I sighed, staring up at the house I grew up in. It had been years since I had been here, but the memories never faded. I should have felt sad. Maybe even angry.
Instead I just felt empty.
Loneliness had become a constant in my life. It was familiar. I had learned at a young age to keep everyone at a distance and hide myself behind a crooked smile. Now that my mother was dead and buried, all that was left of her was this house.
And the dark memories that came with it.
The structure in front of me wasn't much to look at - the porch was in desperate need of repair as it sagged slightly on the right side and the shutters were barely hanging. My sister had moved in to attempt to help my mother out after she found out she was sick, but now she was engaged and of course, couldn’t be bothered to keep the house when her new fiancé lived across the nation. I never imagined my sister to be the one that would have it 'all together', considering how much of a mess she had been my entire childhood. While I didn't feel particularly overjoyed by learning that the house was being signed over to me, it was a free place to live. The only stipulation had been to allow my sister's best friend to continue to live in the apartment above the garage.
The only issue with this scenario was seeing him again.
James Roe, two years my senior - the same age as my sister. They had always been attached at the hip and when she had been away, our friendship had flourished. It only made sense that when I left, they would pick up their friendship where they left off. I always pictured Jamie to be some great millionaire, living in a mansion with a trophy wife. At one time, I had pictured myself on his arm, enjoying luxuries in life, sipping wine by a poolside. Not only was James resourceful and brilliant, he was also a trust fund baby. Maybe he had grown up to be just as much of a disappointment as me. I thought it was strange for a trust fund child to live in a small crumbling studio above their friends garage at the age of 28, but what did I know of Jamie's life since I left nearly a decade ago?
Maybe he was a druggie or an alcoholic. Maybe his reputation finally matched mine. Maybe we could finally be equals.
In another life, maybe we would have been happy.
I sighed to myself, trekking up the old creaky steps to the front door. Goosebumps flooded over my arms as I walked over the old worn floor, my nose wrinkling at the sad attempt my sister had made to repaint the walls. I had remembered them being a dark green color, though now, a sickly yellow color stared back at me. I assumed it was in attempt to 'cheer up the place' or something equally pointless. I didn't care about the cosmetics of the house, just that it was functional. This was meant to be my new beginning.
I could almost picture my mother's hospital bed in the middle of the room. The way the stain looked a little off in color from wheeling a medical bed around almost made me want to cry. I hadn't bothered to visit my mom much after her cancer diagnosis. The one time I did stop in wasn't so much to see her as it was to have one night of good sleep and a hot meal before taking off again. She couldn't look me in the eye, even when she was on her death bed. I was the family disappointment, the daughter she didn't want. Even when she was dying, she couldn't stand to be in the same room as me. I had laughed bitterly when she told me I wasn't welcome in her house, pointing a wobbly finger at me. The way she pointed at me was more threatening than a grown man with a baseball bat.
I had left that night without saying goodbye and until now, I had never returned to this house.
I took a mental inventory of the furniture that was left behind. Most of it was nice, probably replacements my sister's fiancée had put in to make the place more comfortable for his bride-to-be while he couldn't be with her. Even though they weren't the couches and tables I would have chosen, it was less I had to worry about. I assumed they didn't take it all with them more for the lack of room in their new home together versus leaving it behind as a generous gesture for me. The middle of the couch sagged slightly; probably from my sister sleeping on it night after night to be close to our mother during the night. All of the furniture had been pushed to the edges of the room to make more space in the middle for my mom's medical set up. I could tell from the dusty squares on the walls that pictures had been taken down recently - probably to give it a blank slate. Or to remove family photos from the wall that included me so that my mother could be more comfortable. I suspected the later was more realistic.
I jumped at the sound, but the familiar voice caught me off guard. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw Jamie watching me with the same adoring smile he had the first time I met him. His eyes darkened in a way that made my breath hitch in my throat and that lopsided smile made the goosebumps rise on my arms again.
"Jamie... hi." I said breathlessly. Today I wore a pair of faded old jeans and a plain gray baggy shirt. I hadn't even taken a shower. I tried to tame my wild honey curls to look a little less homeless. I gave up my efforts when my fingers snarled through them and yanked at my scalp. I did not expect to see him today. Hell, I didn't expect to see him at all. I inwardly smacked myself for not attempting to look a little less like trash.
He looked like a Greek god, all muscles and tanned skin. His dark hair flopped over his forehead in soft waves which brought out his clear blue eyes. Jamie had always been beautiful, but he had really grown into himself with age. When we were little, I had teased him about his big eyes and how tall and skinny he had been. The awkward boy was gone now and an underwear model stood in his place. He took my breath away. I actively had to remind myself to breathe as he walked closer to me.
"Your sister told me you were coming today." Jamie stated, tipping his head. "I have the keys to the place and she wanted me to show you how to set the security alarm."
"Ah.." I had to admit, I felt foolish for thinking that my sister would just tape a key to the bottom of the doormat and leave a note for me about the alarm. It's what I would have done. Then again, my sister had never been one to avoid social norms like me. She had always been too trusting, too pure. I always had a quick get away planned. My sister never had a need to pack up and leave in a hurry.
"You look good."
"Thanks for the key." I said simply, slipping on my well practiced smile. "Tell Roxie thanks for the place."
"Will do." Jamie scratched the back of his head awkwardly, as if he wasn't expecting our reunion to go quite this way. "Do you wanna grab some lunch? There's a really great-"
"Jamie. You don't have to make sure I settle in and be that guy." I said quickly, shaking my head at him.
A little voice in the back of my head screamed to push him out, to cut ties before things got messy. This way, he wouldn't be a casualty when I had to leave. I knew leaving at some point wouldn't be an if but a when. I never knew how long I had to settle at a place before my dad caught wind of where I was and came to 'check up on me'. And usually, he brought friends. The only reason why I had agreed to take the house was because it gave me a short period of normalcy before I had to take off again. This would be my place to recharge when things got to be too chaotic. I knew I wouldn't be able to come back often, but at least I could fix it up a little and AirB&B it out for a little extra cash between stays.
The look on Jamie's face told me he couldn't understand my attitude, but the smile plastered on my face seemed to confuse him enough not to push. Instead, he grabbed my arm gently, as if I were porcelain. I wanted to shake him off, to tell him to get his hands off me, but for some reason the heat radiating off his skin made me melt.
"That guy?" He asked softly, shaking his head at me. "Why do you always act like I have some ulterior motive to be a decent guy?"
The Jamie from my memories was a decent guy. Almost too decent. He was a rare gem of a person - and I didn't see much kindness in my life. Jamie was the type of guy who would volunteer at soup kitchens and help clean the gutters for all the little old ladies in the neighborhood. Everyone knew him by name - in a good way - and no one ever spoke badly of him or his family. I was the girl that stumbled home just before the sun came up and had her drivers license revoked a month after getting it. I was also well known, by name, but nothing good ever left people's mouths when they spoke of me. Even as a child, people would throw things at me and mothers would threaten me when I tried to be friends with their children. I was the bad apple, the trouble maker, the one who couldn't be trusted. Even as a little girl, people couldn't believe me when I said my mother hated me or that my father used me to peddle his drugs. To the outside world, my mother was a kind-hearted artist and my father was a hard working entrepreneur who loved his children. I was the difficult child who needed more discipline, the attention seeker, the girl who would lure your precious son into sin.
Eventually, I became the monster they described me to be. I realized that while my reputation was lonely, it also kept me safe. No one bothered me and everyone had a bigger and more dramatic story to tell about shenanigans I got up to. It was just as interesting to hear the stories as it was to actually do bad things. Whenever I went into town I heard the hushed 'did you hear' or 'watch out for that one'. Sometimes the stories were completely fabricated, but occasionally there was some truth to their gossip.
I shook my head, pulling away from him and walking toward the stairs that lead to the bedrooms. I hadn't willingly chosen to be this way. I had taken what had been thrown at me and made it tolerable. I was a survivor and surviving is what I would continue to do. Nothing could be done to save me and there was no point in trying. I had tried as a child and it just made the judgement and punishments worse. It was way too late for Jamie to change the past, to save the little girl I once had been. There was no way out for that little girl he once knew and so fearlessly tried to protect.
I remembered Jamie pushing me on the swings in the back yard, and kissing him for the first time. I remembered sneaking out of my bedroom window to sneak to his bedroom so he could hold me while I cried when my father had his thug friends rough me up or when my mom told me I was evil or smacked me around.
Now that little girl was gone and I stood in her place; tattooed and dirty.
"Lock up on your way out, will you? Just leave the key under the mat."