Yours Always, Louella

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Chapter Two

I COULDN’T SEE.

Perhaps I didn’t want to see. Maybe I was simply blocking out the image of someone who made me feel as though I wasn’t enough, and funnily enough, it wasn’t the person that I thought it might be. This person reminded me on a daily basis that I wasn’t worthy of anything good in the world, that I should hide myself away from the prying eyes of everyone -- that nothing I did would ever be good enough.

That someone was me.

I was my own worst enemy at times. It was ironic how I preached self-love to everyone I could, told them that they were worth it, drilled it into them that they were precious souls. . . but I couldn’t even tell myself that. Why was it so hard for me to believe? Why had my brain conditioned itself into thinking I was the devil’s daughter? That I had committed some heinous crime and should be punished for life? The only thing I blamed myself for was that I once believed it was all real when it wasn’t.

And so, when I stared at myself in the mirror, I tilted my head from side to side, desperately searching for any ounce of recognition in the girl that gazed back with hollowed eyes. My frail hands tightened around the edge of the sink, and my face turned a light red shade with suppressed disgust. If only my family could see me now, they would likely drag me back home, but that would make everything worse. I couldn’t stick another moment in that cursed town before I lost my mind. . . Then again, maybe I had already lost my mind. I wasn’t sure.

Although my mental state had arguably improved, I still had a long way to go before I could confidently tell myself that I was okay, and not simply as an effort to soothe myself. My mind, at times, was a scary and dark place. It was lonely, with no-one but myself there to listen to the constant shouting and screaming. It never quietened, whirring like an old computer, even at three in the morning when all I wanted was sleep. It degraded me at school, in the morning, when I worked and when I was with friends. And then, people had to ask why I was tired all the time. If they had their own personal shadow following them around, only whispering the words they knew would kill you inside, it would be nearly impossible to walk around with a smile.

“Lou? You in there?”

A light knocking sounded on the bathroom door, and I straightened up, fixing my souring facial expression. With Kai, it was different. Even though I knew I didn’t have to pretend with him, I didn’t want to unload the constant burden of my mind on him.

“Hey,” I smiled when I opened the door and noticed him standing two inches away from my face, startling me. His dark brows were pulled together in a tight frown and his lips curved naturally downwards in thought. Immediately, his eyes flitted up and down before landing on my face.

“Are you going somewhere?” he asked.

“Yeah. I think I’m going to head out for some fresh air,” I shrugged, “It’s nice out there today.”

Kai’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Who are you and what have you done with Lou?”

I jabbed my elbow into his side and scoffed, “Shut up. You’re making me sound like some kind of hermit.”

“. . . Which you are,” he slowly reminded me.

I grabbed my jacket off the bed and rolled my eyes at his comment. Sure, I probably liked staying inside more than others, but it was safer.

Nothing in here could hurt me.

“I’ll be back in a while,” I told him, “I’ll just go down to the park or something.”

“Be careful,” he warned, leaning against the doorframe with crossed arms. Concern shadowed his face and he watched me with narrowed eyes, “Do you want me to come with?”

“No, no. I’m okay,” I smiled, “I’ll keep my phone on me, so don’t worry.”

“Don’t stay out too late. It’s going to get dark soon,” he squinted out the window.

“I won’t,” I promised, “Let me know if you need anything on the way home and I can pick it up, okay?”

“Perfect,” he flashed me a small smile, “I’ll fix you something to eat by the time you’re home.”

“You’re a star Kai!” I blew him a kiss and pulled the door open, “Bye!”

***

My hair fluttered in the breeze.

It was cooling, a nice distraction from the burning heat of the sun. I lifted a hand to shade my face, but it didn’t help much. Either way, I basked in the warmth, hoping to get a little bit of a tan. Staying inside all winter meant I looked sickly pale, and I was hoping a little bit of the summer sun would fix that.

The bench had been exposed to the elements for many seasons, likely it was older than I was. It had come to resemble driftwood, the bright tones of its once fresh state had become a sombre brown, but beautiful. I ran my fingers over the swirls in the wood grain, being so close to the ocean it was likely just as infused with salt from onshore breezes and the wintry gales that even made the air taste of brine. I wondered how many had sat in this very spot and what their emotions were; perhaps some were newlyweds in love, some confused teenagers searching for meaning, some the old folk come to remember a loved one who’s passed. I was none of those things, neither at the beginning of my life or the end, but old enough to cherish moments instead of wishing them away.

Little kids rushed by, their screams of laughter resonating through the crisp air. They all had wicked grins on their faces, running and scrambling around the playground. I crossed my legs as I watched, envying their childlike nature. If there was one thing I wished for, it was to be able to go back and tell my younger self to enjoy life. To take all the opportunities I never did because I was scared. To stand up for myself and hold myself with pride.

It felt like fifty years had passed, but looking at my calendar, only six had. Yet, I could still remember every detail like it was yesterday. It didn’t hurt as much anymore, and I had learned to live with it. I didn’t wake up crying in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat anymore. I had made my peace with it, and even though some days still hurt, it was bearable now.

Cutting everyone out of my life wasn’t easy -- in fact, it was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. These were the people I had grown up with, experienced everything with. But they were also constant reminders of what I desperately wanted to forget. I didn’t want to remember those nights every time I saw their faces. It was too much. I needed to move on, and that meant putting myself first and doing what was best for me.

Étienne’s letter was on my lap; a little crumpled at the edges, but still legible. I always loved his writing. The curls and swirls were always pleasing to look at. It comforted me, his words. He was always someone I relied on for help, and I knew it wasn’t fair for me to just shut him out after everything, but I had no other choice. Whenever I felt down, I found myself going back and rereading his words. By the time I reached the end, I was smiling. It did break my heart, knowing I had left him by himself. I shouldn’t have had and I still regretted it to this day. I regretted not answering his calls and texts. I regretted ignoring his birthday when he wished me on mine. If I could go back, I would have hit myself over the head for being an idiot. He was the last person who deserved the cold shoulder from me. But, in some way, I had convinced myself that in order to move on, I needed to cut my ties with everyone.

I wondered how he was doing and where he was. He was always destined to do something big, and that small town would only hold him back. It made me happy to hear that he had moved, and hopefully, the wound I has caused wasn’t too big. He could even be married, or have kids by now. I didn’t know. Perhaps I had taken him and his kindness for granted. I knew I could always rely on him to be there for me, but in the end, I was the one who left him after everything he had done for me. Even though he assured me he understood in his letter, it did nothing to rid me of the guilt I felt.

I tried to sneakily get information out from my parents, but even they didn’t know much. The last they heard, he had packed up his things and moved out without looking back. Our families didn’t keep in contact anymore after everything that happened. I had placed a wedge in between them, forever binding. I was lonelier than I had ever been in my entire life, but I was also a lot more at peace with myself. Sure, I missed the friendships I had -- the times we would spent together every day and the laughs we had. It would be memories I would cherish for the rest of my life, and Étienne was wrong. I would never be able to forget him and our time together.

He was still in town, however. Word got around and he seemed to be doing well, living his life to the fullest. Apparently, he dropped out of college in his last year and worked full-time as a bartender. It was refreshing to not have to constantly peer over my shoulder, though. Once he was as far away as possible from me, I didn’t care anymore. Was there ever going to be a day where I didn’t think about it? Probably not, but the pain was bearable and I had come to terms with it. I couldn’t change the past, so I learned to live with it, and that in turn made me stronger.

There had been a few times over the years where he had tried to contact me. By social media, mostly, but each time I had pressed the block button without a second thought. It looked like he was in a relationship with another girl. however. I wouldn’t lie and say I didn’t stalk his pages a little. I wanted him to be miserable, but there he was, seemingly living his best life. She looked sweet, with large green eyes and red hair that stood out. Her face was covered in freckles, and she smiled in every photo with her arm draped around his shoulders. It made my stomach churn and heave, and I wondered if she knew what kind of person he truly was. Maybe she did, and she just didn’t care.

The sun was beginning to dim now, but the kids were still running around as though their energy was endless. My legs were beginning to cramp from sitting in the same position for two hours. Another child ran past me, whooping into the frigid air, his red coat garish against the sombre park. Heads turned, a dog barked and a duck skittered out further into the pond. I watched as children stared up at the sky with that look of love and awe. My eyes followed their gaze, landing on the flock of birds, the beating wings capturing my mind in the most calming of ways, the same way soft waves on the beach do.

Out of the corner of my eye, a man caught me eye. He was tall, towering nearly as high as the swing-sets and slides. He threw his head back in laughter, while his hand clutched a younger girls. She squealed as she flew down the slide, her cheeks flushed in excitement. Her dark hair was parted in half, pulled into two loose pigtails and the gap between her teeth made her appear all the sweeter. A ghost of a smile crossed my lips when I noticed her mouth was smeared with chocolate and her white top had a few splats of brown on it too. The man beside her had his back turned to me, but she seemed very close to him as she but to scramble onto his back. He bent over, gripping her legs in a firm grasp and hauled her up.

“Spin me, spin me!” she cried, clutching onto his shoulders. Her eyes were wide and she shrieked when he twirled them around, bending forward, pretending to almost let her drop, before straightening up. Her screams of excitement deafened my ears, but it was refreshing to watch the childlike innocence she displayed.

The man turned in my direction then. My lips parted in surprise and all the breath was knocked out of me. His eyes latched onto mine from afar and my heart nearly jumped out my chest. He dressed in scrubby jeans and wore a t-shirt from some band that had been in fashion before he was born. His hair was swept back neatly, with a few strands flopping over his eyes. Dimples poked out from his cheeks as he grinned at the younger girl, his eyes boring the beginning of crows feet. There was a softness to his appearance, however, a kind of warmth married to a shyness.

“Étienne?”

He reeled back in surprise, blinking as though he wasn’t sure if he was seeing correctly. His entire body seemed to freeze, and his pale lips parting in the gentle wind.

It was him.

Our eyes connected, and in that moment, everything around me disappeared. It was just him and I, standing across from each other in the first time in four years, and I released a disbelieving laugh when he clamped a hand over his mouth.

“Louella?”

My name passed as a whisper, barely loud enough to be heard. A bright smile lit up on my face and I stumbled a little, choking on my words as I could hardly believe he was standing right here in front of me, after all this time. He looked a little dazed, and even went to rub his eyes before standing there in shock.

“Étienne,” a grin lit up my face, “I knew it was you.”

“God. . . What are you doing here?”

His words were stumbled as he took me in. Even in scrubby jeans and a t-shirt, he still somehow stood out. He quickly ran a hand through his hair and couldn’t stop staring, leaving me with red cheeks and a slightly awkward stance.

“I moved here,” I explained, “A while back, actually.”

“What a coincidence, hm?” he chuckled, the sound deep and throaty, “You know, I never thought I’d run into you -- here of all places.”

“Me too,” I agreed, my eyes discreetly trying to trail over him and I hated how a small shudder still ran through me, the hairs on my arms standing up.

“How have you been?” he asked, softening his voice, “Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” I nodded, and this time my words were sincere, “I’m slowly becoming more and more okay.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he replied, my heart squeezing in my chest at the sheer happiness that seemed to glow outwards from him.

The small girl tugged on his jacket, and she shuffled behind Étienne a little, half of her body hidden. Her small hand gripped around his fingers and she peered up at me with curious eyes. I glanced between the two of them, trying to make out the connection, and Étienne’s cheeks flushed a little bit red.

“Right,” he coughed, and bent down until he was beside her, “Sweetheart, this is a friend of mine, Louella. We were best-friends, just like you and Ben.”

“Really?” the young girl continued to stare in wonder.

“And Lou, this is Caia,” he introduced, pausing for a second before confessing, “My daughter.”

I couldn’t hold back my flinch, and I knew by the slight wince he made, that I hadn’t been subtle. My mind reeled so fast, that I couldn’t even get out a string of comprehensible words. Étienne had a daughter?

When?

How?

It shouldn’t have felt so jarring, but it did. I wasn’t sure why it was like a punch to the gut that he had moved on with his life. I wasn’t expecting for him to sit around and wait without maturing and growing up. We weren’t in college anymore, nor secondary. But the thought of him getting married, having a wife and child left a feeling of disappointment pool in my stomach.

“Daughter?” I finally echoed.

“Yeah,” he smiled awkwardly and turned to Caia, “Sweetheart, why don’t you go play on the swings for a few minutes? I’ll be watching you from here so no funny business, okay? No more kicking people off the swings either, remember.”

Not thinking anything of it, she sprinted away towards the middle of the playground, peering back at me every few seconds. I watched as he raised an eyebrow at her from here, reminding her to play nicely. She shot her father a sweet smile and kicked her feet together while she waited her turn in line.

“You have a daughter,” I whispered and ran a hand through my shortened hair, “Wow. . . I uh, I didn’t expect that.”

“Neither did I,” he shrugged, “It was a surprise for me too, but I’m glad she’s here. She’s my life now.”

“I. . . I’m glad,” I choked, “You two seem happy.”

“We are,” he agreed softly, “Honestly, this was what I needed. After everything, even work wasn’t enough to take my mind off of things. With Caia, my life changed for the better.”

“Sorry, I’m just a little shocked,” I laughed breathily, “I guess it’s been six years so I’m not sure what I was expecting.”

“We’re not in college anymore,” Étienne smiled, “A lot has happened in those years.”

“I can see that,” I mumbled, my gaze flickering towards Caia in the background, “How old is she?”

“She’s four this year,” he scratched the back of his head, “September fifth.”

“I’m happy for you, Étienne,” I placed a hand on his arm and squeezed gently, “I really am. You’re going to be an amazing father, I just know it.”

My words were sincere and I meant every one of them. Étienne didn’t miss a beat before he glanced down at her grip and swallowed thickly.

“Thank you, Lou.”

There was an awkwardness between us that felt mismatched but then again, it had been so long since I had seen him. Of course, he crossed my mind regularly, but it was a fleeting thought that ended up lost in the wind. Sometimes, there came a time to stop torturing yourself with the possibilities of what could happen, or what happened, and just focus on the present.

“What. . . what about her mother?” I asked, wincing at my own question. Curiosity was burning at me, and I knew I would have regretted not asking if I left again. Étienne’s face fell a little, but he managed to paint on a smile and tried his best to appear unbothered.

“She’s not exactly in the picture,” he struggled to get the words out, averting his eyes, “It’s just the two of us.”

My face flamed red, and I dropped her gaze in embarrassment, “Oh.”

I shouldn’t have asked, and I cursed myself in my head for asking something so blatantly stupid. My hands wrung together when he didn’t speak for a few seconds, swallowing down the lump in his throat.

“It’s okay,” he nudged my shoulder, “Don’t worry about it. It was a while ago anyway. Caia and I are doing fine without her.”

It seemed like it was a sensitive topic for him, and I didn’t want to probe any more.

“You’ve always been so strong,” I hummed, staring ahead, “I admire that about you a lot.”

And he was. Étienne had always been the cup-half-full kind of person, never letting life or anyone interfere with him. He was headstrong, and knew what he wanted from life. I admired that he didn’t let things upset him for too long before chasing after what he wanted. It was what I aspired to be like, but was slowly mastering, one day at a time.

“So are you, you know that, right?” he raised a brow but I just shrugged. I couldn’t ever see myself how Étienne always used to say he saw me. It wasn’t fishing for compliments or praise, I just thought of myself as lesser.

“Not like you though,” I shook my head, “You never let life get you down.”

“I learnt it from you,” Étienne smiled, “You were the one who taught me to be like that.”

“Now you’re just flattering me,” I tilted my head back a little and released a small laugh.

“Maybe a little,” he admitted with an unrestrained grin, “But hey, if you’re around, we should catch up properly sometime. . . Only if you want to, of course.”

I glanced back to see Caia on the swings, her screeches nearly deafening the children around her, but the childish grin on her lips was irreplaceable and her hair whipped behind her as her short legs dangled in the air. There was an air of mysteriousness to his words when he trailed off, and I couldn’t read what he truly wanted to say. Everything was more complicated now, and with a daughter, I wondered just how different our potential friendship might be.

“I’d love that,” I agreed and pulled out my phone, “Do you have a new number now?”

“Nah, it’s still the same,” he chuckled, “Couldn’t be arsed to get a new one.”

“Oh. I’ll text you then,” I waved my phone in the air and slipped it back into my pocket.

“You still have my number?” he blinked in surprise and I froze for a second before nodding. My cheeks flushed a little in embarrassment of being caught not being able to delete his number after this long.

“Yeah,” I breathed, “I don’t know. . . I just couldn’t delete your number.”

“Oh.”

It was hard to turn the page when you weren’t sure if the person you loved so desperately was going to be in the next chapter, and it turned out they wasn’t going to be. This was the story that everybody was too afraid to tell, but here I was, alive and breathing despite it all.

“I’ll see you around then?” I asked, sounding almost afraid of the answer.

“Maybe,” he replied, “If it’s meant to be.”



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