His girlfriend is here.
A wave of discomfort ran through our pew when we saw her. Our family isn’t known for being subtle. I’ve always hated that. But when a knowing glance is all that passes between my parents, I’m able to relax. Her angular face was the last thing I expected to see from across the aisle. I should have known he would invite her.
Tori’s elbow digs into my ribs.
Right, we’re at a birthday party. Be happy.
Thoughts of turning Lynn into a pincushion with an M240 are absolutely prohibited.
I don’t look at Tori, because I know she’ll be watching me with those penetrating eyes that know how to read my expressions. I just give my head a subtle shake and quirk a smile. It will satiate her for now, seeing me attempt happiness. I can answer her questions later. Or avoid them.
“…anyway, thanks for being my dad and God bless you. Happy birthday. I love you, Daddy.”
A round of applause sweeps through the church when the preacher’s son finishes his speech, and I’m caught up in the wave. There’s no enthusiasm when I clap, and I know my hands are hardly making a sound.
I’m glad that Tori separates me from my mom. Having Ash on my other side is bad enough—the sister who knows something is wrong by the way I breathe—and I know I’d feel smothered if Tori wasn’t here.
When my phone vibrates I don’t even have to wonder. It’s Tori. The pastor’s daughter takes the stage again, announcing who will be praying for the meal before we’re herded into the fellowship hall. Twenty minutes ago when the congregation was thanked for coming, I’d leaned over, joking about the food being my only reason for coming. The flicker of a glance I made across the aisle stole the smile from my face.
Is you alive Charlie?
I type a hurried response, trying to break the tension. But it’s forced. Normally I smile when I’m texting her, even if we’re not being particularly hilarious.
Me: I’m not dead yet, so yeah.
I spend the ten minutes hugging myself, trying not to look as uncomfortable as I feel.
Just imagine you’re at target practice.
Lynn’s head may or may not be the bull’s eye.
If someone asks I’ll blame it on the cold, even though I’m boiling with anger. Even though the sight of her makes me sick I stay straight faced. I keep looking her way, hoping she’ll see me so I can glare at her. But she’s positioned two pews in front of us and looking in my direction would be unnatural.
When we’re released and told which doors to go through for food, I head for the bathrooms. In a church that has thousands of members I’d expect the three stall bathroom to be packed, but it’s almost always empty. I steal a glance at myself in the floor length mirror, and am gratified when my expression is devoid of emotions. This changes as soon as the door closes behind me. I sit on the toilet lid and let the frown take shape on my face. My jaw clenches in unison with my hands, and every part of me starts shaking.
I’m so angry. I think the words, because saying them alone, in bathroom stall seems absurd. Just help me through this, God. Just—don’t let me see her again. The church is big enough that it’s entirely possible we won’t cross paths. If Lynn is here, my brother might also be in attendance.
I allow myself a last moment to wallow before I flush the toilet and sling my purse across my shoulder. I seam the cracks in my facial mask until I’m unreadable again and push through the door. Outside I disappear into the tightly packed hall, weaving my way toward an empty table my dad has claimed for our family. Ross—Tate’s son—sits there, his face puffy with sleep, his rent-a-suit wrinkled and sweaty. I tweak his head and glance over at the cupcake table.
“Hey ragamuffin, want to split an Oreo cupcake?”
And by split, I mean give me all the frosting.
This awakens him and he patiently waits while I retrieve one. His huge brown eyes follow the plated cupcake until I’m sitting down, then he reaches for the mini Oreo up top. Seeing him happy cheers me up, so I don’t shoo him away like I normally would.
Under normal circumstances, if someone tries to swipe my food, I go karate-kid on them.
In the crowd I see my mother’s head of dirty blonde ringlets. My father is at the buffet, and Ash is off somewhere with her super-spy fiancé. Well, technically he’s not a spy, but he used to work at the FBI.
My dad was a part time police officer for the first twenty years of his marriage to my mom, along with the job of starting his construction business. By the age of ten each of his kids knew how to build a house and shoot every gun in his arsenal. Ash and our other brother weren’t very interested in the latter hobby, but Tate and I excelled at it. Shooting and fighting in general was kind of our thing.
Tori is poking my shoulder.
I snatch the fork from her and dig into my—I mean our—cupcake. I alternate eating the frosting and shoveling the cake portion into Ross when he’s not looking. Tori plops into a seat beside me, sending her brunette mane bouncing around her shoulders.
“Are you okay, Charlie?”
I shake my head, but shrug. I’m never okay these days. “Tate’s girlfriend is here.”
She immediately understands and her eyebrows go up. “Are they still dating?”
I shrug. Much more conversation and I’ll lose my appetite for this excellent cupcake. “I don’t know. I really don’t want to talk about it, okay?”
She nods, surveying our table. “There probably isn’t enough room for me to sit with you guys for dinner. Sorry.”
Her face draws into an expression of both pleading and anxiety, because Tori really does care about me. Unlike me, she has a natural tenderness toward people in pain. I hate seeing it too, but I’m utterly helpless as how to help people. Give me a sucking chest wound and I’m cool as a cucumber, but a crying person needs Tori’s mega dose of TLC.
I nudge her shoulder with my knuckles, pulling a face. “I’m not made of glass, sister. Go find a table before all the good seats are gone.”
On other days I might be annoyed that we’re not sitting together, but not today. The way she can see through me would make me more anxious, and I’m already fraying at the seams. She squeezes my shoulder before evaporating into the crowd to join her family. Mom and Dad join Ross and me a few minutes after our third cupcake is gone, bringing plates full of proper dinner-food.
Mom raises an eyebrow at my empty cupcake holders and frosting stained lips but doesn’t say anything. Dad starts digging into the pasta.
“Good party,” He says. “Big…crowd.”
Yup, let’s just ignore the elephant in the room. I’m good with that.
Since they’re here to look after Ross, I slip off through the crowd to the buffet. Cupcakes really don’t fill you up.
And there she is.
My path toward the buffet leaves me no choice but to walk right past her. She hasn’t seen me in almost a year, and I’ve changed since then, so maybe she won’t recognize me. I could avoid the food and just tough it out until she leaves, but then I’d be letting her control my life. I won’t.
Besides, I’m really hungry.
Lynn looks right at me.
She doesn’t look at me long, but it’s clear she wants me to know she recognizes me. The way she maintains eye contact a second longer than she needs to, the way a polite smile hesitates on her lips. I don’t know what her reason is, but I really don’t care. After what she did with my brother, she can’t be relied upon as a sane person. She reminds me of Tate, and the pain he’s cause me, and the double life he lived right under my nose.
Her face breaks into a smile and she waggles her fingers at me. I force what must look like a sneer, but it’s the closest thing to a smile I can muster.
I walk past her and load up on sandwiches.