I already knew that this month would crawl by just to torture me, but somehow I can still find it within myself to be indignant about it. I guess I just really couldn’t prepare myself for the inevitable, no matter how much I knew that it was coming.
And nothing, not one single thing, about my situation at home has gotten any better. In fact, if anything, it’s gotten worse.
Christine’s crawled further up my ass and Kyla’s taken to riding it like a six flags roller coaster. Ultimately, my ass is getting lots of play, and while I’m not a prude, that’s just not a place that I’m comfortable getting shafted. Not that getting shafted is supposed to be comfortable…
But still, I’m rather sore.
I just can’t seem to shake them at all. They have this system where they play off of each other: Christine nitpicks nonstop, and of course, I wind up saying something, which then has Kyla giving me a tongue lashing.
Well, this pony feels rode hard and put away wet.
And it’s only been a week.
Today though… today is bliss. Or at least it should be bliss because the house is empty. I thought that I would enjoy some alone time to let my ass heal a little, but it’s quiet, nostalgic, and lonely. Well, except for the occasional memory or past hallucination. But ultimately, it just feels like a tomb.
I can literally hear the tick of the clock on the kitchen wall as I sit on the couch with nothing to do but slowly go insane. I tried to play guitar, but I just can’t seem to focus. Filling the space with the mind numbing sounds of television or radio didn’t do any good either. Honestly, I think that the silence has sapped my ability to concentrate, which then creates this endless loop where I can’t do anything to break said silence because of the silence.
It’s so fucking stupid, really…
So here I sit, alone, in this oppressively soundless house, my mind whirring with recollections great and small, painful and ecstatic. And the longer that I’m here, the more that I have only my thoughts to break these moments, the more that I realize just how much I miss Spencer. And the more that I miss her, the less that I can comprehend how I left her in the first place.
I can’t fathom that day at graduation, or the last four years for that matter. So it almost feels like nothing’s real. Like this is some alternate universe I’ve just magically found myself in.
Where did I get that strength – that will – to remove her from my heart?
No, wait, I didn’t remove her from my heart. That’s not possible. I tore out my heart completely.
Maybe the strength came from my ass, like everything else recently. I just can’t figure out how I did it. But I did, and as a result, I’ve been half a person for all of these years and I’m only just now feeling that loss, feeling just how incomplete I am. And I’m so incomplete that I could run my hand down the right side of my body and find a single, long, jagged edge. I want to put myself back together again, to find the strength to be whole. But I tore those limbs away, ripped them from my flesh and broke them from my bone. And these are things that just don’t grow back.
Christine, Spencer, and even Kyla – they’ve moved on. They don’t need me anymore to be complete. So how can I do that? How do I not need them, or at least go back to being oblivious?
I could always try to find new parts, but that would make me a monster, a Frankenstein, a patchwork of pieces that just don’t fit. I’d be hideously disfigured. Or maybe I already am; it’s all just on the inside, hidden and ugly and malfunctioning in a way that can’t be seen and is only felt.
Why didn’t I just die like I was supposed to?
Do you see why I can’t concentrate? This internal monologue, diatribe, whatever you want to call it, it’s choking me.
Every time I try to find even a moment of peace, my mind goes through it all over and over again while the ticks of that infernal clock ring out in this empty house like gunshots. I get to my feet and head for the stairs, deciding that I’ll again try to take a nap, but I know that I’ll fail. Hiding, running, sleeping my life away, all of the things that used to keep me going, none of them hold any relief for me anymore.
I’d give anything to know how to escape again, to forget the world for just a little while.
Just as I’m about to ascend the first step, I hear a car door shut. I pause involuntarily as a giddy jolt rolls through me.
They’re home early.
I turn back to the front window and peak through the blinds, expecting to see Christine’s Suburban in the driveway, but it’s not there.
They’re still gone.
I let out a disappointed sigh. Why didn’t I go with them today? Oh, right, I’m tired of being a pony. And I hate Christmas shopping. I do it all on the internet.
I watch as Spencer steps out of the car in the Carlins’ driveway and release a frustrated grunt. I just don’t want to be alone here anymore, but I don’t really have a choice. I let go of the blinds dejectedly and make my way back to the stairs, hoping that sleep will make itself possible. But then I stop again as what I just saw finally registers like a lightbulb over my thick head.
It’s not a moment later that I’m flinging the door open and running outside like a maniac. I’m down the front steps and about halfway through the snow covered front yard before I finally stop, realizing that I have no reason to run out here to meet her.
She didn’t even tell me that she was coming.
God, she’ll think that I’m a lunatic…
God, I am a lunatic…
Just as I’m about to quietly retreat back inside, I hear her voice.
Fuck, she sees me, in my socks, in the snow, standing here like a fucking idiot.
I sidle up next to the snow family that Kyla and I built a couple of days ago and hope to blend in.
“Ash, what are you doing?”
She’s looking at me like I forgot my meds. And maybe I need to start taking some…
“Um… I was just… I just thought…”
I shrug, dusting some snow off of the taller snow lady’s head.
God, I’m such a fucking retard.
Spencer chuckles a little. “Well, the snow people are very nice.”
I tuck my hands in my pockets and feel the skin on my arms tighten. Not only did I forget my shoes in my haste to see her, but I didn’t grab a jacket.
“I’m surprised to see you,” I deflect.
She glances at her childhood home before coming to stand next to my shivering form.
“I’m surprised to be here,” she says solemnly.
“What changed your mind? I mean, when you texted, you said that the talk didn’t go very well,” I chatter out.
Vapors burst from her mouth as she exhales a long breath. “That’s what changed my mind. Things are just too bad to ignore.”
I nod in understanding, but then, I’m like a vibrating bobble head at this point in time, so nodding is sort of a perpetual state of being.
She gives me the once over, her eyes starting at my goose-fleshed arms and working their way down to my feet where she cocks her head.
“Are you wearing shoes?”
I try to shrug, but it’s lost in my convulsing.
“Ash, you’re going to freeze to death.”
I’m glad that she’s worried about me because that means that she’ll be too distracted to notice that I bolted out of the house in next to nothing just to see her. She finally grabs my arm and starts to pull me towards the steps.
“Couldn’t wait to see me, huh,” she asks smugly.
I glare at her. Fuck, it’s just not fair for her to just magically know everything I don’t want her to know.
“I thought you were Kyla and Christine,” I explain. “I was going out of my mind here alone. This place gives me the heebie jeebies.”
She’s not buying it. “But you grew up here…”
We step into the warmth of the house and my feet immediately feel like they’re being stabbed by hundreds of needles.
I reach down and pull off a stiff, sodden sock. “Yeah, well, it’s not the same house.”
I pull off the other sock while she looks around.
“It looks the same to me,” she responds.
“Look closer,” I gesture to the pictures along the staircase wall.
She climbs a couple of steps, looking at the photos, and I follow her.
“Wow, you weren’t kidding.”
I shake my head. “It gets worse.”
She turns to me, leaning against the banister. “What do you mean?”
“Come on,” I say, squeezing awkwardly past her and leading the way up the stairs to the empty box that used to be my room.
“Wow,” she says when we enter and I just nod knowingly.
“You finally cleaned your room…,” she deadpans… with a fucking grin no less.
On impulse I poke her in the ribs. She clutches at her wounded bones and gapes at me unbelievingly. And she should. This is the first time that I’ve ever retaliated.
It feels good.
“Serves you right,” I say to her incredulous face.
“You poked me!”
“Damn right I did.”
“But I’m the poker, and you’re the poke-e.”
I snort a laugh and grab some clean socks out of one of my bags before rummaging around for a hoodie.
“Carmen’s your poke-e now, not me,” I say through a cocky smirk before continuing my still fruitless search in the abyssal depths of my luggage.
“Oh my God,” she breathes.
I glance up at her curiously. I wasn’t trying to be mean…
“Hey, it’s the truth,” I say, but her eyes are staring at the open bag at the end of the bed.
I follow her gaze.
I leap over and try to stuff the green cloth deeper inside and bury it amongst its brothers and sisters, but she’s already descended on us both, her hands seemingly everywhere as she tries to pry it from my fingers.
“Hey,” I shout at her. “Get out of my clothes!”
“That’s mine,” she shouts back, giggling and tugging harder, and then, the cloth rips and we both fall on our asses.
I go stalk still and feel tears sting my eyes as I look down at this ridiculous, old, worn piece of faded cloth that means so much to me.
“You killed it…,” I exhale in shock.
Spencer’s still having fun and whoops as she holds up her half. “Finally, the mystery is solved!”
I feel like we’ve just desecrated the corpse of a loved-one.
Spencer seems to notice my glum and finally calms down. “It’s just a hoodie, Ash.”
No, no it’s not. But then she couldn’t know that. She doesn’t know that this hoodie carried me through years of treatments, tears, depression, and countless hours waiting to die. This hoodie was a piece of not just Spencer, but Spencer and I – the us – that I’d killed.
And after, when I lived, well, it meant so much that I couldn’t look at it anymore. So like everything else, I hid it away, shut it up in a forgotten corner of a dusty shelf. But recently, things have changed again. I found it again. I found those pieces of myself again; I found my need to believe that the us wasn’t dead.
Is this an omen?
“Ash…,” she says again but I don’t respond. I can’t look at her. All I can do is stare at the murky vision of torn, green fabric in my hands and feel entirely pathetic.
“Ash, I’m sorry…,” she tries again, but it’s over.
There’s just nothing left, nothing but a memory of that life, of those people, of that love…
I stand and glance around in this room, this grave, and let myself realize that everything is gone. I keep seeing it and saying it, but it just won’t sink in.
“It’s all just… gone,” I say when I finally look up at Spencer, and this is what it took for that information to finally settle in my skull.
Spencer’s eyes rage at me like the Atlantic in a fall storm, and for a moment, I think that I see something in them. For a moment, I feel like even though there’s only a memory left, maybe I’m not the only survivor who recalls it. A tear falls over her lashes and I feel like a dick. I didn’t mean to make her cry. But then I never do. Yet somehow, I’m consistent in this unwelcome task; it’s like a talent.
I reach up to wipe the evidence of my asinine behavior away.
“It’s okay,” I lie. “It’s just a hoodie.”
I smile and it feels strange, and I know that I’m not convincing either of us, but I can’t let on. I just can’t go there anymore, and I don’t want to hurt her any more than I already have.
I gather both pieces of the hoodie and hand them to her.
“I’m sorry I took it.”
I just barely keep it together long enough to make it to the bathroom.
“Ash, it’s okay,” I hear as I shut and lock the door, slide down to the floor, and hug my knees.
It’s all gone.
Let it go…
Just finally fucking let it all go…
“Ash,” she says from the other side of the door. “I’m sorry…”
I scramble to my feet and back away from her voice. The sound of it burns like acid. I need… space, from her, from what she means, from what she does to me.
“It’s all good, Spence.”
An indeterminate amount of time passes as I just stand here and stare at the door having no idea what to do. I know that she’s still out there waiting for me, and I wish she wouldn’t.
How long would it take for her to just leave?
Forever, it seems.
I finally turn on the tap and scrub some water on my overheated face.
“Ash,” she raps on the door. “Please let me in…?”
I turn off the tap and stare at myself in the mirror, trying to determine what to do. I know that I don’t want to let her in, but I also know that it’s futile to try and keep her out because in all of the ways that matter, she’s already so deeply embedded inside of me that to remove her would mean death.
I’m still just not ready to face it, to face her. “I’ll be out in a sec, okay?”
I can hear the disappointment in her muffled voice. “Okay…”
I take a towel from the cabinet over the toilet and dry my face, forcing myself to swallow all of these things that keep surfacing. I can allow myself to feel it; I can allow myself to cry, mostly because both are beyond my control; but I can’t let her see it; I can’t infect her with it.
And yet, everything about this place and about her is trying to force it all out of me.
They don’t understand just how bad it is. I barely do. I feel like I have all of these things, like I’m a collector of the most deplorable choices, the most painful memories, and I’ve taken them all and stuffed them deep in the attic in my mind. For years, every time that I was handed something that I couldn’t process, I’d just shove it up there and quickly slam the door.
But the more time that I spend alive, the more hurt and despair that keeps coming, the more that I have to brace myself against that door to keep it shut. But there’s just too much for me to handle alone, and I feel weary. But I know that if I let it come, if I step away from the door and accept that rush of darkness that will come tumbling out, I’ll be swept away with it.
Nothing in that attic is soft or gentle or fuzzy.
That stupid hoodie represented just a piece of what’s up there, and look at what just one memory has done to me. I continue to look at myself in the mirror and for the first time, I can see just how broken I really am. I may not survive much more, especially right now while my defenses are so shattered…
I close my eyes and remind myself that I have a year, just a year… and then I won’t have to.
I suck in a deep breath and force myself to stop dealing with things, to stop feeling things, but I still can’t face her.
“Spence, I think I just need to lie down right now.”
“You want me to leave,” she asks, and I can tell that I’ve hurt her yet again.
“No,” I say quickly, even though it’s a lie that’s not a lie. “But I just… don’t… feel well.”
“Are you okay?”
I lift my hand from the sink and watch it tremble.
Fuck no, I’m not okay.
And I blame her.
“Yeah,” I say, keeping up the farce. “I just need to lie down.”
“Ash, you don’t have to hide from me…”
Fuck, yes I really do. She doesn’t understand, and I don’t know how to explain it.
“I’m not hiding, promise. I’m just… tired.”
“Okay,” she says and I can hear the frustration in her voice. I also hear the sound of the front door thudding shut a few moments later. I exhale and feel immediately better, like I have more control of myself.
Spencer’s like my kryptonite. I just don’t stand a chance when those big, blue eyes are trained on me.
I tiredly open the bathroom door and watch nonplussed as Spencer pulls herself off of the wall. Her arms are crossed over her chest and her eyes are unashamed at her betrayal. Another deep breathe chokes up in my lungs as I try to focus myself.
“Are you okay,” she asks again.
God, I can’t answer that, and I can’t even look at her.
So what does she do?
She takes me in her arms.
She’s trying to kill me.
I feel stiff at first, but it doesn’t last long. Like warmed chocolate, I melt into her embrace and find myself fumbling to keep that door up there shut.
“I’m fine,” I choke out into her sweet smelling neck.
“Ash, it’s okay to not be okay. You don’t have to be strong with me…”
Yes I do. She doesn’t know what she does to me. She can’t possibly know. I breathe her in, trying not to really hear or think or know anything. I just need to exist in this moment, empty and only slightly aware. But holding me isn’t going to help, so I pull away.
“It’s your fault, you know,” I say teasingly.
“I’m sorry about the sweater,” she replies pathetically.
I reach up and tuck a stray lock of honey-hued hair behind her ear and stop to trace the arch of her cheekbone with my thumb.
I smile at her. “It’s not the sweater, Spence. You make me feel…”
I gaze at her for long moments, trying to find the words, but wind up just shaking my head because there aren’t any.
Her eyes are like maelstroms, and I feel like I’m swirling around the edge of a giant drain, and I intrinsically know that once I finally fall in, the deepest secrets of the universe will be revealed to me. Or maybe it’s faith or blind belief. Whatever it is, I’m about to tumble willingly. I want to let it happen. After everything else that’s taken place, I’m ready to just lay back and let the current have me.
Her expression is so open, so kind, and I feel myself leaning in, wanting to breathe her in, to take her inside and be possessed. And I swear that she’s doing it on purpose, tugging on my heart strings and reeling me in, but it doesn’t matter what I believe. Because the truth is that she’s pulling back, pulling away, and I have no choice but to let her go.
And this is why I have to fight being vulnerable with her, because once I cross that invisible line, I’ll lose her forever. I turn and lean against the wall next to her, giving her the space that she so obviously wants.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur, not even really sure what I’m apologizing for.
“Ash, we can’t go there,” she says.
We can’t, but does that mean that she would if she could?
“You love Carmen,” I say, more to remind myself than her.
“I respect that, you know?”
She smiles sadly at me. “I know you do. I’ve never met a more loyal or honorable person.”
“You should get out more,” I say in a laughing way, feeling like a pretentious fool.
I say that I respect her relationship, and she believes me. I even know that I want to respect it because to do anything less would be unbelievably fucked up. Yet here I am continually feeling things that I shouldn’t, things that defy said respect. But I can’t help it any more than my next breath, or next heartbeat, or the fact that I’m gay.
It’s nothing short of the absolute truth. No amount of perspective or subjective theory will ever change it or make it fiction. I love Spencer. I will love her until the end of time, however long or short that may be; however many lovers she chooses over me.
Because it just is.
How do I love her like that and respect her relationship?
Is that even possible?
I don’t know, and if I’m honest, I’m prone to answer in the negative. But I can’t cut her out again. I won’t survive it. But more than that, I don’t want to.
I have to find a way.
And it’s just twelve months…
“Do you know what Christine did with your stuff,” she asks out of nowhere. And I’m thankful for the lack of silence.
I drop my head against the wall behind me with a gentle thud. “I have no idea.”
“You didn’t ask her,” she glances over at me incredulously.
I shrug. “We haven’t had a normal conversation since I got here. She hates me, Spence. She only addresses me to let me know how disappointing I am.”
“Have you told her yet?”
“No,” I say.
“Well no wonder, Ash. She thinks that you just up and left without a care, and for no reason. Of course she’s upset.”
I roll my head over to face her. “Spence, she doesn’t care. She hasn’t shown any interest in what happened to me or why.”
“Because she doesn’t know to care, Ash. All she knows is that you hurt her.”
I sigh. “I’ll find a way to tell her before I leave, but I want to wait until we’re about to go just in case it gets bad.”
She laughs and shakes her head.
“What,” I ask.
“Nothing,” she says in an ironic sort of way. “You just can’t face anything without a safety net. God, it’s frustrating, Ash. You’re frustrating.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.” I reply. “Even I’m frustrated with me.”
She chuckles and I smile at her as something funny strikes me. “You know that Tegan and Sara song line that says, ‘I feel like I wouldn’t like me if I met me’?”
“Yeah,” she answers with a furrowed brow. “You feel that way?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Pretty much.”
I glance at her like she’s lost her mind. “You’re serious…?”
“Well, yeah, I don’t get it.”
My demeanor turns dry. “You just got done telling me how frustrating I am, and you don’t get it?”
Her expression gets pensive. “Ash, just because you’re frustrating doesn’t mean that I don’t like you. That’s just… absurd. You’re an amazing person.”
I snort. “Yeah, okay…” I lean forward to pull off of the wall. “And on that note…”
She pulls me back to face her. “You seriously don’t like yourself?”
I stare at her in puzzlement, trying to decipher why she’s giving me that look and using that tone. I don’t like myself. Few people do at this point. So what’s the problem?
I just shrug, at a loss in this strange turn in the conversation.
“Ash, you’re one of the most amazing, kind, loving, and talented people I’ve ever known. Yes, you’re frustrating and stubborn and cynical, but you’re more than likable… you’re lovable.”
She’s really not playing this game fairly. In fact, she’s down-right dirty about it. I just need her to stop cracking the armor, to stop saying things that give me hope and make my heart want to burst open because I can hardly contain all of the emotions. I just need to be easy and light around her, and I really need her to be that way in return. Otherwise, she’s going to have a blubbering mess on her hands, and it’ll just hurt her more.
I can’t be that way with her. I don’t want to be that way with her.
I reach up and touch her forehead, finding comfort in humor. “Are you getting sick?”
She swats my hand away, unable to resist a smile at my antics. “I’m serious, Ashley.”
Yeah, I know. “Believe me, I know how awesome I am.”
She rolls her eyes at my trademark false bravado. “You’re going to have to face it all eventually, Ash.”
I smile, big and genuine, because I know something that she doesn’t: no, I won’t.
“God,” she says exasperatedly shoving me on the shoulder.
“You love me,” I say playfully.
She releases an almost wistful sigh. “Yeah, I do.”
Fuck, I just can’t win…
I look down at the floor, tucking my fingers in my pockets and rocking on my heels. I can feel the blush heating up my cheeks, and I can feel her eyes watching it happen while she laughs.
“I should probably go see dad,” she says.
I look up at her. I don’t want her to go… like ever, but I understand that she has to.
My head nods while my heart sighs. “Yeah, he’s probably losing his mind waiting to see you.”
We start to walk towards the stairs. “Are you staying through Christmas,” I ask hopefully.
“No, I can’t. I have to make the red-eye in the morning so that I’m not late for work.”
“Oh, okay.” My heart squeezes in my chest.
“Yeah,” she says. “Depending on how things go, I might come back for Christmas though. There are just a lot of variables.”
That’s code for ‘Carmen sucks.’ Spencer’s not the only one that’s terrible at hiding some blatant truths.
Before I know it we’re at the door and she’s opening it.
“Hey,” I put my hand on her shoulder to stop her. “If you have a hard time tonight or you just need anything – to talk, whatever, I’m here.”
She grins and gives me a tight hug.
“Thanks,” she breathes against my collarbones.
I have to gulp. She’s going to kill me before the disease, I just know it. I guess it’s fitting that I’m terminal because I’m totally okay with dying in her arms. Her warmth is gone and I have to stare at her for a moment as I consider how she got to be on the front porch, the wintery cold seeping in from the gaping door.
“I’ll text you and let you know how it goes,” she promises.
I nod. “Good luck.”
About this time I hear a car pull into the driveway and I’m almost thankful to see Christine and Kyla pull up in the Suburban.
They’re terrible company but at least I won’t be alone.
Spencer’s all smiles as she greets them, but then with one last look over her shoulder, she’s gone. And I’m left with Kyla who’s giving me the stink eye.
I glare at her. “Don’t.”
She shrugs, sporting a self-satisfied smile as she pushes past me with her arms full of bags.
“Kyla, it’s not like that.”
“I didn’t say anything,” she whines.
“You don’t have to. It’s written all over your face.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She sets the bags down by the stairs and Christine adds her load to the massive pile before shutting the door.
“Did you guys buy for a third world country,” I ask.
“Don’t worry,” Christine says. “They’re not for you.”
I shrug at her and wish for some serious take backs on that whole ‘happy that they’re here’ thing. Without another word, I make my way up the stairs to try and take a nap, even though I know that it won’t work.
But anything is better than being constantly reminded of what a worthless disappointment I am.
Christmas morning was an awkward affair. I got a few neat trinkets and baubles, but nothing too personal. I actually really tried with my gifts, but they were received with casual indifference. Which, in and of itself isn’t all that unusual. The whole thing just didn’t hold that air of magic that it used to. It was as if all of the fun, the emotion, was sapped out of it. It felt like we were just keeping up appearances and honoring tradition. And as was becoming the new norm, I just kind of sat there and watched them have their family moment far removed from the situation. But that’s okay. I’m learning not to need them any more than they need me. I’m getting better at functioning as half a person.
Or at least, I think I am.
I mean, it’s been another three weeks and while I still really, really want to run and hide, I haven’t. I’m still here. Of course, I’ve tried in small ways to find something of those outlets, but it just doesn’t seem to help anymore. I can’t sleep and leaving makes me feel like I’m waiting for something, or maybe drowning. But somehow I’ve stopped worrying about it. It will come when it comes, whatever it is, and as it does I’ll just roll with the punches. There’s just nothing that I can do to avoid the nastiness that life has to offer.
So why fight it?
It took me a long time to figure that out, but here I am. And it’s strange to find myself with this newfound flexibility because I hurt more than I can ever remember in my life. If there were a time to run or sleep my life away, it’s now. I feel like I’ve been hollowed out and every stretched vein, every frayed nerve, every torn muscle aches unbearably.
I guess I’m pretending that the attic just isn’t a big deal. I think it’s called suffering in silence, and I can’t see the end in sight, at least not as long as I draw breath.
But who knows how long that will be?
I sure as fuck don’t.
Twelve minutes or twelve months, it makes no difference at this point. It’s all going to be oddly relaxed torture.
Got to love a good contradictory mind fuck…
“Ash, grab the pies.”
I tug at the collar of my jacket yet again in nervous anticipation and pick up the pies on the counter. Kyla and Christine start to rummage through the bags leaving me to hurry up and wait. I’ve come to realize that there’s just nothing that I can do with them either. Nothing I say is the right thing. I can’t force Christine to forgive me. I can’t force her to care about me, and I can’t force Kyla to have my back.
I could sooner squeeze blood from a turnip.
Speaking of blood, I can’t shake this feeling that going to the Carlin’s is going to be ground zero for Armageddon.
And that’s precisely where we’re headed as soon as they decide we’re ready.
Finally every item is checked off of the list and we’re ready to file out through the front door, our arms laden with delicious smelling confections. Well, all of it’s delicious except the tofurkey that Kyla’s carrying. If for no other reason, some real fucking turkey would be worth any amount of humiliatingly public, familial sniping. I just hope that we can eat before anyone pulls a gun or throws a steak knife.
We make it safely to the Carlin door just like a million times before, but unlike then, I know deep in my bones that this is where all safety ends. I may be hallucinating again, but I swear that I see a sign above the door that reads, ‘Abandon all hope, all ye who enter.’
I can hear muffled talking, or maybe shouting, coming from inside, and I find myself looking over my shoulder and wondering how far I could get before Kyla puts me down. But she’s standing there, a shrewd look on her face as she blocks the only escape. And something tells me that no matter how quick I am, she’d chuck that tofurky dish at my head like a Frisbee and drop me like a sack of bricks.
I turn back to the dreaded gate to hell, reminding myself that running doesn’t do any good anymore anyway.
I tug at my jacket collar.
Just go with the flow…
That’s my new motto…
Mrs. C answers the door and I feel the blood drain from my face. She’s looking at me like I’m typhoid Mary.
“Hello, Paula,” Christine says curtly.
“Christine,” Paula nearly hisses.
If they were cats, their tails would be sticking straight up with the fur fluffed out, their backs overly arched, their eyes bulging, and their claws and teeth bared.
Fuck, we haven’t even entered yet.
I can almost hear an announcer shout, “Round one, FIGHT!”
I glance over at Christine with an ‘I told you so’ expression, but she’s either ignoring me or doesn’t care.
Who am I kidding? It’s both…
Paula reluctantly steps back from the jamb and opens the door wider so that we can all file inside. All of the loud talking, or maybe shouting, stops as those in the living room turn to stare at us. It’s like a Mexican stand-off the way we all look at one another, as if finally facing a mortal enemy. I swear that I even see a tumbleweed roll across the hall. The illusion is only broken by the incessantly irritating Christmas tune that continues along gayly in the background.
Spencer’s face is red and her eyes glassy like she’s been crying. She looks at me, gives me a heartbreaking smile, and then looks away. She only got here last night. How could things be that bad already?
Well, they are, and while the fact that she’s been crying is bad enough, of course there’s more: Carmen’s here. I mean, she’s really here, and while I’m used to her being pissed at me, I don’t think that her anger is all my fault, not this time. I mean, I’m sure I’m part of it, but this is just… more. And she’s obviously not helping Spencer much if the sour look on her face and defensive posture mean anything.
Glen and Madison are quite clearly at odds. Hell, Glen seems at odds with everyone in this room, standing stoic and brooding in the corner where he’s sipping from a large Christmas mug that’s clearly filled with eggnog.
God, I hope it’s spiked. Maybe that’s what I need: a little muscle relaxer. Nothing else has been working, and this is worse than I expected.
And that’s saying something.
“I’m going to go put these in the kitchen,” I lift the pies and deign to break the stand-off so that I can make a hasty retreat. I shoot one last dagger at Carmen, and almost trip over the tumbleweed on my way to the kitchen, where I will hopefully find some booze.
I mean nog…
Mr. C is at the stove stirring a large pot, his eyes fixed on something much further than the brown gravy inside.
I set the pies on the counter and approach him slowly. “Mr. C, you okay?”
He flinches at the sound of my voice, like he’s been shocked, and then fixes his glazed-over eyes on me. “Ashley…”
He taps the spoon on the side of the pot and turns the heat down to low. “I’m glad you guys made it.”
Of course he has to hug me, so I endure it.
“It’s like the Ides of March out there,” I throw my thumb in the general direction of the living room. “What’s going on?”
He shrugs and tries to play innocent. “It’s nothing.”
I just lean against the counter and stare at him, waiting.
Of course, the talking… no, it’s now confirmed arguing, starts up again and I just cross my arms over my chest.
He finally lets out a long-suffering breath and slumps against the counter next to me. “Carmen and Paula have been going at it since they arrived last night, Glen and Madison have done nothing but fight about whether or not to get divorced for the last week, and Spencer, Kenzi, and I are kind of stuck in the middle of it all.”
He picks up the cup behind him and poises it at his lips, glancing at me over the rim. “And I don’t like her either.”
It takes a moment for me to realize who he’s talking about and I can’t help but grin at him in response. I really do appreciate Mr. C. I wish there were a way to keep him safe from all of this bullshit, but just like Spencer, he’d never give up on his family, even the worst of them.
I watch enviously as he drinks deeply from a tankard, and he catches me eyeing the thick, sickly sweet drink.
“Would you like a cup, or do you want some hot chocolate?”
Ooh, that’s a hard one.
Well, maybe not…
“Which one’s spiked,” I ask.
He smirks. “The eggnog, but I have some Bailey’s if you really want the chocolate.”
“Yes, please,” I say quickly and he chuckles as he retrieves a matching Christmas mug and begins to pour from the large thermos on the counter. I watch happily as he pulls a bottle of Bailey’s from the kitchen cupboard, a cupboard that’s a very well stocked bar, and pours a generous portion in the chocolate.
“There you go,” he says, handing me the steaming amazingness.
I take a huge gulp, moving the sweet liquid around in my mouth and closing my eyes to savor it. But then, it’s nearly ripped from my hands.
“You really think that drinking is going to make things better? It’s already hostile out there.”
I watch with panic as Kyla starts to dump my drink down the sink.
“I can’t believe you just left us out there alone,” she continues and I decide that enough is enough.
I grab her hand and tip it back up, saving about half of my drink and giving her a look that could rust metal. We then find ourselves fighting for control of my drink.
I lean in close to her. “I’ve been putting up with a lot from you recently, Kyla.”
She digs one of her nails in my knuckle and I hiss but keep my grip, bending one of her fingers at an odd angle.
“You have been putting up with a lot,” she asks incredulously through clenched teeth.
“I’m not finished,” I cut her off.
She looks like she might continue anyway, so I beat her to the punch. “I know that you want to help me, but I’m telling you right now that you need to back off.”
I make my voice very low. “Tonight is definitely not the night to fuck with me.”
She tries to stare me down but it doesn’t work and she has no choice but to release the cup, albeit angrily. She brushes past Christine on her way out of the kitchen, and of course, Christine turns her most scathing expression on me. I take another sip in such a way that it’s almost like I’m spiting her, and I immediately feel less tense, despite everything else.
Mr. C, who’s been quietly sipping from his own mug, decides to greet Christine. “It’s good to see you, Christine.”
“Arthur,” she says.
It gets incredibly quiet, and I dart my eyes from one to the other over the rim of my drink as they avoid speaking. There’s definitely no love lost between these two. Apparently Christine has issues with more than just me. I hate to say it because I like Mr. C, but I’m glad to have someone else to buffer her bad attitude, even if it’s just for a night.
I wonder what he did to her to piss her off though…
I go to take another sip of my cocoa as Christine finishes neatly laying out of our contributions and exits the room without a word. I look over to Mr. C. Both of our goblets are empty now and as if by silent understanding, we pour ourselves another. He’s a little sloppy, but not a drop is spilled.
About this time Clay enters the kitchen and stops abruptly. His eyes meet mine and his smile grows huge before he strides over and takes me in gentle hug.
“Ashley Davies,” he says pulling back. “It’s about time you came home.”
“It’s good to see you too, Clay.”
“NO WAY,” is blurted from the doorway and Clay moves to reveal Chelsea, her mouth hanging open in happy surprise.
“Girl,” she drawls the word as if it’s four syllables. “Where you been?!”
And I am being squeezed in yet another awkward hug.
“Here and there,” I say as I tug on my jacket collar. I really don’t want to have this conversation right now.
She pulls back and Mr. C squeezes my shoulder in understanding. The atmosphere seems to grow heavy with the way she’s looking at me, so I deftly change the subject.
“But look at you,” I say, holding her arms out and giving her the once over. “You look exactly the same as the last time I saw you.”
And it’s true. Neither she nor Clay appear to be a day older. Most notably though, they look happy, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see that at least one couple in this group isn’t failing at life.
“Stop,” she blushes and waves a dismissive hand.
She cuddles up to Clay and they kiss sweetly, and I feel… so many things that I don’t want to feel.
I chug at my spiked chocolate and determine that I’ll just hide in the kitchen with Mr. C and his booze for the rest of the night. He seems happy to have a drinking companion anyway.
“So,” Chelsea starts. “Are you going to tell me where you’ve been?”
She’s not as smiley as she was just a moment before. It’s a very passive aggressive expression that now dominates her face, and I have to hand it to her; she’s sly. Chelsea doesn’t really get angry, she just kind of quietly, almost kindly, puts you at ease before going in for the kill.
“Chels…,” Clay tries to soothe her.
“No, Clay, I think we deserve an answer.”
“Chelsea, maybe a little later,” Mr. C tries to step in, but I stop him.
“No, Mr. C, it’s okay.”
I feel pretty warm and fuzzy, like nothing really matters. Thank God for cocoa and fermentation. I face Chelsea and say the first thing that comes to my twisted mind: a strange story that went viral on facebook.
“I tried to rob a beauty supply store but the cashier was a black belt and she knocked me out before I could get away. When I woke up, she had me tied up in the back of her shop, and then she used me as a sex slave for four years to teach me a lesson. That’s where I’ve been.”
Well, Chelsea’s indignation has faded. I’ve also successfully killed any chance of a normal conversation. Neither Chelsea nor Clay can seem to find words, so I just finish off my second cup of cocoa and pass my empty mug to Mr. C who tries not to laugh as he obliges with another refill.
I plan to keep this feeling for as long as I can. This night should be smooth sailing if I can manage it. And I can manage it so long as Mr. C keeps ’em comin’. Just as he hands me my refill, a buzzer goes off and he hurries to pull a real turkey from the oven. I want to weep when I see it. It’s all golden and juicy and smells like butterball heaven.
“Clay, Chels,” Mr. C says. “Go set the table, please.”
Clay has to forcibly pull Chelsea out of the kitchen and it’s about this time that Paula comes walking into the room.
Well, that’s my cue…
I try to move past her, but she stops me, pulling the newly filled mug from my hands and sniffing it.
God, what is with people today just taking my shit?
“Really, Arthur,” she pins her laser-like eyes on him in severe disapproval.
If I didn’t know any better, I swear the slump of his shoulders rounds even further.
“It’s not enough that you can’t go just one day without a drink,” she continues. “But you have to get the kids liquored up too?”
I give her a smile. “I’m twenty-two, Paula. I’m old enough to drink if I want.” I pull the mug back from her hands. “And I want.”
With that, I nearly run from the room. I almost feel bad for leaving Mr. C to deal with her alone, but I didn’t marry that beast.
The living room situation is a little better since Glen’s nowhere in sight, but Madison gives me a look that says how much she wishes she could vaporize me with telepathy, and Spencer and Carmen are still wrapped up their drama. So I decide to step outside and find some air to breathe.
I didn’t realize just how hot and uncomfortable it was in there until the crisp winter air is prickling the skin of my face and filling my lungs. My head starts to clear a little, but then I smell the distinct odor of cigarettes. I’m not sure why I peek around the corner – maybe just to confirm what I already know, but it’s a little late to turn back because Glen sees me.
He gives me a bored expression and I can’t help but chuckle at how ridiculous he looks up close with a goatee and a bad temperament.
“So that’s why you’re here,” he says. “To laugh about the fact that you’ve completely destroyed my family.”
That sobers me up a little bit. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” he says.
I nod. “Yeah, I heard you, but as usual, nothing you say makes any sense.”
He snorts. “You infected my sister with your…,” he fumbles for the right word and comes up with, “Gayness…”
Gayness? Seriously? He was thinking so hard that steam was coming out of his ears and that was the result?
“If it weren’t for you,” he continues. “My family wouldn’t be such a fucking wreck.”
I just shake my head. “You’re ridiculous, and I don’t just mean your goatee.”
He pulls himself up off of the wall and takes one long, last drag from his cigarette before flicking it at my feet.
I step on it to put it out. “Spencer’s gay, Glen.” He grimaces and I soldier on. “She can’t help it, and even if she could, why should it matter? She’s still Spencer.”
He laughs humorlessly, but I don’t see how it’s funny. “It’s been four years and you seriously can’t see that you and your mother are the reason your family is so fucked up?”
I take another sip of my chocolate and wait for him to say something, but he doesn’t, at least not until he’s pushed past me and just about to step back through the front door.
“You know, it was better when you were gone.”
He slams the door behind him and it takes a moment for me to collect my thoughts. Was it better for everyone? I mean, I know that I’ve been the catalyst for a lot of pain…
I take another gulp from my cocoa and feel the alcohol settle sourly in my stomach. This night is turning out to be a strange nightmare. I expected the hostility, but I didn’t expect to be comfortable with it. I certainly didn’t expect to get drunk.
I look down into the mug and wonder if Mr. C’s cocoa is imbued with magical properties. After a shrug, I lift it in the general direction of the Carlin kitchen in mock salute and gulp the rest down. I feel a little woozy afterwards and find myself dropping the cup in the snow so that I can grope the wall of the house.
Madison and Glen decide to make the front porch their sparring grounds and the last thing I want to hear is how he can’t keep it up. I stagger my way towards the backyard, happy when they’re out of earshot and I can see a snow covered Adirondack.
I only get a few feet before I’m forced to lean against the house and lay my head against the cold brick, letting the cooling relief of the wall wash through my system. The backdoors open and shut, and then I hear hushed murmuring. Oh for fuck’s sake. Is there nowhere to get away from these people?
“Dad invited her,” Spencer says.
“Well, he can un-invite her. Things are bad enough without her in the mix, Spencer.”
“I know that this isn’t easy, Carmen…”
“No, Spence, this shouldn’t even be happening. You and I agreed…”
“They’re my family, Carmen…”
I look back towards the front of the house but I can still slightly hear the other argument taking place up there. I’m, quite literally, trapped in hell. And my stomach is already all kinds of sour.
“I understand that, Spence,” they continue. “But they don’t accept you… or me, for that matter. And she is not part of your family.”
“Carmen, I know that you don’t like it, but she is part of my family. I’ve known her since I was ten. We practically lived together for eight years.”
“And she’s your first love…,” Carmen sounds defeated.
I feel frozen to the wall like a barnacle to the hull of a ship at this point, slight vertigo and all.
“I’m really trying to understand here, Spence, but I don’t. Do you even remember what you went through after she left you?”
“Of course I remember,” she responds testily.
“Then why? We’ve been together for two years; we were happy, weren’t we?” There’s no answer, but then Carmen doesn’t really give her a chance to say anything. “But then she shows up out of the blue, and… and it’s like I’m not enough for you anymore.”
“Carmen, it’s not like that.”
“Then how is it, Spence?”
“She could die…”
“I’m sorry, but that’s her problem.”
“Wow, could you be anymore insensitive?”
“I’m not trying to be insensitive, Spence. I’m trying to save you from going through that pain again, and I’m also trying to save our relationship, which you seem hell bent on destroying.”
“Because you keep making me choose between you and the people I love!”
The very air seems to thicken with angst and a precarious calm stews for long moments. I can’t tell if it’s them or the alcohol as I look down at the snow and consider hurling.
“I can’t believe you right now, Spencer,” Carmen sniffs. “I’m not trying to make you choose anyone. If I’m not someone that you love, then you should just tell me.”
Is she crying?
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean that I need my family and other people in my life too.”
“They don’t love you; they don’t accept you; I don’t understand it…”
“Look, I’m not like you, Carmen. I can’t just cut out the people that I love if they don’t love me back.”
“Spencer, you keep talking about your family. I get that you needed to come here, even though I don’t understand why it had to be Christmas or why I had to come with you. But that’s not my real problem here and you know it. You know we’re talking about Ashley. You want to go traipsing around with her for a year! I’m sorry, but if the tables were turned, you wouldn’t be okay with it.”
It takes a moment, but like a knife to my heart, Spencer agrees. “You’re right; I wouldn’t be comfortable with it.”
Carmen senses that she’s gaining ground. “So how can you expect me to be comfortable with it? Why do you need her when you have me?”
It takes at least a minute for Spencer to respond. “Carmen, she’s dying, and while I know that it’s her problem, it also got me thinking.”
Spencer clears her throat and I can tell that she’s trying to maintain herself. “Life is short, and it’s precious, and I feel like I’m wasting it.”
“You’re wasting it… with me.”
“No… no, please, just try to listen to me.” Spencer pleads. “I feel like I’m wasting my life being angry at my parents, avoiding the people that I care about, and closing myself off. I feel like I’m losing myself, Carmen, and everyone else I care about is falling apart. I want to be there for them, all of them. I don’t want to wake up ten years from now and have all these regrets.”
“You’d regret a life with me if you couldn’t have her in it,” she asks, and I roll my eyes.
What part of this isn’t she getting? I’m drunk and hugging the cold wall of a house like a tawdry lover while little chocolate fishes named Bailey try to swim back up stream, but I still get it.
“No, I wouldn’t regret a life with you; I’d regret a life where I let the people I love fall apart because you didn’t understand my need to help them, and then I’d start to resent you for it. We talked about all of this in therapy…”
“Yeah, we did,” Carmen agrees. “And that’s why I’m here with you, trying. Look, I’m sorry. You’re my world, Spence, and I feel like I’m losing you…”
“Carmen, you haven’t lost me yet.”
Carmen blows out an anxious breath. “Yet…”
Spencer releases a similar sigh. “Carmen, you won’t lose me in the future if you can just be here with me now, because the present is really freaking me out.”
“Okay,” Carmen says. “Okay, I guess you can just… do what you want, though I’m not even sure what that is. Who that is…,” she says under her breath.
Spencer sounds exasperated. “What I want is to figure some things out and to help my family. And yes, that includes Ashley.”
“She wants you back, Spence…”
I can hear the smile in Spencer’s voice. “Well, I’m not available.”
“Are you sure about that?”
I hear the sound of rustling fabric and Spencer’s voice becomes lower, huskier. “You know what else I want?”
“Hm,” Carmen hums around what sounds like a mouth full. If this isn’t over soon I may find my mouth full of Bailey fishes.
“You,” Spencer says and I almost lose it as the unmistakable sounds of kissing smack against my eardrums.
I still can’t move, even though every inch of my skin is crawling. But of course, it’s like my feet have been nailed to the frozen ground, as if some part of me wants to force me to listen, to know, to accept. They obviously love each other, and even though it hurts more than I can say, I can’t begrudge Spencer this happiness.
I can’t begrudge her any happiness…
I need to just let her go…
I hear a sharp knock on the glass of the backdoor and finally the kissing stops.
Thank sweet Jesus…
“Dinner’s ready,” Spencer says.
“She hates me,” Carmen replies.
“Babe, she doesn’t know you. She’s just ignorant.”
I hear Carmen blow out another breath and steal another kiss. “I’m trying, Spence.”
“I know,” Spencer says happily. “Thank you.”
And with that, they’re gone and I’m finally released from my forced vigil. Oddly enough, I don’t feel so sick anymore. I just wish I hadn’t heard any of that, and yet I stood here listening. And what’s worse is that I know that I have to go in there and pretend that I don’t know.
If Spencer found out, she’d kill me, or let Carmen do it.
I need a minute. I’m still a little woozy. I know better than to mix sweet things with my alcohol. It almost makes it absorb faster or something, but it usually also burns out of my system faster. If I give it a little time, I should be okay, but I can still hear Madison and Glen at the front of the house going at it.
The backyard it is. Although, I know that if I wait too long, Kyla will come looking for me with something sharp and pointy, but it can’t be helped; let her stab me.
I shuffle around the corner and head straight for the Adirondack. I don’t care if my ass gets wet; but then I hear the french doors open again and look up just in time to see Spencer come walking out.
I nearly dive back around the corner, cursing under my breath as I press myself against the wall yet again and close my eyes against the gentle spins.
Did she see me?
I hear the crunch of her footsteps getting closer and my heart starts to pound in my chest, but then the footsteps pass me, and I finally peek open an eye to watch as she heads towards the shed with two big, silver bowls in her hands.
She disappears inside leaving the doors ajar and I feel my brows furrow. What’s that about?
I decide to go ahead and try to sneak into the house, and sprint drunkenly for the back door. I only barely stop myself from face planting into the glass panes just as I reach for the handle. But then the handle isn’t there anymore. I stare stupidly at where the handle should be but I only find a chasm. And when I track my eyes higher, I find Carmen standing there.
I stumble back a bit, and try to think, but my brain feels murky, like it’s trying to slog through knee high mud.
“Ashley,” Spencer says.
And that’s when I realize that I’m pinned between an angry Carmen and a now aware Spencer who’s paused in the shed door to stare at me. If I close my eyes so that I can’t see them any longer, does that mean that they won’t be able to see me either?
What the hell, I give it a try…
“Ashley, how long have you been out here?”
Fuck, she knows…
She always knows…
And it’s about this time that I hear some excited barking. My eyes snap open and I turn to see Flotsam and Jetsam come charging through the shed doors, nearly knocking Spencer over as they barrel towards me.
“FLOT! JET,” Spencer shouts, but it’s no use.
I brace myself for the excited impact but then it never comes. I watch as they dart right passed me and veer for Carmen who screams and abandons the door to climb up on a nearby armchair. But then, the dogs don’t care about her either. They disappear into the house, and it only takes about ten seconds for shouts, breaking glass, and cursing to thunder from the vicinity of the dining room. Spencer chases after them and I finally get my bearings and chase after her.
We both burst through the doors, sprint through the hall, and find ourselves in the dining room where a glorious mess awaits.
Of course, I just improve on the mess, overestimating my stopping point and sending Spencer into the table who then sends Madison’s wine into her lap. Spencer shoves me back and Madison stands slowly, lifting her hands to gawk at the horrendous splotch of red blooming at her crotch in silent wonder.
The bulk of the mess isn’t my fault though. The tablecloth is already skewed on the table, several dishes of food toppled and spilled onto its once white surface and dribbling over onto the floor. Glen doesn’t move except to turn his head and start to snort eggnog out of his nose with laughter.
Mrs. C is on the floor in the fetal position and holding her arms in front of her face to ward off the ravenous dogs who are just a foot away tearing into what would have been a magnificent turkey.
Christine and Kyla merely lean back in their chairs and sip their wine, as if this is a common, everyday occurrence.
Chelsea and Clay are pressed against the nearby wall, smartly avoiding all of this mess, and Mr. C steps forward to unsuccessfully try to pry his turkey from the jaws of his wild grand-doggers, but he gets growled at.
Spencer’s angry voice makes us all jump. “FLOT! JET!”
She charges up to them and grabs one of them by the collar and Mr. C helps by grabbing the other. They manage to tear them away from the mauled bird carcass and drag them out to the backyard, Spencer admonishing them all the way. My eyes track to Carmen, who’s now standing in the entryway to the dining room, blatant disapproval oozing off of her.
“Do you often get drunk, eavesdrop on personal conversations, and wreck dinner for everyone,” she asks me.
“Only on Thursdays,” I reply off-handedly.
She snorts. “Is nothing serious to you?” She gestures to the mess in the room. “Look at what you’ve done.”
Glen raises his mug. “Here, here.”
“Oh shut up, Glen,” Clay, Chelsea, Christine, and Kyla chorus.
“How is it my fault that the dogs got in the house?”
“You were hiding in the back yard like some voyeuristic stalker. If Spencer hadn’t been distracted they’d have never gotten out of the shed.”
“I’m not the one that screamed and ran away from the door instead of just closing it,” I reply.
Paula is finally uncurling on the floor, venom turning her eyes to slits. “Both of you have a done a wonderful job ruining Christmas.”
“Tell ’em, mom,” Glen slurs and this time Madison slaps him on the back of the head.
“You’re one to talk, Glen. You walk around here drunk off of your ass in front of your own daughter.”
About this time the cry of a child upstairs breaks through the air and Madison starts spluttering at Glen in Spanish. I can’t understand a single word of what she just said at rapid-fire speed, but it didn’t sound very loving.
Well, I understood ‘puta.’
“Like father, like son,” Mrs. C adds as Madison storms out of the room.
“Stop it, all of you,” Spencer shouts sharply as she enters the hallway.
Everyone goes statue still and the room becomes deathly quiet. Spencer takes the time to look at each person individually, and while most of us are properly chastised, Mrs. C won’t have it.
“Who do you think you’re talking to,” she asks Spencer in a dark tone.
“A self-righteous bigot,” I murmur under my breath and Carmen snorts a laugh before diverting her eyes to floor.
Of course, Spencer trains her eyes on me and I shrink away from her, feeling slightly better when she then pans to Carmen who beat me to the eyes on carpet contrition.
“I think it’s time for you to leave, Ashley,” Mrs. C obviously heard me.
“I think it’s time you shut your mouth, Paula,” Christine pipes up and we both stare at her incredulously.
I mean, since when?
Mrs. C looks like she’s seconds from leaping over the destroyed table to choke Christine who’s still at cool as a cucumber with her wine, but as if by some silent understanding, Spencer and Mr. C start to clean up the mess. Oddly enough, their tactic sort of diffuses the situation. It takes a few long moments, but finally everyone starts to help.
Well, everyone but Glen.
I can tell by the rigid set of Spencer’s shoulders and the quick, jerky movements of her hands as she cleans that she’s unbelievably pissed. And that’s bad enough, but she’s also quietly crying, randomly swiping a hand under her nose.
Carmen’s right. This was my fault.
I realize that I need to talk to Spencer and let her off of the hook so that she can focus on her family. And while I hate to admit it to myself, I need to leave her alone to fix any possible damage I’ve caused to her relationship with Carmen.
It was foolish of me to ask her for a year. She has a life, responsibility, a partner, and a family. They need her. And while I need her more, they actually deserve her.
I turn a chair back over while Chelsea tries to smooth out the tablecloth and everyone else starts to clean up the spilled food and broken glass. We’re able to salvage at least half of the total meal as most of the bowls only tipped on the table, and I know that there will be plenty of pie, but that turkey is toast.
The tofurkey is just fine though… of course.
I reach down to help Spencer bag up the turkey remains but she pulls away from me and sniffles.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
She slows a little bit and exhales heavily. And this time, she lets me help her.
“Were you eavesdropping,” she asks.
It’s my turn to exhale. “I had been outside for a long while before you came out. I had too much to drink…”
She glances up at me, her watery eyes so disappointed that I have to swallow thickly against the guilt. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I sort of got trapped between you and Gladison’s drama”
She chuckles a little at the name to spite herself before swallowing it in favor of righteous indignation.
“But you didn’t leave when you heard us,” she accuses.
I shake my head. “No, I didn’t.”
She throws the last of the turkey in her garbage bag angrily. Before I know it, she’s on her feet and disappearing out the front door. I think about it for a moment and finally decide to follow her. I find her rounding the corner of the house.
“Spencer,” I jog down the steps. “I know I shouldn’t have listened, but maybe it’s a good thing I did.”
That makes her stop and turn to me, fury burning on her flushed cheeks.
“It was selfish of me to ask you to spend the year with me.” I explain as I step a little closer, as if I’m approaching a frightened animal. “I understand that now.”
She makes a disgusted sound and throws the bag in the trash can before brushing past me and heading back towards the front door without a word.
Again, I follow her. “Spencer, you don’t owe me anything, and you should work on your family, your relationships that matter, not some fucked up nightmare from your past.”
She stops at the top of the front porch steps and whirls on me angrily.
She turns to go inside but then after two steps she again stops and I watch her seethe out heavy breaths.
It’s only seconds before she comes right back to the top of the steps and looms over me, the blue of her eyes burning as she says, “You don’t get to do that, Ash!”
“Do what,” I ask hesitantly.
“Decide what you’re worth to me or if you matter to me! I decide for myself what I want to do with my time and who’s worth spending it with! GOD,” she throws her hands up in frustration. “I get enough controlling bullshit from Carmen and my mother.”
“Okay,” I say simply.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this angry, and that’s saying something.
“It’s your choice,” I agree. “But you know just as well as I do that I shouldn’t matter. I’ve done nothing but fuck up your life, Spence, both then and now. Your family needs you and you love Carmen.”
“You need me,” she replies lowly.
I nod, unable or unwilling to lie about that fact. “I do, but it’s a year, Spence, just a year.” I shrug. “It doesn’t matter.” I gesture to the house. “They matter because there’s a future with them. There isn’t one with me.”
And my own words resound inside of me, giving me new understanding of just what it means to live and die, to love unselfishly. It only helps to strengthen my resolve to leave her happy and healthy, to stop fucking things up for her. I swear she’s so mad that she’s going to slap me, but I can’t seem to move, even as she towers over me like an angel of destruction.
“You listen to me, Ashley Davies; just because you had a sickness doesn’t mean that you don’t have a future. And even if you were currently sick, which you’re not, you’d still matter to me.”
She jabs a finger hard into my chest and leaves a throbbing ache behind that I rub at with a scowl.
“So shut the fuck up about it,” she continues. “I’m doing this with you for a year, and you’re going to survive afterward.”
We both know that it doesn’t work that way though. No amount of intimidation she throws out at the universe can save my life. She turns to walk away and I find myself running up the steps to pull her arm and stop her at the top.
“Does that mean you’re answer is yes?”
“Yes,” she says loudly. “Yes, you’re worth a year! Yes, you matter! Yes, you asked and my answer is YES!”
She’s nearly shaking now, tears rolling thick and hot over her lashes, and I’m not sure how to feel. I mean, I know that I want to jump up and click my heels together while I pump a fist in the air, but what about her job, Carmen, her life?
How did this happen?
I lean in and take her in my arms, this time determined to be the one comforting her. And she doesn’t hesitate to tighten the hug. Why does she always have to feel so good? I close my eyes and wonder at her. She was determined not to come when I offered and then we just what, magically switched places?
No, this isn’t right. Isn’t she listening to me? I lean back just enough to look into her eyes.
“Spencer, didn’t you just hear what I said?”
She scoffs. “Didn’t you?”
Okay, so it’s her choice. But that’s not entirely true. It’s my choice too. But then, I’m delusional to think that I could do anything but what she wants, especially when I’m only inches away from her and gazing deeply into her determined eyes.
“Okay,” I say.
She leans her head back and closes her eyes as if praying for God to strike me with a thunderbolt for my doltishness. I can’t help but chuckle. I watch her brows furrow and follow her gaze to a bushel of mistletoe at the top of the steps.
Oh man, Mr. C is a crack up…
She looks back at me, her ire dissipating as a cavalcade of other emotions appear and fight for dominance inside of her, all of them seemingly painful. And yet again, there’s this moment where I know, where I feel inexplicably drawn to her, and I know that she feels it too.
But unlike those other times, it’s me who breaks it.
“Spence, I just want to stop hurting you,” I say.
She lowers her head and sniffs and I find myself nestling my nose in the top of her hairline. “You always hurt the ones you love, Ash,” she murmurs.
She looks up. “So long as we know each other, we’re going to hurt each other. That’s what it means to care.”
“But you don’t hurt me,” I say gently.
“Don’t I,” she asks disbelievingly.
And as I think about it, I realize that it’s true. I’ve been feeling a decidedly Spencer shaped hole in my chest for about two months now, but that pain doesn’t register in a way that would make me mad at her or hate her or want her gone. It’s not her fault. And if anything, it makes me love her more.
Maybe that’s what it’s like for her. Maybe it’s not as bad as I thought.
I look down at my feet. “Spence, are you sure?”
She places a finger beneath my chin and lifts my eyes to hers. I can see it there, like the door to a thousand churches opening up to me with a single blue-eyed blink. The answer isn’t just yes, but it’s unequivocal, without hesitation.
Yes, I matter to her if to no one else.
“Yes,” she says.
“Okay,” I say lamely for the third time.
What else can I say? English always fails; my tongue always fails when I’m near this girl, this woman, the love of my life.
She lingers close, her breath warming the chilled skin of my face and I close my eyes, just breathing her in. But then, all too soon, she’s gone and I’m staring at the open door left in her wake, never really closed to me but impossible to walk through all the same.
I step inside and shut it behind me, preparing to face these people. And for once, it’s not because I only have twelve months or because I have an ulterior motive. I’m not just here for Spencer. I’m not even here for Kyla or Mr. C.
I’m here for me.
I just need to be honest, with them and myself. Wasn’t that something on my list? I know that it’ll take more than two months in Ohio going insane, but it’s a start, right?
I walk into the dining room to find everyone sitting at the table, avoiding eye contact with each other over the now cold remnants of a meal meant to salvage an utterly destroyed holiday. I sit, and in utter silence that’s only broken by the sounds of clinking dishes, silverware to plates, and Kenzi’s childish squealing, we all eat. The food settles like a lump of coal but I’m thankful to have these fucked up people in my life.
For a moment, I remember what it used to be like at this table on a Saturday morning: how irritatingly playful Glen was, how Mrs. C would lovingly smooth out mine and Spencer’s ponytails on her way past our chairs, how Mr. C found so much joy and fulfillment in feeding his family, how Clay poured over his science books in the midst of chaos without a flinch.
And Christine, for a moment I remember how she would stand up for me, how she’d love me without smothering me, how she gave me the right to be myself without judgment or pretense.
And Kyla… for a moment she’s five years old, her clothes threadbare but clean, and I’m putting a stolen barrette in her mahogany hair.
For a moment, I see them as they were, as I wish they could still be, as they almost still are, as my family, and I feel a deep sadness as another perforation of loss pangs through me.
These people are my family… and they can’t even look at each other.
“I’m sorry,” I say and they all look at me.
I drop my eyes to my plate where I play with my lump of gelatinous tofurkey.
“I’m sorry. I left, abruptly, and it hurt a lot of you. I just didn’t know what to do. There were things…”
I blow out a breath, completely unable to finish that sentence, even as they all stare at me expectantly.
“I just messed up, and I’m sorry,” I finish.
“It’s okay,” Mr. C says.
“Like hell it is,” Christine adds.
“Mom, there’s stuff you don’t know,” Kyla tries.
“So what’s your excuse for treating each other this way,” I butt back in. “Do any of you even have an excuse? Do you even feel sorry?”
And that did it, that sent them into their own little self-involved bubbles, but I’m not going to let them. I look at Glen first, since he stands up and throws his napkin onto his empty plate.
“How about you, Glen? Do you have a valid reason for hating your sister? Do you really believe that it’s okay to blame her for being gay?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says.
“No? You blame her ‘gayness’ for breaking up your family. You told me as much not two hours ago.”
He gets quiet and I look over at Mrs. C. “And you, you hate her just for being gay. There’s no other reason. What’s next?” I gesture to Clay. “How about black people, Paula? Are you going to start hating Clay for something he can’t help any more than Spencer can? It’s only fair…”
Clay, dependable as always, says, “It’s true, mom.”
“It is,” Mr. C adds.
She leans back in her chair. “You have no right to lecture me about family, Ashley. As you said, you left without so much as a backward glance, very nearly wrecking my gay daughter’s life, I might add.”
I swallow my anger and Spencer looks at me from across the table. “Ash, they aren’t ready.”
I look back at her. “You think I am?” She gives me a sad, half-smile in understanding. “There’s never a good time, Spence.”
Paula continues. “How sweet. She may forgive you, Ashley, but I don’t, and I won’t. I know you’re not responsible for everything, but you certainly played a huge part.”
I breathe in deep and nod slowly. “You’re right, I’ve done my share of damage, but I’m here, right now, asking you to forgive me, to let it all go, to let things be right again.”
This time it’s Christine who speaks. “It’s not that simple, and you know it, Ashley.” Her dark, severe eyes pierce through me like a spear. “You just left, without a word, like no one mattered to you at all. And for four years…”
She’s breathing heavily and I can tell that she’s trying to keep it all in, keep it all down, but I don’t want her to.
“The first time you ran away, you left a note,” she continues. “You had enough respect for me to at least tell me what was going on and why. But last time…” She shakes her head.
“I didn’t know what to say to you…” I look around the table. “To any of you.”
“How about a goodbye at least, or maybe a phone call once in a while: ‘Hey, guys, I’m not dead,” Chelsea mocks.
I close my eyes. “I didn’t want to have to explain. I wanted you to just hate me.”
“So what’s the problem, then,” Glen asks as he raises his cup in salute. “Wish granted.”
Kenzi reaches for Glen’s glass but a freshly changed Madison intercepts it and gives him a scathing look.
“Glen,” Mr. C takes the wine from Madison. “You’ve had enough.”
“That’s rich coming from you, Arthur,” Mrs. C says.
“You don’t really hate Ashley or Spencer, Glen. You’re just angry at life and want someone to blame.” Clay says.
“Whatever,” Glen shrugs. “Not everyone can be the golden boy like you, Clay.”
Spencer and I stare at each other over the table and listen as they all continue to bicker back and forth. It lasts for several minutes before it starts to really get out of hand.
What does out of hand entail?
Well, Mrs. C just said, “I think we should get divorced!”
Somehow, everyone keeps arguing over that declaration. Spencer starts to sob, and I want to put my arm around her, to comfort her, but the table between us might as well be The Grand Canyon. Besides, Carmen’s there, stepping in and doing what I’m not allowed to do.
The anger in this room is smothering and I find myself absorbing it for all of the possible reasons: I can’t be in love with or touch Spencer; I can’t go back in time and choose to stay; I can’t force Christine to forgive me; I can’t force acceptance from a religious mother; and I can’t help a brother grow a functioning brain.
Why can’t they all just stop their petty grievances, endless grudges, and pointless bigotry? Why can’t they just forgive and move the fuck on?
I should have known that apologizing and trying to explain would mean nothing. But I had a moment of naiveté. Spencer made me believe that it was possible because all things are possible with her. She’s that amazing. But her family isn’t like her. I opened my mouth and now, this is my fault, again. I started this fight.
Wait a minute, I started this fight. So, I can end it…
It doesn’t work.
“HEY,” I try again and still no result.
I pull in as much air as I can hold and really bellow it out this time, only I choose my words more pointedly.
That did it. All but Kyla and Mr. C look over at me in shock, and the baby starts to cry. I get to my feet.
“When I left, I was supposed to die, but I didn’t, and I’m sorry for that. But the bright side is: I still might.”
“Ash,” Spencer says. “You don’t mean that.”
“No, I do, Spence. I’m sorry I lived long enough to see this.” I gesture to them. “It doesn’t matter though. It was stupid to think that things could be better.”
And with that, I leave the room, the house, and find myself in what used to be my room cramming everything into bags. Some might consider it running, but I don’t, or at least it doesn’t feel like running. It feels like I’m just moving on, maybe even moving forward.
Just like the list, there were some things that weren’t going to work out, and I knew it. I had prepared myself for that inevitability. This attempt at family is just one of many failures I’ll endure in this endeavor. Granted, it’s the biggest of all of them, but I’ll survive it, at least for another twelve months.
It doesn’t take long to pack when everything is carelessly stuffed into any available space, and before I know it, there’s nothing left to do except actually leave. I stop to look around me, trying to find that part of me that can’t fathom the thought of leaving, but I just can’t. This isn’t my home anymore. I’ve known it for two months, but I’m only just now able to let it go.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
My heart lurches in surprise and I turn to find Christine standing in the doorway, looking extremely defeated. I slump down on the bed and stare at her.
“I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I thought it would be better that way.” I can see the anger in her eyes as she trains them on me and I sigh. “Yeah, you don’t have to say it. Spencer and Kyla have both made it very clear just how much of a dumbass I was.”
“I do have to say it, Ashley.”
Um, okay… She steps into the room and I brace myself so that she can let some of it out.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like to love someone, to call them daughter, to raise them, to feel just a little bit better about every day because they’re in your life, only to have them disappear without a word?”
I could say yes to all of the things that she’s mentioned but one: Kyla never left without a word. Everything else I get. I raised my sister and she made my life better; she always has. But she never left me like that.
And if she had…
No, I can’t fathom how much that would hurt, how scared I’d be to think that she was out in this terrifyingly violent planet alone.
“Do you have any idea how petrified, how utterly panicked every second of every day has been?”
I want to say something, to at least acknowledge what I’ve done to her, but my tongue feels like cotton and my throat feels completely kinked off. I can only stare at the floor with swimming vision and let her get it out.
But then she’s not talking anymore, and when I look up at her, I see something that I’ve never seen in all of the years that I’d spent with her: she’s crying. It’s so unlike her. And yet, here she stands, laying it all out in the open in a rare moment of vulnerability to the very person who’s proven themselves undeserving of that level of trust.
Just the fact that she’s crying makes tears start to leak down my own cheeks.
“I don’t know what I can say, Christine, other than I’m sorry. I just didn’t know how to handle the situation.”
It’s quiet for long moments before she finally asks, “Why didn’t you ask me for help?”
I blow out a breath and rest my face in my hands. “I knew what happened with your family before.” She gazes at me incredulously. “I found the stuff in the attic,” I explain.
She nods and swallows hard. “Christine, I didn’t want you to go through that again. I thought…” I lift my hands in surrender before letting them drop to my thighs with a slap. “I just thought that running away would be easier on you.” I lift another hand to stop her anger. “I know, believe me. But knowing I was wrong now doesn’t change why it happened then.”
Christine comes over to the bed and sits down next to me, her posture stiff but this is the closest she’s been to me since she hugged me two months ago.
“I suppose that there would have been no easy way in that situation. Either would have been excruciating.”
She looks over at me, her eyes softer than I think I’ve ever seen them, even as a child. I can’t help but smile through my tears. It feels so good to have gotten something out of her, to feel just a little less unwanted.
“I missed you, Ashley.”
“I’ve missed you too, Christine.”
She puts an arm around my shoulders hesitantly at first, but then it gets easier and she tucks me into her side, and I find myself in a hug that doesn’t make me feel so self-conscious or awkward. It’s comforting and it feels like maybe one of those holes inside of me is shrinking just a little bit.
She holds me for a long time before she finally says, “Stay.”
I lean back and grimace. “I… I can’t.”
She seems crestfallen, so I take her hand. “Hey, it’s not because I don’t want to. I just have to do some things this year, but I’ll come and visit often. I’ll even fly you up to my place a couple of times.”
She nods, smiling a little, but then it falls. “Is that… how long you…?”
I clear my throat. “Honestly, I don’t know. I go in for a major check-up at the end of next year.” I shrug. “So that’s all I’m counting on.”
She squeezes my hand. “I want to be with you.”
I put my other hand over hers to hold it tighter. “I’d like that.”
It grows quiet again, and I finally ask, “Did you throw it all away?”
She seems confused by that question at first before looking at the room and giving a bitter smirk.
“I wanted to,” she says, “But I just couldn’t. It’s in the attic.”
I close my eyes and shake my head at the silliness of it all. Of course, just like her other family, just like all of the things I don’t want to deal with, it’s all in an attic. Maybe we all have one, whether it’s physical or proverbial. And it will be a long time before I ever visit either of those graveyards, if at all.
“So what now,” I ask.
She grins at me. “I’m thinking we find a twenty-four hour Denny’s or something.”
I chuckle and get to my feet. “Let’s go save Kyla.”
And with that, we leave the room, and I feel a little piece of my regret wither and die, leaving me a tiny bit freer.