugged him closer, pressing a kiss to his bare chest.
The next morning, Elizabeth woke with the smile still on her lips, and it only grew wider as she snuggled closer to her sleeping boyfriend – and soon-to-be roommate!
Elizabeth lived alone, and she loved it that way. She'd done the whole dorm thing already, all throughout boarding school, and then again as a freshman, sharing a floor with upwards of forty other girls. She'd liked most of them well enough, but as the months passed, she found herself craving quiet and solitude and the space to just breathe, and so the second exams were over, Elizabeth had signed a lease on her very own one-bedroom apartment.
It was small and plain and more than half an hour from campus if she walked quickly, but it was hers – the one indulgence she allowed herself. She used to wonder, sometimes, if her parents would have disapproved of such a luxury, but now, more than a year later, she was a junior and thriving, feeling more confident than ever in her decision. Disciplined with every other penny of her inheritance, Elizabeth hoped that they would have understood that she couldn't bear another minute of the noise and the mess and the drama that came with being Becky's roommate.
But living with Henry?
The idea had begun as a mere inkling some time ago, a whisper from the very depths of her heart. She'd tried to bury it at once, always her first instinct when it came to her desires or feelings of any kind, too afraid of watching them shatter if they ever saw the light of day, and shattering her right along with them.
It was a bad habit, one she was trying to overcome, but this particular daydream already felt so much more dangerous than any that had come before it, and indeed, the quiet longing did not oblige her and fade away. Instead, it took root and sprouted up, growing so large in recent months that her heart could hardly contain it, and in all the time since then, she had never known whether she'd been bracing herself for the moment the wish would escape her lips, or mustering the courage to free it herself. She didn't know what she'd have done if he'd said no.
But he hadn't. He'd said yes, and lying there with her arm around his waist, Elizabeth couldn't have tempered her joy if she'd tried – it felt like any dream in the world she cared to pursue was hers for the taking now. Risking it all last night had been so worth it, earning her the most incredible reward she could imagine. So, what other wonders might life have in store for her if only she could stop being afraid long enough to want, to chase, to claim them?
Do I dare? Their second anniversary was just around the corner, after all, and she loved him so much. With Henry graduating in December and then heading off to basic training in the spring, maybe it was time to start making some more long-term plans.
(But all of that could wait for another day. For now, Elizabeth could just be proud of herself for this enormous first step, and let herself enjoy it).
She savoured the warmth of Henry's sleeping body beside her for longer than was wise on a school day, but finally dragged herself from the bed and crept quietly out of the room, putting on a pot of coffee in the kitchen. When it was ready, she settled down on the floor in front of the couch with a bowl of cereal and a stack of textbooks, a light blanket draped over her shoulders. It wasn't often that she woke before Henry, but he obviously needed the extra sleep, and Elizabeth could use the time to get a bit more studying in before her last midterm this afternoon. Maybe over dinner they could even start the apartment search!
It was at least an hour later before Henry emerged from the bedroom. "Hey, Sleepyhead," Elizabeth said, looking up and smiling affectionately – it still amazed her how a room could suddenly feel so much warmer and sunnier with him in it than it had a moment earlier without him. "There's still some coffee if you want it. I was about to come check on you – you're cutting it close this morning!" She reached for her own mug to finish the last swig.
"I think we should take a break," Henry said.
Elizabeth choked and spluttered, and it was several moments before she could speak again. "That's not funny," she said, glaring at him and pressing a hand to her chest to calm her stumbling heart, which was having trouble recovering its rhythm after missing more than a few beats.
"I'm serious, Elizabeth. I need some space, I need to clear my head."
Only then did Elizabeth notice what she hadn't before – that Henry was standing there stiffly with his hands in his pockets, but his thick brown hair was all over the place, a sure sign that he'd been running an anxious hand through it for a while before coming out of the bedroom.
She gaped back at him, utterly dumbfounded. "What are you talking about?" she demanded, when she finally found her voice. "Henry!"
He wouldn't look her in the eye. "I'm sorry, I've got to go," was all he said, and before Elizabeth could scramble to her feet, he was already out the front door, shutting it quietly behind him. She heard a car door slam, and an engine, and then silence.
I must have fallen asleep studying, she thought dazedly, reeling after him. That was the only reasonable explanation for this nightmare.
But laying eyes on the little table in the entryway was what brought reality crashing down on her shoulders, because on it, Henry had left behind the spare key she'd given him.
He was really gone.
Elizabeth's knees were slamming down on the tile before she recognized that her legs had given out underneath her, and her palm rose to hold back the soundless wail that was clawing its way out of her chest. With her other hand, she clutched her stomach, which was suffering all the agony of a sucker-punch, though nobody had laid a hand on her.
A single thought occurred to her, before her mind went utterly blank – how could it all have gone so wrong?