Within minutes of posting the tranquil image to the online forum, Keenan McEvoy had garnered a dozen “hearts” and several cheerful replies. She’d taken the photo only hours ago at Oakberry Court, a nursing home she visited once a month with her dog, Bennie, who was racking up points toward advanced certification as a therapy pet. In the photo, he was resting in the arms of an elderly resident whose face was cropped to preserve his privacy. She hoped the photo would comfort people on the forum.
“Didn’t I tell you this would happen? Everyone says you’re adorable.”
The languid cockapoo—a cross between a cocker spaniel and a toy poodle—lifted his head from her lap and wiggled his docked tail, an instinctive show of affection whenever he heard her voice. Anyone’s voice, actually.
A few nights a week, Keenan logged on to the forum just before bedtime to check in with her “friends” and offer words of consolation and encouragement. She had no special training in grief counseling, but she knew as well as anyone their unique despair. Theirs was a club no one wanted to join—survivors of a loved one’s suicide.
She’d joined the online bereavement group almost two years ago after struggling to move on from Annabel’s senseless death. The group, sponsored by a county mental health initiative, had always met in person at a community center in downtown Pittsburgh until Covid forced it to go virtual, which Keenan preferred. She liked the anonymity and was glad they’d chosen to keep it going even after in-person meetings returned.
Over time her participation had changed from needing comfort and support to helping provide it. Bennie was her main conduit for that, and her buffer too, always keeping her one degree removed from the suffering of others. Watching him work his magic with the elderly and people in distress helped lessen her guilt over not being able to help Annabel.
As the hearts continued to pile up for Bennie’s photo, a chime announced the opening of a private chat window, a forum feature she rarely used.
Half-A-Set: Bennie is precious!!!! Nice to see such a cute face after a really tough day.
She didn’t recognize the screen name, but then not all forum members were active posters.
Half-A-Set: This is going to sound weird but I noticed the stamp on the blanket in the photo — Oakberry Court. Is that the nursing home in Bloomberg?
The startling reference made Keenan mildly uneasy. Until that moment, she’d taken for granted her relative anonymity on the forum, where she posted as Wingèd Seraph, a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s heartsick poem, “Annabel Lee,” which she’d recited often as a declaration of love for Annabel. It was unsettling that someone following her posts knew exactly where she’d been that afternoon. Suddenly all the care she’d taken for privacy was wiped out by a stupid laundry mark on a blanket. Before she could resolve her paranoia, a third note appeared.
Half-A-Set: Just curious is all. :-) My great-gran lived at OC for a while but she passed on about four years ago.
Fine if the others in the group wanted to share their despair in person, but Keenan had no interest in moving beyond the virtual community. She didn’t need a complement of anguished friends in her real life. Half-A-Set could be anyone at all—obnoxious, unstable, needy. Or some guy laying the groundwork to hit on her. Just because they’d suffered a similar loss didn’t mean they ought to be actual friends.
Half-A-Set: Sorry, didn’t mean to butt in. Just wanted to say thanks.
Whoever this was seemed to be reading her wary thoughts, and now was backtracking over the intrusion. She could ignore it. Or she could lie and say it was a different Oakberry Court. Either way she’d feel guilty for brushing off someone who’d paid her an innocent compliment…someone who’d faced a tragic loss and joined the forum looking for support. There was nothing unseemly about the actual note, she conceded. What harm was there in a polite reply?
Wingèd Seraph: That’s the one. I’ve taken Bennie there a few times to visit the residents. They love him.
Surely she could say that much. It wasn’t particularly revealing, since she’d already described to the forum how Bennie had eased her back into the world of the living.
Half-A-Set: That’s got to be the sweetest dog I’ve ever seen. So laid back. He’s on Xanax, right? LOL
Wingèd Seraph: Not a skittish bone in his body.
Indeed, nothing rattled Bennie. While some small breeds were high-strung, loyal to only one human, he was eleven pounds of lively affection with everyone he met. His scruffy coat was mostly apricot with white markings on his face, chest and feet. His ears were more poodle than spaniel—not as long or floppy—while his wide, webbed feet proved his water dog ancestry.
Half-A-Set: Gorgeous little face.
Wingèd Seraph: He knows he’s cute. Here’s it from everyone.
She immediately shuddered at her grammar mistake. Half-A-Set would think her an idiot.
Wingèd Seraph: *Hears*
Half-A-Set: No worries. I sometimes do that two. LOL
The small infusions of humor were admittedly disarming, and Keenan relaxed a bit over her decision to reply. With a click, she collapsed their chat window into a corner of her screen and ticked through the forum tabs to check Half-A-Set’s profile, which held only the basic information required of all members: female, thirty-four years old, lost her brother to suicide. That didn’t mean any of it was true. She’d joined the forum three months ago, but her first public post had come only this morning, shortly after five a.m.
Hi to everyone. Sorry I’ve been lurking so long without posting anything. I can’t tell you how much your stories have meant to me these last few weeks. I lost my twin brother to suicide almost a year ago. A boxed set, they called us. After 33 birthdays together, today’s my first one without him. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel whole again, but you give me hope this will eventually get easier. Thanks for putting yourselves out there to support each other. I’m living proof it really helps.
Keenan tipped her head back to swallow the lump in her throat, which mercifully didn’t happen as often as it used to. Her work with Bennie routinely brought her into heartbreaking situations that required a firm grip on her emotions—end of life, sick or traumatized children. Now sitting alone late at night, she had no reason to maintain the brave facade.
Half-A-Set was a twin, which explained her tragic screen name. In her poignant post, she came off as emotionally mature and intellectually capable of expressing herself. Those traits, plus the fact that she’d just turned thirty-four—only three years older than Keenan—further eased her qualms about replying to a private chat.
Wingèd Seraph: I saw your post from this morning. I’m glad Bennie gave you something to smile about today. He’s good at that.
Half-A-Set: I knew it was going to be a tough day. Gabe and I always had a huge party with family and friends but I didn’t want to put them through it this year. Now everybody’s going to feel like crap when they remember. Can’t win either way.
Keenan knew the downside of putting up a strong front so people wouldn’t worry—they assumed she was fine even when she wasn’t. Outwardly, she pretended not to mark special dates such as Annabel’s birthday, which was next weekend. The last thing she wanted to do was draw them deeper into her grief.
Wingèd Seraph: People don’t realize how much we worry over their feelings instead of our own. You’re right — in some situations there’s no way to win.
Half-A-Set: Exactly. I’ve been dreading this day for weeks.
Wingèd Seraph: FWIW, it got easier for me after the first year. Not easy, just easier. Seems like there’s something extra painful about the first Christmas without somebody, the first birthday, etc. After a while though it helps to look back on it and realize you made it through a whole year.
Half-A-Set: Makes sense. How long has it been for you?
Two years, three months…eleven days. Keenan wasn’t obsessive about that figure but she’d calculated it yesterday when Annabel got a solicitation in the mail for a credit card. Even dying wasn’t enough to get removed from a marketing list.
Wingèd Seraph: A little over two years. It was my partner Annabel.
When a couple of minutes ticked by with no reply, Keenan began to bristle at the implication. Had the mention of having a female partner given Half-A-Set pause?
“What do you make of that, Bennie? The least she could have done before inviting me to a private chat was read my profile. Maybe I should have spelled out dyke with a neon font.”
He licked her hand before rolling onto his back and twisting into a shape that shouldn’t have been possible. Boneless Bennie.
Wingèd Seraph: You still there?
Half-A-Set: Sorry, that kind of blew me away.
“Yeah, no shit.” Secure and confident in who she was, she’d long ago stopped trying to accommodate people’s bigotry just to get along. That didn’t make it any less annoying.
Half-A-Set: It’s hard to wrap my head around how far I have to go. First year, second year. Even a week feels like forever when all I hear is how I’ve got to move on. When you lose a twin, it’s like a piece of you has been ripped out. Everything you’ve learned how to do, you have to learn it again on your own. Talk, walk, breathe. Even when Gabe wasn’t physically beside me, he was always there. Like I could literally feel him. Probably sounds weird to most people. I’m sure losing your partner is just as hard…probably feels like your other half too.
Keenan released a shameful sigh. “Bennie, your mom can be a real shithead sometimes. You know that?”
Not only had she wallowed in her petty sense of slight, she’d been flippant over the special grief Half-A-Set was dealing with today. Losing a twin would ruin birthdays forever.
Wingèd Seraph: Nobody gets to tell you how much pain you’re allowed to feel or when it’s time to move on. Everybody’s different. All I know is I couldn’t have made it this far without Bennie. He was the best thing that happened to me after Annabel died. Not saying pets can replace people, but he keeps me focused on the good stuff. We all have to figure out what works for us.
Obviously Half-A-Set still faced an uphill climb, especially for the rest of her first year. There were no shortcuts when it came to processing grief.
Wingèd Seraph: I’ll be really honest with you, okay? When I first joined the forum I felt like I was trapped in hell. Some people wailed every day because they hurt so much. Others would chime in, saying things to comfort them. I read every single post. Stories like yours broke my heart, but they made me realize that how I felt was perfectly normal. Then after a few months I noticed something really cool — most people have a turning point. You see it when they jump in to support the new members who are trying to cope. Maybe it’s because they’ve started to heal — or maybe like me they realize it just feels better when you help. These days I check in to post something about Bennie to make people smile — people who had a tough day like you did. I feel like I’m paying back all the help I got when I needed it most.
Half-A-Set: So you think in another year or so I might be the one helping somebody else get through this?
Wingèd Seraph: I hope so. The pain never goes away but someday you can get to a place where you feel like, okay it doesn’t hurt as bad as it used to, I survived. Now maybe I can help somebody else.
Admittedly, she was painting a rosier picture than reality suggested, but she had a strong hunch Half-A-Set would find a way to heal. Given her muted presence on the forum so far, she wasn’t there for the drama. She was there to learn how to live with her loss—and she would.
Half-A-Set: Thanks for the vote of confidence. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat, especially tonight. I wasn’t sure if people on the forum even used this chat thing but I figured it was there, I’d give it a try. Your words give me something to think about. My friends all say it’ll get easier but it means more coming from somebody who’s actually gone through it.
Wingèd Seraph: Glad we could help. I’ll add your name to Bennie’s fan club.
Half-A-Set: LOL. It’s Gianna, btw. If you’re ever downtown, maybe we could grab a coffee or something.
Now that she was over her initial reluctance to engage, Keenan wasn’t as spooked by the idea of meeting in person. Besides, she’d been back in Pittsburgh for almost three years and her old friends weren’t exactly beating a path to her door. She’d been gone too long for that.
Wingèd Seraph: I’m Keenan. Huge coffee fan.
Gianna answered with the number to her cell phone, which Keenan pasted into her contacts before sending her own.
Half-A-Set: Great, text me sometime. I live downtown and I’m usually free most days after six. And weekends.
Wingèd Seraph: OK. Meanwhile Bennie sends his love, says to tell you happy birthday. Seriously, he said that word for word.
Gianna. Pretty name, maybe Italian since her brother’s name was Gabe. Obviously outgoing.
She signed off the forum and nudged Bennie from her lap. “Way to go, Romeo. You just picked up another girlfriend. How many is that, a hundred and six?”
* * *
Gianna Del Vecchio closed her laptop and choked back a wave of tears, her umpteenth of the day. In another hour and thirty-five minutes, her first birthday without Gabe would be over. It was helpful to hear Keenan say how important it was to get the “firsts” behind her. Only one more to face—the anniversary of his death just five weeks away.
Left to her own devices, she’d have languished at home all evening in misery, looking through photos and videos of Gabe when they were kids. Instead, best friend Jazmine Sadowski had whisked her off after work to happy hour with a handful of their lesbian friends.
Briefly, she’d even considered Jaz’s offer—“I promise, just as a friend”—to sleep over so she wouldn’t have to be alone. But there was always a risk Jaz would push for more, and Gianna was determined not to open that door ever again. No more sleepovers with Jaz, even if it meant being alone in her heartache.
Her brother’s death had left her with more than grief. Suicide added a sickening layer of guilt, the unshakable feeling that she could have stopped it if only she’d paid more attention to Gabe’s emotional state. If anyone should have known he was a danger to himself, it was his twin. Her relentless sorrow had led her online to the forum in search of comfort and forgiveness. Perhaps she’d found that path from the woman who called herself Wingèd Seraph…Keenan.
Her birthday continued to tick by as she washed her face and laid out her outfit for the next morning. A new text message lit up her phone: COULDN’T RESIST SAYING IT ONE MORE TIME — HAPPY B-DAY GIRLFRIEND!!!!!!!!
Gianna dialed Jaz’s number as she fell into bed. “I was just thinking about you. That was a really good idea you had, getting the girls together for happy hour. Just what I needed.”
“Of course it was. Nobody knows you like I do, Gianna.”
That much was true. Given their off-and-on stints as a couple across twenty years, Jaz had once been considered part of her family. But after she tried to buy cocaine from an undercover police officer three years ago—her second drug arrest—those days were gone and they weren’t coming back.
“I take it you didn’t hear from your folks,” Jaz said.
“Believe it or not, Dad actually came by the apartment and slid a card under my door. Weird that he couldn’t just walk down the hall to my office and give it to me in person. Signed both their names, of course.” It was a sore spot that her mother had withdrawn from everyone since Gabe’s death, skipping everything except weekly confession at her church. Her dad meanwhile carried on as usual, pretending he didn’t think of Gabe at all. “And Stefan left me a voice mail.”
“That was big of him.” It was no secret that Jaz didn’t care for her boss, Stefan, who happened also to be Gianna’s cousin. “He busted me for cutting out early today, even when I told him it was so I could catch you before you left the office. Why does he have to be such a dick? He knew it was your birthday.”
All three of them worked for TriState Healthcare Supplies, a midsized distribution company owned and run by Gianna’s family. Gianna was on the executive track in customer relations, while Stefan held Gabe’s old job managing the warehouse. Jaz oversaw distribution, making sure orders were complete and went out on time. Gianna had cashed in all her family favors to keep Jaz on after the arrest, since employment was a term of her probation. Without a job, she’d have gone to jail.
Gianna felt compelled to stick up for Stefan, who, because he was family, had inherited a job supervising over forty warehouse staff despite a total lack of managerial experience. “Stefan has to be careful not to show favoritism because of you and me. And he’s probably anxious about the wedding too, so cut him some slack.”
“If you ask me, Paige is the one who ought to be anxious, marrying a guy so full of himself. Anyway, I was thinking next year we ought to do your birthday bash a week early. You deserve your own day where you don’t have to think about Gabe.”
“It’s funny you say that. I was just chatting online with somebody from that suicide survivors forum I joined. Her name’s Keenan. We might meet up for coffee sometime. Anyway, she said holidays are easier once you get the first year behind you. So maybe next year’s birthday won’t be so hard.”
There was no mistaking the hesitation that followed as Jaz digested her mention of meeting someone. Since they’d broken up three years ago, Gianna had only herself to blame for not making it clear that she intended to date other women. Covid had thrown a two-year wrench into her plans, and the long stretch without dating probably fueled Jaz’s hopes they’d get back together. Now that restrictions had eased, she needed to put herself out there—even if it was just coffee with a woman from the grief forum. Jaz needed to see that she was moving on.
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