Well, I fought it as long as I could, but I suppose that I always knew that I’d wind up back here in Ohio where it’s mercilessly cold and overwhelmingly memorable. The first time Mr. C brought me here I was in awe. I thought that Wickliffe was the big city, and I fell in love with that busy life right then and there.
But now, now I see Wickliffe for what it really is, and as far as city’s go, it’s pathetic.
Either way, as I travel these slick streets yet again, I’m overcome with nostalgia, with this aching sense of home even as I feel like a complete stranger. It’s like I’m in someone else’s memories, completely detached though somehow privy to every secret.
And because of this, this small city feels immense.
I’m a little overwhelmed.
Okay, a lot overwhelmed, like I maybe know too much about this place. I know that if I were to turn left here, we’d be headed for the mall and even further the lake. And I know that if I take a right there, I’ll find myself at Aiden’s house.
But my path is forward…
Maybe I’m not so out of sorts because of what I know, but because this place knows me too well. It’s sort of mocking me, laughing at me, telling me that it knew that I’d come back eventually because it has everything that I never wanted to need, but always did. And now that Kyla and I are pulling up to a familiar curb, I really feel what it means to be back here.
“You okay,” Kyla asks.
I release a pent up breath. “I don’t… know.”
She smiles reassuringly at me and pats me on the leg. “It’ll be fine; you’ll see.”
I don’t really believe her, but I’m here. There’s no going back now.
We both step out of the rental car and the extreme cold sends its fingers slithering down my spine. I don’t remember this part, or I’m just not used to it anymore.
It’s fucking freezing…
Kyla, the little shit, is in her element. She goes straight for the animal in the cage in the backseat without even a gasp while I have to fight to keep my teeth from chattering. I take my first hesitant look at the house that hasn’t changed one little bit. It just looks… smaller, somehow.
I see something out of the corner of my eye and find my back slumped against the driver’s side door as the shadowy figure of a young Spencer walks by holding my equally young hand. They’re innocent, and sweet, and so much in love, and somehow immortal, even as they’re already long dead. My young ghost looks at me over her shoulder and smiles as if she knows something that I don’t.
I blink my eyes to be sure that I’m not losing my mind, and just as quickly as they appeared, they’re gone, like the heat rising from my mouth and evaporating on the icy air. My heart is beating like a wrecking ball against my ribs. I know I’m just wigging myself out, getting caught up in it all like a net.
And that’s precisely how I feel: trapped.
I’m not just visiting the graveyard of my youth; I’m digging up ghosts and flirting with their memories, with their pain.
I can’t really help it though. I spent the best years of my life between these two houses, with this one beautiful girl who sort of stole my heart.
Or I gave it willingly; I don’t quite remember.
Either way, this was my world, she was my world, the same world that I’d set fire to in my mind. So why am I here sifting through the Ashes?
That’s all that’s left, right? It’s all just ash…
“Ash, come help me.”
Kyla’s voice startles me and I nearly slip and face plant off of the curb. I feel like bambi on the frozen lake, all hooves and clumsiness, but I make it to the trunk in relatively one piece. I immediately regret it because Kyla starts to load me up with luggage like a pack mule. I can’t really complain about it though. Most of it’s mine.
I wanted to be prepared for any eventuality…
And man, they’re heavy…
I only narrowly avoid being decapitated as Kyla slings a strap over my head, and I feel like a slug as I start to waddle towards the house.
God, this house…
I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to deal with any of this, but I only have a year to set things right. And then from there, who knows? I can only work with what I can see, and all I can see is twelve months…
It’s not enough.
So, I take one step, and then another, and just focus on left and right, avoiding the call to look out over my childhood and feel anymore haunted than I already do. But I feel it anyway, and before I know it, I’m at the door and I’m not really sure what to do. My muscles almost went for the handle, but then this isn’t my house anymore.
Which is most appropriate: walking in like I always have or ringing the doorbell, which I’ve never done?
Kyla comes to the rescue on this dilemma, sliding her key in the lock and opening the door.
“Mom,” she calls out. “We’re home!”
I feel my stomach swim a little at how… domestic it all seems. It’s as if Kyla and I just stepped out to run to the store for a gallon of milk, not four years without a word, without understanding, without anything, just… without. But then there she is, slightly older, the hair at her temples graying, and the sharpness of her eyes even more severe as she gives me the once over.
I set the bags down by the door and shut it, but I’m not really sure what to do from this point. Something in the way she’s looking at me makes me feel… unwelcome. She steps up to me and gives me a short, jilted, but bruising hug before holding me at arm’s length.
“Ashley,” is all that she says.
And then there’s a tight-lipped smile, one that almost looks like she’s holding something in or maybe keeping something out, but then I just can’t really tell. Christine was always so elusive to me, so complicated in her blatant simplicity.
I watch curiously as she abandons me to hug Kyla. She’s so different with Kyla, so much warmer, her smile reaching those severe eyes and softening them. There’s love in that embrace, in that countenance, and I know that she used to hug me that way. But I also intrinsically know that she’ll never hug me like that again.
Christine just may be worse than Spencer in some ways.
“Come along then. It’s late and I know you’re both probably tired and a little jet lagged. Your rooms are ready for you.”
Christine picks up Kyla’s bags, leaving me over encumbered yet again, and I follow the chatty twosome up the stairs.
Christine escorts Kyla to her room, which looks different, but it’s the same in so many ways. It’s just the older version of what I remember. They chat amiably as Kyla introduces Christine to Sheezus, and I begin to feel like an intruder as I watch them interact. I feel like I shouldn’t be here.
But there’s nothing that I can do about that anymore. I’m here. It’s done. I guess I can just make myself scarce. Besides, I’m as excited as I am sick to see my room.
I leave them to get reacquainted, not that they really noticed me anyway, and make my way to the familiar door, cracking it slowly, apprehensively, only to find that it doesn’t matter. This is just a guest room: plain, stark, and almost clinical in its minimalistic lack of character. It’s been stripped and gutted, and I find myself slumping onto the foot of the utilitarian bed and dumping the luggage at my feet.
This room is like a tombstone or a monument to the fact that I died…
This is no one’s room.
And this is no longer my home.
I want to be offended, but I can’t. I left… of my own freewill, and in so many ways, I did die. But there were so many things that I would have taken with me if I could have, so many things that had been left in haste due to discriminate space.
Is all of that lost?
I have to remind myself that it shouldn’t matter.
There’s no way that I could bring myself to look at it anyway, to endure it, even if it were still here. But it does matter, even when it shouldn’t. I feel it like a pang in my guts, another loss, another hole. I need to know that it’s all still here, somewhere, proving that my memories aren’t fiction, that there was something filling that void at one time.
That I wasn’t always empty like this…
I hear someone approach the doorway. “It’s all gone.” Kyla comes in and sits next to me. “She wouldn’t even open the door in here for about a year, and then one day, she just cleaned it out.”
I want to ask why, but then I already know on some sad, fundamental level.
“Did she get rid of it all?”
Kyla shrugs. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask her. I was pretty mad at you too.”
I snort a mirthless laugh. “Oh well. It was just useless stuff.”
“It was your life,” Kyla disagrees.
I glance over at her. “Ironic, isn’t it?”
“Whatever, Ashley.” She stands. “You’re not dead. I really wish you’d just get that through your head.”
I nod. “You’re right. I have a year.”
“You don’t know that either,” she says irritably. “You could outlive us all. Why don’t you focus on that?”
“It’s too dangerous, Kyla.”
“Living is too dangerous, because you might die…,” she deadpans. “But then you think you’re going to die anyway, so what have you got to lose?”
“It’s not me who stands to lose anything, Kyla, it’s everyone else. Why can’t you understand that limiting my impact on their lives is the only way to protect them?”
“I do get that, Ash; I just don’t agree with it.”
“How do you not agree with it?”
“Because it sucks either way! I mean, look around you, think about everything, about Spencer. How do you not get that?”
“No, I do; I do get it…”
“Then give up on the other bullshit, please? This circular discussion is exhausting.”
“Kyla, I can’t count on something I may not get. Yes, it’s exhausting, but if I let it go, the minute that I do…”
“It’ll come and bite you in the ass,” she sighs out. “I know.”
“Okay, so we’re agreed. I’m here, and I’m trying. What more do you want from me?”
She smiles at me. “I know you are, and I don’t need anything else.”
I look at her disbelievingly.
“Right now,” she amends. “Thank you, Ash.”
I smirk. “Don’t thank me yet. I mean, did you see Christine’s face? It was like I’m just some random person you brought home for the night.”
“What did you expect: a parade, balloons, and dancing oompa loompas?”
I crinkle my nose. “Oompa loompas would have been pretty cool.”
She chuckles. “It’s late. She probably didn’t want to bombard you.”
I frown. “I don’t see why you wanted this so badly. She’s obviously coped with my absence just fine.”
Kyla shakes her head. “Just give her some time, Ash. Trust me on this. She feels more than she’s letting on.”
I shrug. “You know her better than I do.”
“Yeah, I do.” She gets up with a groan and makes her way back to the door.
I laugh at how old she seems.
“I’m just tired,” she says bitingly. “You know where everything is. I’m gonna turn in.”
I stand abruptly in this barren room and call out to her, though I’m not even sure why.
It startles us both.
She turns with a curious look on her face. “Yeah?”
I glance around me looking for something to say while my fingers fidget uncontrollably. I just feel out of place, and if I’m honest with myself, I’m scared. But I can’t say those things. I’m surprised that I even allow myself to feel them.
But then, I don’t have control over feeling things. If I did, I’d be stumbling through life like a belligerent drunk…
Kyla sighs, and I swear, it’s like she can read my mind. “You can sleep with me tonight, but it’s still a full sized bed and I still don’t like to cuddle.”
I release a weary breath.
“And bring your own blanket. I’m not sharing mine,” she says as she leaves.
“Always a blanket hog,” I call out, grabbing a t-shirt and toiletries from one of my suitcases.
“You’re one to talk,” she rejoins from down the hallway.
I smile as I step across to the bathroom and go through my nightly ritual in a bit of a daze. I feel like I’m sixteen again.
Once scrubbed, groomed, and changed, I drop everything back in the spare room and grab the quilt from the end of the bed before making my way towards Kyla’s room. The door to Christine’s room is closed but there’s a light on inside spilling out from the gap beneath. I find myself stopping and stepping close just to listen, I guess – just to reach out to her, even if she doesn’t know it or care to reciprocate.
There’s not a sound inside, and I consider knocking, though I’m not sure why. I don’t have anything to say, and she obviously has nothing to say to me either. She didn’t even question what happened to me. It’s like she doesn’t really care.
I can’t begrudge her that. In fact, that’s what I wanted when I left, right?
I release a breath and decide to just let it go. If she hates me, then all the better for her when this is over.
I reach Kyla’s room and find her already hanging half-on, half-off of the bed like a limp rag. Sheezus is in Squishy’s old cage, laying equally as limp on the top shelf with her head lolling over the edge. These two are so much alike: lunatics that sleep soundly.
“You asleep,” I ask lowly as I spread the quilt on my side of the bed.
“Not yet,” she responds, her voice muffled and smushed against her pillow.
“What did you tell Christine when you called,” I ask quietly as I click off the lamp and crawl in.
She rolls onto her back and looks over at me. “Why?”
I throw my right arm behind my head and try to get comfortable. Her mattress was always lumpy in my opinion.
“She didn’t have any questions,” I say.
Kyla yawns. “I told you, Ash. She was probably just tired.”
“Just humor me…”
She pulls her covers up to her neck. “All I told her is that I found you and that you wanted to come home and see her.”
“You lied to her,” I say.
She shakes her head sleepily. “No, you did want to come home and see her. You were just scared. You aren’t fooling me, Ashley.”
I exhale heavily and stare at the ceiling.
She reaches over and pats me on the arm. “Just give her some time, Ash. We’ll be here for a month. She’ll come around.”
A month in that room that feels like a tomb…
In this house that’s haunted…
With loss everywhere I look and in everything that I see…
This is precisely why I didn’t want to do this, but it’s too late.
I have to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas as a stranger in a strange land.
I glance over at Kyla, whose breathing has evened out in sleep, and realize that at least I have one thing to hold onto that might not kill me if I can survive the ride. She’s frustrating, and pushy, and bossy… and God help me, it reminds me of Spencer.
But then, everything seems to in this place.
In any place.
I scrub at my face, knowing that I won’t sleep well this night, but rolling over to make a concentrated effort. I have a month to brave in this Factory of Terror, and I can’t remember why I used to love a good scare. I guess, maybe, I don’t have that rational mind to keep me safe this time. The tableaus are real, the haunted calls and screams all coming from inside, and Azreal has been nipping at my heels since before my high school graduation.
I have no idea how I’m going to wade through it all and find freedom, how I’m going to escape his bony hand and sickle.
And maybe I can’t…
And maybe that’s okay…
I feel something warm tickle against my nose and reach up to swipe at the irritation. My hand comes away wet and I close my eyes.
For fuck’s sake, I hate crying. I don’t understand why this happens so often. I’m not freaking out or anything. It just keeps happening…
But then I guess I really do know why: I don’t want to die.
And even though I have to, I don’t want to do it alone.
I guess those emotions are going to come out of me whether I want them to or not.
As much as I hate them, I understand that they’re necessary. I have no idea how to reconcile what I want with what should happen, and that problem is so overwhelming that I can’t contain it. I mean, it’s selfish to come back here, to crawl back into these lives, just to leave them again.
But I only have a year.
And a list.
Now if I could just catch a break or get some sleep, whatever comes first.
Of course, I didn’t sleep well. I was up before the sun and I’ve been sitting outside on the back porch ever since, letting the cold seep into me or out of me. I can’t really tell which way it goes. It’s foggy and gray outside, and yet I feel it on the inside. It’s like I’m on some kind of precipice, or maybe just the edge of an abyss.
I have no idea what happens when I jump. And that wouldn’t be so bad, but then I’m not sure why I need to jump in the first place.
What’s the goal here?
I can’t piece anything together, so what do I do when I’m confused and can’t run? I clumsily play Al with numb fingers, begging him to help. I’m playing pretty furiously too, almost desperately, despite my inability to really feel the strings. So, I guess that it should come as no surprise that I’ve drawn some attention with all of my noise.
“Ash,” he says in that voice that tells me one glaring thing: neither time nor pain have spoiled him at all, not even with me.
Man, it’s strange to see him standing there, staring at me with those kind eyes, and that genuine smile.
“Get over here,” he orders.
And I do, and he hugs me, the full kind that he gives out like Halloween Candy, and I can’t help but hug him back. It feels so good to find a memory that doesn’t make me feel like I’m committing hara-kiri.
I feel inordinately warm by the time that he pulls back and holds me at arms-length.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
I can’t help but smile at him. “I’ve missed you too, Mr. C.”
“You’re freezing.” He says. “Come on. I have just the thing.”
He wants to talk to me, and I’m not going to fight him, because whether I’ll admit it or not, I’ve missed him fiercely. If anyone asks I’ve just missed his cooking. And I know for a fact that food is what’s in store for me. But then, as we get closer to the back door, I feel myself slowing, amazing foodlike goodies somehow not enough incentive to brave that place.
I don’t want to go in there. I really don’t want to deal with Paula or Glen, if he’s even still here. I now realize that I have no idea what’s happened to these people who used to call me family, but then hated me for loving their daughter and sister.
Mr. C notices my apprehension and reassures me. “No one’s home. It’s just us for now. The others won’t start showing up until later tonight.”
I nod, following him inside, the fact that nothing’s changed hitting me solidly in the face as I look at the kitchen that I practically grew up in. It even smells exactly the same. Mr. C walks up to the stove, and for a moment, I can see the ghosts of my young life again, fighting with spoons while they make a mess on their hideous aprons.
Well, only I got the hideous apron.
And if I could have done it all over again, I definitely would have kissed Spencer like her apron told me to dozens of times. Fuck, I feel like I can reach out and clean the smudge of chocolate from her youthful cheek, but then she’s gone, faded, over.
It’s all over.
And all that’s left is the ghost of a memory.
“Have you had breakfast, Ash?”
“Uh, no, but I’m not hungry…”
I knew that he wouldn’t hear that, but I had to uphold pretenses. There is no greater joy for him than feeding the unwilling.
“Nonsense. Sit,” he orders, pointing to a stool at the island. I comply, setting Al against the wall while he starts to drip some left-over batter into a skillet.
I laugh and shake my head at the absurdity of it all. “Yeah, Mr. C. Puppies are fine.”
‘Puppies’ is a loose interpretation. The man’s a God in the kitchen, but as an artist… his ‘puppies’ look more like misshapen amoebas with eyes.
They’re totally tasty though…
“So,” he says casually. “How have you been?”
I sigh. As far as the whole ‘explaining away four years’ conversation starters go, he’s adept at making it seem less painful. But, I just don’t want to have it at all. I’d rather keep living in this fantasy land where I never left and nothing’s hard.
“I’ve been… fine,” I say. “How’s everyone else?”
Was that a smooth way of deflecting?
Well, he’s moving on…
“Let’s see,” he replies. “Glen and Madison got pregnant right after graduation.” He shakes his head. “Well, little MacKenzie was actually conceived at graduation, but…”
I cover my ears. “I don’t need those kinds of details, Mr. C.”
He smiles at me and flips one of the road-killed puppies onto a plate before starting to pour another.
“Paula insisted that they get married, so they did. They just recently separated though.”
He checks the edges of the new pancake before carefully flipping it. “Clay and Chelsea are getting married next fall. They’ve been waiting to graduate from college.”
He grins at me. “In fact, Chelsea will finally be home from France for good this Christmas. She’ll be thrilled to see you.” His grin melts into a frown. “You’re staying through Christmas, aren’t you?”
I nod, swallowing a little at the can of worms his expectant eyes are opening.
I’ll have to face them all…
He plates a third pancake and starts to ladle some awesome looking fruit sauce on top. “So, that’s pretty much it.”
Odd, he didn’t mention Mrs. C or Spencer…
He sets the plate, a fork, and a can of reddi-whip in front of me, and I feel my stomach rumble as I pop the top and start to slather the whole confection in white, yummy goodness.
He laughs at my mound of topping. “I see little has changed with your culinary habits.”
“Why change something that’s perfect?”
“Indeed,” he agrees as he starts to clean up the skillet.
I dig into my plate with relish. God, his pancakes are to die for…
“So, how about you,” he asks, again, really casually.
The food in my mouth becomes a lump of coal and I swallow it harshly. “I uh, I wound up in LA.”
“Everyone seems to be heading west anymore.” He sighs. “You, Aiden, Madison and Kenzi…” Wow, I had no idea everyone was in Cali. His voice gets very soft. “Spencer…,” he murmurs.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that he’s almost incapable of saying her name. And he’s been wiping that same spot on the counter almost manically for at least three minutes. Something’s really off. And now that I notice that something’s off, small things start to pop out at me. There are worry lines around those gentle eyes and his hands seem thinner and older, less steady. There’s a droop to his shoulders and it’s like the life and light have been sapped out of him, leaving him… sad.
God, first Spencer and now him?
This is an utter travesty…
“Mr. C…,” I say, and he turns to me. “Does she not call you at all?”
He drops his rag and leans against the counter wearily. “I haven’t spoken with my daughter since Christmas two years ago.”
Oh, God… Spencer really meant it. I thought that she would at least keep him in the loop. He’s the good one here…
“She won’t answer my calls,” he says. “No email, texts, not even letters. Just nothing…”
“Because of Paula,” I sort of ask and say at the same time.
Or is it Carmen?
He sighs and shrugs. “As much as I can tell, she’s the problem. But we’ve been going to therapy. I think she’s starting to come around…”
“What about Glen, did he ever stop being such a douche?”
He pulls out the stool on the other side of the island and plops down. I’ve never seen him so dejected.
I smile as I scoot my plate towards him and he smirks as he picks up another fork.
We start to share my breakfast.
“Glen let the gay thing go.” He finally answers. “But he blames Spencer for splitting up our family.”
I frown. “You guys are…?”
He nods and completes the sentence. “Separated.”
“Wow,” I say, licking some whipped cream off of my fork.
“Yeah,” he says around a mouth full. “I just couldn’t stand it anymore. This is Spencer’s home. She’s my daughter, and I miss her every second of every day. Paula just couldn’t see past this one, small, inconsequential thing…”
“When was this?”
“About a year ago.”
A year, and they’re still separated?
I mean, what’s the wait time for a divorce?
“Is it… better,” I ask, not really sure how all of this works.
He sits back and thinks about that for a moment. “I think so. I mean, I know she misses Spencer as much as I do, but she’s still pretty…”
He bobs his head from side to side as if he can’t find a word that’s in the middle enough.
“Homophobic,” I ask, knowing that there’s no middle to it, not really.
He nods in defeat.
“Did Mrs. C run Spencer off that last Christmas?”
“Yeah, but I’ll be honest, Ash. If that girl she brought home had been a guy, I’d have still wanted her gone.”
I chuckle with him. “Yeah, I know the feeling. You should meet Carmen…”
“Who’s Carmen,” he asks confused before his eyes light up. “New girlfriend?”
I roll my eyes, to which he just laughs. “You don’t like her?”
I give him a rueful glare before taking an inordinately large bite and chewing it lethargically.
I don’t even care about the whipped cream hanging off of my chin. He laughs and nods knowingly as he wipes his mouth on a cloth napkin.
They always use cloth napkins here…
I clean my own face.
“So, you two are in touch, then?”
Again, he’s too casual, almost as if it’s forced. But I can see what’s going on now. He’s trying to ask for information that he’s dying to know without giving too much away. Why doesn’t he just ask? He got me and Kyla adopted and he fathered the love of my life.
I so owe him…
Besides, I could talk about Spencer all day.
“Yeah, we got in touch a little over a month ago.”
“Oh, that’s not long.”
I shake my head. “Kyla found me and sort of set us both up.”
His eyes light up with Kyla’s name. “Your sister’s a sharp one, for sure.”
“She’s a brat,” I say and that makes him laugh all the more.
“She the reason you’re here?”
I think about that for a moment, swirling my fork in my strawberry sauce. “She’s the reason I even considered it, but I’m here because I need to do this before…”
I glance up at him, realizing that I’ve said too much. He doesn’t need to know…
“Before… what,” he asks.
“Nothing, I just need to set some things right.”
He’s not buying my little cover up but I don’t really need to sell it. He just doesn’t need to know. No one else does, especially not Mrs. C.
She’d dance a jig on my grave.
“So…,” he says, failing at finding any further words.
In fact, he’s about as articulate as I am when I’m trying to talk to Spencer.
“So…,” I repeat, wondering why he’s so awkward before remembering that I’d already figured it out.
“You can just ask about her, you know?”
He blows out a breath and I chuckle at him.
“Okay,” he says. “Tell me everything. Please…”
I feel my heart break a little bit at the desperation in his voice.
“Well,” I start. “I don’t know everything about her, but I do know that she’s working as a PA at Universal. She’s been with Carmen,” I say that name with a certain touch of venom. “For two years. They live together in a really modern town house.”
I take a bite as I try to think of more to tell him. “Oh, she has two dogs: Flotsam and Jetsam.”
He starts to laugh. “God, she loved that movie.”
I nod in exasperation. One year I considered running a lighter over the DVD for a little peace, but I just couldn’t do that to her, not even in self-preservation.
“They’re Dobermans too.” I continue. “I mean sleek and intimidating looking, cropped ears and all. But she named them Flotsam and Jetsam.”
I shake my head incredulously. “They’re sweet and goofy, just like her though. It’s kind of perfect.”
We both share a silent, happy moment just reminiscing about simpler things, kinder things. And then he gets to the crux of it all.
“Is she happy,” he asks.
I’m not sure how to answer him. I mean, Spencer claims to be happy, but then I just don’t see it. But I’m also not sure if I would allow myself to see it. There’s one thing on this planet that I’ll always know on a fundamental level though, and that’s Spencer. I know who she is down to her very bones.
And I know that she’s not right, not normal, at least as normal as Spencer gets. If I know nothing else, I’m certain that she misses her family, that she loves her family, and that it hurts her as much as it’s obviously hurting this man in front of me.
“I think in some ways she’s happy, or at least content. But I know she misses you guys. I think it’s taken its toll on everyone.”
He stares out over my shoulder into some void that I can’t see.
“After you left,” he starts. “She became a completely different person. I couldn’t reach her or help her. And Paula and Glen, they just made it worse for her.” His eyes snap back into focus. “I failed her…”
My vision gets blurry and I shake my head. “No, I failed her, Mr. C. Not you…”
His brows furrow. “You loved her, Ashley. You still love her. It’s written all over you. What happened…?”
There’s no judgment in his voice or his body language, just desperation to know and longing to fix it. Maybe he deserves to know, but he’ll never fix this. No one can.
I can’t lie to him though…
“I um, I was dying,” I say.
“Dying,” he asks. “Like, to leave Ohio?”
I shake my head. “No, as in really dying. I was sick, so I left, but then I didn’t die like I was supposed to.”
I shrug, staring down into the red syrup on the plate. His big hands engulf my own over the table and before I know it, I’m being tugged to my feet and bruised in another hug.
“I had no idea,” he says sadly.
God, I feel like such an asshole.
“I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Christine. It’s not your fault, Mr. C.”
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” he rumbles out, the sound deep and echoing in his chest, and I find it so calming, so comforting.
So of course, I need to get away from it.
And of course, he lets me pull back without a fight.
He raises a gentle hand and wipes some moisture from my traitorous eyes, and I swipe at my nose.
“I should probably get h-… back,” I say.
He nods but I can tell that he doesn’t want me to go. “Hey, I know it’s short notice, but you guys should come over for Christmas dinner, just like old times.”
My mind gropes at the air to find a way out of that. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Mr. C…”
“Why wouldn’t it be a good idea? We could use some healing in this family, and your return is definitely something to celebrate.”
He smiles and it reaches his eyes, and I just don’t have the heart to take that from him. He’s lost so much already…
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll ask Christine and Kyla.”
“It’s all set then,” he says confidently.
I grab my guitar and stop at the back door.
“Thanks again for the breakfast,” I say.
“Anytime,” he replies, and if nothing else, I feel good about the fact that the idea perked him up.
“Don’t be a stranger, Ash. You still have the card?”
I can’t help but smile at that. “Yeah, I still have it.”
“The number hasn’t changed,” he grins.
“Thanks, Mr. C.”
And with that I finally exit, letting the instantly cold air fill my lungs and wake me up a little. God, I feel so heavy, and all of the emotional distress has only just begun. Thanksgiving is tomorrow and Christmas is a month away.
Another whole month…
I walk in through the back door and hear laughter coming from the living room. The sound of it is so contradictory to all of the emotions that I’m experiencing, that I almost want to be sick.I look through the living room doorway and to the stairs, wondering if I can get up them without being seen.
It’s unlikely though; I’d have to walk right past the couch and in the direction they’re facing.
“Ash, we’re in here,” Kyla shouts, and I roll my eyes.
Oh well, another dream lost.
I approach the couch from behind and peak over their shoulders. There’s a big photo album spread across their touching legs and they’re both laughing and telling stories with each photo. I watch for a long while, listening and trying to remember, but none of these photos are recognizable to me. I can’t even recognize the faces, except for Kyla and the occasional Christine.
I don’t make a single appearance, not me, not Spencer, not anyone that I know. I realize that this must be the four year gap, and it might as well be an eternal chasm. I want to listen, to know everything that I missed. I want to laugh at the inside jokes and understand the innuendo, but I can’t.
I wasn’t here. I can never get that back.
And with each turned page devoid of anything to do with me, I begin to wonder why there isn’t at least one or two pictures of me somewhere in that thick tome. In fact, I look around the room, at the mantle, at the walls, I find that none of the pictures have me in them. They used to. I remember several in this room before I left, but now… now I realize that not only am I outside of this moment, but I’m not part of this family anymore.
Kyla’s my family, I know that.
She’s Christine’s family as well. I know that too.
But Christine and I are not family despite that commonality; we’re not even friends. And she has clearly removed me from everything in this home, even her very heart. I step back and listen to them a little longer as I feel the blood drain from my limbs. They’re so engrossed in their fun that I could indeed walk right up the stairs without so much as a word.
And so I do.
Kyla glances at me once, but Christine quickly pulls her back into the photos, and I find myself letting go of that last thread of hope to make anything okay here. A year or not, I’m learning that some of the things I’m about to set out to do won’t happen.
I need to get used to the disappointment.
This is only the first of them.
It’s been another night without decent sleep. Kyla and Christine are already downstairs. I can hear their indistinct talking and laughing; pots are clanking, and cabinets are thudding as they move around the kitchen.
And me, well, I’m not really sure what to do with myself.
I’m afraid to go down there, so I just stare at the bare ceiling of what used to be my room, but now feels more like a mausoleum. I could try to go back to sleep and laze away the majority of the day like I have been since we got here, or I could get up and face it. I glance over at my phone on the nightstand, its digital readout clearly indicating that it’s roughly nine am.
It’s way early…
I don’t normally get up until like, noon…
I roll over and pull the blankets up over my head to black out the world. At least the mattress feels familiar. I close my eyes and sigh out my frustration, begging sleep to claim me. He must be feeling magnanimous today, because my eyes start to droop and my consciousness starts to fade.
But of course, when one is feeling magnanimous, another is feeling malicious.
“ASHLEY,” Kyla yells up the stairs.
I groan and squeeze my eyelids tighter together. She will not thwart me today, damn it.
“ASHLEY,” she practically screams, and again I don’t answer.
Now, normal people, when they find out that they’re being ignored, they walk away. But Kyla is obviously not normal. She may not even be human. I’m fairly certain that she’s a sub-terrestrial.
So, what does a certifiable Sub-T do when they’re being ignored? Well, they stomp up the stairs in a tizzy, march up to the willfully ignorant subject, and cruelly chuck back the covers.
“I was shouting for you. You had to have heard me…”
Excellent deductive reasoning skills there, Watson.
“Hm? Oh, were you?”
She rolls her eyes. “Get your ass down stairs. You’re not going to hide today.”
I sit up and rub at my eyes. “What do you mean? I haven’t been hiding…”
She just looks at me, and I know with a pathetic sigh, that I’m fooling no one.
“I’m serious,” she says. “Get your ass downstairs.”
“Can I at least shower first,” I ask grumpily.
And then I have to consider when it was that I had to start asking to do what I want.
What the fuck is this shit?
She stops at the door for moment and then nods her head. “Yeah, just make it quick.”
That was a rhetorical question… wasn’t it?
And then she’s gone, and I’m just flailing. I do not, in any way, shape, or form, understand this life anymore. I grab my toiletries bag and head for the bathroom, taking my sweet, precious time just to spite her. It’s a good hour later when I finally mope down the stairs and enter the kitchen clean, dressed, pressed, hair done up, and make-up just so.
I look hot. Maybe Kyla should piss me off more often.
Being the well-mannered individual that I am, I ask, “Can I help with anything?”
Of course, they both just look at me like I have two heads and then start to laugh. I mean, I guess I’d laugh at a two-headed me too, but still…
“Um, no, we want edible food…,” Kyla deadpans. “But in a few hours, you can help set the table.”
Wow. She’s on a fucking roll today…
And I don’t have to take it. I turn to head back up the stairs, but her voice stops me. “Ashley, don’t even think about it.”
How did she know? Her back was turned…
With a huff, I take a seat at the kitchen nook and cross my arms over my chest. This day needs to go faster, damn it. I check my phone several times, but the clock isn’t moving, so I resign myself to lean back and stare out of the panoramic window. If they want to do all of the cooking, fine. If they want to treat me like a child and a pariah, fine.
I just wish they’d let me be elsewhere while they do it.
“You can help with clean up, too,” Christine adds.
I just glare at the back of her head.
She’s still not asking questions, but she’s started talking to me more frequently. By talking, I mean that she randomly throws completely unprovoked verbal barbs. I just don’t have any way of jabbing her back that doesn’t make me feel like a complete asshole.
She apparently has no such scruples.
I know I fucked up when I ran, but why hasn’t she asked why or where? What did I do to make her not care?
And why is Kyla the golden child?
They work efficiently together. It’s obvious that they’ve done this many times, just the two of them. And I feel like I’ve missed something important, like another hole in my psyche has made itself known.
And I still feel like I don’t belong here.
I don’t understand why Kyla was so adamant about this little shindig. Did she want me to feel this way? Is this her way of getting back at me?
I turn back to my vigil out of the window. It’s another gray day, but somehow the gloom is inordinately bright because of the thin layer of snow that fell overnight. I hear a door shut outside and crane my neck to see Glen lean against the sidewall of the Carlin house to light a cigarette. I can’t help but gawp at him. He looks so different, as if he’s prematurely aging. Maybe it’s just the goatee…?
And… “When did Glen start smoking,” I ask no one in particular.
For a moment, I envy him. I don’t smoke, but I could totally use… just something right now to calm my nerves.
Booze, man… I want booze…
“About the same time he and Madison had Kenzi,” Kyla responds.
I shake my head. It’s just crazy to me. I mean, Glen’s a father, a husband, a smoker…
Just then, he glances in my direction and his eyes stop when they meet mine. His gaze is cold and unnerving, and I’d swear that he almost sneers at me. The look he’s giving me is like he’s just stepped in something disgusting that won’t wipe off.
He flicks his cigarette as if he means to hit me with it, and goes inside.
Well, that settles where he stands.
“So much for Christmas dinner,” I mumble to myself.
“What about Christmas dinner,” Kyla asks.
“Oh, nothing. I was just… talking to myself.”
“Okay,” she drawls, somehow making the word three syllables. “You never talk to yourself.”
“Yeah, well… I’m not exactly in my element.”
I give her a pointed, accusing look and she rolls her eyes at me before continuing.
“What about Christmas dinner?”
I sigh. Why can’t she just leave me alone? It was an idle thought.
She’s staring at me expectantly, so I just spit it out. “I saw Mr. C yesterday and he invited us to Christmas dinner.”
Christine stops her chopping, and she and Kyla look at one another.
I frown. “What?”
Christine is the one to actually speak. “Well, it’s just, ever since you left… I don’t, we just don’t talk to them anymore. At all…”
“Not even to Mr. C,” I ask.
She shakes her head.
God, poor Mr. C sort of lost everything…
“They’re separated now,” I say.
Christine thinks about it for a moment. “Well, that explains why Paula’s never home.”
“Well, like I said, he invited us to dinner, but I already knew we wouldn’t go.”
“Why not,” Christine asks.
I gape at her. “Well, you don’t talk to them and haven’t for years, and most of them are openly hostile towards me… to name a few reasons.”
Christine pops a black olive in her mouth from the tray on the counter, and I wonder when the finger foods were put down and how I’d missed them. I stand to go and peruse only to stop when I notice Christine watching me.
What? I can’t eat now?
Fuck, she hates me…
I glance at Kyla at the range for some support, but that was stupid. With Christine in the mix, I’m second hat. Besides, she’s a little preoccupied with that poor, delicious bird. And even if she weren’t, she thinks it’s all in my head with Christine, that I just need to give her time.
But she doesn’t see these moments that so thoroughly unnerve me because it’s always when she’s not looking, just like right now…
The way Christine’s looking at me, it’s like she’s trying to make me explode with her thoughts. I want it to stop, all of the torturous jabs and exclusion. The question is how to make that happen. I can’t just go with my gut and scream at her.
God, I want to. She’s had a couple days now, and I’m fed up with the pissy routine. Does she want me here or not? Or, is this all just Kyla’s naïve fantasy?
Well, nasty glare or not, I’m having some fucking turkey today.
Eat that, Christine…
After several long moments of further unnerving scrutiny, she finally turns back to work at her chopping board as if nothing just occurred. I snatch a piece of cheese from the tray and give her another dirty look.
Ha… I got cheese.
Kyla almost catches me though as she bends to open the oven, and I nearly choke on the little cube. I splutter a little bit and reach for the fridge to grab a bottle of water, and that’s when I finally see the bird that’s now fully visible on the stove top. I step closer, to try and process what I’m seeing.
“What is that,” I ask as I poke one of its strangely colored legs. It wobbles like a gelatin mold.
“That,” Kyla answers. “Is a delicious tofurkey.”
No turkey on Thanksgiving…?
“Kyla,” I groan.
She just scoffs. “They’re delicious and no one had to die.”
No turkey on Thanksgiving…?!
“You’re a heretic…,” I breathe out sadly.
She smacks my hand away and giggles.
“It’s good,” she protests, picking up the pan and stuffing it into the oven.
Who bakes tofu?
Who eats turkey-shaped, baked tofu… on Thanksgiving?
This isn’t a vegetarian holiday, damn it.
Christine’s ready to take a pot shot at me now. I mean, it has been about ten minutes, and after the atrocity that is this fake bird, it’s a good time to kick me while I’m down.
“I think we should go to the Carlins’ for Christmas dinner,” she says.
Kyla smiles at her. “It would be nice, like old times.”
“What,” I ask.
“We should go to the Carlins’ for Christmas dinner,” she repeats like I’m stupid.
And maybe I am. I certainly feel stupid.
“But I just told you…,” I try to remind her.
“Ashley,” she cuts me off. “Nobody over there is hostile anymore. You’ve been gone four years.”
Yeah, thanks for reminding me yet again.
“I doubt they’re still holding any grudges,” she concludes.
I want to laugh in her face. I mean, she’s still holding one and yet they’re what, impossible? And, I mean, homophobes can hold a pretty damn long grudge. Like, a lifetime. No, like generations of lifetimes.
“I’d rather just do something low key here, if you two don’t mind,” I try my best at cordial and polite, despite how very deep this end of the pool I’m slipping into appears.
“We’re going,” Christine says in that voice that I remember all too well. It means that this discussion is over.
Well, I’m not a child anymore. And I’m tired of both of them treating me like one.
Again, I try calm. I try compromise.
“Okay,” I say. “You two go over there for dinner. I’ll be here when you get back.”
They round on me and I take a step back.
“Why are you here,” Kyla asks pointedly.
“Because you pushed for it,” I say, knowing it’s only a half-truth and hoping to get a pot shot in of my own.
Christine stiffens at my words and I feel worse for it, not better.
“Is that the only reason,” Kyla continues.
“I wanted to set things right before…”
Kyla just rolls her eyes.
“So you think hiding, by yourself, away from us, is going to accomplish that?”
“I’m trying to set things right with you and Christine, not the Carlins’.”
“Then why did you spend the entire day yesterday playing guitar and avoiding us?”
I so did.
And she knows it.
She just refuses to see why.
“Well, since you have our little group under control, the Carlins’ should be no trouble.”
“I don’t want to, Kyla. What’s wrong with just the three of us?”
“Not everything can be how you want it, Ashley,” Christine pitches in oh so helpfully.
I just snort out a laugh at this entire encounter and situation. “Maybe not, but I know you don’t want me here. And maybe things can be how you want them.”
And with that, I grab my jacket and keys, and step out into the freezing cold, shutting out the call of my name from inside of the house. I don’t even wait for the car to warm up before I skid away from the curb and start driving anywhere and nowhere.
I just need to clear my head. This day is going way worse than I’d anticipated.
I drive for a long time, my mind no better, but it’s getting dark and I’m tired. I finally wind up pulling into a hole-in-the-wall diner, the first place for miles that I’ve seen open. It kind of reminds me of a metal twinkie that hasn’t been updated since fifties-kitch was in. It’s completely run down, but it’s warm inside and the lady at the counter smiling at me is a vast improvement from any other human interaction I’ve had all day.
I order a coffee as I tuck myself into a booth at the very back. She’s quick to deliver the steaming, black liquid, and I sip on it as I stare into the swirling surface. I know that I have to go back there, and I know that I can’t run away and just forget it all.
But I really want to.
I decide to pull out my phone and play a game or listen to some music, just something to overpower the crowded thoughts in my head and drown them out.
I turn my phone on and sigh as several missed messages appear. I knew it would be bad, and it’ll be even worse when I actually respond, but I’m not going to just yet. I scroll through them; some of them are threatening bodily harm, especially the one where I missed dinner.
I just can’t bring myself to care. They didn’t want me there. It was obvious. But then another message catches my eye and I find myself smiling involuntarily.
God, she’s so fucking cute.
I settle back in the booth.
Well that’s a glowing endorsement. God, what a pair we make.
I can’t help but chuckle.
I nod solemnly, forgetting that she can’t see me, but that doesn’t seem to matter to her.
I frown at the screen, trying to decipher what’s going on in her last message, but it doesn’t make any sense, at least not until my phone rings and her picture shows up on the screen.
I can’t help but smile as I answer the phone. “Hey.”
“I can’t believe you’re in Ohio,” she says immediately.
“Yeah, me neither.”
“So…,” she says a little awkwardly. “How’s… everyone?”
I grin because I already know this game. Mr. C’s already played it, and she’s just as transparent. My grin fades though, because I realize that she’s going to want to know things that I don’t want to tell her.
Her family’s falling the fuck apart…
Fuck, I don’t want to be the one…
“Ash, you there?”
“Yeah, sorry… everyone’s fine.”
I know that isn’t enough but it buys me a few more seconds.
“Could you give a little more than that, please?”
And she sounds frustrated. Just… fuck this day…
Okay, I can work with this. I have my own drama, after all.
“Christine hates me and Kyla’s treating me like a child.”
“Ash, come on. It can’t be that bad.”
“Spence, you have no idea…”
“And there’s no way Christine hates you,” she continues as if I hadn’t said anything.
I laugh humorlessly. “Spence, trust me. It’s no joke. She gutted my room, took all of my photos out of the house, and she’s done nothing but give me grief. She hasn’t even asked why I left because she just doesn’t care.”
The line is quiet for a moment and I exhale loudly. “I’m sorry. None of this is your problem.”
“No, that’s fine. You can vent, I just know she doesn’t hate you, Ash. She was a wreck after you left. She couldn’t even look at me, but then I wasn’t really all that great either.”
God, is everyone against me today?
“Okay, but you at least heard me out and cared enough to ask what happened. She doesn’t and hasn’t. I’m just wasting my time here.”
“How long have you been there?”
I frown. Why does that matter?
“Well no wonder,” she says. “You put her through a lot. Give her some time.” Who’s fucking side is she on anyways? “Why don’t you just talk to her?”
I find myself lashing out. “The same reason you haven’t talked to your dad, except he doesn’t actually deserve it.” Again, the line is quiet and I feel a headache sparking behind my eyes. “Fuck, Spence, I’m sorry…”
Her voice is so sad. “You saw him?”
“Yeah,” I sigh out.
“H-how is he?”
I rest my forehead to my palm and brace my arm against the table. “Don’t make me answer that, please…”
But we both know that she won’t honor that request.
“Why can’t you answer,” she asks worriedly.
“Spence, you need to talk to him about this stuff.”
“Has something happened?” She’s fully panicking now. “He’s not… dying, is he? I can’t take another one, Ash…”
And with that, I can hear the tears coming from the other end of the phone. I feel like such a dick.
“No, Spence, he’s not dying,” I hasten to reassure her.
“Thank God,” she breathes.
“Your parents have split up though.” Again, a dead line. “Spence… did you hear me?”
She clears her throat. “Uh, yeah… I mean, are you serious?”
“But I don’t understand. Why? When? What happened?”
I want to laugh at the absurdity of her questions. I mean, she’s met Mrs. C… obviously. It’s not that hard to believe.
I can’t give her the answers though, at least not in a healthy, non-bitter way. “I really think you need to call your dad, Spence.”
She sighs long and loud into the phone. “God, it’s been two years. I don’t know if I can…”
This time I do laugh at her. “You do realize who you’re talking to, right?”
She laughs with me and I’m thankful for the minute brevity. It helps to release some of the tension.
“I guess you’re right,” she says.
I find my jaw hitting the table top. “Can you repeat that, please? Or, no, can I get it in writing instead?”
She laughs and I can’t help but smile at the sound of it. “Yeah, I’m not sure what I was thinking there.”
“Me neither,” I agree.
She chuckles some more. “God, Ash. How did everything get so messed up?”
I slump in my booth a little more. “I’m beginning to believe that it’s all my fault.”
She scoffs. “What?”
I nod. “Yup. Apparently when I left, everyone’s lives fell apart. I had no idea that leaving would be such a big damn deal.”
“That’s cuz you’re an idiot.”
“Thanks,” I say sardonically.
“You do know that the world doesn’t actually revolve around you, right?”
I roll my eyes. “You’re too funny, Spence.” She’s laughing again. “You missed your calling.”
“Well, it’s never too late,” she says. “All I need to do is quit my job, sell my car, get a gimmick – like an overly trained rodent or a puppet – and join the circus.”
“Oooo, you want to be a carny?”
“Yeah,” she exclaims brightly. “You could come too. I can see your act now… the girl whose head is too big for her body.”
“Hey,” I say indignantly. “I’m very well proportioned, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, well, you’re the one who said that everything’s your fault.”
“Well,” I defend. “Literally everyone fell apart right after I left!”
“Some of that stuff would have happened with or without you,” she says. “But I can’t argue that it hurt a lot of people.”
“I want to fix it, Spence…”
“I know,” she says softly.
“But Christine won’t let me…”
“Give it time,” she implores again. “Four years of worrying and hurting isn’t going to disappear in two days.”
I sigh. “I wasn’t trying to hurt her.”
“So tell her that. I know that it made it harder for me to stay mad at you.”
I grin. “You never could stay mad at me.”
“Oh, no, I was always mad at you; I just learned to live with it on a constant basis,” she states matter-of-factly.
“Sure,” I say. “You just can’t resist my charm.”
“You can’t deny it.”
“I can’t deny that you’re full of yourself.”
“I’m full of animal magnetism, baby.”
“You’re full of something, alright…”
There’s a quiet moment that feels normal for the first time in a long time, and I bask in it until my phone vibrates and I see another nastygram from Kyla.
“If you don’t come home, I’ll have every cop in this city looking for you.”
I sigh. “Spence, I hate to cut this short, but Kyla’s having a large litter of kittens.”
“What did you do this time?”
“What makes you think I did anything,” I ask defensively.
I’m quiet for a moment. “Well, yes, but just this once!”
She’s laughing and I’m ready to start banging my head on the tabletop.
“Let me guess,” Spencer says between laughs. “You fought and took off in the middle of it.”
My head snaps up and I stare at my phone, worried that the microwaves have given her the ability to read minds.
“How did you…?”
“Pfft, please. You never stick around to finish anything, Ash, least of all anything confrontational.”
“Jeez, Spence. I’m so glad you think so highly of me.”
“I’m not judging,” she insists. “I’m just saying that you’re more predictable than my cycle.”
And she’s like clockwork…
“Well, I have to face the music.”
“Wow,” she says. “That soon?”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s progress. Normally you just put it off until someone nails you down about whatever caused the problem. Congratulations for facing it head on.”
“You really are too funny, Spence.”
“I’m not being facetious,” she reassures me. “I’m serious. That’s progress.”
And now I just feel uncomfortable. “Yeah, well, I don’t have time to put it off anymore.”
The line goes quiet again and I want to kick myself. Not everyone is as flippant about my life as I am.
“So, are you going to call your dad,” I ask, trying desperately to change the subject.
She blows out a breath. “I don’t think I really have a choice.”
“He misses you, Spence.”
“I miss him too.”
My phone buzzes again and I look at the screen.
“Listen, Spence, I have to go. Kyla’s about to call the cops.”
I can hear the smile in her voice. “Okay.”
“Text me and tell me how it goes?”
“Yeah, you too,” she says.
“Okay,” I say, not really wanting to hang up, but not having any options.
Why aren’t there ever good options?
I hear the line go dead and quickly type a message to Kyla.
I sigh as I lay a bill on the table.
Happy fucking Thanksgiving to me…