Home > What Matters Most

What Matters Most
Author: Courtney Walsh

 

Chapter One

 

 

The list stuck to the refrigerator was meant to motivate Emma Woodson, but in that moment, it seemed only to taunt. She stared at the words she’d scribbled in a rare moment of bravery and struggled not to roll her eyes at her own naiveté.

The Year of Emma.

The idea had come to her one night two months ago when her best friend, Elise, had shown up uninvited to force her to celebrate a birthday she very much did not feel like celebrating.

Turning thirty wasn’t something to celebrate, after all. Not for Emma.

But try telling that to Elise. She was not the kind of person who would let a milestone birthday go unnoticed, which was why she dragged Emma out to a Mexican restaurant and forced her to wear a giant sombrero all the way through to dessert.

“What are you doing, Em?” she’d asked her in a tone that suggested a loaded question.

“You mean besides trying to find a way to set this hat on fire without burning the restaurant down?”

“I mean with your life,” Elise said.

Emma picked up her Coke and took a drink. “I’m surviving.”

Barely.

“Don’t you think it’s time you stopped surviving?”

“And what, die?” Emma set her drink down. She knew what was coming, and she wasn’t interested. She didn’t want to hear about how she was wasting her life. Not today. She already knew—she didn’t need the reminder.

“No,” Elise said. “You’re practically coding and you’re calling that a life. Enough’s enough already.”

It was easy for Elise to say. Her life was nearly perfect. She’d married Teddy, the love of her life, at twenty-three, had a baby at twenty-five on her first try, another baby at twenty-seven, also on her first try, and now she stayed home with her kids in the big, beautiful home funded by her husband’s new job in private security.

Elise didn’t understand Emma’s circumstances, no matter how empathetic she was.

Elise pulled a notebook out of her purse and wrote in block letters: THE YEAR OF EMMA. She turned it around and slid it across the table.

“What’s this?”

“Tonight we declare that this is the year everything changes for you,” Elise said. “And we’re putting it in writing.”

Emma frowned. “My life is fine.”

But Elise’s sardonic laugh told the truth. “Em, when was the last time you did something for yourself? Or something just for fun? You work in a job you hate. You hardly sleep. Most days I don’t even think you eat. And you never smile anymore.”

The waiter returned with fried ice cream, and Emma’s memory drifted back to the last birthday she’d spent with Cam. He’d made her a three-layer strawberry cake from scratch. As he presented it to her, the top tier slid right off the plate and onto the floor. He’d been disappointed at first, but the whole adorable scene struck Emma as so funny it took her a solid three minutes to stop laughing.

Was that the last time she’d smiled?

Elise took a bite of ice cream. “So here’s the deal. You make a list of all the things you want to do to remind yourself you’re still alive. You’ve been avoiding living—you know that, right?”

Emma jabbed her spoon into the ice cream, crunching through the outside layer. “So you’ve said.”

“Sorry,” Elise said. “It’s worth repeating.”

“I’m doing the best I can.” She took a bite and avoided Elise’s gaze. Because they both knew it was a lie, and Elise wouldn’t let it slide.

Now, as she stood in the kitchen of the small Nantucket cottage, surrounded by unpacked boxes, she scanned the list one last time before heading out the door.

Find a job I actually like was number five on the list, and today was the day she hoped to cross it off. She glanced at the clock, and a sudden wave of nausea rolled through her stomach. She’d been working as a waitress the last few years, but this job—in an actual art gallery, a reputable, high-end gallery—would give her a chance to work in the field she’d always wanted to work in. Before she let her dreams become a distant memory.

First, she had to make it to the interview on time.

“CJ?” she called out. “You ready?”

She walked into the living room, where her five-year-old son stood, looking out the window. “There’s a man out there.”

Emma came up behind CJ and followed his gaze to the sidewalk, where a man approached the house. He had a duffel slung over his shoulder. “Oh! Probably answering the ad.” Bad timing. She’d have to give him a rush tour of the apartment if she was going to drop CJ at day care and make it to the interview on time.

“You ready?” She took her son’s hand and pulled him toward the front door. She opened it and waved at the man on the sidewalk. “Hey there!”

He met her eyes and stopped moving.

“You must be here about the ad.” She pulled CJ down the stairs and toward the sidewalk. “I’m actually relieved. I was starting to think nobody was going to respond to it.” She gave him a once-over. He was probably a year or two older than she was and rugged-looking, like Bear Grylls but with disobedient hair, the kind of disheveled that said, I’m not trying very hard.

It suited him. Emma had no interest in dating, but if she did, he would’ve probably been the kind of guy that would’ve captured her attention.

His bright hazel eyes alone seemed worth exploring.

“I’m kind of in a hurry.” She forced herself to maintain her composure. “But I can run you up there quick to take a look?”

He almost appeared confused for a second. He glanced at CJ, who was staring at him—this stranger—and then back at Emma. “Okay.”

“CJ, go sit on the porch, okay? We’ll leave in just a minute.”

Her son did as he was told. Emma took her keys from her bag and motioned for the man to follow her.

“The apartment is above the garage,” she said. “It’s nothing fancy, and it needs some work, but I suppose that’s where you’d come in.” She didn’t look at him, but she knew he was following close behind as they walked up the steps to the apartment. Cam’s apartment. He’d spent his summers in the cottage with his grandparents when he was a kid, and when he got older, they converted it into his space.

He’d always talked about turning it into a rental. It had been a dream, really. He said it would be a good extra income, but Emma had always suspected it was more than that. Cam wanted to share Nantucket with as many people as he could.

When she opened that door, the memory of her late husband would be waiting for her.

She’d had most of Cam’s things shipped here after he died—it had always been her plan to move here once she was back on her feet. She just didn’t expect that it would take five years, which was how long Cam’s belongings had been sitting here.

Still in boxes. She couldn’t bear to face it then, and she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to face it now.

“I hope you have a good imagination.” She stuck the key in the lock and glanced over her shoulder at the man. “It’s a work in progress.”

She pushed open the door, struck by the musty smell of an abandoned space that had been locked up and forgotten about, which was exactly what it was.

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