Fifteen

☼►thirty-one◄☼

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Days meld together, one after another after another. Though I’ve been looking forward to spending the holiday with my parents, I find myself resenting having to leave the sunny warmth of Huntington Beach for the blistering cold of Indiana. My only silver lining for the trip is now gone: Bev had promised to with me, but then she’d changed her mind. Now she’s spending the holiday with Wayne and his family, while I have to endure our relatives alone.

Dray and Trix are planning on having a ‘Friendsgiving’ instead of dealing with their families; according to them, it’s much easier to deal with friend drama than the “bullshit family brings.” Malcolm is spending the day with his kids, his ex-wife, and her new husband. Marley gets to spend a six-day weekend in the Arizona heat, while Travis doesn’t even have to leave the state to see his mom and sister. They’re lucky that way.

The twenty-fourth arrives with little fanfare, and Travis has the decency to give me a lift to the airport. He stops out front, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel while I clamber out of the passenger seat. The moment I have my suitcase in hand, he blows me a kiss and peels away from the curb. I can’t help laughing at him. As long as I’ve known him, I have never seen him not excited about an excuse to spend time with his family and friends.

Marley is already in Tempe, having caught a flight yesterday morning, and I mentally curse her for leaving me alone as I make my way inside the enormous building. The place is packed; people bump recklessly into each other as they run to their terminals.

My skin crawls with the nearness of them all, and it grows harder to breathe with the sheer number of bodies moving to and fro. I bite back a vehement Fuck you, too when someone’s suitcase rolls over my toes. Losing my temper right now will only end poorly. I do, however, let myself imagine them not making their flight and being stuck in the airport overnight.

It’s not quite as cathartic as cursing at them, but it’ll have to do.

The flight is uneventful, if a bit cramped. It seems as if everyone in Huntington Beach has chosen today to fly out of California. Thankfully, the plane lands in Indianapolis without any trouble. I wait my turn to grab my luggage and push through the crowd of people.

My dad stands at baggage claim, staring at the arrival board. He doesn’t look any different—maybe a few added lines on his face, a bit more grey in his hair. His hug is the same, though. Tight, silent, warm. We wait for my suitcase to come around, and he grabs it up before slinging his arm around my shoulder. I follow him out of the airport.

The silence between us is one I’m long accustomed to. Since Sophie, our conversations have been mostly small talk. The deeper ones are only held when he’s been drinking. I hate it, I hate that I don’t have a better relationship with him. But I can’t change it. I’ve tried for the last eight years.

He still drives the same pickup truck. I always needed a boost up into the cab when I was a child. Sophie used to help, laughing all the while. She’d always tell me to grow longer legs, squirt. I shake away the memories and inspect the truck. Old Bessie has more rust on her than I’ve ever seen before. I frown.

“Not taking care of her, Dad?”

“I’m old. So’s she.”

I shake my head as I haul myself onto the seat. Memories tickle at the back of my brain. I remember sitting between Sophie and my dad as we went flying through empty fields, mud flinging from under the tires. Sitting in the back on the hump over the tire, the sun beating down on us as we drove to the corner store. Slumber parties on thick quilts in the bed of the truck, nothing but stars above us and crickets singing in the grass.

Every memory is tainted with Sophie’s presence.

Once I’ve buckled my seat belt, I reach over and press the power button to the stereo. George Strait’s voice comes through the speakers as he sings about a thousand dimes and fool-hearted memories. My father pats my hand, lips heavy with the smile I know he won’t give. He pulls out of the car park without a word.

Settling into my old room is… odd, to say the least. It always is. The pink walls trimmed in sunshine-yellow, thick white carpet, Settling into my old room is… odd, to say the least. It always is. The pink walls trimmed in sunshine-yellow, thick white carpet, even the porcelain dolls Nan bought for me when I was a child. I never understood why she gifted a seven year old with fragile dolls that said child couldn’t even touch. I much preferred my Barbies.

My mother spends the entire afternoon scouring the house from top to bottom. She even polishes the banister on the stairs until it gleams in the sunlight. I try to help—God knows she’s stressed enough about seeing my paternal grandparents—but she shoos me away. It brings back memories of growing up. She’d always preferred to relieve her stress with cleaning by herself.

I just hate that she puts herself through so much simply to prevent my Nan’s judgement. It never works, and my mother is left feeling like a failure. She has since she married my dad. It’s only gotten worse since Sophie ran away.

The following day is spent preparing sides, though my father takes over getting the turkey ready. He doesn’t trust anyone with it. He won’t allow anyone to get within a foot of it before it’s cooked. Not since Sophie convinced me to stuff popcorn and jelly beans inside of one when I was four and she was eight. I’d never heard my dad swear that much in my life. I still haven’t.

“Happy Systematic Slaughter Day!” I cry as I fling the front door open on Thanksgiving, and my grandfather rolls his eyes.

“When the Hell are you gonna stop sayin’ that?”

I shrug and step back so my father’s parents can come inside. “Probably when history changes and colonisers didn’t systematically slaughter the same people who helped them acclimated to the land they were invading.”

Grandpa shoves past me, grumbling all the way, and Nan scowls before kissing my cheek.

“Why must you rile that old man up? You know he hates when you do that.”

“That’s why I do it. He needs to be reminded of how horrible our ancestors were.”

Nan’s face twists up—sour expression and tightly pinched lips—and I stifle a giggle at the burst of victory in my chest. Nan and Grandpa have never quite approved of me. I was too much like my mother, too isolated, too much of a sarcastic brat. Their displeasure only grew worse after I overheard them talking to my cousin about my mom, only months after Sophie ran away.

“If Theresa was any sort of mother, Sophie would never have felt the need to leave.”

The words were barely out of Nan’s mouth when I burst into the room and demanded my nan get out of our house. The following Christmas had been awkward, to say the least.

Thankfully, Shay has grown out of believing anything our grandmother says, so it’s easier to greet her when she and Uncle Lonnie arrive at noon. It’s also easier to hang out with her before and after the feast. It’s even easier to tell her to shove up her ass her desire to walk around, because I am not about to go outside in barely-sixty-degree weather and exercise. Instead, we head up to my bedroom to avoid the political talk amongst the older generation and the hyperactive behaviour of the younger.

I flop across my bed as she tells me about her boyfriend, what it’s like to work in the zoo, and Uncle Lonnie and Aunt Hazel’s divorce. In return, I show her my tattoos. She squeals at the rubber ducky on my wrist and gasps aloud before running her finger over the ones on my thighs. The chrysanthemums, crimson roses, and gladioli that make up the memorial tattoo for Sophie. I don’t—can’t—show her the words inked under my ribs.

Those are a private thing, meant only for me.

Shay’s smile turns mischievous as I tug my jeans back up my legs. “How willing are you to show Nan and Grandpa?”

“Not. At. All.”

As much as I’ve missed my family, even my father’s parents, I am overwhelmingly thankful when they all leave. The fact no one said anything approaching ‘emotionally charge’ doesn’t slip past me, and all I can do is thank the stars they all behaved. Just last year, Aunt Linda stormed from the table and sat in her car until her husband and son were ready to leave.

My parents head to bed around eleven. I’m honestly surprised they’re still together, sleeping in the same room again. I figured my dad’s stubborn pride and stoicism would be the end of them.

The next day is much more relaxed. No visitors means I can laze about all day, texting Marley and Travis. I had sent everyone in my group of friends a warning when I was boarding the plane. Mar managed to wait a whole three days before blowing up my phone with texts.

Harry never replied. The last message from him came two days before I left California. It only contained generic wishes for a good holiday and to send my parents his love.

I have to keep reminding myself his schedule keeps him busy. If I don’t, the hurt creeps in.

“So tell me how you and Harry reconnected,” my mom says as she sits in the armchair diagonal from the sofa. In her hands is a mug of hot chocolate, and I’m almost jealous until I remember I have coffee, which is far superior. “I mean, all you said was that you two were talking again. You never gave any more details than that.”

Smiling to myself, I pick at the edge of my phone’s casing. “Well, Mar and I were walking to work—oh, c’mon, Mom, you didn’t think I got this rocking bod by driving everywhere, did you? Anyway. We were walking along, singing Flyleaf as you do, and here comes this group of dude. And, well, it was Harry and his band, with their security pushing them along. I got his attention, and the rest is history.”

“I’m glad you two found each other again. I know he was so important to you as a kid, and how hurt you were when he stopped writing letters.”

“He still is important.”

She hesitates, sips at her drink. The frown on her lips doesn’t bode well for me—it promises I won’t like what I hear. Eventually, she sets her mug on the end-table.

“Are you… Do you still have feelings for him?”

“Mom—”

“Seren, please, just—just answer the question.”

“I mean, maybe?” I exhale sharply and push myself to sit upright. “I think so, but I don’t know if it’s, y’know, leftovers from when I was fifteen. I can’t be sure it’s real or just because we’re talking again.”

My mom sighs, pushing a hand through her hair, and gives me a smile tinged with sadness. “Well, no matter what, please be careful, honey. I’m sure Harry is a lovely boy, but he’s also a musician. He’s had girls throwing themselves at him for years. That kind of life can’t be easy to leave behind.”

I nod slowly through the pain stabbing through my chest. Her reasons for caution are valid—Harry has been an international popstar with a huge following for so long. I understand why she’s warning me against the possible perils of ever getting romantically involved with him. But there has never been anything between him and me, not then and certainly not now. Even if there was, she doesn’t know him like I do. Did.

Whoever he is now can’t be that much different than before. Can it?