Soli Deo gloria

DISCLAIMER: I do NOT own Dear Evan Hansen. Or Pottery Barn. Or PowerPoint. Or Facebook. Or Road Runner. Or really anything copyrighted, lol.

Hey, guess who just read the entire play in less than twenty-four hours and listened to the soundtrack no less than thirty times over the past month? *points at myself* It's me. The answer's me. :D

Evan stood outside his old high school with sweat collecting on his palms. Wow, way to flashback to a multitude of terrifying teenage memories. He'd had this awful habit for just . . . years, even before high school. And even though he'd graduated ten years ago, just standing outside of this old building brought back all those moments, all those awful moments.

He shook his head. Now was not the time to go parading old memories from his past back through his brain. He shoved away the memory of his first attempt at talking to Zoe Murphy after that jazz band concert and stuck his hands into his pockets. Well, one hand, anyway. The other clasped his briefcase. It was a very full briefcase, full of tree books and his notes and the knowledgeable speech he'd researched through and through and agonized over at all hours last night. Yeah, he wasn't the best at speeches. Sure, he was better at talking than he'd been in high school, but when he was asked by one of the teachers to provide a speech about trees for the senior class in honor of Arbor Day, it'd taken all of him to gather up the courage and accept the invitation. Which was totally not like him.

Evan had come miles from where he'd been in high school, speech-making and talking-to-people and keeping-control-of-his-social-anxiety and all-that-wise—but that didn't mean he was suddenly able to just speak in front of a huge group of people without feeling nervous and anxious and stuttering and palms-sweating—again.

Ten years. He'd graduated from high school ten years ago. Then there'd been what he and his mom called his 'gap year' (gap year—yeah, right. Rich kids took a year off from college and went sailing around the world trying to 'find themselves'—that was a gap year. Evan took a year off and worked at Pottery Barn while accumulating college credits—still, he liked calling it his 'gap year' with his mom. It was an in-joke between them. No one else thought it was funny except them).

He'd gotten a bachelor's in plant biology but ended up being hired as an arborist by Ellison Park. It wasn't the best-paying job in the world, but his mom was so relieved when he got it. He loved it, actually. He basically became the main caretaker of all the trees in Ellison Park. Surrounded by trees and fresh air and blue sky all day, what more could he want?

But then there were the difficult parts of his job. Like being so knowledgeable about trees that your mom brags about you and some teacher catches wind of it and invites you as an alumnus to come and impart his wisdom to the next generation. And make himself look like and feel like a clumsy fool in front of a bunch of unimpressed kids. Yeah. This was a great idea.

He'd stood outside his old school for thirty minutes. He thought back to his conversation over breakfast with his mom that morning. He still lived at home (saved on rent) and they made a point of always having breakfast together, no matter how busy Mom was. I mean, she was always busy—her duties as a valued paralegal were on an unending list. Still, she always ate breakfast with him and talked. Just talked. It was so easy to tell Mom stuff, now. Maybe it was because they were both adults and he was no longer a teenager, or, maybe, because he knew it was okay to tell Mom stuff now, to talk about stuff, anything, really. That was important, too.

Anyway, she'd squeezed his hand and said, "Evan, you did all your research. You know your tree knowledge inside and out. Remember—all you're going to be doing is talking about something you love. Think about the trees and pretend you're telling me. That's all you need to do."

"Yeah, I know. It's just . . . it's a bunch of eyes, all staring at me, and seeing everything I do, and not missing anything, and it's hard to hide behind anything when everyone's watching you, you know?"

"Honey, I know. Still, you're gonna be great. You're gonna be amazing."

"I'll try. Thanks, Mom."

He was gonna do great. Just fine. Amazing, even. . .

"I've got this. I've got this. This is fine. I've got this." Fear prevented you from doing things in life. And Evan could do this.

"Evan? Evan Hansen?"

Evan, in the act of heading down to the main entrance, stopped. He felt blood drain from his face. His stomach dropped. He recognized that voice. A little lower than he last remembered it, a little unsure, but definitely—oh man, that was definitely Zoe Murphy. And she was right behind him, wasn't she?

Evan couldn't count the number of times he wished he could just disappear into thin air. This was one of those times.

She stepped forward. He could feel her hesitancy. He couldn't get why she was still there. Why didn't she just walk away? Why would she not walk away? Why would she want to talk to him? They hadn't talked in nine years.

She put her hand hesitantly on his arm. She almost pulled all the way away, but she didn't. She was as hesitant as he was, though with greater presence of mind, and the ability to not stand as still as a rock statue.

"Evan? You okay?"

Evan gulped and somehow managed to meet her eyes. If he couldn't find words to say anything before, his tongue was dry now.

She looked the same as she always had but also different. Her face was tighter, stronger. Her brown hair, in soft waves, was tucked back. She wore a concerned, yet almost . . . suspicious face. No, not suspicious. Searching. Wondering. Always a little skeptical.

Her eyes were the same, though. Green ringed with soft brown. Her piercing eyes were . . . soft. Was she searching for the boy inside the man that would always be there, or just recognizing the boy and not the man at all?

He gulped. Just—say something! For Pete's sake, you're not a teenager anymore! Just speak! Come on—she's Zoe Murphy! There's, like, a billion things you can say! Just. Say. Something. Anything.

But what do you say to the girl you betrayed years and years ago? What can you say to a girl you loved but you lied to? How can anything you say mean anything?

He'd been able to talk to her that last time they talked, back at the Connor Murphy Memorial Orchard. He grimaced at the memory. Not another old memory today. Please.

He could feel his palms getting sweaty.

He gulped and burst.

"Zoe! Hey, Zoe Murphy—it's still Zoe Murphy, right? Unless you're married, then I'm guessing you have a different last name, which means your name's not Zoe Murphy anymore—I keep saying your name—that's super annoying, but you know that, because, um, I think we've had this conversation before." Evan gulped and wiped his hand against his shirt.

Zoe hid a smile she wished wouldn't come up. "Yep, it's still Zoe Murphy. And you, Evan Hansen, haven't changed one bit."

Evan gulped. "Is that a good thing?"

Zoe nodded. "Yes, I think so."

"Oh. Good. That's good, I guess."

"So, what are you doing here? I can't imagine it's to soak in all the memories those awful four years provided." Zoe stood at his side and looked out at his view. He warily glanced at her. She didn't wear an angry or sad face. She was joking, maybe? Maybe not rubbing their rough past in his face? She had to be joking. Zoe was begrudging and suspicious but she wasn't cruel. Unless . . . the years changed her. But they couldn't have. The years hardened her face but she still had soft eyes.

"No. While it seems that's all I've been doing, that wasn't what I planned on doing today." He lifted his briefcase and nodded to a small pot by his feet. Out of the dark dirt rose a little tree, leaning against a sturdy stake. "Do you know what day it is?"

Zoe met his eyes. She thought and he tried not to quake. It was easier than he realized.

"It's the end of April. It's not first day of spring or anything."

"It's April 28th. It's Arbor Day," he said, only just containing all the excitement in his voice. "I'm going to make a speech at our old alma mater. About—about Arbor Day, obviously."

"You always loved trees. Connor loved trees—" Zoe only realized the words tumbling out of her mouth after she said them, and snapped her lips shut before she could go any further. Evan bit his lip and she cleared her throat and said, "That's a less pedophilic reason to be standing outside a high school."

"Yeah. Um, definitely. Um, Zoe . . . what are you doing here?"

"I've got a meeting with the guidance counselor and principal. I'm a substance abuse counselor and would like to speak about substance abuse in high schools and ways to prevent it," Zoe said, no intonation in her voice.

Evan was stunned into silence. He couldn't think of anything to say.

"Want to head in together?" she asked, suddenly turning to Evan.

"Sure," he said, putting all his confidence into that word.

She gave him a smile and he let her walk ahead. He couldn't figure out that smile—was it polite, or genuine? Why—why was she being nice to him? Talking to him, even? Was she just being polite? Didn't she remember what he did to her, to her parents?

He rushed ahead of her and put down his tree and opened the door. She smiled and lowered her eyes. He habitually rubbed his hand against his shirt to dry it, but he stopped short and stared at his hand. It was completely dry. But it shouldn't have been. He'd run into his old high school girlfriend who probably, you know, like, hated him—he should be sweating from every pore. And yet—dry as a bone. Well, that was something of a relief, at least.

"Evan." He looked up. Zoe waved a hand. "Coming?"

"Yeah, I'm coming."

He walked by her side through the old familiar, awful halls. They'd gotten new lockers since he graduated, but otherwise, it was just the same. Same old bent heads over phones, cliques, best friends, loners, drifters, skateboards and knapsacks and headphones.

"It's like we never left," Zoe said.

"Yeah. It is," Evan said.

Then they both suddenly stopped short. They'd reached a hall wall. On it was a big board. A bunch of pictures were put up with tacks on it—smiling kids, not smiling kids—all pictures of kids alone—over the top of the pictures were stickers spelling out IN MEMORIAM.

A picture of Connor Murphy half-smiling was tacked up. Evan remembered it from their junior year yearbook.

Zoe stepped forward and put a hand to Connor's picture. She let her fingers slide away.

"We never left," she said.

She turned to Evan and he saw a little wetness to her eyes that wasn't there before and he wanted to comfort her, but how? Like, like she would want comfort from him.

"This is where we part," she said.

"Oh. Okay." That was some quick finality. They'd only just met again—but then why would she want to stay a moment longer in his presence. Obviously they should part ways. Pretend this never happened. Obsess and nitpick and groan over it for the next few days. Obviously.

"The principal's office is right here. You have your classroom to get to, right?" Zoe said.

Evan snapped away from his thoughts. "Oh, yes. Definitely. I'm probably late, and I've probably made you late, and I'm sorry about that—"

"Which classroom is it?"

He pointed.

She nodded, and said, "Evan, can we meet, after your class is over and my meeting ends? Like, can we go get coffee or something?"

The clay pot in his hand shook. He gulped and tried to think of an excuse but he couldn't, and he wouldn't, because he didn't want to—but why would she want to talk to him? Why?

"Evan? Hey, you still there?"

"Yeah, yeah, I am. Sorry, lost in thought. I do that a lot. You know. But yeah—let's go out. I mean, out for coffee, not out-out, as in, going out on a date, 'cause that would be totally weird and not make sense because of our past and֫—"

Zoe gave him a look. It wasn't a mean look. It was a look that said she knew what he was doing, and was just waiting for him to realize that he should stop.

She knew him. She knew his tendencies, his anxious habits, his rambling. She knew it. It was awful, that she could get him so much, and he'd ruined them.

"Coffee sounds good."

"All right. Meet you out here." She gave him a little smile, like she didn't want to show it but couldn't help it, and reflexively touched his arm. He almost did drop the clay pot that time.

Evan watched her enter the principal's office. He remembered the time he'd entered the principal's office—the time that mattered. The time when he opened the door to find a tear-streaked Cynthia and stoic Larry Murphy.

Why'd he even agree to this? Why did he come back to this haunted building full of ghosts and regrets?

The funny thing was, he wished he could go in with Zoe. Really, anything to avoid the task at hand.

"Mr. Hansen? I'm Miss Stacey. Are you ready with your speech?" A teacher stood outside her classroom. He couldn't escape, even though everything in him wanted to run away.

He flashed a quick smile and said, "As ready as I'll ever be."

He hadn't expected the round of applause at the end of his speech. He'd expected the kids to either fall asleep, bored out of their skulls, or look completely judgmental and scoffing and you know, like teenagers. Instead he heard an applause that sounded of some general interest. After some of the last hands fell into silence, he heard one particular clap sounding from the corner of the room. He looked up from his clay pot and papers to see Zoe finally resting her hands back on her lap.

His heart stopped and then started double-time. Had she been there the whole time? How much had she heard? Did he mess up at all? Did she see him mess up?

He scrambled to gather his papers and erase his illustrations from the blackboard. He'd elected to no longer use notecards for speeches. He only used them for reference right before the blood-curdling ordeal. He collected his laptop from which he'd shown off a PowerPoint presentation of his own design (it wasn't as good as Jared Kleinman could've done, but he wasn't the computer whiz he was). He spent a stupid amount of time collecting his stuff, long after the teacher dismissed the students. Really, he was just stalling the inevitable—facing Zoe Murphy. It was already bad enough facing high school students but to mix in a regret of his own high school experience into the audience? WOW—talk about pressure. And yet, another check—dry hands. Which was actually a miracle of miracles.

He heard a cleared throat and looked up to see Miss Stacey looking expectantly at him. "I'm sorry, Mr. Hansen, but I have another class due here in five minutes."

"Oh. Yeah. Sorry. I'll be out of here in just a minute."

"Thank you for your time. Though they don't show it, my students appreciate the time and effort you showed them today by coming out here. It really meant a lot."

Evan's eyes strayed from Miss Stacey to Zoe's. She'd looked up from her cellphone at the start of their conversation. He dropped her eyes and said, "I'm glad someone liked it." He certainly hadn't.

Zoe shouldered her purse and stuck her cellphone into it. She smiled at Evan, who was just so glad to have her complete and undivided attention, and said, "Evan, that was amazing."

"How much of it did you hear?" he wondered as they entered the hall, now crowded with students rushing to different classes and activities. For the first day that day, Evan felt relieved that he had someone by his side. He was glad that he wasn't alone.

"My meeting ended early, so I figured that a speech about deforestation and tree diseases was much more interesting than scrolling through Facebook. You're really knowledgeable about trees, Evan."

"I certainly hope so. I'm an arborist."

Zoe stopped and looked at him, a little surprised. He shrugged.

"I just . . . I really love trees."

She smiled a little, like she liked that idea. He forced himself to breathe normally as they walked out of their old high school.

Evan felt so relieved that if Zoe noticed he'd ordered decaf coffee, she hadn't noticed. Caffeine did bad things to him—brought his finger-tapping against his legs to a Road Runner speed, messed with his pill dosage—the usual stuff. In fact, they kinda ignored their coffee as they leaned across their coffeeshop booth so he could show her the different tree pictures he had on his phone. Yeah, he was a total nerd. Zoe had pictures of excursions to Europe and picnics with her parents enjoying the great outdoors, and he had pictures of tree fungus. Totally interesting and not a mood-killing conversation topic.

Still, Zoe didn't even feign interest. She put her chin on her folded arms and listened intently as he pointed at various points of the trees, describing the disease this particular one was riddled with, the procedure to cure this one, the saddening but necessary decision to cut down this one before its disease spread to others of its kind. See, he could talk for hours about trees while staring at his phone. Looking Zoe face-to-face and having a meaningful conversation about people and relationships—yeah, that was harder to get through.

Zoe finally sat back and sighed contentedly as she sipped at her coffee, signifying the end of a meaningful, scholarly conversation about the one thing Evan knew inside and out.

"Wow, Evan. I'm glad you became an arborist. You're a really good one, and we need people in this world who are really good and passionate about what they do."

"It's easier for me to be around trees than people, so yeah, perfect career for me," Evan said. He reluctantly put away his phone. Now was the time to grow anxious under Zoe's all-seeing eyes. He held his coffee in his hand but made no effort to drink it.

"I remember you said your mom was going to class to be a paralegal. How'd that work out for her?"

"Oh, well, she graduated, and is now one of the most in-demand paralegals in the city. Lots of firms are always trying to steal her. They recognize her hard work and, um, realize that that's what they want on their team. A nice, caring, hard worker. She gets her pick. So. She's happy. I still live at home. But we hang out a lot. She's always there, but if she's not like, really there, there's always texting. Email. You know. Always there." Evan shut up but he couldn't help smiling. Mom never left him, no matter what. They communicated better and were really able to talk about stuff. He was just . . . really grateful for that. Then he stuttered, realizing he left Zoe hanging. "So, um, what are you up to? Your parents? They're doing . . . okay?"

"Oh, yeah. They're doing fine. Dad spends a lot less time at the firm. He's thinking of retiring soon. Imagine both my parents without jobs and doing whatever they can to fill their time—they'll go crazy. But then, that's the old them. They actually keep busy now. Dad likes volunteering as a high school baseball coach. He really likes talking to the boys and teaching them about baseball. . . It's a good outlet for him. And my mom—she's settled down and found out what she really likes doing."

"Oh, good!"

"I know. It's a lot less flip-flopping than we're used to," Zoe said, and then she laughed a little, and Evan froze. It was that smile—her little smile like she knew something funny, and had just let him in on it. Oh, man, that smile—her eyes and that smile had stood the test of time and stood out now, unblemished by years.

His hands starting sweating again. Damn it.

"She takes cooking classes now. Cooks actual food, not gluten-free or tofu-stuffed stuff. It's like, edible, now."

That made him laugh. He stopped laughing when he saw her own smile fade as she said, "She volunteers at a suicide prevention hot-line. She feels like she has a greater ability to help people that way. She feels like . . . I think it's her feeling a little guilty, and wanting to redeem herself, because she couldn't . . . help Connor." She sighed and looked out the window, past Evan, though he didn't mind. He knew she was thinking of words to say. Zoe had a hard time admitting stuff sometimes. He remembered that about her. "But then, nobody could've helped Connor." She looked ruefully at Evan and said, not quite teasing, but not quite serious, "Not even you."

Evan tried not to squirm. He said the first thing that popped into his head: "She shouldn't feel guilty. Like, she did everything she could but that doesn't mean that she failed him or anything—"

"She used to think she did. But she didn't. Connor was . . . if he didn't want her help, then there was nothing more she could've done." Zoe pressed her lips together and her hands tightened around her coffee. She took a sip and said, "She and Dad and I still picnic a lot at the orchard. It's . . . we've spent so many happy times there over the years. Before and after Connor. Sometimes I feel like I remember him better there. My best memories of him were there, actually."

Evan wasn't sure where this conversation was headed. Zoe was talking matter-of-factly about her parents and their troubles and successes, talking of Connor without resentment or regret. How was she completely overlooking the fact that Evan had screwed all of her family and her over? He felt uncomfortable, like she was rubbing it in his face. Maybe Zoe Murphy was a little cruel.

The conversation had lagged into awkward silence. At least, Evan thought it was awkward. He hurriedly changed subjects. "So, what about you? What are you doing? Oh, right, you already told me, so that was a stupid question—but um, what led to that? Being a substance abuse counselor?" Zoe met his eyes and he felt stupid about the obvious answer to his question—Connor. "I-I know it's 'cause of Connor, but um, what led you to that particular, um, pursuit?"

Zoe took a deep breath. "When I had to decide on my college degree, I choose psychology. I know, it's a pretty useless degree, unless you find a job that fits its particular parameters. At first, I just wanted to learn about psychology. It's because of Connor. But then, I feel like a lot of my life had to do with Connor. I mean. . ." She sighed, but decided to swallow and continue with that line of thought, almost as if she felt compelled to make a clean breast of it, "When he died, we all had different reactions to his death. My dad was bitter and could barely acknowledge it with emotion. My mom was . . . borderline hysterical. And me . . . I was more like my dad. I felt so many . . . other emotions that I somehow felt I shouldn't have. I should have been sad and crying and grief-stricken. I mean, Connor was my only brother, my only sibling. But, I wasn't sad. I was angry and annoyed and indifferent and almost detached. That scared me, a little. Was it because of who Connor was or because of who I was that I acted like that? I wanted to learn the reasons behind all our reactions. And, I actually wanted to learn more about you."

"Me?" Evan's voice was a suddenly worried squeak. "About me, how?"

Zoe shrugged. "Kinda wanted to know why you did what you did. You told us some, but . . . I couldn't understand it, for a while. I was so angry at you, and at myself. I felt like I'd let you play us. Looking back on it, though, I feel like we wanted you to play us. We wanted to see Connor in a different light—all three of us. And you presented him in a different light and all the deep, grieving parts that were in all three of us, we fed into that. 'Cause if we didn't, we'd have to face reality: that our son and brother was a drug addict that resisted any attempts at help and killed himself, regardless of what his actions did to us, his family."

A long silence followed. Zoe put down her empty cup and clasped her hands in front of her. She sighed. "I'm not excusing what you did."

"What I did was truly and utterly unforgivable," Evan said quickly. He didn't want her to think that he regretted what he did lightly, that somehow he didn't feel the total remorse and horror and sickness of what he'd done to everyone involved. It was the worst thing he'd ever done.

"No, it's not," Zoe said softly.

Evan's heart thumped weirdly. What'd she say?

"It's unforgettable. I mean, it happened. We can't just set it aside. But . . . Evan, do you know why I wanted to have coffee with you?"

"I was thinking along the lines of bringing up the past and kinda rubbing it in my face so that I feel even more remorse for what I did. If that was your plan, it totally worked." If he was trying to be a little funny, he failed miserably. He couldn't meet her eyes.

Zoe reached across the table and grabbed his hand and squeezed it gently. Evan felt that immediate reaction: fight or flight. To hurriedly withdraw his sweaty palm (she could probably feel the clamminess now—she was disgusted, she wanted to drop his hand) or just . . . let her squeeze it. It was a kind of . . . comforting gesture. It was unexpected. It was terrifying. It was warm.

"No. I wanted to tell you that we forgive you. My parents do, I do . . . or, we did. We forgave you long ago. I just . . . it seemed really callous to tell you over a text or a phone call. And somehow, after our meeting at the orchard, I thought I would never see you again. But today, when I saw you, I realized that I could tell you. We hadn't yet, and I . . . I needed you to know."

Evan couldn't say a word. He'd always hoped that the Murphys had forgiven him. He'd had hope when he realized that they never told anyone about the 'suicide note'. He'd always wondered, but knew it was a lot to ask for. Now, somehow, a weight he'd carried for years and years without a realization of what exactly the weight was lifted from his chest. He breathed normally for the first time since he'd heard Zoe Murphy's voice that day.

"Thank you," were all the words he could find to say.

Zoe squeezed his hand again. He liked it, that time.

She continued, like she somehow knew he needed a change of subject. "So, I got my degree and wanted to put it to work. I could either spend years getting a doctorate, or I could help people right now. So now I work with people who want to get better. I want them to get better. I think I do it like Mom volunteers at the hot-line—we're both doing what we can to help, even if it's a little too late for the one person we wished we could help."

"You're both doing a lot of good, then. You're being there for people who need someone to be there for them. That means more than you could possibly imagine." He met her eyes. She looked a little sad, and too thoughtful. Zoe Murphy's mind was always too keen and knowing.

He'd never told her he once tried to kill himself, but he intuitively knew she'd figured it out. Zoe was smart, and she knew him.

A silence reigned then, but, for once, Evan liked it. It wasn't awkward. It was thoughtful, and understanding. For once he didn't shy away from Zoe's eyes or her pressure on his hand. He . . . it wasn't a bad thing, or a worrisome thing.

Zoe's phone buzzed, which killed the comfortable mood. She let go of his hand and he hated that as she went to check her notifications.

"Ah, damn it. I have a meeting to go to. I completely forgot about it. I'm sorry, Evan."

"Please, don't be. Let me walk you out."

They stood outside the little coffee shop and Zoe put away her phone again. She tucked a fallen lock of hair behind her ear and said, "Hey, Evan—"

"Yeah? Um, yeah, sorry, you were talking, probably about to ask me something, sorry for interrupting—" He cut himself off abruptly and pocketed his hands.

Zoe smiled at his old habit. Somehow, it was an endearing one. "Are you going to your ten-year high school reunion in July?"

Actually, he hadn't been planning on it. He really, really didn't want to run into Jared Kleinman and Alana Beck. He had a bad feeling that they'd bring up the Connor Project and knowingly rub it in his face and make him look bad the entire night, out of sheer revenge.

"I wasn't going to—how do you know there's gonna be a ten-year high school reunion this July?"

"I . . . I got a special invitation last year. They asked me to come in Connor's place, kind of as a special way to remember him."

She would come back to the judgmental eyes of the senior classmates, all who'd long forgotten her until now—the sister of Connor Murphy, that stuck-up bitch who let him kill himself—for Connor's sake. For Connor, a brother she barely ever knew, and rarely ever liked.

"Oh. Um, yeah, I mean, I could go—it's fun, checking out the old rooms"—he had bad memories in every room, especially the computer lab and auditorium—"and catching up with people"—and being utterly scoured by a sourly betrayed Jared while having Alana list all her accomplishments of the last decade into his ear. Yeah, totally a great idea—"and stuff."

"You hate catching up with people. I just know it." Zoe laughed.

"I mean, you're not wrong. Usually I do. But this. I like this. Coffee. Talking with you. It's not as bad as like running into Alana or Jared—not that I've had a bad time. Not bad. At all. This is actually pretty nice. Um."

"You don't have to go to the reunion just to see me again, Evan."

Evan felt like she'd looked into his mind and seen the thought that'd been running through his head the most. Zoe was amazing.

"Do you have a business card?" Zoe wondered.

Evan fumbled into his pocket and brought one out. "Yeah, um—why?"

Zoe took the card and slyly slipped one of her own into his hand. She pocketed his business card and said casually, "You know that apple scab you showed me on a couple of trees from Ellison Park? I think some of the orchard trees have fungus on them that look just like it. I'll email you and we'll schedule an appointment for you to come and check them out, and, like, diagnosis them properly."

Evan couldn't find words. Again. She had that effect on him. Almost always had, actually.

"Does that sound okay?"

"Yes—YES! I mean. Um. If your parents wouldn't mind, like, my being there. At the orchard. After everything."

"Evan, remember: we forgave you."

"Oh. Yeah. Right."

She touched his shoulder and turned to go. And Evan, without thinking, just kind of shouted, "Zoe, hey, um, can I ask you a question?

She folded her arms and met him with that old Zoe Murphy hint of sarcasm. "You just did. But—what's up?"

"Um, this is super awkward and personal and you don't have to answer it at all, or ever, really, um, but I noticed—it's still Murphy. You know, as your last name. So you never. You know."

She held up her left hand and pointed to her ring finger. It was—his heart jumped up and down—devoid of any ring.

"No. Never. You?"

"Me? Me?" Was she serious? Like he had the audacity—the courage to—no, no! "Um, never."

"Just haven't found the right one. Yet." She shrugged.

"Me too."

Zoe pulled a smile to one side of her mouth, and they were both half turned away when she said, "Evan, I have one question for you, too."

"Yes?" he said too eagerly, facing her again.

"Did you ever forgive yourself? About Connor, and everything?" Zoe asked softly.

Several beats paused. Evan finally said, "I have. Just now."

He'd accepted who he was but somehow, he hadn't ever forgiven himself for all those horrible lies he'd made. How could he? He'd done the unthinkable. He'd wanted to forgive himself time and time again for years, but he felt like . . . he didn't deserve to forgive himself if the Murphys hadn't forgiven him. To hear that . . . they forgave him . . . it was almost like Zoe gave him permission to forgive himself when she told him that.

Zoe smiled. It was a real smile, sort of subtle and perfect and real. "I'm glad. See you, Evan."

"See you, Zoe." Those parting words somehow felt inadequate and lame after their meeting, but they were all he could think of to say. In the end, they were all he needed to say, anyway.

He glanced at the business card she'd handed him and pressed his fingertip under her name. 'Zoe Murphy.' Once, all his hope was pinned on her—Zoe Murphy. It was a little funny that he now pinned a little bit on her once again, ten years later.

He habitually checked his palm under the business card, and felt a little swell of relief in his chest—dry. Plain ol' dry. He let his chest expand after being weighed down for so long—felt it expand with some relief, and joy, and once again, hope.

This musical did a number on me, I'll tell you what. ;-;

Thanks for reading! Review?